Renewable energy sources - uSwitch.com

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If you'd like to get involved in microgeneration, then these frequently asked questions will help you decide which is the most suitable renewable energy source for your home and lifestyle.

If I want to generate renewable energy, does it matter what type of property I live in?

The type of property you live in does influence whether or not you will be able to generate your own energy.

There are limited opportunities for generating renewable energy in a flat, unless you have access to and control of the roof.

There is also the small possibility that you can install a microCHP (combined heat and power) boiler, but your heat needs are likely to be so small that you might not be able to justify running your microCHP in order to generate electricity.

The best option might be to install energy efficiency measures, to buy green electricity, and even green gas.

Should I consider energy efficiency measures or renewable energy measures first?

Before you embark on any installation of renewable energy measures in your home, remember that energy efficiency should take priority over renewable energy. In terms of cost and carbon reduction, cutting down on the amount of energy you use is the better option.

Try some of these measures first:

  • Ensure you have roof, floor and, where appropriate, cavity wall insulation, and that your home is draught-proofed to be as airtight as possible.

    Find out more about insulation.

  • All your lighting should be low energy - compact fluorescent or LED.

  • Make sure your refrigeration and laundry appliances are energy-efficient.

  • If you have a gas supply and your boiler is more than about fifteen years old, you should invest in replacing your boiler first.

Even the more expensive energy efficiency measures - such as solid wall insulation - are likely to give a better return than renewable energy, even when you take into account Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) and the planned Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

Does the orientation of my house affect my ability to generate energy?

The orientation and angle of your roof is important if you want to install solar electricity (PV or photovoltaics) or solar hot water (SHW).

If you have a pitched (sloping) roof that faces roughly south, then solar electricity (PV) is an option. The steeper the angle of your roof, the more it's suited to generating electricity or hot water in summer. The lower the angle, the more suited it is to making the most of limited sunlight in winter, when the sun does not get so high in the sky. Sometimes even a south-facing wall will work.

Roofs that face east of south will generate more hot water or electricity earlier in the day - although in the case of hot water, probably not in time for a bath or shower when you get up - and those facing more to the west will generate more later in the day.

I've heard that I would need an outbuilding for a biomass boiler, is this true?

Wood and other biomass takes up a lot of space, and unlike gas, oil or LPG, cannot be piped to a boiler. Therefore, unless you have a cellar a biomass (wood) boiler is not well suited to being indoors.

Installing it in an outhouse or cellar works well because it frequently needs feeding with fuel - biomass has a low energy density when you take into account the volume or space it takes up. Some biomass boilers have automatic gravity feeds which can keep the boiler fuelled for several hours of continuous use, so a cellar might be appropriate.

Does it matter what type of roof I have if I want to install solar electricity?

Solar pholtovoltaic (PV) panels can be installed on top of your existing roof. If your roof is in need of repair, you can cut the cost of installing photovoltaics (PV) or solar electricity by installing PV tiles instead of ordinary roof tiles.

Renewable energy sources

If your whole roof needs replacing, then perhaps it can be reoriented to suit PV - although, this would probably need planning permission and would be a costly exercise.

Does the size of my property affect my ability to install renewable energy measures?

The amount of land you have does affect your ability to install some of the renewable energy options. For example, you will need a large garden if you want to fit a ground-source heat pump, as it requires long circuits of pipes buried in trenches a metre or more deep.

You will also need plenty of space to store wood and other biomass if you want to install a biomass boiler.

The size of your garden is not important if you want to install solar electricity (PV) or solar hot water panels - in this case it's your roof orientation that is most critical.

My property is surrounded by large trees, will I still be able to generate my own energy?

Unfortunately, lots of trees may block out the light for solar electricity and solar hot water, and might reduce wind speeds for a micro-wind turbine, so installing them would be less worthwhile.

Likewise, if you're surrounded by tall buildings it may reduce your chances of making solar or wind energy projects effective.

What type of location is best for a wind turbine?

A hilly or exposed location, especially near the coast, is best for wind generation. Locations in the north or west of Britain tend to be the most suitable.

Urban locations are generally less well-suited, as buildings disrupt air flows. However, whether it's worth installing a wind turbine depends on the wind speeds at your own precise location.

I have a pond in my garden, does this mean I can install a water source heat pump?

If you want to install a water source heat pump you will need to have a large body of water on your property. A small body of water, such as a pond, would be unsuitable as the pump will chill the water and affect its ability to support plants and wildlife.

If you have a fast running stream going through your property then you may be able to install a micro-hydro turbine to utilise the 'fall' of water in the stream.

Does my location in the UK make a difference to my chances of installing a successful renewable energy scheme?

Yes, your location will make a difference. Generally, the further north or west in Britain that you are, the better it's for wind - although, it's very dependent upon wind-speeds at you exact location, with hilly and coastal locations being best.

The south of England is better for solar electricity and solar hot water, with Cornwall and Devon fairing best. This is not because of the air temperature but due to the position of the sun in the sky and the fact that there is generally less cloud cover.

My property doesn't have mains gas, should I consider renewable energy as an alternative to oil?

If you don't have mains gas, then renewable energy - especially for heat - is well worth considering over oil, which is a high cost and high carbon option.

Payments under the Renewable Heat Incentive will focus on 'off-gas' locations first. Therefore, it's a good idea to investigate whether ground source heat pumps, biomass boilers, or solar hot water are suited to your home and check the latest information about subsidies from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

My property backs on to a wood so I'm considering installing a biomass boiler, are they expensive to run?

If you have access to a free or cheap source of scrap wood, this can be used in many biomass boilers and may improve the return on your investment if you install one.

Likewise, if you have access to woodland and have the right to collect branches or fallen trees, this will make installing a biomass boiler more cost effective.

You will need suitable space and facilities to store and dry (season) the wood for several months if it's 'fresh' or 'green'.

I've heard that there are good returns from investing in renewable electricity, how does this work?

If you have savings, it's possible that under the Feed-in Tariff you may get a better return on your money by investing in renewable electricity than putting it into a savings account.

So, it's worth checking whether technologies like wind, solar electricity (PV or photovoltaics), micro-hydro and microCHP (combined heat and power) are suited to your home, and calculating whether this is a viable use of your savings.

We run a small business from home and use a lot of hot water, does this make the case for solar hot water stronger?

If you use lots of hot water - for example, because of a medical condition or running a small business from your home - then the savings you make from installing a solar hot water system could be greater, thereby reducing the payback period. Most solar hot water panel suppliers will be able to work this out for you.

Are there any subsidies available from the government that I can claim for installing a renewable energy scheme?

As a way to incentivise households to adopt renewable energy systems, the government has a Clean Energy Cash Back policy.

Rather than giving an upfront subsidy for installation, the scheme works by paying a 'Feed-in-Tariff' (FiT) for each kWh of electricity you produce, regardless of whether you use the electricity yourself or feed it into the National Grid.

The tariff varies depending on the source, size and type of installation you have, but in all cases it's paid for 25 years. Also, you must use an approved installer, so make sure you are aware of all the facts before you install a renewable energy scheme.

Small-scale low-carbon electricity technologies currently eligible for Feed-in Tariffs are:

  • Wind

  • Solar photovoltaics (PV)

  • Hydro

  • Anaerobic digestion

  • Domestic scale microCHP, with a capacity of 2 kW or less.

What is the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and is there a way I can benefit from this?

The Renewable Heat Incentive runs along the same lines as the 'Feed-in Tariff' - it's intended to incentivise the installation of renewable heat generating schemes, such as solar heat and solar hot water schemes, biomass boilers and water source heat pumps.

At the moment this incentive is only available to the commercial sector, but the government is planning to introduce similar payments to the domestic sector in October 2012 known as the Green Deal - anyone who has installed renewable heat since 15 July 2009 will qualify, provided it's an eligible installation. The payments will not, however, be backdated.

In the interim, the government is planning a short-term support scheme aimed at households who are off the gas grid. This is called the Renewable Heat Premium Payment Scheme and will involve upfront payments to help with equipment and installation costs.

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