The pros and cons of green energy

Green forest
Image source: Oleg Kalina
What do you think of green energy?

Are you plugged into green energy or do you think environmentally friendly power is a costly gimmick?

Do you think wind turbines are an elegant addition to the countryside or a blot on the landscape? Are solar panels a sign of positive change or a way to make your roof look ugly?

Here we take a look at some of the most popular forms of green energy, and ask – is all it’s cracked up to be?

Wind

Offshore Windturbine
Image source: Halberg
We’re Europe’s windiest country – let’s make the most of it!

The UK is Europe’s windiest country. In fact it’s windy enough to power the nation several times over. That’s according to Renewable UK the UK’s leading not for profit renewable energy trade association. The UK currently has just under 5,500 industrial size on and off-shore wind turbines – enough capacity to power about 6 million homes. But is scaling up a realistic option?

Many people don’t like onshore wind farms and the debate over how many turbines we should have and where they should be built has become highly politicised. Last summer Communities secretary, Eric Pickles said more weight should be given to local opposition to wind power generation. In the last year, 41% of planning proposals were rejected – up from 25 – 29% over the previous four years leading to claims of government interference in the planning process.

But – regardless of the jump in planning rejections, the number of applications has soared. According to figures quoted in the Guardian, last year planning applications for 436 got the go ahead, up from 105 in 2009. Wind is here to stay.

Solar

Solar Farm
Image source: Chuyu
Super green, super expensive.

The UK may not be the sunniest of countries, but that doesn’t mean our sunshine isn’t capable of generating significant amounts of power. In fact, across the UK, there are now over half a million homes with solar panels installed. But if the UK was to match Germany, we’d have to cover 10 million roofs with panels by the end of the decade. That represents a major challenge, but if we did manage to maximise our national solar potential, the UK could potentially generate 6% of its domestic energy needs from solar. And on sunny days, says the Guardian, that figure could rise to as much as 40%.

So what’s stopping us from going solar?

Cost. The average solar panel installation is 4kWp, and according to the Energy Saving Trust, it’ll set you back somewhere in the region of £6000 – £7400. That’s a lot of money – particularly for those on fixed incomes. But the government is actively encouraging investment as part of its Greendeal. Qualifying house holders could receive all or part of the cost of installing solar panels as a grant.  With no upfront costs and any money repayable collected through your energy bills, we think this could be a green technology well worth checking out.

Biomass

Biomass pellets
Image source: T Chara
Big savings, but what will it cost the environment?

Thinking of heating your home with wood chips, biomass pellets or logs? You could save £340 to  £650 on the cost of electric night storage heating and £335 – £470 on an oil fired heating system, says the Energy saving trust. Big savings – but biomass boilers are expensive: an automatically fed pellet boiler costs between £14,000 and £19,000. There is potential to have part of the cost defrayed through the government’s Renewable heat incentive, but investment needs careful thought, not least because biomass isn’t always as green as you might imagine.

Burning anything produces greenhouse gases. The only difference between burning wood or plant material and fossil fuels is timescale. Heating oil, coal and gas release carbon stored for millions of years. Burning biomass also releases greenhouse gases so it only works as a green fuel if what is burned is continually replanted. The processing required to turn wood to chips or pellets burns fossil fuel and the environmental cost of importing wood is significant.

Wood you chop and process yourself by axe or log splitter is the greenest, next is a supply of coppiced wood from a local source. Before investing in biomass, think about from where your fuel is likely to come.

Geothermal

Hot spring
Image source: Fyletto
A geothermal hot spring in New Zealand

Anyone who has visited the Roman baths at Bath will have at least some appreciation of the potential of geothermal energy as a long lasting green power source. But though the the UK has a plentiful potential supply of hot rocks sufficient for the purpose of geothermal power generation – it’s rarely easy to access. In the early 1970s, the UK government commissioned a series of reports on the suitability of the UK for hot rocks power. But then the oil price fell and plans were shelved.

Now with peak oil approaching, interest in geothermal power is once more increasing. But there are potential environmental risks involved in geothermal energy production. Water pumped deep into the ground at high pressure can become contaminated, and as with the highly controversial fracking process, concerns have been raised about the risk of pollution of the water table and earthquakes – though there’s little evidence to support this.

The UK’s newest geothermal project is about to be built at the Eden project in Cornwall. There, planning permission has been granted for the construction of a plant that will supply power to the world leading environmental research centre and at least 3500 homes.

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