Not even crumbs for the solar industry in UK party election manifestos

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With Britain heading for a general election in just over two weeks’ time, pv magazine has carried out the unenviable task of trawling through the manifestos of the three main political parties – and the Greens – to try and get an inkling of what lies ahead for solar in the country.

The result has been startling, with none of the major parties offering anything other than vague promises related to the technology. Although we have peered through the narrow lens of PV-specific policy, the lack of anything other than fleeting mentions of solar appears completely at odds with the idea climate change has climbed up the political agenda or that the interests of the next generation of voters has been even remotely taken into account.

All the manifestos perused reinforce the idea communications teams and political parties now operate in a post-fact world where appealing to the gut feeling of voters takes priority over factual, deliverable, costed pledges. The pendulum swung in 2016, the year of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, and the result is that the U.K. voter now appears to have next to no concrete promises by which it can hold the government elected to account.

The Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrat manifesto was the first of the four political programs examined by pv magazine to be published and at least pledged all new buildings from 2021 would be expected to feature solar panels, as part of a zero-carbon standard which would be followed by a stricter Passivhaus regime from 2025.

The fourth largest party at Westminster – behind the Conservatives, Labour and Scottish National Party – after the 2017 election also pledged to remove restrictions on wind and solar. Although that offers a modicum of encouragement to the domestic PV industry, no more details were forthcoming.

There was talk of an extra £12 billion (€14 billion) for such investment – also including hydrogen deployment and smart grid development; of an aim to secure 80% of electricity comes from renewables by 2030; of a net zero economy by 2045; of a new, £5 billion green investment bank; of 5% of government spending to be dedicated to climate change measures; and of an end to fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 but, as far as solar was concerned, that was it.

The Greens

Next out of the blocks were the Greens who, surely, could be expected to come up with the goods even if they go into the election with only one MP.

The party claimed to have stolen a march on its rivals by gathering ideas for its ‘political program’ from its members, rather like the Five Star Movement in Italy but the result is the most vague set of ambitions imaginable from a party that is already roundly criticized for not grounding its ambition in the real world.

There is a mention early on of “expanding PV” and that’s it. There is nothing else. There will be a national investment bank, no new petrol or diesel car sales after 2030, utilities will be taken into community ownership in the form of locally owned energy supply networks and grid operators will have to prioritize access for community energy projects. Nothing on solar – and the pledge to repeal the current planning presumption in favor of development might even set the sector back.

Labour

Labour was next up, with leader Jeremy Corbyn proudly boasting of the most radical plan in decades by the official opposition. “We will create a million climate jobs in every region of the U.K.”, trumpets the document – well that certainly would be ambitious although the suspicion is that whoever edited it meant a million jobs in total and made a hash of stressing they wouldn’t all be crammed in London.

Amid talk of a £250 billion transformation fund for renewables and “low carbon energy and transport” – a definition which alludes to Labour’s embrace of natural gas and nuclear power – there was finally a cast-iron solar commitment. Labour, roared the manifesto, would install enough solar panels to fill 22,000 football pitches. While reference to the party’s recently published 30 by 2030 energy policy document reveals what that adds up to in capacity terms, pv magazine is deliberately excluding non-manifesto pledges for this exercise so the average voter may be left entirely nonplussed by such a commitment.

There is more talk of a national investment bank – this one with £250 billion over a decade; a pledge to secure “nearly” 90% of electricity and half of heating from renewables (and gas, and nuclear) by 2030; a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies; public ownership of the grid; and a zero carbon homes standard but, once again, solar merits just one mention. As far as nuclear is concerned, Labour will build the “new nuclear power needed for energy security” and, in what must surely rank as one of the more bizarre pitches to voters outside England, will help Anglesey, off the northern Welsh coast, by maximizing “its potential for new nuclear energy”.

The Conservatives

All of which brings us to the Conservatives, the party of the previous government. Fittingly for a party led by a prime minister whose veracity has frequently been questioned since coming to office, Boris Johnson tells voters that as far as the talk made by rivals about wanting to make Britain a world leader in renewable energy is concerned, they needn’t worry – the nation already is, apparently.

In climate change-related empty promise terms, however, the Conservative manifesto is the undoubted winner, with the vague statement the new government’s first budget will prioritize decarbonization and, at the end of the subsequent list, clean energy. The party, if elected, will be “increasing our commitment to renewable energies”.

The sole funding-related pledge associated with “clean energy” – the sort of phrase which, if context and past record counts for anything sorely needs a definition in this document – relates to the £1 billion Ayrton Fund. That is money which has already been announced and concerns cash taken out of the overseas aid budget to spend on British companies developing low-carbon technology for use in the developing world.

The Conservatives have published a separate document costing their pledges but pv magazine had no need to open it because there are no solar promises to be costed.

The verdict?

On the topic of fossil fuels, the manifesto states: “We believe the North Sea oil and gas industry has a long future ahead and we know the sector has a key role to play as we move to a net zero economy”. That is the section targeted at Scottish voters, in case you hadn’t guessed, or perhaps more specifically, at Aberdeen.

All of which tempted us to wonder whether the two entirely blank pages inside the back cover had been left so intentionally, so PV industry readers could add their own solar election manifesto.

So that is the choice facing U.K. voters on Thursday, December 12. In solar terms it is a question of trying to work out whether the number of new homes envisaged by the Lib Dems will host more or less than 22,000 football pitches’ worth of panels.

The pv magazine verdict is an easy one: None of the above.