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Commercial buildings key to solar future

The increasing popularity of commercial-scale rooftop solar systems is likely to be the key to the future of the struggling UK solar industry, according to a new report.

The increasing popularity of commercial-scale rooftop solar systems is likely to be the key to the future of the struggling UK solar industry, according to a new report.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA)’s 2016 edition of its annual Renewable Energy Review provides an outlook for renewable energy in the UK towards 2020.

According to the report, the private sector has now invested almost £15 billion in renewable electricity, heating and transport fuels in the UK.

Struggling sector

However, following a series of cuts to subsidies, the solar PV market in particular is now struggling, with consensus in the sector that future deployment will be significantly lower than the record-breaking levels seen in 2015.

Solar PV is now a major source of electricity in the UK. In May, solar generated more electricity than coal for the first time. 

Only 1.2GW of new solar capacity can now be supported by the popular Feed-in Tariff (FIT) subsidy up to 2019, compared with nearly 1GW of capacity being deployed in 2015 alone.

According to the Solar Trade Association (STA), the solar industry has lost more than half of its workforce in less than 12 months as a result of subsidy cuts.

Commercial rooftops

With the market for large solar farms now largely dried up and small-scale domestic systems much less attractive due to subsidy cuts, the REA notes that there is a need to “unlock deployment on buildings in the commercial sector”.

The business case for medium to large rooftop solar systems remains strong as a means of generating energy for use on-site rather than for export and protecting against future energy price rises.

Commercial-scale rooftop solar such as 50kW systems are now one of the most popular solar solutions under the new subsidy regime.

There are now nearly 5,500 installations of 50kW or higher on commercial rooftops in the UK, generating more than £1 billion worth of electricity a year.

In February, international building materials company, Kingspan, revealed that rooftop solar remained “cost viable” for its manufacturing facilities despite the subsidy cuts.

Tony Ryan, building technology manager at Kingspan Insulated Panels, said: “Systems that can be sized and installed in buildings, and for those buildings to actually consume the energy rather than export to the grid, are delivering the best returns and this is the case for us.” 

Future outlook

The emergence of viable energy storage technology in the near future is also expected to increase commercial solar deployment by ensuring that the surplus electricity generated can be stored for use at peak times.

Meanwhile, the upfront cost of solar is continuing to fall and price-parity with the electricity grid is now expected to be less than five years away. 

Dr Nina Skorupska, chief executive at REA, said: “While many [solar] businesses have been left reeling [by subsidy cuts] and deployment has begun to slow, as an industry we will persevere, we will innovate, and we will continue to grow.”