Solar energy just won’t go away and remains an irritant for those who want big headline energy generation projects that will give us a secure supply of electricity, solve the climate change problem and reduce the cost of electricity all in one go. If only it was that easy.
In research I remind my students that the easy problems were solved a long time ago so we are just left with the difficult ones. The challenges we face with energy supply are much in the same category. As a research scientist in renewable energy I can confidently tell you that there are no easy solutions!
So why has photovoltaic (PV) solar energy grown so rapidly in the UK when the perception has firmly been that this is for sunnier climes?
The first reason is that people actually like PV solar energy and feel that it is something they can take ownership and control of. Every government initiative on micro-generation has seen PV solar energy as having the largest uptake.
The second reason is cost, we all want to be greener but we don’t want to spend too much money on it. There has been a combination of events that has dramatically changed the situation in the UK from being seen as PV solar unfriendly to joining the top 10 adopter countries in the world with cumulative installation of over 1.4 GW of PV panels by June last year.
The first event was the introduction of the Feed in Tariff (FiT) by Ed Milliband in 2010 and the second was a dramatic fall in PV module prices in 2011 and 2012. The latter caught DECC on the hop as they had consistently seen PV as an expensive source of electricity with only a slow decrease in its price. But, the genie is now out of the bottle with many jobs that depend on PV and high expectations.
So while solar PV isn’t going to go away, can it really make a difference to our longer term energy needs?
Micro generation is really a new concept in the UK where we have had the benefit of a strong national grid and a model of large power stations, either fossil fuel or nuclear dotted around the country. The idea that we can all be generators of electricity is a large paradigm shift from the model of central generation that has served us so well.
Micro-generation does not mean that it is too small to make a difference but it does mean that even a rapid growth curve will take some time before we are generating 10 to 20% of our electricity needs from PV solar. However, this is achievable if we just consider south facing roof aspects of houses, offices, factories retails outlets etc.
A pre-FiT PV Road Map for PV published by the Photonics KTN in 2009 predicted that from a low adoption base of around 20 MW it was not unreasonable to achieve 20% of our electricity needs by 2050. This would represent a steady increase in the number of jobs and enterprises depending on PV with an extra half a million jobs by 2040.
DECC have recognised the significant role that PV solar energy can play in their recently revised Renewable Energy Road Map, which recognised PV as a significant part of the renewable energy mix. They predict that 7-20 GW of PV will have been installed in the UK by 2020.
The current regional PV deployment map of the UK shows that Wales is second only to the South West of England despite the perception of inclement weather! In fact there is a very strong base of PV solar industry in Wales that predates the FiT and this was largely based on exports to Europe.
Future opportunities will see new innovations in PV to enrich our manufacturing base. Despite the challenges of cheap imported PV modules from China there is the possibility for new products produced here based on building integrated PV (BIPV).
It is also likely that transporting modules around the world will prove to be too costly as module prices fall further so there is a very real prospect for a growing number of jobs coming from PV manufacture.
Solar energy is not going to be the whole solution, remember that our future energy supply problems are going to be complex and the solutions different to what we have grown used to. However, solar energy will form an essential part of the mix and all forms of micro-generation will become an essential part of electricity generating capacity.
There can’t be a more exciting time to be working in PV solar energy research and working on scientific challenges that will help to both generate sustainable low carbon electricity and generate much needed jobs.
Professor Stuart Irvine is Director of the Centre for Solar Energy Research (CSER) at Glyndwr University