ANALYSIS: The UK learns to love PV

Makers or takers, strivers or skivers. The linguistic shorthand may vary by country, but the debate over whether you are putting in more than you drain out remains the same.

And once and for all, PV seems to have come down on the right side of the divide as far as the UK government is concerned.

This reputational upgrade boils down to three factors, and all of them bode well.

First, the government now grasps the critical contribution PV will make towards the country’s 2020 renewables target – a target so steep that serious discussions are underway regarding the subsea importation of green electricity from Ireland.

One of the biggest howlers of recent UK energy policymaking was Whitehall’s failure to include solar as one of eight technologies with significant potential to help meet the 2020 target in its “Renewables Roadmap” first published in 2011.

Last month it formally corrected course, issuing a revised version in which it not only included solar, but acknowledged that PV had shown the fastest growth of any technology since the roadmap’s initial publication.

Indeed, government now calls for up to 20GW of PV capacity by 2020, from about 1.8GW today. Compare that to its forecasted 13GW of onshore wind and up to 18GW of offshore wind “if costs come down”.

Senior officials have also recently begun viewing the solar sector as an engine for job creation, which they reckon will offset lingering scepticism about PV’s cost and stigma as a luxury for affluent homeowners.

Speaking yesterday, energy minister Greg Barker noted that the industry has come through the “learning period” of 2011-2012 – a period made all the more savage by government incompetence – “leaner, but also wiser, and, I think in due course, absolutely larger”. 

Finally, the government is confident that it has at last conquered the cost implications of supporting PV, after a series of incentive cuts, and a toxic (and ultimately futile) battle last year to retroactively slash the feed-in tariff. 

Future incentive adjustments are still possible. But the much-reduced price of modules and the cost of installing them in UK – now comparable to Germany, industry sources say – mean the technology is safely within the government’s comfort zone, leaving the sector with more regulatory clarity than ever.

Relations between the UK solar industry and government are still understandably raw. But the sector is far too young and holds far too much potential to dwell sourly on past grievances.

The Conservative-led British government now views PV as working in its favour, which is no small feat. The industry should enjoy its hard-won political tailwind in 2013.