Posts tagged with: MCS

The doom and gloom of the British winter in January, while not particularly cold, certainly lacks the solar energy you would expect to generate enough electricity from solar panels. Planning to make the most of scant solar resources, a manufacturer of what are considered the most efficient solar units on the market has announced that they have received MCS accreditation and are ready to install in the UK.

The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accreditation is required before manufacturers can release their panels onto the UK market. Currently operational across the rest of continental Europe, the HIT series of pv cells produced by SANYO are a leader in energy conversion with a rate of around 21.6 per cent. This makes them a world leader in energy conversion efficiency and will certainly make them a sought after commodity throughout the British solar market.

The highly efficient HIT cells will operate under the feed-in tariff in the UK. The feed-in tariff is legislation which guarantees a fixed, premium rate for units of energy both used and fed back into the grid by solar micro-generators of less than 5kw. This means that British consumers will be able to benefit from increased revenues from solar panels able to generate more units of energy than competitor modules under the same solar conditions. The new panels which will become available from the 31st March 2011 will also mean that less roof space is required to generate energy, broadening the scope of households where solar installations are a viable option.

With the recent announcement that a number of foreign solar manufacturers are preparing to invest in the UK in order to take advantage of the feed-in tariff, the arrival of the HIT solar modules highlights how crucial the tariff legislation is in encouraging investment in our burgeoning renewable market. With the boost this will give to the economy in an already struggling manufacturing sector and job creation in green energy, hopefully Cameron’s government will take this on board and continue to give their backing to the legislation which makes UK solar energy viable in the long term.

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If you want to buy a solar panel in the UK and use it to generate green electricity under the UK feed-in tariff, you will have a much smaller range of solar panels to choose from than customers anywhere else in the world. The reason for this is because of a scheme invented by the UK government called the Micro-generation Certification Scheme (or MCS). This benefits and drawbacks of this scheme were discussed in a previous article on this site and now that we are two months into the feed-in tariff it is a good time for a review of the situation.

There are more solar panels to choose from now than there were two months ago, however there is still a very restricted choice with some major solar panel manufacturers missing from the list. This can only hurt the UK industry. At a time such as now, when the industry is going through an unprecedented boom, customers need as much competition in the market place as possible. Such restrictions are dangerous as they can lead to inflated or irregular pricing. Europe as a whole is experiencing high volumes of demand at present (largely driven by Germany) which is causing equipment shortages and long lead times. We have seen evidence that the MCS restrictions are exacerbating these problems as there is a much smaller number of available suppliers to choose from.

Some of the stated aims of the MCS process are valid. I am very much in favour of protecting consumers from low quality, inferior products. The question remains is how much does MCS add on top of the existing international accreditation bodies for solar panels such as IEC and UL. These bodies are represented by committees with decades of experience in solar panel reliability testing who spend a huge amount of time developing new ways to prove reliability.

MCS accreditation requires visits from MCS inspectors who ‘inspect’ a manufacturer’s facility before their solar panels can be given the green light. Nowhere is it written who these inspectors are and what their qualifications might be to do this above and beyond IEC or UL testing.

Looking at the current list of MCS accredited solar panels it is difficult to see on what criteria certification is being given. Some large very high quality manufacturers are missing, whilst some small, unheard of manufacturers are already there.

I have heard from colleagues in the industry that administrative and beaurocratic issues are currentls holding up a large number of MCS applications and that a raft of new solar panels will join the list soon. I hope this is the case, and I would encourage anyone with more information on the issue to contact this site. My message to the organizers of the MCS process however, is to put more effort into not damaging the industry that it is designed to support.

After the official commencement of the UK feed-in tariff on April 1st we were surprised by the relatively mute response that it received in the UK media. The event did get some press coverage, but the general impression given was that this was just another green initiative, rather than the introduction of a program that has caused a major renewable energy boom in every other economy where it has been introduced.

Since then however, signs have been emerging that there is an ever increasing wave of companies entering this market, and that solar energy in the UK is getting interest from international investors.

As you may well be aware, qualifying for the feed-in tariff requires an MCS accredited installation company. Newly qualified installers have been added to the MCS list every day since April now and the range of companies now offering MCS solar installations is very broad. Some companies are one man, local electricians whilst at the other end of the spectrum are large energy companies such as E.On with thousands of installers, there is a large choice for those wishing to have solar panels installed.

One trend to look out for is the increasing number of professional investors who see an opportunity to make money from the feed-in tariff. By paying for a solar installation on a rented roof or field, investors can have access to the feed-in tariff revenue. Owning the PV system can provide up to 10% annual returns over a 25 year period with a high level of security.

Quite how these arrangements will work is not yet clear. There are a number of ways the contracts between the investor and property owner can be written, and great care to needs to be taken to ensure that all liabilities are covered in the case of a property sale or an accident. Despite this, a number of companies are exploring this type of agreement for the UK, which is already very common in the rest of Europe.

For land owners or property owners with suitable roofs, leasing space for solar panels can be a very attractive option. It requires no upfront investment, generates significant revenues, carries little risk, and improves the environmental credentials of the building. A property owner might earn more money if they own the solar system themselves, but that would require significant initial capital expenditure, something which many companies may not be able to afford.

The feed-in tariff is obviously very attractive to investors as there is little risk. Once you are in the scheme, the payments are guaranteed for 25 years. Photovoltaic systems are generally reliable, so long as you use good quality products. Solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years (to 80% of their power production) and inverters usually for 10 years (you should expect to replace an inverter at least once in the lifetime of the installation). Other than this, the only risk is that the sun will stop rising each day, and if it did, you’d have something a bit more serious to worry about than your profits…

If you would like to invest in a photovoltaic system, or have a suitable roof that you would like to rent, you can contact us for more information.

The government has recently introduced a new certification program for sustainable energy products. Called the ‘Micro-generation Certification Scheme’ (or MCS), the program is designed to protect customers by ensuring good quality in both products and installation. The scheme works by putting manufacturers and installers through an inspection process in which the applicant has to demonstrate a certain level of competency in the technology they offer, provide a documented, quality management process and show an example of a finished product or installation. In order to incentivize the industry to sign up to the certification scheme, the government has declared that customers may only apply for grants or feed-in-tariffs if their system is entirely covered by MCS which means there is little point in buying an installation without MCS accreditation.

Preventing cowboys from entering green-industry and exploiting customers trying to do their bit for the environment is essential. However, concerns have been raised regarding the real impact of the scheme on customers and regarding the credibility of the certification process itself.

Since this is, let’s look at the certification requirements for solar energy as an example. In order to claim the UK solar feed-in-tariff arriving next April, you have to install solar panels that have been through the MCS process. At this stage however, few manufacturers have obtained MCS accreditation for their products. In many cases it is simply because they haven’t heard of the UK’s MCS program yet. In other cases, manufacturers who have been told about the scheme may not immediately decide to go for it. To get accredited, you have to pay a private certification center (that in turn has been ‘accredited’ by the MCS administrators) to inspect its product and facilities. This is a costly and time-consuming process. In many cases, someone from the accreditation center has to be flown (at the expense of the manufacturer) to a factory in Europe or Asia so that it can be ‘inspected’ often by someone with little or no experience of the photovoltaic industry. Once you have MCS, the rewards for manufacturers are not clear. In the world of solar energy the UK barely even registers. I am often met with surprise (or worse still, laughter) when I say I’m from the UK at solar conferences. The German market will be over 200 times greater than the UK market this year. There is not a single ground mounted PV power plant in the UK. This means there is no guarantee that investment in MCS will be worthwhile.

The second issue is that certification processes for solar modules already exist. The most prominent is the IEC certification process that can be administered only by a handful or institutions worldwide. This is a rigorous performance and reliability procedure that tests the energy output of a solar panel under controlled conditions, and puts it through a large number of stress tests. These include the damp-heat test (thermal cycling in a humid chamber) and the hail-test (bombarding the module with pellets of ice fired from a canon). IEC tests are designed and continually improved by a committee of international solar energy experts. Wisely, the MCS recognizes IEC accreditation and requires it as part of its inspection. This does lead to the amusing situation where a UK inspector will visit mulit-billion dollar factory that has been supplying solar panels to the rest of the world under the IEC has ‘approve’ that everything in order.

In a photovoltaic system, there are many different components besides the solar panel, however MCS applies only to the solar panel. This is hard to explain. The other expensive part of a PV system is the inverter, which converts the direct current produced by the solar panels into mains 50Hz alternating current so it can be used by most appliances in a building or sold to the grid. The inverter is therefore critical to the good functioning of a system and is known to be significantly less reliable than solar panels which are normally guaranteed for 20 years compared to just 10 for the inverter. Why then is the inverter not covered by MCS?

The MCS for installers in the UK has a clearer role. Many people are familiar with cowboy builders or decorators providing shoddy service, and MCS could be an excellent way to reduce this. Questions remain about the implications for accessibility of micro-generation however. Does MCS mean that a competent DIYer interested in building their own micro-generation system is denied access to government support because they haven’t forked out for an MCS installer?

The main concern is that MCS reduces the amount of competition in the UK, limiting the choice consumers have when it comes to products and installers. Prices of Solar PV systems in the UK are already shockingly high compared to Germany (up to twice the price) and MCS risks being a barrier to entry so that certain manufacturers can now charge even higher prices to UK customers. The MCS could be hurting those it is designed to protect, to the benefit of the manufacturers and installers already within its program.

Certainly the intentions of the MCS are good and with time it could play a key role. The MCS needs to be very careful however not to stunt the growth of the UK solar industry from its current insignificant size. The biggest barrier to that growth is cost, so any measures that may increase costs to the end customer must be rigorously justified.