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I've just earned £20, for doing nothing!
The Energy Conservation Group
Member Name: grahamt
The Energy Conservation Group
Date: 08/03/11, updated on 15/03/11 (502 review reads)
Advantages: A clean energy producing system at an attractive price
Disadvantages: Still a high initial cost ; a supplier that may be trying to cut a few corners
Many smaller ones, such as the Scandinavian nations, seem to have understood the problem and done something about it. For instance, rather than send "waste heat" up in clouds of steam as most of our power stations seem to do, countries such as Sweden make use of these still valuable heat resources either in district heating schemes where this heat is piped to local neighbourhoods, to directly heat homes and offices, or to generate further electricity through technology like the Sterling Engine, which produces useful energy even from very low-level heat.
In the UK, the introduction of the FITS (Feed In Tariff) scheme has made investing in renewable energy technology not just a good thing to do for the nation's commitment to reduce its output of CO2 and reliance on fossil fuels but a profitable exercise as well, although admittedly over the long term rather than the short. Devices to harness the power of the sun and the wind are appearing more and more regularly on the roofs of the nations buildings.
The Sterling Engine is a marvellous but far too little utilised device. I once saw a demonstration of its effectiveness when a small-scale model was simply stood on someone's out-stretched hand. The difference in temperature between the hand and the surrounding atmosphere was sufficient to get it turning at a rate of knots! The most recent general use of the Sterling Engine has been in the MCHP (Micro Combined Heat and Power) boiler, which is one of the many electricity generating devices eligible for FITS.
The MCHP still utilises gas as its fuel so, even though it is highly efficient and makes effective use of that heat produced by the boiler which just isn't of sufficiently high temperature to heat the house, it still, ultimately, produces CO2. Better than a bog-standard boiler though, or even a modern condensing boiler which, since 2006, is the only type allowed to be installed.
In our case we have a house with a rear roof which faces more or less due south. Our garden is something of a heat trap, as we are all to well aware since it is where we spend much of our time when the weather isn't what we normally associate with a British Summer. The roof should therefore be the ideal place to site solar panels of either the electricity (PV) or hot water generating kind. But which to choose? The decision would be between which would give the most "Bangs for our Bucks".
Had the children still been living at home, the choice would have been an easy one: hot water. However, now that we are just two, our use of hot water is not at all that it once was. We both mostly have showers and, as you probably are well aware, modern kitchen appliances such as washing machines and dish-washers, only take a cold water feed, heating what they need directly in the machine, by electricity.
So, the choice would have to be solar photovoltaic electricity-generating panels. In recent years, before the introduction of FITS, the solar panel industry had something of a bad name. However, the industry seems to be starting to get its act together, probably motivated by the seriousness with which the major electricity generators are now touting for your business. It was a case of Shape Up or Ship Out.
I chose The Energy Conservation Group (TECG) initially just to come and talk to us about options and to give us an idea of prices. I did a search on the Web for TECG but couldn't find anything that suggested that anyone had a major issue with them. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are one of the "Good Guys" but at least no one seemed to be complaining about them. At least we could listen to their pitch.
Now, as you may recall from previous reviews, I'm a Domestic Energy Assessor (DEA) and produce the Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) which are still, even after HIPS has been suspended, required if you are selling or renting out your home. So, it can perhaps be assumed that I do know a bit about energy and the home. The guy came from TECG to take a look at our home and explain what we could reasonably install and what the cost and payback would be. He was quite straight-forward and didn't make any exaggerated claims.
He suggested that our roof could support a ten panel PV array which, using the technology that they supply, could produce up to just over 2KWs of electricity in ideal conditions. Of course, very few homes offer "ideal conditions". Houses are rarely oriented exactly south-facing and the angle of the roof is usually very far from that which makes best use of the sunshine, around 30 degrees in southern England. This angle is the best compromise for the differing heights of the sun between winter and summer. The pitch of the roof on our house is 25 degrees.
I had already done some research on the Web and had guessed that a ten panel array would work so I wasn't surprised when he suggested that to buy such a system outright would cost in the region of 13 grand. It was nice to have it confirmed but I felt that we could make better use of that sort of money than parking it on our roof!
Of course, we could have chosen the alternative scheme, mostly offered by the electricity generators, to "rent out" your roof. In this scheme, the provider installs the PV array at its own cost and receives the benefit of the FITS payments generated. You get to use any electricity generated, for free. This means that you need to time your use of electricity consuming devices to just those periods of the day when the PV array is working at its best, so this is somewhat limiting. In the evening, when you need your lighting, that electricity you have to pay for as normal (Hint: use LE lights). However, it doesn't cost you a dime.
We decided not to follow up at that time. As we neared Christmas 2010, we got an email from TECG, offering a discounted installation which would mean that we could get our PV system for around 10½ grand. This was much more like it. That I could live with. We decided to go ahead. They wanted a 25% deposit but I negotiated them down to 17.5%. The installation would be within three months.
I got a call in January, asking to arrange a visit by their technician, to carry out a full survey in preparation. A couple of guys turned up and assessed what would be needed. They were delighted to discover that, as I have already installed computer network cabling throughout the house, routes already existed through which they could run their cables without major work. We agreed the location for the panels and the inverter that would convert the direct current from the panels to the mains electricity required to feed it into the general electricity supply.
Shortly after, I got a call to arrange for the installation to be carried out, towards the end of February. The work would only take, I was informed, a day. One team would put the panels on the roof and an electrician would connect it all up. The roof panels are Kioto 205s, manufactured in Austria.
The day came, fortunately the weather was reasonable, and the work started. The electrician arrived when the installation of the panels was well advanced. Finally he tested the work the roof team had done and agreed that all was well and they could leave and let him get on with his part of the job. The electrical work took the most time but, by around 5pm he had finished and tested the system. It was clear from the Generation Meter that electricity was being generated.
Part of the work was to install a link from the system to the Web, using our broadband connection to report the effectiveness of the system to a Web portal hosted by TECG's partner, WattSure. By logging onto this website I could see the feedback of the electricity being generated, in a chart displaying how much was being generated at 10 minute intervals. This was the most problematic part of the installation.
TECG had decided to use Powerline devices to transmit the network connection through our mains wiring. I don't use these myself as I have heard that they can be unreliable. I have installed proper CAT5e Ethernet network cabling and it has been totally reliable. As expected, we couldn't get their setup to work continuously. It was clear that the electrician wanted to leave but he promised to report the issue and get it fixed.
I suppose I should have withheld part of the final payment in the light of this problem but I didn't: the PV panels were actually working and generating electricity as expected; it was the peripherals that were not quite right. I followed up with an email of my own to TECG but got neither a reply nor even an acknowledgement; NOT a good sign!
As the problem mainly affected the WattSure device I decided to give them a try and sent them an email explaining the problem. It turned out to be a good move: Martin at WattSure could not have been more helpful. He asked if there was an RCD in the system. I confirmed that there was one, in the extra fuse box installed as part of the new system. The WattSure device was installed on a socket connected to this fuse box.
Martin suggested that this was the reason that the Powersure devices weren't working, something he informed me he had advised to TECG, making it surprising that they had still gone ahead with this approach! It turns out that the RCD disrupts the network signal. I checked on the Web and the manufacturer of the actual brand of Powerline device, Intellon, appeared no longer to be in business, having been bought out by Atheros who, it appeared, had abandoned this line of business. Perhaps TECG had bought out a job-lot of devices at knock-down prices and were determined to use them whether suitable for the installation or not?
I told Martin about my computer network and suggested that it would be no problem replacing the connection with proper network cabling. He told me he would send me 25 metres of CAT5e cable for free, even though it really wasn't his responsibility; it arrived the next day!
It took me a couple of hours to get the cable routed through the house and connected into the home network and thence to our broadband connection. Checking it out it was immediately evident that the problem had been solved. I was now reliably accessing the WattSure device directly and it was reporting the electricity generation data to the Web portal. Everything was now working as expected.
So, what has the experience of TECG been? Well, a bit like the curate's egg: good in parts. When I eventually managed to speak to TECG's manager, the reason he gave for not responding to my email was that he had been away. I don't consider this an adequate excuse. Businesses simply cannot afford to ignore their customers just because the manager is away. A surrogate should have been designated to deal with his emails in his absence.
Also, TECG's use of devices, unsuitably installed, does call into question their understanding of the basics of computer networking, which is essential to the proper reporting of the operation of the system. However, on balance I feel I could recommend TECG with reservation. It's a moot point whether an alternative supplier might have provided a better service.
Be that as it may, we do now appear to have a fully working system, thanks to WattSure. It just remains to see how effective it is at what it does. Bearing in mind that this is currently just the tail end of winter where the emergence of the full light of the sun is somewhat unreliable and what sun there is is low in the sky, the results have so far been encouraging. On a good day we are currently generating a total of around 6KWs a day, which is more than we are using, even now. Peak generation is just over 1.2KWs. I expect these figures to rise substantially in the longer days of summer when the sun is higher in the sky.
Has it been worthwhile? Well, I don't expect the system to pay for itself in under 10 years but, that is as anticipated. Compare this with Double Glazing, which has a payback time of 90 years (yes, 90) and it starts to look quite good. The discounted installation has helped to reduce the payback time, of course.
I'm glad we've done it. It gives me a feeling of having done my bit, even if the drain on the wallet has been substantial. It has been a long-term investment. I shall feel a lot better though, once our electricity supplier starts paying me money rather than me just paying them. That will be a Red Letter Day.
Summary: One of many suppliers of green energy systems, that has delivered what they promised (eventually)