This week, members of parliament met in Westminster Hall in the House of Commons to discuss Government’s recent proposal to cut the feed-in tariff rates for solar photovoltaic installations over 50kW. Leading the debate was Alex Cunningham, who took on board the challenge of fighting back against the cuts, by arguing the case for larger-scale solar in the UK.

Cunningham was joined by Ian Lucas MP, whose constituency, Wrexham, houses Sharp Solar’s manufacturing plant.

During the 30-minute discussion, many valid and interesting points were set out in support of the industry, such as the fact that the 50kW cut-off would not only affect ‘large-scale investors’ but also community schemes, such as those planned on schools, houses, churches and so on. Cunningham also argued that the cost of a given technology comes down with increases in installed capacity, so larger-scale installations are a proven way of bringing industry prices down and closer to a day where we will reach grid-parity.

“To be clear, the Government’s decision to significantly reduce the tariff for schemes that are larger than 50kW will cause havoc in this fledgling industry and make it less likely that community groups and schools, hospitals and churches will contemplate solar energy schemes, as they will simply be unaffordable. Schemes over 50kW in size will see the feed-in tariff reduced by between 39% and 49%,” explained Cunningham.

The argument was taken further when the Renewable Energy Association was quoted as saying the industry has been “strangled at birth,” and to the Solar Trade Association, which calls the decision “a total disaster”.

“The fact is that solar energy is hugely popular. A study of public attitudes to energy generation technologies that was undertaken by Cardiff University last year showed 88% support for solar PV. It had the highest level of support of all technologies. More than 70% of people agree that supporting renewable energy sources such as solar or wind is a better way of tackling climate change than nuclear power,” continued Cunningham.

Evidence was also put forward from back in 2008, when the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who is now a Minister of State in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, stated when speaking about 5MW projects:

“The idea behind it is to allow the inclusion of non-commercial scale projects, such as those that will be installed by homeowners, small businesses, local authorities, community groups, farmers and others. That would help out hospitals and schools that want to facilitate greater use of renewables and ensure low emissions as part of our 2020 targets.” [Official Report, 18th November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 144.]

The industry is now suitably confused as to why the Government has u-turned on this statement. “The Government is trying to present the decision as a choice between supporting home owners who want to install solar PV panels, and supporting big, commercial-scale schemes. The reality is that many community groups interested in medium-sized schemes – you know the big society – will also lose out thanks to the proposed changes to the feed-in tariff,” Cunningham reiterated.

The Solar Power Portal’s job research, conducted on behalf of the Renewable Energy Association, was also highlighted. This study provided evidence that, nationally, 17,000 new solar jobs would be created by the end of 2011, providing there are no FiT cuts.

“Those jobs are now unlikely to materialize as medium and large-scale projects are axed. At a time when the number of people unemployed stands at 2.5 million, we should be doing everything that we can to encourage the creation of green jobs. The Government’s review could end up costing jobs, rather than creating them,” explained Cunningham.

Next up was the point that we are supposedly still on the path towards our renewables target, which aims to see 15% of the UK’s energy coming from renewable technologies by 2020 under the EU renewable energy directive. Yet unfortunately we are third from bottom of the list of European countries in meeting our renewable energy targets, and the Government’s decision will not help matters.

To close his argument, Cunningham posed three questions to Government:

1.      Firstly, how does the Government propose to restore confidence in its renewable policy, which has been severely shaken thanks to the shambolic way in which the decision on feed-in tariffs has been handled?

2.      Secondly, what is the Government’s long-term vision for solar PV? Evidence from other countries demonstrates that it has the potential to play a significant part in renewable energy provision, yet the Government’s policy is geared towards sidelining it as a purely domestic, small-scale technology. We are not being ambitious enough when it comes to solar PV.

3.      Finally, will the Government promise to listen to the industry during the consultation, because it is very angry about this unexpected change in policy? Will they then act to ditch that ridiculous change in policy? If not, they risk alienating not only the solar sector, but the whole renewables sector.

The response to these arguments was provided by Shailesh Vara, member of the Conservatives, North West Cambridgeshire – not by a member of DECC, who apparently tendered their excuses. But Vara assured us that although time was tight, he was “more than happy to ensure that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden give a proper reply subsequently.”

We won’t hold our breath on that one.

Following this opening, the usual rhetoric with which we have become so familiar ensued: “The coalition Government is committed to renewables, particularly to meeting our European Union target of ensuring that 15% of all energy comes from renewable sources by 2020… The spending review shows that we are delivering on being the ‘greenest Government ever’ and that we delivered an excellent settlement for renewables, which underlines the priority that the sector constitutes for the Government… Support for large-scale renewable electricity under the renewables obligation will be maintained over the spending review period, with the budget due to rise to £3.2 billion by 2014-15,” etc. ad infinitum.

But despite the fact that much of the response was a complete regurgitation of what we have heard countless times, there was one positive point worth mentioning.

Richard Graham, Conservative MP for Gloucester suggested “asking Ministers whether they would contemplate allowing the same feed-in tariffs to community buildings, including sports clubs and other local organisations, rather than large-scale commercial solar power?”

Vara replied that he was “more than happy to pass that on to the relevant Minister,” and made a point of noting it down. Vara seemed keen to take constructive criticism onboard, as this can only serve to solve the problem the DECC is now facing.

This is progress, and although it may not make the slightest jot of difference, it is constructive that the industry’s voice is being heard – to some extent.

Vara began to close by saying that Government was supporting large-scale, but it has had “to take a decision at the moment to have the cut-off point at 50kW.”

(Well, actually he said 50MW, but he’s not the first MP to make a silly mistake and he won’t be the last.)

“That will clearly be reviewed on a regular basis, because that is the way forward. We recognise that, but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, we have constraints given the current economic climate.”

Finally, in conclusion, Vara addressed the three points put forward by Cunningham, saying, “we believe that confidence is important, and we will continue to monitor. We firmly believe that by protecting the domestic market, confidence has not been damaged. On a long-term basis, this is the way forward, and we will continue to monitor. In response to whether the Government will listen, of course we will listen. We have listened today and will continue to do so. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North and all other hon. Members and hon. Friends who have taken the time to make their voices heard.”

Let’s hope it actually makes a difference.