A solar panel does not command attention quite like the stoic thermal power plants that rise up from British landscapes. But on a balmy summer’s day last month, the collective glare of millions of panels proved solar power’s mettle. The spring bank holiday heatwave began with a new record for solar power generation, which created a quarter of the nation’s electricity mix on Friday afternoon. Britain’s solar panels produced more electricity than nuclear and coal power combined. They are likely to do this again and again as summer rolls on. Five years ago this was a feat few would have dared predict. The solar boom was fuelled by generous subsidies and spurred by rapidly falling costs, at a rate far exceeding expectations. Paul Barwell, head of the Solar Trade Association, says there are now 12.1 gigawatts of solar in the UK, the same production capacity as eight new-generation nuclear reactors and enough to power 3.8m homes. He says the “colossal achievement” achieved in just five years sends a positive message that solar has a strong place in the UK energy sector. This is a point Barwell is keen to make because the rise of solar power has been far from assured – the industry has been shattered by knee-jerk political interventions. In China, policymakers put the country’s manufacturing heft firmly behind developing cheaper solar panels, accelerating the technology’s journey down the cost curve. In 2015, energy ministers, irked by the higher-than-expected take-up of solar subsidies, delivered a series of unexpected cuts to avoid unexpected burdens on energy bills. The Government closed off funding for solar projects through its Renewables Obligation scheme, allowing a modest grace period for some developers to roll out new sites until April last year. New projects are expected to hit a lull for the next year or two. Ben Warren, head of EY’s renewable energy practice, says the solar boom was five times larger than ministers had expected to support, and caught policymakers on the back foot. “The Government was always trying to play catch-up, and was always about a year behind the industry,” he says. The subsidy bonfire tore through the young industry, causing companies to fold and wiping out a third of the workforce. In total, the support cuts reduced solar jobs in Britain from 5,300 to 3,600 in just a year. “My guess is that there are several hundred megawatts – if not over a gigawatt – of solar capacity which is being developed by those who are sitting on those projects, waiting for further cost reductions before they actually construct them. “Projects have been put on ice until the cost equations work,” he adds. Leading the way is Lightsource, Europe’s largest privately-held solar developer, which plans to expand into the US. Last year the company unveiled a world first: a floating solar installation to help power a Thames Water reservoir just outside London. The legacy of the boom years will also stand the industry in good stead for a new dawn. The solar sector is well capitalised, both financially and in human resources, after drawing in investors and talent in sunnier times. In the meantime, developers are ploughing time and skills into developing storage technology. Batteries could unlock a fresh wave of progress for solar power by allowing users to store electricity generated during the day for night-time use. “This will come down to how much policy setters, the regulator and National Grid want to encourage the deployment of energy storage. In a positive competitive environment for storage, this would be a huge fillip for solar,” Warren says. “Now, with all the stars aligned, we are set for further and quite significant cost reduction,” he adds.
Telegraph 3rd June 2017 read more »