UK minister fears PV backlash

Solar energy holds a large advantage over onshore wind in terms of UK public opinion, but the industry’s positive reputation is increasingly threatened by aggressive developments, warns energy minister Greg Barker.

Speaking yesterday in London, Barker, a keen supporter of solar energy, acknowledged that the current government greatly underestimated the potential for PV in Britain when it took office in 2010.

Three years ago solar “hardly got a look-in” by officials, Barker admits. “It was seen as a hobby technology; hardly anyone took it seriously.”

Today, however, PV is taken seriously “right the way to the top” of government, Barker claims, and has “taken its place alongside the other low-carbon technologies that are going to keep our future energy supply secure and competitive”.

The government famously failed to include PV in its 2011 “roadmap” for renewable energy – only to turn around last year and embrace the potential for up to 20GW of capacity by the end of the decade.

PV has a “secret weapon” compared to onshore wind, in that it remains broadly popular with the public, Barker notes. “More people back solar than any other renewable-energy technology by quite a margin.”

But he says that the rise of the utility-scale segment in the UK – increasingly seen as economically viable even in the face of subsidy cuts – threatens to undermine the support of the public and their elected officials.

A growing number of proposed PV projects, such as a 6MW ground-mount array in the Cotswolds backed by Germany’s Belectric, have received national press attention due to the local opposition they engender.

“I do not want to see solar become a bone of contention in the way that – if we’re honest – onshore wind has become,” Barker says.

Barker strongly encouraged Britain’s growing PV sector to focus on rooftop systems and well-sited brown-field projects, rather than the vast ground-mount arrays favoured by large investors.

He noted that 20GW of capacity could be reached by covering 16% of the UK’s industrial and commercial rooftops with modules – or 8% of domestic roofs.

“There are commentators out there, newspapers, who take a very, very sceptical view of renewables and climate issues, and they will leap on any example of a poorly sited PV project in order to tar the whole industry with the same brush,” he says.

“If we aren’t careful, if the industry expands inappropriately, then that hard won and incredibly valuable public support will slip our fingers.”