Thursday, 14 April 2011

solar so good

It was odd last week to have two Viva Lewes columns with opposing views about solar pv, with me singing its praises and The Trouble With feeling quite grumpy about it. At the risk of boring some readers, I’d like to address TTW’s concerns one by one.

Our demand for electricity is in the winter, when the sun shines less.

Sorry, but this is irrelevant. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced by renewable energy, summer or winter, is a kilowatt hour not produced by fossil fuels. Both CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain and David McKay’s excellent online book Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air outline how Britain can power itself renewably through a spread of technologies, including solar photovoltaics (pv).

Solar PV is too expensive.

Partly because of feed in tariffs (FITs) being taken up with gusto in 40 other countries, prices are falling, fast. Industry statistics show that the price of modules has halved in the last ten years with most of that drop in the last three years (see graph here). There are plenty of developments documented in the technical press that ensure there will be further drops as long as the market keeps growing. Even without FITS, solar pv is becoming affordable: on a good, medium sized roof a 3kW system can be installed for £10,000. Given industry projections for the cost of electricity, the payback for that is 18 years. The cost of electricity is rising by 6% a year (the average over the last 10 years) and set to rise faster, as fossil fuels deplete.

The rest of us subsidise the Feed in Tariffs.

The total cost to date of the FITs has been less than 1p a month to domestic bills and meanwhile thousands of new green jobs have been created along with tax and national insurance income to the government. In fact the inverse is true: those people who continue to use electricity from fossil fuels are being subsidized by those of us who use renewable energy. The cost of climate change is enormous; according to the influential Stern Report, the financial cost to society of not going renewable is far greater than the investment costs of renewables. FITs are a way of shifting costs to the polluters.

We should spend the money on alternatives to fossil fuels.

To get off fossil fuels we need to invest in a spread of renewable technologies, including solar pv, according to the sources sited at the beginning. If TTW is talking nuclear, David McKay cites a 2008 statistic of the cost of simply decommissioning – let alone building - UK’s nuclear power stations as up to £73 billion or £1200 a person. Out of the Department of Energy and Climate change budget of £3 billion and falling, nuclear decommissioning alone will cost £850 million this year, £950 million next year and £1.1billion the year after. And that’s just the financial cost.

Is shareholding in a local solar power station a good bet?

Well, TTW, that’s up to you to decide. Myself, I am investing (£250) not just because of the money but because it’s something I want to help make happen. If you want to find out more, the full share documents will be issued at Ovesco’s launch of the share offer next Tuesday 19 April, 7-9pm at Lewes Town Hall. Anyone’s welcome, investors or not, to the event, which will include an Energy Question Time and free refreshments. There’s an incredible energy revolution beginning here and I’m proud to be part of it.


John McGowan said...

I'm glad to see you took my recent article seriously enough to try offer a slightly more developed argument. We seem (thankfully) to have moved slightly from the position that free energy from the sky is wonderful to a slightly more nuanced discussion which I do appreciate.

Nonetheless I would like to take issue with a couple of points in your piece. Lets see if you like them any more than my comments on the Lewes Pound.

I think its somewhat rash to dismiss the UK climate. We have an uneven distribution of sunshine through the year including a high level at points when we need it least. Storage is also a huge problem. You've referenced some pieces arguing that the UK can become self-sufficient in energy from renewables. A lovely vision to be sure but its likely to take a long time to achieve and its is hard to see solar being more than a marginal part of that.

I am glad you also acknowledge the cost factors. At this point extractions costs are clearly too high to be competitive. Taking a bet that the costs of the technology will come down (and come down fast enough to make any sort of difference) is a legitimate position but obviously one that is not shared by many environmental commentators and previous advocates of solar power. It is worth noting that FITs have been junked in some other countries as it is clear that there are other ways to spend the money which, though you are dismissing it as a small amount, has the potential to run into billions.

On a connected point it seems slightly specious to try and swing this round to seeing the subsidy as going the other way. You are inviting people to profit from public subsidy of an un-competitive energy technology. I think it is questionable to continually link environmental threats as leading to the answers you propose including initiatives like this which, at the very least, have a long way to go. One can accept the Stern Report fully but have somewhat different solutions.

You may note that in my piece I didn't take a position on nuclear power. I (like others) have mixed feelings on this. You bat around a lot of figures but leave out the crucial ones about how much power is produced. A lot. The cost arguments seem less relevant here than the safety ones. However, nuclear is still on the table despite the concerns because it has the power to help us meet energy needs in the immediate future and medium term. I know you talk a lot about peak oil but in many ways that's going to be less relevant than the continued abundant supplies of coal which isn't going anywhere. Nuclear can compete with this. Renewables can't and won't for decades.

In the end I'm with Goodall, Monbiot etc on this: solar sounds lovely but the situation in terms of emmissions is really urgent and requires a lot more than fantasies of revolution.

So I'm glad you feel good about investing your 250 quid. I can't help feeling the real action is elsewhere.

adrienne campbell said...

To John McGowan

Regarding storage, there is no commercially available efficient electricity storage system for any form of generation, that's why governments favour controllable centralised generation. Not to develop renewables because the problem of storage has not yet been solved on a commercial scale is only rational if you believe that nuclear is a valid alternative.

On the supposed marginality of solar, the Harveys array will generate enough to power 40 houses at current consumption levels. With a capital cost of £307,000 that's £7,675 per house, £307 per house per year over 25 years. Compare that to the average UK domestic fuel bill of £1300 today, let alone in 25 years' time!

Centralised power supply costs are set to rise sharply as fossil fuel depletes, demand grows in India and China, ageing power stations are decommissioned over the next few years with no nuclear to take their place because they're far too expensive and in any case take decades to design and build. In 25 years' time the ONLY affordable energy will be from renewables.

You say that this view is not shared by 'many' environmental commentators, and that FITs have been junked in 'some' other countries. You don't specify which commentators or countries.

The fact is that the vast majority of environmentalists advocate solar power. Costs will inevitably come down as take-up increases. Costs are already half what they were ten years ago and as electricity prices rise, solar PV will break even with the cost of standard grid electricity. A recent report by the Renewable Energy Association shows that the technical potential for solar exceeds total UK electricity consumption by a huge margin, and that other EU countries have much more ambitious plans for PV development than the UK.

I take it from your comments on nuclear and coal that you are suspicious of those sources, and you'd be right. Apart from the CO2 and pollution problems, all fossil fuels including coal are costing more and more to extract and process, because the best quality and easiest supplies were exploited first. Nuclear is hugely and increasingly expensive, time consuming, complicated and dangerous and can never repay its embedded CO2. World uranium production peaked in 2006.

Sunshine on the other hand is abundant, free, easy to harvest, of consistent quality and will never peak; PV panels are safe and quick to install, repay their embedded carbon in 18 months, prices are coming down and efficiency is improving all the time.

As for your final comment that you feel 'the real action is elsewhere', I note that again you don't specify where. I assume you mean nuclear. I hope the above information is enough to cause you to reassess that conclusion.

adrienne campbell said...

Just to note that the last comment in my name is by my husband Dirk Campbell...

John: I'm curious, what is YOUR vision of our energy and financial future here in Lewes?

John McGowan said...

Dear Dirk,
I note that when I last took issue with one of your comments (on the Lewes pound) it didn't get posted. We'll see how this goes.

I did do quite a bit of linking and sourcing in my original article ( I was particularly leaning on Chris Goodall's (I did actually mention him again in my comment) break down of the most optimistic scenario with solar

which is some distance away from your rather more optimistic projections. I can't help feeling your generation targets are on the high side for the UK. Goodall is interesting I think because this someone who has shifted significantly on this issue in the last couple of years.

The country I was thinking of as an example was Germany btw. Look into it when you have a moment. FITs didn't really help them. Try this paper in energy policy if you can get it. Germany's solar cell promotion: Dark clouds on the horizon
Manuel Frondela, Nolan Rittera and Christoph M. Schmidta

There is also the issue of the decline of fossil fuels. Actually I feel the problem here is, again as I said, that they are still abundant. Particularly coal and gas. This little piece in prospect will probably annoy you but it is challenging and interesting about the prospects for shale gas.

In the end my piece was not about solar not having a future but rather to imply that its going to be a very big challenge indeed for solar to make a significant contribution to the energy market. I know costs are coming down (largely as a result of developments in countries with much higher levels of sunshine than us incidentaly). But your scenario is based on many assumptions which others may question.

Like it or not (and I'm not sure I entirely do) nuclear does seem to be where a large part of the action is.

Part of the question is really whether FITs actually make any sort of important contribution or whether the money would be better spent elsewhere. In answer to Adrienne's question I do wonder if the cash raised for the solar power station might be better spent in subsidising the development of more energy efficient homes for those on lower incomes. Less glamorous perhaps but very worthwhile. Certainly more whoethwhile in the short run that FITs I think which seem a nice way of funneling money from the poor to the solar owning middle classes.

John McGowan said...

Just as a final note. This site has some interesting figures on Solar production.

I read the main conclusions seem to be as follows.

Solar can potentially meet (indeed exceed) UK electricity needs in summer (if panel coverage is 100% but is miles away in winter (only a 5th).

Its also a long, long way from being cost effective compared with other sources which was one of my original contentions.

Have a lovely time patting yourselves on the back tonight. I still can't help feeling that the claims are somewhat over optimistic.

Ian Eiloart said...

John, you seem to be misunderstanding the purpose of FiTs. They're not intended to subsidise PV generation in order to make it viable. They're intended to kick-start an industry.

Once the industry is up and running, scale and competition should bring down installation costs. FiTs will then be reduced for new installs, and the industry will find ways to capitalise new installs. This government's Green Deal should help with that capitalisation.

In Germany FiTs have been so productive that 17GW of capacity is in place, including 7GW last year. FiTs on other technologies are lower there, and now that their solar industry clearly dwarves ours, it's unsurprising that Germany thinks FiTs have done the job well and can be scaled back.

Here, we've also seen higher uptake than anticipated. So, our government is reviewing the tariffs, with a view to reducing them for larger schemes. I'd like to tariffs protected for community schemes, where the return on investment is spread across the community. So, I'd argue that the thresholds should be related not to the size of the scheme, but the personal investment.

Kerry said...

I can never understand how it is possible to make a sensible argument for Nuclear being a part of our energy future. Quite aside from its poor safety record, it takes at least 10 years to commission, build and get a nuclear power station on stream, which is then subject to the issues of uranium being becoming scarcer and hence more expensive.

As John mentioned our energy problems are rather imminent, with a large 'energy gap' between supply and demand starting to emerge in the next few years. So investing all of our resources in an energy source 10 years away, that isn't going to solve the problems for very long doesn't seem like the wisest of plans.

In terms of renewables, the UK has the potential to meet all of its electricity needs through renewables, but to realise this fast enough is going to need as much investment in as many different types of renewables as we possibly can. Solar PV is an important part of this as it is currently one of the more developed technologies. All of the others also deserve our attention as well, such as tidal stream and wave energy.

I think that the problem is so huge that we need to take every chance we can get, providing that it is going to continue to be of use in the future (unlike nuclear and unconventional Fossil Fuels).