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What will 2010 bring for microgeneration?

Posted by Matthew Rhodes on 18 January 2010 at 9:39 am

I have a growing feeling that 2010 will mark a watershed in the development of microgeneration in the UK .

The introduction of feed-in tariffs (FiTs) from April marks a sea change in established attitudes to small scale renewables, and a very belated attempt by the UK to catch up with the rest of the world. FiTs are far more than yet another token funding mechanism. They are a recognition by the political establishment (principally OFGEM and the Treasury), not entirely willingly, that individual citizens of the UK have an active role to play in delivering an economically viable and healthy low carbon future.

Radical change is not best led by Whitehall (in fact this is risible, when you reflect on it) and is far more likely to be led by Mrs Jones, in Bradford, Mr Hughes in Cardiff, and the 25 million other individuals who manage households across the country.

I have a strong suspicion we will all be surprised by the effect of this change on our energy system and society. At Encraft, we are already involved in developing a wide range of projects for the next year that are orders of magnitude bigger than anything we’ve been able to do before, all of which are targeted at making it easier for Mrs Jones and Mr Hughes to install solar panels and lead change more easily.

It’s time for us all to stop considering ourselves passive consumers of electricity and heat, and to start thinking of ourselves as active producers and contributors to the efficient low carbon energy system that we will be building, from individual household level upwards, in the next 10 years.

About the author:

Matthew Rhodes is chief executive of Encraft

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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1 comments - read them below or add one

Barry Johnston

Barry JohnstonComment left on: 24 February 2010 at 6:27 pm

As a supplier and developer of solar panels, I chuckled when I read Matthew's comment that "radical change is not best led by Whitehall". It reminded me of the old joke that "military intelligence" is a contradiction in terms. But just occasionally one can be surprised.

One space to watch is the almost blank one entitled "environmental performance of microgeneration". The more you look at it the larger the gaps become. The closer you look, the more that industry insiders like myself (how anoraky can you get?) can see blinkers being put on the public by the renewables industry. How about this?...

The issues revolve around industry non-disclosure of indicators environmental performance. Here is an outline of three such indicators.

1/ Operational energy Coefficient of Performance (CoP).

Q  - How much electrical or other energy does the system (PV, solar thermal, micro wind heat pump etc) have to use up in order to operate over a typical year?
Q - How does this consumption compare to the total energy delivered by the system?
Q - How do these figures compare to those of other microgeneration technologies?

Savvy green consumers are thinking that it would be useful if suppliers of solar PV panels, solar thermal panels, micro wind etc were actually required to publish typical data to answer these questions. At present only heat pump suppliers seem do so. You may be aware that when Energy Saving Trust looked into micro wind turbines, they found that the control box in some installations used up more energy than they generated. This was on homes where local wind levels were low. More about turbines later.

2/ LIfe cycle analysis (LCA).

This moves to a wider perspective. It builds on the CoP concept above. It answers questions like these:

Q - Over a normal expected product life of sat 20-30 years, how long does it take for the materials and energy invested in the device to reach break even, in terms of energy (or carbon).
Q - Have all the environmental impacts of all its components been fully analysed?
Q - What are the likely pollution impacts of this product on air, water, land, biosphere etc?

I have put a paper seeking to answer these questions as a requirement of standards in to some people who I think are involved with Europe's CEN solar standards. Will my request be taken up? The political vibes definitely say no. But if you don't ever ask - you don't ever get. After all, the methodologies needed to answer these questions have been with us for decade and the costs of getting answers are not exorbitant. (We have done it for our technology) I think that there is no good reason for the consumer not to have these questions answered.

Being self-regulating, the majority of the renewables industry seem reluctant to collect and publish any comparative data which would be of consumer interest relating to the sustainability of microgeneration technologies. Indeed, having found an having published some, we were promptly reminded by much larger players in the our industry that it would be wise to censor such information, a reminder which we had no alternative but to comply with.

The microgeneration Certification Scheme refuses to address both issues too. On this matter, it concerns me that WHICH? has not sought to be represented on the MCS steering committee, which meets 2-4 times a year. Might some strategic consumer representation here would be very useful?

Bath University's Steve Allen and colleagues recently published a paper comparing LCA in three different types of microgeneration installations The results? Well, PV took about 5 years. Zero carbon solar water heating (Solartwin) took 2 years. The results for micro-wind varied from never to six months, depending on where it was sited!

Another result which jumped out of the life cycle analysis on our solar panel was a major environmental impact of lead flashing. This is best avoided, but our attempts to do so have currently been undermined by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme's "quality" standard for solar thermal installers!

Ideally what we need is an industry wide extension of Bath's work: a third party website which enables consumers of microgeneration to punch in a location and get a list of possible microgenerators.

Each would then deliver figures for typical installation costs, costs benefits, life expectancies, maintenance and operational costs. Also:

- Operational energy Coefficient of Performance (CoP).

- LIfe cycle analysis (LCA).

- Years to energy breakeven and so on.

I think the green consumer is being deliberately being kept in the dark on questions like this. The credibility of the green products industry must be based on openness and third party information. People must not be expected to close their minds to these important questions.

If the renewables industry is not prepared to objectively justify its environmental reasons to exist, why should it ever claim to deserve credibility, let alone subsidy?

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