Thursday, 22 October 2015

Guardian: Solar power in crisis

An elaborate article on solar in the Guardian from 20th October here:
A somewhat misleading title: how is panels generating enough power for two loads of washing a crisis?

The article is heavy on anecdotal details of consumers, suppliers and crystal-ball gazers. It even gives a few column inches to batteries, which are a clear challenge for an energy infrastructure based increasingly on variable supply. But it is somewhat lacking in deeper analysis of the actual topic in the title. It just seems to go on: Why, oh why, is the government trying to strangle this business?

Someone in the comments has done the relatively straightforward sums. Someone is paying four grand for your panels. There are a million houses out there with panels so far. That's costing people in Britain 4 billion pounds. Another 6 million houses and it's the same cost as the proposed new power station you call the most extensive object on earth.

The comments also mention that most of this subsidy is going towards Chinese businesses that are making the panels. Not that I have any objection to UK electricity buyers subsidising our comrades, although objections could reasonably be made.

This seems an interesting test case for the system of free market enterprise. What is happening is that the government is giving away bits of money, some in the form of grants, and some in drip-feed cash into the future.

There has been a mad rush for grants and an explosion of entrepreneurs setting out to install the panels. Some no doubt have done a fine job. Others sell panels for roofs that are not well suited to solar power, some delivering less than optimal installations.

I'm sure there are a lot of roofs that should have several more panels than were installed, and some that should not have any.

And if the government is going to pull the plug on subsidies, the solar installation industry will shrink. It's still going to make sense to some people to add panels without any subsidy, but for most people a financial incentive is needed to make the long-term investment for long-term savings.
It's a bit of a gold rush, so a lot of the people in the industry have only just arrived, and will head straight for the next gold-rush. The fly-by-night operations will vanish into the sunset, generating electricity in neither of those metaphors.

It would be good to see more rational subsidies, looking at where energy is used and where the best yields will come from. Couldn't they cap the amount of solar subsidies, and award them to the most worthy causes? For example prioritising arrays on south-facing terraces would provide energy where there are people. Installing panels in isolated areas may be a good way of reducing transmission power, but will really only be effective if local energy usage is synced with energy generation, and if there is some local storage. Otherwise there are going to be line losses both as energy is sent there in times of need and as it is sent back when generation is high.

If this is our energy infrastructure, then it needs some kind of long-term plan. The roads and railways were not built by letting people put down their own hard core or sleepers and rails and then giving them a few pennies each time somebody went past over the next ten years.