LONDON — Returning from a domestic errand, I was heartened to stumble across a commercial photovoltaic installation under construction on a sizable patch of what had previously been arable land. This 4.5-MW plant is to feed power to the grid and will no doubt operate successfully for 20 or more years, enjoying decades of the sunshine that once ripened the wheat of previous generations.
It will also perhaps be one of the last to benefit from the government’s generous PV feed-in tariff, now withdrawn for installations above 50 kW. Whether this means an end to commercial-scale PV development in the U.K. remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt that confidence in the sector has been affected. And with solar having little more than a tenuous grip on the U.K. energy marketplace, hopes that PV will make a big impact in the short term have clearly been dented.
In the U.K. and in many other similarly affected countries, whether this will in fact emerge as a knockout blow in the longer term depends more than ever on industry passing on falling costs to consumers and pushing the long-term cost-of-ownership envelope to below that of conventional energy. It’s a tall order even for a relatively mature technology like PV. Without support, that challenge becomes harder still.
The U.K. is pioneering a new form of feed-in tariff with its Renewable Heat Incentive. This commendable initiative represents an exciting development that could ultimately spearhead a new wave of renewable heating policy directives. With support for these important forms of renewable energy, a new route to a low carbon infrastructure has opened up.
And, after all, some 40 percent of Europe’s energy consumption is spent on space and water heating. But perhaps there are also dangers lurking if, say, the policy becomes too successful for its own good and, like the PV sector, is again throttled back just as momentum gathers.
It may well be that the modest 4.5-MW PV installation under construction in rural Lincolnshire turns out to be the last of its breed, but it is nonetheless extremely hard to believe that it will be the last of its kind.