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Solar panels are not fashion accessories

George Monbiot’s attack on solar energy and the government’s “cash-back” solar photovoltaic (PV) market-building scheme paints a distorted picture of the industry I work in, and government policy towards it (Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off?, 2 March).

First, Monbiot gets the workability of solar wrong. He says: “The amount of power PV panels produce at this latitude is risible, [and] they also produce it at the wrong time.” Those who buy panels, therefore, will own a mere “fashion accessory”. The companies who manufacture solar PV in the UK have shown that putting solar panels on all available building surfaces would generate more electricity in a year, under typical cloudy British skies, than the entire electricity consumption of our energy-profligate nation. Some fashion accessory.

Of course, just a fraction of that area of buildings would suffice because we would want to mix and match renewable technologies – large and small, onshore and offshore – so matching loads and compensating for the fact that solar generates by day and not by night.

Second, Monbiot says the government’s scheme targets money where economies of scale are “impossible” – an incorrect assumption because solar electricity costs will inevitably fall to the point, within just a few years, where they are cheaper than any form of fossil fuel and nuclear electricity. Systemic economies of scale in solar manufacturing and installation techniques are causing rapid reductions in solar PV costs globally, just as Ofgem and others worry so loudly about the inevitable rise of traditional electricity costs.

Third, Monbiot gets the precedent for the British government’s solar “cash-back” scheme – the German feed-in tariff – upside down. He says the “German government decided to reduce sharply the tariff it pays for solar PV, on the grounds that it is a waste of money”.

But all feed-in tariffs are supposed to decline, and indeed reduce to zero within some years – that is the whole point. They are not like the market-building schemes for the nuclear technologies that Monbiot advocates, where subsidies – open and hidden – are needed for decades. Most Germans are rightly proud of their feed-in tariff regime. They have, after all, created over 50,000 jobs in solar PV alone.

Fourth, Monbiot has it wrong about who pays the cash back. “The government is about to shift £8.6bn from the poor to the middle classes,” he says. But the number is not the cost to “the poor”. It’s not even the cost to all electricity consumers over the next two decades. The cumulative cost to all consumers – including all non-domestic industrial, public sector, and commercial users and covering all technologies in the scheme – is £6.7bn, and is spread over 20 years.

The average household levy in 2013, when tariff rates are all up for review, is likely to be less than £3. This is far less than the average saving from the government’s various domestic energy efficiency measures over the same period. So there is no net subsidy. The levy is not “regressive” at all.