Overview: Solar Power in the United Kingdom
Solar power represented only a very small part of electricity production in the United Kingdom (U.K.) until the 2010s when it increased greatly. The sudden and rapid increase of solar power can be attributed to the fact that most of the new installations in that decade were subsidized with a feed-in tariff (FIT), as well as the fact that the cost of photovoltaic panels was — and has been — rapidly falling.
As of 2019, the installed capacity in the U.K. has been over 13 GW. With the 72 MW (DC), Shotwick Solar Farm is the largest solar project in the U.K., but its peak generation was only less than 10 GW. Since panels have a capacity factor of around 10% in the U.K. climate, the average annual generation is roughly the installed capacity multiplied by 1000 hours, being slightly under 13 TWh in 2018 which is somewhat under 4% of the U.K. electricity consumption.
History of Solar Power in the United Kingdom
In 2006, the United Kingdom had installed about 12 MW of photovoltaic capacity and represented only 0.3% of the total European solar PV of 3,400 MW. Then in 2006, there was widespread news coverage all over the country that major high street electrical retailers Currys had decided to stock PV modules, manufactured by Sharp, at a cost of £1,000 per module. The retailer also provided an installation service.
The usage of solar energy rapidly increased in the following years. This was a result of the reductions in the cost of PV panels and the introduction of a feed-in-tariff (FIT) subsidy in April 2010. In fact, because of the introduction of FIT, the photovoltaic market in the U.K. grew greatly, with thousands of domestic installations as well as numerous commercial, community, and industrial projects.
However, the FIT subsidies were cut in the fast track review announced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on June 9, 2011. Because of this, large arrays of solar photovoltaics became a much less attractive investment opportunity for developers, especially for projects that were greater than 250 kW. As a result, large field arrays such as these were less likely to be built beyond the cut off date of August 1, 2011 — at least not until 2012 when PV prices were somewhat reduced. Still, despite all these setbacks, the first solar park in Wales was still finished and became operational in 2011 at Rhosygilwen, north Pembrokeshire. And at the end of 2011, there were 230,000 solar power projects in the United Kingdom, with a total installed generating capacity of 750 MW.
Moreover, on July 13, 2011, the construction of the largest solar park in the United Kingdom was completed in Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire. This 4.9 MW free-field system was constructed in just seven weeks after being granted planning permission. The system generates an estimated 4.860 MWh of electricity (average power of 560 kW) into the national grid each year. There are several other examples of 4–5 MW field arrays of photovoltaics in the U.K., including the 5 MW Language Solar Park, the 5 MW Westmill Solar Farm, the 4.51 MW Marsten Solar Farm, and the 4.6 MW Toyota plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire.
The first large solar farm in the United Kingdom, a 32 MW solar farm, started construction in November 2012. This farm is located in Leicestershire, between the runways of the former military airfield, Wymeswold. By February 2012, the installed capacity had reached 1,000 MW. In addition to that, the government also announced in that same year that 4 million homes across the U.K. will be powered by the sun within eight years. This would represent 22 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar power capacity by 2020.
At the end of September 2013, retailer Ikea announced that solar panel packages for houses would be sold at 17 U.K. stores by July 2014. This decision was followed by a successful pilot project at the Thurrock Ikea store, during which one photovoltaic (PV) system was sold almost every day. The panels for this project were manufactured by the Chinese company Hanergy. However, this partnership did not last, and in October 2015, Ikea ended its relationship with Hanergy.
As of June 2014, there were 18 schemes generating more than 5 MW and 34 in planning or construction in Wales. By 2016, the total installed capacity was over 10,000 MW. In the summer half-year from April to September 2016, U.K. solar panels produced more electricity (6,964 GWh) than coal power did (6,342 GWh). Each is about 5% of demand.
By the end of 2017, the U.K. solar PV installed capacity was 12.8 GW, which represented a 3.4% share of total electricity generation. Temporarily, as of the end of January 2019, there was a total of 13,123 MW installed U.K. solar capacity across 979,983 installations. This is an increase of 323 MW in slightly more than a year. The all-time peak generation from photovoltaics was 9.55 GW on May 14, 2019.
The United Kingdom's Solar Potential
The U.K. annual insolation is in the range of 750–1,100 kilowatt-hours per square meter (kWh/m2). London receives 0.52 and 4.74 kWh/m2 per day in December and July, respectively. While the sunniest parts of the U.K. receive much less solar radiation than the sunniest parts of Europe, the country’s insolation in the south is still comparable with that of central European countries, including Germany which generates about 7% of its electricity from solar power. In addition to that, the U.K.’s higher wind speeds cool PV modules, thus leading to higher efficiencies than could be expected at these levels of insolation.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has assumed that the average capacity factor for solar photovoltaics in the U.K. is 9.7%.
Derry Newman, chief executive of Solarcentury, has argued that the U.K.’s famously overcast weather does not make it an unsuitable place for solar power since solar panels work on daylight, not necessarily direct sunlight. Of course, some solar cells work better in direct sunlight, but others can still use more diffuse light. While insolation rates are lower in England than France and Spain, they are still usable. Additionally, many of the solar panels can be monitored on the internet, such as the Slepe Farm in Dorset which is a 492 kW solar field.
It will take anything from 4 to 20 years to recoup the money spent on solar panels. This depends on a number of factors, such as how many modules there are, how big they are, and if they are south-facing, and where the location of the project is.
The addition of solar panels to the external elevations and roofs of a building will change the appearance of both the property and local street view. As a result, this will require Planning Permission from the Local Authority in some cases. If it’s a Listed Building or Conservation Area, then Planning Permission is required.
However, if a domestic dwelling is outside of the constraints of Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas where solar panels are being installed, then the homeowner can, in most cases proceed under their Permitted Development rights, so long as certain height limitations are still being adhered to.
The United Kingdom Government Programmes
In an effort to help spread the world of solar energy, the U.K. government actually has numerous programmes that will assist the citizens who are interested in solar. A popular one is the Energy Saving Trust, which is an organization that administers government grants for domestic photovoltaic systems. There was also the Low Carbon Building Programme, which was a payment system in the U.K. that estimated that a solar installation for an average-sized house would cost between £5,000–£8,000, with most domestic systems usually between 1.5 and 3 kWp, and yield annual savings between £150 and £200 (in 2008).
Furthermore, the Green Energy for Schools programme will be providing 100 schools across the U.K. with solar panels. The first school in Wales for this project was at Tavernspite in Pembrokeshire. The school had received panels worth £20,000, which is sufficient to produce 3,000 kWh of electricity every year.
A feed-in tariff is when payments are given by energy suppliers if a property or organization generates their own electricity using technology such as solar panels or wind turbines. Feed-in tariffs in the United Kingdom were announced on October 2008 and took effect from April 2010. They entered into law by the Energy Act of 2008, and they were closed to new applicants on March 31, 2009.
The government in the U.K. agreed in April 2010 to pay for all grid-connected generated electricity at an initial rate of up to 41.3 pence (US$0.67) per kWh, whether used locally or exported. The rates proved more attractive than necessary, and in August 2011, they were drastically reduced for installations over 50 kW. This policy change was criticized as marking “the end of the U.K.’s solar industry as we know it.”
The feed-in tariff rates are adjusted annually by the government. As of February 8, 2016, the rate is 4.39 pence per kWh of power generated for domestic systems of 4 kWp (p here means peak, i.e. the maximum power that the system can produce) or less and where homes meet the minimum EPC requirement of band D. Meanwhile, the export tariff is 4.85 pence per kWh exported to the grid. The amount of electricity exported is not usually measured for domestic installations. Instead, it is calculated by assuming that 50% of the electricity produced is exported into the grid.
The Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published a consultation on July 19, 2018. In this consultation, they state their intention to close the feed-in tariff scheme to new applicants from April 1, 2019, and it will not be replaced by a new subsidy.
Smart Export Guarantee
On June 10, 2019, Ofgem announced that BEIS have introduced the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG), which will be in force from January 1, 2020. Essentially, SEG is a new payment guarantee scheme for small-scale electricity consumers installing renewable energy sources and feeding excess electricity to the grid. The technology used could be solar, wind, or other forms of renewable energy generation paired with smarty meters and battery storage. A capacity of up to 5 MW will be paid for each unit of electricity sold to the grid, and it will also be tracked by their smart meter.
SEG is open to homes and businesses, and it is not really a direct replacement of the feed-in tariff scheme. Rather, it is a new initiative that will reward solar generators for electricity exported to the grid. Energy suppliers with more than 150,000 domestic customers will be obligated to provide at least one export tariff. The export tariff rate must be greater than zero. The export will be measured by smart meters, which the energy supplier will install free of charge.
Net metering, or net energy metering (NEM), allows consumers who generate some or all of their own electricity to use that electricity anytime, instead of when it is generated. This is especially important with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which are non-dispatchable (when not coupled to storage).
Net metering was slow to be adopted in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. This is because of confusion over how to address the value-added tax (VAT). In particular, the government is reluctant to introduce the net metering principle because of complications in paying and refunding the value-added tax that is payable on electricity.
Because of all this, net metering in the U.K. is only available from one company, Eastern Energy, where it is referred to as SolarNet. That said, there are pilot projects under net metering that are underway in some areas.
Solar power generation totals can only be an estimate due to the nature of each solar site experiencing its own weather, individual sitting, and angle in relation to the sun, etc. Additionally, as the power generated then used by equipment onsite will never reach the grid from all sites, the total can never be directly calculated by government statistics as obtained from the national grid.
With that said, there will still be quite accurate estimates which combine weather reports from around the U.K. and the simple addition of average generation potential of solar panels in the U.K. in any given year.
The tables below show electricity production from solar panels as a percentage of the final consumption of electricity in the U.K. and not gross supply to the grid. These numbers may be updated as the U.K. government has an average time lag of around 6 months in completing the backlog of officially processing the large number of solar installations.
|Effective Capacity Factor||0.088||0.085||0.040||0.031||0.087|
|% of Total Electricity Consumption||<0.01||<0.01||0.01||0.07||0.37|
|Effective Capacity Factor||0.082||0.086||0.095||0.101||0.103||0.113|
|% of Total Electricity Consumption||0.64||1.33||2.49||3.1||3.4||3.9|
Solar Panel Manufacturers
There are actually a ton of manufacturers and wholesalers in the U.K. that provide solar panels and other components to their customers. The following companies are only a few examples of these manufacturers and wholesalers:
- UK Solar Power. Founded in 2014, UK Solar Power is a quality-backed British-owned company that manufactures and installs British and European standard solar products globally.
- GB-Sol. GB-Sol is a privately owned, award-winning, and independent U.K. company that manufactures solar PV modules and mounting systems at its spacious premises just north of Cardiff.
- UKSOL. Founded in 2015, UKSOL is the British solar energy specialist with global reach and visionary ambition, delivering high quality and affordable solar technology.
- Aceon Solar. Aceon Solar specializes in research, development, manufacturing, and service of solar modules, solar application systems, and solar power systems.
- Biard Solar. Biard Solar is all about crafting energy-saving technology that is simple to use with valuable results for the owner and the environment.
- Project Solar U.K. The Project Solar U.K. was founded back in 2010 with the dream to establish solar power as the U.K.’s green energy solution alternative to the current polluting energy providers within the country.
- Solar Electric. Solar Electric is a supplier of the highest quality European manufactured high-yield PV modules, which are in-house designed and manufactured in state-of-the-art MCS certified R&D and solar module manufacturing facilities.
- Hitech Solar. Hitech Solar is one of the U.K.’s leading producers of monocrystalline and multi-crystalline solar PV products. In particular, they manufacture high efficiency, superior, and affordable photovoltaic panels.
- Enhance Photovoltaics. Enhance Photovoltaics primarily manufactures photovoltaic modules, and their PV modules surpass all internationally recognized quality standards.
- Solar Capture Technologies. With over 38 years of experience in solar research, development, and manufacturing, Solar Capture Technologies specialize in the manufacture of custom-designed solar modules, cells, and systems.
Solar Energy Storage Manufacturers
Very much like solar panels, there are also a ton of manufacturers and wholesalers that provide solar energy storage products, or in other words solar batteries. The following are only some of the most common companies that manufacture and sell this kind of solar product.
- Powerstar. Founded in 2001, Powerstar has built a reputation as a pioneering leading-edge provider of smart energy solutions.
- Dragons Breath Solar. Dragons Breath Solar was established in 1997 by Tonie and Johnathan Rowles, and the company offers a wide variety of high-quality solar products, such as solar batteries, solar panels, and solar street lights.
- Solar Energy Centre. Solar Energy Centre, now known as SEC, was founded in 1977 by Brian Harper, who is a pioneer in solar power and energy storage long before the market took off.
- Moixa Energy Holdings. Founded in 2006, Moixa Energy Holdings have been developing intelligent battery products since day one as they are committed to supporting the move away from fossil fuels by optimizing the way people generate, distribute, and consume renewable energy.
- Puredrive Energy. With over ten years of experience in the development, deployment, and placement of solar battery storage box technologies and energy storage solutions, Purerdrive Energy is at the forefront of battery centric energy storage systems.
- Cumulus Energy Storage. Cumulus Energy Storage is developing the lowest-cost grid-level energy storage battery technology to enable renewable electricity to be generated, transmitted, and used at the time it is needed.
- CamdenBoss. CamdenBoss is one of the biggest innovators of high-quality plastic enclosures and electro-mechanical components in the U.K. Because of this, they have built a reputable and comprehensive array of products.
Solar Associations in The United Kingdom
In order to help spread the word of solar energy throughout the entire country, there have been associations formed in the U.K. that have the primary advocacy of furthering the solar industry. These solar associations are responsible for activities that are aimed at both educating people about solar and allowing for solar professionals to congregate at conferences and trade shows and network. In other words, solar associations in the U.K. advocate for education and networking in the solar industry.
The following are only some of the most popular solar associations that are formed and based in the country.
- Solar Trade Association. The primary mission of the Solar Trade Association (STA) is to empower the U.K. solar transformation. In fact, they are paving the way for solar to deliver the maximum possible share of U.K. energy by 2030 by enabling a bigger and better solar industry.
- U.K. Solar Association. Empowered by the Renewable Energy Association (REA) and its members, it is U.K. Solar’s mission to support and drive the transition of the U.K.’s energy system from fossil fuel to clean renewable energy. Additionally, the organization makes sure that they will be at the forefront of the energy revolution.
- The U.K. Solar Energy Society. The U.K. Solar Energy Society is the U.K. division of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES). And it is a non-profit learned society that aims to further the use of all forms of renewable energy by encouraging research, promoting education, and providing training.
- Solarcentury. Founded in 1998, Solarcentury has been around since the early days of the solar industry. The organization aims to make a meaningful difference in the fight against climate chaos through the widespread adoption of solar power. They aim to achieve that goal by offering an integrated service, particularly developing, structuring finance, building, and operating solar projects at commercial- and utility-scale.
- Solarplicity. Since the organization’s establishment in 2009, Solarplicity has become one of the U.K.’s leading renewable energy providers. This is because they have provided 100% renewable electricity with complete transparency, enabling more people to enjoy simply lower energy bills.
The Future of Solar Power in the United Kingdom
Solar power has been slowly developing in the U.K., compared with some other countries in Europe. Because of the public subsidies and the falling of equipment costs, solar panels are becoming a much more attractive prospect for the region. As a result, new investments in the sector awaited, as firms are now setting up plans to buy solar farms and solar plants.
The development of new solar photovoltaic (PV) and related technologies can further reduce carbon emissions, both by reducing installation and other costs as well as by broadening the range of applications for solar power. Different kinds of solar panels can be used on building facades, windows, and public spaces. Additionally, less expensive energy storage technologies would allow solar batteries to be used more widely in off-grid situations and for mobile power.
As of right now, advances are still being continuously done in the associated technologies of installing panels, energy storage, and grid integration. These kinds of emerging solar technologies will help to meet emission reduction targets and fulfill the promise of low cost, widespread solar power in the U.K.
Growth in the U.K.’s Renewable Energy Sector
As of right now, the U.K.’s renewable energy sector is thriving, and much of the gains are being driven by solar panels specifically. The region’s solar energy growth compared to previous years is monumental since more investors are turning to this sector with the vision that in the near future, it will be the most dependent.
The countries in the European Union have set a target of 20% of energy consumption coming from renewable sources by 2020. As a result, the U.K. government has also set up a target, only this time it’s 15% growth. This may at first seem like the country is lagging behind its European neighboring countries, but a report published by the U.K. government entitled “Section 6 — Renewables” actually shows that the prospects for the sector are improving at a fast pace. To be more specific, the report has stated that the solar photovoltaic capacity was the largest contributor to the increase a year earlier in 2018, increasing by 1.9 GW and with the majority of this coming from large-scale schemes.
Furthermore, the technological advances in the solar energy sector have made solar panels much more efficient than before. This has directly contributed to the falling cost of solar energy up to 50% over the past decade, which, in turn, has also caused an increase in the field. However, even though there is a growth in the solar energy sector in the U.K., there is still a dire need for cheaper renewable energy in order to meet future demands.
Concern for the Future of Solar Panels
The present increase in the solar energy sector may provide an insight into a positive future for the technology. However, there are also clouds on the horizon, with fears mounting that a move to increase production by 15% until 2020 would mean covering vast strips of the British countryside in solar panels. This might directly result in raising popular opposition. In fact, the same fear will also be evident in the opposition raised against the wind power sector in the U.K.
Another aspect to analyze is the effect of subsidy reductions in the solar energy field. Some critics have claimed that these reductions are because of an inconsistent message of support from the coalition government. The issue at hand is the expansion of solar farms in the U.K. countryside, of which the government is not fond of. This raises the concern for the future of the region’s agricultural production, which is currently the number one manufacturing sector in the United Kingdom.
Solar panel manufacturers have grown in number over the years, along with the expansion of the solar energy field. There is distress that some manufacturers are cutting corners in their panel production, thus causing their panels to become inefficient because they are made up of inferior materials. A possible solution for this, which may be implemented in the future by the National Solar Center, will be to test the panels in a random fashion straight from the manufacturing production line. Doing this will aid in eliminating low-quality manufacturers.
Because of the fast-growing pace of solar energy technology, there is fear that the U.K.’s distribution network will be not able to cope. The energy storage capacity must be developed even further if there is to be a future success in this industry. Such systems, which have already been developed in countries such as Germany and Japan, could be used to store renewable energy during the day and introduce it into the distribution network whenever it is needed.
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