Sun stroke

I have been in France for a couple of days, visiting a potential business partner's sites. They have plans to install a huge area of photovoltaic (PV) panels at both sites. In both cases, they claim that the PV will pay for the cost of the buildings on which the panels will be installed. Hence they are building very big structures to cover with PV.

That is somewhat surprising, because PV, unless massively subsidised, doesn't even cover the cost of itself (i.e. installing and running the panels), let alone pay for the building underneath. The explanation: the French government is introducing a tariff to pay €500/MWh from PV. By comparison, their power costs (they claim, though this probably hides massive subsidy to the nuclear industry) around €37/MWh to produce, and consumers pay €42-120/MWh (large industrial to small domestic).

In this respect, they are outdoing even the Germans, who "only" threw €320-400/MWh at PV. This made the Germans the biggest deployers of PV in the world (relative to the size of their economy). And yet contributed a gnat's fart of electricity (<0.1%) to their total energy supplies.

Our potential colleagues will not be the only ones planning to respond to this incentive by building installations that otherwise would not be built, which will cost a fortune, fit badly with their nuclear power (as both are inflexible), and add little to their energy supplies or security. There will doubtless be a spate of construction subsidised by this massive distortion, whose cost bears no relation to the environmental or economic benefit (particularly in France, where this power will mainly be displacing nuclear, and therefore making a minimal impact on carbon emissions, and reducing the efficiency of the nuclear power stations).

The French government justifies this, as governments always do, by claiming that massive support will produce massive deployment, which will achieve economies of scale, and drive the technology down the learning curve, making the technology viable in the long-run. What they have not explained is why this has not already been achieved by the German programme, and why, following that programme and the supposed economies and learning achieved, they have had to introduce a subsidy even more generous than the Germans in order to encourage the market. Is this yet another example where the learning curve is negative, and the lessons learned are that the technology is more expensive and less likely to reduce in cost than its proponents expected?