Leading article: A black week for green energy

Share
Related Topics

The boast that the coalition would be "the greenest government ever" came to a sad end last month. Its death can be dated precisely to the declaration by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Conservative annual conference that Britain would cut carbon emissions "no slower but also no faster" than other European countries. "The greenest government ever" thus becomes "as green a government as the others but no greener". David Cameron's promise, made when he spoke to civil servants at the Department of Energy and Climate Change three days after becoming Prime Minister, lasted less than 18 months.

The decision to pull the plug on solar power is part of that retreat from green ambition. As we report today, that decision has provoked a reaction from an unusual alliance, including the Confederation of British Industry and housing associations. The breadth of this revolt suggests that Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, should think again.

That means thinking again about the tension between Mr Cameron's desire to show leadership and Mr Osborne's determination that the Government should not become carried away with expensive gestures. This newspaper had hoped, in the dying days of Tony Blair's premiership, that Britain had opted for the role of green leadership. It was David Miliband's idea, when he was Mr Huhne's predecessor, that this country should set a green example to the world. Mr Miliband made a powerful case that this combined the national economic interest with green principle. Britain should aspire, he argued, to be a leading supplier of green technology, one of the guaranteed global growth markets.

Mr Cameron, to his credit, seemed not only to accept this argument but to insist that it was not weakened by hard times in the world economy – on the contrary, it was all the more important that Britain should seize first-mover advantage in leading the way to low-carbon technologies. And Mr Huhne, to his credit, has been an effective minister in negotiating the balance between green idealism and the compromises required of any democratic government, especially at a time of high fuel prices.

Mr Osborne, however, put paid to all that with his conference speech. "We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business," he said, which suggests that Britain cannot afford the luxury of green fripperies in hard times. Of course, we accept, and Mr Huhne accepts, that green prices have to be set at the right level. It would seem that the subsidy for solar power – the price paid, through a levy on electricity consumers, for power sold back to the national grid by people who have installed solar panels – was set too high. The scheme was "too popular" in that people rushed to put panels on their roofs and companies sprang up to meet demand. It had, in other words, precisely the desired effect in stimulating the production of green energy, creating jobs and boosting the economy, but had not been calibrated correctly. Mr Huhne warned that if he allowed the scheme to carry on unchanged it would either run out of money abruptly or a further levy would have to be imposed on electricity consumers.

Mr Osborne's argument is that solar power is easily the most expensive of the renewable technologies, and it makes sense to focus public subsidy on sources such as offshore wind. The counter-argument is that the more that solar panels are made and installed, the cheaper they become and the greater the incentive for firms to invent cheaper technologies. Ernst & Young consultants predict, for example, that in the four years from 2009-2013 the price of installing panels will have more than halved. With the Fukushima disaster back on our screens, the case for investing in different carbon-free energy sources is reinforced.

There is still a chance that Mr Cameron and Mr Huhne can rescue something from this mess. As we also report today, Liberal Democrat MPs have pressed Mr Huhne to push for a better deal from the Treasury, so the internal politics of the coalition are in favour of compromise. As the Autumn Statement approaches, and Mr Osborne seems more desperate for schemes that can be sold as part of a "growth strategy", the case for finding some way to continue with the solar-power scheme seems strong.

This may no longer be the greenest government ever, but it can still be credibly green if it finds a way to continue to subsidise, if at a lower price, solar power, which is a green fiscal stimulus that creates jobs.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

 

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride