Petition urges UK government to give solar 'one more push'

The U.K.’s Solar Trade Association (STA) has banded together more than 150 businesses from the country’s thriving solar industry to sign a letter calling for the coalition government to deliver one more push for a zero subsidy solar future.

Signatories of the letter include IKEA, KYOCERA, Triodos Bank, Interface, Good Energy and Loughborough University’s Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology, as well as a host of small business. The letter reiterates solar’s importance to the U.K. economy and its energy mix, stressing how the sector supports more than 2,000 small- and medium-sized businesses and employs more than 16,000 people.

This diversity is in stark contrast to the ‘Big Six’ energy companies, argues STA, who have timed the letter’s delivery to coincide with the day the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) closes its consultation on proposed support changes for the country’s large-scale solar market.

The letter is intended to remind U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron of the growing strength and importance of the global solar industry, which is set to be worth more than $130 billion by 2020. The STA stresses that despite the DECC’s Solar PV Strategy helping to propel the industry to unprecedented heights, the current policy framework and proposed support changes (a removal of the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme for solar projects greater than 5 MW) only serve to undermine future growth and damage investor confidence in the sector.

"Solar is a homegrown solution to Britain’s energy crisis," said STA chief executive Paul Barwell. "If the government provides a stable policy environment, solar will soon be subsidy-free. But the government is now proposing to tilt the playing field against large-scale solar, while not taking sufficient action to unlock commercial rooftop solar – that is unacceptable."

The STA, via today’s petition, is urging the DECC not to close the RO scheme for solar plants larger than 5 MW, and to also rethink its proposals on feed-in tariffs. "The level of policy uncertainty risks derailing the extraordinary progress the large-scale industry has made in delivering jobs and reducing technology costs in the last few years. It is also putting the U.K.’s position in the booming global solar market at risk," continued Barwell.

DECC unmoved

Faced with accusations that the DECC has created an atmosphere of political instability when it comes to the country’s fledgling but thriving solar industry, U.K. Energy Minister Greg Barker issued the following statement to pv magazine: “We have put ourselves among the world leaders on solar. Our ambitious strategy will ensure we remain a leading destination for investment and deployment of solar energy.

"However, if we are going to win the war against climate change, renewables must become competitive with other forms of electricity generation."

A spokesperson for the DECC also told pv magazine that it was understandable that any change in regulations and funding can appear daunting, but added: "We are convinced that the U.K. solar PV sector will continue thriving when it switches support under the Contracts for Difference (CfD) regime for large-scale solar PV."

The CfD scheme has been met with criticism in the industry; in both the terms of use and the fact that it is now likely to be introduced two years early, catching many solar companies unawares. "By April 2015 there will be a clear route to market for large-scale solar PV through CfDs,” said the DECC spokesperson. "Competition will help discover solar PV’s real market price, given variation and uncertain future costs, and ultimately deliver better value for money for consumers.

"The new CfD regime includes protections for smaller companies such as the Offtaker of Last Resort, guaranteeing generators a route-to-market and making it easier for them to build projects in a cost-effective way."

CfD’s early introduction comes at the expense of the RO scheme after the DECC claimed that large-scale solar has become a threat to the RO’s allocated budget. However, the STA claim that solar projects currently account for just 5% of RO expenditure.

Environmentalist and solar campaigner Jeremy Leggett – who is also chair of SolarAid and non-executive chairman of SolarCentury – will be handing the letter over to Downing Street today on behalf of the signatories. Leggett said: "Too much of the wording in the current solar consultation has the whiff of Groundhog Day about it.

"It is time that the government woke up to the fact that, with stable support, jobs-rich U.K. solar will be cheaper than onshore wind during the next parliament, opening up immense opportunity for U.K. PLC and driving down the costs of delivering the 2020 renewable energy target in the process."

In favor of rooftop

The U.K. government’s own literature stresses that it intends to back the growth of the country’s rooftop PV sector, across both residential and commercial segments. However, the STA also argues that the DECC’s proposals to promote the deployment of this sector via the FIT are wide of the mark on "the essential changes necessary to enable the take-off of rooftop solar." Instead, the STA has called for a new consultation designed to properly address the current barriers to rooftop solar deployment.

The DECC spokesperson told pv magazine that solar PV deployment in the U.K. is likely to remain consistent within the ranges set out in its Delivery Plan. "If costs come down further, more ambitious levels – approaching 20 GW – could be possible without subsidy," said the spokesperson. "Solar PV installed on buildings allows the electricity to be both generated and used onsite, giving benefits such as reduced electricity bills and, by reducing pressure on the grid, scope for greater overall levels of deployment and lower distribution losses. It also has less visual impact on the landscape of an area, and so is more popular. The DECC is keen to retain public favor of the solar industry."

Adding that the DECC’s support levels "reflect the fall in the cost of the technology and our efforts to manage our budget in light of faster-than-expected deployment," the DECC spokesperson also revealed that they plan to monitor the deployment pipeline closely, meaning stricter controls must "remain on the table to address any budgetary risks."