Government warming to solar with a £3m boost

The development of clean energy in the UK was given a shot in the arm last week with a £3m government boost for solar power.

The development of clean energy in the UK was given a shot in the arm last week with a £3m government boost for solar power – a sign that it is finally taking the technology seriously after years of relative neglect.

For while Labour and Conservative governments over the past decade have pumped subsidies worth tens of million of pounds into wind farms, biomass, and waste-to-energy schemes, solar – in stark contrast to other countries – has been largely ignored. This was down to the Treasury which, as the subsidy provider, deemed solar to be too expensive on a p/kWh basis to justify support.

As a result, the UK’s solar programme is tiny compared with the rest of Europe. The £3m of additional funding announced by energy minister Peter Hain last week will hook up 300 more homes to solar power on top of the 166 covered by an initial round of funding last year. By contrast, Germany and the Netherlands aim to have the technology installed on 100,000 roofs by 2010, while Japan is looking to achieve 70,000 solar-powered homes by 2005.

‘Invest in future’ call

Hain said the programme he was announcing was ‘just the start’ of a strategy he hoped would lead to programmes rivalling those of Germany and Japan in 10 years’ time. ‘I appeal to developers and UK manufacturers of solar equipment to invest in the future of this important industry,’ he said.

Ironically, given the lack of government support until now, one of the biggest solar operations in the world is run by a UK company. BP Solar has a worldwide turnover of $200m and has plants manufacturing photo-voltaic panels in Australia, Spain, the US and India (through a joint venture).

It has installed PV panels on 200 of its petrol stations around the world and has carried out most of the significant solar projects in the UK to date, including a scheme at Ford’s Bridgend factory. However, it will not be responding to Hain’s invitation to invest just yet.

‘We have no plans to build a manufacturing plant in the UK at the moment,’ said a spokeswoman. ‘What we need to do now is see how the market develops.’

The UK’s only manufacturer of PV panels, Intersolar, is taking a similarly cautious view. ‘It’s another step in the right direction, but it is still not large enough to get us up to speed with the rest of Europe,’ said managing director Phillip Bouvrat.Intersolar’s plant in Bridgend exports about 95% of its production, and Bouvrat said this was unlikely to change in the near term. ‘We in the solar industry in the UK are still looking to our overseas markets.’

However, both BP Solar and Intersolar and the rest of the UK’s solar industry see the government’s latest commitment as important in the longer term. The 55-member British Photo Voltaic Association, the PVUK, believes the programme of trials will help maintain vital continuity in the development of solar energy in the UK.

‘We’ve got to get from the R&D stage through field trials to full-scale commercial development in a steady progression,’ said Rod Hacker, PVUK chairman. He said it was important to avoid the ‘stop-start’ syndrome that had led other nascent UK industrial sectors to wither. ‘We don’t want to see the PV industry going the same way.’

Commercial applications

A further step in this direction will be a progamme of commercial applications – probably in 12-15 office blocks – that the DTI’s Sustainable Energy Policy Unit is set to announce in June. While a PVUK strategy document two years ago anticipated increasing the installed solar capacity in the UK from the current 2MW to 300MW by 2010 – the equivalent of just one third of a large power station – the SEPU believes it could make a ‘significant contribution to the generation mix’ in the decade after that.

While solar’s costs of 35-40p/kWh are currently about 10 times those of wind farms, these will certainly come down as volume manufacturing and ‘thin-film’ panel technology take hold. there will also be circumstances in which substantial ‘avoided’ costs can be offset. One example would be if solar panels were installed on the side of an office block instead of expensive cladding.

‘It does have an economic, rightful place within the energy mix,’ said Bouvrat.