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Solar In The UK: Facing The Full Force Of Big Energy Blowback

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Across Britain at the moment thousands of solar installers are out on roofs and in fields, racing in often dire weather to beat a deadline, the 12th December. That is when the UK government intends to halve the feed-in tariff, the policy it had chosen - like dozens of other governments - with which to build a domestic solar electricity market.

The installers are out in conditions they would never usually work in because they are trying to save as many jobs as they can, including potentially their own. They know that the sales pipelines of the companies that employ them have been devastated by the government's ambush cut, announced on 31 October, leaving just six weeks of the old tariff, not the five months that the industry had been expecting until the next scheduled cut. The installers are helping their companies put as much cash in the bank as they can, in a few short weeks, so that perhaps they have a better chance of not losing their jobs in the January, when budgets for the new financial year are prepared. Exhausted, they will then spend Christmas with their families worrying whether they have succeeded.
They will know that many of them won't have.

The government's own figures show that it expects the reduction of the accessible market, as a result of its proposed actions - including a new condition that tariffs will only be paid to energy efficient homes - to be as much as 90%. If that is correct, the British solar market will be smaller than it was before the feed-in tariff started in April 2010: a meagre 11 megawatts, one of the smallest in the developed world. Many companies will be forced into bankruptcy. Thousands will lose their jobs.

Why, the installers ask themselves?

Savings, say the government, appropriate to a nation facing austerity.

Rubbish, say the installers. There are no net savings. The tariff "cost" of subsidising solar electricity generators is by far smaller than the receipts to the Treasury from the embryonic industry: the tax lost, the VAT lost, the national insurance lost. That is before you even count the unemployment benefit avoided.

Ah, say the government, but it is homeowners who pay the tariff. We are saving consumers pounds on their bills.

Dishonest, say the installers. Many of the cancelled roofs are for social housing. Housing Associations are coming to see solar roofs as one of their biggest tools in fighting fuel poverty. You are taking cash from the fuel poor. And as for individual households, the tariffs add only a fraction to bills compared to projected inflation from Big Energy's conventional fuels. A tiny bit of financial innovation could offset the tariff addition completely.

Knowing their government is relaying false information, the installers are left with a very big big
question.

Why?

There are only two possibilities, given the absence of a credible savings narrative and the seemingly lethal intent of the six week warning and the market-shrivelling energy-efficiency pre-qualification. One is breathtaking collective incompetence. The other is conspiracy.
The answer is conspiracy. So I have been told in recent weeks by insiders in Whitehall, Westminster, and in the relevant parts of the energy, PR, and financial industries.

They are trying to kill you, my informants say. "They" means the Big Six energy companies and their many apologists in the civil service and politics. "You" means the solar industry, and not just in the UK. A core constituency in Big Energy has decided, my informants say, that you and the other members of the renewable microgeneration family are growing too fast, you are bringing your costs down too quickly as theirs go ever upward, you are approaching grid parity too iminently, you are democratising energy for too many. In short, you are becoming a threat to their very business model. You are threatening Big Energy's licence to print money.

This is the picture that I have pieced together. The Big Six have told the government, one after another, that if they have to operate renewables, they must operate big renewables: offshore wind and marine. The foreign companies among the Big Six - that is four of them - have told the government that if they don't get enough of what they want on this and other energy matters, they might up sticks and go home. For most of these companies, nuclear renaissance is high on the want list, notwithstanding Fukushima. And they know they are dealing with a government and a civil service wherein nuclearphilia is rife.

So what can we in the beleaguered solar industry do, if it is true that the government has made a political decision to maim us, even kill us, as part of a compromise package deal with Big Energy?

Only what we have always ever been able to do: speak truth to power. In this new phase of deadly existential threat, we must hope that somehow this little stone in our somewhat feeble sling hits the giant's forehead before his sword descends on us.

Meanwhile, unlike the over-worked installers, people like me have time to monitor the march of events in Big Energy land. And what do we learn, so far this month for instance?

That the Big Six have been profiteering for years and still are, according to a new study. Spreads between their wholesale buying and retail selling grow ever wider.
That, as a consequence, a quarter of UK households are now in fuel poverty, where last year only a fifth were. This, in a cold winter, in a land with an average 27,000 extra winter deaths, amounts to corporate killing of the fuel poor.

That UK construction of renewables is tumbling as Big Energy rushes for gas. This, with gas production falling and the future of unconventional gas production uncertain, means dependency on a mafia state becomes ever more likely.

That Big Energy has provided no less than fifty pro-bono secondees to government, while renewables companies provide not one.

That the government has passed secret policy documents to the Big 6, making a mockery of arms-length government.

That Big Six demands for up-front payments are now a barrier to UK manufacturing, killing ever more British jobs and the potential thereof.
That Big 6 bosses earn up to £4 million a year while old grans shiver on.

We have learned that we live in a very unfair land, where there is no such thing as Big Society, where a Prime Minister's talk of countervailing austerity-related job losses via UK participation in the green industrial revolution is just so much talk.

We have learned we will have to fight for our lives, using people power and whatever stones come to hand. We have learned we must survive as best we can, until - given the inevitable onward fall of our costs and the inevitable upward soar of theirs - the day that our way of thinking inevitably prevails.

2011-12-10-bridge.PNG
Under construction: Solarcentury's Blackfriars Bridge project in London, the world's longest solar bridge.