Much has been said of the cuts to the microgeneration feed-in tariff and the subsequent plight of the domestic solar industry ever since. A strategic industry that employed tens of thousands of skilled workers kneecapped almost overnight. And yet, if you only paid attention to those with the responsibility of enacting such policies, you’d be forgiven for thinking all is well.
Prior to last summer’s Brexit referendum and the resulting political upheaval, then-energy secretary Amber Rudd and her ministerial colleague Andrea Leadsom insisted that the UK’s solar industry would thrive as soon as it recalibrated to the new, slimmer rates. That PwC and the Solar Trade Association discovered that many thousands of jobs had already been lost – and many more thousands were at risk – was just a minor bump in the road.
The name on the door might have changed and the personnel reshuffled (and reshuffled again, such is the tradition), but it’s perhaps a comforting sight in an otherwise turbulent political climate that the government’s messaging has remained constant.
Responding to a written question on the solar industry’s profitability earlier this week, new energy minister Jesse Norman reiterated his department’s trope that the cuts were to ease the technology towards a more sustainable future. “Support for solar installations comes directly from consumer bills, and the government has accordingly taken steps to control the costs of support schemes and have put solar on a path to subsidy-free deployment,” he wrote.
In an era when any claim of even the slightest questionable standing is derided as fake news, Norman’s conclusion that the path UK solar has taken over the last 18 months is the right one is a claim so audacious even Donald Trump might think twice before reaching it.
UK solar, at least on the residential front, seems to have lurched from one record low to another. That Q4 2016 residential deployment was the worst on government record is the perfect testament to how severe the industry has found the cuts. When set against the previous year, monthly sub-4kW deployment illustrates the drop-off perfectly.
It’s a chart that clearly explains why the industry has been dubbed the ‘Solarcoaster’ by so many that have worked within it for any extended period of time. It’s not so much a path than it is an adventure trail littered with the kinds of summits and descents more commonly associated with the Tour de France. If this is the path to subsidy-free deployment, then the industry’s probably better served off-road.
That the ROC scheme closes its doors for good in seven weeks’ time and the commercial rooftop business rates issue continues to rumble on means the imminent future could be even bumpier than the past.
Norman might also find value in a briefing from some of his departmental colleagues, because it was only a few weeks ago that climate change minister Nick Hurd stood before the BEIS select committee speaking of the need to help established renewables technologies along the path towards subsidy-free deployment.
“The challenge we have now, which we are working through, is: where do we go now, in terms of further deployment of the more mature technologies? How do we move from subsidy-based deployment to deployment of more mature technologies on a subsidy-free basis in genuinely competitive markets? That is where we want to get to and where we should all want to get to, because subsidies should not be a way of life,” he said.
And quite right too. So it’s fantastic news for both the industry and hard-working bill payers that Norman has apparently solved this critical juncture of the renewables industry mere weeks into the job.
Of course, the truth is that solar was already on the path to subsidy-free deployment. If anything, government intervention has only served to beset that progression. Last summer DECC figures showed a surprising increase in the cost of solar deployment at the domestic scale after the cuts – an average 3kW system was nearly £1,000 more expensive in March 2016 than it was two months prior – despite those costs having dropped significantly over the course of 2015.
The industry is acutely aware that subsidies cannot last forever and you’ll be hard pressed to find an installer who didn’t think the previous FiTs were generous. But cutting them to such an extent when the industry stood on the precipice of a technological revolution has appeared counterproductive in the extreme.
Jesse Norman is right. Solar is on the path to subsidy-free deployment. It’s just the government’s recent actions have had nothing to do with it.