UK outlines ambitious strategy for solar energy

Energy minister Greg Barker says government is aiming for target of 20GW by 2020, but significant challenges lie ahead

UK govt wants more commercial solar – Bentley motors have recently installed 20,000 panels powering 1,200 homes (Pic: DECC)

By Nilima Choudhury

The UK government’s energy climate change department (DECC) launched its solar energy roadmap yesterday, which sets out how it will work with the industry to achieve its 20GW by 2020 target.

Despite its leaden skies, the UK is now considered to be the sixth largest country in the world for new solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity.

Experts RTCC spoke to at the Solar Energy UK conference in Birmingham believe the country is on track to meet the new 2020 target, needing to build an extra 2.5GW per year.

The government expects that this will allow the UK to meet its 2020 goal of renewables taking a 15% share of electricity consumption. In 2012 the figure stood at 4.1%.

Costs have fallen by 50% in the past two years, and Finlay Colville, vice-president at market research company Solarbuzz, says the UK is on track to meet DECC’s 2020 target.

Installed capacity increased from 94MW in 2010 to over 2.4GW at the end of June 2013, with the country set to break the 3GW mark by the end of this year.

“The market’s just over 1.5GW at the moment, so it doesn’t really have to do a lot but stay at the 1-2GW market and then it’ll have its 20GW by 2020,” Colville said.


At Solar Energy UK, climate change minister Greg Barker talked the audience through the Roadmap to a Brighter Future which sets out a vision for the future of solar PV ahead of the UK’s first ever Solar PV strategy, which will be published in spring next year.

The roadmap confirms that new solar PV installations will need to be appropriately sited, give proper weight to environmental considerations such as landscape, heritage and local amenity, and provide opportunities for communities to influence decisions that affect them.

Critically new solar needs to offer genuine carbon reductions, with an increased focus on life cycle emissions of panels going all the way back to the manufacture of silicon cells.

Barker said it was important that the industry strives to improve relationships with the community cautioning that it would be a “grave mistake” for the industry to not take criticisms on board.

“Solar enjoys the highest public popularity rating of any technology in the renewables sector,” he said. “If you alienate the public you will not reach that industry’s full potential and certainly not the potential that I want to see.”

The new initiative is also an attempt to provide greater policy certainty for the industry, which still bears the scars of a fierce battle over Feed In Tariff cuts at the end of 2011, and the brief EU-China trade war earlier this year.


Increasing renewables capacity comes with problems, notably the challenge of dealing with a more erratic supply of energy.

“At local levels, significant export of electricity can also lead to voltage rises which need to be controlled to ensure stable operation of the system,” the report warns.

In 2012 the National Grid said solar capacity above 10GW would make managing the grid “significantly more challenging”.

Barker also stressed that despite falling costs of panel components, solar PV in the UK is still more expensive than onshore wind, nuclear and fossil fuels.

“It can’t be right that it still costs more to install PV on a rooftop here in the UK than it does in Germany with all their high labour costs and the problems with the Euro.”

Costs are not only considered in terms of finance, but also the environment. “There are carbon costs to producing the cells to transporting the panels particularly if they’ve come all the way from China,” he said.

Costs can also be cut by downsizing projects. Instead of large ground-based solar farms, Barker suggests taking advantage of the roofs throughout the country.


Significantly, the roadmap stresses the opportunities commercial properties offer for solar growth. Bentley Motors’ 1920s factory now holds 20,000 panels providing power to 1,200 households.

The National Trust has also installed six 50kW PV arrays near its mansions across Wales.

Barker said: “Our latest stats show that British roofs now produce 1.7GW with more than 450,000 small scale installations already in place – that was the figure in June. We can meet our 20GW ambition if we use just 14% of UK commercial and industrial roofspace.”

He did not dismiss land-based solar projects, concern is growing that in some parts of the country like Cornwall and Devon a saturation point has been reached.

Colville says a combination of high levels of sunlight and a warm welcome from those local councils brought developers into the region en masse.

At the start of the year, Devon installed the most capacity than any other county within the UK.

But Cornwall’s slice of the solar cake has been declining throughout 2013, mainly driven by the migration of project developers to the east of the country.

Project developers I spoke to at Solar Energy UK agreed that saturation was not as much of a concern as grid connectivity.

“You can only put power into the grid where there’s capacity to put power into the grid,” said Paul McCartie, finance director at Lightsource Renewable Energy.

While this week’s Roadmap is a start, DECC’s commitment to explore “measures and technological advances” in adapting the grid for solar may prove the most important element of next year’s PV strategy.

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