Centred on solar

The solar PV (photovoltaic) industry has had a bumpy ride of late and more than one installer has told me that “domestic solar has fallen off a cliff”. Even so, at the recent launch of the BRE National Solar Centre in St Austell, Cornwall, Greg Barker, Energy and Climate Change Minister, tempered the difficulties of the past with optimism for the future. While acknowledging how difficult recent months have been, he said the industry has come through “this testing period” and has “definitely emerged leaner, wiser and certainly larger”.

Although I wasn’t altogether convinced that everyone in the audience around me agreed with this statement, DECC does state that 1.8GW of solar PV is now deployed and in operation in the UK. This is enough energy to power around 450,000 homes and Barker said: “solar is now rightly recognised as one of DECC’s priority renewable energy technologies and an essential part of our energy future”.

With this in mind the new BRE National Solar Centre, which opens in April, is being established with the aim of helping industry and Government deliver on the solar PV opportunities set out in DECC’s recent 2012 Renewables Roadmap Update. It will also steer the UK’s capacity towards a potential 20GW by 2020. The Centre’s remit is to drive innovation, cost reduction and increased confidence in the marketplace through knowledge generation. It will engage with organisations outside the traditional scope of the industry to ensure that PV is better understood as a technology so its potential can be realised.

A particular focus will be the construction industry and the need to improve its understanding of how to integrate PV products better with buildings. I’d love to see more integrated solar in the residential sector where integration typically involves the use of solar tiles in place of traditional roof tiles. This can help offset costs by reducing the amount spent on building materials and labour that would otherwise be used to construct that part of the roof. But the key benefit for me is that integrated solar can be more successful aesthetically.

Even so, some solar tiles are better than others when it comes to blending in. The most successful I’ve seen for use in a traditional context are those from Solar Slate, a company owned by the RES Group. These have very similar aesthetic properties to roofing slates and are ideal for use in conservation areas, on historic buildings and, of course, for new build projects.

The downside of such products is cost. Although tiles like these might not become significantly cheaper in the immediate future, it’s worth noting that figures from DECC show that the sector as a whole has seen a dramatic reduction in installed costs by up to 50% from 2010-2012.

Image credit: Solar Slate