Cambs Solar Plan Scuppered

17:22 Friday 11th November 2011
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY BURROWS: Plans to make a Council headquarters in Cambridgeshire far greener by using solar panels has had to be scrapped. South Cambridgeshire District Council had already cancelled plans to add panels to sheltered accommodation, but were still hoping to press ahead with another scheme. Let’s speak to Peter Topping, who’s Cabinet Member for, the wonderfully named Sustainability, Planning and Climate Change. That’s what they call a large brief, I’d have thought. Hello to you Peter.
PETER TOPPING: Hello there.
ANDY BURROWS: So what’s the latest plan that’s had to be scrapped then?
PETER TOPPING: Well basically we were going to put solar panels on the roof of the building here at Cambourne, which is the headquarters of the District Council. And this was going to generate about 40 kilowatts of power. So this would be panels of the size of a couple of tennis courts. So not inconsiderable. And that was going to cost us, to get this thing built, about £200,000. There were two reasons we were going to do it. First of all, because we think and I think we’re a green council. But the second thing was that we were going to get a return on our investment, over 25 years, of about £250,000. Now the Government announced about ten days ago that the rate of return was going to be cut considerably. And we’ve been wrestling with the figures all this week. And basically it just doesn’t stack up any more.
ANDY BURROWS: No. And that’s clearly a disappointment to you.
PETER TOPPING: It is. We are disappointed. We have made a commitment, that when all the dust settles on this, maybe first part of next year, wwe’ll take another look at this, and see whether we can still do it. But obviously it’s a very different financial package than it was literally only a couple of days ago.
ANDY BURROWS: So when you talk about money, you’re talking about the actual amount that you would get back for the energy you create, or you talking about the subsidy to pay for the panels in the first place?
PETER TOPPING: The way that it works, is that we would generate electricity, which we would sell to an energy provider, one of the big six. But there would be a subsidy, which meant that for the energy we generated, we would get a return on investment of, over the period of 25 years, about a quarter of a million pounds. And of course, the electricity we generate would be free to us. So overall, it was a pretty good package. But, with the feed-in tariff being cut dramatically by the Government, it just doesn’t stack up.
ANDY BURROWS: Yes. The Government’s basically said , and no doubt you’ve heard this argument before, that if it kept up the current feed-in tariff as it’s called, at the present rate, it would just be eaten up before everybody else got to have their go, if you like. Do you feel that you could have moved a little bit quicker? Because if you’d done this a month ago, you’d have probably still got it, wouldn’t you?
PETER TOPPING: That’s an interesting point, because if we’d have been further down the line on this, and I know some local authorities are, we might have signed a commitment to have this thing built, and then we would have had no choice but to go through with it. Whereas at least, having made the decision now, we can say, well, we spent a little bit on design costs, but we haven’t made a major commitment of £200,000. We can stop this thing now. But as I say, we are committed that next year we will come back to it.
PETER TOPPING: One of the things that really does disappoint us is not so much the panels on the roof here that we were looking forward to, but we were also going to put panels on council houses. And that would have given people who otherwise probably wouldn’t get an opportunity to be part of this low-carbon stuff, that’s all gone as well.
ANDY BURROWS: And I suppose that there are many many people who are still fairly sceptical about  solar energy, not because they don’t believe in it, but it’s more that it’s a cost thing, isn’t it, I suppose? And  you do see houses from time to time, there’s a few near me that have got solar panels on. It always leaves me wondering two things. I always feel like knocking the door, and asking how much does it cost you in the first place, and when are you likely to ever see any money back. And is it just to make you feel a little bit better. And the fear is, I suppose, that even those few people that have got them now, or are thinking about them, a bit like yourselves, will now be put off. Certainly there’ll be a kind of wait and see moment now, for the next maybe six months a year before people really decide whether it’s really going to be worth it.
PETER TOPPING: Yes. I think there’s no doubt that people are thinking, well, that was a very quick decision by the Government. We understand the reason behind it. Because, as you say, they were fast running out of the money that they put aside for it. But I think the way it was done has made people think, gosh, what’s going to happen next. And there is a need to bring a bit of confidence back again. That said, where I live in Whittlesford, we still reckon we can get panels on the village hall, because they’re further down the line, and it’s a much simpler project. And that was one of the things that made this proposal here quite complicated, that the supply chain stretched half way round the world. Because we had to get the panels from oversea.
ANDY BURROWS: I can sense your frustration. And I’m just intrigued by solar panels, for many reasons, because we probably all like to do our bit. But I just think they’re horrendously expensive, as far as I can work out. However, in saying that, just finally, is it up to local authorities do you think, to mainly take the lead in going green?
PETER TOPPING: I think local authorities have a big role to play in this, partly because I think people reasonably trust the local authority. It empties the bins and does all that sort of stuff. And one of the things that we’re doing is we’re doing some retro-fitting, which is like taking 1970s houses, which were built before the first oil crisis, which were very poor in terms of heat retention, and we’re retro-fitting them, using modern technology, and just showing people how much heat you can conserve, just by applying some new technology onto houses that were built thirty, forty years ago. So that’s the sort of thing that .. that’s another way of pushing the green low-carbon agenda forward.
ANDY BURROWS: Well it will be interesting to see. Thank you very much. It’s a subject that really interests me. So thank you for your time. Peter Topping that was, Cabinet Member for Sustainability, Planning and Climate Change for South Cambridgeshire District Council.