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New Microgeneration report - what it actually says

Home fires burning won't keep the lights on

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A variant on heat pumps is solar thermal, which accounts for nearly all the microgeneration kit now installed, largely because it's comparatively cheap and simple. A typical home solar-thermal setup uses the sun's heat to warm up domestic hot water before the boiler starts on it, saving a good deal of energy. This is normally done by simply piping the water through rooftop panels, sometimes nothing more complex than old radiators painted black. Kit of this type obviously isn't much use on overcast, freezing winter days, but can yield cheaper showers and laundry during the summer. However, the scope for home solar-thermal is limited in the UK. The report's projections didn't show it becoming a big factor.

Finally, of course, there's our old friend biofuel. In the case of home microgen, you're normally talking about burning sustainably-produced wood in a furnace, which is potentially low-carbon provided you aren't burning rainforest to clear land for cows or something. This doesn't necessarily have to be a case of heaving logs about every day, either; there are pellet-fuelled jobs available now which just need their feed bin topping up from time to time.

Keeping up with the neighbours

Many of these things are already widely used abroad, and various people frequently suggest that they'd be a good fit for the UK. Colossal German subsidies (£10bn and counting) have seen up to a gigawatt of solar-electric installed there every year of late, for instance; but there are signs that even the green Germans are finding this unaffordable, and it's early days yet. (One should note that each gigawatt of installed solar capacity satisfies less than half a percentage point of Germany's electric demand - and electricity is only a portion of overall energy use). The cheap government-backed loans which make it possible for ordinary Teutons to start selling electricity to the grid at hugely subsidised prices have been discontinued, and it seems that the German home-solar gravy train is no longer easy to get onto.

In Germany, where [a subsidised, very high payment for electricity sold back to the grid] has stimulated installation of [solar cells] ... uptake by domestic consumers was largely dependent on the availability of soft loans. This ... overcomes the capital cost barrier, and the value of [the money made selling expensive 'leccy to the government] in Germany is sufficient to offset the loan repayments. Since soft loans were discontinued in Germany, purchases by domestic consumers have fallen significantly and most uptake is now by commercial and industrial consumers who have access to low-cost finance ...

The big obstacle to takeup of heat pumps or wood burning in Blighty is the fact that we have a widespread gas grid as well as our electric one. Scandinavians use heat pumps and Austrians use wood furnaces largely because they can't get gas, according to the report's authors.

In Sweden, the heating market is dominated by direct electric systems whose running costs have risen significantly in the last few years. This makes the installation of heat pumps a natural transition ...

Pellet boiler sales in Austria followed two decades of R&D that delivered a product that was much more attractive and easy to use than the wood and oil boilers that they replaced.

In the UK, the convenience and low cost of gas-fired central heating provides a strong barrier to microgeneration uptake ...

In Austria, despite the high sales of modern pellet boilers, there has also been a transition from biomass and oil to gas as the dominant fuel ...

Microgen through green-tinted spectacles

So getting us Brits to start using microgeneration is going to take major subsidy, as it has in Germany. The report's authors consider a range of options here. The headline grabber, gleefully seized upon by the UK microgeneration industry and reprocessed hastily by hard-green zealots, would see £21bn in new subsidies handed out by 2020. This would result in around 9 million microgeneration units in service by then, seven million of them the notional CHP fuel cells which aren't even for sale yet.

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