Rudd offers little solar solace in jibe-laden strategy reveal

Billed in the national press as her most important speech in the role to date, Amber Rudd took to the stage at London’s Institution of Civil Engineers this morning promising a radical overhaul of the UK’s energy market.

But, aside from a handful of jibes and side-swipes, the energy secretary barely referenced solar and certainly offered nothing in the way of assurances for a beleaguered industry.

Central to Rudd’s speech is the landmark decision to shutter coal-powered plants by 2025 and severely restrict their use by 2023. It’s a promise that has been met by cautious applause from environmental groups, but is one laced with get-out clauses. While the promise was outlined in principle to the market first thing this morning, by the time Rudd was delivering the speech she had confirmed the move would only be made if gas was in a position to pick up coal’s slack.

The move is also subject to a consultation to be launched early next spring. It is indeed a ground-breaking decision – the UK would become the world’s first major economy to ditch coal production if carried out – but in giving itself a number of loopholes the government’s commitment might not be as concrete as first thought.

Gas and nuclear will now take centre stage, supported by offshore wind but only if the costs are right. Those three energy sources are all but controlled by the UK’s major utility companies, so perhaps the ‘Big Six’ were premature in voicing their concerns to the select committee earlier this month.

Solar – and onshore wind for that matter – was restricted to a few choice words and backhanded jibes that perfectly encapsulated the Conservative government’s attitude to renewables since May.

“We need to work towards a market where success is driven by your ability to compete in a market. Not by your ability to lobby Government,” Rudd said, either ignorant to or brazenly acknowledging the subsidies afforded to Hinkley Point until 2058 and the North Sea fossil fuel industry in the form of tax breaks.

“Climate change is a big problem, it needs big technologies. As the former chief scientist at DECC, David Mackay, said: ‘If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes’,” Rudd said, in what could be seen as a thinly-veiled swipe at the domestic solar industry’s penchant for 4kWp installs.

The only policy decision alluded to was solar’s exclusion from any future Contracts for Difference auctions, which will instead go solely to offshore wind farms. The industry was not expecting any decision on the feed-in tariff consultation – an update is not anticipated until after chancellor George Osborne’s spending review next week – but the underhanded remarks are unnecessary.

The strategy outlined by Rudd today sets the Conservative’s stall out for the rest of this government’s term, but critics have argued that decisions taken to date do not represent much of a strategy at all. Sir Crispen Tickell, a former advisor on climate issues to Margaret Thatcher, claimed yesterday that an internal “war” between DECC and the Treasury risked leaving the UK without an energy policy.

And these doubts are not solely of those outside of the department. DECC’s own employee survey released yesterday showed that just 21% of employees consider that DECC is acting as a “single, joined-up department”.

What’s even more galling for the domestic industry is that other countries are providing ample evidence that it doesn’t have to be this way. US president Barack Obama, speaking earlier today, referenced how the US is proving how nations “can transition to clean energy without squeezing businesses and consumers”. It’s of little wonder that those developers with the resources able to are packing their bags for pastures new.

The renewables lobby will likely regard this as an opportunity missed, but Rudd’s speech will have ticked all the boxes for Osborne’s Treasury. Distributed generation has largely been swept aside with the ‘Big Six’ entrusted with the lion share of the work needed to overhaul the UK’s energy infrastructure. We can only hope they don’t make a mess.