My solar power system mirrors exactly what we face by trying to rely on renewables alone.
The other day I received through the door a package about a proposed 340 acre (138 hectare) solar farm a mile from my house. Apparently, it’ll produce “49.9MW” (sic) and meet the needs of 16,000 homes. What? Even on a cloudy day? It goes on to mention that the projected life of the solar farm is 40 years after which the land will allegedly be reinstated. Who’s going to enforce that? More to the point, where will the 49.9MW come from after it’s been dismantled?
As for the people running the company, in 40 years’ time they’ll either be dead or done a runner.
The company claims to be “contributing to the world’s move to 100% renewable energy”. 100%? That tells me they don’t even understand their own technology, despite also being apparently unaware of what’s going on in India and China.
Actually, I’m all for renewables. Since sunshine is free it’s insane not to take advantage of it. But one has to be realistic – and tell the truth.
In these pages before I’ve mentioned in passing that I have a solar panel system. I noticed that one of the readers of this site immediately accused me of taking advantage of taxpayer-funded subsidies. Not so. I paid for the whole lot and the batteries out of my own pocket. I did not receive so much as a brass farthing from the taxpayer.
But the point of this Net Zero-oriented piece is to explain how my system depicts perfectly the shortfalls of renewables unless one is prepared to accept a completely different type of energy usage and standard of living (which I wrote about the other day).
What I mean by this is that my domestic setup mirrors perfectly the problem this country faces by trying to eliminate the need for power generated by non-renewable sources.
The first downside is that the panels and batteries cost a considerable amount of money. We’ve forked out about £12,000 for a nominal 4 kW system (in practice it does not do better than 3.7 kWh) and four 2.4 kWh (usable capacity 2.2 kWh) batteries. We were lucky: a) we had the money saved which at the time was earning nothing, and b) we happen to have an outbuilding at the end of the garden which is invisible to the street and faces SWS, which is almost perfect.
Obviously, many people are not going to be in that position in either or both cases.
However, our solar panels have paid for themselves in just a few years because we use a fraction of the grid power we used to need, and we get paid for what we generate. Though, I might point out that we get paid only about one sixth of what the utility company sells the power we haven’t used ourselves to other people for.
Still, it’s better than a kick in the teeth. Unlike EVs and heat pumps, solar panels make electricity, not use it (apart from a nominal amount lost through heat in the inverters and resistance).
We had the panels fitted first. But they were like filling a bath using a tap with uncontrollable variable flow and no plug. It became patently apparent very quickly that batteries were going to be essential. We had them installed too, at first two and then upped the system to four.
Result? We probably generate and store about 80% of our needs over the year. But here’s the rub. We have an oil boiler. There are only two of us in our mid-60s. Our children have all grown up and gone. When they come to stay it’s almost impossible to match their needs, especially those with children of their own. They expect to have the kettle on every five minutes as well as cooking without cessation (we live in the countryside, so the hob and oven are electric), their small children have to be roasted alive all night because children of their generation apparently expire at anything below 20°C, the washing machine has to be on constantly, and they have countless appliances.
Our own needs don’t include a heat pump or charging an EV. If we had either, we’d be incapable of doing more than reducing our dependence on the grid by a small margin. In the eight years since we had the panels installed, the system has generated 36,000 kWh. In the same period of time a heat pump would have used up approximately 84,000 kWh (I had a supplier provide me with an estimate). So, I’d have saved 43% only of a heat pump’s needs and not had any solar electricity for all our other appliances. In fact, the position would have been worse since we’d mostly have needed to use the heat pump when the ability to charge is at its lowest.
My 36,000 kWh over eight years works out at an average of 375 kWh per month or 12.3 kWh per day, but of course in reality that’s extremely unevenly distributed. In the winter I’d be lucky to manage half that which is why there is no hope of covering a heat pump at that time of year.
One website estimates that a little under 12 kWh per day is required to charge an EV (or 353.3 kWh per month). But that’s only for just under 12 miles driving per day! That, incidentally, is 3.3 miles per kWh which means a return trip for me to London would use up 75 kWh of electricity. I’m not concerned about the cost here, which varies considerably, but the practicality of charging the car from a domestic renewable system.
If our sons ever get EVs and expect to charge them at our expense when they turn up, the situation will be even worse. There’s a Net Zero protocol no-one seems to have thought about. Suppose you have a dinner party? I can just imagine the guests all coming out with ‘you don’t mind if I plug in while we’re eating, do you? I don’t want to sit at a public charger for 45 minutes after midnight.’ No-one ever expected the host to produce a couple of five-gallon cans of petrol, largely because ‘proper cars’ have a decent range and you can actually buy fuel at petrol stations, but you can bet that from hereon there’ll be plenty of people who expect to plug in at their friends’ and relatives’ houses.
Back to the panels. The thing is that renewables are all about diminishing returns. To improve on my 80% self-sufficiency I’d have to double the whole system (and therefore the cost) and that still wouldn’t be enough for a heat pump in winter or to charge an EV. Given their requirements, I’d need to triple the system, assuming I even had a place for the additional panels and batteries.
Not only that, but I also wouldn’t – indeed, still couldn’t – get to 100%. The reason is simple. I could install 1,000 solar panels but they won’t make the sun shine in the middle of the night, any more than filling the North Sea with wind turbines will make a gale blow when it’s a flat calm without so much as a gentle breeze (also incidentally foxing any wave power generators).
If the sun isn’t shining, then it isn’t possible to charge my batteries either. On the day I’m writing this (October 13th 2023), it has rained all day almost without cessation and the sky has been battleship grey. The nicely charged batteries of the evening before were wiped out by lunchtime and that was without even putting the washing machine on. I might point out that the batteries don’t fully discharge – they cannot be allowed to. Around 30% of the charge cannot be used.
And we’re not even into winter yet. Where I live, I’m lucky to get six hours’ sunshine a day in December and January. Further north it’s even worse. The very time of year more power is needed.
Even on good days we’ve had to modify our behaviour. It’s not possible to run more than one or two major appliances even at the best of times without having to draw from the grid. That means the washing machine in the morning, the dishwasher in the afternoon and preferably only using the kettle in between. The batteries have improved this, but not entirely. Using any of them after dark is a no-no or else we won’t get through the night and into the morning until the sun is high enough to start recharging.
That’s why a domestic setup like mine mirrors exactly what will happen with the national Net Zero push for renewables. You can only get so far towards 100%, but you cannot get there, and it’s much harder to match demand with supply. With the technology currently available it simply is not possible to manufacture and install the storage capacity to provide the backup during the night or on bad weather days always to be able to match potential peak episodes of demand.
Therein lies one of the obvious great falsehoods about Net Zero and renewables. There will always be dependence on sources of energy that are not dependent on variables like the sun and the wind. The vast majority of the population will be wholly dependent on the grid, just as they always have been – but it will be a very different type of grid.
Almost everyone with their own renewable source of power will need to turn to the grid sometimes, just as I have to, and if the grid is wholly or nearly wholly dependent on renewables, then the grid will not be able to cope. If I am forced into buying an EV and a heat pump then despite my system I’ll be forced to draw far more from the grid than I am now.
Unless that is, we are being deliberately led into a world where being accustomed to your refrigerators and freezers switching off, not being able to cook or charge your car, or run your heat pump, at least some of the time is almost inevitable. With smart meters and smart appliances being rolled out, that’s an entirely feasible prospect.
That likelihood is also being exacerbated by driving us all into a world with only one type of power: electrical and only to be generated by renewables. That means no competition and no choice, and we all know where that leads.
Right now, many of the public support Net Zero, but more than a few believe Net Zero means absolute zero. I wonder how long that will last when their electric hobs cut out, when their cars stand idle on the drive and their food rots in the freezers. Or when on Christmas Day in the dead of winter there’s no question of the nation cooking its Xmas dinners as well as switching on the kettle and charging all your adult children’s cars at the same time.
As it happens, mains electricity only arrived in my village in the early 1960s. There are residents here still alive who remember those days, along with no running water or mains sewage. It is of course possible to live without the levels of power consumption we have become used to.
The question for the Government and those eco-activists bent on imposing major changes in our way of life is who will vote for giving up what they’re used to when the reality sinks in?
We are only playing at Net Zero with a deadline of 2050. It’s a dream which rides on the back of the fact that for the moment most of us have petrol or diesel cars and we still have nuclear power stations and others that use fossil fuels. The solutions may come in time, but there’s a huge distance to go before realistic and affordable levels of power storage become possible.
And I still have no idea what will happen to my solar panels when they pack in, and the batteries when they reach the end of their lives (estimated life is 10-plus years for each battery).