Judging from recent events and articles I’ve been seeing skip their way around the internet, there appears to be a recurring theme on the subject of solar feed-in-tariffs (FiT) and their destined lifetime in the modern economy. Many governments and analysts seem to think that, given just a few more years of subsidies and kind cash incentives from their respective leaders, will allow the industry to pip fossil fuels to the post finally, and cement their place in the energy world of the future.
However, isn’t that missing the point…and not just the point, but quite a few historical facts about our past energy production policies? While it may be true that given these last few years of investment, solar could become largely cost-competetive with coal, allowing us to drop the cash-flow into collecting the sun and go back to business as usual whilst solar sits happy in its own corner, it seems misguided.
I and many others feel that this would ultimately be leaving solar in the lurch. We’ve pumped millions of pounds into coal and nuclear in past decades, up to centuries in some cases, which has brought the price down to comfortable levels for us consumers, and yet we seem happy for that to carry on well into the future. The nuclear industry has benefited from this government subsidy program for almost 50 years and yet, given recent disasters and economic issues, is practically dead in the water. So why should, despite these facts, we allow solar to be heavily subsidised for 5-10 years, only to pull that rug abruptly away once parity is reached?
It would make much more sense to continue investing in solar and driving down the p/KWh costs well past that of coal and gas, for at least the same amount of time money has been injected into the fledgling nuclear industry. Not only is solar booming in every sense of the word, it provides perfectly clean, increasingly efficient energy, which can be accessed by individuals and not those with pipelines and wallets big enough to import it, and provides energy securities of which the public has never seen. Therefore, solar becoming cheap and sustainable will provide benefits for society, industry, climate and the environment, so why stop just before that threshold is reached?
We’ve seen what happens when this metaphorical rug is pulled from underneath, in the stories of both the German and UK FiT’s being cut under increasing economic pressure. These policies were victims of their own success, making solar so attractive to the casual citizen that Germany installed more PV year-on-year than any other country in the world, with investment in the UK closing in behind. However, as governments realised that continuing to pay out these subsidies would drain the banks rapidly, they cut them, by just over 51% in Germany and 29% in the UK.
Even though this kicked off protests in cities such as Berlin and installation numbers dropped drastically, the interest didn’t wane, and both countries are still dealing with record numbers of solar requests with many others following suit (India, China, the US). These events however should be seen as a warning to the coming uproar that would inevitably happen if incentives are dropped as suddenly as expected.
Germany solar FiTs were deemed ‘not necessary’ anymore for the industry to stand on its own feet, but again, this misses the point; coal has been able to stand on its own feet for decades, so why is this still necessary? No doubt if governments pulled investment from their respective fossil fuel industries, many would collapse under the increasing costs of importation and security.
Surely it is becoming clearer to see that solar, and of course wind, are perfectly placed to absorb just a portion of the money currently being dirtied in the hands of coal and gas, to bring about grid parity and surpass this. The health, environmental and economic benefits are so obviously great that I’m shocked that many feel solar incentives have reached their peak. The recent controversy surrounding Chinese subsidies and their potentially illegal impacts on international trade are but a speed bump in the grand scheme, and the solar industry powers on without notice bar a blip on the graphs.
It would be mad, in my opinion at least, to ignore all the signs that solar could be our saviour in a world of dirty coal and dangerous nuclear, where as it stands, converting the suns energy to electricity has literally no disadvantages. To cut subsidies in this sector now, when we allow fossil fuels the privilege of ravaging our landscape and health almost free of charge, would be a knife in the proverbial back of the entire solar industry.