Why are shadows being cast over solar?

When the Coalition came to power in 2011 and a Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was created, David Cameron’s pledge was to lead “the Greenest Government ever”. But not only has that not happened, it could be argued that this Government is actually going backwards, especially with solar energy now that DECC has confirmed the subsidy changes to come into effect next April following a recent failed attempt to challenge the policy in the High Court.


Energy targetsSolar park
The overall target was that 15 per cent of total energy would come from renewables by 2020 (30 per cent for electricity). The DECC aspiration for solar is 20GW by 2020 (we are currently at around 5GW), with 8GW expected to come from solar farms (currently around 1.5GW), so we are woefully behind on these targets. In fact, the UK was 25th out of the 27 EU states on renewables contributions and the only country in the EU to miss the 2012 four per cent target. These figures paint a pretty depressing picture.

So, what is going on? Over the past few years, we have seen various changes to the subsidy levels and structure, culminating in the proposed withdrawal of support for large scale solar development over 5MW from next April, and continual interference in the planning system by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). The cumulative effect is that this has undermined confidence in the industry, which has impacted hard on investment levels, and so the entire solar industry is now under threat.
Why is the Government acting in this way? Is it the case in these days of austerity that Government is having to weigh long-term environmental benefits against short-term cost? Is it a political issue as solar parks are attracting opposition from rural voters, who are typically Conservative? Or is the Government now simply anti-renewables?


Solar and wind in Beccles
Peter Aldous, Conservative MP for Waveney in Suffolk, was similarly confused over the actions of the Secretary of State in his constituency – so much so, he secured a House of Commons debate. He wanted to draw attention to two planning applications in the vicinity of Beccles in his constituency. The first application at Ellough, to the east of the town, was for a 46-hectare solar farm by Lark Energy, and the second was to the west, at Barsham, for a single wind turbine. Both applications were rejected by the local planning authority, with both going to appeal, and subsequently gaining approval from the Inspector. The Secretary of State called in the solar application and reversed the Inspector’s decision (a reversal recently overturned in the High Court) but did not call in the wind turbine case.

“What causes me particular concern”, said Peter Aldous at the Westminster Hall debate, “is that the Secretary of State recovered the Ellough [solar] case when I had personally received only one representation against the development, but he declined to do so at Barsham [wind turbine] when most of the local community was up in arms against it.
“This inconsistency in intervention in the planning system is introducing the level of uncertainty which is hindering the industry.”


Government response
Communities Minister, Stephen Williams, responded that the country needs renewable energy to make it more energy secure, to help protect consumers from fossil fuel price fluctuations in a volatile world and to help build an economy with lower carbon emissions. He said: “National planning policies are clear that all communities have a responsibility to contribute to the Government’s aspiration of sustainable energy generation.

“Equally, we have ensured that local councils have the tools they need to ensure that sustainable energy developments are built only where the impact will be acceptable locally. We are encouraging all local councils to get an up-to-date local plan in place as soon as possible – I think that is an issue here – as local plans are the most effective way of managing development in a local area. We always keep national planning policy on renewable energy under review. As a result of this debate, we will take account of the cases that my hon. friend has drawn to our attention when we review policy in the future.”

Any subsequent changes may be too late, according to Karl Hick, group managing director of Larkfleet, which includes Lark Energy. He said: “The consequences of current political concerns about onshore wind and solar are that it will be increasingly difficult for new energy generation to be built in the next few years.
“The support for large-scale solar which is being withdrawn next April will jeopardise the 16,000 UK jobs in the sector. This will stymie the most popular energy technology in the UK, just at a time when explosive world-wide growth is driving prices ever closer to gas and coal. At the same time it is continuing to back offshore wind and nuclear which will be significantly more expensive throughout the next decade.”



Solar parkClimate change policy?

Is the Government not now prioritising climate change, even despite the wind, rain and floods as recent as last winter? Has it become oblivious to the threat to world energy prices now posed by political volatility in Eastern Europe, and the potential disruption to actual gas supplies? Does it not realise that North Sea gas is declining, that nuclear power stations are being decommissioned and old, polluting coal-fired stations closed, drastically reducing our base electricity generating capacity? As some in the industry would say, it will need the lights to actually go out to realise the issues, but then it would be too late.

It is poignant that in October the National Grid asked all energy suppliers to declare how much spare capacity they could deploy to keep the lights on this winter.
Karl Hick continued: “At a time of great international uncertainty, when energy security is high on the political agenda, it seems odd that the technology which is fastest to deploy and whose costs are coming down quickest is at most risk.
“It would be helpful for the DECC and DCLG Secretaries of State to clarify their expectations of the renewable energy industry at the earliest opportunity, so that companies like Lark Energy can plan ahead with certainty, as investors are losing interest in the UK marketplace.”


Michael Hardware, Executive Vice-President, regularly writes for publications such as Building4Change and Sustain Magazine. To find out more about Chelgate’s offering for the environment and renewables sector, visit our website or contact Michael via email here.

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