MPs sabotaging solar progress in spite of public support

Until solar can globally drive down its costs to compete with *cough* ‘unsubsidised’ fossil fuels, it will remain at the mercy of the ruling government and what level of policy support is passed and upheld.

In the grand scheme of things the UK solar market appears quite steady when compared to other global solar markets. My guess would be that if you ask any UK solar business if they felt they benefited from policy stability you’d be met with a unanimous ‘no’. Since the feed-in tariff was introduced in 2010, the solar sector has lurched from one policy debacle to another. The latest? Government scrapping all renewable obligation support for solar farms over 5MW, effectively kneecapping Europe’s largest utility-scale solar market.

The cut in RO support has been explained away by government as a necessity in order to preserve the budget. As Jonathon Porritt so astutely pointed out at the time, ministers were making policy based on “a short-term, expedient fear of UKIP rather than the interests of the UK over the long-term”.

Well in the twilight of 2014, renowned political analysts Dods quizzed 100 MPs to find out exactly which energy source was the most popular in Westminster. Firstly, MPs were asked to list which energy source constituents would prefer within two miles of their home.

No prizes for guessing what came out on top. The clear majority of MPs (72%) put solar farms down as the most popular, the next most popular was nuclear with just 13% listing it as the most preferable source – an absolute landslide victory for solar PV.         

Party politics

If you delve into the results of the Dods survey poll a little further an even more surprising picture starts to emerge. Conservative ministers – so often at the vanguard of attacks on solar – know full well that solar farms are the most popular choice for their constituents.

Almost 70% of conservative MPs listed solar as the most popular yet the party continues to openly undermine support for the technology. Whether it be Liz Truss’ wilful ignorance of evidence to deny CAP payments for land with solar farms, or Eric Pickles’ questionable abuse of his calling in powers to delay and block solar farm developments – the Conservatives have been less than subtle about their desire to curb the growth of solar farms in the UK, despite knowing that the majority of the constituents would support it. Unfortunately, it’s not the majority of voters that these moves are designed to appease.

Representing constituents’ views

Luckily for us, the Department of Energy and Climate Change publishes a comprehensive Public Opinion tracker which started back in summer 2012. Now on its twelfth wave, solar PV has been listed as the most popular form of generation by the British public every single time, and every single time it has received >80% support. The latest wave shows that 81% of Brits support the rollout of solar.

One thing is abundantly clear: Brits want more solar and MPs know it.

The government’s move to block solar farms is directly against the wishes of the majority of voters – and again, they know it.  

Speaking to Solar Business Focus UK, Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association explains her exasperation at MPs’ positions on solar farms. She said: “The poll shows that MPs know that solar farms are the most popular local energy development with their constituents. Their perspective is confirmed by all the independent public polls we have seen. So it begs the question why on earth is large-scale solar alone in being discriminated against in the policy framework?

“There is no justification on cost grounds and no justification on the grounds of public opinion.

“We'd like to see more MPs speaking out to protect solar — what they know to be the most popular local energy development. It is very difficult to understand why Whitehall is effectively taking away the opportunity for local communities to decide what type of local energy development they want.”

Greene concludes: “Taking the most popular option with communities off the table makes no sense at all.”

This article originally appeared in Solar Business Focus UK, register to receive your copy here.