photo by AndiH (source: Flickr Creative Commons)

Several recent articles in the British and international media have dealt with the question of solar power and government schemes that encourage homeowners to install solar panels.

One such plan, announced yesterday by UK energy and climate change secretary, Ed Miliband is a Pay As You Save program that provides ‘green loans’ to those who install energy saving eco-measures. The loans are purported to cover installation and purchase costs while money saved in energy bills is meant to outweigh the repayment of said loans.

Miliband is quoted in an article from the Press Association:

The Warm Homes, Greener Homes strategy will remove the deterrent of upfront costs and reduce the hassle of moving to greener living… Making homes more energy-efficient will help protect people from upward pressure on bills, tackle climate change and make us less reliant on imported energy.

While generating or capturing solar energy makes sense as part of national plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs and save money for those who install stall solar panels, the specifics of the schemes have attracted criticism from different ends of the political spectrum.

George Monbiot rails against the UK government’s feed-in-tariff (FIT) scheme – specifically how it encourages the installation of photovoltaic (PV) panels in middle class houses – as a scam that rewards those with money while punishing the poor. Monbiot believes that it is an inefficient way for taxpayers to subsidize the green image of the middle classes. From his piece in the Guardian:

Had this money been spent instead on insulation or double glazing, it could have helped relieve fuel poverty at the same time as cutting emissions. But the feed-in tax is both wasteful and regressive. The government has now decided not to oblige people to improve the efficiency of their homes before they can claim a tariff: you’ll be paid to put a solar panel on your roof even if the roof contains no insulation.

Monbiot praises investment in large wind farms, geothermal energy, insulating homes, replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs and even nuclear power over ‘wasteful’ FIT programs. Note that his main criticism is with photovoltaic panels used to generate electricity, not the thermal variety, which generate heat.

While solar electricity from photovoltaic panels clearly makes less sense in cloudy places like the UK when compared to California or Australia, there must be some reason there’s a lot of them in Scandinavia. What is clear is that renewable sources should be tailored and used specifically according to local conditions and needs: turbines where there is plenty of wind, ocean wave and current power on the coasts, geothermal where that exists and – I can’t believe I’m actually writing this – solar in hot, sunny climates.

The proliferation of photovoltaic panels in Canada and northern European countries would seem to contradict the obvious – as shown in the European Commission map below – but perhaps they’ve become a ‘must have’ fashion accessory for the modern middle class home. Or maybe there is another reason. For example, this blog claims that they actually work well in cold climates.

Regardless, government schemes should go for what’s most efficient and effective when trying to save money, energy and resources as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Renewables will get cheaper and better, including solar. But for now, Monbiot’s argument seems pretty sound.

by Graham Land