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An urgent campaign called ‘Power to Society’ (www.powertosociety.com) has been launched today by Low Carbon Solar following the Coalition Government’s backtracking over funding for community scale solar energy schemes. The campaign site provides an easy way for the public and landowners to register their support for solar energy and to write to their MP urging the Government to shelve plans for an early review of pre-set Feed-in-Tariffs and to protect these community schemes

The community scale schemes that have been thrown into doubt could provide electricity to tens of thousands of homes and business, and put at risk the ability of the UK to meet its climate change targets which require that 30% of our electricity must come from renewables by 2020, up from just 7% today.

The current Feed in Tariff (FiT) scheme encourages more renewable energy generation and applies to schemes of up to five megawatts (MW) – enough to meet the electricity needs of around 1,000 homes. However the proposed early review from the Government, coming a year earlier than expected, will look at projects that produce more than 50 kilowatts of electricity – effectively anything bigger than an average primary school roof. Small-scale solar installation is not going to deliver the renewable energy required, hence the need for community scale schemes. For example, figures from Cornwall Council show that at the current rates of domestic PV installation in Cornwall, it would take 107 years to install 100MW.

‘Power to Society’ promotes the wide-ranging benefits of community-scale solar schemes which typically located on the roofs of large buildings, on land not suitable for agricultural use and on non-utilised industrial or derelict sites. The benefits include the creation of new jobs, a diversified income for farmers and landowners, reduced energy costs for businesses and the provision of more secure and reliable energy for the UK. In addition for every community scale project Low Carbon Solar develops, it establishes a Parish Trust into which it proposes is paid a fixed sum per megawatt of power, every year for the life of the project. In the case of a 5MW site that would be £25,000 a year for 25 years, or £625,000. Low Carbon Solar also champions local community ownership of sites so that people can benefit from long term revenue from these developments.

Mark Shorrock, CEO of Low Carbon Solar and the driving force behind Power to Society, said: “In pulling back on a commitment to support solar energy, the Government will cause the abandonment of scores of ‘Big Society’ community-owned schemes and hundreds of other developments that could have seen individual parishes benefit from up to £25,000 every year and more local jobs created.

“The ill-conceived and dangerously short-sighted proposals will have further unintended consequence, including the Government missing a European target of generating 30% of electricity from renewables by 2020, and therefore incurring significant fines. We urge people to support the case for solar and sign up to Power to Society now.”

For more information contact:

Andrew Baud, Kate Habberley or Catherine McNulty

Tala
01295 788655
07775 715775
powertosociety@talapr.co.uk

About Low Carbon Solar:

Low Carbon Solar, based in Cirencester, is the development arm of Low Carbon Group and was founded in 2010 with the desire to take renewable energy projects out to local communities. For more information please visit www.lowcarbonsolar.com

Unfortunately the solar industry is not a level playing field at present.  The Chinese government has provided some enormous loans to their top PV manufacturers (e.g. http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKHKH00202420100414).  These manufacturers are using the money for incredibly rapid expansion so that they are fast outgrowing all of their European competitors.  Being bigger means they have greater efficiency, which means the large Chinese players now have even lower costs than their foreign competitors.  There are obviously cries from US and German manufacturers about violations of international trade laws etc and indeed the situation is particularly unfair seeing as it was the German FiT that created the Chinese manufacturers in the first place, but there is little chance of any legal recourse in the near term.  The situation has led German policy makers to think about protectionist policies for solar though (‘buy German’) and provided fuel for the anti-solar lobby.

All that aside, the top-tier Chinese solar manufacturers are now producing high quality modules with lower costs than anyone else.  They have had a lot of experience with due diligence from European banks and are now pro-active in respect to quality control and bankability.  They are also beginning to invest heavily in R&D which will close the already small technology gap with Japanese and European competition.  Chinese solar manufacturers are integrating vertically in the value chain in a big way.  This means that for example cell manufacturers are starting to make wafers, silicon and modules etc. This gives them greater ability to control quality and improves margin retention.  They are also expanding downstream and bulking up sales teams in Europe with Europeans. This reduces the ‘fear factor’ of working with Chinese companies and taking revenue away from European wholesalers.  The strength of the big Chinese players is evidently putting a strain on its competition. If one had to choose between German or Chinese manufacturers as the most likely to be around in 25 years it would almost certainly be the Chinese.

It should be noted that there a number of Chinese manufacturers that do not have such high standards and should be avoided.  Many people in the solar industry are not convinced that the UK’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme is effective at weeding out these poor manufactures judging from the companies which have gotten through.  There are also lots of counterfeit modules  on the market now (for example fake Trina Solar and ET Solar modules are widespread) so its important to find installers with good checking procedures.

So does the rise of the big Chinese solar manufacturers damage the UK and make the Feed-in tariffs pointless, seeing as it will support the continued growth of unbeatable foreign competition?  I would argue that the only way to create growth in our manufacturing industry is to develop a domestic end-user market.  For a long time the UK has precious little in terms of PV manufacturing capability, which means that the strength of Chinese companies has little impact on us.  If we were not buying from China, we would be buying from elsewhere.   As the UK market grows, more people become engaged in the industry and start to look at product innovation.  Already there are a number of UK companies developing solar products specific to the UK market as a direct result of the introduction of the Feed-in tariff.

Furthermore, module manufacturing makes up only a small portion of the solar value chain.  Installing roof-top PV is highly labour intensive, and the feed-in tariffs will create a huge number of jobs in the badly suffering building services industry.  The fact that there are good quality, cheap Chinese panels available allows solar PV to be more competitive as a renewable energy source.  Costs are expected to fall rapidly over the coming years (as they have already) meaning that in around 5-6 years time the cost of solar electricity will be at par with retail electricity prices, which means the FiTs won’t be needed anymore.

Another point is that the big Chinese PV manufacturers will start doing the last manufacturing step, module integration, close to their markets.  This is because you can air freight solar cells, but you have to ship finished solar panels because of the glass (regular glass factories normally only serve a radius of 100km).  By doing module integration close to their key markets, manufacturers won’t have working capital tied up for 4 weeks and will reduce the risk of damage in transport.  Sharp already do this with a module integration plant in Wrexham, and we may well start seeing the Chinese companies open manufacturing plants in Europe, even in the UK, over the next couple of years which would provide an interesting boost to UK industry.

Eventually the playing field will level out again – China will get more expensive and there will be space for newcomers with new technologies, but for now the Chinese players clearly have the upper hand.

Jeff Siegel, a top renewable energy investor recently took time out from his very busy schedule to grant an interview with Total Solar Energy (TSE).

If you don’t know Jeff, he runs the newsletter Green Chip Stocks, an independent investment research service that focuses primarily on renewable energy and organic & natural food markets.

TSE: Hi Jeff. Thanks for your time. Can you tell me when you first got started in solar stocks?

Jeff: I had actually been an advocate of solar energy ever since I did a high-school project on it back in 1987. I just found it so fascinating that we could power our homes and our lights and our appliances with these little devices. And I found it frustrating that more attention wasn’t being paid to it.

My interest in solar never waned, and as I started working in the world of finance, I made it a point to focus on investment opportunities that would not only pay off for investors – but for the global community as well.

TSE: Given the current economic and volatile stock market situation, would it be wise to invest in solar stocks right now?

Jeff: Well, with any investment, there is always risk. That includes renewable energy. Yes, the future of solar is very bright. Going forward, solar will be a significant piece of our new energy economy. But at the end of the day, any time you invest, you are taking on some risk.

That being said, I think at this time, a lot of quality solar stocks are undervalued. Some of this is because of the euro (so many solar manufacturers are heavily exposed to the euro), some of this is because of the broader market pulling these stocks down, and some of it is because there are a lot of people that are counting solar out because of the German feed-in tariff cut. The latter makes no sense. The future of solar is NOT in Europe, but rather the U.S. and China.

I think the solar market will still struggle this year, but once we have some more clarification on China and U.S. solar support, we’re going to see the launch of one of the biggest solar bull markets ever. So those in it for the long haul, I’ve been recommending picking up some of the stronger solar stocks on those big dips. We are, however, going to have to exercise a little patience.

TSE: How would you evaluate the year 2010 for the solar industry up to now?

Jeff: Lots of irrational thinking this year. Again, there’s too much focus on Europe. Aside from a slide in the euro, long-term investors know that the payoff will come from the U.S. and China market. But until we stop focusing on tariff cuts and the misconception that there’s an oversupply of product (which is absolutely false), then the market will be quite shaky. We’ve seen that this year, and I think we’ll probably continue to see this.

TSE: Where and when to do you expect to see parity with fossil fuels? And what effect will this have on solar stocks?

Jeff: You could actually make the case that they already are. Assuming of course, you strip ALL subsidies for fossil fuels, and take into account the liquidation of natural capital associated with the production, distribution and consumption of fossil fuels.

In other words, if utilities that operated coal-fired power plants had to pay for carbon, had to pay for mercury pollution and had to pay for any other damage done to ecosystem services (things like the regulation of climate, cycling of nutrients and water, pest control, etc), solar would be significantly cheaper than coal. But what we do is use a baseline for energy costs that are simply incorrect.

Back to the real world, however, where we continue to subsidize fossil fuels and turn a blind eye to the trillions of dollars of damage done to our natural capital every year – I imagine we could see grid parity within 10 years in most parts of the world where there is a strong solar resource.

TSE: What are the major threats to the growth of the solar industry at the moment.

Jeff: Lack of leadership and support. I absolutely hate the idea of subsidizing anything. But the only way solar can compete is for it to get the same generous subsidies that the fossil fuel industries have received for years. And we need to end the debate with the naysayers.

The technology exists, the proof exists, the data is conclusive – we can power a significant portion of our world with solar. I no longer even entertain those who want to continue throwing up roadblocks. They are no more than minor bumps that I’m happy to roll over. This is going to happen. You can either be part of the solution, or you can step aside.

TSE: Do you see the UK feed-in tariff having the same effect on share prices as it did when it was introduced in Germany?

Jeff: Hard to say. Every government operates differently. Spain had a great plan, but its execution was horrible. These tariffs have to be monitored and phased out sooner than later. Otherwise, you create a bubble that’s bad for everyone.

TSE: Do you feel the US would benefit from a nationwide feed in tariff?

Jeff: Not necessarily. I think this needs to be done on a regional basis. An FIT in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah – these would be great because you have such a strong solar resource in these states. But if you try to force a FIT for the whole country, you’ll get a lot of backlash, and in some areas, it probably won’t be nearly as effective.

TSE: How do you think the solar industry will look in 5 years?

Jeff: I think the leading solar companies today will be some of the biggest corporations in the world. I think the technology will be much more advanced, production costs will decrease and there will be more policy support. The costs for consumers will be much less, and I think we’ll see a lot of companies offering solar leasing programs.

TSE: Once again Jeff, thanks for your time. I certainly hope you are right.

Many Thanks To Total Solar Energy

Hamburg based solar specialist. Centrosolar has opened a UK subsidiary as a way of tapping into the now lucrative UK solar market. Buoyed by the introduction of the feed-in tariff back in April, the UK has attracted growing interest from investors at home and abroad looking to take advantage of the tariff’s offerings.

Centrosolar are a company well known in Germany for the production of both crystalline high performance solar modules and thin film modules designed for roofs not able to take weightier systems. With UK product certification now granted, Centrosolar is looking to ship its products from their plant in Wismar, Germany to the UK where demand for solar systems has grown exponentially through the summer.

Centrosolar are more than aware of the positive affects which strong incentives can have on renewable energy and in particular, PV. Germany has been one of the world’s leaders in solar energy uptake over the last ten years thanks to the strong tariff legislation which has attracted investment in its renewable industries.

With a view to twinning German solar engineering with local market knowledge, Centrosolar have recruited Simon Gerrard, former Head of Sales for Solarcentury to run its UK operations. With daily news updates reporting on the ever-growing success of the UK feed-in tariff, it is very likely that not only will Centrosolar build a strong bridgehead, but others are likely to follow suit before too long.