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Toyota UK Solar Panel Array at its vehicle plant in Derbyshire. Photo: Toyota UK via Flickr.

Toyota UK solar array at its vehicle plant in Derbyshire, built on 9ha of industrial land. Photo: Toyota UK via Flickr.

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Why do Ed and Greg hate solar energy?

Jonathon Porritt

8th July 2014

With the Government wilfully undermining the UK's small but fast-growing solar power sector for the second time, Jonathon Porritt wonders ... why the attacks on what is our second lowest cost source of renewable energy, and getting cheaper all the time?

WHY WHY WHY are you about to shaft the UK's solar industry all over again, at exactly the point where it's beginning to make a substantive contribution to this country's energy needs?

Last Friday was Solar Independence Day. And I felt angry - at this Government's incomprehensible failure to seize hold of the opportunity to promote the UK's solar industry as one of the best ways of ensuring a low-carbon, secure, sustainable energy system for our country. Really angry.

In fact, I couldn't sleep that night for all the unanswerable questions racing through my mind. So I had to get it down that very morning in the form of a letter to Secretary of State Ed Davey and Minister of State Greg Barker. The DECC duo.

Dear Ed and Greg,

Hope you're celebrating Solar Independence Day in an appropriate way. Perhaps even by paying a visit to one of the 16 solar farms that are holding Open Days for people to see at first hand just how good big solar farms can be.

As you know, I have a lot of respect for the two of you as individuals. It must be an utter nightmare having to deal with the likes of Eric Pickles, George Osborne and Francis Maude on a daily basis. You're clearly made of pretty stern stuff to have stuck it out for so long.

And it must be deeply frustrating that the quality of opposition from the Labour Party is so utterly pathetic that they've totally failed to cover your back by working over Cameron and Osborne on a regular basis regarding your Government's pretty poor performance on renewables.

Wouldn't it be amazing if Ed Miliband saw this as the brilliant opportunity it is to demonstrate that they've got some serious policy in their kitbag instead of their spurious promise to freeze energy prices.

I really enjoyed sharing the Election Debate during Bristol's Big Green Week with the two of you, and I thought you acquitted yourselves surprisingly well. And thanks, Ed, for the very nice reference to my book, 'Seeing Green', back in 1984, which you were kind enough to include amongst early influences on your political life.

First, the facts

So I do sympathise - up to a point. But if you can't sort out our entire dysfunctional energy system, surely you could get solar right? And that's what I'm writing to you about now.

First, let's see if we agree on the facts:

  1. The UK still needs a whole lot more renewably-generated electricity if we're to have a hope in hell of meeting our mandatory EU target for 2015. And despite your protestations at the Big Green Week Election Debate, the recently published EU-Tracking Roadmap for renewable energy shows the UK still coming in 26th out of 28 countries, with it providing just 4% of total energy. Despite us having some of the best resources of any country in the EU. 
  2. Many other EU countries have sort-of got the hang of solar. On 21st June, 50% of daytime electricity in Germany was generated by solar power. Italy is going great guns, and the global industry is booming. 
  3. Solar is the second cheapest source of renewables in the UK. Prices have fallen by an astonishing 65% since your Coalition Government came into office, and are projected to continue falling by around 5% per annum through to 2020. I'm sure you've worked out the implications of that. 
  4. At that point, subsidy-free solar will be competing on price with every other source of electricity in the UK. 
  5. UK Solar grew by around 15% in 2013, with at least two-thirds of that growth coming from large-scale, ground-mounted solar farms. 
  6. And this means jobs (16,000), generated mostly through vibrant small companies (2,000 of them), creating a new source of wealth for business, farmers and communities. Around 60% of that investment comes from UK businesses - a much higher percentage than with most energy sources. 
  7. Concerns about both energy security (think Iraq, Ukraine etc) and climate change (think 400ppm and ever more extreme weather events) grow and grow. Solar and radical improvements in energy efficiency are both critical elements in addressing these crises. 
  8. Solar is by far the most favoured source of renewable energy in the UK (with 85% approval ratings across the general public), with the highest rate of success in planning applications (again, around 80%).

These are the facts. Even your Chief Scientific Advisor, David McKay, probably recognises by now that he got the potential for solar so badly wrong in his otherwise quite useful 'Hot Air' tome. He is a scientist, after all, and facts are meant to count for something.

So why are you attacking farm-scale solar?

Despite those facts, you've announced that you're on the point of radically hacking back on the Renewables Obligation for large-scale solar, and completely eliminating all support for schemes of 5MW and above. Just as you did before with the domestic solar market - and what a humiliating series of policy cock-ups that was!

What is it about DECC that allows you to go on ignoring all the evidence from other countries that what matters above all, for investors, is predictability? First, fix an appropriate support level; then indicate the amount by which it will reduce over the next five years or so; then STICK TO IT!

So, my question to the two of you is very simple: why? WHY WHY WHY are you about to shaft the UK's solar industry all over again, at exactly the point where it's beginning to make a substantive contribution to this country's energy needs, generating significant economic benefits, with strong support from the general public?

No kidding: this kept me awake last night. I'm a reasonable person, and I know that you're both reasonable people, even if you are surrounded by other people for whom reason is in dangerously short supply. So there has to be an answer. Eventually, I found myself drifting off to sleep entertaining these bizarre conjectures:

  1. Some have suggested that you're so up to your eyeballs in questionable arrangements with the Big 6 energy companies that the interests of the small 60,000 (the number of solar producers we should be aiming at) count for nothing. I simply can't believe that. 
  2. You (and your advisors) must have some countervailing data that tells you that the growth of solar is just another bubble which will burst all too soon. Could that be so? If so, perhaps you could put those countervailing insights into the public domain? 
  3. Your Government has so fallen out of love with the farming community (and with the NFU in particular) that Owen Paterson (another of the crazy denialists you have to deal with!) has urged you to stop this little ‘solar scam' in its tracks. What's farming sunshine got to do with real farming anyway? Now, in my book, that's just too crazy even for Owen Paterson. 
  4. You're frightened that UKIP will transfer its loathing of windfarms to start targeting solar farms - particularly in marginal Tory constituencies. That explanation might work for you, Greg, but surely not for you, Ed? 
  5. You've got much better ways of hitting our renewable energy targets that you just haven't told us about yet - in fact, you're both saving them up for your respective General Election campaigns. Now that would be devious! 
  6. Despite all your extraordinarily enthusiastic words about community energy (and a reasonably good Community Energy Strategy), you've actually decided that in the surging community energy movement lies the eventual ‘death spiral' of the energy system as we know it today. (OK, I have to admit that's somewhat more plausible, but you don't seriously suppose you can hold back that inevitable transition by giving the UK solar industry another kicking - do you?) 
  7. George Osborne has got you both by the short and curlies (true, but what else is new?). 
  8. The nation can't afford it. But that just can't be right: if you were that strapped for cash, you would long ago have put an end to the billions and billions of pounds you keep thrusting at the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.

And it just got more and more surreal after that, so I'll spare you any further outrageous hypotheses. I know you'll both be quite cross with me by now, but I only came up with all that crazy stuff for lack of ANY ONE SINGLE SERIOUS REASON WHY YOU'RE ABOUT TO DO WHAT YOU'VE THREATENED TO DO!

So, dear Ed and Greg, put us out of our misery. Tell us what the real reason is for doing something so utterly, blindingly foolish.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathon Porritt.

 


 

This letter was originally published on Jonathon Porritt's blog.

 

 

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