The Future of Energy
Confused about where the ‘energy’ debate is going and how it affects you? In this article, David Bradbury offers explanations and suggestions.
This article is a guide to energy in the home for village-dwellers. It is written more from a technical standpoint rather than a commercial one. It is slanted towards existing homes to avoid being too long and it does not cover the many opportunities for energy efficiency in new-build structures.
The article also doesn’t cover government grants. If you can catch one of those grants while it briefly flourishes then good for you, but I am more concerned in this article with longer term trends, where individual behaviour and choices could help to make the whole system work more efficiently. In the end such practices will almost inevitably be rewarded in economic terms. You can future-proof yourself and your property by foreseeing those trends.
What are the national trends that you should be aware of?
The first obvious trend is global warming. Home heating is a part of our carbon footprint for most of us but is actually no more than 20% on average, and over time you won’t need as much heating in winter as you used to. I have noticed a real difference in the 40+ years I have lived in my house. It is difficult to calculate because of the other changes I have made, but I estimate this difference to be between 10 and 20%. There is at best a weak case for huge and expensive investments to make disruptive changes when heating is a relatively small contributor and is getting smaller by the year anyway.
Gas is a fossil fuel, so the gas grid maybe thought of by some as a “tool of fossil fuels”, but it is actually an important national asset. The national gas grid could eventually be converted to store, transport and supply (non-fossil) hydrogen gas. Before “North Sea Gas” (methane) came about in the 1960’s the gas grid used “Town Gas” which was 50% hydrogen so there is already some relevant experience of a similar conversion, albeit in the opposite direction. Although hydrogen may initially be made from natural gas (methane) and so generate some carbon emissions in its manufacture, in the future hydrogen will be formed from water, either using renewable energy or nuclear power. It will therefore be a zero-carbon option. In a world that was determined to do the right thing hydrogen would become the fuel of the future, but with current trends towards batteries and electrification it is difficult to envisage that happening. With everything going electric, there will be more wires and less pipes in future, so don’t rely on gas coming to your village if it isn’t there. With the government hell-bent on stopping people burning gas, if you do have a gas boiler and are attached to the gas grid you may eventually find that you become disconnected, though that will hopefully be some way in the future. In the unlikely event that the world changes in a more sensible direction, any gas pipes into your house could be used for receiving clean hydrogen, which could then be used for everything – heating, generating electricity and even fuelling your hydrogen car. Don’t hold your breath for that, though.
LPG and Oil
These are fossil fuels, which, unlike gas, are without the possibilities of redemption. There is no long term future for oil or LPG heating. Before everyone rushes to strip out their oil or LPG boilers it is worth remembering that an oil boiler in an efficiently insulated house actually uses very little fossil fuel. Your home heating for a year with an oil boiler should generate less carbon dioxide than one seat on a plane going to Los Angeles and back. If that one seat on the plane is the extent of your annual carbon footprint then congratulations, you are doing really well.
Many people assume that oil will become horribly expensive. The government may in the end tax heating oil in order to force it to become uneconomic, but the advent of “fracking” has effectively put a natural cap on the oil price. If oil becomes scarce, the frackers in the United States can quickly flood the market with oil and drive its price down. Electricity, on the other hand, is burdened with all the costs of the perverse incentives to encourage new things – you are required through your electricity bill to keep all those rich big corporations and land-owners subsidised. Don’t be in a hurry to scrap your old oil boiler – if you don’t change your equipment you are not installing or disposing of “stuff”, a process which involves carbon dioxide emissions and other types of pollution.
Oil boilers come in two types, old ones which are “non-condensing” and new ones which are “condensing”, designed to extract greater efficiency by condensing the steam arising from combustion of the oil. You can’t get a replacement non-condensing boiler. Condensing boilers are an abomination in my view, with very short life (due to corrosion from moist acid gases). I have calculated the efficiency of my old non-condensing boiler as at least 80%, so the extra efficiency offered by a condensing boiler cannot be worth the candle. The moral of the tale is to hang on to your old boiler as long as possible and then do something else, not a new oil boiler.
There are several important trends in electricity supply that will affect the future. The seismic shifts are going to affect you, whether you like it or not.
In the 1920’s the national grid was established. Because bulk electricity cannot be stored it was realised back then that it could be supplied most efficiently in a centralised system where supply and demand were balanced minute-by-minute by adjusting the supply. Diversity (not everyone did the same thing at the same time) and the statistical predictability of consumers were central to making this concept efficient. Power stations could be huge, thereby taking advantage of economies of scale. The consumer was not required to do anything other than enjoy electricity when desired at the flick of a switch and could receive that electricity at an equitable price, i.e. you would pay the same as your neighbour. You the consumer would receive this almost miraculous service with nothing more than a couple of wires coming into your house and you were not required to make complicated investments or decisions. That was bliss, and it was also fair to everyone including heavy industries that needed large amounts of power at will to suit their production processes. The difficulty of storing electricity could be easily overcome in this system by storing fuel instead of electricity, hence the big heaps of coal you used to see outside power stations.
I, like many others, could not see how this system could be torn up and replaced with a decentralised system based on unreliable renewable energy. I reckoned without the power of the capitalist market. The first thing the market did was to trash the UK’s heavy industry by pricing it offshore. That reduced demand and hence eased supply pressures. We now buy the stuff formerly produced by our heavy industry from “smoky joe” countries, so that is hardly a victory for the environment.
The market is capable of transferring responsibilities from the supplier to you the consumer, thereby forcing you to do certain things for yourself, which you were previously not required to do. The result of that is that if you, the consumer, refuse to participate in the market game you can expect egregious and increasingly painful commercial punishment. If you don’t “switch” your electricity supplier you will get seriously hammered. There is no option to sit sweetly in your house flicking on the switch and expecting to receive electricity when you want it from a centralised supply at a reasonable price. Those days are going fast. You may need to make investments in “stuff”, solar panels etc., and you (not the government or the electricity company) will then be responsible for not only the cost and the disruption it causes you, but also the pollution and waste that comes about from installing and eventually disposing of all that stuff.
One can argue about whether all this represents true progress or not, (some of it undoubtedly does represent progress) but like it or not that is the way things are going. The most important trend of all is that renewable energy is intermittent and has no fuel, and so no capability for storage. If you think batteries are just around the corner for that purpose, then think again. Batteries (despite recent advances) have only a few percent of the energy storage density of fossil fuels and that is why you need only a small petrol tank in a petrol car but a huge battery pack in an electric car. Batteries are ill-suited to store the huge amounts of energy necessary for the national grid. You the consumer will in future be required to overcome the storage problem on behalf of the electricity companies.
I used to hate the idea of a “smart meter” whose real eventual purpose is to allow the electricity company to control when and how you use electricity. Don’t be fooled by ridiculous advertising saying a smart meter is needed to help you to use energy efficiently – you can do that with your existing “dumb meter” and a stopwatch. It is dead simple. I personally never wanted “big brother” to control my energy use. Nevertheless, some of your consumption could be controlled by the supplier at little or no inconvenience to yourself and ultimately the resulting benefit to the supplier will be reflected in the price you pay, even if that isn’t the case quite yet. With a truly smart meter your freezer could be made to operate only when the wind is blowing and you don’t care so long as your food remains frozen. Also, you can easily build in some energy storage capability into your house (big thermal masses like stone or concrete), sure in the knowledge that the electricity company will eventually reward you economically for using surplus electricity to heat up that thermal mass when they can’t otherwise get rid of their surplus. That situation is coming about fast – in some regions of China over 30% of renewable energy is wasted because it cannot be used when it is generated. We won’t be far behind.
The other factor in electricity is the “decarbonisation” of the supply. There are two strands – the first is the replacement of coal firing with renewables and nuclear power, so that electricity is generated with far less climate-changing gas emissions than it used to be. The other factor is gas. Gas fired power stations of today are far more efficient and waste far less heat than old coal fired stations. It used to be considered a nonsense to convert heat into electricity in a power station only to convert the electricity back into heat in your home, but with recent improvements that is no longer nearly so clear-cut, particularly if the electric heating in your home can be focussed with razor-sharp efficiency exactly where and when it is needed. Price is a problem, but electricity is very flexible and don’t forget you will ultimately be rewarded for using the electricity company’s otherwise-unusable surplus. Farmer Brown with his huge fields of solar panels has soaked up the government subsidy to churn out a lot of the electricity we need on sunny summer days and the burgeoning windfarms are close to becoming “conflicted out” when the wind is blowing. If you want to see this in action go to “gridwatch” http://gridwatch.co.uk/
Sitting around the camp fire must be one of life’s most universally-enjoyed, enduring and enriching experiences. If camp fires are to be banned because of carbon dioxide emissions and wood-smoke pollution it will take away one of the most primeval pleasures of human existence. Maybe if we ever reach that point it should be the cue for the human race itself to cease to exist. Wood burning is an essential part of my home, not because it is strictly necessary or efficient, but because without it life is soulless. You can collect wood from the locality (no need to transport it hundreds of miles) and you don’t have to fell the rainforest to meet modest needs. From my perspective wood burning should be an adornment, not the major source of energy in your home. Some 80% of the country’s ash trees are predicted to be about to die from a disease, so there will be no shortage of firewood for a long time to come. I’m not so clear that truck-loads of woodchips shipped from hundreds of miles distance are such a good thing. Wood is better than coal because growing the wood consumes carbon dioxide, but it is easy to lose the truly sustainable characteristics with industrial operations.
What Are the Best Ways Forward?
My first tip is to go for insulation. You can probably tell that I am no fan of slick commercial companies or money-grubbing peddlers. However, insulation is a good thing even if it is pushed by a commercial company. It doesn’t need to be expensive. The amount of insulation required in your roof is an enormous thick wad. Draughts are another serious source of heat loss, but in an old home there has to be a balance between hermetically sealed stale-air conditions and losing all the heat through draughts. Only in new-builds is there a realistic option to draw in fresh air through a heat exchanger and recuperate the heat from the exhausted stale air. Windows and doors can be upgraded for better performance, particularly when they need to be replaced anyway. Whatever else you do, insulation and draught-proofing will pay dividends. If you have huge thick random rubble solid walls don’t worry, the thickness alone is quite good insulation and the huge mass acts as a buffer, soaking up heat when it is applied and giving it out when it is cold.
Let the Sun Shine In
The sun is an absolutely free source of heat for your home, and this is particularly useful in shoulder seasons (autumn and spring). Open the curtains and make sure the sun shines in, and don’t waste the heat by opening the windows when it does.
Keep your house cold
If you keep your house as cold as you can bear (without causing problems with damp etc) you can supply extra heat just where and when you actually need it. There are fancy systems and software available to detect where you are and turn the heat on and off automatically. That is fine, but they will no doubt require an expensive engineer when it all goes wrong. The alternative is to plug in a fan heater where you need it. Fan heaters are cheap, efficient and totally controllable by you. Don’t feel guilty about using them to provide heat where and when you are actually present in the house.
Should I have a heat pump?
In simplified terms a heat pump converts electricity into heat, and in so doing produces more heat energy than the electrical energy input. The balance of the heat is provided by making something else colder (the air, or the ground). It is like a bit like a refrigerator working in reverse. That is obviously a great idea, but it requires a lot of expensive kit and has limitations. One key limitation is that a heat pump is not good at making things really hot. It is ideal for applications like underfloor heating which only require a tepid heat source. If you want to go all-electric then the choices are a heat pump, or to use standard electrical heating (night-storage radiators etc), with the intention of rigorously exploiting the unwanted surplus power of the electricity company to get yourself a good deal on price. Already you can exploit an “Economy 7” tariff that gives you a cheap price for consuming electricity at night. In the future time-differentiated tariffs are bound to become more sophisticated and beneficial for you, as the power companies struggle to offload the uncontrollable spikes of renewable energy production. To take full advantage you will need to be able to draw the electricity for your house when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. That will be the basis of them offering you a rock-bottom price. The one thing about conventional electric heating is that it doesn’t need a lot of expensive kit, disruption or investment to install. If you decide on it but then find it doesn’t suit you, you can change to something else.
Should I have an electric car?
You’ll have noticed a pattern in this article. I don’t like stuff – the churning, changing cycle of supplying things, scrapping them and creating waste. We don’t live in a town or city, public transport is rubbish and our cars are essential, but conventional cars use a lot of fossil fuel. The hybrid car is a great invention that moves the motor-car forward in decarbonising efficiency while retaining most of the benefits of fossil fuel transport. A good hybrid car “cuts the tall poppy” of your personal transport emissions compared with a conventional car. The all-electric car has huge batteries, with attendant risks that all the stuff in them (metals like cobalt and nickel) will cause pollution and disruption in its manufacture and end up as waste. No sooner will they be established when it will be realised that some slightly different sort of battery is better – the whole lot will then be scrapped and there will be more stuff and more pollution and waste. Facilities set up to recycle the batteries from the old cars will no longer be relevant. Electric cars are coming, unfortunately – I wish we were going to have hydrogen cars instead. However, if you have an all-electric car there will be the opportunity to use your electric car for some electricity storage in the home. This may be useful in tiding over and avoiding the times when the electricity company charges you peak power prices. It won’t be the whole answer – we can have a whole windless week at times in winter, and you can’t expect your car(s) to supply the electricity for your house for that long. No one wants to find their car with a discharged battery when they urgently need to use it – so that is another huge disadvantage of using your car as a public service to overcome inadequacies of the national grid.
Should I generate my own electricity?
In my view I would advise you to limit any generation to modest amounts commensurate more or less with what you consume. To restate the point, if you generate your own electricity you’ll be doing so at the same time as everyone else and forcing your surplus into a system that has no capacity to store it. You should be trying to use electricity, not produce it, when everyone else is generating. Government policies and subsidies may be masking this problem in the short term, but ultimately the forces of economic gravity will prevail. There may be a good case for a modest installation of solar panels, particularly if you can create electrical load in summer (e.g. by having an immersion heater for hot water). If you have a potentially constant source of power (such as a stream that flows steeply downhill) there may be a good case for miniature hydro electricity.
Are there new options for the future?
I could write a lot in this paragraph but won’t. A wonderful development would be combined heat and power. If hydrogen is supplied to your house you could use the hydrogen to generate electric power and heat at the same time. I believe there are already natural gas systems that will do this on the market, but I suspect they cost a fortune. Another really useful development probably best done at village scale rather than individual is anaerobic digestion – that is making gas from organic waste to generate electricity. One could imagine farmers providing energy for the village by producing biogas from their farm waste. Before everyone gets too carried away with all the possibilities, it is worth remembering that energy costs should be maintained as a minor part of the household budget – I hope I have demonstrated in this article that with simple measures that will not cost a lot you can do a lot to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions you cause from operating your home. You will no doubt then go and spoil it all by taking that long haul flight…..!