Jayne Dowle: Solar farce short-circuits green dream once again

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IT sounds like an April Fool. Or one of those daft stories that do the rounds of the internet. Unfortunately it’s not. According to a new report, all those solar panels fitted in the last few years could have been put on roofs the wrong way round.

Professor Ralph Gottschalg, an energy specialist, says they would be much more efficient placed in an alternating east and west formation rather than facing due south. This would increase the amount of electricity generated and save money on fuel bills – the main priority of the exercise in the first place.

It is one report, from one academic, 
so let’s not get carried away. However, it 
is also a seed of doubt. It’s not going to 
be much comfort for those who have spent good money on having panels 
fitted and gone to the trouble of changing the appearance of their home permanently. And it is yet another reminder that this Government has little clue when it comes to creating a joined-up approach to saving energy – and ultimately the planet.

In the early heady days of the coalition, I remember David Cameron promising to make his “the greenest government ever”.

Four years later, what does he have to show for this grand statement except a load of confusion, distrust and resentment?

Solar panels facing the wrong way round are just the latest example of a good idea gone messily and expensively awry.

I will say two words to you – Green Deal. What an embarrassment. It was designed as a flagship government-backed loans scheme to help householders improve the insulation and energy efficiency of their homes.

A good idea, you might think, until you look into the detail. Everybody would like a nice warm house with proper insulation, a new energy-efficient boiler even. Who, though, has the spare money to pay for these kind of improvements?

The Green Deal promises this, but saddles properties with an ongoing debt. Not only does this put financial pressure on homeowners, but it puts a charge on the property itself and, potentially, makes it harder to sell. No wonder it is reported that take-up has been in the hundreds, rather than the thousands of households, that the Government envisaged. Even the politician in charge, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, concedes that interest has been “disappointing”.

You have to applaud the Government for attempting to make us think about the energy that we use. Yet so much of what it has come up with in the war against climate change sounds better on paper than it does in reality. And that reality, for many people, has been a knock on the door from a couple of young men in shiny suits wielding clipboards and offering to do “an energy assessment”.

First, we had the solar panel boys at our house. They promised us untold savings on our electricity bill. This was fine until the solar panel company actually came to our home, took one look at the roof and said that it faced the wrong way. Off they went.

Who knows? Perhaps now Professor Gottschalg has done his work, it could actually be facing the right way. I won’t be going to the trouble of finding out because, frankly, I’ve lost patience with the whole idea and with every other salesman in a shiny suits who turned up and tried to sell me the Green Deal. As if I would consider committing hundreds if not thousands of pounds to home improvements there and then on the doorstep. Every bit of consumer advice I have ever been given urges caution in such a situation. Faced with it like that, why should green improvements be any different from dodgy double-glazing?

The problem is this Government has been too hasty to come up with a solution to the very real and pressing problem of domestic energy use. It wanted to make a big impression, but didn’t really think through the consequences.

I daresay its policies were researched, but clearly not enough. It’s hopelessly disjointed. The science of energy is complicated enough for most of us to understand as it is, without having to take on the burden of calculating the dynamics of electricity generation and so on.

You try doing the maths on working out the possible cost/benefit ratio of a biomass generator versus a new boiler. It’s a specialist area and it should be treated with caution and respect, following proper expert advice. And why should all the onus be on the hard-pressed homeowner?

We’re not responsible for setting the price of gas and electricity, the energy companies are. Why should we have to outlay so much of our hard-earned money to reduce our bills when they are raking in the profits at the same time as putting up their charges? These are all big questions we need answers to. And what have we got? Two boys on the doorstep in shiny suits and solar panels facing the wrong way round. What a way to win a war.