What has become clear over the last few weeks is that the UK government is determined to decimate the UK’s fledgling solar industry, no matter the cost to jobs, families and the environment. And this is from a political party, the Conservatives, which normally prides itself on being pro-business.
The Government is trying to argue that it is planning to slash the subsidies to solar as it cannot afford to pay the growing bill for solar to be installed across the UK and the sector should be economically viable without them.
The argument would have more credence if the Conservativce government was reducing subsidies across the board – but it comes at a time when the Tories are giving more money to fossil fuel companies; are rigging the planning process to fast-track fracking and then going to pour billions and billions of tax-payers money into highly controversial new nuclear plants.
The cost for one new nuclear plant – Hinkley C – is staggering. It is now estimated to cost 25 billion British pounds, leading the Sunday Times to say recently that “There is a real risk that Hinkley will come to be seen as a monumental blunder, the most expensive white elephant in British history.”
In contrast to the billions being poured into nuclear, the amount of money the UK solar industry needed was small change. If you talk to solar industry insiders they say that the industry needed one to two more years to be viable as the cost of photovoltaics is plummeting.
Instead of helping this industry to stand on its own two feet and flourish, the Government has just cut it off at its knees, proposing to slash subsidies by 87 per cent. The move is likely to save the Government between £40 million and £100 million by 2020 – a tiny amount compared to the cost of nuclear.
The British Solar Trade Association has warned the cuts could cost up to 27,000 jobs. Some 1,000 have gone already, with some high profile casualties.
Last Friday, Zep Solar, a company backed by billionaire Elon Musk pulled out of the UK, blaming the cuts to subsidies. It was the fourth UK solar business to close in a fortnight.
Also to close last week was Southern Solar, one of the UK’s leading solar firms, run by Howard Johns, a former chairman of the Solar Trade Association. Johns has accused the government of “nothing less than political vandalism on a grand scale”.
“As a sector we are easily labelled as self-interested subsidy-junkies,” Johns wrote in a comment piece for the Guardian. “When, in fact, we are one of the few energy generation technologies that has the opportunity to become subsidy-free.”
Others are equally furious. “To let this green success story die, pushing more into unemployment and becoming a burden on the state. It’s obscene,” argues Richard Rushin, UK sales manager for Trina, the largest solar panel manufacturer in the world.
Jonathan Selwyn, managing director of solar installer Lark Energy adds: “When the government talks about nuclear and fracking, it’s all about investment in energy security and jobs. When it talks about renewables – not just solar – it talks about the costs to hardworking British families.”
Selwyn accused the cuts of being “entirely ideologically driven. It is nothing to do with the cost to the energy consumer.”
Greenpeace UK chief scientist, Doug Parr has also criticised the British government for “putting British clean tech firms out of business whilst lavishing billions on a foreign state-owned nuclear industry. None of this makes any economic, political, or business sense.”
This is now causing an international backlash too. In what is being seen as unusually blunt criticism, the UN’s Chief Environment scientist, Professor Jacquie McGlade has condemned the UK for shifting away from clean energy just as the rest of the world rushed towards it.
She told the BBC: “What I’m seeing worldwide is a move very much towards investment in renewable energy. To counterbalance that you see the withdrawal of subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels.”
“What’s disappointing is when we see countries such as the United Kingdom that have really been in the lead in terms of getting their renewable energy up and going – we see subsidies being withdrawn and the fossil fuel industry being enhanced.”
Prof McGlade said this was a “very serious signal – a very perverse signal that we do not want to create,” in the run up to the UN Paris agreement.