Can Switching Save Energy as well as Money?

EPC - Switching

Back in 2006, householders had only ten energy suppliers to choose from, and most bought from one of the ‘big six’, British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, npower, ScottishPower or SSE. Today, domestic customers have a choice of more than 40 suppliers, but the big six still supply well over 90% of British households with gas and electricity.

Despite advertising campaigns by the new entrants and price comparison websites, many people still believe that switching supplier is a daunting process. In reality, market reforms by Ofgem to create a more level playing field for small suppliers have made the process quite straightforward.

Customers can research and handle the changeover themselves with the assistance of their newly chosen supplier, or they can use one of Ofgem’s accredited energy comparison websites such as uSwitch, Moneysupermarket or Simply Switch. The full list is available here.

Ofgem suggests that switching can bring annual savings of around £300, according to its latest research. Of course, householders may also want to take the quality of customer service provided by the suppliers into account when choosing, and Ofgem can also help with customer complaint performance results (here).

Smaller suppliers are gradually gaining a presence, making the market more competitive. At the moment, the majority of them have fewer than 250,000 customers, but names like Ecotricity, OVO Energy, First Utility, Bulb, Octopus Energy, Robin Hood Energy, First Utility, Good Energy and LoC02 are becoming more well known. Many of them provide 100% of their electricity from renewable sources, an important consideration for many consumers choosing a new supplier.

Some people find that gathering information to make a decision about potentially switching supplier encourages them to record their electricity use more carefully, identifying trends and focusing on the number of units used as well as the costs. In so doing they become more aware of their usage and this leads to savings in consumption as well as unit costs, a double benefit of switching.

While a series of meter readings will be useful to get a more accurate report, all you actually need to make energy supplier comparisons is your postcode and a recent energy bill (or information about your household and lifestyle). It only takes about ten minutes. Ideally, use an Ofgem Confidence Code accredited comparison site, and be aware that you may need to opt in to seeing the data about suppliers that the website does not directly deal with.

Enter the information that is requested, review the results, and pick a new plan. It is as simple as that. Some options will be variable rates, some will be fixed over a specified term, and some will have early exit fees. The choice is yours.

The switchover will take around three weeks, and there will never be an interruption to supply. The same cabling and meter will be used. The only noticeable changes will be the company name on the bills, and the reduced amount on the bottom line!

The Biomass Boiler Alternative

Biomass Boiler

An Introduction to Biomass

Households that are not keen on modern renewable energy technologies might prefer a more traditional wood burner or biomass boiler. Man has been burning wood to provide heat since he first harnessed the power of fire in his cave, but a modern biomass boiler offers a more sophisticated solution to home heating.

Simple wood burning stoves provide heat and a focal point for the main room and can include a back boiler to run small-scale central heating and hot water systems. A biomass boiler works like a normal gas or oil boiler but they burn renewable biomass instead. New generation systems are easy to use and deliver greater than 75% energy efficiency using pellets or properly dried wood.

Systems are available for a range of fuels, including logs, wood chips, sawdust, grass-derived biomass pellets or even peat. The choice of fuel will be dictated by the availability and price of a reliable local supply and the type of storage available. The greatest savings are made when buying in bulk so to get the best deal a significant amount of storage space is required.

Pellets are much easier to transport and store than logs, and provide a more controllable heat. Pellet-fuelled biomass boilers are available with automatic fuel feeders and they can be programmed in much the same way as conventional gas boilers. Log-burning stoves and boilers involve considerably more work and are less controllable.

The installed cost of a wood burning stove will be around £2,500 to £7,500, depending on the model and the availability of a flue. The price of a full biomass boiler system is greater than that of a comparable gas boiler at between £10,000 and £20,000, depending on model, size and ease of installation.

After the initial outlay, the system should reduce energy bills over time, with some studies suggesting that a biomass boiler can save the average household up to £800 a year when compared with standard electric heating, or up to £210 a year compared with an old G-rated gas boiler. However, at typical 2018 prices, running a biomass boiler is likely to cost more than a modern condensing gas boiler.

To maintain efficiency, the flue will need to be cleaned annually at a cost of around £50. Another downside is the need to remove and dispose of ash. Some biomass boiler systems have automatic ash removal and compression systems that make the job easier.

Government support is available for the installation of a biomass boiler or biomass stoves with a back boiler through the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The income depends on the system and the amount of energy it produces but the payment for a biomass boiler in a four-bedroom, detached house may be nearly £2,000 per annum. To be eligible, the property must have a compliant EPC that is less than two years old.  There is a calculator and information on the BEIS website here.

Energy Storage – What’s in Store for Out Electricity Supply

Energy Storage

What exactly is in store for our electricity supply?

Despite the drive to make our homes more energy efficient, the demand for electricity remains strong.  As the traditional generating stations come to the end of their lives and we strive for a lower carbon economy, there is an ever-increasing reliance on renewable sources of power. The costs are coming down, but wind is unpredictable and intermittent and we cannot rely on the sun to provide us with the electricity we demand at the flick of a switch, especially at night.

It looks as though energy storage will need to become an essential part of our electricity supply system if we are to achieve our green goals and keep the lights on. Electricity storage technology can overcome the issues associated with the intermittency of renewables and help to meet the morning and the evening peaks in demand, whether at a domestic, community or national scale.

At present, energy storage capacity in the UK represents a tiny part of our electricity consumption and depends heavily on a few pumped storage hydroelectric facilities. We are otherwise reliant on switching generating stations on and off, or on importing renewable hydropower from Norway to deal with the fluctuations.

Research into battery technology has really taken off. The Government’s January 2017 Industrial Strategy Green Paper (here) states:

Given the UK’s underlying strengths in science and energy technology, we want to be a global leader in battery technology…’

The Government went on to launch a £9 million competition to find ways of reducing the cost of energy storage technologies, including the Faraday Challenge – a £246m commitment up to 2021 on battery development for transport, home and industrial applications.

The costs of storage are reducing as this research progresses.  In its 2016 report to the Renewable Energy Association, The development of decentralised energy and storage systems in the UK, KPMG predicts that there will be a ‘steady cost decline of 12% per annum through to 2020…’ (available here).

At the moment, most of the interest is in lithium-ion batteries and this technology accounted for 83% of installed global storage capacity in 2016 (excluding pumped hydro). The costs continue to fall with close to a 20% reduction in 2016.  Some issues remain with the relatively short life of the batteries and a deterioration in their efficiency as they are cycled through charging and discharging.  The focus could change in the medium term to developments in hydrogen and heat storage that are creating some excitement.

Products are already appearing for domestic use. They are arguably led by Tesla which is building a ‘Gigafactory’ in the US to produce batteries for its vehicles and for other domestic and commercial uses. Once complete, Tesla expects the Gigafactory to be the biggest building in the world, and it will be entirely powered by renewable energy sources. The factory brings an economy of scale that should make batteries more efficient and affordable.

Tesla is already marketing its solar roof tiles and ‘Powerwall’ domestic energy storage systems. These harvest and store electricity produced during the day for use when household demand is greater in the morning, evening and at night.

How Long Will Our Gas Last?

EPC

On 1st March 2018, in unusually cold weather, National Grid issued a warning that the UK may not have enough gas to meet demand in the short term. The forecasted requirement of nearly 4,000 million cubic metres for the following day indicated a potential shortfall of approximately 50 million cubic metres. Wholesale prices soared.

The problem was compounded by a number of outages, some of which related to the cold weather. These included on-going problems with a pipeline to the Netherlands, reductions in crucial flows from Norway, and technical issues at the Barrow gas terminal in North West England.

Measures were put in place to procure additional supplies, manipulate the electricity generation mix and to reduce the industrial use of gas temporarily. Some major manufacturing energy users have supply contracts that can be suspended in this way in return for cheaper prices. Fortunately, the onset of warmer weather alleviated some of the pressure and the measures were successful in maintaining supplies to domestic customers on this occasion.

However, the situation had shone a light on the status of gas supply and storage in the UK. Gas storage capacity is at the lowest level since records began in 2006, principally because of the closure of Centrica’s Rough gas storage facility off the East coast under the North Sea. This had been responsible for some 70% of the country’s storage capacity.

Our own gas production form the North Sea fields is reducing, and while liquefied natural gas (LPG) is being imported through facilities in Kent and Pembrokeshire, market prices are increasingly pushing LPG towards a massive demand from Asia. Overall, our daily gas reserves are just a fraction of what they used to be.

Research in 2017 by the University of Edinburgh (here) suggests that recoverable UK oil and gas could run out by 2027. Some analysts believe that global stocks of oil will run out in 2052, and that we will need to use gas to fill the gap, meaning that those reserves too will be used up by 2060. Any new finds are likely to be smaller and more expensive to extract and transport.

A significant proportion of known gas reserves are held or controlled by countries that are not politically allied to the UK, and could hold western Europe to ransom. Others are in politically and socially unstable nations.

British shale gas companies suggest that they could save the day, and hope that UK fracking will finally begin in earnest in 2018. The British Geological Survey believes that UK geology has the potential to provide sufficient shale gas to meet our demand for 25 years, but in the face of opposition and conflicting expert opinion on how much will actually be extracted from the ground, fracking may not be a major or long-term panacea.

In 2018, research headed by an eminent geologist, Professor John Underhill of Heriot-Watt University, suggested that we have overestimated potentially extractable reserves as our tilted and folded geological strata are less likely to hold fossil fuel deposits than unaltered geology, and that any deposits that have formed have been dispersed into small pockets that make them less suitable for extraction.

So should households considering replacement gas boilers, heating and appliances be worried? Despite the price rises, gas is still a reactively cheap fuel. But with its increasing use for electricity generation as we phase out more carbon-intensive coal, and with the proposed replacement nuclear sources taking longer than expected to come on line, how long will the gas last?  And, if stocks dwindle, which of all of the eggs in the gas basket will get priority, electricity generators, essential services, businesses or domestic users?

Policy dictates that domestic consumers should be the last to experience deficits with business customers bearing the brunt of any shortages.  The projections suggest little cause for panic in the short term. Nevertheless, the gas supply system is beginning to show signs of fragility and it does not take much to push its resilience to the limit.  These sound like good reasons for making homes more energy efficient, and for installing a diverse range of energy technologies.

To order an EPC for your home to find out what technologies are best for you, contact Find EPC.

Rooftop Photovoltaics – Solar PV

Solar PV

One of the most satisfying ways of improving your home’s energy efficiency is to take control of generating your own electricity. Solar PV (photovoltaic) panels are one of the renewable energy technologies that you can fit to your home to do this.

Renewables are powered by unlimited and naturally replenished resources like the wind and the sun. They produce less greenhouse gases than traditional generating technologies, with an average domestic solar PV system saving up to 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Solar PV panels convert sunlight into electricity. They are most efficient in summer sunshine, but will generate some electricity in cloudier conditions, and throughout the winter. The electricity replaces energy that you would otherwise buy from your supplier. When demand exceeds generation, your normal supply kicks back in to make up the difference.

Is my house suitable?

Solar PV panels are generally suitable for any house with an un-shaded roof area of at least 15m² that faces between south-east and south-west. They are more effective in the south of the British Isles than the north.

Are they easy to fit?

Most domestic systems comprise panels that sit on top of the existing roof, but solar tiles that replace the existing roof can also be fitted, but are approximately twice the cost. The new Tesla solar roof costs even more, but is available in a wide variety of slate and tile finishes, and comes with integrated battery storage.

Solar PV systems are quick and easy to install. The solar panels themselves require little to no maintenance, though an inverter may need replacing after about 10 years.

Will it save me money?

The installation cost for a typical solar PV system is £5,000 to £10,000. While this is a sizeable outlay, you will benefit financially in three ways.

Firstly, it will cut your electricity bill. An average domestic system generates approximately 3,800 kilowatt hours a year in the south of England and 3,200 kilowatt hours in central Scotland. That is free electricity you will not have to pay for.

Secondly, small solar PV systems are currently eligible for the Government’s ‘Feed-in Tariff’ (FiT). Your energy supplier pays you for the electricity that you generate, even if you use it yourself. The tariff levels are index-linked and guaranteed for up to 20 years.

Finally, you will receive a further payment from your energy supplier for surplus electricity that you sell back to the grid.

There are online calculators that work out specific costs and savings, but as a rule of thumb, domestic scale solar PV systems pay for themselves after 10 to 12 years, assuming they are benefitting from the FiT. The rules for the FiT change regularly and it has a ‘first-come, first-served’ annual budget limit, so check with the Government website (BEIS) before making a decision.

Applicants for the FiT must provide an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) with their paperwork. An EPC rating of band D or greater is needed for the higher rate tariff.

Some Bright Ideas for Saving Energy – LED and CFL Bulbs

LED

Some people are surprised that supermarkets no longer sell traditional 60W pearl incandescent light bulbs. This is probably because they waste 95% of the electricity they use and are no longer made.   This is why the terms LED and CFL are becoming more prevalent.

With more efficient alternatives now available, we are being encouraged to make the change to help save 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year across the EU.

With lower energy usage and a longer life, the new bulbs save money. Many people are throwing out their old bulbs even before they break and need replacing.  If you prefer a phased approach, start by changing the bulbs you use most. Leave those that get less use until the old bulb burns out.

What is available?

There is a bewildering range of technologies, fittings and power ratings available. For the best energy savings, choose light emitting diode (LED) or compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs.

CFLs are what most people think of as low-energy light bulbs. They are available to fit almost any shape or size of light fitting and are suitable for indoor and outdoor lighting. A CFL should give approximately 10,000 hours of use. For comparison, the old-style bulbs last approximately 750 to 2,000 hours.

LEDs use 90% less energy than an equivalent incandescent bulb. They are great for dimmable lighting, down-lighters and indoor and outdoor spotlights. With a use life of 30,000 to 50,000 hours, they should survive for 20 years.

Both cost more than the equivalent incandescent bulb but prices have come down. It is possible to find them for £3 or £4, or even less in multipacks. The savings from running costs and longevity will soon recover the outlay.

How do I know what to buy?

The new bulbs use less power than traditional ones, so when matching a replacement you cannot compare the power rating (watts).  Instead, you need to consider the brightness (lumen).

Look for a LED or CFL rated around 1,600 lumen to replace a 100W traditional bulb, or one at 800 lumen for an old 60W.  Some of the early CFL bulbs did not seem very bright and, while modern ones are more effective, some people choose to replace CFLs with a higher lumen rating.

The other variable is the colour temperature of the light. The early energy-saving bulbs produced a harsher light than the relaxing, warm light that we were used to with incandescent bulbs. A broader range is now available, including bulbs that replicate that warmer glow.

Colour temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin on a scale from 1,000 to 10,000. Bulbs with a warm, yellowish light are rated around 2,700k, while bulbs at 4,000k to 6,000k look bluer and colder.  As a general rule, warmer temperature light is more inviting and relaxing, while cooler temperature light is good for enhancing concentration in workspaces.

How much can I save?

According to the Energy Savings Trust, lighting accounts for 14% of a typical household electricity bill, so replacing old bulbs with LEDs will typically save a family of four in a three-bedroomed house approximately £30 per year.

Smart Meters and Other Smart ways to Control your Energy Use

smart meters

It seems that everything around the house is becoming smart, including heating controls and smart meters, but will these save energy and money and make your home more sustainable?  

Smart heating controls

One way of tackling your energy use is to install a smart thermostat on your boiler. This allows you to control the heating from just about anywhere by using an app on your smartphone or tablet. You can also control the heating in each room individually by using smart radiator valves.

Technology is heading towards smart boilers and integrated heating systems that will incorporate these features and more besides, including the ability to detect faults and alert you to them, as well as allowing an engineer to diagnose and deal with the problem remotely.

Smart meters

Once you have smartened up your heating, you will want to know what savings you are making and a smart meter will help you to do just that. They use built-in wireless technology to automatically send regular gas and electricity usage data to your supplier.  There will be no more visits to read your meter and, theoretically at least, no more inflated or inaccurate estimated readings.

They come with wirelessly connected monitors that show how much energy you are using and translate that into real money.  By switching things on and off, you’ll be able to see where you are using the most energy and the effect of using that app to turn down the boiler! 

Of course the smart meter itself will not save money, but by drawing attention to your rate of energy use the hope is that it will change your behaviour, perhaps persuading you to do a cooler wash or to switch off a few lights when you can actually see the difference that this makes. You will also know what to expect in your next bill, reducing the risk of a nasty surprise.

The Government wants us all to have smart meters by 2020 as part of its push towards low-carbon targets and by September 2017, 8.6 million had been installed.  The programme is being rolled out by the energy suppliers, some more quickly than others, at a cost of  £11.3 billion, with the Government estimating net savings to the country of £7.3 billion. There is no direct outlay for the householder because the costs are being recouped over time through energy bills in general. 

On the downside, smart meters have had some bad press, with fears that the technology is already obsolete, customers experiencing connectivity problems and other difficulties when switching supplier.

So what will I save?

Smart thermostats cost approximately £300 plus installation and smart radiator valves are around £50 each. One supplier claims that they pay for themselves in the first year, but that will depend on the unpredictability of your comings and goings and on your energy usage.

The Government believes that smart meters will encourage energy efficiency and save an average household some £26 per year on their gas and electricity,  approximately 2% of their total bill.