The wrong size doesn’t FIT all…

Chris Huhne announced the review of Feed in Tariffs for Solar PV in a Ministerial statement on  Monday. It was to be expected – as I posted previously, the Department is worried that the emergence of large ‘field solar’ arrays of several megawatts installed capacity (several have received planning permission – but have not yet been built – in Cornwall) would gobble up the projected ‘allowance’ for solar PV, and either overshoot the cap or monopolise what funding there is at the expense of smaller installations.

The statement records the 21,000 installations since the scheme was launched last year,  and says ‘the scheme is working well’. FITs at present levels are guaranteed until April 2012: no real surprises there.  There will be , says Chris, ‘fast track consideration of large-scale solar projects….with a view to making any resulting changes to tariffs as soon as practical’ i.e the end of field solar next week, sort of. Not really any surprises there, either.


…what is a surprise is what DECC thinks a ‘large-scale solar project’ is. They define it as ‘over 50 kw’, thereby placing pretty much all school and community centre installations outside future FITS funding. 50kw is frankly, not very big: my roof comes in at 3KW installed power and consists of 36 small roof tiles: a 50kw system would about cover both sides of my roof – by no means a field giant.

This must be a mistake….surely! But then I become a bit worried on looking at a Document DECC produced to scope out the predicted uptake of PV when FIT was introduced: in this they predict that there will be NO arrays of more than 4kw installed until 2014; and in passing define ‘domestic’ as up to 4kw; ‘small’ as 4-10kw and ‘large’ as anything over 10kw. They simply seem to have calibrated array sizes wrongly, and that is perhaps where the suggestion that a 50kw installation is ‘large’ comes from.

I guess if this document and its predictions informed the ministerial statement, then it is not surprising that school, community, church and small public building arrays are all about to get the chop.

I’m going to be raising this in the House as soon as possible: I understand the need for a review, and for a limit to be set; but not that one. 500kw, or 1mw perhaps: but 50kw will be quite catastrophic for all sorts of blameless and worthwhile local projects which we should embrace as exemplars of what good distributed generation should be about. It needs to be sorted out.


Is this the end for solar?

Here’s a headline for the Daily Express (admittedly on a pretty slow day): “Green energy MP turns against solar”. Yes, it’s true, and here’s how it happened.  I am (or was) the proud possessor of a solar PV roof on my house. Not panels, but integrated PV tiles – 36 of them, across the lower half of my roof.  And very well they have worked, too.  I was of course taken in by the claim that they are a very environmentally benign method of generating power, but now my eyes have been opened.

During the recent inclement weather it snowed heavily in Southampton, and my (well insulated) roof was  thickly covered. Even so, as my little generation meter was telling me, some electricity continued to be generated.  When this happens, though, the tiles heat up slightly, causing the snow to turn icy, and then refreeze at night.  Then came a sunny day. The solar really started working  and created just the trajectory for the block of ice that had by now formed to slide neatly and accurately straight through my greenhouse roof.

So not only had my installation been responsible for serious glass pane damage, but as this is written a number of half-hardy plants face mass extinction, due to me not noticing that my greenhouse had been trashed for a number of hours. An environmental catastrophe you could say, and all because of my solar roof. What have you got to say to that then Mr smug Jeremy Leggett, eh? Eh? Now turn to page 94 for exclusive ‘I saw Princess Diana’s face in a crop circle’.


Shining a light on solar…..

I’m the chair of PRASEG (the Parliamentary Renewable and sustainable energy group). They maintain a useful website with, among other things transcripts of presentations to seminars, conferences and meetings.  You can find it here.

The reason I mention it is that the group runs a ‘Solar PV forum’ which, unsurprisingly, discusses and promotes all things solar PV. The forum has been active recently in lobbying on the future of Feed-in Tariffs (FITS) now available to underpin the roll-out, mainly on domestic roofs, of solar PV installations.  This week members of the forum meet with Greg Barker, the Energy and Climate Change minister to discuss the fall-out form the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Feed in Tariff.

The story so far (for those who get out enough not to follow it all!) is that Feed in Tariffs for solar PV were introduced last spring after much campaigning to develop methods which really could get microgeneration off the ground as a serious corner of the renewable advance – we were supposed to have a similar incentive for renewable heat – the RHI (or Renewable Heat Incentive) introduced at the same time, but that has been delayed until next spring.  More of that on another occasion….

FITs really do the business for PV microgeneration – you get, as many will know, a fixed amount per kilowatt hour of solar electricity generation; enough to make installing a solar roof pay back in a reasonable timescale, and at the same time avoiding the use of grid based fossil energy.  That FITS has already begun to work well can be seen in the DECC estimates of the number of Solar installations since the spring – some 10,000 units across the country, compared with a few hundred per year before then.  And it is almost getting to be mainstream – companies like Marks and Spencer are advertising schemes to take your FITs off you in return for a free installation and all the electricity you can use from it. Magazines like Which? are debating the wisdom of taking up such schemes as against asking your friendly bank manager (they do continue to exist – Banks, that is, for the time being) for a loan and taking the FIT for yourself.  All this was becoming established in a very short time.

Then we had the Comprehensive Spending Review. Rumours abounded that the Government was going to cancel FITS –  and even what looked to some as ‘softening up’ pieces from commentators reporting on how profligate FITS were, and how the money could be better spent on something else.  But –FITS has survived, at least until what was always envisaged to be a review date of 2013. It always was important for industry development and consumer confidence that there was some certainty ahead: and now there (probably) is – except for one thing. FITS is proving too successful.

In its original incarnation, FITS would have been demand led.  But now there is, effectively, a cap in the amount of money that can be spent on it: enough certainly to get to the Review period with a healthy growth in the industry; but not an exponential funding of whatever people apply to install.  And one development  of the scheme– known as ‘field solar’ ( free-standing larger arrays of PV not on roofs but qualifying for FITS towards the top end of the agreed  maximum 5 megawatt limit of the scheme) is causing worry.  Each ‘field solar’ development probably accounts for about 1500 ‘domestic’ solar roofs – and might well eat up the lion’s share of the FITS ‘cap’ now notionally in place. Undoubtedly we will need more ‘field solar’ in the future, but right now, the threat hangs over solar PV development that, if it takes off too quickly  – or if field solar predominates to too great an extent, well, the plug may be pulled.

So the dilemma for the PV industry, and for those who want to see solar develop as it should in the UK is:  how do you rein back this sudden success story so that everyone can get to the review date in good order?  For an industry long starved of resources and seen as the preserve of the enthusiast it’s a new and novel challenge – but one that, in our present cash-strapped times, will need to be addressed.