The government’s record on solar broke into the national election campaign last night when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn condemned cuts to feed-in tariffs which he said “destroyed and damaged” the industry.
During answers to the penultimate question of the 90 minute debate aired on the BBC, a number of the party leaders present turned on home secretary and former energy secretary Amber Rudd to criticise the Conservatives' approach to climate change.
“When we did have a growing and thriving solar power industry in this country what did they do? Cut the feed-in tariffs which destroyed and damaged a lot of that industry. We need a different approach,” Corbyn stated.
Since the new FiT regime came into effect from January 2016, deployment of residential solar in particular has slumped. The first quarter of 2017 recorded the slowest rate of installs under the new regime so far, continuing a decline recorded in each of the last four FiT terms.
A survey published by the Solar Trade Association and Big Four consultancy PwC in July last year found that as many as 12,500 UK solar jobs had been lost since the first of the government’s policy decisions on 22 July 2015.
Rudd, who served as secretary of state for the now defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change from May 2015 until July 2016 and stood in for the absent Theresa May, responded to Corbyn’s attack with the government’s defence that solar no longer required subsidy.
“There has been substantial investment in renewable energy and in solar which increasingly doesn’t need subsidy. So because of that investment it makes good economic sense,” she said.
However Rudd did not discuss the government’s other stated reasons for cutting FiTs, namely the projected overspend of the Levy Control Framework (LCF) which also led to the closure of the Renewables Obligation for large scale solar.
A report from the National Audit Office later found that government mismanagement of the LCF had led to higher than expected costs, with FiT demand contributing just 6%, or £130 million, of the £1.5 billion projected overspend.
Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, also criticised Amber Rudd during her response, after thanking the audience member for a question on climate change which she said her party had been trying to get on the election campaign agenda for the past six weeks.
Calling for a “massive investment in renewables and energy efficiency” to replace the fossil fuels which she said needed to “stay in the ground”, Lucas said: “Amber Rudd of course was the energy secretary for a while but under her we did not see the energy transition that we needed if we are serious about climate change.”
Angus Robertson, deputy leader of the Scottish National Party standing in for Nicola Sturgeon, pointed to the government’s closure of DECC as “absolutely appalling”.
“This is a government that has got rid of the climate change responsibility at the Cabinet table. The prime minister and her government need to take climate change seriously in a way that they haven’t done in recent years.”
Despite their differences, all of the politicians present in Cambridge last night condemned US president Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement, with the exception of UKIP leader Paul Nuttall who said he was “putting America first”.
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood called the decision “terrible leadership”, adding that “the world needs to tell him he is wrong”, while Liberal Democrat Tim Farron also condemned the decision, calling it “bad business”.
Rudd, who led the UK’s delegation to Paris to secure the agreement, said it was “disappointing” to see the Americans pull out, but added that the UK could use “our relationship with president Trump and our close relationship with the US” to influence future policy.
Jeremy Corbyn, who would see 60% of the UK’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030, said: “We should absolutely adhere to the Paris Climate Change agreement and we should urge the American people to press their government, their senate and their house, and their president to adhere to it as well.”