A net zero election means the next government should get serious about solar

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It’s coming... the first election in the UK since our country committed to Net Zero and declared a climate emergency. Despite delivering record cost reductions and sparking unprecedented technological innovation, solar has been marginalised in recent years. That must change. No technology beats solar on popularity and ability to empower millions to act, and globally no clean energy market beats solar for sheer size and rate of growth. 

The net zero target means introducing stable and effective new policies immediately. Only concerted effort now, by all government departments and all sectors of the economy and society can deliver. 

At the STA we are looking for all party manifestos to recognise the two areas where we need systemic change so urgently that all other policy initiatives risk limping without them. 

First, solar energy is held back in the UK by a tax framework too often distorted in favour of fossil fuels. For years now, we have beaten our increasingly sore heads against Treasury walls on VAT, business rates, capital allowances, the Climate Change Levy and more besides. 

In a net zero government the Treasury must ensure that investors in clean energy are rewarded, while polluters pay. It is astonishing that in 2019 we are still asking for the burden of tax to fall on the polluter. Fossil fuels subsidies, including all tax breaks, need to end in line with repeated G7 commitments, and a robust national carbon price consistent with net zero should be introduced.

The second paradigm shift needed is in the electricity system itself, which will need to do very heavy lifting with the electrification of heat and transport. Credit to the May government for getting the smart power agenda going (their greatest practical achievement in my view), but the pace and scale of reforms don’t go far enough, fast enough. The new government should therefore immediately charge Ofgem with facilitating net zero, leading to urgent reform of network operator business models to incentivise delivery of UK carbon budgets. 

In practice this means efficient, prioritised connections for low-cost renewables and energy storage, expanding flexibility markets, smart system management and a level playing field for decentralised energy. The Data Taskforce recommendations need implementing promptly to foster widespread innovation for public benefit. 

Quite simply, if the government fails to deliver a smart, decentralised energy system in timely fashion it means consumers face a higher bill for the inevitable energy transition.

Given the scale of the task, we urge enhanced powers for the devolved administrations and local government to act on the climate emergencies they have so wisely declared. We also need a government department dedicated to energy and climate change again, such as a Department for Net Zero Energy. Merging energy with business has left energy policy marginalised. At the STA we were proud to hear solar raised with Ministers by MPs at every BEIS Oral Questions for an entire year, but this was the result of incredibly hard work in parliament when our energy should be directed towards delivery across the country. And government should lead by example – we want to see the entire public estate powered by new renewables.

The new department must take care to pursue an integrated strategy for power, heating and transport, that enables solar energy to play its full part across all vectors, including in solar mobility and the generation of hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels. 

One of the key lessons for governments everywhere from a recent IRENA report is that renewables policy must shift its focus to end user sectors, not just power generation and the traditional industry. That means the suite of policies we have been calling for, for many years, must be adopted; for builders, householders, businesses, local authorities, community groups and investors. Commercial and industrial rooftops are the sleeping giant of solar power that need only sensible tax reforms and a firm line with landlords to wake up and fly at scale. 

The need for net zero energy standards for new buildings is urgent, obvious and repeated everywhere. Our many other asks are well known and we will be communicating them again to all political parties; technology-neutral clean power auctions (which utilise a floor price mechanism), incentives for sustainable land management on solar parks, a fair mandated floor price for solar power exports from homes and community schemes... and more besides. 

Globally, solar employs more people than any other energy source, so under a serious net zero programme our industry will be hungry for workers with technical skills. Our current work program on smart homes has shone a light on the tremendous skills needed to engineer technologies together, tied to the digitalisation of buildings and network management. And of course, we recognise there must be retraining for workers in fossil industries to ensure a just transition.

Will the 2019 party manifestos do justice to sheer scale and breadth of action needed for net zero? It looks like we won’t have to wait long to find out…