Posts tagged with: UK solar industry

The sun hasn’t shone much over the Christmas period however, the lead up to the Christmas period saw a refocus by the UK government on solar photovoltaic energy. Announced on the 22nd of December, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) consultancy will look at microgeneration and the way the UK government can help small scale renewable energy through mechanisms such as the feed-in tariff which has already proved successful.

The feed-in tariff, introduced back in April incentivises investment in renewable microgeneration by offering fixed, premium rates for units of energy both used and fed back into the grid. Already, this mechanism has seen a huge growth in solar pv investment with traditional industries such as farming taking advantage of the profits to be made out of solar panels. Despite this government support for renewable energy, there are some fears that if the plug is pulled on the tariff too soon,

future projects and of course the future of UK renewable energy will be jeopardised indefinitely.

The consultancy which will last until March 2011 will endeavour to ensure that the longevity of UK renewable energy is secured through foresight and careful legislation. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has stated that the consultancy will focus on ‘quality, technology, skills and information’ and that ‘consumers need confidence that microgeneration kit will be of good quality. The industry needs to develop the technologies, the supply chain needs skilled workers to install kit and consumers need good information on microgeneration’.

Announcing the consultancy, Energy Minister Greg Barker said,

“We’ve already pledged financial support to encourage people to install kit like solar panels and heat pumps, today’s consultation will ensure that the industry and consumers have the confidence to invest.”

Certainly, while the financial mechanisms are in place for the time being, consumer confidence is still lacking in what is a fledgling industry not always attracting responsible business operations. Speaking on behalf of the more responsible side of solar energy operations, Dave Snowden head of the Micropower Council said,

“We have already seen extraordinary growth in microgeneration power generation solutions thanks to the introduction of the feed in tariff earlier this year, and look forward to similar incentives being extended to renewable heating and hot water systems next June. Today’s welcome proposals will help the industry grow with proper attention to quality, technology and skills development, whilst making it all much easier for consumers.”

Solar panels fall into two main technological categories. The incubant, established tyoe are called crystalline silicon solar panels and the exciting but unproven type are known as ‘thin-film’ solar panels. To understand the advantages and disadvantage of each technology I’ll briefly explain how each type of solar panel is made. Crystalline silicon solar panels are made from 50 or so ‘solar cells’ connected together and encased in glass. Each solar cell is in fact a thin slice of large crystal of pure silicon (called an ingot). These large crystals are grown from a seed crystal surrounded by molten silicon at very high temperatures. The silicon used must first be extracted from silicon dioxide (also known as sand) and then purified to a very high level. Once the crystal is formed it can be sliced into wafers. The wafers are then specially treated to make a junction between a positive and negative type semiconductor, and then other layers such as the conductive contacts are added to make a working solar cell. This process has many steps and consumes a lot of energy. However, many companies have spent a lot of time refining the process to make it as efficient as possible so almost all parts of the process are now automated.

Thin film solar panels are made using a radically different process. The underlying physics is similar in that they still use a junction between a positive and negative doped semiconductor, however thin film solar panels have the potential to be made in much fewer steps than crystalline silicon. The idea is to take glass (or sometimes foil or plastic) and coat it directly with a series of layers, including the active semiconductor layers to produce a working solar cell. The glass is then encapsulated with a protective plastic and a second sheet of glass as protection. This process saves having to make lots of small cells and connect them together. The other advantage is that the layers are very thin, hence thin film solar cells. The active layers of the cell are only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) compared to 0.2mm for each silicon wafer.

The important point of all this is that the manufacturing cost of thin film solar cells has the potential to be significantly lower than crystalline silicon. Unfortunately, there are some catches. Firstly, they are not as efficient as crystalline silicon. Crystalline silicon reaches 16 – 18% efficiency in modern solar panels, whereas the most efficient thin film solar panels on the market today  are under 11%. The next drawback is reliability. Thin film solar panels have had less time to prove themselves and have been known to suffer from degradation meaning that their performance gets significantly worse over time.

Despite these drawbacks, several companies have managed to become very successful in manufacturing thin film solar cells. The most notable is called First Solar who are now one of the top two largest solar panels manufacturers in the world and have a significant advantage over rivals due to their low manufacturing costs. First solar make thin film solar cells made from cadmium telluride, one of a number of semiconductor materials that can be used for thin films. First Solar’s panels are less efficient but are very popular for large scale solar installations because of their low cost.

Before the financial crisis, when silicon was in short supply and very expensive, all thin film solar panels were a good idea. First Solar could not produce enough and billions were invested in a large number of thin film solar companies aiming to follow in their footsteps. Now that the silicon shortage is over and the price of crystalline silicon solar panels has fallen, the environment for thin film solar cells is more challenging. First Solar will remain a strong player as they have managed to get to high volume and have a reliable production process. Many of the 200+ start-ups hoping to replicate their success will struggle however. For thin film solar cells there are a wide range of different manufacturing processes and materials that can be used, and there is still a lot of research being done to improve our understanding of the underlying physics. This means that there is a lot of opportunity to invent a ‘unique’ technology and start a company but only the best thin film solar companies will make it however. They have to show not only that their technology is efficient and reliable, but also demonstrate that large scale production is feasible and low-cost. Many ideas that look good on paper or in the lab turn out to be impractical when it comes to volume manufacturing.

At present, it seems like crystalline silicon will retain a strong market share for the foreseeable future (it current represents 80-90% of the market) but I believe that eventually certain thin film technologies will begin to displace crystalline silicon. There is a lot of potential for efficiency improvement in thin film, as well as lower manufacturing cost. Some technologies, particularly that usce solution processing are really very exciting.

What does this mean for the UK solar industry? Very little actually. I would expect over 90% of the UK market will be crystalline silicon for a long time. The reason is that the UK market will be dominated by smaller rooftop applications (partly due to the structure of the tariff as discussed last week). In such space-constrained applications you want to use the most efficient technology to maximize the energy generated from the available area. For now, this means always choosing crystalline silicon as it’s efficiency is significantly above any thin film solar panel out there.

Keep an eye out for breakthroughs in solar technology as some are surely bound to occur, but beating high quality crystalline silicon solar panels made in China for cost, efficiency and reliability is not easy.

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.

A Global Solar Report card, designed by lobby group Green Cross International to evaluate government action on solar policy has awarded the UK government a D-minus this week. Based on an assessment of the world’s sixteen largest economies, the report aims to provide a stark indication of where various governments stand with regards to their respective solar policies.

Despite the UK governments recent action on solar policy in the form of last year’s Energy Act and the setting of provisions for the introduction of feed-in tariffs in 2010, the report criticized the UK, stating that it lagged behind rival states in terms of current initiatives in place to incentivize the growth of the solar industry in the UK. With this deficiency in mind, the report offered the British government the D-minus grade along with an assessment that the solar industry in the UK remained,

“A very small market with no significant support for growth at this time”.

The Global Solar Report Card highlighted the fact that subsidies for carbon energy still outweigh those offered to renewable energy producers and that this will have to change if there is to be a large-scale revolution in the way energy is produced in the UK. The report, based on three main criteria, the scale of government incentives and legislation, the kWh of solar plant installed and campaigns designed to change behavioural patterns among the population was damning of the UK government’s failure to plug gaps in solar funding.

Although it is expected that 2010 will see the introduction of a coherent feed-in tariff, until then the government is doing little, particularly in comparison to other large economies to kick-start the solar industry with legislation. The solar feed-in tariff, thought to be the most effective means of stimulating investment in the solar industry has been highly successful in those places where they have been introduced with generous incentives for investors.

Germany topped the report card with an A-grade, an accolade based on the German government’s strong action with regards to setting up provisions for the industry and initiating a revolution in the behavioural changes of investors who now see Germany as a secure, high yield prospect for building their green portfolio. This obvious correlation between solar industry success and the implementation of solar feed-in tariffs will hopefully not be lost on the Department of Energy and Climate Change, currently going through a consultancy process on the best way to set up tariff legislation.

The number of lobby groups lending their support to the solar industry has grown exponentially over the last year with the We Support Solar Campaign acting as a focal point for members of the UK solar industry. Those within the industry will have some sympathy with the Global Solar report card’s findings and will see the absolute necessity for a strong feed-in tariff to breathe life in to the solar sector up to, and beyond 2010. The report went on to state that,

“Latest estimates by the International Energy Agency show renewable sources account for only $10bn (£7bn) of the $250bn-$300bn allocated to annual energy subsidies worldwide. If we are to deal with the current crises and the ones just around the corner, then every dollar, euro, or yen is going to have to work smarter and harder.”