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.


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?

Domestic RHI launched…finally!

From today, homeowners relying on expensive oil and traditional central heating in their homes will be offered payments of thousands of pounds to switch to renewable energy alternatives.

The Domestic Renewable Heat incentive was finally launched today – part of a government incentive to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in the UK.  Around 18,000 households have already installed the technologies in recent years and will be eligible to start receiving the payments.

Here’s the official reaction from our managing director, Andy Boroughs.

“This is fantastic news for UK homeowners who have long struggled with rising traditional fuel bills but needed to see commitment from the Government to an incentive before taking the next step.

“For those domestic properties which are off gas-grid, with LPG and oil prices continuing to increase, the proposed tariff levels make a wood pellet boilers and other renewable heat systems an attractive choice for consumers as well as helping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the UK.

“The non-domestic scheme has been incredibly popular, and now our domestic customers will also be able to access a quarterly payment, both for those installing renewable technologies in the coming months and those who have installed an eligible system since 2009.

“We anticipate that the amount of estimated incentive our customers who have installed a wood pellet boiler will receive over a one year period ranges from £1,874 for an 8KW boiler to £10,540 for our larger 45KW systems.

“However, we are keen to see that the domestic scheme does not experience the hold-ups which were significant in the early stages of the non-domestic RHI scheme.

“Domestic customers have been waiting a long time for this incentive scheme to be launched and we’re delighted to be able to help our customers access it following today’s announcement.”

Targets and numbers: 15, 4.2, 10.8 and 2020

The UK is legally committed to a target of meeting 15 per cent of the country’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. The Government says meeting this target will help achieve energy security and carbon reduction objectives.

But a report out today reveals the UK is currently the third lowest producer of renewable energy in Europe and we think that means the Government hasn’t a hope of meeting its own targets – unless it steps up a gear now.

The report, published by the European Commission’s statistical body, Eurostat, shows Britain makes just 4.2 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, with only Luxembourg and Malta lower down on the list.

Organic Energy has worked with one of the leading names in renewable energy for more than a decade. We are the UK’s sole distributor of the Austria-based OkoFEN range of wood pellet boilers – and Austria is already only two per cent away from its target of 34 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Bulgaria, Estonia and Sweden have already achieved their 2020 targets, even though all three had higher targets than the UK’s 15 per cent. We need to take the lead from other EU countries, see where they are being successful, what incentives and support works for their renewable energy sectors, how they are educating their children about where their energy comes from and how best it can be sourced sustainably and securely for future.

It’s not all bad news; the UK has increased its contributions from 1.2 per cent to 4.2 per cent in the last eight years, but it has only six years left to source the remaining 10.8 per cent of its 2020 target figure.

A target is defined as an objective or result towards which efforts are directed. More needs to be done now, more effort, more immediate action, if we are ever to meet this target within the next decade, never mind the six years.


Let there be light! (But not too much of it…)

Christmas is the one time of year where people seem to get a bit of a lift, especially from the anticipation in the run-up. There’s a break from work on the horizon, maybe a bit of socialising and present giving. It’s all very jolly.

Christmas lights lying on the floorDecorating our homes, offices and town centres also buoys the spirits and adds to the general merriment.

However, and maybe it’s just our perception, there does seem to be a proliferation in the last year or two of extravagant lighting schemes appearing on more and more houses. Of course, these are lovely to look at. The ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs of the children (and many adults) tell you that we love to see the effort that has been made to lift the appearance of what would otherwise just be the darkened street we see all year.

The unsettling thing, though, is that this all needs electricity. It’s true that a few LED lights don’t exactly demand the building of a new power station to keep them on, but when every other house is getting competitive with Blackpool Illuminations, there’s a cumulative demand that could really start to add up.

In times when energy prices are soaring, when we know the impacts we’re making on the planet and we are actively trying to find ways to cut power consumption, well, it’s just a bit unsettling. A wreath on the door just doesn’t keep up with the Jones’s, it’s true, but it also doesn’t need plugging in…

This isn’t a ‘bah, humbug’ sentiment. Christmas is great. The lighting is lovely to see. It would just be a shame if it were to get out of hand to the point where there was a backlash.

All that said, if you have 20 seconds, take a look at this video. It might be the most amazing Christmas display you’ll see this year – and in this case, it’s residents raising money for charity in a Staffordshire village (wouldn’t fancy some of those electricity bills though!).

Good customer service is the key to successful business

It says a lot about business practice, quality of goods and service in the UK when the Government publishes a draft Consumer Bill of Rights which will boost the economy by £4 billion. And under European regulations, an EU Consumer Rights Directive must be implemented in the UK by December 2013.

These measures are aimed at enhancing consumer rights, making them easier to understand. And why is it needed? Apparently because consumers spend more than 59 million hours a year dealing with goods and services problems.

It also aims to clarify some of the murky rules surrounding buying goods and services for consumers and give businesses clearer information on what is expected of them when problems do arise.

Energy companies are one of the worst offenders when it comes to customer complaints. Consumer champion magazine Which? said complaints data collected by regulator Ofgem on the ‘big six’ energy suppliers for the first quarter of 2013 shows that EDF received the most complaints, mainly surrounding customer service, value and complaint handling.

In my own industry, the Renewable Energy Association received more than 1,000 complaints in 2012. The REA is responsible for governing the conduct of solar PV panel salespeople. Many of these resulted from pressure from reps to sign up, or being unable to cancel a contract within a cooling off period.

These so-called cowboy solar salespeople have given the industry a bad name in the last couple of years; telling potential customers that solar panels on a north-facing roof would give the return on investment, that their roofs didn’t need strengthening to take panels which were too heavy and that the Feed-in-Tariffs were guaranteed to remain at the same rate for the next decade and beyond.

This isn’t just poor service, this is blatant mis-selling which in some cases damaged people’s homes, or left them thousands of pounds out of pocket.

My company, working with installer 7 Energy, supplied the largest solar PV system in Shropshire, a £1.2m installation at a poultry farm which has slashed energy bills for the customer.

But what we did in that case, as we and other good reputable companies do, is make sure we have the quality product, that we’ve done the right research, investigated the most appropriate design of installation and that we’ve got the best installers on the job.

That way, poor service isn’t even on the horizon. Given a tweak, that ethos goes for a myriad of other industries too.

The draft Bill is a good idea, even if its essentially legislation for protecting consumers after the horse has bolted. The Government says businesses will benefit from it too, with many already going well beyond the minimum obligations set out in the draft proposals.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing if we didn’t need to have it? If good practice and good customer service was embedded into the UK business culture from the production line and the receptionist to the managing director and the chief executive?

I have no doubt that one of the reasons my company has seen such significant growth, despite the efforts of the cowboys to frighten consumers away from renewable energy options, is that we strive to offer both the best products and the best service, delivered by the best people.

It’s not rocket science. It’s the key to successful business and happy customers.