22 Mar 2010

The Battle of the Big Green Beasts Goes Nuclear

The renewable energy business has never seen anything like it. It’s spent years campaigning for a half-decent subsidy like they have in Germany (and at last 62 other jurisdictions, according to Wikipedia including such unlikely places as Iran). Then, just as the UK government finally ascents to the idea, up pops George Monbiot, one of our most revered green thinkers, and trashes the whole concept. In the Guardian. Ungrateful or what?

Step forward Jeremy “Solar Century” Leggett to defend the newly installed Feed-in-Tariffs. And a big welcome to Jonathan Porritt who has also been drawn into the fray. It’s all getting very entertaining. If nothing else, it’s showing us what big egos all these guys have and how easily hurt they get too. If you want to read the background, the links are here:

• The Guardian summary, including 7 posts, is here

• Porritt weighs in here

• Monbiot counters here

All the makings of a classic schism here. But underlying all this is a semi-hidden agenda, and that is whether you are pro- or anti-nuclear power. Monbiot is a nuclear convert. Leggett and Porritt remain in the pure green camp, eschewing all the maths that David MacKay and others have been throwing at us these past few years. It’s pretty much a re-run of the Roundheads v the Cavaliers.

Our dear government is backing both horses. Pressing green buttons to start new nuclear power schemes, whilst simultaneously throwing money at small-scale renewables.

And me? You want your blogger to have an opinion? Can I fence sit this one out please? No! Oh well.

Let’s take a closer look. Like Jonathan Porritt, I have “spent a happy hour reading through this four-phase battle, point by point.” But, unlike him, I didn’t find Leggett’s defence particularly compelling. Why?

• He claims that PV is getting cheaper all the time, and it won’t be long before it is as cheap as fossil-fuel based electricity – known as grid parity. But methinks he exaggerates the effect. PV is not like silicon chips, and is not subject to Moore’s Law. In fact my impression is that prices have been pretty stable over the past few years as PV manufacturing has run into capacity constraints because of rising demand from all these countries implementing Feed-in-Tariffs.

• Grid parity could, of course, be achieved by another effect, that of rising fossil fuel prices which would make conventional electricity much more expensive. That might yet happen, but it’s not a reason to subsidise PV.

• What Leggett doesn’t adequately explain is why some renewables should get bigger subsidies than others and – incidentally – none more so than PV which gets by far the most. Monbiot lays down a challenge on this one and it’s not answered. Actually, it does get answered but in a very oblique way. It seems that Leggett’s reason for a high subsidy for PV is that — basically — it’s not nuclear. He writes: “We would be crazy just to go for the technologies that happen to be the cheapest in March 2010, and it is extraordinary that an advocate of expensive nuclear like Monbiot can argue this.”

• By this logic, the more expensive the technology, the more it should be subsidised. Which is, in fact, exactly what FiTs do. Leggett seems to be suggesting that if it gets a big subsidy it will then get cheaper more quickly, but there seems no evidence for this. After 10 years of FiTs in Germany, PV is still comfortably the most expensive technology out there.

• The 50,000 jobs argument. Are these real jobs or simply subsidy harvesting jobs? If you throw billions at any enterprise, you will create tens of thousands of jobs. The test is whether they will survive the removal of the subsidies. It seems unlikely, but of course no one can say for sure. Presumably, if we hit grid parity, the subsidies stop and the jobs take-off from there. But just what if we don’t hit grid parity anytime soon.

• Where’s the money coming from? It’s a carbon tax on fossil fuels. It will be taken from everyone and given to those with the wherewithal to install PV or other renewables — i.e. the rich. Therefore, in my view, Monbiot is more or less right. The net effect will be a Robin Hood tax in reverse. Leggett tries to duck out of this one by suggesting that the levy will be so small that no one will notice. He suggests: “The average yearly cost of the feed-in tariff scheme to household levy payers is projected to be £8.50 per year to 2030.”

But that rather depends how many people take up the FiTs, doesn’t it? Now for some natty maths. Are you reading this, professors?

By Leggett’s own calculations, an “end of terrace house, 62m2” with a 2.5kW array on the roof is capable of producing 2,125kWh/annum. Let’s run with this figure.

2,125kWh would pay the lucky homeowner just under £1,000 each year for 25 years, at the agreed FiT of 41p/kWh. Now, according to Leggett, this is only going to cost us all £8.50 per year on our fuel bills. £8.50 x 25 million households equates to £212 million per annum. That’s peanuts. If everyone of these gets paid out £1,000 each year, then there will only be 212,000 schemes up and running. If that’s all that’s been done by 2020, then FiTs would be judged to be a failure, methinks. Not to mention 2030, which is the date Leggett refers to. I'll stick with 2020.

How much has Germany installed in the past ten years? This article suggests that current capacity is between 5 and 6 Gigawatts, and the take-up has been growing phenomenally quickly, by as much as 40% per annum. 5 Gigawatt capacity is equivalent to 2 million terraced roof installations, roughly ten times as much as Leggett’s £8.50 will support. Or, to put it another way, the average fuel bill will have to be £85 higher in order to pay for it. And that’s just for PV! So, if we repeat the German experience here, by 2020 we would expect our fuel bills to be positively groaning with incentive levies of one sort or another. £8.50, my arse.

These calcs sort of confirm the conversation I had the other week with the man from British Gas who reckoned the Renewable Heat Incentive would add 35% to our gas bills by 2020. It looks like FiTs will be adding a similar amount to our electricity bills.

And how much power will these 2 million rooftop installations actually produce? According to Leggett’s own estimates, if a 2.5kW array produces 2,125kWh/annum, then 2 million homes kitted out this way would produce around 4,250 Gigawatts hours. It sure sounds like a lot, until you realise that there is another unit up from this, the Terawatt, which is a 1,000 Gigawatts, and the UK consumes something like 400 terawatt hours of electricity per annum. So these 2 million roof top PV arrays will be contributing no more than 1% of the total required – if we follow the German model – by 2020. How depressing! I wish it were more, but it’s not.

So subsidising PV is a) very expensive and b) just scratching the surface. Add to it the levies for wind and hydro, and the levies for the Renewable Heat Incentive, and it’s easy to see how the effect will be to add hundreds of pounds to the typical family fuel bill by 2020. Monbiot’s point is not that a carbon tax such as this shouldn’t be applied, but that it could be spent more effectively. I think he’s right.

In fact, the more you analyse it, the more right Monbiot’s arguments seem to be. But rational analysis has been left behind because the hornet’s nest Monbiot has stirred up has little to do with renewables and FiTs, and much to do with nuclear power. It’s a topic which has always divided greens, and it looks like it’s going to continue to do for many years to come. What worries me is that Leggett and Porritt are twisting facts and figures in order to support their views. In doing so, they paint a far too rosy picture of what small-scale renewables can achieve. It’s all too reminiscent of the posturing that went on in Ken Livingstone’s London Climate Change Action Plan.


  1. Nicely put as usual!

    Good that you exposed the circular argument about it not costing much because it, err, won't generate much...

    I think there is a real danger that we blow any green budget on ineffective and expensive nonsense. Good strategy to pave the way for nukes.

  2. Let's not be too hasty to start drawing wide ranging conclusions on the FIT's based on one set of calculations focusing on one small area of the FIT's! If you do the same calculations on reasonable sites for small/medium scale wind (100-500kW) and small hydro 20kW+ you'll find that the Marginal Abatement Costs of Carbon (MACC) i.e. the cost for every tonne of carbon saved is very reasonable (<£40/tonne of CO2 saved) and in many cases negative (-£10/CO2e). I agree with you and George on the PV.

    You focus on the negatives and miss the positives its not all about the rich benefiting we should be using the FITs for Community owned and community scaled projects, financed by lease purchase schemes. Check out our website for some sanity! www.resilientenergy.co.uk

  3. Very useful summary of the debate, thus far.

    There may be some alternatives at community scale that need to be explored, but the optimism surrounding PVs in the UK needs to be tempered.

  4. Mark SiddallMarch 22, 2010

    A very nice summary Mark. Thanks for cranking through that. Something tells me that this one is going to run and run.


  5. Nice Summary - I have only recently found David Mackay's stuff, and it's a breath of fresh (not hot) air.

    Personally, I have found that the refusal to engage with Nuclear is one of the biggest factors undermining the whole climate change manifesto.

    Surely, if the situation is so dire in terms of ocean acidification and CO2 levels, then nuclear is a dramatically better option than coal, oil or gas?

    I hope that the governments put the effort in to build Gen 4 nuclear - specifically the LFTR Thorium concept and the Travelling Wave Reactor that Bill Gates mentioned in his recent TED talk.

  6. Absolutely agree Andrew, as you know. However, if I undertand it right, FITs don't particularly target more cost effective options such as those you are pursuing. That is George's key argument I think.

    We have an enormous challenge facing us so to put money into technologies that cost 10x as much as others doesn't seem a great idea except for politicians and sellers of the kit.

    Costing the Earth on R4 http://bit.ly/cdVJNm

    Includes a taste of the sort of rigorous analysis some sellers of microgen will be doing!

    Expect to leave phone on answer in the evenings so as not to have to deal with the endless stream of ex double glazing sales people flogging get rich slowly but surely schemes.

  7. It's interesting to read the comments on Porritt's piece. They are almost all on Monbiot's side of the debate and some are quite hostile towards Porritt.

    And I must admit to my ego being stung by Porritt's observation: "As one or two bloggers have already pointed out, if he’s got it this badly wrong on feed-in tariffs, what’s to say he hasn’t got it equally wrong on other critical issues?"

    Who exactly are these bloggers? Claiming to have the blogosphere on your side is to invite riposte.

  8. I know its been debated to death but we really need to lobby for an upper limit for what is a reasonable cost per tonne CO2 saved. Even if its just an industry guideline. That way we can rationalise what's a priority and what's greenwash. Industrial scale PV may well be an icing on the cake solution although absolute best case scenarios put's this at around £160/tonne CO2e. Minimum threshold for UK at this cost is 2,000sq.m or around 20,000 sq feet. Anything significantly less and you are well above £200/tonne CO2e.

  9. Dave HoworthMarch 23, 2010

    Instead of trying to calculate the benefit of each and every new technology, with the inevitable time lag and claims of unfairness for specific interests, we should attack the problem at source.

    That is, if you want to reduce carbon emissions, tax carbon emissions!

    Forget all these complicated subsidy schemes. Yes, of course there'll also be complications with a carbon tax but at least you're starting from a sound foundation.

  10. @ Mark.

    And I must admit to my ego being stung by Porritt's observation: "As one or two bloggers have already pointed out, if he’s got it this badly wrong on feed-in tariffs, what’s to say he hasn’t got it equally wrong on other critical issues?"

    I don't quite follow this point. Why does your ego get stung if Porritt is wrong?

  11. Thomas,

    Ego is perhaps the wrong word. It's just that there are aren't that many of us active bloggers writing around this area and I felt as if we (for which read I - that's the ego bit) were being hauled into the debate. In which case, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I don't think I would have got stuck in if he hadn't casually mentioned that one or two bloggers were with him. Who does he mean? I would like to know. But it ain't me, babe.

  12. "That is, if you want to reduce carbon emissions, tax carbon emissions!"

    Screw the poor, and screw the economy.

    But otherwise hell yea!

  13. @Anonymous

    A Carbon tax needn't be inherently detrimental to the poor. You could, for example, do as James Hanson suggests and tax carbon at point of source and deliver the revenue generated directly into people's bank accounts.

    As for the economic arguement you could use that against any progressive social movement that ever occured. Go back a few hundred years and you'll have heard people saying that you couldn't ban slavery because it would wreck the economy. Taxing carbon will simply better capture the negative externalities of using fossil fuels and redirect the economy towards lower impact alternatives.

  14. A Carbon tax needn't be inherently detrimental to the poor. You could, for example, do as James Hanson suggests and tax carbon at point of source and deliver the revenue generated directly into people's bank accounts.

    Which is just fudging the numbers.

    What is the source?

    That’s factories and power stations to put it in a nutshell. Increasing the cost of production and power increases the cost of the end product, your suggesting then giving the money generated by the tax to people so that they can buy the end product, can you not see the inherent madness and waste in such a scheme?

    “Go back a few hundred years and you'll have heard people saying that you couldn't ban slavery because it would wreck the economy. “

    Can we stick to economic arguments based on thought out policies please, rather than socialist idealism.

    “Taxing carbon will simply better capture the negative externalities of using fossil fuels and redirect the economy towards lower impact alternatives.”


    We live in a global economy, if you simply increase the cost of producing goods domestically, you just make it more attractive to produce the goods in a country that doesn’t have such insane tax policies, and this is ALREADY HAPPENING.

    All you will do is move production offshore, and increase domestic energy costs which are locked in here.

  15. The Hanson source is here:


  16. got any links from economists rather than climate scientist.

    What hansen proposes is nothing more than wealth transfer, it does not work.

  17. Shock horror! The greenies fighting about which of them is the alpha male. Willy waving gets in the way of reason. Again.

  18. £200/tonne seems almost low-cost compared to the RHI whose proposed support works out as typically £500 to 8000 per tonne saved.

    Meanwhile measures at £20 to 40/tonne like good cavity and even solid wall insulation seem to be all but ignored. It doesn't seem to me like a way to move towards a workable future energy system.

    BTW, the net metering used in part of the USA gives zero admin. costs, needs no export meters and rewards systems which actually generate. It even rewards utilities which read the meter regularly, e.g. every 6 months, as the utility usually pays only a wholesale price for surpluses.

    I really can't see the point in FITs, given what they cost the elec. consumer. Also rather than public sector grants which push up prices why not have bulk buying - that does the opposite. Or is this too simple and unbureaucratic to please the, er, bureaucrats?


  19. I do wish people woud use their name or even a made up one if they fear for their safety, as 'Anonymous' appears to have multiple personalities.

    If you are one person then please forgive my unprofessional diagnosis and accept my apology for any offence caused.