One question that gets asked periodically is how green are technologies like solar panels given that there much be some emissions created in their manufacture and ultimate disposal.
It’s probably no surprise that the rooftop solar PV is considerably less carbon-intensive than any fossil fuel (1/20th of coal for example) but that it beats biomass or even utility scale solar (I.e. solar farms) may be a surprise. My understanding is that the recent switch of emphasis in the UK from rooftop solar (with elimination of FiTs) to solar farms is driven more by investment costs than ultimate carbon-intensity.
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as quoted by Spirit Energy
After a series of quite detailed posts, I think that the time has come for an updated high level overview of what we have.
We moved to our early 1970s house almost 4 years ago bringing with us our electric vehicle. The house had already been refurbished with new double-glazed windows, had cavity insulation (although that wasn’t recorded on EPC so must have predated the prior owners), and a token level of loft insulation. The existing gas boiler was arthritic, couldn’t heat the whole house, but was quite good at heating the header tanks in the loft! We had gravity-fed gas hot water (i.e. no thermostat or pump on the cylinder) which was completely obsolete, the cylinder dated back to the building of the house and had no immersion heater (although we had the wiring for one). So what did we do?
We substantially increased the loft insulation to reduce heat loss.
We had a modern condensing gas boiler installed to improve efficiency.
We updated to smart controls using eTRVs to set both temperature set points and schedules at room level. I built a smart interface to the boiler so that heating can be enabled remotely. I programmed a series of rules into Apple Home allowing the smart thermostats to enable the boiler when any thermostat wants heat and disable it when no thermostat wants heat. Some rooms also have additional rules linking heating to open windows or movement sensors. All of this reduces heat losses by only heating rooms that are (or will be shortly be) in use.
We installed our own solar panels given 4 kWp generation. (I also own a small share of a solar farm although there’s no contract that I’m aware of between that farm and my home energy supplier)
I invested in an immerSUN to maximise self-use of our own solar by enabling loads when surplus solar is available.
We switched to a green electricity supplier so when we need to buy electricity it comes from renewable sources.
We bought a small storage battery 4 kWh to store some of our solar production for use later in the day. Subsequently I can also use it in winter to buy when the electricity price is relatively low to avoid buying when the price is relatively high.
We chose a dynamic smart tariff to buy electricity at the lowest price based on market prices established the day before. The prices change each half hour and are established in the late afternoon on the day before.
We replaced the old hot water cylinder with a modern insulated one (to reduce heat loss) with a low immersion heater (to allow more of the water volume to be heated).
Our principal water heating is now by diverting surplus solar electricity proportionately to the immersion heater, that’s backed up by the gas boiler which is enabled briefly in the evening for water heating in case the water isn’t yet up to temperature, and when the electricity price falls below the gas price I can enable the immersion heater on full power.
All accessible hot water pipes are insulated.
Electric car charger:
I built my own electric car charger that takes an external radio signal to switch between four settings 0, 6, 10 and 16 Amps to help me adjust consumption to match to availability of output from my solar panels. (Subsequently such products were developed commercially with continuously variable current limits, but the limitations of my immersun and on/off radio signal don’t allow me to go quite that far. Having said that my car only does 0, 6, 10 and 14 Amps so I would gain no benefit from a continuously-variable charger paired with a 4-level car).
Smart electricity controls:
We have two systems for smart control of electricity:
The immersun to maximise self-use of our solar electricity by proportional control of loads.
A HEMS to manage the purchase of electricity (when necessary) at the lowest price by maximising consumption when the price is lowest.
When both systems want to enable loads (because the bought price is low and we have a surplus from our own panels) then cost is prioritised, so we’ll buy from the grid any demand not being met from our own panels.
Both systems are linked to 3 devices:
Battery storage. The immersun is configured to work alongside the battery storage with the battery storage as the top priority to receive surplus solar PV. The HEMS can switch the status of the battery as required to charge from the grid when the price is lowest, or to discharge when the price is highest, or indeed to revert to default behaviour.
Car charger. Second priority for the immersun after battery storage.
Immersion heater. Third priority for the immersun after car charging.
I have no firm plans for the future. I’m toying with adding to the HEMS various features including:
Making the display switch between GMS and BST as appropriate (it’s all UTC at the moment).
Edit configuration via the web interface rather than a virtual terminal.
Control a domestic appliance. Our washing machine was replaced relatively recently, but the dishwasher is playing up a little and may be a candiadte for HEMS integration where the optimum start time is selected to deliver lowest energy price.
The above images show four different perspectives on the same day of data (April 24th) from different sources within the home.
Firstly, the Smart Meter HAN image shows bought electricity to the home. Each smart meter sits on a Home Area Network (HAN) which is how the In-home display provided with the meter gets its data. The in-home display is an example of a Consumer Access Device (CAD). In my case I also have a Hildebrand Glow Stick as a CAD. The Glow Stick, which looks something like an oversized USB stick, also connects as a CAD to the smart meter allowing the meter to be read. An associated app, Hildebrand’s Bright, allows the Glow Stick to be read via the cloud. In principle the Bright app can display either energy in kWh or cost, but in my case can only display energy in kWh as Octopus don’t push the price data into the smart meter so energy cost always reports as zero. The data is presented by the minute.
Secondly, the Smart Meter WAN image shows the same data but from the perspective of the Wide Area Network (WAN) whch connects the smart meter to the energy retailer (Octopus for me). This half-hourly data is reported via the Octo Watchdog app. The data reported is cost per kWh (the blue line) and energy consumer / kWh (the red columns). The energy data in the red columns follows that of the red line in the prior illustration but in lower resolution (half-hourly versus minute-by-minute). You can clearly see most energy being bought when the price is lowest.
Thirdly, the Powervault image shows grid in/out and battery in/out. The green grid-in line mimics the red data from the above images. The battery in/out data is solely visible in this image. The resolution is good enough to see shorter events like kettle boil cycles.
The final image, from the Immerun, is probably the most useful although it lacks energy price and hides battery in/out within the House data (hence ‘House’ being zero at times). The immersun alone reports output data from the solar panels and diversion to the immersion heater. It also lumps the car charger energy within ‘House’, indeed none of these views can directly report the car charger behaviour although its the dominant energy consumer here.
I’m planning to construct my own view showing all the different prices of data together in one place. I already have access to:
The Immersun data via the same API called by their app. I came across a blog post that described how to do this.
The Powervault data API (I only have a control API at the moment) which should give me battery in/out (at least I’m on a promise of the API at the moment).
The Hilbebrand data which duplicates the Powervault Import/Export at the moment, but has the potential to provide independent monitoring of my car charger.
In principle then that would leave me able to report 3 x energy sources (grid, panels and battery; of which grid and battery would be bi-directional) and report 3 x energy consumers (car, water heating and home).
As ever, my graph shows the maximum, average, and minimum daily output for each calendar month of each year since the system was installed in late September 2015 (approaching 3 years ago). As can be seen from the middle group (the daily average) 2018 has produced a run of 3 months May to July with the best daily average outputs for their respective months since installation. February 2018 was also the best ever February; although January, April and May managed to be the worst examples of their respective months. Hence certainly a year of contrasts as every month is either the best or worst for its respective month since installation.
At the level of the best day in any calendar month (the blue line), May is remarkably stable with the best daily output for May for each of the last three years being almost identical, while new monthly records were set for February, June and July.
July 2018 was also a record-breaker for another reason – it was the first month in which our earnings from the feed-in tariff (which in the UK has both generation and export components) exceeded £100. That achievement is helped by the index-linking of the feed-in rates which rise every year, and by July having 31 days which gives a slight edge over June’s 30 days.
The image above shows my solar electricity generation and usage in 2017 by calendar month.
The purple line shows the use of electricity (excluding gas replacement) by month. It’s relatively stable through the year, although it does rise in the autumn as my daughter started school and so my electric car mileage increased.
The green line shows the output from the solar panels. From April to August (5 months) solar panel output exceeded usage giving the potential not to buy electricity with sufficient smart capability – be that electricity storage or alignment of consumption with availability.
The red line shows import of electricity from the mains. It tends to be the reverse of the solar panel output. It’s never zero indicating potential (at cost) to improve smart usage. Solar power is a more significant energy source than imported power from March to September (7 months).
The blue line shows diversion of surplus electricity to water heating as gas replacement.
The turquoise line shows export of electricity to the grid. This occurs when there is insufficient energy smart resource available to store or self-use the surplus power. Export amounts to about 12% of total solar panel output. While this potentially free energy, the economics of storage or smart controls make using this remainder increasingly costly from an investment perspective. In my case this surplus occurs on particularly sunny summer days when the electric car is not at home or is already fully charged – which might be vacation periods when the house is unoccupied for example.
The end of 2017 sees 2 full calendar years of output completed (plus a few months at the end of the prior year) so it seemed like a good time to assess performance and return. Return comprises two parts – firstly the payments received for electricity generation (and export) the so-called feed-in tariff or FiT and secondly the savings obtained from using that free energy myself instead of buying it from the grid. In my case I can use and store my solar electricity directly, or use it to heat water via the immersion heater thus replacing gas.
I’ve summarised the status in the following table:
Return in calendar year
of PV cost
of PV cost
Output from the panels was slightly reduced in 2017 versus 2016, but still significantly above the performance projected in the quotation. I put the slight reduction down to year-to-year differences in the weather. Over time I would expect panel output to decline, but I think it’s too soon to attribute any decline to this.
Income from FIT was slightly higher as inflation on the price / kWh has overcome the slight output reduction.
Electricity self-use is up considerably from 41% to 64% due to my 4 kWh storage battery. The costs of that battery are not reflected in the table. Return would have been 8.8% in 2017 (rather than 15.1%) if the cost of the battery was included.
Gas replacement is down from 27 to 23% versus 2016 as more of the electricity from the panels is used for high value activities like charging the storage battery or my electric car, and less is left over for water heating. The low price of gas per kWh makes gas replacement my lowest priority for self-use.
Exported electricity (i.e. what’s left-over that I cannot use myself) is considerably reduced from 32 to 12% largely as a result of increased electricity self-use.
Financial return in calendar year 2017 is improved from 13.6 to 15.1% neglecting the costs of the battery, or reduced from 15.1 to 8.8% taking into account capital costs of the battery.
It will take approximately 7 years (i.e. 2 past + 5 future years) for the combination of the solar panels and battery storage to pay for the solar panels (neglecting the battery costs), and a further 2 years of system savings to pay for the storage battery.
Today my energy supplier Tonik wrote to me inviting me to consider solar panels, a car charger, or a storage battery – all of which I already have. However on their website I found a wider vision of the future home which they thought could halve energy consumption. I thought it would be interesting to compare their vision with my status.
As you can see from the table below the content is quite similar, although I have more ambitious use of solar and more sophisticated smart heating management.
Switch to Tonik for lowest cost renewable electricity.
Now that we’re half way through 2017 it seemed appropriate to have a look at energy usage from the solar panels – especially as those six months reflect the first six months with the battery storage system.
The graph is taken from my ImmerSUN smart controller which automatically diverts surplus solar electricity to the car charger or immersion heater. The battery storage system has independent controls but its benefits can be seen via the ImmerSUN.
The purple line shows the consumption of electricity (excluding the immersion heater) and is relatively stable month by month. Consumption is relatively large due to my electric car and cooking with electricity.
The green line shows the generation of electricity from my solar panels. Not surprisingly output is lower in the winter, but from April we generate more electricity than we use despite our relatively high consumption. In principle we could be electricity independent during those months but for the time of consumption not matching the time of generation.
The red line complements the green line as it shows the import or purchase of electricity from the grid, and thus reduces as the generation rises.
The blue line shows the diversion of electricity to heat water via the immersion heater when neither the battery storage system nor the car charger can absorb the available electricity.
Finally on the graph the turquoise line shows export of electricity to the grid when all smart capability within the house to use electricity is exhausted i.e. battery storage system at maximum power or full, electric car battery full or absent, and water in cylinder is hot.
Among the numbers:
‘Savings” at £80 refer only to the value of the water heating achieved from solar electricity versus buying electricity (although our backup is mains gas).
“Self consumption” at 86% refers to the proportion of solar panel output used i.e. not exported to the grid.
“Green contribution” at 59% refers to the proportion of total electricity consumption (excluding water heating) derived from the panels rather than from the grid.
The immerSUN provides a useful app showing electricity use which includes an annual option. The graph below shows the 2016 annual data:
Although some of the data was only collected from mid-March 2016, the graph still shows useful information. I think that the graph overstates bought / imported electricity in January to March but understates generated electricity proportionately in the same period.
The purple line shows monthly electricity consumption and is broadly consistent month-to-month.
The green line shows the generated electricity from the solar PV system. Its seasonality is clearly visible. Solar generation exceeds electricity use in four summer months, and is very close in a fifth.
The red line shows bought electricity. It’s generally a mirror image of the green line reflecting more purchased electricity in winter and less in summer, but is not zero even in months where generated electricity exceeds used electricity due to time of day issues – cooking and car charging often occur at times when solar output is low such as cooking in the evening and charging at night.
The blue line shows surplus day-time electricity being used to heat water, and thus saving gas.
The turquoise line shows surplus day-time electricity being exported once the water has reached its set point.
It will be interesting to see how this changes in 2017 as a result of a full year of solar car charging in its current mature condition and with the new battery storage that should help get more of the generated electricity used by saving it for evening use.
The end of 2016 marks the end of the first full calendar year of solar PV operation in this house since the system was installed in late September 2015. In 2016 we’ve generated 4,129 kWh – 12.5% more than the 3,668 kWh annual output estimated for the system.
Income for 4,129 kWh generation with 50% deemed export is £641, with further savings made from the self-use of the electricity rather buying electricity or gas. Detailed monitoring of these savings only started in March 2016, so there’s less than a full year of data, and my ability to use generated electricity improved through the year – particularly with my electric car charger control project. From March to December 2016 we used 44% of the generated electricity replacing bought electricity, and a further 28% of the generated electricity replaced bought gas for hot water. Back in September at the anniversary of the solar PV installation I estimated these energy savings as a combined £200 (link).
The chart above shows the minimum, mean and maximum daily generation for each calendar month since installation.
As one might expect, significant seasonal variation is evident month-to-month and well as day-to-day variation within any month. June 2016 looks a bit disappointing compared to May and July. The last few days of September 2015 immediately after the panels were installed were obviously quite good for September, but within the spread for September 2016. October looks quite similar for 2015 and 2016, while November 2016 is rather better than November 2015. December again looks quite similar for both years.
Solar panel power outputs deteriorate with time. My panels are supposed to have at least 90% of the original minimum power output after 10 years, and 80% after 25 years. Generally mine seem to be performing well with annual generation significantly higher than estimated, and no evidence of performance deterioration in the late September to end of December period for which 2 years of data exists.