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Solar Industry

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2019

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect on the solar industry of the replacement of the feed-in tariff.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have secured this important debate. The Minister knows that I have been focused on this issue for a number of months now. The solar industry is reeling from the announcement that the feed-in tariff scheme is to close. The scheme was a huge success, with solar panels installed on nearly 1 million homes since it was launched in 2010. However, the loss of such a successful programme has led to a substantial loss of confidence in the sector. Between 30% and 40% of firms are contemplating closure, and international figures are considering pulling out of the UK market.

The news about the scheme came on top of a business rates rise and caused a huge degree of apprehension in the sector. If that apprehension turns into something more substantial, the loss of firms on the scale suggested would be hugely damaging to the sector, the wider economy and our efforts to tackle climate change.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. Does she recognise that this sector is not just about profit-making firms; it is also about charitable and community organisations? In my constituency, for example, they make money from solar farms to help fund youth centre services and other community outreach activities. This is also an issue for their funding sustainability.

I absolutely agree, and I hope the Minister will say something about community schemes in her response, because there are many different ways of installing and making the best of solar power, as the hon. Gentleman has just indicated, and its flexibility has been one of the reasons why it has been taken up so quickly.

I was talking about the damage to the solar industry. One firm in my constituency, near the village of Malpas, closed once the restrictions on the existing feed-in tariff schemes were imposed. I hope that was a one-off and not a sign of things to come.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech about the benefits of the feed-in tariff scheme and why it ought to be maintained. However, does she recognise that there are flaws in the way it has been applied, particularly in relation to the green deal scheme, such that many people were mis-sold feed-in tariffs and have been severely financially affected by the issue, including many of my constituents and others across the UK? The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy still has to address that through the Green Deal Finance Company.

I am aware of the issue. I think those people were misled at the point of signing, and then were trapped in contracts that they found very difficult to execute. I know there have been some very detailed radio programmes that have covered the position of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others.

In my area, however, solar has been a success and people are keen to get involved in solar projects. In fact, that is true not only of solar. In Church Minshull in my constituency we have a wonderful Archimedes screw. That is not a cocktail or anything salacious, but a hydropower project that produces enough electricity to power the equivalent of 77 homes. Nevertheless, despite the success of such projects locally, the prospects for solar power nationally are rather bleak. The UK was recently rated 20th out of 20 for global solar photovoltaics prospects between 2018 and 2022 by SolarPower Europe’s global market outlook.

When the scheme was closed down, there was a lot of talk about alternative technology. My hon. Friend just mentioned the Archimedes screw, and there are other alternative technologies such as batteries. Have they come to fruition at all?

There are huge changes coming forward in battery technology. Of course, battery technology will be the key not only to solar energy, but to small-scale wind projects, particularly in relation to how we harness and store such power. There are a number of new and exciting technologies in renewable power. As someone who is keen to see as much of our power as possible coming from renewable sources, I know that the Government are committed to looking at how we can encourage those kinds of projects to go forward, and in the battery sector there is the Government’s Faraday battery challenge.

Given the prospects outlined by SolarPower Europe’s global market outlook, it is clear that the sector needs some positive news, and I hope that the Minister can deliver that today. However, businesses need reassurance more than anything. The Government have been consulting on the replacement to the feed-in tariff regime: the smart export guarantee. The consultation on that measure closed just over four hours ago. However, the export tariff, which is a key part of the FIT, ends on 31 March, which leaves just 18 days to resolve the questions surrounding a replacement before we risk falling into the void that will be created between the old policy closing and the new one beginning.

I welcomed the Minister’s reassurance last November that

“solar power should not be provided to the grid for free”.—[Official Report, 20 November 2018; Vol. 649, c. 701.]

However, there is a risk that that is exactly what will happen if there is a gap between the two schemes, so I would like her to give some reassurance that the replacement scheme will be fully operational in time. This should be a baseline to build upon, not a standard to live up to. What the sector really needs is a minimum floor price.

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent speech. Does she agree that some schools and voluntary sector organisations are really getting involved in this kind of green initiative, and that small businesses in particular could be affected adversely if the scheme should fail and the recommendations are not taken up fully by the Government?

The Minister will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments, and I hope that she takes account of them, because a minimum floor price would put the sector on the same footing as the offshore wind industry, which benefits from the certainty that contracts for difference provide, and fossil fuel investors, who benefit from the capacity market.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I note that the Renewable Energy Association has lobbied for a market-based solution, which this clearly is. However, I share some of her concerns that, without certainty on pricing, some people will be deterred from investing here in the first place, unless we can get the matter right.

I agree with that assessment, which is why I argue that a minimum floor is needed. I am afraid that failure to extend that kind of certainty to small-scale prosumers will give the impression that the Government are more comfortable with big business than with small producer-consumers.

A fair minimum export price will ensure that consumers are not ripped off while the industry and the new regulation sort themselves out. It will also encourage suppliers to get their systems in place in readiness for market-wide, half-hourly settlement, which will help accelerate the smart energy transition. If a minimum floor price was to be informed by the system imbalance price, it would ensure that all other generators and prosumers could be treated equally, as required by article 21 of the renewable energy directive, without inhibiting innovative smart offerings.

Additionally, the commitment to a zero floor price, while welcome, is insufficient. No country in Europe asks prosumers to pay to put electricity into the grid. Likewise, in 2018 just 0.4% of daylight hours were a negative pricing period. Therefore, given the rarity of such an occasion, this is not what prosumers need. What is needed is the minimum floor price, which would have a transformative impact on the prospects for the sector, not simply a zero floor price.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate and for her eloquence in introducing it. I completely agree about the need for a minimum floor price. Before I entered this place, I was the lead on this issue at Leeds City Council, and we put 2,003 solar roofs on council properties. Without being a prosumer, we could not have a FIT reduction, which would allow us to fit more roofs. This is therefore not only about individual consumers; it is about social housing and housing associations, which cannot afford not to have a repayment scheme. The minimum floor price would enable such schemes to be brought forward.

I completely agree. I know that councils and housing associations have certainly taken advantage of the ability to install solar power, which is a great development.

The decision needs to be made quickly, to meet the tight deadlines, but it would be a shot in the arm for a sector that has faced a series of difficulties. It would also help to deliver our climate change targets. Yesterday’s Carbon Brief analysis shows that the UK’s CO2 emissions fell in 2018 for the sixth consecutive year—something we should celebrate—and if we are to continue that record-breaking trend, we must double down on investment in renewables.

I would like to show my support for the hon. Lady’s initiative on this important matter, and to reinforce her point. Surely the issue is not that our carbon emissions are dropping, but how quickly they are dropping, and the need to accelerate that rapidly. I wholeheartedly support her very worthwhile potential initiative to help accelerate the speed of reduction. I have some experience in our local authority of the benefits, which she mentioned, of local authorities and charities working together to help install solar panels.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

Beyond the need to make the decision, there is a concern that the roll-out of the smart meter programme could have an impact on the deliverability of necessary infrastructure to facilitate the smart export guarantee. SMETS 1 meters, which are in 17 million homes, cannot yet relay export data to the Data Communications Company. What happens to those homes if they install solar? Not a single supplier has trialled export metering through the DCC. Does the Minister know how long the trials take? Will individual homeowners be the testing ground? What reassurance can she give?

The value of the renewables sector, and of solar specifically, is huge to the future of both our economy and our planet. All the sector asks for is to be treated fairly and to be given the reassurance that exists in other parts of the energy market.

My hon. Friend makes a compelling argument on a subject that is important to many constituencies, including mine, where we have an extremely successful company, AES Solar. Does she agree that certainty is absolutely needed, because the deployment of solar photovoltaics fell by 94% in 2018 compared with 2015, which is a worrying statistic?

I agree that is worrying. I would argue that small-scale renewables encourage our constituents to get involved in a whole green agenda and to look at their homes and their energy use in a completely different way. If we combined that with energy efficiency measures, we would start to get some dramatic change in the sector. There is a big opportunity for the Minister regarding energy efficiency, as well as in combination with renewables.

The hon. Lady is being very generous, and I commend her for bringing the matter before us. From 2012 to 2018 we saw an 80% reduction in installations. We were democratising energy; a powerful thing was going on in this country. It is so important that the sector has some certainty—such as a 10-year plan— to ensure that we deliver.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard in my speech that I have been arguing for that certainty. The consultation closed four hours ago, so the Minister will not yet have had time to consider the responses, but I think that, from the debate, she will appreciate the urgency of doing so. I hope that she can offer answers to my questions and reassurance to those who have backed renewables. We are rightly proud of our position as a world leader in renewables technology and climate change, and I hope that the Government will take concrete steps to keep us in that positive position.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I know that you take a strong interest in these matters on behalf of your constituents in Kettering. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) on securing the debate and putting forward, as always, an excellent, well-informed set of points, which have been responded to and added to by the knowledgeable group we have here today.

I will not do the usual context setting, which is that we are doing well on the whole agenda. Renewable energy is now up to more than 32%, and emissions continue to fall rapidly. In fact, the last time our CO2 emissions were this low was in 1888, when Queen Victoria was on the throne. That is absolutely worth celebrating.

I want to respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, but of course I will accept the intervention.

I thank the Minister for being so generous with her time. Will she also congratulate the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London on the London community energy fund, which helps to promote this sort of initiative?

I will touch on that good point about community. Many good schemes operate across various local authorities.

The feed-in tariff scheme has been an effective part of our great decarbonisation journey. Since 2010, the scheme has supported more than 830,000 installations, 99% of which are solar and are currently generating about 3% of total electricity consumption. Also, a few things have changed since that time, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) will know. We have seen a dramatic fall in the cost of solar installation—up to 80% in some cases—which is to be welcomed, as it makes that more accessible to many people. We have also seen a dramatic fall in the cost of other renewable energies.

I like the phrase the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) used: the democratisation of energy. We are all participating, and one of the great benefits is that the hugely important technology that is offshore wind now costs the same, effectively, as building a new gas-fired power plant. That is a benefit to us all and to all our bills.

The feed-in tariff scheme has cost us almost £6 billion to date, and over its lifetime it will continue to cost us all about £30 billion, on many of our bills. It was absolutely right, therefore, that the decision was taken—before my time—to close the scheme. As we move to a lower-cost solar environment, and to a world in which we are rapidly seeing price parity between renewables and non-renewables technology, it is important to think about the impact on bills.

With all the new build housing that is going up, does the Minister think the Government could be a lot more ambitious? There are hundreds of thousands of houses, which is terrific, but we are so unambitious in enabling people to have that democratisation of energy from within their own properties.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have some of the tightest energy efficiency standards for new homes, but I totally agree that we need to go further, and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are looking at that right now. Under this Government, we will build millions of homes; that is absolutely part of our ambition, and it is right that we make them as energy efficient as possible and that they contribute as much as possible to this revolution.

I want to focus on a couple of the challenges that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury emphasised, one of which is the concern about jobs. We have seen a healthy supply chain build up and it is exciting that we are already seeing subsidy-free solar projects at scale being brought forward. One consultant’s estimates tell us that 2.3 GW of solar projects already in the system in the UK with, or awaiting, planning permission could be delivered without subsidy. Lightsource, which has just been bought by BP, says that it is developing 300 MW of subsidy-free projects backed by power purchase agreements, some of which will be delivered during 2019. So we are starting to see solar being delivered at scale without subsidy—indeed, I opened the country’s first subsidy-free solar farm in my first few weeks in the job. That is incredibly exciting, and I am very ambitious for the jobs that will be created over the next few years.

The Minister is making a very fair point: as the technology has moved forward, the cost of solar has dropped. That is certainly true for the businesses that are taking this agenda forward at scale, but for many individual householders, the cost of investing in panels is still prohibitive. Will she address the question of how the Government could support householders to invest in that technology?

I am coming to that point. We have not said that the feed-in tariff is no more, and that there is essentially no value out there; there is huge value in having decentralised energy generation. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and others made some powerful points about the role of community energy, which I am passionate about. As she mentioned, it is often a way in which people drink the green Kool-Aid and realise that they can be part of this transformation; zero-carbon faith groups, for instance, are amazing movements. That is why we have continued to support communities.

I was pleased to extract from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a commitment to the rural community energy fund, which will be reopening for bids later this year; it is an important part of delivering community schemes in many of our constituencies. We have invested £8 million in local energy hubs, which are helping some of the local authority-led schemes that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned, both in London and across the country. We have a local energy contact group, and we are working closely with communities through investments in energy efficiency, local energy schemes, and combined heat and power plants through the £350 million heat network scheme. There is a lot of support for communities that want to move forward.

The smart export guarantee is not just to provide a route to market for those who have installed, or will be installing, decentralised installations; it is intended to do a couple of things. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury is quite right to say that this energy should not be provided for free, or indeed at negative prices, as is sometimes the case in other countries. She will be pleased to know that the consultation has not yet closed, although it closes at a quarter to midnight tonight, so hon. Members can make their representations.

The plan is essentially for this scheme—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) pointed out, is a market-based approach—to help move us towards the smart energy system of the future that we all talk about, in which we have decentralised energy and people are able to do the energy balancing for their home or their community, plugging in their electric vehicles and doing peer-to-peer energy trading. The scheme is designed to support all those exciting things that are out there. I had a very effective meeting with suppliers of products and services who really support this, and who want to get to that decentralised energy future. They accept the points about tariffs needing to be fair and reasonable, and needing to provide an incentive, but they support creating those prosumers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury has said. They support creating that aggregated demand side, meaning that all of us who install solar panels will have some power and some value in the system.

Is the Minister minded to ensure a fair minimum market rate for small-scale generators of exported electricity, to give them some incentive and some degree of confidence?

That is an important question that will come out in the consultation. Frankly, I would ensure that the market rate was always greater than zero, but that it varied at different times of day, because many of us may have excess energy that we wanted to sell into the grid at a particular time. I want to see what proposals come forward for setting that market rate. There are ideas out there, including that the rate should be wholesale price minus, or that it should be entirely market led.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury about speed being of the essence when coming forward with a response, but I really want to get this right. I do not want this to be a scheme that we are debating in three years’ time because it has suddenly become unaffordable and has not delivered. My hon. Friend will be aware that installers are already scrutinising with care what we are saying and doing. We do not want to create a hiatus, but we want to produce a set of incentives that works for the future.

I will come to the hon. Lady’s point in a second.

I talked about jobs and the opportunity for skilled workers to pursue careers in this sector. Not only is there ongoing growth in solar, but so many other opportunities are emerging: electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, smart appliances and battery technology are all working to decarbonise our buildings and our transport systems. The opportunity for green-collar jobs is enormous; we already have almost 400,000 people in the UK working directly in the low-carbon economy or in its supply chain, making it a bigger sector than aerospace. Those jobs exist in the here and now.

I am going to take an intervention from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), who has not spoken yet.

Does the Minister also recognise the potential for the energy company obligation scheme to support innovation, particularly in renewable energy? Often, the challenges to securing a return on investment that developers face can be overcome through the certainty that some sort of support mechanism can offer.

Indeed I do, and I am proud to have secured one of the largest increases in innovation research and development spending in the clean energy space. Of course, the ECO scheme, which we have recently pivoted to focus on fuel poverty in its entirety, includes an increase in the amount spent on innovation.

Will the Minister reassure us that when her officers are looking at the responses to the consultation, they will take into account the fact that for small schemes, such as the one that is putting solar panels on schools in my constituency, the overheads tend to be greater?

That is a valuable point, and the hon. Lady is right to make it.

The consultation is closing in a few hours’ time. I know that it has been welcomed, including by the industry, which sees it as a bridge to a renewable, subsidy-free future. The comments that have been made today will be valuable in ensuring the details of the scheme are acceptable.

The Minister may be under the misapprehension that she has to allow the mover of the motion time to sum up, but that does not apply in half-hour debates, so she has another four minutes if she wants to use them.

Well, Mr Hollobone, you learn something every day in Parliament. It would perhaps be only courteous to allow my hon. Friend to sum up; is that permissible?

One of my concerns is the gap that has been spoken about. I understand the Minister’s desire to get things right, but will she consider extending the FIT scheme to cover that gap, bearing in mind that, given her efficient work in her Department, it is likely to be a short delay?

Sadly, in all honesty, probably not. We have been clearly signalling the closing of the FIT scheme for several years now, and the response from the industry has been, “We understand that. We understand that some schemes may be on hold, but we welcome the smart export guarantee, because our main ask was to ensure that the energy that was being generated had some value.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury asked me another question about an issue that I was not fully aware of—namely, the concerns about testing the smart metering equipment technical specification 2 programme to ensure it interacts effectively with solar generation. I have instructed my officials to ensure that that testing is actioned, because that is an important point.

Will the Minister give a brief account of what is happening with Government buildings? They are clearly low-hanging fruit, as it were; there should be more and more solar installations on Government buildings.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will have read the clean growth strategy from cover to cover, and will have seen in there that we have set out ambitious targets for the central Government estate and the wider estate. As we have so many former representatives of local authorities here, I encourage all Members to look at the Salix scheme, which allows local authorities to green up their own activities and rely on an interest-free revolving loan. It has been a great success story, and one that we must do a lot more on.

I will mention another issue—briefly, as I only have two minutes. A question was asked about encouraging housing associations and others to be involved, and I have been encouraging housing associations and local authorities to think about issuing green financial instruments. There is a huge appetite for green bonds, either individually or collectively, and using that funding for some of the excellent energy efficiency work that is available.

On a related matter, will the Minister also consider the issue of the private rented sector, which in some parts of our towns and cities makes up a substantial amount of the homes in those local authority areas? In my experience as a former councillor, there is a serious issue with both fuel poverty—people living in poverty in private rented homes—and poor insulation linked to a lack of take-up of solar.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am pleased to tell him that one of the pieces of legislation we have introduced ensures that the least efficient homes in the private rented sector will no longer be allowed to be re-rented until those improvements have been made.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury for an excellent and timely debate. I will just say something that is a tiny bit political: would it not be lovely if we could get through Brexit and vote for the deal so that we could bring all this collective knowledge together to solve these problems, which are about not the next three years but the next 30? If we do that, will my hon. Friend promise us that she will mix us an Archimedes’ screw cocktail, so that we can celebrate and focus on saving the planet, rather than saving our sanity in the Brexit negotiations?

Question put and agreed to.

Will those Members not staying for the next debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and, importantly, quietly?