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The cost of solar panels is coming down and “solar farms” are on the edge of becoming economic without government support.I f you are a land owner, you might be offered £750 to £1400 per acre in rent for 25 years, plus an RPI escalator, to cover a hundred acres or so with solar panels. That is pension fund stuff. However, is it environmentally sustainable and does it matter anyway?
It is almost certainly true that the energy put into making all the solar panels so far manufactured will not be recovered in the productive life of those panels. If the energy put into manufacture, packaging, transport by sea (most are made in China), in road transport, in mounting on frameworks, in making the frameworks (all the same actions over again), and maintenance, and decommissioning, … All of a sudden, it does not seem possible that “PV”, photovoltaics, or just “solar panels”, could possibly be genuinely environmentally sustainable.
There is at least some research which gives a useful guide. Much of that research suggests an energy payback period, on the panels themselves, of 2 to 10 years. The US Department of Energy quotes in one of its published documents several pieces of research from all over the world where researchers of some academic standing looked at the question and showed a wide range of results but they were all presented by the Department as positive. The summary of research indicated that crystalline modules were significantly better than a few years ago and their efficiency would improve still more. The conclusions were also that thin-film technology was currently more efficient than crystalline and would continue to keep its lead over crystallines. Further, as new technologies develop, this is very likely to increase efficiencies again. For example, the sun emits a much wider range of energy wavelengths than just the visible spectrum. New panel technologies will collect infrared and ultra violet and maybe wider.
Nevertheless, reading between the lines, most of the quoted research appeared to be limited to the energy cost of manufacture of the panels themselves. There was limited or no indication that the total energy cost of a working installation had been taken into account. One of the bits of research even admitted that they had not even included the thin frame that surrounds the panel before putting into its packaging. So, there is some doubt about whether the research figures cover all the energy costs, not just of manufacture, but also of packaging, shipping, land transport, installation, site infrastructure, site works, supporting frame construction, commissioning, maintenance, cleaning and failures.
DOES PAY-BACK MATTER?
Maybe not. It depends on where you sit. If it makes money for everyone involved; maybe that is good enough? Only the taxpayer might not agree. One thing “renewable” (but not necessarily sustainable) might be seen to deliver is less reliance in future on imported oil, gas and electricity. (Yes, we import significant amounts of electricity from France.) There is another plus. Whatever the energy cost, it is paid for at today’s cost. The energy produced over the life of the installation pays back at tomorrow’s energy values; it is an investment in tomorrow.
What it comes down to is, as usual, money. If a detailed financial study says it makes cash, then read the small print, cover the “what ifs” over the next 25 years and go ahead. However, tone down the environmental benefit; you might be on thin film, sorry, ice.
The attached below link is to the Dutch drilling company, VSH website. The pictures (scroll down a bit) are of the drilling operation bringing cables off the North Sea wind farms to the site at Holt in North Norfolk. This brings renewable energy to the UK consumers. What Land Research does is to take the cuttings and spent fluids from such operations and re-use them, usually on agricultural land to replace the 2.5 million tonnes of top soil which the UK loses by wind and rain erosion, down into the sea, every year. Renewable energy with zero waste from such construction operations.
Bill Butterworth, Land Research Ltd, 22 June 17
George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying; “We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it, than to consume wealth without producing it.”
The same goes for food and, for that matter, doctors, nurses, shale gas and a lot more. Why not? Simply that it is theft from elsewhere where at least the doctors and nurses may be needed more and if we do not control the supply, there is no security. We need to swing back to make it in Britain, wherever possible and now.
Land Research 21 March 2017
The ASA, the Advertising Standards Authority, ruled in Sept 16 that the Friends of the Earth (FOE) misled the public in a leaflet which claimed fracking can cause cancer. Despite this judgement, it is certainly true that there needs to be a watchdog on everything the shale gas industry does. Fortunately we have one – it is called the Environment Agency (EA). Now, it is clear that in this instance, and I have no doubt in many other of their campaigns, the FOE acted to promote their own interests in a way which was not based on evidence, in short, they actively fell short of honesty. It is also true that while there are some failings in the EA as a watchdog, it is one of the most precautionary regulators in the world.
There is another point to this and that is that the UK is not the USA and the British do have the best and safest technology in the world. Just to demonstrate, one of the British-designed drilling fluids is not toxic and you or I (I have offered) could drink it. I would not advise drinking too much because the clay in it would cause constipation – but it would not poison the drinker.
For those who are concerned about shale, look at the facts and try to make an honest, evidence-based view. Will you conclude that shale gas is without fault or difficulties? You would be foolish. However, you might conclude that UK-produced shale gas is a lot better for the environment and ourselves than any and all of the alternatives currently available. And we really do need more energy and we need it now. Quite often in life, the choice is as with the politicians we vote for – maybe one might not wish to vote for shale gas but actually vote against the alternatives.
Bill Butterworth, Land Research Ltd, 14 January 2017
There is an advertisement on at least one commercial radio station inviting us to dial 105 if we have a power cut. This implies that not only does the establishment know we are on the edge of power cuts on a large scale but they want us to prepare for it. Now, I have colleagues who know far more about the national grid power supply than I do and they are quite certain that we are close to significant power cuts and, if all the relevant strains come on at once in a cold spell, then we may get a national shut down. If we do, they some will be off for days rather than hours. It will be inconvenient for most of us, will be very expensive for industry and cost lives.
Whatever we ought to do in terms of renewable power, the truth is that the quickest way, and lowest cost, to secure our power supply is to build gas-fired power stations. Other than nuclear (of which many of us have some reservations), gas is an almost totally clean burn. We area standing on enormous reserves of gas. What does common sense tell us?
Bill Butterworth, Land Research Ltd, 1 January 2017
Safe Shale 1; Integrity of the drill way.
I frequently get asked about the safety of shale gas exploration and its effect on land, groundwater and pollution. Well, here is a short discussion on drilling the top hole.
The vertical shaft of a drill down to shale gas is quite likely to be a kilometer, maybe two, or (in old money) a mile or so. Maybe more. That, in itself, is not that much of a new thing. Deep drilling for all sorts of reasons (such as geothermal drilling to bring “free” hot water to heat homes, offices and shops) has been going on, even deeper, for a long time. (And geothermal drilling is often “fracked” and yet nobody complains about that!) What is different about drilling for shale gas is that when the vertical shaft has got to the depth that the geologist thinks is right, the drill turns, in a giant “J” shape, from being vertical to horizontal. In the horizontal bit, the engineers want the hole to leak – inwards to collect the gas!
Common sense tells us that whatever the pollution risks are of leakage from a mile or so down back to the surface, they are very, very small. In practice, it just is not going to happen for one very simple reason. If it was going to happen, it would have done so already during the last few hundred, million years.
That still leaves the worry about the integrity of the vertical shaft. That certainly might travel through strata near the surface which might leak back up to the top, certainly it might drill through aquifers which might be used for human consumption; leakage certainly might cause pollution. How likely is that “might” and can it be controlled?
Leakage of the vertical shaft after construction is known but it is rare. After all, sinking just the vertical shaft is quite likely to cost over £10 million in the UK and, therefore, the investors and engineers are going to be quite careful. The way of covering this risk is to pressure test the vertical shaft before turning to the horizontal drilling. If it leaks, abandon it. In the UK. that is inflicted, independently, by law.
Bill Butterworth, Land Research Ltd, 27 December 16