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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 June 2005, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Self-sufficiency - at what price?
Wind turbine (picture: Energy Saving Trust)
Adding a turbine to solar panels can help attain self-sufficiency
The good news - you do not have to live in a palace built of solar panels and crowned with wind turbines to generate enough power to boil an egg.

The bad news - at least according to government figures - is that a scheme to make you self-sufficient in energy could take decades to pay off.

Many householders, says the government, could be self-sufficient in power from renewable sources and still have enough to sell on to public utility firms.

"There could come a day when many people will receive a cheque alongside their energy bill," said energy minister Malcolm Wicks.

But figures in a government consultation document claim a typical solar panel system, covering 40-50% of annual electricity needs, would take 120 years to save what was paid for it.

A small wind turbine, sufficient to meet all a house's needs, would save enough to pay for itself in 29 years, says the document.

'Eminently doable'

So is self-sufficiency an illusion, unless you have money to burn?

Not according to Seb Berry, micro-renewables policy manager of the Renewable Power Association.

Achieving self-sufficiency is "eminently doable", he told the BBC News website.

We receive numerous enquiries from companies about how difficult it is to attract investment
Dave Sowden, Micropower Council

Eight square metres of solar panels, similar to the system on his own roof, would today cost 3,750 net after government subsidies, he says.

A combination of the solar panels and basic energy effiency measures, most of which cost literally nothing, have helped to cut the electricity use of his four-bedroom house by over 60%, he adds.

And with the addition of a small wind turbine of the sort now available he says his home would be more than self-sufficient.

He welcomed the government's commitment to small-scale energy production as one way of reducing carbon emissions.

But he said the figures on payback times were misleading. He called for "very, very clear frameworks of support" from the government.

Solar panels in a house in Oxford
Government grants can cut the cost of installation

The government admits that cost is a major bar to micro-generation of electricity - and wants to "get the industry moving forward" so that economies of scale can bring prices down.

A Department of Trade and Industry spokesman told BBC News that as the industry matured, devices would be more widely used and prices would come down. In addition, government grants typically covered half the cost of installation, he said.

The Micropower Council, with members in the field of sustainable heat and power production technology for homes and small businesses, said the industry would not grow without targets for investment.

"We receive numerous enquiries from micro-generation developers wishing to scale up their production about how difficult it is to attract investment against such an uncertain energy policy background," said the council's chief executive Dave Sowden.

But not everyone thinks the government's "small is beautiful" theory is on target.

Phil Horton of the Centre for Alternative Technology said generating at household level - apart from solar water heating - was not as efficient as systems covering a housing estate or small village.

He said the government was "attacking it from the wrong end", adding saving measures were more important than micro-generation.


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