Solar Storm Coming: The Battle for the UK Energy Industry

By Arnott, Sarah | The Independent (London, England), October 28, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Solar Storm Coming: The Battle for the UK Energy Industry


Arnott, Sarah, The Independent (London, England)


Last week's Spending Review was just a skirmish in an industry 'civil war', Solarcentury founder Jeremy Leggett tells Sarah Arnott

'It is a great big battle of ideas, and we haven't won it yet," says Jeremy Leggett. The green guru and founder of Solarcentury - the solar-photovoltaic (PV) supplier that is Britain's fastest- growing energy company - is in the vanguard of the battle. And while the clean-energy industry is breathing a sigh of relief that last week's Government Spending Review did not axe the feed-in tariff (FIT) widely hailed as a cornerstone of Britain's renewable-energy revolution, Mr Leggett has no time for complacency.

"We've had a lucky escape," he says. "There were massive forces of darkness lined up against us - a whole cadre of politicians and officials trying to, at the minimum, cut back the FIT and, if they could get away with it, shut it down completely."

Such manoeuvres were seen off by the progressive elements in the Coalition only "at the 11th hour", Mr Leggett says, citing sources "who could not be more highly placed". The FIT is central to the development of Britain's clean-energy sector, and the back-room machinations over its survival are just a single skirmish in the war for the future of Britain's energy supplies.

Mr Leggett could not be more serious: "The danger is that we will be ambushed by our collective stupidity before we have enough weapons to fight back. The mobilisation of renewable-energy technologies vital to our survival might not happen fast enough to counter the threats of global warming and peak oil."

The reception area at Solarcentury's head office near London's Waterloo station is littered with awards. And Mr Leggett himself is similarly feted: a loud voice on impending climate catastrophe and the author of two books on the subject.

But his career began on a different track entirely, and it was only after more than 10 years as a geologist working for the oil industry that he was spooked by evidence of global warming and made the break to join Greenpeace. Eight years later, in 1997, he set up Solarcentury, which is now Britain's biggest solar-PV supplier. "Solar is so incredibly neat: there are no moving parts, just sits there and makes electricity," he says.

With 130 staff, its ground-breaking solar-PV roof tile manufactured by Sony in Wales, and more than 40 per cent annual revenue growth for the past six years, Solarcentury's prospects are sunny indeed. "This business is all about 'seeing is believing'," Mr Leggett says. "At first blush it just doesn't sound right, but then people see the installation and see the meter going round, and then they get it."

But without the FIT, renewables cannot move from the fringes to the mainstream. Introduced in April by the Labour government, the scheme encourages small-scale clean-energy generation - such as solar-PV panels or roof-mounted wind turbines - by obliging electricity companies to buy any excess energy produced.

The impact was immediate. Solarcentury alone saw revenues grow by 76 per cent in the first half of the year and boosted its headcount by a fifth to cope with the influx of orders. And that is just the beginning. Analysts estimate the solar-PV market could hit as much as 250 megawatts (MW) next year, from a woeful 10 MW in 2009, thanks to the FIT.

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