Thursday, 21 April 2011

Green energy suppliers must learn to earn support

I recently attended a stormy meeting at Constantine over plans to build a field scale solar power farm. I generally support green energy and have championed the potential for wave power in Cornwall but what has happened over solar farms gives green energy developers a bad name and undermines people’s faith in local democracy.

The last government set up a policy to encourage solar panels on roofs and so called "micro-generation”. Those installing solar panels are paid a "feed in tariff", a guaranteed payment per unit of electricity put in to the national grid, which is above the prevailing market rate. The cost is ultimately absorbed by electricity consumers through slightly higher electricity bills.

The new government fully supports micro-generation. Recently Camborne Church told me that they were investigating the possibility of putting solar panels on their roof which would generate an income to support some of their good work in the community. That is positive: individual communities taking small steps to expand green energy while simultaneously strengthening our society.

However, things went wrong. The last government made a mistake in the way it drafted the legislation and so failed to adequately cap the size of eligible projects. There was a stampede from large commercial developers who wanted to set up field scale solar farms and rake in huge profits at the expense of the long suffering electricity bill payer.

So the current government moved quickly to review the rates and slashed the so called Feed-in-Tariff by about 70 percent for such field scale farms from this August. This aimed to ensure that this unsustainable gold rush was cooled down and that the money available was used wisely to develop community schemes rather than creamed of by commercial operators. In most parts of the country, it worked. However, some projects in Cornwall are now racing faster than ever to try to get their foot in the door before August which gives them the inflated profits of the old system locked in for 25 years. In some cases, planners have been bounced into agreeing plans even where there is no local support.

Every time planners ride rough shod over local opinion they damage local democracy. The idea of field scale solar farms is new and planners should be proceeding with caution. It is the job of commercial developers to work hard and earn public support for their schemes. In some parts of the country, progress has been made with community ownership schemes where local communities who are asked to accept, say, a wind farm or an energy-from-waste plant on their doorstep, are given free shares in the company or maybe guaranteed free electricity for the life of the project. That is one way of taking the conflict out of such schemes but it has yet to happen in Cornwall.