From the TUC

Half a million UK homes have solar panels

14 Jan 2014, by in Environment

Amazingly, considering the government’s shale gas blast and huge cuts in solar panel tariffs, 500,000 homes have now installed small scale rooftop solar panels. About 1,900 installations are being carried out every week, helping to sustain a skilled workforce. Despite government policy, a combination of massive international production volumes and efficiencies achieved by UK installers have helped offset the 65% cut in the government’s feed in tariff –  from 49p per unit of power in 2010 to 14.9p/kWh today. Yet stifling of domestic demand goes to explain the closure in December of the UK’s main panel maker, Sharp at Wrexham.

Solar chart

Welcoming the half million marker, STA chief exec Paul Barwell said: “Barely a day goes past without widespread anger about ever-rising energy bills.  We need to keep going down this path until solar power is cheaper than retail electricity prices and everyone can have access to cheap, green power and stable energy bills.”  The Solar Trade Association’s ‘calculator’ shows that homes installing a 4KW system (about a dozen panels) today could expect returns of around 12% and payback within 8 years.

Solar power is the most popular power generation technology, scoring 86% in DECC’s recent public opinion tracker. A YouGov poll for the STA showed over 70% support for good quality solar farms.

When it comes to fossil subsidies, money is no object, it seems. Of course, any new green technology will need public support, combining direct subsidy and a sustained regulatory framework. So when the incoming coalition government complained of the solar industry’s “overgenerous subsidies” and changed the rules and subsidies the emerging UK solar manufacture and installation industry was set back sharply. Contrast the gas strategy, and this week’s government announcement that “local communities would receive £100,000 when a test well is fracked – and a further 1 per cent of revenues if shale gas is discovered. This could be worth £5 to £10 million for a typical producing site over its lifetime.”

According to DECC, 499,687 solar schemes had been installed by January 5 under the feed-in tariff that supports solar arrays with a capacity smaller than 50kW. The great majority of schemes (478,875) were fitted on domestic rooftops, with larger installations likely to have featured on offices and commercial properties.

But unhappily, Sharp has announced the closure of its solar panel plant in Wrexham.  News reports cite the uncertainty over government energy policy. Other factors include:

  • The rapidly growing domestic solar market in Japan has become the key focus for Sharp’s new strategy.
  • The UK residential market is currently being supplied by Chinese modules, following the Brussels/Beijing trade agreement.
  • Even the stabilising UK residential market has not appeared to offer Sharp any scope for optimism at Wrexham.

The STA is pressing the solar farm industry to pursue best practice through its 10 Commitments, which make recommendations to developers to support biodiversity and continued agricultural use. Energy Minister Greg Barker has announced fresh work with the industry to help expand the medium sized solar installation industry. Bentley Motors has the UK’s largest rooftop solar PV array.

Meanwhile, the UK’s first automated solar module production line, developed by Swiss toolmaker Meyer Burger, received a £3.6m contract to supply equipment to SunSolar’s new West Midlands site, backed by the government’s Regional Growth Fund.

The government’s energy strategies for oil & gas, new nuclear and wind turbines include building UK supply chains. This industry needs its industry council, too. Sustained public support for UK solar would bring down units costs by 2015 to highly competitive levels, according to the trade association.  And help build a rounded and mature  solar industry.