Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Solar farm development costs so far

So… for those who missed earlier blogs, My new company (positech energy) is trying to build a 1.2mwp solar farm in the UK. I thought it might be worth reminding myself how much has been done, and how much further we have to go. Currently, we are awaiting a planning decision, which has been delayed twice already, but should now happen in less than a month. I suspect this date may actually be final this time…

Here is what has cost me money so far:

Feasibility Study£5,000
Planning Application submission fee£9,730
Topographical survey (is the land flat etc…)£1,150
Solar farm scheme design (inverters/panels/substation reqs etc)£3,465
Habitat survey (are there any endangered bats on the site?)£914
Archaeological Survey (are there any buried roman settlements on the site?)£990
Visual Impact Assessment (will anybody see it, and how badly will this affect them?)£1,485
Flood Risk Assessment (will the site flood? will building it make anywhere else flood?)£495
Construction Management Plan (tell people what building works will happen)£495
Planning Statement (honestly…not sure of this one…)£247.50
Transport Statement (how many trucks, what size, when, where, what route…)£247.50
Statement of Community Involvement£495
Consultant Co-ordination (so I dont have to speak to all these people myself)£495
Planning form (actually entering all of this stuff into planning system)£495
Sundry Expenses (site visit mileage)£250
Historic Impact Assessment (Will building this impact the local history, or views of anything historically interesting)£3,285
DNO (Distribution Network Operator) submission for a grid quote for electrical connection£3,600
Project fee for buying the existing project from previous developer (long story)£5,000
50% of landowners legal fees£464.50

Amazingly, I have already paid all of this, and yet do not have planning permission yet. In theory, I could be denied planning permission completely with no way to recover, and that would mean all of this money was wasted. Scary hug? But wait…there is more:

10% deposit on over 3,000 solar panels£44,524.80
First payment towards electrical grid connection£50,000

Yikes. Those are the big ones. And scary too, because the panels will show up in the UK soon(ish). If you think I can store them in my garage until we get a new site, think again. Its 70 tons of solar panels. In theory, if it all goes wrong, we can cancel and only lose 5%, but more likely, we can re-sell them to someone else, or even have the farm construction company buy them from us. We also have another site currently being evaluated, so we could use them there.

The grid connection deposit can mostly be refunded if we cancel, depending how much work they have done so far, but given the stupidly long timescales they quote, I doubt they have done much yet. Its precisely BECAUSE the grid connection timeline and solar panel ordering timelines are SO long, that I took the risk to order both before getting planning permission.

So what other costs are coming up?

Landowner fee on signing (one-off bonus)£10,000
Legal Fees on signing£1,000
The rest of the solar panel cost~£400,000
The site construction cost~£200,000
The solar battery cost~£240,000
The rest of the grid connection costs£101,007.17

You got to love that grid connection cost right? Especially the way they do it down to the penny to support the fiction that its super competitive, when in fact your choices is of accepting the quote…or not accepting it and not being able to build a farm… In theory its highly regulated cost wise, and in theory you can do some of the work ‘the contestable work’ yourself using a 3rd party, but in practice the amount of the work that is contestable is a pittance, so it just introduces confusion and complexity for almost no gain…

There is really nothing more I can do until we finally get a decision from the planners, which I REALLY hope is ‘granted’, but would not be flabbergasted to discover there are conditions or other requirements. Honestly you would think I was bulldozing st pauls cathedral and making solar panels out of the corpses of rare badgers I crushed under a steam roller, given the way these things get treated in planning terms… Needless to say I have a LOT of VERY strong opinions on how fundamentally broken our planning system is (and it gest seemingly worse over time, not better).

I’ll state it again here: The biggest enemy of the UK meeting its net zero goals is not UKIP, or the daily mail, or the conservative party, or apathy, or cost, or technology.

Its bureaucracy.

For starters, the timescales need halving, AT LEAST. Secondly, we really need to collapse a lot of this paperwork into one. There is no need for separate planning, transport, construction and community engagement documents for crying out loud. Also we need a lot of clauses to allow smaller developments to bypass some of this crap. If your total site area is small, you shouldn’t need to do the full archaeology/habitat/flood/historical nonsense. By all means, if you are covering 100 acres with solar panels, then lets make sure all bases are covered, but for a relatively tiny site? This is ridiculous.

I actually anticipate fairly smooth sailing if we get planning. My plan is ON THE VERY SAME FUCKING DAY that we get planning approval, I want to order the battery, the mounting kits, the inverters, EVERYTHING, so that we are 100% ready to hit the ground digging ground screws in as soon as possible.

This is why I took the risk of grid & panel ordering early. Its also why I’m about to sign a lease with the farmer, and start paying rent (likely next month). I don’t want anything to stop us building the farm once we have permission. In an ideal world, the panels would get unloaded from the ship the day planning is granted. In practice, things are bound to go wrong.

I am nervous about, and very focused upon…getting planning permission for this thing. Its DEFINTELY the most risky and bureaucratic and infuriating thing I have attempted so far. Expect lots of drunken tweeting from me on the day we get it (if we do…).

Doing the maths on a home solar-panel upgrade

My data suggests that the output from my solar array is roughly 1.6MWH per year. This is a 2.1kwp install from over ten years ago, that was recently retrofitted with solar edge optimizers to increase its output during times where some of the panels, or part of a panel was shaded.

I am currently using the octopus go tariff (designed for electric cars for my home electricity consumption. This has 2 different rates, depending on the time of day, and at the time of writing they are:

12.30am to 4.30am: £0.075 / kwh.

4.30am to 12.30am: £0.3061 / kwh.

To add to the complexity, I am on an old ‘feed-in-tariff’ which subsidized my solar install (long since discontinued, but I still luckily get it). This pays me an inflation-linked rate of £0.65/kwh for generation (regardless of what I use) and a ‘deemed export’ additional payment of £0.0185/kwh. Another way to phrase this, is currently I earn £0.67 per unit produced.

Of course, I earn that as a payment from the feed-in-tariff provider, but also this reduces my own consumption. If we assume that roughly a third of the power I produce offsets energy I would have used (as some will be peak daytime summer when I’m outside or not using much power anyway), then I can add a third of the price of a unit bought to each unit produced to reflect this saving.

So that gives me roughly £0.77 per unit produced, or given my production of 1,600 kwh per year, an income from the current solar setup of £1,244 per year. Not bad. Can I do better?

I cannot (due to shading issues) realistically add more solar panels, and I would need planning permission for that anyway, but could swapping out the 10 panels I have make sense? The output from solar panels is now a lot better than when I got mine about 11 years ago. My panels are MPE215 PS05 schuco panels. The ‘module efficiency’ is 14%. AT 12 years, the output guarantee is 90%, so they are already 10% down on the output I would expect. On the plus side, I have solar-edge inverter and optimisers, so I am squeezing the best possible output from each panel right now:

If I upgraded the panels then I would still keep using solar edge, so this benefit is not significant in deciding to upgrade. However, if I *did* upgrade it would finally be time to do the obvious, and get a solar storage battery (lithium-ion). This is something I would love, as it would reduce my electricity bills to almost zero throughout the summer (at least the peak usage…I would still use scheduled charging on the car to fill up its 85kwh battery during off peak hours. Trickle-charging the car during the day manually is just too much messing around…).

So what would the economics look like if I had battery storage and new panels?

Firstly, I would 100% lose the feed-in-tariff, as you cannot change an existing install. On the other hand I would qualify for a smart-export payment, but its trivial, and would require me to export power! whereas with battery storage I’d simply use that power to top up the car and likely export almost nothing. On a peak day, I generate a maximum of about 12kwh (perhaps 18kwh with new panels), and the car battery is 85kwh. its unlikely I would have an option to earn anything at all from exporting energy.

So it comes down to how much extra power I would generate (and thus avoid paying £0.30/kwh on), plus how much I would save by being able to time-shift the power. Actually the economics are not good…

When I generate a unit of power now, I ALWAYS earn £0.77. If it displaces peak power usage, its earning me £1.07. If it only displaces off-peak (car charging) usage, it earns me £0.84. The real problem is that with new panels, all I can ever do is get credit for the energy I would not use, so £0.30. Unless new panels were FREE and also generated 200% more than the current ones, I cannot make the economics work, even assuming that the battery is FREE, and the time-shifting and scheduling of stuff works perfectly.

The real elephant in the room here is the old feed in tariff. It did a fantastic job encouraging demand, in that I was the first person in this village to install solar, and helped encourage others to do so, and enabled the industry to scale up. However, people like me are now effectively trapped in a valley of economics, where we are basically paid too much to generate power on old panels to bother upgrading.

In an ideal world, I would be able to keep the tariff even with new panels, although I understand that might seem cheeky. I do find it pretty frustrating that I am incentivized to keep producing 2.1kwp of power instead of the 3.15kwp I could generate with new panels.

What if you don’t already have solar panels though?

Assume your usage pattern is the same as me, so your consumption of power is roughly 474kwh per month, or 5,688 kwh per year.

If you do no time-shifting of demand, that would cost you £1,706 per year. lets assume you have a suitable roof for a 4mwp installation, and can thus produce double what I do, plus 50% for increased panel efficiency. That means you produce 4,848 kwh per year, but spread in a bell curve. Leta also assume your consumption is constant, and a battery allows you to perfectly demand-shift during a given day, so no generated power is wasted. lets assume an export ‘smart export guarantee’ of £0.05 and a power purchase cost of £0.30. (I’ve assumed a similar curve of solar generation to my own setup):

So in this setup, normally your annual bill would be £1,706 but reduced down to £583.50 by having solar panels. Thats an effective saving of £1,122.90. Is it worth doing?

The energy saving trust assumes an install of this size costs £5,400. The big kicker would be the battery. I think to make best usage of it, you need to be able to store 66% of a peak days generation in the battery for usage later. So thats a 12kwh battery, which costs about £4-5000 extra. This leads to a break even point after 10 years.

However, if you assume no battery, and that you cannot load shift 50% of your usage we get this:

So now we are buying power even in summer, because we use some in the evenings, so our total energy bill is £1,025.40 instead of just £583. We saved £681 a year. Payoff time assuming £5,400 install? 8 years. This assumes unshaded south facing like my example, although your output may be higher, as I have some shading from trees outside of peak months…

So should you install solar panels? *it depends*. There are so many factors at play right now. The energy price cap in the UK is likely to go up another 50% in October. Running that through my spreadsheet means payoff time is in 4 years. WAY better. If energy prices rise even further, its super compelling.

Conclusion: if you live in the UK, Solar panels are a no-brainer investment assuming energy prices DO rise in October (hint:yes) and do not fall. Domestic battery storage remains a hard sell, although if prices of battery units themselves come down, they may become a lot better.

YMMV. Things to take into account:

  • If you have a big roof and can go bigger than 4.2kwp, then do so. A big part of the cost is install & inverter. Panels are cheap
  • The extent to which you can shift demand, using an EV charger, or timed dishwasher/washing machine will depend on if you have a smart meter and a suitable tariff. (get one)

Yet more refinement and complexity regarding party politics in Democracy 4

I am currently working on some voting systems DLC for Democracy 4. In doing so, I have carried out a lot of testing, and balancing, and evaluating, and have just encountered something that I think is lacking in the game. Or more precisely…wrong…or at least imperfectly modelled.

Take as exhibit A this chart (on the rhs) from the game showing the distribution of happiness (0 at bottom, 100% at top) of all of the simulated voters. Because this is in debug mode it draws 2 exciting lines, which are showing the voting thresholds in the game, drawn across the chart in red and blue


These (hidden from the player) thresholds are used to decide what party voters vote for, have sympathy for, and may even become members or activists for. In a very simple 2 party system, there is just 1 line at 50% (to start with..) in a 3 party system, they are at 40 and 60%. Below 40% = opposition party, 40-60% means centrist party, above 60% means the player party.

Canny maths experts have already spotted that this is not an even split. TRUE! but thats ok, because it represents the fickleness of a first-past-the-post electoral system. If you change it to PR, the game swaps to a 33/66% split, with each party representing one third of the available ‘approval space’ in the game. This is how we represent the fact that voters are more likely to find a party they can support at the ballot box if a more proportional system is used, with fewer wasted votes…

…also I need to point out that the system is not that simple! Over time, the position of the opposition parties moves towards that of the center-of-gravity of the electorate. So if, for example, all the voters are very unhappy, those thresholds will move down, as the opposition parties position themselves so they can win more votes. If you can imagine a new ‘gravitational center’ line in the middle of all the voters, both that red and blue line are getting sprung (to an extent) towards it.

So far so good. Thats how the game works right now.

BUT. Two things are amiss here, and I am now working on improvements. For one thing… in the real world, parties change their positions in order to WIN VOTES not to improve the ‘average approval’ of themselves. In previous blog posts I have labored the point that average approval and voting intention are different things entirely! I have edited the games code for 3 party PR-systems to take this into account. Now… in a 3 party PR system, the opposition parties move towards the gravitational center of voting intention (not approval) only for opposition voters. Let me explain with examples:

The UK has 3 parties of size: Conservative, Labour and Lib Dems. In the old system, the labour and lib dem voters would be essentially moving to a policy position that kept everyone in the UK as happy with them as possible, while still remaining vaguely rooted in their principles. However, in this new system, the Labour/Lib Dem parties will still gravitate towards this position…but the dividing line between those parties will now only be affected by the firm voting intentions of non conservative voters.

Under the old system, a policy change by the non-centrist opposition party (labour), that seriously upset conservatives, but made lib-dem voters happy… would maybe not be adopted, because the average approval of ALL voters (including conservatives) was being measured. Under the new system, labour policy totally ignores the hardcore conservative voters, and is only concerned with winning votes from the lib dems, and more importantly…winning VOTES…not just a change in opinion. So for example, a policy position that has no impact on right-wing lib-dems, but may well win over voters floating between lib-dem and labour…will get adopted.

(Of course the game abstracts this, and you don’t get to see oppositions literal policy positions, but its all represented in the way these thresholds move.)

Why does this matter? Because by making this change, a more sensible position is chosen for that red line. What that means is, under the new algorithm, with a PR system those red and blue parties are more likely to be equal sized, and we are more likely to get coalition outcomes. This is EXACTLY what you would expect under a system of proportional representation.

So thats one change… and something I am definitely still testing, and will be specific to PR, and thus the new DLC. However, when working on this I realised a fundamental misconception about party membership that is unbalancing the game.. <drumroll>

If you look at that chart again (in fact I’ll repeat it with some arrows..) you will see that the 3 parties also have a center point, which is used to determine how much someone believes in the party:

These locations determine how big the membership of your party gets. Someone close to the blue arrow is likely to join the bluie party, someone close to the green arrow is likely to…etc. See the problem?

Yup, the system is total bullshit. The centrist party has its membership center slap bang in the middle of its political sphere, but I placed the other 2 parties at the extremes. At the time, this made sense to me, but now… Ha. no. This makes no sense. Think about political parties on the edge of a mainstream political spectrum. Where are the members and activists? They are likely to be in the same position as the members in the centrist party: At the location CLOSEST to the center of policy position for that party. The voters shown at the red and green arrows are not diehard loyalists! they are the extreme libertarians or fascists or communists who consider the party they vote for to be a reluctant watered down compromise! They are actually the voters on the verge of ‘wasting’ their vote on a fringe party. No! The correct positions should be:

In other words, we should have some red party members here, and ok… maybe not a green party one yet, but certainly more likely than under the old system.

This is a fundamental coding screw up and design miscalculation. Its not exactly critical, but I strive for accuracy of my political modelling. This change will affect non-DLC vanilla games too. If you have been playing Democracy 4 and bemoaning the fact that only the middle party in 3 party countries ever gets any members, you are not wrong to do so. I’ll fix this for the next update.