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A view from the field: renewable energy in expert hands

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In the renewables industry, it’s often the case that campaigners enjoy much of the limelight. But without firms to invest in, install and build the technologies, the foundations of the burgeoning sector would be weak. So with that in mind, Alex Blackburne spoke with Julian Patrick, managing director of solar specialists Freewatt, about working on the frontline of an energy revolution.

The quaint Lincolnshire village of Stow, located 11 miles north of Lincoln, is probably not where you’d expect to find one of the country’s most prolific renewable energy developers. But, on a farm just 15 minutes’ walk from Stow Minster, an 11th century parish church, is Freewatt, Lincolnshire’s largest renewables firm that is almost single-handedly responsible for all of the county’s most significant solar installations.

Its office in Stow boasts an £8.5m solar farm – one of the largest in the UK – that will eventually produce 3.3 megawatts (MW) of electricity; enough to power nearly 1,000 homes. The 4,300 panels are expected to save 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year; the amount of CO2 emitted by the Caribbean island of Guyana on an annual basis. And the man behind it all is Julian Patrick.

An electrical mechanical engineer by trade, Patrick began lecturing about solar and so founded Freewatt in 2008. The firm now turns over some £6m a year, and employs 24 people in Lincolnshire. But Patrick’s introduction to renewable energy came as a youngster.

I remember my physics teacher at school saying that one day; fossil fuels will be so expensive that everybody will have either a wind turbine installed or solar panels on their roof”, he recalls.

An electrical mechanical engineer by trade, Julian Patrick founded Freewatt in 2008.

It made perfect sense; they’re not making any more fossil fuels, and that kind of stuck with me. So when I set up the company, there was the ethical drive. I’d always been very interested in not only the technological aspect of renewables, but I also thought it would be the right thing to do.

Although Freewatt now prides itself as a solar specialist, the firm’s roots are much broader. Patrick had intended to deal predominantly in the wind industry when he set the organisation up, with arms in biomass, solar hot water, solar photovoltaic (PV) and heat pumps. Meanwhile, being located in Lincolnshire – the second largest county in England, where much of the land is used for agriculture – anaerobic digestion was also on his radar early on.

But when the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced in October 2008 that there would be a feed-in tariff scheme introduced in 2010 for domestic solar installations, it became abundantly clear to Patrick that solar PV was the direction that Freewatt should take. And it’s safe to say that he’s never looked back since, either.

We’ve had a very buoyant past few years and we’re at a point now where within the solar PV market, we’re very much specialising on the large commercial projects”, explains Patrick.

I made a strategic decision to concentrate on solar when it became obvious that we were going to have various problems with the planners if we continued working in wind. The lead times for getting a wind turbine in just made it a much more difficult business proposition really; so we ended up specialising in PV. I had experience in electrical PV as well, so it was quite rare that we were able to come into the arena with a good depth of knowledge from the off.

I remember my physics teacher at school saying that one day; fossil fuels will be so expensive that everybody will have either a wind turbine installed or solar panels on their roof

Patrick’s decision to focus almost entirely on solar PV appears to have paid off, too – and not just in a financial sense. Although Lincolnshire possesses an almost ideal geography and terrain for both onshore and offshore wind development, developers have been met with significant opposition from anti-wind campaign groups when looking to erect turbines in the county.

And while hostility towards wind is certainly, and sadly, not exclusive to Lincolnshire, the leader of its county council being a vocal critic of the technology sets it ahead of most others when it comes to opposing developments. This is on top of the fact that two outspoken politicians who are notably sceptical about wind – Edward Leigh and energy minister John Hayes – are both MPs in Lincolnshire.

But Patrick explains how the key to widespread acceptance of large renewable developments is to clearly highlight the benefit that the surrounding community will get – whether it’s through supplying clean, locally-produced energy to their homes, or buying into the projects by purchasing shares and getting a financial return on the back of it.

I think it’s a real shame that the council decided to take that stance”, he says.

I can understand why; Lincolnshire is particularly flat. The biggest objection is that there is large-scale investment and venture capital groups coming in and putting in large wind farms in the county. There’s no real benefit to the county or anyone who is living in the county; it’s really just an investment bank making money and it’s the people in the county that has to look at them.

Certainly from our experience, from smaller-scale wind, or particularly solar, there is very little objection at all. The important thing is that all of the work is done sympathetically and appropriately to the surroundings.

In actual fact, we tend to find people are quite embracing of new ideas and new technologies; really it all comes down to education and letting the general public understand what can be done.”

It doesn’t help too that Lincolnshire is home to a relatively high proportion of people aged 65 and over – an age group that has repeatedly led opposition of wind in opinion polls and surveys. Some 21% of the county’s population fits into this demographic, compared to the national average of 16%, and in research conducted recently by YouGov into the UK’s attitude to energy, the older generation was by far and away the most staunchly against future wind development.

We tend to find people are quite embracing of new ideas and new technologies; really it all comes down to education and letting the general public understand what can be done

But age isn’t always a hindrance when it comes to sustainability. Another rather interesting facet of Freewatt’s work involves restoring period homes – of which there are plenty in Lincolnshire, and indeed, across the rest of the country. In June this year, Patrick bought a 300-year-old house and began embarking on making the property truly energy efficient through clever use of insulation, draft-proofing, smart energy systems and solar panels. He estimates that once all the measures are put in place – at a cost of around £1m – the £12,000 a year spent on heating and powering the property would be reduced by 80%.

The common understanding from our experiences is that a lot of people in older properties resign themselves with having to pay over the odds for heating and running the property, which normally is the case”, Patrick describes.

In rural Lincolnshire as a whole, because of its nature, there is a large proportion of the population not on mains gas. So these very same rural, older properties are being heavily disadvantaged, because they’re having to heat through either liquefied petroleum gas or oil, so the costs are astronomical. In working on this Georgian house, we’ll be able to demonstrate that in actual fact, not only can an older house be low-carbon, but they can be financially sustainable.”

Freewatt's offices in Stow boasts one of Lincolnshire's largest solar farms: 4,300 panels producing 3.3MW of electricity.

Patrick gave a talk at a recent renewable energy conference in Lincoln that Blue & Green Tomorrow also attended. In a question and answer session with John Hayes – the event’s keynote speaker – he asked whether the energy minister had any renewable technologies at his home.

I’m not sure I have any on my own home, but I’d be delighted to consider putting some on”, replied Hayes, who went on to explain that he lived in a Georgian property in his constituency of South Holland and the Deepings.

He added, “It’s quite difficult because in terms of energy efficiency, we face the particular challenge of having the oldest housing stock in Europe, so we’re moving to a position where we can take perfectly sensible steps around new properties to the point that we’re dealing with a very large number of older ones.”

There’s no doubt that there is a huge market for sustainable renovation in the UK, because let’s face it; not everyone wants to live in an uber-modern eco-home, do they? A recent study by US consultancy firm McGraw-Hill Construction in partnership with engineering company United Technologies painted the UK as a world leader in green building. It revealed that 65% of British building companies were planning on undertaking some form of green renovation project within the next three years. The global average is 50%.

And Patrick adds that the work needed to make these older properties energy efficient and sustainable will take just 10 years to pay back – a small price to pay for living within your means in a beautiful period house.

With regards to solar – his first and most notable passion – he admits that the uncertain noises coming out of Whitehall with regards to feed-in tariff rates has meant that perhaps some domestic investors have been put off. But the fact remains that the rates of subsidy are still relatively lavish, and the advantages of investing in home-grown, clean energy far outweigh sticking with conventional supplies.

One of the reservations that people have is that whenever you’re looking at investing or saving money, to some extent it has to be a leap of faith”, Patrick says.

You have to know that it’s going to keep working and actually, you’re going to get your money back. The real attraction with solar PV is that it’s been around for long enough for us to show that not only is this system long-lived, stable and very low maintenance, but actually, we’ve got a lot of data to show how it actually performs in the real world.

People can be confident to invest their money because they know what they’re going to get. The benefit of generating electricity of course is that they’ll be paid generously under the feed-in tariff, and also a large part of that benefit is about mitigating risk and reducing your exposure to the risk of rising energy costs.”

Rising energy costs have dominated the news of late, after DECC revealed its strategy in the recent energy bill. The plans lack a decarbonisation target, but for investors looking to dip their toe in the renewable energy sector, it goes some way to installing much-needed certainty and clarity.

Through Freewatt, Julian Patrick displays the kind of entrepreneurial innovation that is essential in the renewables revolution. And along with the many others doing similarly excellent jobs across the country, you can be assured that the industry is in very good hands.

Further reading:

Hayes omits onshore wind in keynote renewables address

Wind farm storm in Lincolnshire as county council says ‘enough is enough’

Firms agree £425m injection for Lincs offshore wind farm

Cashing in on solar panels

The UK’s future energy provisions: infographic analysis

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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