Early sunset for the Cornish solar power gold rush

  • 15 June 2011
  • From the section England
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Solar panel on house roof
Solar panels can harness the Cornish sun

Any hopes Cornwall Council or the solar power industry might have been entertaining of a reprieve in the government's review of the Feed-in Tariff have now been dashed.

The Feed-in Tariff (or FiT) is a government subsidy for solar power devised by the last Labour government and then inherited by the coalition.

To the relief of potential beneficiaries the coalition decided to run with it.

Cornwall Council apparently presides over the sunniest corner of Britain (a claim met with incredulity, I suspect, from people like me who live in the delectable - but undeniably damp - duchy).

Following the government's commitment to the FiT, it lost no time in forecasting (and beginning to facilitate) a £1bn "solar gold rush" from Penzance to Pensilva.

Solar power enthusiasts were urged to get in quickly and make firm plans to harness the Cornish sun before the FiT deadline.

Benefit handsomely

Planning permissions were granted - and everything seemed to be ticking along splendidly - when the government decided to give itself planning permission to move the goal posts for FiT applications.

Ministers said they were alarmed by the rapid uptake of the scheme by large commercial concerns - "subsidy farmers" rather than solar farmers, according to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne.

Chris Huhne: alarmed by the rapid uptake of the scheme by "subsidy farmers"

The government insists that this was an unintended consequence - though I've yet to find a Labour politician who agrees with that - of a scheme targeting small-scale domestic generation.

It is, however, undeniable that the original rules put in place by Labour clearly allowed large commercial operators to benefit handsomely.

Hence the ambitious plans hatched by the same large commercial operators and Cornwall Council - and hence the government's haste to frustrate those plans.

Ministers proposed restricting the higher level of FiT support to solar installations generating 50kW or less - and launched a consultation on that proposal.

When I spoke to Chris Huhne earlier this year it was clear that, consultation or no consultation, large-scale solar farms would not be cashing in on the scale originally permitted (though, allegedly, not envisaged). He was adamant that he simply wasn't having it.

However, as I reported at the time, he did seem to be leaving the door open to reviewing the 50kW threshold. Critics claimed this was so low that it would exclude relatively small community ventures as well as the big commercial outfits the government obviously had in its sights.

Such critics might also have had their hopes raised by the government's track record on consultations. The coalition has form when it comes to either abandoning policies altogether (sale of public forests) or agreeing to amendments (it's indicated this will happen on coastguard reform). This week look no further than the NHS.

'Very challenging'

On the Feed-in Tariff, though, it's stuck to its guns.

As Cheryl Hiles, Director of Sustainable Energy Delivery at Regen SW, ruefully observed:

"Very little has changed as a result of the consultation.

"Government remains adamant that the intended beneficiaries of the FiT should be individuals, householders, organisations, businesses and communities, but apart from preventing large scale solar developments, have done little to demonstrate this.

"The changes to the PV tariff will not affect individual consumers' installations, but larger community scale schemes are unlikely to go ahead now with the current level of support offered by the FiT.

"It is however not just the impact of the FiT review, but also the withdrawal of the EIS relief for community companies and the reduction in capital allowances that all conspire together to make community and business scale projects very challenging."

Sudden halt?

And the brakes have clearly been put on the Cornish solar power gold rush.

Councillor Julian German, Cabinet Member for Climate Change at Cornwall Council, said the county had the most to lose from the government's decision:

"With the fact that we have the highest levels of solar irradiation on the mainland UK there has been a huge amount of investment opportunity from solar park development.

"There are two key reasons why Cornwall Council is very disappointed with the decision.

"Firstly - in developing its own 5MW solar park the council has been nationally acknowledged as demonstrating great leadership following the government's own guidance that local authorities can generate electricity from renewables to create an income to support its community activities.

"As the result of the Fast Track Review we now have to reassess the position as to whether or not we can continue with the construction of the Kernow Solar Park which is due for construction in the autumn.

"Secondly - the Council has also been leading best practice by working with developers to ensure that communities and local businesses would receive direct economic benefits from the construction of commercial solar parks.

"Now only small amounts are being built in a rush to be operational before the 1st August deadline."

Legal challenge

There's also the question of those who had already invested in solar schemes - in the reasonable expectation of benefiting from the Feed-in Tariff - before the government decided to change the rules.

If they do manage to recoup any of their losses it's now clear it won't be with any help from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

End of story? Well, not if this group of companies in exactly that position succeed in their legal challenge to the government's entire review of the Feed-in Tariff.

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