Farewell FiTs: How people, and not just policy, drove UK solar

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So, we didn’t quite make a million solar PV homes, but not far off! It is particularly poignant for me to reflect on the closure of the feed-In tariff today having campaigned successfully in parliament for it back in 2007 and 2008, together with colleagues at the REA, with Seb Berry at Solarcentury and Ed Matthew and Dave Timms from Friends of the Earth. The core team still remains in touch to this day. However, I am the only one who has ridden every minute of the Solarcoaster ever since - and what a ride!

Much as we may like to take credit, the campaign was so successful because we pulled in such a diverse range of natural supporters of solar alongside us; farmers, land owners, social housing providers, small business groups, house builders and more besides.

I remember Malcolm Wicks, the witty energy minister who eventually came round, who sadly died of cancer a few years ago. We knew we had turned the political corner when the minister started quoting pop star Lily Allen in the Commons, after she emailed all MPs urging them to get behind the feed-in tariff campaign.  

The campaign was also a success because of the strength of cross-party support. Greg Barker, Charles Hendry and Greg Clark were all terrific supporter MPs in opposition, alongside Lord Redesdale in the Lords and the wonderful Alan Simpson MP who chivvied the Labour government gloriously. For the campaign’s climax, we constructed a mini model feed-in tariff village in the House of Lords into which MPs from all parties happily inserted themselves in the middle of for photos, like giants in an eco Lilliput. 

And that model village I can now walk though in real life in every area of the UK that I visit today, with over 900,000 homes and many more businesses and public buildings sporting solar. As well as some really stunning developments that nobody ever envisaged, such as Blackfriars Solar Bridge. With vision, everything is possible.  

What a different era the start of the feed-in tariff was. Before the financial crisis and before the deeply polarised politics of Brexit, these were optimistic days - although it must be noted that the UK’s record on renewables at that point was dire. For all the crisis moments and casualties along the way, the Coalition government did a pretty good job of sticking with the solar industry as the economic clouds darkened dramatically. They took us far more forward than backward. The minister responsible for solar, Greg Barker, took a lot of flak (including in public for mistakes that were not actually his fault). I used to say at the time to my then boss Paul Barwell, how lucky we are to have a minister who genuinely gets decentralised energy and the extraordinary potential of solar power. I wasn’t wrong. 

I have long been an advocate of decentralised energy, ever since I worked in the Mayor’s office at the start of the Greater London Authority and saw first-hand just how big the barriers were to local action, even when the political will to act was strong.

And it’s not just the politics of enabling action and agency on climate change that enthuses me; technology change dictates a more efficient, decentralisation energy system in which power and ownership can be truly democratised. But even I did not envisage just how rapidly and creatively the ecosystem around solar power would evolve; battery storage is now on a similar cost reduction trajectory to solar; electric vehicles have Top Gear-types salivating and who could have foreseen the explosion of apps that mean people can monitor and control their home energy from their phones? Elon Musk, it must be said, dug green technology out of its hippy roots and flung it right to the top rung of aspirational living.

Credit too, to National Grid and Energy Networks Association for embracing the flow of technology and social change and for moving to reorientate huge organisations behind the momentum for a smart, clean energy transformation. From the smallest solar installer to the biggest of network operators, there is now a common vision across the industry of where we are headed.

Celebrations and concerns 

So there is much to celebrate today. But there are regrets and real concerns. Despite being responsible for only 6% of the Levy Control Framework overspend, when the Conservative government came into power in 2015 they inflicted the brunt of extreme and sudden cuts on solar.

For all the talk of smart grids and value for money, the government has returned to a frankly outdated notion of energy as a series of cherry-picked large infrastructure projects, and their heavy subsidies for these push against the natural tide of technology change and competition. Perhaps most bizarrely for any believer in free markets, solar has been prevented from competing in clean power auctions for four years. 

It would have been easy and affordable to put solar on a smooth glide path off subsidy to 2020, avoiding the extreme policy volatility that the International Energy Agency warns governments against and which saw solar deployment crash by 94% last year compared to 2015. Indeed, we set out exactly how to do this back in 2015 in our Solar Independence Plan. 

I have seen simply too many brilliant people, who used to be such a part of my day-to-day working life, fall by the wayside since 2015.

A culture of policy shocks has weakened UK PLC’s solar stake internationally in what is now the biggest clean energy market in the world and which all mainstream analysts concur will dominate the future of energy. For all the shining examples of UK solar giants now striding the globe like Solarcentury, LightsourceBP and British Solar Renewables, there were many more solar acorns on the brink of growing into great oaks, with international branches.

I have seen simply too many brilliant people, who used to be such a part of my day-to-day working life, fall by the wayside since 2015. 

If there is one lesson that I draw most strongly from over a decade working in solar in the UK, it is that government, politics and policy-making, even the ‘green blob’, gives too little care and attention to the people who are really making the change our society needs. It is the people who quietly get on with running a business, who take huge risks on all our behalf and who continue to learn and to innovate who have my total respect. It is electricians learning new skills, engineers and designers devising complex systems, quality controllers safeguarding consumers and so many others who deserve better consideration. It is the communities who are determined to go solar and the local authorities who want to lead their communities with actions, not words.

For all the painful moments – and there have been many – it really has been a privilege to support this great industry. We are the change-makers creating hope for everyone.

Recent years have not been easy, but old faces are now returning. New faces are appearing. And it is in no small part because of the extraordinary determination of the people in our industry that we at the STA have confidence going forward.

In the next blog I explain why we are optimistic about the future and what we are doing to support the next stage of growth across the British solar and storage industries. This time the fundamentals are firmly rooted in the ground, while the need for rapid growth in solar and its family of smart technologies is stark.