The Big Debate: insights from the Solar PV Roundtable

Ground mounted solar roundtable

Last September, Peter Shone, managing director of civil engineering contractor JPCS, featured in the PES (Power & Energy Solutions) Magazine’s Big Debate Solar PV Roundtable.

Joined by a panel of other experts in the industry, Peter talked about obstacles, innovation, and thoughts on the next year in solar PV.

Here are Peter’s contributions to the debate. For the full roundtable article, please see the extract from the magazine.

Welcome to the magazine. Before we head into the main issues of the day, can you tell our readers a little about your role, and how your organisation is involved in the solar industry?

I am the managing director of JPCS, which is the largest installer of ground mounted solar PV in the UK. We pioneered the installation for ground mounted solar in the UK market and since 2011 have completed more than 55MWp of solar PV installations using our specialist Groundscrew® foundation system.

We have provided the foundations for some of the UK’s biggest solar PV projects, including a 30 acre solar site in Hampshire and British Gas’ New Energy PV project in Derbyshire.  We work with leading sustainable businesses to help support the UK’s renewable energy market.

What is the single biggest obstacle facing your sector of the industry right now? How would you propose removing it?

The lack of consistency from the UK Government is an on-going concern; we have carbon emission targets and solar energy generation goals to follow, but it feels like the goal posts for the industry keep changing.

Policy seems to be driven by what’s politically popular at the time and as Governments have changed so has the policy for renewable energy and PV. For example, the solar PV market has been impacted by the UK Government’s tax breaks on shale gas. It seems this shale is being pushed at the moment and solar PV is being left to the side lines.

Cross party support is needed to firstly develop clear targets for the industry and then decide on long term commitments for funding.

Regulation is also needed for the energy companies. Better sharing of energy costs is vital as many renewable energy providers are paying higher rates to feed into the national grid compared to fossil fuel energy providers. This drives up the price of renewable energy for consumers. If the Government is going to champion renewable energy then a fair rate for all is required.

However, I believe over time the high cost obstacle for solar PV will naturally be reduced. As renewable energy becomes more widely available and fossil fuel powered energy resources become more squeezed the prices will turn, making renewable energy a more viable option.

Do the commercial goals of your organisation align with the EU targets for renewables? How much influence does the EU have on your organisation in general?

The EU 2020 target for member states to generate 20 per cent of their energy from renewable sources is in line with our commercial goals. We want to help both the UK and the EU to achieve carbon reductions targets and boost renewable energy generation.

Recent changes in EU tariffs, restrictions on Chinese solar modules and minimum prices restrictions all have an impact on us as a business. That’s why we have developed our business to be adaptable to changes in policy and regulation so we are equipped for changes on prices and outputs.

It is thought that PV’s development will remain policy-driven in the coming years. What are your thoughts on the current policy situation in your country (or perhaps across Europe)?

The development of solar PV will be policy driven until grid parity is achieved. Grid parity is when an alternative energy source can generate electricity at a levelised cost which is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid.

At the moment current polices are mixed and I think there could be real value in more communication between the UK and EU to develop joint targets and goals.

Do you personally mix with solar execs from outside your organisation’s supply chain? Do you find this interaction valuable?

Yes, it’s really insightful to meet others involved in the solar industry to hear about the projects they are working on and the challenges and opportunities they face.

I’ve had some great discussions at trade shows and industry events which give you not just a European but global insight of the solar market.

Which innovations from the PV or wider energy arenas excite you at the moment?

The next generation of solar modules are really exciting, the increased efficiency is impressive. I’ve seen new eight panel systems which can generate the same power as a current 20 panel system. We predict this new technology will increase efficiency by up to 30 per cent, maybe twice the output in future years.

Battery storage system developments are also looking promising, which will improve off the grid storage capacity.

Solar canopies and carports are also interesting. As a specialist structure provider we have been approached by property owners about the potential of installing these in built up areas where you normally wouldn’t see solar PV. With the development of next generation modules these structures could provide great opportunities for the industry.

In a continent with an increasing population and a finite amount of available floor space, is ground-mounted PV a viable long-term option?

It has to be. The increasing population means we need more alternative energy as fossil fuels are running low – renewable energy has to lead the way for the future.

The increased output modules will help floor space, but there are still large amounts of untapped land in the UK. Firstly, it’s estimated that every farm in the UK has at least one acre of land which is un-utilised due to poor drainage, shading, access etc. This equates to a lot of land.

Secondly, the Government and many local authorities are sitting on redundant pockets of land which are perfect for solar PV. For starters there are ten retired nuclear power plants in the UK, these have large grid connections and have big areas of land around them which can’t be built on for housing – ideal for ground mounted solar PV.

Old landfill sites and mine shafts also provide large areas of available land and the borders around MOD facilities are also an option. Everyone needs to take responsibility for our renewable energy sources.

Finally, what are your thoughts looking forward to the next 12 months?

With the changes in EU tariffs and ROC reductions the industry will have to stop and take stock before moving forward.

Continuous reductions in ROCs means more and more contractors are trying to enter the market to make a profit. Like in other industries, set standards, working practices and quality controls need to be introduced to ensure unskilled and unqualified firms don’t con land owners and businesses out of profit by selling them low quality products which are constructed poorly.

Solar PV is built to last for 25 years, yet there are already structures which need to be replaced after just five years. We would encourage the Renewable Energy Association (REA) to introduce a British standard for installation of solar PV. This will help safeguard the long term future of the industry.

As featured in the PES Solar Magazine in September 2013