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Unfortunately it is necessary for me to respond to a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian criticising the UK feed in tariff. Since the article misses key points that would have influenced the conclusions made, I take this opportunity address the author’s primary arguments.

The purpose of a feed-in-tariff is to encourage investment and grow the micro-generation industry. Economies of scale and technology improvements then lead to cost-reductions, meaning that the subsidies can be reduced and eventually removed. This is exactly what is happening in Germany and many other European countries. In Germany, whilst there is some debate over how much the feed-in-tariff should be reduced, the solar industry agrees that it should be decreased faster than was originally planned due to the recent dramatic falls in PV system prices. The tariff reductions are a testament to the policy’s success, not its failure, and no-one believes it should not have been introduced in the first place.

Monbiot failed to mention that Germany’s solar industry currently employs over 60,000 people, turns over €10bn a year and generates significant tax revenues. The industry is expected to grow even with significant feed in tariff reductions and southern Germany currently produces close to 5% of its total electricity demand (the amount of solar energy in Germany has grown by almost a factor of 10 since 2006). The cost of the feed in tariff to energy consumers is just a few Euros per year per household.

Many other countries have followed Germany’s success in recent years such that the UK is the last remaining major European economy without a feed-in-tariff. Consequently, the cost of PV in the UK is still extremely high in comparison with our neighbours. Experience from Europe has shown that the downward cost trajectory for PV is very steep once the industry begins to grow, and cost competitiveness with conventional energy prices is predicted to be achieved across much of Europe in the next two years. This is why the UK needs to be aggressive with its feed-in-tariff – so it can catch up and reduce the subsidy sooner.

Monbiot astonishingly unqualifies his comparison of large-scale energy generation with micro-generation. The consumer price of electricity costs upto four times as much as the wholesale price of electricity. Therefore micro-generation, which is produced at the point of consumption, has a much easier cost target than large-scale generation to be economically competitive. Micro-generation is much closer to being economically viable than Monbiot makes to believe.

Furthermore, no-one is saying that micro-generation should replace large-scale wind, it is a valuable addition. Nor is anyone saying we should prioritise micro-generation over energy efficiency measures such as insulation. Obviously its cheaper to save CO2 by improve improving inefficiencies than to install clean energy generation, but if we are to eliminate the majority of our carbon emissions, both efficiency and clean generation are required. Insulation will be fitted wherever possible in UK buildings, why wait until this process has finished before dealing with renewables?

Monbiot also argues that PV only makes sense in southern California. The average insolation (sunniness level) is around 1.9 times higher in Southern California than in the UK. This means that yes, you have more sun in California than here, but not by an order of magnitude. The amount of sunlight that hits buildings in the UK is still 6 times the amount of energy used within those buildings and Germany’s irradiation level is very similar to ours.

I imagine that Monbiot was joking about the possibility of people fraudulently claiming the feed-in-tariff but it is worth noting that such a fraud would not be possible given the checks that are in place and since it has not been seen in any other country with a feed in tariff, why should it be seen in the UK?

In summary, Monbiot does not seem to understand what has been happening in Europe during the last few years. The feed-in-tariff has been shown to be one of the few successful mechanisms for boosting renewable energy generation and fighting climate change. I hope that his misunderstanding does not serve to hold the UK back any further than we already are.

2 comments

David Thorpe

March 25, 2010

One or two points which both George and I are trying to tease out are not addressed in your response and I would like to know what you think.

The first is to do with the cost-effectiveness of the carbon savings achieved by investing public money in this way as opposed to other ways. As I try to argue on my blog, the “overheads” in microgeneration systems form a larger part of the overall cost than they do in larger projects.

These overheads include everything from the inverter to the scaffolding required to put it on someone’s roof. They also include the administration of the project.

Indeed if we were recommending – in the absence of subsidy – a solar roof to somebody we would really recommended it be installed at a time when their roof was going to be replaced and the installation would be building-integrated. This would give it the greatest cost effectiveness.

Jeremy Leggett and others in their response to Monbiot’s article quote levels of insolation directly from solar insolation maps, in kilowatts per square metre. They seem to give the impression that this is what will be generated from an installation in a given location. However we all know that this is not the case. Actual generation is never more than two thirds of this figure. And it is an average over the whole year. And it depends on on the installation being correctly aligned. None of this happens in the real world.

This is why I am trying to find as many as possible monitored case studies from actual installations. Most of the figures I find farm industry which are not independently verified. Some of the reports available in the UK give a very different picture.

These independent reports that are available which I reference on my blog indicate that the most cost-effective measures – expressed in carbon savings per unit of public money spent – for maximum carbon reduction are windfarms, or certain kinds of district level interventions.

They also indicate that there just isn’t enough sunshine in the UK, even in the sunnier spots in Devon and Cornwall, to generate electricity at a time when it is most needed: in the winter when the lights need to be on. Perhaps in the future when photovoltaic technology is much cheaper and has achieved much higher levels of efficiency, it will be able to do so.

The second point is this: the tariff comes from an amount added to everybody’s electricity bill. People on lower incomes pay a higher proportion of their income on energy that people on higher incomes. It is the middle and upper class who will be installing these measures.

Poorer people will therefore be subsidising them so that they can receive an income. Government in the UK has argued that there exist social housing organisations which will tackle this this by installing solar on rented accommodation. However the benefit of the income will not go to the individuals paying the electricity bills but to the associations.

They also argue that the carbon emissions reductions target (CERT) which obliges energy companies to take steps to ensure that the amount of CO2 from homes is reduced, is targeted at the fuel poor, and it is true, but there are a great many fuel poor that it does not reach because of the way its criteria for eligibility are designed.

We take the point that feed in tariffs are intended to reduce the cost of solar installations and that this has happened in Germany. But we do not think that the poorer people in society should have to pay for this.

J von Clarkson

October 5, 2010

PV will not make any difference to climate change. It is piss in the wind. We don’t need electricity. We just need water, food and shelter, and some energy to stay warm, most of which we can grow and harvest cyclically.

We are the Human Family and until we get to learn that money is not everything the better. We need to grow our own food. Raise our own livestock. We need the land that the Kings of England stole from the common people. We need to have water supplies. We need to suppport each other in small village communities.

We need to lower our population or nature will lower it for us. One way this might happen is through oil running out in 25 years. Then it will be rationed until it is no more. At that point, we’ll be forced to grow our own food, and live without medicines. I predict millions will perish in a world without oil with diminished gas and coal because of the lack of that oil. Sustainable development is an oxymoron. Sustainability cannot occur if we develop, only if we decline and undevelop. Growth is the politicians God. But sustainability is the people of the future’s requirement. these two are incompatible.

I think Monbiot, Porritt and Leggett need to rethink their ideas of sustainability and do some maths.

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