Power consultancy firm EnAppSys reported that we had the most solar generation for the second quarter in a year in 2017, highlighting how renewable power generation is continuing to impact on energy markets across the UK. The amount solar produced represented 19% of our renewable generation, up a staggering 10% from the year before.
The reason? Most of it comes down to the excellent start to the spring and summer that the UK experienced but it also had a lot to do with increased capacity. If you take all renewables together, this period delivered the second highest share of power, behind gas but way ahead of coal fire.
This did however lead to a little more volatility in the market – the sun was shining and we weren’t using as much electricity as normal which meant the system was largely over supplied. While this is problematic at the moment, it is certainly a situation that will be improved by better storage systems able to deliver power at peak times.
Solar in the UK
Over the last ten years, solar capacity in the UK has increased dramatically. Back in 2008, we only had 22 MW of capacity; as of 2016 that had been boosted to 11,562 MW. Much of this came down to the promotion and support for solar through feed in tariffs, something that immediately got businesses and home owners investing in panels. Many large stores like IKEA and Sainsbury’s touted their green credentials by moving to solar while farms began developing in many parts of the UK as land owners began to see the benefits of giving over at least a part of their space to this burgeoning new technology.
Things certainly did stall when the Government decided to slash feed in tariffs in 2016 which many predicted would see the end of solar in the UK. This fortunately turned out not to be entirely true despite other hurdles the industry has had to cope with in recent months including tax changes and the rise in fees for the Microgeneration Certification Schemes (MCS).
For a long while, the UK Government has been accused of trying to kill off the solar industry, despite the fact that it is fast becoming one of the cheapest and most viable sources of renewable energy across the globe. According to the Independent recently:
“Amid ongoing concern about rising energy prices, the industry expressed disbelief that the Treasury is about to impose a swingeing business tax on firms with rooftop solar schemes, which could increase the bill by up to eight times. Domestic installations could also be hit by a VAT increase from five to 20 per cent.”
This despite the fact that many analysts believe solar will be a dominant factor in all future energy systems. There’s no doubt that solar in the UK has had its trials and tribulations over the last few years but the report from EnAppSys provides ample evidence that it is still continuing to move forward.
The Future of Solar Power
Businesses are starting to explore the potential for battery storage and it’s something that will enable sectors like solar thrive over the next decade or so. Companies like Moixa are investing heavily in ‘smart’ storage technology and the Government, on the right side for once, has committed nearly £250 million to help make the UK a market leader.
The Blackpool Gazette reported a few months ago that Network Rail was looking at including solar at the side of tracks to improve its third rail provision. BAE Systems have installed 2 GW of capacity on their sites and smaller companies are also looking to go solar despite the lack of subsidies. New innovations such as road solar are also beginning to gain traction.
It can be tempting to think that solar has stalled in the UK – yes, it may have slowed down without the subsidies but there is plenty of evidence that our solar infrastructure will continue to expand. Running cost is always going to be the governing factor but solar is competing pretty favourably. According to the projections:
A solar project commissioned in 2018 would cost between £62 and £84 per MWh.
That compares to £60 and £62 per MWh for the cheapest gas project (up to £166 for a more expensive system).
By 2030, however, solar is expected to come down while gas will rise considerably to almost £100 per MWh.
The other factor that will determine the future of solar is what is happening in the rest of the world. Take a look at China, for example, and you’ll see a dramatic increase in solar infrastructure, in part driven by the country’s farmers who have a lot of land to spare.
Indeed, they currently have the largest solar farm in the world – situated on the Tibetan Plateau it comprises some 4 million solar panels and covers 30 sq km. It’s perhaps this kind of development, rather than government policies, that will determine the future of solar and other renewable energy in the UK.