Why Is London So Bad At Solar Power?

By Londonist Staff Last edited 37 months ago
Why Is London So Bad At Solar Power?

The solar bridge at Blackfriars can generate up to 50% of the station's requirements on peak sunny days. Photo by Max Gor from the Londonist Flickr pool.

Although solar power has flourished in many parts of the UK, London has lagged behind for many years. Largely, this is due to the complexity of operating the technology in urban environments, and because of the prevalence of rented accommodation.

That London has the lowest uptake of solar power was confirmed in a report released last year by Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones. It found that only one in every 260 households was investing in solar installations. Compare that to one in 32 households doing the same in the south west of England.

But it's not all doom and gloom: efforts are being made to improve the use of energy from renewable sources in the city, and especially, it seems, in the form of railway stations. In January 2014 the world’s largest solar bridge was unveiled in London in the form of a canopy over Blackfriars railway station. 4,400 solar panels were mounted on the newly modernised platforms, estimated to be able to supply up to 50% of the station’s energy needs.

A year down the line, how have the panels performed and have they met expectations? Donna Mitchell from Network Rail says the panels generated 865 megawatt hours (MWh) of clean energy between September 2013-July 2014, which equated to 25% of the station’s energy needs. That said, on the days with most sunshine hours, the panels do indeed produce 50% of the station's electricity needs. And in all, those panels create the average yearly electricity usage of 207 UK homes (or, if you prefer, 80,000 cups of tea a day).

Blackfriars isn't the only Network Rail station to up its green ambitions. In 2012, King's Cross received a solar facelift. In this case, solar cells were integrated into 1,392 glass laminate roof units. This project generates 175 MWh per year — roughly a fifth of the energy generated by the Blackfriars project. These two railway infrastructure projects, both have shaved 100 and 500 tons, respectively, off London’s CO2 emissions.

It was in the City of London that the first large scale London solar project was born. In 2011, the Heron Tower, then the tallest building in the City of London, also integrated solar cells into laminated glass in window panels. Heron Tower currently produces 92.5 MWh of energy a year — just over half of what the King's Cross installation creates.

So perhaps solar cells integrated in windows could be a feature Londoners will enjoy more of in years to come? Scientists have already produced transparent solar cells barely noticeable to the naked eye, which are becoming increasingly commercially viable by the day. These could be installed in windows across the city and completely revolutionise how solar power is used.

While the residential solar revolution has struggled to take off in London, technological breakthroughs and ambitious projects could be starting to remove the city from the bottom of the UK’s solar league table.

By Anders Lorenzen

Last Updated 16 April 2015


Why is rainy, dreary town so bad at solar power? I have no idea.


I suspect the fact that London has such a high proportion of rental and leasehold property probably makes it quite hard for people who want solar cells on their roof to actually do so...


because of smog? next question please


Don't forget pigeon poop, diesel soot and grime. Even a bit of dust lowers solar panel output. Heard of this thing called "shade"? Weirdly, a lot of London premises suffer from it. Almost as if it were a built-up area or something. Odd. Then there is the sad fact we don' need so much power (domestically) when it's sunny and warm (sometimes called "summer"in the UK), but do need the power when it's dark and wet and cold and the days are short and there is almost no solar generation possible. Darn.

Some of the quoted figures are highly suspect. One in 32 households in the south-west investing in solar? Only if you extrapolate all the greedy rich folk who suck the poor dry for subsidies by investing in huge solar "farms". A cursory glance would show you solar installations are less than one in 1000 on actual homes.

Solar windows? On the south side only. Only produce energy around noon on a good day (wrong angle) and cost a fortune. Payback date? Infinity.

Solar makes little sense in our northern climate. Some large installations are workable and if you are off-grid then certainly. But don't forget, all the ordinary folk are already paying the rich who got the huge early feed-in tariffs. Nice one.

Greg Tingey

You have picked the worst possible example for your article.
The wondeful solar panels at Blackfriars are ON TOP, not at 45 degrees on the sides.
The result is that even on a fine, sunny days, the station is dark & cold & draughty ( Open gaps in the sides over the river, shudder - try it in February - this is called Un-intelligent design )
The panels then power un-necessary lamps in the station during the day, rather than letting existing light in, & adding light where necessary.
The multiple levels of stupid in the B/f bridge station design are horrendous