PUBLISHED: 16:05 20 January 2009 | UPDATED: 08:29 28 March 2014
To launch a major new series about renewable energy, MYC RIGGULSFORD investigates the current state of play with small-scale technology in Britain and looks at the approaches of the various political parties to the issue
Winter’s here, but, after two summers of washouts and floods, the most sensible investment in renewable energy any of us could make is looking increasingly like the wave power seasnakes currently being installed off the coast of Portugal – and designed by a British firm. To be fair, Cornwall’s got one too, but only as a test, not as a commercial power station.
Two years ago Jenny and I started our quest to become more ecologically responsible by installing some alternative energy and, hopefully, cut our utility bills on our 20 acre smallholding in North Devon. So far we’ve spent around £15,000 replacing our oil central heating and hot water with a Swedish wood fuel boiler and solar hot water panels on the farmhouse roof. But we have not yet addressed our electricity supply, or managed to become properly self sufficient, let alone gain an income from generating power.
Over the next year I will be researching, writing about and, where possible, road testing renewable energy technologies for Country Smallholding. I’ll be interviewing people who have installed wind turbines, water power, heat pumps, solar panels, wood fuel boilers, biogas digesters and other types of renewable energy. We’re trying to find out what works, what doesn’t and what the advantages, drawbacks, payback and commitment of effort each technology offers to us as smallholders.
I’ll also be talking to some climate change experts, engineers and politicians, trying to see what support they give, and if installing small scale renewable energy technology makes sense now and for the future.
Two years ago I suggested that, instead of giving £40m to a ‘biomass’ power station (insert rude words of choice here, or just call it a pig of an incinerator with green lipstick, dumped on rural Devon and designed to milk the Government’s subsidy systems), the Government should give the money to us as smallholders instead I pledged that, if they gave us £40m, we’d find 1,000 smallholdings prepared to install £40,000 worth of kit each, and put in some of their own money too, and we’d match the 21MW of power it promised by generating the equivalent of 21kW each.
Because of every Government’s apparent obsession with favouring large, rich organisations (just look at the agricultural subsidies they give to Tate & Lyle), our group of smallholdings would form a ‘virtual power station’. And because of the mixture of technologies we would install, we would offer much more reliable and continuous energy generation than nuclear power stations, which seem to spend half their time offline for repairs and leaks, never mind the taxpayers’ billions spent on not dealing with the radioactive waste.
I even came up with a wheeze to register the thing as a carbon offsetting project so that, instead of green conscience funds going to dubious international businessmen and dictatorial despots, the money could actually be used to pay for genuine renewable energy installations. This would kickstart British manufacturing and provide hundreds of jobs for suppliers, fitters and local maintenance companies. But my phone still hasn’t rung from a grateful nation, so I guess we’re all just going to have to get on with it.
We went ahead anyway. For our £15,000 we put a new 25kW Vigas log boiler into an adjacent outbuilding to handle our winter central heating and hot water. After an eco-friendly extra planning charge of £135, we put solar hot water panels on a hidden south-facing roof as well, to give us baths and hot water through the summer.
We tried to get a local grant first, but after nine months we gave up on the promised £7,000 originally offered by the local business scheme called Renewable Energy 4 Devon. I’m usually quick to criticise this Government and its hopeless record on alternative energy but as soon as we went with the national Low Carbon Buildings Programme which gave us about £1,300 in all, the grants were incredibly easy and efficient with a decision within days.
If you get your water by just turning on a tap, and your power by plugging into the wall socket, there’s no real reason to think about saving water or how much carbon you are generating. It’s too simple. But active consumers, who take pride and interest in their own energy generation, are also likely to be more conscious of lights left on, doors left open and heat escaping to the air. So I think we need more microgeneration to help convert Britain into a nation of active consumers, who take responsibility for their own carbon footprints. I think we need a SmallPower manifesto:
I thought I had better start by finding out what the various political parties’ policies are on renewable energy, and if small farms can be domestic scale power producers. What grants and help are now available? Two years ago the barriers to electricity generation and exporting electricity to the grid were huge; has it got any better now?
The good news is that most household microgeneration equipment is now permitted development, meaning you don’t need specific planning consent, except for wind turbines, and any microgeneration equipment will not be included in business rate re-assessments. From April 2009 you should also be able to ‘Plug and Play’, connecting up as a microgenerator without giving advance notice, needing permission or ‘use of system’ charges.
In addition to our water and space heating, now renewable, Jenny and I seem to use 3,600kWh of electricity a year for our smallholding, which currently costs about 12p a unit or £500 a year including the standing charges. Electricity companies now have to provide some of their power from renewable sources, and the mechanism to force them to do this is called the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which they have to buy at auction. ROCs cost about £50 each per MW and Ofgem buys up spare ones, so as smallholders you should get at least 3p/kWh for electricity you produce. There are now 100,000 microgenerators in the UK, (but only 1,300 registered for ROCs)
Labour seems to have suddenly woken up to the need to encourage us. Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks says in the June 2008 Microgeneration Strategy Progress report “…climate change and renewable energy have jumped to the top of the global and political agendas. Consequently it is more important than ever that reliable microgeneration offers individual householders the chance to play their part in tackling climate change.”
Zero carbon homes valued up to £500,000 exempt from stamp duty;
The £30m Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant scheme, which was topped up with a further £6m specifically for microgeneration last year, and offers up to £2,500 per technology. An extra £50m covering up to 50% in grants was added in 2006, but this is reserved for public and charitable buildings, and government departments are being encouraged to apply, which should use it all up.
Low Carbon Buildings Programme grants depend upon both the installer and the equipment being certified, plus other qualifying hurdles such as having loft insulation. But installers have to pay up to £1,800 to register as an approved supplier, which may stop your local plumber from becoming qualified to get you grants.
n In Scotland, the Scottish Community & Household Renewables Initiative offers 30% of installed costs up to £4,000 and can include professional costs and capital grants.
Their position is clear. In Power to the People: the decentralised energy revolution in December 2007, the Conservative party set out its policy for encouraging small scale renewables. Conservative leader David Cameron wrote: “I want Britain to adopt micro-generation – small providers, including homes and businesses, producing energy for their own use, using a variety of methods from CHP to wind to photovoltaic power.”
The policy sets out several crucial measures including:
A system of feed-in tariffs for anyone installing low carbon generating technologies below 250kW (using an accredited installer and certified kit);
Free smart meters capable of measuring electicity flowing out as well as into a property for everyone installing microgeneration;
Any existing microgenerators benefiting from the ROC scheme will be able to transfer to the new feed-in tariff scheme, or remain with ROCs.
My own MP in Devon, Geoffrey Cox, a member of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee and also on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microgeneration, says: “Why has a feed-in tariff not been adopted before now to encourage microgeneration? Frankly, the Low-Carbon Buildings Programme has been a failure. It has produced solar voltaic panels in 270 houses. In Germany, 130,000 households took up such panels in the last year alone. That situation is reflected across all the diverse range of renewable energies. The Low-Carbon Buildings Programme is bureaucratic, it has too many conditions and it is not worth it.”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has called for a programme “on the scale of the Apollo moon landings” to transform Britain’s dependence on foreign oil, gas and coal. He proposes a new Renewables Delivery Authority funded by premium prices for green energy.
Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary, says: “I cannot decide whether new nuclear is a white elephant or a red herring, but it clearly is not the answer to the energy problems that we face today.”
Local councillor and Parliamentary candidate Adam Symons, a member of the Liberal Democrat policy group looking at renewable energy, says: “There are many advantages that smaller generation units have. Being closer to users they tend to require lower connection and infrastructure costs. Energy loss from transmission is less. Flexibility is greater, especially when energy generation is provided in a modular form.”
Scottish National Party
Scottish Energy Minister Jim Mather, speaking in Brussels last year, said: "…the Scottish Government is encouraging the development of low carbon technologies such as renewable energy, micro-generation, combined heat and power, carbon capture and storage while pursuing greater energy efficiency savings.
“The absence of new nuclear power stations in our energy mix will not cause an energy gap in Scotland as we have the natural resources and ingenuity to become a non-nuclear energy exporter. Meanwhile, we believe that the risks and uncertainties of nuclear power, in terms of waste disposal, decommissioning, security and health concerns, or cost, are far too great. We do not, however, want renewable energy – whether it be onshore wind, tidal power or other developments – anywhere or at any price to the environment.”
Plaid Cymru spokesperson on the Environment, Leanne Wood, says: “Plaid Cymru would like to see local authorities leading the way in tacking carbon emissions. We want to see Government support for micro-generation with as much local control over projects as possible. Plaid supports the measures rolled out by Woking Borough Council where over 60 local generators have been developed using low and zero carbon techniques such as photovoltaic cells, combined heat and power and hydrogen fuel cells to power, heat and cool buildings and housing.”
Devon County Council brands itself as Britain’s greenest county, and council Chairman John Rawlinson says: “It is essential that people do review and do try to reduce their use of energy. We must all rethink our attitude to energy producing schemes and, where they are on the right scale, welcome their use within the community.”
Devon’s award winning Renewable Energy 4 Devon project has currently run out of money for capital projects but still helps with advice. Among its 40 projects so far are Brimpts Farm at Dartmeet, which got a grant towards a 100kW biomass boiler and help to set up a Dartmoor Woodfuel Cooperative, and Natsley Farm, near Barnstaple, which put in a biomass boiler and wind turbine to serve holiday accommodation. Similar schemes, such as the Cornwall Sustainable Energy Partnership, run in other counties.
Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research’s Dr Patricia Thornley, from Manchester University, says: “Government has focused on big businesses like electricity supply companies to try to get large scale capacity deployed. Relatively little effort has gone into encouraging domestic and community action, empowering individuals with information and incentives to actually make a difference to the energy supply mix in their locality. Yet, there are huge quantities of agricultural and other wastes disposed of every year in the UK which could be used to deliver renewable energy as diverse as biodiesel from used cooking oil to gas from cow manure and fuel wood from the huge number of small unmanaged woodlands. All of these are technically viable today and none requires additional land take.”
If we are going to have a fair and open debate, I want manufacturers to give us more information about the embedded energy and carbon used to make any equipment, and include transport costs for fuel, and compare renewables with the sustainability of feedstocks such as nuclear fuel.
If every country builds new nuclear stations, how long will supplies last? There are also energy costs to run equipment such as ground source heat pumps, and they have a possible disadvantage too. They can also run backwards as air conditioning coolers in summer which, in the case of a warming world climate, may end up using more energy than they save. Sometimes I think that the only sort of eco-friendly installation that really works is the legendary hamster-powered teasmade invented by Westcountry jesters Forkbeard Theatre Join me for the next year and let’s try to find out what renewable technology has to offer.
Energy and power
A watt (W) is the unit of power named after steam engine pioneer James Watt. Power is the rate at which energy is used or generated, so one watt is the power of using one joule of energy per second
A kilowatt (kW) is equal to one thousand watts (1,000W or 103), and is roughly the power of one bar of an electric fire, or one-and-a-third horsepower, and is a typical measure of electrical tools. A kilowatt-hour (kWh) is the electricity a 100W lightbulb uses in 10 hours
A megawatt (MW) is a million watts (106), and is a typical output of small power stations
A gigawatt (GW) is a billion watts (109), and is the power produced by a large power station
A terawatt (TW) is a trillion watts (1012) and is the power used by a small country (or a British person in their lifetime).
Other abbreviations such as MWe refer specifically to electrical power, and MWt or MWth refers to thermal power or heat.
People thinking of installing renewable energy technology can obtain free advice on the options.
One organisation offering advice is DARE (Devon Association for Renewable Energy). It is a membership organisation and a ‘not for profit’ company, whose mission is to promaote renewable energy in Devon.
DARE gives free telephone advice and low-cost feasibility assessments for all renewable energy schemes and technologies.
A spokesman said: “The increase in energy prices is being felt across the country, especially in rural areas which are reliant on expensive oil. This, along with the threats of climate change, supply insecurity and the exodus of money from the Devon economy to external energy utilities, is leading some people to consider another solution.
“Renewable energy solutions are the way forward. It is no longer viewed as alternative and the preserve of the few. Many more people are looking to renewables as a future solution.
“However, many find it difficult to know where to start and are often put off by the wealth of conflicting claims of technologies and installers. Some are responding to ‘cold calling’ offers and end up paying well over the going rate for renewables. This is why many people are turning to DARE.”
For more information contact DARE at 12A The Square, North Tawton, Devon EX20 2EP. Tel:01837 89200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org