By Peter Curtain

Solar PV is taking off in the UK, and 2024 is shaping up to be the best year yet for the technology. Let’s look at some of the factors driving the transition.

Generating on-site electricity from sunshine is increasingly popular among householders and businesses looking to cut energy costs and reduce reliance on utility supply.

More rooftop systems were installed in the first nine months of 2023 than the whole of the previous year, according to the renewable energy standards body MCS, setting an annual record. In all, 138,336 PV installations were registered from January to September, topping the 137,926 for the whole of 2022 – itself a record for the post-subsidy industry.

Worldwide, solar PV is the fastest-growing energy source, says the International Renewable Energy Agency. Installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity stood at 1,047GW globally in December, including 191GW added in 2022 – that’s up 26-fold since 2010.

Technical advances

Solar’s getting better at producing energy – several advances, some achieved in the UK, have made the technology more efficient. For years panel manufacturers relied on silicon cells as the key component to convert solar radiation into electricity.

Solar PV does not rely on direct sunlight to function and many PV panels, often those manufactured in Europe, work extremely well on cloud-based light and diffuse radiation.

Now new materials are helping create a more diverse materials market, notably perovskite, an affordable, accessible alternative to silicon. Tandem solar cells comprising layers of silicon and perovskite are being adopted to boost efficiency.

Other breakthroughs include tile-sized panels for roofs, transparent modules that work as windows, allowing sunlight to pass through while converting it into electricity, and coloured panels to enhance architectural design. Meanwhile, installers are adopting new technologies to boost their efficiency.

And experts at the University of Leicester and elsewhere are working to improve recycling techniques to recover and reuse valuable materials, reducing waste and environmental impact.

New manufacturing methods, such as solution processing and 3D printing, are being explored to further trim costs and increase production efficiency. These could lead to novel applications such as solar garments and mobile generating devices.

These and other factors look set to push solar above 30 per cent efficiency, long considered the maximum, adding greatly to the technology’s attractiveness.

Official action

While then Prime Minister Johnson’s drive to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 became more controversial with the leap in energy prices caused by war in Ukraine, the objective has popular support, remains UK policy and is unlikely to be watered down by either main party after this year’s general election.

A Solar Taskforce set up by the Government last year and due to run up to next month, is drawing up a roadmap for meeting a solar deployment target of 70 gigawatts by 2035. The departure this month of Energy Minister Chris Skidmore was prompted by Government plans to boost North Sea oil and gas production, not any want of action on solar.

Further, planning restrictions on rooftop solar have been eased for systems of up to 1MWp – around 300 to 350 panels, making it simpler for business and public buildings to generate clean, green electricity.

Since June 2022, new homes and buildings in England have had to produce significantly less CO2, around 30% lower than previous standards, while emissions from other new buildings, including offices and shops, must fall by 27%. Heating and powering buildings currently makes up 40% of the UK’s total energy use.

This is causing traditionally conservative housebuilders to adopt PV, sometimes partnering with installation firms. The trend is likely to accelerate next year, when the Future Homes Standard (FHS) will require new homes to produce 75-80% less in carbon emissions than homes built under existing regulations.

Currently, some 10% of the 180,000 new homes built in England have solar PV installed and this could rise to as much as 80% in the coming years.

Key target groups love solar

Good corporate behaviour is a given for companies seeking financial backing, while banks and institutional investors favour businesses that show positive environmental practice. Much of this is driven by financial firms responding to smaller investors wanting to put their money to work in the green economy.

Consumers too favour brands that take environmental concerns seriously, for example by producing their own renewable energy.

The cost of buying and installing solar equipment has been falling for years in real terms due to factors such as improved production efficiencies, better installation designs and economies of scale – more and more people want solar.

Falling prices – more choice

After the roller coaster years of the Feed-in Tariff and its eventual withdrawal, the industry has proved it can survive in a subsidy-free environment and is getting better at solving people’s energy problems.

The industry-led Smart Export Guarantee, which replaced the Government’s FiT scheme, has prompted a competition among some energy suppliers to buy excess electricity from consumers. We spoke to one businessperson who has covered his extensive roof in panels, as much to generate extra income as to power his home.

Meanwhile, green-minded consumers continue to benefit from a range of available financing options.

Storage and transport revolution

While the switch to EVs remains problematic, the long-term trend away from fossil fuels towards electricity looks set to continue, especially as energy storage technologies develop to address the ‘intermittency gap’ affecting both wind and large-scale solar.

Yet vehicle charging at home is already a reality for a growing minority, and improvements in battery energy and storage (BESS) technologies can only accelerate the trend.

Solar’s getting organised

Guests were in a confident mood as they gathered at the winter reception of Solar Energy UK, and there were words of praise for the industry trade body’s effective lobbying and promotional record.

Representing a diverse group of manufacturers, distributors, installers and others in a changing political and regulatory landscape and amid ongoing economy challenges can’t be easy. However, Chief Executive Chris Hewett could point to a number of milestones achieved last year.

We reckon such efforts, combined with the trends discussed above, point to a great future for solar in the UK.