Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

All Light and No Heat

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

All Light and No Heat

Article excerpt

Which is the more misguided use of public money: the NHS-funded homeopathy that the chief scientist has been railing against recently, or the government's subsidy for the current generation of solar panels? It's a tough one. Both divert cash from needier causes while making the middle classes feel slightly better. Forced to choose, however, the scientific mind might opt to keep funding homeopathy. Placebos do less damage in medicine than in green technology.

It's the most natural thing in the world to want to harvest energy from the sun. After all, the sun fires energy at the earth 8,000 times faster than we consume any and all forms of energy. So, it might seem surprising that experts gathered at the Royal Society on 14 November to discuss whether solar power has a future. There is no easy answer: while green plants have converted solar energy into chemical energy for 400 million years, if human beings are going to harvest the sun, we will have to do much better than "green" and "natural".

We look at nature and assume that billions of years of evolution have created plants with finely tuned systems for turning sunlight into energy. However, the average energy factory in a plant manages about 1 per cent energy conversion. The average solar cell on a roof does comparatively well, operating at 18 per cent efficiency.

But that is still not enough to be cost-effective. With the "feed-in tariff", a guaranteed rate for any electricity you generate and feed into the grid over the next 25 years, the government is, in effect, asking people to commit to keeping today's technology on their rooftops for decades. It's all very well pushing green initiatives, but the only thing the present solar fad will achieve will be to widen the gap between rich and poor. Those with higher disposable incomes can better afford to invest in solar-panel installation and take advantage of the high feed-in tariff on offer. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.