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How many solar jobs in Britain will be saved by energy storage?

Shipyard workers in 1940s Scotland. The solar industry could lose more than 30,000 jobs in the UK if expected support cuts come to pass.
Billy Connolly is a very funny and highly profane Scottish comedian. However, there is one thing I remember him saying that was not a joke. He was talking about jobs, and specifically jobs on the Clyde, in shipbuilding. Billy suggested that at the time he left school, the gates opened to let the school leavers out and simultaneously the gates to the shipyards opened. The school leavers simply walked from one gate to the other en masse. What made me remember this tale? It was UK energy minister Amber Rudd! When the feed-in tariff (FiT) consultation was announced, and both the UK’s Renewable Energy Association (REA) and Solar Trade Association (STA) produced well researched numbers of the job losses that the Solar industry would lose (approx. 30,000), dear Amber reassured us that Hinckley Point nuclear plant would generate 35,000 jobs. So, problem solved.

Of course, in the real world we all know that those nuclear jobs won’t be created for years, and even if they were, how many solar installers, designers and project managers are qualified to work on a nuclear construction site? Or willing to relocate to Hinckley Point, or willing to work on any nuclear site for that matter. You wouldn’t need many fingers.  So, as the outcome to the  consultation looms, so do significant job losses. They have already started as those in the sector will know, with some high profile company closures already history.

Minister Amber Rudd has consistently made encouraging noises about energy storage, including an address to the UK Electricity Storage Network at the beginning of 2015, but we are yet to see clear and significant policy measures to support those words. Image: Edelman PR.
Light at the end of the tunnel?

Of course regardless of the outcome, those of us who have spent some years in the solar sector know only too well of our resilience, resourcefulness and innovation. Solar will not go away. It will have a very challenging 18-24 months in the UK, and then we’ll be past grid-parity and off again.  We already have clients talking of future power purchase agreement (PPA) deals for commercial roofs in 2016, and Nick Boyle, chief of major UK solar developer Lightsource, is talking of megawatt projects on a PPA already on the way. So solar will not die. Even so, many, many jobs will be lost.

Enter stage right, energy storage. I said after the Solar Energy UK show in October that many people are grasping at energy storage to be an instant panacea to the post -support environment. A simple solution, stop selling solar, start selling storage. There will be no metaphorical energy storage factory gates opened to welcome the former solar workers. Not on the scale of 30,000 jobs for sure. But there will be opportunities and there will be growth, and there will be jobs. As I write this I’ve just packed my bags for Berlin to attend the launch of a new storage and solar-powered energy trading platform for German energy storage company Sonnenbatterie. We have been retained to recruit a UK Country Manager to spearhead their UK entry. More jobs will follow, and more companies will follow, and many home-grown ones will serve the market, like Moixa, Circuitree, Cumulus Energy Storage, Wattstor, Sunamp and many others.

The most critical thing that the industry needs now is not a subsidy, but policy certainty and clarity of definitions. Last week saw the first Energy Storage All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on government turf in Westminster; hosted by the REA, the room was packed. A strong message for the MPs present to take back to parliament was that we need a clear set of definitions on what energy storage is legislatively, and how it is categorised with regard to taxes, business rates and the like.  We’ve seen the genius of London financial institutions at creating innovative funding and finance solutions for the solar industry. With that experience, and plenty of cash to deploy, they will be quick to develop funding models to help the roll out of energy storage at all levels, utility, commercial and residential. With funding models comes sales, which brings down costs, which brings in scale, which brings down costs, which brings in sales - you get the picture - and all the while jobs are created.

The market is likely to be a mixture of international players and homegrown companies. Image: Wattstor.
What will the jobs look like?

Much like solar jobs do. Financial specialists, business developers, project developers, design engineers, planners, site managers, project managers, installers, and of course the lawyers, bankers and asset managers. As far as skills are concerned, if you have a job in solar there is a very strong chance that you’ll be capable of transferring those same skills and experiences into the energy storage sector. The critical question is… when will that be?

To answer that call, we need finance and funding to start the virtuous circle. For funding and finance we need clear policy and legislative support. Importantly, as stated we don’t need subsidies, we don’t need a handout. Perhaps for this very reason, as affirmed by Conservative MP and chair of the energy storage APPG Peter Aldis, the sector has broad cross-party support across the political spectrum.

What’s not to like about storage? It’s a great enabler at all scales. Solving grid issues, demand and capacity issues, and even when deployed wisely with social landlords, it could play its part in tackling fuel poverty issues.

It won’t happen overnight, it won’t save every job or every company, sadly, but it can and will happen very quickly. As long as we get the building blocks right. Given a clear policy and taxation framework, and the ability to monetise all potential revenue streams, we’ll be off and running and the solar/storage/clean energy revolution will keep on rolling, and no thanks to Amber, we may just keep the light on too.

Scotland-headquartered Sunamp's heat battery production line. The company's systems are being trialled in an experiment aimed at tackling fuel pverty for social housing tenants. Image: Sunamp.

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