New research network sets out to tackle government attitude towards solar

Image: Oxford University.

Meeting the costs of the feed-in tariff (FiT) regime has meant solar ‘hasn't necessarily got a good name’ within government across the board, according to the lead of a new network set up to safeguard the academic future of the technology.

The SuperSolar Network has been unveiled as part of a £16 million investment by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which has seen three £5 million energy research hubs established as well as the new network.

SuperSolar will seek to act as a knowledge exchange mechanism, maintaining and improving the co-ordinated network for the photovoltaics (PV) research community in the UK. It will involve academics from ten top universities as well as six commercial partners, including Oxford Photovoltaics.

The project is to be led by Michael Walls, professor of photovoltaics for power systems in the Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology (CREST) at Loughborough University. He told Solar Power Portal that the network would set out to ensure any benefits from research undertaken in the UK can be spread as widely as possible.

"We are bringing together a network of universities working in solar, companies and finance to try and make sure that any breakthroughs made through the university research funded by EPSRC will lead to exploitation and impact. We will communicate it and hope that UK companies will take it up and deliver some benefits to the UK,” he said.

However one of the first issues to tackle with government according to Professor Walls is the "attitude" towards the technology that has resulted from the costs associated with outgoing FiT regime.

Walls explained: “The FiTs for solar in the UK have been reduced substantially, which is probably not a bad thing, but I think within government solar hasn't necessarily got a good name because they're paying for these FiTs.

“We're concerned that those issues of deployment are being reflected in the government's attitude towards solar research.”

He went on to suggest that there was a danger the UK would miss out on the opportunities present within the “extraordinary” global PV market as a result of the government moving away from the technology as a whole following subsidy cuts and the removal of the FiT regime in March 2019.

“We really need to have a share in that market in terms of exports. We do have some...and there are a number of companies that are just on the stage of commercialisation but we believe that within government, solar is being deprioritised so we're obviously going to try and do our best to correct that if we can,” Walls added.

In response, the department of business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) outlined to SPP the UK’s history of deployment under the FiT, namely over 950,000 solar installations across the UK as of May 2018.

“This government has put clean growth at the heart of our modern Industrial Strategy. Our solar industry is a UK success story, outstripping installations predictions and generating record levels of solar power – enough for almost three million homes.

“We remain absolutely committed to green energy which is why we will invest £2.5 billion on low carbon innovation by 2021,” a BEIS spokesperson said.

The department did not refer to solar innovation and research in its response.

As well as seeking to pressure government on the issue, the SuperSolar Network will look to aid development of all solar technologies, from fundamental research through to module engineering. It will assist early stage researchers to spend months at a time in international laboratories where they can access knowledge and facilities, learn from best practice and accelerate the impact of research.

Professor Philip Nelson, executive chair of EPSRC, said: “As we move towards a low carbon future we need to explore the fundamental science that can spark new technologies and systems as well as linking researchers to industry to meet their needs.

“As the threats from climate change become ever-more apparent there is a pressing need for the UK, and the world, to act collaboratively to address the challenges of clean energy production, distribution and storage.”

The University of Loughborough is joined on the network by those of Southampton, Cambridge, Oxford, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bath, Warwick, Swansea and Imperial College London.

The commercial partners in the scheme are Oxford PV, The Welding Institute, semi-conductor firm IQE, Big Solar, M-Solv and Tata Steel.