Monday, 10 August 2015

Solar Power is too cheap to meter! - so says Keith Barnham in 'The Burning Answer'

Making a parody of claims attributed to nuclear power in the 1950s as being 'too cheap to meter', as Keith Barnham does, may seem a cheap shot to some - but it is a reality even now. That is the claim made by Keith Barnham in his book, now available in paperback, 'The Burning Answer - A user's guide to the Solar revolution'. Much hay is made by critics of solar power (and Keith talks mainly about solar photovotaics) by saying it only produces electricity when the sun shines. But in fact a manifest advantage is rarely mentioned - it's operating costs are more or less zero. The capital costs have been, and are, falling rapidly.

So much solar energy will produced when it is sunny that it can be stored. Even in places like Italy there is a lot of 'free' energy is being generated, surplus to electricity requirements,so that it can be easily stored. Yes that's right, easily stored. Of course we know about the tumbling costs of batteries from factories established by Elon Musk and also the latest developments in sodium ion batteries that will undercut the costs of lithium batteries. But one of the things that Keith tells us about are the existing types of heat pumps. The fact that solar pv is electric doesn't matter if it can be converted, using heat pumps, into water. Yes, I'm talking about solar pv, electricity here, NOT solar thermal to generate the energy that will be turned into heat.

Of course buildings are becoming more energy efficient (despite the best efforts of UK Government to slow the process), so much so that new buildings should be 'zero carbon' in energy consumption - but we still need hot water for older buildings and also to provide for cleaning purposes. That's where heat pumps come in - often they work best linked to district heating systems. Heat pumps can be super efficient in that they use energy from the air or water to generate a lot more heat energy than the electricical energy that is used by the heat pump. So, solar power will provide a lot of electricity, but they will also provide a lot of our heat requirements as well.

By this point Keith will be annoyed with me for leading on the storage issue. Grinding his teeth probably. But........

Keith Barnham is at pains to point out that a lot of storage is not required to supply more or less 100 per cent of electricity from renewable energy. He highlights the Kombikraftwerk project, run by a German research institute, which demonstrates how a 100 per cent renewable energy system could provide electricity to Germany with little need for storage systems. You can see some coverage of this also on where there is an online hour by hour demonstration.

Storage is best for creating hot water out of the surplus electricity. Of course. Not to mention making electric cars work. Of course. Coming soon near you, powered by solar pv.

Besides making these (well the comments about making electric cars noisy are mine) and other crucial points Keith's book is an excellent guide to the history and technical aspects of solar electricity - all written in language that the average Daily Mail reader can understand. Order it now  - it's an absolute steal for just a few quid. The book is published by Weidenfield and Nicolson.

NOTE: in an earlier version of this post I made some uninformed comments about the need to make electric cars 'noisy' to help visually impaired people. Paul Gipe then wrote me a message saying:

'we have a 2015 nissan leaf. the warning sound only operates up to a speed of about 16 mph (probably a limit in kph) then it turns off. above that the noise of the tires on pavement is enough to alert people. that's the same with all cars ICE or EV'.

I suppose this ignorance of mine exposes the fact that I don't have an electric car (yet). I'll try and get one soon!

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