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London is missing out on the solar revolution

Over the last year, the amount of solar electricity generated in the UK has almost doubled. And yet, London has the lowest uptake of solar panels of any region on mainland Britain.

Our research shows that solar power could meet a fifth of London’s electricity needs. So why are people in the North of England and Scotland installing solar panels, while sunny London is ignoring this golden future?

At present, you have to walk around quite a lot of London streets before you even find a solar panel (also known as photovoltaics, or PVs). The government’s Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) is meant to encourage solar take up, by allowing households to earn money for generating their own electricity. So far, though, just one in every 260 London households has signed up.

Compare that to the South West, where one in 32 houses has taken part in the FIT. Admittedly, London has proportionally more flats, without access to their own roofs, than rural regions do; this does not account for an eight fold difference, however.

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This chart shows that London’s PV installations generate up to 49 megawatts, enough to supply the annual electricity needs of 12,000 homes. But our record is in stark contrast to other parts of southern England: the South West has installed capacity of 451MW, enough to power 110,000 homes.

This means that Londoners are missing out on at least £21m of revenue from the FIT scheme. All the city’s electricity users contribute to the running costs of this scheme, which adds about £7 to an annual £1,300 household energy bill. But most of this money heads elsewhere, rather than being spent in the capital.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are many success stories from elsewhere we could learn from. With a similar climate to southern England, Germany recently broke its own record of generating 50 per cent of its total electricity needs from solar energy. But unlike the UK, where the overwhelming majority of solar panel deployment is domestic, Germany’s deployment is mainly in the community, commercial and industrial sectors. 

The mayor of London has an ambition to generate a quarter of London’s energy needs from local energy sources. But his efforts have focused predominantly on developing large “Combined Heat & Power”and district heating systems.

Alongside this, he should kick-start a solar revolution in London, making us the equal of the South West. The aim would be to massively expand small community installations, as well as larger ones on the roof tops of London’s commercial and industrial businesses: there could be solar panels on top of supermarkets, car parks, public buildings, and the city’s thousands of schools.

The mayor should immediately set-up a high-level working group to develop a London equivalent of the government’s solar strategy, with an action plan and solar capacity targets. To complement this working group, he could set up a unit to provide a package of support to those thinking of installing solar panels. This would identify potential sites; help broker opportunities with roof top owners, investors, suppliers and installers; and assist with regulatory, planning, and contractual issues.

Misleading and erroneous blanket statements that you can’t fit solar panels in London’s 1,000 conservations areas are still prevalent. These need to be challenged. More visually acceptable tiles and slates are becoming available. And, even where tighter restrictions apply, the rules generally allow panels to be fitted, providing they are on the property roof and not on the wall front the road.

Solar generated electricity has the most potential of all renewable sources in London.  And, unlike fracking, this clean renewable energy source has the public support and comes without environmental risks.  Not only will it cut electricity bills and our carbon emissions; it should play a far greater role in meeting the electricity shortages that are expected in the next few years, too.

In the 1940s, the UK had a huge municipal energy system, with around 600 energy suppliers. Today we are dominated by the “Big Six”.

I want individual Londoners, community groups and businesses to be part of an energy industry worth hundreds of millions of pounds. I want a London which relies on tens of thousands of micro electricity generators for its success – and breaks the stranglehold of the big energy suppliers.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a member of the Green party and of the London Assembly. She published a longer report on this topic here.
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