Sun = Good & Other Solar Power Ramblings

solar panels on rooftop

Well now, what have we here then – the UK experiencing it’s sunniest and hottest spell of weather in many a year? That’s got to be worth celebrating hasn’t it? Pimms o’clock anyone?

It’s got me thinking about solar energy production and what place it has in the UK’s and the world’s energy mix in the future. But I’m not going to focus too much on solar ROI (return on investment) because I don’t believe cost should be the most important factor here; instead, our decision to invest in solar (or any other renewables for that matter) should be about our desire to curb the potential for a changing climate.

Besides which, if you take into account the social cost of carbon (an estimate of the future cost to society of an additional tonne of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere) then you (or rather society) reaps far more benefits from solar power than the obvious financial and economic ones most commentators focus on.

So what is the state of the UK solar power industry? Well currently there is an estimated 2GW of capacity installed across the country which is still somewhat short of wind power which has around 8.4GW of capacity.

Now I’m not saying that solar power is ideal for the UK because clearly our latitude means we receive less solar energy than a country in southern Europe or Africa but for businesses and homeowners alike, there is some argument for installing PV cells on your property. Like I said above, these arguments aren’t all about cost and break even points but are, and should be, about what’s good for the planet as a whole.

If you are interested in cost, however, it has been falling steadily over the years and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, as technologies improve, this will continue.

Accounting For Production & Installation

As for a cradle-to-grave assessment of the carbon footprint of solar PV, a UK parliamentary report concluded that, with technology as it was when the report was conducted in 2006, the carbon equivalent emissions of solar PV in the UK are 60g per kWh while a more recent study puts the figure somewhere between 20g and 80g.

Compare this with the government’s stated figures for coal (910g/kWh) or natural gas (390g/kWh) an solar PV clearly is a very low carbon technology even in the UK.

Global Potential For Solar

I was really impressed to learn that Germany, considered one of the world leaders in renewables, has recently broken its own record for generating electricity from solar PV and that, by some accounts, on the 7th July solar provided more than 20% of total demand for electricity.

But what if we wanted to generate enough energy for the entire world – what would be required?

Calculating this is no easy task but there have been a few attempts.

A report released earlier this year by the WWF concludes that just 1% of the world’s land surface would be required to generate enough power to meet the needs of Earth’s population in 2050. Now obviously this is never going to become reality and the WWF may have a slight bias in their views but in some parts of the world surely solar can deliver most, if not all, of the energy needs.

Another report suggests that we’d need to cover 191,817 square miles of surface with solar PV panels to produce enough power to support the world. This is about the size of Spain although as the author notes, the Sahara desert alone is 18 times the required size so lack of available land shouldn’t be a problem.

Mixing It Up

Clearly renewables of any sort will have to work in conjunction with one another and energy storage will also play a big role in their future success.

We can look to Germany once again to see how solar and wind complement each other. On pages 16 and 24 of this presentation you can see that, in general, weeks and months with low solar power generation are balanced by high wind generation and vice versa. This makes sense because in summer when the sun is at its strongest, you tend to also get the lightest winds whereas in winter when the sun is weak and there are fewer hours of sunlight, the winds tend to be stronger.

Getting the right mix of renewable energy installations is a challenge but not impossible and as countries move towards a lower carbon future (which many have legislated for including here in the UK), solar and wind, along with various other methods of clean power generation, will continue to grow in importance as older and dirtier forms of energy are powered down.

If I Had The Chance

Given the opportunity I would definitely install solar panels on a property but until I own a suitable house I am unable to. I firmly believe that those who are financially able to do so are the ones who should be leading the charge towards a low carbon future regardless of the returns to be gained or the plaudits bestowed; we should be responsible as custodians of this planet and do our best to look after it for future generations.

The Sun is still shining so there’s no reason why solar power can’t be utilised to its fullest potential.

Steve (156 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

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