People like me who buy solar panels tend to become unreasonably fond of them. Many homeowners come to regard these silent blocks of silicon on our roofs as part of the family. I’m also particularly proud that our panels are registered at Ofgem, the utilities regulator, as Power Station 571. The reason for going through the cumbersome process to convince Ofgem that my silicon should be listed alongside Drax and Sizewell B was to benefit from the government incentive scheme for renewable electricity generation.
I am meant to get a cheque every year as a payment for the electricity that panels generate. But I have never had a penny. The large generators get paid reliably every month but my many attempts over the last couple of years to collect the money I’m owed – not a lot, it has to be said – have failed. It hasn’t been for want of trying. My file is full of faxes (remember them?) submitted and then resubmitted at Ofgem’s request, notes of endless telephone calls, and a futile attempt to appoint Southern Electric as my agent. The regulator’s excuses have been many and various: the faxes were lost, the computer system had been changed, the manager left, the numbers had to be checked, or Southern Electric hadn’t sent through some details properly.
Because I have a professional interest in how the government support scheme for renewables works, I have persisted long after a more rational individual would have given up. The latest excuse – provided today – is that one of the other ‘microgenerators’, as we are respectfully called, has emigrated to Australia meaning that a batch of approvals can’t be completed. I have a sneaking suspicion why this family left its beautiful silicon panels behind. Dealing with Ofgem would make any sane person eager to get as far away as possible. Perhaps as they got on the plane these hapless microgenerators gave a shout of relief as they left the regulator and its absurdly malfunctioning systems behind. ‘Don’t worry about the money – we never wanted it anyway – just use it to reduce the national debt,’ is what they probably said.
I went to the regulator’s annual report on the renewable payments scheme to see if there were any clues as to why us pioneers are suffering. What I read there was truly humbling. I may resent the ten or twenty hours I have spent in the last year chasing my £66.43. But Ofgem is upset as well. The report crossly says that the 1,000 or so microgenerators in the UK cost the regulator £600,000 last year in staff and office costs. That’s £600 per generating site, ten times the money they owe me. I may have been frustrated by the time I spent chasing my payment, but they appear to have spent days and days justifying why the money hadn’t been properly sent to Power Station 571. In fact, Ofcom unashamedly comments that cost of generators like me was substantially more than the value of the electricity we produced. Between the thousand of us we generated about 8,000 megawatt hours, or just about enough to cover the electricity needs of 200 homes or a large secondary school. But Ofcom has a section of five or ten people responding to our complaints and trying to find new reasons not to send us the cash. Reading between the lines, the regulator is trying to tell government that it is fed up with dealing with us and our miserable dribbles of electricity. Heaped on the superstructure of baffling incompetence is a new threat. Apparently, Ofgem is worried that some naughty microgenerators have been exaggerating their production figures. A new team of crack auditors is to be formed to visit places like Power Station 571 to ensure we are correctly completing our forms. Next year perhaps it won’t cost £600 to make life difficult for the average microgenerator, it will be £800, £900, or even more.
I therefore have a simple proposal to help all of us. Instead of locking us in continuous disputes about a few tens of pounds, Ofgem should close down its microgeneration section, and hand £300 a year to anybody who can show them a photograph of solar panels or a wind turbine on their roof. We gain, Ofgem gains, and the taxpayer gains. We might even get the family in Australia to come back.