Climate: Red tape short-circuits cleanest power producers

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The Independent Online
The growth of small, local, green power stations has come to an abrupt halt, thanks to huge fees they must pay to sell their clean electricity to the grid. Oliver Tickell explains The United Kingdom's small-scale, pollution-free electricity generators are about to be hit by massive metering charges of more than pounds 2,000 per year - just as the Government is looking for ways to cut pollution from power stations and to reduce overall emissions of "greenhouse" gases to 80 per cent of 1990 levels.

"This is madness," said the solar electricity pioneer Susan Roaf, architecture lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, who has 38 square metres of photovoltaic (PV) panels on her roof capable of generating four kilowatts.

"Last year I sold Southern Electric pounds 58 worth of surplus electricity made from sunshine, but now they want to charge me pounds 2,148.27 a year just to meter it."

Tony Davey, of the company's purchase economics section, said his firm was not responsible for the level of charges. "It is not Southern Electric that are levying the charges", he said. "It is part of the national procedure that we have to get in place for the liberalisation of the electricity market in 1998."

Under the rules of the liberalised market, which come into force in April 1998, all electricity generators - no matter how small - will have to be served by "half hourly meters" which record how much is generated in every half hour period.

Earlier this year Southern Electric quoted Dr Roaf pounds 750 a year to cover meter hire and the cost of a dedicated communications link to a central computer.

Dr Roaf complained to MPs, ministers, electricity industry figures and the electricity regulator, Offer. Last March. John Battle MP, then Labour's energy spokesman and now minister, responded: "It is a matter of some concern to me that photovoltaic systems such as your own might be priced out by infrastructure costs associated with 1998, and I will certainly look into this matter in more detail if Labour is elected."

Seven months later, Dr Roaf is still waiting to hear the result.

Meanwhile Southern Electric has written again to say she must pay a further "registration fee", currently pounds 1,398.27 a year. Added to the pounds 750, this makes pounds 2,148.27.

Marcus Rand of Greenpeace thought the situation was ridiculous. "The UK could generate two thirds of its electricity from rooftop solar panels - but with these enormous metering charges it will never happen. The obvious solution is to bring in reversible meters for small-scale solar, wind and hydro generators, so the meter simply runs backwards when power is being exported to the grid."

Chris Litherland, trading arrangements manager with Offer, said: "This is something we have been worried about for some time. It is clearly unfair to have a flat charge that means nothing to a 50-megawatt plant, but wipes out people like Dr Roaf.

"Although we do not have direct power over this, we will use our influence to press for a better deal for small electricity producers."