Solar Power and The Right to “No”?

Manchester City Council is going ahead with a scheme to install solar panels across a swathe of North Manchester properties, to be in place before the end of March 2012. A councillor who asked whether tenants would have the right to say “no thanks” to panels received an unclear answer at the council’s Executive meeting. He has since been informed that tenants not interested in savings on their electricity bills of up to 100 pounds a year, will have the right to refuse the installation.

Manchester City Council’s nine member executive met on Wednesday 26th October. The meeting , dominated by the cuts to “voluntary and community” services and “supporting people” programme was later described by Council Leader Richard Leese as “distinctly miserable” on his blog.

MCFly was there for another, less miserable, item on the agenda – The proposal to ‘rent’ roofs of council housing to energy companies so they could install solar panels. (report here, as pdf). The electricity generated would be sold, with profits split between saving tenants money, giving the council money that would then be ‘ring-fenced’ to provide a pool of cash for insulating other houses, and, of course, energy company profits.
There is a real sense of urgency to get the panels in place before March 31st, because informed observers expect that central government will slash the subsidy that currently makes it an attractive proposition.(The Guardian reported on October 28th that documents mistakenly put online confirm that prediction.)

Coun Paul Shannon, a Liberal Democrat who sits on the Standing Consultative Panel (1), asked two questions. On the likelihood that all this work could be achieved in the very tight timeframe, he was told that the greater problem probably lay with the capacity of the district network operator to connect all the panels to the grid.
He also specifically asked whether tenants would have the right to refuse. He was told that, given the savings on electricity bills of an estimated 100 pounds per year, it was not anticipated that anyone would refuse.

In a later clarification, the Council has told Coun Shannon “a tenant can opt to say no as we will ask them to sign a variation to their tenancy agreement [to have panels installed] which they don’t have to do.”

There are two points to consider here.

Firstly, the report presented to the Executive did not give any indication of whether anyone had estimated the carbon dioxide savings from
a) replacing the current electricity with solar (it takes a number of years before solar panels save more energy than was used in the making of them) and
b) the savings that would happen from taking a portion of the profits and insulating houses/replacing old boilers. Those are very difficult calculations, full of uncertainty, but are also the sorts of questions that really do need to be asked, always. In a story published on October 28th, the Manchester Evening News (2) has quoted Executive Member for the Environment Coun Nigel Murphy as saying that it will “cut the city’s carbon emissions by 90,000 tonnes – the equivalent of 18,000 return flights to Sydney – over the next three decades.”(3)

The major point is this; there is a culture (all over the place, not merely within the walls of Castle Grayskull)(4) of straight questions receiving not-quite-so straight answers. This was the case at the Exec meeting. But if we are to have the “adaptive leadership” that will be necessary to cope with climate change, then we need a culture shift. We are going to have to get used to telling – and hearing – the truth, unvarnished. Officers will have to get used to giving straight answers to elected councillors. Councillors will have to get used to insisting upon those straight answers. And members of the public will have to be both precise and relentless in their pursuit of the facts from both officials and elected members. Solar power to the people is a technical problem. Political power to the people is a, well, political problem.

Marc Hudson

(1) The Standing Consultative Panel is able to question the Executive, and make ‘propositions, but not vote. There are five Liberal Democrat members and six Labour members (with 4 Labour vacancies).

(2) “Rent-a-roof solar panels to cut £100 from fuel bills”
Deborah Linton, Manchester Evening News Oct 28, 2011, page 19

(3) Of course, if those flights were from Manchester Airport, then the Council, as majority owners of the Airport, would be morally – if not yet legally – responsible for those flights! They may want to find another metaphor to describe the savings they hope to make… (5)

(4) The makers of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” used the uber-gothic Manchester Town Hall as the model for Castle Grayskull, surrounded as it is by a bottomless abyss and a Jawbridge. True fact.

(5) The co-editor of Manchester Climate Monthly, and author of the present post, flew from Adelaide to Shanghai a month ago. And then schlepped back to sunny Manchester on a selection of expensive trains and coaches. A hypocrite, then? If you like.

UPDATE 30/10/2011. The original version of this post claimed that Manchester City Council’s Executive had 10 members. It used to. It now has nine, and we’ve amended the text accordingly… Perhaps this is in line with the 10:10 pledge?!

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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