At the end of May, the Guardian reported that, over two days, Germany's installed solar capacity produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity, and on one of the days met nearly 50% of power demand. Impressive, or watt? Needless to say, this level of output was only achieved over the mid-day period in pretty cloudless skies. A bit of a tease, then? Both ephemeral and unreliable, just as the experience of Semington A confirms, in its more modest way 'kilowatt' way.
Despite all this, the importance of renewable energy seems clear, and a recent note from Amory Lovins in Performance, a small booklet published by the Ernst & Young, illustrates why. In this, drawing on his 2011 book, Reinventing Fire, Lovins argues that ...
Fossil fuels have created our wealth and modern civilisation; they just happen to come with increased economic and societal costs that are eroding the prosperity they created. Fossil fuels made us modern; now we need a new 'fire' that makes us safer, more secure and healthier.
As to the costs of renewables, Lovins says,
The external costs of getting and burning fossil fuels are paid for through our taxes. More of our tax revenues are going toward dealing with the health, environmental, economic and societal costs of burning fossil fuels.
Just so, but we never seem to talk about any of this – are youngsters taught about such externalities and the ethical issues involved?
But we find there is a continuing pressure on renewables incentives (aka subsidies). As the Guardian notes, the current 5% premium for solar electricity in Germany is under considerable political pressure, as are the feed-in tariffs in the UK if this weekend's papers are to be believed. A recent Green Alliance blog illustrates some of the tensions inherent in these sorts of transitions.
Of course, keeping such incentives in balance with real-world costs seems a necessary discipline, especially in hard times, but we should not lose sight of the goal here – and the grand prize of carbon-free electricity.