Renewables mayhem!

Batteries are not new, but a big international brand getting behind home storage is. Leaving fire safety and the recyclability of battery materials aside, the financial self-interest intended to drive sales in the UK is dubious. This hasn’t stopped advance USA orders reaching into a year ahead but battery storage induces a conversion loss that has to be offset by any gain with increasing self-consumption. You also need more equipment than just batteries to automatically interact with the energy sources and domestic appliances. But the real show-stopper is the lifetime of batteries at around 5000 discharge cycles, just around the point where such batteries pay for themselves at current rates. Assuming grid electric does become much more expensive, then the break-even point will shorten but let’s not forget when the grid fails, most grid-tied inverters will also switch off for safety. So those seeking full autonomy will find it is not normally viable for more than a few hours, apart from the hardiest of households. Ironically, a mini diesel generating set will provide the desired autonomy far cheaper.

With the new head of DECC vowing to ‘unleash a new solar (PV) revolution’, this suggests their previous target of 22 GW peak power under optimum conditions is still achievable. With battery storage this will sound appealing to the voters. But electricity represents less than 20% of the UK non-transport energy demand, with heat by far the more significant. This gives the context to the troublesome hydraulic gas fracturing, or so-called ‘fracking’, which was also highlighted in the Tory manifesto. If it’s not to be oil or gas for heating the UK urban masses, then there are few other economic choices with current rates. Green builders among you will call foul, but the transition to well-insulated, renewable heated homes remains a tiny niche market compared to the swathes of ageing housing in need of upgrading. The government incentives to improve this have fallen well short. For those who blanket-protest against fossils, we need to hear a detailed alternative scenario of the transition period for heating those houses. Otherwise we’d better get used to gas fracking.

The perverse situation before us, stated recently by the International Monetary Fund, is there will be an expected $5.3tn subsidy for fossil fuels worldwide in 2015. This is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments. The very same health spending that has to in part deal with atmospheric pollution and climatic disasters caused by burning those fossil fuels. I’d suggest DECC’s priorities should be reducing those fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies both nationally and internationally. Then we may well see that the true cost of renewables is capable of standing alone in the market without any subsidies either. Without the layers of administration that surrounds these subsides, resources will be freed for more important duties. Indeed, in a world without fuel subsidies, perhaps we won’t need DECC either.

Chris Laughton

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