Struggling solar firms look to public projects

Tue Feb 3, 2009 10:21am EST
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By Gerard Wynn

GUILDFORD, England (Reuters) - John Fitzpatrick is in a buoyant niche of construction. Building subsidized homes for disadvantaged people, with solar paneled roofs for environmentally friendly power, he is funded by the government.

A British scheme to halve the cost of installing solar panels on schools and social housing is aiding a solar power industry hit by the housing slump.

It's tiny compared with U.S. President Barack Obama's multi-billion-dollar plans to invest in cutting carbon emissions from government facilities. But as a slowdown threatens many renewable energy projects, such schemes offer hope for jobs.

"We were set up four years ago to do the predominantly social housing. We're not seeing any tail-off," said Fitzpatrick, site manager for the public housing arm of developers Croudace Homes.

New orders in the construction industry fell 14 per cent in the 12 months to November 2008, according to the Office for National Statistics. In the third quarter of 2008 orders for private homes fell by one-third, while those for public housing were steady.

Pitting bailout funds against climate change to boost "green growth" has been a mantra among business and political leaders including those meeting in Davos last week. Obama has promised to spend $150 billion on clean energy to create 5 million jobs.

Outside Fitzpatrick's office sprouts a clutch of half-built homes, each sporting glinting blue silicon solar panels, intended for people on low incomes in Guildford, a prosperous town 50 km (31 miles) south-west of London.

Britain will spend about 80 million pounds ($114.5 million) through 2010 subsidizing low-carbon energy generation on buildings, much of that on public housing. This has offset declining interest from residential home-owners.   Continued...