I came across a site this week (in the UK), in my constant search for likeminded souls, claiming to be about eco-architecture and weirdly featuring the home of a couple we used to know. Proudly claiming they had just retrofitted it to do their bit to save the planet while at the same time providing for the future, specifically by installing 1.26 Kw of solar panels on the roof.
Hold that in your mind for a moment, while I rewind quickly back to 1991. This is when I went on a course run by the Centre for Alternative Energy on how to become self-sufficient. A weird experience (so much so I don’t think they ever repeated it), particularly as each segment of the course was introduced by something along the lines of “this doesn’t actually work/ or is not ever going to be cost effective”. I particularly remember the wind energy guru (Tim Piggott-Smith no less) who started off by saying that small-scale turbines and panels, the kind we were all there to find out about, were just not worth the investment, not when the grid can do the job far better and cheaper. Not surprisingly, I (and probably everyone else) came away from it rather disillusioned.
However they were right. Up to a point. And this is where I return to the idea of a making your house into a superhome (and what I’m going to say next applies both to generating electricity and hot water collectors). The technology for this concept simply doesn’t work in most of Europe, and even if it did could never be worth the investment. Especially mounted in a static position (like on a roof). At best in the UK you can expect an efficiency of less than 1% of the panel’s potential. Even down here in sunny southern Spain, with 300 cloudless days a year, and where we have mounted ours to track the sun’s path, we still can only expect around 10%. For several solid reasons. The first, because for the other 65 days we get nothing. The technology is still really crap. And efficiency drops each year as the elements and wear destroy the fabric of your system.
Alternative energy also still has yet to become mainstream, so until that happens those in the chain of supply are going to continue enjoying a massive mark-up (on the true cost of production).
However all is not lost. The boffins at CAT were not entirely correct when they said small-scale energy systems couldn’t work. They can, if you do what we have discovered, and instead of trying to duplicate a conventional power supply or making an additional income from supplying the grid, you reduce your dependence on electricity instead. Sounds crazy, why would anyone want less power? But it actually works. We’ve honed our consumption right down. Now it is approx. 0.216 Kw (units) a day or 6.48 units a month (that’s 215 watt hours a day, or running a 100 w appliance for 2.15 hrs). And to generate this all we need is 100 watts worth of panels. But it is not for free. This is because despite the general assumption that after purchasing a system everything after that is profit, you still have to factor in depreciation. And this works out at a staggering 10% a year (or £100 for us, as our system cost £1000), 10 years being the average life expectancy of the bits and pieces. Still cheaper than the grid if you keep your usage low, but otherwise not.
Finally there is the health aspect. No-one likes to mention this, but the inverter, the piece of kit that transforms DC power coming in from the panels into grid-usable AC, gives off a very high level of EMF radiation, which added to the already dangerous amounts already existing in an average household, make it a very unwise choice.
However what really prompted me to write this was the claims that it can help save the planet. And here I apply the same argument to anything pretending to be green or helping others (whether it be animals or any other kind of charity). Spending (or donating) money is the antithesis of what the planet needs right now. In fact, if you as a household collectively spend more than £5000 a year please feel entitled to be called an Enemy of the Earth. Because regardless of whether you choose a green product over a conventional one, be vegan, or raise money for medical research, all that money is part of a larger system, one which is doing more harm than good, destroying parts of this planet which will never be replaced and we depend on for life itself, especially causing levels of pollution which in the short term (10-20 years) could wipe out most of us out (visit your local cancer ward to see how bad it is). Not what you want to hear, but that’s only because you have probably never stopped to think about the consequences before. Time to change. The global population is now doubling every few years, so no-one can afford the luxury of being ignorant, it really does mean the difference between life and death.
Or as it said in the article about filling your roof with solar panels: “It’s a no brainer!”