Is more solar power a problem for the grid? No, says the Grid
- 24 Jun 2013, 17:00
- Robin Webster
Does it make you happy or sad?
Will the countryside soon be covered by solar panels
producing more electricity than consumers really need, at
"astronomical" cost to the consumer, as the Sunday Telegraph
claims? Carbon Brief gathers some expert perspectives.
According to the
story, the government is planning a
ten-fold expansion of solar farms across Britain, despite warnings
from the National Grid that the system will struggle to cope as a
result. In an
editorial, the paper concludes solar
power is "unsightly and pricey" - just like wind power, the paper
The estimated expansion of solar comes from a
speech last week by energy and climate
change minister Greg Barker. Barker cited government estimates
which suggest that the UK has the potential to
deploy what he called a "staggering total" of 20 gigawatts (GW) of
solar by 2020, compared to
But it's important to recognise that this is an upper
end prediction - labelled an "ambition" by Barker. The government's
UK Renewables Roadmap estimates that seven to 20GW of solar power could be put
in place by 2020.
National Grid tells Carbon Brief that it's "highly
unlikely" that the 20GW mark will be achieved by 2020, whole a
spokesperson for solar energy company Solarcentury puts it slightly
more bluntly: "The only person who thinks that's possible is Greg
Managing the grid
The Sunday Telegraph says such a big expansion of
solar power could cause a variety of problems.
First, solar power produces a lot of energy when it's
not needed - in the summer months - making it more difficult to
balance supply and demand. In a
briefing note for government, the
National Grid says more than 10GW of solar power will exacerbate
problems in grid balancing, and 22GW of solar power "would not be
But in a comment sent to Carbon Brief and the Sunday
Telegraph, National Grid - which is a private company, remember -
doesn't seem overly concerned about the future of solar:
"System Operation is constantly
evolving to respond to a changing generation mix, and we are used
to this at National Grid."
A spokesperson emphasised that what might not work
now could be possible in a few years time, as
systems adapt to new ways of producing energy. So while adapting to
more solar on the grid may be a challenge, the system operator
doesn't seem to think that it's impossible.
The Sunday Telegraph also warns about the cost of
solar power, arguing that developers building solar farms receive a
subsidy of "up to" £85 per megawatt hour (MWh) of
It's not clear where this figure comes from. The
Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) tells us that last
year developers could have received about £82 per MWh in subsidies.
But the support levels for solar power were reduced at the
beginning of this year
by a fifth, so that level isn't
available any more.
The relative costs of solar power is something of a
vexed question. It's widely recognised that
Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) which support small scale solar are an
expensive support mechanism - although
lower than a couple of years ago after
government reduced their levels.
But DECC points out that the costs to of constructing
and installing solar panels and generating power from them have
fallen by 50 per cent in the last two years, and costs are
continue to fall in the future. The
International Energy Agency predicts
that solar power will achieve 'grid parity' - where the costs of
generating electricity from the solar are the same as generating it
from the grid as a whole - in many regions by 2020.
In this country, the government plans to bring
subsidy costs for
small scale and
large scale solar down as the
technology becomes progressively less expensive. So subsidies won't
stay as high as the figure the Sunday Telegraph cites up to
Solar farms or lots of
How much space will the solar panels
take up? REF calculates that this amount of solar would
require 75,000 acres of land for large-scale solar farms - an
amount the Sunday Telegraph says would cover a
hundred Olympic parks.
REF's calculations indicate that 95 per cent of a
planned expansion of solar power currently in DECC's planning
database is for large-scale solar farms, rather than small scale
solar panels on householders' or businesses' roofs.
The government has taken issue with this - Greg
Barker writes on Twitter:
Deeply misleading & factually
incorrect article on #solar in @Telegraph http://fw.to/mXyYSfb Industrial
rooftops yes, mass solar farms NO!
Carbon Brief asked DECC if it had any numbers to back
Barker's statement up, but it didn't give us any.
Experts Carbon Brief spoke to emphasised that it's
the job of the planning system to stop visually or ecologically
damaging projects going ahead, however. In a
speech a couple of months ago, Barker
"We need to be careful that we do not
over-incentivise large-scale ground-mounted projects in
inappropriate places - I am thinking of greenfield agricultural
land - that could generate strong opposition to our community
energy agenda … Impacts on the local community, on landscape and on
consumer bills have to be a real consideration…"
Ironically, one way to stop the expansion of
large-scale solar farms would be to put more money into subsidising
small-scale solar panels for householder's roofs. That would be
less visually intrusive. But on the other hand, it would probably
also cost more, which would at least provide more opportunities for
the Sunday Telegraph to take issue with the technology.
Solar - the new wind?
The Sunday Telegraph appears increasingly unconvinced
about renewables at the moment.
Last week, it wrote:
"...of course … in an ideal world, we
would invest in energy production that is as clean as possible.
This week, it continues on the same vein:
"We all want to help to protect
the environment and it would be nice to rely entirely on clean
energy sources. But..."
As one commentator pointed out, whatever happens it's
probably going to be possible to criticise the government's green
policies for being too successful, and producing too much
infrastructure - or
not successful enough and not producing
Either way, there will be plenty of material for
critiques for some time to come.
UPDATE 25th June: Solarcentury's spokesperson
asked us to point out that her intention was to point out that the
20GW ambition is Greg Barker's ambition rather than DECC's target -
and not to imply that the 20GW of solar by 2020 is unachievable, if
the political will is there. A typo was also fixed where we
erroneously referred to hectares instead of acres.