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debate

Saving energy is the way forward
Adam Vaughan
Online editor, New Consumer magazine.
By taking a number of simple steps, consumers can save energy and money - and help save the planet.

Donnacadh McCarthy is no ordinary man. Instead of paying his electricity company, he sends them a bill each quarter. For 9 months of the year, he also gets most of his hot water not by burning gas, but from tubes - solar thermal heating - on his south London roof.

As an eco auditor and environmentalist, you’d expect that from McCarthy, but the rest of us UK individuals - average consumers - are fast catching up. Whether prompted by the 13 energy price rises this year alone, adverts by the Energy Saving Trust’s ‘Save your 20 per cent’ campaign or an urge to do our bit after reading the Stern Report - short exec summary, not the 576 page version - normal people are trying to save energy.

Yes, saving energy, not making the stuff. For the majority of consumers today, energy is a case of ‘managing demand’ - using less juice - rather than ‘expanding supply’, since the turbines and solar PV panels that make up most modern home renewables are more about being green than saving cash.

Why we should bother

There are good reasons for individuals to use less energy at home. For starters, 27 per cent of UK carbon emissions come from the energy consumed by our homes, meaning our innocent little two -up-two-downs are a big contributor to climate change (1). Climate change is very real, and based on a scientific consensus.  Even way back in 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a coalition of the world’s leading climate scientists - said ‘there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities’ (2).

It’s not going to be much fun, either. Forget what the guy down the pub says about the joys of scorching UK summers - Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, describes it as ‘threat to our civilization’ (3). Climate change isn’t something we can leave for our kids to sort out. It’s an issue for today, because we need to reduce our carbon use within the next ten years. According to an Institute for Public Policy Research report this October, ‘to minimise the risk of a two degrees Celsius rise - the threshold for dangerous climate change - global carbon dioxide emissions would need to peak between 2010 and 2013.’ (4)

Anyhow, if the notion of atoms of carbon causing global chaos seems too abstract, there’s a simple, old-fashioned reason for saving energy: you’ll save cash too. David Reay, a scientist at the University of Edinburgh, reckons if you avoided fossil fuels and lived an incredibly green lifestyle, you’d save £80,000 in a lifetime (5). Provided home electricity and gas bills keep heading skywards - as predicted - you’ll save even more.

If you can afford it, there’s also a moral argument to buy and install energy-saving products: by being an early adopter of insulation, solar photovoltaic panels and smart meters today, you’re bringing down costs for the masses of tomorrow.

There’s one final good reason why - well, there are dozens more but no room for them here - and that’s because soon we’ll be forced to save energy, like it or not. The notion of carbon rationing has been around for years - Mayer Hillman summed up the idea nicely in his book How to Save the World - the Tyndall Centre has already looked at the nitty gritty of how it would work (6) and now government ministers such as David Miliband are blogging about introducing it (7). Start making changes now, in other words, and you can beat the queues.

How we can ‘manage it’:

The Energy Saving Trust recommends you make changes in your life in this order: do the free, lifestyle stuff first (turning gadgets off standby), the dull but effective energy efficiency stuff next (loft insulation) and the sexy ‘expanding supply’ stuff (solar panels) last. It also says you should happily ignore that order and do whatever suits you and whatever you can afford.

Donnacadh McCarthy breaks the split down as 40/40/20. Forty per cent is the lifestyle, 40 per cent is the energy efficiency and 20 per cent is the energy generating. Here’s what you can do (in no particular order).

Lifestyle changes. Mostly free and effective:

  • Turn the thermostat down by a degree, put on a jumper.
  • Turn lights off in unused rooms
  • Turn gadgets off standby. Either switch off at the plug or use a special extender plug that automatically cuts power when tech toys are on standby
  • Only heat the rooms you are using
  • Walk and cycle for short journeys. 21 per cent of car journeys in 2005 were for trips of less than a mile (8)
  • Use internet shopping. Warehouse-based stores such as Ocado are less energy intensive than supermarkets with their excessive lighting and open refrigeration, while one van delivering to dozens of houses uses less energy than a dozen cars driving to one store

Energy efficiency changes. Generally all affordable and very useful, but dull:

  • Fit loft insulation to the Energy Saving Trust’s recommended 270mm depth. For extra greenie points, use Thermacell (sheep wool) or Warmcell (recycled newspaper)
  • Get double glazing - triple is even better. Wood frames are better for the environment than PVC
  • Make sure you’ve got a modern boiler. If yours is 10-15 years old, it’s wasting you money. Next year you can also buy a Whispergen model, which create gas and electricity simultaneously, wasting less energy
  • Buy better appliances - get A++ fridge-freezers and washing machines. These days, plain ‘A rated’ is out of date
  • Switch all your lighting energy-saving light bulbs, also called CFLs. LEDs use even less energy than CFLs, but are hard to buy on the high street (9)

Energy generating changes. Mostly fun and sexy, but expensive:

  • Fit a wind turbine on your roof. Make sure expert surveyors measure what sort of wind speeds you’ll get before installing one
  • Install solar PV. At roughly £7000 for the average house, solar panels won’t pay for themselves for many years but they could provide around half the electricity for a low energy home
  • Get solar thermal. A tried and tested technology for creating hot water using tubes on your roof and the power of the sun
  • Install Wood burner. Modern wood burners are efficient space heaters and, if the wood is local and sustainably harvested, can be less energy intensive than gas heating
  • Buy a ground pump. These systems of tubes buried underground create heat but are slightly impractical for most homes, as you need to dig up the garden to install them in the first place
  • Have a grey-water recycling system fitted. Why pour all the rain that falls into your roof’s gutters into the drains? You could use it to flush your toilets, saving electricity and money on your water bill

Once you’ve ticked all those boxes, congratulations, you’ll almost certainly be ready to join McCarthy and start sending your own bills to the power companies. At which point, we’ll have finished ‘managing demand’ and moved on to ‘expanding supply’ - just remember, though, we’ve got a long way to travel to get to that point.

Adam Vaughan is online editor, New Consumer magazine and blogger on green issues.

(1) Carbon allowances, David Miliband blog, Defra

(2) Climate Change 2001, summary for policymakers, IPCC

(3) Interview with Sir David King, the Climate Group

(4) High Stakes: Designing emissions pathways to reduce the risk of dangerous climate change, IPPR

(5) Save Cash and Save the Planet, Andrea Smith and Nicola Baird, Collins (2005)

(6) Domestic tradable quotas, Tyndall Centre

(7) Carbon allowances, David Miliband blog, Defra

(8) Transport statistics bulletin, Department for Transport

(9) Light’s Labour’s Lost: Policies for Energy-Efficient Lighting, International Energy Agency



Debate home
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Adam Vaughan
New Consumer magazine
Joe Kaplinsky
science writer
Malcolm Grimston
associate fellow, Chatham House
Mark Jaccard
Simon Fraser University
Jim Skea
UK Energy Research Centre
View the list of responses

Useful resources
UK Government Energy Review

International Energy Agency

Towards a sustainable energy economy
Natural Environment Research Council