The government has got itself into a real mess with the Feed in Tariff, cutting the payments so rapidly that it has been challenged in the courts, as some companies threaten to pull out of PV supply altogether. But we should not allow this to mask the underlying problem – that the money offered was too generous in the first place and as a result was not only distorting the market but, far more importantly, distorting the way that we think about sustainable design.
Berated for years for not offering any decent incentives for the installation of photovoltaics, in the manner that the Germans for example, had done for years, the last government tried to make up for it with the Energy Act of 2008. This introduced a series of tariffs that came into effect in April 2010. One of the problems was that they coincided with economic downturn and poor rates of investment to such an extent that there were few better ways to invest money than putting some solar panels on the roof – it was even worth borrowing to do so.
All targets and subsidies create distortions – just look at the health service – but the real problem here was that there was no accompanying requirement to make buildings efficient. This also will change in April, with the introduction of some minimum standards in order to qualify for Feed In Tariffs. Energy efficiency is at the heart of intelligent environmental thinking and PV panels, like other renewables, are completely wasted when they pump energy into buildings that consume it recklessly and allow it to escape through the fabric.
The answer then is first to insulate and seal a building to a high standard. Next is to further reduce the demand for energy by making everything in it as efficient as possible. So boilers should be sized correctly and be as efficient as possible, taps should be the aerating kind that reduces water demand, and daylight should be brought as far into the building as possible to cut the need for artificial lighting. Once this has been done, then installing renewables becomes a sensible option.
The current mess with the Feed in Tariffs is the result of reactive politics. We need to get to a point where our attitude to renewables is part of a rational approach to reducing the carbon footprint of our buildings, and not just a political football. We must not forget that insulation needs to come before microgeneration.