The Incompetence of Governments

I have been running a thermal solar energy business in the United Kingdom (Genersys) for more than ten years. This deals in solar water heating panels and is a renewable energy technology, which provides almost emission free  energy. During that time I have been astonished by the incompetence of government when it comes to energy matters. Fossil fuel, or renewable, governments and civil servants do not understand what they are doing and seem incapable of making the very simple and basic decisions which would require common sense and intelligence.

I could turn this essay into a rant about incompetence by governments and the civil servants who guide them, especially when it comes to the damage and foolishness they have inflicted upon the solar water heating industry, but you may think this biased so I shall instead write about the nonsense that they managed to achieve with the photovoltaic industry – solar panels that produce electricity.

No single renewable energy producing technology is a silver bullet to slay the beast of rapid climate change or to avoid pollution that fossil fuel use brings. There are advantages and disadvantages in every technology. Photovoltaic panels do produce electricity but of course not at night when it is dark and generally the hotter and brighter the weather the less electricity they produce. They are expensive to make and the electricity they produce cannot be stored easily, cheaply or in an environmentally friendly way. Nevertheless the government (our servants) and the civil servants (its servants) embraced photovoltaics as though they, along with wind turbines were the sole renewable technology worth using.

The first bit of nonsense was to create an incredibly high subsidy for PV. This went beyond any definition of the word “subsidy”; a word like “patronage” would be more akin to what has happened. After many years of favouring PV compared with other forms of micro generation (I suspect the relationship between Mr Bair and his chums and their renewable energy advisor, Jeremy Leggett who went on to found a PV company Solar Century may have something to do with it), the last Labour Government decided that the best way to encourage micro generation of energy was to cut off all subsidies to thermal solar (which provides hot water and heat) and concentrate the subsidies on PV. The subsidies were to be very generous and were given by way of a feed in tariff. People who installed PV would be paid somewhere between three and four times the money for electricity that a consumer would have to pay when buying electricity from the grid through one of the energy companies. The payments would be made for energy fed into the grid, whether the grid wanted them or not (and whether anyone used the electricity or not), and could be structured in a way that entrepreneurs could parcel installations together and turn them into financial instruments or bonds derived from the subsidies.

It did not take more than a small grain of sense (unfortunately missing in the decisions makers) to see that over subsidising PV, and not subsidising solar water heating would bankrupt many companies in the solar thermal field and create a great give away of free money not only to PV companies but also to everyone who could do the maths and did not mind grabbing some free money from the taxpayers.

All this was predictable and thus it came to pass. PV was given away free, erected in field because farmers found it more profitable to farm electricity than food, turned into derivatives all without any real environmental benefit and with very little of the electricity generated serving a useful purpose. Someone in the new coalition government suddenly saw the light and before a meaningless consultation had been concluded decided to chop the PV subsidy in half – still very generous but nowhere near as generous as it had been. Even then they could not chop the subsidy competently.

The PV industry, which had them become very large and fat on the subsidy and very wealthy on it, were engaged. Its free money was being taken away, and so it fought the government in the courts with, to its shame, support from not only Solar Century and other PV businesses, but also from Friends of the Earth. The government lost when the court decided that the consultation period was too short and instead of this over generous subsidy being withdrawn last December, it will be withdrawn, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day, just three months later. Friends of the Earth, with incredible naivety, has called the case as “a landmark decision which will prevent ministers causing industry chaos with similar subsidy cuts in future”.

The case caused all sorts of confusion in the solar industry, both PV and thermal which many people already mix together.

In the middle of it I wrote a careful letter to my local MP, Mike Freer, asking him if he could ask the government to hurry up the planned incentives for solar water heating in the Renewable Heat Incentive (due to start in October) and ask them to iron out the uncertainties surrounding it. I explained in my letter that I believed that the subsidy for PV was far too generous. Mr Freer responded as though I had written to him lobbying to retain the very high PV subsidy, and answered my letter about solar water heating accordingly. He could not have bothered to read what I took the trouble to write.

Government policy in renewable energy has been flawed for the past twelve years. It remains flawed. The road to the government’s renewable energy policy is paved with good intentions but good intentions are worthless if they result you reachinga destination which is not where you want to be.

3 Responses

  1. well said!

  2. […] ElephantsRobert Kyriakides’s Weblog […]

  3. Well said , also how can governments make good decisions when they are basically technicaly illiterate and also do not know how to sourround themselves with competent people.

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