Community solar projects abandoned in response to tariff cuts

As the government continues to cut Feed-in Tariffs, many community solar projects, particularly among church associations, charities and schools, are being abandoned. The result is a contraction of the industry leading to at least 6,000 lost jobs, meanwhile the German solar economy looks increasingly vibrant.

The need for energy efficiency and a transition to renewable sources of energy has never been greater and in recent years the response among the general population has largely been positive, assisted by the government’s Feed-in Tariffs (FiTS) but also by leaps in technology. As well as the increase in domestic installations, there has also been a burgeoning growth in community projects such as churches, schools, hospitals, council offices and charities. Yet there is still room for growth in the community sector, with churches representing a particularly large capacity for further installations. At present there are over 16,000 Anglican churches in the UK alone with an extra 20,000 churches belonging to other denominations. That is an awful lot of roof space, and much of it is under-utilised.

Another benefit of using churches for solar PV installations lies in the fact that they are generally orientated in an east to west direction which means that one side of the roof faces directly south, the perfect orientation for solar PV installation. Furthermore, churches are usually very high buildings and that means the risk of panels being overshadowed by trees is fortunately very small.

Churches have been keen enthusiasts of solar PV so far for the simple reason that they are very expensive buildings to maintain. The problem is though that such projects are often initially very expensive, and that is where FiTS has undoubtedly helped.

Now, however, the government has announced that it can no longer afford to fund the scheme as it once did and that means a series of radical cuts to tariff rates have been implemented over the course of last year up until the present. The first project to fall victim to this decision was Coventry Cathedral, who swiftly pulled out of their solar PV project. Others followed, but it wasn’t just churches that began to pull out. Major projects on National Trust properties throughout the UK were also cancelled and other projects followed. With the government poised to make further cuts, the rate of cancellations may very well increase. So far, the government’s change of direction has seen the industry contract by at least 25% with the loss of some 6,000 jobs and consequently growth in the UK solar energy industry has all but ground to a halt.

What a contrast with Germany though. The German solar economy has, in comparison, expanded with 20% of German electricity being generated from renewable sources during 2011 and 70% of that due to support from Feed-in Tariffs. Earlier in the year, over the course of 2-3 days, Germany was also able to meet 50% of its electricity demand from solar PV alone, a story that hit the headlines.

While it is still possible to make a good rate of return on solar PV, the initial installation costs are prohibitive and that means FiTS has to be pitched at a level sufficient to provide a decent incentive to most ordinary people. Many in the industry therefore think that the government’s policy of cutting tariffs is short-sighted and that it urgently needs to rethink its strategy.

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