Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth
On the May Day bank holiday weekend, as much of the UK basked in record breaking temperatures, something remarkable was happening: For a time, solar power in the UK was generating a quarter of the country’s electricity, more than nuclear, more than coal, and briefly more than gas too. Think about it. A quarter of all the houses, tube trains, factories, pubs, ice cream makers and TV channels had their power supplied by solar panels. And the impact on decarbonisation is being felt. In April the UK had its longest ever run without coal power, thanks to a combination of sunny, windy days. Throughout 2018 it is likely that many more such records will tumble.
Yet even as solar power notches up records the installation of new systems has collapsed as government policy changes over the last few years kick in. The cuts made to the feed-in tariff for rooftop solar have been too fast and too deep, while a lack of auctions for new generation continues to lock out cheap and efficient large scale solar power from the market – a side effect of the government’s irrational dislike of onshore wind. As a result new installations have declined by over 90% since 2016.
Yet all is not lost. As the costs of solar continue to fall, and the industry takes stock of the position it finds itself in, new markets are slowly beginning to emerge. While domestic and social housing continue to struggle, commercial and larger scale rooftop developments are increasingly achievable, and the focus is now shifting to the activities local councils can take to encourage their development – as outlined in the Solar Trade Association’s recent Leading Lights report.
As the report makes clear, local renewable generation brings many benefits – keeping money in the region, empowering communities, helping to tackle fuel poverty and generating clean, affordable power. It is also hugely popular. The government’s tracking polls show support for renewables running at nearly 80%.
One of the most important things a local authority can do is demand higher standards for new buildings. Friends of the Earth has long called for proper zero carbon homes standards, and while we continue to push central government, it is encouraging to see cities like Sheffield, London and elsewhere take measures to improve standards locally, with new rules requiring developers to use renewable power to reduce emissions. As a result new buildings in Bristol are crowned with solar panels. But these rules must be stringent – if they are too weak they can lead to tokenism, with developers putting single panels or undersized arrays on new buildings just to satisfy regulations.
There are other measures local authorities should follow too: introducing relief on business rates for small businesses and schools with solar panels, supporting community energy schemes by providing space or logistics, or making use of interest free loans to renovate existing council properties.
Ultimately though, while some solar projects are already cheap enough or profitable enough to happen without any government support, we cannot just sit and wait for the conditions to be perfect, particularly if we want the full benefits of the energy transition to spread through society. We are in a race against time to decarbonise our economy and stop the worst effects of climate change. Solar should be an important piece of that process, and we are wasting time by allowing the industry to struggle; particularly the rooftop and communities sectors which could bring the biggest cultural benefits.
If the government is serious about meeting its Paris Agreement commitment, we need action on all fronts. That means it needs to come up with interim measures to boost rooftop solar as prices fall – whether that is a tax break or the right to sell power for a fair price that recognises the benefits local embedded generation can bring.