Page last updated at 07:22 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

'Too popular' green scheme closed

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Child holding solar photovoltaic panel

Environmental campaigners say they are astonished at the government's decision to suspend a scheme which gave grants to schools, hospitals and other public buildings to switch to renewable energy.

The Low Carbon Buildings Programme has apparently been too popular - particularly with those hoping to install solar panels.

"Is it working?"

"Yes - I think so - the yellow one is."

Two young children pore over a rather unseasonal little cardboard Christmas tree, as the LED lights that adorn it glow rather dully under cloudy skies.

The flickering glow that the lights emit is coming not from a plug, but from the sky - in the shape of a small, palm-sized solar photovoltaic (PV) panel, held towards the lowering clouds.

And this might be as close as the Eco-club pupils of Great Missenden School in Buckinghamshire get to seeing solar PV in action.

Staff had hoped that their application for a grant to put up solar PV panels would be considered, but now they've been told they've missed out.

"They've run out of money - it's been very popular," says Margaret Dixon, the school's librarian, who's been heading up the application.

The government appears to be taking the renewables industry apart
Ed Matthew
Friends of the Earth

"It would obviously be lovely if we could get some money because it's such a wonderful technology and such an example to the local community to have it happening here at the school.

"We were also hoping for solar panels on the church as well, which would have been great for Great Missenden as a whole."

The school is hoping it might get some funding from the National Lottery, but, like many others, it now finds itself having to look for other forms of cash for its solar plans.

Those within the renewable energy industry say this state of affairs is no surprise.

The Renewable Energy Association says it warned the government in February that the money within the scheme was going to run out for PV.

They say cash allocated for other renewable technologies is likely to remain unspent, because nobody has applied for it.

But the government has not re-allocated this cash to the ultra-popular solar PV, so, the association says, it is likely that about £8m of funding will simply end up going back to the Treasury.

Raising awareness

Those who have managed to get funding for solar PV enthuse about the benefits.

Standing on the rooftop of Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne in Kent, headmaster Alan Brookes proudly surveys his solar panels.

They have cut electricity bills by between five and 10%, but Mr Brookes says the educational benefits have been just as significant.

"Children were going home talking to their parents about it, parents got interested, community groups came, and you begin the dialogue," he says.

"If you can raise the awareness, then you've done a major job."

Solar panels on school roof
Having solar panels on the roof can cut a school's electricity bill

Mr Brookes and his staff are obviously very proactive in finding funding and the school has several pieces of equipment won through competitions.

For example, Fulston Manor won £1,000 from the Rolls-Royce science prize to pay for a seismograph for measuring earthquakes - it can pick up disturbances as far afield as Tonga and the Arctic.

Indeed, the solar PV panels were paid partly from a government grant and partly through a scheme run by the Co-op called Solar for Schools.

But the Co-op scheme was a match-funding project - they effectively doubled the cash from the government - and it is difficult to see how they will match-fund state grants if there are no grants to match.

'Defies belief'

A government spokeswoman says ministers are considering the future options for the scheme with industry representatives, but environmental campaigners say they are growing increasingly weary about the gap between political rhetoric and political action.

Ed Matthew, from Friends of the Earth, is in no doubt about just how fast we are moving towards the low carbon economy spoken of by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and the prime minister.

"It almost defies belief," he says. "We have to almost completely decarbonise the energy system in the UK in the next 20 to 30 years to avoid catastrophic climate change.

"Meanwhile, the government appears to be taking the renewables industry apart."

And others point out that this is not the first time such grants have been over-subscribed.

In the past, the government's funding schemes for domestic renewable energy projects proved so popular that the money ran out within hours of it becoming available.

Renewable energy experts say it has all been disastrous and could leave the UK at a competitive disadvantage in the future.

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