Solar Power Continues to Soar, as Coal’s Dominance Wavers

Last weekend, the UK saw solar power produce more energy for the public than coal for a full 24 hours, setting a new record for renewables. It seems the ‘little black rock’ coal lobbyists are still advocating for, based upon its economic value and practicality, is actually seeing a disastrous decline in value throughout the UK. Only to be replaced by the fast-growing solar industry.

The Solar industry has surged in the past few years as subsidies continued to assist in expanding the market. However, the deteriorated state coal has found itself in is a sign of what's to come as wholesale prices hit new lows and the carbon tax continues to put pressure on traditional fuels.

Carbon Brief, which analysed the event stated that, “Last weekend’s solar breakthrough could not have happened without the increase in solar capacity. However, an ongoing collapse in coal generation was the more immediate cause.” Last weekend, in particular, Solar produced 29GWh of clean power, seeing to 4% of the population's energy needs. Coal Plants production, on the other hand, dropped to 21Gwh.

Coal was once seen as the fuel that powered the world, playing a key role in the industrial revolution and saw to the boom in steel manufacture, steam power and eventually coal-fired electricity production. In fact, coal has seen a steady incline since the 1800s, but now prices are falling, and with the significant improvements being made to competing technologies coupled with a negative public sentiment, coal might not get another chance. In the long term, it doesn’t take an economist, environmental scientist or even a futurologist to see that as a global community, we need to quickly transition from burning compressed carbon for power. If we want to ever see humanity progress in any measurable way in the area of energy production that is.

And, maybe that idea is now finally becoming more mainstream. It could be argued that energy moguls are only now turning to renewables as they have now become an economically viable option, rather than just a morally superior one. None the less, we are seeing widespread dissatisfaction with the coal industry and as a result, alongside economic pressure and huge losses. As a result, the UK has seen a number of coal-fired plants shut down. Namely, Scotland saw its last coal plant in the country flick the switch only last month. Going into 2016 it looks like coal with produce around 10GWh of power, in comparison to the 18GW that was produced last year.

Solar, on the other hand, has seen steady growth throughout the UK, and is a public favourite when it comes to energy production. Analysts calculated that there is approximately 12 GW of solar capacity currently installed. The UK as a whole only consumes a total capacity of 80-90GW.

In fact solar, continues to show critics and renewable nay-sayers that it can in fact act as a reliable and constant source of power. Gemasolar, a world first for commercial scale solar tower technology, in 2012, achieved 36 days of constant energy production using solar thermal technology and has recently achieved highs of 35 days.

By using an array of mirrors, the plant concentrates the sun’s radiation to heat molten salts, which then provide the energy for traditional steam powered electricity production. Using battery storage, and even molten salt storage, the plant is able to generate electricity through the night. Even in winter the site can provide a constant stream of energy for up to 12 days. The plant also doesn’t require gas backup generators and is able to run entirely on solar power. We often don’t hear about the real advancements of solar and the potential for renewable to genuinely overtake traditional fuels. It seems that policy is driven with all stakeholders in mind, including the economic interests of the oil and coal lobby.

For example, the UK Government decided last year to increase fossil fuel funding, while cutting public subsidies for solar this year. Given the economic instability of both oil and coal as of late, it seems is honestly astonishing that most governments globally are still subsidising oil, while debating whether there are the appropriate finances required to fund renewables. The UK however, decided taxpayers should fork out another $1.7Billion for North Sea oil alone, despite the $5.9 Billion awarded to fossil fuels already. Despite the rapid growth of solar and the fact that the UK has pledged to reduce emission, as have most developed nations, the market is now expected to plateau due to subsidy cuts.

A spokesperson on behalf of the Solar Trade Association has this to say about solar, “It is...one of the cheapest major renewables and the most popular with the British public, so why the UK government has stepped back from supporting this winning technology is difficult to understand.”

It is a mystery to many why the Government is so eager to continue supporting the coal industry as if it was a governmental responsibility to keep wasteful and polluting energy sources afloat, because they have always been afloat. It most likely comes down to the psyche of policy makers, who see coal as a reliable and powerful source of energy while regarding solar as a new technology that has not yet proven its worth, both as a stable power source and as a smart economical solution. Coal served the world well during the 19th and 20th century, but it is environmentally unviable and thus becoming economically draining for the countries still supporting the fossil fuel economy. While renewables are in no way capable of providing for 100% of the world's power needs, with a diversion of investment, it could be possible to further expand the market and capacity of renewable as a whole.

For example, many private investors are looking to Australia as the next best market for solar thermal technology similar to the Gemasolar development. However, unstable policy and the bolstered fossil fuel industry is steering them in other directions. That being said despite the ongoing internal political struggle surrounding renewables and traditional fuels, solar is making headway nonetheless.

It is really up to the policy makers if they would like to position themselves on the right side of history, renewables will progress through the aid of the private capital as it becomes cheaper and more efficient year by year. We hope to see headlines like these more often, as solar breaks greater records and reaches new milestones.

To put it simply, “The problem the government has at the moment is keeping coal on, not phasing it out,” said Atherton of.

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