Comes the Sun: Solar Energy’s New Dawn
By Angela Bleasdale
Financial Times 5 June 1996.
power, for decades regarded as environmentally worthy but
uneconomic, is increasingly being seen as a viable energy
option with vast commercial potential. In spite of hundreds
of millions of dollars of investment during the past 20 years,
the world market is still small. Only about 70MW of photovoltaic
(PV) cells were produced last year for solar power -- enough
to power a small city such as Oxford in the UK.
combination of new technology developments, rising demand
in developing countries and measures by western governments
to kickstart their own markets is generating a brighter future
and a potential multi-billion-pound market.
to Strategies Unlimited, a California-based consultancy, the
industry has the potential to grow to 1,600MW by the year
2010, under certain conditions. The forecast was released
last month at a PV convention in Virginia, organised by the
US Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
like that would be a shot in the arm for the PV industry.
For several years, world production has shown steady year-on-year
growth of about 15 per cent, but manufacturing capacity still
exceeds demand. Globally, there is an estimated annual turnover
of just 450m ($680m), according to the Energy Technology Support
Unit at Harwell in the UK.
a little more than a cottage industry, says John Harford,
manager of strategic planning at BP Solar International, a
subsidiary of British Petroleum, the UK-based oil group.
light to be transformed directly into electric power -- when
light falls on to the solar cells’ thin film of treated
semiconductor material (usually silicon), electrical charges
are generated and conducted to an external grid.
today’s demand comes from remote communities not linked
to the national grid in industrialised and developing countries.
Bouverat, commercial director at the Intersolar Group, a specialist
solar electric company, says the markets in developing countries
are large and growing, and there is a great need for low-cost
solar devices to bring electrification to rural communities.
alone, an estimated 11m families are without electricity.
Depending on the volumes, the cost of some solar devices could
be as low as $3 per watt, says Bouverat. He says that, as
volumes increase and the price approaches $1 per watt, solar
will become competitive with conventional energy.
solar energy costs about 50p per unit (kWhp) as an installed
working system. That compares with approximately 7p per unit
for conventional electricity (nuclear and fossil fuel) and
20p per unit for wind-generated power.
countries, expansion of the market could lie in grid-connected
applications, where PV-generated electricity can be fed back
to the national grid. Harford identifies two such applications,
the first being centralised PV stations, regarded as the holy
grail by many in the industry.
more likely application in the shorter term would build on
PV’s main advantages -- power generation at point of
use, avoiding distribution and transmission costs, and the
fact it can be integrated into most urban buildings.
this area, with its substantial market potential, that has
caught the imagination of the European PV industry. Solar
panels can be located in the facades or roofs of commercial
or domestic buildings to generate a portion of a building’s
Page, the UK junior energy minister, supported this view at
a recent PV conference in London. He emphasised the UK’s
commitment to renewable energy, including solar, which was
reflected in such government projects as the Technology Foresight
programme and the Department of Trade and Industry’s
New and Renewable Energy programme.
helped finance the l.5m conversion of a building in Newcastle
upon Tyne into the UK’s first solar-power office block
Page said it showed that office buildings will be able to
generate one-third of their electricity needs from PV cladding.
the environmental lobbying group, says two-thirds of the UK’s
present electricity production could be generated by PV if
it were deployed wholesale in homes and offices.
says the industry faces a chicken and egg problem -- PV-generated
electricity is still more costly than that from fossil-fuel
power stations, but, if manufacturers were guaranteed sustained
demand, they would invest in high-volume production, reducing
Department of Energy has established a joint programme with
the utilities to create what it sees as a necessary virtuous
circle. It intends to double sales for solar products in four
years and more than double the number of utilities using PV.
It spent about $88m (58m) on initiatives in 1995 and its cumulative
expenditure is approaching $880m.
years, Japan has promoted PV through its “Sunshine”
renewable energy programme to reduce the dependence on nuclear
energy and on imported oil and gas. By 2000, it aims to stabilise
carbon emissions at 1990 levels, a commitment also made by
more than 150 developed nations, including the UK. Japan also
says new energy sources will account for 2 per cent of its
energy requirements by 2000, 3 per cent by 2010.
with the European Commission’s PV in 2010 study which
calls for production of electricity from renewables to be
trebled. It also concludes that roof and building-facade grid-connected
applications represent the fastest-growing solar market in
market initiatives include rate-based incentives where individuals
or businesses invest in PV, recouping their investment over
10 to 20 years via a premium rate for the electricity they
feed into the national grid. The schemes are funded by a small
surcharge on electricity bills.
says such schemes work best in countries with a high degree
of local autonomy, such as Germany and Switzerland, where
utility companies may be owned by local authorities and are
more responsive to consumer preferences. He believes other
mechanisms would be more appropriate for the UK.
Wolfe, Intersolar’s managing director, says the time
is right to include PV in the UK’s Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation,
which subsidises electricity produced from renewable sources.
Inclusion would expand the market, he says.
has so far excluded PV from the NFFO mechanism. The costs
of PV-generated electricity have precluded this,@ Page says.
The position will be reviewed after the next NFFO order, to
be made in 1997.
John Battle, Labour’s energy spokesman, says the party
is committed to prising open NFFO and will include PV as part
of its green energy policy.
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