Solar heating – lessons from the Cold War

The most common question I am asked by people in the solar heating industry is “when do you think the domestic RHI will launch?” or perhaps more often “do you think a domestic RHI will ever launch?”

It is now five years since the domestic RHI was first announced.  Proposed launch dates have come and gone. 

So perhaps we should forgive an industry jaded by a series of missed deadlines and ‘broken promises’ for issuing a collective “Yeah, sure” in response to the most recent announcement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) that the RHI would ‘definitely, 100% for sure, cross our hearts, no we really mean it this time’ launch in spring 2014 and that details of the tariff will be announced in summer 2013.

So, is there any reason to hope that it's different this time? That a spring 2014 launch will actually happen?

You see, what people sometimes forget about the fable of 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' is that the wolf really did show up in the end.

Reading the Runes

At the height of the Cold War, a lack of reliable information forced Western observers to use the smallest of signals to figure out what was going on in the secretive Soviet hierarchy.  The relative positions dignitaries took as they stood on the podium watching all the missiles and tanks roll past would be analysed in intricate detail by expert observers.  The removal of portraits hanging in the rooms of state, the arrangement of chairs and the order of articles in the state newspaper Pravda could all provide clues as to which way the wind was blowing in the Politburo.

If DECC is on track for a summer announcement of the domestic stream of the RHI, then it is entirely understandable that nothing public can be announced right now.

To assess what the future may hold for this long-awaited industry support scheme, it becomes necessary to read between the lines in a similar way to the Cold War analysts.

So what have we got to go on?

RHPP Grants Doubled

The Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) was intended as a one-year stop-gap after the first delay to the domestic RHI but it’s now in its third year.  People who install solar heating can apply for this grant from the Energy Saving Trust, and crucially will also be able to apply for the RHI once it comes along.

After the most recent delay to the domestic RHI, the Renewable Heating Industry in effect called DECC's bluff. The autumn consultation on the domestic RHI showed that DECC's preferred option was to recoup any RHPP grants already paid by reducing the RHI by the same amount. This meant that the RHPP could be increased at no extra cost to government.

Well – it would be at no extra cost if government really did intend to launch a domestic RHI.

The Solar Trade Association coordinated a joint statement from the six trade bodies representing renewable heating.  The trade bodies called on DECC to substantially increase the RHPP with immediate effect.  This initiative was supported by an ad-hoc twitter campaign (#TweetforHeat) to demonstrate support for the proposal from the wider industry.

That DECC agreed so readily to a doubling of the RHPP is a pretty strong signal that the domestic RHI is real and imminent.

The new requirement for recipients of the RHPP to undertake (but not act upon) a Green Deal Assessment is also a strong signal for the RHI and, given the priority DECC is giving its Green Deal, should come as no surprise. 

(Incidentally, watch out for solar PV installations also being linked to the Green Deal rather than EPC D.  The logic for such a move must look rather compelling to DECC.)

The timing of the increased grant is excellent news for solar heating, coming in time for the sunnier months.  At £600, the figure is above the psychologically important £500 level, where sums of money start to feel that little bit more “chunky”.  Although the other renewable heating technologies come with higher grant levels, solar heating is a much simpler sell to householders.

While a comprehensive summer announcement of tariff rates, qualification criteria and deeming methodology would really seal it, the industry should be able to get out there immediately and promote the RHI to domestic customers with a renewed confidence.