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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    @English vote
    I wish there was a significant pursuit of a green vote in UK because of AGW
    but the investment is about local jobs not the environment
    BNP get more votes than greens

    nuclear is not a great solution because of water

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    "...Sean and Gary saw orders worth £2 million cancelled virtually overnight..."


    That's a bit like what happened to low-end property in the US, when GWB changed his mind on legitimising clandestine immigration. This meant the migrants would not be able to get mortgages after all. The rest...

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    At the moment politicians are spending billions of pounds of taxpayers money on renewable just to win the green vote.

    The answer to our energy needs is nuclear, but politicians want to win elections and that means pandering to the greens.

    Eventually the lights will go out, and we will have spent hundreds of billions on pointless wind turbines and solar panels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    @ 208.Gort2012
    "The tragedy is that for £100bn upfront renewables could replace
    £250bn long-term non-RNW lack of political will is the only barrier."

    It is not the lack of Political will - its the lack of grotesque profits the Politicians are concerned with. Our Politicians, Cameron especially, is a self-confessed Capitalist so until this changes, our environment will be destroyed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    @ 68.MKMAT
    "It really is not rocket science. Any construction company who builds more than 5 houses per year must provide each house with;
    Triple glazed windows, Grey water system, Solar powered hot water heating system, high quality insulation"

    I totally agree but with our Capitalist Politicians at the helm, there will slow, confussed progress until grotesque profits can be made.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    @lynn the technology is good enough now

    As an Engineer and a Scientist who has won medals for IQ

    We are discussing a possible E.L.E that is becoming a
    probable E.L.E

    The tragedy is that for £100bn upfront renewables could replace
    £250bn long-term non-RNW lack of political will is the only barrier.

    Renewable energy is basically free money just economics is behind the curve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.


    Fossil fuels make up, what, 70% of our energy production, whereas renewables are in singles figures, MAYBE low teens, yet its costs us nearly 1/4 of the fossil subsides to subsidy what we have now?

    so, lets say they swap places. enewables become 80% from 15%.
    If 15%=66 bn then 80% would be 396bn. Saving 12bn.

    Not a huge saving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    "The sun in the British Empire never sets"

    The only likely scheme that will solve NIMBY is floating
    deep sea solar power generation. It only requires glass (aka sand)

    You are only looking for around 9% eff. for a reversable reaction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Wind Energy - 80% Subsidised by Tax Payers. Stop the Subsidy now. Simple!

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Energy companies prefer to invest in large capital intensive power generation elsewhere rather than use their customer's property as a base for investment in solar power. It may seem too much like doing customer's a favour but one large dubiously beneficial wind turbine cost as much as far more regular, reliable, easily installed, maintained and Grid connected solar panels for 1,000 homes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    The problem began when the (previous) government decided to pick winners among the various renewable energy sources. What they should have done is announce a long-term subsidy for energy, generated by whatever means, balanced with a tax on greenhouse gas emissions. This would have given investors more certainty and avoided subsidising some technologies over other (more efficient) ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    No wonder the subsidies have been cut (PV already cut with wind cuts to come), they have been soaked up by rich people building huge wind or PV "farms" and converting capital into guaranteed income for 25 yrs thus not mainly going to the general house small scale installations which was the idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    Immature green technology as we have now, our government should invest on green R/D, instead of green businesses.

    It is sad to read BBC news - universities doubled pay for senior staff, executive pay over got out of kilter with performance, etc.

    We are in recession, because our government have allocated resources on wrong industries, wrong businesses, wrong purposes and wrong people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Energy ministers from 23 of world's most industrialised economies gathered in gilded splendour of Lancaster House this week to discuss green power. What sort of power was Lancaster House using - solar, wind?
    Best quote: "Govt looks disconnected from the realities of the industry...Without warning they devastated it in a few weeks."
    And that, my friends, is the real situation in a nutshell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    "that Britain has played a leading role at the forefront of this green energy revolution." The funniest Cameron has said all month. As for Barker, he should resign in shame for presiding over such incompetence.
    We need a good mix of most types of production in the UK, wind, solar, hydro, and yes probably including Nuclear, which btw is also massively subsidized.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    I also add,that logically the government need to do and this goes back to Labour as well as the current set up,is to continue to subsidise advanced solar and thermal pumping systems to domestic and commercial users which will tie the country over for many years.This is actually cheaper and all they need to do until the advanced technology,such as fusion/advanced wave becomes commercially available

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    The problem with renewable energy, especially wind technology is it is actually quite an inefficient way of powering the UK because of the cost of putting these large towers up.Inefficient because the wind also does not blow all the time and inefficient because they shut the turbines down if it is to windy, hmmm, ok.So the overinvestment in the wind energy sector kind of genuinely needs to stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Green is the new religion.

    But like religion, it is based mainly on belief rather than proof.

    Renewable energy makes sense when the technology is ready. Pumping money into it now though is counter productive and is actually damaging the environment, not helping it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Wind turbines should be used to make hydrogen, that way you can make full use of the available wind. The hydrogen can then be used to run generators to meet peak demands and also used in transport. Nuclear and clean coal ( carbon capture) should be used for the base demand. Remember everything has a cost, nuclear seams expensive only because you have to pay for the waste directly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    One of the key ways of going green is to be less wasteful. How many times have we thought 'this item could be repaired but the cost of repair is just not viable so I'll buy a new one'. Perhaps we need to encourage the servicing and repair sector with tax breaks, it would create jobs and prevent things being thrown away when they still have life.


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