Debate on solar panels on residential properties

Alok Sharma replies to a debate on solar panels on residential properties and their potential benefits to consumers and the wider community. 

It is a great pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve again under your chairmanship this morning. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for bringing forward this debate. During his time in Parliament, he has shown an incredibly keen interest in the energy sector, and he has done so again in this debate.

It is clear that all of us in the Chamber share the common goals of wanting new homes to be energy efficient and their occupants to have low energy bills. I recognise that there is a desire among homeowners and the wider public to contribute to sustainable development and to generate their own green energy. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have just helped to secure new investment in solar panels to produce electricity for affordable homes across England and Wales.

The Minister is making an interesting point and he is absolutely right. It is interesting and bizarre that in a mixed build of social and private sector housing in Carlisle, the social housing ended up with solar panels on the roof, but the private sector housing did not. That seems to be an anomaly. Why was it not done for both?

I will address my hon. Friend’s point about whether we should mandate a particular technology, but in an announcement last weekend, the Minister for Trade Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), welcomed £160 million of capital investment in UK renewable energy, backed by Dutch investors. This first step is a £1 billion programme to give 800,000 lower-income households access to cheaper solar electricity.

My hon. Friend talked about building regulations. Our building regulations and planning reforms encourage the use of renewables without mandating any particular technology. In the previous Parliament, we twice strengthened the energy requirements in building regulations, introducing tough but fair minimum standards. Home builders are now required to deliver highly energy-efficient homes that typically reduce energy bills by £200 a year, compared with homes built before 2010.

The energy requirements do not prescribe the technologies, materials or fuels to be used. That allows builders the flexibility to innovate and select the most practical and cost-effective solutions in the circumstances. Those solutions could indeed include solar panels— my hon. Friend talked about the example from his constituency—but they may not be appropriate for some types of building or location. For example, the use of solar panels is more limited on high-rise blocks, because there is of course proportionately less roof space available per apartment in the block.

The Government are carrying out a review of energy standards for new homes. We are examining the costs of making energy improvements and the benefits in fuel bill and carbon savings. That will allow us to consider the impact on housing supply, as more costly regulatory requirements may make housing development less viable in some areas.

My hon. Friend talked about building regulations more widely. The recent tragic event at Grenfell Tower shocked us all deeply, and we want to ensure that such an event never happens again in our country, but we also need to learn any broader lessons that may emerge. That is why an independent review of building regulations and fire safety is being carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt. We are waiting to see the outcome of that.

Planning reforms are also contributing to more deployment of solar panels on rooftops. In April 2015, we introduced new planning measures that allow for a twentyfold increase in the amount of solar that can go on to the roofs of non-domestic buildings without a full planning application having to be submitted, through the exercise of permitted development rights.

Of course, regulation and planning are not the only ways to increase the installation of renewable systems; incentives play an important part. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) talked about how the solar sector has been assisted during the past few years through Government incentives. The feed-in tariff scheme is a Government programme designed to promote the uptake of a range of small-scale renewable systems, including solar panels. Homeowners who install solar panels receive payments for the electricity generated, use that to save money on their bills, and sell any surplus electricity not used back to their supplier. Similarly, homeowners can be paid under the renewable heat incentive scheme for hot water provided by solar thermal panels. Feed-in tariffs have proved highly popular with homeowners. The scheme was introduced in 2010, and there are now close to 1 million solar panel installations on homes. The economy of scale has helped to reduce the cost of a typical domestic solar panel installation from about £20,000 to £7,000.

Smart meters will offer a range of increased functionality, including the ability accurately to measure exported electricity from solar panels. The Government are committed to ensuring that every home and small business in the country is offered a smart meter by the end of 2020. More than 1 million smart meters were installed in the first quarter of 2017, and almost 7 million smart meters are now in operation across the country.

As our energy system and the way we interact with it changes, installing storage technologies such as batteries, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred, as well as solar panels can help consumers to use energy when it is cheapest, and they can be rewarded with smart tariffs for being flexible about when they use energy. As hon. Members may be aware, in July my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced a plan to give homes and businesses more control over their energy use and to support the development of innovative battery technologies.

The Government recognise the important contribution that solar panels on buildings are making in creating a low-carbon future, and we have a range of current and planned policies to promote their uptake further. However—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle will not be too disappointed when I say this—ultimately we do not want to mandate the use of specific technologies. The decision on the use of renewable technologies needs to be determined by what is most practical and cost-effective in the circumstances in which builders find themselves.

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