Solar power — the world’s fastest growing source of energy — is poised to make a vital contribution to reducing carbon emissions on a global scale. However, compared to their peers in countries such as Germany and the US, UK-based solar companies aiming to export their technology are operating with one hand tied behind their backs due to a lack of focused support from the government — despite the fact that there is an opportunity to expand the UK’s export market and reduce global carbon emissions.
The government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan, which sets out how the UK will meet its emissions targets, does not detail how solar-energy generation could be implemented and encouraged. In fact, the only renewable technologies truly supported by the UK government are those that contribute towards its own CO2targets.
Despite being home to companies that are developing state-of-the-art solar technologies such as concentrated photovoltaic energy, the UK’s weather does not make it an ideal candidate to use this technology on its own soil. Instead, photovoltaic technology is generally used overseas in countries whose direct-sunlight hours allow them to make the best of this kind of solar energy.
So why should the UK government support any initiative that would help another country to meet its emissions targets? The simple answer is the obvious one: CO2 doesn’t magically stop at the white cliffs of Dover. Since greenhouse gases don’t respect international borders, nor should our approach to tackling them.
Attitudes towards state investment in green technology are more flexible in other parts of the world. The US government has taken a broader view of the areas that it considers to be ‘worth’ investing in for the economy and to create jobs. UK firms active in solar energy have to source many of their components from Germany because the German government’s consistent support has built up a solar-industrial infrastructure.
The UK’s strong tradition of manufacturing, engineering and design skills make it ripe for investment in the solar industry. Since the start of the recession, the UK’s industrial landscape has been altered beyond recognition, with regions such as the West Midlands — once the hub of the automotive industry — left severely scarred. This upheaval has left an unemployed, yet highly skilled, workforce and ready-made manufacturing facilities that could be put to good use by up-and-coming industries such as solar. The UK also benefits from good, relatively cheap shipping routes out of the country. This is important when you consider that an empty super-container ship going to back to China could transport 50MW of concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) generation equipment — enough to power up to 25,000 households.
As public awareness of green issues grows and legislation is brought in to support renewable energy, the UK solar industry should be well placed to help our transition to a low-carbon economy. But a booming international market needs to be underpinned by government investment muscle at a national level to ensure it can compete on a level playing field with other countries. It also needs to make a commitment to invest in renewable energy, rather than in a narrow portfolio of technologies.
There has never been a better time to back a growing industry at its inception, nor to support UK industry at a time when it has taken so many knocks. The UK has ideal conditions for investors to back emerging solar technology that has been developed here. We already have the facilities, design expertise and skilled workforce in place to capitalise on any investment. This is an industry that can support job creation and play a part in leading the UK out of recession.
Robin Godfrey - Chief executive officer, Circadian Solar
BSc (Hons) First-class
PhD both in Chemistry from London University
1984–1995 - PA Consulting Group. Managed and operated product and process development projects in photonics, sensors and imaging technologies for a range of UK and global companies
1995–2002 - Business development manager at the UK’s Defence Research Agency (now Qinetiq). Helped drive the commercial exploitationof defence-funded semiconductor and photonics research,and intellectual property
1995 - Founded Advancesis, now Circadian Solar, with an academic group from Warwick University’s Physics Department and has been chief executive officer since 2007