Ed Davey: Solar will become ‘cheapest form of energy’

DECC secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey has said that he is “absolutely convinced” the falling costs of solar will make it the cheapest form of energy available in the coming years.

Solar Power Portal spoke to the minister as he visited the offices of China-headquartered panel supplier ReneSola in East Sussex last week. Davey praised the recent work of the UK solar industry and asserted that there is a strong case for investing in renewable energy.

“The people I talk to, whether they’re in financial institutions or research labs, are showing very clearly that solar costs are going to come down and down, so it will be the cheapest form of electricity, I’m absolutely convinced about that.”

In April this year, freelance energy consultant Gaynor Hartnell, a former Renewable Energy Association chief executive, wrote a blog for Solar Power Portal highlighting the cost competitiveness of solar, particularly against coal and offshore wind. Hartnell’s blog, written before preparations for the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme got fully underway, also pointed out that policy uncertainty was a far bigger threat to the industry. The launch of CfDs was controversial as five out of eight in the first wave of contracts were awarded to offshore wind farms. A Commons committee report had said DECC's approach "failed consumers". The DECC decision jars in the context of Davey's comments on solar's cost reduction-induced competitiveness.

Davey also spoke highly of the work of UK solar in implementing best practise guidelines, while offering a scathing, if vague, criticism of what he called the “anti-science”, “vested interests” and “prejudiced approach” of the NIMBYist focus on solar farms and onshore wind. Solar Power Portal editor Peter Bennett wrote a recent blog on the politicisation of solar farms, in particular on DEFRA minister Liz Truss’ recent criticisms of solar farms and their supposed effect on agriculture.

“I want there to be a rational debate, not one that’s driven by anti-science, vested interests, prejudiced approach,” Davey said.

“I’ve been very impressed by the solar industry in getting together a protocol about how they should go about installations, particularly ground mounted and I think the high quality and responsible approach the solar industry is taking has not been recognised as widely as it should be.”

In August last year, the Solar Trade Association put out its ‘Ten Commitments’ guidelines that offers advice community engagement, biodiversity and other benchmarks for best practise.

Solar Power Portal asked Ed Davey what the industry could do to give a better account of itself publicly, when rational arguments fall on deaf ears or are countered with ignorance. Davey said that solar should keep pushing, and that renewable energy offered Britain an opportunity as well as a challenge.

“I understand and sympathise with the challenge, but the key thing is to be determined, to keep pushing,” the minister said.

“The truth is the strong case for investing in solar, in renewables more generally, it’s still there, whether it’s the climate change issue and energy security, whether it’s on costs that are coming down. It would be crazy for the UK not to be at the forefront of that energy revolution.”

Nonetheless, as the focus of the industry moves away from ground mounted PV plants with the end of the Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROCs) scheme for large-scale solar and the switch to CfDs, the big question posed by several industry players to Solar Power Portal was what the government will do to encourage commercial rooftop projects.

Former DECC minister Greg Barker had spoken of “putting rocket boosters under” the commercial rooftop segment, but so far little in the way of concrete announcements have been made from the department. Asked if commercial rooftops really would fill the gap left by large scale, and what the government might do to foster this development, Davey was non-committal, but said work was ongoing.

“There’s definitely a lot of work going on with that. We’ve already seen with the differentiation of FiTs for mounted solar going in that direction and we’ve been consulting on a number of issues, like transferability, so watch that space.”

Davey was also bullish on the prospects for energy storage, particularly in its role paired with solar, as well as its potential to be rewarded financially through capacity markets, which could include offering grid services.