18 October 2010


UK feed-in tariff could create supply chain for 4GW annual capacity by 2016

A workshop last month organized by the UK’s Electronics, Sensors and Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network (ESP KTN) and the Photonics Leadership Group (PLG) has discussed the major opportunity for solar electricity to create wealth and jobs whilst also significantly lowering the UK’s carbon footprint.

ESP KTN supports technology communities embracing electronics, sensors and photonics (including plastic electronics, embedded systems, displays, lighting, instrumentation, and control systems) by grouping the underpinning technologies to make a single entity focused on knowledge sharing. Its themes aim to address the ‘challenge led agenda’ of the Technology Strategy Board (a business-focused organization dedicated to promoting technology-enabled innovation UK-wide) for the key technology areas of electronics, photonics and electrical systems. PLG is a body of senior representatives from industry, government and academia that brings together all aspects of the industry to promote the application of the science in business. The UK PV consortium and epiwafer foundry and substrate maker IQE plc of Cardiff, Wales, UK also contributed to the workshop.

Although photovoltaic solar electricity has been the subject of research for decades, only recently has the science come together with the business opportunity created by the newly available feed-in tariff (FiT) in the UK. The workshop concluded that the UK was in an excellent position to benefit from this convergence, since the country already has significant activity, albeit with most of the production currently being exported.

The UK has major production of solar panels, plus the raw materials for the solar cells, films and coatings that are used, as well as the vital specialty glass. Almost all of this is exported to other countries that have an established FiT. As the world increasingly starts to use solar electricity, there is already a global shortage of capacity and this creates an opportunity for the UK to invest and prosper in an activity that fits the UK profile well, it is reckoned — high technology with strong local use and a global market. Overall there are in excess of 60 firms in the UK in all layers of the industry.

Major business opportunities exist in the whole supply chain, from materials to panel assembly and installation. One particular need is for reliable inverters (the electronics that convert DC electricity from the panels to 240V AC for the grid). These need to match the expected 20–30 year lifetime of the solar cells and comprise one of the key parts of the whole system. In particular, the variable nature of UK weather places considerable demands on systems that have been designed for slowly changing solar loads.

By analogy with the situation in Germany, where the FiT was put in place 7 years ago, the workshop concluded that the UK could create a total supply chain that would be able to install 4GW of peak generating capacity annually by 2016 and would employ 150,000 people at that time. In addition, building up that capability would give excellent export opportunities in a market that is growing at 40% per year.

Annual capacity of 4GW over 20 years would give 80GW (peak output) of installed capacity, which could provide 20% of the total electricity needed in the UK. This meets the target set by the Government for renewables at that time and represents a reduction in annual CO2 of 13 million tonnes

The workshop also confirmed that the levels of solar energy at the average latitude of the UK were sufficient to meet these targets. In fact, the main challenge was not seen to be related to science or engineering but to the build-up of the level of activity required both in terms of reaching an adequate volume of manufacturing and of finding and training a large enough workforce.

The final report from the workshop, with its recommendations, will be published early in November.

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