Steal My Sunshine

For everyone who worked in education, July was a time for rejoicing and not just because schools were breaking up for the year. Michael Gove had been relieved of his duties and although much of the damage had already been done, at least it gave everyone some respite.

But for environmentalists, there was also a sigh of relief too as Owen Paterson was shipped out in favour of Liz Truss as David Cameron’s attempted to make his cabinet more representative of British society ten months from an election.

Similarly to education, the sigh of relief wasn’t borne out of a belief that things would get any better but more due to the belief that they couldn’t possibly get any worse. Owen Paterson had been pretty catastrophic; those who have read some of my previous blogs will know that I’m not a massive fan of the Coalition’s environmental policy (nor indeed the vast majority of any of their policies) and that the idea of having a climate skeptic who is anti-renewables in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was one of the biggest oxymorons going. So in that regard, Paterson out, Truss in, didn’t seem like an overly bad thing given that, by the time her office had managed to locate the loos and find out where the the tea and biscuits are kept, it would be 2015 and we wouldn’t have to worry anymore.

How wrong we were. At the weekend, Truss announced that Feed in Tariffs for solar farms on agricultural land were to be totally scrapped in January. This underlined that it didn’t matter who was sitting in the Environmental hot seat, ideology and unabashed politicking will always trump all else.

Truss’ rhetoric surprises me from a purely political and economic basis, especially given that she is the MP for South West Norfolk in East Anglia. This is a constituency and region whose economy has been underpinned for centuries by the farming industry and where money and jobs will be brought in by the renewable sector over the coming decades. She should know that diversification and progressive ideas are crucial to any farming business in order to survive. The farming industry has always been one of the greatest innovators and many businesses have embraced the benefits that renewable energy can bring through additional finance and efficiency. In many cases it has transformed and even saved businesses that were under serious threat and I find it incredible that an MP from this part of the country fails to recognise the substantial benefits that renewable energy can bring to farming.

A number of points;

  1. Many farmers choose to supplement their business with solar panels rather than substitute it entirely. They are often placed on land which is low grade/fallow or carries livestock (sheep and many other animals will still be able to graze in and around the panels).
  2. The money saved on energy bills can be reinvested in jobs and the local economy. It may also mean that farmers are able to diversify and keep livestock when it wasn’t financially possible to do so.
  3. The energy bills for a fully functioning farming business are astronomical but the technology is still too expensive to be acquired without subsidy; the pay back time is simply not feasible.
  4. Whilst many would prefer to see roof mounted solar, not all farm roofs are capable of hosting a solar PV system.
  5. By increasing supply and reducing demand, energy bills should level out for all.
  6. It is already exceptionally difficult to get planning permission for solar farms, or indeed any renewable development, which;
    • – has an overbearing visual impact on the landscape,
    • – uses prime agricultural land ahead of brownfield/low grade land

The decision to continue to haphazardly chop away at the renewable sector through perceived political gain and ideological tunnel vision is also profoundly damaging to an industry that is being chocked off instead of being allowed to blossom. Having worked in the renewable industry, I know how incredibly frustrated and insecure the industry has become in recent years. It can be a risk to properly invest in a long time vision due to the constant uncertainties surrounding finance and this has a knock on effect in terms of jobs and growth. This region itself has vast potential for becoming a centre of excellence for the renewable industry but too many companies have been stifled; to succeed in this climate (pun intended), you do so despite of rather than because of the Government and their political agenda.

I can understand and empathise with those who may argue that Feed in Tariff is too high for individual landowners, that nearby communities are not adequately compensated and that the technology is still out the financial reach of many. However, instead of Truss’ regressive and doctrinal proposal I’d offer the following;

  1. For all large scale solar development (1 MW + for example) it should compulsory to give communities the chance to invest. This would help localise energy supply meaning that local people benefit from reduced energy bills; give local people a chance to invest in a project that would’ve previously been out of their reach and give proper compensation to the communities who may have to incur some mid-term visual impact.
  2. To support and encourage British manufactures of solar panels, helping to bring down the cost of the technology and guaranteeing that money goes to British rather than foreign businesses.
  3. To properly lay out the long-term plan for energy in this country. Energy is one of the biggest challenges we face in the years to come yet little has been done, by all Governments, to combat reductions in the supply of energy, both now and in the future. We can simply not afford to drag our feet any longer, economically or environmentally.

Liz Truss must know all this so why is she continuing Paterson’s anti-green line? Ah yes. UKIP. With a by-election in less than a month and the ‘Big One’ next year the Conservatives have ditched all the ‘green crap’ in the hope that a hardline anti-renewable policy will go hand in hand with an anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-welfare agenda and see off those pesky kippers.

So, despite having energy bills that are scarcely affordable for many; despite fast approaching a critical point in the supply and demand of energy in this country; despite importing huge amounts of energy from the continent (yes that’s right! Europe!); despite our own non-renewable resources running out fast in the north sea; despite leaving no residual effect on the landscape once removed and despite having little to no impact on food production; the Conservatives will continue to trot out the anti-green line. Be under no illusions, they are now fully in sync with the UKIP/Daily Mail agenda, acting only in their own interests and not the interests of the country at large.

Solar panels are not the enemy; climate change and rising energy bills are. Introducing a regressive policy might win a few votes in the short-term but the absence of a real long-term energy will cause long-term economic and environmental damage.


P.S. – Sunday Politics on the 26th October underlined my head-banging-against-a -wall frustrations. Apparently the Liz Truss and the Conservatives want to stick to the agreement to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (from 1990 targets) but are unwilling to use onshore wind or solar farms to increase energy supply. This is despite closing coal fire power stations and continuing the closure of nuclear power stations over the next decade. ‘Congratulations you have met your carbon reduction targets! You might not be able to turn on your lights but well done anyway!’ Riddle me that.


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