Commercial rooftop solar could be the key to preventing business black-outs

Tim Purbrick

Tim Purbrick, Commercial Director at Hive Energy

Tim Purbrick, Commercial Director at Hive Energy, the largest UK-owned and operated solar roof developers shares his thoughts on how solar commercial roof-tops could provide the key to the National Grid’s increasingly fragile energy supply.

The National Grid is set to quadruple the amount of electricity available in order to balance the network this winter. Earlier this year, the grid operator had predicted a 10-year low of spare energy capacity levels of just 1.2% this winter, meaning the risk of black-outs across the UK would have been a real possibility. Three years ago the margin of spare electricity capacity was 17%.

In light of the warnings, short-term measures have been taken to safeguard the UK’s supply. The nation’s buffer of spare capacity will be boosted to 5.1% in the six months until March by paying for a reserve of plants. This winter’s reserve will cost the National Grid £36.5 million pounds for 2.56 GW supplied by companies including Centrica Plc, SSE Plc and Engie. That compares with £31.3 million spent on 1.6 GW last winter.

But short-term (and costly) fixes are not going to sustain the energy needs of UK business in the long-term. Will the bail-out be available next year and thereafter? If just one major utility supplier went down or a sudden surge in requirement arose, Britain’s business would come to a grinding halt. It is imperative to implement measures now to ensure the future security and sustainability of our energy supplies.

Ensuring that UK homes remain lit and warm requires 330TW of energy a year and with old generators being switched off and gas plants moth balled due to the abundance of cheap coal, data suggests that the UK’s energy supply margin will continue to be challenged winter-on-winter. Since 2012, 15 power plants have been closed or partially closed, taking out a large chunk of the UK’s energy-generating capacity. According to forecasts by OFGEM, the UK’s supply margin was predicted to fall from a tight 6% at the peak of winter demand in 2014/15 to a possible low of 2% this year. Although a small risk, the combination of a stronger than expected economic growth coupled with a particularly cold winter could have pushed the country over the edge had it not been for the purchase of additional capacity.[1].

Increasingly, we’re speaking to companies across the UK who are seeking out alternative, reliable sources of power to reduce their dependency on the national grid, minimise energy costs and increase supply efficiency. Waitrose’s Leckford Dairy Estate in Stockbridge recently installed 186kWp (enough to power 40 homes annually) of solar panels to work in conjunction with their traditional energy provision and Clipper Teas distribution centre in Beaminster installed a roof-top array generating 89kWp (enough to power 20 homes annually). By installing a decentralised network, energy can be generated and stored locally creating low-carbon energy. To small and medium sized british businesses it may seem all well and good that the multi-national business giants like John Lewis can embrace solar, but it’s time to spread the word – the opportunities for  SME’s to embrace solar roof-top development are available too.

In March 2015, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), removed some of the barriers that were deterring SME’s from choosing to install solar roof arrays.

Firstly, the government increased the permitted development threshold for rooftop solar panels installed on commercial property from 50kW to 1MW removing the red tape surrounding developments less than 1MW in scale.

Secondly, the government rubber stamped ‘lift and shift’ proposals, allowing businesses to take rooftop solar panels with them upon relocation. From 2019 medium and large installations will be allowed to move without losing feed-in tariff payments. Any additional capacity added during a company’s move will be treated as an extension to its existing FiT contract, meaning that businesses will not miss out if they look to bolster their installations after moving offices. Businesses will also not be required to receive planning permission or a grid connection agreement prior to any move.

Many UK-based solar roof developers such as Hive Energy provide full management services, including design, planning approval, build and management to make the process of installing a commercial roof-top solar array simple, affordable and accessible.

Some of the benefits of installing a roof-top solar system include;

  • Solar provides electricity at a significant discount to current utility bills. Industrial energy prices are forecast to increase by 60% over the next 10 years with prices projected to grow from 10p per kWh to 15.9kWh[2]. Conversly, the cost of solar will continue to fall with the levelised cost of solar electricity already costing 10p per kWh. 7.
  • Reduce on-site grid energy usage therefore reducing energy costs and reducing the pressure on the network distributor and a overloaded grid.
  • Coupled with storage, commercial solar roof-top arrays offer a genuine 24-hour alternative power supply.
  • Building will become more energy efficient and therefore compliant with energy saving regulations.
  • Safeguarding business operation and reputation. Increasingly, clients are expecting their supplies to adhere and compliment CSR objectives. By adopting solar power systems, businesses are actively demonstrating their compliance with the government’s low carbon initiatives and while championing their adoption of environmentally conscious commercial practises.

The warning of a national grid shortage this winter, the first of its kind since 2004 and the government’s recent classified security assessment ‘Exercise Hopkinson’ show that the UK is woefully under-prepared for power outages. Increasingly, we are seeing warning signs and reading the evidence but failing to act.

British business can no longer rely wholly on the National Grid, the time to take responsibility and diversify energy suppliers and refresh contingency measures for power is now.

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[1] Ofgem, Electricity Capacity Assessment Report 2014

[2] Projected Price of Electricity, Department of Energy and Climate Change 2014.