I can’t believe how cold it is for this time of year! A friend of mine was in Stratford upon Avon yesterday and there was snow.
What with the credit crunch, negative equity and job worries, many of us are already feeling the pinch. So it doesn’t help that this cold snap means we’ll all be tempted to hike the heating up, high energy prices or no high energy prices.
I was curious to know if there are any alternative energy sources out there that might help us overcome spiralling fuel prices in the long-term. But to be frank I was a bit shocked by how expensive most of them are and the long payback time. Here are five possible options:
1. Solar thermal
Years ago if you had solar panels on your roof, people probably thought you were an oddball, but now they sell them in B&Q. With solar thermal energy, the heat of the sun is harnessed to heat water. Depending on who you talk to, it can either provide a third or up to half a home’s water heating needs, and even works when the skies are grey. In the winter it can be used to heat water up to a certain temperature, which a conventional boiler can then top up. Richard Lloyd at the Energy Saving Trust reckons, though, that solar thermal works best if your home is South-facing.
On the downside, installation costs £3,000-£5,000, although there are grants available from the government if you use an accredited installer. Industry bodies reckon you’ll save £65 a year and possibly extend the life of your boiler. Most panels come with a five to 10 year guarantee. So payback could take some time.
2. Solar electricity
Solar PV or photovoltaic uses the sun’s rays to generate electricity, rather than heat water, and can provide half your home’s electricity. Apparently MP Peter Hain has had them in his home. But it’s not cheap, costing around £8,000-£18,000 to install. What’s more, the panels are much heavier than solar thermal panels and your roof needs to be strong enough to bear the weight. Friends of the Earth’s book Save Cash and Save the Planet says it makes most sense to install them if you’re already redoing your roof anyway. And, again, you’ll need to be South-facing and not have any big trees overshadowing the panels. On the plus side you’ll save around £250 a year on bills, most panels won’t require planning permission, and there are grants of up to £2,500 available from the government.
Nice idea isn’t it, your own turbine chugging away on top of the house? Makes a change from a satellite dish! There are two types – free standing and roof-mounted. The higher up your turbine, the more effective it will be. Ideally they need to be on a hill. Compared to other options, they’re cheap and cheerful at £1,500 but don’t even bother unless you live somewhere seriously windy. In fact the Energy Saving Trust suggests you employ a professional to check out your area if you’re unsure. Plus the turbine needs to be a long distance away from any obstacles in its path. At the moment there isn’t enough data available to tell what the long-term cost savings are from small turbines, although larger ones, costing around £18,000, can last for up to 22 years and, as with solar panels, excess energy stored can be sold to the grid.
4. Heat pumps
These sound like a cracking idea –as long as you don’t mind your garden being dug up and looking a mess. With ground source heat pumps, big loops – the kind you see on Grand Designs for under-floor heating – are dug into a trench and pumps then extract heat from the ground to warm your home. Alternatively, air source pumps can absorb heat from outside air and transfer it to your home. Brain aching already? The good news is that while these systems cost £7,000 to £10,000, payback is much quicker because it could save you up to £1,000 a year, although you’d need to ensure your home is properly insulated and you have the space for the loops. Again, grants are available.
The word biomass conjures up something toxic in a test tube, but it actually just refers to organic materials, whether plant or animal – biofuel in other words, which includes wood. What could be more cosy than dozing in front of a crackling fire? Burning wood is part of the carbon cycle and much greener than burning gas. That said, open fires aren’t efficient as most of the heat escapes up the chimney, but some wood burning stoves can be up to 70 per cent efficient according to Friends of the Earth. A number of you have suggested I get one, saying how cosy it is and how much you’ve saved on your fuel bills, as long as you can get hold of the logs. They cost around £2,000 to £4,000 to install.
You could also have a biomass pellet boiler. These cost £5,000-£14,000, including the cost of a flue and commissioning, but would save you just under £500 a year in bills in an electrically heated home, according to the Energy Saving Trust. But there’s the fuel cost, unless you can source pellets for free.
Out of all these options I think a wood burning stove or ground source heat pumps would be the most attractive option for DJ and I. But we live in a smoke-less fuel area so we can’t burn wood. What’s more, we don’t have the spare cash lying around to pay for heat pumps and it’s probably not worth doing unless you know you’re going to be in your current home for the next ten years.
Incidentally, these renewable energy sources are all well and good, if you own your own property. But if you rent, how could you persuade your landlord to buy into them? And if you’re in fuel poverty how can you benefit unless your housing association or council decides to install green energy. Only a big push by the government and genuine incentives, such as the possible feed-in tariffs I mentioned on Monday’s blog, will make any difference, I think.
Given the choice, which renewable source would you choose to heat your home? Are they the answer to combating rising fuel prices and climate change?