The Socialist 24 May 2007
Fight Brown's pay freeze
Can solar power solve our energy needs?
This week, in our series about alternative methods of energy production, Pete Mason discusses solar power.
Australia is feeling the power of the sun. The state of New South Wales is suffering an unprecedented five years of drought, probably caused by global warming. Fresh water is running out. In the next few weeks the Australian government has to choose between providing water for the population of New South Wales or its crops and livestock.
How does Australia produce its energy? From coal fired power stations, the dirtiest source of energy, which produce about 50% of Australia's carbon emissions. As a result Australia emits the highest amount of greenhouse gas per capita in the world.
Could Australia take its energy from solar power? It seems a prime candidate. It is the driest continent on earth, about one third desert. And urgent, radical measures are required, not just in Australia but worldwide. In Australia, if heavy rains don't fall, irrigation will be banned so that the population in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – nearly ten million people – can drink the remaining fresh water. Last year South Australia's premier, Mike Rann, conceded, "What we're seeing with this drought is a frightening glimpse of the future with global warming." (The Guardian 8 November 2006)
Up to 40% of Australia's agricultural produce could be destroyed. In addition, hydro-electric plants could shut down, (some have slashed output by 70% due to water shortages) causing electricity blackouts. Water shortages are already anticipated in many countries, including southern Europe, most recently Italy, the south west states of the USA, and in China, where 4.8 million people are short of drinking water. (Drought worsens China water woes)
Heavy rains may yet arrive, and there are worse human tragedies already resulting from global warming taking place in areas of the world such as Africa, and in Bangladesh, where small inhabited islands are disappearing beneath the waves.
Alongside other renewable energy sources, solar power could provide a very significant proportion of the world's energy requirements, replacing greenhouse gas emitting sources like coal and oil fired power stations. In October 2001 Greenpeace announced that 26% of the world's energy could come from solar power, under existing technology. It was a very conservative estimate. Since then, a way has been found of doubling the output of even the most efficient solar panels, to 40%. (Scientific America, February 2007, p16)
The solar panels we are familiar with come in two forms. B&Q sells solar panels that heat water for household use, in radiators, for instance. Currys, on the other hand, sells solar panels (strictly called photovoltaic or 'PV systems') that provide electricity. If these panels are producing more electricity than you are using, the electricity produced runs into the national grid, and your electricity meter runs backwards. Other suppliers of solar panels provide a bank of batteries which can be kept charged up for peak and night time use.
"In just one hour", the New Scientist reports, enough solar energy reaches the earth's surface "to meet all our energy needs for an entire year". (11 November 2006) Deep-water algae can harvest 97% of the sun's energy that reaches it. By comparison, commercial PV solar panels are as yet very weak producers of energy, converting about 15%. Vast arrays of solar panels would be required to replace each of Australia's coal fired power stations. Australia, Africa and America do have vast deserts suitable for this, although deserts are perhaps more suited to solar-thermal power plants, which concentrate the sun's energy using mirrors to heat a fluid and drive turbines. Two are being built in Southern California (Scientific America, September 2006).
This is not suitable for the UK, but why centralise energy production in a few large power stations? If the roof of each house, warehouse, factory, office building or shopping precinct produces electricity from solar panels connected to the national grid, they would all be part of a vast array of solar panels. Some units of this array could produce far more power than they consumed, whilst some, like factories, much less. A socialist plan could match supply to requirements.
Generating power at the point of use is sometimes termed 'micro-generation'. Power might be generated from a single unit like a house or warehouse, or from a rural village, shopping centre or industrial estate, although in the larger installations, connection to the national grid takes more work and involves a certain cost. Wind turbines and other methods can be part of a 'micro-generation' system. Micro-generation, with a connection to the national grid, is seen as the best way of using renewable energy by environmental campaigners like George Monbiot (in his book 'Heat') and Greenpeace, although some roof-top wind turbines on sale from various suppliers have recently been attacked as too inefficient, and get little support from Monbiot.
In March 2006, Greenpeace attacked the government's move towards nuclear power with a report that showed that "decentralised energy is cleaner, cheaper and more secure". Leaving aside industrial production for a moment, how much power does the average British household require? In the UK today's typical installation of solar panels can supply 50-60% of the average household needs, according to the Energy Savings Trust, which was established by the UK government in 1993. But a typical installation is essentially limited by the current high price of solar panels and their installation. Of course, cloudy, windy Britain is much more suited to the use of wind power than solar energy (especially if wind farms are situated off shore and out of sight). Climate change may well bring significantly more turbulence to the world's weather systems, as well as more sun. Yet each square metre of south-facing roof in Britain receives about 1,000 kilowatt hours of solar radiation a year, according to the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/ animals/features/324feature1.shtml). We use, on average, 3,000-3,500 kilowatt hours of energy a year in our homes, the BBC report says, and this free, inexhaustible power source is there for the taking.
Decentralisation, or micro-generation, is the only meaningful way to use the power of the sun, but it threatens the privatised energy industry's existence. There would be no need for powerful energy monopolies selling the consumer overpriced energy. Once installed, solar panels can generate energy freely, invisibly, and noiselessly for thirty years. It's hardly surprising that there is little investment in solar power from the energy companies, and the cost of current PV systems is prohibitive. The energy industry dismissively raises the most facile objections to solar panels. One objection raised, according to the New Scientist (21 January 2006), was that solar panels get dirty and become inefficient, which is simply untrue. Roof structures in particular are exposed to erosion, not a build up of dirt like in a shady ditch. And if it were true, they could be cleaned.
Some object that energy is required to manufacture solar panels, but renewable energy can supply the energy to make them. Obtaining the materials to manufacture solar panels will create some emissions, but only a fraction of what they will save over their life time.
Another objection is that it is very difficult to store electricity, and a vast power station of solar panels would only be able to generate electricity in daylight. But once again, if we use the micro-generation model, where each household or other small unit stores its own power and is connected to the national grid, then storage for night usage becomes much less of a problem, as a small store of batteries (like those used on golf carts) would meet most household needs.
Of course other means of producing energy, such as wind and tidal power, would no doubt be necessary, in addition to storage, to power major installations that run at night. But there has always been one well established method of storing vast amounts of energy: to use spare electricity to pump water up a hill into a reservoir. The water is released when required to drive a hydro-electric generator. Now another method, industrial scale 'flow batteries' has been much improved, leading the 'New Scientist' to claim: "At last we can store vast amounts of [renewable] energy and use it when we need it." (13 January 2007)
A socialist plan
The main objection, in fact, comes down to cost. Until B&Q and Curry's began selling solar panels cheaply in 2006, buying and installing electricity producing solar panels cost up to £30,000. It would take at least 60–70 years to get your money back from savings on your electricity bills, so naturally, there was little take up. Currys sells solar panels (PV systems) for around £9,000 for each unit, but this is still far too high a price for most households.
Yet imagine if the newly elected 1974 Labour government had been a genuinely socialist one. Labour came to power just after the 1973 oil crisis, which drew attention to the need for alternatives to oil and gas. For a short time solar panels became fashionable – to those who could afford them. A socialist government could have drawn up a plan to install solar panels (PV systems) throughout the country over the next three decades. There was a precedent – in 1966 the government decided to convert the whole nation from town gas to natural gas from the North Sea – admittedly a much simpler job. But thirteen million homes were visited over a ten year period and 34 million individual appliances were converted. (http://www.centrica.co.uk/index.asp?pageid=397)
Vast economies of scale from such a socialist plan would rapidly lead to a slashing of the manufacturing and installation costs of solar panels. A large proportion of the energy sector's immense budget could have been focussed on the task. The 1974-1979 Labour government instead wasted £1 billion (£14 billion today as a proportion of GDP) secretly designing and building an independent nuclear warhead, against the decisions of Labour Party conference. (http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Uk/UKArsenalDev.html)
A socialist energy plan would vastly outstrip even the most optimistic estimates made on a capitalist basis, with a re-nationalised energy industry channelling investment into further development, making use of the most efficient methods. If the Labour government of 1974 had been a genuinely socialist one, perhaps Britain today would be "carbon neutral", creating no contribution towards global warming at all. And if there had been socialist governments around the globe in the 1970s, by now global warming would be under control. But in reality the opposite is true.
Restructuring society on this scale seems like an illusion under capitalism. Some piecemeal introduction of renewables will take place, together with a turn to nuclear fuels which must be opposed. But overall the 'free market' fails when it comes to the issue of global warming. The Australian government maintained, until recently, that if Australia committed itself to the Kyoto protocol, the resulting taxes on Australian industry would make it uncompetitive, and it would go bust. (Independent, 20 April 2007). From a purely capitalist point of view this may be logical, but it didn't stop Australia from facing record water shortages. What's clearly needed is a socialist energy plan, and what's clearly an obstacle is the private ownership of the energy and related industries.
"Decentralised energy is cleaner, cheaper and more secure; we do not need nuclear power." http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/media/reports/decentralising-uk-energy
In this issue
Labour Party leadership
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
Environment and socialism