Ebico and the ‘Big Society’ – Part Three

Prompted by questions on our Facebook site (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ebico-Ltd/112467313920) from Emily, I’ve been blogging recently about why, thus far, it has been left to big corporations to deliver on the UK’s commitment to moving to carbon-free electricity generation.  So, is there a role for small social enterprises such as Ebico in all this and, if so, what? 

The home energy market is about to enter a period of its most significant change since the privatisations of the late 1980s.  The Government, with all-party support, is introducing ‘The Green Deal’, to promote a radical increase in the take-up of home energy efficiency measures, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), to encourage us all to source the heat from our homes from renewable resources, and has already introduced the Feed in Tariff (FiT) to support home-based renewable electricity generation.  The Government has also mandated the roll-out of smart meters to every home in the land by 2019.  All these changes will affect consumers directly.  However, we will also all be affected by other changes that Government are proposing to make so as to ‘decarbonise’ (horrible word, sorry) our national electricity infrastructure. 

They are proposing, effectively, to offer free insurance against low electricity prices to the developers of nuclear power stations and offshore wind farms.  That’s ‘free’ to the developers, of course, as the cost of this will ultimately be paid by all consumers.  The Government are also proposing to put an extra tax on the gas and coal that power stations burn to generate electricity.  This will have the effect of putting-up the price of the electricity these power stations generate meaning the price consumers pay rises but also meaning that developers of offshore wind and nuclear power stations will be able to charge more for the electricity they generate – because the going rate for electricity will be higher – so making it more likely that they will commit the billions of Pounds needed to construct these expensive plant. 

My concern with all this is that the three main British parties (the SNP are committed to 100% renewable electricity in Scotland), are intent on massive changes to the UK’s national energy infrastructure with the price for these changes being paid by the consumer.  Despite this, scant regard is being paid as to how to enable consumers to take control of how much energy they use or where it comes from – and I won’t even start on the effects on fuel poverty as I have already done so at length here and here.

I appreciate that the Green Deal, RHI and FiT are all supposed to empower consumers to that end, but I see very little room in the proposals for local initiatives and innovative social business plans.  Indeed, as soon as it looked as if some community-scale projects might emerge from the FiT scheme, the Government got spooked and restricted the attractive FiT rates to solar photovoltaic (PV) developments of less than 50kW (less than the amount of PV panels that could readily be put on a secondary school’s buildings). 

Despite what may well be governments’ best Green intentions, you can’t get consumers to fork-out large lumps of their own cash on improving the energy efficiency of their home and installing green microgeneration technology just by setting-up loans and incentive schemes and sitting back and waiting for the rush – because there won’t be one.  Most householders don’t come with a Discounted Cash-flow spreadsheet in their head, ready to analyse a loan/incentive scheme and open their cheque-books when some household hurdle payback rate is met.  Education, information and psychological factors such as peer-reinforcement are just as important, in my view, to consumer decision-making as Pound signs.  And this takes me back to my ‘Small is Beautiful’ theme.  I believe that local initiatives, run by local people, within a local context and working with local priorities (as in ‘act local, think global’) should play a vital role in delivering against our national priorities of sustainability and poverty reduction in household energy.  So Ebico’s priorities, if you’re still with me Emily, must be to figure-out ways of supporting initiatives, of whatever scale fits best, to tackle fuel poverty in sustainable ways. 

How we do this, we’re not completely sure yet – although we have had a few ideas.  Perhaps you have too.  Why not let us know?

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Ebico and the ‘Big Society’ – Part Two

By Phil Levermore

I last posted on this back in February when I was musing about whether concepts of ‘small is beautiful’ fit with the large-scale energy companies that we all assume are needed to deliver the multi-billion investments that are required to deliver a carbon-free electricity system. I was reminded of this by a couple of questions on our Facebook page, (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ebico-Ltd/112467313920) from Emily (“Do you see yourself growing to take on the energy giants, or would you prefer to see lots of local co-operative businesses running the same business model as you do?”) and Leanne (“What barriers exist to prohibit you, and other small suppliers, from mounting a credible challenge to the ‘big six’?”), and so, in thinking about those questions, I thought I’d return to this issue.

Ebico’s founders, myself included, believed that the market can, and should, be used as a tool to deliver greater social equity. This was, and is, quite a radical notion as markets have traditionally been seen as the enemy of equity – delivering what people want at a price they are prepared to pay, not necessary what they need at a price they can afford. But we strongly believed that, if an energy supply service could be marketed as clearly accessible to everyone, whilst at the same time helping the fuel poor, then market mechanisms could, at least to this extent, deliver on a clear social agenda.

Our tariffs, EquiGas and EquiPower, were a test-bench for this central idea and I’m very pleased to say that they have been a success. Over the past 12 years they have delivered significant savings, particularly to those on low incomes who have to budget very carefully for their energy costs with pre-pay meters. We pioneered the concept of the zero standing (daily) charge which unfairly discriminates against those wishing to save money by using less energy.

Tellingly, our example of a zero price premium, for pre-pay customers over bill-payers, has now been copied by a number of the ‘Big-6’ energy supply companies.

Yet, despite the fact that, with 50,000 customers, we are probably the most successful energy provider outside the Big-6, we remain a small fish in a big pond. Indeed, the fact that a ‘mere’ 50,000 customers makes us the largest energy provider outside the Big-6 is a testament to the dominance of their business model and the lack of our success in challenging it. Between us, we ‘minnows’ have less than 1% of the residential supply market. We remain, in short, niche players with none of us seemingly able to make any meaningful impact on the market share of the Big-6.

So why is this? The reasons for Big-6 dominance are complex, but can be summarised as follows:

“I wouldn’t start here if I wanted to get there”. As soon as the Regulator let them, a handful of large electricity generating companies EoN (previously PowerGen), Npower (previously National Power), EdF, Scottish Hydro-Electric and Scottish Power started to buy-out, or merging with, all the old regional supply companies (remember the likes of SWEB, MANWEB and Yorkshire Electricity?). In this way, these five companies effectively bought (rather than switched) the account of almost every residential electricity customer in Britain. British Gas already had the account of almost every gas customer in Britain, and used this position very successfully to ‘cross-sell’ electricity to many of its gas customers.

 Challenging these entrenched market positions was always going to be a huge task. To complicate matters, the Big-6 have introduced a huge array of different tariffs (over 300 at the last count), most with their own complicated structures, which makes comparing what’s on offer difficult and puts the whole idea of switching supplier into the “too complicated” category for a good half of all consumers (Ofgem estimate, Retail Market Review, March 2011) who, as a result, just “stick with what we know”.

Having a foot in both camps. The Big-6 are, in market terminology, ‘vertically integrated’. This means that they supply electricity to customers and they own and operate the majority of electricity generating plant (aka power stations) in Britain. So, if wholesale electricity prices (the price at which power stations sell and supply companies buy) rise sharply, which they did in 2005/6 and 2008 then they make less profit from supplying electricity to customers, but more profit from generating electricity, so their overall profits are maintained. By contrast, a company that is only a supplier (so doesn’t own any power stations) struggles to pass-on the higher prices it is having to pay to consumers and so has its profits squeezed or eliminated altogether. When wholesale electricity prices fall sharply, as they did in 2001/2 (yes, it does happen), the vertically integrated company sees a squeeze in the profits from its generation business but gets bigger profits from it supply business.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if there was a healthy market for wholesale electricity, in which case smaller suppliers could, effectively, buy insurance against wholesale price rises reasonably cheaply. Unfortunately, because the Big-6 are all vertically integrated, they don’t need a healthy wholesale market – so there isn’t one.

So, I hope that answers your question Leanne. I’ll return to Emily’s question in my next blog.

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Murano Solar Powered Garden Globe – Midnight

By Paula Brown

Description

The Murano solar powered garden light globe blends modern technology with centuries old skills of hand blowing glass.

A rather unique and lovely solar decorative garden light – each glass globe contains embedded luminescent crystals which create a magical effect when the light comes on.

Review

Solar lights are generally easy to assemble and this globe was no exception. Once released from its packaging (it is very well packaged to avoid breakages!), you clip the globe onto the top, join the spike’s together, and switch the switch to auto (located underneath the solar panel) and you’re done.

The spike length is quite long with the solar panel located half way down, so positioning in the garden took some thought. You preferably require high foliage so that you can hide the spike a little and the globe doesn’t look like it’s just protruding over the flowers in the daytime. I placed mine by my climbing roses so the bottom foliage hid some of the spike but the solar panel was still clear to catch the sunlight with the globe positioned between the leaves.

In the day time the globe was quite hidden but at night it came into its own. The packaging claims ‘Once dark the “Midnight” globe appears to magically float in the air looking, as it does, very much like planet Earth – truly fabulous and inspiring!’ and to be honest it does appear to just be hovering between the roses and creates a lovely effect. I wouldn’t however say that it reminds me of planet earth, but it is extremely decorative.  With my blue fence panels in the background, the midnight globe did complement my garden.

If you are looking for a solar light that can give some light to illuminate a path way or an area of your garden, then this light is not up for the job as the glow is quite subtle, but if you are looking to add some interest between your plants and a unique effect, then this would definitely do the job.

Additional Information

  • The Midnight version is dark blue – for a light blue version see the Aqua version, or for different light effects, see the Sunset version.
  • Up to 8 hours run time per night.
  • Size – Height: 33cm, Globe diameter: 10cm, Overall height: 84cm.
  • Weight – 650g

To purchase the globe visit the Energy Saving Products page on the Ebico website.

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Tackling Fuel Poverty in Leeds

Over the past two years, through The Ebico Trust, we’ve been supporting an innovative scheme, ‘The Green Doctor’, in Leeds to tackle fuel poverty in sustainable ways. Organised by national environmental charity, Groundwork UK, The Green Doctor programme offers free advice and support to low income households across the city that saves them money while encouraging behaviour change with regard to using energy.

The package includes the ‘Green Doctor Prescription’ – a checklist of energy-saving actions tailored to each individual householder’s needs by energy efficiency experts. In the past two years, the scheme has fitted a total of 4,573 energy efficiency measures in 762 homes across the city to improve insulation and heating systems.

The installation of these measures will save the participating households a collective £250,000 over a lifetime and the scheme continues to grow – and we’re rather proud of it!

Of particular importance to us, The Green Doctor programme also provides opportunities for local unemployed young people to gain skills and work experience in jobs that will help boost Leeds’ low carbon future.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change recently published figures showing that the number of people suffering from fuel poverty in the UK continues to increase.

 Partnering with Groundwork UK on the delivery of the Green Doctor initiative in the Leeds area has enabled us to take another small, but significant, step towards our goal of eradicating fuel poverty in the UK.

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Nuclear power – no thanks?

By Phil Levermore

We’re now 1 week in to the world’s biggest nuclear incident in 25 years (since the Chernobyl reactor fire in 1986) and there’s still no sign of the situation turning the corner.  At 0546 hours last Friday the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was hit by an earthquake of magnitude 8.9 and a few minutes later by the resulting tsunami wave. 

Three of the six reactors were off-line undergoing maintenance at the time of the accident and the other three reactors ‘tripped’ (i.e. control rods automatically deploy within the reactor to switch it off) within seconds.  However, within the space of a just few seconds, primary electrical power to all the reactors’ cooling systems failed.  It seems that a few minutes later the standby electrical system failed, possibly as a result of inundation of the diesel generators by the tsunami.  The tertiary systems (battery back-up) would not be designed to last more than a few minutes. Although none of the reactors cores remained ‘critical’ (i.e. supporting a sustained nuclear reaction – their normal operating mode when generating electricity), the systems that keep the fuel rods cool in the reactor core, ceased to operate once they lost electrical power.  The fuel rods in the tripped reactors heated-up and may have, at least partially, have melted. 

Spent fuel rods (i.e. those which have been ‘used-up’) are routinely stored close to a reactor in a cooling pond to allow them to cool to the point at which they can be removed for reprocessing or long-term storage.  It seems that the cooling of the Fukushima Daiichi cooling ponds has also failed with the attendant risk that the temperature of these fuel rods will rise to dangerous levels too.  The high temperature of the Zirconium canisters making-up the fuel rod structure appears to have reacted with the steam generated by the overheating cooling system to form Hydrogen which, in turn, appears to have ignited causing the explosions that have destroyed three of the six reactor housings. 

Radiation from the accident has, thus far, been dangerously high only in the close proximity of the site and, thus, has posed a health risk only to those brave individuals who have remained on site to tackle the incident.  This is likely to remain the case unless a reactor pressure vessel is breeched by an explosion and the reactor core catches fire.  This is what happened at Chernobyl and which, ultimately, caused highly radioactive material to be dispersed over large swathes of northern Europe and Scandinavia.  The priority of the plant crews and those assisting them is therefore to prevent any further explosions by keeping the fuel rods cool whilst the cooling systems are repaired and, ultimately, the fuel rods can be removed.

So what does all this mean to us?  At a human level we must wish every good fortune to the brave crews who are risking their health and, indeed, lives in containing this nuclear accident – and this in a nation which is reeling from the double disaster of earthquake and tsunami. 

The incident has already prompted a review of nuclear site safety in most western countries and a temporary suspension of the nuclear building programme in China. 

In the medium term it will change perceptions of new nuclear power station development in countries around the world.  Not least here in the United Kingdom where, in the last half-century of nuclear power generation, there has not been a single incident involving an uncontrolled release of significant amounts of radioactive material.  A record of which the UK nuclear sector is justifiably proud.

The Fukushima Daiichi accident, and the public concern it will no doubt cause, has the effect of throwing into stark relief the really difficult choices that we, as a nation, face.  Climate experts are as near unanimous as it is feasible for a group of scientists to be in telling us that the world will experience an increase of global average temperature of two degrees in the present century (deemed to be an environmental tipping-point) unless atmospheric carbon dioxide is reduced to 50% of its 1990 levels by 2050.

In order to achieve this restraint, both recent government administrations have endorsed our climate scientists’ views that, to play our part, we in the UK must reduce our national emissions of CO2 by 80%, compared with 1990 levels.  Because this can be most cheaply (although at £230 Billion, cheap isn’t really the appropriate word) done by changing how we generate electricity, this means reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity generating sector to a point where the system is almost entirely decarbonised by the mid 2030s (only 25 years away) and by reducing CO2 emitted from transportation, from industry & commerce and from our homes in parallel. 

You can get an idea of how challenging this is by having a go at the government’s simulation game that they have developed at http://my2050.decc.gov.uk/.  If you haven’t already, have a go.  You get to play a benign dictator who decides for us all how we are to decarbonise our society.  I tried it, and my first three attempts, in which I only did things that I thought would be politically acceptable in the UK, failed to make the necessary cuts.  Now, I did impose an additional restriction on myself in that I chose to have no offshore wind turbines as, in my view, these are so expensive for the electricity they produce as to be just plain daft.  In the end, I chose to develop 50 nuclear power stations in addition to very major improvements to standards of insulation in UK homes (as this will benefit the fuel poor too) and an area of the size of Wales given-over for growing biomass crops.

The trouble is that England is the most densely populated country in Europe and as a direct result, I suspect; we are very energy-hungry and protective of our open-spaces.  Hydrocarbons (oil, gas and coal) and nuclear fuel (Uranium) have a very high energy density so you can get a lot of electricity out of them with not much space – great, if you haven’t got much space.  Energy generation with renewable resources (wind, water and sun) have a low energy density so you need a lot of space to get a little electricity – bad, if you haven’t got much space.  So if its residents wish to keep England (responsible for more than 80% of energy demand in the UK) looking, in the future, similar to the way it does now – but with 80% fewer CO2 emissions consistent with doing our fair share to avoid major climate change, then, in my view, we either have to go hell for leather to develop a very large new fleet of nuclear power stations or we pay for the ‘outsourcing’ of our need for space for renewables to another country where space is not at a premium. 

We could, for instance, cover the Sahara desert with solar panels and build transmission lines, for the electricity, back to the UK.  Or we could ‘rent’ large tracts of Scandinavia or Canada on which to grow biomass to be shipped to England for burning in power stations.  Either way this outsourcing would be hugely expensive and, in the case of desert PV arrays,could place us at the mercy of the, potentially, dubious regimes on whose land the arrays were located and the, probably, less dubious regimes over whose land our transmission lines stretched.  We could, of course, ‘freeload’ off the rest of the world and hope that, even though we couldn’t make the difficult decisions, others would pay the economic price for us and cut their CO2 emissions.  Likely?

As a nation and, indeed, as part of the developed world, our choices are very difficult – Fukushima Daiichi shows just how difficult.  But if we fail to make those choices, then our descendents lives are going to be even more difficult.

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Product review: Radiator Booster

By Louise King

What is it?

A small fan that goes along the length of your radiator, blowing the heat produced out of the radiator into the room.  It is in an oblong container and has holes at the bottom to distribute the heat.  The radiator booster has a built in thermostat and can turn itself off when your heating goes off.  It does however need to be plugged in to an electrical socket. 

The packaging claims:

  • Circulates the lost heat from behind your radiator
  • Enables you to reduce your thermostat by 1 to 3 degrees
  • Usually pays for itself within 8 weeks
  • Running cost is around 30p per year

I offered to trial the radiator booster because my lounge only has one small radiator in it, which is insufficient for the size of the room.  I am therefore constantly looking for ways to make the room feel warmer, usually by wearing lots of clothes and using blankets!  This product appeared to be the perfect solution for me, making the most of the energy that my existing small radiator is producing.

The product is very easy to set up.  I simply pulled it out to the length of my radiator, placed it in the middle of the radiator and plugged it in.  The Radiator Booster automatically started to work.  The issue was plugging it in.  The cord isn’t very long at all (1.8m) and I really needed an extension lead.

Within a short amount of time (20 minutes or so) I really felt a difference.  The living room did feel warmer (by 2 degrees according to my thermometer).  I have now used it for a week and every evening the Radiator Booster turns itself on automatically when the radiator heats up and off again when it turns off.  You can hear the fan working away; it’s about the same noise level as a PC.

Conclusion

It might not be the prettiest product, or a fantastic long term solution, but it has certainly done for me what it said on the box.  My room is certainly warmer and according to Radiator Booster, only costing me an additional 30p per year, plus the cost of the product, so I really cannot complain.

Find out how to purchase the Radiator Booster here.

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The Ebico Trust for Sustainable Development

By Louise King

You may have seen one of our larger competitors announce very healthy profits today.  As you know Ebico is the only not-for-profit energy company.  

Any excess revenue generated by Ebico goes into our Ebico Trust for Sustainable Development.  The Ebico Trust is a registered charity which enables us to support initiatives to improve the energy efficiency of the homes of low income householders and offer support and advice on saving energy – thereby reducing their fuel bills still further.

The Ebico Trust for Sustainable Development, amongst other things, financially supports local projects that carry out material improvements in the condition of properties – particularly those occupied by low incomes householders – so as to make them cheaper to heat.

The Ebico Trust for Sustainable Development has recently committed to fund a new 12 month project with Energy Solutions Ltd. The project is an anti-fuel poverty drive, including research into fuel poverty in the London boroughs of Brent and Harrow.

Full information on this project and others that the trust is funding see our Ebico Trust for Sustainable Development page

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