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Fforde on Feed-in Tariffs: Literary Use of "Feed-in Tariffs" Comes of Age

Feed-in tariffs, the terminology at least, has come of age. The term can now be found in a prolific English novelist's most recent book. Jasper Fforde's use of the words in fiction is an open acknowledgment that the term and the idea it conveys have become mainstream in the English language.

As public policy, of course, feed-in tariffs are the mechanisms most widely used worldwide to pay for renewable energy. Much of the wind energy — and most of the solar energy — developed globally have been built under feed-in tariff policies. Since 1997, 85 percent of the wind energy and nearly 100 percent of the solar energy produced in the European Union has been installed using feed-in tariffs.

The term “feed-in tariff” gained prominence in English a decade ago, with the introduction of Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Act. But the term was derived much earlier from a literal translation of 1990’s German Stromeinspeisungsgesetz, or law on feeding in electricity into the grid.

Fforde is famous — or infamous, as the case may be — for the witty Nursery Crime series. The 2012 publication of his The Woman Who Died a Lot is the latest in his Thursday Next detective series and can be found on bookstore shelves today. I stumbled across a copy in San Francisco recently, following the Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy conference.

In Fforde’s wacky plot, god has announced his plans to smite the English town of Swindon with a fiery column of damnation. To protect Swindon, the daughter of the protagonist hopes to divert god’s wrath and feed the energy into the grid.

Thursday Next’s daughter says that because the “feed-in tariff is so good these days,” she expects to “recoup all of her production costs within about twenty-three smitings.”

Great Britain implemented feed-in tariffs for micro-generators, defined as renewable projects of less than 5 MW, in late 2008. The policy has led to a revolution in the use of renewables in the country, especially for solar photovoltaics (solar PV). More than 1,300 MW of solar PV has been installed in Britain since the policy went into effect.

Thus, the terminology — Britain calls the policy “feed-in tariffs” — and the concept would be well known to Fforde. Though he lives in Wales, the setting of Fforde’s novels, Swindon, is near the successful Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative and its companion project the Westmill Solar Co-operative. The latter was only possible because of feed-in tariffs.

While humorous, the plot twist reveals a lot about Fforde and the use of the words “feed-in tariff”. Fforde is a keen observer of both technology and society. His novels contain biting sarcasm of contemporary culture, particularly euphemisms and corporate domination of society in post-Thatcher Britain. For example, throughout the novel he mocks selling the “naming rights” to public buildings.

If Fforde had wanted to mock feed-in tariffs as well, he would have given them a more euphemistic description or put them in the hands of the antagonist, the evil Goliath corporation. Instead, “feed-in tariffs” are used simply — and correctly — for the character development of the protagonist’s family.

It is conceivable that Fforde is supportive of the cooperative renewable projects near Swindon — made possible by feed-in tariffs — as an antidote to the neoliberal policies he mocks in his novels.

Fforde’s literary use of the term “feed-in tariffs” contrasts with the foundering attempt at “rebranding” feed-in tariffs in the U.S. as “CLEAN” contracts. Despite the focus groups and the marketing consultants, the branding of “CLEAN” — always in all caps — has failed to find many adherents.

Even in Los Angeles, the global center of hype and make-believe, the city’s Department of Water & Power calls their policy simply the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) Program. In Palo Alto, the heart of California’s high-tech industry, where the rebranding movement has gained the most traction, the city calls their policy Palo Alto CLEAN (Feed In Tariff) to ensure that everyone understands that what they are talking about is also known as feed-in tariffs.

Britain’s former Labour government tried its own hand at rebranding when it introduced feed-in tariffs in 2008, initially calling the program the “cash back” scheme. (What’s not to like about getting “cash back,” thought the party’s publicists.) Nevertheless, the current coalition government, led by the Conservative Party, has reverted to calling the renewable program for micro-generators what everyone in the industry calls it — feed-in tariffs.

While U.S. policymakers continue to struggle with both the words and concept of feed-in tariffs, popular acceptance marches on — as evidenced by Fforde’s use of the term “feed-in tariff” in his latest novel.

Lead image: Literature via Shutterstock

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