Renewable energy casts new light in church
The vicar of a North London church was last week shocked to find out that he's at the cutting edge of renewable energy technology. Kurt Barling looks at the small but growing 'home generation' energy sector in the capital.
On a baking hot day last summer, Reverend David Bolster was worried the heat generated by the glass skylights in his church hall might make some of his parishioners seriously ill.
Built in 1903 as the Railways turned North London into boomtown, St Aldhelm's and its community halls are typical brick built structures with pitched roofs from that period.
The key to the solution lay in the rooftops. Instead of installing blinds or other barriers to block out the sun, the Church community investigated the possibility of converting the sun's heat into useful energy.
Reverend David Bolster
They found a surprising number of grants were available to improve the energy efficiency of public buildings by installing renewable energy systems. After working out the feasibility of installing a photovoltaic (PV) system on three south facing roofs the company advising St Aldhelm's, Solstice Energy, helped them with the search for those public funds.
The photovoltaic (PV) process (electricity from light) converts the energy of the sun into electricity. When a semi-conducting material like silicon, within a PV Cell, is exposed to light it generates an electrical charge and this can be conducted away as direct current by metal contacts. This electricity can either be used directly by the Church or surplus energy exported to the national grid.
These new PV cells ensure St Aldhelm's will in future virtually eliminate their energy bills and may even derive a little income from energy generation. By January this year all the grants had been approved and on Saturday 15th the system went live. All completed in less than a year.
The cost of installing the technology is undoubtedly expensive and this is why the government has until now helped the capital costs of installing it. The cost of St Aldhelm's upgrade was £92,000, of which they have received £79,000 in grants.
There's some ambiguity over how much more money will be made available from government sources. Richard Warren from Solstice Energy believes this is creating a climate of uncertainty, preventing the development of micro-generation as a substantial source of alternative energy. It doesn't help that for decades we've become used to cheap energy costs.
The Energy Savings Trust (EST), EDF Energy and Enfield Council all put up the funds for this project. EST is the branch of government responsible for promoting renewable sources of energy. The commercial giant EDF has an enlightened self-interest approach to renewable projects like St Aldhelm's.
St Aldhelm's Church
Travers Clarke-Walker, a director at EDF energy says their customers already pay a green levy on their bills which support these developments but that more profoundly there is self-interest in ensuring that in the future there is security of energy supplies.
If you consider the current debate about the dangers of future dependence on Russia for its vast reserves of Gas and Oil it puts this issue in some context.
St Aldhelm's have cut a deal with Good Energy an electricity supply company in Cheltenham that only trades in renewable energy sources. They receive around 7p for every Kwh of electricity produced and pay a little more than that for any electricity they use.
Good Energy has around 18,000 customers currently. That is a very limited market in the grand scheme of things. But the more public buildings that can demonstrate they can become self sufficient in their energy needs the more likely this market is to expand.
The bottom line is once the capital expenditure is accounted for PV installation will save costs. There is also the environmental benefit that comes with the elimination of the carbon emissions that traditional electricity generation methods would have released into the atmosphere. By way of example St Aldhelm's new system will stop the emission of around 6 and a half tonnes of Carbon Dioxide emissions each year. That's the equivalent of driving 20,000 miles in your average family saloon car.
Last week the government announced it had named several youth climate change advocates for different regions across Britain. The idea is that this climate change debate must start to make rapid progress in schools. It is the next generation of consumers who will have to overcome the bad habits of the current energy consumption patterns.
It stands to reason that the more these home generation or micro generation systems are used, the cheaper the installation costs will become. This should make them more affordable (even to ordinary householders). In parts of London Solstice Energy has already been installing systems for individual householders.
The school opposite the church had its roof renewed 18 months ago and the obvious conclusion is that if they had adopted this micro-generation system in their rebuild costs they would have benefited considerably over the longer term. Schools by their very nature consume most of their electricity during daylight hours.
David Bolster says that the past year has been a revelation for him and his parishioners. He remains baffled that they remain at the forefront of deploying PV technology. There must be an argument for encouraging those with responsibility for constructing large public building projects like schools and hospitals to incorporate this technology into their design.
He's hoping that the highly visible panels will become a talking point in the broader community. He believes this is the only way to make renewables a more readily accepted way of meeting our future energy needs.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:15
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