Caroline Lucas slams prospect of "unjustified and harmful" solar subsidy review

James Murray
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Green MP tables urgent parliamentary question calling on government to confirm it will maintain current levels of subsidy until April 2015

Green MP Caroline Lucas has waded into the row over the government's planned review of solar subsidies, tabling an urgent parliamentary question calling on the government to confirm current levels of support will be retained until at least April next year.

It emerged last week that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is planning to launch a new review of solar subsidies, designed to support the goals of the recently announced Solar Strategy by trimming subsidies for large solar farms and potentially increasing them for commercial rooftop installations.

Government sources argued the reforms were required to stop the recent surge in new solar farms eating through the available budget and head off local protests against large-scale solar farm developments, which some fear could emulate the opposition experienced by onshore wind farms.

However, the news brought an angry response from industry insiders, who accused the government of once again damaging investor confidence in the sector by failing to publish its proposals before leaking the news that solar farms face cuts to subsidies.

The full consultation is still yet to be released and there are now conflicting reports as to whether the proposals will be unveiled this week or if purdah rules relating to the European elections mean they cannot be published until after the May 22 election.

An email to executives from across the industry sent by DECC's head of small-scale and emerging renewables at DECC, Trevor Raggatt, said the government "intended" to ensure any changes to subsidies do not take effect until April 2015 and raised the prospect of "grace period arrangements to protect developers who have already made significant financial commitments".

But industry insiders remain angry that there has still been no confirmation as to the precise scale and timing of any changes to solar subsidies. One industry source told BusinessGreen that "a huge political, industry and NGO push-back" was now underway to try and convince Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey to block any proposals for excessive subsidy cuts that would kill off any future solar farm development.

Lucas this week threw her weight behind the campaign, tabling an urgent parliamentary question to Davey asking him to provide details on any recent assessment that has been made of levels of public support for solar photovoltaic and confirm "if he will make it his policy that there will be no changes to the level of support available for large-scale solar under the Renewable Obligation scheme until at least April 2015".

Writing in a blog post to announce the new question, Lucas accused the government of making it harder for developers to deliver solar projects that enjoy high levels of public support.

"Government should be doing all that it can to support solar power at all scales - not making it more difficult," she wrote. "Yet this is exactly what coalition ministers are planning to do. Despite the huge potential and popularity of solar power, the government is expected to announce yet another unjustified and harmful review of solar subsidies."

She added that "Ministers' claims that solar farms are blighting our countryside are wildly overstated", highlighting recent proposals by the industry to use solar farms to create biodiversity "hot spots" and arguing that there were sufficient measures in place to ensure that solar farms are appropriately sited.

She also argued that a failure to clarify the level of support that will be available for solar farms would only serve to undermine investment in clean energy. "Threats to Renewable Obligation certainty between now and the end of the current financial year are incredibly serious," she wrote. "Solar schemes can take 12 months from start to finish so there's likely to be £100s of millions invested in projects that won't be installed until the last quarter of this financial year (January to March 2015). Even after April 2015, severe cuts to solar support could threaten future projects and undermine what should be a thriving industry in Sussex and across the UK."

The intervention follows a letter last week from Labour Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister Julie Elliott to Davey that similarly called on him to urgently clarify the government's plans. "Certainty is absolutely critical for confidence and investment in low carbon technologies," the letter stated. "It is therefore concerning that unnamed government sources are reporting that further changes could be made to the to the Renewable Obligation for solar, before any information has been provided to Parliament or discussed with the industry. This could have major negative impacts on the industry, especially given the long lead times for large-scale solar developments."

In related news, Foresight Solar Fund Limited today issued an interim management statement confirming the solar investment fund is on track to double its operational capacity from its current level of 100MW.

"In total the Company has now invested 88 per cent of its net IPO proceeds in 100MW of operational UK solar assets," the statement read, adding that it "continues to see a strong pipeline of assets becoming available for acquisition and expects to double its operational capacity in the coming 12 months".

It also confirmed it will not progress with the acquisition of the Deptford Farm solar project, but still intends to acquire the 37MW Kencot power plants in Oxfordshire, which it said is "now being construction financed by RWE and is expected to become operational later this year qualifying under the 1.4 ROC rate".

However, like every other solar farm investor and developer in the country, Foresight will now be watching closely to see how the industry's pipeline of new projects will be impacted by the proposed review of subsidies.

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