Today, Baroness Featherstone, the new Liberal Democrat Energy spokesperson, will attempt to keep alive the support programme which makes small scale renewable projects happen.
The process is quite arcane, but the debate that lies behind it is critical for the future direction of small scale renewables, so bear with me, and perhaps also marvel at the way the House of Lords works. Baroness Featherstone has tabled a “Humble Address” which seeks to annul the Government “Feed-in Tariffs (Amendment) (No.3) Order 2015”. A Labour motion to debate the Order in the Commons looks unlikely to succeed and so today’s debate is likely to be the only effective Parliamentary scrutiny this legislation will receive. Its impact, however, will be felt by households, communities and rural businesses across the country.
This Order, which the Government introduced as a statutory instrument just before Christmas 2015, will radically change how the small scale renewable energy market works. Government has decided to drastically cut levels of support given to schemes, and to introduce caps on spending. The reaction from the wider public was significant. Energy policy is normally arcane and hard to follow. Energy only usually gets seen as a political issue when people debate energy costs. But Government has seen that people also want to know where their energy comes from, and were appalled that in future it would be harder for householders, schools, farmers, communities and small businesses to install their own renewable energy equipment. In fact people were so appalled that over 60,000 of them wrote to the Government about it as part of its consultation on the changes.
All those people wanted to see Government think again, and we did win some important concessions introduced into the Feed-in Tariff scheme. And of course some of what has been proposed is absolutely necessary – all those who make use of the scheme know that costs have to be managed better and we should only support renewable technologies at a level that is affordable.
What is a tragedy in all this is the fact that Government is introducing major changes to a popular scheme without putting any thinking into the longer term role of small scale renewables, or what comes after the Feed-in Tariff. Its approach is more all or nothing and betrays a lack of imagination or creative thinking. The consultation had no views on the merits of the scheme or how to support continued growth of small scale generation in the absence of subsidy. The statutory instrument has been lodged in Parliament without any thinking or debate about how we best support ordinary people and businesses to meet their own energy needs.
Instead we have a process which has been little more than an accountancy exercise. The need for Government to manage the costs of the Feed-in Tariff has blinded them to thinking about alternative ways to support small scale renewables, or to thinking about what the longer term plan is.
But for the Conservative Party this shift to decentralised energy, and to more people having power over their own energy generation, was exactly what they stood for in opposition. Fast forward to 2016 though and there seems no pride in the fact that over 10% of farmers now have their own wind turbine and are better equipped to manage food and energy price shocks. Thanks to renewables these farmers are more resilient; their businesses are healthier and the overall rural economy is healthier.
Thanks to the Feed-in Tariff, the UK built a vibrant small scale manufacturing industry. Up to the end of 2014 UK manufacturers exported one turbine for every one they sold at home, and we led the world in this area. Now though that UK market is disappearing and these small manufacturers are either going out of business or looking very carefully at how they better supply to other markets.
So now we have a sector in decline. But there is no discussion about this. In its decision about changes made to the Feed-in Tariff there was no long term view about how the companies behind this small scale revolution can be encouraged to get off subsidy. Government did not consider the use of tax incentives or innovation funding to encourage businesses to generate their own energy. Nor did they look at the mountain of red tape that makes it so expensive for anyone to install their own renewable energy equipment, and plays some part in making subsidies necessary in the first place.
So it is good that we have a motion tabled and the chance for the House of Lords to debate this issue. Lynne Featherstone’s motion may not succeed, but hopefully she will succeed in raising Government’s ambition, and forcing a debate about whether the UK is still serious about decentralising how energy is generated and used, and putting power back into the hands of the families, schools, farmers and small businesses across the UK.
But whatever happens in the debate, what we do know is that we need a long term plan and a renewed political consensus about how we make sure that keeping the lights on, cutting our dependence on fuel imports and tackling climate change is the responsibility of everyone and needs to happen in big and small ways.
Feed-in Tariffs (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2015 Baroness Featherstone to move that a Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order, laid before the House on 18 December 2015, be annulled (SI 2015/2045). 20th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.