Solar energy breaks records, yet how secure is its future?

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On May the 26th more electricity was generated though solar power than ever before in the UK.  According to information from the National Grid control centre, solar produced 8.7GW of energy, making up nearly 25% of the UK’s electricity demand. This is the first time solar power has generated more than nuclear, only surpassed by gas powered generation. This positive result was furthered by reports that these record highs coincided with a fall in electricity costs.

‘Low solar’ days threaten viability

However, despite this good news, concerns still remain about solar power’s overall potential contribution given its intermittent nature. Despite this, some argue that this concern may be countered with emerging grid connected electricity storage and smart grid technology. For example, the GMB union have pointed out the extreme variability of solar provided power, pointing to days of ‘low solar’ (where solar accounted for less than 10% of capacity) over the last year. During June, July and August there was only one low solar day, but January saw 26. This reinforces the need for base-load capacity provided from nuclear and gas fired generation for the days of low solar throughout the winter.

Back-up storage as potential backbone

A new report, ‘Switching on: how renewables will power the UK’, has been released from international environmental organization Friends of the Earth. The report suggests that although wind and solar may be variable, when combined with flexible backup storage they could from the backbone of a low carbon, affordable energy system. They claim that by 2030 renewables could account for at least 75% of the UK’s electricity, with the report’s author Alasdair Cameron stating that “If we get this right we should be able to provide at least three-quarters of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030, decarbonising our power supply as well as driving down costs and maintaining reliability.”

Coincidentally Friday the 21st of April was the first day since the industrial revolution that no electricity was generated across the UK using coal combustion.

Energy expert insights

“There is no doubt now that the UK’s move to cleaner sources of electricity generation has come on leaps and bounds over the last decade. However, with a reliance on more intermittent generation sources, coupled with very slow progress on replacement base-load capacity from new nuclear and gas generation, we may well be storing up trouble for the future. Electricity storage has only relatively recently gained some traction in the current energy sector and has a long way to go. ‘Smarter’ grid management will also have its place but we will still need a significant level of base-load capacity to maintain system reliability in the future.”

Alastair Fells MEI, Incorporated Eng, PG Dip Fuel Tech, BSc Hons

“The success of the various renewable energy technologies in recent months, particularly solar, has made the Government very bullish about the role that renewables linked to electricity storage can play in the future supply of electricity. This will continue to give them priority despite requiring subsidy, and despite the increase in energy costs, which this implies.”

Prof Ian Fells

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