Are Solar Feed-In Tariffs a Rip Off?

solar panels on rooftop photo

Image credit: Solarcentury

With the launch of the new UK renewable energy feed-in tariffs, the Government will now be paying every homeowner that installs solar panels and other renewables a guaranteed income in addition to the energy savings they are likely to reap. But some environmentalists are less than happy about it. In fact George Monbiot, who has previously called for a 100% cut in carbon emissions and attacked the much hyped biochar industry, claims that it is "wasteful", "regressive", and that it transfers money from the poor to the middle class. In a post that is unambiguously titled "Are We Really Going to Let Ourselves be Duped by this Solar Panel Rip Off?", Monbiot sets out his reasoning that this is an astoundingly expensive way of saving carbon when compared to investing in insulation, or even building a new nuclear reactor. Besides the sheer cost, argues Monbiot, solar PV is more appropriate for hot climates where peak demand coincides with sunny days—not the UK where it is the precise opposite:

"Solar PV is a great technology - if you live in southern California. But the further from the equator you travel, the less sense it makes. It's not just that the amount of power PV panels produce at this latitude is risible, they also produce it at the wrong time. In hot countries, where air conditioning guzzles electricity, peak demand coincides with peak solar radiation. In the UK, peak demand takes place between 5pm and 7pm on winter evenings. Do I need to spell out the implications?"

Meanwhile Jeremy Leggett—founder of Solarcentury and a leading proponent of solar in the UK—unsurprisingly disagrees. In a response titled Solar Panels are Not Fashion Accessories , Leggett argues that Mobiot's claims that economies of scale are impossible is wrong—and that solar panel prices are in fact coming down dramatically. He also argues that Monbiot has inflated the cost of the scheme, and misrepresented the German government's position regarding dialing back their own feed-in tariff legislation, something that Leggett says was always on the cards as this is how this type of stimulus is supposed to work.

So who's right? There's no doubt that Leggett makes his money from selling solar panels, and so makes a natural (and biased) advocate for solar. And his claim that "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" should obviously be taken with a large pinch of salt.

But Monbiot's case that money would be better spent on insulation or other lower cost measures ignores the fact that huge amounts of Government money is going to these very same measures. Solar is just one technology in our arsenal. And it seems to me like a technology worth pursuing. Just not in isolation.

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