'Power of the People',
Taurus Crafts Art Gallery, April 2002. An interactive installation by Tom Cousins and Frank Jackson.
At Taurus Crafts, people can connect their own power to the national grid, by using the 'Power of the People' power station, a pedal generator. After a work out on the Power Station, they can surf the net in the gallery, exploring recommended environmental and energy issue sites.
At key moments, via a web camera, we hope to virtually welcome some Scandanavians, Bangladeshis and Pacific Islanders into the gallery to tell us what they think of our energy policy, washed up nuclear waste, and global warming sea level rises.
People will be photographed powering the pedal generator and asked to make a statement on the picture which will then be pinned to a display panel.
We will be presenting the paperwork you need to do to connect two solar panels to the national grid here in the UK. It's vast, exspensive and unnecessary - in the Netherlands you can plug these same panels straight into a plug socket and watch your meter run backwards, no paperwork, no fuss. Besides this paperwork will be the replies from politicians, OFGEM, and the DTI trying to explain the reasons for the difference.
We will also be presenting our recommendations for the changes in regulations and legislation that would remedy the situation and create a domestic renewable energy industry.
The Paperwork required to connect two solar panels to the National Grid
In the Netherlands the solar panels could have been installed by someone as easily as an IKEA product, and then plugged into a wall socket. Then you can just sit back and watch your meter run backwards, no paperwork, no fuss.
Here it's different. First we had to get authorisation from the national grid, except the grid isn't national anymore. It is composed of separate regional grid companies. Once found our grid company required the filling out of a technical two part form detailing the means of connection. In response to the first part submission they asked for further information about the equipment and a test certificate from a test centre in Southampton and a connection systems diagram. We will need to use a seperate wiring circuit with lockable isolaters covered in danger warning stickers, no plug connections allowed. Effectively it needs a specialised electrician to install. They were as helpful as a lenient interpretation of the regulations allow, apparently other grid companies make it harder.
Not many UK meters run backwards in the Dutch style, so we would have to make an arrangement with an electricity supply company. Southern Electric now merged with Scottish Power, currently supply the electricity to Taurus Craft. They advised me they only buy domestically produced energy in their own 'regions', but that if I was in their region I would have to have a new meter installed and pay a £28/year rental charge. Npower who are Taurus's regional power supply company, advised me they don't buy domesticly produced renewable energy. A few phone calls later and it looks like Eastern Electricity are the most promising supply company to deal with. They either supply you with a Dutch style backwards reading meter if you live in their region, or estimate how much power you would be expected to generate with your system, and credit you accordingly.
Apparently solar panels amount to material alteration to the shape of a house. Consequently I have been advised that we would need to pay to apply for permission if the panels face towards a point of public access. It was pointed out that in recent test case appeals, solar panels have been refused because the size, shape, texture and colour of the panels has been seen to be obtrusive and harmful to the character and appearance of the residential areas. This harm has not been seen to be outweighed by the benefits of using solar energy for heating purposes to alleviate global climate change. In the case of Taurus Crafts, a listed building, there would be no chance of a solar panel on the roof.
We will display the paperwork trail we created trying to make our grid connection compared with the Dutch procedure. The disparity between procedures of connection appeared so vast, we wrote to energy departments of the DTI, the Energy Minister Brian Wilson, the prime minister, Prince Charles, and others asking why the difference, and are there plans to harmonise procedures with Europe. The replies (everyone did write back) will be displayed. Despite most departments and Ministers being aware that thousands of Dutch households have solar panels plugged in without a single Dutchman being fried by renewable energy or computer blown out by intermitent power supply surges, there appears to be no plan to adopt this user friendly system in the UK. So if you want a solar panel on your roof in the foreseeable future it will continue to take ages and cost a wedge of cash.
The wider concept
The effectively obstructive UK system for connecting to the grid is only the first hurdle for the would be domestic renewable energy producer. Our solar panels were made of parts from the USA assembled in India. Demand in the UK for renewable energy systems has not reached a volume whereby mass production and installation significantly reduces costs. If the government reshaped legislation and appropriatly directed kickstart investment a new industry worth billions and employing thousands of people will emerge. Costs for systems will crash.
Domestic renewable energy production is about more than jobs, savings on our utility bills, and preventing the worst excesses of global warming. It will help put us in touch with a vital area of our lives in the same way as growing some of our own vegetables. Once aware of how our energy is created we will become more aware of and at ease with the energy we consume. Energy will no longer be a mysterious commodity manufactured by someone else, but exist all around us, in the water, wind and sun potentially to be harnessed by ourselves. The national power supply will have been truely diversified, and for the first time since the industrial revolution people reclaimed some of our energy production from the hands of big business. The decisions taken now as to how Britain develops its fledgling renewable energy program will shape how we live our lives for a long time to come. Massive offshore wind farms are fine. But obstructing a domestic renewable energy industry is about as desirable as developing an organic agribusiness while closing down the nation's allotments and putting a punitive tax on gardeners vegetable seed.
To this end 'Power of the People' are presenting the following recommendations for changes in regulations and pricing structures designed to stimulate a domesticly orientated renewable energy industry.
- We should have easy access to the grid, and realistic prices for our own renewable energy!
- Since petrol prices are rightly composed of an 80% environmental tax, we would like domestic renewable energy prices to have an 80% environmental subsidy. There are no clean-up costs associated with renewable energy.
- There should be planning permission requirements that primary consideration be given for new housing to face the sun, so that solar power features can be fitted immediatly or retrospectively.
- There should be planning permission requirements that primary consideration be given for new housing to incorporate a renewable energy feature; solar water heating, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines or any combination of them.
- That electricity meters should be standardised, read backwards, and/or quantify domestic energy inputs enabling us to profit from our renewable energy production without involving protracted negotiations with different power companies.
- That inverters (equipment that safely channels electricity onto the grid) of the Dutch style are approved for instant plugging-in in the UK. The national grid companies should make these inverters available, free on request to anyone who wants one, so that they can convert their sweat, solar and wind energy into electricity for the grid. Thereby avoiding the necessity of building new exspensive nuclear power plants up the River Severn.
A Labour MP confided in me that the reason renewable energy was being obstructed at every turn, was because of the UK's vast radioactive waste stockpile. Soon a large percentage of the waste stockpile will need re-housing as the containers are passed their sell by date. The cost to dispose of the waste is of course unknown, possibly the entire GDP of the UK for the next decade. The nuclear industry, so the confidant claimed, has warned that unless it is given permission to build new nuclear power stations it will not be able to afford to maintain the radioactive stockpile. If significant renewable energy is generated then there will be no need for new nuclear power stations, therefore in order to justify building them, renewable energy production has to be stalled so that there is an energy shortfall. According to the confidant there are two camps in the Government, one supporting renewable energy, and one blocking it. A glance at the newspapers will tell you which is in the ascendent.
This has been my favorite art work. Since I could not lawfully install a solar panel on the roof at Taurus Craft I decided to install a grid connected pedal generator, from this act, a political panaramic portrait of the UK's energy policy unravelled. I intended the insanely inefficient grid connected pedal generator to be a mirror of the insanity of the paperwork requirements for renewable energy installation. It turned out to mirror the insanity of the UK's energy policy - to build more nuclear power stations and generate more outrageously exspensive toxic waste in order to keep a privatised nuclear industry in business and block relatively cost effective renewable energy. It appears even pedal generators make economic sense compared with nuclear power!