Sunny at last

As some of you know, I have been droning on hypocritically for years about how other people ought to use renewable energy, while living the life of a mains-connected electricity and gas consumer.

Well, no more. When we all moved to rural England in 2014, we decided to scope out solar power, and it has finally turned up. The delay has cost us money, because the price we get for the power we export is a lot lower than it would have been back then. But there are compensations, such as the improved technology for optimising the output.

One of the most noticeable things about this area of the country is the sheer amount of solar power being gathered in. Many houses have photovoltaic arrays for electricity (you can get a feed-in tariff on up to 4kW worth), while a fair few have solar water heating. Some commercial buildings have far chunkier arrays. Why has the technology taken off here? From our old house in London we could see just one with a PV array. Here I make it ten, plus one with solar water heating.

The reason may relate to an article I read on a trip to California some time back. It said that solar power has taken off in the countryside, but remains rare in San Francisco. The reason? The fitters hate working in the city because the parking is so grim. Their problem would certainly ring bells with anyone wanting building work done in London.

However, I think the real reason is simply that this part of the world has some enthusiastic small businesses that are quite good at selling PV. We ended up going to a firm called Greenscape Energy, recommended by the electrician working in our house.

When they got going, Greenscape gave us a form to fill in for some national scheme intended to root out rogue traders. In fact, they are the least roguish traders I have ever met. Bafflingly, everyone seemed to be called Rob.

The array consists of four panels on a south-facing roof and another 10 on a west-facing kitchen. The roof needed scaffolding – a problem because the building, a former school, is a lot taller than it looks. The house is also old and complex, as is its wiring logic. All these problems got fixed fast, and there was never any suggestion that the price would go up. And it took two days for the installation and less than a month from the first phone call for the whole process – a serious energy policy point given the decade-plus that new nuclear will take to show up, if it does.

Best of all, the array arrives with a new obsession! The software allows us to see how much power the array, and every panel on it, is producing. Each panel, and the array as a whole, is part of the much-discussed Internet of Things. There’s an App, of course. Gottta have a quick look right now! 3.13kW! Daily production nearly 10kWh, and it’s only mid-afternoon!

So far so good, especially on a nice spring day like this one with the panels doing their stuff.  The array has a gratifying feelgood factor, too. I think of it as our addition to the Suffolk energy mix. We already have onshore and offshore wind, offshore gas, the UK’s only Pressurised Water Reactor, and just down the road and rather more to my taste, Suffolk Energy from Waste. As our 4-year-old will tell you, this award-winning project is “The Incinerator which makes electricity.”

But I have one reservation. We spend far more on gas than on electricity. We ruled out solar water heating because we haven’t got a hot water tank and didn’t want the hassle of getting one. But we do have a garden that produces big volumes of biomass. The obvious answer would be a digester, but they don’t seem to make them in a size small enough for domestic use but large enough to be worth it. Heigh ho.








About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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