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Spain gives perhaps the best case example of how a strong feed-in tariff system can either make or break the solar industry in which it is introduced. The Spanish feed-in tariff (FIT) was designed as a mechanism for incentivising investment in solar installations and was introduced in 2007. Traditionally, the high cost of solar plant and installation deterred investors who identified that despite the high levels of solar radiation across the Iberian Peninsular, yields would be minimal at best simply due to high initial outlays.

The FIT is a system which guarantees fixed, premium rates for solar producers who feed electricity in to the national grid. The high rate paid for each unit of electricity is met by the utility companies who in turn spread that cost over their customers. Therefore, in Spain with the introduction of the tariff system in 2007 with the rate of 0.44 euros offered for units of energy fed-in to the grid by solar producers the interest generated in the Spanish photovoltaic (PV) market was overwhelming. Indeed, combined with extensive coverage from the Spanish media along with Zapatero’s PSOE government’s commitment of making Spain the leading producer of solar energy in Europe by 2020, there was a phenomenal boom in the PV sector with the number of solar installations rising dramatically.

The UK government and in particular the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) since passing the Energy Act in 2008 have been moving towards a similar tariff system and in June 2009 announced that they would introduce a Clean Energy Cash Back system in the first quarter of 2010. In order to do so, they have undertaken a meticulous consultancy process in order to ensure that the mechanism which is introduced does exactly what it is intended to do i.e. make the UK solar industry strong and viable in the long term by attracting investment in the young sector. Spain certainly offers an example of how to attract investment in the short term. However, the Spanish example also offers stark examples of how not to set up a tariff system for long term industry health. The essential problem with the feed-in tariff which was established in Spain was that it was unable to cope with market fluctuations which arose as a result of the initial success of the tariff.

A recent report by the New York Times highlighted the failings of the Spanish solar legislation. Problems stemmed from the fact that politicians expected a steady stream of investment over a period of years. However, the massive interest which was generated in the fledgling industry encouraged a wave of investment in the first few months. The massive take up of solar installations was unexpected and caused the Spanish government to reduce solar incentives by 30 per cent without warning. Because the Spanish feed-in tariff failed to be market responsive, many investors who had already ordered deliveries of solar product from China, were left in the situation that they had no market in which to install it. With regards to the Spanish legislation, Julie Blunden of SunPower Corp was quoted in the New York Times,

“The most important lesson, which everyone has learned, is that if you’re going to establish a feed-in tariff, you need to figure out how to make it market-responsive.”

This will be the key lesson for the British government, how to introduce legislation which encourages growth in the new solar industry without setting a tariff level which is too high. In Spain, the government’s level of 0.44 euros was artificially high and therefore created the problem of an influx of investment which the government could not manage. Therefore, when the PSOE government reduced incentives by 30 per cent with many investors having already ordered large quantities of solar plant from manufacturing bases in China, the proverbial rug was pulled right from under them. Talking specifically about the legislation changes which had the detrimental effects on the Spanish PV market Santiago Seage, the CEO of Abengoa Solar SA commented on the situation saying,

“What’s important for the regulation of solar is stability. Unfortunately, up to now, we have had too many changes and if the context changes, you can make mistakes in business decisions.”

Spain has already experienced a dramatic reduction in photovoltaic installation in 2009 with 375MW compared to 2008 installations of 2,500MW. Spain will now fail to live up to its ambitions of becoming the European Union’s leading renewable energy producer by 2020 essentially because Zapatero’s government has neglected the tariff scheme across the country. The introduction of a 500MW project cap along with the withdrawal of essential subsidies has seen the solar industry stagnate and since the new year, decline. Members of the solar industry in the UK will therefore be hoping that the British government emulates the example of Germany rather than Spain in the way that they choose to roll out the much talked about feed-in tariff next year.

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