Where Next for Solar in the UK?

by Seb Berry Head of External Affairs at Solarcentury
Here in the UK, we should be living in encouraging times for renewable technologies such as solar PV. Given the backdrop of Prime Ministerial warnings of the dire consequences of the "do nothing" approach to climate change it ought to be boom time for solar PV and other renewables.

But apart from the limited success of the Renewables Obligation in supporting large-scale wind, the current situation in relation to other technologies remains patchy at best.

The Prime Minister’s renewed enthusiasm for the nuclear option and the prospect of a fourth major Whitehall renewable energy review in five years suggests a policy approach of “if at first you don’t reach the nuclear conclusion, try, try and try again.”

The real question the Prime Minister should be asking himself is how is it that 2 ½ years on from the first Energy White Paper in nearly two generations, are the policy drivers for renewables outside the Renewables Obligation still so lamentably weak?

In terms of encouraging technological diversity and a range of renewable options for the UK, the February 2003 Energy White Paper (EWP) was encouraging. It observed that the UK needed to “develop a framework which encourages the development of a wide range of renewable options and to make significant changes to our institutions and systems.”

For PV, the commitments were more specific. The EWP committed the Government to a ten year 2002-2012 solar PV programme “in line with our competitors,” a commitment that had first appeared in the 2001 ‘Opportunities for All’ White Paper. The EWP went further in suggesting that the programme was one of several “key dates on the critical path to help us achieve our 2010 10% target.” In addition, the EWP spelt out that the “current programme worth £20 million over 3 years, is the first stage of this process.” (my italics) All of this, accompanied by the promise in the Prime Minister’s foreword that “this White Paper sets out a strategy for the long-term, to give industry the confidence to invest to help us deliver our goals – a truly sustainable energy policy.”

The reality of course in the post Energy White Paper world has been very different. Solarcentury is not alone in expressing concern at the very slow rate of progress to date towards meeting the basic strategic objectives that are so critical to delivering the Government’s 2020 energy efficiency targets and renewables aspiration.

In the case of solar PV, the Government’s current position represents a clear u-turn on its Energy White Paper position. Far from giving the solar industry “the confidence to invest to help us deliver our goals” the policy signals from Government post 2003 have been at best ambivalent.

The ambivalence and the u-turns have been surprising. They fly in the face of all the evidence from successful overseas PV and other renewable programmes.

Everyone knows for example that the key to delivering a step-change in UK PV cost reductions over the next 5-10 years lies in achieving considerable economies of scale, beyond current niche markets. In our view, this cannot be achieved without a clear long-term strategy on the part of Government that takes as its starting point the evidence from overseas.

Solar PV costs in Japan for example fell by 75% between 1994 and 2004, during which time there was a 35-fold increase in installed capacity. Central Government subsidies in Japan fell from 50% of system costs in 1994 to 10% of costs in 2004 and will be phased out completely this year.

And what of the contribution that solar PV can make in “cloudy Britain?” Here in the UK just six panels or 1 kWp of silent unobtrusive solar PV on an average home built to latest building regulations will reduce carbon emissions by more than 20%.

Guaranteed by the manufacturers for 20 or 25 years, they will last far longer. If every new home were to incorporate a PV system of this size it would deliver 45% of the Government’s 2020 domestic energy efficiency target.

In the case of building integrated solar PV, these installations also offset the costs of other traditional roofing and facade materials.

This is of particular relevance to the commercial sector. As the July 2004 ODPM Building Regulations Part L consultation document (section 9 paragraph 61) made clear, “in future there will be an increasing amount of building integrated renewable energy systems. Building designs will therefore need to adapt so that they can readily integrate such systems in efficient and cost effective ways (e.g. PV panels as a cladding material).”

To be fair to Government, ODPM’s PPS22 and last year’s consultation on Part L Building regulations at least begin to recognize in policy terms the contribution that PV and other renewables can make in the built environment.

We are however a very long way away from Peter Hain MP’s suggestion when opening Sharp’s new Wrexham PV module assembly line in July 2004 that all new homes should be built with solar PV and solar thermal systems.

So what does Government need to do now? The DTI’s microgeneration strategy to be published by April 2006 must do more than make broad statements of intent. The main policy drivers required are those set out in the 2003 Energy White Paper, principally a short-term increase in capital grant funding, tougher building regulations and an endorsement through PPS22 of Merton-style positive planning policies for micro-renewables.

Specifically, the solar PV industry would welcome a microgeneration strategy which:

  • (a) ensured that the new six-year Low Carbon Buildings Programme to include solar PV and other renewables is a market-building rather than innovative demonstration measure;

  • (b) extended the Energy Efficiency Commitment to include solar PV and other micro-renewables;

  • (c) promoted actively the Merton planning model and consider a tightening of PPS 22 to make consideration of such policies mandatory for local planning authorities;

  • (d) ensured that the next Part L Building regulations review in 2009 extends the prescriptive principle established in 2004 for A and B rated gas condensing boilers to renewables.

    Finally, we need far greater urgency and action from the Government. As the Prime Minister’s own Performance and Innovation Unit 2002 Energy Review stated some 3 ½ years ago:

    “The nation must not be lulled into inaction by the focus on long time-scales and on energy systems in a future which will belong mainly to our grandchildren: the time for action is now.”

    The solar PV industry for one could not have said it any better.

    by Seb Berry Head of External Affairs at Solarcentury

    [email protected]

    Solar Century http://www.solarcentury.co.uk

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