After spending a decade involved in PR for both on and offshore wind, I felt pretty comfortable with my knowledge of the renewables industry.
And by that I don’t mean that I would be scaling up a turbine to replace a gearbox anytime soon, but I knew my way around the key issues and challenges facing the sector.
The world of solar, however, was still relatively new to me.
So I was delighted to attend my first ever industry event – Solar Energy UK.
On my arrival at the NEC in Birmingham, the first thing that impressed me was the number of people registering – not that it took long with the automated kiosks in place – as it showed that interest levels were high.
Once inside however, impression turned a little to wonder. The NEC is big and the exhibition hall was full from end-to-end with stands representing just about every part of the industry.
Now it’s no secret that solar has being going through a tough time recently. And that’s not to sound glib. The changes in government policy around support for certain renewable technologies has hit – and will continue to hit – parts of the sector (including solar) very hard.
Speaking to some exhibitors, you did get the sense that times were challenging – one even told me that similar events would have been four times the size just a few years ago.
That said, I was struck by the dynamism and optimism that seemed to pervade the hall as well as the variety of offerings and products and services represented.
As you’d predict, there were manufacturers and suppliers of solar panels in attendance but the roll call of others involved in the industry was really broad.
Companies involved in installation, maintenance, operation and monitoring of sites were all there. If you needed a turnkey contractor to build a large-scale solar farm – you got it.
There were companies that made brackets to hold rooftop panels in place, cabling, monitoring equipment. You name it – it was on show.
And while all this was going on, there were several presentations and panel discussions going on throughout the exhibition.
That was also an education – I hadn’t considered that cleaning solar panels as part of the maintenance routine required specific processes and products. Nor had I any appreciation of the precise threat posed to solar parks by seagulls.
As I say, an education.
My lasting impression was a feeling that although times are indeed challenging for solar, the industry – despite its youth – is established with a diverse and mature supply chain supporting it.
That, coupled with the breadth of expertise and experience in the UK sector, means that hopefully the industry can adapt and be flexible to meet those challenges head-on.
What’s for sure is, just like all renewables, the power source itself is still there for the taking – and the rationale for making use of it is just as enduring.