Wars have consequences. Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine has destroyed the smug notion that knitting the world into one giant marketplace would eliminate armed conflicts between nations. Now the chickens have come home to roost and left much of the world vulnerable to the whims and fantasies of dictators. But there is a bright side, although it will come at considerable cost. Russia has severely limited the flow of cheap methane gas to its European customer, which has caused the price of electricity to skyrocket. That, in turn, has made the business case for solar energy so compelling that demand is exploding all across Europe.
Germany Embraces Wind & Solar
In April, Germany instituted new policies designed to accelerate the construction of new wind and solar installations. They will make more land available renewable energy production, and speed up permitting procedures in a push to make Germany’s electricity supply almost completely free of carbon emissions by 2035. Kerstin Andreae, the head of BDEW, the German energy industry association, said, “It must be clear to all ministries involved and all levels — be it federal or state — that the expansion of renewable energies is the order of the day, not only for climate protection but also to become less dependent on fossil energy imports.”
The new impetus for more renewable energy from wind and solar is no longer framed in terms of taking action to address the challenges of a warming planet. Instead, it is cast as a way to increase energy security, something that is in the national interest of all countries. Putin’s insanity has taken the spotlight off the fight between progressives and reactionaries over whether humanity should stop burning fossil fuels and put it on protecting the economic interests of all countries — something most people can agree is a worthwhile goal.
The issue now is not carbon dioxide, but the instability of energy prices, especially methane. Renewable energy prices do not explode and then crash with distressing regularity. Stable energy prices allow industries to make appropriate plans for the future. Wild swings in energy prices create chaos, as happened in Texas in the winter of 2021. Any rational person would chose stability over chaos, given a choice.
David Wedepohl, managing director of the German Solar Association, told CNN Business this week, “[Demand for solar] has only gotten stronger with the war against Ukraine, which is happening on our doorstep. This is something that’s very much on people’s minds.”
Schneider Electric, one of Europe’s largest industrial companies, says demand for its solar-powered heating systems in Germany have “almost doubled” so far this year compared to the same period in 2021. The company’s sustainability arm, which advises businesses on clean energy procurement, has also reached “an all-time peak” in consultancy requests, according to Konstantin Elstermann, the firm’s vice president of home and distribution.
Although shortages of materials and supplies are a challenge, so is finding qualified workers to install new solar systems, especially for homeowners. “Some electricians are booked up three to six months in advance,” Elstermann says. “This bottleneck almost surpasses the current shortage of raw materials and production capacity. We know that the supply problems due to the pandemic are temporary, but the shortage of skilled workers remains.” As a result, retired electricians are returning to the workforce and roofing contractors are rushing to teach more people how to install solar panels.
Jim Gordon, the CEO of Smartflower, told CNN Business, “Our business is booming because there’s a perfect storm of elements converging that are really lifting solar energy. People are concerned about energy security An autocratic dictator can turn the valve on a gas pipeline and shut off energy, but nobody can control the sun.”
The biggest concern right now is keeping people from freezing this winter. Many people in Europe are dependent on that cheap methane from Russia to keep their home warm, but the spike in the cost of methane will put a substantial strain on many household budgets — and that assumes there is any of the gas available at any price.
For now, Germany has resorted to firing up its coal power plants to reduce its gas consumption, and ensure the country keeps the lights on, but chancellor Olaf Scholz has made it clear the government isn’t happy about it. “It is bitter that we now have to temporarily use some power plants that we had already shut down because of Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine. But it’s only for a little while,” he said last month.
War On Solar In The UK
Across the Channel, there is a political battle brewing over who should replace Boris Johnson. As so often happens in such campaigns, reason and rationality have been tossed aside as the two leading candidates battle to see who can make the most outrageous claims about the “threat” of solar power.
Carbon Brief reports that ground-mounted solar panels currently cover just 0.1% of all land in the UK. The government’s plans to significantly scale up solar to meet its carbon reduction goals would bring that up to just 0.3% of the UK land area. Golf courses in the country take up twice as much land. According to Corine Land Cover data, agricultural land covers 56% of the UK. Around 70,000 km2 is pasture used for grazing cows and sheep and around 67,000 km2 is for growing cereals and legumes.
Liz Truss, who appears to be the leading candidate to replace Johnson, told supporters earlier this month, “Our fields should be filled [with] our fantastic produce. [They] shouldn’t be full of solar panels, and I will change the rules. I will change the rules to make sure we’re using our high value agricultural land for farming.”
Not to be outdone, her chief rival to lead the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak, wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in which he said, “On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms. Instead, we should be making sure that solar panels are installed on commercial buildings, on sheds and on properties.”
This overheated campaign rhetoric has earned some pushback in the British press. Carbon Brief says Sean O’Neill, a senior reporter for The Times, wrote that the pair are “displaying staggering ignorance” and “pandering to the whingeing nimbys in their tiny electorate.” In the Daily Telegraph, the paper’s chief city commentator Ben Marlow wrote, “Britain’s culture wars have reached such epically absurd proportions that even the sun is now the enemy.”
This line of attack on solar seems to be a theme among Conservative politicians in the UK, even though the latest data shows 73% of conservative voters favor the expansion of solar power.
According to Solar Energy UK, approximately 6 acres of land is required for every megawatt (MW) of power produced. Currently the UK has about 14 MW of installed land-based solar capacity, which covers an about 230 square km today. That is just under 0.1% of all land in the UK.
The government proposes to install an additional 38 MW of ground-based solar by 2035. According to The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, future solar power will need between 2 and 4 acres of land to produce 1 MW of power. Assuming an average of 3 acres per MW, the amount of land needed to achieve the government target would cover about 700 km2 by 2035 — just 0.3% of the UK’s land surface. Golf courses cover more land than that.
Farmers Know Best
All of this hysteria about protecting valuable farmland may play well with some voters, but it’s not in line with the thinking of many actual farmers. Carbon Brief spoke to Tom Martin, who has proposed a solar installation on his mixed farm in Cambridgeshire. The project would see around 65,000 solar panels sited on approximately 100 acres across three fields. Martin describes the idea of adding solar panels to grassland while still grazing sheep as a win-win situation. “It’s not ‘produce 10 units of energy’ or ‘produce 10 units of food’. It could be six units of both. And then, all of a sudden, your two halves are greater than the whole.”
The selection of which fields to use for solar is down to a mix of factors, explains Martin. This includes, for example, the best way to connect the system to the grid, but also choosing the fields that generally produce lower yields. In other words, there’s more to this than political rhetoric.
He says his farm is always seeing a “fluid” rotation between grassland and arable use, adding that “in the last 10 years, we have changed 200 acres from grass into arable.” So even with moving 100 acres back to grass for the solar panels, the farm will still be producing more cereals than it did a decade ago.
A spokesperson from the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents tens of thousands of farmers in England and Wales, tells Carbon Brief that their “preference” is that solar farms are built on lower quality agricultural land, but added, “Renewable energy production is a core part of the NFU’s net-zero plan and solar projects often offer a good diversification option for farmers.”
Kevin McCann, policy manager at trade body Solar Energy UK, tells Carbon Brief, “Solar is also helping to keep UK farmers in business, by providing them with a stable revenue stream. More solar also means less dependence on gas, which is the reason why the UK is in a cost of living crisis.”
Dumb political rhetoric may win elections in the UK (and lots of other places, too), but nothing moves markets like interdicting a country’s supply of energy. The ripple effects of the OPEC oil embargoes lasted for decades. The one thing Vladimir Putin may have accomplished, in addition to slaughtering untold numbers of innocent people, is a renewed appreciation for energy independence.
More and more, people and their political leaders see renewable energy as the best and less costly path to energy security. And why not? Wind and solar energy already cost less than electricity from thermal generation sources. The current constraints on methane have just exacerbated the difference.
Europe, and yes, even the UK, will be well on the way to energy independence within a few years and to a fully carbon neutral electrical grid a few years from now. Putin has probably accelerated the transition to renewable energy by a decade. In the US, the latest Inflation Reduction Act was likely made possible by the need to override petty disagreements in order to fashion an appropriate response to energy insecurity.
In the end, since Russia has made the sale of fossil fuels the basis of its economy, Putin has actually slit his own throat. Good. Nobody deserves it more than Pooty Poot.
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