Until shale gas came along, nuclear power was the form of energy most associated with rightwing politics. This is odd when you consider just how dependent the nuclear industry is on the state for its continued existence.
Technologically and economically, nuclear is too risky for the private sector to go it alone. Though some private businesses may be involved, the industry is and always will be a project of the state (the French state in particular).
Solar power is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Indeed, it is the only significant technology that enables ordinary consumers to generate their own electricity. For that reason it shouldn’t just appeal to environmentalists, but also to those of a libertarian mindset.
In the Guardian, Giles Parkinson reports from America, where parts of the Tea Party movement are starting to see the attraction:
- “From the day in 1986 when president Ronald Reagan pulled down the solar array that had sat briefly atop the White House, conservative politicians in the US and elsewhere have had a growing antipathy towards renewables…
- “Now, in the state of Georgia, there has been a dramatic split in conservative attitudes. The local branch of the Tea Party has aligned itself with solar interests and environmental NGOs to force the monopoly utility Georgia Power to open its network to more solar power. Ironically, it has little to do with climate goals. It is being fought… as a property rights issue, pitting private citizens against utilities, regulators and fixed rates of return.”
But isn’t solar power ridiculously expensive – costing much more than wind or nuclear, let alone gas-fired generation?
The thing to remember with energy cost comparisons is that the situation is never static, it moves with developments in the relevant technologies. In the case of solar, the pace of change is dramatic:
- “This push to elevate solar energy as an individual right is being carried by the new economic case for solar power: the plunging cost of solar modules – they have fallen 80% in the last four years – means households can install rooftop systems and lower their electricity bills. The emergence of these ‘prosumers’ is challenging the revenue and the profit pool for network operators and fossil fuel generators.”
Furthermore, because photovoltaic panels can be installed at the point of use, solar doesn’t have to compete with the wholesale price of electricity. Rather it is the much higher retail price that is the relevant benchmark. In cool and cloudy Britain, we're still a long way from this so-called 'grid parity'. But in sunnier parts of the world – like the southern United States – solar is closer to being competitive. Needless to say, the local utility companies are less than thrilled at the prospect:
- “Even analysts at major investment banks describe the proliferation of solar as unstoppable. The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents most investor owned utilities in the US, says solar is a direct threat to the centralised utility model, and could cause ‘irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects.’”
Solar, of course, has an Achilles’ heel: it only produces power when the sun is shining. Further improvements in battery technology will be required before consumers can independently compensate for the intermittent supply provided by their panels. For this reason, the utility companies are still in a position to kill off the competition.
Whether they are allowed to do so is down to the politicians:
- “It sets the stage for an intriguing clash of two strands of conservative thought – one that remains true to its ideology of individual rights against centralised control, and the other where ideology is cherry-picked and co-opted for the protection of vested and incumbent interests.”