Photovoltaics in the UK

It is perhaps because of its reputation as a country with a rain-soaked and overcast climate that solar photovoltaic (PV) has so far made only a minor impact on the UK’s renewables sector. This is particularly evident when compared with Europe’s market leaders Spain and Germany, and new growth in Italy.

Eden projectIn 2008, the global PV market hit 5.5 GW. Spain represented almost half of new installations in 2008, with about 2.5 GW of new capacity installed; followed by Germany with 1.5 GW, and the total installed capacity reached almost 15 GW, compared with 9 GW in 2007.

Certainly, the UK’s PV performance looks decidedly meagre when compared with these figures, with a total installed capacity of something over 18 MW.

This contrast is highlighted by the fact that while some parts of Europe are surging ahead on the back of a growing number of countries which have introduced feed-in tariffs (according to the latest figures available from the IEA), the UK PV capacity installed in 2007 was just a fraction over 3.8 MWp, though this did bring the total installed up by some 21%. This compares to 2.7 MWp installed in 2005 and 3.4 MW in 2006.

According to European Union Eurobarometer figures, the level of UK installations actually fell between 2007 and 2008. In 2007, 3650 kW of on-grid PV capacity was installed, along with 160 kW off-grid, to give a total of 3810 kW. However, 2008 figures are 3.3 MW installed on-grid, and 200 kW off-grid, a total of 3.5 MW.

PV systems offer the ability to generate renewable electricity in a huge variety of applications. From calculators and watches, on to garden lighting and burglar alarms, up to domestic-scale rooftop systems of 2–3 kW, larger commercial buildings with integrated PV supplying several hundred kW, and on to MW-scale commercial developments.

About 10% of PV currently installed in the UK is used in off-grid stand-alone systems and it is becoming common to see solar panels providing power for road signs, parking meters, lighting and other types of street furniture, for instance. Nonetheless, grid-connected PV continues to provide the bulk of new installations, with building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) making particular in-roads.

Policy support

The climate and energy package adopted by the European Union provides one of the most powerful drivers for PV development in the UK, with its mandated 15% of energy from renewables by 2020.

PV has also received another fillip from Europe, which is recasting the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), and where the industry committee of the European Parliament has agreed that all new buildings should be at least net zero-energy buildings by December 2018, at the latest.

In the UK, government measures through the Low Carbon Buildings Programme and other grants, supported approximately 83% of the total new PV capacity in 2007, but prior to 2006, the main driver behind the UK’s PV industry was the government’s Major Demonstration Programme (MDP), a series of grants designed to promote the use of PV in large projects and encourage individual homeowners to install systems.

In 2005 it was announced that the MDP would be wound up in March 2007 and replaced by the Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP) – initially a three-year initiative with the aim of demonstrating combinations of both energy efficiency and renewables, promoting innovation and delivering cost reductions in micro-generation technologies.

Household grants were initially allocated with a monthly cap, however continuing high demand led to a serious shortage of grants – with funds running out within hours of the monthly bidding rounds commencing. This issue was compounded by drastic cuts to the programme. In response, the government announced a series of reforms of the LCBP. Phase 1 of LCBP provided grants to householders of up to £2500 (€2900) per property towards installing a certified product.

Phase 2 of the programme is limited to public sector not-for-profit bodies using a few framework contractors, and under the reform programme, schools and public buildings will have access to more generous grants with an increase in grant caps to 50% across all technologies.

However, although it had originally been expected to run through to 2011, the government subsequently announced that it is to close its Phase 2 LCBP programme in June 2009, before a replacement feed-in tariff scheme is introduced in April 2010.

Following the announcement, Andrew Lee, from Sharp Energy Solutions Europe, commented: ‘Based on the government’s current proposal, feed-in tariffs for electricity are to be introduced in 2010, but the phasing out of the Low Carbon Building Programme (LCBP) means that until next year [2010], installers of renewable energy systems will now need to operate without the subsidies offered by the government. We worry that this funding gap will have a detrimental effect on the uptake of renewables (which has been so good to date), such as photovoltaic solar, by homes and businesses. It could even mean that installers go out of business over the next year, instead of our hope that we would see thousands of jobs created to support the increased uptake and enthusiasm for renewable energy.’

County Hall ChelmsfordIn response to widespread consternation from both the PV industry and opposition parties, the Department of Energy and Climate Change proposed changes to Phase 2 of the LCBP, with a reallocation of £7 million (€8.1 million) of LCBP2 funds. In a statement the government said: ‘Since changes to, and promotion of, Phase 2 of the LCBP in April [2008], there has been a substantial increase in the allocation of grants across technologies, with particularly high demand for solar PV technologies.’ Phase 2 has already allocated £21 million (€24 million) since 2006 and almost 12,000 projects have been awarded grants.

Despite such policy wobbles, low carbon generation including PV has been given a major boost, with three pieces of legislation: the Climate Change, Energy and Planning Bills. Collectively the bills make targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 legally binding, provide the basis for feed-in tariffs for renewable projects up to 5 MW, and address energy efficiency in homes and simplify planning permission for all large energy infrastructure projects. From 6 April 2008 householders have been able to install micro-generation, like solar, without needing to get planning permission as long as there is clearly no impact on others.

A growing number of local authorities are now also requiring that all major developments generate at least 10% of their energy requirement from renewables – the so-called Merton rule after the south London borough which pioneered the ruling. Nonetheless, despite the efforts at reform, renewable industry insiders and campaigners remain frustrated with the level of support currently available and the methods of their allocation.


Currently the most efficient (and the most widespread) types of PV cell are silicon-based, either polycrystalline or monocrystalline.

In recent years the crystalline PV industry has been affected by a global shortage of solar-grade silicon and although cell prices have fallen by around 30% as a result of increased global production coming on line in 2009, this has added interest to the thin-film sector, which uses far lower quantities of semi-conductor material. Although thin-film technologies generally have lower conversion efficiencies than their crystalline silicon competitors they are easier and cheaper to mass produce.

As well as the commercially available technologies there are a host of other photovoltaic designs being explored, including the use of tandem or triple junction cells with different properties to allow the absorption of a greater range of the spectrum. Dye-sensitized solar cells are another promising avenue for research.

Efficiency and output are not the only factors which determine the type of PV module manufactured and sold. Panels may be made for a variety of purposes, such as to replace roof tiles or building facades. Solar roof tiles can be made in dark colours to blend in with the existing roof materials, making them virtually indistinguishable from conventional slates. Other types of module encapsulate the PV cells in glass, allowing them to replace windows or act as shading in skylights.

In the UK, for example, NaREC, PowerGlaz and Crystalox secured £1.2 million (€1.4 million) of DTI funding in 2007 for a major R&D programme for Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV). ‘Project Havemor’ will develop and bring into commercial production, a range of speciality BIPV modules with a much higher aesthetic value than those currently available by perfecting coloured silicon cells. The project aims to establish NaREC and partners Romag and Crystalox in a leading position in this specialist market.

The market

By comparison with most of its European neighbours, the UK market is immature, and heavily reliant on government grants. Costs, lack of awareness and various barriers to building integration and network connection, have all conspired to make it hard for would-be customers to install PV equipment.

Reflecting these depressed market conditions, PV manufacturing capacity in the UK remains at a relatively low level, with only a handful of plants and assembly centres. Established producers, installers and integrators of PV products, such as Sharp, Romag, Crystalox and Solar Century, have continued with UK operations, but there is little sign of significant capacity expansion.

Crystalox Limited, an operating subsidiary of PV Crystalox Solar plc, is one of the world’s largest producers of multicrystalline line silicon ingots, exporting to PV companies in Europe and Japan. In 2007 the company produced multicrystalline silicon ingots sufficient for 190 MW from its manufacturing plant in Oxfordshire, with the majority of its output shipped to Japan, where it is sold either as ingots or as wafers after processing by a sub-contractor. The balance of its output is processed into wafers for European customers at the group’s facilities in Erfurt, Germany.

In 2006, the group produced silicon wafers and ingots corresponding to a capacity of 215 MWp, though as at the end of 2006, the group had available production capacity of 288 MWp. Although it is not a manufacturer of solar cells or modules, Crystalox is the UK’s largest employer in the PV area.

Raw SiliconIn 2004 the world’s largest PV manufacturing company – Sharp – opened a 20 MW assembly plant in Wrexham, Wales, and in 2007 expanded this to a 220 MW per annum capacity installation. Although this plant mainly produces PV modules for export, some are also used in the UK. The module assembly plant uses EVA lamination encapsulation and produced 124 MW of crystalline PV modules during 2007, the IEA says. The company has also continued to launch new products into the UK market – 2009 for example, saw the manufacturer launch a new low-tension in-roof module mounting system for PV installers.

Module manufacturer Romag also has facilities in the UK for making bespoke glass–glass laminates (PowerGlaz), using BP Solar and Q-Cells cells. Romag modules have been used in some spectacular projects, including the famous Eden Project in Cornwall, pictured on pages 32–33.

Romag’s BIPV lamination facility in Consett, County Durham, produced 4 MW in 2006 but the company’s production capacity has now been increased to 34 MWp and in 2008 over 80% of its PV products were exported. In March 2009, Romag launched its ‘PowerPark’ solar car parking canopy made of PowerGlaz PV panels that will be targeted for car parks at airports, stations, supermarkets, shopping centres, offices and public buildings, including sports and leisure facilities. Designed as part of the government’s initiative to create an electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure in the UK in readiness for such products arriving in all manufacturers showrooms in 2011. British Gas has recently signed an agreement with Romag to roll out the PowerPark Canopies throughout the UK and further government announcements on EV Infrastructure are due as the Guide goes to press. The company has already secured a contract with OneNE, the regional development agency, to build two prototype canopies: one at its own facility in County Durham and the other at Tegrel Engineering in Blaydon on Tyne – the manufacturers of the steel structure utilized in the PowerPark product. Simultaneously, Romag also announced that it is establishing the UK’s first Solar PV Training and Business Centre at its headquarters.

Commenting on these new initiatives, Lyn Miles, Romag CEO said: ‘Both the PowerPark and the training centre are being developed to ensure that the infrastructure and expertise is in place to allow UK companies to readily respond to the potential increase in demand for solar powered microgeneration within the UK market which will be accelerated by the feed-in tariff.’

Other manufacturers such as GB Sol based in Taffs Well, South Wales, produced 0.5 MW of crystalline modules in 2007, and Epod Solar Wales in Bridgend produced 1.52 MW of amorphous silicon PV cells and modules over the year. The 3 MW Bridgend facility, which was previously owned by ICP Solar Technologies, was sold to EPOD in May 2007.

UK energy equipment companies are also displaying a growing interest in PV. For example, mid-Wales-based Dulas Ltd now offers products such as a new Fronius inverter range as well as the next generation of Kyocera photovoltaic modules.

In 2009, the heating equipment company also began offering brief consultations to architects, housing associations and developers providing them with an opportunity to discuss their plans and how renewable energy can fulfil building obligations. Indeed, despite its relative lack of PV production, the UK does have a wealth of experience in installation and technical consultancy (particularly in BIPV applications) through companies such as Solarcentury, IT Power and Halcrow, which was involved in administering of the Major Demonstration Programme and is a building and technical consultant on a number of PV projects.

The growing interest in PV prompted UK utility group Centrica plc, the owner of British Gas, to acquire PV installation company Solar Technologies Group Ltd for £2.8 million (€3.2 million) in cash in September 2008. Solar Technologies is one of British Gas’s technology contractors for Phase 2 of the LCBP and is responsible for a number of major PV installations in the UK, including London’s City Hall, which was supplied by Romag as the only manufacturer in the world capable of making the trapezoidal, variable size PV laminates. Solar Technologies are the largest PV Installer in the UK and undertook virtually all of BP Solar’s projects prior to BP Solar closing their UK operation in 2006.

Vauxhall CrossGearóid Lane, managing director of British Gas New Energy, said: ‘This acquisition is an important step in British Gas putting in place a range of renewable and low carbon energy technologies for our residential, business and public sector customers. These technologies will become increasingly important as the UK implements policies to meet its stretching renewable energy and carbon emissions targets.’

Along with Solarcentury, Solar Technology and Dulas, other installers operating in the UK include PV Systems and Sundog Energy. PV Systems, based in Wales, is a subsidiary of the Energy Equipment and Testing Service (EETS), and designs and manufactures systems for BIPV applications.

The fastest-growing PV applications in the UK are grid-connected solar PV systems on new and existing domestic and commercial buildings. Leading examples in the UK include Manchester’s CIS Tower, which has one of the largest PV facades in the world, the award-winning Environment Agency headquarters in Oxfordshire, and the thin-film facade at Optic Technium. The 391 kW facade of the CIS tower was the world’s largest vertical PV array when installed and was developed by Solarcentury, using Sharp modules assembled in its Wrexham plant.

Other developments have been backed by utility groups such as Centrica and EDF Energy’s Green Fund and commercial groups such as the Co-operative Society, which have provided funding for community and school projects.

There are also a growing number of smaller firms such as G24i and Quanta Sol focusing on next generation technologies. G24i is a venture between Konarka, Renewable Capital and Ecole Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne, and aims to produce low-cost dye-sensitized (organic) solar cells for use in portable applications. The factory, near Cardiff, will have an eventual capacity of around 300 MW. In the summer of 2008, the company raised £30 million (€35 million) in investment.

This UK focus on ‘next generation’ technologies, which promises broader and lower-cost applications for PV, is also supported by academia. For instance, at the Centre for Renewable Energy Systems (CREST) at Loughborough University, research teams have developed flexible thin-film solar cells on plastic foils. Meanwhile, the £6.3 million (€7.2 million) PV-21 (Photovoltaic Materials for the 21st century) project, led by Durham University, is focusing on making thin-film cells. Eight UK universities, including Bangor, Bath, Cranfield, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Northumbria and Southampton, are involved in the project. They will work together with nine industrial partners towards a ‘medium- to long-term goal’ of making solar energy more competitive and sustainable. The research team will work to reduce the thickness of the cells and will also experiment with the use of nanotechnology and dyes on ultra-thin silicon. Developments also continue in the private sector.

For example Silicon CPV plc (incorporating Akhter Solar) is involved in research on medium concentration PV. The company has produced its own patented CPV system combining cells, a prismatic lens and a dual axis tracking system. In the second quarter of 2009, the company aims to have its own operational plant incorporating 100 kW of its own conventional flat plate PV modules alongside 100 kW of CPV with commercial production of the CPV system.

Furthermore, UK steel company Corus, Dyesol and the Welsh Assembly government, have continued progress on the development of dye solar cell technology on steel for BIPV applications, and in October 2008 announced an ambitious £11 million (€12.4 million) project to develop the technology at the company’s Shotton plant in Wales.

Prospects for PV development in the UK

Photovoltaic installations can now be found throughout the UK in a whole range of different applications. The highest, if not the highest profile, has been the installation of Sharp PV modules on the roof of the Canary Wharf offices of HSBC in London, the tallest HQ in Europe with solar panels and a project designed and installed by Solar Technologies.

South Yorkshire Housing AssociationElsewhere in Docklands, the campus of the University of East London (UEL) teamed up with Solarcentury to install PV as part of the LCBP. Again using Sharp modules, around 130 panels have been installed on the roof of UEL’s business school and library, located on the waterfront of the Royal Albert Dock.

On a smaller, though no less significant scale, the Cheshire village of Ashton Hayes is being used by power engineering specialist EA Technology as a test bed to develop a new way of generating and managing energy locally. The model, for a community of 1000 people or so, would then be available as a template for other communities.

As part of the Ashton Hayes ‘Going Carbon Neutral’ project, EA Technology is aiming to create a new type of community energy services company (ESCO). With the village residents and facilities such as the village school as shareholders, the ESCO would be responsible for generating energy locally to match the needs of the community. Electricity would be generated communally from renewable sources sited in the village, including the use of solar photovoltaics.

However, while questions over the LCBP and the introduction of feed-in tariffs has presented the industry with some anxiety, the very success of the LCBP in attracting solar development is a clear indication that there is a significant latent demand and the potential for a major market in the UK – given the right level of support. Indeed, satisfying the Code for Sustainable Homes, levels 4, 5 and 6, are now creating new markets for PV tiles in the UK and energy efficient design and 4.1 kWp of solar PV can now achieve level 6, where previously it was thought that it could only be achieved with a large district CHP system.

Certainly some deterrents towards progress, such as the planning system, are being steadily reformed, and at the urging of the UK PV manufacturers Group, led by Sharp UK, Romag Ltd and Solarcentury, parliamentary support for a UK-wide solar PV feed-in tariff has been sufficiently strong to implement such measures, due to commence in April 2010.

However, as Colin Challen, chairman of the All Party Climate Change Group, said: ‘Solar PV was the forgotten technology in the government’s renewable energy strategy consultation, but it has immense potential in the UK. The government’s welcome decision to introduce a feed-in tariff for solar PV and other renewable electricity technologies now needs to be followed with tariff levels that can actually drive forward these technologies quickly in the UK market.’ This is added to concerns that a lack of continued support for the UK solar industry has resulted in it being too small to handle the market that the feed-in tariff will create which will result in overseas products and installers flooding into the UK in 2010.

Nonetheless, perhaps the biggest driver for the future of PV in the UK comes not from government-backed subsidies, but from PV technology itself. In May 2009, Solarcentury presented a new analysis showing that solar modules on roofs of British homes will be generating electricity as cheaply as conventional electricity by 2013, and progressively cheaper each year thereafter.

As Derry Newman, Solarcentury chief executive, commented: ‘Even with conservative assumptions about electricity price inflation in the next few years, the solar industry has the potential to beat conventional electricity on domestic roofs within the term of the next government. If the current government allocates some of its green new deal stimulus-funding to accelerating solar into the mass market, we will be able to generate a jobs-rich new industry much faster than many people believe possible.’

Previous articleREW Volume 12 Issue 4
Next articleMarine Energy UK

No posts to display