The term ‘renewable energy’ is frequently used in the news and media — but what does it mean, how is the energy used and how can you generate your own?
You almost can't go a day without hearing in the news something about ‘renewable energy’. Large energy companies are embracing renewable technologies, and smaller scale renewable energy projects are cropping up in homes and communities. But what, exactly, does ‘renewable’ mean, how is it being used, and how can you generate your own renewable power?
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If you're interested in renewable energy, odds are you might want to look at a list of green energy plans. We have a guide for that right here.
Renewable energy sources
Renewable energy refers to any power source that can be replenished, from sunlight and wind to tidal, wave and geothermal power. Whilst the oldest renewable energy sources are biomass, solar energy has been with us for far longer than many of us realise.
However, it is only in recent years that solar power has gained in popularity, particularly for domestic use in the UK — although solar power stations do exist in other parts of Europe and the United States.
Wind power is also growing in popularity, but primarily on large-scale wind farms for industrial-scale production. The UK is now the sixth-largest wind producer after the industry received significant backing from the government, and the largest offshore wind farm now resides in the UK.
The main benefit of using renewable energy is to reduce your carbon footprint.
Large-scale renewable energy production
Under the Renewables Obligation (RO) of 2002, UK energy suppliers are obliged to generate an increasing amount of their energy from renewable sources.
In 2013, 8% of all energy produced by energy suppliers came from renewable sources. The aim is to raise that figure to 15.4% by 2016, and 34% by 2020.
If you want to make sure you only get energy from renewable sources you have three options: choose a green energy plan; choose a green supplier; or generate your own renewable energy. ‘Green’ plans are special energy plans provided by most by most energy suppliers, but they can mean different things.
The best plans are those that match all the energy you use with an equivalent amount of renewable energy generation that they pump back into the grid. Although, these plans are often slightly more expensive.
Some other plans, often referred to as ‘light green’, will guarantee to contribute money to renewable projects, or pay for carbon offset projects like planting trees. Whichever green plan you opt for, make sure it is certified by Ofgem’s Green Energy Certification Scheme.
If you are looking for a green energy supplier, as opposed to a green plan, your best bet is the fuel mix tables which energy suppliers are obliged to produce.
The only supplier in the UK that is 100% renewable is Good Energy, followed by Ecotricity (64.3%). It’s also worth noting that some suppliers may refer to nuclear energy as green.
Renewable energy in the home
Low-carbon production at home is a great way to save money and reduce your carbon footprint, and thanks to the government’s Feed-in Tariff scheme, they are more popular than ever.
The Feed-in Tariff scheme provides a financial incentive by paying you for generating your own renewable energy, as well as using it yourself and saving you money on your energy bills. While the scheme is available for most renewable energy production around the home it is most popular for solar PV and wind turbines.
Solar PV panels
Solar panels on homes are growing in popularity, and for good reason. Solar energy is a free resource, so the only major cost comes at installation. And, with its growth in popularity, installation costs have been coming down.
A typical system of 3.5kWp to 4kWp costs around £7,000 to install — but make sure you shop around and get a number of quotes as costs can vary significantly. A system like that can generate about 3,000 kilowatt hours worth of power, or around a quarter of your home’s annual energy needs.
But, if you qualify for the Feed-in Tariff scheme you could also earn upwards of £600 a year. You will also receive more for any energy you don’t use and export back to the grid.
To be eligible for the scheme you have to show your home’s Energy Performance Certificate, which will in turn determine the rate you are eligible for - the more energy-efficient your home the better the rate you will get.
You will also need to maintain your panels by cleaning them of any dust or leaves, and making sure they aren’t blocked by over-hanging trees. You can read more about this on our dedicated solar panels guide pages.
Wind turbines are also growing in popularity, which is hardly surprising considering 40% of all wind in Europe blows over the UK. Larger, pole-mounted wind turbines – the most effective kind – can be expensive, costing between £15,000 and £22,000 to install, but a larger, 6kWh system can generate up to 10,000kWh, and should also eligible for the Feed-in Tariff scheme.