Gordon Brown’s solar panels and David Cameron’s turbine

Hilary Benn has been quiet this week because he has been very busy saving us all from global warming in Bali, although I do not think he has any takers for his Climate Change Bill, except of course the lemmings who always vote for their party, right or wrong, at Westminster.    

It looks like Bali will end up with non- binding targets as a compromise. Binding targets are not being adhered to in any event so I don’t see that non binding targets will make any difference. Compromises are all very fine in some fields but unfortunately the laws of physics do not compromise.  

Meanwhile our leader, Gordon Brown, has solar thermal panels up on his house in Fife while David Cameron has a small wind turbine on his house in London. Some people have been trying to assess which is the greenest in the press.

It has been reported that Cameron’s wind turbine has a pay back of 60 years and Brown’s has a pay back of 100 years.  Both figures are complete nonsense and seemed to be based on a simpleton’s view of physics and a pre-school child’s view of economics.

Savings have to depend on the energy use by the household where the renewable technology is installed. Actual payback has to take account of all the financial benefits; these long wrong payback figures are based on energy prices several years ago and assume that energy prices will remain constant forever. 

If payback is important (and why do journalists imply that renewable energy installations should have payback when fossil fuel installations have none?) you have to do the figures properly. If you believe that no fossil fuel prices will increase during the next 100 years, you cannot be living in this world. 

Of course, it should be apparent even to the most ignorant that payback is nothing to do with being green. Payback is an economic concept under which you can calculate how long it takes to get your money back on an investment from savings that the investment generates. 

I will deal with Mr Cameron’s wind turbine first. It is located in a city, where there is doubtless a great deal of wind shelter and it is small; the smaller the turbine the less efficient it is. It probably produces around 20% of its rating but calculating wind energy savings is a complex and difficult task; I would expect Mr Cameron to get a payback in less than 25 years although I am not sure. 

Of course Mr Cameron will never get his money back from the utility company that will continue to supply most of his electricity, despite his wind turbine, so offering a payback is a bonus to be green, not the rationale for being green.  The real payback for Mr Cameron and for the planet will be the carbon dioxide reduction, which will last as long as the turbine lasts – probably around 15 years. 

Mr Brown seems to be unfairly dealt with; I have not visited his home but from the photographs that appeared in the newspapers some time ago I gather that he had solar thermal panels installed; the 100 year payback was probably calculated on the basis of the much more expensive photovoltaic electricity producing panels, and even then 100 years is a gross exaggeration. 

A typical householder installing a solar thermal system will usually get his or her money back in eight to twelve years, when you take into account future fuel costs, lower boiler servicing, and longer boiler life and allow for inflation and loss of use of capital. Much depends on which fossil fuel is being displaced. 

Much longer payback figures apply if you are unfortunate enough to be sold a system by a “cowboy” operator that charges double or treble the normal price, but there are very few of them around these days and Mr Brown does not seem to be the kind of chap to buy from one of these companies. 

His personal payback will be lower than that of a typical family because he rarely lives in his house in Fife, for obvious reasons. The solar system will be generating free energy that no one will use. Again the real savings will be the carbon savings – at least half a tonne a year of carbon dioxide if the system displaces gas, nearly a tonne if it displaces oil and one and a quarter tonnes if it displaces electricity. The savings will last (if Mr Brown has high quality panels) for somewhere between 20 and 40 years.

Everyone who reads my writings knows that I am not reluctant to criticise politicians, to designate them and scoundrels, rogues and incompetents when it comes to their shabby governance of the environment; but when they do something right then it is equally important to point it out in the hope that they will do the right thing more often. 

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