The Renewable Energy Centre

Jan 19 2016

Winds of change for renewable energy

Each year in January, it’s become a habit for publications to review the past year and give forecasts for the year ahead on various subjects. So what’s been said about renewable energy achievements over 2015 and the prospects for 2016?

Charity WWF Scotland analysed data from monitor WeatherEnergy to produce a report saying 2015 was “huge” for green energy in Scotland, and this was picked up by the Scottish Herald. The paper reported that Scottish wind and solar power experienced a bumper year, with wind output generating enough electricity for almost all of the country’s homes.

Just about everywhere in the UK experienced higher-than-average numbers of windy days during December and Scotland was particularly hard hit by storm damage. However, the extreme weather had a positive side – during December 2015, Scotland’s wind turbines produced enough power to supply more than 100 per cent of Scottish households on all but two days that month.

WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said that for 2015 as a whole, overall wind power output broke all previous records, generating enough to supply the electrical needs of 97 per cent of Scottish homes – or the equivalent of 41 per cent of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the year. This was up by almost a fifth year-on-year, thanks largely to an increase in installed capacity.

Onshore windfarm imageSolar power also played a major role in preventing thousands of tonnes of climate-damaging carbon emissions. Karen Robinson of WeatherEnergy said: “Despite misconceptions, Scotland has massive potential for using solar power.” Figures collected show that homes fitted with solar PV panels in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness experienced enough sunshine during April and May to generate all the electricity needs of an average home.

Mr Banks called upon all political parties in Scotland to back policies that would enable Scotland to become the EU’s first fully renewable electricity nation by 2030.

Former Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith spoke to The Guardian a week after the close of the Paris summit that resulted in a UN climate change deal to limit global warming to below 2C. He was concerned that the UK was going into reverse on renewable energy, while favouring the development of the shale gas industry. “They need to be moving along on both fronts, not just one,” Lord Smith told the newspaper.

Recent Government moves criticised by renewable energy supporters include decisions to end new public subsidies for onshore windfarms and 64% cuts to solar subsidies for small scale panels on homes.

Subsidies for onshore windfarms will now end from April 1 2016, a year earlier than set out in the previous Conservative Lib-Dem coalition agreement. The cut in subsidies for domestic solar panels was originally put forward at 87% and was softened after an outcry, but the solar industry still estimates it will cost thousands of jobs. Leonie Greene from the Solar Trade Association said: “We thought the government had listened more to our case. We are very disappointed.”

The government accepts the solar panels industry will be badly hit by the move, but insists the time has come to remove the levy from householders’ bills. Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced: “We have to get the balance right and I am clear that subsidies should be temporary, not part of a permanent business model. When the cost of technologies comes down, so should the consumer-funded support.”

Large-scale solar farms are cost-competitive, said Rudd, and solar had nearly reached grid parity. The sector is worried about a new government cap on the volume of solar installations and says it is being forced to stand on its own feet before it is ready.

Reducing billpayer support is also behind the intervention over onshore windfarms. The funding for the subsidies comes from the “renewable obligation”, raised by levies added to household fuel bills. There will be a grace period for projects that already have planning permission but Labour claims the move jeopardises 1,000 wind turbines that are awaiting planning permission and cannot make a profit without a government subsidy. In future, local communities – rather than national government – will be given the right to veto windfarms.

Overall, many business leaders and environmentalists are concerned that the UK government needs to make a major U-turn in energy policy if it is to avoid charges of hypocrisy following the commitments it made at last month’s Paris summit, when 196 countries signed the deal aimed at limiting global temperature rises to less than 2C.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told The Guardian that ministers needed to take action at home as well as making their voice heard abroad. “The government must provide a stable environment that enables investment in cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy generation, including renewable technologies and new gas plants,” she said.

Wind and marine energy trade body RenewableUK fears announcements made in 2015 have undermined Britain’s ability to meet new CO2 targets. It predicts a busy year of construction in 2016 for both onshore and offshore wind energy projects, but believes the Government’s withdrawal of financial support will severely curtail onshore schemes beyond that.

Oct 27 2015

Shaggy dog tales about power sources

As I watch my dog’s tail wagging joyously, I have often wondered (half seriously) how much green energy could be generated if a way could be found to harness such an abundant source. While accepting that a practical, animal-friendly device is highly unlikely, it set me off on a search of other wacky ideas for renewable energy.

Wagging tailOver the years, people have come up with many seemingly off-the-wall suggestions for low-carbon ways to heat buildings or fuel vehicles. These range from burning bodies and nappies, to harnessing helpful fatty acids from illness-inducing bacteria.

As is so often the case, nature can provide scientists with a starting point. Body heat is produced freely and efficiently – so why not use it as eco-friendly power? This is already happening in projects in Stockholm and Paris, and London Mayor Boris Johnson has spoken in support of a scheme to funnel excess heat from London Underground tunnels into homes. State-owned property administration company Jernhuset is using body heat from travellers using Central Station in Stockholm to warm the building and in Paris, apartments directly above a metro station near the Pompidou Centre are being kept cosy in a similar way.

Dead people – or indeed animals – can also play a role. Cremated bodies release a gas that can be captured at the filtration stage. Some pioneering UK operators have already started to pipe this through the crematorium buildings and in the future it could be extended to neighbouring properties.

If burning bodies for fuel makes you uncomfortable, then how about dirty nappies? This is being tested by a power company in Quebec, Canada. Many types of rubbish can be turned into useful by-products, including fuel gas and fuel oil, by using a process called pyrolysis. This produces very little pollution because the material is heated in a sealed, oxygen-free environment, which breaks down the molecules inside.

A drawback with most waste collected is that it is mixed and would produce inconsistent results. But if used nappies were put into a separate recycling bin, the pyrolysis plant could be fine-tuned to the plastics and fabrics known to make up disposable nappies – and to the organic deposits within them. The raw material for such a plant would be plentiful and constantly replenished.

It’s not just babies’ poo that has powerful potential. Faeces of all sorts contains methane, a colourless, odourless gas that can be used in virtually the same ways as natural gas.

Norcal Waste is providing biodegradable poo bags to dog walkers in some US cities in a scheme that powers lights by methane. The filled bags are placed into a large container called a digester where micro-organisms process the poo, giving off methane as a by-product. In Pennsylvania, it is cow manure that is helping farmers save money on electricity and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard has released a study explaining how dairy farmers could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane.

Still on waste products, scientists at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences are trying to create urine-powered fuel cells. These could prove a useful source of power for the likes of astronauts or military personnel.

Other scientists are working on ways to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell. Researchers at Virginia Tech have found that combining plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor to convert the mixture into hydrogen delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods. The hydrogen is pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Although it may be some time before sugar can be used to fuel cars (instead of being a catastrophic prank way to ruin an engine), sugar-based hydrogen batteries for small electronics is on the cards.

Mention of E.coli would send most people rushing to their GP surgery. But E.coli bacteria are another unlikely source of fuel material.

But E.coli bacteria are another unlikely source of material for transportation fuel. To see them through times when food is scarce, E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of polyester-like fatty acids. That same fatty acid, when dehydrated, is used in the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli micro-organisms to encourage them to produce a surplus of these fatty acids, which can then be turned into biodiesel.

Another more visible, but no less surprising, source of renewable energy is paint. Engineers at Swansea University are working on what is essentially a paint-on solar panel that can be applied to the type of steel panels covering many of Britain’s commercial and industrial buildings. The solar paint harnesses the sun’s energy which reacts with the steel to create a current that can be captured and used. Even taking into account Britain’s moderate sunshine levels, it is estimated that the vast amount of square-footage available could bring huge benefits.

So who knows, as researchers continue their quest for abundant sources of green energy, perhaps one day that tail wag idea might not seem so ridiculous.




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May 09 2013

New Waves in Tidal Power

Wind and wave power are my two favourite renewable technologies but they both sit at very different ends of the investment spectrum. As we all know wind power is now a significant contributor to the UK’s energy mix and I hope it will continue to increase its market share. Wave on the other hand is still very much at the development and testing stage with only two sites currently commercially operating. Wave and tidal power have really not quite made it onto the main political stage as a major solution provider for our energy needs.

As you might imagine, wave and tidal power is one of the UK’s biggest assets, being an island we have great potential to harness the power around our shores. However wave power is notoriously expensive, hard to install and the process full of regulatory challenges. According to an arTidal Kite and Turbine ticle in The Engineer magazine, the UK and Ireland have the potential to provide 20-25% of total European marine energy and could be worth £6.1billion to the UK economy.

What I do find exciting about this area of renewable energy is that there are many companies working on developing new solutions to harnessing the power of our waves and there are already many differing techniques of energy capture. Some of the more notable solutions include:

  • Surface following attenuators
  • Buoy
  • Oscillating wave surge converter
  • Underwater attenuators
  • Overtopping devices
  • Multipoint absorbers

Most of these solutions require high velocity currents to maximise energy output however a company called Minesto may have created a system which can work in lower tidal velocities in a cost efficient way.

The Deep Green is essentially a wing and a turbine which moves in a figure of eight formation. It is secured to the sea bed and due to its design can move 8-10 times faster than the current it is situated in. If proven the Deep Green could open up many more locations for tidal energy production.

The company is currently due to release a 3MW array in 2015 and a 10MW in 2016 to further prove commercial viability. I wonder whether this could be the boost that the wave and tidal power industry needs to secure more investment and move towards a more significant impact on the UK’s energy mix – only time will tell.

In order to attract developers and investment, the wave and tidal power industry has to offer a cost effective solution which has commercial viability and of course, enough power generation to make a difference.

Apr 08 2013

The Renewable Heat Incentive is delayed again

Biomass StoveSo, the wonderful ‘new world’ of the Green Deal is still in the planning stages – well it is when it comes to the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI) for domestic property owners. Another year of waiting has flown by, with the Photovoltaic Feed in Tariff (PV FIT) in full swing, and the promise of the RHI shortly to follow. It’s been nearly 2 years since the RHI was due to be launched for the domestic market and now we hear of another delay to spring 2014.

To me there seems to have been a gross miscalculation as to how quickly the RHI could be set up and implemented. Consultation after consultation seems to have continued without any decisions made or tariffs set. How hard can it be, when the FIT for PV was already in place and a good benchmark from which to follow?

I realise that there are more technologies to consider with the RHI but there is so much data available now as to what outputs can be achieved in the domestic market  and therefore what tariffs could be applied. Much of the renewable energy industry for the domestic market has been holding its breath waiting for the onslaught of new business due to the Renewable Heat Incentive… it simply hasn’t come.

In order to help keep these markets afloat the existing incentive scheme has been extended but at what cost? The Renewable Heat Premium Payment Scheme (RHPPS)  only helps with the cost of the technology – not the energy it produces.

In my view, these delays only serve to highlight the Government’s lack of commitment to schemes for individual householders to save energy and produce less CO2 emissions through the use of low carbon technology.

What can be done? Not a lot, I fear, but simply more waiting around for tariffs to be decided. What is clear is that the scheme, if it does finally launch in Spring 2014, will only have been running for a year before it’s time for a general election, when polices and legislation may completely change all over again.

In an age where renewable energy is becoming so much more important and a necessity rather than a ‘nice to have’ these delays are simply not acceptable nor are they helpful in moving the UK towards a low carbon existence or its EU commitments and targets.

Apr 03 2013

Fuel Poverty set to increase in the UK

High Thermostat ControlAs this cold weather continues, we are all spending far too much money on keeping warm at home and many people are reaching the point of fuel poverty.

According to the Independent (29th March 2013), the UK is now bottom of the Fuel Poverty League for Western Europe with 19.2% of UK homes, or 5 million households spending over 10% of their income on heating. This figure is likely to continue to rise particularly as the Warm Front programme has been axed.

Fuel poverty is a contributory factor in poor health and premature death especially amongst the elderly. Age UK reported that “those living in poorly insulated, cold homes are three times more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than those living in warmer ones”.

We would like to offer a couple of suggestions to the government to alleviate this appalling situation.

  • Domestic heating oil is now four times the price it was ten years ago and the treasury’s income from VAT has risen proportionately. Why not reduce the 5% VAT on domestic energy bills to 3% or zero, particularly where the household contains pensioners or pre-school children? It is these households that are most likely to be at home and which will suffer from poorly heated living accommodation.
  • Most low-income families live in rented housing. Unfortunately there is no incentive for landlords, particularly private landlords, to improve the insulation in their properties as they do not pay the energy bills. Why not require landlords to insulate all rented accommodation to the best standards possible, with some form of financial penalty on poorly insulated properties?

Without some changes to existing legislation fuel poverty is going to increase and without pressure on landlords to improve their properties, the ever vicious circle will continue. As a result we desperately need to update our Victorian housing stock to cope with the changing weather patterns of the future.

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Mar 25 2013

Gas Supply Rationing to save UK reserves

A31 covered in snowWith the coldest weather in 50 years, the UK is experiencing an unexpected weather front which is creating chaos when we usually are starting to look towards tulips, daffodils, sunshine and lighter nights. Well if we lost all the pipelines feeding gas into the UK – then we’d only have reserves for 12 hours of gas supply.

Is this a new crisis – well not really! It is indeed true that the UK is very low on its gas reserves but then on a normal day there is only storage to supply the UK for 20 days. Due to the cold weather the demand for gas has been five times higher than is usual at this time of year. We need not unduly panic as there are 3 shipments on their way to the UK this week. The only slight worry we had is that a gas pipeline from Belgium unexpectedly shut down last week which has caused some concern.

However unless all routes into the UK were shut off, the 36 hour reserve would then be a matter of a national crisis. Even now there are rumours of gas rationing to ease the demand over the next few weeks.

The drama has increased gas prices to a record high which may also have a bearing on how much gas is supplied to the UK but more importantly how the end user is likely to pay for this increase in fuel costs.

We have become so used to switching on lights, turning up the heating and expecting our homes to respond to our requests. All this simply points towards creating a sustainable, greener energy source to mitigate potential weakness areas such as our gas reserve. Oh wait a minute, what about wind power?! What a great solution we have, sat right on our doorsteps, to solve many of the issues with our energy security and supply.

And only last week George Osbourne was turning to more reliance on shale gas imports to keep our prices down and our homes heated. This is just one simple lesson learned which should in fact encourage the government to do exactly the opposite, and turn to wind, wave and nuclear to save our bacon when it comes to our ongoing power supply in the UK.

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Mar 22 2013

Children miss out on Climate Change Education

Climate ChangeThis week it was reported by those who like to over bake the cake, that climate change is no longer part of the curriculum for children under 15 years of age.

The outrage comes as the words ‘climate change’ are no longer specifically written as part of the curriculum for children under the age of 15. Many groups have reacted to this by stating that it is important for young children to be aware of the environmental impact of climate change before choosing their exam subjects. Also that they are aware of what climate change means and how it could affect our lives and what we can do to take action.

Although it is very important that we all understand climate change from a global perspective but also an individual one, the headlines about it being dropped from the curriculum could be seen as an over reaction. Saying that, the children themselves have started a petition to reinstate the words to the syllabus and many teachers are at a deadlock both for and against.

Having read, what I considered to be a very balanced article in the Guardian on this matter, I have to say that I felt the backlash to be somewhat excessive. Looking at the specific wording in the proposed Keystage curriculum, there seemed to be plenty of scope for the teaching of climate change both from an environmental and social perspective. Although the words themselves were omitted, there were many references to environment, recycling, sustainability etc… All of the guidelines are there to direct teachers towards particular subject matters and there is certainly room for interpretation for classes which focus on climate change within the syllabus remit.

On the flip side, reading through more recent articles, children are very much in support of including the words ‘Climate Change’, to the tune of 12,000 who have signed a petition so far. The concerns mainly focus on the Keystage 3 syllabus for geography which have dramatically reduced the emphasis on climate change.

Tim Oates who is in charge of assessing the current curriculum has defended his position by stating it is up to individual schools to decide on the level of detail they teach pupils when it comes to climate change. He stressed the importance of returning back to the knowledge of science rather than the issues of science. In addition he has also called for an earlier introduction of algebra to children under the age of 11.

My humble opinion on this matter is one of caution. For me, climate change is one of the biggest challenges both scientifically and politically to affect the world, as a whole, over the last 50 years and it can not be ignored. Looking at some of the language in the curriculum, it does leave plenty of scope for the subject to be fully addressed at every level. The difficulty comes with individual schools and teachers and their view of how important the teaching of this subject should be. This is perhaps where there will be a discrepancy in the level of knowledge and education that children will receive across the UK.

So on balance, should the words be included – yes they should. Let’s be clear, climate change will be an ongoing problem for many years to come. It is both essential for everyone, no matter what age, to understand the science behind it and the social issues too.


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Mar 12 2013

Should the UK commit to a decarbonisation target?

Green Question MarkThere has been much debate over the last few years regarding the UK’s decarbonisation programme. For those who are unsure as to what this involves, below are a few points of explanation:

  • Although the UK already has renewable energy production targets and CO2 emissions targets it is widely thought that an additional target which starts at the source of power production would help further promote the commitment to climate change
  • Every power station which produces electricity also produces CO2 emissions
  • The idea is to implement technology which reduces CO2 at source, therefore producing electricity which is decarbonised at the point of distribution
  • The ideal decarbonisation figure is an 80% reduction than that of today
  • Decarbonisation would help to stabilise electricity prices to the consumer

The political debate which has been ongoing is with regard to the current coalition government’s reluctance to include a decarbonisation target for 2030 in the Energy Bill.

Many lobbyists think the target is essential to ensure continued investment in renewable energy projects in the UK as it makes a clear statement that the country is committed to low carbon power generation. Without the target many fear that the UK will be seen as a country happy to continue polluting the atmosphere if the focus remains upon gas as the primary power source.

The target would also help encourage investment in Carbon Capture and Storage solutions for the power industry to ensure ongoing low carbon power production from fossil fuels.

It is unclear whether the real reasons for the current reluctance is down to the opinions of one man or whether there are other underlying factors. Many believe that George Osborne is the bottleneck to moving forward on the establishment of a target.

Only this week six major energy companies jointly wrote a strongly worded letter in full support of setting a decarbonisation target as soon as possible.

So what is the upshot of all this? Why is it so important to add another target to those already in place. In my view it’s clear that time is moving forward and the options for changes within certain timeframes are reducing. These changes are not being made in time to support investment or to continue meeting the demand for electricity in the UK using renewable or low carbon solutions.

From what I have seen, the UK has always been able to meet a deadline. We have made some drastic changes country-wide over the years such as the move from town gas to North Sea gas and the implementation of new money. So where there is certainly a will do get things done, there is a way to meet the deadline.

My view is to get on with it and set the deadline and start the process of making the production of electricity a low carbon power across the board.

Feb 26 2013

The two sides to our listed buildings planning system

Pushme-pulleyu - credit BBCWhen Hugh Lofting created the Pushmi-Pullyu in The Story of Dr. Dolittle, he accidentally hit upon the perfect model for certain aspects of our listed buildings planning system.

As anyone who has a listed property, or is in a conservation zone, AONB or National Park will testify, the listed buildings planning system and regulations can be puzzling and highly frustrating at times.

Even though we are being encouraged to insulate to save energy, some planning authorities still insist that single-glazed sash or leaded windows cannot be replaced by double glazing. This is despite the fact that modern double-glazed units can look the same, are aesthetically pleasing and many times more energy efficient. Gone are the days when double glazing had to be the ugly white PVC units of twenty years ago. With so many UK houses falling under the listed buildings planning system, these issues will continue to cause many homeowners and planning officers much time and trouble.

I have always thought that churches must be a perfect candidate for solar heating or photovoltaics. Because they are always built East-West every one has a south-facing roof, they are generally tall enough so that they are not shaded by trees or buildings, and they always seem to be freezing cold in winter. In addition many churches struggle to fund the maintenance of their buildings and so this would be an easy solution and a cost effective measure ongoing to keep the water hot or the lights on.

But the Pushmi-Pullyu’s of some planning authorities object on aesthetic grounds even when the panels cannot be seen from the ground!

So is there a way forward for these planning conundrums? Looking at the current state of play, it is unlikely, and so just like the Pushme Pulleyu’s – local planning departments may continue to have two heads trying to move in opposite directions!

Feb 18 2013

The Wind Power Results are in!

It was reported recently in the Guardian that Wind Power Farm2012 saw another great leap forward for the wind power industry, not only in the UK but across the globe. A 20% growth was seen in 2012 totalling 45GW of power. Top of the pops were the USA and China installing 13GW each.

To be fair this is not something I thought would have been the case. China is still pretty active when it comes to fossil fuel power stations as they are still much cheaper for them to build and run than renewables.

However wind is doing its part when it comes to cost and in Australia it is now cheaper to build a wind farm than a coal fired power station. Obviously costs can vary significantly depending on the country but the overall prognosis looks very promising as time moves on.

Both China and the US have been slow to gain ground with regard to climate change and renewable energy but clearly seem to have embraced wind power as an effective means of generation.

Just this week, Obama is under pressure in his State of the Union address to commit to an aggressive climate change strategy and to assure Americans that the effects and consequences of excessive carbon emissions are already happening.

For such a small land mass, the UK sits 6th in the world for the amount of installed wind power and currently leads the table with regard to offshore capacity. This is a good story for the UK after recently falling foul of the European Court of Justice for failing to comply with new EU energy regulations.

Although the push to decrease global carbon emissions is now on the agenda, there is still a long way to go and despite these very positive figures, the overall investment to renewable energy production decreased by 11% over the course of 2012.

Much of the decrease can be attributed to some countries feeling the pinch from the ever changing economic situation, so although the decrease could be seen as disturbing, I hope that as and when the economy improves the renewable energy roadmap will be back on track.

It is however safe to say that there is still a very long way to go and even now there is still some debate and denial about the severity of the situation in some countries. I think it is plain to see that the effects of climate change are slowly creeping in and will only get worse. The demands of the last century on the natural resources of this planet have certainly contributed and will continue to do so.

Is there a case for pushing reduced global emissions and a renewable energy production target which is much more aggressive – I am pretty sure there is!

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