August 13th was a really good summer for the UK last year.
Or so the saying goes when Brits (or maybe just me) describe the summertime in the United Kingdom. It’s not everyday that we get heatwaves (or at least while I was growing up in Stockport in northern England). However, Britain’s latest heatwave has helped break several solar power-generation records, and although not for the first time, renewable energy source briefly eclipsed gas power stations as the UK’s top source of electricity.
A run of largely cloudless days has seen a series of highs for power generation by the sector. According to Sheffield Solar based out of Sheffield University, five of the seven days between June 21st and 28th had generated over 75GWh of solar PV from the 13GW of installed capacity on the National Grid.
Solar output also hit more than 8GW for ten consecutive days and only once in the last 13 has the output been less than 8GW — July 1st saw the UK max out at 7.55GW. The record for peak solar generation was 9.42GW, set on 14 May this year, almost 1GW higher than the previous year.
While gas and nuclear power are still the dominant generators for the UK, it is clear to see just how far solar PV has developed over the last few years. A decade ago, solar contributed almost nothing to UK electricity supplies. In 2018, even in the winter months, solar PV has been consistent in providing a minimum 4% of the demand.
“During the past 12 months alone, we have seen renewable generation records broken and we expect this trend to continue, as technology advances and we find new ways to accommodate and manage more wind and solar power on our network.” — Duncan Burt, Director of System Operations at National Grid
For about an hour on Saturday afternoon, solar panels across the country’s rooftops and fields were the number one source of electricity, with a share of more than 27%. So far, solar has only come top at weekends, when demand is lower.
However, since the subsidies for solar came to an end, installations have slowed down meaning that there hasn’t been significant additional capcity coming online to the National Grid. This would lead to gas and nuclear to keep the ranking of top generators of power in the UK. Or at least for now anyway.
Over the past decade, technological advances in solar PV have rapidly increased the efficiency and performance of solar systems. Ten years ago, an average solar panel (5' x 3' in size) rated at around 200W. Today, we’re seeing solar panels reach 400W in a 6' x 3' frame. With efficiency of the solar panels able to convert sunlight into electricity nearly double, more power can be generated on the same footprint for a project. In a post-subsidy industry, there is some light at the end of this tunnel.
Hive Energy told an industry audience last week that it believes technological improvements mean its planned solar farm will have 14% more capacity than originally conceived.
The Cleve Hill project could potentially reach 400MW, dwarfing the UK’s current largest solar farm, a 72.2MW one in Wales.
“This marks the start of subsidy-free solar being economically viable, and I genuinely believe we’ll see bigger changes to the electricity sector in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 10.” — Dr. Alastair Buckley, University of Sheffield.
With technological advances, viability of subsidy free solar projects in the UK, and a restart for large scale installations, hopefully we can see more of the generation pie coming from solar PV.