Despite uncertainty continuing to abate over what the renewable energy subsidy framework might look like after Chancellor George Osborne’s budget on Wednesday, LG Solar head of UK sales Bob Mills is convinced the future is bright for solar.
Driven by the technology maturing at a faster rate than ever before and a continuing consumer appetite for solar, Mills is convinced that the industry can keep on its path towards grid parity, just as long as the feed-in tariff (FiT) is not meddled with too much and installers can shake their penchant for 250W panels.
Why do you think the solar outlook for the UK's so bright, especially given the current policy uncertainty?
The future is extremely bright, don't get me wrong, but having said that there is a current review of the feed-in tariff going forward at the moment. You can imagine, I and my colleagues in Korea and Germany field enough questions on that. There is an overspend and while I'm not sure that's from the FiT, you can imagine Amber Rudd sat there saying “well, we need to cut this back a bit, what are we going to do? Where can we take it from? Can we take it from the FiT?” It is slightly concerning that they might do that.
What I believe they should do is leave it [the FIT] alone. It is working, and it's working extremely successfully in so much that every three months we're reaching the numbers that we always wanted at the 4kW area of 100MW, which results in a slight correction. I think that correction should continue and that'll be good for us.
That seems to be the sentiment around the industry, should the government just leave the FiT alone and let it do its job?
Exactly, PV needs a return if someone's going to invest in it of somewhere between eight and ten years, depending where you are in the country, and that needs to remain the case. I would say if it got to a point where the return's within five years then maybe it does need to be adjusted.
How do you feel the actual technology is progressing towards grid parity?
It certainly is moving, and it's moving at a bit of a pace. I've been in the industry for 15 years and we used to see the technology on modules only move at a rate of 5W per annum, but if you look at what the solar industry has been doing over the last five years, we've increased the technology in pure efficiency at a rate of 20W per annum and that's a huge breakthrough for LG in shining a light in the way we should go.
This is slightly contradictory to what DECC do, but I've always been a firm believer that the smaller the space this stuff takes up or alternatively the more you can put on a roof and the more you can generate, then the better for solar. It's got to be about generation, it's not about whether we can make money out of it. I think technology is driving that, there's no doubt about it, and these more powerful modules are at the forefront of that. Ultimately if we reach a point where these things are the size of satellite dishes then everybody will have them, and power to everyone with their power station on their roof.
Does the UK market differ to other international markets in the sense of what the consumer wants?
We're still dependent on subsidies so it's only from that aspect that it really changes. We have idiosyncrasies in that if you look at the UK, most people like an all black module. They like it to be mono rather than poly, especially on a residential install. Certainly on the residential side there is a feeling that we want it all black to blend in with the roof better. Even if they want it on a red roof, they still want it all black. You don't get that in Germany, they look at it more from its efficiency and you'd do better with a white backing sheet than a black one.
What would help the industry progress from this point?
What I would like to see, and when they do the DECC review, is them turn away from this 4kW banding. In 2010 they started off by saying 4kW systems would get the best tariff. And then between 4 and 10kW there was a change again and another step which gave them a lower step. Some roofs in the UK can take more than 4kW and it should be about what you produce and not how much money you can get out of it. If they are going to anything they should take away the 4kW band. They're so close now there's not an awful lot of reason to carry on with the 4kW and 10kW idea.
One of the problems we suffer with as an industry is too many installers are hooked on the idea of having a 250W panel, and the reason for that is that 16 panels fits into 4kW quite nicely. When the industry wanted to step up to 265, everybody went 'no, I want to carry on with 250' because it suits the 4kW. And that was almost going against what we're trying to achieve here which is to ultimately get more power out of it. I'd like to see DECC take the 4kW away and while they might have bands, let's go all the way to 10kW. Then, an installer might arrive at someone's home and ask what they want out of the system, whether it's how much they can afford or what they can fit on the roof, and maximise the roof and look at it differently. We'd start doing the right things in the industry rather than saying it's got to be a 250W panel otherwise nobody buys it because it doesn't fit.
Does that require a change in mindset on the installer side?
Yes, although the construction industry are no better. They look at it and think they can work with a set number of 250W panels because it's easier. Some in the construction industry would rather fit a 250W panel than a 300W, despite that being the right thing to do.