UK Government Plans to Slice Solar Subsidies

In an effort to stifle demand for large-scale renewables, Climate Minister Greg Barker has announced his intention to cut back on government solar subsidies. Not only is the idea anti-green, but it’s also anti-business.

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THE UK’s renewable energy sector bears every trait you’d expect to see from a thriving, economically-driven international industry. Not only does it employ over 100,000 people, but large-scale renewables have been instrumental in helping British construction firms land on their feet after the housing bubble burst in 2008. Better yet, small-scale domestic projects have allowed families across the country to soften the blow of increasingly unaffordable household energy bills.

Yet for all its merits, the true potential of British renewables seems to be thwarted at every turn by outdated policy and opportunistic political movements. The nation’s fledgling solar market has been hit particularly hard.

Last week, the coalition delivered another major blow to large-scale solar energy production after announcing the intention to, yet again, cut subsidies being paid out to solar farms.

At present, there are around 200 solar photovoltaic farms in the UK whose owners receive thousands of pounds per year in government credits for contributing an influx of eco-friendly energy onto the country’s national grid – which goes on to power hundreds of thousands of British homes. But according to climate minister Greg Barker, the public has grown weary of solar power’s unrestricted growth in the British countryside – so much so that solar farms are now running the risk of becoming “the new onshore wind”.

Hmm. Even if we’re asked to overlook the fact that 80% of Brits say they wholeheartedly support new investment in solar PV, that rationale is shoddy at best.

True enough, there has been plenty of opposition to large-scale solar – predominately across rural England. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that local objections tend to stem from blatant misconceptions concerning the alleged obtrusiveness of solar farming. Meanwhile, in many cases local politicians don’t bother to set the record straight by explaining the net benefits of integrating renewables into small communities.

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First and foremost, it goes criminally unnoticed that solar farms don’t take away space from wildlife and livestock. In fact, the land around the panels is usually grass-land that can be surrounded by hedging. These environments provide better habitats than intensively farmed land, and the ground beneath the panels can still be used to graze small sheep, goats or poultry – or to grow grass and wildflowers. More pertinent are the misguided claims that solar farms somehow spoil the scenery across quiet country beauty spots; however, minimal on-site construction ensures there’s not much to look at. Better yet, throughout the farming lease, the area is constantly maintained – meaning the land underneath a solar farm can return to its original use at literally any time.

With all that in mind, it’s difficult to see why that country’s climate minister is so afraid of solar PV. Against all odds, Britain’s solar industry has been one of few sectors that’s actually been able to grow at the height of a global recession. Yet instead of lauding that success, wary politicians are now punishing the very firms that propped up Britain’s struggling construction sector by eradicating new investment incentives. Why? The coalition cannot possibly argue that the public purse can no longer afford to subsidise solar projects, when the government was gung-ho to hand over millions at the height of an economic recession.

At worst, a cut in subsidies to the solar industry runs the risk of destroying a commercial enterprise that employs 100,000 British workers. At best, the DECC will soon be facing court action from international trade associations. Either way, the Conservatives need to have a good, hard think about the kind of government they hope to run post-2015 – because if they’re this keen to suppress growth in one of the country’s top recession-era success stories, what other money-making industries will they stifle? Mr Cameron has already discredited his own commitment to green energy; however, if he wants to hold on to his business credentials, he’d do well to tread carefully.

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