Growing up, I became used to the noise of coal trains rumbling through our town. My Grandad used to drive some of them. They supplied the three power stations visible from my bedroom window. However, should Grandad be alive today, the indications are that he would be driving much fewer trains. That’s because our electricity supply is fundamentally changing.
To chart our changing energy mix, I launched a service called MyGridGB which allows all of us to see Great Britain’s electricity supply in real time and to debate it using real numbers.
So what is this adventure in “grid watching” teaching us? In this article, I’ve pulled out some highlights of 2016.
1. For the first time in over 100 years, Britain doesn’t always burn coal
In 2014, Britain depended on coal for 30% of its electricity. However, as reported by The Guardian, Telegraph, Express, BBC, Daily Mail et al., Britain now switches off its coal power stations.
Switching off coal is not a regular occurrence: they were off for less than 2% of the time between January and September. But the number of coal trains passing through my time has plummeted. Coal provided 80% less electricity in September than it did in January.
Coal is, by far, the most polluting source of electricity in Great Britain. The effect of its demise has had a noticeable effect, In July, our electricity was 16% less carbon intensive than in was in January. However, turning off coal has left us ever more dependent on another fossil fuel – gas.
2. The ascendency of gas
Gas power stations met almost half of the electricity supplied in 2016 and its share rose sharply between February and May – replacing coal fired generators.
Saying we are switching from coal to gas to decarbonised is like saying you are giving up cake for chips as part of a low fat diet. Gas is, let’s not forget, a huge carbon emitter. It is eight times more carbon intensive than the committee on climate change says we need to be by 2030.
Britain risks becoming addicted to gas. If we are not careful, our addiction (like the most powerful of narcotics) will become harder to break the more we turn to it. North Sea gas production has fallen to historic lows. Imports are at record levels and fracking is controversial source of gas. So are there alternatives that we are should be exploiting?
3. Solar and Wind are on the rise
The view from my childhood bedroom window is a notably different these days. Solar farms have appeared around the town, as have a few wind turbines. I even put solar panels on the family home which generate 80% of the electricity we use.
Between January and February, the wind blew particularly strongly– creating a flurry of activity on my Twitter feed. In the summer however, the days have been calmer. Production fell to below 4% of the electricity we consumed in June.
Solar has surprised many of my followers. On sunny weekend days when electricity demand is low solar can hit more than 20% of our electricity supply. And, as widely reported, solar has outstripped coal in terms of monthly energy production for three months this year.
My analysis shows that Britain’s wind and solar resource combined quite nicely together in 2016. On a monthly level, wind died off in the summer, solar took its place. In the past eight years, solar and wind have grown to provide more than 10% of our electricity. If we are to decarbonise, their growth needs to continue to offset gas power stations.
4. Britain’s imports surprise people
Britain imports around 6% of her electricity. France has run an interconnector to the UK since 1961, providing us with nuclear powered generation from the continent.
For some, imports are a problem. They challenge the notion that Britain has energy independence. What such people might not realise is that Britain is now a net importer of gas. Should gas power stations now be labelled imports?
More imports are on the way with cables proposed to link the UK to Norway, Belgium and even Iceland! Is Britain ready for a scenario when gas power stations and interconnectors fail?
5. A missing piece of the puzzle
In September I tweeted the following image from the University of Sheffield. It shows the UK’s energy demand including heat and transport fuels. The tweet generated 2,500 impressions- That’s because it says something quite shocking- the UK uses huge amounts of energy for heat when compared to our energy needs for electricity.
Even more concerning for those wanting to decarbonise is that we use five times more gas in the winter than in the summer. It becomes almost meaningless to discuss an energy mix when gas is so dominant in how we power our homes. It feels right to begin to question this dependence. What if the gas supply fails for example?
My Grandad’s coal trains rumble past much less frequently these days. One of the three coal power stations I grew up seeing from my bedroom window has been demolished, the second is set to be torn down and the third is being converted to a gas power station. My town in some ways tells the story of our electricity supply with the growth of wind and solar.
So what is possible in the future? I do of course have an answer to that, and over the next few months, I aim to assess whether a large penetration of low carbon energy can be introduced into electricity mix. The small amount of gas and storage that I think we need is going to surprise you. As will what that might do to what we all understand– our wallets.
The only unknown for now is what Grandad would have made of all this change whilst driving his coal train. I guess it’s not possible to have an answer to everything when you want it.
Data Sources: BM Reports and Sheffield Solar
Author: Andrew Crossland, Founder of MyGridGB
Andrew is an electrical engineer, using energy storage to reduce electricity costs around the world. This was the focus of his PHD. He now works on projects in the UK, East Africa and South America integrating energy storage into the electricity system.
The purpose of MyGridGB is unrelated to that role. Energy is an important global issue that creates a huge amount of debate. Andrew wants the site to be a good source of information on electricity and to drive informed debate.
Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?
Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?
Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.
Is Biofuel Green?
One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.
Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?
Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.
Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.
Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.
Benefits Of Biomass
The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.
Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.
7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees
As an energy startup, you’re always looking to offer the most competitive packages to entice top-tier talent. This can be tough, especially when trying to put something together that’s both affordable but also has perks that employees are after.
After all, this is an incredibly competitive field and one that’s constantly doing what it can to stay ahead. However, that’s why I’m bringing you a few helpful benefits that could be what bolsters you ahead of your competition. Check them out below:
One benefit commonly overlooked by companies is offering your employees financial advising services, which could help them tremendously in planning for their long-term goals with your firm. This includes anything from budgeting and savings plans to recommendations for credit repair services and investments. Try to take a look at if your energy company could bring on an extra person or two specifically for this role, as it will pay off tremendously regarding retention and employee happiness.
While often included in a lot of health benefits packages, offering your employees life insurance could be an excellent addition to your current perks. Although seldom used, life insurance is a small sign that shows you care about the life of their family beyond just office hours. Additionally, at such a low cost, this is a pretty simple aspect to add to your packages. Try contacting some brokers or insurance agents to see if you can find a policy that’s right for your firm.
Dedicated Time To Enjoy Their Hobbies
Although something seen more often in startups in Silicon Valley, having dedicated office time for employees to enjoy their passions is something that has shown great results. Whether it be learning the piano or taking on building a video game, having your team spend some time on the things they truly enjoy can translate to increased productivity. Why? Because giving them the ability to better themselves, they’ll in turn bring that to their work as well.
The Ability To Work Remotely
It’s no secret that a lot of employers despise the idea of letting their employees work remotely. However, it’s actually proven to hold some amazing benefits. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 95% of employers that allow their employees to telework reported an increased rate of retention, saving on both turnover and sick days. Depending on the needs of each individual role, this can be a strategy to implement either whenever your team wants or on assigned days. Either way, this is one perk almost everyone will love.
Even though it’s mandated for companies with over 50 employees, offering health insurance regardless is arguably a benefit well received across the board. In fact, as noted in research compiled by KFF, 28.6% of employers with less than 50 people still offered health care. Why is that the case? Because it shows you care about their well-being, and know that a healthy employee is one that doesn’t have to worry about astronomical medical bills.
Unlimited Time Off
This is a perk that almost no employer offers but should be regarded as something to consider. According to The Washington Post, only 1-2% of companies offer unlimited vacation, which it’s easy to see why. A true “unlimited vacation” program could be a firm’s worse nightmare, with employees skipping out every other week to enjoy themselves. However, with the right model in place that rewards hard work with days off, your employees will absolutely adore this policy.
A Full Pantry
Finally, having a pantry full of food can be one perk that’s not only relatively inexpensive but also adds to the value of the workplace. As noted by USA Today, when surveying employees who had snacks versus those who didn’t, 67% of those who did reported they were “very happy” with their work life. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this could make, especially when considering the price point. Consider adding a kitchen to your office if you haven’t already, and always keep the snacks and drinks everyone wants fully stocked. Doing so will increase morale tremendously.
Compiling a great package for your energy company is going to take some time in looking at what you can afford versus what’s the most you can offer. While it might mean cutting back in other areas, having a workforce that feels like you genuinely want to take care of them can take you far. And with so many different benefits to include in your energy company’s package, which one is your favorite? Comment with your answers below!