UK FiT review: we will not be moved

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Emma is also the Editor of Solar Power Portal, PV-Tech's UK-based sister website.

Since the fast track review bombshell was dropped last week I have been thinking about what kind of implications this will have on the UK solar industry as a whole — not just how it will affect the large-scale market. As we all know, one of the many things this country’s renewable energy industry lacks is experience, which is why it was so encouraging to see some of the world’s largest and most influential solar players step onto British soil. But what will happen to them now that the subsidies face the axe?

In the wake of the feed-in tariff disaster, I have been catching up with some of these companies to find out what happens if those with years of global experience decide that the UK is a no-go area.

Manufacturers' Musings

Speaking with REC Solar’s Managing Director for France, Benelux, UK and Ireland, Jan Jacob Boom-Wichers, I found out how one of the world’s largest producers of polysilicon and wafers for the solar industry felt about the proposed cuts.

“The good thing is that the UK Government has started to address uncertainty regarding its solar feed-in tariffs and is providing indication of a clear and reliable long-term plan for the UK. However the rates proposed are very low,” explained Jan Jacob.

“Given the recent catastrophic events in Japan, REC Solar thinks that support from the UK Government is necessary to make the UK’s solar industry a viable part of the energy mix and to help kick start an industry that has huge potential.”

When I spoke with Jan Jacob a few weeks back he mentioned then that the biggest problem in REC’s eyes was the great amount of uncertainty in the UK, and he’s right to say that even if the cuts are huge, at least we now have some idea of where we stand. Solar companies now have the chance to make or break in the UK. So, what will REC do?

“REC Solar is a large and long-term partner for the UK industry and is already working with partners here so our activities will not be affected. We will however focus our activities on smaller scale installations given the support scheme. We also think that the UK Government should review their FiT upwards because the current rates are very low for roof top installations for such a young and immature market,” concludes Jan Jacob.

So, although REC is disappointed with the Government’s cuts, it doesn’t plan to move out of the UK. This is encouraging.

Later, I spoke further with Suntech, which is currently the leading supplier of photovoltaic modules in Europe. The company’s Jerry Stokes, President of Suntech Europe, was kind enough to offer his response to the UK’s harsh feed-in tariff changes.

“We see this as a missed opportunity on the Government’s side to promote an important sector that has been paying back investment continuously with new green jobs, cleaner and more diverse energy generation and the perspective of greater energy independence.

As the leading supplier in Europe we are convinced that long-term market growth can only be supported when policy-makers provide an environment where investment decisions can be made. Being a global company headquartered in Asia we would like to support young markets around the world.”

Again, this was extremely encouraging to hear. Knowing that the UK has the support of such a large market player offers hope, doesn’t it?

Stokes continues, “This very disturbing sudden and massive reduction from previous tariffs damages attractiveness for investment and sustainable job creation in the UK and jeopardizes significant investments and planned investments already undertaken. FiT reduction is healthy for the longevity of the market and when well planned encourages both market growth and investment but also reduction in cost and rapid convergence to distributed energy costs – so called grid parity.

Unfortunately, the proposals made in the consultation document have ignored the European and global best practice which has been established in countries whose long term commitments to supporting renewable energy is well ahead of the UK. We should learn from the mistakes made elsewhere rather than creating another mistake from which others will benefit,” he explained.

Here Jerry reiterates an important point – the UK Government failed to learn from the past mistakes of its European neighbours. Instead, the policy decisions have been rushed through and based on a lack of knowledge. In order to keep a supply of quality solar products coming into the UK, it is of paramount importance that we provide a stable market to be delivered to.

However, while REC and Suntech display their disappointment in the feed-in tariff decisions, they do still hold out some hope for the UK’s solar market. Centrosolar, the manufacturer of crystalline PV modules which carry the quality ‘Made in Germany’ stamp, is frustrated by the review. The company’s Managing Director said, “This change to the tariff so early in its life is very unhelpful. It creates huge uncertainty in the market and does not allow businesses to plan accordingly.”

“This will mean the market may not reach the 120MW target for 2011. The changes are too dramatic. We understand the need to review the tariff but rates should be raised to a better level.”

I couldn’t agree more.

On the one hand I’m unbelievably pleased to hear that so many experienced manufacturing companies are planning to stick it out here in the UK, despite our Government’s determination to make it so difficult for them. Yet on the other, I don’t blame the likes of Centrosolar for holding back on their plans until the market stabilises.

In complete contrast to the points of view we’ve heard so far, AZUR Solar, which has recently set up a new UK office in Slough, is fairly positive in response to the review. “The proposed changes to the UK solar energy feed-in tariff should be regarded as an opportunity rather than a threat, as it will move the UK market more quickly towards efficiency and scale,” said Robert ‘Markus’ Feldmann, AZUR Solar’s UK Managing Director. “AZUR Solar, hardened from years of massive competition in the German solar PV market which is the world’s largest, established itself in the UK to master the challenges of industrialisation and scale in the industry from the outset.”

Fighting talk, I think you’ll agree.

However, AZUR does also recognise the risk, as Feldmann continues to say, “The proposed scheme with drastically reduced FiT rates for installations over 50kWp poses a massive challenge. A key result will be to force innovation towards faster, more efficient and more cost effective solutions – weeding out those in the business simply for short term gain. AZUR Solar is well prepared to undertake the challenges.”

Feldmann concludes, “The new feed-in tariff might be a bit too drastic and it certainly has the major flaw of effectively cutting out large industrial roofs over 250kWp, which are ideal to get the UK towards a sustainable energy future, but we can live with the current situation and AZUR Solar is ideally set up and has the innovative vision to work within it and make PV solar work.”

Developers' Deliberation

So there we have the manufacturers take on things. But, what about the foreign developers who have already spent thousands, if not millions, on plans to install megawatts of solar in this country — will they be as keen to stick around in the wake of the feed-in tariff review?

German project developer juwi Solar, which has set up office in Birmingham and planned 60MW of installations over the next two years, shared its thoughts on the review with me this morning. Amiram Roth-Deblon, Head of Business Development New Markets, juwi Solar said, “The proposed FiT rate does not reflect the market price for PV system in that scale, especially not if the rates are compared to the German FiT, which is a mature market. Furthermore large-scale off-shore wind gets about the same as proposed for larger scale solar PV, (8.5p), yet also receives large grants and subsidies that solar PV does not get. So the proposed PV tariff for >250kWp systems is totally unreasonable. We would have expected much higher rates to drive the UK PV market into growth instead of bust – which will happen with these uneconomical rates,” he explains.

However, juwi says it will not pull out of the market as a result of the proposals, “but it certainly puts all our developments on hold until we know what the FiT is. Further our trust in the Government is knocked. We will not invest further into the UK market unless the FiT changes for the better,” explains Roth-Deblon.

juwi also told me that it now does not view the UK as a promising market, as it did a year ago, and that the company is very disappointed by the decision. “If the Government wants to reduce the rates, then they should come up with rates that reflect the market price. We are willing to stand by in helping to come to a situation where we have steady growth without speculators in the market. We are a company that sees the UK as a long-term market and we want to stay. But we need the conditions to do so.”

Sunpower, which has identified 20 large-scale sites for solar development in the UK, has decided not to comment at this stage.

Overall, the response I’ve gathered from a bit of digging around has been encouraging. Although many of the companies I spoke with were clearly irritated by the UK Government’s decision to mess around with the country’s solar policy, yet again, no one said that they were running as fast as they could in the opposite direction.

I seriously hope that many foreign solar companies remain in the UK as we struggle forward, because if I’ve learned one thing over the past year it’s this: we need all the help we can get.

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