Suing their wrappers off; journalists upset Tesco

You can sue the pants off someone, but you cannot sue the wrapping off.


Yesterday I blogged about Tesco’s noble aspiration which was to help its customers tackle climate change. The way Tesco decided to help its customers tackle climate change was to label twenty items that it sells with a carbon footprint. There, job done! Tesco can get back to its core business in many parts of the world, including Thailand, knowing that they have helped their customers tackle climate change. Continue reading

Labelling supermarket items with carbon details

Knowledge is critical, for without knowledge we cannot make meaningful choices. Unfortunately when it comes to carbon emissions knowledge is fairly meaningless unless it is comprehensive. That is why when it comes to moderating our own carbon emissions behaviour we should accumulate our knowledge which should then help us in actions which concentrate on the easy carbon savings first.


I have just returned from Portugal where everyone I met who heard that I was in the solar thermal business proudly told me that Portugal had new laws which degrees that solar panels must be fitted to every building in the course of construction or the course of refurbishment. Continue reading

Energy Savings Trust misleads the public about the benefits of solar systems

Anyone in the renewables industry has to devote a large part of their work to education. We deal in technologies and concepts that are relatively unknown to the public (and the governmental agencies) especially in the field of solar thermal technology.


The United Kingdom does not have any facilities for testing solar thermal collectors. These tests have to be carried out in one of the several testing houses in Germany, or in Austria, or in Prague or in Greece and Spain. In this country we seem curiously reticent in learning from the experiences of our European partners about solar thermal technology; the government thinks that it should re-invent the wheel and so those of us in the industry have to educate the government and the public which is no easy task for a small but dedicated industry.


I have already highlighted the incorrect information about solar thermal published by the Daily Telegraph, in my post dated 18th April, the kind of misleading information that we get about solar in the newspapers. You will remember that the Telegraph’s “expert” claimed that the temperatures generated by a solar system in April would be too cool for a hand to feel.


Genersys has had a lot of feedback from its installers about this; I will set out a typical response from Dragons Breath, in Pembrokeshire:


We as a company have installed 6 systems between December 07 until Jan 08.  They are working very effectively, not only just producing hot water, but exceeding all of my expectations. I have been told that the oil ran out on one of the houses, & they have three young children, with out any external heating to the cylinder, the family were having three hot baths a day. But as a bonus they said in quick succession, with each other. 


H20Solar in Sussex also say that with Genersys panels they are getting temperatures of around 50°C (which is the default temperature for domestic hot water) and mid 40s on cloudy overcast days.


These are common experiences for users of solar thermal systems, but there seems to be little publicity. Unfortunately my readership is not as large as that of the Telegraph.


Apart from the press the solar thermal industry also has to contend with misleading information from the Energy Savings Trust about the financial benefits. The EST website claims that solar thermal systems only save around £40 a year; that is in direct contradiction to real life experiences, which are well documented showing savings of around £280 a year when oil or electricity is displaced.


I have asked the EST to remove their misleading figure from their website. I hope by the time this is posted it will be corrected. If they do not know the true figure for certain then why provide a misleading one?


They have explained to me the methodology they use to get to £40 a year but it doesn’t make sense to me. They deal in concepts not relevant to the field of solar thermal technology (such as home SAP ratings and collector performance factors). They say that they are retesting and organising independent field trials (here we go again, re-inventing the wheel) but in the meantime the misleading message remains. They also understate the carbon emission savings quite significantly.


It is odd that the organisation that receives £75 million of taxpayers money each year (much more than the whole turnover of the UK solar thermal industry) to advise people on saving their carbon dioxide emissions cannot get their sums right on what is the most popular form of microgeneration in the United Kingdom. I can understand the need to avoid misleading people, but when they seem to think that the cause is right they do not always deal in facts.


Today there is an item on their website claiming that 2 out of 3 people cannot tell the difference between low energy lightbulbs and tungsten ones. That statement is based on market research; but it runs in the face of the science which measures the luminousity of lighting scientifically.


The EST does a great deal of good work, but when it comes to solar thermal I am afraid they are not helping people reduce their carbon footprint by encouraging the installation of the easiest and most effective and most popular low carbon means of generating energy, but rather marginalising it as a hobby instead of appreciating its sophistication and the fact that there are good economic and environmental reasons for its deployment all over the world.


They have already developed sound advice in relation to small wind turbines and heat pumps, but these are much smaller and less popular technologies than solar thermal. Let us hope that they get their act together soon.


Why should anyone buy a solar system? The Value Propositions

Why should anyone buy a solar system?

For most people this is the critical question that the solar thermal industry needs to answer. We have the product, we have the technology, but why should anyone part with their hard earned cash – for a solar heating or a solar water heating system?A good solar system costs around £4000 to install. In addition there might be some costs which you need to incur but here I am asking to focus focus on the solar related costs and not any additional plumbing upgrades that you need.

What then is the value for you to have a solar water heating system?

You spend more than you think on heating water

How much do you spend on your water heating bill? It is hard to know because your bill will not show you the money divided between all the energy applications in your home. If you look at government statistics around 24% of your household energy is spent on water heating. Water heating uses more energy than all your lighting and appliances put together. If you use gas or oil or LPG for water and central heating statistics show around a third of their bills are spent on water heating.

If you live in a well insulated double glazed home the proportion of heat energy used for water heating will be higher because however much energy you can save by home measures such as draught proofing and cavity wall insulation you need to use actual generated energy to heat water.

 If your lifestyle is such that you shower every day or twice a day you will also be spending a greater proportion of your energy on water heating.

 You will spend the money on energy anyway.

I assume that you are not going stop washing and showering so wherever you live you are going to spend the money anyway. A good solar system will cover 50% to 70% of your hot water. If you do the basic maths you will see that for oil, LPG and electric heating systems solar will save you at least £280 a year from day one. The savings are less with gas, but they will still be significant.

You are not just buying an appliance that heats water with a solar system you are buying future energy that you will need

A solar water heating system uses a fuel that is free – daylight – and daylight is not in short or diminishing supply and it is not taxed. Once you have bought the system you will reduce your energy utility bills. To the extent that the solar system displaces your fossil fuel, you are completely protected against future fuel price rises.

 The more hot water you use the greater your savings.

How often do you or your family bathe or shower or wash clothes? Do you have a heated pool? The more energy you use on these things the greater your savings will be. If you live alone and bathe once a week, a solar system will not provide you with great financial savings.

Unlike buying a boiler and paying for fuel you do get a payback with a solar system.

One day, usually somewhere between eight and twelve years from when you purchase your solar system, the system (unlike any other household appliance) will pay for itself. The precise day when it does this will depend in part on what happens to fossil fuel energy prices in the future.

You are getting some energy security

A war, a hurricane or bad weather event or the ever increasing energy demands of China and India may in the future cause problems with our nations’ energy security as the North Sea oil and gas has already peaked. A solar system provides you with some security that whatever happens elsewhere, your hot water supply will be secure.

You will help in the fight against climate change and pollution

You will significantly reduce your own carbon footprint. If you are using electricity or gas the carbon dioxide savings for a solar water heating system will be over a tonne a year and if you are using natural gas it will be around two fifths of a tonne a year, but again the precise carbon savings depends on your hot water usage.

You will add to the value of your home.

I cannot give you any detailed research to back this up, but Genersys customer feedback seems to suggest that if you fit a high quality in roof Genersys solar system you will put more on the value of your home than the system cost you.

A solar system is not just about a lifestyle choice – there is good value to be had and for most people it is a wise and profitable investment especially for large families and those off the gas network.

How much stock of energy should we hold?

If you run a business you know that the stock that you hold (known in the US as inventory) is critical to the success of your business. The more stock that you hold the more capital you have tied up; in some businesses stock decays with time (such as food) or becomes less valuable by becoming unfashionable or out of date. You try to avoid buying stock that you cannot sell.


These factors have led most businesses to manage their stock carefully; they need enough to keep their customers satisfied but not so much that they do not have enough money to pay all their bills. So over the years, using computers and all the efficiencies of modern businesses try to get their stocks just in time to sell it when needed, because “just in time” is the most profitable way to handle it.


Generally speaking energy companies have tried the same approach with their stocks of fuel for the same reasons. As a nation the way our energy is organised the level of the stocks of fuel that is held is dictating by business reasons, rather than what is in the national interest. Continue reading

Damage we suffer from fossil fuel burning both seen and unseen

the Parthenon


Environmentalists today associate burning fossil fuel with carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn are associated with climate change and global warming. This is a relatively new association, although the theory of global warming has been around for over a hundred years.


Before the greenhouse effect took root in the popular imagination the main effect of burning fossil fuel that we understood was air pollution caused by burning coal and coal gas for electrical power and heat energy, and diesel and petrol in engines for transport. Continue reading

Oil prices rise as the economy falls

The price of oil still rising but the economy of the world is slowing down. This at first sight seems like a paradox. If the world’s economy slows down you would expect less energy to be used and therefore the price of oil should fall. Today oil stands at around $120 a barrel – it has never been higher, but businesses face fewer sales, lower profits or greater losses and people’s employment will be threatened as businesses reduce staffing levels.


We are told that this is the result of the sub prime lending foolishness which the world’s banks embraced to the extent of buying worthless securities; having done so they became afraid to lend each other money and are still so afraid. The rate at which UK banks lend to each other is known as LIBOR – the London Interbank Offered Rate, and banks in turn fixed loans they made by reference to LIBOR, giving themselves a small margin over it when lending to commerce.


It is worth noting that none of the recent three Bank of England interest cuts has had the normal knock on effect of reducing the LIBOR. The margin is now historically very high, reflecting the risks that banks feel they take if they lend to each other.


Also it is by no means clear to me that the banks actually have the money to lend. The Royal Bank of Scotland is short £12 billion and will seek to raise this money from a rights issue to their shareholders who must pay up or have the value of their shares diluted. In addition the banks are benefiting from a £50 billion loan being made by all of the taxpaying citizens in the UK.


So the economy is not healthy and at the same time oil price rises inexorably. It has always been thus. In his excellent book, “the Last Oil Shock” David Strahan points out that some analysts have found that movements in oil prices since 1954 have been closely mimicked by US unemployment figures after a time lag of around eighteen months.


Mr Strahan suggests that while oil consumption as a proportion of gross domestic product is falling, because we are increasing our population and driving more, flying more and living more comfortable lives oil consumption per person is increasing. We find more things to “spend” our energy on.


There is a relationship between the availability of energy and economic growth but somehow governments overlook this basic fact. Our present Energy Minister, Mr Malcolm Wicks, is a junior minister and he does not have cabinet rank. He also does not have complete jurisdiction over energy; his boss gets in on the act from time to time as do the people at DEFRA; the Treasury set the policies for energy taxation which further limits Mr Wicks’ brief. No-one it seems to me, is bothering to look at the whole picture and this is worsened by the fact that Energy Ministers in the past ten years have tended to come and go like the newspapers.


This means that we get a muddled energy policy; one day photovoltaics are in vogue, the next day wind turbines. Biomass then becomes fashionable and now nuclear is proffered as a solution. The Government is not joining the various energy dots together and even worse is not linking the energy picture to the economic picture.


The government’s main energy policy is to cause us to invest in insulation – first for lofts and then for cavity walls. This makes energy use more efficient but efficiency is often outweighed, as I explained in another post, by those with good insulation turning the thermostat up to enjoy a more comfortable home wearing lighter clothes. The efficiency gains end up with more economic growth in the sense that we spend the efficiency gains and more on other energy consuming practices.


Now an economic downturn may be caused by a high oil price, as businesses dependent on oil collapse. The oil price would then fall, reviving the economy but in the nature of the beast as the economy grows so the oil price would rise all over again. I am not an economist but it seems to me that a rising and falling and re-rising oil price (and coal prices and gas prices) would lead us through a series of sharp boom and bust cycles, with the bust cycle lasting longer each time until the energy finally runs out.


That, I think, is the fundamental problem that Governments have to solve. The solution must be to use whatever resources we can muster to produce benign energy ourselves. The Government needs to require us to invest in microgeneration and pay attention to the details– not throw money at grandiose schemes dependent upon depleting resources.


That means higher building standards, solar water and space heating for virtually everyone, more offshore turbines, taxation on fossil fuel energy to reduce demand and make people more careful about the energy they use, penal taxation on large-engined inefficient vehicles, as well as what they are doing now.


There will come a time when energy will be at the very top of the political agenda; the fuel duty strikes almost brought down the new labour government in 2000. The future position could be far worse than political inconvenience and far harder to solve.

Biofuels – we drive and the world starves


Sometimes you can only see a picture clearly if you step back from it, so you can see the whole canvas. So it is with energy. Without any doubt we are heading for an energy crisis. The oil will probably peak – that is to say reach its maximum production in ten years time. Oil companies are discovering smaller and smaller fields – not by chance or by accident or a run of bad luck, but simply because there is less oil in the ground to be discovered.


The same scenario exists with coal, natural gas and uranium. These will probably all peak at around the same time (give or take a decade) as developing countries ape the habits customs and lifestyles of the developed countries. With this in the back of some politician’s minds (and in the forefront of others) many developed countries are looking for new sources of energy which are, in the current jargon, sustainable.


Biofuels – that is fuel made from growing crops – seemed like a good idea at the time. Continue reading

Wind turbines or peat lands Scotland makes a wise choice

The Scottish Parliament has always been a supporter of renewable energy; its record is exemplary – far better than Westminster’s on renewable energy, so when it announces a decision to reject an application to build 181 wind turbines to generate electricity on the Isle of Lewis some eyebrows were raised.


I am sure that the application was not rejected lightly. The plan had the support of the local authority and of many local businesses but over 11,000 objections to the plan were made. The plan was rejected because of the adverse impact it would have had upon the Lewis peat lands at Bravas Moor.

  Continue reading

Solar panels – different types of absorbers -what they do and how they work

Solar panels for heat have been around for about a hundred years and in that time they have developed by a process of continuous improvement. The solar panels that you can buy today are, in many cases, very different from ones that were used 20 years ago. Some manufacturers have not improved the panels at all while others have made tremendous strides, so if you are in the market for solar panels for water or pool or space heating look for the latest panel type.


At the heart of every good panel is the absorber. This is the black looking surface which reacts to light to generate heat energy. On every panel there is such a surface which when light strikes it there absorber’s surface molecules vibrate, which causes friction. Friction creates heat and thus the process of vibration turns the energy in light into heat, which is captured by the panels.


There are different types of absorber surface. Continue reading