Environmental issues front and centre today

Today is World Environment Day, as designated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

UNEP - World Environment Day 2015It’s a chance for people all over the world to jointly take stock of what we’re doing to the planet that sustains us.

At Organic Energy, we’re at the heart of the movement to change the demand for those core human needs of heat and power over to sustainable sources, like wood pellet fuel from sustainable forests. But not everyone has the time or inclination in their busy lives to dwell for long on the big issues.

Today there will be widespread coverage of the environment, supported by events and the release of information that has been timed to give the day its maximum possible impact – helping the topic to take its place in the global news output.

In a way it’s a shame that such effort has to go into turning people’s heads on one day of the year instead of it being at the top of everyone’s agenda all the time. What we can say is that anyone who has invested in renewable heating is already playing their part and we salute every one of them.

So whether you’re someone who’s pondering turning to renewable energy sources for your home or business, someone who has already done so or someone who’s just, for now, examining the options, what better time than World Environment Day for us to invite you to share your favourite views of the world around us?

We’d love to see the images of our natural world that you’ve captured on camera and we’ll reward our favourite contribution with a £100 voucher to spend at specialist photography retailer, Jessops.

Just send us your favourite green scene – something that captures our natural world in all its glory, it’s magnificent detail or at its most furious and powerful. We can’t wait to see and share them!

This year’s theme for World Environment Day is “Seven Billion Dreams”. You can see what dreams people are sharing here – and maybe even add your own on social media with the hashtag #7BillionDreams.

What did Her Majesty do for renewables this week?

The development of renewable energy takes place in what seems like an ever-changing landscape. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise for a still burgeoning sector that has huge growth potential, but what difference does it make to now have a majority government?

This week we had the Queen’s Speech, in which the new Conservative Government laid out its plans and, truth be told, there wasn’t an awful lot about the renewables sector. That’s probably to be welcomed, because the last thing we need is more wholesale change.

The best thing that can happen is for everyone, from manufacturers and suppliers to installers and their customers, to be confident that the sector is supported by our political leaders and that any incentives will remain in place in the time frames which have been promised.

The kind of issues that were addressed by the Queen’s Speech were big infrastructure matters; an end to subsidy for new onshore wind farms and plans to remove the need for the Energy Secretary to approve large wind farm projects (those which run to more than 50MW).

Those are both quite controversial matters which can be debated ad infinitum! There are calculations that the subsidies for such major onshore wind projects added £10 to the average consumer bill last year. There are many consumers who would be quite happy about this because it is all movement toward greater renewable use, of which many of us approve. But in financially straightened times, there are many people who can do without the extra cost burden.

What we do know is that it is onwards and upwards for micro-generation of the kind that interests us! The most direct way to benefit from renewable energy is to take control of the matter for yourself, using a wood pellet boiler and/or solar generation through solar thermal installations.

The domestic and non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive goes on and the cost versus return on renewable energy technologies continues to improve. More and more people are taking their power generation into their own hands and there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech that should give us concern on that front. Thank you, Your Majesty.

Going green over French heads

Our friends immediately across the channel are doing a fine job at the moment of demonstrating their environmentally-friendly credentials to the world.

Vancouver Convention Center's environmentally friendly, 6 acre green roof

Vancouver Convention Center’s environmentally friendly, 6 acre green roof shows how it can be done

Previously we highlighted the addition of a wind turbine (and other renewable energy measures) that have been deployed at the Eiffel Tower. Of course, that’s more symbolic than world changing, but it does set out French society’s stall with regard to renewables.

Now a much more significant step has been revealed by the French government; planning laws which make it obligatory to put either plants or solar panels on the roofs of new commercial buildings.

That’s quite a statement of intent. It’s not all of the roof that must be covered and it’s only new commercial buildings that it will apply to, but it’s an important step towards making such behaviour normal, in both commercial and domestic settings.

We’re all going to have to think more about what we are going to do to play our part in the change to renewable energy and heat sources as the opportunities arise. France is being really quite pro-active here and it sets the groundwork for such requirements to be spread into other areas of building or renovation.

It’s a fairly radical step without being hugely onerous on anyone. But as well as demonstrating to everyone that this is the direction of travel for construction in the years to come, it has immediate practical benefits. Green roofs absorb rainfall, cutting down on run-off that can lead to flooding (especially as the world gets warmer and wetter) as well as providing insulation by trapping heat that might otherwise be lost from the building or forced to remain inside by less environmentally friendly technologies, such as manufactured lagging.

If developers or building owners don’t want to look up at a lush rooftop, they can opt for solar panels in that space, with all the attendant benefits.

Undoubtedly there will be learning to be done, because a proliferation of green rooftops will result in a variety of outcomes! The expertise to install and maintain them will need to spread, but it has already been demonstrated how it can be done and even how the space might be used for producing food or other useful crops

This is pretty forward-thinking stuff. It does make you wonder though how ready we are to take such a step in the UK? When the majority of new homes are still built brick by brick by traditional methods instead of churned out of a factory using timber and high efficiency panels, what hope is there that we’ll be making green rooftops compulsory any time soon?

Is there nowhere that renewable power can’t make an impact for the good?

You can imagine that when some brave soul first made the suggestion that they could put wind turbines on the Eiffel Tower it would have been greeted with either stony silence or total uproar. It’s impossible to think the response would have been ambivalent!

The Eiffel Tower dominates the Paris skyline - and now comes with renewable energyIt would have conjured instant images of the iconic structure with propellor-like blades spinning off the sides like some crazed aircraft concept from the days of the Wright brothers.

But what is so beautiful about the fact that they have indeed now fitted the more than 1000ft high tower with turbines is that it demonstrates to the world how renewable energy projects can be incorporated in the most imaginative of places without detracting from them.

Far from the great twirling blades of the kind we’re used to on the traditional wind turbine, these are a vertical axis model installed by New York company, Urban Green Energy. They are apparently virtually silent and have even been painted to match the steelwork of the tower, which they are tucked neatly inside.

They are not powering the whole structure, rather producing enough energy for the first floor commercial areas, but they are forming part of a mix of renewables used at the Eiffel Tower which are demonstrating a proof of concept to the world. The monument is playing its part in meeting France’s renewable energy targets and that’s a powerful signal to send to anyone who doubts that old and new can sit comfortably together for these purposes.

What it says is that nothing should be ruled out anymore when it comes to renewing or installing a heat source. There’s no need to stick to the status quo. Why replace an oil boiler with the same when a sustainable wood pellet solution would be more efficient, more cost effective and more responsible?

Could micro-generation be the big answer?

The health of our critical power infrastructure in the UK could be said to somewhat questionable – and I don’t think that’s something any of us really want to hear.

It was encouraging (and some will say surprising) to discover that one day in the last quarter of 2014 the UK achieved more of its power generation from wind than it did from nuclear. That sounds pretty healthy, doesn’t it? But it was actually the sickness of the rest of the system that allowed this to happen.

On the day this record was achieved the wind was blowing strongly and more than half of the country’s 15 working nuclear power stations were offline or restricting their generation for one reason or another; some technical failures, some refuelling, some for maintenance. Add in a huge fire at Didcot B power station, in Oxfordshire, that will see half of it’s capacity out of action for an indefinite period and you can see how vulnerable we might be if only a handful of other unfortunate occurrences come our way.

That’s why recently revealed moves by the New York Power Authority, in the US, are a development we should be watching closely. It is planning for and investing in moves towards microgrids, with the key aim of keeping its power supply in a healthy state come what may.

Microgrids are defined sections of the infrastructure that can stand alone if they have to. They can make use of a variety of generation methods which would normally include a mix of renewables but could also include, for example, a smaller gas-fired power station. In the case of New York, which can and does experience a variety of extreme weather events, this could be the difference between the lights going out and everyone staying warm and safe, or at least limiting damage and disruption to smaller areas.

It is also a model that could very well suit us in this country. Smaller, more flexible and agile power providers, creating energy for a distinct market would serve a number of very noble purposes. Distributing anything as important as power generation is a good idea, especially as each generating organisation could still be linked by the national power grid that we already have. They can feed into that grid with any surplus or draw from it in times of deficit, and they would be more accountable to the communities they served – possibly even owned by them.

The control of our power generation and distribution would be taken out of the hands of a few big companies, new projects would have to include a healthy proportion of renewable methods in order to meet European quotas and the economy would benefit from the investment and the creation of such infrastructure, which doesn’t have to be completed and paid for overnight or from one pot. Community investment, by businesses, individuals and even third-sector organisations could see everyone benefit.

Of course there are drawbacks, there are obstacles and there would be setbacks to overcome; this is real life after all! But New York could be showing us the way to a more resilient and democratic approach to generating electricity that will keep both our power supplies and our planet healthy.

Wind keeps the lights on as nuclear takes a break

When wind power can produce more output for the UK grid than nuclear generators in the course of a day you know that something has changed.

Wind turbines set against the sunset

Wind power definitely had its day as nuclear generation buckled

That’s precisely what happened in this country yesterday, when the combined input from turbines around the land fed 14.2 per cent of all generation, with nuclear plants trailing at 13.2 per cent.

How many consumers of power would have believed that wind turbine capacity had come so far?

It has to be acknowledged that there was a confluence of events which made this possible. Yesterday we had particularly strong winds across much of the country and this coincided with just more than half of the UK’s nuclear plants being offline at the same time, for a variety of reasons.

All that said, we now have a high profile example of the significant contribution renewables are making to our energy needs. The naysayers who claim that many turbines are shut down when winds get too strong have been given a reality check and the sheer amount of wind generation now in place has been highlighted widely in news bulletins remarking on this turn of events.

At the same time it has highlighted the degree of fragility in our ageing nuclear infrastructure (a thought to make anyone shudder) and demonstrated the resilience of employing much more simple technology – blades and turbines – in a geographically distributed network.

If only we had figures to add in to yesterday’s results which showed the combined energy creation and savings from solar arrays and renewable heat installations. Eyes would truly be opened.

Unfortunately political expedience is now showing signs of throttling the investment in wind power and other renewables that has got us this far. We still think, though, that people power will continue to do the work, as responsible home and business owners make their own investments in heat and power generation purely because, regardless of subsidies, they make sense on both the financial and environmental level, as well as reducing reliance on a creaking national power generation programme.

ENDS

Biomass powering ahead

There are some interesting facts that are worth knowing about the most popular forms of renewable heat generation. They don’t come as a surprise to us, but they might to some.

Given the proliferation of solar panels, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re the clear favourite, though maybe we just hear more about them because they cover big buildings or pieces of land and make an impressive photograph!

But these numbers are about how the Renewable Heat Incentive for business is being spent and by a tremendous margin companies and other organisations are opting for biomass boilers.

While there are many options for generating heat from renewables, none of them are as readily available to install and have up-and-running in a predictable timeframe, and with predictable costs, as biomass.

Perhaps it helps that a boiler is something we all understand; at its simplest, you add fuel, you get heat. That makes it a much easier sell to the board, the facilities manager or whoever is making this critical decision.

However, when you look closely at the expenditure versus forecasts for the Renewable Heat Incentive to-date, it’s very clear that large organisations are not necessarily the ones investing in biomass boilers. Take up of the incentive for small (less than 200kWh) installations are running at 173 per cent ahead of expectations. This is way ahead of other sizes of boiler or other types of renewable heating.

So it’s smaller organisations who are being the most fleet of foot with this opportunity. You can see why. For a larger project, be it replacing an ageing traditional boiler or powering new premises, they have to get it right, so you can’t blame those who have to make the decision for an abundance of caution.

What they will inevitably come to understand, I believe, is that when biomass is assessed against other renewable options, it comes with hugely less entries in the downside column. Other solutions can tend to have more variables, such as planning processes which can stir up community opposition, particularly in the case of AD plants. There is also usually less in the way of needing to find novel solutions for individual boiler installations.

In biomass we have a relatively simple process to burn recognisable fuels, using technology that doesn’t differ massively from what we’ve known for decades and which is supported by robust manufacturers with well-functioning supply chains and maintenance backup.

Looking at wood pellets; because they go through a manufacturing process, there is the kind of traceability in the supply chain that appeals to large organisations with a serious corporate social responsibility agenda – so the sustainability box is easily ticked.

Add to this the ability to demonstrate impressively quick payback, thanks to the RHI effectively covering the annual fuel costs for many users, and the reasons not to go down this route begin to vaporise! Even without the RHI, the payback on the investment would be impressive.

Right now, biomass makes sense in many scenarios and will probably do so increasingly in the domestic setting as well, particularly once the RHI extends its reach there.

What is really positive is that the benefits of renewable heating are becoming clear to a much wider audience and all the time the technology is proving itself and building a loyal following. Could this be the start of a quiet revolution in heating?