As the renewables industry continues to grow apace, of all natural energy sources solar appears the squeakiest cleantech. It derives from the sun after all, what can be cleaner than that?
As the renewables industry continues to grow apace, of all natural energy sources solar appears the squeakiest cleantech. It derives from the sun after all, what can be cleaner than that? Firms and homes alike can fix solar panels on their roof converting sunlight into electricity, and debunking one myth - such systems do not even need direct sunlight to work, they can still generate some power on a cloudy day.
We're constantly being warned just how vital forms of renewable energy are to counter the impact we make on the environment through damaging greenhouse-read-carbon dioxide gases.
The British Standards Institute's PAS 2060 carbon neutrality standard is now two years old. Developed with input from both the public and private sectors it helps organisations express their commitment towards the environment, along with strengthening their corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials, not to mention build trust and win new business.
To this end UK Business Secretary Vince Cable launched the O shore Renewable Energy Catapault, with a £50m national centre for green technologies based at the University of Strathclyde, although admittedly it's more about wind, wave and tidal powers. Nevertheless Cable emphasised how alternative energy sources can compete on a global scale with huge potential for growth. Significantly, he added that "harnessing such renewables...will generate billions of pounds for the economy whilst creating thousands of job opportunities".
It's a claim strengthened by Solar Electricity Systems' quite spectacular results. They show a 17-fold increase in earnings that should lay to rest rumblings from the naysayers about the sustainability of this particular area of electricity power generation.
Glasgow-based Solar has seen a sharp rise in activity, posting sales of £10.75m from March 31, 2011 to the end of the year, compared to just £712,000 in the 17 months from start-up to March 31, 2011. The renewables energy specialist is confident demand will continue and forecasts total revenues of £12.5m for the full and current financial year to March 31. Says founder Jim Kirkland: "We believe our future growth is wholly sustainable." Solar plans to double its workforce to over 60 and expand into England.
Yet, solar power developments appear to come at a price in the carbon footprint stakes with the odds becoming increasingly stacked against such ventures ever getting o the ground in real and long lasting commercial terms. Despite Cable's enthusiasm, the UK Government has not only done a u-turn on feed-in tariffs (FIT), more than halving the subsidy for household rooftop solar panels, it has also cut a similar subsidy for commercial ventures where firms could profit from building photovoltaic (PV) solar farms.
Climate Change Minister Greg Barker stated bluntly: "You don't have to be a Nobel prize-winning economist to realise that solar is burning through the budget at an unsustainable rate."
This prompted Scottish Energy Minister Fergus Ewing to criticise the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change, as he pointed to a sector that has experienced a rapid expansion in Scotland, with more than 1300 installations in one month alone. Ewing has had to call a moratorium on current schemes with numerous social housing projects using solar to take residents out of fuel poverty now shelved. "Cutting the feed-in tariff so sharply and with so little warning will have a devastating impact on families and businesses across Scotland."
He further described the UK Government action as a "body blow" to the blossoming Scots solar industry. Companies with full order books who have invested in recruiting and training staffhave had the carpet pulled from under them as the numbers on which they based their business plans are changed.
Another apparent drawback for solar is a
warning from the £3bn UK Green Investment Bank - the headquarters of
which is to be based in Edinburgh - starting to issue the first of £775m
in capital loans this month, that there will be no risky or soft oans
or grants made.
So does the solar game appear up?
Not so, says Vivien McKee, marketing director at IA Cubed, Scotland's first tech outfit to be awarded Microsoft Activated Cloud Partner status joining other much bigger UK-wide partners like BT. She points to American research showing that public-private partnerships running cloud computing networks of data centres using solar and wind-powered forms of generated electricity as the way ahead for business and commerce.
McKee's firm works closely with Glasgow's Wise Group, provider of energy saving advice to small businesses, householders and communities through a Cloudwise initiative promoting such technology across the third sector. "Such large scale projects offer significant energy and cost savings, especially during heavy peak periods where megawatts of electricity are consumed."
While some claim renewables energy infrastructure - including solar power - is expensive, Susan Roaf, professor of architectural engineering at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University, disagrees. Roaf, a visiting professor at the Open University and Arizona State University and an expert on technology and design of town planning, hospitals, schools and housing, points to her Oxford family home - an ecohouse designed to maximise energy efficiency and equipped with the first solar-driven photovoltaic cell roof installed in Britain. This six-bedroom home produces a mere 130 kg C02 per annum per metre square, contrasting with comparable UK houses that produce 5000 kg C02/annum m2. The house has 4 KW peak of PV output, 5m2 of solar hot water panels and additional heating from a passive solar sun space.
Can such a natural energy equation translate in commercial terms? The Energy Saving Trust, a non-profit body jointly funded by the UK Government and the private sector including Scottish Power and Scottish & Southern Energy, says larger systems are more cost effective than smaller projects, solar PV requires little maintenance and panels should last 25 years or more.
SSE's chief executive, Ian Marchant, says: "Energy supply [is] now a global issue. It is vital that the policy objectives adopted at Scottish, UK and EU level are consistent."
Keith Anderson, chief corporate officer and CEO of ScottishPower Renewables, supports Scotland's commitment to decrease levels of carbon electricity generation: "We are making a significant investment in large scale renewable energy projects...investment critical to help Scotland achieve its targets."
Solar power looks likely to become further embroiled in politics: Scottish Secretary Michael Moore referred to a Citigroup report claiming up to £4bn of green energy annual subsidies could be at risk if Scotland chooses to become independent, as he claimed a single UK energy market was a must "to meet our targets, invest in our future and combat climate change".
Scottish Renewables responded to research from the Adam Smith Institute/Scientific Alliance claiming wind and solar power combined cannot meet the UK's energy needs describing the report as "flawed" and "one-sided". It prefers a report from Reform Scotland stating the country could earn £2bn a year exporting electricity.
Scottish Renewables' chief executive Niall Stuart points to renewables' anticipated large cost reductions - solar included - countering huge increases in winter energy bills due to the UK's reliance on imported gas.
Alison Kay, commercial director for National Grid, says although the future energy mix remains uncertain, Scotland is setting out a clear vision and already benefiting from "the highest proportion of clean power generation across Great Britain which plays a vital role in keeping the lights on and meeting demand".
Spurred on by positive feedback and undeterred by apparent drawbacks, Solar Electricity Systems' founder Kirkland remains firmly confident of further growth despite the UK Government action on FIT rates for PV panels, and is moving into the public sector. "Even at the lower FIT rate customers can still expect a return of between eight per cent and 10 per cent," he claims.
Kirkland plans to establish a cost-effective product mix with solar, water and windmills to complement panels, forging ahead to ensure his commercial venture stands out in a green energy-conscious but cashrestricted market place.