Importing solar energy to Britain from abroad

Sunshine and surfer in Devon Image copyright PA
Image caption Does the South West enjoy enough sunshine to generate concentrated and economic solar power?

In future Britain should consider importing solar energy from as far away as North Africa, according to a new report from the Committee on Climate Change.

The CCC - an independent body which advises the Government on energy policy - is currently resting its voice after singing the praises of another acronym.

CSP - or Concentrated Solar Power - apparently relies on "an array of mirrors to focus the sun's rays onto a small area (e.g. the top of a tower) to produce high temperatures that are then used to drive a steam turbine," according to the CCC's latest Renewable Energy Review.

"If sited in southern Europe or northern Africa, it could potentially make a significant contribution to the supply of renewable electricity for the UK," according to the report.

'Solar gold rush'

Meanwhile - and as the review acknowledges - the government looks poised to slash the main subsidy on which Britain's nascent solar industry was pinning its hopes.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Solar panels in California capitalise on the state's intense sunshine

This is the Feed in Tariff (or FiT - yet another acronym) on the back of which Cornwall Council had been projecting a £1bn "solar gold rush".

Subject to the outcome of a recent consultation, the government is proposing a massive 70% reduction in the original rates for larger solar projects - that is, those generating more than 50kW.

Bad news for the Cornish gold rush, then.

And many in the renewable sector claim setting the threshold so low would also eliminate some of the relatively small community ventures the Government presumably wants to encourage - as well as the big commercial operators it's clearly got it in for.

Glimmer of hope

Consultation or no consultation, the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has made it quite clear that there will be much leaner pickings for the industry in future.

He does, though, seem to be leaving the door ajar in terms of conceivably revisiting the 50kW threshold.

But many in the industry see this as the only faint, flickering glimmer of hope amid an unremitting welter of bad news.

Set against this backdrop the Renewable Energy Review appears to be adding insult to injury.

"Why should we even consider buying solar energy from Africa when we can generate it in the UK?" asks Ken Moss, CEO of solar generator mO3 Power.

According to Mr Moss: "Buying solar power from the cheapest producer worldwide would be no better than our current reliance on oil."

Missed opportunity?

Ray Noble, of the Renewable Energy Association, claims the CCC is "missing a great opportunity to support Britain's solar generation".

"We need to find a new energy strategy that will mix all the renewable energies if we are to meet our EU carbon commitments," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Britain could look abroad for its solar power requirements

"Germany has the most developed solar industry in the world and Britain's climatic conditions are identical - we cannot leave solar out of the equation.

"The beauty of Photovoltaic (PV) generation is it works on light, and annual light levels vary by less than 5%. Therefore the annual generation is more predictable than wind or hydro.

"Also, light levels are currently increasing year on year and so it would be reasonable that the unit cost of PV generation will decrease in the future," he said.

That may be so, but however conducive the South West might be to photovoltaic generation, we clearly can't compete with the Mediterranean when it comes to making the concentrated stuff.

Intense sunshine

Setting forth "an array of mirrors on a tower" sounds like an admirably romantic and poetic enterprise.

But the clear message from the CCC is that it would profit a man nothing to do so in the Cornish countryside.

"Concentrated Solar Power is not suitable for generation within the UK," we are told, "as it requires intense sunshine and little cloud cover to be economic."

"Intense sunshine" is emphatically not a climatic scenario we're accustomed to in Cornwall.