Solar panels are not fashion accessories by Jeremy Leggett

4/2/2010 Guardian George Monbiot’s attack on solar energy and the government’s “cash-back” solar photovoltaic (PV) market-building scheme paints a distorted picture of the
industry I work in, and government policy towards it (Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off?, 2 March).
First, Monbiot gets the workability of solar wrong. He says: “The amount of
power PV panels produce at this latitude is risible, [and] they also produce it
at the wrong time.” Those who buy panels, therefore, will own a mere “fashion
accessory”. The companies who manufacture solar PV in the UK have shown that
putting solar panels on all available building surfaces would generate more
electricity in a year, under typical cloudy British skies, than the entire
electricity consumption of our energy-profligate nation. Some fashion accessory.
Of course, just a fraction of that area of buildings would suffice because we
would want to mix and match renewable technologies – large and small, onshore
and offshore – so matching loads and compensating for the fact that solar
generates by day and not by night.
Second, Monbiot says the government’s scheme targets money where economies of
scale are “impossible” – an incorrect assumption because solar electricity costs
will inevitably fall to the point, within just a few years, where they are
cheaper than any form of fossil fuel and nuclear electricity. Systemic economies
of scale in solar manufacturing and installation techniques are causing rapid
reductions in solar PV costs globally, just as Ofgem and others worry so loudly
about the inevitable rise of traditional electricity costs.
Third, Monbiot gets the precedent for the British government’s solar “cash-back”
scheme – the German feed-in tariff – upside down. He says the “German government
decided to reduce sharply the tariff it pays for solar PV, on the grounds that
it is a waste of money”.
But all feed-in tariffs are supposed to decline, and indeed reduce to zero
within some years – that is the whole point. They are not like the
market-building schemes for the nuclear technologies that Monbiot advocates,
where subsidies – open and hidden – are needed for decades. Most Germans are
rightly proud of their feed-in tariff regime. They have, after all, created over
50,000 jobs in solar PV alone.
Fourth, Monbiot has it wrong about who pays the cash back. “The government is
about to shift £8.6bn from the poor to the middle classes,” he says. But the
number is not the cost to “the poor”. It’s not even the cost to all electricity
consumers over the next two decades. The cumulative cost to all consumers –
including all non-domestic industrial, public sector, and commercial users and
covering all technologies in the scheme – is £6.7bn, and is spread over 20

The average household levy in 2013, when tariff rates are all up for review, is
likely to be less than £3. This is far less than the average saving from the
government’s various domestic energy efficiency measures over the same period.
So there is no net subsidy. The levy is not “regressive” at all.

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