Unfortunately it is necessary for me to respond to a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian criticising the UK feed in tariff. Since the article misses key points that would have influenced the conclusions made, I take this opportunity address the author’s primary arguments.
The purpose of a feed-in-tariff is to encourage investment and grow the micro-generation industry. Economies of scale and technology improvements then lead to cost-reductions, meaning that the subsidies can be reduced and eventually removed. This is exactly what is happening in Germany and many other European countries. In Germany, whilst there is some debate over how much the feed-in-tariff should be reduced, the solar industry agrees that it should be decreased faster than was originally planned due to the recent dramatic falls in PV system prices. The tariff reductions are a testament to the policy’s success, not its failure, and no-one believes it should not have been introduced in the first place.
Monbiot failed to mention that Germany’s solar industry currently employs over 60,000 people, turns over €10bn a year and generates significant tax revenues. The industry is expected to grow even with significant feed in tariff reductions and southern Germany currently produces close to 5% of its total electricity demand (the amount of solar energy in Germany has grown by almost a factor of 10 since 2006). The cost of the feed in tariff to energy consumers is just a few Euros per year per household.
Many other countries have followed Germany’s success in recent years such that the UK is the last remaining major European economy without a feed-in-tariff. Consequently, the cost of PV in the UK is still extremely high in comparison with our neighbours. Experience from Europe has shown that the downward cost trajectory for PV is very steep once the industry begins to grow, and cost competitiveness with conventional energy prices is predicted to be achieved across much of Europe in the next two years. This is why the UK needs to be aggressive with its feed-in-tariff – so it can catch up and reduce the subsidy sooner.
Monbiot astonishingly unqualifies his comparison of large-scale energy generation with micro-generation. The consumer price of electricity costs upto four times as much as the wholesale price of electricity. Therefore micro-generation, which is produced at the point of consumption, has a much easier cost target than large-scale generation to be economically competitive. Micro-generation is much closer to being economically viable than Monbiot makes to believe.
Furthermore, no-one is saying that micro-generation should replace large-scale wind, it is a valuable addition. Nor is anyone saying we should prioritise micro-generation over energy efficiency measures such as insulation. Obviously its cheaper to save CO2 by improve improving inefficiencies than to install clean energy generation, but if we are to eliminate the majority of our carbon emissions, both efficiency and clean generation are required. Insulation will be fitted wherever possible in UK buildings, why wait until this process has finished before dealing with renewables?
Monbiot also argues that PV only makes sense in southern California. The average insolation (sunniness level) is around 1.9 times higher in Southern California than in the UK. This means that yes, you have more sun in California than here, but not by an order of magnitude. The amount of sunlight that hits buildings in the UK is still 6 times the amount of energy used within those buildings and Germany’s irradiation level is very similar to ours.
I imagine that Monbiot was joking about the possibility of people fraudulently claiming the feed-in-tariff but it is worth noting that such a fraud would not be possible given the checks that are in place and since it has not been seen in any other country with a feed in tariff, why should it be seen in the UK?
In summary, Monbiot does not seem to understand what has been happening in Europe during the last few years. The feed-in-tariff has been shown to be one of the few successful mechanisms for boosting renewable energy generation and fighting climate change. I hope that his misunderstanding does not serve to hold the UK back any further than we already are.