Think Tanks
Printable version

Adam Smith Inst - Solar so good, but panels have limited potential in UK

Study reveals extensive renewable energy deficit and recommends a focus on domestic use
Solar power produced more energy than coal in April through September this year in the UK, but we shouldn’t expect that to last, claims a new report from neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute and the Scientific Alliance released today.

The paper, Solar Power in Britain, uses ten years of weather data to create a new and comprehensive analysis of the capabilities of solar energy in the UK, and finds it wanting.

The report reveals that solar panels are highly ineffective in UK climates, generating less than a tenth of their possible output over the course of a year. In fact, solar panels produce precisely nothing for over 30 weeks of the year and only manage to muster above 50% of the energy generation they’re capable of for 8 days annually.

Counter to claims that a combination of wind and solar power could smooth out this seasonal intermittency, the report demonstrates that even combined they would only exceed 60% of their capability for a day and half each year, and would be below 20% capacity for over half of the year and need to be constantly supplemented by more reliable sources of energy.

Currently the solar fleet produces less than 2.5% of UK electricity generation, the problem being both that there is insufficient storage for the energy generated in the summer months to provide in winter, and that solar panels are ineffective in the UK climate. The lifetime output of a 5MW solar park could be matched in 36 hours by a nuclear power plant taking up 50 times less ground space.

The paper addresses two effective storage options that could make solar power feasible in the UK, pumped storage and battery storage but demonstrates why these highly expensive and environmentally damaging solutions are unworkable. The author instead suggests that rather than trying to move faster than the technology available, solar energy should focus on providing for local customers’ domestic water and heating, leaving less seasonally affected sources to provide power across the country until a more realistic storage system can be manufactured. 

Ben Southwood, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, said:

“We know that UK solar panels only generate electricity at 9% of capacity, but our paper shows that even this average level is a mirage. Power comes in stops and spurts and not when we want it.

“If we had ways to store large amounts of energy cheaply then it wouldn’t matter when the sun shines, we could just save up what we’ve generated in batteries. But even combined with the wind fleet, the supply is incredibly intermittent and variable: output is below 10% of capacity 97 times a year, for periods of 6 to 141 hours.

“In the future cheaper and more efficient generation and storage will solve the problem, but for now there is no way of squaring the circle: relying on solar and wind will force us to back up the supply with dirty fossil fuels, or the lights will go out!"

Author of the report, Dr Capell Aris, said:

“This work should convince anyone with an open mind that the current generation of renewable energy technologies is simply not up to the job of providing a reliable, affordable electricity supply.

“I hope that policymakers will take note and help provide the secure electricity supply consumers and businesses need before we find out the consequences of the push for renewables the hard way.”
Notes to editors:

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Flora Laven-Morris, Head of Communications, at | 07584 778207.

The report ‘Solar Power in Britain: The Impossible Dream’ is live on the Adam Smith Institute available here.

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, neoliberal think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.

The Scientific Alliance was formed to encourage politicians to make policy on the basis of scientific evidence rather than lobbying by vested interests. Its role is to encourage a rigorous and rational approach to policymaking for the benefit of individual citizens and the economy.

Share this article

Latest News from
Think Tanks

Public Sector Cyber Security beyond the PSN - OnDemand