My Lords, the draft instrument closes the renewables obligation 12 months early to solar PV generating stations at 5 megawatts and below from
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.