Guide to generating your own energy

Generating your own energy may seem like a task far beyond the capabilities of the average household. However, what most people don’t know is that it has actually never been easier! More importantly, using a renewable source of energy can help prevent global warming – and it can also stop your wallet from overheating too!

How does it work?

Despite popular misconceptions, renewable energy is every bit as reliable as energy gained from more traditional sources. Myths such as having to dramatically change your family’s daily routine, or spend days without electricity because the sun isn’t shining, are complete and utter nonsense.

In actual fact, renewable energy draws its power from inexhaustible sources which never run out. These include wind, the sun, the sea, or waste products and crops.

Scientists have also developed special devices, or microgeneration technology, which store up the power absorbed from these sources so you can run your household appliances for weeks after the sun has gone down or the wind has stopped blowing.

There are many options for any household interested in generating their own energy. The most common, and most easily available, are listed below along with a clear and simple explanation of how they work:

Solar Panels

Solar panels are technically known as Solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels. These specially designed panes sit on a roof or raised wall and store up energy beamed from the sun.

This works by special cells in the panels, which convert solar radiation into electricity. Each cell consists of one or two layers of silicon. When light shines on the cell, it creates an electric field across the layers, causing electricity to flow. The greater the intensity of the light, the greater the flow of electricity.

A microgenerator then transmits this energy to all rooms in the home so you can run ordinary appliances like washing machines, televisions or kettles, and can even light the entire house.

The biggest misconception about solar panels is that they need the sun to be shining to work but, in reality, solar PV panels require only daylight, not sunlight. Luckily that’s all we can guarantee here in the UK!

Can I get solar panels for my home?

Solar panels come in a variety of shapes and colours, ranging from gray solar tiles that look like roof tiles, to transparent cells that you can use on conservatories and glass - these transparent cells, in particular, can also come in different shades and thickness to provide shade in your conservatory, as well as generating electricity.

The main thing to be aware of is their weight. PV panels can be particularly heavy, so the roof must be strong enough to support their weight, especially if the panel is placed on top of existing tiles. If you are unsure then ask your local supplier, found on The Low Carbon Buildings website, to check it out before you part with your cash.

The other important factor is how much light your roof is exposed to. Although solar panels don’t need sunlight, they do need ordinary day light. If your roof is in shadow for most of the day, then the output of the system will not be very high - and you might need to rethink getting them.

The Government estimate that the average home in Britain could generate up to a massive 60% of the electricity it needs by solar power - provided the home has a predominantly south facing roof and uses the generated power efficiently.

Solar Hot Water

For centuries, ancient civilizations such as the Romans and the Egyptians used the sun to heat pools of water, and then they used this hot water for bathing, hand washing and cleaning clothes. Solar thermal systems may be more technologically advanced, but the principles are the same as they were in ancient times.

Solar thermal systems work very much like solar PV panels. The panels sit on your roof just like solar panels, and absorb heat from the daylight. There are two different thermal systems however. One system uses tubes and one system uses plates to heat the water, which is then pumped into your hot water cylinder or boiler.

The government asserts that solar hot water systems can save you up to 50% of your hot water needs – meaning guilt-free showers for everyone!

Wind Power

It may sound like a lot of hot air but the UK is one of the windiest countries in Europe! The island of England, Scotland and Wales receives 40% of Europe's total wind energy. However, despite that astonishing figure, only 0.5% of electricity needs in Britain are currently provided by wind power.

Recently though, it does seem as if some clever developers have got wind (pun intended) of this profitable fact. Although you will usually find wind turbines in more remote or coastal areas where the winds are stronger, there are an increasing amount of smaller scale building-integrated wind turbines on the market - which are suitable for city living and can be easily be installed in homes and other buildings. In fact, many newly-built apartment blocks are having several wind turbines installed on the roof in order to provide power to the entire building.

The best place for a wind turbine is somewhere with flat, clear exposure to the gusts, and which is also free from obstructions such as large trees, houses or other large buildings that will block the wind from reaching your turbine effectively.

As the wind is stronger the higher up you go, it is ideal to place your turbine as high as possible but be careful because this could lead to problems with planning permission.

How can I get a wind turbine for my home?

Modern wind turbines use wind force to spin special aerodynamic blades that, in turn, move a rotor which creates electricity. The greater the wind speed, the more rotations of the blade and subsequently the rotor, which means more power is produced.

If you are considering getting a wind turbine installed then it is important to remember that the amount of electricity generated by a wind turbine is dependent on the speed and direction of the wind. Therefore, don’t buy anything without having your intended site professionally checked out for suitability.

A professional contractor will assess the wind speed in your area. This is usually dependent on a number of factors, such as location within the UK, height of the turbine above ground level and nearby obstructions.

The British Wind and Energy Association have a database of qualified professionals in your area who can easily assess your site and advise you as to whether or not it is suitable for a wind turbine.

Biomass

Although it is not an inexhaustible source like wind, sun, or sea, Biomass is considered a renewable energy source, as it is an organic substance that can be replaced as quickly as it is used up.

There are two common ways of using biomass in your home. The first is to have a stand-alone stove which provides heating for the entire room. These stoves are fueled by logs or special pellets which can be rapidly replaced in the environment. As well as cooking all your meals, some of these biomass stoves even have a special back boiler, which can also be used to heat the water in your home.

The second method is to simply buy a boiler that is run by pellets, logs or woodchips. That way you are not using gas or electricity to run your central heating or to provide hot water in your home.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps allow you to draw heat from deep down within the earth – but unfortunately these pumps are only suitable for those with a large garden space.

Ground source heat pumps work by sitting in trenches dug several metres below the surface of your garden, where the temperature is a constant 12 degrees Celsius all year round.

The pumps absorb the higher temperature below ground and transfer this heat into your home via the radiators or under floor heating.

Although these pumps do need to be run on electricity in order to transfer the heat into the home, the pumps will generate three or four units worth of heat for every one unit of electricity it takes to run the pump.

Ground source heat pumps are also much cheaper than heating your home with oil or electric storage heaters. However, there can be little difference when comparing prices to gas central heating.

Where can I get help if I want to use renewable energy?

If you are interested in installing a renewable energy source in your home you may be entitled to a grant based on a percentage of the cost of installation. The Department of Trade and Industry’s Low Carbon Buildings program provides grants for householders provided they meet certain criteria.

Grants are available for microgeneration technologies including solar panels, wind turbines, small scale hydro, solar thermal hot water, heat pumps and bio-energy. However, not everyone is eligible for Government assistance so make sure you check it out before you open your wallet.

To see the grants on offer and apply online visit the Low Carbon Buildings website, or call 0800 915 0990, or email info@lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk.

This scheme is available for householders and businesses throughout the UK, but there are separate schemes for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Residents in Scotland can apply for a special grant through the Scottish Community Householder Renewables Initiative (SCHRI), which is funded by the Scottish Executive and managed by the Energy Saving Trust. These grants are available for solar, water and home heating, small-scale wind and hydro systems, ground source heat pumps and biomass. Funding for householders is set at 30% of the total cost of installation, up to a cost of £4,000. The SCHRI website has more information or you can call the SCHRI Hotline on 0800 138 8858.

In Northern Ireland, the Environment and Renewable Energy Fund provides renewable energy grants for certain householders. To find out if you are eligible for a grant visit the Northern Ireland Environment and Renewable Energy Fund website.

Do I need planning permission?

Depending on where you live you may require planning permission before installing any microgeneration technology, such as wind turbines or solar panels.

It is best to check with your local authority's planning department to see what the specific requirements are for your area. Check with your local council here.

Is this really going to save me money?

While there is no doubting the benefit to the environment generating your own energy will bring, the real question is whether or not it is cost effective.

Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this. It depends greatly on various factors such as the size of your house, what you use the energy for, how resourceful you are with it and so on.

As the initial investment with renewable energy is quite high due to equipment and installation costs, the aim should be to reap the financial benefits over a lengthy period of time, rather than save money immediately.

Solar power (PV) panels start at about £5000, while water heating panels are closer to £3000. Windpower can start from about £900 plus installation, but depends greatly on the circumstances of your property. Biomass and Heat pumps also depend on your own personal property and circumstance.

The main thing to look for is how much energy the given technology, be it solar power, wind turbines, biomass or a heat pump, will bring you, and measure that against how much existing energy you are using.

After you have done that, factor in the cost of running and installing the appliance and see how the figures are for your household. The Low Carbon Buildings website has useful guidelines on this important financial issue.

Can I install it myself?

In the future it may be possible to buy solar panels from your local hardware shop but, at the moment, the government strongly recommend getting professionals to install your microgeneration installations for you. Using a professional also means that you can be sure you are getting the maximum amount of energy from your chosen source.

The Low Carbon Buildings website can supply you with the contact details of suppliers and fitters in your area for any of the microgeneration installations detailed in this guide.

All genuine microgeneration products should carry a REAL (Renewable Energy Association Listed) mark – so don’t buy anything that doesn’t have this stamp.

If you feel you have been sold a dud or have a complaint with any work done, contact Energy Watch immediately 08459 060708 and report the problem.

The future’s bright

With spiraling energy costs and a failing environment, generating your own power is the obvious choice for smart households. And your grandchildren will thank you in years to come!

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