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The future’s bright, the future has NO energy bills

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Mark Hemingway House feature

We’ve all dreamt of a future with no energy bills. The average UK home now pays £1,200 for its gas and electricity and this is money we’d rather spend on something else. At best it’s a burden, at worst it’s a big problem. It’s estimated that more than two million UK energy bill payers are in arrears with a total debt of just under £1 billion.

The immediate solution for many people is to switch. Data revealed by MoneySuperMarket shows that the average quote given to its customers for dual fuel in the first half of 2016 was £689.26, well below the average being paid out by customers.

But, what if there really were a dream future? One in which we didn’t just trim our bills, but actually got rid of them entirely.

You might think we’re veering off into some sort of utopian land, but this is possible. It’s not only possible, but it’s happening right now. One pioneering community in Long Sutton, on the Lincolnshire/Norfolk border, is able to produce more energy than it consumes – meaning that residents actually get paid for contributing to the National Grid rather than having to fork out for fuel themselves.

Residents in this community – the two and three-bed social housing bungalows of Unity Gardens – use less than half of the energy of people in a standard UK home and generate about 1,500kWh more than they use.

The homes were designed by eco-architect Dr Jerry Harrall and have picked up industry awards, as well as admiring words from people such Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, who said of Unity Gardens: “This is really impressive. I’ve never seen anything quite on this scale. I wish we could bottle it up and market it elsewhere in the country.”

Dr Harrall said: “If you wondered whether or not it is possible to design a building where, on an annual basis, you have no energy bills and no heating bills then the answer is yes, I have done it. We have clients who are living the dream.”

So, how do they do it? There are two aspects to consider here – the materials used and some very clever design.

Firstly, the homes are constructed with earth bunding for insulation, tap into solar panels and a wind turbine for energy generation and sport rain harvesting features to reduce the need for water. The use of heavy building materials ensures that the floor and walls act as storage radiators. Design wise, they are positioned to face south and soak up the maximum amount of sun, with windows in this direction to get the most of the natural heat and light Mother Nature has to offer. Underfloor heating provides a back-up to the heating acquired from the sun.

One couple who are very much – as Dr Harrall puts it – ‘living the dream’ are Andrew and Jo Thompson. The couple are former residents of Unity Gardens and were able to save up to build their own eco-friendly home ‘Frankly Bee’ in nearby Sutton Bridge. By making a creative use of industrial materials – and the design input of Dr Harrall – they were able to build the property for just £100,000. Last year they had no utility bills – but instead received £365 for the energy they created.

Jo explained: “There are no boiler or radiators. We had no heating on through the winter apart from the log burner two or three times. The temperature was a steady 22 or 23 [degrees Celsius].”

She added: “I’m really proud of it and really pleased with the outcome. People need to know that they can do this too. If we keep buying these cardboard houses, nothing will change. It’s not hard, it’s not difficult – we just need to change the way we think. We chose this shape but you can make it how you like. You just have got to get the build right. We’re starting to reap all the benefits and not by the skin of our teeth. We’re a long way into making money.”

Dr Harrall was particularly proud of the project, which built on the pioneering research of Brenda and Robert Vale as well as his own work in the field. He said: “Frankly Bee really is the pinnacle of that evidence-based research.”

If ‘zero carbon’ – something of a misnomer but essentially a term referring to homes that create more energy than they use – sounds a little extreme, then there are plenty of other people who are designing their homes to use much less energy and are reaping the rewards.

Mark and Sheila Hemingway are one such couple. They led the project to build their new four-bedroom home in Northamptonshire, teaming up with self-build specialists Potton. Thanks to the green technology in the shape of an air source heat pump, LED lights, a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system and a rain harvesting system, energy bills are below £1,000 and they receive a Government subsidy – the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive – of £678 a year for seven years.

Mark said: “The temperature in the house is consistent at 22 degrees celsius. This is due to the insulation and re-used fresh air. There are no radiators and the downstairs of the house is all underfloor heated.”

The couple could have earned even more with solar panels, but were keen that their house should fit into the surroundings and look ‘normal’.

Many of the green features – the water harvesting and hot water cylinder – could also be ‘retrofitted’ onto existing homes for people who don’t wish to start from scratch like the Thompsons and Hemingways.

Mark added: “We’d not go back to a standard home now. We would definitely build an eco house again or retrofit a new one with eco modules.”

Is the onus, then, on forward-thinking individuals to grab greener homes for themselves? Perhaps not. The next stage is to bottle the magic of the Thompson ‘Frankly Bee’ home and deliver it on a bigger scale.

Dr Harrall’s next project is a 14-home scheme which will include a property that he tantalisingly describes as the ‘most energy efficient home in the country’.

In the medium term he’s on the hunt for investors to help deliver his next business vehicle. With Indie House, he’s confident of being able to deliver 2,000 homes in the next six years in the Peterborough area – the largest portfolio of its kind anywhere in the country.

He said: “The business model is very smart and these are not estate developments. We are not building the ghettos of the future. These are houses that use no fossil fuels.”

In Paris last year, almost 200 nations signed up to a groundbreaking deal to bring down global emissions. The ambition is to get to ‘net zero emissions’ in the second half of the century – between 2050 and 2100. Not only do those tough targets need to be met, but the UK is also in the midst of something of a housing crisis.

The Government estimates that somewhere in the region of 230-300,000 homes are needed every year – about two to three times the current rate of building. You get the feeling that if tough targets on the climate and housebuilding are to be met then developments such as Dr Harrall’s are very much needed.

 

Energy

Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?

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sustainable wood burning ideas

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?

Homegrown 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.

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Energy

7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees

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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:

Financial Advising

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.

Life Insurance

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.

Health Insurance

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

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