Solar power is flavour of the month around town. With the proposed community owned power station and the Rooks thinking about getting panels, it sounds as if Lewes is leading the way into a low emissions future. In the face of environmental catastrophe, free energy from the sky certainly sounds like a tempting option. Lately I’ve been wondering though if the optimism around solar power is justified. What, one is tempted to ask, could be the trouble with energy from the sun?
Looking more closely at solar, the primary trouble is something familiar to Brits: the weather. Blighty is not a sunny climate and we use the brunt of our electricity in winter when the supply of sunshine is at its least abundant. There is also cost of installing panels. Photovoltaic panels (that’s the kind which generate electricity) for a typical house are likely be somewhere between 7 and 15 grand. When you stick these factors together the figures don’t look encouraging, either from an individual point of view or from the wider social angle.
For individuals even the most promising scenarios suggest that if you install such panels, you might get electricity worth about 25% of the installation costs over the life of your system. While money isn’t everything, this picture would leave solar unlikely to catch on except among people who have spare cash and enjoy the warmth generated by their own piety rather than the small amount of energy they’ll get in the British winter. The last government recognised this and set up an incentive called the feed-in-tariff to encourage take-up. This involves buying any unused electricity householders generate from solar panels they’ve hooked into the National Grid (presumably mostly in the summer). The rates of payment for spare lecky are generous to put it mildly: often several times the cost of electricity generated by other sources. The question is open as to how many people this will encourage but it’s undoubtedly a nice investment opportunity for those who can afford it. The social perspective comes in when you realise that the people paying this enormous subsidy are the rest of us. Clearly this isn’t sustainable and a rather hot debate among environmental commentators right now is about whether this money would be better spent on the development of other alternatives to fossil fuels. The feed-in-tariff represents a big bet (with our money) that the price of the technology will ultimately come down and that of other energy sources will rise, to the point where solar is cost-effective.
Solar isn’t a significant energy source at the moment and there are plenty (including many earlier advocates) who doubt it ever will be, for the UK at least. You might want to consider this if you were thinking of taking a shareholding in the local power station. Is it a good bet? Or is it as big a leap of faith over sense as the Lewes Pound? For now it is worth remembering that, for something free, solar sure is expensive.