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Solar Power and Feed-in Tariffs

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue today. I was astounded by the number of people who contacted me when they saw this debate was coming up, asking me to speak out against the Government’s proposals following the fast-tracked review of the feed-in tariff which has been in place for just 11 months. I know that the matter is subject to a consultation, but early in my speech I will be bold enough to suggest that the Minister and his team follow the example of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the sell-off of our forests, ditch the consultation and think again about the whole matter.

The feed-in tariff was designed under the assumption that the cost of a given technology comes down with increases in installed capacity. That has been the case in the solar PV market, and there have been impressive reductions in cost over the past 12 months, thanks in part to the feed-in tariff. I am told that in the past 12 months, market volume and competition have brought UK domestic prices down by at least 20%. In the same period, volatile oil prices have risen by 50%.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he also aware that 300 new jobs have been created by Sharp Solar in my constituency on the back of the introduction of the feed-in tariff? Is he aware of any other policy that has been so successful so quickly?

I am not aware of any policy that has been so successful so quickly, and I know that across the north-east of England, many jobs have been created as a result of that policy. Many more jobs could be created, but that could change under the Government’s change in policy.

The aspiration of the industry—and, I hope, the Government—is to bring the technology to the point where renewable energy will compete with grid electricity without subsidy. To put the matter firmly on the record, I have been told that even BP concedes that electricity from solar PV will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020—a startling and very welcome statistic. To be clear, the Government’s decision to significantly reduce the tariff for schemes that are larger than 50 kW 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 50 kW in size will see the feed-in tariff reduced by between 39% and 49%.

If money is to be limited, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be best to prioritise larger-scale projects that offer a better return for the taxpayer and help to achieve our goal of increasing renewable energy?

I will come on to some of those specific issues about the size of projects and the tremendous fear that the Government seem to have about larger projects, which could be controlled in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

A 50 kW scheme is not a large scheme in any way, shape or form, despite what the Government would like us to think. We are talking about an area that is just the size of two tennis courts—hardly the large solar farms that the Government claim to be worried about. But do not just take my word for it. The Government should be listening to the Renewable Energy Association, which says that 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.

Back in 2008, 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 5 MW 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, 18 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 144.]

I cannot understand why the Government’s policy now goes against that very sensible statement. The Government are 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.

In my constituency, a local project at the Norton sports complex has been hit hard by the Government’s decision. The complex was due to secure much needed funds through the FIT by using some of its previously unused land to install solar PV panels. The project was expected to be 1.5 MW in capacity, meaning that, thanks to the Government’s changes to the FIT, it will no longer be viable. I cannot emphasise enough what a disappointment that is. The Norton sports complex does tremendous work in the community, providing sporting and social facilities to local people, but has faced a difficult financial situation in recent years, as attendance at the social club part of the complex, which raises the money, has fallen by 60% thanks to the difficult financial circumstances in which many local people currently find themselves; many are out of work.

The chairman of the Norton sports complex was optimistic that FITs would provide a long-standing income for the complex and guarantee its future, but it will now have to go back to the drawing board, as the Government have pulled the rug out from under its feet.

I agree with pretty much everything that the hon. Gentleman is raising. He makes the point that a lot of time and money have already been invested in chasing a scheme for which the rules have suddenly changed. That puts groups such as the one that he has highlighted in a very difficult position.

Exactly, and there are countless schemes throughout the country that will now not happen as a direct result of what the Government have done. The Norton sports complex is only a few hundred yards from where I live, but I have been told of many projects further afield that were in the pipeline but will now fall by the wayside.

I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and to develop the point being made by my hon. Friend. The worst aspect is that the stable business framework that was in place previously has been wholly undermined by the Government’s decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that stability for business investment is hugely important and that the decision drives a coach and horses through the Government’s pretensions to be providing a stable framework for business?

Indeed I do. The industry was excited by the scheme that was put in place by the previous Labour Government. It saw real possibilities. I will go on to talk about jobs and the effects that the industry has had in Germany.

On the point about uncertainty, I accept what has been said, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the REA, 165 of whose member companies are from the solar PV technology industry, has come out firmly and said that the review is the first step in a process that should ultimately end all uncertainty around these schemes?

I do not think that the process will end any uncertainty. We will simply be saying to people, “Look, just walk away, because it won’t be financially viable for you to develop the sorts of project that you have in mind.” The Government policy is wrong. We need to ensure that the incentives are in place to develop these projects.

In Herefordshire, work is under way on a 300 kW installation on farm buildings that will not be viable when the new tariffs come into effect. Similarly, the UK’s first ever community-owned solar power station is due to be launched in Lewes in April and is expected to save more than 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. Without the feed-in tariff, that development, to be built on the roof of a warehouse, will not go ahead either, as it is 100 kW in size.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. Can he expand a little on the thought that there ought to be a difference between companies that are looking to take on this fantastic new way of producing energy for the country and would use it to run their factories, and venture capitalists who might want to jump in on it? Can he not understand that, ultimately, if there is no more money, there is no more money, but perhaps the Government might consider changing the arrangements for companies that are producing energy, so that they will be green companies for the future and will look after their local environment?

With respect to the hon. Lady, that is not what this is about. It is about the feed-in tariff. I am all for companies developing their own solar power stations on the roofs of their factories or wherever to run their own businesses. They may well have a little surplus that they can feed into the grid. However, many organisations can develop solar power projects without relying on the feed-in tariff at all.

I could go on, but sadly I do not have the time to list all the projects and examples that I have been sent information on during the last few days. The Renewable Energy Association estimated, before the fast-track review of the FIT was announced, that, nationally, 17,000 new solar jobs would be created by the end of 2011. Those jobs are now unlikely to materialise 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.

Just as important is the renewables target, which aims to see 15% of UK energy coming from renewable technologies by 2020 under the EU renewable energy directive. 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. Many people in the renewables industry are very angry about that decision, and confidence in the Government has been shattered thanks to the mismanagement of the fast-tracked review.

Jeremy Leggett, executive chairman at Solarcentury, has said:

“Since the CSR, I’ve had numerous conversations with Ministers during which I have been assured that any urgent review of feed-in tariffs would be carried out after publication of a proper trigger and would in any case exclude built-environment PV. The Government has not only betrayed those assurances but today proposed feed-in tariff rates that would ensure the UK PV industry stalls. No renewables company or investor can easily be able to trust this Government again after the u-turn by Ministers who were so quick in opposition to call for a more ambitious feed-in tariff and so ready with empty promises in the early months of Government.”

That is quite a condemnation.

I have also been in touch with Eco Age, a company that has been involved in project managing the installation of a number of large 1 MW to 5 MW solar PV systems, which I am told have now all been frozen and are unlikely ever to happen thanks to the FIT review. I am told that just one of the projects—a 1.5 MW solar PV system on the roof of a 550,000 square feet UK super-warehouse—is likely to go ahead. That will be one of the largest roof-based solar installations in the country. Surely it is the type of project that we should be encouraging, but sadly, thanks to the Government’s decision, similar projects have now been scrapped. Eco Age makes the important point that large companies that were engaging with the idea of solar PV schemes have, as a consequence, also embraced other more sustainable practices across their businesses in relation to waste, water transport and procurement. That is a welcome development.

Various representatives from the industry have told me that DECC’s concerns about large-scale solar farms taking up too much of the FIT are unfounded. Large-scale roof-mounted systems are difficult to develop because most commercial property is leased to the tenant, who is not in a position to grant a lease for the roof to a PV company. Ground-mounted schemes, such as those on farms, are far easier because farmers really understand that we need 25 to 40-year lease arrangements to make developments worth while. Although interest in such schemes has been significant, the industry does not expect many actually to go ahead, because it is anticipated that many will struggle to get planning permission.

The hon. Gentleman is speaking eloquently about large-scale PV schemes, but is not the problem that the previous Government’s estimates of the feed-in tariff quantum allowed for zero commercial take-up of large-scale schemes, which is precisely why we have the problem we do? The hon. Gentleman has not even addressed that.

That may well be the case. The industry has been so excited that it has really cranked up its activity in this area, and more and more people are showing an interest in it. The examples in Germany show that we have a real opportunity to grow this industry, and, believe you me, the revenues that flow into the Government’s coffers as a result could more than compensate for the money that is being spent.

I am going to move on, because I need to get through my speech.

Even if we accept that such large-scale sites are a potential concern, why can the Government not restrict the use of greenfield sites and set a reasonable kilowatt capacity limit to curb industrial-scale developments, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)?At a time when oil prices are rising and volatile, and when the nuclear crisis in Japan is highlighting to all the dangers of nuclear power, I am not alone in suggesting that the Government should look at ensuring that popular, green methods of meeting our energy needs get the support that they deserve. Medium and large-scale solar PV schemes can be part of the solution to serious energy security and climate change problems, but the Government seem intent on focusing just on domestic-scale installations.

The REA tells me that the Department has underestimated solar’s potential and overestimated its cost. Disappointingly, I do not have time to go into the detail, but this technology has exceptional and proven potential. I am told that in Germany—a country with a climate similar to ours—solar PV could reach grid parity, where no subsidies would be required, between 2013 and 2016, which is just two to five years away. Where will the UK be? Yes, left behind again.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers’ suggestion that slashing support for the solar industry does not matter because it affects only projects larger than two tennis courts really is ridiculous, given that an average secondary school could accommodate about 80 kW, which is considerably more than the 50 kW produced in an area the size of two tennis courts, which Ministers like to cite?

Indeed. The hon. Lady arrived late, and that was the very example I used when I opened my speech.

The fact is that we face a predicted energy gap in 2017, with power cuts anticipated for the first time since the 1970s. I am told that DECC had a taste of things to come last Thursday, when it was subjected to its own power cut, which meant that officials were unable to print important briefing notes for Ministers ahead of DECC questions on the Floor of the House. Perhaps that is why the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), was so badly prepared for questions that day and used the rather shabby comparison with Germany’s tariff scheme when seeking to defend the changes his Department has announced. He said:

“Community-based projects that are larger than 50 kW…and up to 150 kW…will still get a tariff comparable to that paid in Germany.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 1068.]

No, I have to finish.

The fact is that Germany’s solar industry is far more developed than ours. It has taken the Germans 10 years to build their industry, which employs 65,000 people, and they now have massive purchasing power and control supply chains. That enables them to undercut British construction companies by more than 25%. Indeed, solar generation in Germany exceeded nuclear generation for the first time just last week. The UK is a long way behind Germany, which is why we need to maintain effective feed-in tariffs if we are to have any hope of maximising the potential of this popular technology.

I hope that I have been able to outline the concerns in the renewable industry about not only the changes to the feed-in tariff, but the Government’s reluctance to acknowledge the real potential of solar energy. The decision to make medium-sized solar PV developments above 50 kW unviable is frankly bonkers. It is clear that the Chancellor, not the Energy Secretary, is dictating DECC policy, because the arguments put forward by Ministers for this shift in policy make no sense to those I have been in contact with in the renewables industry.

The fact is that this decision is dictated by the Treasury, not DECC. The spending review committed to finding £40 million—10%—of savings from the feed-in tariffs. We all know that the Tory-led Government are cutting too far and too fast—[Laughter.] We all get that in. The fact that the Government are cutting too far and too fast was made clear this weekend, when 250,000 people took to the streets of London to protest against the scale and pace of the cuts. The provisions we are discussing are one more victim of that ideologically driven policy.

We were told this would be the “greenest government ever”, but I think that that will be added to their growing list of broken promises, given that energy policy is now being dictated by the Treasury. It is time for the Government to admit they have got this one very wrong, choked off many schemes at birth, turned enthusiastic potential developers away, broken promises to the industry, lost the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and set back our chances of ever meeting our renewable energy targets. I hope to get an assurance today that the Government will start listening to the industry and the many others who will doubtless respond to the consultation on feed-in tariffs, as well as to organisations such as the Norton sports complex.

In summary, I would like to pose three questions. First, how do the Government propose to restore confidence in their renewable policy, which has been severely shaken thanks to the shambolic way in which the decision on feed-in tariffs has been handled? 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. Finally, will the Government promise today 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.

May I start by apologising on behalf of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who, for reasons I have explained to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), is unable to be here today?

May I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate? He has a long-standing interest in the subject and has forcefully and passionately put on record his views. I thank other Members who have taken the trouble to come to the debate, including the hon. Members for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). I am grateful to everybody for having come along today and made this an interesting debate.

I have certainly taken on board what the hon. Member for Stockton North has said and I will endeavour to reply as best I can to the points that have been raised by him and others. To the extent that time limitations and other factors do not allow me comprehensively to reply now, I am more than happy to ensure that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden give a proper reply subsequently.

The coalition Government are 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.

Heat makes up 49% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. It has long been neglected and requires significant investment.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, who is a reasonable man, is responding to the debate, and I hope that we will see some sense on this issue. I have campaigned on it for many years, but, for a long time, I did not get a lot of sense from the Government of the day. However, has he seen the article in today’s Financial Times about private investment in clean energy plunging in 2010? Is he not concerned by the reaction of investors, including Sharp in my constituency, to the announcement, which will strangle private, rather than public, investment?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I remind everyone that we are in difficult economic times. Every area has to be looked at, including this one, where the review has been brought forward. We are keen to emphasise that there is no cut-off up to 50 kW. That will cover the majority of the domestic market, which we are keen to protect. I hear what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Stockton North have to say, but I am keen to emphasise that there is a cut-off point, which will ensure that, to a large extent, the domestic market is protected.

The renewable heat incentive, which will go ahead in 2011, represents more than £850 million of investment over the spending review period. That will drive a more than tenfold increase of renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting renewable heat from a fringe industry firmly into the mainstream. To prioritise those critical projects, we have needed to take hard decisions, reducing budgets to focus on the most important, and looking to reduce the burden on the bill payer. We will save money on support for small-scale electricity through feed-in tariffs, to prioritise the most cost-effective technologies and maximise value for money.

I understand the difficulty with pressures on budgets and the need to get the best return for the taxpayer. Surely the larger-scale schemes offer the better return to the taxpayer in terms of renewable energy produced and cost to install. Surely we should be considering those as a priority, perhaps at the cost of the domestic schemes.

Clearly, many will argue that the domestic market has a priority; others will argue in the same way as my hon. Friend. A decision has been taken, though clearly this will be reviewed regularly. It is not definitive, it is an ongoing matter.

Will my hon. Friend consider 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 manufacturing of solar power?

I am more than happy to pass that on to the relevant Minister. I hope colleagues will forgive me: I have about eight minutes and I wish to make progress.

The coalition is determined to drive a step change in ambition for the deployment of decentralised renewables and clean microgeneration technologies. As part of that, we are fully committed to feed-in tariffs for small-scale, low-carbon electricity generation. To meet our 2020 and longer-term targets we need to make the best use of all technologies that deliver renewables. Solar photovoltaic is part of the total picture. We expect that it will deliver a relatively small proportion of the overall total, but it can make a real contribution, especially at the household and community scale.

Solar PV has the advantage of being the only renewable technology that can be delivered easily at scale in the domestic context. It can be deployed quickly and does not have the disadvantages of noise and other local impacts, and at the small end of the scale does not need complex and expensive grid connections. Through permitted development rights, microgen-scale solar PV does not need planning permission. It can provide a range of benefits to the wider green agenda by engaging households and communities in the energy that they consume, and taking action to reduce their carbon footprint. Solar PV can work hand in hand with other initiatives, including the green deal.

It is important to remember that solar PV can be deployed on a range of scales. That can be small systems of 2.5 kW on domestic roofs that will provide a typical household with about half its electricity needs, through community scale schemes on school and hospital roofs of 10s of kW, to industrial scale schemes of several megawatts in fields or on warehouse or factory roofs. We need to question whether all those types of installation are appropriate for bill payers’ support at the current level of technological development. That is why we have launched the comprehensive and fast-track reviews of the FITs scheme.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned sports complexes, as I did. There is one in my constituency that is considerably bigger than the Government want to support in the future. Does the hon. Gentleman not have sympathy for that sort of local sports organisation, which could make a major contribution to the community and green energy?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I would like to think that he did not really mean to say that the Government are not supporting it. The Government are supporting it, but have to take a decision at the moment to have the cut-off point at 50 kW. 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.

The first anniversary of the FITs scheme is fast approaching and we have been pleased with the success to date, which has seen more than 20,000 PV installations registered for FITs. When the FITs scheme was introduced by the previous Administration, it was made clear that all aspects of the scheme, including tariff levels, would be subject to periodic reviews and that, if necessary, early reviews could take place. I would add that the previous Administration were able to pass the measure because it was a cross-party matter, which had the support of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

“Feed-in tariffs: Government’s Response to the Summer 2009 Consultation” made that clear, and also provided examples of what reviews would consider. The context for the first review of FITs was set by last year’s spending review. The review made it clear that there are spending parameters within which the FITs scheme must operate. Put simply, there is no blank cheque for FITs. Particularly in the current climate, it is crucial that we take a more responsible and efficient approach to public subsidy to ensure that consumers receive value for money and new investors are not over-rewarded with public subsidy.

At the time of the spending review, we said that the first review of FITs would take place as planned in 2012, taking effect in 2013, unless higher than expected deployment triggered an early review. However, since then we have become increasingly concerned about the risk that larger-scale solar PV, unforeseen by the modelling undertaken prior to the start of the FITs scheme, could lead to long-term pressure on FITs costs. That risk provides a trigger consistent with the statements made at the time of the spending review.

Therefore, last month the Secretary of State announced the start of the first comprehensive review of FITs. As well as allowing the concerns mentioned to be addressed, bringing forward the review of FITs also allows for industry to be provided with certainty, sooner rather than later, about how the savings committed to as part of the spending review will be delivered. Many in industry have been pressing for that.

In the first scheme review, we want to secure the continued success of FITs, through sustainable growth rather than boom and bust. That means enabling industry to grow smoothly within the spending parameters confirmed by the spending review. Starting the review now provides us with a better chance of delivering the aim than allowing unsustainable growth, which might have to be reined in dramatically in the future. Furthermore, by fast-tracking consideration of solar PV larger than 50 kW, and farm-scale anaerobic digestion, we can address urgent concerns that have arisen.

The fast-track review is looking at FITs for solar PV above the microgeneration threshold of 50 kW. Solar PV mocrogeneration of up to and including 50 kW is not within the scope of the fast-track review and is therefore not being considered by this consultation, but will be considered as part of the comprehensive review.

I am mindful that time is pressing. I say in conclusion regarding the three points raised by the hon. Member for Stockton North that 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.