Adaptable, affordable, and easily available, solar PV is altering the renewable energy landscape of the UK one panel at a time – and solar is still capable of doing so much more to galvanise the fight against climate change, writes Q CELLS’ Ian Clover in the first of a two-part feature for Solar Power Portal.
Twenty years is a long time in the renewable energy industry. Solar panels in the year 2000/2001 may not have looked too dissimilar to the modules that roll off production lines today, but they are worlds apart in terms of performance, power, efficiency and – most strikingly of all – price.
Deployment of PV two decades ago was low everywhere, certainly in the UK. The technology was simply too new and too expensive to shine. Today, however, more than 1.2 million British homes have solar panels installed on their rooftops, and catching a glimpse from the motorway of an undulating field covered in a blanket of glistening PV modules is pretty easy to do when driving through most parts of England and Wales. Solar is here, and has been a detectable – if not yet key – ingredient in the energy cocktail of the UK for more than five years.
When we talk about the renewable transition of the UK energy grid, wind power perhaps rightly dominates the conversation, given its pre-eminence, both on and offshore, in the country’s power pyramid. Solar’s cumulative numbers are a little way short of wind’s – 14GW against 23GW respectively – but PV’s potential for growth can be considered far greater given that it can be integrated into daily life at all scales – from tiny rooftop array to massive ground-mounted installations.
Over these past 20 years, leading solar companies like Q CELLS have worked tirelessly to develop the technology: driving up efficiencies with ingenious engineering, boosting performance and reliability with painstaking professionalism, and driving down costs with aggressive marketing and lobbying of governments the world over. It is never ‘job done’ for a company like Q CELLS, which not only birthed many aspects of the modern solar industry 20 years ago, but has thrived and adapted within this space as solar has become a hot global commodity.
The next chapter for Q CELLS and the renewable energy industry as a whole holds immense promise for accelerated change. If things look different today compared to 20 years ago, we cannot possibly imagine what things will look like 20 years from now. But we can at least try to visualise what the future may hold.
Can the world give up on carbon?
Carbon emissions globally fell 6% in 2020, according to BP. Obviously, that historic fall has been against the backdrop of the COVID lockdown, which caused untold disruption in people’s lives and businesses. This was not a sustainable situation, but does demonstrate just how much disruption is required if the world is to wean itself off fossil fuels.
The biggest challenge of the next decade is to not only match, but exceed 2020’s reduction in CO2 emissions, without causing any undue upheaval to people’s home and working life. A post-pandemic world may be hard to envision right now, but when (if) restrictions are finally and irrevocably lifted, there can be no rush back towards the ways of old. The wheel has turned.
Further data from BP’s annual report reveals a few other noteworthy trends. Energy consumption fell 4.5% in 2020 compared to 2019. Crude oil demand fell 9.7%, whereas green energy capacity grew by a record 358TWh. Wind and solar combined grew by 238GW, according to the IEA. For wind, that is a doubling in capacity; for solar, 50% growth year-on-year. We can confidently lay the ‘blame’ for the reduction in global energy use and crude oil consumption at COVID’s feet, yet the growth of wind and solar would most likely have happened anyway, pandemic or no pandemic. That is highly encouraging.
How the UK is shaping up
With 14GW of solar and 23GW of wind power, the UK can be proud of its renewable energy growth – so far, at least. Perpetuating and even accelerating this growth is a major challenge, and one that a number of innovative SMEs and government-backed initiatives are meeting head-on as they explore the country’s capacity to further diversify its energy mix.
For example, energy storage in the UK is soaring, with the pipeline for utility-scale battery storage surpassing 20 GW this summer, spread across 800 different projects/sites. The UK Battery Storage Project Database from Solar Media Market Research shows a huge spike in submitted capacity for Q2 2021 – driven mostly by projects of 30MW+ in scale, as well as a growing trend for colocated solar-storage sites. Q CELLS has already entered into this market in Europe, with its success in the Portuguese auction last year seeing the company add 315MW of solar-storage projects to its growing Iberian pipeline. This success was a demonstration of the company’s ambition to actively and creatively embrace as many renewable energy opportunities on the continent as possible.
For PV specifically, Solar Energy UK – the main PV association in Britain – has urged government to boost its support for solar if the country is to hit its target of 40GW of solar by 2030. This is the figure required to support the UK’s target of net zero by 2030, calculated by the Climate Change Committee.
Solar Energy UK stresses that solar PV must remain eligible for biennial CfD tenders, having seen solar removed from these support mechanisms in the past. The current rate of installation would see the UK hit 29GW of cumulative PV by the end of the decade – which would be 11GW short of the proposed target. More needs to be done to boost the uptake of solar energy in the UK.
A recent survey of UK businesses conducted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that owners of SMEs are dismayed and angered that an investment in a solar system brings with it the possibility of a hike in their business tax rate. This is a particularly galling state of affairs given the historically low prices for solar components today, and the easy availability of financing for such systems.
In Germany, Q CELLS offers power contracting and solar leasing services, both of which are intended to help small businesses enjoy the benefits of solar power without any upfront costs. With solar leasing, Q CELLS will install a solar system on a business’s rooftop, and then lease it to the company (with Q CELLS direct marketing any excess electricity generated) – all free of charge. Alternatively, companies can opt for power contracting, whereby Q CELLS installs, owns and operates a rooftop solar PV system and sells electricity to the company at attractive, below-market rates.
Ross Kent, head of UK sales for Q CELLS, said: “Q CELLS has enjoyed encouraging success in the energy retail sector in Germany, thanks to the company’s unique position as a German-born solar specialist that is backed by the international bankability of Hanwha Group, and driven by an ambition to become a world-leading total energy solutions provider. The model for success we have employed in Germany will be rolled out across other European markets over the coming years, and we see great synergies between this business model and the UK market – which is always highly receptive to innovative green solutions that greatly benefit the customer.”
Part two of this feature is to be published on Solar Power Portal next week.