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Solar is taking off

All the experts say that solar is the one technology that is going to transform our energy supply

By Paul Barwell  

Solar power is only going to become more important for Britain. © David Blaikie

Moore’s Law, named after one of the co-founders of Intel, Gordon E. Moore, showed how the processing power of computer chips doubled and continues to double every two years, producing ever smaller, faster and cheaper devices.

The same is true of the computer chip’s silicon sister technology: solar photovoltaics. The cost of solar per watt has fallen over 99 per cent since the 1970s. Much of this freefall in costs—called Swanson’s Law—has taken place over the last five years, accompanied by ever more efficient panels that squeeze more energy out of the same area.

Ever cheaper solar is good news for our climate and good news for energy bill payers faced with increasingly expensive fossil fuel electricity.

And this isn’t just a technology for sunnier climes. Despite our infamous weather, solar in the UK generates two-thirds as much power as in Madrid, and the panels work more efficiently in cooler British temperatures. And by a happy coincidence, our roofs are pitched at just the right angle to capture maximum sunlight at this latitude.

Solar makes no noise, creates no waste and emits no carbon. On rooftops, it is a “fit and forget” technology. In solar farms screened from view with hedgerows, you often don’t even know it’s there. And good solar farms do not displace agriculture. Sheep can graze the land in between the panels, and the farms can become a haven for local wildlife.

The one thing that limits solar is of course that it doesn’t generate power at night—but this makes it a particularly good match with wind, and cheap battery storage packs are already beginning to overcome this.

Unsubsidised British solar within sight.

Solar in the UK, currently Europe’s largest market in the technology, could soon reach the point that it no longer needs any form of subsidy—on residential rooftops, commercial roofs and in solar farms.

Recent analysis found that solar power that is competing with expensive retail and commercial electricity prices in homes, schools and offices could be competitive without subsidy within the next 10 years, and sooner in the case of commercial roofs.

Solar farms, which compete with power stations and cheap wholesale electricity prices to feed into the grid, could be a cheaper way of generating electricity than gas as soon as 2018. Furthermore, based on current forecasts for wholesale prices, solar could come in cheaper than the market price for power at some point between 2025 and 2028.

But all of this is assuming a stable policy regime with gradually decreasing levels of support in line with falling prices.

Government is holding back solar’s potential.

When DECC published its national Solar PV Strategy in April of last year, it was an opportunity to set out its plan to reduce support gradually with a view to getting solar to the point that it can stand on its own two feet. But it didn’t.

Instead the Government then closed the current Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme completely for solar farms over 5 MW (about 25 acres). This is perverse—all this is doing is holding back the UK’s second cheapest renewable and making the low carbon energy mix more expensive than it needs to be.

So we have put together an alternative plan. By making a few simple changes to the structure of the Feed-in Tariff—creating new bands with a higher tariff for medium-sized rooftop solar to give it room to grow, and making sure there is a gradual decrease in the tariff for residential solar by adjusting the thresholds for drops in the tariff—we will see more solar on roofs and a clear path to subsidy-free solar.

With regards to solar farms, the Government needs to fix the new Contracts for Difference scheme so that small players, like those in the solar industry, can compete on a level playing field with the big guys. At the moment the scheme puts what is set to soon be the cheapest form of low carbon power at a real disadvantage.

And no one wants to get to subsidy-free solar more than the solar industry itself. Britain’s several thousand small and medium sized businesses that make up the solar sector cannot wait to be free of the constant changes and instability of this Government’s policy on solar.

Solar is taking off worldwide.

Globally, the solar market is going to be worth £78bn by 2020. Everyone from Deutsche Bank to the International Energy Agency is saying that solar is the one technology that is going to transform our energy supply. Utilities that fail to adapt to this new pluralistic, decentralised form of energy supply could find themselves under threat.

The Government needs to provide just one final push—one final period of stable policy—for solar to take off on its own. When that moment comes, the climate, energy bill payers and those who look after our security of supply will all be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

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