Are We Facing The Sunset of The UK Solar Industry?

Nick Wood-Dow examines the issues and politics behind the Governments approach to renewable energy.


The very future of the solar industry is in the balance. An industry that promised so much, in creating localised power for UK households, at a time that localism was the new Conservative mantra, is being gradually destroyed by constant reductions in government subsidy. This is happening at a time when the industry is moving swiftly towards becoming subsidy-free. A consultation by the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the future of the Feed-In Tariff, introduced with such a fanfare a few years ago, closed on 23 October with little hope of continuity amongst investors.
All three Energy Ministers have spoken during October about the importance of renewable energy in a mixed source energy policy. But the common theme with each of them has not been keeping the lights on, but keeping consumer bills down. Research by the Solar Trade Association has shown that the subsidy to a growing industry would add just £1 to consumer bills by 2019. This seems a small amount of consumer cost compared to the benefits to consumers of localised power generation.

One Minister said to us this week that the only game in town that matters to Ministers at present is the Autumn Statement on 25 November. The Treasury targets for spending cuts in each Department mean that DECC has to achieve its share, and it sees that reducing the renewables subsidy will contribute, whilst many saw the irony of spending billions on commissioning the first nuclear power station for many years, with Chinese and French investment, when the President of China was here.

Surveys have shown that renewable energy is popular with people. For example, there is a misconception among Conservative backbench MPs in rural areas that onshore wind farms are highly unpopular.
Read the survey here.

This may come from the letters from party members who are offended by the sight of wind turbines. But compare these few protest letters with surveys of public opinion and it is clear that onshore wind is not unpopular. Similar surveys show the same for solar power.

The solar industry is fighting back, to persuade the Government not to waste all of its recent investment and destroy 27000 jobs in the process. The Energy Select Committee has begun an Inquiry into investor confidence in energy industries. Ministers have said that they will look carefully at the results of the recent consultation and may revise their plans. Four solar energy providers have closed in the last few weeks as investors review their plans for renewables in the UK, yet others have supported the Solar Trade Association campaign which is lobbying MPs of all Parties.

The Mayor of London has called for more London schools to install solar panels on their roofs, to generate income through the Feed-In Tariff and to add to the education of London’s children about solar power and renewables. There are complications, as older school buildings may not be suitable, and the Education Funding Agency will have to approve all installations.

However, if Boris Johnson supports renewables, while George Osborne seems to have lost all interest in their role, the future of energy supply could add extra spice to the battle to succeed David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party.