Who will speak up for solar in the new-look UK government?

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Following a major government re-shuffle earlier this week apparently to oust the “stale, pale and male” incumbents of prime minister David Cameron’s cabinet, the UK solar industry has some new parliamentary voices.

The reshuffle sees former aide to chancellor George Osborne, Amber Rudd, promoted to junior minister at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Rudd will be joined at DECC by Matthew Hancock, taking over from Michael Fallon as minister of state for energy and business. Hancock is another MP said to have the Treasury ear of Osborne.

It’s widely been taken as a positive for the solar industry that two ministers chummy with Osborne are to join DECC. Previously the Treasury and DECC were almost “warring parties”, says external affairs manager at the Sustainable Energy Association, Emma Pinchbeck. “The Treasury might have more interest […] we welcome the attention.” 

Rudd and Hancock are now responsible for the green industry, as well as energy efficiency, fuel poverty and carbon budgets.

However the promotions of Rudd and Hancock are also laden with the weighty responsibility of filling a hole left by a very outspoken solar advocate, namely Greg Barker, who tendered his resignation in the reshuffle.

The departure of Barker as minister for energy and climate change and Rudd’s installation as a parliamentary under secretary means there is no like-for-like replacement for Barker, leaving the solar industry dangling to see if the new ministers can fulfil the solar champion void.

Barker stated in his resignation letter he is still keen to leave his mark by the “formulation of an exciting and ambitious set of green policies” ahead of the general election next year when he plans to step down entirely from parliament. But his decision to resign as minister leaves his oft-stated 20GW solar by 2020 ambition unfulfilled.

“It is disappointing there is no minister of state; the industry is right to be nervous,” says Pinchbeck.

Leaving with 3GW of solar since 2010, a Green Investment Bank and a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) amongst other victories for renewable energy, Barker was an “iconic green voice”, says Pinchbeck. He fought for renewables’ incentives “even in the face of hostility from his own party”, she says.

Whereas Rudd and Hanckock “do not have that”, says Pinchbeck, the renewable industry will now have to appeal to ministers with a “Bank of England and exchequer rationality, over policies and technology”.

Rudd is now in charge of the Green Deal, the RHI and feed-in tariffs, planning reform and consents, the Green Investment Bank and green jobs and skills.

Although Rudd's voting history on green polices is mixed, head of politics at the Green Alliance, Alastair Harper, says there is little worry of any climate change science denial from Rudd. “She understands the issue and reality of the science, and is a good advocate for Cameron’s green credentials,” Harper says.

Harper also refers to Hancock’s previous employment in economics and at the Bank of England, and how this could be beneficial to the solar industry: “Hancock has got a serious economic mind and will take business seriously, he understand the opportunity of renewables.”

Although the Tory party is still predominantly of a single demographic, at 38, Elizabeth Truss also swiped the top spot of secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, becoming the youngest female cabinet member too.

Truss replaces the environment secretary who would not be briefed on climate change science: Owen Patterson. Her new role includes responsibility for EU and international climate change, biodiversity and agriculture policies.

Truss herself has shown a lack of support for renewables. As deputy director of think-tank Reform, Truss said of renewable energy subsidies: “The UK is on a road to nowhere. Vast amounts of taxpayers' money are being spent subsidising uneconomic activity.”

The solar industry hangs in suspense as mixed track records for green thinking among the new appointments come to light. After a 2010 campaign to stop wind turbines being erected in Suffolk, in an appearance on the BBC’s Question Time programme in October 2013 Hancock said wind farms can “ruin the natural environment” and proposed new nuclear power stations can prevent wind farms that “ruin the beautiful views that we have across the country”.

But only moments later Hancock, paradoxically stated his own electricity is predominantly supplied via wind, at a cheaper rate, by the green energy supplier, Ecotricity.

In June 2013 Hancock voted against financial incentives for small-scale low-carbon electricity generation to be paid to plants previously deemed too big for funding, but has also started a skills academy for nuclear power and identified the energy sector as a major focus for apprenticeships and skills focus. Hancock also said in a letter to the prime minister to scrap wind farm subsidies in 2012: “I support renewable energy but we need to do it in a way that gives the most value for money and that does not destroy our natural environment.”

The only on-record statement of Hancock and solar was to praise the economic viability and ingenuity of small businesses in the sector. 

“It’s hard to call with no history of green policies, but they [Rudd, Hancock and Truss] are very pro-business,” says Pinchbeck. Rudd is “hot on energy capital for research and development which might be useful, and might prove sympathetic to renewables”.

Head of energy at the UK sustainability organisation, Forum for the Future, Will Dawson says he is confident that the new ministers will “recognise the great opportunity which solar power present to the UK and stick to the road map”.

Dawson highlights the legacy of Barker, who also came from the finance sector “and championed solar energy because of both the economics of rapidly falling costs and its ability to involve people positively in the switch to a more secure, low carbon energy system that creates British jobs”.

Dawson points out that the new ministers have similar backgrounds to Barker. “So I'm hopeful they will also see the rational, hard economic reasons to back solar,” he says.

One question yet to be raised is whether the new ministers’ business inclination and chancellor's ear will be turned towards the unanimous stance of all the new ministers – shale gas fracking – or towards renewables. All three have a record of voting for fracking.

“I hope they will deliver, for solar and beyond,” says Harper.

This blog post was originally published on PV Tech's UK sister site, Solar Power Portal.

Greg Barker, the UK's erstwhile solar champion, has stepped down from the government, leaving the booming solar industry with no obvious tub-thumper. Image: DECC
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