EconomicsEnergy SystemsGlobal Warming/Climate Change

Pistols at Dawn

A three-year, £100 bet on solar power has matured. Who won?

by George Monbiot

The UK — a solar powerhouse…?

Summer solstice. At dawn. What better time could there be for resolving a duel, albeit one not fought with flintlocks? The time is of my choosing, as the other party, though he accepted the challenge, would not agree terms. It is appropriate in another sense too, as this is the day with the longest hours of sunlight and therefore – for I honour the sporting tradition – it offers my opponent the best shot.

Three years ago, in the course of our debate about the best means of generating electricity, I bet £100 against a claim made by Jeremy Leggett, chairman of the company SolarCentury. He had asserted that domestic solar power in Britain would achieve grid parity by 2013. This means that it would cost householders no more than conventional electricity.

I’m interested in this question because I want to see carbon emissions cut as quickly and effectively as possible. If public money is used to back the wrong technologies, that represents a wasted opportunity. It is easy to become enthusiastic about domestic solar power, because it is produced on a small scale, gives people a satisfying sense of self-reliance, and is unobtrusive, unlike most other forms of generation.

In fact it’s arguably the only form of electricity production which has widespread public support. The fact that it has been exceedingly lucrative for homeowners who installed their panels when state subsidies (the feed-in tariff) were high has contributed to that enthusiasm.

But those of us who want carbon emissions to be greatly reduced should ask questions that are wider than only self-interest and aesthetics. We also have to ask whether a technology works. Solar power works well at low latitudes, especially in places where peak electricity demand coincides with peak sunlight, which is often the case where air conditioning is widely used. In terms of replacing conventional electricity, it works less well in places like the UK, which are far from the equator and have different patterns of use. Here, peak demand occurs between 5 and 7 o’clock on winter evenings.

I was sceptical of Jeremy’s claim. So I bet that his prediction would not come to pass: grid parity would not be achieved by 2013. He accepted. I undertook to write an article in 2013 revealing the results, whether I won or lost. Here it is.

To discover who had won, I first contacted the energy regulator, Ofgem, but it turned down my request. So I tried the Department for Energy and Climate Change. I asked two questions:

  • how should the outcome best be measured?
  • who will have to pay out £100?

This is what it told me:

“Grid parity can be defined as the point at which Government support for a technology is no longer required.”

That seems like a reasonable definition to me, and one I’m prepared to accept. I hope Jeremy feels the same way: in 2010 I wrote to him several times to try to reach an agreement about how the outcome would be determined, but did not receive a reply.

Here is DECC’s answer to my second question:

“Grid parity for domestic scale solar power has not been reached. … The Feed-in Tariff scheme currently provides generation tariff of 15.44p per kWh, plus an export tariff of 4.64p per kWh for domestic scale installations.”

Here is the source it gave me.

In other words, though the subsidy has come down sharply from 2010, which partly reflects a real decline in the price of solar power and partly reflects the extraordinary generosity of the initial tariff, we’re a long way from grid parity.

This, I think, highlights the danger of believing what we want to believe. Climate change is too serious to mess about with. We should be hard-headed in addressing it, and should subject the technologies which attract us to as much scrutiny and rigour as the technologies which repel us.

It was this process which, after my initial enthusiasm, turned me away from solar power in the UK and led to my reluctant endorsement of large-scale wind and (later) nuclear power as the UK’s most viable sources of low-carbon electricity.

I wish it were otherwise. But what counts for me is achieving the steepest and fastest possible cut in greenhouse gases. None of our options are great, but these are the best of a bad bunch. (I hope I don’t need to add that we should simultaneously pursue sharp reductions in energy demand).

Though the costs will keep falling, solar power is unlikely to make a large contribution to electricity supply in the United Kingdom, unless a radically different technology becomes viable. This is because of the inherent constraints I mentioned earlier. It has some potential for mitigating carbon emissions in the summer, especially with the use of smart grids, but it seems to me that for a long time to come there are likely to be cheaper and simpler means of achieving the same aim. I would like to be proved wrong on this, but I don’t think it will happen.

For all that, looking back across the past three years it seems to me that there is something of the circular firing squad about our duel.

Two months after we struck our bet, the government changed. I don’t think either of us would have guessed just how bad it would be. In fact it wasn’t until the Any Questions programme two weeks ago that we were able to see how far the madness has gone. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, revealed that he rejects the science of climate change, and trotted out a series of discredited factoids and myths. This is what he said.

“the climate’s always been changing, er, Peter [Hain] mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there – when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops. We then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming. The climate’s been going up and down, but the real question which I think everyone’s trying to address is is this influenced by manmade activity in recent years and James [Delingpole] is actually correct. The climate has not changed – the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years …”

You can read a powerful deconstruction of these claims on the Skeptical Science website.

Alongside an environment secretary in denial about climate change, we have a chancellor who seems to be attempting to sabotage every green initiative. We see constant efforts by both the press and MPs to prevent the deployment of wind farms. There is a widespread belief in government that the best substitute for natural gas is, er, natural gas, ideally extracted by the most damaging means. We’ve witnessed the abandonment of the energy-saving schemes launched by the last government and their replacement with a useless Green Deal.

The European Emissions Trading Scheme has collapsed, international negotiations have ground to a halt, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have already passed 400 parts per million and there are no serious global efforts to prevent their rise, let alone bring them down. Far from leaving most fossil fuels in the ground – without which no progress on climate change can be made – energy companies and nation states are making unprecedented efforts to extract them from ever more remote and hazardous places.

In other words, Jeremy and I have both lost. And so has everyone, except the fossil fuel companies.

So I fire my shot into the air. We differ profoundly on which technologies are best deployed to address climate change. But we confront a government which appears to want none of them, and in this respect we are united.


  1. This reminds me of the times I spent in the UK in the past. At one point there was a record three months where not a single day went by without some rain, and it was constantly cloudy.

    At this time I remember standing on Regent Street, waiting for the pedestrian green light, so I could cross. Whilst waiting, with several other strangers next to me doing likewise, the sun burst out from behind the clouds. I looked up, and then with a look of surprise on my face, turned to the man standing next to me, and said “What the hell is that bright thing?”. The man turned to me, then looked up at the sky, and whilst staring up replied, with a perfect, dry sense of English humour and a mock sense of dread/apprehension on his face, “Damned if I know”.

  2. @Craig – LOL – I know just what you mean – but in reverse.

    We here in Phoenix often hear this term “rain”, which I’m led to believe involves water falling from the sky. I find the whole idea preposterous and will believe it when I see it!

  3. I’m on off grid solar at about 37.5 degrees latitude south at the bottom south east of Australia. Over winter, 3.8kW of PV panels can reliably produce an average daily consumption of 3kWh without having to resort to using a generator (for the full year, with much greater availability for 10 months of the year outside of winter). I’m unsure whether solar is an appropriate option in the UK based on my experience, especially given those nighttime peaks in demand mentioned in the article above. About a week ago, the system here generated only 0.375kWh for the entire day.

    Of course an option which George did not consider in the article was using less and going without electricity. Electricity is a fairly recent energy source and for much of human history, electricity has been a nice thing to have, but not a necessity.

    If I lived in the UK, I’d be more worried about the unseen energy imports of food stuffs. It has been many years since the UK was self sufficient in food.

  4. Good article. A few comments on the discussion :

    To Chris McLeod:

    Mr Monbiot did actually consider the option oh using less electricity. He wrote: “(I hope I don’t need to add that we should simultaneously pursue sharp reductions in energy demand).”
    So he really considred that.

    The idea of going without electricity is unrealistic. Some individuals could arrange their lifes so that they don’t have to use much (or any) electricity, but for most people this really isn’t an option. Also people are not going to give up electricity so easily. All communication technology, the most energy-efficient transports (those working on modern speed scale, going by Shank’s mare just isn’t an option for long trips in modern society), all industry (yes, we are going to need some in the future too, last time I checked electric net fencing didn’t grow on trees), health care and illumination need electricity. Of course we have to develop systems and local communities that can take periods of being cut of from electricity.

    So I am afraid that Mr Monbiot might be right about nuclear power being our best option for low-carbon or carbon free electricity. Especially when you take country like Finland with long dark winters.

    Regards, Aapo from Finland

  5. Hi Aapo. Thanks for your comment.

    Although I appreciate the ‘logic’ that would drive people like George to endorse nuclear (in the big-picture context of where we’re at – like the absolutely daft and inappropriate race we have now to get the hard-to-get, riskiest, dirtiest dregs of fuel from wherever possible, and in whatever way possible – like the depths of the ocean, and with fracking, tar sands, coal-to-liquids, shale oil, biofuels, etc.), even without consideration of the cost of nuclear (in every sense of the word ‘cost’), I personally take nuclear off the list of possibilities since it seriously clashes with basic ethics.

    If you haven’t read them already, these may interest. They flesh out what I’m trying to say:

  6. ” Electricity is a fairly recent energy source and for much of human history, electricity has been a nice thing to have, but not a necessity.”
    – Yep

  7. Hi Craig. I understand why George would lend support to nuclear as a least worst option too. It isn’t the only option for the future though and there are plenty of things that can be done in the meantime.

    Hi Aapo. I have no argument with you. It may be worth you considering that no mining is undertaken with electricity as the primary energy source, and most transport is also powered by fossil fuels. I hear you about your long dark winters, but even in a sunnier climate like where I am, I still have to preserve summer fruits and grains in various methods and at other times just roll with the seasons (right now there is still citrus ripening, vegetables and herbs growing and eggs to collect). Your ancestors would have been highly skilled in these areas just to get through the dark winters and as a suggestion, it may be worth reviving those skills whilst there are enough elders around still to teach them. When you find out about those skills and practice them, it may be worthwhile writing about them or educating others to spread the knowledge? I’m aware that historically Finland has had periods of crop failures and wide spread starvation.

  8. Solar power in the UK, that can’t be a serious proposition. Even in the terrible Kevin Costner version of the movie Robin Hood, the Saracen character who befriends the lead character exclaims something along the lines of “what is this god forsaken land where you can’t see the sun” in frustration of not being able to see the sun to determine his direction. Considering the abundance or rain, and the fact that it must flow somewhere, hydro power generation perhaps?

  9. Grid parity for PV generated electricity is less relevant than retail parity. If you generate and consume onsite you are substituting home-grown power for what you would otherwise pay retail tariffs. This is a large driver for why most PV installations in Australia and Germany, for example, are decentralised rooftop systems.

    Generous feedin tariffs help get things going but as the price of panels has dropped so dramatically over the last few years, PV installations are attractive even at lower feedin tariffs.

    A Levelised Cost of Energy calculation for panels over 20 years at, say, a discount rate of 7% (conservative proxy for average mortgage rates in Australia over the last few years) for a 5kW system at $10k gives cost/kWh well under retail rates in Australia.

    Even businesses with retail lower cost/kWh are installing these systems. I was at an industrial site in South Australia a few weeks ago which had recently installed a 90kW system.

    Monbiot’s bet would have been a lot more interesting if it had been at retail parity rather than focusing on a centralised metric like grid parity.

  10. Mr Monbiot,

    I have read a lot of the articles you have written on permaculture news and have found only wisdom in your words. Until now. Nuclear energy is not an option for our future. Nuclear power is extremely costly in every sense. Not to mention the disaster scenarios we all envisage, science has not yet discovered a safe way to dispose of the radioactive waste that must be managed for at least 100000 years. How can we even begin to imagine leaving that sort of shit behind for future generations to deal with? Please reply with something mind blowing and restore my faith in your superior intelect.

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