Are tariff changes forcing the sun to go down on the solar industry?

Paul Boughton
Vicky Kenrick looks at the impact of the UK government's Feed in Tariff (FiT), which aims to increase the level of renewable energy used in the UK by businesses and households.

The year 2011 began with many positive predications for the UK Solar industry, it was put forward for example that an estimated 17,000 solar jobs would become available throughout the year. It was suggested that this would be due to the implementation of the new government Feed in Tariff (FiT), which aims to increase the level of renewable energy used in the UK by businesses and households.

However a comprehensive review of the solar Feed-in-Tariffs (FiT) on the 31st October 2011 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) outlines a radical reduction of subsidies - by over 50% for solar projects between 1kW and 50kW which will have a direct impact on jobs within the Solar industry throughout the UK.

The number of solar jobs available in the UK, career trends within the solar industry across the globe and the roles and responsibilities of solar professionals who are in demand has fluctuated throughout the year; Vicky Kenrick at International Sustainability Recruitment Specialists, Allen & York, explores this in an article that looks at current career trends within the UK Solar industry.

The subsidy for solar power was cut in half for new installations from 12 December 2011 according to the government. Also from April 2012, householders will have to meet a certain standard of energy efficiency before they can be eligible for feed-in tariff subsidies for the power produced by their solar panels. According to DECC this could rule out up to 86 per cent of households in the UK who do not meet the minimum efficiency requirement.[Page Break]

Officials said this would prevent people from getting subsidies for solar power while wasting energy through draughty and ill-equipped homes. This is predicated to have a direct impact on the UK solar jobs industry. The announcement on the 9th November outlined how solar panels not registered before the new December 12 deadline will be unable to tap into the cashback incentive at its current and attractive rate - this in turn has put serious pressure on councils and homeowners to get their schemes completed in the next four weeks.

The Government's decision to rein-in the tariff was prompted by concerns the FiT fund was being too quickly consumer by large companies that are capable of producing solar energy on a mass scale.

There are also mixed messages coming from the government regarding the extent of their future commitment to solar power in the UK. Although Greg Barker, the minister for Energy and Climate Change said the government wanted growth in solar panel installations to continue and proclaimed that he is "personally committed to ensuring that the solar industry can prosper in the longer term, sustaining green jobs at a critical time for our economy"; there are still doubts amongst industry experts who fear that cuts will be too deep to allow companies to remain profitable, potentially hindering the UK's solar job boom.

"I've talked to some companies who are looking at pulling the plug in weeks - it probably reduces the size of the industry by 15,000-20,000 jobs," said Ray Noble from the Renewable Energy Association (REA).[Page Break]

Under current planned changes, the level of the feed-in tariff is likely to more than halve, from 43p per kWh to 21p resulting in providers of free solar panels, for the residential sector which account for around 50 per cent of installations, potentially going out of business as anything less than 28p per kWh is perceived to be unsustainable. In turn, this means that the less well-off will not be able to benefit from solar and jobs in solar installation could be lost, for example Professor Stephen Frankel, chair of the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network in Cornwall, who wants to install solar panels for free to local homes, warned the cuts would endanger the project.

According to a recent survey of more than 120 solar companies by the Solar Trade Association (STA) and the Renewable Energy Association (REA), 11,000 solar jobs now face the axe and 33 per cent of companies fear they may be forced to close. Installation, manufacturing and assembly of solar panels are all affected by changes to the FiT.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has attacked the government over its cuts to solar subsidies, warning that halving the 'feed-in tariff' - the payments to householders for the energy they generate - would 'slowly suffocate' the renewable energy industry. He urges the government to 'send the right signals to the market' about solar power by keeping the subsidy at its current level.

But there is still huge potential for the solar industry

The rise in the number of solar jobs available in the UK between 2010 and 2011 does clearly demonstrate the original success of the FiT in creating jobs. Analysis carried out by REA shows the number of people working in the UK solar power sector has jumped by 22,000 to 25,000 over the last 18 months and could reach 32,000 by April 2012. REA said the solar jobs figures were a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economic outlook that underlined the overall success of the FiT.

"There are very few other industries creating this level of jobs and UK plc needs these jobs" REA Technical director, Stuart Pocock said.

The REA jobs figures were drawn from the REAL Assurance Scheme, which is a standard that protects consumers wishing to buy or lease small-scale energy generation systems for their homes.

The data shows there are now 4,000 solar companies registered with REA in the UK. At the current rate of registrations, REA said, there could be 7,000 further jobs added to the solar installation industry by April 2012. It is no surprise that the REA are therefore urging the Government to strengthen the UK's position in the booming global solar market by increasing investment and not altering the FiT subsidy levels.

REA Technical Director, Stuart Pocock, said: "Solar is rapidly creating jobs while greening UK homes and offices and reducing energy bills. We want to see more ambition and vision from Government to sustain these jobs and secure big new solar manufacturing opportunities in the UK, with huge export potential." REA point to solar innovations that could result in helping to create new jobs for those affected by the FiT changes. Innovations include a solar roofing system developed by Kingspan and solar-powered electric vehicle charging canopies that, with the right Government incentives, could provide export potential and an increase in solar jobs. REA said plans by Kingspan to manufacture its solar roofing system could potentially create over 1000 jobs by the end of 2012.[Page Break]

Will business move outside Europe?

However, latest evidence from REA & STAs Solar Survey demonstrates how the cuts to solar subsidies are leading to job losses, the survey of 140 companies (4,055 workers) found that over half (56 per cent) would reduce their workforce if the cuts to the feed in tariff went ahead as planned. Key findings also show that four in ten jobs could go 33 per cent of companies fear closure and a whopping 90 per cent say cuts are too deep and too fast. With almost all respondents (98 per cent) proclaiming that they are alarmed by the Government's treatment of the UK solar industry. Following these statistics The Environmental Audit Committee and Energy and Climate Change Committee are now opening inquiries into Government support for the industry.

The feared job losses amount to 1,715 people, representing 42 per cent of current total staff currently employed by these companies. The Renewable Energy Association estimates employment at 25,000 across the UK solar industry. Applying this rate of job loss to the sector would result in the loss of 11,000 solar jobs nationally.

In fact the world's biggest solar panel maker, Sharp Solar, is threatening to pull out of the UK following the Government's controversial decision to slash subsidies; this is according to the Daily Telegraph, it's therefore vital for solar professionals to know where and how all these job losses can be recovered.

Job opportunities in the solar industry are being created; in the US and China, nations where the solar industry is extremely competitive, with the US and China currently undergoing a solar trade war - in which some companies from China are exporting Solar panels to the US below cost price in order to drive out their competitors, in turn this has been criticised as damaging the US economy. Global solar industry competition is driving down cost and this in turn is creating thousands of American jobs. Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison said "further price declines driven by intense competition will only grow more new jobs throughout the solar value chain - especially in the US".

Within the US, California has continued to maintain its solar leadership as state-level policies and incentives continue to drive the solar market. Meanwhile, several U.S states are further embarking on solar integration. New Jersey's implementation of its Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) program, where one SREC is earned for each 1,000kWh of energy generated makes Jersey one of the busiest solar markets and the only state besides California to install more than 100MW in a single year. The East Coast of America is also emerging as a solar hot spot - Pennsylvania has doubled its 2010 solar generation to just 100MW in 2011, making it one of the top five solar states whilst New Mexico implemented its GS-Solar 300 MW project this year, installing more than 100MW.

A report titled "National Solar Jobs Census 2011: A Review of the Solar Workforce" outlines how more than 100,000 people are employed in the U.S. solar industry. Almost half of the solar firms in the report said they planned to hire more workers in the next twelve months, with a total of 24,000 new jobs created. This is positive in light of the shadow cast by the changes to the FiTs in the UK.[Page Break]

Another country that highlights the optimistic future of the solar industry is China. Over the past decade China has prioritised its sustainable development. Between 2006 and 2010 China's solar PV power sector generated 2,700 direct jobs and 6,500 indirect jobs annually, on average. This is projected to increase to an average of 6,680 direct jobs and 16,370 indirect jobs annually between 2011 and 2020. Given the rapid growth in China's solar industry and potential upward revisions in government projections, these estimates for future green jobs could increase considerably in the coming years.

There is a massive over supply of cell and module manufacturing capacity within China; brought about by a number of economic factors, including the soft global economy; the impact of the euro credit crisis on previously booming solar markets in Germany, Spain and Italy; and an overly ambitious growth forecast. All of which result in a large price drop for 2012; where manufacturers feel the pain of oversupply. Nevertheless the lower prices do make it more affordable for consumers and business to incorporate solar energy and this in turn drives a growth in jobs for solar installers, integrators, and local makers and assemblers of non-module components such as racking, tracking, inverters, and junction boxes.

In summary, the UK solar industry is in a state of shock following the publication of Department of Energy and Climate Change's comprehensive review of solar Feed-in-Tariffs (FIT) on 31st October 2011 with the impact for solar suppliers and jobs being catastrophic. Whilst the future of solar industry is shining in America, providing more than 100,000 jobs; and it is expected to grow along with the Chinese solar industry.

A sad truth points to the government that has put a lot of effort into building up this industry being criticised for threatening thousands of jobs at a time when renewable energy needs the support and investment to enable a sustainable future for all.

International Sustainability Recruitment Consultancy, Allen & York specialise in recruitment within the renewable energy industry and despite the FiT changes, have an increasing number of job opportunities within the solar industry throughout Europe and worldwide. Barbara Baran - Szlajnda, Solar Recruitment Consultant at Allen & York comments that "whilst 2012 will be tough for the solar industry, we do see a return to growth, within Europe, as a result of demand from the US, China and Japan. As global installations grow, due to cost decreases, it is likely we will continue to see jobs opportunities for solar professionals in Europe, specifically in the roles of project manager and technical engineers."

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