Running on sun… by proxy?

On several occasions, I’ve visited businesses that are known for their sustainability work, and I’ve seen that they don’t have all the ‘eco’ features that you might expect. Why don’t they have solar panels? A rainwater collection system? Light pipes? (There are quite a lot of other architectural improvements I might list.) The reason they can’t have these things is often because they’re working out of rented premises, and this means they can’t put in all the equipment that they might otherwise have done.

Some ‘eco’ businesses choose to buy their energy on a tariff that promises renewable generation, in an effort to regain some of the lost ground. That reduces the damage to their ‘green’ image a little, but… what if you could have solar panels by proxy? Who says a solar panel has to be on the roof of your building, just because you funded its installation? Energy is just a commodity, readily fed into the grid and then used wherever it’s needed. Money – the return on your solar investment – is even more readily stored and transmitted.

Understand this: the big ‘sustainability crunch’ of the early 21st century is going to be all about energy. We’re facing a crisis because a succession of UK governments have failed to face up to difficult, long-term questions. Issues such as energy security (what to do if that nice Mr Putin decides to cut gas supplies next winter) and climate change (the extent to which we can afford to disregard our Kyoto Protocol obligations) have to vie with popularity (few people vote for the party that puts a nuclear power station in their neighbourhood) and simple economics.

Renewable energy is interesting to some, although in many cases the payback period is formidable. It’ll be interesting to see if investment in renewables harms liquidity in the years to come, but even if a person or business has money to spend and is entirely happy for it to be tied up for decades, not everyone can join in the ‘dash’ for renewables.

Piggy bank, and solar panels

Solar energy: money for nothing, or the longest of long-haul investments?

Would I want to have an array of solar panels on the roof of my home in rainy Yorkshire, looking desperately out of place on a 200-year-old building? Not really – and since it doesn’t have a south-facing roof, its energy-generating potential is somewhat limited. Despite all this, the investor in me is attracted to the idea of putting my money into a renewable energy scheme.

Enter CloudSolar, slogan: “No roof? No problem.” Given the negative effect that cloud cover has upon solar generation, the name is obviously one of those immune to irony things, but the basic premise is intriguing: just because you want to buy a solar panel, why should you have to find a place for it? Instead, buy a micro-share in a solar farm and have them take care of siting and maintaining it.

Solar panels on a home

Environmentally sound. Aesthetically… not so good!

CloudSolar take a 20% cut for what they do, and they plan to send you a payment (the other 80% of the money received for the sale of ‘your’ electricity) every three months for twenty-five years.

Each panel, rated at 250 watts, is priced at US$750. (Is that good? A quick search suggests that a branded 250W panel currently goes for about £207/$325 on the Internet, but that’s for the panel itself, without the associated equipment, the installation, or the place to put it.) For those with a different amount to invest, CloudSolar offer discounts on multiple panels, and half- and quarter-sized ones are also available. A key feature of the deal is that you own the panels that you buy; if circumstances change, it seems you can claim your property back. Meanwhile, the panels are guaranteed for twenty-five years, after which they can remain in place as long as they function. That 20% fee also covers them against theft, and damage.

This could be huge. Even if people only manage to invest a small amount, a sufficient number of citizens could put a big hole in carbon emissions from electricity generation. If CloudSolar are right in their claim that over 25 years, one of their panels will deliver enough electricity to run an average household for seven months, that means you’d need 43 of the things in order to operate a carbon neutral home. (In simplistic terms, not including however many more you’d need to offset the carbon from the manufacture, installation and servicing of your share of the solar farm…) Still, it’s a start; and 43 CloudSolar panels would only cost you $32,250… which isn’t much money, compared to the price of a house nowadays. (The average UK house price is around £192,000, which is $303,000.) Best of all, they’re not just asking people to give up all that money in order to be ‘green’; they’re inviting them to make an investment that pays real dividends.

CloudSolar promotional information

CloudSolar don’t guarantee a return on investment, but their business model is refreshingly different [image: CloudSolar]

The technology is nothing new, but the business model is intriguing – and far better than those ‘plant a tree to offset your guilt’ schemes that are just about completely unregulated.

I’m not suggesting that any reader should pursue the CloudSolar option: like any major investment, you ought to speak to your financial advisor before you take the plunge. Might CloudSolar go bust? I have to wonder if they’d prove to be like every double glazing firm I’ve ever done business with; you know, the ones that close down around the time that the warranty claims begin…

Are they offering a reasonable deal? You’d have to get a professional to read the small print. The currently unspecified charges for having CloudSolar remove your panels and ship them to you might come as a nasty surprise; I really couldn’t say. Also, while you’re free to invest in an American solar farm if you want to, you might find that there are financial incentives to a home-grown solar solution: if you’re in the UK you should have a look at the Energy Saving Trust’s information.

A setback for CloudSolar came when crowdfunding service Indiegogo shut down their campaign, refunding over $440,000 to the backers. This was because the CloudSolar campaign breached Indiegogo rules by inviting backers to participate in a profit-sharing scheme… but what had originally been a successful campaign, comfortably exceeding its target, seems likely to resurface. Even if crowdfunding doesn’t offer a route to investment, it’s clear that a lot of people want what they’re offering.

Solar enthusiast homeowners who have a suitable roof might also want to investigate A Shade Greener, whose business model is to fit solar panels entirely free: this means that they benefit from the governmental feed-in tariff, not you… but when you’re in the house you get to use whatever the panels deliver for free – and the rest of the time, the surplus electricity they sell is at least preventing some greenhouse gas emissions.

So many different business models! I suspect that the price of grid electricity can only head upwards for the next couple of decades as the older nuclear and perhaps coal plants get decommissioned; running on sun (one way or another) is looking increasingly attractive, and it’s becoming easier to do, at last.

Impressions of Sustainability Live

As I contemplated the scale of the event, I recalled that moment in ‘Jaws’ where Roy Scheider comments, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” I found myself in a similar situation: Sustainability Live 2015 is huge. That it’s co-located with UtilityWeek Live in an adjacent hall only increases the load upon our synapses.

The two events’ workshops and seminars are grouped into about half a dozen thematic areas, covering subjects such as water, energy recovery, energy efficiency and so on. This helped a bit, because it meant I had a fighting chance of being in the right place at the right time… but of course I could only be in one place, so at least five sixths of the seminars went unheeded. Also, I was only there for day one of the three, so things were bound to be missed. We should have sent a small army of researchers. Anyway, here’s the first of my reports arising from the event…

On the decarbonisation of energy

In the ‘Energy Theatre’ this afternoon John Scott, Director at Chiltern Power, chaired an interesting session entitled ‘Whole system approach to decarbonisation of energy’.

I think of moves towards ‘green’ energy as a good thing… but that’s because I’m not the person who has to deal with the consequences. As a result of the session, I now understand something about how clean energy poses challenges for the grid because of intermittent supply, and reverse flows. You put solar panels on the roof of your building, and you start feeding energy into the grid… at least, until it gets cloudy. Or until you start running a piece of equipment that demands a large amount of energy. All of a sudden you’re not a supplier, but a customer… and the grid doesn’t get any advance warning. Intermittent supply and reverse flows are not good.

UK energy flow chart for 2007

In the session I learned something new: this is an Energy Flow Chart, detailing the inputs and outputs of the UK energy sector. Of particular interest to me are the losses. Click to have a closer look.

Imagine that electric vehicles take off in a big way, and hundreds of people in a district have them plugged in. Being ‘smart’, the cars know not to recharge themselves when the variable price of electricity is highest, so they wait until a period of lower demand and then commence their recharge. That’s a good thing, surely? A way to achieve load balancing? Well… no. It would be just like those software agents that play the stock market, with no human intervention. When the price of the commodity falls, all the electric vehicles would pounce at once, resulting in a surge in demand that no source of supply can meet. According to the panel, if an estimated 5% of our vehicles were electric and were programmed to act in this way, the disruption would be enough to crash the national grid.

That’s not a crash of the kind that Microsoft puts me through with depressing regularity: it’s a wide-area outage that would take two or three days to recover from – and we’re moving into a period of increased risk of a “crash and reboot”, says Dr Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald. Part of the problem here is the disconnect between the timescale on which the energy system evolves, and the timescale for the products it serves. Simon Harrison’s unit of measure was the parliament; cars last up to three parliaments, aircraft last five and trains six.

One suggested goal was to have de-carbonised UK electricity by 2030 (three parliaments…) but we have no idea what devices the grid of 2030 will be powering. Present-day laptops and mobile ’phones only last half a parliament or so, meaning that there will be a lot of iterations between now and then. But how “smart” will they be, and can they be persuaded to operate with the needs of the grid in mind?

New pylon design

A recent design competition yielded this new design for electricity transmission pylons. In future, the grid will be a much more intricate entity, supporting a diverse mix of sources of generation  [picture: Peter Trimming]

Who decides on the formats by which these devices communicate, and the technologies that are most appropriate? We’re seeing disruptive changes to the established system of regulation, John Scott warns, and we can’t simply leave it to the market to find solutions. Market-led developments add to the problems because you get bespoke solutions, not inter-operable ones.

Undoubtedly, technological developments will improve performance and reduce costs… but the downside of this is ever-increasing complexity: future energy systems are going to be much more vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and supply, and you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.

Personally, I think they’re going to need a bigger boat.

Dude… where’s my wind turbine?

When serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, MP, said that “the battle to deal with climate change needs to be fought like World War Three.”

Let’s pursue that analogy for a little bit. In a democracy, how do citizens fight a world war? Along with all the things you might expect, such as volunteering or ‘digging for victory’, one of the most important things that can be done to support the war effort is to provide money – typically by buying war bonds.

In the First World War, my ancestors would have been found buying war bonds at the ‘Tank Bank’. This was a touring display of the weapon that promised to overcome the deadlock of trench warfare, and the people on the home front went nuts for them: during the course of the war over £2 billion was raised. (This is a good time to mention the bonds, since the 3½% War Loan is finally to be redeemed, in its entirety, on March 9th of this year. A century is quite long enough to borrow money for, don’t you think?)

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

After the success of the Tank Banks, in the Second World War came the Spitfire Fund: towns and counties raised money to fund the production of warplanes.

“If you buy it I’ll fly it” – buying Spitfires in World War II

“I’ll fly it if you’ll buy it,” – donating towards Spitfires at a shop given over to fundraising

So, here we are in the opening stages of what Hilary Benn described as World War Three, but the people in my community don’t appear to be clubbing together to buy machinery that could ‘win the war’. In particular I’m thinking of the wind turbine: a machine that has the potential to provide some of our energy on a clean, renewable basis. Conjuring power from thin air: what’s not to love?

It seems strange to me that some of my fellow citizens dislike wind turbines to the point where they club together to protest against their installation. They’re not being asked to part with their hard-earned cash (at least, not directly), nor even to give up their land; only to have turbines placed where they might have to look at them, sometimes.

"Painful facts about wind energy"

Information displayed on a Facebook group opposing wind farm construction where I live.

I wish I could describe their efforts as quixotic, which is to say idealistic and unworldly. We derive the word from Don Quixote, adopted name of the principal character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes that dates back to 1605. Poor, deluded Don Quixote believes (among various other things) that the thirty or forty windmills he sees on the plains are marauding giants: he charges them, and ends up unhorsed.

“Tilting at windmills,” we call it… but the efforts of the NIMBYs are not entirely quixotic. They’ve been highly successful. Like would-be invaders, the wind turbines have been driven quite literally into the sea, condemned to an offshore existence where difficulties in installation, servicing and power transmission mean they are far less cost-effective. (And still some people complain that they don’t like looking at them, on the horizon.)

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

The appeals to buy war bonds in the two World Wars were each centred upon an iconic and popular product, whereas the wind turbine seems to need something of a makeover.

There are problems with wind turbines. One of the major complaints levelled against them is that the benefits don’t trickle down to the local community. Perhaps part of that is because the UK was so slow off the mark with wind energy, and as a result a lot of the technology comes from our European neighbours. The wind turbines installed in the UK are more likely to have benefited a Dane or a German than a Briton, although that’s beginning to change as the supply chain develops.

Another accusation is that there are relatively few local jobs once a wind farm is up and running. Again, it’s true: a wind turbine just stands there, twirling away and putting out electricity. (This is why they’re so brilliant: they give us something for next to nothing… but it does mean that they create less jobs than, say, coal mining.)

For the landowner who manages to secure planning permission for the construction of a wind farm, it’s a license to print money: they don’t need to invest money of their own, merely leasing the land to people who do the rest. This leads to further resentment, because again that’s money for the few, and not for the many who will see them on the skyline. Part of the problem here is in using a planning system that’s poorly suited to this particular purpose. Did we reject major projects in the midst of the first two world wars? No: villages got evacuated to make space for gunnery ranges; forests were cut down for their timber, and so on. Because that’s how you fight a world war. While the installation of renewable energy systems is governed by the conventional planning process, residents will always be left wondering if an approval was granted because of a “funny handshake” or a plain brown envelope stuffed with banknotes.

I suspect we’re going about this backwards. That a community doesn’t benefit from something it never invested in shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instead of leaving wind energy to a new class of ‘little energy barons’ who happen to own the land, why aren’t we erecting wind turbines in the grounds of public buildings? We could start with schools and hospitals, slashing the energy bills of services that we all pay for. You might say that a local authority is too cash-strapped to be able to afford money for such projects… but current wind farms are constructed by companies that borrow money at commercial rates, and they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t expect a return on investment. Why not a council, or even a consortium of citizens?

And the next time somebody says “I don’t want a wind farm here,” I’m going to reply: “No problem! A new nuclear power station will probably bring a lot more jobs to the area…”