Earlier this week, the government announced plans for massive cuts to the Feed-in tariff, a popular incentive scheme that pays solar panel owners for each unit of power that they generate.
This isn't a completely done deal – the government is consulting on the plans until late December, but the way it's been announced has got people bracing for the worst.
The Feed-in tariff (often shortened to Fit) certainly isn't perfect, but it's been incredibly successful at getting panels on roofs. This doesn't just help people reduce their utility bills and carbon emissions – there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that seeing the panels in action (and reaping the rewards) can change the way people think about energy, and makes them more likely to make climate-friendly choices in other areas of their lives.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the rates need to come down as installation costs fall – that's how subsidies are supposed to work. Even the solar industry is pushing for a gradual reduction in line with falling installation costs.
But cutting so far and so fast will put thousands of solar workers out of a job and pull the rug out from under small community groups that have already poured time and effort into their projects, but don't stand a chance of meeting the new deadline.
We just heard from Brighton Energy Cooperative, which was due to start selling shares on Wednesday but has been forced to put the entire project on hold until further notice. A few hours later, Reading Council – our partners on the Solar Schools project – announced that they'd be drastically scaling back their own school solar programme. These are the first examples to emerge – they won't be the last.
Cutting so far and so fast will put thousands of solar workers out of a job and pull the rug out from under small community groups that don't stand a chance of meeting the new deadline.
If the proposals do end up being adopted, it's also likely to be the end of 'free' solar schemes, where companies offer solar rigs to households at low or no cost in exchange for the Fit payments. Killing off these schemes will effectively put the benefits of solar power out of reach for poorer families and social housing programmes, who could never afford to buy the panels outright at current prices.
This isn't just unfair; it defeats the whole purpose of the scheme.
The government argues that without drastic cuts, the scheme would run out of money completely in the next few months, forcing them to close it to new applicants until around 2015. They claim, therefore, that slashing rates was the least-bad option under the circumstances.
But this ignores the fact that these circumstances are entirely of their own making. Here's why...