Energy challenge: Five green energy options

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.

3. Wind turbine

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.

5. Biomass

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?

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14 Responses to Energy challenge: Five green energy options

  1. Christine says:

    Piper you should talk to a showroom that sells wood burning stoves as there are ones which are suitable for smoke free zones. Housing associations/local councils are still playing catchee up in many areas to get the basics such as double glazing, modern boilers, cavity wall and loft insulation in all their properties. There is no point in moving on to the green energy that you mention until all the basics have been done. I\’m assuming that you have these basics done in your property? Now what you haven\’t mentioned is that you need to check whether you need planning permission – wind turbines will attract the attention of planners and having done a quick search you may need planning permission for solar panels in some cases but it looks as if ground heat pumps won\’t attract the planners.

  2. Christine says:

    Mind you if you install the right technology on your property it should be an investment that makes it appeal if you need to sell in the future. That\’s part of the payback if you think about it.

  3. Kerri says:

    One thing on my mind is that solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps etc etc are all very well but they seem to lean towards you needing your own roof/garden space …. what about those (and there are increasing numbers due to land shortages etc etc) living in flats? I myself live in a ground floor maisonette with communal garden and cannot imagine for one minute the other residents would take too kindly to me digging up the garden area for ground source heat, or planking solar panels on someone else\’s roof even if I did get planning permission (though perhaps both flats could share the cost/benefit of the solar panels). My point is that there are ever increasing numbers of flats more than 2 stories high, and, without stereotyping, a proportion of these are social housing. Surely someone needs to be looking into affordable green options for these properties too?

  4. Pete says:

    Neither a roof nor a garden is necessary for an air-source heat pump, only an outside wall with a free flow of air. The unit looks similar to an air-conditioning box you see on buildings. Providing suitable access to the outside wall is possible for installation, then there is no reason why an air-source heat pump should not be considered. In the same way as a domestic fridge/freezer absorbs the \’heat\’ inside the cabinet and then releases that \’heat\’ into the air, an air-pump collects the \’heat\’ in the outside air, even with temperatures below freezing, and transfers that \’heat\’ to the inside of the property providing all your heating and hot water requirements. You no longer burn any fossil fuels and the only running costs are the electricity needed to operate the system.

  5. Pete says:

    I meant to add, please contact me if you would like any information on this subject. or visit our website NSP Renewables

  6. Brian G. says:

    I think you\’ll find that heat pumps aren\’t renewables as they use electricity to run them, and you would only save that kind of figure compared to heating your house with electricity.  Gas is much cheaper than electricity and would be cheaper than using a heat pump.  The quickest payback for most houses is draught proofing and insulation.

  7. Neil says:

    With regard to living in a smokeless zone.
    I have just gone through the whole renewable energy route and yes it is mind bending!!
    We have ended up going for a Euro heat stove which is the only one accredited for use in a smokeless zone due to the fact that it burns so efficiently nearly 80% so it is possible to put on in a smoke less zone. Bring on them lazy nights in front of the log burning stove

  8. Leonard says:

    Heat pumps are the answer at this point in time. If you have the available ground space for loops or boreholes, great. If you don\’t, then air source heat pumps will still give you relatively "free" energy. I have spent some time in New Zealand, where the temperatures are very similar to the U.K. and they all use heat pumps ( mostly air sourced as they are cheaper to replace ) as it is a good source at a low cost. Once the heat pump is installed, there is very little maintenance to worry about and it\’s only the running cost of the pumps to pay for. Most Kiwis seem to just fit the units and forget about any maintenance, replacing the outdoor unit if it packs in. The cost for the whole installation over there ( equipment and installation ) is around £1,500. Here is is nearer £3,000, but is still the best way to go.
    Come on Brits! Get up to date and stop paying these inflated fuel costs!

  9. Vivian says:

    All this is fine and dandy .. what about people who live in a block of properties?  Solar anythings are a no go idea as it would require the freeholders permission and major structural alterations to enable any benefits to be spread out against inhabited properties.  Biomass is fine for old properties, very few new ones being built with a flue.  The other two stated alternatives are also a no go for block dwellers.
    How\’s about someone – somewhere coming up with something which will benefit everyone not only the house dwellers.   All the benefits from the government are aimed towards houses not apartments or maisonettes.

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  11. keith says:

    Re Solar electricity. Having had 2 systems installed from brand new in Spain – notthrough choice – I can tell you that for the most part they are extremely expensive and largely ineffective even in a sunny place like Spain let alone the UK.
    1. The minimum storage you need is 24 batteries linked together whihc gives you the grand total of 6kw. Run a fan electric fire for example for 2 hours and your batteries are empty- 6 solar panels will take about a week to recharge fully but you can only recharge to about 90% so the batteries dont overheat. Solar panels do not actually \’run\’ anything. This comes from your charged batteries or your generator which is not of course eco friendly. Want to boil a kettle, use the microwave, dp the ironing,  dishwasher, washing machine, hair dryer etc on goes the generator.
    The inverter to change the battery dc current to ac costs a lot of money around £2000 on its own but these do not produce the correct sine wave I think it is in the current so you find appliances have a much shorter life. You then get told tis by the solar companies and the inverters that produce the correct wave are about £7000 on their own.
    So anything above a light, tv,etc can be run from the panels as it will not drain the abtteries too much. Anything bigger and on goes the generator if its a washing machine cycle for maybe an hour or so.
    Not actually very green or very effective and very expensive.

  12. lisa says:

    Me personally, i like to live without power for at least 3 months of the year, that way i appreciate a hot bath and a warm house. and all the other energy powered comforts of the 21st century. Everyone it seems takes forgranted exactly how lucky we are. This would save lots of cash and do wonders for the enviroment, and wellbeing. We will be living up in the Highlands of Scotland soon where we will be using a small wind turbine. Wont be selling to the grid and will be totally self sufficent. A very small outlay for 20 odd years of energy.

  13. maria says:

    why hasnt anyone mentioned the turn everything off at night switch . instead of leaving all your electric appliants on stand by till the morning switch them all off with one major switch,you can buy it at b and q its wireless and dead easy to instal. energy saving bulbs in all your rooms also can save you around a third off your usual electricity bill,believe me it does make a difference to your pocket.its also good to shop around for the best deals on your supplers of gas and electric, if you get confused about how to sort it the citizens advice can help you wade through .

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