Category Archives: Policy

Researchers demand more research!

The UK government’s former chief scientist, David King, a man who back in 2004 correctly identified climate change as a more serious threat than global terrorism has co-authored an article in today’s FT. In it, he argues that we need an Apollo/Manhattan style project to bring the cost of solar electricity below that of any fossil fuel by 2025. Now, solar power has been experiencing a hilariously steep cost reduction, halving in the past two years alone, a continuation of a long trend of exponential decrease in solar prices. Those of you who watch Parks and Rec may be as delighted as I was to learn that this history follows Swanson’s Law. Those of you who don’t watch Parks and Recreation, go watch some P&R.

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So solar costs are falling. They’ve now fallen low enough that in sunnier parts of the world, solar PV already is cheaper than grid electricity. The graph above (adapted from Bloomberg New Energy Foundation) shows how the falling cost of solar will lead to more and more countries reaching this situation (anywhere above the line has solar cheaper than grid electricity). That’s not something David King is disputing, what he wants is for additional progress on electricity storage and distribution technology to match this and bring the cost of round-the-clock solar power (including storage and distribution) down below that of grid electricity. I presume, although it was not stated that this is also expected to provide 24-hour power year round. The ‘ambition’ was to have 1 GW of commercial, unsubsidised, round-the-clock solar in cities in Europe, Asia and America by 2025. I’d hardly call this ambitious. Every time anyone has set solar a target it has been steamrollered, absolutely smashed into tiny pieces.

In this particular case, the opportunity for a second emerging clean technology trend to make this a reality has been ignored; electric vehicles. What is an electric car if not a battery on wheels? There is good evidence from the US where electric vehicles have been making relatively good progress to show that the demographics of people who have been (relatively) early adopters of residential PV in states like California and Colorado are the same as those of people who will get in early on electric cars. They are, put simply, nerds like me (only richer). They tend to be highly educated, quite technical and to have both an understanding of the harm human consumption of fossil fuels is doing to our global environment and the financial resources to do something about it.

There are problems with electric cars as storage and perhaps the largest and most obvious is that cars will get unplugged and driven about. This is a problem because there is a rush hour. A large proportion of the electric cars on the grid will be removed at the same time and leading up to this time, the cars will have to be charged adequately to meet their expected daily requirements and a little more. Similarly, there is a fear that synchronised behaviour will also cause problems in the evening with the assumption that people will plug their EV in when they get home, causing a massive spike in power demand. I actually don’t buy this one, the technology to defer charging until electricity demand is lower overnight is basically good to go. The short story of what I’m trying to say is that the existing pattern of electricity use is informed by our activities but also by how our electricity is supplied. With ever evolving uses of ICT, we can help smooth the shift that will be required as we change where our electricity comes from to reflect the fact that new renewable energy sources don’t offer the same flexibility to deliver electricity when it’s needed as traditional fossil fuelled generation.

I seem to have digressed a little into electric vehicles as distributed storage, the point I wanted to make was this:

Solar electricity without storage or overnight capability is already cheaper than grid electricity in some places and is becoming so in more places. The way to make solar with storage for 24 hour operation cheaper than fossil fuels is not to spend more money, time and effort on primary research but to continue to ramp up installations. As scale increases, costs come down and as the market gets bigger the case for R&D within the industry becomes increasingly attractive.

Chop off the tail?

The cost of installing a PV system has fallen dramatically since the introduction of the Feed-in Tariff for the UK three years ago. With some very serious wobbles, the FIT rates are now low but crucially relatively predictable and still high enough to give a good rate of return.

Still, with the FIT rate for a domestic (<4kW) system now down to 13.9 p/kWh (effectively 16.2 p/kWh including the 4.64 p/kWh export payment on 50% of generated electricity) the annual FIT payment is no longer such a head-turning amount for what is quite an intrusive installation. If you were to install a 3 kW system now, you would get back on the order of £500 per year for 20 years.

Given that you might be dead in 20 years (let’s hope not) or more likely you’ve moved house, you really don’t care about the money in the last 5 years. Economists call the time-value of money the discount rate,  basically ‘a bird in the hand…’ which for most people shakes out at around 10% per year. So what if we change the game? Let’s still give you the same amount of money (net present value or NPV – everything in the future is translated back into ‘today money’) but let’s do it over a shorter period so you get a bigger annual payment.

As an aside, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was a ground breaking work and argues that the rationale for higher discount rates is the expectation that things can only get better. If you take climate science as a given (for the purposes of the review, Stern took the prevailing scientific view, mostly from the IPCC at face value), this presumption may not hold and so a much smaller discount rate is necessary. Of course, the effect of this is to raise the significance of long-term elements in your economic model so that, for example a climate-induced London flood in the 2050-2060 period actually has does some economic damage instead of being discounted away to almost nothing. Besides ‘Climate change is a scienco-communist hoax perpetrated on the world’, this is one of the main criticisms of Stern from the laissez-faire types at the GWPF etc.

So anyhow, the reason for this front loading of the FIT scheme idea is to make it more attractive to consumers and drive uptake. All well and good, more solar, lovely stuff but playing devil’s advocate for a moment let’s look at it from the point of view of the Treasury or the Daily Mail. Here’s where things get trickier.

Germany has started to get into quite large problems with the scale of the payments they are making over the odds for the electricity delivered through their FIT which got underway just over ten years ago. By some estimates, the cost of FIT electricity is around 20 billion euros where wholesale electricity would have been down around the 3 billion euro level. This is causing quite a lot of carping about paying over the odds for energy, having some of the highest prices in Europe etc etc. What this doesn’t acknowledge is that once the FITs expire and systems are still running (PV will certainly outlast the FIT in many cases) the cost of this electricity will drop to almost zero giving Germany a tremendous competitive advantage over rival countries still doing the burning old dead things game.

Now what we want is to have similar levels of renewable power to the Germans, but for less money. Well, we will get it for less money automatically because we’ve delayed for around a decade during which prices fell sharply, allowing us to introduce FITs at lower levels of support from the outset. Using a 10% discount rate and a few other assumptions – 3% inflation, a fixed 15p/kWh for grid electricity and a 30% annual reduction in PV costs (reflected in falling FIT rates), the peak in the total annual cost of a PV FIT scheme comes in around year 5-6. after that it starts to fall away with a reasonably long tail until the year zero systems reach the end of their payment period when there is a second, sharper drop off in FIT payments. Looking at this keeping the NPV steady and changing from 25 years (the original scheme length in the UK) to 15 years, the peak in the total costs for a single year increased by around 25% which, given 2 GW of installed PV per year would mean that every household would be paying £45 instead of £33 per year for PV electricity. I played around with these figures in an Excel spreadsheet, trying to find a way to make my idea of bringing forward the payments into a shorter window work, both for the consumer and for the scheme as a whole. Needless to say, this was a futile venture, no matter how you cut it, front loading the tariffs is always a winner for the consumer and a loser (in terms of peak payments) for society.

It was only after going away and thinking about it some more did I realise that I was thinking along the right lines but wasn’t quite there. My first postulate was that nobody cares about the final years of their FIT installation. I stand by this. My second was that by paying out the same amount of money over a shorter period to sustain higher annual payments would make the scheme more desirable. It would; if you are the one getting the payments. If you are making the payments, you might prefer not to raise the maximum outlay for a single year which this approach undoubtedly would. Which brings us back to the original postulate which I believe is correct…

Nobody cares about the last few years FIT money, it probably won’t go to them anyhow. So why not do away with them. The FIT will still drive interest, you could even put a small bump on the FIT rates though not enough to cover the loss of the money from the final years, lowering the NPV of the FIT scheme while maintaining the attractiveness of the scheme overall. It means that we can get to the nirvana of FIT-free PV faster and steal a march on the Germans who are still going through the FIT time-bomb.

We can chop off the tail. We’re apes after all, we don’t need it.

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Getting real about decarbonisation involves deploying technologies now and at scale

This is a link to an excellent blog post from one of my former lecturers in environmental energy policy at Imperial College. It makes a strong case for picking winners. Something the UK has been scared of since the 1970s. Getting real about decarbonisation involves deploying technologies now and at scale.

Feed in tariff review review Part 2

At the end of October came the real bombshell. We all knew that tariffs would come down in April  2012 and, given the cost reductions achieved, we would be looking at at least a third off the tariff levels as they were. As it turned out, they went even lower dropping by just over fifty percent. This on its own wasn’t too bad. We can make that work for a lot of systems, particularly in southern areas.

What it did mean was basically an end to free PV schemes where an installer would provide a PV system in exchange for FIT income. With the right financing in place this was an economically viable prospect. It also meant that those without ten grand lying around could get solar power and was increasingly being adopted by social housing providers to help cut the bills of some of the poorest in our society. Now that won’t work any more and the accusation that solar power is a toy for rich greens holds truer that ever.

The other big change coming in is a double edged sword, households wanting to install solar and claim the FIT need to meet a ‘C’ grade for energy efficiency which rules out about 90% of homes. Nobody disputes that as a carbon saving measure, PV is quite expensive and energy efficiency measures are much more cost-effective. Now encouraging energy efficiency, particularly in the domestic sector is like trying to make water flow uphill. Nobody finds it very interesting, not many will brag to their friends about the foot-deep insulation they’ve put in the loft because it’s not exciting enough. Even the relatively easy things like loft insulation fall victims to our inertia (Where will I put the Christmas decorations while I got the insulation put in? Will I end up setting fire to the insulation around my recessed halogen lights?). And most household energy efficiency measures are to save heat not electricity. The comparison I read today by Erica Robb of Spirit Solar was that to make heat saving home improvements a requirement of the solar FIT would be the same as making it a requirement for road tax reduction for low CO2 cars, it might sound a bit silly but it’s basically correct.

Interestingly, one of the latest lines to emerge from the Government is that for every PV system getting a tariff of 43 p/kWh, two will be unable to get a system installed at 21 p/kWh. Now by my maths, if one system is installed at 42 p/kWh then that’s the same cost to the FIT scheme of two at 21 p/kWh. So for every system that gets 43 p/kWh a whisker over one will not get the 21 p/kWh rate (assuming the overall cost of the scheme is fixed).

There now follows a short list of things the Government did wrong on this FIT review:

  1. They should have looked at reducing all PV tariffs when they reviewed the 50+ kW tariffs back in March 2011.
  2. They tried to make the changes come into effect before the end of the consultation period. This was the key mistake. We all know consultations are largely an exercise in lip service but this was actually pre-empting the consultation and threatened to set a dangerous precedent about retrospective action by government not just for the FIT but for changes to any secondary legislation.
  3. They should have switched to the MCS registrations data sooner (the Ofgem FIT register necessarily lags the MCS register usually be about a month)
  4. Once the consultation had opened, Greg Barker said that he couldn’t prejudice an open consultation by commenting on the 12th December cut-off date before the end of the consultation period. Probably true but on this occasion Greg, two wrongs would definitely have made a right.
  5. Having had their dodgy dates found “legally flawed” just before Christmas rather than moving on and giving the industry the certainty it urgently needs and moving to cut the tariffs as soon as legally possible they have forced further delays and uncertainty by appealing the judge’s decision. So far this has led to a further week of uncertainty and a further week until the earliest possible date the new tariff levels can be introduced.

Randomly, I’ve seen a few things lately about the positive value of acknowledging failure (This TED talk by a guy from Engineers without Borders is great). Basically the message is that we learn better from mistakes than from successes which seems intuitively true. “Why didn’t that work?” is a much easier question to answer than “Why did that work?”. Dwelling on mistakes and trying resolutely to deny that they’re mistakes when deep down you know otherwise doesn’t help anybody. Recognising mistakes and fixing them quickly and without histrionics is almost always far more successful and likely to lead to more respect than clinging hopelessly to an obviously flawed plan.

My faith in politicians has really nosedived over the FIT review. This is a subject where in all probability I know at least as much about the scheme as they do. Almost every statement that Huhne and Barker have come out with has been so warped, so twisted and so totally fantastically disingenuous about what the implications of their proposals and what the industry wants from them that it makes me assume that this is what is happening in every area of government from defence and crime to education and health.

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Feed in tariff review review – Part 1

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the solar power industry in the UK will be well aware of what has been happening over the past few months with the feed in tariff mechanism which supports small renewable power systems (up to 5MW). All the same I wanted to put forth my own assessment across in my next two posts to bring SIEAS up to date (more or less).
The first deals with the fast track review that looked only at larger PV systems. The second will basically call the government a bunch of fuck-ups for their incompetent handling of the October-December wider review. It may occasionally be sweary.

Back in March, the government began a review of the tariffs for larger PV systems. Costs had dropped to the point that megawatt (MW) scale installations, often ground mounted and feeding the grid directly rather than supplying on-site users were becoming attractive and threatening the overall economics of the feed in tariff programme (the de facto cap on FIT spending imposed by the Treasury is another story for another time).

Were they right?
Well, from a simple viewpoint, yes.
MW scale solar schemes stood to make hundreds of times more than a typical household system, hardly surprising given they are hundreds of times larger.

At these sizes, there are huge economies of scale. Installers are only dealing with one landowner, buying modules and other equipment in bulk and cutting out costs for roof access (scaffolding or cranes).
So, big PV systems are cheapest but they lose some of the key non-monetary benefits of solar power. When installed on a roof, PV produces power where needed and avoids conflict over land use. That said, my personal view is that a few more big PV systems would be a small price to pay for helping create the solar industry which can help us off fossil energy in the long term.

The first of two big changes in the FIT scheme for PV coming from this consultation was a new set of bands for smaller ‘large’ systems, one for 50 to 100 kW and a second from 100 to 150 kW and a third from 150 to 250 kW.
Now, the government has been keen to play up that a 50 kW system is just enormous, covering an area the same as two tennis courts. But what if I have a large factory with a load of underused roof? I could easily fit close to a MW of solar on a factory, heck the renovated Blackfriars station is getting a 1 MW solar roof and that’s not even a large train station. I’m not saying they cannot justify the 50 kW threshold but to claim this is the point at which you go from a sensible size to carpeting Cornwall is pretty silly. On the other hand, perhaps there should always have been a 50-250 kW and a 250 kW – 5MW band in the scheme.

42 (tennis courts). Image courtesy of solarcentury.co.uk and networkrail.co.uk

In their justification for reviewing the tariffs, DECC stated that costs had fallen by a third since the scheme had been introduced. This is basically true so you’d think the tariffs need to be dropped by about a third, from around 30 p/kWh to around 20. Maybe to 16-18 to futureproof a little. Well, that’s exactly what we got for the 50-250 kW bands which are now 19, 19 and 15 p/kWh respectively.

Then a little further down the consultation came the strange proposal for the 250+ kW tariff to be 8.5 p/kWh. A strange proposal because this rate reflects the cost of electricity from offshore wind . Erm, Feed-In Tariff? That’s for feeding into the grid from technologies which need subsidy to be economic at present right? So how come you are giving a Wind rate to PV? You may as well give a Hydro rate to Anaerobic Digestion or have no technology distinction at all and just pay everyone the wind rate of 8.5 p/kWh. Only that would have the same effect as no FIT at all. Nobody would invest in anything more costly than offshore wind.

Incidentally, the other support scheme for larger renewables, the FIT would actually make you more money on a 250+ kW system though the investment risk and administration are more complex so you might not get any better return on your investment.