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« Belgium shows us the way | Main | Another bind for Bob Bind »

The disastrous revolution

Mike Kelly points me to Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution, a learned tome by Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall that I think you are going to want to look at.

The book covers the development of the Spanish solar PV industry from its boom years after 2006 to the bust in 2008 and is mostly devoted to an analysis of the economics of PV in that country. As the authors point out, the nature of the Spanish grid and the history of its PV industry mean that the data is particularly clean and simple to analyse. In essence, this is where we can truly understand the economic usefulness of PV technology.

The chapter analysing the history of the industry in Spain is laugh-a-minute stuff, a tale of incompetent politicians and civil servants bumbling from one disaster to another and fraudulent investors cheating their way to a slice of public funds. We learn how the Spanish government decreed a feed-in-tariff system that guaranteed six times market rates to PV businesses, before a belated realisation that this was going to lead to astonishing surges of investment. They then put in place a series of only partially successful measures in an attempt to stop the expansion, as the whole farrago quickly became unaffordable and ultimately disastrous. We hear about the diesel generators generating "solar power" at night and that at one point the authorities estimated that half of new solar PV connections to the grid were fraudulent.

But the guts of the story is a detailed analysis of the "energy return on investment" (EROI) for solar PV, a measure of how much energy you get out for each unit of energy you put in. As the opening chapter explains, you need an EROI of around 5 to sustain agriculture, 10 to sustain an education system, 12 for a healthcare system, and 14 if you want to splash out on fripperies like high culture.

So what is the EROI for solar PV in Spain?

Two point four five.

That's 2.45.

You can see why the revolution led to disaster. I leave you with this apposite quote from the text:

Modern renewable energies, supposedly born to support a sustainable world, became one jewel of the most unsustainable of human activities, financial greed.

You can buy the book here, (although it isn't cheap).

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Reader Comments (40)

...You can buy the book here, (although it isn't cheap)...

Indeed. At £35-£40, I think I'll rely on the comments....

Aug 17, 2014 at 11:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

We should club together and buy a copy for Lord Deben and hire someone to read it to him

Aug 17, 2014 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterH2O: the miracle molecule

And then along come the Marxistst saying "your nation collapsed because of capitalist greed."

Aug 17, 2014 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterSleepalot

It all sounds very familiar. Substitute wind farms for PV and you could be talking about this country.

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

When this global warming scam is eventually exposed, the populace should rise up and demand Nuremberg type trials and severely punish the guilty perpetrators.

Just following the market is not an excuse!

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Ah, I remember it well. It caused protest marches and demonstrations here in my area of France near the Spanish border because EDF were going to run a VHV line down into Spain to 'support' their solar initiative.

EDF has a few 'solar stations' supplying power to out of the way places (where the cost of running cables far outweigh the cost of the solar install) that are fine if they get the calculations right - useless if they don't.

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterivan

I would be pleased to see a similar study of then UK's PV programme. It seems that just about every new house is fitted out with solar panels, and droves of older houses are being 'solarised'. What is the EROI for this branch of the market, and what would be the effect of removing subsidies. Also, of course, just how efficient are the large solar farms?

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

As Ewan Mearns pointed out on his blog if you derate Scottish installations by the average solar insolation ratio of Scotland to Spain it's likely the EROI on many Scottish installations is LESS THAN 1. Ie they will never generate the energy used to produce, install and maintain them.

Well worth the money!

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterNial

Interesting news from here in Belgium this week. Nuclear power accounts for 5.9GW of the nation’s 14GW winter electricity demand, the remainder being supplied by fossil fuels (5.5GW), unreliable ‘renewables’ (1.8GW) and imports (upto 3.5 GW). This week a 1GW nuclear generator at Doel shut down after a major leak of lubricating oil from the system serving its high pressure steam turbine; sabotage is suspected. Details here:

By September two thirds of Belgium’s nuclear generation capacity will have been shut down for mechanical reasons, giving a total capacity of only 12.7GW – that’s 91% of winter demand. This all assumes that ‘renewables’ (including solar) will be running flat out, which of course they won’t, and that power is available to be imported from neighbouring countries, which is not always the case.

The Belgian national government are now in total panic, and are planning for the worst. Emergency plans are being developed which centre on reducing demand from large power consumers (heavy industry) by compensating them for not taking power. The biggest issue is the capacity of the grid to transmit electricity to Flanders, where most of the power is consumed but where have most of the nuclear capacity has been lost (Doel units 3&4 at Antwerp account for 70% of its power).

There may even be implications for the UK – not in terms of electricity, but of gas: the gas supplied from Zeebrugge is compressed using electricity, so a power outage there could impact UK gas supplies. The developments also bring in to question the future of the proposed Nemo Link to connect Belgium with the UK National Grid from 2018 (cap. 1GW). There seems little point in building the interconnector if both countries have insufficient generation capacity.

This promises to be a slow motion train crash that was waiting to happen: a real life ‘renewables experiment’ that will give the likes of Dieter Helm and Mike Kelly plenty of real data to dissect and discuss, the implications of which may finally cause Ed Davey and the rest of the government to wake up. We can but live in hope.

Interesting times, especially if you live in Belgium like me!

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterwellers

"But the guts of the story is a detailed analysis of the "energy return on investment" (EROI) for solar PV, a measure of how much energy you get out for each unit of energy you put in."

I simply do not understand this "energy you get out for each unit of energy you put in" - surely you will always get less out than you put in, so the answer is less than 1, or am missing something?

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterDerek

Obama mindlessly supported Spain's subsidies. From the Wall St. Journal, in 2009:

"Spain is providing important lessons for the U.S., where lawmakers are engaged in a debate about how to support renewable energy. Boosters of clean energy, including President Barack Obama, have pointed to Spain as a success story showing how government policies jump-started renewable energy, created new industries, and helped the environment."

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon B

Derek, the energy provided by oil is vastly greater than the energy required to get it out of the ground.

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterNial

"buy a copy for Lord Deben and hire someone to read it to him"

You might also need someone to explain it to him.

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:31 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Like Derek, I'm not too sure how EROI works, especially with things like education and healthcare. Are we measuring the spring in the step of school leavers or recovered patients..?

(I need things explaining to me too, I admit, but at least I know when that is.)

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:33 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

"Obama mindlessly supported Spain's subsidies"

And his own, of course. Anyone remember Solyndra?

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:36 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Derek wrote:

I simply do not understand this "energy you get out for each unit of energy you put in" - surely you will always get less out than you put in, so the answer is less than 1, or am missing something?

Of course you are missing something. Thor Heyerdahl and his companions on the Kon Tiki stuck a sail on a balsa wood raft and crossed the Pacific. It is obvious that they got out more energy than they put in!

If you still require convincing, then think about the energy output of a large nuclear bomb. Do you really think it would take more energy to make on than would be released in exploding it?

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

About EROI, here is an extract from the book.

A universal property of all life is the need to invest some of the energy obtained
into all of life’s functions, including that of obtaining more energy. For example, if
the cheetah is to survive as a species and propel its genes into the future, the energy
gained by the average cheetah eating a gazelle in the African savannah must be
substantially greater than the energy used to run down the gazelle. The cheetah must
also be able to fuel its own maintenance metabolism (the energy its body requires to
maintain essential physiological functions), plus the additional energy for hunting
attempts that were unsuccessful and reproduction and nurturing of offspring. In
other words, the cheetah must have a substantial energy return on the energy invested
(EROI) in hunting gazelles or other prey to account for all of its natural requirements
for life (Hall and Klitgaard 2011) .


Unlike our cheetah, we need more than a “just barely sufficient” EROI to survive if
the net profit is to support our complex society. Quoting from Hall (2011): “Think
of a society dependent upon one resource: its domestic oil. If the EROI for this oil
was 1.1:1 then one could pump the oil out of the ground and look at it. If it were
1.2:1 you could also refine it and look at it, 1.3:1 also distribute it to where you want
to use it but all you could do is look at it. Hall et al. 2008 examined the EROI
required to actually run a truck and found that if the energy included was enough to
build and maintain the truck and the roads and bridges required to use it (i.e., depreciation), one would need at least a 3:1 EROI at the wellhead. Now if you wanted to
put something in the truck, say some grain, and deliver it, that would require an
EROI of, say, 5:1 to grow the grain. If you wanted to include depreciation on the oil
field worker, the refinery worker, the truck driver and the farmer you would need an
EROI of say 7 or 8:1 to support their families. If the children were to be educated
you would need perhaps 9 or 10:1, have health care 12:1, have arts in their life
maybe 14:1, and so on. Obviously to have a modern civilization one needs not simply
surplus energy but lots of it, and that requires either a high EROI or a massive
source of moderate EROI fuels”….

Aug 17, 2014 at 1:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas J. Keenan

Meanwhile over at the Telegraph:

Global solar dominance in sight as science trumps fossil fuels

Aug 17, 2014 at 2:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin


"In essence, this is where we can truly understand the economic usefulness of PV technology."

Surely, that should be uselessness of PV technology?

Aug 17, 2014 at 2:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

For some reason this reminds me when, as a child circa 1959, I read a story in a children's comic where Mr Toad, wanting to increase the sales of his washing powder that cost 2/6, placed a ten shilling note in each packet.

Funnily enough, he sold out very quickly! Ratty and Mole did try and explain. :)

Aug 17, 2014 at 2:27 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

We are entering a Perfect Storm with extensive UK power cuts this winter. Has anybody else besides me twigged what's behind the temporary closure of the 5 UK power stations?

It's pretty obvious; the next government to be elected will promise to keep the lights on, not install more renewables and attack the power companies........

Aug 17, 2014 at 3:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterturnedoutnice

wellers, that is scary stuff about what is coming up in Belgium this winter.

But, while I truly sympathise with Belgians who may suffer some hardship, it seems that only that kind of thing will shake politicians and the public out of their complacency, and (in the case of the pollies) almost criminal neglect of the necessity of maintaining reliable power. I'm guessing that there will be some big changes, for the better, in the policy settings with regard to energy production and distribution in the next 12 months. Nothing concentrates what they call their minds like the prospect of being tossed out of office.

Aug 17, 2014 at 3:35 PM | Registered Commenterjohanna


I agree with your comments, and in fact every Belgian newspaper yesterday led with the crisis; e.g. in the main Flemish paper 'De Standaard': "When Will the Lights Go Out?". People are just starting to realise that there will be shortages this winter and probably power cuts. Now people are beginning to question the absurdly optimistic advice the policy makers were given 5-10 years ago, much of it from ideological scientists rather than engineers, that renewables could rapidly replace nuclear and gas. They are already considering the effects of power outages on trains, water supplies, hospitals, lifts in apartment blocks, traffic control hardware, etc. Councils throughout Belgium are complaining that they don't yet know whether they will be in the 'load shedding' zone or not.

I don't think the Greens will be very popular this winter. The problem for Belgium is that 5-10 years ago they made no real decisions on their energy strategy apart from "let's hope wind will do the job". Somewhat like David Milliband and Chris Huhne really.

Aug 17, 2014 at 4:27 PM | Unregistered Commenterwellers

"But, while I truly sympathise with Belgians who may suffer some hardship, it seems that only that kind of thing will shake politicians and the public out of their complacency"

Yeah. They'll blame the power companies for the failure and for letting it get so bad, and then they'll introduce tighter regulations and control by politicians and bureaucrats in order to stop it happening again. Greedy power company executives out for profit...

Didn't you see what happened to the bankers?

Aug 17, 2014 at 4:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterNullius in Verba

I've started a dedicated thread for the story about the situation in Belgium.

Aug 17, 2014 at 4:53 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

This review (below “About the Author”) – by Alice Friedemann (of the huge and fascinating resource energyskeptic) provides a detailed overview of the book. Some interesting points:

• Spain’s EROI is very low (2.45) but Germany’s is probably only 1.6 to 2.

• Despite subsidy reductions, Spain is still spending $10.5 billion p.a. on renewable subsidy.

• Spain produces about 10% of global PV power: 4,237 MW (2.26% of Spain’s electricity in 2009) – equal to 4 large coal plants.

• The book assumes energy invested across 25 years – but it's unlikely contracts will be honoured for that long.

• PV module degradation could reach 20%/year over 25 years – lowering EROI

• “Solar has too many energy costs and dependencies on fossil fuels throughout the life cycle to produce much energy.”

• “Solar PV doesn't come close to providing the 12 or 13 EROI needed to run a complex civilization like ours.”

Her summary of how EROI is calculated and examples of the complexity of a solar PV plant are most interesting.

Aug 17, 2014 at 5:24 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier

Solar should simply be an option for houses and businesses to generate part of their OWN electricity, not a subsidised feed-in to a national grid. If and when it becomes economical then it will take-off.

A favourite Green argument is that you must fund the development of new technologies, but most of the funding for solar simply goes to the electricians that do the installation, rather than to where it is needed, research into new PV materials.

Aug 17, 2014 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Easiest and most profitable thing to farm 'Subsidies' , the Greens have never understood that the most important thing to remember about the renewable industry is that its a 'industry ' out to make profit. Although to be fair some 'Greens' know that very well has done very well indeed out if this type of 'farming '

Aug 17, 2014 at 5:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

*** "We should club together and buy a copy for Lord Deben and hire someone to read it to him". ***

We should buy a copy and hire someone to club Lord Deben with it.


Aug 17, 2014 at 5:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterCheshirered


Aug 17, 2014 at 7:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

EDF has a few 'solar stations' supplying power to out of the way places (where the cost of running cables far outweigh the cost of the solar install) that are fine if they get the calculations right - useless if they don't.

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterivan

They also spent huge sums of money paying farmers with large barns and consumers with roofs pointing south. A local farmer spent 186.000€ installing solar panels on his barn and gained a virtually garanteed income of more than 23.000€/yr tax free.

Aug 17, 2014 at 8:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

Stephen Richards
In this part of France many farmers built what I know as Dutch barns to house the panels

Aug 17, 2014 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommentersandyS

Here in the sunny south west of England, solar farms are becoming two a penny. However we are so sunny here that they provide ample Power even in the dullest days of winter and during most of the night. In the rare few minutes when they do not work at full power we have a veritable array of attractive wind farms that are renowned for providing cheap electricity 24/7

Dirt cheap infinitely renewable power. what's not to like about the brave new world of renewables? Thanks goodness the wise uk govt takes no notice of the doomsayers on this blog. ( look guys, I'm British so I don't really need to put 'sarc' do I?

Aug 17, 2014 at 8:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterTonyb

Aug 17, 2014 at 4:33 PM | Nullius in Verba

"Yeah. They'll blame the power companies for the failure and for letting it get so bad,"

you're absolutely correct ... politicians are extremely competent practitioners of the art of blaming someone else ...

aided by the clueless, but very vocal, greenish 5% of the population ...

Aug 18, 2014 at 12:18 AM | Unregistered Commenterducdorleans

The solar scam is directly tied to the climate catastrophe scam. Both ideas rely on magical thinking. Solar relies on believing that somehow a variable like the number of sunny days and the inevitability of sunset can be overcome.
Climate catastrophe relies on believing that for the first time ever prophets of apocalyptic stores finally got it right.
The latter bit of magical thinking makes the believer vulnerable to the financial scams of those promoting the former.
Climate obsession is not a victimless cost-free failure. What its promoters are pushing are not "better even if the climate crisis turns out to be wrong". Climate solutions like solar are hurting us *now* and will hurt us *more* in the future if we continue to tolerate these people to continue their destructive wasteful ways.

Aug 18, 2014 at 12:30 AM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

If you want more PV you need more of these:

I'm looking forward to them finding tellurium reserves in Surrey or Sussex. They locals will be begging for their fracking pads.

Tonyb: Nearly got me there ;)

Aug 18, 2014 at 9:50 AM | Unregistered Commenterclovis marcus

"you need an EROI of around 5 to sustain agriculture"

I wonder what EROI is required to sustain agriculture based on ploughing with a pair of dray horses - such as my father had to learn as a boy in the 1940s?

Aug 18, 2014 at 9:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuther Bl't

Like many blog posts of one-off studies, this is a test of just how skeptical you are as opposed to just anti-green. You could seek alternative viewpoints on the usefulness and selectiveness of calculations involved in EROI and note that they vary wildly for many systems. This study in Scientific American from Mason Inman
that gives their sources (unlike Hall and Prieto) have nuclear EROI varying from a pessimistic 1 to an optimistic 60 but an aggregate gives 5, lower than solar power at a current 6 and rising, while gas sits at 7. Hall and Prieto had previously used a value of 6.8. Their new calcs involve 'extras' that in fact also affect every system of energy so it is perhaps unfair. More specifically it is inapplicable to the solar panels on your roof and also inapplicable to modern panels with higher EROI. From that article "Stanford University energy systems expert Adam Brandt, meanwhile, discounts PV's current reliance on fossil energy. What's important, he says, is that a PV installation can use fossil energy to produce carbon-free power—a critical response to climate change. "If you consume one unit of fossil fuel and get something like 8 or 12 units of solar energy out, that's a positive story," Brandt says." Frankly I agree.

And you might also note that Prieto is pessimistic about the EROI of fossil fuels too in this article in the likely unbiased IEEE:
"In fact, Prieto believes he is already witnessing economic decline caused, in part, by petroleum's dwindling EROI."

If you ask a chiriguito bar owner if he is better off because he saves 50% off his previous electricity bill then I doubt he'll worry about published EROI numbers. He will worry about the new solar tax of course but if it reduces the saving to 25% then it's still a win. I'd say that in Spain solar should work great on household roofs and for individual projects if you just ignore the subsidies that got us to this point. But then Spain must also have subsidised bottled gas because when I was there it was one third of the cost of the same stuff in France and the UK. Too many oranges and apples comparisons abound in this business I fear.

Aug 19, 2014 at 9:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG
(Spanish official expert disses solar power at length. Very good.)

Aug 25, 2014 at 4:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Knights

It's not clear that a low EROI for Spanish solar is a killer - because it means at worst that for the consumption of 1 unit of fossil fuel energy emitting CO2 the Spanish are getting 2.6 units of renewable energy with no CO2 emissions, so this energy is being supplied at 40% of the CO2 emissions of whatever fossil fuel was used in the first place - and fossil fuels might not have been 100% of the energy used either.

Another important point overlooked in the post is that renewables costs and EROIs historically get better over time. The purpose of renewables subsidy isn't to subsidise renewables for ever, but to subsidise them to generate a mass market at which point economies of scale kick in - both for cost and for EROI and the subsidies are no longer needed. Clearly if you use a huge amount of energy in manufacture then you cannot get prices right down. Wind has gone through this process - low EROI and high cost at first, higher EROI and much lower cost (beating new coal) now - but solar is somewhat behind wind in both of these measured. It will catch up.

Further, the EROI of some fossil fuels leaves even more to be desired! Compare conventional oil production and that from tar sands as described in various papers and summarised here - Oil Shale's Energy Return on Energy Investment . While the chart shows older conventional oil at 18 to 20, the two estimates for shale oil are 1.7 and 2.1 which makes the paltry EROI from Spanish solar look spectacularly good!!! In fact other sources quote both tar sands and solar as around the 5 to 6 mark, though solar is likely to accelerate out of sight over time whereas tar sands is not going to improve much.

Elon Musk plans to invest billions in his solar panel "gigafactory" and he is likely to achieve an EROI for solar panels into double digits.

So don't confuse Spanish solar EROI (2.6) with that for solar over the last couple of years (5 to 6), and in the future (>10) when considering these issues.

Sep 1, 2014 at 10:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter

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