Power from the People
I was at a meeting of the South Somerset Hydropower Group (SSHG) a couple of weeks ago. Have you noticed how whenever a group of British people meet on more than one occasion to discuss matters of mutual interest, they instinctively elect a chairman, secretary, treasurer and thereafter, manage their affairs with integrity? Their interests usually also have some benefit to wider society. This has certainly been true of SSHG. The group have had a profoundly positive effect on developing the hydropower industry in the SW. Members attend consultation events organised by the Environment Agency and government departments as well as opening their sites for visits. Apparently 39% of the UK population volunteer at least once a year. People give their time and energy to achieve things for society as a whole. Very civilised. David Cameron described it as the “Big Society” and gave much encouragement including “The Building a Stronger Civil Society Strategy” published in 2010.
There followed in 2014 a “Community Energy Strategy” which set out a vision for rapid expansion of the community owned energy sector and an explanation of the financial incentives from government.
Many of us interested renewable energy responded by setting up a community energy society to develop installations owned and managed by people living nearby. There are now over 5,000 of these who have developed PV, wind and hydro projects in the UK with the south west well represented. A lot of voluntary work went into finding sites, negotiating with site owners and renewable energy installers, writing share offer documents and sorting out land and roof leases. Volunteers organisations cannot be as fleet of foot as in the commercial world. In most cases the volunteers are on a steep learning curve. But the future for this activity was bright. The government had told us so.
However, during the latter half of 2015 – without the Lib Dems pushing this agenda from the Department of Energy and Climate Change – we have seen a dramatic change of emphasis. First we had the consultation to reduce the feed in tariffs (FITs) by 87%. We don’t know for sure whether government will take any notice of the 55,000 responses, which include what DECC describe as “2800 detailed written responses,” but they don’t usually make a difference. Secondly, the ability to pre-accredit a project – so that it has a FIT rate guaranteed two years before installation – has been removed. This is particularly cruel for hydro projects because it can take years to get the necessary licenses and permissions, and money spent achieving them is even more at risk when the returns are unknown. Thirdly, George Osborne announced that – despite the promises in the Community Energy Strategy – Social Investment Tax Relief would specifically not be available for Community Energy Societies.
The net result of these changes is that the projects that have soaked up so much volunteer time, energy and enthusiasm, that cannot be installed before the multiple deadlines do not stack up financially. It seems our efforts may have been wasted. So much for Cameron’s “Big Society
Government U turns are also having an impact on the South West’s renewable energy installation companies. The Renewable Energy Association estimates 20.000 jobs will be lost so I was interested to listen to the CEO of a small SW company. They had diversified from their long established plumbing and heating company to install PV, solar thermal, biomass boilers and heat pumps. In the year ending June 2015 their turnover of renewable energy business was £600k which amounted to 2/3 of their business. New premises had been taken on and staff diverted from traditional boiler work. Money was spent in training. Since the proposed FITs cuts were announced there has been a large amount of work booked for installation before January 2016 to take advantage of the current tariffs. There have been no enquiries for work after then so they will have to lay off one member of staff. The company will revert to its original core business and hope to take work from other competing business. Basically, renewables were an area of growth enabling existing businesses to expand and new ones to set up. We will now see a contraction and redundancies.
Individual Conservative MPs have been supportive of their constituents pro renewables dialogue. However, I suspect many currently working in the renewables industry regret the loss of Lib Dem MPs in the SW that lead to the demise of the Coalition government.
“this article first appeared in The Landsman”