Posts tagged with: UK

‘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.

The head of the newly formed New and Renewable Energy Centre (Narec), Tim Bruton, has made the claim that if every south facing home in the United Kingdom fitted solar panels, they would generate enough electricity to meet the country’s energy needs.

Speaking ahead of Solar Flair 2009, a conference to be held in Northumberland designed to highlight key issues regarding the take up of photovoltaic (PV) energy, Bruton gave his full backing to solar energy as a way of combating climate change.

With the north-east trying to put itself forward as a future leading light in solar PV expertise, Bruton is one of many academics from the region hoping to put the north of England on the PV map. As a fellow of the Institute of Physics and a reputation for insightful publications of articles relevant to the field of solar PV, Bruton asserted that the UK is on the ‘verge of something exciting’, commenting,

“The University of Northumbria carried out a study for the Department of Trade and Industry looking at the existing south-facing buildings in the UK”, adding,

“All we have to do is take the things we have already built and put solar panels on them and we can generate all the electricity we need.”

The claims made by Bruton have been made all the more possible with the announcement by the government that 2010 will see the introduction of the Clean Energy Cash Back Scheme, essentially a solar feed-in tariff (FIT) designed to attract investment in the new industry. The scheme would work by offering small scale solar energy producers guaranteed, premium rates for energy fed back in to the national grid.

The mechanism is designed as a way of off-setting the obvious initial costs of solar panel installation and where such FITs have been introduced elsewhere, they have proved to be very effective ways of nurturing fledgling renewable sectors offering returns on investments to investors which would otherwise have been impossible. Regarding a UK solar FIT, Bruton stated.

“If you look at what has happened in Germany, Spain and California where you have the right subsidy structure from the government, the market has taken off.”

Certainly, all involved in the UK solar industry will be hopeful that the government’s controversial tariff will be sufficient to see the fulfillment of Bruton’s prophecy in the coming years.

Even with the Government’s feed-in-tariff beginning in April, solar energy will take time to develop in the UK. However Solar’s long term growth prospects appear strong, says Toby Ferenczi. 

 ‘Solar energy in the UK? But we don’t have any sun?’ is the most common reaction to the suggestion of solar energy. Its true that the amount of solar irradiation we get in the UK is approximately half to two thirds the amount you get in southern Europe. Therefore for the same solar energy system, you can get twice as much juice if you put it in the Cote d’azur as opposed to Bracknell. So why bother putting an expensive bit of kit in Essex?

 As far as I can tell there are two reasons why we British residents, may bother – principles or money, and the latter of those two has historically been shown to be the more effective.  

 To those in the principled camp, you may like to know that despite having less sun in the UK, we still get a fair amount of solar energy hitting our island. To be precise, in London and across the south of England you get an average of 1000 kWh of energy per square metre of land (or roof) over the course of 1 year and with an average photovoltaic system you can capture about 150 kWh (or 15%) of that as electricity. Therefore, by covering a 10m2 portion of roof or garden you can get enough energy to cover 50% of your domestic need and save about 400kg of CO2 (and help save the world).

 To those of us burdened with the need to consider their finances, a few words of the costs of such an endeavor. Announced this summer the Government have agreed to give you between 30 – 40p/kWh for solar energy from next April. We don’t know exactly how much it is yet but it should be in that price range. That means that the energy you produce per year would earn you 500-600 quid a year for at least 20 years.

 Now for the key question: how much does it cost? At today’s prices such a system may cost on the order up to 7500 (5 pounds per watt peak for 1.5kWp system). That means that you would stand to benefit 2000 over the lifetime of the system, or an annual return of about 2.5% per annum. This is not a great return on investment. Most savings banks would undoubtedly serve you better, however it is a positive number. Previously those who wanted to help the world with a photovoltaic system would have to pay out a fortune for the privilege.

 A further critical point is that the price of solar energy systems is falling. During the first half of 2009, the cost of solar modules fell by as much as 50%. Couple this with the range of subsidies available and the initial cost of installing a system should fall significantly. As these cost reductions get passed on to the customer, the return on investment will increase.

 It is possible to envision that as costs reduce a 5-7% annual return on investment should become possible. For savers, such a system will become a credible alternative to an ISA, and for those with no capital but who have the willpower it should mean that a bank loan can be used to cover all the initial costs.

 Right now, solar power in the UK is only for those with time, spare cash and strong wills. From April, the economic benefits of solar will make it easier for those with principles to get involved. The decision to invest in solar energy from your home will always be based on a combination of financial interest and environmental concern. Overtime, financial benefits should become the primary motivator, with environmental benefits an additional.

The We Support Solar group has launched a campaign for the government to add 10p to the proposed feed-in tariff, set to be implemented in the first quarter of 2010. The introduction of a UK feed-in tariff was set out by the government in July and has given the We Support Solar group some cause for concern regarding the long term effectiveness of making the UK solar industry competitive with those of Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic. In a move set to highlight certain deficiencies in the proposed tariff legislation the We Support Solar website is currently urging people to petition MPs via their website with suggestions for the tariff before the consultation period finishes within the next few weeks.

The main concern among the solar industry lobby, most vociferously voiced by the members of We Support Solar, is that the rate paid by energy companies for electricity by means of solar energy will not be high enough to attract investment in the new UK sector. Indeed, the We Support Solar website has quoted that a failure to act on this particular piece of legislation would see the UK fail to catch up with its EU competitors on solar installation.

Citing the benefits of adding 10p to the proposed feed-in tariff the We Support Solar website claims the following advantages for the UK economy:

  • 28,000 UK skilled solar power jobs by 2014
  • Over 400,000 new residential solar PV installations by 2014
  • Additional investment in UK solar PV manufacturing building on established centres in Wrexham, South Wales and County Durham


Certainly, with the announcement from Downing Street this year that Gordon Brown is planning to instigate a ‘green new deal’, using new renewable energies to revitalise the flagging economy, government action following the consultancy process will be under the microscope. The online campaign ultimately requests that MPs contact Ed Milliband, Secretary of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to lay out these specific demands. Whether or not the government does act to introduce a truly workable tariff system will determine whether recent rhetoric represents a real desire to fight climate change or merely court the ‘green’ lobby at a difficult time for Brown’s premiership.

For more information on the campaign, please visit: