Micro-energy generation – a better way to meet our energy needs? By Bernard Hyde

One of our members, Bernard Hyde, recently had a letter posted in the Medway Messenger on the decision to go ahead with Hinkley Point C.  Here he expands on the discussion:

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In the past year, the photo voltaic panels on my modest 1930s end of terrace house have produced about the same amount of electricity as we used to buy from our energy provider, British Gas.

For practical reasons, we were only able to use about half of what we produced and the other half we sold to the National Grid.

With the money we were paid for the electricity we had generated and the money we saved using our own electricity, we enjoyed a tax free eight percent return on our initial investment.

So our house is a micro power station and, in its very small way, it is like the very large nuclear power station approved to be built at Hinkley Point; except it isn’t really.

There is no security fence around our micro power station, we don’t employ guards, there is no fire risk or possible radiation leaks. We don’t have to have regular health checks, we don’t have a highly paid CEO and no foreign governments are involved. Our power source is free and infinite, we don’t have to buy any toxic fuel, there is no dangerous waste product for our descendants to inherit and our equipment is recyclable.

The proposed nuclear power station at Hinkley Point hopes to generate about 7 percent of the entire UK’s energy demand, equivalent to 5.8 million homes. The cost of this Nuclear Power Station is now estimated at £30,000,000,000; that is thirty thousand million pounds. This is just over £5,000 for each of the 5.8 million homes mentioned earlier, or just enough money for a 3 kW photovoltaic system for each house.

So just as I, with my micro power station had to make an initial investment in my photovoltaic panels before any electricity could be generated, our government is borrowing money to make its investment. It has agreed to borrow the money from China and of course the money will have to be paid back with interest. The capital and interest will be paid back by us, the electricity consumers, and it won’t be cheap.

What then are the problems with micro renewable energy generation?

  • The first problem is conceptual. It is too obvious.
  • The second problem is that the technology is sophisticated and not easily understood. We are wedded by history to our Victorian understanding of technology in the way we generate our power and construct our buildings.
  • The third problem is that the power source is free. It is hard for someone to make a quick buck out of selling sunshine or wind or tide.
  • The fourth problem is that the light from the sun isn’t always there. On average throughout the year half of the time is day and half night. The technology to store electricity generated during the day with batteries has lagged behind the technology for converting the light into electricity with solar cells, and battery technology is only just beginning to catch up.
  • The fifth problem is that there is less daylight during the winter, when our energy requirements are greatest. However, winter is the time when winds are strongest and wind and solar make a good combination.
  • The sixth problem is that we are brought up to believe that small units are not efficient. Traditional power stations use a thermodynamic cycle that creates heat to convert into mechanical energy and then into electricity. This is about 35% efficient, whereas photovoltaics can be 100% efficient, especially where buildings are designed and orientated effectively.
  • The seventh problem is distribution efficiency from small units. The electricity from power stations is stepped up and down in voltages via transformers and distributed via transmission lines and cables with a consequent power loss of between 8 and 15% dissipated in heating the environment. Half of the renewable energy our micro power station produces is used directly on site.
  • The eighth problem is that administering a large number of micro power stations is expensive as one imagines meter readers visiting each house and someone writing cheques. However with smart meters, that use cell-phone technology to send readings automatically and internet banking, this doesn’t have to be a problem.
  • The ninth problem is that micro-generation relies on thousands of people to invest a modest amount of money in their own interest and that of their country. It is the complete opposite of the multi-national megalithic corporations who unfortunately have more influence with government decision making.
  • The tenth problem is that the photo-voltaic market has been flooded with cheap Chinese imports that perform less well than their more expensive European competitors. The answer of course is for the UK to make its own high quality equipment.

The problems of renewable energy are ones of perception and commitment that can be solved with education and resolve.

The problems of nuclear power are inherent in the process itself and have no foreseeable solution, in the United Kingdom we have daylight but we don’t have uranium.

These problems are compounded further by the need for foreign involvement and the loss of national security.

Hinkley Point may be an untried French design for a nuclear power plant but that doesn’t make it cutting edge; it is still yesterday’s technology. What we need is fast moving, and fast improving new technology – for tomorrow’s generations to benefit from and enjoy, not to be burdened with and threatened by, and that is renewable energy.

Bernard Hyde, Medway Green Party

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