Tomorrow the Financial Times stages a conference on strategies for the revolution unfolding in global energy markets. I am on a panel discussing the role of innovation. I have a thrilling example to recount based on the work of Solarcentury’s innovation team. In the limited time I have available, I will struggle to do their accomplishments justice, so I plan to try and do so in this blog.
Their’s is a story of belief and design brilliance in the face of adversity and doubt. It offers an inspirational microcosm of the potential for fast deployment of clean energy in the future, with all the social good that entails. It creates a talisman for the widespread underestimation of the transformative power of solar energy that persists across society.
A few years ago, the innovation team told Solarcentury’s management and board that they were aiming for a fully building-integrated solar roof system that would be comparable to a standard system bolted on to an existing roof, whilst winning accolades for aesthetics. I and others doubted such a world-first would be achievable. But their belief was solid, strongly backed up by CEO Frans van den Heuvel, and the prize if it could be realised was potentially huge: market research suggested an in-roof product price comparative with an on-roof product would be extremely popular. So the project went ahead.
On May 10th, the team launched their product, called Sunstation, in a reception room high in the Tate Modern. Sleek black solar laminates decked a mock-up roof around which politicians, officials, press, and industry representatives quaffed champagne with sweeping views of London as a backdrop. Two days earlier, Germany had generated almost all its power for renewables for a while, and through the windows the guests could see tantalising hints of how such progress might be possible even in cloudy Britain: the biggest solar bridge in the world crossing the Thames at Blackfriars, and a simple array below the launch venue on part of the Tate’s roof, both designed and installed by Solarcentury. The fact that the iconic art gallery had once been a fossil-fuel power plant added to the aura of excitement at the launch event.
How the team achieved their goal technically is a fascinating story. It centres on minimising components and speeding installation via click-together design with minimal points of attachment to the roof battens. As for aesthetics, Sunstation has aleady won an iF Design Award. But the team’s technical and design achievements, in order to be fully appreciated, need to be viewed in the context of a wider evolving narrative of innovation.
Let me start at the beginning. Solarcentury’s first full commercial year was 2000, when the global solar PV market was a mere 287 megawatts. That market has since doubled in size seven times, every two years or so, and now stands at more than 60 gigawatts. Coincidentally, Solarcentury’s annual installed capacity has also roughly doubled every two years: from a tiny half megawatt in 2000 to 196 megawatts in 2015. We install roofs both residential and commercial, and ground-mounted solar farms, operating in nine countries. In the UK, by far our biggest market to date, we are the largest installer, and were the first company to deploy 500 megawatts.
The scope for innovation and design is much greater in building-integrated solar than in ground mounted solar. Figuring that building-integrated solar had to be a mainstay of a sustainable energy future, we began innovating early. Our first product, a solar rooftile called C21, went on trial in 2003, and was in production by 2005. In 2006 it was the main reason a Silicon Valley venture capital fund, Vantage Point, invested in us. By 2007, we had offices in France, Spain, and Italy. We were building a decent business in building-integrated solar, including installing solar barn roofs for farmers all over France, and supplying roofing products to Italian utlity Enel. We had our first professional CEO, Derry Newman, formerly boss of Sony UK. In 2010, the UK introduced feed-in tariffs for solar: a mechanism for improving economics to speed market development and drive costs of products down. Notwithstanding the ongoing recession after the financial crisis of 2007-8, things were looking rosy.
Cue, in 2011, the first of two ambush cuts of the feed-in tariff by the UK government. Governments seeking to enable new markets using feed-in tariffs are supposed to have two vital objectives. First, the tariffs are meant to decrease steadily on a glide path to zero, allowing the embryonic industry to execute business plans en-route to “grid parity” (a price equal to the cheapest fossil-fuel electricity) without facing precipitious drops in support, and hence demand and income. Second, investors must be able to have certainty that policy will not be reversed. Without that confidence, they will take fright and be difficult to persuade back to the market. In its 2011 ambush attack, the UK government consciously elected to drop both these goals: their aim, so informants in Whitehall and Westminster told me, was to suppress the embryonic solar industry so that investors in gas and nuclear power would not be put off.
Hence Solarcentury found itself in a bizarre situation that year: taking the government to the High Court over the legality of their actions (we won), meanwhile winning a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for our product innovation.
The UK government was not alone in sabotaging its own solar policies around this time, sadly. Similar dramas played out in Spain, France and Italy, forcing Solarcentury to close all its offices in those countries. My point here is not to whinge so much as highlight the difficulties innovation teams face in a highly politicised sector like energy. To say the very least, they cannot afford to rely on budget continuity. The first budgets to be cut by boards under duress tend to be innovation and marketing.
Accordingly, it is a matter of great pride to me that Solarcentury kept the faith with innovation through these troubled times. What saved the company from bankruptcy, amid the ruin inflicted by politicians on our rooftop markets, was in part our increasingly international business, but mainly the fact that solar module prices had fallen so unexpectedly fast that we could install solar farms economically in the UK, drawing on a market enablement mechanism originally meant mainly for wind power – the Renewables Obligation. We began to install solar farms in 2011, and grew fast in 2013 and 2014 as a consequence. All the while the innovation team was making progress with Sunstation.
2015 saw another government ambush attack on solar subsidies, this time revealing the full extent of Whitehall’s collective obsession with nuclear and fracked gas, and its willingness to sacrifice clean energy on the altar of those increasingly incomprehensible doomed causes. Thousands lost their jobs in the UK solar industry, especially in the companies that chose to work only domestically.
For the second time after an ambush, it seems that the UK markets will survive the unanticipated cliff in support. Notably, IKEA announced a partnership with Solarcentury for solar roof sales via their UK stores, having earlier stated their intention is to be the number one global retailer of residential solar roofs. Both companies affirmed their commitment to the UK market. Other companies have done the same. Solar in the UK is not going away any time soon, accordingly, whatever the state of market support mechanisms. The fact that in-roof solar is now available for the same price as on-roof solar will surely help to cement that.
A direction of travel is beginning to take shape as context for ongoing innovation in the global energy transition. Solar costs will continue to come down, until they are cheaper than everything else. So too will battery costs. The two technology families will increasingly be married. Other smart clean technologies will overlay their union, enhancing its potency. Meanwhile, supporters of nuclear and gas will increasingly struggle to deliver their flawed visions. Nuclear costs will march ever further into the realm of the unaffordable. Gas prices will continue to render fracking uneconomic, even if the oil industry can persuade a reluctant British public to accept it. The solar revolution will continue to unfold, meanwhile, and the better that innovation teams in the clean energy industries deploy their design magic – in the broadest possible sense of that word – the quicker it will all accelerate.
In this upbeat context, Solarcentury’s innovation team should be filled with pride over their pioneering leadership with Sunstation.
As for myself, I am intensely proud of them, and their product. But I am also ashamed over my doubts about their original goal, and mindful that many men of a certain age like me, raised amid the fuming paraphernalia of the hydrocarbon age and not the smart electrons of the 21st century, have an awful lot yet to learn.