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UK solar PV capacity increases as the sector looks to a bright future

There must be occasions when the solar power sector reflects ruefully that they are no longer the jewel in the crown of the green energy world. It is not so long ago that the installation of new solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity was steadily increasing across the UK. A significant portion of this growth was due to the government’s Feed-in Tariff scheme (FITs). This was introduced in 2010 and paid households and companies for energy which they generated and fed in to the National Grid.

The UK solar power industry peaked in 2015 when almost 4GW (gigawatts) of new capacity was installed. The levels remained above 1GW annually through 2017 and 2018 but when the FIT scheme ended for new applicants early in 2019, new capacity generated declined rapidly.

In 2020, however, this trend has been reversed and 545MW (megawatts) of new solar PV capacity was installed, representing a 27% increase over 2019. About 80% of the new installations occurred during the second-half of the year as the country began to recover from the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the capacity is still well below the peak of the 2013-2017 years, it must be remembered that the new capacity is being generated in a subsidy-free environment.

Solar PV installations are measured from three sources: ground-mounted (typically utility-scale solar farms), residential rooftop and commercial rooftop. In 2020, about 60% of the new capacity came from ground-mounted PV systems. The added capacity means that the UK now has a cumulative capacity of 13.9GW of installed solar capacity.

The data is provided by Solar Energy UK – which has been rebranded in January 2021 from its previous incarnation as the Solar Trade Association – and chief executive Chris Hewett finds grounds for encouragement. “It feels like a new era for solar energy in the UK now…we are starting to see the PPA (power purchase agreement) market take off in the UK with the likes of Amazon, the City of London and Tesco”.

In April, solar power contributed a record amount (9.7GW) to the National Grid’s electricity supply. Solar power should benefit as a flurry of government-issued white papers, 10-point plans, revised energy efficiency standards and the net-zero emissions pledge bring renewables to the forefront of energy policies.

An undercurrent of tension lingers in the relationship between the solar power industry and Downing Street with Solar Energy UK’s 13.9GW cumulative capacity figure being 0.5GW higher than government statistics. Umbrage was taken across the sector when solar power was excluded from mention in the 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” was announced in November.

However, Chris Hewett says that Solar Energy UK is working with the government to seek inclusion in the Contracts for Difference (CfDs) auctions. Since the target for the solar sector is reach 40GW installed capacity by 2030, they would be a significant contributor to reaching net zero. Solar power looks likely to be a shining light again.


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