You’re slowly paying off a mortgage on your new home and rumour has it you could make a few pennies by fitting it with...

You’re slowly paying off a mortgage on your new home and rumour has it you could make a few pennies by fitting it with new devices to generate clean energy. You look into it, but no one seems to be able to tell you just how much that solar panel or ground source heat pump will really provide, and what sort of payback time to expect. Confused, you decide to put your plans on hold for a few years — and, in the meantime, your enthusiasm begins to ebb …

It’s an all too common story. And it’s a frustrating one, too. Because there’s no doubt that the UK has massive potential for microgeneration. Initial research by the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggests that up to nine million units could be installed by 2030, including around four million PV (photovoltaic) installations, and 2.5 million each of ground source heat pumps and micro combined heat and power (mCHP) plants.

But more research is needed to turn this potential into reality. We don’t yet know enough about how households use these
technologies in practice, and how much money they can save. Answering these questions would build consumer confidence — and give this new market the best chance.

An ambitious portfolio of in-situ trials is already under way, with more in the pipeline if industry backing is secured. One trial, now complete, showed that the UK has the potential to generate 3,250GWh (gigawatt-hours) from domestic wind turbines alone. The exercise, dubbed “Location, Location, Location,” offered the most comprehensive technical monitoring yet of the nation’s small-scale wind resources — and left no doubt that there are excellent business opportunities going begging.

Building on this success, EST (The Energy Saving Trust) is now carrying out similar assessments of ground source heat pumps, solar water heating, solid wall insulation, advanced heating controls and LED lighting. The aim is to identify technologies that are particularly well suited for the domestic sector, and make sure householders can access solid data to encourage take-up. It is also looking to industry for further funding to support trials of mCHP and smart home energy management systems — both of which are at an early stage, but have exciting potential.

But if EST’s experience of major fundraising is anything to go by, convincing an industry to maximise its chances through early investment is no easy task — even if there are billions of pounds’ worth of business to be won.

Ideally, competitors would adopt an open source attitude, pooling their knowledge to give their sector as a whole the best chance of success. This “collegiate” approach could also help generate a collective research fund, with a wide cross-section of industry contributing small sums to benefit the market as a whole.

Government-led measures to spur investment offer some grounds for optimism. In the next year, feed-in tariffs will be backed up by the Renewable Heat Incentive — which will oblige utilities to meet a proportion of heating demand through renewable means. This could be a neat source of income for savvy householders, but work is needed to build their confidence first.

The EST is offering the UK’s microgen industry a hand over these hurdles. Get it right, and it could take a big slice of the emerging global market. Get it wrong, and it could stagnate. While it’s the householder who will be using these technologies, it’s down to industry to prove their efficacy — and the challenge starts now.

Editor’s note: This was a guest article by Jaryn Bradford, development manager-renewables at the Energy Saving Trust. The article originally appeared in Green Futures, which is published by Forum for the Future and is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable — and can be profitable, too. The Energy Saving Trust is a Forum for the Future partner.


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