Solar Energy: Jam tomorrow?

Straz Oct 25th: before the EEF dinner debate

As its advocates love to tell you, enough solar energy hits the earth to cover a zillion times all the world’s power needs.  All we need to do is collect a bit of it, and we have unlimited free, clean energy.  After all, the Sun is driven by nuclear fusion.  Why spend vast sums on developing nuclear fusion here on earth, when we can keep it at a safe distance and collect all we need?
If only.  Solar power, like wind, is immense, but diffuse.  So you need very large (and relatively expensive) structures to collect it.  It may be “free” to start with, but by the time you’ve turned it into electricity, it’s not free at all.  In fact it’s very expensive.
Yesterday I had a fairly typical Strasbourg day-at-the-office.  At my desk at 7:30 a.m., I finally left the building around 10:45 p.m.  The evening was taken up with one of the excellent dinner-debates organised by Giles Chichester’s European Energy Forum.  It was sponsored by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association. (Yes — that’s a lobbying event.  No apologies).
We heard from two top players in the industry, and a number of key points emerged.
Jam tomorrow:  Everyone knows that solar energy is, today, a great deal more expensive than conventional generation.  Indeed it’s more expensive than wind, which itself is more expensive than nuclear, coal or gas.  But they presented wonderful charts showing a downward cost curve, and claiming that the Holy Grail of “Grid Parity” (however defined) would be achieved by 2020 or thereabouts (although I don’t know if they’ve allowed for lower projections of gas prices following the shale gas revolution).  I’d be delighted if they’re right — after all, solar doesn’t suffer from the dreadful downsides of wind — but I have yet to be convinced.  Such projections tend to be woefully optimistic.  I appreciate that you could make the same criticism of nuclear fusion, but there at least we’ve learned to discount optimism with a degree of scepticism.
Subsidies: As an example, I described my own 2.4 kw domestic solar system, which will generate just over 2000 KWHs in its first year.  I receive an effective subsidy of around 50p a unit on all I produce — whether I use it, or feed it to the grid.  That’s over four times the price at which I could buy it, and over ten times the cost of production in a proper power station.  This is beyond subsidy — it’s profligacy writ large.  Admittedly these subsidies are coming down across Europe, as governments can no longer afford them — but early adopters have the subsidies guaranteed, tax-free, inflation-protected, for 25 years.  Yet incredibly, one speaker insisted that “there were no subsidies”.  These absurd sums were merely a premium that society was happy to pay for the added benefit of CO2-free electricity.  I suspect that many of my constituents will be less happy with the double-digit rises in their electricity bills.
Costs:  Our presenters were proud that the EU is “leading the world” (Ah! How it loves to do that!) in solar generation, with by far the largest share of installed capacity.  Didn’t this mean (I asked innocently) that we’ve saddled Europe with the most expensive electricity imaginable?  And that in twenty years we’d be stuck with the oldest and least efficient solar kit in the world?  Hmmm.   Not much answer to that one.
Green Jobs:  Europe may have the largest installed capacity, but what percentage (I asked again) of the equipment is made in the EU?  No firm answer, but one speaker admitted that most of the kit came from China and Korea, and that the EU manufacturing sector for solar was dead on its feet.  The solution (said he) was that the EU should “give the sector more support”.  Hang on.  So it’s not enough to provide massive subsidies to owners and operators — we have to provide further subsidies for manufacturers?
Intermittency: Solar and wind are intermittent, and to a large extent unpredictable.  So all of these systems need conventional back-up, ready on “spinning reserve” to take up the slack.  Essentially, you have to pay twice-over for capacity: first for the solar, then for the back-up, usually gas.  So why not just build the gas, and run it properly, rather than running it inefficiently and intermittently to complement renewables?  The estimates of the costs of renewables, and of “grid parity”, ignore these additional costs of back-up, and the massive costs of adapting the grid to small-scale distributed generation.  But never mind.  Our speakers had a Boys’ Own Paper solution — “In one bound he was free”.  We’ll have computers controlling the grid in real time, and they’ll sort it all out.
But no matter how whizzy your computer system, if it’s a grey December day with high demand and low wind, you need 100% back-up.
One high-tech solution: they believe that soon we’ll all be driving electric cars, with smart systems to charge the fleet when there’s spare capacity, and even to draw down power from ten million car batteries to meet an urgent short-fall elsewhere.  One speaker was proud of domestic systems that would “only turn on the freezer when the dishwasher wasn’t running”.  I can’t see this making much difference.  And he had the good grace to admit that while electric cars might have a place, especially in fleet applications with predetermined routes and recharging points, he wouldn’t want his family stuck by the road-side in an electric car with a flat battery.  Hmmm.  He has a point.
One speaker asked how we thought we’d deliver power in three hundred years time, when the coal and oil had run out.  Afterwards I asked him to imagine having put that question 300 years ago, in 1711, when the main fuels were charcoal and wood.  They just had no conception of oil or gas or nuclear (or solar — though they had windmills!).  They would have had no idea of how we might power a modern economy.  And because the pace of technological development is getting faster all the time, the next 300 years will show even bigger changes.  Anyone who takes decisions now on the basis of what he thinks technology will look like in 2311 is sure to be wrong.  Never forget that the Stone Age didn’t end when they ran out of stones.  It ended because they invented new technologies.
No one would be happier than me to see solar delivering vast quantities of cheap electricity in due course, but anyone relying on renewables (like Chris Huhne) is running a vast risk and gambling with our economy and our future.  By all means keep developing these playground technologies — they have a place at the margin — but let’s rely on coal, oil, gas and nuclear for the backbone of our electricity generation.

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1 Response to Solar Energy: Jam tomorrow?

  1. The sun doesn’t shine at night.
    The grid has no batteries, so the solar energy cannot be stored up yet.
    The wind blows when it wants to.

    Here in the Fens, in the 18th century, windmills were responsible for drainage. The Fens were only drained when steam came in and then it just took about a decade.

    Are we really this stupid?

    I am just waiting for Mr Huhne to ban shale gas.

    It is really good to have someone like you asking all the right questions. Well done!

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