Monday, March 29, 2010

The campaign against bottled water

Here is an interesting video about why bottled water is a scam.

And if you think things are bad in the US, you should see how Germans refuse to realize that tap water in the EU is fantastic - and how bottled water is often basically just tap water that costs 1,000 times more. Why, Germans may not even serve you tap water in restaurants if you offer to pay.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What we knew

On March 20, 2003 -- seven years and eight days ago -- the US and its small retinue of allies invaded Iraq. At the time, I was communicating with a fellow translator based in Israel about some Excel macro I was trying to explain to him. After a brief break in communication, he wrote back again, explaining he was having to perform military service now.

He had been mentioning his concern about possible attacks from Iraq on Israel, and I remember telling him he needn't worry -- because Iraq could not reach Israel. Recently, I came across that e-mail when erasing my private data on an old computer. Here's the German, written seven years ago today:

Ich wollte dir sowieso irgendwann sagen, daß der Irak meines Wissens Israel nicht erreichen kann. Ich bin natürlich kein Spion mit Insiderwissen, aber - um ein Beispiel zu nennen - Tatsache ist, daß die Scudraketen, von denen in den Medien häufig die Rede ist, bereits Anfang der 90er abgebaut wurden - die Rakaten, die der Irak jetzt abfeuert, sind keine Scuds. Es wird eben heutzutage durch die Bank gelogen - Bush & Co. stehen Hussein in nichts nach - und ich kann's kaum mehr aushalten.

Which could be translated into English as:

I've been meaning to tell you that I don't believe that Iraq can reach Israel. Naturally, I am not a spy with any insider knowledge, but -- to take just one example -- it is a fact that the SCUD missiles currently being talked about in the media so much were actually dismantled at the beginning of the 90s. The missiles that Iraq is now shooting off are not SCUDs. It seems like there's a lot of lying going on these days, and Bush & Co. are hardly closer to the truth than Hussein. It's all driving me nuts.

I know that a lot of people say they felt misled into believing that Iraq had weapons of mass distraction, but I never bought it, and it seems to me that there was enough evidence publicly available all along to draw that conclusion. I'm afraid, however, that I never published my doubt that we would find WMD. Basically, I was sure that we would plant something. What surprised me was not that we did not find WMD, but that we admitted not finding anything.

And according to a review in the New Yorker of a book recently published by a speechwriter from the Bush administration, we are no closer to the truth today:

In order to make the case that America was blind to the threat of Al Qaeda in the days before 9/11, Thiessen skips over the scandalous amount of intelligence that reached the Bush White House before the attacks. In February, 2001, the C.I.A.’s director, George Tenet, called Al Qaeda “the most immediate and serious threat” to the country. Richard Clarke, then the country’s counterterrorism chief, tried without success to get Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on Al Qaeda. Thomas Pickard, then the F.B.I.’s acting director, has testified that Attorney General John Ashcroft told him that he wanted to hear no more about Al Qaeda. On August 6, 2001, Bush did nothing in response to a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” As Tenet later put it, “The system was blinking red...”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bundesrat opposes proposal to cut solar by 16%

It seems that the Bundesrat, a chamber of German Parliament that represents the states, has criticized the Bundestag (more or less the Parliament as commonly understood) for proposing to cut rates by up to 16% for solar this year.

Will that change anything? If you read photovoltaik, you would think the whole thing may be thrown out. They fail to mention what Reuters explains above:

The Bundesrat... has no real power to stop or slow down the law.

Overall, Reuters has been the best source of info about this issue of all. German websites seem infested with party politics, which has made it difficult for me to know what is worth writing about and what is just wishful thinking.

So we will have to wait and see whether the Bundesrat's opposition to the 16% prooposal makes any difference at all. There is also talk of postponing the cuts (scheduled for Juli) to October 1 - but talk is cheap.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Interesting data from the Guardian

Since the Guardian posted some (misleading) criticism of feed-in tariffs a few weeks ago, I have been monitoring the website more closely. Today, the British paper published an interesting review of a Pew report, which found that, as the paper stresses, China has overtaken US in terms of investments in "clean tech."

But the figures used actually show how uninformed the Guardian is. For instance, the data on "clean tech" investments is linked in a table entitled "Renewable energy investment by country." But clean tech is not the same as renewable energy. Investments in carbon capture and storage, for instance, are generally also included as clean tech, as are innovative insulation systems, to name just two examples that are clearly not renewable energy. (I have not yet read the Pew report, so I do not know exactly what the study defines as clean tech.)

The Guardian then conflates "energy" with "power" when it gives us, in the same table,

  • Renewable Energy Capacity, GigaWatts
  • Percentage total power, %

We see that Brazil has made quite a lot of investments in renewables -- nearly twice as much as Germany -- but only has a third of Germany's "renewable power." Why is that? Perhaps it is because Brazil has invested so much in ethanol, which it produces from sugarcane, for use as motive fuel. In other words, Brazil produces renewable fuel more than renewable electricity. But the folks at the Guardian do not seem to understand the issue well enough to present the data accurately.

The paper then writes, "Pew have kindly shared the data with us - what can you do with it?" Answer: I would completely throw away the report in the Guardian and have to start over with the Pew data from scratch.

Also, I would have to point out something that I have said at conferences on renewables before (and it really angers people). When we count generating capacity for wind turbines and solar and compare the figure to the generating capacity from nuclear, natural gas, and coal plants, we inflate the figures for renewables. For instance, Pew reports that 36 percent of Germany's electricity generation capacity is already renewable, but the country actually gets far less than half of that percentage from renewables.

(Update: the exact figure for the share of renewable electricity was 16.1 percent in 2009 in Germany. And while the Guardian/Pew puts the figure for investments in renewables in Germany at 4.3 billion, my German source has the figure at 17.7 billion in 2009.)

The reason is quite simple -- while coal and nuclear plants run at 60-70% and 90-95% capacity, with gas turbines being switched on and off more often, wind turbines hardly ever generate more than 30 percent of their rated capacity on the average and actually come in below 20 percent in Germany. The figure is similar for photovoltaics.

Proponents of renewables get really upset when I say this, but I don't see why -- it's a simple fact. If we are going to convince the few remaining doubters, we need to speak the truth. And the truth is that wind and solar allow us to make use of a resource we lose every day - the wind and solar energy we get today. If we don't use it, we lose it.

Coal, nuclear, and gas plants are different. They run on resources we would not otherwise lose. We only lose them when we use them.

But you won't hear that from the Guardian, where the understanding of energy matters seems to be quite shallow.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Obama laughs at own joke

In this speech given just before the healthcare vote on Sunday, Obama is so funny he can't keep himself from laughing (go to 6:04).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Faveread: fascinating history of Joachimsthal

Those of you who read German will want to take a look at this article from Die Zeit.

Those of you who don't read German are missing an article that brings a lot of coincidences together. First, St. Joachimsthal, a valley in Bohemia, was once a major silver production site. The "thal" ending means valley, and the silver coins were called "Thaler" - whence we get the name of the leading global currency today.

Second, the destruction of the local environment from the production of silver, which was short-lived, led a German humanist (Paulus Niavis) to publish a book in which nature takes the business world to court. It seems that this book is the first time we know of that thoughts of conserving nature are weighed off against what has long been felt as our God-given right to use natural resources to improve our lot. According to the paraphrasing in the German article, the business world makes a compelling case in the book that we have an obligation to consume natural resources rather than leave them lying around unused.

Third, the book was published in 1492.

Fourth, the book speaks of "sustainability" and "conservation" -- possibly the first time they are used together in the modern sense.

Fifth, Joachimsthal later turned out to be a major source of uranium. In fact, the uranium that German researchers Hahn and Meitner used to prove Einstein's theory of relativity came from Joachimsthal, which later also provided a lot of the uranium for the East Bloc.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Buying digital media in English from Europe

One reason I have not bought a single video from iTunes is because the price is basically the same as for a DVD, but with the DVD I get the original language plus the German, whereas videos from the German iTunes almost always have only German -- and I am not allowed to buy from the US store. It's almost as though these entertainment industries that have been complaining about everyone stealing from them don't really want my money.

Here are two cartoons that shed more light on the issue (via Bruce Schneier).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Slippery slopes

In a recent article, Monbiot writes that two environmentalists support him in his campaign against FITs for solar. I took a look at those two sites, and the three men share the following:

  1. they all stress the importance of reducing carbon emissions and
  2. they all argue that photovoltaics is one of the most expensive ways of reaching that goal.

There actually isn't much to talk about here -- they are completely right on point 2 and, in all likelihood, on point 1. I just don't start with point 1, so I reach different conclusions.

This blogger correctly writes, for instance:

Without the huge subsidy provided by the feed-in tariff, the annual electricity output comes nowhere close to covering the costs of the installation over its thirty year life.

Which is exactly right. He could also have said that British feed-in tariffs are therefore properly designed. Were they not, they would not provide investors with a slight return. Clearly, the problem for these three gentlemen is not feed-in tariffs, but the cost of photovoltaics.

The blogger then adds:

... a subsidy system that may be good for recipients may be damaging for the rest of society.

Which is also correct, though he does not demonstrate that society is detrimentally affected at all -- he merely suggests that it seems likely. To demonstrate damage to society, however, he not only needs to prove that resources could be used more efficiently elsewhere, but also how he wants to get his electricity.

For instance, Monbiot seems to be a big fan of insulation -- who isn't? But if I am going to use a laptop to write about how solar power costs too much, I am going to need to get electricity from somewhere. (Note that I do not need to reduce carbon emissions to write about the high cost of solar.) I cannot power my laptop with insulation.

When the other blogger writes:

The question then arises - shouldn't we spend the money on other technologies which can have the same impact on reducing carbon emissions but more cost-effectively?

The answer is: maybe. It depends on whether you want to lower carbon emissions or have electricity. If your prime objective is to prevent a shortfall of electricity, the options to reduce carbon emissions (such as insulating homes) may not help regardless of how little they cost. If you reduce carbon emissions, but leave people in the dark, you may have some explaining to do.

So when one of Monbiot's commenters (tellingly, with the alias TheNuclearOption) writes:

I thought the point of renewables was to reduce CO2e emmissions. If solar simply displaces nuclear rather than fossil fuels then we are paying lots of money to stand still.

The answer can only be: no! Renewables are a source of energy, not a carbon sink. Stop stressing carbon.

Though Monbiot, apparently a proponent of nuclear power, does not mention it, one of the bloggers who has supported him seems to oppose nuclear. In fact, the subtitle of his blog is: "Fighting climate change without supporting nuclear power." I think you two should work that out first before saying you agree that solar is too expensive. It is hard for me to argue against two contrary positions at once.

Leaving aside the nuclear question, all three gentlemen want to have some kind of renewables, but which? They mainly want to be careful about cost. As one of the bloggers puts it:

A moderately sized wind turbine suitable for a farm – such as the Aeolus Power 50 kW model in a good location – will produce 100 times the electricity of a 2kw solar installation for about 25 times the cost.

Ok, that's a fine argument and perfectly irrefutable, if his figures are accurate, but not many people own a farm. If I don't, tell me what I can do. And be prepared for me to respond to that I know of something cheaper.

You see, anyone who argues in this fashion is on a slippery slope. Why stop at the comparison between small wind turbines and small solar arrays? Why not also point out that small wind turbines actually entail very high maintenance and are nowhere near competitive with the giant wind turbines becoming common today. And why stop there, when we could also say that offshore wind in parts of Britain promises to be even less expensive than onshore wind? And why stop there? Why don't we just say we will wait until the price of something has gotten down so low that the market takes care of things itself?

Three reasons:

  • The people who actually bring down these costs are going to own the patents and the manufacturing base; those who wait until the costs come down will not.
  • It is a myth that research brings down costs more than deployment, at least in the field of renewables (and every other field I can think of, though I am willing to learn on the "everything" part). I realize that this claim does not sound convincing on its own, so I will be following up with a post on this matter as soon as possible.
  • We would be leaving power production up to large corporations.

The argument that we should wait for renewables to get cheap has always simply been an excuse for inaction. All feed-in tariffs have always been below the retail electricity rate in Germany. An exception was made for photovoltaics for two reasons:

  1. It was believed that large-scale manufacturing would bring prices down. For instance, the automatic reductions (degression) specified in the German rates for 2004 forecast a 40 percent drop in prices by 2013. We now know that this forecast was too conservative, and prices have fallen far, far faster -- simply because the market grew. I have been covering the photovoltaics market as a journalist nearly 8 years now, and I can tell you there has been no major technological breakthrough as a result of research. It's all deployment.
  2. It was believed that photovoltaics would inevitably become a global market, so the countries with the patents, the manufacturing base, and the expertise would have a head start.
Does anyone doubt #2 now?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

New York Times gets FITs (party) wrong again

In an article on matters in Los Angeles, the New York Times finally produces an excellent definition of a feed-in tariffs:

... under which the utility will pay a set rate for electricity from customers...

Wow, see how easy it is once you leave out the word "taxpayer"? Now, we simply need to make it clear that "customers" are actually energy producers under this scheme. The monopoly of utility companies is broken.

The plan in LA apparently includes "a roughly 5 percent rate increase on electricity use... earmarked for renewable energy." Germany has become the world leader in wind and solar for a roughly 3 percent rate increase on electricity, but apparently such ideas sound too expensive to Americans. For instance, as I learned last fall, Louisiana also calculated that it could have tremendous growth in renewables with a three-percent increase, a rate that was felt to be too high. So the state opted to do nothing.

But here's where the New York Times goes wrong:

European countries have had mixed results — some wildly successful, some a horrific bust — with feed-in tariffs.

Really? "Some" -- that sounds like the plural. Which European countries have been "a horrific bust" with feed-in tariffs? I cannot think of any. Not a single one. The one that is most often cited is Spain, but Spain did not have a problem with feed-in tariffs as a whole. It had a problem with feed-in tariffs for solar, which were simply too successful. The program now has a ceiling of 500 megawatts per year, a level that the United States would be lucky to achieve. You call that horrific?

And if you think that Germany has also failed horrifically, keep in mind that Germany has a target -- a target, not a ceiling -- of 3,000 megawatts per year.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

NY Times gets Spanish solar wrong

Brad Plumer of the New Republic -- a supporter of feed-in tariffs -- has responded to an
article in the New York Times about the collapse of the Spanish solar market. He calls the article "smart," but it ain't.

I discussed the real reason for the collapse of the solar market recently at Grist, but I suppose nobody read it; at any rate, neither Brad nor Elisabeth Rosenthal (the author at the New York Times) seems to know the real story. Basically, under FITs utility companies pay renewable power generators and pass the costs on to all ratepayers. There is no tax money involved.

The problem was that Spain wasn't doing this. Spanish law used to stipulate that retail electricity rates would be set by the government for the coming year, and if there was a shortfall, the government would raise the rates for the subsequent year and reimburse the utilities out of their budget. In this case, the cost of solar apparently caught the government unawares, and a lot of money was going to have to be passed on to taxpayers, which is not part of successful FIT design. But Plumer and Rosenthal don't mention that all. Indeed, they both seem to suggest that tax money is always involved.

As in all countries, the Spanish government decided not to raise taxes to cover the budget shortfall, but simply pass on the debt to future generations. It was therefore decided to toss the system out - not just FITs for solar, but the whole setting of retail rates for the year. See my article at Grist for more. In the meantime, FITs for wind etc. remain in place.

Plumer can be praised for pointing out that the Spanish problem was unique:

What's odd is that this could have all been fairly easily avoided. Germany also has feed-in tariffs for solar power, and hasn't seen the same frenzied boom and bust...

But neither Plumer nor Rosenthal point out that FITs are not the problem; only solar has had this problem. The FITs for wind, etc. are still doing fine.

The article in the New York Times also has some unfounded claims, such as "as low-quality, poorly designed solar plants sprang up on Spain’s plateaus, Spanish officials came to realize that they would have to subsidize many of them indefinitely" -- has anyone heard of such a
thing? I haven't. Interestingly, the article contradicts itself later when she writes, "Even inefficient, poorly designed plants could make a profit." OK, Elizabeth, which one is it?

And Brad, did you not notice that contradiction when you called the article "smart"?

Also, the definition of feed-in tariffs at the New York Times is off the mark:

Europe has generally relied on so-called feed-in tariffs, through which governments pay a hefty premium for electricity from renewable resources

Actually, governments don't pay the premium at all; see my description above. And the only one that is "hefty" is the one for solar.

Incidentally, Elizabeth Rosenthal is also the person who wrote two misleading articles about Freiburg, which I commented on here and here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The scariest thing this week


“The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans,” said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF’s International Arctic Research Center. “Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap.”

Methane is considered a major tipping point. Once the planet has warmed up enough to start releasing methane from all of our permafrost, things would really take off from there. All of the predictions about temperature increases would seem highly conservative. That process may have just begun.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alan Simpson against Monbiot

And this is what my diatribe looks like when you know something about the UK. Devastating. Wish I could write that succinctly.

Go Alan!

Monbiot wants solar FITs out of UK - part 3

So what did I mean by the US and the UK being "pro-corporatist, anti-democratic" in energy policy?

The Guardian's George Monbiot is a bit of a freedom fighter with what we Americans would call a "bleeding liberal heart," and that is one of the things I like about him. Unfortunately, he does not realize how feed-in rates are a real threat to corporate control of the oligarchical utility sector. Rather, he repeats an argument I often hear from Americans -- feed-in rates provide safe investments of for the wealthy at the expense of the poor:

If you own a house and can afford the investment, you'd be crazy not to cash in. If you don't and can't, you must sit and watch your money being used to pay for someone else's fashion accessory.

Take a look at this picture I just took from outside my window:

At the bottom left, you can see a social housing complex built by Freiburg, Germany's Stadtbau, the municipal housing association. As you can see, the building is covered with solar panels. And this structure is not unique -- the six adjacent complexes just below those with solar panels are currently being constructed and will also all have solar roofs -- and are all city-owned housing.

There is really nothing special about this project in Freiburg; indeed, municipal buildings are one of the main places you find solar roofs. And when money flows back into the city budget, citizens benefit. When Stadtbau turns a nice profit on solar arrays, it is able to keep rent down and invest in more inexpensive housing -- for the poor.

I'm not surprised that Monbiot didn't think of this himself. I have spoken with a number of urban planners from the UK visiting Freiburg, and they have all basically said one thing: we could never do this because we have to take the cheapest offer, not provide the best affordable housing. I have had to interpret this statement for German officials, and it is hard to express it without sounding like, "It is against the law in the UK to do the right thing." I have written extensively about British amazement at the way Germany includes energy conservation and renewables here and here, including a rebuttal to an atrocious report in the Guardian (not by Monbiot, whose work is generally excellent), so I will not go into that now.

My point is that there are answers to Monbiot's social concerns, and Germany is already implementing them. As Leonie Greene of the UK's Renewable Energy Association once told me, "Social policy should not dictate energy policy." Frankly, I find it absurd when Americans worry about the effect of German-style feed-in tariffs on the poor, and I wonder what sense it makes in the UK. Is Germany not considered a socialist country with a cushy welfare state, universal health care, strong unions, etc.? Do you think we don't know how to protect the poor here?

Monbiot completely fails to recognize that feed-in tariffs democratize power production. Want to put your money somewhere safe, create local jobs, and do something for the environment all at the same time -- and keep your money out of the hands of Anglo bankers, who apparently plan to use it to ruin the economy every 5 to 7 years? Then you want feed-in tariffs. Want to get going now instead of leaving things up to big utilities, who simply drag their feet when it comes to renewables? Then you want feed-in tariffs. Don't own your own roof? Join a community initiative to put up a local wind turbine or a solar roof on a city building (like these four turbines right outside my window). Live in social housing? You may be one of the first to get a solar roof.

If you think that feed-in tariffs are simply too good of a deal, then take a look at Monbiot's (accurate) description:

Buying a solar panel is now the best investment a householder can make. The tariffs will deliver a return of between 5% and 8% a year, which is both index linked (making a nominal return of between 7% and 10%) and tax-free. The payback is guaranteed for 25 years.

And now sit back and watch British power companies not get involved. German power companies were so inactive in renewables over the past decade that a number of visitors to Germany did not believe me when I told them that feed-in rates have always been open to everyone, including all companies. What does that tell us? Power companies have such gigantic profit margins that nominal returns of 7 to 10 percent are completely uninteresting for them, as I recently explained.

Don't believe me? Then you might be interested to hear what Julian Aubert of the UK's Scott Wilson Business Consultancy recently said (PDF) about these ROIs: the "proposed RoI of 5%-8% is low." See, what sounds good to the common man is chump change to real investors -- you know, the ones who have failed to implement renewables up to now because they are making a killing off of all that "cheap" energy.

In the typical Anglo fashion of using microeconomics to discuss macroeconomics, Monbiot also does not look at how the investments in renewables actually offset something. He simply talks about what it will cost:

The government is about to shift £8.6bn from the poor to the middle classes. It expects a loss on this scheme of £8.2bn, or 95%.

(Why does he keep talking about the middle classes and not the rich? Does he believe that the rich in the UK will not invest in solar?)

In fact, the German government has found that the benefits (tax revenue from thriving local businesses, offsets of energy imports, and other factors) outweigh the cost of feed-in tariffs for renewables already (PDF in English). In Denmark, where feed-in tariffs were used to reach 20% wind power on the grid, wind power apparently now even lowers the retail rate (PDF).

Things get a little bit ridiculous when Monbiot claims:

... you'll be paid to put a solar panel on your roof even if the roof contains no insulation.

I would've thought he would know the difference between electricity and heat. I assume that gas heaters are quite common in the UK, whereas not so many people have electric heaters, but maybe I'm wrong. At any rate, with or without insulation, photovoltaics will not lower your heating bill. There is no reason to put insulation on your house before you install photovoltaics (unless your heating is electric).

Finally, Monbiot seems to be concerned that some types of power cost more than others:
The government wants everyone to get the same rate of return. So while the electricity you might generate from large wind turbines and hydro plants will earn you 4.5p per kilowatt hour, mini wind turbines get 34p, and solar panels 41p. In other words, the government acknowledges that micro wind and solar PV in the UK are between seven and nine times less cost-effective than the alternatives.

It's a commonly voiced concern, and it makes sense on the surface.

If I were to sum up Monbiot's principal complaint, I would probably say, "Let's wait for solar to get cheap and use less expensive renewables for now." To which I can only respond, no problem -- Germany and others will be very happy to bring the price of solar down for you, just as they did for wind. But then, you will be importing expensive equipment because you have no manufacturing base.

It doesn't matter where wind and solar resources are cheap. What matters is where the equipment is made.

Mr. Monbiot, the UK has some of the best wind resources in the world (and the best in Europe). The British could be producing very large amounts of incredibly inexpensive wind power. But because the UK missed the boat completely on wind power, you do not have a single major manufacturer of wind turbines. And I believe Danish firm Vestas closed its site on the Isle of Wight last summer. I suppose the UK wind market was not working for them.

And now, you are suggesting that the UK let the solar boat pass by as well. Good luck with that, Mr. Monbiot.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monbiot wants solar FITs out of UK - part 2

Coming back to my rebuttal of Monbiot's aricle, I should point out that I have long respected Monbiot's work. Indeed, in my book, I cite him a few times in reference to his skepticism about biomass. So he and I have long been on the same side.

But I must part ways with him now -- the facts demand it. Take, for instance, his assessment of the recent adjustments in solar rates:

A week ago the German government decided to reduce sharply the tariff it pays for solar PV, on the grounds that it is a waste of money. Just as the Germans have begun to abandon their monumental mistake, we are about to repeat it.

Nothing of the sort happened. As I have already commented, Germany still has its target of 3,000 megawatts of newly installed solar capacity per annum. In comparison, most other countries would be considered a success if they had hundreds of megawatts per year. At this rate, Germany may very well still make up nearly 50 percent of the global photovoltaic market. Feed-in rates were simply adjusted to account for plummeting solar panel prices, not because Germany decided that solar PV "is a waste of money."

Monbiot obviously is not an expert on Germany, but fortunately I am. He gets things wrong again when he writes:

... the German government made the same mistake 10 years ago. By 2006 its generous feed-in tariffs had stimulated 230,000 solar roofs, at a cost of €1.2bn. Their total contribution to the country's electricity supply was 0.4%.

Actually, up to the end of 2003 Germany's 100,000 Roofs program was the main policy behind photovoltaics, with feed-in tariffs becoming the principle policy only in 2004. Perhaps that is an excusable mistake when writing about a foreign country, even for a professional journalist. But here's where the fun starts: in 2009, photovoltaics made up slightly more than 1 % of Germany's electricity supply. In other words, in three years photovoltaics grew 2.5 fold. So while Monbiot does not take PV seriously as a source of electricity:

The solar panel is the ideal modern status symbol, which signifies both wealth and moral superiority, even if it's perfectly useless.
He does so at his peril. Let's have some quick fun with math. Monbiot seems to be a proponent of nuclear power, which he praises for being cheaper than solar. If photovoltaics continues to grow 2.5 fold every three years and it takes 12 years to build a nuclear plant, by the time that plant goes online, photovoltaics will be making up just over 100 percent of Germany's power supply.

Incidentally, the same arguments were made about wind power some 12 years ago -- too small, perfectly useless. You don't hear people say that about wind as much anymore.

Another curious argument comes in the subtitle of Monbiot's article:

Plans for the grid feed-in tariff suggest we live in southern California.

He later adds:

Solar PV is a great technology – if you live in southern California. But the further from the equator you travel, the less sense it makes.... In hot countries, where air conditioning guzzles electricity, peak demand coincides with peak solar radiation. In the UK, peak demand takes place between 5pm and 7pm on winter evenings.

One begins to wonder whether Monbiot has a problem with feed-in tariffs or simply with photovoltaics. But he is wrong that PV is only great near the equator. In fact, there is another solar technology -- concentrated solar power (CSP) -- which is only great if you live in Southern California.

You may have heard of the Desertec Project, which plans to bring CSP to southern Europe and Northern Africa. On page 11 of this official PDF for the project, you can see fairly clearly that photovoltaics is indicated in northern Europe, whereas CSP can just barely be used in the extreme south of Spain. So even proponents of CSP seem to believe that photovoltaics is the only way of supplying northern Europe with locally produced, affordable solar power.

Spain currently has to pay up to 21 cents for CSP systems to be profitable. A few decades ago, Solar One generated electricity from CSP at half the cost, so it seems that CSP is getting more expensive, not less. Meanwhile, the price of solar today is only 30 percent of what it was 10 years ago, and there is no end to plummeting prices in sight.

Admittedly, Monbiot does not come out in favor of CSP, so my remarks above are made merely to point out that if you want to produce solar power in Britain, photovoltaics is your only option.

Monbiot has no problem with renewables as a whole; he merely wants them to be affordable:

We have plenty of ambient energy, but it's not to be found on people's roofs.... where the energy is – which means high ground, estuaries or the open sea – and deliver it by wire to where people live.

It is hard to know exactly what he is talking about here -- wind turbines? Ocean energy with technologies that make photovoltaics look downright cheap and reliable? -- but no one is arguing we should not explore all of our options. Unfortunately, Monbiot gets himself into trouble when he claims that energy is "not to be found on people's roofs." He means photovoltaics in Britain here, and he is certainly already wrong about that, but he is also wrong because roof space can be used for solar thermal (to provide hot water) as well. And with rising oil prices (and with the UK now having returned once and for all to the status of an oil importer), solar thermal collectors are also an excellent idea.

If Monbiot is talking about ocean energy (and he is certainly talking about geothermal, which he mentions specifically elsewhere), then we can only wonder why he makes such claims:

the technologies the scheme will reward are comically inefficient.

Actually, the only thing that is comically inefficient is a roof without any kind of solar equipment on it. Most commercially sold solar panels now have efficiencies of around 15-16 percent, which is only around one percentage point more efficient than 10 years ago, and it is doubtful that this rate of efficiency will increase significantly. But that does not matter at all, for 15 percent actually represents an increase in energy efficiency here, not a decrease -- it is 15 percent more than we would get by having no solar panels on our roofs.

In contrast, coal plants might be 35 percent efficient, and some of the more advanced ones might nearly reach 45 percent, but they are consuming an exhaustible resource. Solar panels simply allow us to make use of a resource we get every day. If we do not use today's sunlight, we lose it, but we will get roughly the same amount tomorrow. But if we consume coal today, it's actually not going to be there tomorrow.

To me, this argument suggests that we should be offsetting power production in coal plants in order to extend the range of our coal reserves. In doing so, we would also be reducing our carbon emissions, which Monbiot seems to be quite concerned about, though the debate about carbon emissions is, to my mind, clearly beside the point.

Monbiot is absolutely right in pointing out that there are cheaper ways of solving our energy problems, and one of them is certainly conservation:

... you could save a tonne of CO2 for £3 by investing in geothermal energy, or for £8 by building a nuclear power plant. Insulating commercial buildings costs nothing; in fact it saves £60 for every tonne of CO2 you reduce; replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs saves £80 per tonne. The government predicts that the tradeable value of the carbon saved by its £8.6bn scheme will be £420m.

Alright, go ahead and do all of these things, and limit the amount that you want to devote to solar power in Britain to, say, 500 megawatts per year -- but don't use the price of solar as an excuse for inaction elsewhere. If insulation is so cheap, people will do it -- no one is forced to buy solar panels instead in the UK. And don't say that "insulating commercial buildings costs nothing"; there are considerable upfront costs, which pay for themselves over the building's service life. But when people buy houses, they generally are making the biggest investment in their lives, and an extra 15 percent upfront just might break the budget. Adding insulation later can be pretty tricky; adding photovoltaics to your roof generally isn't.

More importantly, we need to realize that solar power is indeed generated during daylight hours, and we do consume more electricity during the day than during the night. A certain share of solar in your energy supply is always going to be a good idea, though we could argue about how great that share should be (10 percent, 20 percent, etc.).

Tomorrow, I will add my final comments.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Monbiot wants solar FITs out of UK - part 1

About a week ago, British journalist George Monbiot of the Guardian wrote an article calling feed-in tariffs for solar a "ripoff" and "scam." The occasion? The UK has resolved to implement feed-in tariffs effective April 1, leaving the United States as the only pro-corporation, anti-democratic bulwark that still resists feed-in tariffs.

I was going to write a blog post about his article (explaining what I mean by "pro-corporatist, anti-democratic"), but he says so many things wrong that my post became unwieldy. So tomorrow, I will follow up on this, but I want to start off with this ridiculous contention first:

... it can't be long before thousands of petty criminals discover the perfect carousel fraud, bypassing their solar panels by connecting the incoming wire to the outgoing wire. By buying electricity for 7p and selling it for 44p (if you sell power to the grid rather than using it yourself, you get an extra 3p), they'll make a 600% profit.... Come on in, you crims, the door is wide open.

Feed-in tariffs have been employed in some 50 countries, and I have never heard of such a thing happening. The reason may be that it would not be very easy. First, photovoltaics generates direct current, which is converted into alternating current for the grid by an inverter. If you are going to hot-wire your system, you would want to connect to your power meter on the other side of your inverter lest you blow out all that expensive equipment. And even then, I'm not sure that you're not going to blow something out (I am not an electrician).

But that's not all -- this could be done already without any solar panels. Why doesn't everyone go out and stick a power wire into the other side of their power meters and just tell the government/utility/police you are not using much electricity anymore? The implementation of feed-in tariffs does not open up this criminal option; it has always been there -- or not.

As Monbiot himself points out (I cannot confirm this yet, but I will be speaking to some government officials in the UK and will blog on this later), the government is not actually paying for the amount of power generated; instead, the amount of power you generate is estimated based on system size. So if you plug an electric wire into your power meter to make it run backwards (or whatever), you would be lowering your power bill, not getting solar compensation under current UK law, if Monbiot's own description is accurate. I'm not sure why he does not realize that his own description allays his concerns.

Finally, even if all this were done, you would have to be very, very careful. Assuming that a power line has 16 amps x 230 volts, we are talking about 3,680 watts all the time. But that amount of power does not correspond to a 3.6 kilowatt solar array (a possible size for a home rooftop), which would produce no power 12 hours a day on the average and only a fraction of 3.6 kilowatts the rest of the day. A single power socket with 3.6 kW would probably provide as much power as a 36 kilowatt solar array, but if the solar array is also producing power, then you would probably need a 360 kilowatt solar array for your 3.6 kilowatt socket you have hot-wired; otherwise, if your solar array is working properly, it would seem to be producing twice as much power as possible. You can't just put a few panels on your roof and convincingly claim that they are producing 3.6 kilowatts around the clock.

The roof required for a 360 kilowatt solar array would be roughly the size of a shopping center. It's roughly the size of Freiburg's trade show center (see pic).

In other words, for a normal home, if you wanted to keep the amount of power you are hot-wiring down to a level probable for the size of your solar array, you would have to throttle the power from the mains wire down to around 50 watts or so. I'm not exactly sure what that technology would look like, but if someone could do it, they could already do it now and simply reduce their power consumption down to near zero. They could then more or less consume as much power as they wanted for free. I'm not sure if this has ever happened anywhere, though, and I'm not sure why it hasn't -- but feed-in tariffs and solar arrays do not suddenly make this possible.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A chart worth learning German for

It's about a month old now, but Die Zeit recently published an interesting PDF showing a number of financial figures in relation to each other. For instance, I knew that the US porn industry has been bigger than Hollywood for at least a decade, but I did not know that Germany's GEZ -- the roughly 20 euros that anyone who purchases a television set has to pay for public broadcasting per month -- provides roughly the same budget as all of Hollywood. (Note: that 20 euros per month is not for your cable TV connection, which costs extra. You're just paying for the programming.)

There's lots of other goodies in there as well, such as the comparison of the German military budget (30 billion euros) compared to the 1,242 billion the US has spent in Iran and Afghanistan alone. But I'll let you hone your German skills with the PDF and not spill too many beans here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some (preliminary) thoughts on the changes in German solar policy

My penultimate blog post celebrated the 10th anniversary of German feed-in rates for renewables, and one commentor had some interesting input. Rather than answer him at length with another comment, I wanted to share my thoughts with everyone here.

I brought up biomass because it does indeed have to do with electricity. In Germany, a not insignificant number of people have small cogeneration units in their homes (generally in the basement), and the new German law -- which I have to become familiar with before commenting on it in greater detail -- does seem to apply to biomass as well.

My principal contention is that the solar sector wants to have its cake and eat it, too. They were happy to receive rates above the retail rate for a decade or so, and now that the prices are going to dip below the retail rate, they want to switch to a different system in order to stay at the retail rate -- this even though all other forms of renewable energy were paid below the retail rate all along.

While you would be right to argue that large wind turbines are generally connected at the medium-voltage level and that therefore the retail rate should not apply, the same does not hold true for relatively small biomass units, nor does it hold true for small wind turbines.

That's what Germans need to understand. What the Anglo world (especially the US) needs to understand is that Germany is not switching to anything comparable to net-metering. FITs are still being offered for photovoltaics (and everything else), but now this new option -- "own consumption" or perhaps better translated as "internal consumption" -- is being emphasized.

The main purpose seems to be related to demand management -- you want to have people consume electricity when they generate it. That may seem to make sense at first glance, but in the case of photovoltaics it doesn't -- we are essentially encouraging people to consume more electricity when the most solar power is produced, which will unfortunately increase consumption during a period of peak demand in the early afternoon.

My gut feeling is that we need demand management at the level of the grid, not at the level of an individual household. But the German law is just now taking shape, and the changes have not gone into effect yet. I should be able to speak with a better understanding in a few months.