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Could solar energy power the whole of London alone?

A UN report from last year delivered a stark warning: we have just 12 years to take serious action to save the planet. The report was setting out the amount of time we have left to take serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emitting activities in order to prevent, or at least limit, the potentially catastrophic impacts of man-made climate change. Over a hundred years of pumping huge amounts of catastrophically damaging gases into the atmosphere is beginning to take a toll and the world, as a result, is at record temperatures.

 

This is presenting the possibility of irreversible damage to the planet, with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and more frequent extreme weather events like blizzards and hurricanes. Climate change will lead to floods, poor harvests, and the loss of some of the planet’s best known species as their habitats are ravaged. A transition is needed, and needed now. Countries and cities are beginning to embrace clean ways to produce energy, such as solar panels. These can be installed on top of buildings or as part of big solar arrays, and are fairly cheap to instal and operate. They have a lot of benefits. With many cities investing an expansion of solar panels, could London be powered using green solar power?

How much power does London need?

To power the whole of London by solar energy alone would require the equivalent of 8.8% of the area of the city to be covered in solar panels. 8.8% of London’s area is about 138km of solar panels across the British capital city. This vast network of solar panels would need to receive 1,633 hours of sunlight each year to provide constant and uninterrupted supplies of energy to all 8.8 million Londoners. 8.8% is a surprisingly low number, given that solar panels are unique in their ability to become part of existing structures. So, what is currently being done to work towards that number?

What is the uptake of solar panels like in London?

At the moment, very little. London is lagging far behind the rest of the country in terms of investment in solar power. For example, out of the 65 schools in Britain which have installed solar panels - an already low number - just 5 are in London. There has also been little investment in domestic solar power. Just 58,000kw of London’s energy is produced by solar power it is actually the least solar power friendly region in Britain. There are two main reasons for this.

 

Firstly, subsidies granted for the installation of solar panels in the home have been dramatically cut in recent years, making solar energy more expensive and less accessible. Secondly, many Londoners live in a rented house or in a flat and cannot just put up solar panels. London needs to overcome these obstacles and invest in solutions in order to cut fossil fuel usage and reduce its 9 million residents’ contribution to climate change.

Morgan Franklin's picture

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 11, 2019 1:43 pm GMT

8.8% is a surprisingly low number, given that solar panels are unique in their ability to become part of existing structures

This may be lower than one would think, but it's still a lot of area-- especially when considering the inability of some areas to be eligible thanks to poor positioning, shading from obstructions, etc. Any sense of if there are cities out there anywhere close to this figure?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 11, 2019 8:11 pm GMT

"This vast network of solar panels would need to receive 1,633 hours of sunlight each year to provide constant and uninterrupted supplies of energy to all 8.8 million Londoners."

Morgan, first some physics: electricity must be used the instant it's generated. It doesn't sit in wires, waiting for someone to heat water in their microwave, or turn on their flatscreen TV. Thus, any "constant and uninterrupted supply" of energy from solar panels will be interrupted for a solid 12 hours after the sun goes down - an event which occurs with frightening predictability each day. The electricity for 8.8 million Londoners would be likewise interrupted.

But that's not all. It will be interrupted whenever there are cloudy skies, or even fog - an event which, in London, occurs with frightening unpredictability. All told in the UK, solar panels are useless for 90% of their rated capacity, and are 90% useless as an effective solution for climate change.

"Maybe we could store it in millions of batteries, for use later, like my cellphone!" is an idea which once occurred to some charming but ignorant activist, an idea with real-world possibilities akin to World Peace and Money Trees. "Solar + storage" has proven a real-world money tree for for oil and coal companies, however, who pounced on its false promise as a convenient distraction from nuclear energy: a clean, dispatchable source with true promise, and the potential to put them out of business.

"Over a hundred years of pumping huge amounts of catastrophically damaging gases into the atmosphereis beginning to take a toll and the world, as a result, is at record temperatures."

No, Morgan - pumping huge amounts of catastrophically-damaging gases into the atmosphere was beginning to take its toll one hundred and fifty years ago. Worse, the basic physics of it were well-understood a century ago; its impacts, three decades ago, when some of us were shouting them to anyone who would listen. No one was, however, and civilization continued its march toward a precipice of unknown depth, fettered only by the unresisting imbecility of "renewable" energy.

Time to wake up, and attempt to preserve a terrestrial climate more habitable than the planet Venus (average daytime temperature, 814° F). The time is long overdue to embark upon the only viable path forward on climate change.

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