Renewables Obligation Closure Etc. (Amendment) Order 2016 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 16th March 2016.

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Votes in this debate

Moved by Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth

That the draft Order laid before the House on 25 January be approved.

Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, the draft instrument closes the renewables obligation 12 months early to solar PV generating stations at 5 megawatts and below from 1 April 2016. It would apply both to new generating stations and to existing stations that wish to add additional capacity up to the 5 megawatts threshold.

Solar PV is an important part of the low-carbon energy portfolio. It has seen very strong growth in recent years, due in no small part to support from the renewables obligation and the feed-in tariff schemes. Almost 40% of the UK’s solar PV capacity over 3 gigawatts was installed during 2015 alone. Hand in hand, the costs of installing solar PV have reduced dramatically. According to data from Bloomberg, the capital cost of a ground-mounted PV system fell by about 60% between 2010 and 2015.

In many ways, this progress is good news, making a valuable contribution to our renewable electricity generation, but the amount of deployment has also raised concerns about its impact on the levy control framework—the budget which caps the amount of support paid for through consumers’ energy bills. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there is a need for government to act responsibly when there is a risk of exceeding such a budget. That is why we have introduced a number of measures to deal with the projected over-allocation of renewable energy subsidies. In these measures, we have aimed to strike the right balance between the interests of consumers and those of developers.

This time last year, under the coalition Government, we were considering a similar order relating to the early closure of the renewables obligation scheme to large solar farms—those over 5 megawatts. Solar farms at this large scale were deploying much faster than previously expected, and we were rightly concerned about the impact this speed of deployment could have on the levy control framework. At the time, it was decided not to extend the closure to projects at 5 megawatts or below because the evidence suggested that these smaller schemes posed less of a risk to the costs of the levy control framework.

Noble Lords will recall, however, that in the debate last year—under the coalition Government—it was made clear that the deployment of smaller-scale projects would be closely monitored. If deployment was shown to be growing more rapidly than could be afforded, measures would be considered to protect the integrity of the levy control framework. That monitoring revealed that, if we did not act, up to four times more new solar capacity would be eligible for support this year and next under the renewables obligation than we previously estimated—within a range of 2.4 to 3.8 gigawatts, compared to the 600 megawatts to 1 gigawatt that had been estimated. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that in such circumstances, the need for further action is essential.

In taking this action to complete the early closure of the renewables obligation to solar, we have aimed to strike the right balance between protecting bill payers and protecting developers who have made significant investments, while being conscious of the need to decarbonise our energy infrastructure. That is why the order makes provision for a number of grace periods, which mirror those offered last year as part of the large-scale closure. Stakeholders have welcomed this consistency. One respondent to our consultation said:

“Technologies must be treated equally as far as possible and the requirements outlined are in line with those proposed for early closure of the RO to solar above 5 megawatts”.

One of the grace periods was designed to protect developers who could show that a significant financial commitment had been made on or before the date on which the proposals were announced. This required evidence that a planning application had been made, among other things, as a proxy for the financial commitment.

Following the consultation, we are changing the criteria to clarify that we intended to protect projects that had made a valid planning application, in line with planning legislation across Great Britain. This is because we received evidence during the consultation from many planning authorities that some developers were submitting incomplete planning applications just to meet the cut-off for eligibility for the grace period.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I am interested in what the noble Lord is saying. He seems to be saying that if there is clear evidence of a significant financial investment being made before a planning decision was made, developers will qualify for the grace period. Why is he not currently doing the same for onshore wind, where the cut-off seems to be far more arbitrary?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

The parallel here is with the schemes above 5 megawatts and the undertakings then given to look at this in the same way in the light of increased deployment, which has certainly happened. I appreciate the point—it is different, there is no doubting that—but this is a continuation of what happened with schemes above 5 megawatts. That is the reason for the treatment we are going for.

When we closed the renewables obligation early to large-scale solar farms last year, we saw a rush of projects accrediting to beat the closure date. More than 1.5 gigawatts of solar were accredited in March 2015 alone. That is equivalent to around 5,000 football pitches. This time round, we had evidence to suggest that costs of solar PV had fallen further and faster than previously anticipated. I have already mentioned the steep fall that there has been. We have therefore proposed excluding new solar projects at 5 megawatts and below from our grandfathering policy if they do not meet the significant financial commitment criteria. This has been necessary to avoid locking in possible overcompensation in the event of a similar rush of projects accrediting before 31 March 2016. This change in policy would mean that projects which are not grandfathered would not maintain their support level if a banding review determined a lower level of support. This proposal was necessary as a cost control measure. We confirmed this change in policy last December, and at the same time started to consult on the results of the banding review. We are currently considering the consultation responses; the consultation finished at the end of January. Subject to the outcome of that process, changes would be implemented through a separate amendment to the renewables obligation order 2015 later this year.

On the impact of the order, our analysis indicates that the early closure proposed in it will save between £60 million and £100 million per year from consumer bills: over the 20-year period of the obligation, that is £1.2 billion to £2 billion in real terms over the lifetime of the projects. Over 8 gigawatts of solar is already deployed and we estimate total solar deployment under the levy control framework subsidy regimes will reach 12.8 gigawatts by 2020, following this closure, taking account of what we are doing today and the action taken in the recent feed-in tariff review. Without this intervention, we estimate that it would be very close to 20 gigawatts, or some 8 gigawatts above what we projected. The electricity market reform delivery plan is our best estimate of what we need to hit the renewables 2020 target, which set out an intention to deploy between 10 and 12 gigawatts at the upper end. In fact, even with these changes, we are on track to exceed that range. This further underlines the need to take action now to prevent further solar deployment under this scheme.

Before I close, I should mention that we have taken the opportunity in this order to remove an inconsistency between the renewables obligation closure order 2014 and Article 91 of the renewables obligation order 2015. This had been drawn to our attention by stakeholders. This technical amendment makes it clear that an operator of an offshore wind station benefiting from a closure grace period can apply to Ofgem for registration of offshore wind turbines until 31 March 2018. I do not think that that is controversial.

This Government are committed to combating climate change, but in the most cost-effective way for bill payers. In tackling climate change at home, British families and businesses are better off inside the European Union. It provides a more stable and long-term framework to attract investment in UK clean energy projects, helping to keep bills down, create new jobs and boosting our energy security. Accordingly, the costs of solar are continuing to fall, and we expect solar to be delivered without subsidy over the coming years. However, since solar PV has been such a success in the United Kingdom, by summer 2015 the costs imposed on bill payers associated with support for renewable and low carbon electricity generation were forecast to reach £9.1 billion in 2020-21, significantly above the target of £7.6 billion. These costs, if they reached that level, would lead to increases in consumer bills. It is therefore only right that we have looked at ways to protect value for money and affordability under the levy control framework.

I hope that noble Lords will agree with me that on balance, the approach we have taken is the right one, closing a demand-led scheme and taking action on overcompensation while still allowing solar to deploy under the revised feed-in tariff scheme. This will ensure that solar PV is supported in a way that offers better value for money for consumers. I commend this draft instrument to the House.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by Baroness Featherstone

As an amendment to the above motion, at the end to insert “but this House regrets that the draft Order will close the Renewables Obligation to solar photovoltaic installations smaller than 5MW on 1 April; notes that this will have a detrimental effect on rooftop solar and community energy schemes, which will be left with no support, and that the date for closure is much earlier than expected by the industry, causing a significant reduction in investor confidence across the industry; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to reinstate the Renewables Obligation for solar under 5MW and guarantee that existing solar projects will not be affected by future changes to policy”.

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, I fear that the Minister and I are not going to agree on this. However, it is not very long since we debated the ending of the feed-in tariff order, and I am sad to be here again so soon to enable a debate in which we on these Benches can express our dismay and alarm at the destruction being visited on what was a thriving world-leading industry in renewables—in this particular case, the ending of the renewables obligation for solar PV under 5 megawatts.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments that I made in that debate. I failed to get the Government to publish the calculations on the levy control framework, in which they prayed in aid a projected overspend as the rationale for their harsh and unforgiving bonfire of the renewables. Nevertheless, I appeal to the Government once again for transparency in relationship to the LCF, and ask that the figures are made public, so that the credibility of the Government’s case can be properly assessed.

We lost the battle against the extraordinarily steep and abrupt removal of the feed-in tariffs for solar, wind and hydro. We have tried to get this Government to understand not only the seriousness of this in terms of moving towards a low-carbon future that allows us to meet our legally binding targets, but also the depth to which investor confidence has been undermined in the renewables sector and the long-term, negative impact on the economy that this has caused. It is very disheartening to see so much of the good work achieved by the coalition Government unravelled by this one.

What is clear is that this work, which saw the tripling of electricity from renewable sources and made Britain the fastest-growing green economy in Europe, was clearly led by only one side of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, and not embraced at all by the other. It was galling to listen to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time today claim that 99% of solar on roofs came under a Tory-led Government. That sticks a little bit in the craw. Since the end of the coalition, this Government are ending support for onshore wind power; sharply reducing support for other renewable technologies, including solar PV and anaerobic digestion; ending renewable energy’s exemption from the climate change levy; reducing the incentives to purchase low-emission cars; privatising and selling off the Green Investment Bank; scrapping the Green Deal with no replacement; weakening the zero-carbon homes standard; adding community energy to the list of sectors excluded from receiving tax relief; ditching the £1 billion budget for pioneering carbon capture and storage; ending the renewables obligation early—the subject of today’s debate—and on and on and on. It is a litany of destruction.

When the Secretary of State announced, following the 2015 election, that she would “unleash a solar revolution”, we on these Benches naively thought that she meant a revolution that supported solar—but each action that has been taken has proven the opposite. That takes us to the statutory instrument before us today, which closes the renewables obligation to solar PV installations smaller than 5 megawatts on 1 April 2016. It will have a detrimental effect on rooftop solar and community energy schemes, which will be left without support, and will cause a significant reduction in investor confidence across the industry—solar and beyond.

Rooftop solar, the cornerstone of the solar strategy produced in April 2014, is now in dire straits. The tariff that has been set for the 1 to 5 megawatts solar band is much too low to incentivise rooftop deployment in that size range, leaving larger rooftops with essentially no route to market. The large-scale rooftop market is potentially the most significant and cost-effective solar market. This market is dominant across Europe and is expected to reach grid parity first, yet the UK is not taking it seriously. The rooftop renewables obligation for solar at less than 5 megawatts must be reinstated to allow these commercial projects to go ahead until March 2017 with the forward visibility they require.

Also marched up the hill by the last Government and then abandoned by this one were community energy groups. Many opportunities were created for local communities to share in the economic benefits of local renewable projects, and yet the rug on larger solar power projects is being pulled from underneath them. It is vital that ground-mounted renewable obligations should remain open to community groups and to developers doing shared ownership or community investment schemes.

Another crucial aspect is the need for strengthening of the grace periods, to which the Minister referred. They are indeed a bone of great contention. Let me give the Minister one example from a leading UK solar company setting out the practical effect of the 22 July 2015 grace period qualification deadline. It was unknowable to the industry even 24 hours in advance: 22 July was the first anyone knew about it. This company had a project that was 95% ready to submit as a full planning application but was not intending to submit it until about a week after the consultation was published. When the 22 July consultation was published, it scrambled like mad to submit it, but the application now straddled 22 and 23 July because some key documents could not be sent in until the morning of 23 July.

As the Minister said, it was not until 7 December 2015 that DECC firmed up the July 2015 grace period qualification cut-off date, and Sections 2F and 2G in the order will apply retrospectively to 22 July 2015. So this company now has £1 million tied up in a project which many not qualify for anything, solely on a technicality that it could not control, despite the fact that the planning application was 100% valid and less than one day late—albeit that the lateness was not its fault. What on earth are the Government thinking by penalising British SMEs in this way when they have invested in and developed projects in good faith and on the assumption that government commitments to maintain investor confidence in the UK renewables sector through a stable renewable obligation regime meant something?

As the Minister said, in the consultation in July last year the intention was clear that the qualifying grace period after disclosure would match that offered in the closure of the larger-scale renewable obligations the previous year. In fact, it was specifically stated. Sadly, in the final decision published in December, the position was changed to require a valid planning application as of 22 July, not a submitted planning application. This leads to a change to the original proposal. If, as the Minister said in his opening statement, it was to prevent a rush of companies that were not really ready trying to reach the finishing line, that is not an answer to the serious businesses that have committed real money to doing what the Government were asking of them.

Finally, as part of the July consultation, the Government proposed removing grandfathering for future solar renewables obligation projects with immediate effect. This is the guarantee that once a project is invested in and built, the level of support will not be changed. Companies do their sums on this basis, and it is a vital aspect of subsidy support. This principle underpins confidence to invest in new projects. Any company that makes an investment on one basis and suddenly finds that the set of financial assumptions it has used have changed is going to be very wary of any similar investment. This crucial aspect is being removed in all those projects which had been pre-accredited before that decision was taken and where there was a delay getting connected to the grid. Grandfathering is also being removed from any projects that applied for planning since July 2015 but before closure.

Investor confidence has been significantly damaged simply by the proposal to remove this guarantee—not just with solar, or even with energy, but potentially with all infrastructure. Increased risk increases the cost of capital. This vastly overshadows the relatively small amount of money that the Government seek to save through this proposal. It is less than £50 million per annum. It is estimated as between 50p and £1.20 per household. Energy UK estimates that £200 billion of private-sector investment in the energy sector is needed by 2020, of which £43 billion has been met. A 2% political risk premium on the remaining £157 billion of investment will equate to £3.14 billion per annum, dwarfing the saving of £50 million that the policy intends to make.

We ask that grandfathering be reinstated for all projects. Grandfathering is not covered in the SI, and its reinstatement would require an explicit statement from the Government. It is this that we seek. The Scottish Government have announced that they will retain a grandfathering guarantee for key policies supporting investment in solar farms, despite the proposals from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to end the protection in England and Wales—so England and Wales will be sorely disadvantaged as the industry puts its money where it feels it will be secure. That is a clever move by Scotland, but it is a very stupid move by our Government, if noble Lords will forgive me for saying so.

We on this side are asking Her Majesty’s Government to reinstate the renewables obligation for solar PV under 5 megawatts and to guarantee that existing solar projects will not be affected by future changes to policy. We regret the unfathomable and unprecedented attack on the green economy by this Government, and we will bring it to the nation’s attention at every point of attack. In the context of the recent signing of the wonderful Paris agreement, and in the light of our obligations and legally binding targets, this latest assault on our renewables industry is just that: the latest in a very long line of attacks. It is utterly unacceptable. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 8:00 pm, 16th March 2016

My Lords, I shall comment on some of the points made by the previous speaker. This Government are certainly behind renewables of all sorts for the future. I hope the noble Baroness accepts that we are working towards the benefits of a low-carbon economy and—she did not refer to this in her contribution—that the costs of producing solar energy have come down. Therefore, one of my questions to her is: if those costs have gone down, is it really right that we should maintain the subsidies envisaged when the costs were higher and, if so, what implications does that have for the people who have to pay for them—that is, the consumers? Does she also accept that, as the Minister said in his opening comments, we ran the risk of exceeding the budgets that were originally planned because of the wonderful response we had and that up to four times more could well be envisaged by the end of that time?

For me, it is a matter of looking at projects as they come up, be they in green energy or any other energy. As far as I am concerned, subsidies have always been there to pump-prime—to help new industries take off and become established. In this industry, that has clearly worked very well, and solar is a huge success. I have one or two very small solar panels on my garage, which do not bring in a big income, but we try to do our bit because we believe in renewable green energy, so we have them.

By considering the grace period, the Government have responded. When we debated this before, a question was raised about it. However, I find this quite hard and I say to the noble Baroness in all sincerity: when the industry has become successful and those costs have come down so much, the question must be whether those subsidies should be continuously maintained when the response we have had suggests that they might not be. Therefore, is it right to expect the consumer still to be paying for that project? The Government recorded that £52 billion has been spent on the renewables sector since 2010. That is a huge amount, as the noble Baroness knows from when she was in coalition. However, unless things are tackled, a balance has to be struck. I suspect she and I will not agree on how that should be done. It is realistic challenge that any Government must face. At the moment, we are in government, and the costs and the response from the industry have done really well. The question is whether the order before us tonight is fair and appropriate. On that, I think the noble Baroness and I will agree to disagree.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will be extremely brief. Perhaps I may reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford—whose expertise in all these areas I admire greatly —as well as comment on one of the Minister’s remarks.

First, these Benches absolutely want to reduce renewable tariffs and subsidies as the costs come down. That is a fundamental point. We have a track record of doing that, and that is what we do. However, we are not into executing a particular technology. The way that this has worked is that the Government—interestingly, a Conservative Government—have been moving down the road of choosing technologies. The whole strategy of the energy market reform was to move gradually to a more market-based, less technology-specific situation as time went on—but we are doing the opposite.

We absolutely agree on the levy control framework and lowering costs to the consumer, but what have the Government decided to do? They have decided to invest in the two most expensive low-carbon technologies, offshore wind and nuclear, both of which are hugely more expensive than onshore wind and solar, the technologies that cost the least. So I say to both the Minister and the noble Baroness that if that is what the Government want, they need to change the strategy. They can achieve another strategy at the same time as meeting the carbon emissions target and lowering costs to consumers. That is the way it works—it is arithmetic. So, please, let us go for that.

I return very briefly to the issue of investor confidence. As noble Lords will know, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change in the other place recently looked at investor confidence in the energy sector. I hate round numbers, because one often does not believe them, but DECC itself estimates that we need some £100 billion of investment up to 2020, not just in generation but in the distribution system as well. As my noble friend said, to achieve that we need real investor confidence. What was the Select Committee’s conclusion? It said:

“It is clear that the confidence of many investors has been dented by the Government’s actions since the election. The sudden, unexpected nature of many of the announcements has unsettled investors who had been used to receiving more forewarning of policy changes. There is a high risk that a hiatus in new developments has been created, pending further clarity on short- and longer-term policy. The Government removed support for renewables due to concerns about costs for consumers. But they have not set out the evidence base for this conclusion or for other decisions, and engagement with the investment community has been poor”.

That is an all-party conclusion in a report on the Government’s action in this area, and the conclusion is to condemn it. The need for investment is huge. We need to make sure that investment is right and that subsidies are low—and we are absolutely for reducing subsidies—but it has led to a hiatus. We no longer have carbon capture and storage or appear to have nuclear, and as far as I can see we do not have a workable strategy to bring in gas—so we have a huge energy problem. We need those investors but we have thrown away their confidence, and through the decisions we have made on renewable energy, by picking expensive winners, we have ensured higher energy costs for the future.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, it is becoming an all too familiar situation on energy policy that once more there is another order before your Lordships’ House that severely limits the UK’s renewables industry, the mishandling of which, once more, has left confidence among investors in the sector further damaged.

The draft instrument today contains severe restrictions on the deployment of solar schemes of 5 megawatts or less under the RO regime. For solar it is another blow on top of the 65% cut to the rate of feed-in tariffs that your Lordships debated barely a month ago. As was said then, in the wake of the Paris agreement on climate change, the Government are sending out a terrible mixed message with another sudden and severe policy change, risking cutting off the sector at its knees rather than supporting its gradual glide path to being subsidy-free.

Today we will join the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, in her amendment to the Motion on the order. She is of course correct in her appraisals. Today the Government are not being technology-neutral as regards solar power. Having closed the RO to schemes above 5 megawatts on 31 March 2015, the extension to close the RO to 5 megawatt schemes and below, yet without access to the contracts for difference auction system, means that solar projects above 1 megawatt are now in effect without support, with no route to market.

The Government will spend just 1% of new expenditure on low-carbon projects under the levy control framework on solar power in each of the next three years. As solar is next to onshore wind as the cheapest major renewable power source and by far the most popular, this demonstrates a failure to understand the long-term cost benefits and the value for money it provides. According to the Government’s impact assessment, the extra-budgetary impact is likely to be less than £1 on household bills. In the context of the challenges of decarbonisation, while we all wish to keep consumer bills down and to be at least cost, this is being short-term penny wise and long-term pound foolish.

Your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has highlighted the Government’s mishandling and exposed the extent of the industry’s lack of belief in a department, which was not brought out in the Government’s own Explanatory Memorandum. In the two workshops the department undertook not only were overwhelming numbers opposed to the proposed package of measures but respondents questioned the rationale for the proposal because no evidence was provided to detail the breakdown of the LCF overspend, that it was due to solar overdeployment. Furthermore, there was a lack of trust in the department’s deployment forecasting. Not only is the industry challenged with sudden changes but it has no faith in the department’s competence and rationale for the action it is taking.

One of the damaging features of the order is not that the RO is closing from 1 April 2016 but rather that it effectively closed from 22 July 2015, with grace period allowances for projects with preliminary accreditation to be completed. This was the date of the opening of the consultation, so there was no warning before decisions were taken. Many schemes coming forward in good faith, with expenditure having been undertaken, were suddenly ruled out, however credible and beneficial they were.

If all this is not regrettable enough, a few items in this order need to be highlighted as even more regrettable. Once again, I highlight how this order, being an SI, is unamendable, in contrast to the early closure of onshore wind, which is amendable because it is in the Energy Bill. They are eminently similar provisions, yet the most pernicious aspects of this order cannot be changed.

One aspect of the post-consultation decision is to remove grandfathering from solar PV projects at 5 megawatts and below that were not accredited as of 22 July 2015. Rather curiously, this has not been commenced and is not included in this order. This is most confusing. As it was question 4 in the consultation, can the Government please now outline their intention in regard to grandfathering? The Explanatory Memorandum was unclear. Many respondents to the removal of grandfathering considered that without it, projects were uninvestable. Can the Minister clarify the position and state why this was left hanging from the order and whether removal of grandfathering will apply more widely than to solar technology?

Also regrettable is the inclusion of community energy schemes in the order. The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, is correct to include this aspect in her amendment. Community schemes widen the benefits of renewable deployment, encouraging individual households which want to do the right thing and do their bit towards combating climate change.

A wider consequence of the order is to underline the unsatisfactory nature of the levy control framework. The Minister will know that there is a call for full transparency on the LCF, given that the Government are using this budget estimate as a defining characteristic in their policy, while its opaqueness undermines the Government’s case in arguing that customers’ bills are being kept down to a minimum. Furthermore, the lack of detail on the LCF from 2020—which at the moment is left unclarified—is another cause for concern to those attempting to plan their inevitably longer-term projects for the future.

This measure damages the progress made towards low-carbon renewables. It is short-sighted, bad for business and bad for the environment. It is also bad for Britain. It is yet another in a series of policy announcements and changes that signal a significant change of direction in low-carbon energy policy. It again raises serious questions for investors—so much so that the Energy and Climate Change Committee conducted an inquiry, which has recently reported and raises severe issues for the Government to address. In relation to this order I will quote one sentence:

“We call on the Government to set out clearly the purpose of the LCF and to explain why the Capacity Market is not currently included, when it is clearly an electricity policy that results in levies on consumers’ bills”.

Damaged investor confidence drives out investment, raises the cost of capital and increases customers’ bills. If the Government are focusing on the levy control framework as the determining factor in low-carbon energy technologies, it is vital that the framework becomes coherent with the utmost urgency. That they have not done so is of the greatest regret.

Photo of The Bishop of Salisbury The Bishop of Salisbury Bishop 8:15 pm, 16th March 2016

My Lords, it is curious to rehearse the same arguments so soon after the recent debate on feed-in tariffs. It is very disappointing in the wake of the success in Paris of COP 21, and the enthusiasm engendered from that about a new level of ambition in response to human-caused climate change. I feel as though the Minister is in a position of defending the indefensible. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made a very good point about the place of subsidies and pump-priming. Therefore, it is disappointing that the Government are not working more effectively with the renewable energy sector to build on the considerable success of that industry.

In its analysis of the impact of the changes to feed-in tariffs, DECC estimated that there could be a loss of 18,700 jobs. There is no equivalent analysis in relation to the impact of the withdrawal of renewable obligations, but going towards no subsidy will undermine a sector that is moving rapidly to a position of needing less subsidy. The House’s Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has been critical of the analysis of this in the EM by not highlighting the level of opposition to, or the paucity of support for, the proposed changes, or acknowledging the concerns expressed by a large number of respondents about the methodology used by DECC to justify its proposals. The desire for increasingly competitive pricing would be a good deal more compelling if this were a feature of the whole electricity market, but last week the Government’s Competition and Markets Authority drew attention to the highly uncompetitive features of the market, dominated as it is by the big six companies.

The desire to cap the levy control framework has introduced two thought errors into the Government’s proposals. The first is that, if the costs of decarbonisation are not to fall on already hard-pressed consumers, further support will be needed in addition to the LCF. However, as has already been pointed out in this debate, the additional cost to the consumer is estimated to be less than £1 per annum. This does not feel like the right way to address this issue. The second point is something that I have referred to before. The desire not to exceed the LCF cap means that we are content with hitting mid-range targets, whereas we ought to be seeking to exceed them on renewable energy in order to escalate the process towards decarbonisation. Many Members of the House want the Government to go back and think about this again. The issue is one of creating a strategy for energy that addresses the need, which was identified in Paris, to move rapidly towards a low-carbon economy.

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their participation in this debate. I will of course address some of the points that have been raised but, before doing so, perhaps I may just clarify one or two issues.

First, the Government are of course committed to combating climate change, as the right reverend Prelate kindly acknowledged, through our participation in Paris and the marvellous result achieved there. However, we want to do so in the most cost-effective way for bill payers.

The solar industry in the United Kingdom has been a success story and has seen significant cost reductions. The noble Baroness, in opening, did not talk about the Liberal Democrat position on subsidies. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, sought to clarify that, but I think the opponents of what we are seeking to do need to set out what level of subsidy they regard as acceptable at this stage, because, crucially, the costs have come down: so much so that the largest solar developer in the United Kingdom, Lightsource Renewable Energy, has said publicly—it is on its website—that it will be building subsidy-free sites this year. This order does not end solar and, if we can get solar deployment without the subsidy, that raises the question of why we are subsidising it. This Government believe that when the costs of deploying come down—as they have—so should support. This statutory instrument is a necessary step to protect bill payers and to end subsidies where they are not needed.

Before looking at some of the specifics raised in the debate, I want to set out what the costs of the renewables obligation and indeed other renewable policies, such as feed-in tariffs and CFDs, will be over the lifetime of this Government. There seems to be a feeling that we are cutting off all renewable subsidies. That is not the case. The cost on the levy control framework goes up every single year in this Government, and that is after the action we are hoping will be taken today. The total cost in 2015-16 is £5,230,000,000. Next year it will be more than £6 billion. In the succeeding year it will be more than £7 billion. In 2018-19 it will be over £8 billion. In 2019-20 it will be £10 billion, and in 2020-21 it will be nearly £11 billion. So to those who suggest that somehow, we are turning our face against renewables and ending subsidies, I can say that that is not remotely the case.

I shall address some of the specific points that were raised. As I said, the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, did not talk about the position of the Liberal Democrats in relation to subsidy, but I remind the Liberal Democrats that the coalition Government—after all, it was a department led by a Liberal Democrat Minister—recognised the need to revisit the 5 megawatt and below solar subsidies if we had overdeployment, or if overdeployment were projected. Overdeployment is projected by a ratio of 1:4, so it really needs to be addressed, and this is quite consistent with what the Liberal Democrats said when they were in government. We are taking this action for two reasons. It is not just about the levy control framework; it is also about the subsidy. We do not believe that we should be paying subsidies where they are not needed. The evidence is— I quoted the largest developer—that they are not needed.

The noble Baroness raised the issue of roof-top solar. We do not accept that the feed-in tariffs have been set too low to support commercial roof-top solar. Almost 8 megawatts of installations over 50 kilowatts have secured a feed-in tariff since the scheme reopened in February. That is significant and demonstrates that there is ample opportunity under the existing FIT scheme to do just that.

I turn to the points made by my noble friend Lady Byford about the subsidy regime. I very much agree with what she said; she put it very crisply and very correctly, if I may say so, that subsidies are not for ever. They are there for as long as they are needed, for pump-priming and for getting things moving, but as the costs come down it is absolutely right that we re-address this. To be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, made that point; he may disagree with what we are doing but at least he accepts the need to revisit this and look at when a subsidy is needed and when it is not. That is a relevant debate to be had, but that did not seem to be the debate that the noble Baroness set out initially.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, talked about moving towards a market approach. I am not sure whether that is something he approves of—he is indicating that he does—but that is what we are doing. If the largest solar developer is saying that it is installing solar without the subsidy this year, that is rather relevant to this debate.

It is not as if we are not doing other things in energy and climate change that are needed. We have a considerable innovation budget, and I think most noble Lords will approve of the fact that we are looking at small modular reactors with a significant part of that £250 million innovation budget in this Parliament. That is something we want to get moving, and plans were set out in the Budget Statement today on just that.

I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury is very interested in this area and has been very supportive of some of the action the Government have been taking, including the designated closure of coal and so on. He asked why we are aiming for the mid-range of solar. We are not. After the action we have taken today, and based on the best estimates we get, deployment is still above the top level of the estimate set out under the last Government: it will be 12.8 gigawatts, and the top level of what was considered necessary by the last Government was 12 gigawatts. Therefore, even after the corrective action we have taken, we are still ahead of that.

I understand some of the concerns that have been expressed, but in relation to this measure I can say only that we do not need this subsidy. There is deployment without it, and we would be wrong to subsidise where it is not needed. We would be wrong, as a Government, not to take action on a subsidy where the evidence is that it is not needed.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 8:30 pm, 16th March 2016

My noble friend Lady Featherstone mentioned investor confidence. My noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to the Energy and Climate Change Committee in the other place and its deep concerns about the cumulative effect of government policy on investor confidence, not just in solar or onshore wind but generally. Will the Minister please address the points that were very effectively made about investor confidence?

Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales

My Lords, of course investor confidence is an issue. In the department we meet the industry on a frequent basis—I met representatives of the solar industry just this week. Some of the concerns that are being expressed tonight were not expressed to me on that occasion. Of course there is a healthy dialogue, but I do not recognise some of the wilder statements being made about the lack of investor confidence. Industry will always take a particular issue, and there will be some in industry who will not want to see an end to subsidies—I understand that; why would they? However, as a Government, we have to see how money can be well spent.

It has been a good debate, but I urge noble Lords to reject the amendment and support the order, which is a necessary part of ensuring that we get value for money, do not overdeploy in this area and end subsidies that are not needed.

Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions; I thought that serious and considered points were made on all sides. The Minister said that I did not address the issue of subsidy. I took it as read that we all want to see the end of subsidies, but the issue is the methodology for delivering that. As I explained that at great length during the debate on the fatal Motion that I tabled to annul the feed-in tariff, I did not want to rehearse all those arguments. However, again, as the levy control framework calculations are still not before us, we cannot examine the evidence of the case.

Arguments were made about the costs to consumers. We are all concerned about the cost to consumers, but I laid out the price range involved in the cost of risk. The £1 per annum that would be saved feels a very poor argument in terms of reducing costs when, at the same time, the Government are so willing to invest in those energy sources that are so much more expensive, such as nuclear and diesel.

Lastly, on the overdeployment of solar, until the Government come forward with a plan illustrating how they are going to reach their renewable targets, we may be reliant on extra electricity because renewable heat and renewable transport are in so much trouble. Therefore, although I appreciate the arguments and agree with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, we are not going to see eye to eye on this issue. I am very grateful for the support of the Labour Benches on this, and for the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, which were well made. I seek to test the will of the House.

Ayes 153, Noes 144.

Division number 4 Renewables Obligation Closure Etc. (Amendment) Order 2016 - Motion to Approve

Aye: 151 Members of the House of Lords

No: 142 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment agreed.

Motion, as amended, agreed.

House adjourned at 8.48 pm.