15.05.2011

Thoughts from the first UK Solar Industry Summit

I was pleased to attend the first Solar UK Industry Summit in London, in May this year. Organised by Solarpraxis, the venue was in a perfect location for visitors, just off Covent Garden market. I found it the perfect size event for networking, small and personal enough yet with a large number of companies represented. Unsurprisingly, at many of the short breaks I found I was surrounded by German companies, many of whom are currently speculating on the UK market and were interested in my personal viewpoint.

The notion of the conference was to discuss key issues for the solar industry in the UK, but it also provided valuable learning and insights into the German model of solar which has operated with such great efficiency and success. Dismay was repeatedly voiced, that the UK Government seems to be attempting to re-invent the "solar wheel" devising their own complex systems instead of learning from those that we know have been tried and tested and moreover, work.

So the big topic for debate was of course the proposed downgrade of the FIT (Feed In Tariff) to 50kW, a ludicrous figure which far from just impacting large scale commercial projects would also hit community projects such as schools, churches and social housing. Many of the decisions it appeared, had been based on some seriously flawed reporting. The date proposed for this downgrade was equally absurd, August 1st 2011, which left very little time for many projects to complete and would means several companies suffering financial loss. The only hope is that in the next 2012 review, ministers will start to see the light and re-introduce stability and confidence in the market.

There was a pleasing and wide array of seminars, three of my favourites included Rudiger Muhlhausen from Apel & Hoyer who presented successful marketing strategies for the UK, Howard Johns of Southern Solar unravelling the complexities of solar thermal and the RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) and talking about the "blinkered vision" in the UK, the key to which is public education; and Craig Jackson from the South Yorkshire Housing Association who introduced us to Henley Rise, Rotherham, the UKs "first solar street". He argued the case that such social housing initiatives (often just above the 50kW limit) are not set up as solar farms, but for the homeless and a way to fight poverty in the UK.

The sessions culminated with an expert panel and a wide variety of questions from the floor. The main conclusions from this were again that the UK government when it first introduced the FIT totally underestimated the demand, but that now it is ignoring the commercial market in favour of large scale off-shore wind, nuclear and residential solar. In Germany financing was key to the successful model, but it was done in a way that is sustainable.

Sadly the small hint of optimism in UK Solar Thermal was generally dwarfed by the noise about PV. But, and thankfully there is a big But, there is some level of hope that if PV stabilises we may just start to see growth even in large scale projects. There is plenty of interest in the UK from other European companies, the US and China so watch this space!