Life after the FiT

Re-STORING our Solar

By Cyrene Powell, Gwent Energy CIC

Ever since the FIT (Feed-in Tariff) was first introduced in April 2011(1), the UK had installed over 8.4GW solar PV by December 2015(2). This has released pressure from the grid and given homeowners the chance to take control of their own energy production. Solar will boil your kettle, recharge your iPhone and can heat your hot water tank while providing additional income. Criticism about the FIT only serving to help the rich get richer, along with mixed reactions about the aesthetics of panels, meant that the industry had its challenges.

Now that solar acceptance is increasing and every 3 months the FIT is slowly becoming more and more non-existent, everyone is wondering how the solar industry will support itself. The topic naturally always moves to battery backup storage and how we could go off-grid and stop our reliance on big energy companies to power our homes. Instead of selling our generated electricity back to the grid, we want to cut out the middleman and keep it ourselves; it makes no sense to sell it during the day and then buy it back at night. We’d save more money, get less power cuts and reduce further CO2 emissions (less coal and diesel powered stations, anyone?).

The first home battery storage system in Wales, with 12kWh of storage
The battery storage system's LCD display

However, this is easier said than done with many different battery types and all with their own positives and negatives. Some are more environmentally friendly than others, some can handle discharging electricity despite not being fully charged and some are perfect for providing electricity to a life support machine in the midst of a power cut. Even having the storage on the DC or AC side (Before or after the solar inverter) can affect the whole generation – perhaps you have a limit on the amount that can be exported, and want to save this to export at a later date when it’s raining or overcast. The cost of these vary and the real hurdle is matching the generation and storage to usage. A home will find it difficult to become off-grid if its panels are not producing enough and its batteries not storing enough.

Gwent Energy CIC installed a battery backup system for a homeowner that had not only solar but also wind power. Wind provided the UK with 11% of its electricity(3) in 2015 and could help fill in some of the gaps that solar leaves behind. So while this homeowner’s solar might not provide for all of its energy demands, their wind turbine may be able to support this. Coupled with more energy-saving devices and technology, we’re sure to be able to match generation, storage and consumption. The solar iBoost has been used on site to ensure that any available spare electricity is diverted to the hot water cylinder which has twin immersion heaters therefore providing free hot water, instead of being exported to the grid and sold if the batteries are full. A backup consumer unit was fitted which will provide power to a certain number of essential circuits and in the event of a power cut, these will be powered from the batteries – a good unit for those previously mentioned life support machines. The homeowner for now only wants 6 batteries attached but later would like to add more – a possibility that is sure to be attractive to many for different reasons. This ensures the homeowner keeps their tariff, keeps their electricity and gets an interesting investment.

So back to the original question of how will solar support itself in a tariff-less world. Gwent Energy CIC are currently conducting trials of a smaller battery backup system at a homeowner’s house in Bream, Forest of Dean. Using four second hand lead acid batteries hooked up to a Growatt SP2000 battery controller unit and a Growatt 3600MTL inverter connected to 4KW of solar panels, they’ll be keeping a close eye on storage versus consumption. It is Gwent Energy’s hope that they can provide the solar kit with batteries, but charge homeowners for the electricity used at half the rate they pay the big energy companies. This would replace the tariff and still provide savings. Eventually, it’s possible that energy bills may raise so high that owning a battery backup system will prove attractive to the homeowner who can afford it. There’s nothing to stop a homeowner from purchasing a battery storage unit, buying the electricity when it’s cheap, storing it and then using it when it’s expensive.

But it’s not just for the private homeowner. The idea that towns and villages may one day own their own communal battery backup system is still a pushed-aside idea, but with the UK’s annual energy consumption steadily decreasing(4), natural disasters such as floods hampering parts of the grid and power cuts becoming more common, suddenly, this idea doesn’t seem so laughable anymore and should be taken more seriously. That’s not to say that small-scale battery backup systems should immediately be launched far and wide, more trials need to be conducted to test different consumption levels; Some people may have disability equipment that needs careful consideration for example. Perhaps neighbours could direct their extra energy to each other, especially if both houses have different facing roofs – what if villages could? Towns?

After all, not every home in the UK is even suitable for solar or wind and this needs to be balanced out against other factors that may mean other energy resources are more practical.

To find out more about Gwent Energy CIC, a not-for-profit solar and battery specialist company in South Wales tackling the tariff drops and still helping communities, visit our website at www.gwentenergycic.org or send us an e-mail to hello@gwentenergycic.org 

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