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The Solar Trade Association is currently at pains to persuade consumers that solar power remains “a very good investment” despite recent helter-skelter changes to the Feed-in Tariff. Perhaps “persuade” is the wrong word – “help people realise” might be more appropriate, because the returns really are good – the numbers speak for themselves – and solar really is one of the best consumer investments around at the moment.

Emma Hughes summed up the recent solar sales slump with the concise phrase “missed the boat”. Getting the 43p boat was like entering a raffle and winning a round-the-world cruise on a glorious ocean-liner. Getting the 21p boat – or indeed the 16p boat – is like entering the same raffle and getting a round-the-world cruise on a slightly less glamorous ship. But it’s still a bloody good prize, one you’d be mad to turn away from just because you didn’t win the First Prize.

But I’m mainly focusing here on the future. The past six months has been unsustainable, but exciting. We’ve seen exhilarating booms and cataclysmic busts. Should DECC’s package of reforms to the FIT work – and industry is generally confident that it will – then these spikes and troughs will give way to much steadier, and ultimately healthier, sales trends.

The costs of solar are likely to continue trending downward in the near future. This will increase sales and hence decrease the FIT, hence decreasing sales. The upward pressure of lower costs will be checked by the downward pressure of lower tariffs. The ultimate win would be for the FIT to reduce to zero on the day solar’s costs fall to the point where it reaches grid parity – i.e. when it is cheaper without subsidy than buying energy from a supplier. When this day comes, will we still think of solar as a “good investment”?

Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense of an economically sensible decision, but no longer in the sense of a “nice little earner”. What I foresee is solar turning back into a material product – panels for your roof – rather than an investment product. And I wonder what this conceptual alchemy – this shift in framing – will do to sales?

Energy Minister Greg Barker expects solar to really take off when it reaches this point. In thinking about whether his predictions are sound, I’d like to draw on Professor Michael Sandel and Malcolm Gladwell.

Professor Sandel’s latest book The Moral Limits of Markets (which I haven’t read, but I did see him present from it in St Paul’s Cathedral recently) points to examples from various cultures where financial incentives end up acting as a deterrent, rather than a catalyst, to desired behaviours. In many and various contexts, the common good is a more effective incentive than naked self interest.

Because of the Feed-in Tariff, the motivations for installing solar have shifted from the common good to naked self interest. We may herald this as a success, the incorporation of a necessary social policy – low carbon energy – into the dominant cultural paradigm – that being capitalism/neoliberalism/the age of the individual etc.

But there are many in the environmental movement who feel that it is simply impracticable, not to mention undesirable, to solve every environmental problem by making the solutions into opportunities for profit. These people tend to think that a world in which we are good for the sake of being good, rather than because we are paid to be good, is a more desirable world.

When solar reaches grid parity, will we still take to our calculators, and start promoting it on the basis of energy bill savings? Maybe – but won’t we still have that same “missed the boat” problem? If it’s difficult selling now on 8% ROI because you could’ve got 10% two months ago, how difficult is it going to be when you only get savings, not direct profit?

Perhaps we will instead rediscover the enormous social benefits of solar – in particular its ability to displace global warming-causing fossil-fired power generation, and its ability to decentralise energy production, resulting in greater resilience to shocks of whatever kind, and greater energy independence for homes and businesses.

Of course, these are not clouds in a crystal ball that will form themselves – they depend on decisions that installers, consumers and trade bodies make in the mean time, and those decisions depend on, and influence, the way the dominant culture goes. Which is where Malcolm Gladwell comes into it.

In his book The Tipping Point, he describes how paying people to do a good thing can have good short term results, but when that payment incentive is removed, those same people may end up doing less of the good thing than they did before. Perhaps the FIT will get us to grid parity, but it may also signal the death of solar as well. If you’re not going to pay me to put panels on my roof, why should I?

This is just a thought piece, taking a step back to consider some of the different ways of thinking about, framing, and selling solar power. It doesn’t have all the answers (or even any!), but it asks questions which I think traders, environmentalists and energy policymakers will need to be asking as we get closer to grid parity. Will this landmark be a magical tipping point, or the ultimate stagnation? It’s up to us.

Finally, a quick conceptual question on the FIT to inspire debate. What confuses me about the FIT is that it both encourages the capitalist mindset by making self-interest the dominant motive, but it also breaks the golden rule of neoliberal orthodoxy by intervening in the market, fixing the price to achieve the desired outcome. Surely “tariff” is a dirty word in the WTO? So my question is: is the Feed-in Tariff an example of the further intrusion of markets, economic orthodoxy, and self-interest into our social lives, or an intrusion of overbearing Government, price fixing and nanny-statism into our free markets?

And ultimately, can we solve the climate problem by internalising the externality in our economic mindset, or do we have to externalise the internality of our sense of duty to the common good?

Humans are mainly made of water and carbon. It’s important to remember that if we release too much carbon into the air and the water rises too high, that is a human problem. It’s a problem caused by humans, which impacts on humans, and which humans have the power to mitigate, or perhaps, hope against hope, solve or prevent. I’m counterposing human here to nonhuman, rather than human versus other animal. Other animals are of course affected by climate change too, but even the plight of other animals must be considered a human problem – other animals don’t care, they can’t, only we care, as only we know how.

So yes, let’s not forget that if we want to address such problems, we are going to need humans to work together. One might characterise the climate change problem as a gigantic collective action problem played out across many geographical and institutional scales and between many types of heterogenous actor. The current mantra in Western thought when it comes to solving collective problems is to turn them into competitions, and at the risk of gross generalisation, this reduces the time given over to collaboration and compassion, which in my view have more to do with humanity than does competition, but I can see why some people disagree.

Of course, green capitalists do exist. Zac Goldsmith is one, and this week, in The Guardian, he did something extraordinary – he revealed his human vulnerability. He revealed that competition alone isn’t enough. Sometimes getting stuff done is absolutely draining. When you are surrounded by obstacles on all sides, sometimes you need a boost in confidence, and giving credit for an achievement, no matter how small, builds that confidence and strengthens resolve. If all you get for your efforts is ‘you could and should have done better,’ then you’re fairly well justified in replying ‘well why do I even fucking bother.’

Friends of the Earth’s Craig Bennett and The Guardian’s Damian Carrington, both of whom I immensely admire, responded to Zac with little sympathy, and some contempt, the former urging ‘ministers to stop feeling sorry for themselves,’ and the latter calling it simply ‘wrong to castigate green critics’. Note that there may be some editorial framing on the former but not the latter – DC is the environment editor at The Guardian.

Now when a friendly dog is down, even if you disagree with that dog on a lot of other things, and the dog lives in a kennel full of pricks, don’t kick it. When someone bears their soul, don’t put it in a blender. Zac probably isn’t crying as a result of these responses, you have to have thicker skin than that to survive British politics, but it is not the result he, or I, would have hoped for. A conservative called for a little compassion and collaboration from the ‘liberal media’ and third sector, and what he found was that they were unable to swallow their pride, preferring to act in an aggressive and competitive way. The irony is almost comic. Almost.

So let us applaud the good work that has been done, as Zac asked: The Green Investment Bank and Renewable Heat Incentive, for example, are world-leading environmental policies. Thank you to all those who have helped make them happen.

The environment is a human problem. But those who do the most shouting about the environment do not have exclusivity on humanity. Indeed, sometimes they lack it. Saying thank you is not as newsworthy as complaining, but it is every bit as worthy. News isn’t everything.

So let’s unite behind common goals, find Nick and Dave’s green tongues which we know exist but which that new Downing Street cat seems to have stolen, and get on with sorting shit out, one step at a time, starting with the FITs fuck-up…

Dull fog, sharp sun

I just recently moved to London. Finsbury Park. I was wandering around the area on Sunday morning. It was a very foggy morning. The fog made all of the sharp edges of the urban landscape seem blurry. Corners of buildings, billboards and so forth all lost their clarity in the morning mist. However, when I looked up into the sky, I was able to not just see, but actually look at the sun. And it was a perfect, crisp lemon-yellow circle. It was unusual and beautiful. I just thought I’d share this unexpected inversion of the norms of what is visible and clear and what is blinding and fuzzy.

I’ve just watched Panorama on BBC 1 explore the hot topic of energy prices, and I am left feeling a little frustrated.

Building a sustainable and reliable energy infrastructure surely has to be a national priority. It won’t be easy, or cheap, but the alternatives are more expensive, and more frightening.

Panorama argues that energy price increases are due to three factors: green targets (renewables, nuclear and pylons), plant renewal, and volatile gas prices. The screen time given to each was roughly in the ratio 3:2:1 respectively.

While it is true that it will be expensive in the short term to switch from traditional technologies to low carbon technologies, the question I would have liked to have seen asked is the following: what would the costs of inaction be?

A tentative answer: It would result in one or both of the following: a) missing our climate targets, which is an abhorrent prospect, not just for our own children and coastlines, but for the consignment to death of entire countries elsewhere; and/or b) having to adapt rapidly, rather than gradually, to sky-rocketing fossil fuel prices in the face of what appear to be increasingly uncertain international financial markets, increasingly uncertain geopolitical tensions, and lest we forget the major factor the programme omitted, the actual exhaustion of the fossil fuel resource and its attendant price explosion. Breaking our fossil fuel addiction might be tough today, but the longer we leave it, the tougher it’s going to be.

Ultimately the programme failed to see the big picture: the need for a sustainable, dependable energy system. An energy system built on imports of finite resources is neither sustainable nor dependable. For energy security alone, a sustainable energy system is an imperative. The climate change thing is almost secondary; Panorama’s ridiculous depiction of it as the domain of policy wonks and mad scientists does not change the facts around fossil fuel’s volatility, and ultimately, finitude.

From a moral perspective, I am sad that the ethical imperative concerning the risks of climate change cannot inspire us to swallow the renewables medicine, which once we get used to it I’m sure we will find tastes not so bitter at all, but in fact sweet. From a purely rationalist perspective, I am equally sad that most of the people on that show were so short-sighted as to not even consider what costs society will have to bear in a rapid energy transition 30 or 40 years from now rather than a gradual one starting today.

The question is not: what are the costs of going green compared to what we’re used to, but rather, what are the costs of going green compared to what happens if we don’t? Because we have to face up to the fact that what we’re used to is unfair on the majority world, and, in any case, whether we like it or not, is not going to last.

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