Mainstreaming solar in a new nuclear Britain

The news that Hinkley Point achieved a strike price of £92.50 per MWh, nearly four times the amount originally proposed, cannot but rankle with the British solar industry.

What, no degression model? Support for green energy lasting thirty five years? A vast, decade-long construction project in the countryside of southwest England? You'd expect Tory back-benchers to be up in arms!

Instead we find the media cheering the move to the rafters.

It was the same story with shale. Potential impacts on the countryside were, according to the Prime Minister, a "myth". Indigenous energy supply and tens of thousands of new jobs would instead help deliver a second industrial revolution for Britain. (Note how the language was similar to that bandied around when the Labour government launched its green jobs revolution.)

Don't get me wrong: I'm neither anti-nuclear nor against shale. My question is instead how solar can locate the same kind of support, in particular as election time nears and energy bills move centre stage.

Since the feed-in-tariff cuts, the industry associations have done a fantastic job of putting the case for solar at the political level. Calls for visibility on FiTs and ROCs were heeded and the market has recovered to become one of the largest worldwide. Greg Barker openly admits he was at first sceptical of solar, but has since emerged as a darling of the industry.

This is unfortunately not the end of the story. Future policy decisions could undermine solar's potential, and indeed kill the industry off altogether, starting with the proposed review of so-called "green levies".

The political reality is that most decisions are made in the context of the public debate. In today's world, that means the "national conversation" between politicians and national media.

This is a big challenge for British solar. Media coverage here ranges from sceptical at best, to outright hostility, and is showing tendencies to become more negative over time.

Even the normally-objective Financial Times has shifted in tone, writing that “industry advocates often struggle to explain that solar photovoltaic panels do not need scorching hot weather to be effective", and that solar farms are "provoking outrage across the country".

Why is this important? George Brock, head of the Graduate School of Journalism at City University, writes that “the news media’s influence lies more in defining the agenda of what is important or in marginalizing either debates or opinions".

The risk is that British solar becomes marginalised in the public debate, before it has had a chance to become mainstream.

There are different approaches to promoting a niche technology, idea or policy. Some argue that it is best to keep quiet, fearing revolt, and gradually build up support until there is critical mass. Others claim that the media is only useful so long as the right people are alerted to the rewards on offer – a business-like approach.

The third way – let's call it the "nuclear option" – is to steer the debate towards a convincing idea, that is attractive to a broad array of different stakeholders, and pushing it strongly through all available channels.

The President of the American solar industry association makes a strong pitch for the third option: "If you don’t get involved and we as an industry don’t participate in a committed and shared effort, we will only make it that much easier for our critics and enemies to silence our roar."

In August, President Obama installed solar panels on the roof of the Whitehouse. In fact he wasn't the first president to opt for solar. Jimmy Carter had a system installed, and even George W Bush put in panels, in part to heat the presidential pool.

Britain is certainly a different country, and the chances of David Cameron pulling out the Yellow Pages today look remote. But a co-ordinated, strategic approach to communications would certainly hasten the day.