Monitoring with zest

by Steven Harris

By now,  as the sort of person who reads our blog, you will know all about the Feed-In Tariff for renewable electricity and how successful it has been – so successful, in fact, that the Government has now started squirming about cutting it back, to the annoyance of the newly blooming industry and the international investment community.

But  things are about to get a whole lot more exciting for renewable heat technologies – because at last we have it. The long-awaited government announcement on the Renewable Heat Incentive.

For the last six months or so, the whole energy world has been waiting to see what this would look like, suspecting that someone else knew more, and trying to second-guess the shape of it. And now it’s arrived.

So what is the Renewable Heat Incentive?

As the official I saw presenting the policy consultation said last spring, even Outer Mongolia has a Feed-In Tariff for electricity – but no one has a Renewable Heat Incentive. He even quoted from In the Loop, a film that seems popular with civil servants, saying that while Feed-In Tariff was ‘easy peasy lemon squeezy’, doing the same for renewable heat was ‘difficult difficult lemon difficult’.

You may recall that when I wrote about my clever house, I said that renewable generated heat is only useful if it’s…erm… useful. That is, if there is something you can do with it. In the summer it’s very easy to harvest loads of renewable heat, but in summer you don’t really have anything to do with it. You can only take so many baths.

So the big question that has been worrying all us technical types is this: what is to stop someone generating (or harvesting) loads of renewable heat, just to claim the incentive payment, even if they have no use for it? It won’t exactly inspire energy-efficiency measures. At the extreme, it could even lead to someone reaping rewards for putting in a hot tub or swimming pool.

But the worst-case scenario is that, as our heat pump field trial showed,  you could be running an installation that isn’t even producing renewable heat. This can happen when an installation has been badly chosen, designed or put in. In the worst cases they were not much better than direct, fossil-carbon-intensive electric heating.

You don’t want to incentivise that!

So you will be unsurprised to hear us shouting MANDATORY MONITORING! and we are very pleased to see that the Government seem to have their ears open.

I don’t think we’d have said it last year. The monitoring the Energy Saving Trust carries out for our heat pump and solar thermal trials produces so much data that it can break servers. When we gave organisations like the Heat Pump Association some homework to do with the monitoring data from just one household, they came back mopping their brows. A reading from several different monitors every two minutes for over a year creates a colossal mountain of information that even the most intrepid monitoring consultant would think twice about trying to scale (sorry Chris!).

But this year it’s all different.

We have apps.

In other words, we can now farm, harvest and process data without those beads of perspiration popping from the heads of the data handlers. All you do is install some sensors that can  talk wirelessly to a box in your house, which occasionally calls a server centre and uploads its data. The clever bit happens where a web application automatically takes this data and converts it into something that can be easily understood, and – even better – made useful.

I’ve been testing this out on my house for a few months now, and even in London I can see if it’s sunny back in Wales, or whether the oven is on (hello kids – enjoy your dinner!). More usefully, I can also see online how much electricity my house has both consumed and generated in the last day, week, month or year. All from a couple of optical switches that I’ve stuck over the flashing LED lights on my PV and electricity meters.

Have a look at Seamless Sensing for more on this (but I’m not giving out my login details). Google also does something similar with Powermeter, but at the moment it relies on inaccurate cable clamps and doesn’t do renewable energy generation – so I like Seamless better.

But if you are the Government, one household’s data is not the problem. You potentially have 20 million households’ data to deal with.

This is where systems like Energence come in. This system was designed by Adrian Hewitt, the Merton Borough Council Planning officer who pioneered the now famous Merton Rule. The Merton Rule requires a development over a certain size to generate a percentage of its energy, originally 10%, from renewable sources onsite. This rule was made a national requirement in 2008. We have even done a case study on it.

The trouble is that, as far as developers are generally concerned, planning permission only exists to facilitate building and sales. Developers knew that town planners had no mandate (or  inclination) to visit a project after planning sign-off – so, although they installed renewable energy equipment, and to be fair, normally in good faith, they had no motivation to see that it ever worked. They had achieved their planning permission, built the building, sold it and moved on. The cynical ones didn’t even build a fuel store for the biomass boilers.

As you can imagine, this upset Adrian. It also did no good for the cause of renewable energy.

So Adrian has now set up a simple mapping and monitoring system which in certain boroughs has to be fitted as a condition of planning permission. The required performance of a development’s renewable energy installation can now be automatically calculated and monitored by a web application.

If the energy installation has a problem, the application will automatically email everybody. If nothing is done, it will then email the planning enforcement officers. And if, after two years, the percentage of energy agreed in the permission has not been generated, a bond (given over to the local authority at the time the permission was given) could  be  redeemed and PV panels of the equivalent missing yield could be put on a local authority building, like a school, instead.

The beauty of this is that, as Adrian puts it, ‘no planning officers are harmed in the process.’ That is, no staff time is expended, and no money is spent by the local authority. The system is also designed to handle portfolios of buildings, so it only collects data that is useful for its practical purposes. It’s about compliance and time-saving, rather than data hell.

So, back to the Renewable Heat Incentive. I suppose I’m saying that if Renewable Heat Incentive looks more ‘difficult difficult lemon duifficult’ than the Feed-In Tariff, it doesn’t have to be. It’s been done before, just not called Renewable Heat Incentive. If you were to call gaining planning permission an incentive (which of course it is) – and if that permission depends on proving you are generating renewable energy – and if your main worry is monitoring that generation – then we already have a Renewable Heat Incentive up and running.

House: You called?
Me: Where’s my lemon squeezer?