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Don’t write off renewable subsidies just yet



A lot of recent debate has focused on renewable subsidies – how much they cost, what their value is and whether they can or should continue, writes Jerry Hamilton.

The full benefits of a thriving renewables industry will take years to realise and, to some, costly subsidies now seem hard to justify. This view is short sighted, but equally we must envision a time when subsidies come to an end. Renewable energy does no one any favours by becoming a bottomless pit for taxpayer’s money.

The rightful role of subsidies is to get a socially useful but disadvantaged market to maturity. Renewable energy generation offers the same commoditised output as fossil fuels – kilowatts hours of energy fed into your home or business. But they are years behind in terms of supply chains, R&D and infrastructure. They can compete, but they need support to get to that stage. Subsidies so far have brought us a long way towards that point, but we are not there just yet. We should continue until we are.

This presents us with a couple of questions: What do we hope to achieve from renewables? And at what point do we agree we’ve reached that point and stop subsidising them?

The first question has several answers. The most obvious is that they reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. This is not about renewables replacing fossil fuels – that will take decades. It is about getting them to a stage where they can play a viable part in the energy mix and can be supplied at a price energy companies, and ultimately consumers, are willing to pay for.

We are not yet expecting wind to compete with natural gas on a per kilowatt hour basis. But with power plants close to capacity, adding renewables to the mix can avoid the need to turn on another power station – an expensive way of dealing with a 10% energy increase each evening. In this situation, wind or solar can be very cost effective very soon.

But the advantages of renewable energy go beyond cost. It is also about energy security. Russia provides about 30% of Europe’s natural gas and in June it cut off supplies to Ukraine.  As a net importer of both oil and gas, the UK is not immune to political instability in oil and gas producing nations, which could dramatically increase prices and affect our ability to keep the lights on. Having viable, home grown energy resources is critical to avoiding this, and worth paying for.

Renewables also offer consumer benefits that fossil fuels don’t. Rooftop solar panels or wind give consumers power to control their energy in the way a grid supply with a monthly bill does not. A growing understanding of our energy consumption can give consumers more control, which can in turn drive greater change through smarter energy use and a more competitive energy market – driving down costs.

Giving consumers the power and control to better understand and manage their energy usage is paramount. The ultimate goal in energy security is to move to a decentralised energy model, where energy is produced and shared amongst consumers and fed back to the grid.

Much of the resistance is about reluctance to change the way we’ve always done things. If we can encourage and incentivise people to use renewables, uptake will happen naturally. Much of the value of subsidies is getting people through that pain barrier of change without undue cost to themselves.

Which brings us to the second question – when will renewables be self-sustaining?

This is harder to answer. In some ways it is already sustainable. The government have agreed a price of £92.50 for every megawatt hour of energy produced by the new Hinkley C nuclear power station – almost twice the current wholesale cost of electricity. There is no reason it couldn’t do a similar deal for renewables – recognising the long-term need for energy security.

Equally if oil and gas prices were to shoot up or become inaccessible, renewables would suddenly become very competitive.

But in reality, renewables still have plenty of gains to be made in terms of efficiency, and of end-user acceptance.

Subsidies speed this process along. There is no definitive answer as to when to stop, but it should be once they reach a point at which they can provide energy that plays an integral part in the complete energy mix, and one accepted by a critical mass of consumers and businesses. We are probably looking at 5-15 years, depending on global energy prices, cooperativeness of the big producers, and consumer willingness to embrace and understand renewable energy.

Jerry Hamilton is director of renewables and energy solutions at Rexel UK.

Photo: Kim Hansen via Flickr

Further reading:

Wind power saves Ireland €1bn in fossil fuel imports over five years

Demand for renewables to drive wind turbine towers market

Wind farms an ‘attractive long-term’ investment opportunity

Good Energy offers wind investment opportunity in Cornwall

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014



New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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




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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