Wednesday, 3 March 2010
Monbiot rejects 'Energy Generating Democracy'
George Monbiot in The Guardian describes Solar Photovoltaic panels as ‘comically inefficient’
This is an uncharacteristically simplistic and wrong view of the technology from him. An average 2kWp PV system will produce around 1600 kWh of electricity per year which is around a half or a third of a households annual electricity use. In the south of England this could increase to 2000kWh/year. Hardly insignificant and not a cause for amusement.
Costs of solar panels are directly related to the current small size of the market. The aim of the feed in tariff/clean energy cashback policy is to develop a mass market for solar panels which will reduce the unit cost and therefore the cost of saving carbon. New technologies such as thin film solar PV which use a fraction the amount of silicon should also help reduce the capital cost significantly as will higher volumes.
George refers to Solar PV contributing only 0.4% to Germany’s electricity supply but this rather misses the application of the technology at the micro level. At the domestic and small scale level microgeneration technologies such as PV are not feeding into the grid but are being used within the buildings they serve and displacing the need for grid generated dirty electricity. So the impact for the householder installing may be a reduction in 30 to 50% of their electricity use. PV on this scale should be regarded as demand reduction technology as opposed to a mass generation option.
Another point he makes is that it is a technology option is only one that the rich will be able to take advantage of. However this is simply not the case. In Kirklees we now have hundreds of council tenants, many of who are pensioners on low incomes taking advantage of solar PV. Because the Clean Energy Cashback can be ‘assigned’ to the installer or social landlord who is installing the solar panels, the capital costs for installation could be met in their entirety by the revenue gained. The tenant/householder will still get the benefit of the electricity generated in their own home. With many people on low incomes being retired, or unable to work due to illness, their peak demand will more reflect the peak generation times of the solar panels during the day. So it is arguably a technology best applied to low/fixed income households. Having said that, with more affluent households working from home these days it is increasingly likely that people with solar panels will make use of the electricity generated on site rather than exporting it to the grid.
What George Monbiot completely fails to realise is the wider potential of microgeneration to change the way people regard themselves. They are no longer simply consumers of energy they can be generators and producers of their own heat and power. While that is literally ‘empowering’ it also means that householders have more of incentive to reduce their own consumption, to be more efficient in their use of energy, because now there is a ‘balance sheet’ of incoming and outgoing energy. If they are sufficiently responsible in their energy consumption they might even come out ‘in profit’ on their fuel bills. We have needed some real tangible incentives for saving energy in the home for a long time beyond the usual exhortations. Microgeneration provides that incentive.
We have the possibility of an ‘energy generating democracy’ in the UK with benefits to society and the environment inmeasurably greater than the narrow ‘property owning democracy’ that drove policy in the eighties. I find it bizarre to say this to someone with such well established green credentials but George Monbiot really should see the bigger picture here!