Despite its much-vaunted benefits and undoubted potential, the commercial rooftop solar industry has yet to take off as many would have hoped. Few notable projects have gotten off the ground and the struggles of tempting companies to fit solar arrays to the roofs of their facilities have been well documented.
According to Colin Campbell, partner at clean energy equity fund Zouk Capital, who spoke at this week's Solar Finance and Investment Conference in London, this is down to the barriers to entry being too high and the market being too technical for some to consider. More support, he said, is needed if it's to take off. “It's a different business and it needs more knowledge and more structure,” he added, comments which were backed up by the rest of the panel.
With a perceived lack of support coming on top of feed-in tariff degressions causing problems for suppliers and installers, and anti-dumping tariffs presenting what Campbell claimed to be the “biggest financial challenge” for the market, there are a multitude of problems holding the market back.
But there are reasons to be positive on the horizon. Francesco Zorgno, executive director at 2F Capital, is of the opinion that investors are becoming increasingly interested in commercial rooftop projects and Euan Bremner, partner at legal firm Burges Salmon, said he was confident the government's proposed ‘lift and shift’ programme will be enacted, “radicalising the market” by allowing companies to take their paid-for equipment with them should they leave their premises and plug it in elsewhere.
The greatest spark to the commercial rooftop sector could yet come by recognising that the owner/occupier model might not the best way forward. UK industry is unlike its foreign counterparts – particularly in continental Europe – in that rarely do businesses purchase their offices outright and instead opt to lease them, often moving as they grow or shrink in size and scale.
‘Lift and shift’ will undoubtedly help address this issue, but what the UK's nuances have given weight to is a model far more relevant to landlords, rather than the businesses themselves. “This is a landlord market and institutional landlords will run it going forwards,” said Giles Frost, CEO at Amber Infrastructure, which earlier this month completed the installation of the UK's largest commercial rooftop installation on Marks and Spencer's distribution centre in Castle Donington. Frost continued: “[solar] is an added asset that landlords can offer to tenants, with landlords offering power to their tenants on a lease basis.”
It's a model that could deliver substantial rewards, but not one without risk. While tenants of course receive certain protections should their landlord file for insolvency as yet there is no such protection with regards to solar power leases, structures which Bremner said are needed to prevent the risks entailed.
Despite its relatively sluggish start, confidence and optimism regarding the commercial rooftop market remains high and it certainly seems to be a case of a mere rethink to unlock its potential, rather than an about turn in tack.