Good news, bad news and controversy have forced the topic of solar photovoltaics (PV) into the headlines over the last couple of months. The good news is that the quarter between April and June saw the fastest ever growth in solar installation in the UK. 14,500 new systems were installed. This boom in solar installation, fuelled by the government’s Feed in Tariff, has created new jobs and connected 122 MW of new solar power to the grid.
[twothirds]The controversy revolves around this issue of the size of the new PV installations. Since August only installation under 50Kw have been eligable for the top rate of Feed in Tariff payments. (To give you a sense of what that means our biggest PV roof is 20Kw). The government’s intention was to stop large subsidy payments going to so called “solar farms”; solar installations that exist purely to sell green electricity to the grid. Before the cut in subsidy Caroline Lucas warned that it would hamper the development of Britain’s fledgling solar industry saying that it would be “bad news for jobs, bad news for the economy and bad news for the environment”. The change in policy dealt with the solar farm issue, but also dealt a blow to community scale solar developments and large solar installations planned for schools, hospitals and housing associations.
Regardless of the various political wrangles over subsidies and funding, PV is a vital part of the energy mix. It’s important that people understand how to install, design and specify appropriate PV systems. Last week a group of students on our Renewable Energy and Built Environment master’s course spent a week getting to grips with the technology. This was actually a two week ‘double module’. As well as learning how to install and specify solar PV systems students also set up an experiment that runs for the month in between the two week long modules. This year the students compared the output of several systems they temporarily installed on the roof of the WISE building.
Student Richard Jackson explains: “We split into five groups. Each group had to design, and then build a different kind of PV installation. This obviously includes everything you’d need to do on a real commercial installation: positioning the system based on a computer analysis of shading and local weather patterns, physically building the structure for the systems and then doing the wiring”.
The student’s experiment was designed to compare the output of solar systems that track the sun. The solar installations most of us are familiar with are simply fixed, immovably to a roof. What the students wanted to find out is whether the output can be increased by making the solar panels move and track the sun across the sky. “We tested several commercially available systems that can move a solar panel so that it either follows the sun across the sky, or constantly moves searching out the lightest part of the sky even on cloudy days”.
Students are increasingly looking for places where they can learn about this technology in a practical way. Designing, installing and experimenting with solar systems is becoming an increasingly popular option amongst students on all of our master’s courses.
Regardless of the controversy around PV and the Feed in Tariff, PV is still a technology with the potential to create jobs and supply the grid with low carbon electricity. It’s vital that people get to grips how it works and continue to experiment with ways of improving it.[/twothirds]