8 February 2015 is a date reviled by the UK’s domestic solar industry. On that day a revised version of the small-scale feed-in tariff came into effect. It’s a date that will be firmly etched into UK renewables folklore, one that flipped an entire industry on its head and one, ultimately, that UK solar is still reeling from two years later.
The last two years have seen much soul searching from the UK solar industry. Businesses have gone bust and swathes of contractors have lost their jobs, the majority aiming to find work in other electrical industries or filling alternative roles on the nation’s rooftops. Deployment of residential rooftop solar systems remains around 80% down on what was the norm under the previous rates.
Trends in other technologies and indeed other countries have made the situation in solar all the more galling. Offshore wind, benefitting from Contracts for Difference support, has demonstrated significant reductions in cost, coming in at just £57.50/MWh. Meanwhile, the UK’s solar installers, developers, engineers and otherwise associated professions have had to watch with green-eyed frustration as countries throughout Europe have turned to solar in a big way.
It’s of little wonder that these days the domestic industry feels neglected, poorly treated and, above all, let down.
Government has continued to laud solar as one of the country’s success stories, almost oblivious to the hard times the industry has fallen on.
This is the inside track of UK solar’s search for a better FiT.
A surprise at the ballot box
While the domestic solar industry learnt of its prospective fate at around midday on 25 August 2015, the story in truth starts much earlier. EU State Aid rules oblige that the performance of the feed-in tariff scheme is reviewed every three years and, given that the previous review took place in 2011/12, 2015 was time to “re-consult” on its performance.
The review had loomed over the industry for some time. Rumours within the industry suggested that it was ready for publication much earlier than when it eventually saw the light of day and, had it not been for the general election, could have been published as early as May. UK solar has since been left wondering what might have been different had that happened.
Instead May 2015 saw movement elsewhere, most notably on Downing Street. In sweeping to a majority parliament, David Cameron’s Conservative Party was able to dismiss their former coalition colleagues. The then Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey was replaced by former minister Amber Rudd, setting the wheels in motion for what was to be amongst the most turbulent of times for renewables policy.
The build-up to the election had brought energy policy into stark focus. Then-Labour leader Ed Miliband’s prize freeze pledge, while announced two years prior, was given fresh prominence and renewables were coming to the fore. It led to a number of clean energy firms becoming entrenched in national politics, not least Ecotricity founder Dale Vince who publically backed a Labour victory. He followed this up with around £350,000 in central party donations between November 2014 and April 2015.
In contrast, Lightsource – the country’s largest solar developer – had thrown its weight behind the Conservatives. It donated £8,200 to the Tories in March 2015 and entertained then-energy minister Matt Hancock a month later, where he told this publication the party was “strongly committed” to solar PV. Those words would prove rather contradictory in the months to come. Rated Solar Installer, a lead generation firm connected to British Pholtovoltaic Association (BPVA) chairman Reza Shaybani, also donated £8,200 to the Conservative Party on 6 July 2015, a donation which would be drawn into stark focus later that month.
With the Department of Energy and Climate Change now led by Conservative ministers, of foremost concern to it and, in truth, chancellor George Osborne, was the forecast runaway spend under the much-maligned Levy Control Framework (LCF). While the Lib Dems may have argued that spending, remaining as it did within the headroom, was under control, the Conservatives took a much dimmer view and the message was to trim it substantially.
It is not for this piece to discuss the merits or accuracy of that claim – that subject has been discussed at great length since, primarily by Davey – but regardless of their veracity the LCF was brandished by government officials as evidence spending was out of control.
What followed has since been described as a “subsidy bonfire” or, more figuratively, “death by a thousand cuts”. The Renewables Obligation was among the first to go, forced into a premature closure on 20 July 2015. Other support, including the deeply popular Zero Carbon Homes Initiative were cut (Davey would go on to describe this decision as the “worst thing the Tories have done”), but the residential solar sector was at least spared until late-August.
Three months after it was rumoured to be ready, DECC dropped a bombshell on the UK solar industry, the reverberations from which have been felt ever since. It is unavoidable that the rates available at the time – circa 12.4p/kWh – were particularly generous and outdated given the steep reductions in cost that had been enjoyed. Payback periods had reached as low as six or seven years in certain areas of the country. Given that the tariffs were originally designed to deliver returns of around 5%, and this was considered a suitable incentive, something had to give.
Shock and awe
The feed-in tariff consultation was published on the DECC website late in the morning of Thursday 27 August 2015. The initial reaction on this news desk was one of almost confusion. We genuinely considered that there was either a typo in the executive summary or a decimal place had gone awry, incidents which have not been uncommon from government releases in the past. Reading the response however left little doubt – the domestic solar market was in for a shock.
It was there in powder blue, black and white. Support for solar installations up to 10kW in size was proposed to fall from 12.47p/kWh to 1.63p/kWh, a staggering cut of 87%.
But the tariff cuts were only half of the picture. The government also went to great lengths to ensure that never again would it be left in a position where a technology could rack up runaway costs. A capping mechanism was to be implemented, effectively limiting how much solar could be installed under government support. Those caps effectively limited subsidy-backed, small-scale solar installs to around 170MW per year from 2016 to 2019 when the curtains would finally be pulled on the feed-in tariff.
Behind the scenes, the industry was already in a brace position. The Sunday Times had ran with a story the previous weekend claiming that the department was eyeing cuts as high as 50%, a reduction which tallied with what some senior figures within UK solar had heard through the Whitehall grapevines. When the final proposals were published, some people felt betrayed, embittered, even embarrassed that they had been led to believe that, while significant, the cuts were to be at least fair. There was an overriding sense that these were anything but.
The immediate reaction was swift and unforgiving. “Hugely damaging,” said the Solar Trade Association’s head of policy Mike Landy. “Phenomenally damaging and short sighted,” was the view of the Renewable Energy Association’s James Court. “The long term vision has been lost,” said RenewableUK’s Maf Smith, who followed up by surmising that the review had become “simply about short-term politics and accounting”.
Amy Cameron is director of operations at 10:10, a non-profit that campaigns on climate issues. She says that while everybody knew the cuts were coming, the proposals left the charity taken aback. “I think it’s fair to say nobody quite expected it to be as drastic. It was really devastating stuff and nigh on impossible to mitigate around a lot of the impacts at that scale and at that pace.”
The government invited responses to the consultation for a period just shy of two months. It was to close on 23 October 2015, until which time DECC officials were to hold a series of meetings with representatives of the industry and hold stakeholder roundtables. The aim was to gather as much insight as possible before delivering its final verdict.
The government said its ears were open. Funnily enough, the sector was in a talkative mood.
The campaign trail
A wide-spreading and much-publicised campaign almost immediately kicked into gear, with the three main trade associations taking prominent roles. They were backed by NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the WWF, while plentiful corporations and business leaders came out in support of the technology in its time of need. Solar was not short of friends and allies.
Leonie Greene, director of advocacy at the Solar Trade Association, says the trade body was quick to pull in members and put forward a plausible solution. Even SunEdison, a company whose relationship with the UK market would not last to see the consultation draw to a close, was a vociferous proponent of the STA’s campaign. Its immediate aim was to engage the public via social media and roped in PR strategy firm Hill+Knowlton for that work. Later, the STA/Hill+Knowlton campaign would be crowned Social Media Campaign of the Year at the 2016 Public Affairs Awards.
Cameron says that initial kick-off meetings were held quickly. They pulled these disparate groups together so there was visibility over who was working on what. At the time there was no precedent for a campaign of this size and scale, with the trade associations’ experience almost entirely limited to political lobbying and member representation.
10:10 divided its team in half. While some worked on supporting projects and groups that stood to be affected by the cuts, primarily helping with pre-accreditation applications, the rest started working on a public awareness campaign that would be called ‘Keep FiTs’. Its aim was to get the public aware and on side. “One of the things that’s great about the feed-in tariff – and they explicitly point to this in the policy document – is its purpose to engage people in the transition. We thought there was this whole, big constituency of families, schools, community groups and others who needed to have their voice heard in the response,” Cameron adds.
One of the most prominent and eye-catching stunts of the entire campaign was conducted under 10:10’s ‘Keep FiTs’ campaign. Earlier, the group’s response to the consultation was hand-delivered to DECC by a team of campaigners dressed in sports gear having set off from an industry event at the Tate Modern earlier that morning. The start location was iconic as Solarcentury had not too long before installed solar on the building’s rooftop, helping it save on its energy bills. That event saw Solarcentury chief Frans van den Heuvel warn the UK government that it would be “going against the world” if it were to follow through the with the cuts.
But 10:10 had more tricks up its sleeve. Early one morning a group of campaigners from 10:10 descended on Whitehall – and more specifically the steps of DECC – armed with a high-pressure water hose and a stencil. There, it effectively sprayed each paving slab to resemble a solar panel emblazoned with the ‘Keep FiTs’ logo.
Cameron can’t quite remember how the idea came to pass, but says it was important to 10:10 that the stunt was simple, visual and impactful and, above all, not in any way aggressive.
The so-called clean graffiti was not to last long. A government contractor soon spoiled the fun equally armed and sprayed the paving slabs entirely clean, but not before a well-placed photographer could capture the moment. The irony of a government employee erasing solar from Whitehall was not lost on the beleaguered industry.
Another stunt lingered around Whitehall for a little longer by all accounts. 10:10 spoke to some of the schools it had been working with on its successful Solar Schools programme prior to the cuts and tasked them with coming up with their own response.
Installing solar on school rooftops makes perfect sense but, for various reasons, has yet to take off. 10:10 believed it was really getting somewhere with its programme before the FiT cuts essentially ended it overnight, and school installs have yet to recover. Recent figures released by BEIS show a near 99% drop in school and community installations in 2017.
The proposals, Cameron says, were effectively a slap in the face for school groups that had spent time and effort raising funds for school installs only to find them rendered uneconomic overnight. For that reason, it wasn’t difficult to find a school whose students were willing to contribute towards PV’s cause.
A giant papier-mâché sun was made, painted and hand-delivered – including responses to the government’s consultation – by the students of Fox Primary School in Kensington to DECC’s offices. Probably cautious of yet another embarrassing photo opp – cue the irony of DECC officials quite literally throwing solar in the bin – the papier-mâché production supposedly found a home on the desks at DECC. Of course, DECC – or BEIS as it had come to be called – vacated its offices last year to make way for the Department for Exiting the European Union. It remains unclear whether David Davis takes solace from the sun today.
Cameron says it was important for 10:10’s campaign to engage with the public as they are often the ones excluded from government process. “The consultation process itself all but eliminates everyone who isn’t a complete expert, and one of the things we tried to do is ensure that the transition to a low carbon economy doesn’t just belong to elites or the establishment and industry. If this is going to be a successful transition then people need to be involved. Just ordinary people. Everybody should have some way to input into this and it just isn’t catered for,” she says.
The trade associations, tasked as they are with representing the industry as a whole, were markedly different in their approach. The issue here was whether these entirely independent trade bodies, all professing to cater for the same industry, could both work harmoniously whilst reaching the upper echelons of government.
Publicly the UK’s solar industry was representing a united front, but could the three trade associations sing from the same hymn sheet?
The three associations have co-existed on largely peaceful terms, albeit it with convoluted histories. The STA, for example, has been both part of the REA and an independent association within the last decade, although a crucial point of their most recent split did include the scope to work collaboratively on matters of shared interest. Disagreements or differences in tack might have been had, but there was never too much deviation from the path of a more solar-fuelled future.
The differences between the three extend as far as their membership groups. While the STA and the BPVA were dedicated entirely to solar at this stage, the REA represented renewables in general. As a result, its response to the cuts had to be more balanced considering that it essentially pitted some REA members against each other.
There had long since been some scepticism in the industry about whether it truly needed – or indeed was large enough to sustain – three separate trade associations that all professed to represent its best interests. There was a persistent feeling among the industry that it might be more beneficial for those trade associations to unite. Discussions at a trade show in 2016, long after the feed-in tariff changes had been enacted, revealed that some installers also thought it unlikely that the industry could go on supporting so many independent trade bodies. And it’s a valid question – supported by membership fees as they are, how do trade associations respond when their respective industries are beset by mass job losses and company closures?
From time to time, rumours have persisted that a unification of the trade bodies could be on the cards. While collaboration was perhaps limited, Greene says that the STA did work fairly closely with Greg Barker – the former climate change minister-turned-BPVA president in its lobbying attempts. Instead the trade associations and the industry in general battled behind a united message, but not from a united position.
This became clear within the more formal responses to the consultation. While the overarching message was broadly similar – that the FiT cuts were too severe and too swift in nature – the recommended positions differed in ambition and scope. The STA’s £1 Plan discussed an alternative which would allow 2.7GW of solar to be installed between 2016 and 2019 at the cost of just £1.09 to consumer bills, a significant reduction on DECC’s ‘do nothing’ estimates but also representing a markedly more generous approach than the 87% cuts proposed.
The REA’s stance was very much that the amount of new, committed funding on offer from government – which amounted to just £7 million over three years was not compatible with a long-term vision for the technology and would cause drastic downturns in deployment. It instead pitched a rate of 5.6p/kWh for domestic installs, a figure it calculated using central load factors from an installation in the midlands, rather than DECC’s favoured point, contentiously on England’s south coast.
Interestingly the REA also broached the topic of alternative means of support, a point of discussion which continues to be relevant today. It raised the prospect of using tax benefits like the Enterprise Investment Scheme or Enhanced Capital Allowances to make solar more appeasing for investors, the latter of which would be equivalent to adding a further 1.3p/kWh to the FiT rates without increasing the burden on bill payers.
The BPVA, meanwhile, partnered with Cambridge Econometrics to produce a scathing report on the government’s impact assessment which highlighted many perceived faults within its evidence base. It said that DECC had “significantly underestimated” the OPEX of a standard residential system, had failed to acknowledge long-term system degradation, used incorrect electricity prices to calculate bill savings and used a 4% rate of return for a “well-sited” install on the south coast instead of Parson Brinkerhoff’s recommendation of 6.2%.
The BPVA’s stance was enforced, and its relations with the government made more complicated, by a curious incident in September that year. Chairman Reza Shaybani met privately with energy secretary Amber Rudd to discuss the feed-in tariff consultation, excerpts of which he later published on a social networking site. Those excerpts portrayed a staggering conversation during which the BPVA attempted to put across its concerns regarding the consultation, the government’s sources of information and the lasting impacts the proposals would have, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the government was not interested. Rudd, now home secretary and among the front runners to replace Theresa May should the prime minister leave, of her own accord or otherwise, was claimed to have been particularly curt when informed that thousands stood to lose their jobs, apparently arguing that solar workers could find better employment elsewhere.
The government issued a vehement denial at the time, stating that while Rudd did indeed meet Shaybani, it did not recognise any of the quotes attributed to the secretary of state and no verbatim minutes were taken.
How potentially damaging the incident was to solar’s cause is unclear. Solar Power Portal contacted the BPVA for this article but did not receive a response. Whatever the intention or consequence – off the record conversations going public is fairly high on the government’s list of things it takes a particularly dim view of – those extracts made national news and gave solar’s plight a platform, and perhaps more impetus as the campaign entered its final straight.
Fear and loathing
As the consultation end-date drew nearer, times were desperate. DECC had agreed to host numerous FiT consultation events – effectively billed as evidence-gathering sessions hosted by civil servants – up and down the country. But attendance was limited and spaces few and far between. Solar Power Portal fielded several calls from frantic installers desperate to put their views across only to be locked out.
The sessions themselves were afterwards described as little more than a box ticking exercise, with those in attendance stating for this article that there was little meaningful that could’ve been gathered. Installers gave their views – a little too vociferously, and with some colourful language at points – and civil servants made notes before departing rather swiftly.
The campaign was nearing an end, too. Emergency meetings between trade associations identified the need for one final push for publicity, aided by the NGOs who were perhaps a little more media savvy. Experienced politicians were drafted in, pointing out where the industry was failing. Celebrities were asked for endorsements and support, and politicians badgered to get behind the industry. Even Boris Johnson, the then-Mayor of London, rather embarrassingly for his now Cabinet colleague Rudd, slammed the “sharp cliff edge” subsidy cuts.
The NGOs meanwhile peppered DECC’s systems with an easy-to-fill online form that enabled members of the public to issue a response to the consultation in support of solar PV. Once the consultation had closed, DECC revealed that more than 55,000 individual responses had been collected but just 2,000 of them were deemed to be unique in their nature.
On the front line things looked equally as bleak. Staring down the barrel of a near 90% reduction in support many had concluded that there was not much point in waiting for the government to deliver its verdict. SunEdison was the first to go, announcing in early October that it was to exit the “uneconomic” UK market. It had spent the previous year trying to get a residential business off the ground offering free installations to consumers in return for PPA agreements, but the reduction in rates rendered the business model unviable. Its approach to the UK – go in all guns blazing, but withdraw just as quickly when the market pivots – became almost emblematic of the deeper lying issues within SunEdison’s business model and the company would not see out another year.
SunEdison’s exit also left the writing on the wall for Mark Group – one of the country’s largest solar installation businesses – which collapsed the very next day, prompting the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs. The loss of fewer jobs from albeit slightly more strategic industries has seen public and political outcry – penny for Rudd’s thoughts here – but Mark Group employees had to pursue an 18-month legal fight to get what they were rightfully owed. Even SolarCity’s UK subsidiary ZepSolar withdrew prior to the consultation’s close, telling Solar Power Portal that the UK no longer made economic sense.
Trade associations had spent the best part of two months warning government that its decisions could spell the end for thousands of jobs up and down the UK, and here there words of caution were, playing out in front of them.
Would the government heed the warnings?
The government’s response to the consultation finally dropped at 7am, Thursday 17 December 2015. In a twist of fate, that happened to be the morning after both the STA and REA’s Christmas parties. Celebrations were cut short. Festive cheer was limited.
The news was mixed. The government had relented slightly, increasing the prospective rate from 1.63p/kWh to 4.39 pence. Commercial rooftops also saw their prospective rates increase. Instead of an almighty reduction of 87%, the rates would fall by nearly two-thirds. There would too be something of a grace period owing to parliamentary process, however a pause on new applicants was to be enacted from 16 January. The new scheme was to be fully enforced from 00:01, 8 February 2016.
Greene says that the while the government did not enact the STA’s £1 plan in full, the association’s campaign was successful in engaging the public and politicians alike. It received considerable support from within both Houses of Parliament. Greene does not have any regrets looking back.
Cameron says that 10:10’s campaign was never about attempting to trigger a serious rethink within the proposals. “We didn’t ever think we’d be able to turn this around. It was as much about kicking up a stink as it was about causing any change. Our response was as much about drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘when you do this stuff, people will respond. You don’t get to do this stuff quietly and behind the scenes’. It wasn’t a threat, but they have to know that people care about this and if they continue to behave in this way there will be a response.”
Solar Power Portal spoke to a number of installers for this piece, the vast majority of whom welcomed the solar lobby’s efforts during the campaign. The general consensus among the UK’s installer base certainly appears to be that, dealt with an enormously difficult situation and left with such scant time, the trade bodies did about as much as they could.
Other sources for this feature criticised the solar lobby for failing to reach the decision makers with its campaigning, perhaps wasting valuable time and resource. But this is a well worn trope when the desirable conclusion is not reached and there is ample evidence to suggest that the department took the trade associations’ stand point into consideration. Lord Bourne, energy minister at the time of the response’s publication said: “We have listened carefully to the views of the industry in the consultation,” before namechecking the STA’s £1 plan in particular.
Kevin Holland has been in the industry for more than a decade and has seen the feed-in tariff rise and fall before. He operates a fairly thriving business in Kings Lynn that caters for numerous markets, including both retrofit and new build. He’s most commonly seeing educating the public about solar PV from the back of his van at Kings Lynn market on Tuesdays. Having previously resisted, his business has been a member of the STA for the last year and is of the opinion that the trade bodies could not have done any more than they managed in the build-up to the campaign.
His only criticism is that the lobby’s message – that the cuts could be the end of the domestic solar industry – were overplayed and seeped into more general coverage, putting consumers off. “All that does is send shockwaves of ill confidence, and because someone reads something in The Guardian or whatever they think solar’s not worth doing now. I’ve not got a problem with the message, it’s with their wording,” he says.
But that might just be the dose of reality consumers inevitably take before making such an investment. Greene says it’s less about perception of solar and more about the reality of there being “difficulties in the economics” with a feed-in tariff that’s been cut to ribbons. The public have seemingly agreed with her.
After two years of the revised scheme being in place, the difference between actual deployment and what the government seemingly forecast could barely be starker. The caps within the three rooftop bands would have allowed for a total of 685.5MW of solar to have been accredited by the end of Q4 2017, with residential solar obviously allowed the lion share of that figure.
As it stood, deployment reached just over half that figure. Slightly more than 370MW was installed in those 23 months, with the all-important residential band – formerly the bread and butter of a solar installer’s work – reduced to just 177MW. That amounts to around 8,000 domestic installations per quarter for the UK in its entirety. Or, if you remember rightly, what the government initially wanted to be installed across all four bands per year.
The deployment figures immediately pull into question the veracity of the government’s own impact assessment. Published alongside the consultation response, it expected there to be 5.2GW less solar installed as a result of the changes and up to 18,700 fewer jobs. It also suggested that just over 55,000 installations of up to 10kW in size would be completed in the year starting 2015/16, and more than 60,000 completed in the following 12 months. There have been fewer more than 68,000 in the last two years combined.
If actual deployment is that much off the government’s own projections, then it stands to reason that job losses should be far greater. And if the impact assessment can be that far out, what does it say about the government’s dataset used to crunch the new rates and, indeed, should the industry have any confidence in the government’s ability when it comes round to conducting its next review later this year? Solar Power Portal asked BEIS to comment on these figures.
The department noted that the impact assessment produced in 2015 used industry data sourced by the government’s preferred consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff, whose analysis was subject to “significant internal scrutiny” before it was published. It also stood by the revised rates, arguing they offer appropriate rates of return for efficient and well-sited projects. Commentary on the wider deployment issues was not forthcoming, however BEIS did confirm that a statement on future support of domestic renewables is to be made in due course.
But the changes have had much wider repercussions than just downbeat deployment. Such was the abrupt nature in the reduction of the tariffs that the average cost of installing solar actually increased in the months following the changes, serving as a double whammy for returns on investment. DECC would not be drawn to comment on those figures when they were published.
Employment, too, was a major stickler. DECC’s own impact assessment considered that up to 18,700 jobs could be lost as a result of the changes and third-party estimates backed that up. Analysis conducted by both the STA and PricewaterhouseCoopers in July 2016 found that as many as 12,500 jobs had been lost in the year following the cuts, a direct result of there being less work to go around. While neither party has conducted any update or further analysis, it is strongly expected that many thousands more jobs have been lost since then.
That much is evident from a glimpse at the number of installers accredited under the Microgeneration Scheme. As of last month there were fewer than 1,400 accredited installers throughout the UK.
And that’s causing its own issues. The MCS is directly supported by its members paying an annual fee to register and a secondary payment to accredit each individual system they install. Those fees contribute towards the scheme’s management and stewardship of the feed-in tariff, for which the government has tasked them. As the number of installers and installs has fallen, so too has the scheme’s revenue. In late 2017 the scheme’s management was forced to consider an overhaul of its fees to ensure it remained “sustainable” in the absence of such revenue. Evidently, not even the government’s own established organisations have been immune.
Problems within the MCS should be of considerable concern. Once the feed-in tariff closes to new applicants on 31 March 2019 there will be no need for installers to have their work accredited, potentially opening the doors to a whole host of negligent practices. While solar PV has an overwhelmingly positive track record in the public eye it has not been without its issues and there have been times when cowboys have plagued the industry. The HELMS scandal in Scotland is one of the more notable cases of rogue traders using subsidies as bait for unassuming customers.
Of perhaps greater concern however is the intangible cost of the decision. The UK’s domestic solar industry was all but gutted by the feed-in tariff and headlines it generated, as alluded to by Holland. Former energy minister Greg Barker spoke ill of the boom and bust cycles government had inadvertently created with subsidy cut-off points, but there has been no stop to that. It’s just now the industry is more bust, and the booms are an ever distant memory.
The UK’s solar industry is entering a crucial phase in its development, and doing so in a state of flux.
The final countdown
In little more than two months’ time the feed-in tariff will enter its final year. With nearly 1 million homes now benefitting from solar PV, the scheme has undoubtedly been a success. If subsidies are to help introduce and commercialise nascent technologies, then few have been more successful than the small-scale FiT. Greene says that the FiT has done “about 90% of what it was meant to do”, lamenting the fact it was not allowed to finish the job.
Solar has witnessed remarkable decreases in cost and continues to edge closer to grid parity. Nissan plans to enter the market imminently charging as little as £3,800 for a six-panel (presumed to be 1.5kWp) system and installation. It’s as cheap as you’re likely to find on the market, but still only plausible – according to Nissan – due to the company’s size, stature and supply chain clout. It will come up against the likes of E.On and EDF, the latter’s solar system benefitting from the R&D arm of Lightsource, which is now 43% owned by BP. Tesla’s intent is to market its solar roof tiles to the UK market as soon as they’re ready.
The landscape for solar is changing at pace. What was just five years ago a cottage industry in the UK appears now on the cusp of becoming a major tech market, backed and dominated by some of the world’s biggest energy companies. For a technology that claims to be all about the democratisation of energy, it sure looks a lot like capitalisation and consolidation from here.
Government is all too aware of solar’s progression. It champions the technology as a true British success story, pointing out that 99% of solar PV installations have been carried out under a Tory-led government. It’s similar to the party pointing out that all smartphone sales have too been completed with the Conservatives in charge, but they – or at least those within the Lib Dem-managed DECC – are to be congratulated for their perseverance.
As the feed-in tariff enters its final year of new applicants, talk is starting to emerge of what happens next. What the government intends to do with solar post-FiT remains a mystery. The government has now missed its self-imposed deadlines for both a review of the scheme’s performance and its post-2019 strategy promised in the Clean Growth Strategy. Having previously informed Solar Power Portal that these would both be published before the end of 2017, BEIS now merely states that they will appear in due course. Delays, slippages and missed deadlines have evidently become a mainstay of government energy policy.
While conversations between the government and the industry have been had, it remains unclear how frequent these are and what is being relayed. Solar Power Portal understands that the Solar PV Strategy Group, established within the government’s Solar Strategy in 2013, has not met for some time. A Freedom of Information request submitted by Solar Power Portal to BEIS to determine how frequently government ministers have met with representatives of the solar industry since 2015 was rejected.
Holland says he “cannot wait” for April 2019 when the feed-in tariff ends. He’ll continue to sell solar from his converted van in Kings Lynn market on Tuesdays and maintains a thriving pipeline of work. Holland maintains that he’s never sold solar as a financial product, which others are perhaps guilty of, so the cuts did not impact him too greatly. This may also be a crucial factor in how much work he’s seeing in BIPV – nearly 60% of his work includes this costlier, but more aesthetically pleasing medium.
Gareth Jones, managing director at St Asaph’s Carbon Zero Renewables, says that his business has had to diversify. Alongside a pipeline of commercial solar projects his business has moved into areas like renewable heat, electric vehicle charging points and, curiously, hot tubs. The pitch to sell solar has changed somewhat, but it remains an integral part of Carbon Zero’s work.
Jones fears for the future however, particularly the post-FiT landscape when the tariffs close next year. “I question what will happen after 2019. If nothing changes as it stands, I think we’ll see a very quiet spell for maybe six months. The commercial [solar] side might be OK, but I think on the domestic level, the market might just die for a little bit,” he says. All eyes will be on what the government has up its sleeve.
But as the industry looks forward it is impossible not to look back. The last two years have been extremely difficult, but pressure makes diamonds and what has emerged is an industry as resilient as ever.
Cameron says some good came from the consultation and the campaign. It pulled the industry together and gave it a platform, one which it will inevitably have to lean on again. “I think as a coalition it was good, and laid the foundations for as and when these things happen again. You have that framework then of people who’ve outed themselves as caring about it and we hope that if we have to do it again in the future, and I’ve no doubt we will, we’re quick to mobilise. I think that’s important,” she says. Greene might be slightly more sceptical, arguing that solar now exists in a “different landscape” now, one where such wholesale campaigns are unlikely to be needed, but she has huge praise for the way in which the association’s members and friends pulled together for those three months in 2015.
Many of those spoken to for this piece concluded that the industry appears more resilient than has ever done before. The cuts have scared off those only in solar for profit, leaving behind a resolute band of dedicated PV installers, the majority of whom have worked in solar for many years now. In truth, it appears they will need all the experience and character they have to navigate the coming years.
It is an inescapable truth that the cuts were necessary. You will not find an installer in the UK who thinks the contrary. But it must also be said that the way the cuts were calculated, enacted and subsequently managed befalls a government that does not truly understand the technology. The uncertainty caused has meant that what’s left of the solar industry has had to operate almost in a vacuum, devoid of any guidance as to where the industry is expected to gravitate towards and how it is expected to get there.
But, despite all that, there is an overwhelming confidence within the industry’s grassroots. Even Jones, so confident that residential installs could “die” post-2019, remarks that any additional cliff edge in deployment will only be short-lived. The UK saw its maiden subsidy-free solar farm connect to the grid last summer with a number of others said to be earmarked for later this year. The residential market may lag behind its utility-scale cousin by a year or two, but it’s playing catch-up rather than a completely different ballgame.
“We’ve got a great industry and a technology that works. With prices as they are, the mind-set of the public, the environmental agenda at the top of everyone’s radar, I think we’re in a win-win position,” Holland says.
It’d be difficult to argue otherwise.