UK Solar Industry Defies Weather Stereotypes

By in Markets, Technology
solar power plant

When Britons and non-Britons alike hear ‘solar’ and ‘England’ in the same sentence, the overwhelming sentiment is often something akin to ‘…Have you seen the weather?’ or ‘Britain’s too cloudy for solar power!’ Despite these reservations, the British solar industry has developed rapidly over the last three years; proving once again that solar technology can make an impact, even in countries without thriving sunscreen markets (take a look at Germany).

So, how did this solar revolution come about? After the introduction of the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), a government incentive that pays a premium for solar electricity generation, solar installations in the UK skyrocketed to over 350MW in less than two years, almost mirroring the development pace of the German solar market.

 Source: Energy Policy, 2013

Source: Energy Policy, 2013

As the cost of generating solar power dropped, government incentives for solar electricity generation diminished while the industry grew and achieved maturity. The solar industry’s growth exceeded expectations so much that by 2011/2012 the FiT was significantly reduced. The cuts lead to an initial drop in the growth rate of installations across the country. However, the industry is still growing strong, and the current government target is to reach 1 million solar roofs by 2015, with a target of 20GW of solar generating capacity by 2020. This growth aims to help the British government achieve its 30% renewable energy target by 2020.

Today, solar panels are about one third of the cost of three years ago, and the industry has begun to stand on its own feet. “Government policy is working and bringing down costs,explains Dr Nina Skorupska, Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association. “The real reason that [government] support for solar and onshore wind will go down is that they are leading the race for cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels.”

Recently, Britain announced national contract prices for wholesale renewable energy projects (over 5MWp capacity). Similar to the FiT scheme for distributed energy producers, the British government will ensure stable prices for electricity generated by utility-scale renewable energy technologies. As you can see below, the price provided to solar energy generation and other renewable sources will continue to decline each year as these technologies mature.

 Source: UK National Infrastructure Plan

Source: UK National Infrastructure Plan

Yingli Solar has played an active part in this new market, supplying many projects  including the 15.194 MW Hill Farm Project in Oxford, partner SolarCentury’s largest project to date. This project will utilize 60,000 solar panels across 74 acres and will produce 14,500 MWh of electricity per year; enough to power 4,500 average sized houses.

British firms such as SolarCentury have been driving the industry’s growth, leading prominent solar projects such as the CIS Tower in Manchester; a 575.5 kW installation covering the entire building’s surface with 7,244 building-integrated PV cells, saving an estimated 100 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

 Souce: Solaripedia

Source: Solaripedia

As recently as January 2014, SolarCentury completed central London’s Blackfriars Bridge station project, the world’s largest solar-powered bridge. Over 4,400 PV modules covered the bridge’s new roof, with 1 MW powering over 50% of the railway station’s energy needs while offsetting an estimated 511 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Quite simply it is, if you will, an electrifying time for renewables in the United Kingdom. Currently, three quarters of the country’s carbon emissions are created from power generation, while coal accounts for 35% of current electricity production. It’s encouraging to see that the UK’s renewable energy consumption has increased by 29% and that, as of mid-2013, clean energy accounted for 15.5% of total UK electricity consumption.

Further, the UK was the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets stretching until 2050, when the UK aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. This has been backed up by policies such as the ‘Green Deal,’ a programme aimed at improving energy efficiency in homes, and the formation of a Solar Strategy Group and National Solar Centre aimed at assisting the government and private sector with clean energy development.

It’s clear that solar will continue to solidify its position as an integral part of Britain’s renewable energy mix. Governmental policy played a role in jump-starting the British solar revolution, with the industry realizing over 4GW of solar generating capacity. Despite a turbulent year for the European solar market, the British solar industry saw a record 1.45GW of new solar capacity installed across 2013, according to Solarbuzz Vice President Finlay Colville writing on Solar Power Portal.

Further, the UK earned a top ten global ranking for both small and large scale PV solar growth in 2013, with the number of ground mounted PV projects growing by an unprecedented 600%. If Britain can achieve such strong results in just three years; what could Britain’s energy mix look like by 2020?

Quinn Boylan worked as an Intern with Yingli Solar in San Francisco during the summer of 2013. He can be reached at:

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