Light-bulb Libraries

UK supermarkets and DIY chains stock up to twenty different types of energy efficient light bulbs but most households have some light fittings that cannot use any of these bulbs. There are several hundred different combinations of fitting, shape and power. Some internet sites, such as www.lightbulbs-direct.com/article/energy-saving or www.gogreenlights.co.uk offer a very wide range of low-energy-use bulbs including many unusual types you cannot find in shops. One problem remains: it is not always possible to tell whether the bulb you see on a webpage will actually fit your lamp holder or whether it will be the correct brightness. Light-bulb Libaries may be the answer.

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Ten ways to start reducing your carbon footprint

If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Is energy efficiency really cheaper than switching to renewable energy sources as a way of cutting carbon emissions?

Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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A database of electric power consumption for all home appliances

Wittingly or unwittingly, many manufacturers make it difficult to compare the electricity consumption of home appliances such as TVs and refrigerators. Although many appliances have been through standard EU tests and then been awarded a letter grade for energy efficiency, these grades are increasingly unhelpful in distinguishing between the excellent and the merely satisfactory. As in British school exams, an A grade doesn’t mean much because it covers such as wide range of performance.

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Domestic heat pumps: enthusiasm needs to be tempered

(The information in this article has been updated by a more optimistic article that looks at the before and after experience of a ASHP installation in Oxford, Please go to http://www.carboncommentary.com/2010/08/03/1632) Small heat pumps are increasingly used to provide space and water heating in UK homes. This trend is strongly encouraged by policy-makers and the government’s proposed Renewable Heat Incentive will add further financial support. The enthusiasm for this expensive technology should be moderated: for a home on the mains gas network, the savings in money will be small. Carbon benefits are probable but far from guaranteed. Moreover, air source heat pumps are unlikely to be able to heat many older homes effectively. Government, manufacturers, and installers need to be very much more cautious in encouraging the use of heat pumps and should use far more conservative payback assumptions. Heat pumps will eventually be a good investment for homeowners but probably not yet.

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Budget 2009: Has the government begun to recognise the scale of the challenge?

The chancellor may have been inconsistent, but at least the budget has some incentives to encourage renewable electricity, carbon capture and storage, and the switch to low-carbon fuels.

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Why might nuclear be necessary?

In the Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argued that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards 'decarbonising' electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Green jobs: time to look at the benefits of growing and using more wood

Government officials are searching for policies that will meet the twin aims of providing jobs and meeting the UK’s climate change targets. It is proving a difficult task. The easiest ways of reducing fossil fuel use will probably not create many new jobs in the UK. All large wind turbines are built abroad and although the construction work on a nuclear power station will generate a few thousand jobs, most of the key components will need to come from Europe and Japan. So where are the opportunities? I think two major areas stand out as excellent ways of generating jobs quickly without also dragging in expensive imports or sharply raising prices.

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Does an economic depression mean slower progress towards green objectives?

We didn’t make much progress reducing emissions when times were good. Will the looming depression makes things worse or better? The discussion of this issue, at least in the UK, tends to be superficial. The only question asked seems to be ‘will people buy less eco-bling when times are hard?’

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Snakes

Together.com, the climate change campaigning organisation, has launched a new product for its annual campaign. It is promoting the traditional door ‘snake’ in its autumn publicity drive. Filled with insulating material, these colourful sausages stop heat leaving a warm room in winter through the gap at the bottom of the door. As part of the campaign, B&Q is selling snake-making kits for £1 on 20 October. National Trust properties are holding snake-making workshops over the half-term period.

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Yes, do lag your loft

For once, the government has got its climate change policies right. The idea of a windfall tax on energy suppliers has widespread support. One hundred or so Labour MPs have come out in favour. Caroline Lucas, the newly elected leader of the Greens, has advocated such a policy and many Conservatives express private approval. The trade unions were infuriated by Alistair Darling’s refusal to back the proposal. Rather than backing a windfall tax, it looks like he favours plans that oblige the utilities to improve the energy efficiency of customers’ homes.

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Energy efficiency of home phones

BT low energy power supply phoneBT announced that it was bringing out a new range of home phones with much improved energy efficiency. The claim is that ‘the new handsets boast power units designed specifically to consume around half the power of previous units’. BT said that almost all its extensive home phone range would contain the new energy-saving technology by mid-2008. Its press release gave very precise figures for the amount of CO2 saved – comparing the savings if all home phones incorporated the new technology to taking ‘57,000 cars off the road for a year’.

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Trends in UK domestic electricity use

In most countries electricity use is rising. The increase is gradual in developed areas, averaging only 1 or 2% a year. In the UK, the pattern was similar but recent years have tended to show declining growth rates, partly perhaps as a result of increasing prices. One of the most interesting features of recent UK trends has been the flattening in electricity use in the home. This change is somewhat surprising. Improvements in home energy efficiency, through such things as the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs and high quality white goods, have usually been thought to have been outweighed by increases in the number and power use of consumer electronics. Large LCD TVs are, for example, much heavier electricity users than the old-fashioned TVs that they replace. Today’s games consoles are much more powerful than ones of five years ago.

So the reasons are not clear, but monthly year-on-year growth in domestic consumption of electricity has fallen to below zero in the last year or so. Is this a temporary change brought about by the steep increases in prices over the period 2005-6, which will be unwound when people get habituated to higher costs? Or is this a real change in household behaviour?

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Zero-carbon homes may look nice but they aren’t cheap

The Lighthouse by Potton
The Lighthouse by Potton

Carbon Commentary has visited two sites to look at the costs of building houses under the new rules (not yet mandatory) established by the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH). By 2016, all new UK homes will have to have no net carbon emissions (‘Level 6’) and the implications for construction techniques are profound. Today, most homes are built to about Level 1, or possibly 2. To get to Level 6 will require huge changes in how houses are built, heated, and ventilated. And they will need expensive renewable energy technologies built into the home as well.

At Wimpey’s 145-home development in Milton Keynes, construction costs of houses at Level 3 are running at ‘100-110%’ more than standard. The self-build company Potton is offering a Level 6 design (one of the first in the UK) for an even more expensive £180 a square foot, up from about £75 for a standard Level 3 model. This takes the construction cost of a standard 1,000 sq ft (92 sq metre) home up from £75,000 to £180,000. Much of the increment comes from the need to install large amounts of renewable electricity generation. Some of the cost premium over today’s badly insulated homes will eventually erode as builders get better at building air-tight houses. But we shouldn’t be in any doubt about the huge implications of the CSH for builders, landowners, and buyers.

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Smart metering

The world understands ‘smart metering’ in many different ways. Gordon Brown used the expression in his first speech on climate change. He meant devices that give visual real-time indication of electricity consumption, largely in homes. To the UK Conservative Party (see this issue of Carbon Commentary) it means conventional meters that can record the export of electricity from a house, as well as its use. Smart meters are much more useful than either of these two definitions suggest. Their primary value will be to adjust the price of electricity depending on the level of demand. This frightens politicians because they fear the backlash from users complaining of the horrendous cost of peak-time electricity use. But if we are to increase the percentage of electricity coming from intermittent and/or unreliable sources, smart meters are a necessity.

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Eco housebuilding

After decades of foot-dragging, the UK construction industry has begun to see the importance of good insulation and higher environmental performance. Large housebuilders are beginning voluntarily to build their major developments to a better standard than required by building regulations.

Housebuilders also see the increasing commitment by government to increasing the mandatory standards for home insulation and other environmental characteristics. By 2016, all new homes will have to be ‘zero carbon’.

A report just released by estate agents Knight Frank examines whether buyers are prepared to pay the cost of the eco-improvements. The answer seems to be a cautious ‘yes’.

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The rebound effect

Energy efficiency improvements often do not deliver reductions in energy use. For example, when a householder installs better insulation, the energy savings are sometimes much less than would have been predicted. Sometimes this is because the insulation was badly fitted, but it is often because the householder runs the heating at a higher temperature when the house is better insulated. This is called the ‘rebound’ effect: when it becomes cheaper or more effective to use energy, people use more of it. The many studies into this effect have produced a wide variety of different estimates for the size of this effect. Most cluster between 10 and 30%. This means that energy efficiency improvements generally result in a large net benefit. But these studies only capture the direct effect on consumers and businesses. A study from the UK’s Energy Research Centre shows that the economy-wide impact may be much larger. For example, lower heating bills may mean that householders are rich enough to take more flights. At an even higher level of abstraction, better economy-wide energy efficiency (through, say, improvements in steel-making technologies) may encourage more rapid economic growth, which in turn raises energy use.

Some economists think that the economy-wide rebound from energy efficiency gains is very large – perhaps over 100%. A figure over 100% suggests that total energy consumption rises after energy efficiency improvements. The tentatively stated view of a new report by the UK Energy Research Centre is that the true number is somewhat lower than this and may be around 50%, although it could be a great deal higher.

Government projections for the impact of energy saving measures never take the rebound effect into account. Policy-makers trying to reduce global emissions need to adjust their thinking to reflect the much lower than expected efficacy of energy saving programmes.

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