Power to the People

By Peter Carty, 28 November 2002
Image: Sandia National Laboratories engineer Marlene Brown checks out a photovoltaic unit like the ones she helps Navajo families use and maintain at their homes. Photo by Randy Montoya

The UK government is proud of its new grant support scheme for photovoltaic energy, but the democratisation of power supplied is still some way off writes Peter Carty

For most of us Albert Einstein’s place in history rests on his derivation of the theory of relativity and its applications to atomic weapons and nuclear power. But as well as initiating the most destructive technology of the twentieth century, in the same year of 1905 the university reject with the crazy hair drafted a paper on the photoelectric effect. This explained how individual light particles liberate electrons from matter and stimulated the development of quantum mechanics, relativity’s rival scientific discourse. It also set out the physics behind the cleanest possible source of energy which will, hopefully, dominate the twenty-first century. Einstein’s paper details quantifiable principles for the production of photovoltaic (PV) energy – the release of electricity from semi-conducting materials such as silicon when they are exposed to light.

In reality the symmetries are not quite so elegant. Einstein’s explanation did not really assist the technical development of the PV phenomenon, which was first discovered by Henri Becquerel back in the nineteenth century. And applications were a long time coming. First used to power satellites and discrete small-scale terrestrial devices such as calculators and wristwatches, it is only during the past decade or so that PV energy has emerged as a viable power source for national grids. But costs are now falling exponentially: the expense of manufacturing PV panels is dropping by five percent a year.

If relativity has stuck in the popular mind, its technological implications are a perennial obsession for government too. The UK has enthusiastically drawn upon Einstein’s work to manufacture dirty weapons and technology, but whereas it continues to subsidise the wreckage of the nuclear industry and maintain a stock of nuclear weapons, its support for PV has been negligible.

The latest grant scheme, unveiled by the DTI with a proud fanfare in May 2002, will support installations on domestic dwellings and other buildings over the next three years to the tune of £20 million. This is a minute amount in the context of energy policy – let alone defense expenditure. PV installations are planned for a mere 3,000 buildings over the life of the scheme.

Over in Germany the situation is very different. Their target is 200,000 PV roofs by 2004. In fact, with a system of generous subsidy and a favourable regulatory framework, they are likely to reach this total by the end of 2003. Elsewhere in the EU, Spain and the Netherlands have similarly ambitious schemes; and among other major nations the US and Japan are leading the way.

The reasons why some countries are keener on PV than others are complex. One factor is the strength of the green lobby, particularly its representation in national parliaments – this has been a major stimulus for German adoption. Another is the lack of local fossil fuel resources – this partly lies behind Japanese enthusiasm. Yet another is national wealth. The US’ programme is enormous compared to that of other countries – it has a million roof target by 2010 – but small in terms of its gigantic domestic energy market. Simultaneously, it can fund an ongoing nuclear programme without difficulty.

Meanwhile the UK government remains tied to the obsolescent nuclear technologies of its imperial past. It has announced no plans to expand its miserly support for PV beyond 2005. Conspiracy theorists might like to consider the fact that PV installations can make their owners independent of the national grid and of the obligation to regularly transfer resources to utility conglomerates. And in conjunction with wireless technology they offer unlimited net connection at zero ongoing cost. Could it be that our ruling classes feel threatened by the advent of free power and free information technology for the masses?

Peter Carty <> is a writer and journalist