Derek Thomas is MP for St Ives.
It was a long time coming, but now the summer is finally here – thunderstorms notwithstanding – we are witnessing the remarkable effects that the UK’s solar revolution is having on our electricity system. During the first May bank holiday, the Great British sunshine saw UK solar output peak at nearly 30 per cent of total generation, briefly becoming the largest source of power for the first time.
This surge in green energy has been largely at the expense of coal, with the most polluting way of powering our homes and businesses shunted offline, in one case for more than three days at a time. While politicians across the pond claim a power system cannot be relied on without coal generation, our Government is leading the way on the move away from the black stuff, with a world-leading promise to stop generating power from coal by 2025. Unbelievable – when just five years ago coal provided around 40 per cent of our electricity.
This is remarkable progress; as the first country to industrialise, the UK is now leading the race to decarbonise. And while plaudits rightly fall on our booming offshore wind industry, it is impossible to overlook the contribution from UK solar.
Since the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010, UK solar capacity has increased nearly 30-fold to 13 gigawatts. These solar panels are not just in large farms, but atop homes and businesses all over the country, with many more run as community projects. Schools, libraries and social housing projects are opting to install rooftop solar, increasing the output of clean power at the same time as directing funds into the heart of communities.
This transformation in our power system has been made possible by feed-in tariff payments, and while it is true that initial subsidies were on the generous side, they kick-started an industry supported by the vast majority of the population. Indeed, the last governmental survey showed that just one per cent of the population was ‘strongly opposed’ to solar power. It is hard to imagine any other policy that would receive near-unanimous support from the British public.
Unfortunately, changes to feed-in-tariff payments has seen the installation rate of new projects drop, and now the industry is waiting for a long-coming review of how small-scale renewables will be supported beyond April 2019 – a document with the potential to revitalise the UK’s solar sector and capitalise on rapidly falling costs as technology has developed.
With the review hopefully around the corner, there are a number of sensible policies that can be implemented to give the industry a jump start that don’t involve direct subsidy. Tax cuts on solar panels for small-scale installations would slash the initial cost and bring them into more household budgets, while centrally-funded low-cost loans could make it easier for larger community projects to get up and running.
Disposing with onerous EU-imposed tariffs on solar panels should be one of the first energy-related tasks post-Brexit, allowing us to import the cheapest panels from around the world and generate cheap power from the Great British sunshine. Outrageously, the desire to protect a fledgling German industry sees a tariff of more than 60% slapped onto panels from outside the bloc, adding tens of millions of pounds to the UK’s annual electricity bill.
Allowing communities to make decisions that affect them is at the heart of what it means to be a Conservative. Cutting taxes that prohibit the take-up of a hugely popular technology while giving people the final say on whether they want solar or wind infrastructure in their area should be a priority for a government determined to leave the environment in a better state than they found it.
But the government can’t do everything. Bottlenecks in local electricity networks limit how much new capacity can be installed, increase waste in the system, and inevitably put up bills. Ofgem is currently consulting on plans to regulate how energy networks are run into the next decade, and is at risk of missing a trick by giving into to lobbying to accept a position that largely resembles business as usual. We wouldn’t accept a motorway or railway network that slowed down industry, so why is it acceptable for our electricity networks to hold back change?
Visitors to my constituency can see first-hand what is possible when the technology of the future is allowed to flourish. The Smart Energy Islands project hosted on Scilly will ramp up renewable power generation and smart charging of electric vehicles, while bringing bills down. By 2025, the project will deliver 40 per cent of all energy from renewables, 40 per cent of vehicles being electric or low carbon, and knock 40% from energy bills.
While it is great to see such ingenuity in Cornwall, the rest of the UK should also be given the option to follow suit. With tighter carbon targets expected later in the year, now is the time to get a head start, to make the most of our natural resources and reap the rewards of a cheap, clean and reliable power system.