Five ways to catapult UK solar energy success

May 7, 2024 | News

Solar power can transform a UK that is cloudy into a leader in renewable energy. How can this be accelerated? We asked one of the fastest growing solar installers

It’s hard to believe, but solar panels have never been more popular in the UK. The UK saw a 12-year-high in the number of solar panels installed on roofs. This was the highest level since the UK government first offered to reduce the cost. The feed-in tariff of 2011 sparked a rush by homeowners to take advantage of the incentive.

Solar panel installations have re-started after the FiT was terminated five years ago. The energy crisis, coupled with the growing concern about climate change, has sparked a resurgence in the industry.

Simon Shaw, regulatory affairs leader at renewable energy provider and installer Good Energy, explains that the event has made people realize how important this technology is – not only for themselves but also for their country.

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“As a sector, we are moving at a pace and in the correct direction to achieve that overriding goal of improving our energy safety.”

The UK is close to 1.4m solar installations, which will generate 16GW of capacity. The UK is still a long way from the 70GW goal by 2035, and there’s still the fear of growth slowing or plateauing. How can we ensure that we reach our goal and turbo-charge the solar boom 2.0? Good Energy has five top ideas on its wish list.

1. Solar panels are now mandatory on all new construction

The jury is still out as to whether PV will be a mandatory specification on new-build property under the government’s upcoming Future Homes Standard. The new regulation will come into effect next year, and it aims to ensure that homes are designed and constructed to achieve significant carbon savings. A consultation that ended last month included a measure to consider mandatory solar, wherever applicable.

Photovoltaics and heat pumps are a great way to save money on your annual fuel bill. Image: Marianne Rixhon

Developers can add PVs and heat pump systems to new homes for just PS6,200, or 1.6%, of the cost. Homeowners could save up to PS2,120 per year on fuel bills. Housing associations would benefit by selling excess electricity to the grid. Eight out of ten MPs support the proposed new standard.

It’s a no brainer for Good Energy. Shaw says that this is the only path to follow. “It is also about greater security of energy for us all, and I see this as a change where everyone wins.”

2. Get upfront help with your costs

In the last few decades, two important things have happened simultaneously. Solar has become more affordable, and energy prices have risen.

Good Energy suggests that, as the initial cost is still beyond the reach of most, retrofits be rewarded with grants and loans with zero interest. This would bring the rest of the UK into line with Scotland which offers grants up to 7,500 PS with an additional 7,500 PS loan available at no interest. This would allow millions of households to benefit from the market.

Shaw notes that “there seems to be a gap in the UK government’s ability to offer something similar.” “There is another strong economic argument for the government to take this into consideration and support more households in these costs.”

Scotland offers grants up to £7,500 for energy-efficiency improvements. Image: Kindel Media

3. Connecting to the grid is now easier

Solar installations are stuck in limbo due to the UK’s crumbling grid infrastructure and so-called “zombie” projects that are clogging up the waiting list for new connections. Some large commercial projects could face delays of 15 years.

Shaw says that things are improving as the energy regulator works to push ready-to-go solar projects up the queue. The big companies who own the electricity towers and cables that connect our homes say they are also finding ways to accelerate new solar projects plugging in to the grid. But work remains to clear up the backlog.

Shaw says that there has been renewed interest in tackling these barriers. “There have been some good improvements, but connecting to the grid can still be a problem in some cases. This is especially true for larger homes and businesses.”

4. Untether and create a competition

FiT, the government’s solar incentive, was a powerful carrot. Solar installations were becoming more and more popular. Smart Export Guarantee replaced it, and was far less attractive. It allowed the big energy companies pay as little 3p per kWh to PV owners for surplus power. FiT initially paid up to 40-50p per kWh for all power generated. The old rules also tie customers to one company for both export and supply of electricity.

Simon Shaw, Good Energy’s CEO, said: “We’re proof a small supplier could be innovative and offer a superior product in this market.” Image: Zbynek Burival

Export tariffs that are more competitive for smaller, more innovative operators like Good Energy are at a disadvantage. Shaw says, “We think customers should have the freedom to choose which operators they want.” As it stands, the incumbents are not incentivised to offer truly innovative products. This is evident from Smart Export Guarantee. “We are proof that a smaller supplier can be innovative and offer a superior product in this market, and that’s currently being blocked.”

5. Invest in British Manufacturing

China accounts for more than 80% of all PVs produced in the world. This is likely to continue for some time. Solar ambitions, and broader goals such as energy independence and net zero, are all impacted by the Chinese PV price.

Shaw says that the UK has a brilliant academic-based R&D but no manufacturing industry. “We’d like to hear from the government some real ambition in industrial strategy, not just for solar, but also for other low-carbon technologies.”

He believes that investment in green technologies will lead to economic independence. “We should support and provide incentives to our universities who are creating cutting-edge innovations for these technologies.”

Illustration by Andrea Manzati

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