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.

The Importance of Reducing a Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint

The other EPC

Most people have financial savings at the forefront of their minds when considering home energy efficiency improvements. Some will have more than a passing thought for the environment.  Whatever the motivation, individual households can make an important contribution towards national energy efficiency goals and greenhouse gas reduction targets. While focussing on the primary meaning of EPC, an Energy Performance Certificate, we should not lose sight of the second, Every Property Counts.

Better energy efficiency brings reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, which account for some three-quarters of the greenhouse gases released into our atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide is produced whenever fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil are burned to produce energy for transport, heat or electricity generation.

A ‘Carbon Footprint’ is not a buzzword, it is a very important consideration for us all.

The vast majority of scientists now believe that our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to climate change. They form a blanket in the atmosphere that traps some of the reflected energy from the sun, causing warming that affects the oceans, ice caps, vegetation and weather patterns. This is beginning to have serious consequences for the environment and for the wildlife and people that live within it. Carbon dioxide can persist in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, so even if we take urgent action now, emissions that have already been released that will continue to affect our climate for generations to come.

Some of the consequences of climate change are potentially disastrous. Precipitation is reducing in some areas around the world, causing drought, while others are experiencing increased rainfall and storms, exacerbating sediment runoff into rivers and drinking water supplies, and producing more frequent and severe floods.

Increasing temperatures are melting ice sheets at the poles and causing sea level rise, adding to the risk of flooding at the coast and threatening the very existence of some low-lying islands.  Rising sea levels can also cause saltwater to infiltrate some freshwater systems. 

Overall, climate change is increasing the demand for water while the supply diminishes. In turn, this will affect food production, levels of malnutrition and disease in some of the world’s poorest nations.

Climate change also seems to be contributing to increasing damage from wildfires and tropical storms, so the consequences can be financial as well as social and environmental.

What Can We Do?

One of the best ways of countering climate change is to address the carbon footprint of every country, industry, community and individual household. Well over 10% of the carbon emissions in the UK come from electricity use in private households, so one immediate way to reduce our carbon footprint is to take control of energy wastage. Turn off lights, heating, air conditioning and electrical appliances when they are not needed, unplug chargers, and do not rely on standby settings. Insulate your property, switch to energy efficient light bulbs, put in a smart meter, change to a new and more efficient boiler and use a microwave when possible.

It takes a huge amount of energy to get water to your home too, so conserve it by having shorter showers and turning the tap off while you brush your teeth, and save rainwater for watering the garden.

Individually, each property’s contribution may seem modest, but add them together and they may represent an earth-saving carbon footprint reduction.

Six Common Energy Efficiency Myths

Energy Efficiency

Energy Efficiency Myths

Myth One

If I turn up the thermostat the room will get warm much more quickly.

This is not the case. A thermostat simply controls the maximum temperature, so turning it up will not alter how long the heating takes to achieve that room temperature.

Myth Two

It is more efficient to keep the heating on low all the time than to keep turning it on and off.

This means that your house is heated when you are not there and that it may be cold when you are home. It is far better, in terms of energy efficiency, to use a timer to heat the rooms that you are using while you are there. On a regular daily cycle, it is not necessary to have the heating on constantly to keep the fabric of the house warm. If you are away in winter, use a timer and thermostat to avoid frost damage to pipes. You can use radiator valves to restrict the heating to the rooms that you are using. Most people find 18°C to 21°C comfortable in an occupied room, and radiators can be turned down to 14°C or lower in other rooms.

Myth Three

When it is cold outside I need to turn the thermostat up to keep the house warm.

A thermostat maintains a desired temperature in the house no matter what the weather is doing outside.  Once you have selected your comfortable temperature, it can remain at that setting which improves your home’s energy efficiency.

Myth Four

Energy saving light bulbs take a long time to get bright, and they are very expensive.

There have been improvements in lighting technology in the last few years, especially with light emitting diode (LED) bulbs. They reach full brightness immediately, have reduced in price, typically last for over 20 years and their running costs are approximately a third of those of a comparable traditional halogen bulb.  

LED bulbs are now the best choice in terms of practicality and energy efficiency.

Myth Five

An appliance in standby mode does not use much energy..

Appliances on standby still use electricity. For an average household, turning them all off completely when they are not in use could save nearly £50 a year.

Myth Six

My vital appliances are responsible for much of the energy I use, so there is nothing I can do to reduce consumption.

Large appliances are responsible for about 15% of the energy bill for an average home, so dealing with the energy efficiency of heating is a greater priority. Nevertheless, choosing energy efficient appliances can also make a real reduction in consumption and bills. Compare energy labels on appliances before buying. Choosing an A+++ tumble dryer rather than a C-rated model can save approximately £50 per year.  A new A+++ electric oven will use some 60% less energy than a B-rated equivalent. 

Careful planning of how you use your appliances could also help. Dishwashers are very energy hungry, and can cost an average household nearly £50 a year to run. Consider whether you really need to use it to wash a few plates and make sure you wait for a full load before turning it on.

Loft Insulation

Loft Insulation

Roof insulation

Modern houses are built with loft insulation, but older properties may be losing a quarter of their heat through the roof. Installing or topping-up insulation in a standard loft is an easy and cost-effective way of making a home more energy-efficient. 

Types of loft insulation

For an accessible loft, the most straightforward method is to lay loft rolls of mineral, glass or sheep’s wool between and over the ceiling joists to a depth of 270mm. A layer is placed between the joists then another is laid at right angles to cover them.  For topping up, the appropriate depth of loft roll is simply laid on top of the existing material.  The loft door can be insulated, but it is better to replace it with an insulated trap door.

The second method, blown installation of fire-retardant mineral wool or cellulose, is for roof spaces with difficult access. The process usually takes no more than a couple of hours.

Finally, for flat roofs, expanded polystyrene insulation boards can be attached on or beneath the roof. These can be a bit more expensive and complicated to install, and can lead to condensation problems, so installation is best left to a professional.

Storage

If the loft is used for storage and there is insufficient joist depth to accommodate the insulation, there are two solutions. The first is to infill between the joists with loft roll and then lay insulation boards and chipboard loft boards across the top. Alternatively, the level of the loft floor can be raised to accommodate two layers of loft roll, by fitting battens across the joists and nailing chipboard loft boards on top.

For either method, a gap should be left between the loft insulation and the boards to prevent condensation and compression of the loft roll, which will reduce its efficiency.

Loft conversions

The floor of an existing loft conversion can be insulated to keep the rest of the home warm, with loft roll added between pitched roof rafters and insulation boards to false ceilings, walls and dormers to keep the loft room itself cosy. A 50mm gap is needed between insulation boards and roofing felt for ventilation.

Other things to remember

For DIY, choose products with an ‘Energy Savings Trust Recommended’ logo, insulate pipes and tanks and do not install loft roll beneath the cold water tank. Remember to wear protective clothing and a mask.

If the space is used to store perishables like photographs or clothes, the roof should also be insulated to keep more heat in the loft.

An insulated loft needs to be adequately ventilated around the eaves to prevent damp. If there is an existing damp problem it is best to get professional advice.

Costs and savings

270mm of new loft insulation could yield annual savings of £225 for a detached house or £135 for a three bedroomed semi-detached. The cost would be £395 or £300 respectively. It may be possible to get grants through the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) towards the costs. Check with your energy supplier.

Buying a better gas boiler

Gas Boiler

Heating and hot water accounts for well over half of the total energy use in the home, so if you have an old gas boiler, changing to a more efficient model will save you money and give you a higher score on your EPC.

Boiler efficiency

Boiler efficiency is defined as a percentage, with gas boiler installation now restricted by regulations to those with a score of 88% or better. The energy efficiency is rated from A to G, with modern condensing boilers getting an ‘A’ rating.

Boilers more than 15 years old are likely to be inefficient due to hot gases escaping up the flue. Modern condensing boilers have larger heat exchangers that recover more heat.

If your boiler has a plastic flue and a second pipe coming out of the bottom to drain condensate outdoors it is a condensing type. If it does not have one of these, it is worth considering an upgrade.

What is available?

If you have a mains gas supply, a gas boiler is likely to be the cheapest option. There are two main types.  Regular (or conventional) boiler systems heat the water and store it in a cylinder.  Combination (combi) boilers heat the water on demand without the need for a cylinder. A third type, system boilers, are typically used in large houses with a substantial hot water demand.

Regular boiler systems take up quite a lot of space, but provide the highest hot water flow rate. However, they do lose some heat from hot water stored in the cylinder. They are generally a good choice for homes with more than one bathroom and a predictable hot water demand.

Combination boilers are the most popular choice as they are cheaper to install, more compact, and they cannot run out of hot water. They are less efficient than regular boilers when heating small quantities. They are suited to homes with limited space and no existing hot water tank, and those with a less predictable hot water demand. 

A new boiler is a big investment, and the technology can be complex, so check with a qualified installer what would be best for your home.

What if I don’t have gas?

Gas boilers are available that run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from a tank, if there is outdoor space for one.  Oil-fired heating is a popular alternative, though heating oil prices can be volatile. With Government support schemes, low-carbon alternatives such as heat pumps or biomass boilers may present a cheaper option.

How much can I save?

A smaller, cheaper gas boiler may suffice in a well insulated home, so make sure you do that first.  New boiler prices range from approximately £500 to £2,500. Installation costs vary, so getting at least three quotes is recommended.

Your annual savings will depend on how inefficient your old boiler was. As an example, replacing a G-rated gas boiler with an A-rated condensing boiler could save up to £325 in a detached house, or £200 in an average semi-detached house.  An £1,800 gas boiler bought to replace a 60% efficiency boiler will pay for itself in seven and a half years.

Keeping your walls warm

wall insulation

Escaping heat is one of the most important considerations when improving the energy efficiency of your home and your EPC score. Approximately a third of the heat loss from a brick-built home disappears through the walls, so installing wall insulation will reduce losses and save money on energy bills.

It will also make your home feel more cosy and help to prevent condensation on the walls.

How to find out if your house is suitable

The first question is whether your house has solid or cavity walls, as this determines the type of insulation that is appropriate. Pre-1930 properties generally have solid walls of a single layer of bricks. Later houses are more likely to have two layers of bricks separated by a cavity.

The width of the wall is another good indicator. Brick walls less than 270mm thick are probably solid.

Next, check whether your walls are already insulated. If your property is less than 20 years old it was probably insulated when it was built, three-quarters of houses with cavity walls are insulated. If you are not sure, an installer can drill a small hole in the outside wall to check.

Less than 5% of houses with solid walls have been insulated, despite them leaking twice as much heat as cavity walls.

What is involved?

Cavity walls are insulated by injecting foam or mineral beads into the gap through small holes drilled in the outside wall at 1m intervals. The holes are then filled to match the existing mortar.

Experienced installers can complete the straightforward process in three or four hours, depending on the size of the house.

Solid walls can be insulated externally or internally. External insulation involves fixing a layer of suitable material to the wall, then covering it with a weather-proof render or cladding. A wide range of finishes is available.

For internal insulation, boards or stud walls with a backing of mineral fibre or sheep’s fleece are fitted to the inside of the external walls of each room. Internal insulation is disruptive, requires skirting boards and electrical fittings to be removed, and a re-plaster and redecoration of the room. It will also slightly reduce the room size.

How much does it cost?

Budget £500 for cavity wall insulation in an average three-bedroom house. External solid wall insulation can cost anywhere between £8,000 and £15,000 for a three-bedroom house.  Insulating the same property internally will typically cost between £4,000 and £13,000.

How much money will I save? 

Adding cavity wall insulation to an average three-bedroomed semi-detached house could save £150 a year through reduced energy bills and will pay for itself within four or five years. Solid wall insulation in a similar sized house could save up to £300 a year, but the higher up-front cost means that the payback period may be longer.

Fitting wall insulation also adds value to a house, and it is an effective way of raising your home’s Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) energy-efficiency rating.

Installation grants may be available from the Energy Company Obligation scheme. The rules change frequently, so check with your energy supplier or the Energy Saving Trust website for the current situation.

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.