Surrounded by idyllic model homes, Elon Musk stands on a hastily erected stage in a leafy suburban cul-de-sac.
A small crowd has gathered in front of the billionaire entrepreneur for the unveiling of Tesla’s latest innovation: glass roof tiles that function as solar panels. More durable and less expensive than traditional roofing options, tiles capable of generating electricity are just the latest example of how rapidly renewable technologies are reshaping how homes and businesses are powered.
From grid-connected wind farms to battery powered cars, clean energy is becoming an integral part of daily life across the world. Private sector innovators like Musk are proving that a renewable energy future is both practical and attainable – but some governments are still struggling to catch on and incorporate forward-looking solutions into national policy.
Businesses and individuals have never had more options for sourcing and generating their own renewable power. But in the UK government policy is failing to recognise the growing demand for clean energy. Over the past year, politicians in Whitehall have approved plans to frack for shale gas in Lancashire and greenlighted the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, demonstrating that renewable power isn’t a top priority when it comes to energy policy.
Recent policy changes will make it more difficult for citizens and businesses to receive financial support for renewable projects big or small. Solar power subsidies known as feed-in-tariffs were cut by 65 percent earlier this year. The scheme aimed to reduce the cost of fitting solar panels on homes, and the cuts have already reduced new installations by three quarters.
In July, government plans to impose a rise in business rates on self-consumption solar power were uncovered by the Solar Trade Association, meaning that businesses generating on-site solar energy could soon face tax penalties. Over 160 groups advocating for solar power have written to Chancellor Philip Hammond urging him to reconsider the rates hike, arguing that it will make many solar systems uneconomical.
Weak or inconsistent policy commitments risk damaging investment in the UK’s renewables sector. Ernst and Young has placed Britain at number 14 in its 2016 renewable energy attractiveness index, which measures the appeal of global renewable markets. While the country is normally an annual fixture in the top 10, analysts cited Brexit uncertainty and rapid policy shifts among the reasons for the downgrade.
James Court, head of policy and external affairs at the Renewable Energy Association, believes the practical benefits of renewables will ensure investors don’t abandon Britain for good. “Clean solutions such as energy storage and electric vehicles are global industries, and the cost of renewables is falling rapidly,” he says. “Widespread use of solar and wind technology means renewables are quickly becoming the least expensive form of electricity generation in countries like the UK.”
But it’s not only plummeting costs that offer hope for the renewables industry. The Climate Change Act binds the UK to carbon reductions of 80 percent on 1990 levels by the year 2050. However, no matter how firmly committed the government is to a sustainable future, policy alone will not be enough to achieve the targets laid out. Only with the aid of businesses will it be possible for the government meet its own deadlines.
“Private investment is crucial to the growth and uptake of renewables in the UK,” says Adam Wentworth, communications officer at trade body RenewableUK. “Not only does it help fund new power projects, but corporate power purchase agreements help to provide a steady revenue stream for renewable developers.”
Britain is already home to the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Kent, and by the end of next year, a massive ‘floating’ wind farm will be generating enough energy to power 20,000 Scottish homes. In Wales, there are plans to construct a groundbreaking tidal lagoon project in Swansea Bay that will use turbines to capture energy from moving tides. Projects like these show that there is still an appetite for groundbreaking renewables projects in the UK.
Uncertainty continues to surround renewables in the UK, and the dust will need to settle on a tumultuous few years before a clear vision for the future emerges. Having already blown its renewable energy target for 2020, a renewed commitment to decarbonisation is crucial for the UK. While policy hurdles continue to slow the deployment of renewables, forward-thinking investment is needed more than ever. Private sector funding may be the key to ensuring momentum continues to build in Britain’s renewables sector.
Lauren Razavi is an award-winning writer and content strategist, and managing director of communications consultancy Flibl. She has worked on projects for leading global brands such as NatWest, Google and Facebook, and her writing focuses on technology, finance, entrepreneurship and innovation. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.