Looking at the future opportunities for the UK solar market

by Search Gate staff. Published Fri 22 May 2015 11:29, Last updated: 2015-05-26

Chris West, Senior PV Engineer at BayWa r.e. Solar Systems, discusses the future opportunities for the UK solar PV market.

What are the key technology developments for solar PV currently in the UK?

The biggest developments are in the fields of smart metering, self-use of the power generated as well as export limiting and using battery power storage systems to save, store and use the power generated on site. These have been amongst the biggest developments in UK solar PV deployment in recent months. BayWa r.e. Solar Systems have been working with leading inverter manufacturers to implement innovative solutions to overcome local grid capacity issues.

Inverter manufacturers such as SolarEdge and SMA have recently developed solutions to limit the amount of power that PV systems export and make use of local battery power storage. Both technologies are seen as ways to protect the grid infrastructure in the near future.

Also known as curtailment, export limitation is deployed on sites which currently have high self-consumption of PV power. This is especially prevalent on sites which use most of the energy produced and which don’t generally export a lot, for example a supermarket or a factory.

How are smart meters installed and used?

A smart meter is installed at the incoming point to measure import and export energy flows. If the power export appears to be exceeding the amount agreed with a local grid operator, then the smart meter instructs the inverters to turn down their generation. This may happen on a sunny weekend or bank holiday when the in-house power requirements are low.

Implementing this kind of system can save commercial PV customers thousands of pounds as they do not have to fund an upgrade of the local grid infrastructure to accommodate power from their solar system. It can also save the local grid operator the headache of dealing with the excess power generated leaking onto a section of the grid which is unable to cope.

And how are battery systems being used?

These same smart meters are also being deployed with battery storage solutions. When the import/export being measured from the smart meter detects that energy is being exported, instead of being used on site, the smart meter can instruct the battery to charge from that excess energy. This then stores the power for later use allowing the customer to use more of that energy themselves, therefore saving money on not having to buy in that extra power at busier times.

Smart meters that can communicate with the solar PV inverters are playing an increasingly important role in the control and smoother integration of renewable energy into the grid.

The next stage of this deployment is that the smart meters that are used for this application are the same units being used for other technology applications. They may even be the meters being supplied by the providers themselves, in order to avoid redundancy and having to deploy multiple smart meters to communicate over a variety of different platforms.

When you talk about ‘smart energy management’ what does this mean for solar PV system owners?

It means maximising the return on a solar PV investment. The UK Feed-in Tariff (FiT) is split into two parts. The largest proportion of the FiT is paid for actually generating the power in the first instance. A much smaller proportion is received for exporting any unused power. As the retail price of electricity is more than double the export tariff, it makes clear commercial sense for a PV system owner to maximise self-consumption. In essence make maximum use of the electricity they have produce on site instead of exporting it, and then later having to buy it back from the grid at a much higher rate.

Smart energy management is all about matching the loads being used on site with the generation profile of the PV system. A smart meter can detect when energy is being exported and then control local devices. Excess energy can be redirected to refrigeration systems or to an immersion heater to heat water for later use.

What does the future hold for battery power storage systems?

As battery prices continue to drop, increasingly they will be the most cost effective way of storing daytime production so that that power can be used in the evenings. A PV system owner can consider these smart energy features as an addition to their solar investment and maximise the already attractive rate of return that solar power offers at a commercial scale.

Such battery systems can flatten out peaks and troughs of renewable energy generation because solar power generation peaks from midday to mid-afternoon. For example, in Germany during the summer, the grid is flooded by solar energy and electricity is actually exported to other countries. However at night the systems produce no power, meaning non-renewable generation needs to take over.

Using a battery storage system, it is possible to have 24 hour generation from solar power, and in the long-term reduce or even remove the need for fossil fuel or nuclear power generation. This increases the energy security of the country, since there is then no need to import gas for electricity generation or end up damaging the environment in other ways by producing the energy using destructive methods. It is also possible to use battery storage systems as a way of ‘riding out’ grid problems such as black-outs.

Are there security issues to be aware of when considering smart energy, particularly with the use of smart meters and the long-anticipated Internet of Things?

In the near future there will be potential security issues, especially when considering electricity generation and control. A prankster could cause a minor inconvenience such as turning up your heating to maximum on a hot day or starting your washing machine in the middle of the night. A more malicious hacker could also cause problems such as removing grid control on solar inverters or turning them all off in periods of high demand.

For that reason we believe that it is important that many control systems actually remain local rather than remote and failsafe relays are in place for PV systems of a certain size. This is a feature that many Distribution Network Operators (DNO), already insist upon. Many of the ‘smart energy’ features can be implemented at a local level without internet connectivity, if this is a concern the generation/import/export balance can be determined and controlled via equipment and firmware on site.

Is the smart grid the future of smart energy?

It depends what is meant by smart grid. In some instances, with the deployment of renewables and technology being implemented to facilitate this deployment, the grid is already becoming smart and renewables are driving this intelligence.

Smart meters are an essential component of local, micro-generation systems. Elements of the smart grid are also being deployed on a very large scale, for example BayWa r.e. Solar Projects have recently developed a system in the UK where the DNO has the ability to monitor and turn down the PV plant generation remotely if required.

Smart meters will be used for measuring, billing and refunding power generation. Intelligently managing import and export also makes life simpler for everybody concerned. This sort of management is happening right now and will be a fundamental part of the grid in the future.

Rather than one giant smart grid being rolled out across the UK the electricity grid of the future will consist of thousands of smaller smart grids that are being created within the grid and will continue to expand in a natural way, driven by the deployment of renewables.

Tell us a bit more about BayWa r.e. Solar Systems.

BayWa r.e. Solar Systems Ltd is one of the UK's leading wholesale suppliers to the solar PV installer network. Head-quartered in Machynlleth, mid-Wales and operating across the UK and Ireland, BayWa r.e. is an approved ISO 9001:2008 company for the procurement and supply of high quality products for solar PV applications.

As part of the German BayWa r.e. renewable energy GmbH group of companies, we offer security of supply and competitive pricing with direct access to Europe-wide stocks of high quality, high profile solar PV brands and products.

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