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 says. 

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 2.5GW now.

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 Barker".

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 acceptable".

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.  

Predicting costs 

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 electricity. 

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 predicted to 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 2020.

Solar farms or lots of roofs? 

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  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 said:

"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. But..." 

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 enough energy.

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. 

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