Alternate energies: Earth, wind and fire

26 October 2006
Alternate energies: Earth, wind and fire

Reducing energy bills and waste is a good step towards a greener policy, but what are the options for businesses that want to go further and cut out fossil fuel consumption entirely? Tom Vaughan investigates

To be an eco-friendly business, you need to reduce energy consumption and waste, recycle as much as possible and save water whenever you can. Yet, for some, these are only the first steps. Increasing numbers of hospitality businesses are looking to go much further, by installing sustainable sources of energy, cutting out harmful emissions completely as well as further reducing energy bills. But how viable are the options available - and how much do they cost?

The simple truth about alternative energies is that there is no simple truth. Depending on the size, positioning and energy needs of an establishment, you may have several alternative fuels available to you, or none at all. Moreover, costs can vary from the affordable to the prohibitive, depending on your establishment and chosen energy source. Unless saving the earth is worth more to you than saving pounds, the key is balancing economic sense with environmental friendliness.

According to specialist energy consultant Eddie Cumberland, alternative energy options come in many "shades of green". The altruistic desire of businesses to "go green" is often given a harsh reality check when the options are weighed up for cost efficiency and reliability. Most people will have to settle for solutions that will continue to have an impact on the environment.

The green lobbyists encourage zero-emission energies - fuels that do not emit carbon dioxide or other harmful gases into the atmosphere. "The big push at the moment is for zero-emission fuels," Cumberland says, "but in reality very few options are available."

Every system has its faults, and at present no system can offer a reliable, zero-emission energy supply. Renewable sources, though, are only in their infancy, and as the market progresses, the reliability, cost-efficiency and availability of products will improve.

However, that is no cause to delay: depending on the establishment, return on investment can take five years or less. "Not many people can imagine free heating and electricity," says Deborah Sinclair, owner of Riverside hotel in Evesham, Worcestershire, who installed a ground-source heat pump to cover heating costs. "But these are the people who are going to be burning money in the future, not the people who think ahead."

So, sorted in order of "green-ness'" here is a list of alternative energy options available.

1. Wind power

A truly zero-emission power source, but beset with problems. The obvious trouble is that it works only when the wind is blowing, meaning a back-up power supply is needed, most probably from the national grid. This means the area you are based in needs to be constantly windy. Coastline promenades or Scottish highlands are fine, but central London is not.

Another problem is the noise of the spinning turbine. While the din is by no means deafening - you could easily hold a conversation standing beside one - it's loud enough to disturb a hotel customer sleeping directly below or beside it. So turbines would need to be situated in a car park or nearby space, which is not an option for many hotels.

Pros Potentially zero-emission; good for promenades and other windy locations; with a possible five-year payback period.

Cons Not viable in less windy locations; back-up supply of energy needed; payback period can spiral if not enough energy is being produced; too noisy for some establishments.

Case Study: Fifteen restaurant, Cornwall

Situated on the promenade in Watergate Bay, Jamie Oliver's training restaurant, Fifteen, aims to take advantage of the strong sea breeze by installing two wind turbines on the front of the building, with financial aid from youth charity Envision. Each turbine will be 1.5 to 2 metres in diameter and will not be visible to customers approaching the restaurant. The total cost will be £15,000, which restaurant director Will Ashworth hopes to recoup in five to 10 years. The energy provided will total a quarter to half of the restaurant's energy needs. "During a bright, windy lunchtime we could run the entire restaurant from it, but obviously on a still night we would get very little energy," Ashworth says.


2. Solar panels

Again, solar panels are zero-emission in theory, but also have their problems. There are two types of solar panel available - solar thermal panels and photovoltaic panels. Solar thermal panels trap sunlight to heat water. However, when the sun is not shining, or is not bright enough to heat water to 60°C (the standard temperature for central heating), the remaining heat is taken from the mains. Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity. At present this expensive product is not cost-efficient, but as production increases and greater numbers come on to the market it should become a good means of alternative energy, perhaps in the next five to 10 years.

Pros A good alternative for both heating and electricity, albeit with two different panels; low payback period for small establishments.

Cons Works only when sunny; back-up supply needed; price of photovoltaic panels is very high at present.

Case study: Old Chapel Forge, Chichester

This small guesthouse near Chichester in Sussex installed solar thermal panels to heat water for two of its rooms. The cost was £3,000, which, it is hoped, will be recouped in about 30 months. "Although, with energy prices increasing, payback may well be quicker than anticipated," says owner Sandra Barnes-Keywood. "Even on a cloudy day it's amazing what it can do." The solar panels raise the temperature of the water to as near to 60°C as the sunlight will permit; the mains supply does the rest.


3. Ground-source heat pump

A very efficient means of heating. A large "ground loop" is either dug into the ground or sunk into a neighbouring lake or river. At a depth of one metre, soil temperature in the UK is fairly constant at between 10°C and 13°C. The "ground loop" is filled with cold water and food-safe glycol, and the mixture is slowly warmed as it is pumped through the loop. The heat pump needs a temperature increase of only a few degrees. Through a process of reverse-refrigeration, temperatures of 65°C are achieved. Heat is then fed into the hot water tank or central heating.

Apart from the initial outlay, the method is efficient, producing 4kW of energy for every 1kW of electricity put in, but it is not zero-emission. Like a fridge, the system still runs off electricity so needs a mains supply, which would most likely be from fossil fuels.

Pros Total solution to hot water and central heating; very efficient; only £1,500 more expensive than installing a new oil burner; available in any location; six- or seven-year payback; lower maintenance and service costs.

Cons Does not produce electricity.

Case study: The Riverside hotel, Evesham

The Riverside hotel is installing a ground-source heat pump into its neighbouring river at a cost of £40,000, offering a total solution to the heating and hot water at the 15,000sq m hotel and conference centre. The anticipated saving will be about 60-70% on its present oil heating, or about £6,000 a year, meaning a six- or seven-year payback period.


4. Air-source heat pump

Used in hot kitchens, air-source heat pumps work the same way as ground-source heat pumps, except that heat is extracted from ambient kitchen air rather than the ground. Heat created can, again, be used in central heating or water tanks. However, the heat from the kitchen air isn't always enough to raise the water temperature to 60°C, so a back-up is needed.

Pros Very efficient; reuses waste kitchen heat; potential three-year payback; lowers temperature in kitchen, meaning fridges work more efficiently.

Cons Not a complete answer - needs back-up heat supply; works only when kitchen is in use.

Case study: Harlees fish and chip shop, Verwood, Dorset

Harlees owner Richard Long installed an air-source heat pump last year at a cost of £4,500. As well as giving great savings on energy (Long is unsure of exact figures at present) the system also cools the kitchen. To boot, energy is also saved on the cost of running the shop's fridges. Long has been so impressed he aims to install similar systems in his other shops. "It's not cheap to install and the average catering employer probably won't want it for that reason, but over a period of time - probably about three years for us - it will pay for itself," Long says.


5. Biomass

Used in place of oil or gas, a biomass boiler will burn renewable fuels such as wheat or woodchip, provided by biomass companies, for combined hot water and central heating. Although the process gives off emissions, the carbon dioxide emitted is negated by the growing of the crops the next year. The system is also much cheaper because biomass is currently subject to only 5% VAT and is exempt from the Climate Change Levy. For example, while oil will cost 3p per kWh or LPG 5.8p per kWh, wood pellet will cost 2.8p. If situated in the countryside, there is also the possibility of growing your own fuel.

Pros More efficient than oil; emissions are negated by the carbon dioxide consumed in growing crops; possibility of growing own crops; possible payback period of five years.

Cons Less viable for city-centre establishments unable to grow own crops; does not provide electricity.

Case study: Rudstone Walk bed and breakfast, East Yorkshire

Rudstone Walk recently installed a wheat burner at a cost of £5,000 to part-replace its oil burner. Laura Greenwood, proprietor of the 14-bedroom, five-cottage B&B, aims to recoup the outlay within five years. If all goes to plan, she will install a second wheat burner to replace the oil supply. She plans to cut costs even further by growing four acres of wheat in the surrounding fields.


6. Combined Heat and Power

Combined heat and power (CHP) is the on-site burning of fossil fuel, so while it's by no means emission-free, the efficiency of the system means less fuel needs to be burnt to produce heat and electricity. In power stations the heat generated in the production of electricity has to be dissipated through cooling towers, whereas with CHP it can be used for central heating and hot water. To receive the same amount of energy from a power station as from a CHP, 44% more fossil fuel needs to be burnt. So while the CHP is not a perfectly green solution, it's considerably more environmentally friendly than the national grid.

A CHP is essentially an elaborate car engine that can come in various sizes. Unless the system is to be installed outside, set-up costs would need to incorporate soundproofing, as it's too noisy not to disturb sleeping guests.

Pros Quick payback; total solution to heating and electricity.

Cons Expensive outlay; still produces harmful emissions, just smaller quantities.

Case study: Heathrow Marriott hotel

The 390-bedroom Heathrow Marriott installed a CHP in 2001 at a cost of £180,000 and runs all its electricity and heating from it, including its indoor swimming pool. Because a CHP is exempt from the Climate Change Levy, the hotel is able to make a saving of £112,000 a year. Situating the CHP in the hotel's car park means any noise produced does not affect customers.


Caterer's research

Our online survey of more than 400 hospitality businesses revealed:

  • 5% use solar panels, with the same amount using heat pumps, but only 1% use wind turbines or organic energy.
  • Of those using wind turbines, 100% use the power source daily.
  • 25% of businesses using organic energy use it only once a week, with the same number using it as scarcely as once a month.
  • 16% of those using heat pumps use them once a week or less.
  • 80% say they have no plans to use alternative energy sources in the next 12 months.

More information

Environmental consultant Rebecca Hawkins from Hospitable Climates gives advice on where to go to find help and advice on alternative energy.

  • The Government has reorganised the way in which it funds alternative energy. It will support the installation of low- or zero-carbon technologies and the level of support available is significant (up to 40% of the total installation costs for large corporate organisations and up to 50% of installation costs for SMEs). Full details of funding and application forms are available at
  • Operators of domestic-scale properties can also apply for a lower level of Government support (which varies according to the technology). More details can be found at
  • There are also some regional funds (especially in Scotland) available for sustainable energy and your local energy-efficiency advice centre or technology supplier should be able to help you identify these.

Advice is available from a range of organisations, but much of it is rather detailed descriptions of how the technology works rather than advice on whether it is relevant to your business. Some of the most useful/readable include:

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