UK Citizens’ Assembly speaks highly of solar – but is government listening?

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The enduring popularity of solar power in the U.K. was again demonstrated in the responses made about the technology by a citizens’ assembly convened to tell the government how the country should achieve a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century.

Solar may have trailed offshore wind (95%) in the preferences given about where the U.K.’s electricity should come from – and even come in behind onshore turbines when second votes were factored in – but some 81% of the 108-strong citizens’ assembly delegates nevertheless agreed photovoltaics should be a source of U.K. power.

The 554-page report laying out the findings of the assembly included several positive comments about the role solar could play in the nation’s energy mix.

Panels are “less of an eyesore than [wind] turbines,” and offer energy with “no disruption to anyone,” according to assembly members. “Why can’t all roofs have solar panels?” one assembly member asked and another pointed out panels “could help if they were on everyone’s houses.” “There is always sun somewhere in the world,” pointed out one assembly member, who added: “so it lends itself to export/import.” In a harking back to the Desertec project idea of generating solar power in North Africa and transmitting it to Europe, a delegate suggested the U.K. should “outsource to the Sahara” and another said: “We could power share with other countries.”

Even the potential objections voiced to the use of solar power might have been addressed with a browse through the pv magazine archive. Members spoke of concern about the appearance of solar projects and the fact they occupy “land for food and on habitat” as well as the statement “you can’t have sheep” underneath solar panels. Criticism was also made about solar’s dependence on lithium and cobalt as well as fears related to solar projects restricting water run-off in flood-prone sites and about the effects of the heat generated by operating panels on biodiversity.

If the government does intend to take on board the net-zero views of the assembly – which met in Birmingham for three successive weekends from late January and then remotely for another three – it will note criticism of the decision to end the solar feed-in tariff in the U.K. and calls for its return and for solar to be mandated on all new buildings. Solar’s status behind wind reflected the idea the U.K. is more suited to the latter renewable energy technology with one assembly member memorably summing up the nation as “a miserable, overcast country.”

Delegates were polled on numerous issues and 79% of members agreed the U.K.’s Covid-19 recovery should be consistent with the net zero ambition, although a slim majority of members voted down the idea the net zero horizon should be brought forward from 2050. Some 93% of assembly members agreed the coronavirus crisis offered an opportunity to reset lifestyles to be more environmentally friendly, although they expected government, business and ‘others’ to drive the change, rather than themselves as citizens, reflecting an oft-repeated desire throughout the document.

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The most commonly mentioned issue raised by assembly members in relation to the Covid recovery plan concerned opposition to bail-outs for carbon-intensive industries, such as airlines, albeit with the telling, EU Just Transition-style caveat: “Support the people who work in oil and gas, not the companies.” Delegates suggested the economic recovery should feature solar on new-builds, a return of renewables incentives as household budgets tighten and a switch towards electric vehicles (EVs), with one assembly member noting the public health crisis had made them less willing to use public transport and more interested in EVs. Another delegate suggested people working from home would be more aware of their electricity use and may be more inclined to install solar as a result.

On e-mobility, it was noted the U.K. needed to have a renewable energy mix in place to maximize the benefits of EVs and one assembly member queried whether the focus should be on hydrogen, rather than electric transport. Members said the £3,000 (€3,250) incentive offered to car dealers to reduce the price of EVs – reduced from £3,500 in March – was insufficient and should be offered to purchasers rather than dealerships.

Regarding air travel, assembly members called for faster research into the development of electric flight and synthetic fuels, rather than being forced to fly fewer miles, whilst on heating, 86% of delegates agreed energy market rules should be amended to afford smaller companies the chance of competing with the big U.K. power companies. Some 83% of members agreed hydrogen should be part of the U.K. heating system – provided it is the green form of the fuel. Tellingly, one assembly member asked: “Are we going to get enough hydrogen?

Circular manufacturing

Circular manufacturing has been the focus of the UP initiative’s latest quarterly theme. We looked at whether adopting circular approaches could create a competitive edge and reap financial and reputational rewards and we also investigated what is already being done in the solar industry. See our coverage here.

Members also made the call for circular manufacturing, when asked to consider the nature of household consumption, and felt manufacturers, rather than customers should take the strain. Some 91% said resource-efficient manufacturing targets and standards should be introduced – and not on a voluntary basis by the companies concerned. The idea of offering grants and incentives for manufacturers to use recycled materials secured 77% agreement and one assembly member stated: “Products will need to be redesigned with easier-to-repair features.” Another member said: “Government shouldn’t be deterred by the lobbying of fossil fuel advocates but should lead the strategy towards more renewable energy alternatives and the employment opportunities therein.”

The big question now is just how much notice the government which commissioned the citizens’ assembly will take of the findings. It is a point not lost on the assembly members, 90% of whom agreed with the statement: “A robust media strategy on the outcomes of Climate Assembly U.K. should be put in place so that the recommendations of the assembly are widely disseminated because the nation needs to know about it and we have a duty to inform and educate everyone.”

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