Greg Barker : Mr Sunshine

I went to a fascinating meeting on Monday 8th June 2015, hosted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) in London, and organised by the Solar Trade Association, and starring Mr Sunshine himself, Greg Barker, who was on top form, and exceptionally good value, as always.

We had very interesting presentations from a number of key actors in solar photovoltaic energy, including the newly rebranded Solar Power Europe. James Watson, Solar Power Europe‘s CEO, expressed a view to the effect that it could seem like a waste of time, effort and money for Europe to be spending half its Energy Union budget on reforming the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, when so much could be achieved instead through a recasting of the Renewable Energy Directive. Amendments are due in a new Renewable Energy package in 2017, as confirmed by Commissioner Arias Cañete in March 2015. These amendments would usefully tackle the risk of the European Capacity Mechanism being used to support coal-fired power in Germany – as the parallel policy has been in the UK.

The Energy Union is taking forward the open and free market principles of “harmonisation” of the electricity and gas trade in the geographical envelope of the Eurozone, which includes countries that have not taken the Euro currency, such as the UK, and countries that are in the European Economic Area but are not full members of the European Union, principally Norway. A key part of the Energy Union is a physical enactment of guarantees for market access – focusing on standards in gas and power products, and the interconnectors that make cross-border trade possible. It is in the interests of all the private energy companies, public energy companies, invididual producers and network operators in the region to take part in this project, as the outcomes will include not only free, open and fair trade, they will also increase energy security in the region, particularly as the level of renewable energy production increases. Renewable electricity is intermittent and variable at all time slices, and strongly seasonal and weather-related, and so international trade within the European region is essential.

Most commentators on the Energy Union narrow in on the electricity grids, but union also includes the gas grids. The legal framework for gas market harmonisation includes work on gas quality standards and also what kinds of gas can be transmitted through the pipelines, issues covered in the 2009 Energy Package, which permitted unconstrained access for alternative gases as long as they meet the gas protocols. This would permit gas grid injection of biomethane, and potentially other biogases or Renewable Gas varieties.

One of the main contributors to new power production in the Eurozone is renewable electricity, with growth that has continued throughout the recession in the economy. Although barriers to increased renewable power in the electricity grids have been by and large vaulted, through a combination of regulatory progress and subsidies, as the landscape has changed, so has the need for re-assessment of policy. For example, in the UK, the solar Feed-in Tariff has been strongly criticised as costing too much (although it is a minnow in terms of the total socialised energy budget), and has had to be “degressed” – or stepped down in stages. In Germany, all electricity consumers have been taxed in order to pay for the renewable energy budget – and there has even been a tax on “self-consumption” for solar power producers – and this has been strongly contested. Plans to manufacture low carbon gas from excess solar and wind power would be badly affected by this. It does seem strange that producer-consumers of virtually cost-less and zero carbon power should be taxed, especially when centralised producers are forced to sell power for virtually nothing when there is oversupply – for example on a sunny day.

What is more likely to hold back European solar expansion, according to Solar Power Europe, is the Minimum Import Price, or MIP. Solar Power Europe will are lobbying for an end to both the MIP and German solar tax. The MIP, according to their analysis, is making solar power in Europe too costly, compared to other regions. Roughly 60% to 70% of the MIP subsidy is going to support Chinese manufacturers, yet China’s solar power industry is becoming very successful in its own right, and doesn’t need this support. Solar Power Europe are concerned that there is gaming of the market going on to decrease the costs of solar panels in Europe – for example, panels made in China are being routed through countries where exports don’t come under the MIP rules. In effect, Solar Power Europe wants policy to change to stop subsidising China and iron out counter-productive internal policies.

Solar Power Europe have published their “Global Market Outlook : 2015 – 2019” this week, and clearly, there are sunny times ahead, especially since Greg Barker has a key role in delivering solar power in London.

Greg Barker came to the podium to give his summary of solar power in the UK. He reminded the solar power industry, that although they were becoming a serious sector, that they would continue to remain dependent on subsidies. He said that the major reduction in unit costs was probably over; and barring some improvements in underlying technology, such as revolutions in semiconductor devices, I think I’d probably agree with him. Greg Barker said that to promote the market, there was still a need to sweep away unintended obstacles – he said he didn’t understand why solar power was still cheaper in Germany. He said that the development in solar power was incredible – he said that when he had first taken office in the previous Coalition Government, when he had talked about his ambition for solar power, officials had “fallen off their chairs, laughing”, at his parrotting as Minister, but that now there was a risk of over-development under the Levy Control Framework – the policy that caps subsidy spending on energy. Greg Barker said that he regretted that the EMR bids from solar power (bidding into the Contracts for Difference auction instituted as part of the Electricity Market Reform) may now not get built. He said that the solar industry would be “gutted that Eric Pickles has gone”, and that with the new majority Conservative Government rooftop solar would get support from the Department for Communities and Local Government from their new Minister Greg Clark. Greg Barker said that Camilla Cavendish, appointed in David Cameron’s Policy Unit, is a real ally of renewable energy. Greg Barker warned the room that there would be no additions to the levy budget for solar power, and told the solar industry not to go asking for increases as the regulatory environment would be harsh. He said the solar power developers should aim to drive down their costs and dive into a far more centralised market. He said that he expected that there would be “insurgent companies” making significant progress on solar power – something that the Big Six electricity providers would be unable to do. He warned the solar industry to he “hardheaded and realistic” and urged them to work with the Government.

Greg Barker told us about his new appointment to the London Sustainable Development Commission. He said that when Boris Johnson had called him about this, he hadn’t heard of it. Greg Barker said that the population of London is growing by 100,000 a year, and that London has growing technology companies – so much so that clean tech in London is better than California. He said that he accepted the appointment to the London SDC on the basis that he would get carte blanche to reform it, to “shift the dial”. He said that “much as I love city farms, and bees“, that he wanted to create more focus. He said that he wanted to get the London SDC working to three criteria on solar power, firstly scalability. He wants to see solar power initiatives that are scalable – which I took to mean not just large unrepeatable projects, or small bespoke projects. Greg Barker said that solar power policy should have genuine additionality – not just producing more reports. The third criteria he wants to apply is that of replicability – as until now, the record of solar power in London was not very good. He said we should remember the aesthetics of solar power, and that big blue panels sitting proud of a red clay roof was not particularly appealing. He mentioned Amber Rudd, who has been given the post of Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and how she has been talking about the aesthetics of nuclear power. He said this issue was not ephemeral and that it was important to have good design for the London “semi” – semi-detached house. He said that local policy changes could help – such as eliminating the Congestion Charge for solar power companies having to drive and park in London for installations. Greg Barker said that Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Government, was too narrow in his views on organisations that should be enabled to do solar projects. Greg Barker said that we needed not only co-operatives, but also charities, and local authority level alliances, to be enabled to do solar projects. He said that policy needed to be revisited as regards the mid-sector rooftop solar band. He said that if the solar industry and builders get together and propose a change in regulation, Greg Clark would listen. Greg Barker said that Government should be regulating for outcome and not process in order to make progress. Greg Barker said that he wanted solar power to be a key policy issue in the upcoming mayoral election (for the Mayor of London). He said that when he had sat down with Boris Johnson the issues that had surfaced were a need for policy to deal with the circular economy, and how to develop London’s clean tech cluster, and the need for a solar group.

Greg Barker finished with some good advice. He told the solar power industry to be “persuasive rather than loud”. He said that the solar industry need to understand that a good deal of subsidy has to be focused on the offshore wind power priority, and that this cannot be changed. He said that the solar power industry could “pick up the slack from onshore wind”. He reminded the solar industry to focus on aesthetics and to sell this along with the idea of energy efficiency and return on investment. He said that the Green Deal has shown that we are still a long way from a market in energy efficiency. He asked if the Feed-in Tariff would survive, as solar power continues in its march towards grid parity.

Later on in the day, over snacks and a couple of beers, I was shown worrying-looking maps of the state of the National Grid by somebody looking at the “constraints” being imposed by Western Power Distribution (WPD), for example, in the South West of England. A summary that could be drawn from the maps was that there are difficulties with adding new power generators into large parts of the grid network. For the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant and the new Seabank 3 gas-fired power plant, an entirely new piece of grid will be needed – which will increase the lead time to these projects being able to contribute power to the network. If modifications for major projects are going to take up all the attention of National Grid, they won’t be able to advance the upgrades to the grid needed for small, decentralised projects – perhaps for years – and this is worrying as it imposes limitations on the amount of new renewable electricity that can be added in the near future. Some will see this as excellent news, as it will cap the rollout of windfarms and solar parks. However, this will create a drag on low carbon transition. It seems that large amounts of new renewables will only be possible in localised grids – so emphasis on developing solar power in London is useful.

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