It is no secret that the UK pledged to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050, nor that Rishi Sunak vowed at COP27 to speed up the transition to renewables and make the UK a clean energy superpower. But are we making the most of our clean energy potential to meet these targets?
As the National Grid scrambled to keep the lights on last week during the latest cold snap and continues to pay through the nose for gas-generated power, our Head of Energy & Sustainability, David Thomas, explores the huge untapped potential of solar power and the role it has to play in plugging the UK’s energy gap.
This weekend, for the first time in 266 years, coal use in the UK fell below pre-industrial revolution levels, meanwhile progress is being made in scaling up our offshore wind production, with capacity for 72.5GW of offshore wind projects planned or under construction.
Alongside the Government’s commitment in 2021 to invest £20 million a year in Tidal Stream electricity, it would appear, on the face of it, like we’re making waves in clean energy.
But are we doing enough to exploit all our clean energy potential – including solar power?
The market for Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells in the UK has been growing steadily over the past decade.
This has been driven by a combination of factors – from government incentives like the Feed-in-Tariff and falling solar PV unit prices, to increasing public awareness of the benefits of renewable energy – particularly in the face of the recent energy cost crisis and climate emergency.
Together, this has incentivised households and businesses alike, to generate electricity using renewable sources such as solar power, which in turn has stimulated demand for PV cells, making them a more affordable option than was once the case, with costs falling by over 80% in the last decade.
In the first six months of 2022, the UK installed 556 MW of new solar capacity, with expectations the total UK solar capacity will increase to 15,674 MW by 2023.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the Feed-in Tariff closed to new entrants, there have been record numbers of new Solar PV installations every month.
Despite this, the contribution of solar power to energy capacity remains modest.
In the residential sector, there are roughly 1.2 million UK homes with solar panel installations according to the latest MCS installations data. This means that just 4.1% of the 29 million homes in the UK are generating electricity from solar panels.
Commercially, approximately 500 solar farms in the UK contribute to the UK’s total solar capacity of 14.6 GW, but there is only so much land mass available for such a use.
To fully power the UK using solar energy alone, we would need some 30,000 square kilometres of land – accounting for around 12% of our landmass, all whilst competing with other uses for agriculture, housing and green belt.
In 2021, solar PV supplied more than 4% of the UK’s entire electricity demand, and this could treble by 2030, but how?
We believe that commercial property has a vital role to play, and with EPC Regulations due to come into force imminently which will make commercial buildings unlettable if they don’t meet an EPC rating of E or above, there has never been more of an incentive to embrace solar power – by occupiers and landlords alike.
There is a significant opportunity to drive more solar energy in the UK, by over-cladding existing commercial property with PV cells.
According to the UK Warehousing Association, there is 424 million square feet of warehousing space spanning over 100,000 sq ft. This alone could deliver nearly 10,000 acres of space for solar PV use, not to mention the potential in other property uses such as office buildings, supermarkets, and so on.
Dr Phil Wu, CEO of Absolar, an AI-driven solar technology business which specialises in finding and delivering on solar potential, explains: “Solar PV energy systems are affordable, reliable and low impact, but it can be hard for occupiers and landlords of commercial property to understand what their potential is, in terms of return on investment.”
Absolar uses a range of innovative technology to filter and rank roof space based on payback periods and the effectiveness of solar across wide portfolios.
Using LiDAR, photogrammetry, satellite imagery, and their AI-powered irradiance modelling, Absolar can survey areas of any scale to provide an assessment of solar PV potential, quickly and efficiently.