Friday 4 March 2016

Solar Thermal in the Crosshairs

Bullet Point Needed for DECC Action Plan

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has released its consultation on reforms to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), and this time it looks like it’s the turn of solar thermal to be under threat.  DECC's intention is to completely remove support for solar thermal by dropping it from the RHI while support for other renewable heat technologies such as heat pumps and wood chip boilers continues under the scheme.

As the solarblogger shows below, it's relatively straightforward to pick holes in the government's arguments for singling out solar thermal.  Whether DECC will be swayed from what is looking more and more like an ideological attack on solar is more open to question.

Busting The Arguments

DECC says:
Solar Thermal technologies account for 17% of total accreditations (7,445 out of a total of 45,111) but just 2% of heat (11TWh out of 598TWh).

Solarblogger says:
Solar thermal delivered 2% of all heat (11TWWh out of 598TWh), but accounts for only 1.4% of committed budget at the end of 2015 (£0.69m out of £49.3m).

So what?  So what if each solar thermal system contributes a small amount of energy?  It’s being unfairly compared to massive biomass boilers heating country piles, factories, and barns!  We already knew that solar thermal was more likely to be applied to domestic hot water in normal family homes where the small amount of energy each installation delivers still represents a significant proportion of household energy consumption (around 10%).

If affordability is the basis on which solar thermal is to be excluded from the RHI, then surely the relevant statistic isn’t to compare the proportion of all installations against the proportion of total heat, it’s to compare the cost against the heat delivered.  On this basis solar thermal looks much better value for money.

UPDATE (4.4.16) - figures should be treated with caution.  The committed budget is forward-looking and the delivered heat is backwards-looking, so it seems likely that large numbers of biomass boilers installed in the current year will be increasing committed budget but not contributing greatly to historic delivered heat.  Research into OFGEM figures by Mike Landy at the STA suggest that solar thermal represents 2.8% of payments made under RHI for 2% of delivered heat.

DECC says:
When asked, around half of all owner-occupier applicants said they would have installed it anyway.

Solarblogger says:
The DECC survey asked people to report their motivations for doing something after the event.  Such surveys are prone to a well-documented error called social desirability bias.  This is a tendency of respondents to answer questions in a way that paints them in a good light.

What DECC fails to mention is that the proportion of owner-occupier applicants saying that they would have installed other RHI technologies anyway was also extremely high.

Proportion of respondents saying they would have installed the same technology irrespective of the availability of the RHI:

Biomass         11%
ASHP 31%
GSHP 32%
Solar Thermal 49%

Installing renewable energy systems is seen as doing a social good.  People are less likely to admit that they only did it because of a government bribe.  The less expensive the system they have installed, the more ‘embarassing’ it would be to admit you wouldn’t have done it without the RHI.

The survey is flawed and to rely on it as a reason to take such a significant action against solar thermal is shocking.

DECC says:
We judge solar thermal to be a mature technology with a well-established global supply chain.  It is not clear that ongoing RHI support will serve to build this supply chain in the way that it can for other less mature technologies in the UK like heat pumps.

Solarblogger says:
Again solar thermal is being unfairly singled out.  A well-developed global supply chain for solar thermal is being compared with an immature domestic (UK) supply chain for heat pumps.

Heat pumps also have a well-established global supply chain, due to their high deployment in other European countries (27 million in operation across EU) according to Eurobserver and 1.7million heat pumps were sold in the EU in 2014.

Just like for heat pumps, solar thermal has a strong global supply chain but a nascent UK supply chain.  Just like for heat pumps, action to stimulate a strong UK supply chain has the prospect of reducing costs in the UK.  The Solar Trade Association estimates by as much as a 30% reduction in costs for a volume UK market of 200,000 systems a year.

Past Performance is not an Indicator of Future Success

DECC argues that deployment rates for solar thermal are too low to justify keeping solar thermal in the RHI, and that they can’t increase the subsidy levels as they are already set at the so-called ‘Value for money’ cap agreed with Treasury.

If the folks from DECC had been able to find an unconflicted solar thermal company to talk to (one that didn’t also make a living from PV), and asked them what was the one thing it could do to grow the market for solar thermal, the answer would have been “Reduce the subsidy for PV”.

The Feed in Tariff had four years’ head-start on the domestic RHI and domestic solar PV launched with tariff levels four times higher than the cap imposed on solar thermal.  Until the most recent shock reduction in the Feed in Tariff, support for PV was still higher than the cap (taking into account that the domestic RHI is for seven years, and the FIT is for 20).

Add in the loophole that pays owners of solar PV systems for exported electricity, even when they divert that power to heat water instead of exporting it and it’s obvious that the real reason for solar thermal underperformance is more linked to decisions made in the department at DECC that looks after the Feed in Tariff.

The Feed in Tariff has now been cut to a level that gives a much more level playing field with solar thermal, and many installers were starting to re-boot their solar thermal expertise and explore this option.  A recent survey of member companies by the Solar Trade Association found level of enquiry for solar thermal running at double the rate of the previous year.

The tragic mistake that the Heat team at DECC might be about to make is to have reached their conclusions about the performance of solar thermal based on a period during which a separate department at DECC was supporting PV much more generously.

Fixes Needed in RHI

Linking the domestic RHI to the Green Deal was a mistake, and the cost of having to get a Green Deal Assessment affected solar thermal disproportionately compared to more expensive technologies.  The decision to remove this requirement would boost solar thermal.

Solar thermal is an excellent companion to heat pumps, taking the strain on high temperature domestic hot water and allowing the heat pump to focus on working at lower temperatures, where its performance is more optimal.  The domestic RHI tried to reward people that installed both technologies together by allowing them to claim support for domestic hot water for both heat pump and solar.  Unfortunately the regulations were drafted in a way that ruled out the most popular implementation of a combined heat pump/solar system – a thermal store, see my earlier blog on this cock up here.  The Solar Trade Association has proposed a number of different ways that DECC could have fixed this problem to boost solar thermal deployment, suggestions that were sadly, ignored.

The proposal to remove solar thermal from the RHI is based on flawed logic.  The market has changed drastically since funding for PV was cut and early signs since then show indications of a return to growth.  Domestic hot water is the heat load that cannot be insulated away and solar thermal has an important part to play in decarbonisation our homes and addressing fuel poverty.

DECC should continue to support solar thermal and fix problems with the RHI that are holding it back rather than throwing it out of the RHI.