Category Archives: Solar

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.

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.

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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Sat at home with Wall-E on the TV.

Now, obviously all Pixar movies are awesome and also Wall-E was written entirely by eco nerds (its still a lovely story) but also, Wall-E uses solar power! Yay!

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