UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could call a general election next year as speculation is rife, Robert CathcartEnglish installer blogger Solar Fast looks at how green the current government is.
This policy announcement, published in November 2020, included pledges to support “greener buildings” and “accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles” and “accelerate low carbon hydrogen” – italics.
References to solar energy were conspicuous by their absence, so how does UK solar power play out?
Solar space design
The planning of solar power facilities in Great Britain is handled at two different levels.
An inland project with a production capacity of more than 50 MW – and twice that located in water – is classified as a nationally significant infrastructure project, for which a Permit Order must be applied for from the State Secretary responsible for energy affairs.
In smaller solar energy sites, the planning process is handled by a local planning office. It is clear that when planning at a local level, residents are given a say and are not very keen on putting panels on their home field. This is not guesswork, it is confirmed by the fact that 27 solar planning applications were refused in England, Scotland and Wales in 2021-22.
Around 19 rejections came from local authorities controlled by the Conservative Party. Four solar applications were rejected by Labor areas, three by Scottish National Party areas and one by Liberal Democrat councils.
Former Prime Minister Liz Truss was said to be preparing a crackdown on solar farms during her time as Prime Minister, but because her tenure was not long enough to complete a planning form, nothing came of it.
Solar energy initiatives
The solar feed-in tariff (FIT) was introduced in 2010, encouraging customers to install renewable energy generation systems in their homes with the option of selling electricity back to the grid.
While the generosity of FIT payments may sound like a great idea, it almost killed the UK solar industry before it started. The initial price businesses had to pay per kilowatt-hour of electricity through the system was as low as £0.50 ($0.62) – almost £0.20 more than customers pay for grid electricity right now, in a cost-of-living era. increased energy costs worsen the crisis. The FIT system was simply not sustainable.
These high fees also led to the emergence of cowboy solar companies, selling unsuspecting customers less than a pair of devices with the promise of making thousands of pounds a month.
FIT rates were finally scrapped in 2019, but some households signed 20-year contracts and are still being paid.
The Smart Energy Guarantee (SEG) was the next big idea.
Under the SEG system, energy companies have a legal obligation to offer customers a price for the excess energy they want to sell to the grid – but the companies set the price. This is why some energy suppliers offer a ridiculous amount for this power, some as low as £0.01/kWh.
The SEG system is starting to get support from green energy providers such as Octopus, but even then the utility pays just £0.15/kWh for renewables and charges £0.34 – so customers are better off storing their excess energy rather than selling it.
The only other initiative currently being launched by the UK government is the ECO4 programme. The fourth iteration of the policy, ECO4 offers grants to residents receiving benefit payments — and possibly others under the LA Flex program administered by local governments — to help them install or improve everything from home insulation to solar panels.
Although admirable in its aim, the scope of the program is limited, and ECO4 seems a somewhat toothless policy that does little more than pay lip service to a well-funded, broad-based drive for green homes.
Green or greenwashing?
When David Cameron promised in 2013 that his Conservative government would cut the “green crap” from energy bills, the messages looked bleak for UK renewables, with Ed Matthews, campaign director at climate think tank E3G, saying: “The decision to cut energy efficiency funding in 2013 was the single most damaging the biggest energy policy decision by any government in UK history, Matthews described the move as a “stunning failure of leadership”.
This political decision seems to have set the tone for the last decade – despite numerous green promises and policies.
Covid, Brexit, Ukraine and Truss-onomics have all taken their toll on the UK economy, and when that happens, short-sighted policymakers are the first to reject ecologically beneficial investment.
The future also looks a bit murky.
Instead of investing in solar energy, the government supports nuclear power, opens a new coal mine and even threatened to lift the fracking ban in Truss’s cameo at number 10.
On the opposition benches, Labor has promised to ban fracking, promised to build “enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches” – 2.4 million at last count – and introduce a windfall tax on energy companies. That’s easy to say when you’re in opposition, though, so we’ll have to wait and see.
The Lib Dems and Greens are much more focused on the planet, with the Liberals promising to make the UK a global leader in tidal power and generate 80% of the UK’s electricity from renewables this decade.
The Green Party wants to invest enough in wind power to provide 70 percent of the UK’s electricity by 2030, with solar, geothermal, tidal, hydro and other renewables providing the rest. It also wants to ban new nuclear power plants and gas and oil fracking, and stop tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
However, the Lib Dems and Greens are far from getting enough votes to implement their plans on the national stage, so it is hoped that their representatives can start the green revolution at a local level.
One thing is for sure: we cannot continue as we are and politicians really need to start taking the environment seriously.
About the author: Robert Cathcart is a Yorkshire-based renewable energy researcher, copywriter and blogger for English solar installer Solar Fast. With more than 20 years of experience in copywriting, he has focused his attention on ecological issues and the green revolution. He specializes in solar power and aims to inform, educate and inspire.