Home So­lar En­ergy

An un­cer­tain fu­ture?

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS - © Guardian News & Me­dia 2018

“I ’m 87 per cent self-pow­ered to­day. Yes­ter­day, I was 100 per cent,” says Howard Rich­mond, us­ing an app telling him how much of his Lon­don home’s elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion is from his so­lar pan­els and Tesla bat­tery.

The re­tired so­lic­i­tor lives in one of the 840,000-plus homes in the UK with so­lar pan­els. And he is a mem­ber of an even more ex­clu­sive club — peo­ple liv­ing in one of the up to 10,000 homes with bat­tery stor­age.

So­lar has grown rapidly in the UK’S power mix. A decade ago, it pro­vided prac­ti­cally noth­ing; now, it reg­u­larly gen­er­ates about a fifth of the coun­try’s elec­tric­ity for hours on a sum­mer’s day.

But the house­hold mar­ket has been called the “so­lar­coaster” by the in­dus­try, be­cause of the booms and busts driven by the feed-in tar­iff, the main gov­ern­ment sup­port scheme, which started in 2010. Those in­cen­tives were cut dra­mat­i­cally at the start of 2016, largely killing the fi­nan­cial at­trac­tion for house­hold­ers. In­stal­la­tions plum­meted and com­pa­nies folded.

Next April, the scheme is due to end. Un­sur­pris­ingly, this has led to a bleak out­look for house­hold so­lar. Growth halved last year, which gov­ern­ment says is “not sur­pris­ing”, given ear­lier rapid ex­pan­sion.

Just 14 megawatts of do­mes­tic so­lar are fore­cast to be fit­ted this year, down from a peak of 606 megawatts in 2011, ac­cord­ing to the re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance.

“This is heart­break­ing for me,” says Alan Simp­son, an ad­viser to the Labour Party’s shadow chan­cel­lor, John Mcdon­nell. One of the ar­chi­tects of the feed-in tar­iffs, Simp­son said the im­por­tance of house­hold so­lar was not just the clean en­ergy it brings on­line, but the cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial im­pact of en­gag­ing peo­ple with re­new­ables at a lo­cal level.

He blames gov­ern­ment and big fos­sil fuel-based en­ergy com­pa­nies for bring­ing house­hold so­lar to a halt. “We’ve got a com­pletely in­verted sense of how the shift into clean en­ergy sys­tems will take place and the role house­holds can play in the process. We dis­em­power and dis­cour­age house­holds from be­ing part of the clean en­ergy transformation,” he said.

Hop­ing for re­vival

So­lar ad­vo­cates are pin­ning their hopes for a re­vival on the con­tin­u­ing re­duc­tion in the cost of pan­els, and on com­ple­men­tary tech­nolo­gies such as house­hold bat­ter­ies and elec­tric cars. “It’s in flux, but it’s head­ing in a very ex­cit­ing di­rec­tion,” says Jeremy Leggett, the founder of So­lar­century, one of the UK’S largest so­lar com­pa­nies. “We’re com­ing out of the dol­drums, what­ever the gov­ern­ment does.”

While the for­mer oil ge­ol­o­gist ad­mits that the UK so­lar mar­ket is stag­nant now, he thinks the di­rec­tion is clear. House­hold bat­ter­ies such as Tesla’s Pow­er­wall en­able peo­ple to con­sume rather than ex­port their so­lar elec­tric­ity, which makes more fi­nan­cial sense. An en­ergy sup­plier sells a kilo­watt-hour of power to a house­holder for about 15 pence, much higher than the 5.24 pence a so­lar home can earn for

House­hold so­lar has a cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial im­pact at a lo­cal level

ex­port­ing to the grid and the 4.01 pence for gen­er­a­tion un­der the feed-in tar­iff.

Ryan Mcshea of Em­power En­ergy, one of the few so­lar in­stall­ers to weather the sub­sidy cuts, said he was sur­prised by the up­take this year. “We’ve found a lot of peo­ple go­ing for so­lar and bat­ter­ies to­gether.”

So­lar panel costs have come down by about a fifth in the past year, Mcshea says, which he expects to re­sult in cheaper sys­tems for con­sumers. A typ­i­cal four-kilo­watt in­stal­la­tion of so­lar pan­els costs about £6,000 (about €6,700), down from £12,000 to £14,000 when the feedin tar­iffs be­gan. That price can come down even more for bulk pur­chases, the in­dus­try points out, po­ten­tially to as low as £3,200. But while the eco­nom­ics of so­lar are im­prov­ing, few think they will in­crease in the com­ing years with­out some form of con­tin­ued sup­port.

Labour would re­new the feed-in tar­iff scheme at a mod­est level, rather than let it fade away. “Ba­si­cally, this is the longterm con­se­quence of the ‘cut the green crap’ stuff,” com­ments Alan White­head, shadow en­ergy min­is­ter, in ref­er­ence to David Cameron’s re­ported com­ments on re­new­able en­ergy sup­port in 2015.

“We would not want to see the [feedin tar­iffs] regime dis­ap­pear in 2019, we would like to see it con­tinue but on a clear path,” says White­head, who en­vis­ages fund­ing the scheme with a “tiny frac­tion” of the £557 mil­lion that min­is­ters have ear­marked for large re­new­able en­ergy sub­si­dies.

Holis­tic view

A Labour gov­ern­ment would take a more holis­tic view of sup­port for so­lar, too, he said, such as paving the way for an ag­gre­ga­tor to bun­dle to­gether many house­holds’ so­lar out­put and trade it at a lo­cal level to other homes that need it. A help­ing hand may also come from elec­tric­ity prices, which are in­creas­ing in the face of ris­ing whole­sale costs. E.ON raised elec­tric­ity prices 6.2 per cent in Au­gust.

Mean­while, Bri­tain suf­fered a wind drought through­out much of June, lead­ing to a sig­nif­i­cant drop in out­put from the coun­try’s largest source of re­new­able power. Al­though the hot, still weather was a boon for beach­go­ers and so­lar panel own­ers, fig­ures com­piled by Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don showed that wind power gen­er­a­tion in June of 2018 was down nearly a quar­ter on June of last year. Tur­bines were fre­quently left stand­ing still, with sev­eral days see­ing al­most no wind at all.

About half of the UK’S elec­tric­ity is usu­ally sup­plied by gas power sta­tions, fol­lowed by nu­clear and wind, though wind farms over­took nu­clear for the first time dur­ing the first quar­ter of the year. But in June, wind av­er­aged just 3.4 gi­gawatts of out­put, or about 11 per cent of power de­mand. That is down 24 per cent on June 2017, which av­er­aged 4.6 gi­gawatts, or 15 per cent of de­mand.

The sig­nif­i­cant drop comes de­spite the fact that the to­tal ca­pac­ity of wind farms on land and at sea has grown con­sid­er­ably since last June. In­stalled ca­pac­ity is up 2.5 gi­gawatts, to 20 gi­gawatts.

Ex­perts say the wind drought high­lights the need for a di­verse en­ergy sup­ply. “This is a clear re­minder that we can­not rely on one source of elec­tric­ity alone,” says Dr Iain Staffell, a lec­turer in sus­tain­able en­ergy at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don.

“Back in March, the UK nearly ran out of gas dur­ing the cold snap, now in June it is wind that is in short sup­ply. The UK’S weather is any­thing but de­pend­able, so the key is to have a di­verse mix of sources that work to­gether,” Staffell com­ments. Wide va­ri­ety of sources

The wind power in­dus­try says that tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions such as bat­ter­ies are help­ing the tech­nol­ogy be­come more flex­i­ble. “Na­tional Grid can pre­dict with pin­point ac­cu­racy how much elec­tric­ity will be gen­er­ated from wind 24 hours in ad­vance,” ex­plains Emma Pinch­beck, Re­new­ableuk’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor. “We need a wide va­ri­ety of en­ergy sources com­pet­ing against each other to en­sure that con­sumers get best value for money.”

Back in Is­ling­ton, Howard Rich­mond looked at his elec­tric­ity bill, which has fallen to £18 a month for a three-storey ter­raced house. But the fi­nan­cial sav­ings are not his main driver.

“My prime mo­ti­va­tion was I wanted to see if I could be self-pow­ered in north Lon­don, in a cloudy rainy coun­try,” he said. “If I can do it, so can the world.”

“The UK’S weather is any­thing but de­pend­able, so the key is to have a di­verse mix of sources”

Home so­lar pan­els: popular, but for how much longer?

Green dream: self-pow­ered house

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