Solar PV Needs More PR Power in Light of Subsidy Cuts

Kate Garratt | Nov 06, 2012

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When the UK Government introduced its Feed-In-Tariffs (FiTs) in April 2010, solar photovoltaic (PV) quickly became an attractive investment. Having seen the success of similar schemes in Germany, UK PV companies were quick to switch from targeting a small group of enthusiastic environmentalists with their PR and marketing campaigns, to a much wider audience of ethically-minded investors.

Indeed, with the generous FiTs on offer, investing in solar PV was seen as a 'no-brainer' -- a message propagated throughout the mainstream media. For example, the Guardian's Miles Brignall wrote: "If the government offered to pay you £1,000 a year for the next 25 years, in return for an up-front investment of £12,500, you'd snap it up in a second. Well, that's pretty much the deal on offer this week...through the new Feed-in Tariffs."1

However, it is now just over two years since the launch of the scheme and the UK Government has had to slash its FiTs several times in response to the unprecedented level of take up. In February this year, it was reported that adoption was five times the level originally anticipated2, with Gregory Barker, the UK minister for energy and climate change proclaiming that "never again should we have a fixed price tariff that allows a bubble to grow and offer unduly large rewards."

The latest cut, effective August 1st2012, takes the new rate for solar PV installations of <4 kilowatt hours (kWh) capacity down to16p/kWh from 21p/kWh. Moreover, the tariff lifetime for solar PV will be reduced from 25 to 20 years for all new installations.

FiTs Drop Across Europe

The UK picture for FiTs with regards to solar PV is not isolated. Austerity measures are being introduced by governments throughout the Eurozone and the fact many have also under-estimated the level of take up of PV, as a result of unduly high FiTs, has seen a swathe of subsidy cuts taking place across the Continent.

Germany has by far been the most successful adopter of PV with its FiT scheme, with the country now boasting a cumulative installed capacity of 24.7 gigawatts (GW)3 -- the largest in the world. Despite the fact Germany now reduces the rate of its FiT tariff every six months, the rate of PV adoption has remained high because falling production prices have meant that the level of up-front investment required has also fallen significantly. The resulting over capacity has led to further legislation being proposed, which will limit new FiT-supported installations to a maximum 1 GW per year and accelerate the frequency of subsidy cuts to a monthly basis. In addition, subsidies for some types of renewable energy facilities will be phased out completely by 20174.

A little further south, the Spanish Government passed a decree in February 2012 to temporarily suspend subsidies for all new wind, solar, co-generation or waste incineration plants, for which it has received applications for a total of 500 megawatts of new capacity5. The measure is expected to save the Government at least 160 million Euro's this year alone.

Meanwhile, the Greek Government has openly admitted that it cannot afford to maintain its renewable energy subsidies at their current rates. The FiT for PV was recently slashed by 12.5 per cent to 292.08 Euro per MWh and the Government now plans to lower the tariff every six months.

It's not just solar PV that is struggling to provide the same return on investment, as other renewable energy sources are also seeing cuts in subsidies. In the UK, the Government made an unexpected cut to its FiT for small-scale wind (<1.5 kW capacity), from 35.8p to 21.0p, at the same time reducing the tariffs for <1.5 to <15 kW capacity and >15-<100 Kw to 21.0 p -- from 28.0p and 25.4p respectively. These reductions come into effect from October 2012.

The result of these cuts has sparked a media backlash, with some predicting the end of solar PV6. The reality, however, is that some solar PV technologies and other renewable energy systems can still provide a respectable ROI without the support of subsidies, which is why industry players urgently need to re-examine their communications and marketing strategies.

The Bigger Picture

Up until recently, PR and marketing campaigns have focused on the financial returns provided by small-medium scale solar technology and have done an exceptional job in raising the profile of renewables in the media7. However, with the Government's original objective of using FiTs to boost adoption arguably achieved, marketers must now explore other angles.

One solution is for companies to better communicate the role that solar PV will play in the future energy mix. With aggressive targets to cut carbon emissions by over 80 per cent by 2050, the EU's Energy Roadmap is heavily reliant on decarbonising the power sector. Such a target can only be achieved with a substantial increase in renewable resources and the level of installed small-medium scale solar will be vital in achieving the EU target of renewables being 75 per cent of gross energy consumed by 20508.

It's also important for marketers and PR agencies to promote the fact that ROI for solar PV installations is achievable outside of subsidies. With the prices of silicone plummeting from a high of $475 in 2008 to a low of $24.27 per kilogram in April 20129, the outright investment cost for solar PV is shrinking, making the payback period without subsidies significantly shorter and thus the overall business case much more attractive. In addition, small-mid scale solar contributes to grid management by acting as a source of distributed generation -- a strong proof point for the industry.

Emerging From the Shadows

Having achieved so much in just a few years, it is essential that the small-medium scale solar PV industry takes action now to ensure it emerges from the long shadow cast by the recent subsidy cuts and negative press.

Equipped with two compelling, yet lesser known messages, there are three important steps solar PV firms should be taking from a PR and marketing perspective to broaden and refresh their campaigns:

Review existing strategies: If your PR and marketing efforts are still focused on the benefits of FiTs, it's time to change -- and time is of the essence. By recognising the types of challenges being faced both externally and within your organisation and brainstorming ideas as a group, you should be able to identify several angles on which to base new campaigns. Bringing in external assistance at this stage could also be helpful, giving a fresh perspective and ensuring you can quickly establish a new strategy and provide a rapid response to news and events as they break.

Key in to future trends: Campaigns take time to plan and implement, so the ability to spot potential future trends is invaluable from a PR and marketing perspective. Government news agendas can be a particularly valuable source. For example, when launching a consultation on Government strategy for decarbonising heating in March this year, the UK's Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey spoke of the need to cut emissions from the way we generate heat and said that many communities are already switching to solar thermal. It would therefore be fairly safe to surmise more Government support for activity in this space and position the benefits of your product portfolio accordingly.

Become famous for your thinking: The GW of installed capacity across Europe nearly doubled in 2011 and the solar PV market is becoming crowded10. This means more players will be vying for media airtime, with many talking about the key issues -- e.g. investment security, skills shortages, and the effects of EU and individual government policies. If you can delve into these a little further, find a fresh angle and communicate your thoughts clearly and concisely through multiple channels, you stand a much better change of obtaining a thought-leadership position.

References

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/feb/06/solar-power-bright-investment

  2. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/02/09/uk-solar-tariff-idUKTRE8180XS20120209

  3. http://earthandindustry.com/2012/02/european-subsidy-reductions-could-slow-solar-industry-boom/

  4. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/19/germany-solar-idUSB4E7N702820120119

  5. http://www.google.comhostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jSXzVAOcOfXPxYoYoilu_kOvuFQ

  6. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/25/bosch-solar-minister-idUSL5E8CP1DA20120125

  7. Media reference to solar jumped up by 10,000+ from 1st January 2009 to 31st December 2011 - based on Google News data.

  8. http://sd.defra.gov.uk/2012/01/energy-roadmap-2050-for-a-secure-competit... and low-carbon-energy-sector/

  9. http://www.bloomberg/com/news/2012-04-24/solar-falling-9-widens-slump-that-hit-solyndra.html

  10. http://files.epia.org/files/Global-Market-Outlook-2016.pdf

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Comments

Hello Kate,

Given that the European economy is quite literally in an abject mess, the only sensible economic strategy is for governments to curtail expenditures. The overzealousness to subsidize any and all green power resulted in viable generating technologies being shoved off to the sidelines, in favour of projects that enhanced the public image of energy and environment ministers.

It is now time for some economic sense to prevail across Europe and the UK. At present, the only viable mega-green-power technology is hydroelectricity . . . . and Iceland appears willing to allow private venture capital to develop their hydroelectric and geothermal resources. There are prospects of an undersea power cable carrying electric power from Iceland into Scotland, the UK and then across into Europe.

France, Germany and Belgium have put nuclear power on hold , leaving imported Icelandic power as the next viable green-power option. China is developing thorium-powered nuclear conversion . . . 1-pound of thorium is estimated as being capable of generating as much power as 33-lb of uranium. Perhaps there may be future prospects for Chinese thorium-fuel nuclear power across Europe.

There are potentially viable versions of solar, wind, hydro-kinetic and wave power. With regard to the latter 2-technologies, venture capitalists don't like the idea of boats and cranes having to sail out to sea or into a channel to retrieve a malfunctioning sea-wave-electric converter or a hydro-kinetic turbine. It is possible to re-direct waves and fast-flowing water currents to higher elevation and into shore-based reservoirs, then use proven low-head hydro to generate electric power.

Viable wind power that uses kites to access more consistent winds that blow at higher elevation (500-metres and higher) is possible and is currently being tested. Viable solar-thermal water heating is also viable and well-proven. Viable solar PV power that recharges batteries that operate LED home lighting systems is now available in developing nations.

There will definitely be a market for subsidy-free solar PV technology and subsidy-free wind power technology in many nations.

I don't think there will be any appetite in Europe to import anything from Iceland - let alone electricity. Since Icelanders decided not to repay their UK and Dutch investors I doubt VERY much whether there will be any basis for an electricity deal. Besides the line losses over an undersea cable render the idea pretty much dead in the water so to speak.
Also you need to separate political posturing about nuclear power with reality. France has not shut down a single nuclear power plant and is not likely to since the alternative is to import Russian Gas to run power plants. That ain't gonna happen. While much hoopla in the press surround Ms Merkel's decision to shutdown German nuclear plants (to keep her coalition alive) she has been quietly starting them up to meet power demands. So they are NOT shutdown.
Regarding Thorium - it is a great technological idea but current economics do not make sense. Uranium is plentiful and there really is not much of an economic incentive to run reactors on it. PWR and BWR reactors - by far the largest type of reactor in the world - cannot run on it. CANDU plants can as can reactors with high neutron efficiency but that is not the majority.
While I quite like the concept of solar power it is just not economic without low cost high capacity storage and it is this element that is the most costly and can only be done with lead acid batteries. If you are using the grid as the storage mechanism that is self defeating.

Malcolm

Just a couple minor points Malcolm.

1) " the line losses over an undersea cable render the idea pretty much dead" -- you're thinking of A/C cables, which cannot operate efficiently beyond one or two hundred KM. DC cables have no real distance limitation, but both types do currently have a depth limit, I think around 1,000 m. because they need to be pressurized at all depths with oil above the maximum water pressure encountered at maximum depth, about 1400 psi per 1000 m. (445 psi per 1000 ft) and it is too difficult to build jackets which can sustain higher pressures at the surface than that.

2) " can only be done with lead acid batteries" -- there are several flow battery systems available which make more sense for bulk storage and high cycle rates than lead acid batteries. Best theoretically is the vanadium redox, since both anode and cathode are vanadium disolved in a fluid, therefore no possibility of cross contamination of two metalically different fluids during long term operation. Still not economical yet, but should eventually get there.

Vanadium Redox Battery - Wikipedia

Edwin J Madison
I

Setting aside the issue of whether or not man can actually create a global climate catastrophe, a casual review of the incidence of solar energy in Great Britain leads to the obvious. You'd have to be ought of your mind to invest in such a loopy scheme.

The witless Germans have now managed to achieve consumer power costs several times that found in America. All this for the ability to feel good while not making even a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Junk all ongoing subsidies, and yes that includes nuclear.

Siemens AG said it plans to pull out of the solar business, after an ambitious effort to bolster the company's renewable-energy profile fizzled amid sinking prices and cutbacks in government support for solar-thermal projects?