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Asking consumers to think small in the big world of microgeneration

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Derek Ezra has been involved with the formation of energy policy ever since he joined the National Coal Board, not long after its formation in 1946. He rose through the ranks to become its chairman shortly before the energy crisis of the 1970s, and was made Baron Ezra of Horsham on his retirement in 1983.

Since then, his interest in energy has more than kept pace with its increasingly important place on the political agenda. Now - with government projections indicating that, unless something is done, the UK could be obliged to import 90 per cent of its fuel and power by 2020 - he believes the time has come to head off the coming energy crunch by means of the devolution of electric power. To this end, he has formed a company, Micropower, that might one day be compared to Bill Gates' Microsoft. Except that where Gates vows to put a computer on every desk in every home, Ezra is determined that every home will generate its own electricity.

The most interesting thing about the Micropower concept is that, by virtue of its miniaturisation to appliance size, it is futuristic, but it does not fall into the one-off 'home of the future' category. Lord Ezra makes it very clear that the big market for the microgeneration of electricity will be the domestic replacement, or retrofit, market. While he is happy to allow experiments to continue with wind power, wave power, fuel cells, photovoltaics and anything else that can prove itself advantageous in the energy field, he pins his own faith on the development of natural gas-powered electricity generation and heating devices - combined heating and power (CHP) appliances, no bigger (and hopefully not much more expensive) than the gas central heating boilers we use today.

But Lord Ezra's plan is not merely to replace one kind of domestic appliance with a more capable one.

He has larger strategic objectives. He argues that what is necessary to combat the coming shortage of electricity generating capacity is not more big power stations, nuclear or otherwise, to serve a national grid that unavoidably loses half the electricity pumped into it through line losses. Instead, we need more embedded energy, generated and priced at the point of use - consumerised CHP, in fact.

At present, much research is going on into regulatory and installation changes to permit the marketing of the first domestic CHP appliances in 2003. It is envisaged that the national grid will remain - not least because peaks in domestic demand will exceed the capacity of economically sized domestic generators - but successfully marketed, dispersed generation will be able to take care of increases in electricity demand between now and 2020, thus obviating the need to build more large power stations.But that will not be the sum total of Micropower's benefits. The capacity to build nearly autonomous houses and commercial buildings without expensive infrastructure could well have a long-term impact upon patterns of development. Low-density building on greenfield sites, for example, would be greatly simplified if the need for vehicle access, natural or liquid petroleum gas, electricity and water, could be reduced to access and water only.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lord Ezra and other small-scale electricity generation enthusiasts are presently concentrating on the design of various models of domestic CHP appliances, and exploring the changes in the regulatory and pricing environment governing power generation and the return-sale of electricity to the national grid.

Anyone interested in their progress should make a point of attending the all-day Micropower conference at the BRE, Garston, near Watford, Hertfordshire, on 6 November. Tel 01923 664 775.

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