Solar Energy History in the UK: A Deep Dive

Topic: solar projects Read Time: 7 mins
Landowner type:
Independent landowners | Institutional landowners
Energy: Solar
Back to Blog

Are you looking for an epic rundown of solar energy history in the UK? Here, we’ll cover the very early days of photovoltaics and look at the UK’s relationship with solar in more detail.

Solar currently accounts for 4.6% of the world’s total energy generation. In the UK, solar accounts for an impressive 9.3% of the country’s total energy mix. That’s a huge step up from the zero prior to the photovoltaic effect being discovered in 1839. If you find that remarkable, you might be interested in learning about solar energy history in the UK (and how it came to be.

To fill you in, we’ve written up the ultimate rundown of exactly where solar energy started and how it’s grown into the impressive power source it is today. From the birth of the photovoltaic cell to the rise of enormous solar farms, we’ll cover it all.

So, let’s get started – after all, we have a LOT to cover.

The world’s first solar cell was made in 1767 by the Swiss Scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure. It wasn’t exactly sophisticated and was essentially made from an insulated box, an opening in said box, and three layers of glass. The glass was magnified when the sun’s heat made its way into the box.  This was called the “solar collector cell” and amplified the sun’s heat to levels beyond 110 degrees Celsius.

In 1839, Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, a massive breakthrough in solar energy. Before the experiment, the scientist hypothesised that “shining light on an electrode submerged in a conductive solution would create an electric current.” And he was right.

At 19, Becquerel created the first photovoltaic cell by coating platinum electrodes with silver chloride and bromine. Once Becquerel illuminated the platinum electrodes, voltage and current could pass through them. Although this was a huge breakthrough (with an impressive amount of research behind it), the cells simply weren’t efficient. So, during this period, photovoltaic power was mainly used to measure light instead of powering homes.

While the birth of full-blown photovoltaics was yet to come, American inventor Charles Fritz made great headway by creating the first functioning solar panel in 1883. He made the panels from selenium wafers and affixed them to a New York City rooftop. They technically worked, but their efficiency level was just 1%. So, they were quickly passed over until the middle of the 20th century.

1954 is really where solar energy started to gain traction, and this was when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson created the modern photovoltaic cell. They made the cell at Bell Labs using silicon, and it was the very first solar cell to use silicone instead of selenium. Using efficient silicon, they could convert sunlight photos straight to power that could run electrical equipment.

Bell Telephone Laboratories managed to make solar cells with an efficiency of 4%, and this was later boosted to 11% as technology improved.

In 1958, the Vanguard I Satellite was launched into space, fitted with the first solar panels we mentioned earlier. There were six panels in total on the satellite, producing around 1 watt of power between them. Vanguard I was the first satellite powered by solar energy, and it meant that energy could be transmitted for years back to earth (instead of days under battery-powered alternatives).

After the success of the first satellite, Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 were launched with 5cm solar panels. Solar energy is still used in space to power satellites today, showing just how important these early discoveries were.

The only issue with this massive move forward was that the public was sceptical about the potential of solar power in the 1950s and 1960s. So, while NASA scientists were super-positive about its use on a commercial scale, it simply didn’t take off. This happened much later when ARCO started producing commercial solar panels in its factories in 1986. They made the world’s first commercial thin-film power module from amorphous silicon. They were so successful that they becamethe first company to produce more than a megawatt of photovoltaic modules in a year. These first solar cells exceeded 10% efficiency, which was relatively decent considering the time.

close-up photo of a solar panel

Now that we’ve looked at the general history of solar energy, let’s take a closer look at the UK’s journey with solar power.

In 2006, the UK had an installed photovoltaic capacity of around 12 MW – so, it was enough to power around 2,600 homes. While this was nothing to scoff at, it’s a far cry from the 15 GW installed solar capacity as of 2023. This large boost was primarily pushed along by the Feed-in-Tariff scheme and the Renewables Obligation Certificates. So, let’s examine these subsidies in more detail.

Very few solar installations existed until 2010, when government-mandated subsidies (in the form of feed-in tariff (FIT)) were introduced and paid for by all electricity consumers.

When this happened, the cost of photovoltaic panels fell, and the feed-in tariff rates for new installations also fell. This encouraged far more people to embrace solar until the scheme closed to new applications in 2019.

Between 2013 and 2015, a huge wave of private equity-backed developers wanted to take advantage of this new scheme. They canvassed local areas for potential sites and applied for planning permission across the board.

Rows of solar panels installed in a farm

Farmers near Grid connection points were particularly popular with these developers, and they received A LOT of interest from companies who wanted to use their land for new projects during these years. With farmland earning around £8,165 an acre in 2015 (and solar projects offering considerably more), the move towards renewables was a no-brainer for many landowners.

Subsidy removal

The FIT scheme’s unfortunate dilution in 2016 caused a significant dip in new projects. Although there were still applications coming through to planning committees and the Grid, solar developers were less keen to enter the market. And as it was harder to secure favourable, long-term contracts, this was unsurprising.

Not only was the FIT scheme closed for new applications in 2019, but the Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) scheme was also phased out. However, while the government promised a replacement for ROCs in the form of a Contracts for Differences scheme, only some people fully understood the new status quo. Plus, the terms were generally less favourable than those of the previous regime. So, very few developers were chomping at the bit to get involved (especially when you compare the potential returns seen just a few short years before).

With these large projects looking increasingly unviable, many developers transitioned to wind power or moved their searches abroad. So, while UK solar wasn’t necessarily dead in the water, it was far trickier to build large-scale installations than it used to be.

Grid backlog

Although removing subsidies was the main issue for new projects, the rise in applications for new projects before 2016 also led to a significant backlog for Grid connections. Not only was connecting to the Grid expensive for developers, but the sheer volume of applications was tricky to manage. As time went on, it got increasingly difficult to find sites that were close to connection points.

As of 2024, there’s a Grid connection backlog of up to 10-12 years. And while this isn’t halting applications in their tracks, it’s making projects slightly less appealing to modern developers.

Aerial view of a solar panel

Removing the Feed-in-Tariff scheme AND the Renewables Obligation Certificates had a significant knock-on effect on the profitability of solar in the UK. But when you throw in the Grid connection issues, it’s led to a slower uptake in solar than the country initially saw.

However, while solar projects were more expensive to invest in, solar funds started to pop up to buy existing projects. For example, Next Energy moved several solar farms into their portfolios.

They also made an effort to acquire new-build projects and acquired nine assets totaling 416MW in 2022 alone. Plus, there is absolutely some good news on the domestic front.

In 2023, the number of households installing solar panels reached its highest level in over seven years. 2022 also saw a big increase in domestic installations, with over 130,000 added in the 10kW or less range. This would take the total number of these small-scale installations to 1,179,495. Total capacity as of February 2023 stood at 14,432MW, with an average of 72 MW added each month over the previous six months.

Although we’ve discussed the main problems facing solar, we haven’t touched on one major issue—planning permission. The current guidelines are highly restrictive, meaning developers can find it tricky to build new solar farms.

It’s hoped that planning permission regulations will ease up over time (though it’s worth mentioning that solar guidelines are still less restrictive than wind). This might help more projects get off the ground, contributing to the government’s net-zero aims. It’s also worth noting that solar energy could account for as much as 20% of the UK’s electricity generation by 2030. If we combine this with wind energy generation (29.4% in 2023), we could be well on our way to hitting environmental targets by 2050. So, there’s undoubtedly a bright future for solar.

We’d love to speak with you if you’re interested in getting a solar project on your land. We completely understand that navigating a new solar system can be tricky. There’s plenty to consider, from dealing with developers to signing option agreements and long-term leases.

The team at Lumify Energy will happily lend a hand and talk you through each step of the process. We can even compare your site to others around the UK to ensure you’re making the income you should.

How likely is your land to get planning permission for a solar project?

Enter your details to find out.