Wednesday 2 January 2013

Solar Joins the Big Guns

Notable by its absence from the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC’s)  2011 Renewable Energy Roadmap, has solar energy fared any better in the 2012 update?  The solarblogger investigates.

On December 27th DECC released an update on the UK’s progress towards meeting binding targets from the EU to generate 15% of all energy from renewable resources by 2020.  They also shared current thinking on how this target might be met.

Plenty left to do

Progress to Date

In 2011, renewable energy rose to 3.8% of all energy consumption from 3.2% in the previous year.  The lion’s share of this increase came from renewable electricity.  Its share of all generation rose 27% to 38 TWh, and now represents 10.4% of all UK electricity generation.

TWh = Terawatt-hours, equivalent to one thousand GWh (gigawatt-hours) or one billion kilowatt-hours – see “Slippery when Watt
The average house uses around 4,200 kilowatt-hours per year – see “How much electricitydoes the average house use?

Wind turbines contribute 17 TWh, nearly half of the renewable electricity generation, with a further 14 TWh generated from burning biomass, and the remainder from hydro-electricity.  PV solar generation currently produces a just-visible slice in the bar chart.

Renewable heat on the other hand trails behind, at 14 TWh of energy, an increase of only 5%.  Although heat accounts for 46% of the UK final energy use, it is only recently that government support mechanisms that reflect its importance have been brought forward.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for commercial buildings has been in place for just over a year with mixed results, and will be followed by an RHI for domestic buildings in the late summer of 2013.



DECC reckons to have reasonable visibility of the future deployment pipelines for wind and biomass electricity generation. 

There’s just under 5GW of biomass generation plant under construction or in planning, to make a total of 8GW of generation capacity.  Assuming a similar load factor to the current capacity, this would deliver around 33TWh/year.

If all the wind capacity identified in DECCs pipeline is developed, that would total 26GW, and produce annual generation of about 68TWh assuming a 30% capacity factor.

Just these two technologies, plus the existing hydroelectric capacity could then contribute 108TWh/year, or around 30% of current electricity demand.

This may sound a like a real achievement – and it is, but when you consider that electricity for lighting and appliances accounts for only 8% of final energy use of the UK you can appreciate the scale of the challenge we face.  The goals for the other two major energy uses – heating (46% of final energy) and transport (41% of final energy) need to be similarly ambitious, and this is where the roadmap starts to feel rather thin.

While 28 pages are devoted to renewable electricity, only 7 are spent on heat and 4 on transport.

Renewable Heat

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is the main mechanism for pushing forward the adoption of low carbon heating technologies. 

A quick look at the Ofgem RHI website shows that in its first 13 months of operation, the scheme has so far paid out on 0.066 TWh of renewable heat generation, a rather pitiful contribution compared to the electrical technologies, but hopefully one that can grow rapidly as awareness of the scheme increases and consistent support is sustained over a significant period of time.

98% of heat under the RHI is currently from biomass boilers.  The scheme has so far been spectacularly unsuccessful at stimulating take up of either solar heating or heat pumps.  See my blog article on the success of the RHI to date here.

The solar industry has greater expectations for a domestic renewable heat incentive, which after many delays, is expected to launch in Summer 2013, see my blog article on the consultation here.


The transport section of the report is the thinnest, with little in the way of concrete action to discuss.  This reflects the global nature of the challenges to develop new automotive technologies, and the need for technological breakthroughs, particularly in energy storage which are acknowledged in the report.

So What for Solar?

The document was, on the whole, pretty good news for solar energy in the UK.

The potential of Solar PV to make a significant contribution to the UK energy mix is recognized for the first time, with an estimated 2020 deployment of between 7 and 20GW, contributing between 6 and 8 TWh per year.  DECC believes that grid-balancing challenges and the evolution of PV costs over the next few years will determine the level.

DECC also revealed their intention to develop a PV Strategy document during 2013.

For solar thermal technology, the best news was that DECC re-iterated their determination to launch a domestic RHI in summer 2013, listing it as a key priority.