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Government hesitation on solar farms: a major setback for green growth?

Sensemaking / Government hesitation on solar farms: a major setback for green growth?

30 Jun 2011

The need to make progress towards green energy and carbon reduction targets is more pressing than ever. But thanks to premature Government hesitation, we could miss a major opportunity, says Dale Vince, CEO of Ecotricity

It looked like a brave new world when Feed-in Tariffs were announced last April. For the first time, Britain had the opportunity to build large-scale ground-mounted solar projects – something not uncommon in other parts of Europe.

Right now we're working on the UK's very first sun park, a 1MW photovoltaic array [see artist's impression, pictured] next to our 16MW wind park, Fen Farm in Lincolnshire. It should be up and running by May 2011.

Ecotricity currently has 54MW of wind parks in operation, and plans for another 200MW. We'd like to build more sun parks, enough to achieve a 50/50 mix of wind and solar power ideally. These two sources of energy are highly complementary: for example, you get more of one in the winter, and more of the other in the summer. Fen Farm will be the UK's first hybrid project, and we're expecting to learn a lot from it. This is just the beginning.

Or rather it was. Until the Government came along and said: "We don't like the sound of solar farms. They're going to hoover up all the money available from the Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs), and harm the market for household solar power." Or words to that effect. It's a misleading stance, because there isn't a limited pot of money under FiT legislation. We've checked our understanding with energy regulator Ofgem and they agree: there is no pot, no limit, and therefore no way that one technology can succeed at the expense of another.

There's no sign, either, that large-scale projects have harmed the market for smaller installations. With 27,000 applications so far for domestic rooftop PV, the scheme seems to be going rather well. With the UK yet to build a solar farm on any significant scale, the Government's hesitation seems premature.

More importantly, in these times of serious financial constraints, the need to make progress towards green energy and carbon reduction targets is more pressing than ever – with opportunities for significant savings and long-term gain.

It simply doesn't make sense to choose to support domestic installations at the expense of large-scale arrays, when FiTs ensure that the latter are 30% cheaper. We get three for two if we spend our money on big solar rather than small: that's three units of green electricity for the price of two, and three units of carbon reduction for the price of two.

The Government's motivation is hard to fathom. The rules don't allow one technology to adversely impact any other; domestic solar is booming anyway; and big solar offers far better value for money. So why spike it now?

Perhaps it comes down to ideology: the fear that big solar might spoil the countryside or something. If there's another reason, we need to be told, to enable an honest debate.

The opportunities in large-scale solar are huge. Job creation is not the least of them: remember all the talk of new green jobs before the election? Germany's solar sector now employs 133,000 people, and is worth €10 billion a year, with 17,000MW of installed capacity. The UK has a measly 75MW.

And that's how the Government seems to want it to stay. We're building the UK's very first sun park now. Might it be the last? 

Dale Vince is CEO of Ecotricity, which he founded in 1995.

Ecotricity is a Forum for the Future partner.

Image credits: none

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