Renewables – it’s all about getting a balance

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Renewables are a great idea – once the method of extracting the energy has been built it is free – whether it is wind, sun or wave power is irrelevant, as long as there is a selection of types to provide general cover. This is the normal argument against renewables – what happens when the sun is not out or it’s not windy – hence the need for a selection of producing sources.

The Germans appear to ‘get this’ and have moved forwards in the quest for a replacement for their nuclear industry that is to be wound down following the Japanese disaster.

German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity – equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity over a mid day period earlier this month. This is in response to Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, closing eight plants immediately and shutting down the remaining nine by 2022. They will be replaced by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and bio-mass (a sensible spread).

The 22 gigawatts of solar power fed into the national grid met nearly 50% of the nation’s midday electricity needs, yes it was only for a short period, but it shows what can be achieved. Never before anywhere has a country produced as much photovoltaic electricity. The record-breaking amount of solar power shows one of the world’s leading industrial nations was able to meet a third of its electricity needs on a work day, Friday, and nearly half on Saturday when factories and offices were closed.

Government-mandated support for renewables has helped Germany became a world leader in renewable energy and the country gets about 20 percent of its overall annual electricity from those sources. Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2020.

All this at a time when our Government appear hell-bent on crippling our solar industry just as it was getting into its stride – time for a swift U-turn?

Sort out your boiler!

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Not an exciting subject – but one which can save you money – your boiler.

20120324-102144.jpgOk, it’s not the sexiest subject in the world, but you can’t argue with the numbers – the Carbon Trust’s experts estimate that UK organisations could save more than £400m a year by making simple, low-cost tweaks to their heating systems. Some larger landlords caught onto this a few years ago, British Land being an example.

Saving of up to 30% on heating costs are potentially achievable on most systems – how?

The Carbon Trust’s top tips for boilers

  • Keep them maintained – Over time mechanical components can become worn which can affect combustion efficiency. Therefore burners and their controls need to be checked at regular intervals and adjusted as necessary.
  • Minimize heat losses – Keep boiler insulation in good condition. All pipework, valves, flanges and fittings in the boilerhouse should be adequately insulated and valve mats/covers should be replaced after maintenance work.
  • Implement effective water treatment – Impurities and contaminants in water can really hit a boiler’s efficiency, so a proper treatment and conditioning regime is essential.
  • Produce a maintenance manual – Detail records of work done, the person responsible, and when they were completed. Formalising maintenance in this manner should help ensure that routine tasks aren’t neglected and will highlight ongoing problems.
  • Consider boiler replacement – In the longer term, if a boiler is more than 15 years old, or if it is showing signs of inefficient operation, it may need replacing. Make sure you think about capacity/size requirements, boiler compatibility and financial and environmental impact in the process.

With rising fuel costs this all makes common sense – either for a commercial or private heating system.

Wind farm tales….

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Nothing appears to get people’s bile rising faster these days than mentioning wind farms, certain national publications have also embraced this and are leading the fight against them (Daily Mail for those who don’t know).

Unfortunately because of this there tends to be a lot of ‘misinformation’ which really doesn’t help us move the renewables issue forward at a time when it needs to be gathering pace rather than stagnating. A classic example was the ‘burning turbine’ picture that did the rounds after the gales earlier this winter.

This dramatic picture of a wind turbine bursting into flames in Ardrossan was seized upon by opponents of wind energy as an example of ‘why wind doesn’t work’. But the same gales caused issues for other power sources as well – which wasn’t publicised by the papers.

The photo has become a somewhat defining image for the anti wind farm groups, but as the hurricane-force winds did this (they peaked at 165mph) they also brought down power lines which left around 60,000 people without electricity – far more significant than the loss of a turbine.

One of the downed power lines ran to and from Hunterston nuclear power station causing the 460-megawatt B-8 nuclear reactor to stop generating for 54 hours. This outage had a much greater effect upon the grid than the loss of the wind turbine – the estimate is that Hunterston lost around 17,388 MWh compared with the turbine’s 1,210MWh.

There are always two sides to an argument – let’s not kill off wind power before it is given a proper chance.

EPC rules are changing – finally!

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Some while ago I blogged about how the rules for the provision of energy performance certificates on commercial property were planned to be changed – but kept being delayed. Well finally the new rules are coming into force – from the 6th April 2012.

That is obviously good news for me as an energy assessor, but it will I hope also make people on both sides of property transactions far more aware of the effect of the energy efficiency of their properties on business generally.

At a business lunch I attended this week I was discussing ‘green buildings’ with a couple of banking clients. They still have to see this having any effect upon their lending – either from a security point of view or value stand point. What they are very aware of though is the long-term potential that the energy legislation may have on their security – the proposal that all F & G rated properties will become un marketable from 2018 is already on their radar. The ‘official line’ they have been told by the powers above is that the Government are unlikely to miss their proposed changes in legislation.

This highlights one of my pet hates – lazy landlords – get the easy things done to your properties in terms of ‘greening’ them before marketing. Things like low energy lighting, insulation and replacing old inefficient heating systems. It can make a huge difference to you epc rating.

You have been warned!

Can history teach us something?

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old and new

Wind generation is a hot topic again at the moment, there are moves to try to get the government to make it much more difficult to obtain consent and subsidy’s for on land wind turbines. A total of 106 MPs, including 101 Tories, signed a letter to David Cameron last week saying it was “unwise” to fund “intermittent energy production that typifies on-shore wind turbines”. It called for subsidies to be cut and for new planning rules making it easier for communities to oppose wind farms. Now I accept that the off shore turbines are probably the best option. However the cost is higher and there are still locations and scenarios that work for on shore systems. Time will tell if the ‘nay sayers’ get their way – I think it is unlikely as although it ‘fits in’ to some degree with the current government localism agenda there is still a desire to progress renewables.

Our new energy secretary has also indicated his support for this style of renewable energy so there is hope!

Interestingly if you look back at history we have been here before;

There are still many windmills in the British countryside, and they are seen as attractions, something that harks back to an earlier age. as we also know, modern wind turbines are frequently vehemently opposed. However back in the 18th and 19th century when there were thousands more ‘traditional’ windmills they were also equally controversial, built by entrepreneurs cashing in on the high price of corn and flour. Most towns had three or four in fierce competition and they were seen as ‘the work of the devil’ by many. Sound familiar?

We have to have an open mind to the renewable options available to us, and yes, some of them will require some changes to our life styles. But the other option is a sudden and financially destructive energy shortage which will do a lot more than ‘mess up the countryside’

Low energy lighting – a second chance?

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these can save you lots.......

The low energy light bulb (or compact fluorescent to be more accurate) has been given pretty rough treatment by the public since it became available a few years ago. Yes, it is fair to say that the early versions were fairly poor in terms of warm up times, so the early poor press was probably deserved. They are however much better now and provide good levels of instant light. They are also one of the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce energy use in the home and make a much bigger impact on energy-saving than most people realise – I highlighted this in an earlier blog.

Unfortunately the press (the Daily Mail in particular) have done such an effective hatchet job on them that they will probably never make the level of contribution that they should in the domestic market. However there is now a ‘young pretender’ on the block – LED lighting. In reality it has been around for some time and we have become used to great little torches and the like using this technology. But now it is beginning to break into the domestic and commercial market as costs start to fall – and its energy usage is equally low.

And now to help move this forward the European Commission has launched a green paper and public consultation on the future of LED-based lighting. Part of the reason behind this is that the European Union completes its phasing out of traditional light bulb sales in September 2012, and in the next few years about eight billion incandescent lamps in European homes, offices and streets will need to be replaced by more energy-efficient lighting solutions (unless Daily Mail readers get their way!).

These include LED and organic LED (or OLED) lighting technologies, also known as solid state lighting (SSL). It is predicted that faster LED deployment will help reduce energy use from lighting by 20 per cent by 2020, but there are market challenges;

  • High purchase prices – compared to traditional sources
  • Lack of familiarity among potential users – a real ‘catch 22’
  • A lack of common standards

The key questions from the consultation include;

What would help to overcome existing barriers and accelerate LED deployment in Europe?
How can it be ensured that LED products on the European market are good quality, safe and meet consumer expectations?
How can co-operation be reinforced between the lighting sector and architects, lighting designers, electrical installers and the construction and building sectors?
How can the EU best support entrepreneurship and competitiveness in the lighting sector?

The consultation runs until 29 February 2012 and can be found  here.

UK wind powers first real test?

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One of the anti wind power lobby’s cries is that there will be problems ‘when the wind blows too much’. The claim is that the ‘over powered’ turbines will cause damage either to themselves, people near by or the grid. Up to this point the level of capacity in wind generation in the UK has been too small to see any effect, and although there have been some wind failures there hasn’t been a ‘national’ test – but the winds around Christmas 2011 gave the first real chance to see what really happens!


The answer?

Wind power production in the UK reached a record high as storms the hit the British Isles and powered onshore and offshore wind turbines, beating the previous high by nearly 20 percent.

Wind farms produced a record 12.2 percent of UK energy demand on December 28, (statistics provided by green energy association RenewableUK), displacing the previous record of 10 percent. And average wind power production between December 1, 2011 and January 5, 2012 covered 5.3 percent of UK power demands.

Wind power is considered a key energy resource to help Britain meet its legally binding target of cutting carbon emissions by 34 percent below 1990 levels by the end of this decade and UK wind power capacity is expected to grow by one-third this year, bringing total installed wind capacity to around 8,000 megawatts (MW).

So the good news is that the system didn’t fail – perhaps there is some potential in wind after all!

An interesting solar idea?

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a concentrated solar power plant

With the recent ‘killing off’ by the Government of the feed in tariff in its current form, and on the back of that the demise of the UK’s small solar install business, it is always interesting to see ‘interesting ideas’ for the future development of solar energy.

The latest idea (well it’s not particularly new to be honest) is to make use of one of the worlds sunniest locations – North Africa;

It is a beguiling idea – harvest sunshine, and a little wind, from the empty deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, and use it to produce clean power for the region and for Europe.

It’s not an idea by a group without some clout either. Desertec, a group based in Germany have heavyweight commercial backers including Siemens and Deutsche Bank, and believe the scheme would also bring the regions around the Mediterranean closer together, while providing jobs and stability for the countries in the south – not sure about that one (possibly gives them more to fight over?)

It has chosen Morocco, which is embarking on its own ambitious solar programme, for its first “reference” project – a plant meant to show that its grand vision is feasible. They expect to see the first electricity flowing through undersea cables from Morocco to Spain as early as 2014.

Its goal is to use desert power to supply up to 100% of local needs and up to 15% of European demand by 2050. But is this realistic?

According to a study by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), a state agency that provided data used by Desertec, less than 1% of suitable land in the North Africa and the Middle East would be needed to cover the current electricity consumption of the region, as well as Europe. And of course many countries with intense sunshine also have large tracts of uninhabited land – so the model could work.

But creating the power is the easy bit – it’s the network to distribute it that presents a series of formidable problems, from nomads stealing solar components to the technological and political challenges of transporting and delivering electricity over such a vast area.

Desertec points to a pair of cables already installed between Morocco and Spain – though for now these are carrying power from north to south. It says it will work closely with Medgrid, a French scheme to enable the construction of a Mediterranean transmission system.

The technology exists, and is getting cheaper, but it is untested on an intercontinental level.

The technology that will initially be used in Morocco is concentrated solar power (CSP), a process in which sunlight concentrated by mirrors heats water, which produces steam to drive a turbine. Crucially, the heat can be stored, allowing a secure supply even when the sun is not shining.

CSP has been getting cheaper, but not as quickly as photovoltaic (PV) power – the use of solar panels to convert sunshine directly into electricity. The DLR estimates that solar thermal power stations will become competitive with their fossil fuel equivalents between 2020 and 2030.

With the current instability in the Euro Zone it would take a lot of common thinking for the agreement to be reached to pull this type of development together – unlikely at this time. But it is a very clever and sensible way to progress renewable production – but it may need to wait for better financial times.

Solar heating – the way forward?

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A year-long study by the Energy Saving Trust has revealed green energy devices should save home owners 50% of their water heating costs on average – on the face of it a good result, but there is more to the story!

The year-long study, undertaken at 88 homes by the Energy Saving Trust, also revealed that solar water heating systems are costing between £3,000-5,000 to install – so a £55 a year average saving looks poor without some Government funding to help ‘sweeten the deal’.

Residential payment levels under the government’s £860m renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, announced in March, are not due to be announced until 2012. But if on a par with those for large-scale solar heating systems, householders could expect payments of around £96 annually. The true figure may well be higher because smaller installations will probably attract bigger subsidies.

The government has put aside £15m for the renewable heat premium payment (RHPP) scheme, which runs until March 2012 offering grants for a range of green heating technologies including groundsource heat pumps and biomass boilers. The separate RHI payments, similar to those made to owners of solar panels and wind turbines under the feed-in tariffs for green electricity generation, will launch after the RHPP.

Solar water heating systems work by using the sun’s energy to heat water (or anti-freeze) in collectors on the roof of a building. The heated water or anti-freeze is then usually pumped to a hot-water cylinder to be stored until the hot water is needed.

One of the usual call by detractors to this type of technology is that we don’t get enough sun in the UK to make it worthwhile – well the field study found the systems provided a median of 39% of households’ hot water needs, rising to 60% for the best and plummeting to 9% for the worst-installed one. The trust had previously believed around 35-40% would be a typical figure, based on laboratory tests – so perhaps this does have some potential in UK homes.

The market for solar water heating in the UK has continued to grow despite the economic climate – up 18.1% in 2010, compared with 13.1% for Europe overall, though the trust said that was largely because the UK was starting from such a low baseline. There are an estimated 140,000 homes with solar water heating in the UK.

The way forward is obviously for this technology to be built into new housing stock – but the Government also need to act to allow existing properties to be included.

A lost opportunity?

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The winner

The recent competition to choose a new design for the electricity pylons has now announced its winner, I blogged about it a few months ago and highlighted some of the amazing designs proposed. I particularly liked the pylons shaped like people striding across the countryside. I was aware at the time that there was no way the self-appointed ‘protectors of our British countryside’ – NIMBY’s to you and me – would wear anything so exciting. So I was prepared for a less than exciting winner. I have to say however that the winner does lack a certain amount of excitement – it may become a design classic in years to come like the old pylons – but somehow I doubt it!

Danish engineering firm Bystrup beat 250 rivals to win the Royal Institute of British Architects contest. The six entries shortlisted in the competition, organised with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and energy firm National Grid, have been on show in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.The competition set the challenge to replace the familiar “triangle” design – in use since the 1920s – in May, although there is no commitment to build them.

An increasing number of pylons are expected to be needed to connect new wind, nuclear and hydroelectric plants and Bystrup say they aimed for a more positive shape than the traditional “grumpy old men” design, as they are known in Denmark, to carry new forms of renewable energy.

So much cooler!

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne praised the T-pylon as “an innovative design which is simple, classical and practical”. And I would suggest much cheaper to build than many of the entries which was probably the main criteria for National Grid!

In its favour the T-pylon is shorter than current pylons, and would therefore be less intrusive on the skyline – current units are generally about 50m (165ft) high and weigh some 30 tonnes but the 20-tonne T-pylon would stand at just 32m (105ft). The pylons can also be coloured to blend in with the countryside, while a stainless steel version for coastal areas would offer protection against corrosion from airborne salt.

I just can’t help thinking that this is yet another example of the us taking the ‘safe option’ – I still think giants striding across the fields would have looked amazing and if I am honest I still prefer the old 1920s pylons over the new ones.