The UK Government has announced that it no longer wants to subsidise solar power and that they are thinking of stopping the Feed-In-Tariff scheme completely from April 2019 (people already in the scheme are fine). This is an amazing turnaround from the high subsidies that were offered only a few years ago for solar power, so why the change of attitude? Is it completely due to the claimed price reduction in home-PV that makes the Government feel that it doesn’t need to subsidise it anymore, or is there something deeper, perhaps darker to it?
Many years ago when I worked as a solar power researcher, my colleagues and I dreamed of a day where PV solar power would be cheap enough to be used by everyone, everywhere. The electricity is free (once you've bought the system), it's renewable and has a very long working life (many might last half a century or more I reckon). Fast forward a few years, and now I look around and those days are actually here, and PV solar power is available to all, I should be over the moon. In the past though, I didn't think much about any of the consequences of our success, I thought they would be lesser problems that we could sort out later. With success as an industry now here, we are getting to meet those lesser problems face to face.
You may have heard about instability issues with solar power before, it’s described as ‘intermittency’. In short this means that sometimes you will have periods where you are generating solar power and some periods where you are not, but you can never really be sure when those periods will be. And this is the problem when designing a national grid, not knowing when there will be power available is a real headache. The instability issues with solar can be summarised like this; passing clouds, cloud cover and Winter. Passing clouds cause a temporary dip in output power that needs to be covered quickly by the grid. This is called frequency response, and right now is covered by the giant spinning turbines of our gas power-stations. In future, we want to turn off those power stations, but we can replace them with large banks of fast acting batteries to do the job instead. More serious is cloud cover, this will also require in the future more batteries, this time set-up for a longer and consistent power draw to top-up the missing solar power. The third-problem, Winter, well there is no fix for that. The grid is going to need replacement and temporary power stations somewhere to generate the extra power to make up for the loss in solar power during the Winter.
For solar power to be acceptable to the grid on a large scale we are going to need the above extra infrastructure and this extra infrastructure is likely to cost extra money. So, who will pay this potential extra cost? Presumably all of us, by an increase in our standing charges or maybe an increase in the cost per unit of electricity. This all sounds reasonable and fair until we realise that those with solar power get cheaper bills by self-generating, but everyone is paying for the extra infrastructure to make this possible (not just those with the solar power). So, having solar power gives you a double discount, you don’t pay for having power, and you don’t pay for the extra infrastructure upgrades needed to facilitate solar power.
This is a real dilemma, solar power is great for the environment and we can’t get enough from that perspective, however as a society it’s more difficult, everyone else pays an extra burden for some to have solar power and the more people there are with solar power, the more cost needs to be spread around those who don’t. And not everyone can have solar power even if they want it, the young and the poor are hit hardest because they can’t pay the upfront costs of buying solar power or just don’t own a house to begin with.
From this societal perspective, I can see a reason as to why the UK Government has decided to stop the Feed-In-Tariff programme and to stop subsidies. People should still be able to buy solar power and enjoy the benefits, but they shouldn’t be given subsidies to do so.
So solar power has two faces, a good side and a bad side, and we need a tweak in the system somewhere to re-balance the two. I was knaive in the past to think that solar power was the complete answer, instead (as always) it’s only part of the puzzle. There are some forms of home self-generation that create no problems with intermittency and so don’t cause a burden on the grid and these should still be promoted. I think particularly of technology that I currently work with everyday, engine or fuel cell heat and power systems (called mCHP). That these systems are being caught in the Government retreat on solar and are also losing their subsidy is a set-back, but their potential is great and a reason to look forward to the future.
About this blog
I have been involved in the field of energy for nearly 20 years, so I have a deep relationship with the subject.