Households with solar panels are “effectively providing a subsidy to the commercial energy market”

Solar panels on a roof in France. Where they have these things. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly calls for reform of renewable energy policy.

I have this week signed an open letter, from the Solar Trade Association, along with over 200 key public figures. This letter calls on the government to make sure that people producing renewable energy through solar panels are paid a fair market rate for the power that they send to the national grid.

The landscape for small scale renewable energy generation is diverse and dynamic. It includes individual households with solar panels on their roof, community energy projects allowing organisations like schools and day centres to generate energy, and a large number of small businesses. These groups, collectively known as ‘prosumers’, as they both consume and produce energy, already make a significant contribution to the UK’s energy market. If the government is serious about supporting the UK’s clean growth, it is essential that they help create the market conditions for these prosumers to thrive.

Currently, many prosumers struggle to be viable without the ‘Feed-in-Tariff’ and ‘export tariff’ – these are not subsidies, but are key market mechanisms that enable prosumers to be paid at a fair rate for their energy and compete with large energy providers. Ultimately, without these mechanisms, small-scale renewable prosumers would be the only producers of energy in the UK not to be paid for their energy – which is clearly unfair given the varied benefits that they provide and would stifle a currently dynamic and innovative market.

We would be left in a situation where prosumers would effectively be providing a subsidy to the commercial energy market, and even large providers such as E.On, Ecotricity and Ovo Energy, have joined me in signing the letter as they agree that this would be unacceptable.

Small scale solar generation will help the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets, by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and other high-carbon energy sources. They also increase the UK’s energy generation capacity and improve the reliability of the National Grid – this is likely to become ever more important for the UK after we leave the EU, due to uncertainties about the cost and feasibility of importing energy and fuel.

Furthermore, supporting the prosumer market to grow and thrive will create economies of scale and reduce installation costs for others over time. This means of supporting the industry is a cost-effective policy which, in the medium to long term, makes renewable energy more accessible for individuals and businesses. In fact, in 2016 the IPPR estimated that community and local energy schemes contribute over £23m to community benefit funds, create jobs and help to support the local economy.

The government has displayed important and necessary ambition for wind power, underscoring the significance of these technologies to the UK’s future clean growth and energy security. However, the small-scale low-carbon generation sector offers many of the same benefits and future potential as wind power, so the level of ambition should be similar. Proposals to scrap both the Feed-in-Tariff and export tariff risk stifling a market that already makes invaluable contributions to the UK’s energy system and still has huge untapped potential.

In London, community energy projects receive support from Mayor Sadiq Khan via the London Community Energy Fund (LCEF). This enables community groups to tackle the challenge of high start-up costs, and begin generating clean, green and affordable energy sooner. Beneficiaries have been as diverse as schools in Ealing, Kentish Town City Farm, and New River Sports Centre in Haringey – this clearly shows the varied potential that a prosumer market offers.

I have worked hard with the mayor towards his ambition to make London a zero-carbon city by 2050 and changing our energy landscape is a key component of that. The second round of funding from the LCEF has just opened and I am excited to see the range of innovative projects being championed by Londoners. I would urge anyone seeking to get their community energy project off the ground to apply as soon as possibl.

I am glad that so many colleagues across the energy industry and from environmental organisations have come together in calling for a continuation of fair market conditions for prosumers. I now urge that the government takes heed of this clear support for small scale renewable energy generation, and urgently reverses the proposal.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.