Sun, C and Automobiles

The sun rises and the sun sets with a regularity and predictability that underpins all the rhythms of our lives, rhythms that ultimately govern when we consume energy and the forms in which we wish to use it.  Of course, it is also the source of all that energy, and in recent years we have been learning to use the sun’s energy directly by installing photo voltaic (PV) cells on our roofs and in our fields.  This is part of a radical transformation in the way that we generate and use energy.  No longer are we totally reliant on slow natural processes storing the sun’s energy as hydrocarbons (biomass, gas, oil, coal) that we can subsequently burn.

But, new ways of doing things also bring new problems…

There are many debates about the meaning of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but one in particular (Sonnet 33) was clearly written to warn us of the perils of becoming over reliant on generating electricity from the sun:

‘Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.’

These clouds and the long winter nights in the UK limit the amount of electricity we can generate from PV technology.  On average, PV cells only generate at around 10% of their ‘rated capacity’ – the electricity they could generate if they were placed continually in bright sunlight.  This compares with ‘load factors’ of up to 80% for power stations that run on fossil fuels or biomass – power stations that can run continuously other than when they need to be shut down for maintenance, and are always available to operate when needed, even in the middle of the night.  Consequently, although almost 13 GW of PV cells have now been installed in the UK, the energy produced by this asset could be replaced by just one 2 GW traditional power station running on a hydrocarbon fuel.

However, it is not just the unreliability of sunshine in the UK that has concerned critics of this low carbon solution – the way in which the undeniably successful roll-out has been incentivised has raised concerns about equity, leading some to suggest that it is a tax on the fuel poor (through higher energy bills) to the benefit of the rich who get free electricity and receive generous ‘feed-in-tariff’ payments in return for being able to afford to install PV cells on their roofs.  Some local authorities have reversed this paradigm, raising the capital to install PV on the roofs of their most vulnerable residents giving them the benefit of reductions in their electricity bills, and they have been able to raise this capital because PV installations are seen as very low risk – they work! (…albeit for only 10% of the time, but this is a very well understood limitation of the technology.)

Radical transformations apparently driven by changes in technology are not without precedent.  It is easy to think of the industrial revolution as a time when the introduction of new energy technologies transformed the means of production and established a new ‘economic rationality’.  But this was also a time of significant social upheaval, a time during which, for many of the UK population, the places in which they lived and worked were changed out of all recognition, and the rhythms of their lives changed too.  No longer were they governed by the agricultural seasons, instead their lives became governed by the rhythm of the steam engine, as the controlling power moved from the landowners to the mill owners.

The data suggests that the average ‘load factor’ for the majority of cars on the road in the UK is significantly less than the 10% so maligned by the critics of PV generation …and there are other far more capital and energy ‘efficient’ options for delivering a transport system!

Whilst the transforming influence of the Industrial Revolution is not an epoch from living memory, the transformation created by the invention of the automobile and its subsequent mass production is a change that continues to have a significant influence on the rhythms of our lives today.  A technology that has become ubiquitous and yet one that we utilise even less effectively than PV cells.

Designed to replace the horse as the dominant mode of personal transport, we now drive around in vehicles that can deliver the power of 100 horses, power that we rarely if ever use, but it’s there when we ‘need’ it.  With 31 million cars on the road in the UK, that’s more than 3,000 GW of energy conversion capacity, dwarfing the 80 GW of generation in our electricity system.  Not only do we rarely, if ever, use that full capability, we also drive cars for a very small proportion of their useful lives.  The data suggests that the average ‘load factor’ for the majority of cars on the road in the UK is significantly less than the 10% so maligned by the critics of PV generation …and there are other far more capital and energy ‘efficient’ options for delivering a transport system!

But, car ownership is not just about economics, it is possibly the greatest marketing success of the 20th century.  We have all, to some level or other, been influenced by the set of values that have been built up around car ownership, even if that influence has simply been to force us to rebel against it.  It has been so successful that, according to the Office for National Statistics, transport is the largest single category of household expenditure and 80% of households in the UK make the majority of this expenditure by owning a car.  This makes for wonderful economics – it ensures that we all keep spending our money to sustain what is left of the manufacturing sector in the UK, so it is little wonder that low carbon solutions for the transport sector are so focussed on maintaining car ownership through the development of affordable battery electric vehicles.

For many of us this is a lifestyle choice, but for a significant proportion of the population car dependency leads to poverty as invidious as fuel poverty.  For many, the success of the automobile means that it is impossible to live without one, since alternatives to driving are no longer available.  Many of the poorest members of our society are now trapped – needing to own a car to allow them to leave the house.  Even those without personal mobility issues are often now forced to own a car to allow them to travel to or even undertake paid employment.  Consequently, when deciding what to spend their money on each month, payments on their cars come first above expenditure on food and heat, a situation calling for transformation at least as radical as those needed in the energy system.

Our personal investment decisions are driven by a whole range of social practices, many of them outside of our individual control.  It is these social practices that govern the rhythms of our lives, the energy we use and, ultimately, the solutions we will adopt to reverse the detrimental effects of our greenhouse gas emissions.  It is very unlikely that these will be the ‘cheapest’ or even the most ‘economically rational’ solutions!

Read more on the blog