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.

New Records for Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy

Recently released figures show that 2017 was a great year for energy sustainability in the UK, with record-breaking levels of renewable energy production and historically low prices for electricity generated by the wind. It was our greenest summer ever, with nearly 52% of electricity generation between 21 June and 22 September 2017 coming from low-carbon sources.

For the first time in history, on 7 June 2017, low-carbon technologies (nuclear and renewables) provided more electricity than all of the fossil fuel sources combined (oil, gas and coal).

Another symbolic milestone was achieved on Friday 21 May 2017, the first full day since the Industrial Revolution of the 1880s when no coal was used to generate our electricity, an important step towards the Government’s commitment to phase out Britain’s coal power plants by 2025.

In the offshore wind industry, spectacular progress in turbine efficiency, larger turbine rotor sizes and growing experience with offshore engineering and maintenance technologies have all contributed to huge savings. Government figures show that the price paid for electricity generated by offshore wind farms fell by more than 50% in less than five years. The data suggest that new offshore wind farms that are due to open in 2022/23 will be viable with public subsidies as low as £57.50/MWh, compared with the £92.50/MWh subsidy that was secured for the Hinkley Point C new nuclear power station.

The UK now has the fourth greenest power system in Europe (and seventh in the world), and the British electricity sector has halved its carbon emissions since 2012, a remarkable record. Despite this, the UK is lagging behind schedule for achieving its longer-term carbon reduction targets. Going forward, other sectors will need to match the level of achievement of the electricity sector, and attention is being increasingly focused on transport and agriculture.

There is similar good news from the energy markets around the world. Global renewable energy capacity grew by a record amount in 2016, and nearly 25% of electricity came from renewable sources. Hydropower provided most of this, with contributions from wind and solar at around 4% and 1.5% respectively. 

Solar power is following in the footsteps of offshore wind as an increasingly viable technology, and power supply deals in countries around the world, including Mexico, Denmark, Egypt, India and the UAE, saw renewable energy projects being priced well below fossil fuel and nuclear power alternatives. 

Worldwide, new renewable energy projects accounted for some 161GW of new capacity in 2016 (a 10% increase over 2015 and another new record) at a cost of $242bn, which, despite representing a 23% reduction in investment compared to 2015, was greater than that for fossil fuel generation.  New solar power accounted for half of the new capacity, while wind power added a third and hydropower 15%.

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.