Opinion: ‘Greener energy is the future for us’

Nick Sandford, Lib Dem Group leader, Peterborough City Council, writes...

Solar power    (Photo getty Images).
Solar power (Photo getty Images).

In this month’s column I want to talk about energy: a really topical issue at present with soaring gas prices and it’s also been identified as one of the top three sources of Peterborough’s carbon emissions.

I recently had some batteries installed at my house under a scheme called “Solar Together Cambridgeshire”, to work with solar PV panels that I had put in about 10 years ago.

Solar Together works using a “reverse auction” process, where solar installers bid to install solar panels and/or batteries, to a given specification, for a large number of interested customers and the one bidding the lowest price wins the contract.

The scheme is not currently advertised in

Peterborough but the council’s Climate Change Working Group has asked officers to look into Peterborough joining “Solar Together” sometime next year.

Having solar panels and batteries is really empowering in that it enables you to store energy from the sun and use it when you need it. In the winter months, when there is not so much sunshine, you can set the batteries to charge themselves from the National Grid at times when energy is cheapest, usually in the early hours of the morning.

To get maximum benefit, you need to sign up for a “time of use” electricity tariff and have a smart meter. These new tariffs are being pioneered by a few energy companies such as Octopus Energy. (Other energy companies are, of course, available!)

Their “Octopus Agile” tariff changes every half an hour in line with the wholesale price of energy: believe it or not at a few times when usage is very low, the National Grid actually pays energy companies to take electricity from them and these “negative prices” can be passed onto customers.

But I have signed up for Octopus Go, which is a tariff designed for users of electric cars (even though I don’t have a car!) and gives you a very low tariff of 5p per kilowatt hour between 12.30am and 4.30am each day.

A few years back the Solar Trades Association gave Peterborough the accolade “Solar Capital of the UK”, largely because of the brilliant scheme run by Cross Keys Homes (our biggest social landlord), who installed solar panels on as many of their houses as possible. Take up of solar panels by private house owners was encouraged for some years from 2010 by the Solar Feed In Tariff, but the Conservative government, on winning a majority in 2015, scrapped the Feed In Tariff and has replaced it with an “Export Tariff” which is much less good.

However, the price of solar panels and batteries has also dropped significantly, so it still makes sense for some people to put them in, if they can afford the initial up front capital cost.

Our government says it is backing renewable energy, but its support is very much a “one trick pony”: massive support for offshore wind and some support for heat pumps: but precious little else. They actually changed the planning rules to make it almost impossible to build onshore wind turbines, and investment in newer technologies such as tidal power is almost negligible. Yet at the same time they are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in new nuclear power stations, which will produce vast quantities of toxic waste and take over a decade to build and contribute to our energy needs.

So we need government to do much more, but there is a lot our council can do too.

Peterborough has big expansion plans and tens of thousands of new homes will be built in the next few decades.

We could be putting requirements in our Local Plan to ensure that all of these new homes have the highest possible levels of insulation and energy efficiency. We could be requiring as many of them as possible to have onsite renewable energy generation (solar panels, ground and air source heat pumps etc) together with battery storage. The housing minister, Chris Pincher, has said it is permissible for councils to insist on standards higher than those required in building regulations. Peterborough City Council used to talk about becoming the Environment Capital of the UK. We still have signs up in some places proclaiming that ambition.

Greener energy is one way to realise that ambition: to help save our planet and save money for hard pressed local people and their families.