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November 2011 Archives

Happy 5th birthday ERL

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environmentalresearchweb's sister product, open-access journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL) is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a collection of the very best papers published over the last five years.

Twenty-five articles were nominated for the collection based on criteria such as novelty, scientific impact, readership, broad appeal and wider media coverage. The Editorial Board of ERL then picked a winner for each year of the journal's existence.

To find out more about topics such as the Sahara's Bodélé depression, the 2005 drought in the Amazon, how difficult it is to recover from dangerous levels of global warming, water shortage over the last 2000 years, and how urban structure affects consumption, head to the dedicated collection page.

Desert solar race

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Deserts get a lot of sunlight and there is currently something of a race to develop and deploy the best technology to exploit this free energy.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems with mirrors, dishes or parabolic troughs focussing the sunlight to raise steam to run a turbines are currently in the lead. There have been some major developments in Spain and the USA, but also now in N Africa and the Middle East, with new projects opening in Morocco (the 470 MW Ain Beni Mathar hybrid project) and Egypt (the 150 MW Kuraymat hybrid project). And more are planned. For example, the UAE is planning a 100MW project, and the Egyptian National Plan for 2012 -17 includes a 100MW CSP plant in South Egypt, while the follow-up National Plan for 2018-2022 has 2,550 MW of CSP. The German-led Desertec project seeks to build on the CSP option, making supergrid links back to the EU. It has plans for a €600m 150MW CSP plant in Morocco as a first stage.

It's hard to know what the impact of the recent political convulsions in North Africa may be, but CSP does seem likely to continue to move ahead in the region, as well as elsewhere- the largest CSP array so far planned is the 1 GW Blythe project, being developed in California by Solar Millennium LLC, on which more later.

A solar industry roadmap, as outlined in a study by A.T. Kearney and the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association, ESTELA, sees solar thermal reaching 12 GW of installed capacity globally by 2015, 30 GW by 2020 and between 60 and 100 GW by 2025. But that may prove to be pessimistic- CSP is not just limited to desert areas. For example, South Africa has a plan for a 5GW solar park, with the initial 1000MW phase, aimed for 2012, incorporating an already planned Eskom 100 MW CSP plant, which has received part funding from the World Bank. The Indian Ministry of New & Renewable Energy's National Solar Mission aims to generate 20GW of grid linked solar power by 2022, 50% CSP. And in Australia a new 'Zero Carbon Australia 2020' report has 42.5 GW of CSP supplying 60% of total electricity there by 2020!

However a rival technology - Concentrating Photo Voltaic (CPV) power - may challenge CSP. CPV uses conventional solar cells but with large arrays and sunlight focussing arrangements, as with CSP. The crucial point is that mirrors are cheaper than solar cells. There are already some very large projects in existence, 20 MW or more globally, including the 4MW array in Springerville Arizona, and the 10MW Masdar project in the UAE. And costs are falling- some say faster than for CSP.

A GTM Research study claims that the growing market for CSP is being seriously challenged by the rapidly falling price of solar photovoltaics. GTM predicted that, although the CSP market will grow by around US$7 billion over the next two years, it will then tail off, due to the dramatic decrease in the cost of solar PV panels. So although CSP project costs are set to decline between 3% and 7% per year from 2010 to 2020, PV costs will also continue their own substantial declines, with PV expected to maintain a cost advantage (on both a cost-per-watt and cost-per-kWh basis).

In fact, some utility companies are already choosing PV over CSP for future solar plants. For example, Masdar, the Abu Dhabi government backed renewables company, had been backing CSP. Its $600m, 100 MW Shams 1 CSP unit should be completed in 2012. But the newly proposed 100MW Noor solar PV plant will cost less than Shams 1, because of improving efficiency and "the normal learning curve for the industry," according to Frank Wouters, director of Masdar Power.

The cost battle is also evidently having an impact in the USA. According to an report carried by Renewable Energy World, conventional residential rooftop solar PV system in Los Angeles can deliver lower electricity at less cost per kilowatt-hour than the most cost effective, utility- scale concentrating solar power plant. It noted that CSP had higher operations costs and a higher cost of capital than for the residential rooftop system, and there were also transmission infrastructure and efficiency losses, which would increase the cost of power from the CSP plant further.

It may be too early to make longer-term policies on the basis of calculations like this, but PV and CSP do seem to be rivals. CSP has the major advantage of being able to store heat in molten salt heat stores, so that power production can be continued after the sun goes down, while most PV cell performance falls with time and rising temperature. But then CSP plants have to have some form of cooling as with any steam raising system- air cooling is less efficient than water cooling, but one thing deserts don't have is water, so it would have to be piped in, adding to the cost. And with cell cost falling, PV may increasingly have the edge. After all, its not just domestic roof top PV systems or simply arrays that are in contention, new ideas for very large-scale CPV systems, including energy storage, are also emerging

Earthscans 'Energy from the Desert' three-volume book set edited By Kosuke Kurokawa et al , details the background and concept of Very Large Scale Photovoltaics (VLS-PC). Overall the authors are very optimistic- they say VLS-PV can be competitive with fossil fuel-fired plants assuming economic energy storage is available- they look to Vanadium flow batteries. And longer term they see large scale PV solar are becoming a dominant energy option.

CSP and CPV both have similar environmental impacts in terms of their land use footprint, with some projects in the USA falling foul of local concerns about desert wildlife, and CSP's need for water.

But there should be plenty of desert areas around the world where there are minimal land use conflicts, and some North African CSP projects have been seen as being used partly for desalination- with sea water piped in over perhaps long distances from the Mediterranean, possibly linked to Solar greenhouses projects.

New ideas may also emerge. It's conceivable that CSP and CPV or PV arrays could be combined. There are some small-scale hybrid solar thermal-PV systems for domestic uses, the big advantage being that the solar heat absorbers keep the PV cells cooler, so they operate more efficiently, in tandem, with heat collectors in wafers in a sandwich with PV cells. Although it's harder to see how this could be achieved with large scale focussing systems, it could be worth exploring in hot desert environments.

Hybrid CSP/PV systems were mentioned as a future option by the developer of the 1GW Blythe solar project in California mentioned earlier. Reflecting the changing fortunes of CSP and PV, it has now decided that the first 500-MW phase will be switched from CSP to PV technology because they say market conditions in the US now favour PV. But they also noted that CSP was a valuable 'grid-stabilizing renewable energy source with storage capabilities,' so a combination might prove to be the best option.

For more: Peter van der Vleuten, Free Energy International:

A broad literature investigates the impact of urban form and transport energy use, clearly demonstrating the benefits of compactness for lowering energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Myriad qualifications apply, of course, highlighting the importance of street accessibility and job-housing balance (e.g. Ewing and Cervero, 2010).

Ewing and Rong (2010) finally explored the other side of the story: the impact of urban form on residential energy use, relying on US data. Intuitively, sprawled residences have higher space requirement and need more energy for heating. The authors show that single-family detached housing consumes 54% more energy for heating and 26% more energy for cooling than otherwise comparable multi-family housing. With equal income, black, Hispanic and Asian household are more likely to live in multifamily housing than white households do. Multifamily housing is highly correlated with compactness.

The Urban Heat Island effect introduces another dimension. Compact neighborhoods are warmer than sprawled neighborhoods, causing less heating demand but higher cooling demand. The less-heating effect dominates in most regions in the US. The exception is the Sunbelt, where higher temperatures require higher additional cooling demand, creating an energy penalty for more compact housing. With global warming, this energy penalty is likely to increase.

Altogether the housing effect clearly dominates the energy balance. An average household in a compact neighborhood (one standard deviation above mean) consumes 20% less energy than the average household in a sprawled neighborhood (one standard deviation below mean). Let us look forward to seeing other detailed studies on this issue, also from other parts of the world. 

Since their output is variable, wind turbines have to be backed up, usually by fossil fuel plants, so some say that the carbon savings from having wind power on the grid are undermined. This issue has been the subject of sometimes heated debated for some time.

Back in 2008, the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs report on 'The Economics of Renewable Energy' referred to an argument made to the Committee by a witness from the Renewable Energy Foundation (Campbell Dunford) who claimed that any carbon savings from wind power were offset by the need to run conventional (and flexible) fossil fuel plant at part load to balance the fluctuations in wind output (e.g. to balance supply and demand when the wind is blowing less). Part loading means that the backup plants are run inefficiently, so producing more CO2 per kWh of output than they otherwise would.

Based on other inputs to their review, the Committee disagreed with this argument. They concluded that 'The need to part-load conventional plant to balance the fluctuations in wind output does not have a significant impact on the net carbon savings from wind generation'.

In its response to the Select Committee, the government agreed with this statement and estimated the net saving from raising the share of renewable electricity to 32% to be about 45-50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-- about 8-9% of total CO2 emissions--after taking account of the cost of part- loading plant.

Certainly it is usually argued that the extra cost of fuel/ and the extra CO2 produced is only of the order of 2-3%. The issue is explored in Godfrey Boyle's 'Renewable Energy and the Grid: The Challenge of Variability' (Earthscan, 2007).

However, some critics point to new real time data from the USA and elsewhere, which they claim indicates otherwise:

For example, one analysis of recent US data suggests emission savings from wind plant are as low as 0.1 tons of CO2/MWh in California, compared to an average figure for the US as a whole of 0.6 and a figure of 0.8 attributed to the American Wind Energy Association.

But it rather depends on what fuel is being displaced. In California it's mostly (low carbon) gas and (zero carbon) hydro, whereas in the Mid West it's mostly (high carbon) coal- so the figure there is 1ton/Mwh saved.

The carbon saving benefits from wind are also undermined in the US by the fact that, when wind availability is high, much of the potential output from wind projects has to be curtailed- i.e. not used. This is mainly due to there being weak grid links, which are unable to take it all and distribute it to where it is needed. The same thing has happened recently in Scotland. Having large inflexible 'must run' nuclear power plants on the grid also doesn't help.

Better grid links can clearly help reduce the need for wind curtailment, so of course could electricity storage, which will also help when wind availability is low, although energy storage is expensive (see my earlier Blogs). Interactive load management to reduce (or shift) demand peaks can help reduce the need for back up when there is less wind available, so can imports of energy from wind generators elsewhere, where it is more windy, via a long distance supergrid, balanced by exports when wind is available and demand locally is low. See

So there could be solutions, and they may not add too much extra cost. Certainly the recent European Wind Integration Study, produced by the European Transmission System Operators, says the benefits of wind energy in terms of fuel and CO2 saving greatly exceed grid balancing and reinforcement costs, put at 0.21-0.26 p/kWh and 0.4p/kWh respectively, for 181 GW of wind; and extra grid reinforcement could reduce the former to 0.17p/kWh.

And beyond that, the EWEA Tradewind study and Greenpeace's various [R]evolution reports suggested that pan-EU supergrids could offer major benefits in terms of reducing the impact of local variability- for example perhaps doubling wind power's capacity credit. and

However perhaps inevitably not every one agrees. For example , Pöyry's North European Wind and Solar Intermittency Study (NEWSIS) has found that 'The creation of an offshore 'super grid' and a major upgrade of energy interconnections are not the silver bullet solutions to Europe's energy needs'.

It says that the introduction of improved connectivity would only partially alleviate the volatility of increased renewable energy generation. Basically it claims that wind and solar output will be highly variable and will not 'average out', even over wide areas- it looks at the NW of Europe- and concludes that 'heavy reinforcement of interconnection doesn't appear to offset the need for very much backup plant'. So it claims that 'inter-connectors are not a complete solution'. Pöyry study summary: www.poyry. com/linked/en/press/NEWSIS.pdf

Actually no one has said that inter-connectors were 'a complete solution'- there would also be a need for backup, storage, and demand side management and so on. Moreover, unlike the earlier EWEA 'Tradewind' study and Greenpeace reports, which looked across the whole of Europe, Pöyry only looked at the North West. Assuming a wider footprint- including the sunny south, and the windy east, and possibly also North Africa, then the situation would be very different- as has been explored in Gregor Czich's seminal study 'Scenarios for a Future Electricity Supply', now published by the IET.

However the debate on wind balancing continues, with some inputs being quite dramatic. For example, a study of the influence of wind energy on the CO2 output of fossil-fired generation of electricity in Ireland claims that, in absence of hydro buffer storage, the CO2 production of the conventional generators increases with wind energy penetration, and that the reduction of CO2 emissions is at most 'a few percent', if gas fired generation is used for balancing a 30% share of wind energy.

Even if only partly true, it looks like a good case for a supergrid link- Ireland's grid is too small.

A recent input to the debate is a new EU "Offshore Grid" project analysis, co-financed by the European Commission, which looks at the benefits of building a meshed European grid offshore, which it says will significantly increase security of electricity supply across the EU.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has also recently backed the supergrid: the IET had told the Committee, a supergrid could provide a much wider range of opportunities to export excess electricity when the wind is blowing and new routes to import electricity at times of low-supply.

Supergrids are not the only or complete answer to variability, but along with other measures, they should be able to help. For an extensive, authoritative, report on the variability issue see the IEA's 'Harnessing -Variable Renewables.'

By Leo Hickman (features journalist and editor at the Guardian)

A new study shows that climate sceptics feature much more prominently in the UK and US media than in other countries (from the Guardian)

From the Guardian

During a trip to Italy earlier this year, I asked a local journalist whether climate sceptical views get much of an airing in the Italian media. My query was greeted with an air of slight bemusement, which was followed by a request for me to explain what I meant by the term "climate scepticism". Their facial reaction alone told me that this was something of an alien concept to them.

It supported a hunch I have long believed to carry some substance: climate scepticism is a predominantly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Or, rather, it is a phenomenon that tends to gets amplified to a much greater extent in the various English-language media outlets around the world – particularly, in the US, UK and Australia – than it does in other languages or countries.

Until now, there has been very little beyond the anecdotal to support this theory. But the proposition is now on a firmer footing thanks to a new report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based at the University of Oxford, which firms up some related findings it published last year.

In "Poles Apart: The International Reporting of Climate Scepticism", a team of researchers, led by James Painter, a former BBC World Service journalist with a specialism in analysing how climate change is portrayed in the media, conducted a comparative study of the prevalence of climate sceptic voices in the print media across Brazil, China, France, India, the UK and US.

More than 3,000 articles from at least two different newspapers in each country (10 from the UK) were analysed over two separate three-month periods: February to April 2007 and mid-November 2009 to mid-February 2010, the latter including both the Copenhagen summit and fallout from the theft of emails from the University of East Anglia. The "political leaning" of each newspaper (except in China) was also taken into consideration.

The report undertakes the important and necessary task of defining and discussing the various types of climate sceptic – something it later stresses should be better emphasised by journalists. For example, there are the "trend sceptics" (who deny the warming trend), the "attribution sceptics" (who accept the trend, but attribute it to natural causes) and the "impact sceptics" (those who accept human causation, but claim the impacts will be beneficial or benign).

Then there are the policy sceptics; those who, for a variety of (often political or ideological) reasons, disagree with the regulatory policies being promoted to tackle climate change. Then, finally, there are the science sceptics; those who – again, for a variety of reasons – believe climate science not to be trustworthy.

The report also lists four examples of different sceptics - Pat Michaels, Steve McIntyre, Lord Monckton and Bjørn Lomborg – to illustrate their often contrasting motivations and methodologies in expressing their equally various types of scepticism.

Overall, the report (which, sadly, is behind a paywall, but the executive summary can be viewed here as a pdf) performs a very good job of summarising the political leanings of the sceptics and the media outlets that report, host or dismiss their views. It also shows why the flourishing of climate scepticism in the US "is related to the funding of American politicians by industry groups and the pervasive practice and power of lobbying".

With regard to the UK, it lays out how "particularly successful" the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) has been in getting its voice across most of the 10 surveyed newspapers, showing how the most mentioned or quoted sceptics "by far" were GWPF's Lord Lawson and Benny Peiser. (Ian Plimer, the Australian mining geologist, was the fourth most mentioned (most likely because he was promoting a book in late 2009) who also has links to the GWPF – as does the fifth most mentioned, the Canadian economist Ross McKitrick.)

But all this we knew – or could sensibly conclude ourselves. Where the report offers genuinely new insights is when it compares the coverage of climate scepticism across the six chosen countries. It finds, for example, that the so-called "Climategate" affair received much more attention in the UK and the US compared to Brazil, China, France and India. And it also notes that "significantly more" sceptics are mentioned in the UK and US media compared to the other four countries sampled.

It adds that it "was interesting to note that type (ii) sceptics [those who question the anthropogenic contribution to the warming trend] were much more common in the print media in Brazil, China, India and France, representing 45 out of the 51 times sceptics were quoted or mentioned, or 88%. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, for type (ii) sceptics, the percentage figure was lower (57%)."

Another important contrast between the Anglo-Saxon countries and the other four was that politician sceptics were quoted or included much more in the UK and US media (86%) than in Brazil, China, India and France. The Chinese media mentioned no politician sceptics at all, whereas India and Brazil only mentioned foreign politician sceptics.

The report concludes that one factor that explains the comparative absence of sceptic voices in the media in Brazil, France and India is that there are "no conservative parties, or significant elements within them, who energetically follow that type of conservative ideology whom the (right-leaning) print media can quote".

However, it says there is a danger in "over-stating the role of ideology":

Outcomes are usually determined by the interaction between internal processes or factors within newspapers (such as journalistic practices, editorial culture, or the influence of editors and proprietors as well as political ideology) and external societal forces (such as the power or presence of sceptical lobbying groups, sceptical scientists, sceptical political parties, or sceptical readers who are simply fearful of higher taxes or energy bills). An array of other factors, such as a country's energy profile, the presence of web-based scepticism, and a country's direct experience of a changing climate also play a role.

Lastly, it makes the interesting observation that in France, where, it says, all of the factors above have a possible role, there is also a strong "pro-science", rationalist culture which is "probably an additional prism through which to evaluate the experience of reporting climate change there".

By the author's own admission, the scope and range of the study is limited. It would be interesting to see how climate scepticism is reported in a wider range of other languages – German, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Arabic, to name just a few. (Please share you own insights and observations below if you speak these, or any other, languages – even though you'll have to relay them in English?!)

But what the study does do is remind those of us who are engaged in the "climate debate" that – for a variety of reasons – it is one that is predominantly Anglo-Saxon. A complicated matrix of cultural, geographical and ideological influences has led climate scepticism to flourish in the UK and the US compared to other places, proving once again that "The Science" often only has a walk-on role.

the Guardian

Today saw the launch of the IPCC's Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, or SREX for short. You can hear IPCC chair Raj Pachauri, co-chairs of working group I Thomas Stocker and Qin Dahe, and co-chairs of working group II Chris Field and Vicente Barros present the report at the press conference below, as well as listening in to media questions.

Watch live streaming video from ipcc34thsessionenglish at

If you prefer your information in text form rather than audio, the summary for policymakers and full report are available at

According to IPCC chair Raj Pachauri in a press release, "this summary for policymakers provides insights into how disaster risk management and adaptation may assist vulnerable communities to better cope with a changing climate in a world of inequalities".

Qin Dahe said: "There is high confidence that both maximum and minimum daily temperatures have increased on a global scale due to the increase of greenhouse gases. Changes in other extremes, such as more intense and longer droughts are observed in some regions, but the assessment assigns medium confidence due to a lack of direct observations and a lack of agreement in the available scientific studies."

Thomas Stocker explained that for the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world. "Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease".

Vicente Barros believes that there are many options for decreasing risk. "Some of these have been implemented, but many have not," he said. "The best options can provide benefits across a wide range of possible levels of climate change."

Chris Field, meanwhile, hopes that "this report can be a scientific foundation for sound decisions on infrastructure, urban development, public health, and insurance, as well as for planning--from community organizations to international disaster risk management."

Speaking elsewhere, Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science said: "This expert review of the latest available scientific evidence clearly shows that climate change is already having an impact in many parts of the world on the frequency, severity and location of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts and flash floods. This is remarkable because extreme events are rare and it is difficult to detect statistically significant trends in such small sets of data."

Ward added that these trends have been identified over the last few decades when the rise in global average temperature has been just a few tenths of a centigrade degree. "The report shows that if we do not stop the current steep rise in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, we will see much more warming and dramatic changes in extreme weather which are likely to overwhelm any attempts human populations might make to adapt to their impacts. Governments must focus clearly on reaching a strong international agreement to strengthen their efforts to reduce emissions and to prepare their populations for those impacts of climate change that cannot now be avoided."

Amazonian deforestation is a major regional and global disaster, rapidly diminishing natural capital, contribution to mass extinction, and to climate change via land-use emissions. Evidently, the drivers of deforestation need to be closely scrutinized. Imori et al. (2011) contribute to this debate and perform an input-output analysis on Amazon deforestation in 2005. They find that cattle, soybean and to lesser degree sugar cane are main culprits of deforestation. The study does not investigate market-mediated effects. For example, the possibility that sugarcane production around Sao Paolo substitutes for cattle, which, in turn, is pushed into the Amazon region is not analyzed (Lapola et al., 2011). The authors point out that cattle and soybean provide employment in a region that otherwise offers few opportunities. Employment and economic growth targets are thus in direct conflict with forest protection. Soybean is mostly exported (e.g. for feeding industrially produced chicken in Germany). From a consumption-based perspective, importing countries of soybean are also responsible for Brazilian deforestation. A relevant CO2 tax on consumption of soybean (and cattle) in OECD countries or on production in Brazil could reduce the pressure on continued deforestation. Global efforts of forest protection are probably well advised to advance approaches that provide high employment and give ownership of forest protection to local communities.

The German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) has produced a very detailed report setting out pathways for a transition to renewable electricity. It concludes that is possible to get to 100% by 2050, as against the current German government target of only 80% by then.

The SRU comments 'In our view, the prospects for this transition are far brighter than the government would have us believe; and we are far less persuaded than the government appears to be concerning the compatibility of nuclear power and renewables. But many of the recommendations and concepts in the present report are relevant regardless of whether the goal is to achieve 80 or 100% renewable electricity'.

However, rather than going it alone, it suggest that an alliance with Denmark and Norway could be the best arrangement for generation, grid balancing and storage, for example integrating in the regions hydro for pumped storage. That was seen as possibly preferable to reliance on importing power (e.g. from Concentrating Solar Power projects) from North Africa.

Some of the scenarios rely heavily on wind power, both offshore and on-land, and also on solar photovoltaics (PV), which, on one scenario, make up a large proportion of the 2050 mix (with around 100GW of PV installed by then). However SRU claims that this is not the only option and that if demand could be reduced from 700TWh by 2050 to 500TWh, then much less PV would be needed.

It sees this as a preferable option and is critical of the way PV has been supported so far in Germany, arguing that it was expanding too rapidly and imposing unsustainable costs. The current high rate of expansion 'would result in half the capacity that is needed for a wholly renewable electricity supply in 2050 in the high electricity demand scenarios to be already installed in 2020. This means that unnecessary capacity would be installed prematurely, which in turn would increase long-term renewable electricity costs and jeopardise acceptance of a wholly renewable electricity supply'. Consequently, it says that 'Photovoltaic support should be drastically reduced so as to rectify mismanagement in this domain, whose current expansion rate far exceeds that deemed necessary'.

Exit from PV?

Why the change of heart on PV? Germany has been at the forefront of PV with around 19GW now in place. That, SRU says, is the problem- it's boomed too fast, partly due to cost reductions, so that the high FiT tariffs impose too much cost on consumers. This same argument has been heard across the EU- in Spain, Italy, France, and now in the UK, all of whom, like Germany, have imposed Feed In Tariff (FiT) cut backs or capacity caps for PV. The latest German cuts range from 3-15%. Some see this as just a failure of political nerve- they say we should leave FITs alone, since PV prices will then fall, as the market builds, and the cost pass through to consumers can also then be reduced.

SRU evidently doesn't agree and also has more fundamental problems with PV. While they note that some think PV 'will be competitive once grid parity is achieved, with solar electricity generation costs on a par with household electricity rates, they say that 'this assumption fails to reckon with the fact that household electricity demand and solar energy production are highly asynchronous. Households with solar panels need to be able to draw energy from the grid at times, which would significantly reduce the economic benefit of home PV installations in the (likely) event that some household electricity needs to be drawn from the grid during high rate periods. Hence the achievement of electricity generation costs that can compete with the prices charged by power companies by no means indicates that photovoltaics deserve a place in the future energy mix'.

Some might see throwing PV out of the mix as an odd idea. Economically it's almost certain to get very much cheaper. And SRU's technical case against PV is not that strong- PV can make a lot of sense for day-time occupancy buildings, for summer air-conditioning and for topping up night time storage heaters. More generally, although load factors are low, we are going to have to get used to balancing variable supplies, as we have more renewables on the grid. SRU may be right that PV will make it harder, but it's a huge resource well suited to access via roof tops, easy to install and run-with no moving parts to go wrong. It may have been unwise to try to use FiTs to get its initial very high price down rapidly, but that doesn't means the technology is rubbish. Or that FiTs are no use, if well designed, with effective price degression mechanisms.

However, it is true that, in the worsening economic climate, the FiT for PV have been seen as provocatively high and hard to defend. SRU says that further support in Germany is 'no longer justifiable on the grounds of learning curve effects, for the market for PV installations has grown considerably and is now international in scope. Even if Germany stopped promoting photovoltaic energy, the remaining PV installation market would be large enough to allow for further cost reductions'. So, in effect, SRU is saying that, although it has cost a lot, the FiT has done its job and no more support is needed. More pragmatically they say that since the national alternative energy programme cost apportionment 'cannot be increased without meeting political opposition, perpetuating the current photovoltaic support framework would deprive renewables of funding that have the capacity to produce electricity far more efficiently'.

In fact through, SRU doesn't suggest abandoning PV entirely. They say that 'in the interest of political credibility and preserving the relevant technical skills and know-how, PV capacity expansion should not be discontinued altogether'. Instead it suggests that 'the scope of PV expansion should be kept at a low level that however still ensures that installed capacity can be adjusted to potential changes in demand. Only if a rise in electricity demand appears highly probable, PV capacity expansion should be promoted accordingly.'

So PV should in effect be kept in reserve. SRU says 'The planning period for such a capacity expansion - which ideally would be realised as late as possible -should be keyed to the relationship between the capacity needed and the possible annual expansion rate.' It adds 'If projections of large decreases in PV installation manufacturing costs are accurate, this would be yet another reason to rein in photovoltaic energy support. The later PV installations are installed the lower their social cost will be'.

Some might see SRUs conclusion that 'PV support urgently needs to be reined in' as a capitulation to right-wing free-market enthusiasts, equally it might be seen as a sensible recognition of the limits of PV and FiTs in the current context. Most observer now agree that FiT tariff levels for PV need cutting, but the debate over how much continues- in the UK, focusing on the proposed very drastic 50% cut, with the resistance campaign's slogan being 'Cut don't Kill'.

There is a new special journal issue of the online open-access journal Sustainability on the topic of net energy: New Studies in EROI (Energy Return on Investment). This has been organized over the last year by Charles Hall of the State University of New York. This special journal edition has many papers on new and updated assessments of EROI for oil and gas in the US, Canada and Norway. Additionally there are new papers discussing how to relate EROI to energy prices and costs as well as how different constructs for EROI measures (e.g. for a technology or a business) are useful for different decision making contexts.

I encourage all researchers and interested persons to view the papers in the special issue, as it is certainly a great contribution to the literature at a time when distinguishing among the most viable energy resources has never been more important.

More PV solar cuts

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The full Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) review of the 'Clean Energy Cashback' Feed In Tariff (FiT) for photovoltaic (PV) solar installations resulted in further cuts to support - following on from the 72% cut in the tariff for PV projects over 50kW that had emerged from the earlier 'fast track' review.

The new cuts were prefigured in a speech at the end of October by Energy Minister Greg Barker, who, while welcoming the successful installation so far of over 100,000 PV arrays (around 300MW), said: 'Much of the growth in PV has been as much about consumers accessing the Government backed tariff as accessing the technology. High net worth individuals chasing returns which are now easily reaching double figures at a time when interest rates for savers have collapsed to an historic low. That can't be right.'

So DECC is planning to more than halve feed in tariff incentives for solar PV projects of 4kW or less from, in effect, December this year- reducing the tariff from 43p/kWh to 21p/kWh, which it says should yield a 4.5% rate of return. They also proposed reductions to the tariffs for PV installations between 4kW and 250kW, 'to ensure those schemes receive a consistent rate of return'.

There's also a proposal to introduce an energy efficiency requirement for FITs for solar PV. If the building does not meet the energy efficiency criteria the installation would receive a lower FIT rate of 9p/kWh. In addition there's a proposal for new multi-installation tariff rates, set at 80% of the standard tariffs for individual installations, for 'aggregated' PV schemes- where an individual or organisation gets FIT payments from more than one PV installation, located on different sites, as in 'rent a roof' schemes.

Launching a consultation on the proposals, Barker said that the existing tariffs led to 'returns for investors in solar PV that are simply not sustainable and, without action, could result in the spending envelope for the scheme rapidly being breached' He explained that 'If the Government took no action, by 2014-15 FITs for solar PV would be costing consumers £980m a year, adding around £26 (2010 prices) to annual domestic electricity bills in 2020. Our proposals will restrict FITs PV costs to between £250-280 m in 2014-15, reducing the impacts of FITs expenditure on PV on domestic electricity bills by around £23 (2010 prices) in 2020.'

DECC is to publish a separate consultation 'around the end of 2011' on 'other aspects of the scheme including the tariffs for other FIT technologies. As part of its review of the FITs, DECC will also consider 'whether more could be done to enable genuine community projects to be able to fully benefit from FITs.'


In a fact sheet it evidently released prematurely, the Energy Saving Trust gave an early warning of the scale of the cuts and said that under the proposed changes payback time would be 18 years for a 2.9kW system, eight years longer than at the current levels. But it said that the new rate of return, which it put 4%, was more "appropriate" than the original 5-8% rate, due to the changes in the investment market that has seen interest rates slashed.

Dave Sowden of the Micropower Council agreed that 'they needed to recalibrate it....but if you go below five per cent then you completely wipe out free solar and social housing schemes. It just becomes a rich man's game.' Friends of the Earth concurred: 'The proposals will pretty much exclude everyone who does not own their own home and have significant savings to hand from installing solar'. The proposal to backdate the changes to December also caused concern - e.g. it could impact on those half way through installation negotiations. Overall, the timing of the cuts was a big problem for developers.

However, the idea of linking supply schemes to efficiency was widely seen as making sense- it's foolish not to sort building energy losses out first. Barker had said he wanted a new 'whole-house approach', including new measures to ensure that all new domestic solar PV sites meet minimum energy-efficiency standards: 'It cannot be right to encourage consumers to rush to install what are still expensive electricity-generating systems in their homes before they have thoroughly explored all of the sensible options for reducing their energy consumption first. Frankly, such a standard should have been a pre-requisite for accessing the FiT subsidy from day one'.

He also, maybe sensibly, urged developers to move into the solar thermal market, which has seen slower deployment rates under the pilot Renewable Heat Premium Payment Scheme than those experienced by the PV under the FiT. While that may be an option for some developers, there were predictions of massive job losses in the PV sector, and a lot of resentment about the cuts. Surely if the FiT system was allowed to work, the cost would reduce as the market built, with FiT prices being 'degressed' continually, so consumers wouldn't be hit hard.

The DECC report suggests otherwise- PV had boomed too fast. The consultation report notes that, as at September 2011 ' 255MW of solar PV had been registered for FITs. This compares to the 94MW that was originally projected for this point in time', driven mainly by 'the reduction in the cost of PV systems'. Barker claimed that 'The cost of an average domestic PV installation has fallen by at least 30% since the start of the scheme - from around £13,000 in April 2010 to £9,000 now'. In addition, DECC noted, there were increased returns available from solar PV due to the '13% increase in retail electricity prices since April 2010, which has increased the savings from avoided consumption of imported electricity'. It added that multiple installation schemes had also played role in the uptake of FITs.

All of this threatened to push the cost passed on to consumers up rapidly- although that has to be put in perspective- DECCs impact report indicates that, at present, the FiT added just £1.40 p.a. to typical household bills. But what about the benefits, not just the cost savings for those on the scheme, but the climate benefits, which all share, and the indirect cost saving since less fuel has to be used nationally?

More specifically, there were social benefits. As DECC admitted, some multiple installations schemes enabled 'those who cannot afford the upfront capital costs of purchasing a PV installation, including the fuel poor, to share in some of the benefits', as in 'free solar', rent a roof schemes.

However DECC noted that some felt that for these, 'the principal beneficiaries are generally the third parties rather than the hosts of the generating equipment.' DECC say that 'the returns available to such schemes are higher than in the case of individual installations. We therefore consider there is a strong case for adopting a different approach and tariff for multi-site generators of FITs'.

So it's cuts across the board. It may be true that the UK FiTs were quite generous to PV. But then the FiT system was a new venture for the UK. DECC says that the new PV Tariffs are now similar to those in Germany. That's not quite true. Despite recent cuts, most of the German tariffs are still larger, and the German FiTs have been running for many years, so that PV has a well-developed market. Here it is still in its infancy. And now it could stay that way.

DECCs consultation report is at: