The Renewable Heat Incentive and Solar Systems

After more than two years in the design process the United Kingdom Government has announced it Renewable Heat Incentive, covering renewable heat in England, Scotland and Wales. It is very good news for the environment, and exceptionally good news for environmentally minded people who want to save on their heating bills and on their carbon dioxide emissions. I shall explain my understanding of the incentive and how it applies to solar water heating, which is the concern of my company, Genersys. Continue reading

Is Ed Miliband Christopher Booker in disguise?

I’ll get to the headline eventually but to do so I must first explain something. Continue reading

Solar grants for not for profit organisations

I have been very critical of the United Kingdom’s solar thermal grant programme, especially when it was announced by Lord Truscott, in that it was poorly designed and conceived. I corresponded with Lord Truscott, (who was Energy Minister at that time) pointing out the serious deficiencies in the subsidies, particularly in what is called Phase 2 Low carbon Buildings Programme.  You can read the correspondence on the Genersys website at Unfortunately, even though my comments and suggestions were supported by most of the solar industry, the Government Leviathan could not change its course. Continue reading

No tax relief for the environment

Governments are notoriously reluctant to change. Some months ago I was talking to a Treasury official about the best ways to incentivise microgeneration and solar thermal in particular. I explained that I thought that a simple income tax allowance of the amount spent on a thermal solar system would be a good idea.

This is what Austria has done and it has led to a massive use of thermal solar and a corresponding gain in environment benefits and in energy security.  His reply was disappointing but not unexpected. Continue reading

Passing the hat round for the Co-Op

Unfortunately in their search for the Holy Grail politicians have in turn adopted various environmentally produced energy technologies. The first to be adopted and then discarded were photovoltaic cells.

It is hard to explain photovoltaics in layman’s terms and can be quite hard to understand so if you don’t want to read the technical stuff, skip the next two paragraphs.

PV started with Becquerel in 1839 and then Willoughby Smith, Hertz, Max Planck and even Einstein found that light shining on a metal can create energy proportional to the frequency of the light. When the light strikes the metal, the energy from the photons is transferred to electrons in the metal. If that energy is greater than what is required to overcome the forces which keep the electron in the metal, the energy will be released. The result is that light with a high enough frequency can knock electrons out of a metal surface.

The displaced electrons are freed to move about, forming a “conduction band”, and a hole is left behind where the freed electrons used to be. They are “harnessed” by the use of semiconductors with different electrical characteristics so that an electric field is generated. This field causes positive and negative charges to move in opposite directions, thus creating electric current. I hope that I have explained this reasonably accurately and if I have not no doubt someone out there will let me know.

Anyway when you understand that you use light to generate electricity you will understand how attractive this must seem to politicians looking for the Holy Grail; they thought they had found it, with these photovoltaic cells, which have been confusing called solar panels but now are know as “PV”.

PV superficially sounds much more impressive than using light to generate heat (which is what real solar panels do), because electricity is often associated in people’s mind with energy and they tend to ignore heat. That is a shame because you can live without electricity – it will be hard but people have done it for tens of thousands of years, but people have lived with heat and in most places would die in winter without heat.  

In Manchester, Europe’s largest vertical photovoltaic project was installed at the Co-operative Insurance Society Tower. This project was subsided by the state (that is you and me, folks) to the tune of just over £1 million, although what business the government has in subsiding a commercial organisation like the Co-op (turnover £9.4 billion) is entirely beyond me. Interestingly enough the amount given by the taxpayer to the Co-Op was virtually the maximum that is permitted to be given for a project of this nature under the European Community’s State Aid rules.

PV re-cladding was predicted to result in a rated power output of between 250 and 350 kWp and was expected to meet only 10% of the building electricity requirements by generating it is hoped 180MWh electricity per year. I have not been able to find out any data yet as to whether the project met its expectations. 

Governments all over the world provided subsidies for PV because the environmental cost of electricity generated is very high, although if you look at the carbon cost in making the PV and spread that over the life time of the PV it is much more carbon productive than first thought. They hope to attract investment in building PV cell manufacturing plants to create jobs (although when they do they frequently have to subsidise the establishment of a factory).

Governments have listened to multi national companies that have invested in PV technology. Mr Blair took advice from Lord Browne who ran BP, one of the most carbon producing businesses on earth. BP invested in PV, and claimed a “green” sustainable image as a result. Mr Blair bought the sales pitch and set up a very generous PV grants system.

The Co-op was not the only company or person that was able to access these large grants. At one time PV attracted a grant of 50% of the cost, which meant that if you were building your own house, provided you could access the grant, and you wanted to have a PV roof, the taxpayer would pay half of the cost up to £15,000.  This struck me as wrong; someone with the cash to build their own home should not get half a PV roof paid for by the state.

This has now been changed; the PV grants are still very generous compared with other technologies – around £2,500 – but the drop in grants has affected the PV market, causing it to decline. Of course the smaller businesses that sell and install PV are worse affected; somehow the multi-nationals will survive a down turn in a business that does not even represent 1% of their portfolio.

The problem with efficient photovoltaics is that they use broad spectrum light whereas they would operate more efficiently at only at specific narrow part of the light spectrum. Anything outside this narrow part of the spectrum cannot be converted to electricity. Also their efficiency drops as they become older, and in very hot weather. At freezing point silicon has a maximum theoretical efficiency of 24%; at room temperature this drops to 12%. The laws of physics mean that photovoltaic cells decrease in efficiency as the temperature of the cell increases. 

The best and most efficient use of PV is when it eliminates the need for batteries in many calculators. Many places have now installed photovoltaic cells to operate parking meters and some street lighting, but this really makes no sense environmentally.

Photovoltaics really become effective in “off-grid” situations. In places where the cost of bringing power lines or building generating plants is expensive, the PV offers a good solution which is both environmentally friendly and cost effective. It makes no sense to me to install PV in Manchester at public expense. If the Co-op wants to make an environmental statement for reasons of good corporate governance then I applaud them, but let them do that with their own money.

In the real world £1 million would provide free solar water heating systems for three hundred poor people and that would save more energy and more carbon dioxide emissions and save the poor some money.

Microgeneration and Northern Rock? Darling, it’s between a northern rock and a hard place

Gordon Brown has finally admitted it. He has not ruled out nationalising the Northern Rock. When you walk down a path putting one foot in front of another you should know where the path leads. When he and his chum Alistair Darling decided to rescue the bank, rather than the money of depositors of the bank, he started on the road that inevitably leads to nationalisation, whether he admits it or not. 

The bank is as good as nationalised now. Lots of people and institutions would like to get their hands on (sorry, buy) some of the bank’s good assets, especially if they are going for a song. No-one wants to underwrite the bank’s bad assets at any price, except Mr Darling and Mr Brown. We taxpayers have now pumped £57 billion into the bank, (£57,000,000,000) by way of guarantees and real cash and the only benefit has been to help confidence in the banking system, (although that is debatable), save a few jobs in the North East, and protect Nortehrn Rock shareholders and speculators.  He could have done all of that spending a lot less money by simply underwriting the ordinary depositors’ money and letting the rest take their chances.

If Mr Darling has a spare £57 billion pounds it would come in mighty handy in restructuring our country’s energy system so that we used less fossil fuel and had a great deal more microgeneration. We could have also cleaned up the coal burning power stations with smoke washing facilities, sequestrated carbon, insulated every home to high standards, and still had plenty of change. 

We could have also taken a few million and restructured the Low Carbon Building Programme. Under it today no one is bothering to apply for the £400 grant that you can get towards thermal solar panels because the grant is pitched too low and there is a rather tortuous set of conditions you have to adhere to before you get the money; none of these conditions relate in any way to solar water heating.

You can only get the grant if your home is “holistic” whatever that means. 

The money assigned for helping householders with all microgeneration technologies for the three years ended June 2008 was only £18.7 million – less than one third of one percent of the money used to bail out the Northern Rock. Expressed as a figure it is less than 0.33% of £57,000,000,000.  It is interesting to remember that the grants for microgeneration were conceived by Mr Darling when he was at the Department of Trade and Industry under a scheme called the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. All the failings of this scheme became well known before Mr Darling was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer, but despite my efforts and those of many others in the microgeneration industry, Mr Darling would not change the defects, denying, through his junior Minister, Lord Truscott (who?) that any defects existed. 

Mr Darling clearly has a talent for this kind of mess, as he showed with the Low Carbon Building Programme and now that he has been promoted he has made another mess on a much grander scale. 

While all the money used for the Northern Rock is being committed and more will no doubt have to be spent, so far less than a third of the microgeneration grants have been spent – a paltry £5.3 million. If the present rate of take up continues when the scheme ends in seven months time the government will have about £12 million spare unspent microgeneration money, which they could inject into the Northern Rock. That should be of immense comfort to the Bank’s shareholders and commercial depositors, but cold comfort to the planet.