[Editor's note - first of a 2 part comment article. Part two will follow shortly].
The UK feed-in tariff (FiT) is heading towards its first anniversary in April, and the journey has been a rollercoaster already. From a positive start to the fear and loathing that surrounded the October Spending Review, then a brief calm before the Early Review bombshell landed in early February and investors started giving up. This study was undertaken during that brief period of calm. Already it looks like a rosier time.
Having initiated the agitation for the FiT with Dr David Toke a few years ago, and seen its effects while working in and around community energy projects, I was intrigued to explore this policy and its first year of life.
I particularly wanted to look at it from a qualitative point of view, to explore the complex effects of and interactions with the policy, rather than just concentrate on the headline numbers. The most interesting way to do that was to survey those working directly with it, and the findings have been quite an eye-opener.
For context, I worked in policy research and advocacy for an NGO called the World Future Council for a number of years. The purpose of the organisation was to push for policy changes which would make nations, and by extension the world, a safer, more just and sustainable place.
The FiT was suggested as a policy to explore by my then boss, and co-founder of the WFC Herbie Girardet, a well-known film-maker, writer and world authority on sustainable cities. He had been told of the policy by one its authors, the late Dr Hermann Scheer.
Hermann was as convincing an advocate of renewables as one could meet. I went to Berlin during the World Cup in 2006 to learn about the FIT from him and his scientific adviser Heiko Stübner, and it became clear: this was not just about moving renewables forward, it was about the democratisation of energy!
Returning to the UK, my head was spinning with the potential of this policy. Not only did it accelerate renewables deployment massively, and more cost-effectively than any other policy, but it saved a fortune in energy imports, lowered energy prices, and created whole new industries, thousands of jobs, aided energy security, and most importantly, it allowed all of society to participate in moving the country towards a more sustainable way of life.
Flying over Berlin, the eye takes in a whole city seemingly covered in PV, surrounded by mile upon mile of wind farms. Growing up in a doggedly Thatcherite world of individualism which was still wedded to centralised generation and fossil and nuclear fuels, it felt like time-travelling, moving between these two countries.
Fast forward to January 2011, and my head spins again, this time from conversations with UK civil servants.
This time, in a good way. They are reeling off information about energy activities within and between departments. It is the sort of stuff that NGOs, academics and miscellaneous sustainability advocates have been saying for years. They are saying that they are joining the dots, between departments, between government and the public, between agendas. The only downside is that they could have started 30 years ago if the political interest had existed.
Well, we are where we are. I'm hearing that the renewables deployment process is to be facilitated to the best of their abilities. The public will be drawn into the process through online tools. We see collaboration, cooperation, transparency. We will see wind farms benefitting communities financially, and we will see energy policy and industrial policy interacting closely, to harvest as much economic benefit as possible from the shift in energy generation.
It seems work has been done to identify the competitive advantage of the UK in this field, and certain technologies are to be supported, from R&D right through to export markets stage. In the words of one civil servant in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), “We are not going to repeat the mistakes of the '80s”, when our lead in wind technology was lost to the Danes.
Greens, and leaders such as President Obama, have been saying for some time that we have to make these changes anyway, so let's make the best of it industrially and economically. It makes every kind of sense. For an up-to-date discussion of these issues, especially the politics of renewables development, see David Toke's 'Ecological Modernisation and Renewable Energy'. On communicating the issues, see Whitmarsh et al's 'Engaging the Public with Climate Change'. Both the politics and communication around the policies are increasingly dynamic areas.