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(Micro)power for the people

It's been described as the environmental equivalent of "the leap from the steam engine to the diesel locomotive". Melanie Jarman considers whether a shift to micropower generation is the solution to climate change

September 1, 2005
4 min read

One important question to be asked about any new plan to tackle climate change is: does it include targets for cutting CO2 emissions? If the answer is no, then it is of limited value. A perfect example was July’s newly announced “Asia-Pacific climate plan” – a proposed alliance of Australia, the US, China, India and South Korea to address climate change that belongs in the dustbin of initiatives that distract from effective action.

But while such announcements typically dominate the industrialised world’s strategies on climate change, occasionally ideas come forward that belong in the bucket of beneficial action. A consultation on microgeneration launched by the UK government back in June still has the potential to be placed in the latter.

Microgeneration, or micropower, is the generation of low-carbon heat and power by individuals, small businesses and communities to meet our own energy needs. It is a world away from the inefficient and polluting traditional energy systems that see large power stations located far from the point of use, and represents the kind of step-change in thinking that is badly needed to transform one of the root causes of climate change. Amory Lovins, of the environmental organisation, Rocky Mountain Institute, describes a shift from mega to micropower as a breakthrough comparable to “the leap from the steam engine to the diesel locomotive”.

Micropower is by no means new. It includes devices such as solar panels and small wind turbines that have been promoted for years now as alternative sources of energy, alongside more recent domestic innovations such as heat pumps that extract energy from the ground to run central heating, and combined heat and power (CHP) systems that convert heat given off by a gas boiler into electricity. What is new, however, is the potential for micropower to move out of the alternative scene and be taken up on a wider, societal level, thus making a noticeable impact on energy policy.

The environmental charity, the Green Alliance, has calculated that if, between now and 2020, just a quarter of the million-plus gas boilers removed in the UK annually were replaced with micro-CHP systems, this alone would deliver half of the domestic sector carbon reductions set out in the government’s energy white paper. The New Economics Foundation, meanwhile, has determined that if half of the replacement boilers were micro-CHP they would produce the equivalent electricity of a new power station each year, removing the need for additional large-scale power plants – as well as undermining any revival of the nuclear industry.

With limited resources available for energy developments, the supporters of micropower are pushing hard for it to be taken seriously. Alan Whitehead MP, sponsor of a Private Members Bill on microgeneration put before parliament in June, says: “We know that it will cost at least £10 billion just to replace nuclear power stations going out of commission over the next 15 years, that the money will need to be on the table for 10 years before any electricity is produced, and that most of it will have to come from the public purse. So a good question to ask is: what other power generation can be purchased for this sum, and how quickly would it work? The answer, a comprehensive microgeneration programme, is both quick to produce power and safe to install.”

Guy Thompson of the Green Alliance has pointed out that, despite microgeneration bringing energy issues closer to home practically and offering an excellent opportunity for the public engagement so desperately needed to tackle climate change, the consultation includes no specific measures to stimulate consumer demand. This is a pity: community-wide microgeneration could be a key local protection against the national energy crises that are inevitable in the coming decades.

The consultation also lacks any targets, which Ron Bailey of the Sustainable Energy Partnership argues are essential. “These are what will drive policies to stimulate demand and help us to measure reductions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas,” he says. Bailey believes that without targets the government’s draft microgeneration strategy “will not be a serious strategy to deal with current environmental problems”.

The consultation on microgeneration is open until 23 September. With a final strategy not due until April next year, it remains to be seen whether the government chooses to dig out the contents of the bucket of beneficence or to toss a great opportunity in the direction of the dustbin of distractions.

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