The recent announcement of a review of feed-in tariff payments for solar photovoltaic installations, prompted by fears over large-scale solar farms blowing the budget for Fits, was met with a chorus of disapproval from both the solar industry and environmentalists.

However, last week, John Costyn from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) explained the reason for exploring an upper limit of 50kWp for entering the scheme: it’s because that is the legal definition of micro generation. This reminder that the tariff is all about encouraging small installations in and for local communities – not big installations needing big money and generating big profits – suggests that the review should be welcomed instead.

Mark Shorrock, from solar farm developers Low Carbon Solar and the landowner- and investor-backed campaign group Power to Society, has claimed that “scores of ‘big society’ community-owned schemes” are affected. In practice it’s probably no more than a dozen schemes that are close to 100 kWp, and any limit must surely be adjusted to accommodate these. But let’s be clear about how big a 50kWp installation is – up to 270 panels, a sizeable installation for any community building or social housing project. Every school in the country, for example, could spend up to £145,000 and gain an income, including free electricity, of £17,000 a year.

Large-scale solar farms are claimed to be more cost-efficient but have few benefits compared with smaller installations. They don’t generate electricity where it’s needed and energy is lost in transmission. They are slower to construct due to planning and grid connection issues.

More jobs are created installing a hundred 50kWp systems compared to one 5,000kWp solar farm and these smaller projects can be even more cost -fficient if they are grouped together. They also offer great opportunities to engage people in changing their behaviour around energy use. The Shimmer project based in Kingston-upon-Thames, for example, installs panels on the roofs of fuel poor households and helps tenants monitor their savings and build on them by using energy more efficiently.

If venture capital funds lose interest in solar power, as has already been reported, then it’s time to get creative and replace their money with the savings of tens of thousands of small investors through ‘community share’ schemes – such as those planned by Brighton Energy Co-op and Ovesco in Lewes, based on models successfully used for wind farms. Green Isas and pension plans should be encouraged not threatened, and used to develop renewable energy.

At the Solar Co-op, we have raised finance for our first big installation from another cooperative and there must be hundreds more co-ops, charities, churches, trusts and other organisations interested in finding a safe, ethical home for their members’ money. The early review has unsettled a lot of people who are striving to make community-funded installations a reality, but with the clarity that projects below 50 kWp will not be affected, there is still more than enough to be getting on with.

Originally published in The Guardian


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Kevin Frea is a Grandparent, Politician, Human Ecologist, Community Energy Practitioner and former Special Needs Teacher.