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What we've learnt buying energy from our members

Solar panels on houses in London

Small-scale energy generation is key to cutting carbon emissions, and we want to support it at Bulb. So for the past year we've been paying members with solar panels for the energy they export to the grid, and we've learned a lot in the process.

When the government's Feed in Tariff (FIT) scheme came to an end last year, we were determined to replace it with our own tariff. As one of the first in the industry to do so, we needed to work out how best to set up the processes involved, and crucially, what our members wanted from the service.

So we set up an Export trial, paying 54 members for the green energy they were generating from solar panels and then exporting to the grid.

By January 2020, we'd learned enough to end the trial and launch Bulb's Export Payments, so we could buy the energy you export. It's exciting stuff, and we can’t wait to add more generators. Here's what we found so far. 

A single-rate tariff is simpler

We were surprised to find out there wasn’t a clear preference among our members for a tariff that varies during the day.

For the trial, we paid members the cost of their energy at the exact time it was exported. To calculate how much we owed, we took remote export readings every half an hour, and matched them to half-hourly wholesale prices.

The wholesale price is variable, meaning it goes up when electricity is in high demand. For example, if you export energy at dinner time when the grid is in high demand, the wholesale price of energy would be higher and you could earn more money per unit of electricity exported.

And while some people liked having the opportunity of earning more money (and, conversely, the risk of earning less when demand is low), others preferred a low-risk fixed payment, no matter what time they export to the grid.

Also, most people don’t have a battery to store energy, meaning their solar panels would generate and export most electricity in the middle of the day, when it’s sunniest. That’s also when the grid is in low demand, so a variable rate means lower prices when people are exporting the most energy.

More importantly though, a single price is just simpler. So we’ve set ours up at 5.38p per kWh whatever time of day you export energy to the grid.

Our members prefer us to read exports remotely

We were less surprised to learn members preferred us to read smart meters remotely, especially as export meter readings can be tricky to find on a smart meter. 

This was also the government's intention when it set up the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG), which governs how suppliers like us pay small-scale generators for their energy. Being able to read a meter remotely means suppliers can pay exporters for the exact amount of electricity being put onto the grid, without having to estimate. Doing it this way will ultimately help to create a smarter, more efficient and responsive electricity grid. 

For our trial, we took readings from our members' smart meters every half an hour. This isn't possible for all meters, or for households that don’t get their energy from us, so, for now, we aren't reading meters remotely for everyone on our full Export Payments service. 

Close-up of a smart electricity meter
You'll need a smart or export meter that records how much energy you export every half an hour.

Instead, members are sending us their export readings once every three months. We hope to be able to read meters remotely soon to make it even easier for people to get paid for the energy they export.

Receiving export readings remotely requires different parts of the energy industry to work together. We've previously outlined how the government needs to provide support to the energy industry so that suppliers like us can build the infrastructure necessary.

Clear communication is vital

Our members on the trial wanted us to communicate clearly when it came to measuring how much energy they export and making payments. For instance, the small differences between the government's FIT and SEG initiatives can be a bit confusing. 

One of our principles at Bulb is to keep energy simple. But in this case, we need to make sure we don't make things too simple, and leave out important details as a result. 

So we recently added more information to a help page outlining how to sign up for Export Payments, and we're improving the emails we send to those already on our Export tariff.

We're still learning and improving as we go, but we'd love to welcome more small-scale, low-carbon generators to Bulb. As well as our members generating solar power, we hope to add members exporting energy generated via hydro, wind, micro combined heat and power (micro CHP) and biogas.

So if you generate your own electricity and are interested in getting paid for what you export, here's how to find out more about our Export Payments.


And as ever, we'd love to know your thoughts on this topic. What do you think a service like this should look like? Join the discussion in the Bulb Community.