April 2016 - The Month Solar Energy Finally Made Its Mark

7 min

Did you know that April has been a landmark month for UK solar energy?

April the 9th was the first day ever when more energy was produced by solar power than by coal in the UK. Solar panels produced around 29GWh of electricity - around 4% of the country's power usage - as opposed to the 21GWh generated from coal. This doesn’t sound like much, and solar power generation certainly isn’t going to surpass levels of energy produced from fossil fuels any time soon. However, it does highlight the changing energy mix in the UK, which is targeted towards more sustainability.

High levels of solar generation have continued since the 9th, and Sheffield Solar, a research project at the University of Sheffield, have produced daily figures showing that 38GWh was generated from PV just last week (13 April). This will continue over the next few months as the sun makes more of an appearance and we use less electricity into the warmer, lighter months. At the end of 2015 wind turbines supplied 17% of Britain’s electricity demand while sustainable, clean power sources together provided almost a quarter of UK electricity in the first three months of this year.

Looking back a few months, we have all heard about the government subsidy cuts to small solar schemes in the UK, those with under 10kWh capacity. Despite sounding like detrimental news, this hasn’t been wholly negative. The looming cuts created a frenzy of projects, fast-tracked to completion before the end of the year when the subsidy cuts kicked in. These have in turn added new capacity to the grid.

The cuts have also fuelled the movement towards the Operations and Maintenance of solar farms.  After the rapid expansion of the market, technical services are now outpacing construction. With this comes an increase in the level of specialist PV knowledge in O&M, and a demand for skilled experts. Companies are adapting to this shift and Light Source, Europe’s largest solar energy company, have set up (O&M) induction academy, to arm staff with specialist skills tailored to the current market.  With a total of 867,876 installations in the UK (at February 2016), and around half these being large scale installations, there is much maintenance to be done to ensure optimal efficiency and quality. 

The end of March also saw another milestone for solar. The world’s largest floating solar farm was completed on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir in Walton-on-Thames, boasting a huge 23,046 panels. It is estimated that this plant can power 1,800 homes, but the energy will cleverly be used to power surrounding water treatment plants. The idea of the mix of water and electricity may seem a bit absurd, but it is a harmonious relationship. The water cools the panels, boosting efficiency. The high banks of the reservoir mean that the panels are not seen unless you are flying around Heathrow airport. By using the normally redundant water surface, planning permission isn’t required and large spaces of land are not being used up. Also, as the reservoir only supplies drinking water, it is unlikely to have much of an effect on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem.

Looking outside the UK, renewables investment is a new high. This investment is shifting from developed to developing nations, 45% and 55% respectively, and 6 of the 10 nations investing the most are developing countries. This has been largely helped by China, more than doubling what they invested last year to reach a huge 36% of the world total.

At the climate summit in Paris, nations agreed to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by the end of the 21st Century. The many current trends and shifts point towards the efforts that are being made to achieve this and an era of clean energy growth globally. Events such as the clean energy summit at the Twickenham Stadium on the 26 to 28 April 2016 give the opportunity to bring people together, learn from experts, network and explore solar power and cleaner, brighter future.