Posts tagged with: Clean energy cash back

‘Where should we put solar panels anyway?’ This is a question I’m often asked and to which I always reply, ‘everywhere!’ Glibness aside, what the question is usually getting at is to do with market segmentation. There are many different types of photovoltaic (PV) installations. One of the remarkable aspects of solar technology is just how scalable it is. Solar panels are used in both pocket calculators and in giant solar farms covering hundreds of hectares. The economics of each application are very different however and it is important too understand which applications represent the largest markets.

As I’ll discuss the, UK feed in tariff is designed to strongly influence the type of solar installations built in the UK, but what kind of solar installations are best and what should we expect in the UK?

Let’s look at what’s going on in other countries around the world. In Germany, the world’s biggest solar market by far this year, grid-connected solar systems are defined in three categories; residential, commercial and utility scale. Residential scale is the smallest type of installation and refers to all installations less than 10kW (~60m2) typically found on private houses. Commercial scale refers to installations between 10kW and 100kW (600m2) typically found on the roof of a factory, office or warehouse. Utility scale refers to all installations above 100kW and these are typically ground-based installations on fields (also known as solar farms) and can cover hundreds of hectares.

These three types of installation are quite different from each other in terms of price and the technology used. Which type of installations are the most popular? Figures published by the Bundesnetzagentur (the German grid regulator) state that the market in 2009 is divided into 17% in the residential scale, 17% in utility scale and 66% in commercial scale. This means that because residential installations are smaller, there are many more of them in number than utility scale installations.

Large plants are cheaper due to economies of scale, however the planning process can be long and complex, and it can be difficult to find banks willing to loan money for such projects. Rooftop plants on the other hand have a much easier time getting planning permission, and often are fully funded by the owner, so don’t require a loan. This explains why commercial scale rooftop plants dominate the market.

In the US, rooftop installations also dominate, and there is an additional reason why. In the US there is no feed-in-tariff, rather a complex array of grants that vary from state to state (California has the best).

Solar installations generate money by selling electricity to the energy utility at the regular unsubsidized rate. This means if you generate energy at the place where you use it, you get the same price of electricity that you would have to buy it at, the retail price. On the other hand, if you have a utility scale power plant, this requires the utility to distribute the energy for you and you only get the price that other types of power stations get, the wholesale price. Since wholesale electricity prices are roughly half that of retail electricity prices, its much better to have a solar installation in the same place as where you use it, i.e. on your roof.

So what does this mean for the UK? Well, as we are led to believe from the governments initial announcement, the UK feed-in-tariff will be strongly weighted towards smaller installations. This means that the larger your installation the less you will be paid for the electricity it generates. This cutoff is quite severe, with the rate dropping from 36p to 31p per kWh for installations over 4kW, to 28p for installations over 10kW and down to 26p for installations bigger than 100kW.

The argument behind this is so that all installation deliver an equal return on investment. This implies that the government assumes the cost of energy from a solar installation is 14% lower for a 5kW installation than for a 4kW installation.

Where does this assumption come from? Data from Germany suggests that this is not the case and the 14% drop does not exist. Cost of energy does fall with increasing scale but by how much is unclear and changes constantly with prices of various technologies.

I can understand if the government wants to ban solar farms (although having visited several under construction in Germany last month I think it’s a real shame that we don’t have a single solar farm in the UK, even just from an educational standpoint) but the current FiT structure does something else. It restricts the most effective type of photovoltaic installation, namely commercial scale rooftops.

Germany’s flat feed-in-tariff structure and the US’ grant scheme both allow the market to evolve naturally. If large rooftop installations make the most sense economically then why not let this segment grow fastest? Trying to engineer a feed-in-tariff so that everything grows at the same speed will inevitably slow growth overall.

Let’s hope changes are made while there’s still a chance.

Consultants Ernst & Young have released their annual global renewable energy country attractiveness indices with the big news being that China has knocked Germany from its number one spot, a position which they have enjoyed for the last seven years. The report indicated that in the lead of attractiveness are the US and China followed by Germany, India and Spain.

With various leading economies around the globe vying to become leaders in the renewable energy sector the Ernst & Young indices provides a tangible demonstration of how attractive the competing markets are to investors based on the measures taken by the respective governments. The commitments by the Chinese government to slow climate change through the reduction of carbon emissions has certainly been reflected in their rise in the investment indices.

Once the pariah of the international community with regards to fighting climate change, the Beijing government has demonstrated through legislation that they have a very earnest desire to slow the effects of climate change.

Recently the Chinese government announced 1.8 GW of solar installation throughout the vast country with investment incentivisation coming in the form of the Golden Sun subsidy scheme designed to transform the Chinese solar market from a purely manufacturing base into a world leader in solar PV installation. This, the report indicated was the key feature in China moving up the table from sixth place in 2007 to the joint number one position enjoyed today.

The report will come as an early Christmas present for the nations perched in the top 5 positions as it gives investors a comprehensive assessment of the most viable markets in which to invest based on criteria such as existing infrastructure, incentives and location benefits.

With the success of China as a potential solar PV market, analysts in the UK will not have missed the direct correllation between government action and market attractiveness, something which the report explicitly highlighted. The UK enjoyed limited success, moving up one point to sixth, an increase based on limited government action taken so far in the form of the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the introduction of the Energy Act in November 2008 and the recent announcement of the Clean Energy Cash Back system, essentially a feed-in tariff to be introduced in April 2010.

The UK’s position of sixth could be bettered by the next indices published by Ernst & Young at the end of 2010 but will depend greatly on the initial successes of the UK market in the light of the newly implemented tariff system. At the present moment members of the lobby group We Support Solar are arguing that the UK government will have to increase the tariff rate if the UK is to compete with the emerging solar tiger economies with manufacturing bases much closer to home.

For more information on the Ernst & Young global renewable energy country attractiveness indices, please visit:$file/Industry_Utilities_Renewable_energy_country_attractiveness_indices.pdf

Many people have been asking us when the government will finally announce the size of the UK feed-in-tariff which is a fair question since it’s supposed to come into force next April after all. Unfortunately we’re not able to give a definitive answer, and nor are any of the people we’ve spoken to about it.

The ‘We Support Solar’ campaign has done well to generate publicity around the feed-in-tariff. Now the government has mentioned 36.5 pence per kilowatt hour as a provisional figure, asking for an increase on that of just 10p is a strong argument. Whether the government sees it that way is yet to be known however. Alan Simpson, one of the most active and vocal MPs on the subject believes that the delay in feed-in-tariff decision may be a tactical decision by Labour. For example, an announcement on the feed-in-tariff could be used to boost popularity at a key moment – perhaps even during next week’s summit in Copenhagen.

Alternatively, if both the Tories and Labour believe the feed-in-tariff to be a votes winner, there could well be a bidding war taking place behind closed doors between the two parties right now. Neither party would want to be seen as stingier than the other when it comes to creating green electricity and green jobs. This is pure speculation of course, but if it were true it would be great thing for the UK renewables industry.

The opposite could also be true however. With many households already stretched by their energy bills, the government could be looking to reduce the cost of implementing a feed-in-tariff. It is hard to see them going below the already announced 36.5 pence (it would be better to scrap the whole feed-in-tariff together), but they could be waiting for a moment when the newspapers are distracted by another issue to announce the feed-in-tariff plans.

Hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to write a reaction to a government announcement. Until then though, if you haven’t already written to your local MP asking what they personally have done to support the UK feed-in-tariff then go do it, now!

With the UK government’s announcement of the introduction of the Clean Energy Cash Back system, essentially a feed-in tariff designed to attract investment in the British renewable industry, controversy has raged with solar industry insiders believing tariff rates to be too low.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has also announced that they believe the tariff rate which has been set (5p/unit with a subsidy of 36.5p for units of energy generated by small scale solar and wind installations) will be too low to make the UK market competitive and have suggested a rate increase of 10p.

Speaking under the banner of the widely publicised ‘We support solar’ campaign the FMB’s announcement comes in the light of a number of criticisms aimed recently at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) legislation to be introduced in the April of next year. The FMB is being given the full backing of the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC), and Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) with around 16,000 building firms adding their weight to the ‘We support solar’ demands.

Feed-in tariffs are designed to offer premium, guaranteed rates to small scale producers for renewable energy which is fed in to the national grid and bought by the utility companies. In markets where they have been introduced elsewhere they have proved successful at attracting investment in new solar markets. In Germany and Spain, solar sectors have experienced booms thanks to the attractiveness of solar stocks in those countries with high returns on investment made possible by the feed-in tariff mechanism.

It is certainly considered that while the UK does not enjoy Iberian sunshine levels a strong tariff would enable the sector in the UK to take off and of course attempt to catch up with other mature markets. Some critics have argued that a strong anti-solar lobby in Westminster led by the utility companies has influenced the government’s decision to go forward with legislation which is generally accepted to be insufficient. With this in mind Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes stated,

“The proposed “cash back” payments are designed to dampen solar PV demand over the next three years rather than to encourage it. This mindset needs to change. Solar power can play a significant role in the “greening” of our towns and cities, while providing tens of thousands of new construction sector jobs.”

Indeed, with support among certain power brokers and pro-solar lobbies acting to add 10p to the current tariff it may well be possible to tweak the legislation, making it workable in the long term. If not, the ‘We support solar’ campaign may fail to see the fledgling UK PV sector take off.