JUDGES last night said they would take time to consider a Government attempt to overturn a court ruling on solar panels that could affect hundreds of jobs in the North East.
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne fell foul of the renewable energy industry when he last year announced plans to reduce feed-in tariff subsidies, the payments made to households and communities that generate green electricity through solar panels.
Just before Christmas, Mr Justice Mitting ruled that it would be unlawful for the minister to carry out his plan to implement the cuts because the December 12 deadline fell in the middle of a consultation period. The ruling brought hope to thousands of North East workers at firms such as Carillion, which had announced major job losses as a result of falling Government support.
Environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth and two solar companies – Solarcentury and HomeSun – took the initial high court action after warning of huge economic uncertainty for the small-scale solar energy industry.
Yesterday, Jonathan Swift QC, for Mr Huhne, told Lord Justice Lloyd, Lord Justice Moses and Lord Justice Richards in the Court of Appeal that the judge had misunderstood the scope and purpose of the scheme.
The scope of the Secretary of State’s power under section 41 of the 2008 Energy Act – by which the case stood or fell – was widely drawn and expressly included provision to make modifications as to the circumstances in which payments were made and the calculation of the amount of any such payment.
The Government wants to hurry in tariff reductions because it believes the current subsidies are too generous and will severely deplete resources for future solar PV generators, or for other technologies. After the High Court ruling, a spokesman said: “Without an urgent reduction in the current tariffs, which give a very generous return, the budget for the scheme would be severely depleted and there would be very little available for future solar PV generators, or for other technologies.
“Our view is that the urgent steps we have proposed to protect the scheme for the future are fully consistent with the scheme’s statutory purpose.”
Friends of the Earth and the two companies have agreed that the appeal, which they are contesting, is urgent.
Counsel Sam Grodzinski QC said: “Until the lawfulness of the Secretary of State’s proposal is finally resolved by the courts, those still wishing to participate in that industry cannot know the economic consequences of doing so.
“This means that many projects have already been abandoned and many jobs have been lost; and the longer the uncertainty continues, the greater the number of businesses and jobs put at risk.”
The judges reserved their decision to a later date, which they said would be as soon as possible, although they said it would be rather optimistic to think it could be given by the end of next week.