Renewables subsidies: friend or foe?

Renewables subsidies: friend or foe?

24th January, 2017 by Helen Lindley

The government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is filling many a column inch at the moment – although arguably for all the wrong reasons. In case you haven’t heard, I’m talking about Northern Ireland’s bungling of the scheme, which the media have dubbed the ‘cash for ash scandal‘.

Botched

In summary, independent auditors have uncovered some serious flaws in the implementation of the Northern Irish RHI. These have enabled some to exploit loopholes to their financial advantage.

In one notable case, a farmer was reported to be earning £1 million of public money to heat an empty shed. When other such examples are taken into account, it’s been predicted that the debacle will cost the taxpayer £490 million.

Do subsidies work?

As a PR professional who specialises in sustainability and the built environment, I’ve been watching events unfold with both interest and trepidation. During my career, I’ve spent a lot of time talking and writing about the RHI and its importance in driving the UK renewables market forward. But this episode begs the question: do subsidies really work?

Personally, I think the scheme’s heart is in the right place. What’s happened in Northern Ireland is unfortunate, but the English, Scottish and Welsh governments must learn from it. If deployed and marketed in the right way, I believe the RHI can and will increase uptake of renewable heat, which is ultimately the goal.

After all, we’re a nation lagging seriously behind some of our more forward-thinking European neighbours when it comes to using cleaner, greener energy sources. Something’s got to change, and schemes like the RHI are a crucial catalyst to the transition.

The comms challenge

The challenge that communications specialists in this area face is spreading the word about subsidies, while simultaneously not letting them overshadow the wider, non-monetary benefits of taking a more sustainable approach to energy.

In other words, the success of subsidies depends on them being taken for what they are: one element of a wider strategy. And as with any strategy – not least an effective comms campaign – the key to success is context, messaging, and a carefully considered approach.

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