Never gamble with George Monbiot

George Monbiot was celebrating "victory" the other week in a bet he alleges to have made with Jeremy Leggett of SolarCentury. Jeremy Leggett had claimed, that solar power would achieve grid parity by 2013. George Monbiot managed to get him to turn that into a bet though inevitably when George started getting all legal and turning it into some sort of personal vendetta Jeremy seems to have backed away.

Anyway, Monbiot claims he won the bet by virtue of the fact that Solar PV hasn't achieved "grid parity". Of course that depends how you define "grid parity". Monbiot uses a straw man argument to suggest that "grid parity" means ""¦the point at which government support for a technology is no longer required". He claims this was the definition he was given by the DECC, although I've yet to see anything on the DECC website to substantiate this claim. My guess is he interviewed some press advisor for the DECC and asked him a loaded question which got the guy to say what Monbiot wanted to hear.

Of course Monbiot perhaps missed the point that if we apply his definition for grid parity to other energy sources, very few if any energy sources are capable of achieving it. For example Monbiot has never been shy of his enthusiasm for Nuclear power, which he describes glowing terms as "UK's most viable sources of low-carbon electricity""¦.is it?

Well not according to the BBC's business editor Robert Peston. As I pointed out on my blog sometime ago EDF energy have admitted that the subsidy they would need to make any new nuclear plants in the UK viable would require a strike price of at least £100 per MWh for 40 years, v's a price for onshore wind of £80 per MWh for 15 years (although its claimed as low as £65 or $98/MWh according to the EIA and £40 or $69/MWh according to the NREL) with offshore wind projected at a cost of £100/MWh by the 2020's (the earliest date any new reactor could be operational is 2022). So by Monbiot's own definition nuclear has failed to achieve "grid parity", indeed it falls below the overnight prices for wind energy, which makes his "UK's most viable source of low-carbon electricity" claim very hard to justify.

But what about other energy sources? Have they achieved "grid parity"? Well not according to Monbiot's definition. I've just put up a post describing the tales of woe afflicting the UK coal industry. While foreign imported coal is certainly competitive (if we ignore the cost of all that pollution of course!), but UK mined coal is anything but. Government support is needed to keep the UK's coal mines working (the point of my article was to question why we'd want to spend public money a carbon intensive energy source), indeed its likely coal mining in the UK could be all but over within the next decade without significant state sponsored support. So certainly as far as UK coal is concerned, that isn't at a level of "grid parity" either.

Indeed when we talk of fossil fuels one often forgets how much is spent, both directly or indirectly, subsidising them. As I've previously pointed out on my blog, of the energy subsidies worldwide much more is spent shoring up fossil fuel consumption, than on renewables. The whole idea of subsidising renewables (or nuclear) was always part of a messy compromise to get governments from having to enact unpopular policies that would have forced people to pay the true costs of our fossil fuel addiction.

So Monbiot has managed to reveal the shadowy murkiness of the global energy industry, well no s%it Sherlock is all I can say! (how long have you been a environmental correspondent?)

But going back to Jeremy Leggett grid parity comment. I suspect he was referring to solar PV achieving grid parity with other renewable resources by 2013. Indeed as Leggett himself points out in his response "...the cost of solar power has fallen by 60% in the last 3 years while nuclear's costs have gone up by 70%".

While PV isn't quite there yet, at least as far as the UK is concerned, it's certainly achieved grid parity in other sunnier climates (....could someone let Monbiot know he owes Jeremy Leggett £100 ;o ) and its expected to achieve as much in the US within a window of 2014-2017.

So while perhaps one accuse Jeremy Leggett in letting his enthusiasm for solar PV getting the better of him, but one can certainly understand where that enthusiasm is coming from. If you'd asked me ten years ago how much electricity we could get from solar PV, I'd have thought getting 34 GW's installed capacity from a less than sunny country like Germany was wishful thinking. Any hope for bulk electricity generation from solar I would have argued would only be achieved using solar CSP (Concentrating Solar Power), a technology neither the UK nor Germany has an ideal climate for.

Now I would have covered myself by throwing in the caveat that it's always difficult to judge the pace at which any technology will mature (I'd have probably also laughed at the suggestion you could cram 1Terrabyte into a laptop hard drive) and I'd have pointed to theoretical studies which suggested solar panels could be made much more efficient and produced more cheaply"¦.at least "in theory".

However, even I have to admit that the performance and growth of solar PV has exceeded all expectations. According to the latest REN global status report 29 GW's of solar PV was added in 2011-2012 for a total installed capacity of 100 GW's of PV (around 103 GW's of renewables was installed worldwide in the same period according to the REN 21 report, for a total capacity of not far off half a terrawatt).

Meanwhile nuclear power (which Monbiot favours), according to the IAEA grew by just 4 GW's, although this figure has to be put in the context of a significant decline in nuclear power output over the last few decades. And the fact that many of the world's nuclear plants are ageing and likely in need of replacement (average age of reactors worldwide is about 28 years) and its questionable if global capacity can increase significantly while such "turn over" is being undertaken. Indeed the IAEA report I've cited above, suggests a rate of installation per year of just 6.65 GW/yr between 2010 and 2030, less than a quarter the current installation rate for solar PV and just 1/15th the current installation rate of renewables as a whole.

As far as the UK is concerned, despite the Tories attempts to derail the solar industry with cuts to the subsidies, approximately 8 MW's worth of PV is being installed in the UK every week, or about 400-450 MW per year. In March the total installed capacity of PV in the UK stood at 2.5 GW's in March 2013. By contrast the UK's nuclear fleet is in a state of terminal decline and even those who are pro-nuclear seem to accept the fact that new facilities cannot be built before all but one (or possibly two) of the UK's current fleet is shut down.

Of course everything is far from rosy in the renewables garden. Personally, while I reckon PV has a role to play in the UK's grid (if the Germans can get 34 GW's from a few roof tops, we'd be fools not to try and do the same), I would still prioritise technologies such as wind and biomass, as well as offshore energy (notably tidal power), as they are better suited to our climate. Also as I've pointed out in prior posts, only about 20% of the UK's energy demand is electricity. The rest is a mixture of heat demand (which tends to hit for a few months in winter) and transportation fuel (cars, buses, trains, planes, etc.). Given the large daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand from these two, energy storage facilities are a key priority (and of course nuclear hits the some problem here as renewables, the need to "bunker" energy to deal with such fluctuations in demand).

Indeed PV is now at the centre of a trade dispute between the EU and China over subsidies to their respective solar industries. Of course, I'd argue that clearly the EU and China would only be taking this matter up at the WTO if they thought PV has a future, i.e. that if it hasn't achieved grid parity yet its going to do so at some point.

So again, while I tend to agree there are limits to what can be achieved with PV, credit has to be given where it is due. Monbiot can nitpick all he likes but far more low carbon capacity has been added to the UK energy grid from PV than the nuclear energy he favours. Indeed with a £70 billion clean up bill for existing waste stockpile and at least £7 billion a pop for new reactors, its questionable how much, if any of the UK's future energy capacity can be sourced from nuclear.


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D A. Ryan
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