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An uncertain future?
“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.
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”
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