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Last updated: 01 April 2019

The Growth of Solar Energy and the UK Renewables Sector

How are renewables growing in the UK?

Renewable energy in the UK has started becoming popular in the 70s, when a wave of environmentalism hit the country following an oil crisis and miners’ strikes. The most popular solar technology at the time was solar thermal collectors for domestic heating, but geothermal and wind also started gaining popularity and providing electricity to many homes. However, numbers were understandably low due to high costs and low efficiency rates: the UK’s energy portfolio saw renewables reaching 2% only in 1990. The introduction of subsidies, combined with falling costs, helped raise the percentage to around 14% in recent years. In 2007, an overall goal was set to reach 20% of the EU’s energy supply with renewables before 2020. Each country was given a different target, and the UK has to reach 15% in this time frame.

The fast rise in installations in the past years has been a result of incentives and subsidies (above all the Feed in Tariff scheme), and of falling prices of PV panels. Domestic, commercial and community-owned installations have been helped tremendously by these schemes, although the impending government review of incentives may hurt companies investing in solar. Another factor that impacted the growth of installations was the choice of large retailers like IKEA to start selling single solar panels for affordable prices, starting from 2013.

Due to the varying solar potentials of different areas in the UK, solar energy is not distributed evenly all over the country. England is the biggest investor in solar, while Scotland relies mostly on wind turbines. Together, England and Scotland account for around 95% of the UK renewables sector. Today, offshore wind is the most used technology, but if investments in large scale solar keep growing at the same rate, solar energy will soon outweigh wind. High wind speed is not only good for turbines, as it also makes solar panels more efficient by cooling them. In fact, it is a common misconception that solar panels need warm weather to work, and even though overcast weather can slightly reduce their output, it doesn’t impact it significantly.

The UK’s solar farms

In the past years, solar farms have become an attractive investment in the UK, favouring the creation of several sites across the country. Most of these solar arrays, which have started appearing between 2007 and 2011, fall between 4 and 5 MW, which is a category that will probably be hit hard by the upcoming cuts and could become much less attractive to investors. More recently, between 2011 and 2013, larger solar parks have been built and their size has increased to over 30 MW. Before announcing the review, the government has predicted that the country will reach 22 gigawatts of installed solar capacity before 2020.

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