Birmingham Friends of the Earth has been busy working on our latest energy campaign: Clean British Energy. The Government is looking at introducing a new Energy Bill, which will shape UK energy through 2020. We’ve been hard at work promoting clean energy at this critical time by showing the Government that people and businesses want change. To do this, we’re encouraging as many people as possible to adopt a green energy supplier. Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, we’re awarding CBE awards to everyone who switches.
If you were in Birmingham city centre recently you’ll have seen that several famous Brummies have already earned their CBE awards. Such famous characters as The Guardian, the ‘Bullring Bull’, and the ‘Golden Boys’ Boulton, Murdoch and Watt joined other national heroes like Queen Victoria in showing their commitment to Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy. The early morning shoppers were very amused to see familiar statues in a new light and the event generated a lot of interest in our CBE campaign.
Our campaign has already had a lot of great feedback. Many of our campaigners who have already switched to Ecotricity and Good Energy, our green energy campaign partners, have given glowing praise for the two suppliers. Ecotricity, for example, give you regular updates of where their profits go. This is a great example of corporate responsibility and trustworthiness, and that is why Friends of the Earth is proud to partner with them.
It is not just Birmingham’s households that are leading this energy revolution, however. Green comanies, such as Groundwork and Staying Cool, who manage luxury flats in the famous Rotunda, have already joined the many who've switched. Birmingham’s famous industries have a great many differing green initiatives, and we are hoping to harness them all to show the Government that Birmingham wants change. We are leading the way in green industry, now we just need to harness it for Clean British Energy.
In many ways, the West Midlands is set to become the centre of UK green energy. The recent proposals to establish a photovoltaic solar panel plant in the West Midlands were met with great praise by Birmingham Friends of the Earth, especially considering our recent research into Birmingham’s solar potential. Our city has little space for wind energy, no coasts for tides and no damming potential.
What Birmingham does have, however, is a copious amount of roof space, 37km2 to be precise. Obviously only south-, west- and east-facing roofs are eligible but this is still a huge potential. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change this much space could produce as much as 1.295 TWh every year from photovoltaic solar panels. To put this in perspective, Birmingham’s electricity use is around 4.9 TWh a year excluding heating. Birmingham currently only uses less than 1% of this solar potential. Clearly a significant proportion of Birmingham’s energy could be produced from solar energy. Obviously, this would reduce the stress on the grid and make energy cheaper for everyone.
Not only this, but solar energy is a fledgling industry that benefits greatly from every installation. According to EU estimates, if the photovoltaic potential were met then over 21,000 jobs would be secured (1,300 in Birmingham alone), as well as over 43,000 in other sectors such as land survey, mineral extraction and landscaping. These highly skilled job years would produce almost two and a half billion pounds, not to mention the money earned by investors or saved by consumers. Solar energy could be a key component of economic as well as environmental recovery.
Incidentally, Birmingham could cut around 10% of its emissions by switching to solar. Around 500,000 tonnes of carbon per year would not be thrown into the atmosphere if we used solar energy instead of dirty gas. This would make the City Council’s ambitious carbon goals far more attainable and make our city a nicer place to live.
Until the Feed in Tariff was introduced, when you saw solar panels, they were almost always solar thermal panels. Popularised as inverted radiators painted black, they are actually more efficient than photovoltaic panels. Whereas photovoltaic panels currently only absorb 10% of incoming solar radiation, solar thermal panels can absorb as much as 50%. From this source, Birmingham could produce over 13 TWh of heating. This more than shatters Birmingham’s current heating use. Sadly, it is difficult to export solar heating, so not much use can be made of this surplus beyond storage in heating salts.
Birmingham's Energy Potential
Obviously these two panels compete with each other for roof-space and home-owners must apparently choose between less efficient, but more useful, photovoltaics or thermal panels. The choice is a difficult one, but one which technology is attempting to overcome. Much like a computer or a car, a photovoltaic panel has to be kept sufficiently cool to operate at peak efficiency. With one of the largest wind resources in the world, Britain’s solar panels have an innate advantage. However, rather than relying on the patchy wind speed in Birmingham, there is a more efficient option- hybridisation. A growing trend is to put photovoltaic panels over solar thermal panels. The temperature beneath a photovoltaic panel can reach 90oC, hot enough to heat water for baths and washing but significantly reducing the electricity generated. By essentially water-cooling these panels by putting thermal panels behind them, the photovoltaic panels remain cool and the excess heating and solar radiation is found a use. This ingenious hybridisation technology is still in development, so the energy production potential is unknown, but if it makes both panels more efficient then it could be a significant leap forward.
This kind of unobtrusive, bright future is what suppliers like Ecotricity and Green Energy, and, by extension their customers, are investing in. Every part of the country has a part to play in Britain’s future and Birmingham is the perfect city to lead the way in reducing CO2 emissions, reducing reliance on fossils, defeating dangerous nuclear and securing an environmentally and economically secure future.
You can help in many ways. The first is to join our Clean British Energy campaign and earn yourself a CBE by switching to a new supplier and become involved in the Energy Bill debate by writing to your MP to tell him how you feel. You can go a step further and install your own renewable power on your roof in or in your back garden. The monetary and moral advantages are obvious, and everyone we have spoken to has been thrilled at their ability to contribute to Birmingham’s energy-secure future.