With the cost of energy – and especially fuel – rising and with many people concerned about doing their bit for the environment, we asked Lee Coleman, the distributor in France for renewable energy company Navitron, what the options are for cutting heating and electricity bills

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Q. FrenchEntrée : Are you aware of growing demand for environmentally friendly/energy saving energy sources in France and/or elsewhere in Europe?

A. Lee Coleman: Yes absolutely, in the last six months we have been asked more and more about all kinds of ‘renewable energy’, ranging from small photovoltaic solar panels to 18mtr high wind turbines, there has been an interest in any “energy saving” devices for years but at the moment the demand for “alternative energy” is exploding, everywhere people are discussing wind turbines, solar power, water power, geothermal, aerothermal, we are seeing Bio fuels produced from plants or waste products, I have even heard of something you can fit to your cars engine to help it to run on water !

The French, British and other European governments are all discussing ways of reducing CO2 emissions. The Mayor of Paris wants the city to be ‘The solar capital of Europe’ and has planned in excess of 14,000m² of solar panel installations across the city.
President Sarkozy is said to have new policies relating to house construction, ideas include making all new homes energy self-sufficient by 2020 and renovating existing to be more energy efficient as well. In the UK wind turbines are popping up on government buildings and private households.

Most building contractors are all installing renewable energy systems, as I understand it in Ireland it is now law that every house must have at least one form of renewable energy system, following a recent eco home exhibition in which we participated in it was very apparent that the interest is very widespread.
We are well behind some countries like Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands who have been much more energy conscious and already use a huge amount of low or ‘carbon neutral’ alternative energy.

Q.What is behind people’s concerns, saving money or saving the planet as far as you can tell?

A. Both, but if I am honest saving money seems to be the primary concern. There’s always been people concerned about the planet, but there are many more who aren’t, we’re all used to flicking a switch and having endless amounts of power at our fingertips, fuel and energy are constantly going up in price so people have to economise wherever possible, everything is expensive these days.

Renewable energy is not a new thing, but like anything else as demand increases, prices come down, to be a truly viable ‘alternative energy’ it has to be affordable. It’s all very well to want to save the planet but if no one can buy the equipment in the first place ??
Looking after the planet for ourselves and following generations is everybody’s responsibility, for some, saving money is the most important factor if it helps to reduce our ‘carbon footprint’ and look after the environment that’s a bonus.

It is true to say that it’s maybe 70/30% (saving money to saving the planet) but you only have to watch what’s going on around the world, that percentage could be reversed sooner rather than later. If fuel supplies were depleted tomorrow I bet there would be a lot more interest.

Q. What are some of the renewable/energy saving energy supplies out there at the moment?

A. There are far too many general ‘energy saving’ products to list but in terms of true ‘renewable energy’ you mainly have solar, wind and water. Aerothermal and geothermal heat pumps are about the most popular ‘energy saving’ systems plus there are now combined systems too. There are also low emission furnaces and other appliances that run on recycled wood chips, compressed paper etc, you can even buy logs for your fire in France that are made from recycled materials. Loads of people now have solar powered lights in their driveways, there are solar powered streetlights; in fact the more you look the more you find.

Q. Can you briefly summarise the theory behind each of them?

A. I will do my best…

Solar power, basically a solar installation is designed to use the power from the sun’s rays to provide either electricity by means of photovoltaic panels (PV, photo means ‘light’, voltaic means ‘electric’), or hot water by means of passing water through a system of black tubes or matting. There are different types of both systems, the new evacuated tube solar water heating systems rely on UV (ultra violet) radiation and not the heat of the sun – so even on cloudy days you still produce hot water. All PV panels work on UV.

Once you have harnessed this energy it is normally stored in banks of batteries – in the case of photovoltaic panels – or transformed into 220V by a power converter. The more power required = more panels. Hot water storage systems in the case of solar water heating systems can be anything up to several thousand litres. Solar cylinders are normally better insulated than a standard one.

They are available with up to three coils or ‘Serpentine’ to connect existing boilers, under floor heating, even instantaneous water heaters.
These systems reduce your fuel consumption, although most need backing up with a conventional form of power like a boiler or electrical element for the days or even weeks at times when the UV is just not enough to give you the power or hot water needed.

Wind Power, like them or not, most people will have seen a wind turbine by now. A 20m turbine produces around 20kW of power produced by the wind turning blades connected to a generator. This is then used to charge batteries in smaller installations, run individual properties or be returned to the electrical grid. Interestingly in France you only need a ‘Declaration de Travaux’ to install one up to 18m high. You can then connect it to the grid to SELL your excess electricity to EDF; they even pay you more for it than they sell it to you in the first place. Not a bad deal! When connected to the grid with a larger turbine you generally have two meters, one incoming when you buy electric from EDF (when there is no wind), the other outgoing when you sell it back to the grid. You pay for what you use but it’s offset by what they buy back from you.

Small wind turbines are available from about 200W in 12 or 24v outputs, you can charge batteries or use a mains power converter to produce 220V these smaller turbines can be used to power lighting, water pumps or any other type of low power devices. These are a very efficient system, but only when there is wind to power them, so like other installations a wind turbine will still need to be backed up by a conventional form of power.

Water (Hydro) power, not practical for everybody but if you have a well placed stream or river running through your property there are domestic water turbines that can generate electricity. As with most systems these turbines range in size from something like 200Watts up to 1Megawatt; again, you can sell this power back to the grid if you produce enough of it or simply use it to make savings on your own bills. Water turbines are generally small and fairly lightweight but able to supply high quality electricity so they are an ideal solution for providing reliable long-term renewable energy. Unless your stream dries up you will always have an endless supply of power.

Aerothermal, this is the principle of extracting heat from the air and converting it into hot water for domestic or heating purposes using a ‘heat pump’. Heat pumps do not create heat they simply move it around. Most work efficiently providing the air temperature is above zero degrees C, below that, a pump can still function but is less efficient. It heats by passing a refrigerant liquid around the system which ‘boils’ and turns to gas as a fan draws air through the machine and converts it into heated water passing through the pump. These systems are available in several formats, some are reversible (Air conditioning) so they can cool in the summer as well as heat in the winter. As they do not actually ‘make’ heat, the energy you get out is around 4 times that which you put in – so to get 20kW out of a heat pump you only pay for around 4kW of power. Thus they are a reliable ‘energy saving’ system.

Geothermal, this works on the same principle as an aerothermal heat pump but the heat is drawn from the ground. There are several types of system but most pass a water/antifreeze mixture through a sealed loop in the ground – once you get down a few meters the Earth is a constant temperature of about 17 degrees. The only downside to this system is that it only draws heat from an area close to 0.5mtrs from where the pipes that are run through the ground, if you pull out too much heat you can reach a point where there is no more heat to take; this means waiting until the ground regains its temperature.
If you are in an area where you are on bedrock forget it, this is not for you! In colder countries geothermal would be a preferred choice but in warmer climes where the ambient air temperature rarely falls below 5 degrees aerothermal is usually the better option.

Q. How efficient/money saving/good for the planet are they?

A. Excellent, after the initial investment obviously. All ‘renewable’ or ‘energy saving’ systems save money because they cost less to run than conventional equipment; all of them reduce CO2 emissions directly or indirectly so they are good for the environment; some are more efficient than others in terms of power production but all are beneficial in one way or another. There are many different types of products popping up, a typical solar domestic hot water system or combined solar & woodchip furnace can save 50-70%, Geo or Aerothermal 20-40%, savings, water and wind turbines are harder to calculate as there are so many variables, but the return on investment is normally quite short term – the systems are very low maintenance and a brilliant form of renewable energy.

Q. What are the biggest benefits from such installations?

A. Cost savings, energy reduction, reduces CO2, adds
value to your property, helps develops new technology.

It depends what is installed but regardless of the system you save money, maybe even make money in some cases, you help the planet and every person that uses renewable energy is participating in the development of the modern world as we know it. As demand for a product increases, prices come down, new and better products are created.

A renewable energy system adds value to your property, while if you have a power cut it’s very handy to have an alternative energy source like a water or wind turbine – even if it only gives you light and keeps the beer cool in the fridge. In areas where power is limited if the sun provides a portion of your electricity and heats your hot water for you, your electrical consumption will be drastically reduced and give you additional power for the rest of the appliances in the house.

Q. What are the biggest drawbacks of such installations?

A. Space mainly, but also restrictions.

In some cases space is a problem, with the exception of water turbines and heat pumps. To produce a sustainable amount of power you usually need a lot of solar panels or large wind turbines. But technology is always changing so newer systems are generally smaller and more efficient. For example,
there is a new photovoltaic chip being tested in Silicon Valley that is going to drastically reduce the area of panels needed to provide energy from the sun.

The latest solar water heating is done by vacuum tubes that reduce the amount of surface area needed compared to other systems. But in all cases you must have the space to be able to benefit.

Another factor, which does annoy me a little are the restrictions imposed. Governments are meant to be doing what they can to implement these ‘green’ alternative energy initiatives but I have heard of a few cases where local departments (run by the same government) responsible for passing planning applications have opposed them due to aesthetics.

I guess you have to draw a line in some areas of historical interest – no one would want to see a turbine in the middle of Stonehenge for example – but I am sure things could be made less complicated for domestic applications.

Cost can be prohibitive. Generally the best and larger systems are more expensive to install when they are replacing existing equipment – installing from new is not such an issue if everything is specified from day one. In the case of solar you often need considerably more panels in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky, and less solar radiation is available. So calculations have to take this into consideration, if you haven’t got the space for the number of panels required – or the number necessary makes it too expensive – that may well put you off. In the summer this is not an issue and can even mean putting the extra energy somewhere else; or you can install a smaller system and just accept the fact that most of your savings are going to be made in the summer when you get more and stronger UV.

Q Are there grants available in France for any of them, if so how do you apply for them?

A. Yes, there are a couple of systems that I know about, both are only applicable for residents of France or people paying tax in France. The first is not quite a grant, you are basically entitled up to a 50% reduction/reimbursement of the cost of the equipment purchased (not the installation cost) against the following year’s income tax. The chosen system must have a certification of approval from a governing body known as the CSTB, and has to be installed by a registered and qualified fitter.

There is a table of what is available :

Amount of Income Credit 2005 2006
Low temperature Boilers 15 % 15 %
Condensating Boilers 25 % 25 % or 40 %*
Insulation materials 25 % 25 % or 40 %*
Alt Heating Appliances 25 % 25 % or 40 %*
Equipment (1 type only) 40 % 50 %

To claim you simply fill out your tax return along with the documentation provided by the installer and supplier of the equipment – but take care to do your homework in these cases. Some companies providing ‘approved systems’ can cost well over twice the amount of alternative suppliers. So even if you get 50% off the cost of materials you can still end up paying more than if you buy a system not on their register.

Providing the product you choose is tested to a suitable European standard there is no reason why it cannot be installed by any competent fitter or even DIY in some cases. The more you save on the cost of the equipment and on installation the more you benefit.

The other system only applies to residents of housing estates that are over 15 years old (the estate not the people!). In these cases an occupier can get a government loan to help pay for replacement windows, doors, insulations, renewable energy equipment etc, the loan varies between 20 and 70% of the cost of the materials, certain items are capped, windows for example are 80 euros each. The installation TVA is invoiced at the reduced rate of 5.5% and all is dependant on income.

Q. Can they be used on existing and new homes?

Yes of course, there may be different installation considerations. Generally like anything else it is always easier to install from new than to update existing but you can benefit regardless. New homes are usually more efficient due to improved insulation and nowadays the facility is left to connect additional equipment or to use 12V lighting which is perfect for use with solar.

Older properties may be more suited to benefit from water sources or wind turbines, not something you will see (or be permitted to use) in many housing estates or residential areas.

Q. Is it true that some of the installations can be costly to maintain?

A. Not usually, most renewable or energy saving devices are generally low maintenance. Some systems have more expensive parts than others but maintenance is not generally an issue; check with the manufacturer to see what they suggest in terms of servicing.

Q. I’m interested in renewable and ‘greener’ energy sources – what should my first step be?

A. Research, have a good look around to see who has what, available. See if there is anyone you can talk to who has installed a system and try to learn from other people’s mistakes or success. There are plenty of forums online full of people who have already installed their own systems, like here: www.navitron.org.uk/forum . You could also visit an eco-home or renewable energy exhibition, and there are associations for alternative energy that list manufacturers, distributors and installers. Whatever you choose make sure you go to a reliable business that can offer you impartial advice and help make the right decision for the most suitable option for you.

In France you can also gets lots of information from the ADEME (Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie) www.ademe.fr and even subscribe to their newsletter (available in English) http://www.ademe.fr/htdocs/publications/international/02/index.htm

Lee Coleman

www.solarsolaire.fr

See also:

How to order wood in France

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