Why the Future of Solar Power in the UK is Brighter than You Think
By J.C. McBride - November 2019
There has been a lot of hand wringing about the future of solar power in the United Kingdom. Between changes in solar subsidy policies and the uncertainty of Brexit, many pundits believe that the future of solar is cloudy at best.
However, a more careful look at the solar industry in the UK shows that the economic factors all point to a bright future for the industry.
Solar UK by the Numbers
Fifteen years there was only negligible solar power usage in the United Kingdom. Today, there are over 13,000 MW of solar generating power in the country, and the UK is a global leader in solar energy.
The UK has narrowed the gap between it and Germany, while also seeing sharp decreases in manufacturing and installation costs for solar panels. There is also continuing support for research into better batteries and more efficient electrical grid practices.
However, the most important sign of the health of the solar industry is the eagerness of private companies to create utility-scale solar projects in the country.
For years the Feed-in Tariff program helped subsidize the cost of individual home solar panels. When this effort closed in March of 2019, some people acted like the sky was falling, and the future of solar power in the UK was doomed.
A new program, the Smart Export Guarantee, will require energy suppliers to pay individuals and businesses for the electricity that they export to the grid. However, the amount of these payments will fluctuate based on the market.
Even this new program has not satisfied those solely focused on individual solar power.
However, as important as individual purchases of solar panels were for the growth of the solar power industry in the UK, they have never been the most sustainable way to grow solar power.
There are a lot of inefficiencies with ad-hoc solar panels being added to the grid. One or two homes on a street will not add significant amounts of power back to the grid; at most, they will power their own homes for most days of the week.
The real future for solar power has always been with utility-scale projects that brought clean, infinitely renewable energy to tens of thousands of homes and businesses at a time.
Flipping a switch and powering an entire village or city with solar power is better than adding a few thousand homes, distributed haphazardly across the country to the grid.
Large-Scale Solar Farms
The economics of solar power have changed considerably in the past 15 years. Because of lower manufacturing prices, technological innovations, and better electrical grid infrastructure, large-scale solar power is now not only feasible—it’s profitable.
Companies are achieving economies of scale and delivering zero-carbon electricity to residents and businesses with large-scale solar farms. These projects are not dependent on programs like Feed-in Tariff or even the newer Smart Export Guarantee.
The UK is looking for 15% growth in the amount of energy consumption that is from solar power. This goal is achievable, but not by adding panels to houses. It requires large solar projects that can run as fully-functional solar utilities.
The biggest hurdle to more significant growth in solar power generation and consumption isn’t the number of solar panels in use, it’s the distribution system.
Small residential solar installations do not do anything to address this core problem. However, energy companies with utility-scale solar projects can update and create the necessary distribution channels to bring clean energy to hundreds of thousands of users.
Homes and businesses will be able to become solar power users without having a single panel installed on their homes or buildings. All they will need is to be connected to the electrical grid.
Room for Growth
The UK should be proud of the growth of its solar power industry. However, despite the issues with subsidies for residential solar panels, there is still room for growth in the UK solar market.
Solar power is broadly popular and is one of the few reliable ways to reduce carbon emissions enough to make a difference to the global climate change threat.
As more companies invest more money in large-scale solar projects, the entire sector will become even more efficient. Better technologies and techniques will lower the cost of solar power and eliminate the barriers to bringing this clean, renewable energy source to vast swaths of the United Kingdom.
Countries like Japan and Germany have already experienced many of these benefits as their solar power sectors have created advanced distribution networks and made strides to eliminate the problem of storing solar power.
In the next 15 years, the UK will be able to draw even with, if not overtake, these countries in terms of per capita solar power usage, technological innovation, and electrical grid efficiency.
The changes in solar subsidies are a sign that the UK solar industry is mature enough to move to the next stage of growth that depends on utility-scale projects that expanding of solar power consumption not tied to individual homeowners.