Breaking News: UK Solar Now Affordable? Feed-In Tariffs Announced

solar panels on a UK roof top photo

Image credit: Solar Century

In Matthew's original post on the introduction of UK feed-in tariffs for renewable energy, he hailed it as an ideological step forward for clean energy, but noted that without ambitious targets, the scheme might fall short of spurring the massive development of renewables industries seen in Germany and Spain. Concern over the level of tariff even spurred a public campaign for solar, calling for at least an additional 10p per kWh to achieve the full potential of this scheme. Today the waiting was over. So how's it all looking now the government has announced its numbers? This morning the UK government posted its official announcement about a renewables feed-in tariff. Looking at the numbers (We Support Solar has a useful summary of feed-in-tariff rates), it looks like the scheme is not going much past the initially announced figure of 36.5p per kWh—although retrofitted solar will initially get 41.2p (presumably to make up for the additional cost of installation compared to new build).

Yet while the run up to this announcement was marked by skepticism and concern from industry and green groups alike, worried that the feed-in tariffs would be too low, now the scheme has been announced, some at least are still hailing this as a huge leap forward for green tech in Britain.

Leading solar company Solar Century, (see my review of Solar Century's inspiring book here) put out an early response arguing that this new scheme will finally make solar affordable for UK home owners, estimating that a typical household can now save and earn over £1,000 per year for 25 years, increasing with inflation, with a typical solar electric system. They also argued that this return is guaranteed and tax-free, making it a favorable bet compared to traditional savings and pensions. Solar Century executive chairman Jeremy Leggett had this to say:

Home energy generation and associated jobs have been given a huge boost today. The Government's financial incentives for homes, communities and businesses to generate clean electricity marks the start of a solar revolution in the UK. For the UK to reach its carbon reduction targets, people have to be given the opportunity to generate their electricity in a rewarding and accessible way, this makes it possible.

It should be noted, of course, that Solar Century is in the business of selling solar—so while it was in their interests to push for an ambitious scheme before it was launched—now the money is available, they quite sensibly want to sell this scheme to potential customers. Others in the environmental community are less impressed. Friends of the Earth, for example, welcomed the scheme as a boost for renewables, but lamented its lack of ambition. FOE energy and climate campaigner Dave Timms had this to say:

The introduction of cash incentives to boost small scale green electricity generation is welcome - however, Ministers have been far too timid with a policy that could make a significant contribution to cutting emissions and boosting energy security. Installing renewable technologies will now be a good investment for many homes - but farmers, businesses, communities and others will get little or no extra incentive to invest in clean electricity.

So the initial take seems to be a mixed bag—good but could do better. Undoubtedly, many more UK households will now pursue solar or other micro-generation installations that would otherwise have waited—and that can only be a good thing for cash-strapped homes, for industry, for jobs and for our climate. But to get the kind of scaling up of renewables we need, let's hope this is just a first step.

And before the complaints start rolling in about Government support for certain industries, let's look at the historical role of Government in spurring technological development in everything from computers to aviation to automobiles. Existing, polluting industries don't need Government subsidies (yet continue to receive them), new players most certainly do—even if it is just to level the playing field.

And with feed-in tariffs being launched everywhere from Gainesville, Florida to Ontario to South Africa to Australia, communities not enacting these schemes would do well to act now or get left behind. Overwhelming public support for feed-in tariffs in the UK (even the famously oil-friendly IEA supports feed-in tariffs!) shows that the political will is there, if only the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel lobbies would get out of the way.

Watch this space for more responses as the dust settles.

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