Low Carbon Landscapes: Gareth Simkins discusses solar PV uptake
24th May 2023
As we examine the Low Carbon Landscapes across the UK and the evolution of domestic renewables, Gareth Simkins, Senior Communications Adviser at Solar Energy UK, shares his thoughts on small-scale solar power installations in recent years.
Solar Energy UK (SEUK) is a trade association representing the entire solar and energy storage chain. They are funded largely by their membership and represent a thriving member-led community of more than 300 businesses and associates. Members range from ambitious and innovative SMEs to global brands. For over 40 years, SEUK have maintained their mission to act as a voice for their members and use their collective strengths to ‘clean up’ the UK’ energy system.
As a non-profit, SEUK are working towards a target of 40GW of solar power capacity by 2030. They working on a strategic roadmap highlighting how the UK can triple the 2020 solar capacity in 10 years. Progress towards their target can be read in their latest impact report.
The rooftop solar market is big – but it has to get bigger
The growth of the small-scale solar power sector in 2022 was spectacular. The combination of ever-rising energy bills, inexpensive solar systems and public desire for more sustainable lifestyles led to more than twice the number of small-scale systems being installed than in 2021.
A total of 130,596 MCS certified systems (2022) was a record for the post-subsidy era and the most certified installations since 2015, when a dramatic cut to the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) payments for solar energy exported back to the national grid led to a significant drop in solar uptake. The 2022 total was close to all of those installed in 2019 (when the subsidy ended for new systems), 2020, and 2021 put together.
But the small-scale market – the vast majority of which is residential, with some on commercial rooftops – is growing exponentially. At current installation rates, 2023 could easily see triple the 2022 number, perhaps more. There would be a similar story to tell about the large-scale commercial and ground-mounted sector, but for the availability of hard figures. The MCS Data Dashboard is really leading the way for published figures on installations and other areas of the industry are falling behind.
Demand was such that many MCS certified contractors reported struggling to keep up. The lack of available kit due to Covid-related import bottlenecks and the lack of qualified contractors made the situation worse. Fortunately, the unprecedented bottlenecks caused by the pandemic are now over and the industry is on its way towards bridging the skills gap and creating a dedicated pipeline of skilled installers into the industry.
To grow the market, we need to train more installers
A major part of the push to attract new talent is the Solar Skills London programme – operated in partnership between MCS and SEUK. Aside from engaging young people through careers talks, one of its main elements is funding a series of ‘bootcamps’ introducing the skills needed to become a solar contractor, leading into an apprenticeship and a new career.
A further step was creating a careers booklet, highlighting the kinds of roles available in the sector and the high levels of pay available.
But returning to the matter in hand, it’s safe to say that there must be plenty of unfulfilled demand from the public, given the long waiting lists seen last year and the ongoing consequences of the war in Ukraine. And I can say that as I’m one of the people installing a new renewables system.
I’ve just gone out to tender for building an extension to my 1950s home, part of a substantial retrofit project: air source heat pump, battery storage, new windows, mechanical ventilation, new roofing felt and – naturally – a solar PV system of about 5.5kW. I would have done it years ago if it wasn’t for family circumstances.
With a following wind, I think it will all be done by the end of the summer. Well, I certainly hope so, given that my direct debit payment for gas and electricity has just gone up by £147 a month. If that’s not an incentive to go solar, I don’t know what is.
So why do I say that the market must expand? Well, it boils down to some maths.
Last year’s British Energy Security Strategy set an ambition to have 70 gigawatts of solar power in place by 2035, up from about 15GW now. Reaching that implies around 23GW on rooftops, about 18GW more than there is now.
Let’s pick a number and say 3GW will be commercial scale, built on the likes of supermarkets and warehouses, with a capacity beyond the MCS 50kW threshold.
That leaves 15GW to be built over the next 12 years. Assuming the current average installation size of 4.8kW prevails, that implies more than 260,000 installations per year to keep on track. While it may sound forbidding at first glance, the figure is well within reach. It’s almost exactly double the current installation rate and is comparable to the number installed at the height of the FiT era.
So, with more kit being produced by a broad industry, more trained contractors, energy prices set to remain high for the foreseeable future, a public increasingly aware of the benefits of solar, the Skidmore Review calling for a ‘solar revolution’ – not to mention the ever-growing threat of climate change – there is every reason to think that the current period of growth will prevail.
As part of their partnership with MCS, SEUK offer all certified solar contractors an affiliate membership at no cost. As affiliate members, contractors have access to SEUK’s regular member newsletters, monthly webinars, and policy briefings. For more information, visit the SEUK website.
Gareth wrote this blog using figures from the MCS Data Dashboard, which is free to everyone and available to use online now to track renewables uptake across the UK in near-real-time with dynamic and engaging visualisations.
If you would like to read more from Gareth Simkins, visit the Solar Energy UK website and follow them on LinkedIn. To keep up –to-date with other industry voices on Low Carbon Landscapes, subscribe to our mailing list and follow us on social media.