Compared with reality, that glowing picture of our solar future painted by the BBC turns out to be as far from sunny as could be.
Much excitement from the BBC last week over a report from a body called REN21 – with the headline on its website “Renewable energy surge reaches record levels round the world”. Global spending on renewables, it trumpeted, last year soared to £200 billion, bringing total investment in the past six years alone to more than £1 trillion.
Never before had prospects looked so good for the day when most of the world’s energy will come from “green, clean” sources such as the sun and the wind: the costs of which, says the report, are fast becoming so “competitive” that last year investment in them was more than double that on “dirty” fossil fuel power plants. What the BBC didn’t tell us was that REN21 – full name Renewable Energy for the 21st Century – is the world’s leading lobby group for “green” energy.
And, when it came to what the world is getting for this tidal wave of spending, it used the familiar trick of talking only of “capacity”, overlooking the fact that, because sun and wind are so intermittent, their actual output is very much lower; in the case of solar panels averaging at best only 15 per cent of their theoretical “capacity”. Without massive subsidies, no one across much of the world would dream of building a solar farm.
Figures compiled by the BP Energy Review show that solar power provides less than 1 per cent of the world’s electricity and barely 0.3 per cent of all its energy. Most of this, thanks to the subsidies available in the climate-change-obsessed EU, comes from Europe.
But, despite all the billions poured into this “solar boom”, not its least startling feature is the regularity with which the companies investing in it go bust. One of the first, in 2011, despite being given more than half a billion dollars by President Obama, was a US firm Solyndra.
This was followed in 2013 by the collapse of Solar Trust of America, given a $2.1 billion loan guarantee by the Obama administration to build the largest solar farm in the world in California. Last March, the collapse of Europe’s largest solar company, Abengoa, after building two billion-dollar solar farms in the US, was the largest bankruptcy in Spanish history. Another giant US firm, Sun Edison, last year valued at $10 billion, has seen its shares fall from $33.44 last July to barely a cent.
Among those enraged by Sun Edison’s bankruptcy have been the residents of several Wiltshire villages, who only agreed to the US firm covering 56 acres of their countryside in blue panels because their communities were promised £40,000, of which they will now never see a penny.
This is only one of a cluster of solar farms in the country around Melksham, several more of which have left residents far from happy. Last year plans to cover 200 acres of productive farmland at Snarlton were turned down by Wiltshire planners – who were then overruled by a government inspector. In nearby Broughton Gifford, villagers were furious when Wiltshire council gave permission to the owner of another solar farm to install 10 large diesel generators, to provide very lucrative backup to the grid when the sun isn’t shining on his solar panels.