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.


  1. Thank you for posting this so quickly. While Mr. Monbiot is generally a very well research writer this does appear to be out of step. The beauty of Feed-in Tariffs (and particularly solar PV FiTs) has been to create a long-term market that helps companies and investors make long-term decisions, most notably around manufacturing and R&D - investments you simply don't make if you market is niche or boom and bust. It is pretty clear that this stability has driven the costs down for all renewables that have been targeted by Feed-in Tariffs. As you correctly point out, that when Germany lowered its FiT rate is was not a result of admitting a mistake, but recognizing costs are dropping rapidly... *the whole point* of putting a Feed-in Tariff in, in the first place! This is actually a ****recognition that they are working!!!****

    The good news is that there is some movement on this side of the Atlantic, with Ontario, Canada has adopted a robust Feed-in Tariff (and yet another company announced it was setting up shop in that province today as a result). We also have one of our Atlantic provinces Nova Scotia musing about something similar. It's only a matter of time before we see some States follow suit...