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Aug 12, 2014  | Nick Richardson  | 1 Comment

Riding the U.K. solarcoaster with Solarcentury

U.K. market leader Solarcentury discusses the view from its front-row seat to Britain’s unprecedented solar growth

LONDON—Few companies have experienced the twists and turns of the U.K. solarcoaster as much as Solarcentury. Established in 1998, at a time when solar was light years from being considered the viable energy resource it is today, Solarcentury has grown to become the largest solar company in what, by the end of the year, will be Europe’s biggest solar market.

Since joining Solarcentury in 2007, Susannah Wood could now be called a veteran of the U.K. PV industry. I sat down recently with the firm’s chief marketing officer to talk about the activities of the company, its view of the U.K. market, its international plans, and its core values.

One thing’s for certain when it comes to discussing the rise of Solarcentury to prominence: The introduction of the much-altered U.K. feed-in tariff (FIT) combined with consistent price decreases in PV module technology have provided the catalysts to dramatically grow company revenues from £15 million in 2007 to £107 million in 2013.

What sets Solarcentury apart is the sheer scale of activities and operations that the company in involved in across the industry.  “We’ve applied ourselves to all aspects of the solar business,” explained Wood. “We’re operating in ground-mount, commercial rooftop, large residential programs, and even product design.”

The product design aspect lies in the innovative building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) tile, C21e, launched back in 2006. While the product generates smaller revenue compared with the company’s booming engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) business in the commercial- and, most dominantly, utility-scale solar sectors, Solarcentury firmly believes BIPV has the potential to “become a very important market in the future,” particularly with new-build residential properties, noted Wood.

The C21e has been successfully deployed across the U.K. as well as in France, driven by the French BIPV tariff, which reached a world high (US$0.84/kWh) in 2010. Despite this, the CMO made it clear that pursuing markets with specific BIPV subsidies is not part of Solarcentury’s strategy moving forward: “Our focus in the medium term is on grid-parity markets.”

Solarcentury is well versed in the issues of FITs and solar subsidies. When the U.K. government prematurely cut the FIT in 2011, Solarcentury led and won a legal battle against the reduction, with the U.K. Supreme Court ruling the government’s move unlawful. Pertinently, three days after I spoke with Wood, Solarcentury announced its intention to sue the government over the proposed closure of the renewable obligation (RO) subsidy–which applies to solar farms larger than 5MW–beginning April 1, 2015, two years earlier than originally planned.

While Solarcentury is understandably measured on commenting on the government replacing the RO subsidy with a contract for difference (CFD) approach, Wood affirmed that Solarcentury were far from happy with the situation. “We have concerns about the process. We think it’s designed with large companies in mind, particularly the ‘Big Six’ U.K. energy companies.”

Much industry dissatisfaction concerning the CFD mechanism has focused on the £50 million allocated to the first auction round for all “established technologies,” leaving solar to compete against more lucrative project-based technologies, such as onshore and offshore wind and hydro. With 5.2GW currently in the U.K.’s ground-mount solar pipeline, industry analyst firm IHS has predicted a possible drop to 800MW of PV installations once CFD takes effect—a big growth hit on a burgeoning market.

Solarcentury is equally concerned with the potential effect that the switch to CFDs would have on solar project investment. “It’s not a great scenario,” remarked Wood. “The government are consistently saying they want to create a sound trajectory for investors, yet they are now whipping it away. Trying to put logic on their actions is difficult.”

Aside from large-scale solar, Solarcentury remains optimistic about the potential growth of commercial solar, a sector that the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has recently expressed urgency in expanding. Solarcentury has calculated that since the FIT was launched in 2010 until January 2014, there have been a meagre 400 commercial installations of 100KW or larger installed in the U.K.. Consequently, the company has spent the past eight months identifying the various barriers that have prevented solar from being deployed in larger numbers on the 1.8 million commercial rooftops in the U.K. and has created some innovative solutions, such as the initiative Solarcentury calls PROGRESS.

In the commercial space, Solarcentury joined forces with Network Rail to install one of the most iconic U.K. solar systems—the 1.1MW array on the newly refurbished Blackfriars Station. Featuring 4400 Panasonic HIT modules capable of covering more than 50% of the station’s electricity demand, the project stands as the world’s largest solar bridge and offers a prime example of the company’s innovative approach.

Nothing demonstrates Solarcentury’s grand ambitions like its expanding international business, particularly in Africa. Earlier this year, the company completed two significant projects: the first, the 1MW project on a Williamson Tea farm in Changoi, Kenya; the second, a 574KW array atop the Waterfall Mall in Rustenberg, South Africa. The company sees Africa as a key growth market and looks to apply its commercial rooftop and ground-mount expertise in the region. “The need for decentralized energy in Africa is massive, especially with the use of diesel and consistently rising electricity prices,” explained Wood.

Latin America is also on Solarcentury’s market radar; the company opened an office in Mexico last year. While the process of approving and constructing PV projects has been more prolonged there than in Europe, one can expect to see the firm break ground on its first Latin American project in the coming months.

Solarcentury’s profound core mission runs through the company and its ideals–tackling the issue of climate change through the deployment of solar. It’s a simple and obvious ideal, yet one that frustratingly and somewhat bizarrely does not get communicated often enough or well enough by the global solar industry. This moral principle originates from Solarcentury’s founder Jeremy Leggett, a well-respected clean energy champion and leading voice in raising awareness about the potentially horrific consequences of unchecked climate change.

The mission “comes through in all our people,” emphasized Wood. “When we interview potential employees, we want to know if making a difference in the fight against climate change is a motivation for them. An engrained, deeper motivation other than working in the U.K. solar industry because of an FIT is very important to us.”


Sources: Solarcentury, the Guardian, Solar Power Portal UK, IHS, Jeremy Leggett, SolarCurator

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