Confusion reigns in green revolution

Solar panels on Norwich City Hall 144 photo-voltaic panels on the roof of Norwich City Council

Energy ministers from 23 of the world's most industrialised economies have gathered in the gilded splendour of Lancaster House this week to discuss green power.

But what of the reality on the ground? Visiting a few of the foot soldiers of what the Prime Minister on Thursday called the green energy revolution provides a snapshot of confusion and uncertainty.

Take the Gilvey brothers. Sean and Gary run a business called Pro Solar Power in Norwich.

Some years ago they heard the last government's warm words about the green agenda and sensed a booming market in solar panels.

They hired 12 fitters, investing about £200,000 in the training and safety courses required to send them up onto roofs and to connect the panels to the mains.

First, under Labour, the policies flip-flopped: public subsidies were available - then they weren't. For a fledgling industry, it was deeply troubling.

Laying off family

But then last November the coalition government announced that the tariffs that are paid for solar power would be almost halved.

Sean and Gary saw orders worth £2 million cancelled virtually overnight and their business suddenly had to shrink to a quarter of its original size to survive. But the process was far more fraught than normal.

In all, 13 staff had to be made redundant: nine of the fitters and four staff in sales and administration.

That was painful enough. But two of the 13 being made redundant were family. One was a cousin. The other was Sean and Gary's own step-father.

Gary (left) and Sean Gilvey The Gilvey brothers had found times tough

"It was difficult, very difficult, no question," admits Sean. Gary shakes his head at the memory.

I ask what their mother thought about what happened: two of her sons laying off her husband of 30 years, a family nightmare Shakespeare would have appreciated. Confusion reigns in green revolution

"She knew it was coming," says Gary.

We are talking at the site of their latest major installation: an array of 144 photo-voltaic panels on the roof of Norwich City Council.

Savings generated

It's a dark day and the mood isn't helped by the output of electricity at that moment either: solar panels do work when it's cloudy but not very well, and the meters show the flow right now is down to just a trickle.

When I point this out, Gary leaps in to correct me: what matters, he says, is the output over the course of a year.

Start Quote

Every single day we try to work out where this is going.”

End Quote Sean Gilvey Solar panel businessman

And official figures show the array is designed to achieve an overall saving on electricity for the council of £7,500 a year.

Hearing Gary's defence makes me think that the Gilvey brothers are exactly the sort of entrepreneurs who are meant to be at the forefront of the government's low carbon revolution: passionate and pragmatic.

But the changes in policy have left them in a far from ideal mood: puzzled and a little angry.

"The government looks disconnected from the realities of the industry," according to Sean. "Without warning they devastated it in a few weeks."

"Every single day we try to work out where this is going."

Sean recalls that the climate change minister Greg Barker once said that he wanted to avoid a 'boom and bust' cycle in the young renewables sector.

"But that's exactly what he's creating."

Unsustainable demand

new wind farm being built at Sancton Hill in the East Riding of Yorkshire There has been much opposition to the Sanction Hill wind farm

For the record, Mr Barker felt that the demand for solar panel installations was so unexpectedly high that it threatened to break the whole subsidy system.

An initiative to support sustainable energy was itself becoming unsustainably expensive.

What panel-owners earn comes from a levy on everyone's electricity bills and a limit had to be set.

The change has hurt but not killed the industry; plenty of panels are still being installed.

A survey of 190 companies published today found that together they had laid off some 6,200 people since last July - about a quarter of the solar sector's workforce.

Sean and Gary agree that the original tariff for producing solar power of 43p per kilowatt-hour had become too high, given that the panels themselves have been tumbling in price.

But, as with any business people, their objection is to the abruptness of the moving of the goal-posts.

And Gary wonders at the impact on the government itself: "With all the lay-offs, think of all the revenue the government has lost from PAYE."

Wind turbines

Further north, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, I detect the same kind of uncertainty in the wind industry.

Five giant turbines are being installed on a pleasantly rolling landscape of fields and hedges at a site called Sancton Hill, the latest in a wave of projects across the country.

Start Quote

There's a new defensiveness in the wind energy industry. ”

End Quote

But local opposition was fierce - as it is in more and more areas - and planning permission was a close-run thing.

When we arrive, one of the construction team asks nervously about our angle. "Is your report for or against?"

Neither, I explain. There's a new defensiveness in the wind energy industry.

The visual impact, the subsidies, the intermittency - all have raised questions in the public mind.

However an IPSOS-Mori poll earlier this month found a surprisingly large degree of support: 66% either strongly in favour or tending to favour the use of wind power.

Nevertheless these are tricky times for the wind developers.

A hundred mostly Conservative backbenchers wrote to the Prime Minister in February urging a cut in subsidies for onshore wind.

Reduced support

Ministers are themselves exploring a reduction in support.

And the Chancellor George Osborne, by saying 'we're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,' has signalled a shift in emphasis too.

Addressing the Clean Energy Ministerial meeting in London, David Cameron spoke of his pride "that Britain has played a leading role at the forefront of this green energy revolution."

But he also stressed a new challenge: 'we need to make it financially sustainable too."

Those at the forefront will want to know exactly what that means.

For Sean and Gary in Norwich, wondering what the next policy change will bring, one thing matters most: consistency.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    10. schoolies
    "Tidal and wave power must be the way to go as, to my knowledge, these sources of energy never stop."

    Sorry, but you're wrong. The energy spent on maintaining infrastructure from seawater erosion exceeds the amount of energy gained from the source. Geothermal is the only efficient, infinite means of power. Until then, solar and wind will have to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Sadly, neither wind nor solar are reliable enough to be alternatives to fossil fuels. I think the government should invest more in nuclear and tidal as both are very reliable. With our engineering heritage, we should be spearheading new nuclear technologies. Criminal that we continue to use ancient reactors rather than advancing new ones - if you're worried about safety then new is surely better!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    An evacuated solar collector panel only costs a few hundred pounds to produce & a typical domestic wind turbine costs around the same too.
    If alternative energy companies stopped charging THOUSANDS of pounds to supply these items, then we wouldn't even need subsidies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Wind and Solar are intermittent but can offset demand. Tidal and wave power must be the way to go as, to my knowledge, these sources of energy never stop.

    We need a world collaboration "Manhattan" style project to design and develop efficient energy converters in these areas.

    We could fund this by scrapping Kyoto style conferences which only decide when the next failed conference should be!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The Government were quick to jump on the green energy bandwagon and throw some money at it when they thought it would bring votes. Now they see the real cost of green energy they are rapidly losing interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    George Osborne: "we're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,' In the words of a more intelligent George, Carlin, "the planet's fine, its people that are screwed." And Cameron: "'we need to make it financially sustainable too." The message is clear: BIG business as usual. More power & profits for corporations more environmental mess and austerity for the rest of us

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    It is all a pipedream to think that renewable technologies can sustain the energy requirements of Britain now or in the future - unless some miracle source is found. Solar panels are a joke in the UK - they are barely feasible in Australia.
    As for windfarms - yet another white elephant - ugly noisy and unable to provide sufficient stable, scheduled power. Mr Lovelock is to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end. The apparent confusion in policy is nothing more than the old guard of fossil fuels lobbying hard to squeeze every last cent out of the Earth before they have no choice but to get behind Green Tech. Of course, once they've done that their tune will change and they will seek to seize control over that instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    My solar PV was installed in 2003, long before FITs. When FITs came in, my panels were excluded, yes I still get benefits of a kind, but these cost more to administer than simply paying FITs like everybody else. Bit of a kick in the teeth for the real pioneers, solar is now promoted as an alternative to the stock exchange, not as a means to help the planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It was unfortunate that the Gov. gave such a generous feed-in subsidy for PV as the UK is not really suitable for it. It was, in essence, diverting money from all electricity users into the pockets of those that could afford the PV instillation. It is much better to use solar-thermal in the UK (so I have been lead to believe).

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "...what matters, he says, is the output over the course of a year."

    What matters is affordable electricity when you need it. It is no use being told in January that it will be nice and sunny in July. [Rumour has it that it's not always sunny in July either]

    So someone else needs to build back up generation capacity and/or cost effective storage capacity. It's not easy, and wishing isn't having.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Obviously the ConDems MP's private shares and investments are likely to be with oil companies not renewables...................................

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Yet another tale of incompetence at the top of this 'government'. All the parties have proved to be hopeless, Cons, Libs and Labs. We need a new force to lead the country, one not tainted by this idiocy.


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