Monday, 26 August 2013

Greens need not feel they must defend solar everywhere

Solar power is fantastic. It works. It provides clean, and increasingly cheap, electricity. In many markets it is approaching grid parity (the point at which it costs less to produce solar from panels than it does to buy electricity), while in others like Italy, California and India it has already reached it. In the future, advances in new materials and manufacturing processes mean that costs are likely to fall even further. The point at which it will no longer require support, even in gloomy countries like Britain, is not so far away. It may in fact turn out to be the key technology of the 21st century.

Despite all this though, it is not without consequence. As I have said before on the blog, renewable energy may be great, but it still has downsides. With solar one of those is land-use. This is not as much of a problem in large nations like China or the USA, where using even a small proportion of the desert lands available could power half the country. Nor is it totally fair to single solar out. On a lifecycle basis it may even use up less land than some forms of fossil power (the 4000 km2 area trashed by coal mining in the Damodar Valley of Central India for example, could probably provide about 50% of the country's electricity if covered by solar).1 Out-of-town malls or concrete works are ugly too, and they don't even produce electricity. Nonetheless, in built-up and crowded countries like Britain, the demand for land is a thorny issue, and not one to be swept under the rug.

Already protests are building against the large ground-mounted solar farms being touted for Cambridgeshire and the South of England. This is okay. We should protest some of these developments. The motives behind them are often the same as for any other development - to make money. One of the great things about solar is that it can be put almost anywhere. There are plenty of rooftops to keep us occupied with solar development for many, many years to come. Once we run out of rooftops we can look at the roadways and train lines to see what we can do there. There is no real need to use farmland, or recovering habitats or wildland for solar in this country.  Indeed, this has been recognized by many in the industry, and guidelines have been published urging developers to restrict their activities to brownfield sites, rooftops and hidden places. They understand that it will not serve them for solar to start attracting the kind of negative publicity which has dogged onshore wind. Of course, whatever guidance is offered, it may often be cheaper and easier for people trying to make some quick cash, or hot targets, to just rent some big flat fields and cover them in solar. This is an industrial use of land, just like any other, and should be controlled as such.

The point is, that while solar is a fantastic technology which should be welcomed, it need not be welcomed everywhere, and environmentalists should not be afraid of saying that there are other greener alternatives; like the roof of that huge grey warehouse, just down the road.


1. 4000 km2 of the Thar Desert (roughly 2% of its area) could theoretically generate around 400 TWh if covered in solar. India's electricity consumption in 2012 was estimated to be around 700 TWh.