Building a long-term future for solar PV

National Solar Centre, BRE, Solar OV, photovoltaic

Despite turbulent times for the solar PV sector just over a year ago, this form of renewable energy has become firmly established and is set to become part of the mainstream of the UK energy mix — with that growth supported by the setting up by BRE of the National Solar Centre. Ken Sharpe has been looking into the background.

The south east of England has a major concentration of solar PV installations. According to the BRE, there are nearly 56 000 installations in the region. That represents the majority of the UK’s solar PV installations, prompting the organisation to choose St Austell Business Park in Cornwall as the location for the new BRE National Solar Centre (NSC), which is due to open in April. Its aim is to help boost the generation of renewable energy in the UK.

The centre will become an important part of the UK solar PV sector and help the sector to grow and thrive. NSC will work with corporations, investors, construction companies, electricity networks, utilities, insurers, banks and land owners — as well as dealing directly with Government.

The current installed capacity in the UK is approaching 2 GW — a huge increase over the installed capacity in April 2010 of 26 MW.

Another attraction is Cornwall offering the most sunshine hours of any county in the UK and also having an infrastructure and business environment specifically designed to help push the solar industry forward.

BRE director Nick Tune, who developed the idea for the centre little more than a year ago, says, ‘We have a real opportunity here to drive the uptake of solar PV. The sector has seen a dramatic reduction in installed costs by up to 50% from 2010 to 2012. The centre will help the sector deliver further reductions so solar PV can become competitive with other low-carbon electricity sources.

‘There are significant opportunities to support the development of building-integrated PV projects and the interaction of PV with commercial buildings.

‘We will also look at issues around smart grids, storage, power output prediction and more — all critical factors for improving the long-term performance of the technology and creating confidence in its future.’

And international opportunities are also envisaged, enabling the UK to export its solar expertise.

Purpose-built facilities will include a solar farm and indoor and outdoor testing capabilities.

As a means to generate revenue, a multi-megawatt solar park will be developed adjacent to the National Solar Centre. Industry and related stakeholders are invited to contribute a none-off payment for this part, which will provide long-term income for the centre.

The centre has caught the imagination of Government, and Greg Barker, Energy & Climate Change Minister, used the launch event to present a wide-ranging perspective on the current state of development of solar PV in the UK and objectives to 2020 — with a key role being played by the NSC.

Greg Barker described the last two years as having seen the industry going through an extraordinary period of growth and facing enormous challenges. He said, ‘I know just how difficult recent months have been, but the industry has come through this testing period and has definitely emerged leaner, wiser and certainly larger!’

Such has been the growth, that 1.8 GW of solar PV is now operating in the UK — an installed capacity that is three times larger than was anticipated by the original and unreformed Feed in Tariff scheme.

DECC now sees solar PV as part of the mainstream of the UK energy mix, ‘rightly recognised as one of DECC’s priority renewable-energy technologies and an essential part of our energy future.’

Even bigger growth is wanted in the future, with the recent update in the Renewables Roadmap looking for a 10-fold increase in solar power by 2020 to 20 GW.

The falling cost of new installations is likely to help. Not so very long ago, the upfront capital costs of a domestic installation stood at £10 000 to £15 000. That figure has fallen massively, so the point of entry is now less than £5000.

Inevitably, as Greg Barker explains, there had to be big changes to the Feed-in Tariff. What had happened was that levels of deployment under the original Feed-in Tariff were not financially sustainable at that level. DECC was concerned that the double-digit 25-year returns funded from energy bills of consumers were in danger of bringing not just the scheme, but the whole industry into disrepute.

Nor does Greg Barker blame the industry, stressing that the problem was due to the original scheme. Action was taken, which was challenged in the courts and received much acrimonious Press. However, Greg Barker asserts, ‘Despite all the adverse publicity these changes generated, one fact remains true. Solar is still a great deal.’

He also expressed concern about disinformation on how solar is now ‘uneconomic and unaffordable’.

Greg Barker stresses that the opposite is the case, because of the dramatic fall in unit costs. ‘The rates of return under the new bands actually remain broadly similar to those when the FiT scheme was first launched in 2010. Together we need to get that extremely positive message out to the wider public.’

National Solar Centre, BRE, Solar OV, photovoltaic
The reburbished roof of King’s Cross Station in London integrates 240 kW of solar PV panels installed by Sundog Energy.

Hints that the message is indeed getting through come from a recent week’s installation figures under the FiT. They showed a market stabilising, with nearly 1500 installations amounting to 5 MW. Greg Barker comments, ‘We have a long way to go to drive up levels of deployment, but the industry isn’t flatlining.’

Combined with the Renewables Obligation, which now includes an enhanced band for building-mounted solar, the new subsidies under the Feed-in Tariff, DECC is determined that the UK solar sector will be set on a predictable and sustainable long-term footing.

Despite the success of subsidies in stimulating an installed capacity three times larger than was originally expected, Greg Barker stresses, ‘Subsidies alone will not deliver what the sector needs.’

Key support will come from the National Solar Centre, which is being set up with the help of a £1.1 million grant from the European Regional Development Fund and support from Cornwall Council and DECC.

The centre will drive innovation, cost reduction and increased confidence in the market place through knowledge generation. The centre will also engage with organisations outside the traditional scope of the industry to ensure that solar PV is better understood as a technology so its potential can be realised.

A particular focus will be helping the construction industry improve its understanding of integrating PV products with buildings. The development of large systems will also receive attention. According to Nick Tune, the building-integrated PV market is set to increase 5-fold globally by 2017.

As large solar parks become commonplace, there will be a need to provide technical services and new standards. BRE has the independence and credibility to drive these opportunities in a way which solar PV companies cannot do in isolation.

A extensive programme of activities has been devised for the National Solar Centre.

• Analysis, data collection and publications to create a full and authoritative knowledge base for the industry. Publications planned include a technical code of practice, grid-connection guidance and a guide for commercial roofs.

• It will provide an observatory for best practice, both in the UK and internationally.

• There will also be support for the development of future standards to increase the quality of PV installations.

• Support for UK solar industries in a worldwide market is planned.

• Due-diligence consultancy and testing for new-build installations.

• Fault finding, verification and optimisation for existing systems.

• Product development for building-integrated PV and other integrated approaches.

• Direct support for inward investment to create a cluster of solar PV companies on the site.

Welcoming the creation of the NSC, Greg Barker said, ‘Solar is an exciting and rapidly growing clean, green source of power and has a valuable part to play in the UKU’s energy mix. The National Solar Centre will help drive down costs, improve efficiency, catalyse growth, spur innovation and develop expertise on the ground.

‘We have seen dramatic reductions in the costs of the technology over the past year, and that’s why we have made changes to our incentives under Feed-in Tariff and the Renewable Obligation, to help put this industry on a more sustainable footing and ensure solar continues to thrive in the future.’

And BRE is very clear on the role of the National Solar Centre: ‘Researching and channelling evidence-based information on design and installation techniques, performance durability and costs to the industry, Government and all other stakeholders will help to promote genuine industry growth, hand-in-hand with improvements in the quality of PV products and installations.’

National Solar Centre, BRE, Solar OV, photovoltaic
Better integration of solar PV into buildings is seen as necessary for the future. This installation is on the roof of the terminal building at Birmingham Airport and was carried out by npower in partnership with Photon Energy.
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