Solar PV

One step forwards, two steps back? The strange case of Tory solar policy

The Conservative Party has had an on-off love affair with the solar industry ever since the heady days of David Cameron’s Quality of Life Commission. Professionally, I was happy to serve on the Commission. It helped to create the right political conditions for the launch of the feed-in tariff in 2010 and cemented Conservative support for it – something that had seemed impossible when we started debating the policy. In the intervening period, there have been a series of policy highs and lows. Too often it’s been a case of one step forwards, two steps back.

Right now, the real danger is that solar will be overlooked in the forthcoming Clean Growth Plan. There appears to be a mood afoot in Government that the job is done, that a so-called (actually non-existent) solar ‘target’ of 12 gigawatts by 2020 has already been met, and that there is little industrial value in UK solar. News this week that one solar farm has been developed ’subsidy-free’ for the first time in the UK has also led inevitably to a rather complacent response from Ministers. Yes, a solar and storage scheme developed on an existing solar farm site does offer a tantalising glimpse of a sustainable subsidy-free solar future into the 2020s and beyond. But one swallow does not make a summer, and it’s clear that very few such pathfinder projects can be developed subsidy-free in the foreseeable future.

In the context of what has happened to our sector since the 2015 general election, the Government would be unwise therefore to draw conclusions prematurely about the current health of the UK industry. Since 2015, employment in the sector has fallen by at least two thirds from a high point of well over 30,000. Large-scale solar deployment has stalled (notwithstanding isolated exceptions that nevertheless prove this rule), and the revised feed-in tariff has seen a dramatic year-on-year drop in rooftop installations. In 2015, there were 155,000 new domestic installations that year receiving the feed-in tariff. In the first six months of this year, the number was less than 5,000. It is undeniable that the sector suffered unnecessarily as a result of knee-jerk policy making in the aftermath of the 2015 election where solar was wrongly and public blamed for the LCF overspend. 

Ministers are keen to describe UK solar as a success story, and so it is. But what we need now from the Government is certainty and partnership for the future, rather than basking in past successes. The fact is, as the recent REN21 report showed, positive policies are still vital to the solar industry internationally. It is ironic that Solarcentury, a stalwart of the UK sector since the late 1990s, is now exporting successfully our UK solar expertise literally all around the world, while the UK domestic market remains in downturn.  

We need Ministers to build on the successes of the past, not assume that it is ‘job done’. Part of that will involve a change in mind-set in Whitehall – a previous Minister confirmed there are no solar champions in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which is quite extraordinary given the importance of this technology. In a recent Parliamentary written answer to a question about solar redundancies, BEIS Minister Richard Harrington MP said that: “many of those who work in solar are also skilled in other building trades, and will move between these with changes in demand.” It’s hard to imagine such a dismissive answer to questions about employment levels in other low-carbon economy technology success stories.  

For at least two years, the industry trade body the Solar Trade Association (STA) has been calling for a package of measures to ensure that solar can access a level regulatory and policy playing field. This includes action to reduce the burden of business rates on solar rooftop installations and to reduce the rate of VAT on solar storage. Charging people 20% VAT for batteries retrofitted to existing solar installations runs completely counter to the Government’s narrative about the importance of storage and the leading role that the UK can play in that emerging market. We are hopeful for action on this front in the forthcoming Budget.

The lack of a level playing field can also be seen in other policy areas. In particular, it is a nonsense that one of the cheapest renewable technologies, and the most popular, remains locked out of the Government’s competitive auction process for Contracts for Difference (CfDs). This is the mechanism that has seen a halving of the support level required for deploying new offshore wind from 2022. Quite rightly, this has been hailed as a potential game changer in the context of the eye-watering £92.50 strike price at 2012 prices needed for new nuclear. But solar inexplicably has been caught up in the fallout from the Conservative Party’s opposition to, and manifesto commitment to end support for, onshore wind. The reality is that solar could also deploy today at prices approaching half those required for Hinkley Point C. Yet we remain locked out of the scheme in a bizarre rejection of market forces. Including cheaper solar again in the CfD process would help to re-energise the UK market and help to put further downward pressure on solar and other technology costs and benefit bill-payers. It’s such an obvious policy move that it’s hard to understand what is holding Ministers back.

Finally, and inevitably, Brexit remains a destabilising factor in terms of solar industry investment in the UK. For our own part, Solarcentury is active all over continental Europe where markets are recovering nicely and we will have to make a decision in early 2018 on key issues such as headquartering and other contingency planning. In the meantime, Brexit does actually open up the prospect of helpful policy changes, including the possibility of scrapping VAT altogether for solar and other energy efficiency measures, and an end to the red tape of the EU’s unwelcome minimum import price for solar modules. Both issues add unnecessarily to solar costs in the UK. 

After a damaging two years of policy changes, there is now an opportunity for positive action leading to a renewed period of stability and certainty for investment in our industry. The solar industry success story deserves better than another policy round of one step forwards, two steps back.

Seb Berry is the Director of Corporate Communication at Solarcentury and Vice Chair of the Solar Trade Association

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Solar PV: why the UK needs to get involved in a global opportunity

The global market for solar photovoltaics (PV) is ‘one to watch’ for every financier, policymaker and energy professional. If you are looking for a technology that is going to boom over the next few decades, you’ve found it.

This is ‘the one’ that is going to transform the way we generate our energy – at home and overseas.

Why? Because ultimately a solar panel is not that dissimilar to a computer microchip. Both are semiconductors. Both have seen staggering falls in costs as manufacturing economies of scale increase. For computing hardware this is known as Moore’s law, for solar it is Swanson’s law. Costs drop astronomically and efficiency goes up as more and more of the stuff is made.

And that means solar is quickly becoming a mainstream electricity generation technology. Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently predicted that there will be $3.7trillion of investment in solar between now and 2040, much of it small-scale rooftops. That is a market worth getting in on.

The International Energy Agency is predicting that globally solar could be the largest source of electricity by 2050. India is aiming to install 100 GW of solar by 2022 – more than twice the amount needed to supply all of Britain's power needs.  China is moving faster still, and will have far exceeded 100 GW by 2020. Hillary Clinton is talking of installing a billion solar panels across the United States. From Chile to Morocco to Bangladesh, the solar revolution is accelerating fast.

According to the International Energy Agency, we could have 440 GW of solar PV capacity installed worldwide by 2020. At present the UK has a world-class solar design, installation and financing sector and could, with help from UKTI, be out there getting our share of that business. Some already are, with leading solar businesses Solarcentury and Lightsource examples of home grown solar companies already starting to set up shop abroad.

However, in order to reap the rewards of export markets you need a stable domestic market to build on, and sadly the situation here in the UK could not be worse. Cliff-edge cuts to the Feed-in Tariff, Renewables Obligation and (in effect) Contracts for Difference has led the market to crash by over 80% according STA analysis, with thousands of jobs and exportable skills disappearing as we speak.

By 2030 solar could be generating 13% of global electricity by 2030, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency. Some might say “ah but that’s just for southern climes in the global sun belt”. Not true. Solar works well in Britain – solar panels in London generate much of the power they would in Madrid. Cooler British temperatures prevent the panels from overheating, keeping them efficient. Solar uses daylight, not sunshine or heat, generating power even from just diffuse light on a cloudy day.

The cost of solar has come down by 70% over the last five years. The cost of a typical solar installation on a home has dropped from around £20,000 five years ago to £6,000 today. Not yet cheap enough for it to be attractive without government support, but that gives you an idea of how cheap a way of generating power this has become.

And as the cost of the actual modules falls through the floor, the rest of the cost of installing a solar PV system, such as the labour, scaffolding, mounting gear and the inverter that converts the power from DC to AC make up an increasing proportion of the total cost. That means it is more important than ever to support a stable domestic industry with a broad based supply chain that can work to reduce costs as installed volumes increase.

The prize is enormous – a market of $3.7 trillion. If the UK moves now we can still get a significant slice of that. But export markets and domestic markets are inextricably linked, and if we want our businesses to thrive abroad, we have to allow them to thrive at home first.

Paul Barwell is CEO of Solar Trade Association

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.