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Solar heating evacuated tubes being installed on a roof in Thorton Heath, England. Photo: szczel via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Solar heating evacuated tubes being installed on a roof in Thorton Heath, England. Photo: szczel via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Would you believe it? Yet another UK solar energy cut!

Oliver Tickell

7th March 2016

After ten massive renewable energy cuts that are leaving the UK falling well short of EU renewable energy targets, an eleventh! The axe is now falling on solar heating, writes Oliver Tickell - even though it's meant to be at the core of the government's renewable energy strategy.

This proposal simply doesn't make sense. The government acknowledges the many benefits of solar thermal, yet proposes singling it out for the removal of financial support. They should be full square behind this technology!

The Government has just published a consultation proposing to end support for solar thermal hot water heating - at the very time as, says the Solar Trade Association, that "the UK market had started to recover."

If the proposals go through the internationally proven technology will be cut out of the Renewable Heat Incentive entirely next year.

This is yet another cut to renewables subsidies after the influential House of Commons Energy and Climate Change committee heavily criticized the Government last week for damaging investor confidence in UK energy infrastructure.

It also follows The Ecologist's exposé last November which revealed that the UK was on track to miss its EU renewable energy targets following numerous cuts in incentives to wind and solar power.

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd's leaked letter revealed that the first element in her emergency plan to meet the UK's target was by "maintaining and improving existing policy performance towards the target" which would require the government "to continue support for the deployment of new renewable heating installations after the current funding settlement ends in 2015/16."

Since then Rudd has made repeated statements that renewable heat is the 'major focus for UK renewables policy'. In 2014 green sources provided only 4.8% of the UK's heat, put the UK way behind its self-imposed target of 12% renewable heat by 2020.

But now Rudd is cutting away at the very roots of her declared policy on renewable energy, making any prospect of achieving the EU renewable energy targets evern more remote.

The surprise cut back on solar heating also follows warnings by the Committee on Climate Change that greater effort is needed on renewable heat.

Huge resource, established, accessible technology

Paul Barwell, CEO of the Solar Trade Association commented: "This proposal simply doesn't make sense. The government acknowledges the many benefits of solar thermal, yet proposes singling it out for the removal of financial support.

"With UK renewable heat deployment falling desperately behind target, government should be full square behind this technology as part of a strategic plan to permanently bring down heating costs for British families."

"Discriminating against this globally important technology in the UK would send a terrible message to householders, and it would have very serious ramifications for the British solar thermal sector. Manufacturers of solar thermal equipment, including cylinder manufacturers as well as installers, risk a full scale winding-up of their sector.

"We are urging government to think again, particularly since sales enquiries are on the rise."

Solar thermal is one of the most established and accessible renewable energy technologies with over 350GW of global capacity, considerably more than the global capacity for solar PV. Its applications have expanded into space heating, community heating, district heating, hotels, hospitals and industrial processes. Solar thermal also works effectively alongside other renewables technologies.

Solar heat ideally suited to combat fuel poverty

The proposal is doubly surprising because of the Government's stated intention in the consultation to ensure less-able-to-pay households can benefit better from the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Unlike other renewable heat technologies solar thermal has negligible running costs, can be added to existing heating systems, and its performance does not depend on investing in a highly insulated house, making it particularly well suited to homes in fuel poverty. It also works effectively in built-up urban areas and on smaller roofs, broadening the opportunities for British homes to invest in renewables.

The technology is therefore popular with social housing associations in the UK to help tackle fuel poverty.

Gordon Watts, Sustainability Manager at South Yorkshire Housing Association said: "The use of solar thermal panels to provide hot water in some of our existing housing schemes helps to keep our customers' gas bills down, and this technology and other renewables continue to be important options we consider as part of our stock development and improvement plans.

"Continuation of the Renewable Heat Incentive and the Feed-in Tariff is important for solar thermal and other renewables until these markets more fully mature."

The justifications for removing solar thermal in the consultation proposal are weak, including survey results that show that most of the homeowners who have already installed solar thermal say they would have done it without any subsidy.

However the relatively small size of the current market means that these survey interviews are not representative of a mass market - many homeowners who are currently choosing to go solar are not motivated by financial return.

88% increase in solar heat enquiries - but now what?

The UK solar industry is particularly aggrieved by the proposals, as the UK solar thermal market, which is dominated by domestic systems slumped during a policy hiatus lasting from 2010 to 2014.

It was not until the first half of 2014 that the Renewable Heat Incentive was introduced for domestic solar thermal, by which time the market had halved in the UK, leaving the industry in a weakened position to promote sales.

Analysis by the STA shows that there has been an 88% increase in monthly solar thermal sales enquiries amongst its membership compared to this time last year.

The proposals also put at risk precious domestic manufacturing in renewables as the UK has a number of excellent solar thermal manufacturers such as Viridian in Cambridgeshire, AES in Moray in Scotland, Thermatwin in Manchester and Solar UK in Sussex.

Solar thermal is well established in colder and less affluent Eastern European countries because of its ability to provide effective renewable heating. For example, per capita, Poland has four times and Slovenia seven times the capacity of solar thermal than the UK. Germany has 20 times the solar thermal per head of population.

Previous analysis by the Solar Trade Association has shown that while solar thermal is already relatively affordable, costs can be reduced significantly given a strong domestic market [6].

The Solar Trade Association is calling on the government to allow solar thermal to contribute not just to hot water but also space heating (such as central heating systems) and still qualify for the Renewable Heat Incentive, so that the technology can be combined with biomass boilers and heat pumps.

"Now is the time to ramp up support, not remove it", said a spokesman. "Red tape has hindered the roll out of solar thermal and the STA is asking Government to remove this."

Greyest government ever?

Since it was elected in May 2015, the Conservative government has unleashed an astonishing series of attacks on the UK's renewable energy sector which has included:

Last week the Energy and Climate Change committee noted:

"There has been a dip in investor confidence in the UK energy sector since the election in May 2015. We have identified six factors that, when combined, are having a damaging effect on investor confidence. These are:
i) Sudden and numerous policy announcements
ii) A lack of transparency in the decision-making process
iii) Insufficient consideration of investor impacts
iv) Policy inconsistency and contradictory approaches
v) Lack of a long-term vision
vi) A policy 'cliff-edge' in 2020."

And now the government is doing exactly the same all over again.



Consultation: The full consultation proposals can be found here. The key section on solar thermal can be found on p. 47.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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