Still Subsidising the Argument…

by | Nov 1, 2011

Something of a brouhaha is developing in the debate about the extent of subsidies for renewable energy in the UK. Green energy campaigners are complaining about a proposed cut in the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) scheme which promises owners of domestic solar PV up around £0.433 per kilowatt hour, but which will ‘only’ give them £0.21 per kWh. James Murray, editor of Business Green said in the wake of the leaked proposal that,

The government is about to deal a crippling blow to a fast expanding green industry that is serving to cut carbon emissions and create jobs.

In the same article, Murray also claims that the solar industry employs more people than the UK’s nuclear energy sector. According to many of the government’s new critics in the green energy sector, there are 25,000 jobs in solar energy in the UK.

That seems like an extraordinary claim to me. According to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics, nuclear power provided 69,098 gigawatt hours (18% of total) of electricity to consumers in 2009, whereas there were only 50 megawatts of installed solar PV capacity on the grid in the same year. That makes a comparison in equivalent terms of output difficult. DUKES doesn’t even bother, the sums are so small, so it lumps production from solar PV in with wind. But if we assumed that solar panels were 100% efficient (had a 100% load factor), and the sun shone 24 hours a day, the UK’s fleet of solar panels would have produced just 438 gigawatt hours — a 160th of what the UK’s fewer nuclear energy employees produced. But the sun doesn’t shine every day, and solar PV struggles to produce a load factor of more than 20%. Let’s call it 15%. It now looks like solar PV in the UK produced just 66 GWh of electricity in 2009 — less than a thousandth of what the nuclear energy sector did, with fewer people.

But there’s an even better way to show that the figure is bogus. Even if the UK’s solar PV fleet increased by 50MW (50,000 KW) of capacity each year, that would mean that each job in the sector only produced 2KW of capacity. That is less than one domestic solar PV installation per year, per sector employee.

Then let’s imagine that each of those jobs costs £25,000 a year. That would mean a total of £625 million. So in order to compete with nuclear in labour terms, the solar sector needs to become 1,000 times more efficient. Anyone who wants to defend subsidies to solar energy on the basis that it ‘creates jobs’ needs to take a reality check. There are much better things that could be done with that money. It’s hard to think of a more futile and costly gesture. It would be better to simply give 25,000 people £25,000 each, every year, because then there would be no need to pay for the solar PV panels and no need to subsidise their pitiful output.

I had a look to see the source of the 25,000 jobs claim. The closest thing I could find was this article, which claimed that

According to the latest REAL Assurance data an estimated 25,000 UK jobs have been created as a direct result of the feed-in tariff (FiT). Despite already exceeding all expectations, the Renewable Energy Association (REA) believes even this huge figure is likely to be underestimated as the REAL team only deals with companies working on small-scale installations.

It looks like James Murray was confused about the statistics…

In the solar industry alone there are currently 4,000 companies registered with REAL in the UK with approximately 100 new members signing up each month. Each one of these companies has from 1-2,500 employees, showing the sheer dominance the solar sector has in the UK. At this growth rate the REA estimates that solar jobs will exceed 7,000 by April 2012, with more jobs created providing the industry remains supported.

But the more accurate figure hardly puts the solar PV sector in a better light, if you’ll pardon the pun. It means that the average solar PV job produces just 7KW of installed capacity per year (assuming that capacity is increased by 50MW per year, which is more than optimistic).

Stuff the subsidies for solar PV. They make no sense. At all. Just as the statistics produced in defence of the UK’s energy and climate policies make no sense. I’m struggling to not to use expletives and other words that are no stronger than ‘innumerate’ to describe the nonsense that we’ve seen over the last few weeks (see previous posts). Forget hockey sticks. Forget ‘hiding the decline’. The real statistics-abuse happens closer to home — in the policies and politics of the climate and energy debate. With such liberties taken with arithmetic, it makes no difference what graphs depicting global temperature change say.


  1. geoffchambers

    gwpf has two stories, from the BBC and the Telegraph, which repeat the 25,000 jobs figure.
    It makes sense. These “Jobs-of-the-future-at-the-cutting-edge-of-the-green-revolution” are basically men on the roof with rivet guns. Once every mug who believed the government’s promise to keep up the unrealistic level of feed-in tariffs has installed his panel, they’ll all be back in the dole queue. I suppose it develops talents which could be useful in other fields, such as stealing lead off church roofs, or copper wire from Welsh mountain tops. Scavenging on third world rubbish tips would count as a green job by Huhne’s standards.
    The government can probably come up with better figures than yours by pretending that, once in place, the panels will produce power for decades without maintenance. Cost conscious owners will no doubt maintain them themselves, adding to the climate change mortality figures.
    On your more general anger about statistical manipulation, I don’t think we should forget the hockey stick. There’s a difference between government massaging of the figures and a scientific paper which quite literally claimed to change the history of the human race.
    What we should certainly do is look again at all and any environmental paper written since the invention of the laptop which claims to prove that public transport, or cycling, or recycling, or growing your own vegetables, or anything environmental, is economically viable, or cleaner, or whatever. I suspect that it’s all based on lies, that whole university departments knowingly mass produce lies, relying on the fact that it’s all so boring that no-one would ever check it out.

  2. TDK

    You are being far too cynical.

    If job creation alone is the criterion of success we might build a vast bank of bicycle generators (these generate an output of 100W/hr according to here )

    This bike only needs to be replicated a modest 6.9e11 times to completely replace Nuclear power entirely. Then assuming that one man works 8 hrs/day, 5days/week, 46 weeks/year we have generated a wholly wonderful 375,532,608.7 jobs not including supervisors. If we assume minimum wage, the basic cost is an affordable £60.8/kwh.

    Not bad going!

  3. Ben Pile

    Geoff – I don’t think we should forget the hockey stick. There’s a difference between government massaging of the figures and a scientific paper which quite literally claimed to change the history of the human race.

    You’re right. However, anyone can see for themselves that the ‘25,000 jobs lost to cuts in FITS’ is bogus, and that there is little or no supporting argument for the UK’s energy and climate policies in the stats. Understanding the hockey-stick graph and how it was produced requires more expertise.

  4. geoffchambers

    Robin Guenier in comments at
    points us to a Panorama programme on energy costs tonight. The trailer at
    “Panorama investigates the inconvenient truth behind the UK’s rocketing energy bills – that government policy is stoking much of the rise”.
    Looks interesting.



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