09/11/09 This post is an item I put together at the time when the Stern report was issued. It is interesting to see that a number of the issues I raised here have already been addressed, – but it may be useful to see what else remains that could usefully be carried out.
GENO-Green energy now option.
A layperson’s perspective on overcoming the barriers to action on Climate Change and the home.
When it comes to Climate Change we are suffering from a collective case of learned helplessness.
We know it Climate Change is happening, we know that we should be doing something, and most people would actively like to play a part in improving the situation, but we are not sure what should be done. Acting alone is costly and ineffective. So it is simply easier to do nothing until the picture becomes clearer.
I have used this brief document to look at some of the things that have been stopping me from taking action on making my house as green as possible, and at some ways in which these barriers may be overcome, on an affordable basis, for large numbers of people.
I would hope that the committee can produce clear guidelines about where people should focus their energies, and direct us to effective methods of overcoming inertia.
What about the existing housing stockClear guidelines are beginning to emerge with regard to making new build domestic and commercial building sustainable within a period of time. This is easy to enforce through planning consents. Are the new guidelines going to apply to extensions and loft conversions?
Working to maximise the efficiency of the existing housing stock is much more difficult.
Overcoming the inertia may become easier if we understand the barriers to action.
If I look at my own situation, I have a 1930’s semi, with a large expanse of south facing roof. I have done the simple stuff like replacing my boiler, and placing thermostats on my radiators, I will need to replace most of my windows this year for something more thermally efficient, because they are past repairing. I have replaced all the light bulbs except the ones with the dimmer switch. I am told that suitable bulbs for this exist, but there are none in the local shops.
The loft is a different matter. It was insulated about 20 years ago, but it needs doing again. That sounds like a perfectly simple job until you consider what I actually have in my loft, and the fact that clearing it would take at least a week of full time work, several skips, and would fill the house with all the items that I have been deliberately not thinking about for years. It would take some definite outside influence to make me see the job of insulating the loft as being my main priority for a week. It might also take an appropriate offer of reasonably priced assistance to make the job possible.
I am also uncertain if I want to continue using the loft purely for storage, or if we are going to stay for the long term in which case I should do a loft conversion which would require major work on the roof, and a different solution to insulation. This uncertainty has now persisted for several winters, during which the loft has remained inadequately insulated!
My own requirement for both electricity and hot water is unusually heavy, because I run a small food business from home. I would like to install sufficient solar panels to make me largely self sufficient for water heating and or electricity production, but the current long pay back periods on these makes it difficult to justify this in case we end up having to move to accommodate the growing business.
I am not clear if the technology to make the best use of solar energy is already with us, or if there are new products just around the corner that would make it better, or possibly cheaper to wait. The largely unregulated nature of the solar panel industry also means that I do not feel confident that I can get independent advice.
Doing the simple stuff first.I ought to insulate my loft. There are probably many other people in this situation. Are there any good practice examples of local initiatives which have been effective in building collective impetus?
Going into a street with a batch of portable sheds and skips, and with a team of people on hand to organise the process would make it possible to get the stuff out of the lofts, sort it, carry out the insulation process, dump loads of stuff in the skip, put the stuff for storage back in the loft, and then move the circus on to the next street.
Mixed messages from the Government The message coming from the government at present about micro production of renewable energy is confusing. The existence of grants implies that it is recognised as beneficial for people to install solar panels and wind turbines. The imbalance of grants to demand indicates ambivalence and is clearly creating problems for the renewable industries. Is it worth doing or not?
Is it worth putting in renewable energy equipment. What does worth mean?
Central to this is a confusion about the question “Is it worth putting in small scale renewable energy equipment?” This question combines two totally different questions which need to be separated out. The first one is “Will the use of small scale renewable energy, (either now in the current state of the technology or just round the corner with new developments in the pipe line) make a meaningful difference in reducing carbon emissions.” The second one is “does it make financial sense to install small scale renewable energy equipment”. If we are in a position where installing solar is the right thing to do from a technical point of view, but we are not doing it because the sums don’t add up, then it requires a creative way of re-structuring the finances. (see section on funding below!) In the past the priority would have been to do what made sense financially. Now for most people the priority is to do what is required to reduce carbon output.
Where do we stand with the technology?Clearly there is now a real incentive for people to put energy into developing new technology. Do we have a clear picture of how we stand with this? Is the current generation of photovoltaic systems and water heating systems about as good as it will be, or should we be waiting for something which is just around the corner?
Is the money being spent on research adequate?
Are interesting systems being rejected because of the current state of financial support to buy systems?
Technology and inspiration.New technological breakthroughs (like the mirror project in Spain) are an inspiration. They give people some much needed hope. We need to hear about these. We particularly need to hear about the technology that is appropriate for this country.
The planning barrier. Having to apply for planning permission is another barrier to using renewable technology. How is this being approached? Is there now a presumption that permission should be given? Should this go further with area initiatives.(If x% in an area sign up to install panels then waive planning regulations?)
Building the expertise
Do we have enough people who know how to advise, particularly on individual solutions that are appropriate for different houses. Do we have enough tradesmen who are qualified to fit systems, and if not is there a training requirement?
Housing condition survey
Does the most recent Housing Condition survey carry any useful information about the thermal efficiency of the housing stock, related to different property ages.
Does this question need to be addressed any differently in the next survey. Do we need to set guidelines on the optimum way of “greening” different types of property.
How much should the technology be costing?
The costs of solar technology are currently high, because there is relatively low take up, the industry is dealing with the stop start effect of the grant system and there are the high overheads of small businesses. Do we have information on how much the technology actually needs to cost? Are the profit levels higher than they need to be? Will bulk installations bring prices down? Do guidelines need to be given?
The price of electricity feed back.
There is some discussion about the prices currently being paid by electricity companies for electricity sold back to the grid from photovoltaic systems. In this country the electricity companies typically charge much more for electricity that they sell than they pay for electricity that they buy. This is not the case in Germany, and that is seen as one reason why micro generation is much more prevalent there.
Currently, even with the input of grants when they are available the long pay back period on solar panels means that “it is not worth installing solar” unless we are pretty certain of staying put. Though people really like the idea of producing carbon free energy they will tend not to do it if there is a risk that they may not get their money back.
If the costs of installing solar can be treated in a different way this barrier can be overcome.
Currently costs are a one off payment by the home owner at the point of installation. The benefits in carbon reduction are an immediate and continuing drop in carbon production and the benefits in financial terms are in the reduction of fuel bills and in the case of photo voltaic cells, in the sale of electricity produced.
This method of funding means that it is only possible for people who can afford to put in a lump sum or can carry the risk of the long term payback period to go for the solar option, which means we are effectively providing subsidies for the moderately well off to provide themselves with low cost energy, and missing out on the potential of using small scale solar as a major provider of energy
The funding barrier could potentially be overcome by changing the basis of funding. The current system is about adding value to a property, for the benefit of the individual.
The funding system that I propose would uncouple the costs and benefits from the individual and link it to the property. It would replace the grants and up front costs with a long term low cost loan, (underwritten by the government, but administered by utilities? BP? Co-operative bank?) This would be structured to be paid back at a speed related to the cost savings on conventional energy. (the speed of pay back would be informed by the costs of installation, and by the buy back price on electricity). Repayments would take the form of a green utility bill. If a property is sold before the payback period is complete, then the outstanding green utility payments pass on with the property to the new owner.
The loan should perhaps include a sum for insurance and maintenance of the equipment.
With a new funding structure installing renewable energy becomes financially neutral and means that it is affordable to people with limited means, or people who do not know how long they will be able to stay in their property.
Rolling out GENO – Green Energy Now Option.
With the large level of debt that people carry, loans are not attractive, even if in the case of the proposed green utilities loans, servicing the loan is in direct of the cost saving on conventional energy.
GENO is the best I can do so far in terms of packaging the option. This might serve as a working title until someone comes up with something better!
I think the best approach to GENO is to start on a modest scale with pilot projects in one or more towns.
It would be an interesting exercise to start this with neighbourhood clusters, where 5-10-20 neighbours opt into a green energy project. There should be a requirement to contact all immediate neighbours so that they have the chance to opt in, or to object. Where there are no objections there should be no need for planning permissions? (working on small scale neighbourhood groups may throw up other options like ground pump energy or larger wind turbines?)
Doing the basics like insulating the loft would be a prerequisite for getting GENO funding, and having the clusters would allow the installer to offer a competitive price.
Confidence can be built by ensuring that installers with access to GENO are quality approved and operating within cost guidelines. The individual GENO tariff and payback period will relate to the work done on each individual property, or to a portion of any joint projects.
Publicity related to the pilot projects, together with the visibility of panels appearing on roof tops, should generate enough interest to keep opt ins coming.
If the results of the pilot projects are positive, then there could be a move to link new mortgage approvals, on properties that do not have green energy, to GENO uptake.
A register of green or GENO properties should be kept so that eventually a mop up project can be carried out.
Potential for rebate
As more systems are installed the prices of production and installation will fall. The price of conventional energy will rise and the price that electricity companies will pay for buying back electricity will rise. This will mean that the pay back time on new installations will fall. If this fall becomes significant it would be fair to build in the provision for a rebate GENO pioneers.