When I was a child there was a low wall not far from my nan’s house. It was lined with the nobbled ‘knuckles’ of what had once been an iron-railing fence. Her explanation of why this was all that remained was very matter of fact. “It went as part of the war effort” she told us.
In the late 1930’s Britain had needed all the iron and steel it could muster, so wrought-iron fencing was requisitioned for more important military purposes. “Don’t worry” my nan added “The government promised it will all be returned … once the war is over.” This conversation took place around 1960, so her explanation left me baffled. I had yet to discover irony.
What triggered my recollection of this exchange was the latest government announcement about its plans for the treatment of solar energy in Britain; in particular, plans for the role to be played by households and communities.
What the Tories propose is an end to the system of ‘export’ payments to households who put electricity surpluses back into the grid. If implemented, it will mean that hundreds of thousands of households around Britain will have their electricity requisitioned (without payment) as part of the Conservative’s current ‘war effort’.
Today’s war is one the Tories are waging on behalf of the rich against the poor; siding with the old and dumb against the smart and new, and backing the corporate against the democratic.
There could hardly be a better example of where today’s Conservative Party has sunk to.
When we had a plan
Over a decade ago, it took a good 4 years of campaigning before we were able to get Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs) included in the Energy Act 2008. Britain’s energy companies had been implacably opposed to any opening up of their energy cartel.
It wasn’t just the shift from dirty to clean that Britain’s energy companies opposed. Big energy did not want to see any German-style market transformation taking place. They certainly didn’t want millions of British households starting to become a part of the energy supply system. Energy democracy was never on the corporate agenda.
It took a cross-party coalition to force the FITs amendment into law. Tariff payments for solar installations were supposed to help drive down UK energy prices (as they had done in Germany) . It was the beginning of what was soon to become Britain’s most popular, and inclusive, energy revolution. But even then the industry was determined to have none of it.
The Empire strikes back
The hundreds of energy company ‘advisors’ were seconded into government departments, making sure that a regulatory minefield would block the way of transition to any more open, democratic energy system. The next war had already begun.
Since 2010, the government has rolled out a succession of measures to squeeze renewable energy into an ever narrowing corner of the energy market. First FITs were put into a fixed annual budget. Every fall in the cost of solar panels, every leap in public interest, triggered a cut in FITs payments. Solar was strapped into a boom-bust roller coaster that was always designed to crash to a halt.
Then community solar co-ops were attacked; removing their tax allowances and even seeking to nullify the very existence of energy co-ops.
Businesses with PV roofs were next, with thumping increases added to their business rates. So much for rewarding the pioneers of ‘clean’.
Finally (we thought) the government announced that no replacement measures were to be planned after the end to the current FITs Programme.
No one imagined that the Tories next move would be to resort to ‘street crime’. This is what the current government proposals amount to.
If someone broke into your house and tried to walk off with the sofa, the courts would have no truck with any claim that the thieves were just removing ‘excess furniture’ that you weren’t using. This is effectively what the government seeks to do, though their announcement dresses it up differently –
“We do not believe that the current FIT flat rate export tariff aligns with government’s vision for the future, given our desire to move towards fairer, cost reflective pricing and the continued drive to minimise support costs on consumers.”
So, while Theresa May is happy to take your taxes for unlimited payments to oil and gas companies, extortionate nuclear follies and hidden props to keep the dirtiest power stations going, she wants to pay nothing whatever for all that the Tories will steal from you roof.
This is Theresa May’s ‘Robin Hood in reverse’: a programme that robs the poor in order to give to the rich. In doing so, her Alt-Right are making sure that even the legacy of support from ‘one nation conservatives’ gets trashed.
The sustainable lives of others
This isn’t how tomorrow’s energy systems are unfolding elsewhere. In large parts of Europe and North America communities, towns and whole cities already have a right to sell energy to each other – a right of local supply. It is a right still denied to people in Britain. And where others share local energy they do so at prices far lower the retail price of electricity that people in Britain face.
Elsewhere, ‘smart’ technologies have been taking this ‘right of local supply’ and using it to construct virtual local grids. These grids share electricity surpluses that households and businesses generate, then trade the rest within the wider grid.
Breakthroughs in battery storage are also taking this market transformation process into spaces barely imaginable only a decade ago.
In Germany, the battery company Sonnen now offers households around €20/month in a new electricity service – sonnenCommunity – that sells and shares their electricity surpluses. Sonnen also uses this combined domestic battery capacity to sell services that stabilise the local the grid; delivering security and prosperity in neat little bundles.
This is what comes from systems in which renewable electricity gets priority access to the grid, and where households continue to receive FIT payments for their contributions into ‘clean energy’ systems.
Internationally, the next moves are already connecting home energy systems into clean air programmes. Car manufacturers like Nissan have been teaming up with domestic solar installers and housing providers, offering complete packages of solar roofs, battery storage, EV charging points and electric vehicles. In doing so they also help deliver the clean air our kids desperately need to breathe.
This is the doorway into tomorrow’s jobs and skills. It is part of a bigger process that might yet avoid climate breakdown. It is central to how Britain can/must cut its carbon emissions in half within the coming decade. And it’s values and language are part of the democratic vision that has drawn hundreds of thousands into Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. The big question is whether Labour will embrace this vision too?
A world beyond Brexit
In any sane political system there would have been a thunderstorm of objections to any Tory proposals that crush the race into a more decentralised, decarbonised and democratised energy future. There would have been outrage about suggestions that propping up the past is a way of finding the future. But Brexit seems to have paralysed British politics like rabbits in a car’s headlights.
Parliament appears incapable of rising to Corbyn’s challenge of transformative change, or of recognising that climate physics only gives us about a decade in which to do so.
The next war – for our own survival – has already begun. It can not be won in the next decade alone. But this is the decade in which it can be lost. What our children will ask is “So what did you do about it mum/dad?”
My nan did not get her railings back by waiting for decades to come. Tomorrow’s railings won’t be delivered by post-dated promises either. The shape of tomorrow depends entirely on what we do today. Its time we all pulled our fingers out.