Rocket boosters, revolutions and positive outcomes; why BEIS’ next solar step is crucial

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If you’re a parliamentarian and find yourself in the capacity of energy minister – and given how frequently we go through them, chances are you probably will do at some point – then the rate at which the UK decarbonises its power supply is of upmost importance to you.

That, in turn, leads you to solar PV, one of the cheapest sources of renewable power with the added potential to give more power – quite literally – to the consumer.

Only the energy minister’s relationship with solar PV tends to be quite turbulent. Ministers have embraced and heralded, dismissed and ignored solar in equal measure, particularly over the last three years. Policy has come and gone, support has dwindled. And all the while, solar has spent time on the tips of politicians’ tongues.

Greg Barker, climate change minister for four years between 2010 and 2014, was among the first to embrace PV in a big way, speaking of his desire to put “rocket-boosters” under commercial-scale solar installs in July 2014.

It wasn’t the first time Barker had outlined his solar ambitions. Three years earlier he’d spoken of his desire to end the boom-and-bust cycle of solar development before inadvertently sparking exactly that. The 31 March RO deadlines were famed for triggering frantic activity, with independent connection providers dispatching agents via helicopter in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline.

But those rocket boosters failed to ignite. C&I installs have bubbled along and do, it has to be said, continue to in spite of feed-in tariff upheaval. Lift-and-shift and permitted development rights have also helped make commercial PV an easier sell. But there has been no real significant surge in deployment.

But the solar industry didn’t have to wait long for the next big promise. No sooner had Amber Rudd replaced Ed Davey at One Whitehall Place had she promised the Hastings Observer that she would “unleash a new solar revolution” in the UK.

And she did. Of sorts.

Two months later the RO was abruptly cancelled and before the end of the year, the FiT slashed to ribbons as part of a much wider green policy cull wrought by Rudd’s cabinet colleague and chancellor at the time George Osborne.

“We have a million people living under roofs with solar panels and that number needs to increase,” Rudd said in May 2015. It wasn’t quite the case then, and it still isn’t quite the case now. If anything, Rudd’s solar revolution has stymied residential solar deployment, with installs nearly 80% down on previous rates.

So you can forgive the industry for taking Claire Perry’s comments a fortnight ago with more than a pinch of salt.

The energy and clean growth minister told this publication on the sidelines of All-Energy that the post-2019 solar strategy, which her department is currently in the process of finalising, would have some “really positive” outcomes. Quite what those will be remains unclear, and it is unavoidable that any strategy is now five months late, given how it was supposed to be published before the end of last year.

There are, however, some murmurings that solar may receive some sense of direction before the summer is over and that will be most welcome. Given the policy status quo there is some feeling that solar is almost listing, slowly moving from one quarter to the next, aided ever so slightly by gradually decreasing costs and business model innovation

And this is where BEIS can step in. Unlike in 2014 or 2015, UK solar does not need rocket boosters or a revolution. It doesn’t need ample subsidy or any additional fiscal support. All it needs is a level playing field; the chance to compete with other generators fairly and squarely.

If this forthcoming strategy can achieve just that, it’ll be worth far more to the industry than any outlandish claim.