Feed-in Tariff: An excellent project in need of long-term confidence

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(c) ukycc.org

Tom Youngman is a member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition‘s delegation to the United Nations climate change negotiations and part of the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Youth Advisory Panel

Last Sunday I watched the first episode in the new series of ‘Dragon’s Den’. At around 9:45 came the serious proposition, the project that (we’ve all now pretty much sussed the show’s structure) will definitely get investment. As a sustainability activist, it pleased me greatly to see Chris Hopkins, MD of Ploughcroft, a solar panel installer, occupying this slot. 

His appearance on the show demonstrated one thing clearly – solar power is now a solid investment. All five ‘Dragons’ were keen to invest – Deborah Meaden even declared she already had a stake in another solar installer. It’s rare to hear a piece of technical energy policy mentioned on a peak-time television show, but the entrepreneur attributed the success of his business (and the British solar industry) quite explicitly to the Feed-in Tariff.

Few who know anything about the British energy industry would disagree. The Feed-in Tariff has proven a massive boost to renewable energy in the UK, with a real buzz existing in a sector experiencing a ridiculous (Mr Hopkins stated 1000% in the solar sector) level of growth. Over 40 000 solar photovoltaic (generating electricity rather than heat) panel projects have been supported by the Feed-in Tariff creating 121MW of generating capacity. That’s the equivalent of 12% of Rugeley coal power station without any of the CO2.

Although obviously exciting in terms of decarbonising the electricity supply, for me the truly revolutionary aspect is in localisation and democratisation of electricity. The empowerment of communities utilising the Feed-in Tariff, such as Llangattock, is remarkable. When I visited this small Welsh village it had installed five micro-hydro projects, at least ten domestic solar projects and was planning several million pounds worth of anaerobic digester. The community-interest company behind these and other sustainability projects had energised the community, reinstating a sense of collective independence essential for a strong community.

The fast-track review of the Feed-in Tariff for solar photovoltaic panels fundamentally conflicted with the original strengths of a highly successful policy. At the core of the policy is creating confidence on the part of the generator that their income from the subsidy is guaranteed. Price reviews were always acknowledged to be needed to keep the subsidy economic as the cost of technology decreased, but by holding a hurried review outside the regular cycle, the government severely knocked this essential confidence.

The Feed-in Tariff is targeted at domestic users, largely as a tool to engage the public with renewable energy, but the FiT review is extremely short-sighted in its approach to this goal. Most people do not have south-facing roofs or land ideal for solar photovoltaic panels. Community energy projects allow anyone to own part of a renewable energy development and still enable the community empowerment that micro-generation brings. A common criticism of the FiT that it is only accessible to the wealthy, those with access to start-up capital and with large houses on which to place panels. The review maintained a higher tariff level for small installations and decreased it much further for mid to large size installations. This hits hardest the sort of installations commonly attempted by community groups – those on schools in particular.

I’m currently attempting to convince my school’s management to install solar panels with Bath Community Energy. Although we have not formally submitted the proposal to the school’s senior management, it’s hard to imagine them turning down the opportunity to save several thousand pounds each year on electricity bills at no upfront cost to them, due to the ‘roof lease’ model proposed. For us, solar panels would be a fantastic tool to engage pupils with energy usage and inspire changes to a more economical lifestyle, not just a sound investment. This is a tool of education and inspiration for the green economy, but after the hasty review, our proposal has had to half in size.

This move was one poorly considered, hurried in by a government overly eager to appear more frugal. By hurrying through a short term change, the government has risked knocking long-term confidence essential for the Feed-in Tariff’s success. The sort of ill-considered decision-making that was largely responsible for climate change here risks jeopardising one of the most powerful solutions Britain has so far implemented.

If you’re interested in the UK Youth Climate Coalition, visit ukycc.org. If you’d like to get involved in the climate movement, ‘Power Shift’, an event run by the Coalition, is a good way to start: powershift.ukycc.org.

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