Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What the feed in tarriff cut means for Reading

A consultation which ends almost 2 weeks after the changes come into effect, creating massive uncertainty for a fledgeling industry and not just moving the goal posts but taking the ball away for community environmental projects for the sake of the profits of the big 6 energy companies.

Insert your own incredulous reference to the big society, the greenest government ever, we are all in this together here

So it's bad PR but what does this actually mean on the ground for real people and real projects. Well lets look at what this means for Reading.

In Reading we are rightly proud of the way we are leading on micro-generation. We were named by GoodEnergy as having the most feed in tariff sign-ups in the country and we are where 10:10 has launched it's solar schools pilot scheme the home of enthusiasts like Reading Energy Pioneers who have shared peer knowledge and Reading's Labour council was committed to a £5million community scheme to put solar panels in ever neighbourhood.

Our Community scheme

For a step change we knew that we needed something that was cross community and the council needed to be involved. As a new councillor I proposed a motion last year, while we were in opposition to a Tory-Liberal coalition, that we should take advantage of the financial and environmental benefits of the feed in tariff, with a particular focus on local schools. After we took back the council's cabinet in May we prioritised work to do exactly that. This got cross party support.

What we proposed was a business case based on a very tight time frame that would be both financially responsible and generate huge benefits for the local community.

In summary we were proposing a £5 million investment in solar panels across Reading's schools, community buildings and some council owned buildings. The school or community group would benefit from free electricity, the council would take the feed in tariff to cover our investment and the community would benefit from improved understanding of renewable technology. It was a win-win-win. I was particularly proud of how enthusiastic schools and young people were to embrace the technology. In fact what alerted me to these proposals was a call from a worried school governor on Friday.

We always knew that the feed-in tarriff would be cut at the end of March and as such planned accordingly. The long term impact of such a dramatic cut we can't know. But what we do know is that cutting the feed in tariff with so little notice means we will have to call a halt to the project. It's just not responsible to continue. Of course we will look for ways to get around it and how we can make it viable but currently I can't see how we can spend £5million.

The sting in the tail is that the tariff is further reduced for those who own more than one system which effectively kills off the idea of community based installations like ours. It also means that the next stage we were hoping for which was to install solar panels on council housing is also very unlikely to be viable. Which means our hope to reduce fuel poverty through installing solar panels is also dashed - we already have a very good insulation program.

Individuals

We installed solar panels with great excitement in April this year. We'll be OK, we're locked in to a contract where our energy supplier has to pay us the current rate plus inflation for the next 25 years. Someone else on our street has signed up to the next round of the Reading Energy Pioneers scheme. They were working on the basis that they had until March for the installation. If they have signed a contract with the supplier and paid a deposit but can't get the installation live until after the cut off date in 6 weeks, they will be severely out of pocket. That's not a hypothetical example I just don't know whether or not they've signed a contract yet because I haven't seen them the last couple of days.

Firms and employment

There is one group of firms this is good for. The big energy suppliers who I would have thought hardly need much help given they are operating in what I would have to describe as a cartel-like market, with high prices and a lack of genuine competition. In contrast the small suppliers like the firm I bought my solar panels from who are just getting established will be the ones that suffer. The work involved in installing solar panels is skilled and vocational and it is a contribution to a sustainable future. It's a real shame that just as the government belatedly realises they need to act to support British industry they pull the rug from one of the few industries that is growing fast

What now

This is an announcement that has caused dismay in Reading across the political spectrum. At last night's cabinet meeting my colleague Paul Gittings expressed his anger on behalf of residents and schools who are very disappointed. However the Libdem leader and Conservative deputy leader who were both present also offered to sign a cross party letter objecting to the pace and scale of this cut.

The government is clearly not thinking things through. They have proposed an end to the consultation of 23rd December. But the impact of their changes will start from 12th December. This doesn't fill me with optimism and is perhaps what we should have come to expect

The national Tory and Liberal Democrat government is completely out of touch and in a rush to appease the big energy firms has decided to slash and burn and do change the rules of the game, damaging communities like Reading. If your local school in Reading doesn't get solar panels in the next few months as a result I am very sorry and I promise we are doing all we can to change that.

In the coming days we will let you know how you can do to support and lobby the government to change it's mind.

For now I am still angry and disappointed but I won't be giving up.

UPdate: the council has issued a press release which I hadn't seen when I wrote this but it contains much the same message but more information