Changing the Power Game in the UK

The cost of generating power from solar photovoltaic (PV) systems has steadily fallen over the last 10 years – a PV system now costs about half of what it did in 1998 – while the projected costs of constructing new nuclear plants have ballooned.

Developments in solar technology and manufacturing processes combined with a steady increase in demand are causing the reduction in costs and that decline is expected to continue. The average price of a PV module in 2010 was US$1.50/W and by mid-year that figure is expected to drop to a maximum of $1.10/W.

Research in the US has concluded that the costs of solar power and nuclear have reached a point of ‘Historic Crossover’. A paper from Duke University in North Carolina, ‘Solar and Nuclear Costs – The Historic Crossover, Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy‘, concludes: ‘Here in North Carolina, solar electricity, once the most expensive of the “renewables” has become cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants’.

Authors John Blackburn and Sam Cunningham write:

The state’s largest utilities are holding on tenaciously to plans dominated by massive investments in new, risky and ever-more-costly nuclear plants, while they limit or reject offers of more solar electricity. Those utilities seem oblivious to the real trends in energy economics and technology that are occurring in competitive markets. It is true that solar electricity enjoys tax benefits which, at the moment, help lower costs to customers. However, since the late 1990s the trend of cost decline in solar technology has been so great that solar electricity is fully expected to be cost-competitive without subsidies within the decade. Nuclear plants likewise benefit from various subsidies – and have so benefitted throughout their history.

They predicted the price of nuclear generation to be 16 – 18 US cents/W, as compared to solar PV at 14 US cents/W by the end of last year.

The situation is very similar in the UK, for example. We can predict with some confidence that solar power generation will be cheaper than nuclear in the UK by the time that a proposed new generation of nuclear reactors are operational, unlikely before 2020.

Rather than a new generation of nuclear reactors, the future requires a mix of technologies with renewable, existing nuclear and other technologies being able to provide a sustainable solution. Solar PV’s time is now coming of age with predictions of 30% of the world’s energy coming from PV by 2050. Nuclear electricity’s strength is being able to provide CO2-free base load electricity to the grid. By 2050 large-scale economic storage of electricity will be possible and we will no longer need base load power stations, or possibly even a grid.

It is inevitable that future power bills will rise as new technologies are adopted which conform to Europe’s carbon reduction commitment. But solar power companies, like mO3 – which plans to install 1 GW of solar PV in the UK – can dramatically help governments with the massive ‘catch-up’ on renewables that they shall have to embark on. In the UK, for example, we are a very long way behind the forward-thinking government in Germany, where the PV industry is generally regarded as the largest and most developed in the world. It is vital that the British and other governments offer long-term support so that, as in Germany, solar can achieve its full potential.

Just before voters in Bern, Switzerland, vote on building a new nuclear power plant, one company, Megasol, has proposed putting solar panels on 16,000 roofs instead. The 48 km² of solar panelling would be cheaper than building the new reactor at Mühleberg, according to Megasol.

As a low carbon proposition, solar power has a better cost of ownership than any other renewable on the market, not just nuclear. The government in the UK should mirror the other leading countries in Europe and wake up to the fact that solar is a serious contender and give the industry the credit it deserves both in the domestic and large-scale market and allow the managed proliferation of solar energy to play its part in the future of the UK.

Ken Moss is CEO of solar power development company mo3 Power.

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