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Smart tech – always listening, always on! “Alexa how much energy do you use?”

All homes have a background energy usage driven by the electricals that are on 24/7. Refrigerators, appliances on standby, set-top boxes, TVs, pumps, boilers, broadband routers, computers, chargers – the list of items sucking energy goes on and on!  Now smart devices… voice-controlled ‘smart speakers’ and home hubs have become the next ‘must-have’ tech. The irony is that this tech is consuming far more electricity than the old enemy – leaving stuff on standby!

Connected homes are being touted as the next big thing for those who have trouble typing, can’t find their remotes, or need help setting the timer on their heating! I hear myself now shouting “Hey Google! Siri! Alexa! Where’s my phone?” … “I don’t know… but I’ve found this on the web.”

Smart thermostat controls, making your heating work less

Whilst these devices may make life easier, and could potentially save you some energy if you’re using smart thermostat controls, like Google’s Nest or British Gas Hive products. Managing your heating as efficiently as possible it should get your bills down. These devices learn temperatures you like, then adjust automatically.  They’re controllable from smartphones, so if you’re delayed getting home you could remotely re-schedule your heating to come on later. Programming boilers on/off cycles should be much more user-friendly when done through an app interface. According to Nest’s own US research customers saved about 10-12% on their heating bills. However, I was quite surprised to see that the Nest thermostat uses 1kWh per month in standby.

Hive, owned by Centrica (British Gas) have claimed savings of £150 a year. These claims are really difficult to substantiate as it’s more about behavioural changes than the tech itself – turning down your heating a bit, wearing more clothes, or draft proofing your home could be equally effective. Combine this with switching to LED lighting, or upgrading to more efficient appliances, and you could easily match these claimed savings from installing their smart tech devices, without the expense.

Motion trackers helping disabled or older people, and those with health conditions

British Gas recently introduced a monitoring service that bolts onto the connected home Hive products. It’s available for a fee of £15 a month, plus a one-off £150 upfront charge. When installed a carer receives alerts via an app if anything out of the usual routine happens, such as a kettle not being switched on at the same time each day, or rooms not being entered. The monitoring is not meant as a replacement to everyday visits or contact, but as a safety guide to thousands of unpaid carers.

The Hive Link service does not have a camera; however, it does include motion sensors, window and door sensors, plus plugin sensors that monitor a regularly used appliance and electricals. This technology could expand further to detect falls and provide help with managing medicines.

Carers UK has partnered with British Gas on the Hive project, alongside the charity Caring Communities, to enable those they support to stay in their own homes for longer.

Smart tech, it’s not all good news

As most homes are struggling to find a spare socket to plug in the latest bit of tech, sales of extension leads and triple adaptors must be going the through the roof. All these devices are only going to increase energy bills. Finding out what these bits of kit use isn’t easy. Nest, owned by Google, make lots of claims on how much you could save by using their thermostat. They then fail to publish meaningful data on their connected home products, such as their Google Home Hub and voice-activated speakers. We contacted them, through their chat service, over three months ago regarding this, and as yet, they have not updated any energy usage data information.

Amazon’s energy usage figures aren’t well publicised and are vague when compared to Apple’s. And we’ve yet to find any environmental reporting, by Amazon, regarding the materials, manufacturing or recycling – not great.

Apple, on the other hand, has got their environmental reporting act together – since the Greenpeace campaign against them a few years back. All the energy usage data is there in understandable terms. Materials used in its manufacture and recycling information are well publicised, unlike the other tech giants!

Other premium smart speaker brands such as B&O, Bose and Sonos appear to be ignoring the fact that their products consume energy. If data is provided it doesn’t reflect real-world usage.

As yet there are no reporting standards or energy labelling requirements for this new classification on products – tech and the market get ahead of the policy makers again! Hopefully, this will change as the market matures.

Could smart connected homes drive up your energy bills?

Whilst the energy usage of these devices may seem trivial, it’s the cumulative effect of tens of millions of these devices in our homes. All adding to the background energy usage across the country. Even small reductions in the energy usage of smart devices could make massive reductions in the overall UK energy consumption.

A more worrying aspect of these technologies – from an energy usage perspective – is the back-end cloud and network services driving these products. At moment there doesn’t appear to be much information regarding network/cloud and data transaction impact in carbon emissions terms. A host of other factors would need to be considered to get robust reporting on this, for example, data centres, server configurations, and how these are powered (renewables or fossil-fuelled) to give a view on their carbon impact.

Amazon cloud platform AWS, which hosts the software that drives Alexa, achieved 50% renewable energy usage in early 2018. Their in-house combined solar and wind generation is estimated at 2-gigawatt hours per year. This is used to power some of their server farms. However, if you took that energy generation away from powering the AWS servers and turned it to run Alexa home smart speakers, that 2 Gigawatts would only power approximately 95,000 units a year. It’s estimated that over 75,000,000 smart speaker units have been purchased worldwide in 2018.

Standby energy usage improves to be replaced by not so ‘smart’ stuff!

Back in the day standby and plasma TVs were seen as the villains of energy usage. Now most TVs (apart from supersized LEDs) and peripheral devices have cut their energy usage down dramatically. All good, however, standby is still a waste of energy.

Fast-forward to the present… we have a plethora of smart connected products filling up our homes, constantly drawing more and more background energy than standby devices ever did. And the hidden cloud services that provide the intelligence and computer processing power are consuming yet more energy as they monitor our lives!  So as fast as we make efficiencies, we find more ways to use electricity! The Jevons paradox.

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Goodbye to Feed-in Tariffs (FIT), say hello to Smart Export Guarantee (SEG)

It must be tough times for those working as solar power installers, especially after the death of the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) in March 2019. And now consumers are facing a 15% VAT price hike on installing low-carbon energy generation and storage equipment. The reality of a #ClimateEmergency seems to be passing by those driving low carbon energy policy-making decisions.

Say goodbye to Feed-in Tariff (FIT)

Long gone are the ‘gold rush’ days for the PV industry. The Government used to guarantee those who installed micro-renewable generation an index-linked income for 25 years!  Okay, lots of solar panel installers made a lot of money out these initiatives, even renting roofs to claim the FIT subsidies.  It kick-started a whole new industry, creating jobs (34,000 according to Solar Trade Association) and skills in the new green economy sector. More importantly, it raised awareness of solar PV energy as a viable option – even in the wet and windy UK.

A 9.55GW peak of clean energy this May

In less than a decade PV solar panels became an everyday fixture on many homes.  On May 15th 2019, at midday, solar generation hit a peak of 9.55GW of clean energy, which is a new UK record. This power was generated by over 975,000 homes, businesses and communities, making us less reliant on large energy generators, and reducing emissions.

Home solar panels (PV) cost a quarter of what they did ten years ago

As the PV market developed the prices for solar panels dropped dramatically, as did the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) payments.  Ten years ago a 4kw home solar system could have cost you £20k, now you’re looking at £5k. Predictions of further decline in the cost of panels are projected.  However, the economics of installing home generation aren’t stacking up in purely financial terms – environmentally it’s a no brainer, especially if you’re at home during the day, or own an electric car, and not forgetting having a roof pointing in the right direction!

Electric Car Reviews

Free electricity for your next-door-neighbour! Why?

For anyone installing a solar generation at the moment, any surplus electricity you generated would go straight back to the grid. Effectively giving your next-door-neighbour free power, or to put it another way, subsidising the energy companies supplying them. Yep, you pay for the kit to generate clean energy, then the grid gives it to your neighbour who then gets charged for it! Sounds fair?

Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) to replace FIT?

This is where Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) comes in. Hopefully, this will make the whole “do I? Don’t I?” install solar more viable. The idea is power companies will pay you for the energy you generate, similar to the Feed-in Tariff (FIT). The big difference is it will be monitored by your smart meter, recording what you export back to the grid,  then paying you for your surplus energy.  That’s sounding much better!

Other factors that should help with the “do I? Don’t I?” install solar PV is the growing energy storage technologies. Batteries that store electricity during the day; then feed this back into your house at night when you need it.  Getting around the “I’m not home to use the energy in the daytime” scenario.  This does drive-up the cost of any system, plus the batteries have a limited life. So again the maths needs careful consideration.

Energy storage, grid balancing and the market

Energy storage and smart metering are also opening up possibilities for smaller generators to enter the energy market, potentially through their existing energy supplier.  Storing electricity while there is a surplus, or when prices are low, then selling it back to the grid when prices are high – all helping to balance the grid.  Even electric car (EV) batteries could be used as energy stores – much better than diesel generators sitting on standby.

Is an electric car right for you?

This technology is being developed, alongside the regulations to police it. Let’s hope the policymakers and regulators get it right, and those who install renewable energy production get a fair return. Could this be the first step to democratising electricity generation and the energy market, or will it add yet more complexity?

I’m hoping to see more panels on roofs and a vibrant green energy sector.

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How many green energy suppliers! Are their tariffs really 100% renewable electricity?

We’ve just updated our UK energy companies fuel-mix database. The most striking thing is the sheer number of new energy suppliers – and, more worrying, those that have gone bust!

The energy supplier market seems to be awash with choice, with the number who claim to be 100% renewable going through the roof. Others seem to miraculously become super green energy providers overnight, after a simple name change. How come? Smoke and mirrors? It’s certainly looking that way.

What’s the difference between energy generators and suppliers?

Generating and distributing energy is a complex business. It involves physical stuff… power stations, wind turbines, hydro schemes, solar arrays, biomass, and distribution networks. They provide all the complex capital-intensive infrastructure side of building and maintaining electricity generation and energy networks.

The size and scale of these energy generators vary: From a farmer with a medium-sized wind turbine; A community group with a few solar panels; to EDF energy with a fleet of nuclear power stations. These bigger energy companies, and renewable focused companies such as Ecotricity and Good Energy, operate as both generators, building and maintaining infrastructure – and energy suppliers, servicing and selling their energy directly to customers.

Why are there so many energy suppliers?

Most energy suppliers, especially the newer ones, don’t get their hands dirty in energy generation as such. They act as intermediaries, energy traders, shop fronts, glossy branding exercises, customer metering and billing portals, or even white labelled web apps. Buying in energy and doing deals within the wholesale energy market, or direct with generators. Hedging their bets, then flogging this energy back to us, whilst hopefully making a profit. Hence, it’s somewhat easier to become an energy supplier. As you never have to invest in generating watts. Suppliers are ‘retailing’ energy, rather than ‘manufacturing’ or even ‘delivering’ the goods.

How can an energy supplier become 100% green overnight?

Okay, so many of the UK’s energy suppliers (retailers) have no energy-generating infrastructure e.g. windmills, solar farms, biomass burners or hydro generation to worry about. This means it’s easy for them to simply flip to green generated electricity overnight. Just purchase a load of renewable green energy from the wholesale market, then sell this as a green eco energy tariff – sounds great. Environmentally conscious consumers feel good. Their green energy is at a competitive price. The energy supplier ticks all its Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) boxes.

The problem is that this so-called renewable energy may not be that green, it could be rebadged fossil fuel-generated brown energy. How?

Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs) can change the colour of energy?

REGOs is a mechanism (certificates) that Ofgem – UK’s energy regulator – issues as proof of renewable generation. Unfortunately, energy suppliers can source these REGOs without actually purchasing the electricity they relate to, or put it another way, energy suppliers/generators who have already used this power to supply their customers can sell their surplus REGOs.

These purchased REGOs can then be purchased by energy suppliers to offset their brown energy in their fuel-mix reporting, turning brown energy to green… alchemy!

The secondary trading of these REGOs has become commonplace, exploiting a loophole in the fuel-mix reporting rules. You can buy REGOs for just a few pence per MWh and miraculously greenwash your brown electricity, without ever buying a single watt of renewable energy. Fantastic, a feelgood eco marketing opportunity opens up!

An interesting example of this was First Utility who became Shell Energy, then suddenly made their 700,000 customers 100% renewable. Amazing!

What’s the problem with REGOs

The real issue with REGOs is consumer trust with the energy sector. Having a pop at energy companies appears to be a national pastime. They’re either ripping consumers off, making too much money or going bust. Now we can’t even believe what’s a real green energy tariff – this simply isn’t on.

A situation where energy supply companies can green-up their energy without buying any renewable energy seems madness. This completely undermines those energy companies who are genuinely committed to investing in renewable energy generation infrastructure – and are prepared to get their hands dirty. In stark contrast to the cynical suppliers playing the energy market whilst pretending to be ‘touchy-feely eco-warriors’

Fuel-Mix Disclosure should reflect real-world renewable generation.

Fuel Mix Disclosure should include energy acquired through renewable generation purchased, not those acquired in the secondary REGO market. This is a problem for Ofgem to sort, as real ethical renewable energy generation companies are at a distinct disadvantage. What is their USP if everyone’s gone green overnight?

At the moment we have no way of knowing which companies are genuinely 100% renewable and investing in decarbonising our economy. The Fuel Mix data being published is becoming increasingly meaningless.

Energy conservation matters

Hopefully, the UK is going full-speed-ahead with decarbonising its energy sector. I hope those playing these cynical green marketing tactics, start investing in new renewable generation infrastructure, as well as the smart grid tech. They also need to promote, the often-forgotten energy conservation measures, although these are frequently overlooked as there isn’t money to be made. After all, the greenest kilowatt is the one that isn’t used.

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My advice would be to choose an energy company that invests directly in new renewable generation facilities. Creating new renewable capacities, such as Ecotricity or Good Energy.

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Please note: We do not publish sponsored content or guest posts that are trying to promote specific products or brands. If you have a genuine newsworthy story you would like to share please do comment or email.     

Is an electric car right for you?

Is an electric car right for you? Buying new or second-hand, home charging and the practicalities of EV ownership

There’s a lot of hype around electric cars at the moment, possibly due, in part, to the realisation that diesel cars aren’t a cheap, clean option anymore. We were advised to buy them to reduce CO2 emissions and encouraged by the low fuel bills. The dash for diesel has certainly driven down motoring costs, unfortunately, at the expense of air quality – especially in urban areas.

So, after being persuaded to ‘go diesel’, is it now the time to consider going electric? – what are the options? And is it really a practical solution for you and your life style?

Things to consider if you’re thinking of choosing an electric car.

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Fluctuating oil prices – when is the best time to buy heating oil?

Trying to second-guess energy prices is notoriously difficult, that said, crude oil has risen from a low of $30 a barrel in early 2016 to over $80 in recent months. For those who have to rely on oil to run the heating – that’s about 1.6 million homes – they will be well aware of these fluctuations. Having benefited from the slump in oil prices they will now find that they are paying 50-60 pence per litre, rather than 35 pence per litre in 2017. This makes recent rises in electricity and gas prices seem small in comparison.

Heating oil delivery, nozzle placed into oil tank to refill

What’s driving oil price increases?

Oil is traded in US Dollars, making the exchange rate between US$ and UK£ a massive factor, the recent Brexittalks have led to fluctuations in the value of sterling, this has a huge bearing on the final price that we pay in the UK.  Economic and political events, nationally and worldwide, quickly feed into exchange rates which immediately impacts on the price of oil – this rapidly drives up prices at the pump and the cost of heating oil.

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The International Energy Agency (IEA) – the world’s energy watchdog – has been warning that energy prices could increase further in the coming months. Problems with Venezuelan and Iranian exports are impacting global oil production.  Political pressure is being put on other producers to increase production to take up the slack. Other factors such as sluggish demand from Japan due to natural disasters and extreme weather conditions may help contain price rises. The escalating trade war between the US and China is increasing the uncertainty, making market jitters even more likely.

When should you buy heating oil?

Buying your heating oil during the summer months is usually a better bet; prices tend to drop, as there is less demand. However, keeping an eye on oil prices is always the best strategy, as the summer rule doesn’t always work. That said, it helps to avoid the longer delivery lead-times in the winter months, especially if there is a prolonged cold snap. The golden rule is to never let your tank get low, especially in the winter.

Heating oil price – comparing the market

There appears to be plenty of competition in the heating oil market. Prices across the UK do vary, so it’s always best to ring around for prices to get a feel for what oil is trading at. Online services such as Boiler Juice and Heating are great for seeing current prices, even if you don’t order through them.

Building a good relationship with your supplier is beneficial; reliability of deliveries, even a driver who knows where your tank is, is often more important than saving a few pennies. Most oil suppliers are looking to build long-term customers and will offer a keen price to keep your custom.

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How big is your heating oil tank?

The more you buy the cheaper it gets certainly applies to heating oil. Buying in bulk helps reduce the delivery costs, so always ask your oil supplier’s price break points, they are usually 500, 1000, 2000 and 2500+ litres. Most domestic tanks range in size from 1000 to 3500 litre, commercial tanks do go larger. If you’re about to install a new tank and have the space, a larger tank maybe worth considering.

Heating oil club’s, getting together with your neighbours

Buying in bulk will certainly pay dividends – clubbing together with your neighbours would open-up better deals with your oil supplier. Filling-up four and five tanks within your village is far more convenient for the oil provider than their driver covering loads of miles with separate deliveries. Plus, you could arrange for one person be at home to sign the paperwork – deals are to be made where heating oil is concerned!

Keep your oil tank in good condition

One thing to remember, don’t be tempted to fill up your tank to the brim, avoiding spillages is a must!  Oil is nasty smelly stuff, very polluting to the environment and can cause major structural damage to buildings if it leaches out into the fabric of walls. My advice would be to have your oil tank and connecting pipes checked regularly, ideally when you have the boiler serviced. If you can smell oil, there could be a leak – cleaning up oil spillages is very expensive. Most home insurance policies will cover this; however, always check that you are fully insured.

In rented properties it is the landlord’s responsibility to make sure that the tank and boiler are maintained, and any equipment is sited as per building regulations.

Oil theft – keep your tank locked

A large proportion of households that use oil to heat their homes are in rural or remote areas – making them susceptible to theft. The theft of heating oil is becoming a real problem. When you consider 2700 litres (600 gallons) of oil, at today’s price (50p litre) equates to £1350, you can see why it’s an attractive option for criminals!

It’s not just the value of the oil that’s at risk; the damage to the tank by thieves and the potential clean-up costs for spillages, need to be factored in, as well as the inconvenience.

Here are some tips on keeping fuel secure     

  • Padlock tank fillers caps
  • Positions tanks where surveillance is easy.
  • Ask neighbours to keep a look out for unusual activity and inform the police if they see anything suspicious
  • Use external lighting with motion sensors
  • Install CCTV, or smart home cameras
  • Consider an electronic oil level gauge that sets off an audible alarm if the oil level suddenly drops.
  • Smartphone app monitoring are available
  • Check your oil levels regularly, it may have been stolen without you knowing!

Finally, please check that you’re fully insured and that your household insurance covers you for oil theft, damage and the clean-up costs. If not, shop around the market to find the best deals available.

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Please note: We do not publish sponsored content or guest posts that are trying to promote specific products or brands. If you have a genuine newsworthy story you would like to share please do comment or email.     

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