On Friday rumours emerged that the German government is likely to significantly reduce the price paid for electricity produced by solar panels. Furthermore, the reduction may be made as early as April rather than in July as previously anticipated.
We expect an official announcement this week and will update you then but the rumours alone have already sparked hefty losses in solar energy stocks around the world. This is not surprising considering how large a proportion of the world solar market Germany represents. In 2009, close to 4GW of solar energy capacity were installed. The next biggest markets, Italy, France and the US were a maximum of 1 GW each. If demand drops significantly in Germany, it could lead to more pain for solar equipment manufacturers.
Personally, I believe a significant reduction in Germany’s feed-in-tariff is a good thing for the industry. Things got out of hand in 2009 as installers and manufacturers (particularly inverter manufacturers) struggled to meet demand. Everyone wants the solar industry to grow, but it must be stable growth. Too much too soon and there isn’t enough time for problems to resolved.
For example, in the southern part of Germany, solar energy makes up close to 5% of all energy production now. This is already causing problems for the electricity grid because of the intermittency of solar power. If solar energy were to grow more slowly, these problems could be dealt with as they arise.
The other problem of the feed-in-tariff is that it was making people too rich. Solar farms in Germany are providing 10-15% annual returns virtually risk free. No hedge fund can offer that. Given the risk of a solar investment, the return needs only to compete with long-term savings accounts, so if they provide just a 4% return, that should still be attractive. It is hard to predict what the effect of the drop in feed in tariff will be. Certainly, if the return on investment is lowered, there will be a reduced incentive and less of the ‘urgency’ which gave rise to the boom of last year. However, if there is still a reasonable, positive return on investment, then large numbers of people will still take up the opportunity. If someone handing out 20 pound notes switches to giving out 10 pound notes, would people start walking away?
On the verge of releasing details of the UK feed-in-tariff, what does is the message for UK policy makers observing this 17% cut? Why should they listen to the voices calling for an increase in the tariff whilst all our neighbours are busy cutting theirs? I would ask the government not to waiver in their commitment to growing the UK solar industry. The market in Germany is one thousand times greater than that of the UK (4 gigawatts compared to roughly 4 megawatts last year). The Germans have created an efficient industry with that is able to provide solar installations at competitive prices. The UK industry has not got off the ground yet. We must provide a decent incentive so that people begin to accept the concept of solar energy in the UK.
The experience of Germany shows that subsidies do not have to be provided forever, however the industry must be there before you can scale back.
My message to policy makers is this; we have a lot of catching out up to do, so don’t lose your nerve before we have even started.