when the sun comes back, how much will it do for us - by Peter Judge
It’s strange to be thinking about solar power now. I’m in the UK where, like the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, we aren’t getting so much sun as we do the rest of the year.
It’s also a dark time for solar power here, as the British government recently removed the very generous subsidy which had boosted the price home owners are paid for electricity they generate at home and feed into the grid. This “feed in tariff” had given early adopters of rooftop solar panels a very nice ten percent annual return on investments of around £10,000.
The government has changed that now, and the solar gold rush is ending in argument. The solar sector says it is wrong to whip the subsidy away, and pull the rug out from under a nascent industry which will be important both to the recovery and the transition away from fossil fuels.
The government says the previous administration did the sums wrong and the subsidy was simply unaffordable.
Either way, a mini solar “bubble” is bursting. The firms who benefitted from it will be searching round for customers as their stream of orders diminishes. Meanwhile, potential customers who might still gain from having solar panels will hesitate, think of what they missed out on, and be put off by the “sour grapes” effect.
In any case, there’s still uncertainty of what the real long term feed in tariffs will be. So what should people do?
I missed the good period for reasons of cash flow and time pressure. But I’m still likely to take the plunge anyway, simply because solar is a good thing. Prices of panels have fallen as their reliability has increased. And local generation is good; when power is used where it is generated, less will be wasted in transmission.
Local solar panels are one part of a general move to a smart grid. I grant that the smart grid has been overhyped - often by the companies who stand to make money from the complex analytics required - and the practicalities are still not fully worked out, but a more intelligent power network has to be one way to improve the efficiency of our energy use.
We will be asking a lot from this smartness though. Solar, like wind, is not reliable, and not in phase with electricity demand - unlike other renewable sources like hydro, geothermal and wave power which are constant and can be used as needed.
However, solar may be more useful on the small scale. Nokia has conducted a study which found that solar power could be useful for phones. The results were fairly disappointing, however, as the phone giant found that even in sunny climes, a solar cell that covered the back panel of a phone only produced enough power for a standby charge.
I’ve tried a solar backpack and found that even an iPad-sized solar panel didn’t do much for my smartphone on a typical British summer day.