Tuesday 3 June 2014

Slow Burner - how will the Domestic RHI Take off?

How much can the first year of the Feed in Tariff tell us about uptake for the Domestic RHI

How it went for the Feed in Tariff

A number of people (including the solarblogger himself) tried to temper expectations for the domestic RHI with the argument that the Feed in Tariff (FIT) took a bit of time to get going. The logic goes that it takes time for the public to become aware, for installers to work out how to market it, and especially for housing associations to get organised. 

I thought I'd take a look at the numbers to check whether they supported this idea. 

I wanted to compare the take up of PV in domestic installations before and after the introduction of the FIT. There is a wealth of data available from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on the levels of PV deployment  under the FIT, but much less for the years preceding it. I relied upon this report on the Low Carbon Building Programme (LCBP) to build a picture of deployment rates before the FIT. 

Under LCBP phase 1 (the domestic stream) there were 4,428 installations of PV. The average size was 2.18kWp, for a total capacity installed under the scheme of 9.7MWp. 

Since the report doesn't disclose the deployment in each period, I estimated PV deployment based on overall scheme expenditure.  I then combined this with FIT data for systems below 4kWp, most of which is likely to be domestic. 

The results are very interesting. 

When you look at the plot of the overall data, it sure does seem that all the action started in year two of the scheme. But this is a trick of exponential growth. Look at the lower plot, where I have shown the data only up to the end of year one. The first year was spectacular. 

The level of deployment grew from round 700 installations a quarter before the FIT to 11,000 a quarter at the end of the first year. Before the FIT subsidy, solar thermal systems were being installed at a rate around 10 times higher than solar PV. By the end of the first year, solar thermal had declined slightly, but solar PV installations outnumbered them by almost double. 

And so to the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive

There are a number of reasons why the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive won't take off like the Feed in Tariff did. 

1.  The Feed in Tariff.  

When the FIT was launched it was the only show in town. The grant scheme for renewable heat was derisory by comparison. As the domestic RHI launches, people interested in investing in their homes to reduce energy bills have the choice of both FIT and (I suppose) the Green Deal. 

2.  Installation complexity. 

With the exception of solar thermal, all the domestic RHI technologies replace an existing heating system, rather than being an add-on. People will be more cautious about installing a new technology when they worry that the impact of it not working is a cold house and no hot water.

Renewable heating installations are generally more intrusive too. A heat pump may require the replacement of radiators to cope with lower heating temperatures, biomass boilers can require a lot of space. New products such as this one which simplifies the installation of solar thermal to levels approaching that for solar PV may help overcome this barrier, at least for solar thermal where there's always the backup heater. 

3. Off Grid Target Market

The domestic RHI tariff levels were intended to stimulate a market in the 20% of homes that are off the gas grid. For sure, the returns are better when heating with oil or electricity, but returns for solar thermal on gas can also be good, as this analysis has shown

4. World First

The UK feed in Tariff followed the implementation of similar schemes in other european countries. Businesses could see the rapid take up of markets that had resulted and anticipating a similar trajectory for the UK, were pumped and ready once the scheme launched. By contrast the RHI this a genuine worlds first. There's no equivalent to look at to predict uptake. The many, many false starts for the scheme also didn't help. Many installation companies I spoke to weren't even willing to spend time thinking about it until they were absolutely sure it had launched. 

5. The Feed in Tariff (again)

My final reason is perhaps the most important. The way the government managed the Feed in Tariff has led to the widespread belief that as soon as any renewable energy scheme is successful it will be ruthlessly hacked back. The shadow that the treatment of the FIT scheme casts is long and pervasive. 

For all this, the scheme offers a level of financial support beyond anything that renewable heating technologies have benefitted from before. My plea to the industry is to give it a while before judging the success or otherwise of the scheme. 

It may take time to take some time to warm up, but warm up it surely will.