The UK solar panel market has gone through a number of well-publicised upheavals over the past two years. Nevertheless, it has grown from 30 megawatts (MW) of installed solar energy capacity in 2010 to just shy of 1.5 gigawatts (GW) today. This was driven by a huge effort on the part of UK industry; long gaps between announcements of reductions in government tariffs and their implementation; and significant falls in solar equipment prices of around 20 per cent per annum.
At the end of 2011, solar energy accounted for just under 1 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation capacity. Earlier this year, the Department for Energy and Climate Change increased targets for solar capacity from 2.7GW by 2020 to 22GW (although this was later lowered to a more likely scenario of12GW).
Solar energy clearly has a role to play in the UK’s energy mix and can contribute strongly towards decentralised, clean energy generation at domestic, commercial and industrial levels. However, is the target of achieving 22GW by 2020 feasible? This target may be challenging for a number of reasons.
A level of 22GW of solar energy by 2020 would account for almost all non-traditional sources that are likely to be added over the next decade. It would also constitute 20 per cent of UK generation capacity and imply a watts-per-person level far in excess of present Germany levels—Germany is the leading global market with a long history of strong solar policy.
A lower level of capacity of 11-15GW by 2020, however, does appear feasible, assuming stable and supportive government policies and that there is some restraint by developers of large ground-mounted systems. Domestic, commercial and ground mounted solar energy systems will all have to play a role in this. If the government pulls the plug on even one of these segments, then the outcome might differ.
Further positive factors will be the successive tightening of building codes, the introduction of the Green Deal—the coalition government’s energy efficiency initiative—and continually falling system prices. Grid parity, where the cost of generating solar electricity equals the cost of conventional electricity to the consumer, is expected in the UK within this decade.
Therefore, despite difficult beginnings, the solar sector in the UK has a promising future, and while further difficulties along the road may not be avoidable, the technology does have the potential to…