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!


  1. Hi Andy

    This is a really useful reminder that we can make every house a power station and that the future of electricity and energy production really is small scale. We must put power (generation) in the hands of the many.

    I was dismayed after reading the Monbiot article. Have you commented on it on the Guardian website? Or why not approach the Guardian for a right to reply. I think this side of the debate needs a wider public.

    Steve Barnard

  2. see also Good Energy's campaign for a fair deal for renewable energy pioneers.

  3. I feel re-heartened by your blog having just read Monbiot and felt very dismayed. Your view deserves a Guardian 'responder' slot.
    On the subject of small scale power production, what happened to the idea of CHP - combined heat and power units that would replace the usual combi boilers and in their place a similar sized unit would produce hot water, central heating and electricity. They were successfully developed over 10 years ago but I've never heard of one being installed...have you??

  4. These was a bit of false start with micro CHP units a few years ago and a commercial unit never quite got off the ground. There is however the new Baxi Ecogen Unit which shows a lot of promise and seems to be being brought to the market having gone through some rigorous field trials. I've been to the factory where they are being produced and they are scaling up for a mass market product. Currently it retails at around £5000 but I would expect that to come down significantly over the next 18 moonths or so. It will also qualify for the Clean Energy Cashback.

  5. Try to get this on CiF as a free-standing article, Andy!

  6. I'm just reading "Heat" by Monbiot and he
    mentions all these things: CHP, the energy internet and he shows the same views about solar in the UK. Having just read his article, he's saying the same things.

    He may be right about the relatively low return on investments (i.e. actual cost per kWh) and he's certainly right that investing in insulation will make a bigger difference, but you're already doing that!

    Even in the cloudy north of the UK, over the long term, the panels will save more CO2 than is used in their production and are worth installing. Also, increased sales should reduce costs and improve efficiency: over around ten years while installation of PV solar panels was subsidised in Japan, the price of the panels halved. After they stopped the subsidies, prices leveled. Now they have reintroduced subsidies.

    The main point, as you say, seems to be the energy generating democracy and the effect on energy awareness.
    David Mackay, (according to found the biggest impact on reducing his energy bill was recording how much energy he was using!