Howard Johns: Solar energy is starting to win our struggle for power

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WHEN you start talking about solar energy in the UK you often get a rather predictable response: “Does it really work in the UK? We don’t have enough sun do we?”

Well I am pleased to report it not only works, but it has also become highly popular. Well over 100,000 new happy solar-powered homes and businesses have been created over the last two years, as people across the country wake up to this simple and effective and climate friendly technology.

What is it they are buying into? Creating your own electricity by catching the suns energy from you roof is a simple elegant process that people really love once they have done it – there is nothing better than getting free energy from the sun.

Of course, you have to invest some cash to start the ball rolling. However you can consider that investment a bit like pre-buying electricity for the next 25 years and protecting yourself from energy price rises at the same time.

There are two types of solar that both work well but do different things; one that creates heat in the form of solar thermal and one that creates electricity – solar PV.

The thing that has driven the massive growth in the UK solar PV market in the last couple of years has been a mechanism called the feed in tariff (FIT). This was introduced by the Government to encourage people to install renewable energy technologies like solar PV on their homes, and it has been a roaring success.

The FIT pays a premium for the electricity your system creates – a guaranteed income for the 25 year life of the system and the scheme, and therefore gives you a reasonable return on your investment.

The amount the FIT pays is designed to be reduced for new installations as the installation costs of the systems get cheaper, but once you have system installed the FIT rate in fixed for the next 25 years.

Installing solar has got a lot cheaper in the last couple of years – costs have dropped in half for solar PV systems, and the time is rapidly coming when we will need no financial support to be competitive with your existing electricity supply. You will have seen solar PV and the FIT in the news a fair amount over the last few months – the Government has to consult to reduce the level of the FIT, and they have ended up doing this three times in the last year. The last time they did this they broke their own rules and ended up losing in the High Court twice over it. Hopefully, they will lay out their plans for a more stable mechanism shortly.

Solar has led the green growth agenda, creating well over 20,000 jobs and 3,000 new small companies. Between us across the UK we have build solar PV on our homes that when added together is the same as a small power station. The great thing about a solar PV power station is that once you own it – the price of electricity it supplies can’t go up – unlike the electricity you buy from the big six.

But the solar roll out in the UK is just in its infancy at this time. We are making small steps as the real pioneers of this technology Germany stride forward.

During 2011 in the UK we installed about 750MW of PV, in Germany in 2010 they installed 9000MW of PV – equivalent of a few power stations. In fact the Germans are planning to get 50 per cent of their daytime electricity from solar PV by 2020 – a staggering 10 per cent of their total energy requirements.

It would be totally possible to follow the German example here, in fact it is almost certain that we will as prices for solar PV keep falling and prices for electricity keep rising.

Until we are generating our energy locally from locally- owned renewable energy resources, we will be open to the international energy market with its dramatically fluctuating prices. Our energy bills have gone up 48 per cent in the last five years and will almost certainly keep doing.

As the amount of oil and gas we produce in the UK falls away – UK production will be at 20 per cent of 2006 levels by 2018 – the shortfall will come from elsewhere – Russia and Iran perhaps?

So solar PV is here to stay and it is an energy market game changer. The moment you have your own power station on your roof, you start to really think about where your energy comes from. There has never been a better time to join the solar revolution.