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Make your own energy at home, Britons urged

March 29, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

UK government energy strategy pushes 'microgeneration'.

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British politicians are urging people to turn their homes into power plants, by embracing 'microgeneration'. The scheme could see more homeowners installing solar panels, rooftop wind turbines and a range of other measures to cut their power bills and ultimately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Although such technologies are established methods to create electricity on small scales, few private households have taken them up. The new campaign aims to overcome barriers such as cost and planning regulations, which have traditionally prevented microgeneration from being widely adopted.

The drive was launched by UK Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks on 29 March at a meeting of microgeneration businesses in London. The strategy will take advantage of £50 million (US$87 million) earmarked for developing low-carbon buildings in the UK budget announced last week by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Each of us can and must become part of the solution.
Malcolm Wicks
UK Energy Minister
A recent report to the government predicted that, with enough investment, 30-40% of Britain's household energy from microgeneration by 2050, up from today's tiny contribution. The government hasn't yet decided how the available cash should best be spent to make this happen; tax breaks and subsidies may be part of the answer.

The strategy is being applauded by environmentalists. But they caution that the financial barriers are not insubstantial.

Although gadgets such as solar panels or heat exchangers offer savings in energy bills, they cost hundreds or thousands of pounds to install, says Chris Elliott of the technology consultancy firm Pitchill Consulting in Ewhurst, UK. "A small power station will always be more expensive [per unit of electricity] than a big one," he says. "The answers are not quite as easy as green enthusiasts are saying."

Cash back

Homeowners are currently offered a knock-down rate of tax on purchases of microgeneration equipment: just 5% compared with the usual 17.5% added to most British retail items. Micropower bosses at the London meeting pointed out that this isn't as generous as it could be, given that industrial power companies can currently claim all of their tax back.

Part of the attraction of microgeneration is that homeowners may be able to sell any excess electricity back to the national grid, becoming net providers rather than consumers of power. But Elliott doubts that the infrastructure is currently in place to do this. Would-be domestic power tycoons will need a 'smart meter' to monitor flow in both directions, and local substations will be difficult to shut down for maintenance if electricity is being fed into them from many sources.

Sorely needed savings

If successful, the strategy would put Britain more in line with countries such as Germany and Japan, which boast uptake rates for solar panels some three or four times greater than those in Britain.

It would also yield cuts in Britain's household carbon emissions of 15% a year by 2050.

That's a saving that Britain sorely needs to make. In a new review of its climate strategy, the government admitted that it will not meet its self-imposed 2010 target of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% relative to 1990 levels. The real figure looks like it will fall between 15 and 18%, Wicks told the meeting.

Cutting emissions from household use will be a help; some 27% of Britain's total emissions in 2003 were from domestic power use. "Each of us can and must become part of the solution," says Wicks.

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