Photon Energy celebrates 10 years in the business

Jonathan Bates, Managing Director, Photon Energy

Last month, we celebrated 10 years of Photon Energy – making us positively ancient in the UK’s solar PV industry. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the UK’s solar PV industry develop from a small, niche industry that employed at most, 1,000 people to an industry that, at its height in 2015, employed over 35,000 people – more than the nuclear industry.

When we started, back in 2006, the UK had a total of 14.3 MW of solar PV installed. After our first year, this had risen to 18.1 MW and by the end of 2009, just before the start of the feed-in tariff, there was around 30 MW of installed capacity.

Those early days were largely marked by a government that was unconvinced by the potential for solar, and by stop-start grant schemes such as the Major Demonstration Programme which saw the installation of around 200 systems having been billed as the UK’s answer to the German 100,000 roofs programme.

By 2007, the Low Carbon Buildings Programme had started which was originally intended to ‘establish the UK as a credible player…alongside Germany and Japan’ and was a catalyst for the establishment of Photon Energy.

In the first year of the scheme, 3.8 MW of solar PV was installed, with a further 4.4 MW added in 2008; in 2010, the final year of the scheme, a total of 40 MW was installed. This compares to the 7,411 MW installed in Germany and the 991 MW installed in Japan in the same year.

Does this lack of ambition, stop-start schemes, continual policy changes all sound a little bit familiar?

Another innovation in 2006 was the introduction of the voluntary Code for Sustainable Homes which set progressively tightening environmental criteria for new homes. It was adopted by many housing associations creating a new market for solar PV and solar thermal systems. This complemented the increasing popularity of the “Merton rule” where local planning authorities could require new commercial buildings over 1,000 m2 to generate at least 10% of their energy from renewable energy. By 2008 the Planning and Energy Act enabled all councils in England and Wales to adopt the Merton Rule.

However, it was the unpredictability of the various grant schemes and the introduction of the Code for Sustainable Homes and the Merton Rule that led us to concentrate our early efforts on the new-build market – both residential and commercial. By keeping this as a major part of our client base, we have been protected from the extreme boom and busts of the feed-in tariff and ROC schemes.

Fast forwarding to 2017, the feed-in tariff has done a great job in helping to kick-start the UK’s solar PV industry: there are now over 870,000 solar powered buildings with some 3.5 GW of rooftop solar installed in the UK. Photon Energy has installed over 21 MW of roof-mounted PV and boasts an impressive array of clients in both the new build and retro-fit markets.

But what now? The feed-in tariff has been effectively scrapped, the Renewables Obligation scheme has been closed, but they have by and large done their job.

For the last 5 years, the rationale for installing solar has been to maximize the revenue from a subsidy, and so the decision to install a rooftop solar system has been a financial one and not an energy one. This will change. With the value of “displaced” electricity worth between 5 and 6 times more than the generation tariff, the revenues from the feed-in tariff are increasingly irrelevant. Rooftop solar systems are now being designed to maximise on-site energy use rather than fitting as many panels as possible on a roof to maximise income from a subsidy.

Today, a 250kW system installed for £900/kWp, on a building where all of the electricity is used on site, an IRR of 7% can be achieved with no feed-in-tariff; the same calculation for a 50kW system installed for £1000/kWp gives an IRR of 5%.

The solar industry needs to be planning for a post-subsidy world and we need to be working now to ensure that we influence the landscape. Mechanisms such as Enhanced Capital Allowances for solar PV should be introduced, priority grid access maintained with guaranteed export revenues.

This would allow us to continue our journey towards subsidy free solar…and be free of the meddling and interference by politicians.

About Photon Energy

Photon Energy is one of the UK’s leading independent companies in the solar PV industry, designing, supplying and installing systems for commercial, agricultural and other private sector applications and the public sector. It is a certified installer under the Micro-generation Certification Scheme The company’s strengths lie in its technical and engineering excellence and its insistence on providing every customer with a top quality service and excellent value for money.


Solar PV Louvres for Taplow Shopping Centre

A unique installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) louvres has been completed and commissioned at the Bishop Centre retail park, close to Taplow Station on the A4 (Bath Road) between Maidenhead and Slough. What differentiates this system from all others is that Photon Energy designed and installed a solar PV installation using bespoke glass laminates on the front elevation of the building.

The 188 Romag monocrystalline glass laminates are installed in 47 bays along the front of units two to nine, mounted on an aluminium carrier system and have a maximum DC power output of just over 12 kWp.

Triada Vlasakoudi, one of the project engineers responsible for the work said: “There were a number of significant challenges with this installation, but the finished look is just what the architect at the 3DReid practice wanted for a quality retail park. We were very pleased to be able to complete the installation within the extremely tight schedule.”

Firstly, the frames for the louvre system had to be assembled on the ground, and DC cables for the glass laminates were run through the frames and the torsion tubes. A telehandler was then used to lift the assembled frames into position. This was not an easy task as each frame weighed 120kg and measured around 3m x 2.5m.  Fitting the frames into the glulam (engineered wood) fascia was a very difficult operation as the tolerance around the frames within the glulam openings was just 12mm at the sides and bottom and 20mm at the top.  The operation was further complicated as the operatives had to work at a height of 8 metres from a scissor lift platform.

Once the laminates had been put into position, the DC cable containment for the wiring of the louvres was installed behind the frames above the soffits of the timber canopy construction. The wiring connections were completed after the soffits were installed, which also limited the access.

In addition to the very visible PV louvres, the full installation also included roof mounted solar PV modules on the roof of the TK Maxx store and on the adjacent unit occupied by Nike. This involved the installation of 160 monocrystalline Perlight PLM-250 modules with a total power rating of 40kWp, to give a maximum DC power of 26.5kWp in unit two with the remainder in unit three. Annual carbon savings are expected to be 17.55 tonnes for unit two and 6.22 tonnes for unit three.

K2 Speedrail/Speed clips were used for all roof mountings and Goodwe inverters were used throughout.

The main contractor – Photon Energy’s client – was Bowmer and Kirkland, who reinstated the existing Bishop Centre for owners Land Securities to form a new £20m shopping centre consisting of 10 units with over 400 car parking spaces led by a 5110 sq metre Tesco store.

Simon Masters, Bowmer and Kirkland’s site manager said: “This was the first time I had worked with the system which Photon Energy installed at the Bishop Centre Taplow, and it has been a pleasure. Photon Energy is a professional contractor in terms of its management and fitters and I would not hesitate to work with them again. The project manager Triada Vlasakoudi was always at the end of the phone to answer any queries as was any of the team. I look forward to working with them in the future.”

Photon Energy won the work through a competitive tender, after an extended consultative process and preliminary work with the 3DReid architectural practice. A single aluminium frame complete with eight louvres was installed for final approval by the architect, main contractor and project owner prior to the start of the roof work in late April 2104.

Simon Brambles from 3DReid said: “Photon Energy brought its specialist expertise to deliver a well-designed bespoke PV louvre system for the Bishop Centre project in Taplow. The engagement with ourselves and the design team from the outset and through to installation ensured delivery of a sustainable and practical solution that met the original brief’s objectives.”


Turning public sector buildings into mini-power stations

It’s likely that every public sector building will have a solar installation on a flat or south-facing rooftop by 2025. But only those who act now will benefit from subsidies, writes Robert Goss, MD Conergy UK

There are not many chances in life to do the right thing and improve the bottom line. Right now, there is an excellent opportunity for the managers of public sector buildings to take advantage of existing subsidies to lower their energy outgoings or generate cheaper energy for tenants. Using the energy produced locally also reduces transmission losses – read “waste” – and takes pressure off the grid.

In fact, it may surprise you to learn that when it comes to solar photovoltaic (PV) power, Britain is now Europe’s leading nation with more than 2,000 megawatts (MW) being installed last year.

The UK government’s position is that solar PV is an important part of its energy portfolio, ranking alongside nuclear, gas, coal and wind. But while solar supports 16,000 jobs up and down the country, from Devon to Durham, just a handful of the nation’s council offices, hospitals, schools and social housing have been kitted out with panels so far.

Government planning data show that almost all very large solar projects, which tend to be ground mounted, are privately owned. One notable exception is a publicly owned project at a former RAF base where Norfolk County Council is building a 50 MW solar farm, under a 25-year lease to a renewable energy company.

The growth of solar has been meteoric. A decade ago, solar panel prices were as high as £4.00 per watt, and the global market for solar was 500MW installed per year. That is equivalent to the peak production of one small gas power plant. Today, prices are around £0.40 per watt, and the global market in 2014 was over 42,000MW – equal to the peak capacity of more than 40 nuclear power stations.

Remarkably, the size of the UK market puts us ahead of much sunnier Mediterranean countries. Britain even installed more solar panels than Germany last year, where nearly 6 per cent of electricity already comes from solar. Germany is still the world leader in cumulative installed capacity, but we are growing fast, and are likely to be the biggest European market for solar again this year.

Utilities are undergoing a seismic shift as a result of solar power. Last December Germany’s biggest utility, E.ON, decided to hive off all its conventional fossil fuel generation to focus on renewables and energy services. E.ON said that its new strategy was a result of rising renewable energy competitiveness. The same will happen here.

Solar farms of up to 15 acres are eligible for Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which utilities are required to acquire to meet targets for renewably produced electricity, and have been hugely successful. However the government increasingly favours the installation of solar on rooftops and there is a significant opportunity for public sector buildings – especially those with plenty of roof-space.

The government favours rooftops for three reasons. First, energy losses in the UK grid are significant – around 7.2 per cent. This is reduced by using energy generated locally, by workers in public buildings during the day for example, rather than by feeding it into the grid. Secondly, because roof-top solar power generates about three times more jobs per megawatt installed than large, ground-mounted solar farms. And thirdly, because Britain has significant manufacturing capability in manufacturing solar components including panels, mounting systems and meters.

For the same reasons, solar panels are attractive in social housing, where they can also help the less well-off by cutting energy bills and keeping prices down and predictable long-term. Much of the benefit to date from solar power has gone to large landowners for solar farms, so more installations on social housing would be a welcome community benefit.

Solar in Britain has a load factor of a little more than 10 per cent, which means that averaged over the year, including night-time, an installation will generate power equivalent to about a tenth of its capacity, about the same as in Germany. To maximise yield and revenues, you must get as close to this 10 per cent figure as possible.

This does not necessarily mean a south-facing installation. If most of the electricity consumed on-site is at lunchtime this can make sense, but it is often better to go for an east- or west-facing installation, which generate more electricity during the morning and afternoon. Worth noting that there is of course some difference between the north and south of the country, but solar panels are still cost-effective in the highlands of Scotland.

Solar installations on rooftops earn money from government feed-in-tariffs, which are still very cost-effective because of huge declines in technology and installation costs thanks to the boom in the industry. There are increasingly attractive financing schemes available, and operating and maintenance costs are very low.

For managers of public buildings, it is worth considering that the government is beefing up support for large roof-tops. For the first time they will distinguish between large roof-tops of between 50 kilowatts and 5 megawatts, and solar farms. Incentives for solar fall as they are used up, so this move will ring-fence the roof-top market for longer, giving finance directors more time to plan installations

The government is also trying to make it easier for landlords and tenants to have solar panels installed, and is consulting on changes to allow both tenants and landlords to physically transfer an installation, if they move. The aim is to lower investment risk and increase the flexibility of the scheme. This move is expected to open up a big new market for the solar industry. Central government is also taking a lead as the owner or tenant of its enormous public estate of government offices, Ministry of Defence buildings, and the vast Crown Estate, which includes prime retail and leisure property.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Conergy is a top-five solar developer in Britain, and we have invested considerably in our rooftops team. We bring huge experience from around the world to local installations, and are well-versed in the particular needs of the public sector. We urge building owners to act now. Recent research showed that large-scale, roof-top projects may be the first solar sector to be competitive without subsidies. Because these buildings are occupied in the daytime, when the sun is shining, they make a small profit through savings on utility bills, before accounting for the subsidies. It is very likely therefore there will be no subsidies in a few years.

Smart managers of public buildings are seizing the opportunity of current subsidies to create a long-term revenue stream and cut their energy bills. And they are backed by the government. Last April, the then energy and climate minister Greg Barker said the government aimed to install up to 1,000 MW of solar PV on public land and buildings. Substantial progress is expected in 2015. Together we can make that relatively modest ambition a reality.

This article appeared as the cover story for the February 2015 issue of Building & Facilities Management.