In recent years, the photovoltaic (PV) sector in the UK has grown dramatically. In 2015 the UK achieved the highest growth rate in Europe, with 3.5 GW of extra capacity added, to reach a total in excess of 10 GW. Policies and regulations implemented by the UK government in recent years have driven the development of the PV sector, moving the country toward the ambitious goals set for 2030. These include 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 27% share for renewable energy sources and 27% improvement in energy efficiency.
Recent changes in UK regulations might be seen as having the potential to curb this strong growth in the PV sector. The reality however is that the regulatory regime is still favourable for installations over 5 MW and it is these that greatly contribute to the expansion of installed capacity.
In fact, according to official figures released in June 2016, 51% of the total installed PV capacity in the UK is made up of installations of 5 MW or greater and it is in this type of installation that Weidmüller products and services are making a major contribution. As one of the market leaders in DC combiner boxes for PV applications, with a market share of 20% in 2015, the company has supplied its products for use in numerous utility-scale projects.
The two factors that have made the largest contributions to the popularity of these products are Weidmüller’s ability and willingness to provide tailor-made solutions for each project, and the versatility of its product range. Options available include, for example, provision for handling both AC and DC power, the ability to take power directly from the string without the need for an auxiliary power source, segregated terminals to facilitate maintenance, and landscape-format enclosures to allow easy installation below the PV panels.
In addition, Weidmüller combiner boxes comply fully with the requirements of IEC 61439-2, thereby providing users with the assurance that they will perform safely, reliably and to specification. The boxes, which are now available for use at 1.5 kV allow big savings to be made on installation and wiring costs for the PV system. The boxes also incorporate effective and dependable surge protection, which is an important benefit for users.
Weidmüller combiner boxes support comprehensive monitoring for the PV array, down to string level. Monitoring each and every string makes it much easier for users to optimise the performance of their PV installations, and also to spot incipient problems – such as potential induced degradation (PID) – so that they can be promptly addressed.
Leading solar energy development companies have, in recent years, successfully developed and installed many large-scale PV systems in the UK. Many of these incorporate Weidmüller combiner boxes with string monitoring. The feedback from these and other users is uniformly positive with reports of excellent reliability and performance.
One major company commented, for example, “We look for connection solutions that accurately meet our demanding requirements, which can vary from site to site. In every instance, Weidmüller has provided us with exactly what we need, delivering technologically advanced products that offer the highest levels of performance.”
Another company was equally enthusiastic saying, “We carried out a great deal of research into finding the right equipment to use in our systems. One of our most important conclusions was that string monitoring would be essential if we were to consistently achieve the ambitious performance targets that are a hallmark of our installations. Our investigations showed that Weidmüller’s products were undoubtedly the best for our needs. In particular, they support our key objective of providing our customers with dependable and efficient long-term solutions.”
So much for current successes, but what does the future hold for PV in the UK? As already mentioned, the recent changes to the regulatory regime are far from helpful, but the true outlook is not nearly as gloomy as some have painted it. There are, for example, 500 active sites for future PV expansion in the UK, counting only those that already have planning approval and other consents in place.
In addition, although most new development is likely to be confined to installations of 5 MW or greater, established developers can continue and are still continuing with smaller scale installations. And, while outside the scope of this article, opportunities abound for UK-based solar power companies to provide systems for use overseas, particularly in Latin America, in Africa and, looking a little closer to home, in Ireland.
Returning to the UK scene, the main goal for PV energy is, as is also the case elsewhere, grid parity – the energy produced by PV sources must be comparable in cost with the energy produced by other methods so that there is no longer a need for support or subsidies. Achieving this parity is a major challenge although much progress has been made and continues to be made.
But the achievement of grid parity is not the only challenge for solar power in the UK, where the extended time needed to gain approval for new projects and the uncertain outlook for funding regulations are making it increasingly difficult to raise finance for new plants.
Also few would seek to deny that the UK’s forthcoming separation from the EU is making the future even more fluid and uncertain. Fortunately there is every prospect that the impact of these factors will diminish over time, and the UK’s commitment to clean energy will once again drive the PV sector forward.
This continued growth will be supported by technological advances, including the trend, alluded to earlier, for solar arrays to move to operation at 1,500 V, instead of the 1,000 V that has been most frequently used up to now. This change will allow longer arrays of PV modules to be used along with smaller cables, significantly reducing costs of both materials and installation.
In fact, it can be confidently stated cost reduction by this and other means will underpin the future success of the solar power sector in the UK and around the world. And why can this statement be made with such certainty, given the challenges and doubts discussed in this article? The answer is simple. If planet Earth is to remain a comfortable place to live, not just for us but also for future generations, solar power isn’t just another option, it’s indispensable!