In the small window of opportunity offered by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) between the latest feed-in tariff announcement and the December 12 cut-off point, it is expected that hundreds – if not thousands – of solar installations will be added to the Ofgem register. The fact is: by offering companies, distributors and consumers only six weeks to install all planned solar projects at the FiT higher rates, DECC has prompted what can only be described as pandemonium.

For the past 18 months I have been keeping a watchful eye on the UK solar installation figures as they creep higher and higher up the scale. Now exceeding 346MW (and we all know that Ofgem’s figures are approximately three months out of date) the market is huge. This year alone more than 300MW of capacity has been added to the grid, with residential solar accounting for ~235MW of that total. It is this incredible uptake (which anyone else would take as a positive) that has prompted Government to act.

However, while many companies working in the UK were anticipating the cuts (although 21p has been met with the raising of eyebrows and thumping of fists) they were not expecting a deadline of just six weeks to plan, install and register their project pipeline. On the back of this announcement, as has been reported at great length by Solar Power Portal as well as some of our learned friends, the industry is not, by any means, happy.

But, to avoid repeating myself I will not trudge over this ground again. Instead, I would like to take a look at how this deadline is affecting the supply of products to the UK solar market. Since Government’s proposals were announced I have been speaking to many of you out there in industry to find out what’s really happening out there, and how you are (or not) coping with the situation.

Supply and demand

The 12/12 deadline has, in short, broken the PV supply chain. Phone lines are jammed, emails are flooding inboxes and installers are now forced to work seven-day weeks in order to keep up with the workflow.

According to our sources, price is no longer an issue. The fact is: availability is key to driving the market forward – and it has already dried up. Installers are rushing to complete orders before time runs out but they’re finding it hard to source the product needed to do so.

Some installers are even turning up at distributors’ doors offering to pay cash for whatever they can get their hands on, while others are paying premium prices for inverters – whether they have worked with the company before or not.

The mounting rail and fixings side of things is even more haphazard. Supplies in the UK have dried up completely forcing some installers (and this is not a joke) to construct their own. Orders for any make of module matched to any available inverter with any mounting to suit are also coming in, with installers no longer caring about specific products, claiming that “anything will do”.

Most UK solar distributors work to a four to six week lead in time for modules and three to four weeks for inverters. Many of these now have to turn that period into just five days in order to cope with the situation. Shipping time also has to be considered – which is at least a further two to three days, even from Germany.

Our sources have now emptied their warehouses in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and France this week alone to service the UK market. This situation is only being made worse by the impending cuts in Germany, which are prompting an increase in installations over there.

Some companies have had to think on their feet in order to cope. SMA Solar Technology for instance has diverted additional production output to the UK in order to provide for the fast delivery of all Sunny Boy and Sunny Tripower inverters ordered for the UK market.

Many wholesalers are also put in a position where they have to re-finance their business to obtain the additional stock from their suppliers, increase the warehouse space and employ more pickers and packers. All of this extra cost increases the risk of debt, as just 30 days from today the industry will be faced with the Christmas shutdown.

On top of all this, middle men are advertising for product, only to sell it on at a profit without ever handling the stock.

And of course, companies also have to try and find the staff needed to cope with all of this work. Many recruitment companies, such as Leicester-based Regional Recruitment Services, are helping out the hundreds of solar companies who are finding it difficult to get temporary installers or electricians to clear the backlog of installs before the 12/12 deadline.

The fallout

As a result of the mayhem described above, the UK solar market is in a mess. The quality of the work, the integrity of the roof and the warranty claims are all now questionable in a lot of cases. There are of course installers who are working to the same quality standards they always have, but the inescapable truth is that there are also many others who are scrabbling around trying to bosh any old product onto people’s roofs in any way they can.

However, the situation is expected to die down in the coming weeks as the cut-off date comes and goes. Who will be left standing at the end of that period will be an entirely different story.