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.

1 comment:

  1. The UK feed-in tariff scheme will of course require the generation tariff to be metered. This is one of many deliberate inaccuracies in the Monbiot articles. But because the UK scheme also adds an additional 3p for any unit exported by a micro-generator, that is the element which will for a short time be deemed or estimated by the electricity supply companies pending the roll-out of smart meters here. You can be confident that they (the supply companies) will err on the side of underestimating this export element hopefully for obvious reasons so this is a total non issue. The other feature of the UK scheme is that the generation tariff is paid regardless of whether it is exported or not. So for a typical UK householder paying 13p/kWh for their electricity, the incentive is to use the PV or small wind generated electricity onsite and not export it. In other words, you'd have to be a total idiot as well as a criminal to attempt to do what Monbiot is suggesting (even if it were technically possible without killing yourself trying). Monbiots approach appears to be that the only renewable technology that makes sense in the UK is large-scale onshore wind because its the "cheapest" at today's prices. This is madness. Taken to it's logical conclusion Monbiots argument would rule out investment in any technology more expensive than large onshore wind farms today, so no offshore wind, no wave and tidal, no small "community" scale wind, no biomass and no PV. Remind me which technology Monbiot thinks is the solution? Ah yes, nuclear...