Professor King wants more solar power
On August 2nd around 8:40 a.m. I was listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4, as is my wont. Whom should they have on but Professor Sir David King, sometime Chief Scientific Adviser to the government, and universal rent-a-spokesman to promote climate alarmism (although strangely enough, he seems to be a chemist, not a climatologist or an atmospheric physicist).
He’s come up with a grand new scheme. To save the planet, he wants massive new investment in solar energy. And (anticipating the criticism that solar power is intermittent and unpredictable) he wants more research funding on energy storage. (Funny how scientists invariably want “more research” and “more research funding”).
He says, rightly, that atmospheric CO2 recently passed the 400 ppm mark (if I have the decimal point in the right place, that’s a whopping 0.04%), but adds (wrongly) that if it reaches 450 ppm, that will be a disaster. Perhaps as a chemist, not a physicist, Professor King is unaware of the relation between atmospheric CO2 and the warming effect it produces. It is a negative logarithmic equation. That is, the higher the current level of CO2, the less effect any given increase in CO2 level will have. You need a doubling of CO2 to give a 1oC increase (the IPCC would say 3o, but there is a dispute over feed-backs). The effect of an increase from 400 to 450 ppm would probably be too small to measure.
Perhaps because he is not a paleo-geologist, Professor King may not be aware that during the history of the planet, levels of atmospheric CO2 have been at least ten times as high as today, and those high levels were not associated with excessive warming. And he is not a botanist, so perhaps he does not know that rising atmospheric CO2 will increase plant growth, crop yields and biomass formation. Higher levels of CO2 are literally greening the planet, and we should be glad of it.
Professor King points to the reduction of production costs for solar capacity — he says by 75%. But because he is not an economist, he may be unaware that this is caused in large part by the Chinese having over-invested in solar, and being forced to sell below cost. The EU has recently been involved in a trade dispute with China on alleged “dumping” of solar panels.
In a half-hearted attempt to introduce a degree of balance, the BBC had another contributor, a woman, who said that solar was a problem because of intermittency (she’s right), and that it was profoundly regressive. Right again. In the UK, domestic solar panels are generally installed by the comfortably-off middle classes, who can afford ten or fifteen grand. They then benefit from lower electricity bills and massive subsidies. These subsidies are paid in large part by the less-well off, who couldn’t afford solar panels, through their electricity bills. In the early days with the highest subsidies, solar power was a no-brainer. Subsidies of up to five times the cost of producing electricity in a proper power station meant that for a 65-year-old man, an investment in solar panels delivered two or three times as much benefit as an annuity, after tax.
To be fair to Professor King, he was talking about industrial-scale installations in sunny areas close to the equator, not domestic installations. But he’s not a power transmission engineer, so he perhaps hasn’t considered losses in transmission, and he’s not a politician, so perhaps he hasn’t considered political risk. North Africa gets a lot of sunshine, but it hasn’t looked politically stable recently.
Then the key problem of intermittency, which to give Prof King his due, he recognises, and calls for “more research” on storage. Bear in mind that all known energy storage mechanisms cost money, so stored and recovered energy will be significantly more expensive that it was originally. If Professor King can find a solution so that solar delivers continuous, affordable energy when and where we need it, I’d like to hear about it. But of course he hasn’t.
I do think there’s a case for energy storage, but for a rather different reason than Prof. King. I’d like more of it, not to cope with intermittent supply, but to cope with intermittent demand. Let me give you an example. There are those advocating hydrogen-power for cars. I don’t know whether that would be economic, but let’s just pursue the thought. If we had base-load generation, say nuclear, running at more than the minimum demand level, we’d have periods when we had spare power — perhaps at 2:00 a.m., say. If we could use that spare power to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, we could then store the hydrogen to use in some economic way, perhaps for driving cars.
Even the European Commission has grudgingly recognised that in the energy debate, we need more emphasis on affordability, and on security of supply, and therefore inevitably less emphasis on what they choose to call “sustainability” (although the one thing that renewables are not, is sustainable). Perhaps it’s time for Professor King to make the same mental leap. But he might also pause to consider the commercial disaster that solar has proved to be. President Obama’s pet project Solyndra was a good example.