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Solar Electricity to create an industry employing 150,000 in the UK

As the BBC recognised solar electricity as a significant technology (see my earlier blog), so a major opportunity for Solar Electricity to create wealth and jobs whilst at the same time significantly lowering the UK’s Carbon Footprint was confirmed at a workshop organised by the Electronics, Sensors and Photonics Knowledge Transfer Network and the Photonics Leadership Group last month.

 

Solar Electricity (also known as Photovoltaics) has been the subject of research for decades but only recently has the science come together with the business opportunity created by the newly available Feed In Tariff (FiT) in the UK. The meeting of experts in the field concluded that the UK was in an excellent position to benefit from this convergence since the country already has significant activity but with most of the production currently being exported.

 

The UK has major companies involved in the production of solar panels themselves, raw materials for the solar cells, films and coatings that are used in the industry as well as an even more fundamental part – the special glass itself. Almost all of this is exported to other countries that have an established FiT. As the world increasingly starts to use Solar Electricity there is already a world shortage of capacity and this creates a real opportunity for the UK to invest and prosper in an activity that fits the UK profile well – high technology with a strong local use and with a global market available. Overall there are in excess of 60 companies in the UK in all layers of this industry

 

Major business opportunities exist in the whole supply chain from materials, to panel assembly, to installation. One particular need is for very reliable Inverters (the box of electronics that converts the DC electricity from the solar panels to 240 volts AC for the Grid - part of the balance of systems [BOS]). These need to match the expected 20 to 30 year lifetime of the solar cells and are in any case one of the key parts of the whole system. The variable nature of UK weather places considerable demands on systems that have been designed for slowly changing solar loads.

 

By analogy with the situation in Germany, where the FiT was put in place 7 years ago, the meeting concluded that the UK could create a total supply chain that would be able to install 4Gigawatts (GW) of peak generating capacity a year by 2016 and would employ 150,000 people at that time. In addition, building up that capability would give excellent export opportunities in a market that is growing at 40% per year.

 

To put that amount of generation in context: 4GW per year over 20 years would give 80GW (peak output) of installed capacity which could provide 20% of the total electricity needed in the country. This meets the target set by the Government for renewables at that time and represents a reduction in annual CO2 of 13 million Tonnes

 

It was also confirmed that the levels of solar energy at the average latitude of the UK were sufficient to meet these targets. The main challenge was in fact not seen to be related to the science or engineering but to the build-up of the level of activity required both in terms of reaching an adequate volume of manufacturing and of finding and training a large enough workforce.

 

The final report from the workshop, with its recommendations, will be published early in November and will be available for download on the _connect web site.

 

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