STA BLOGS: A very Dutch view

08 February 2019

In this STA Blog, Ruud Frijstein of iChoosr laments the abrupt manner in which solar policy is shifted and scrapped in the UK.

Before sharing my thoughts, you need to know I am a straight-talking Dutchman. I am pretty sure one’s perspective on matters is impacted by being foreign. You might think I am overly critical – you can judge me by the end of this blog.

I work for iChoosr, an international organisation that runs group buying schemes for residential solar. We play an important role, helping to boost the high volume markets that the solar industry needs to thrive and providing domestic households with high-quality installations at the most competitive prices. We have delivered close to 60,000 installations over six years in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. Our first, and very successful, UK scheme was in 2015. I can still remember the exact moment we received the news about the cuts to the Feed-In Tariff (FiT) back then. Most shocking was the unexpected and severe nature of the downward change to the FiT. We immediately decided to pause our schemes as we assessed it would take two years for the market to absorb this unexpected change. As such, our first attempt to start a new business line in the UK, which helps to boost markets for UK firms, was halted by disruptive policy changes.

In 2017 we decided to give it another try and have rolled out a series of successful collective purchase schemes across London, Essex and Suffolk. Our approach, which secures high volumes, means the business case for consumers to buy solar looked good. We knew the Generation Tariff would end, but with declining system costs and rising cost for electricity, we considered this change acceptable. Then, out of the blue, the government announced the intent to end the export tariff as well, and despite a very forceful pushback from the industry, they went ahead.

As a Dutch businessman, I am left bewildered by the way the UK runs its solar policies. The job to determine policies comes with responsibilities. To make such abrupt changes without thinking them through and preparing an industry, from my Dutch perspective, is shameful. Again, completely out of the blue came the proposal to set up a Smart Export Guarantee – a rescue attempt that comes too late to prevent a perilous policy gap. In a responsible policy environment this would have been consulted upon at least two years ago, given the complexities.

The UK solar industry and responsible householders need our approach, which sees us working with local authorities to help strengthen what is a very weak domestic market. Indeed, we are part of keeping this sector afloat when Westminster is far from supportive.

We have decided to go ahead with our UK schemes even as we urge the Government to come forward, as soon as possible, to guarantee the fair market price that solar home owners have every right to. We have faith that, even as this government subsidises the fossil industry and hinders the solar industry, local authorities and consumers will want to take such important matters into their own hands. Maybe the one good thing coming out of this is an increased awareness that, in uncertain times, one cannot trust Whitehall to rule wisely, and the only way forward lies with those of us who take our responsibilities and the threat of climate change seriously.

My UK experience has made me more appreciative of the Dutch government. They try harder to avoid disruptive policy changes and take easily four to six years to prepare industries for big changes. The only quality needed to enable our rulers to act wisely is an early start. For that, one needs to look beyond the immediate short-term politics. An announced change to our net-metering subsidy model has been discussed for three years now, and some weeks ago the earliest implementation date is delayed till 2021, to avoid disruptive effects. What a contrast to the UK approach.

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    Ruud joined group-buying experts iChoosr in 2012 when he started collective purchasing schemes for solar panels in the Netherlands. Schemes in Belgium and the United Kingdom soon followed, and he is currently involved in setting up solar schemes in Japan. He is also leading a team developing new group-buying schemes around other products.