Wednesday November 3, 2004
A lack of state backing is causing Britain to fall behind in the race to draw power from the sun's rays. Martin Hodgson on the slow take-up of PV technology
It's clean, silent and uses no fuel - only sunlight. Photovoltaic, or PV technology, is probably the most benign method of power generation available. But despite the government's professed commitment to renewable power, the UK still trails far behind other countries in this field.
While Germany generates nearly 400 megawatts of solar power, the UK manages just six megawatts. Earlier this year, California's state government announced plans to install solar power systems in a million homes over the next 10 years. The UK, meanwhile, has quietly reduced its target of installing solar power units on 3,000 domestic roofs to 2,000 roofs.
The UK climate cannot be compared favourably with that of sun-drenched California, and the British government seems to believes that its renewable energy policy should reflect the realities of the British weather. Since 2002, the government has invested £31m in solar power, but nearly £1bn on wind farms.
Even in countries with more developed PV infrastructures, such as Germany, the US and Japan, solar energy contributes a tiny percentage of the energy supply, according to a Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman. Often this is only possible thanks to public subsidies - something the government here is keen to avoid, she adds. "The government wants a sustainable market. It doesn't want to have a sector that is underpinned by government support."
Without government backing, however, it seems unlikely that Britain's fledgling PV sector will be able to stand on its own feet. "It's a young industry, and there seems to be an acute skill shortage. We haven't got the capacity to actually put cells in, and the supply chain is very fragmented," says Sue Roaf, architecture professor at Oxford Brookes university.
Solar cells are still relatively expensive (a household system could cost up to £20,000), and while conventionally-generated household energy remains relatively cheap, the PV sector has not attained the economies of scale that would allow it to break out of its current niche and find a mass market.
That has been possible in other countries, thanks in part to favourable energy tariffs on offer when consumers sell surplus electricity back to the energy companies.
But incentives based on generating capacity often promote large-scale PV that bear no relationship to local needs, says Philip Wolfe, chief executive of the Renewable Power Association. "In Germany a lot of the rooftop systems are really much bigger than the house needs. Most countries just go for large solar arrays in fields, or bolt-on systems, whereas in the UK our approach is to design systems that are appropriate for their location."
According to Wolfe, PV is at its most effective when tailored for a single building or group of buildings.
And while PV alone is the least cost-effective renewable source of energy compared with other methods, its value multiplies when deployed alongside other renewable sources, such as combined heat and light power plants.
The government has not officially announced what will replace the two existing PV funding programmes (the ClearSkies grants scheme and the Major Demonstration programme) when they come to an end in late 2005, but the DTI is drawing up a "low-carbon buildings programme" that will seek to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in new construction.
No funding will be allocated specifically for PV technology, but the low-carbon programme will promote solar energy, says Kirk Archibald, PV programme manager of the Energy Saving Trust. "A lot of other technologies won't be suitable. You can't stick a whopping great wind turbine on to an office building."
"Solar PV is the only renewable technology for generating electricity that you can use in a very densely populated urban environment. Unlike wind turbines or tidal barrages, it doesn't require any other civil engineering works to develop it. You can just stick it on the roof," says Dan Davies, engineering director of Solar Century, which designs solar energy systems.
Like many advocates of solar energy, Davies argues that its future lies in its integration in the construction process. The cost of PV systems can be offlaid by including them in new structures as they are erected, while the cells themselves are cheaper than materials used in modern buildings.
But for this vision of solar energy to become widespread, the construction industry (and its consumers) will have to learn to see PV cells as integral components of a building, rather than optional add-ons that can increase property values or reduce energy bills.
"Our task is to get the building industry to completely understand it as a building product as opposed to an energy generator," says Archibald.
"It's a new technology for the building industry, and it's going to take time for people to learn it. That is happening, but it's not going to happen overnight," says Rod Hacker, associate director of the engineering consultancy Halcrow.
One way to speed up the process would be the introduction of new building regulations obliging each new development to include solar electricity, as suggested earlier this year by the Welsh secretary (and former energy minister), Peter Hain. The proposal has found many echoes in the renewables sector, which fears that construction firms will remain wary as long as PV cell prices remain high.
"Most traditional builders haven't taken a massive interest in PV, and they won't until legislation moves forward. Some of the more progressive national firms are interested, but I don't see them doing an extensive amount of rooftop PV systems without building regulations to level the competitive playing field," says Wolfe.
And without strong government support for PV, the UK's renewables policy is likely to focus heavily on wind power, says Davies. "That's not a bad thing in terms of carbon impact, [Sovereignty would question the extent of the "carbon impact" which wind power is alleged to effect] but it does mean that the results of [the government's PV investment] will be lost, and the future of PV will come from Japanese, German or US companies," he says.
"Solar PV is predicted to be a massive global market. It has been growing at 30% to 40% a year for the past 10 years. The UK should be part of it."