Black & Decker's thermal leak detector

Call or write to Black & Decker to demand that the company launches its Thermal Leak Detector in Europe and elsewhere. This is the single most useful energy saving device I have ever seen. Europeans can buy it from Amazon.com in the States, but shipping and customs charges make it quite expensive. Let's get it here before the winter ends.

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The Committee on Climate Change shouldn't have answered the question it was asked

The UK government asked the wrong question. It demanded that the Committee on Climate Change calculated how much air travel can rise without causing an increase in aviation emissions. Not unsurprisingly, the CCC answered by saying that the number of trips could rise at the same rate as efficiency improvements in air travel. The Committee said that emissions per passenger will fall by about 1% a year, and so travel could rise by about this amount. No shocks there. By 2050, the CCC opined, the number of passengers taking trips from UK airports can rise to 370 million a year, up from 230 million today. The maximum possible number of new passengers at Heathrow from the addition of new runway and sixth terminal is about 60 million. Hoorah, said the industry, there's space for the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the press misinterpreted the Committee's report and said that it had 'approved' the government's plans for the airport. By answering the government's disiningenous question, the CCC has lost some of its impartiality.

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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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How long do solar panels last?

Solar photovoltaics slowly lose their generating capacity. Although some solar panels are still working satisfactorily 40 years after installation, the conventional view is that most will dip below 80% of their rated capacity within about 20 years. This will vary slightly between manufacturers and between different types of silicon.

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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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How much is it going to cost to decarbonise the economy?

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills. Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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Tory smart thinking could be short-circuited by party's past

The Conservatives do not explain how 'smart meters' would work, how the 'electricity internet' would be funded or how a voluntary scheme can be a success.

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Formula 1 should ditch the internal combustion engine

Honda’s withdrawal from the hugely expensive world of Formula 1 motor racing is another illustration of the pressures on the world’s car-makers. Now might be a good time for reflection. Does it make sense to use the petrol engine as the power source for the cars on the track. Isn’t it time to switch to electric cars?

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UK energy demand

Elizabeth Kolbert looked at the Swiss 2,000-Watt Society project in the /New Yorker/ of 7 July. Her interviewees provided estimates of the energy use of the typical Swiss inhabitant. The figures added up to about 5,000 watts. To be clear, this means each person is responsible for about five kilowatts of continuous energy use. This includes home electricity and gas, personal transport, industry, and office. To keep us in the ease and comfort we have got used to we are consuming, directly and indirectly, enough energy to keep two electric kettles boiling continuously, or driving a fuel-efficient car four hours in every day. This article looks at the composition of energy demand in the UK. The figures are then broken down by sector and by fuel. The numbers are used in the introduction to /Ten Technologies to Save the Planet/ (Profile Books, November 2008), where I try to assess whether we are likely to be able to use technology to reduce fossil fuel demand substantially.

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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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Household batteries

Inventions that take the breath away with their simplicity and elegance are rare. The new rechargeable batteries from USBCell qualify for this honour. As their name indicates, they are AA batteries that are recharged by the USB port on a laptop or other powered device. They are not cheap, but will repay the investment by being far easier to recharge than conventional rechargeable AAs. The carbon savings from these batteries are not large. My calculation is that they might save 10kg of CO2 a year in a household full of portable devices. But they will, of course, reduce the waste going into landfill.

The company that makes the batteries has won some important awards for its innovation. More importantly, it also has some extremely interesting views on the evolution of home electricity demand. It correctly points out that a larger and larger fraction of home energy is used in 12V, not 240V appliances. We waste a lot of energy switching 240V AC down to 12V DC. Its next products include a box that will allow all DC devices (phones, handheld consoles, laptops) to be efficiently charged. Eventually, it will be possible to use cheap(-ish) solar power collectors to charge all the battery DC devices in the home. The savings in carbon would be worthwhile (but probably outweighed by the purchase of one extra TV).

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Conservative Party policy on local generation of electricity and heat

The Conservative Party published a policy paper in early December on decentralised production of energy. It argues for heavy subsidy for small-scale generation of electricity. The report is useful in focusing on the need to minimise the finance and administrative burdens on small generators. However, it omits any consideration of the costs of the scheme it proposes. It is woefully ill-informed about developments in other countries. The Conservatives have subscribed to a romantic view about micro-generation and are choosing to ignore the huge costs of subsidising inefficient local generators. If they want large-scale low-carbon generation they should either back nuclear, remove the planning problems with wind, subsidise tidal or biomass power, or invest in CO2 capture.

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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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Gordon Brown’s first speech on climate change

Gordon BrownThe environmental community tends to think that Gordon Brown doesn’t understand the complexity and size of the climate challenge. His first speech on the subject gave more detail than expected and reassured some that the prime minister does recognise the severity of the challenge. He moved towards an 80% reduction in GHGs by 2050, but even under optimistic assumptions his plans will not result in emissions reductions on the scale required. All his proposals were pain-free. He does not yet believe that the electorate is ready to face the real challenges of emissions reduction.

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Kindle: Amazon’s electronic book reader

Amazon’s new e-reader has been widely discussed this week. Most of the comments have been unflattering. Critics have gasped at the high price ($400) and commented unfavourably on the slightly dated appearance of the device. Others asked why Amazon thought it could charge for newspapers and blogs that are available free via a computer.

This isn’t the first attempt to market an e-reader. Other pocket readers, such as Sony’s, have failed to make much impression. Will Amazon overcome the early objections and turn Kindle into something worth buying? I think the answer is probably yes, and the impact on CO2 emissions might be more than trivial. Paper and card manufacture is responsible for about 4% of UK emissions. (Much of the UK’s paper is made abroad, so doesn’t show up fully in national accounts.) Getting rid of paper use is a worthwhile carbon-saving aim.

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Shai Agassi and the big batteries

TeslaShai Agassi, the California-based software superstar who wanted to run SAP but left the company in March when he didn’t get the top job, has come back into the spotlight as the CEO of an electric car start-up. The new company is funded by $200m of venture capital and investment bank money. This makes it one of the best-funded start-ups in history. Agassi does not intend to make electric cars. Wisely, he is leaving this to the auto industry. He is focusing on the batteries. He’ll lease them to anybody with an appropriate car and he’ll develop large networks of ‘filling stations’ where the driver can quickly take out a discharged battery and swap it for a fully charged version on long journeys. By 2010, he wants a hundred thousands electric cars on the roads of California and elsewhere.

The obstacles are huge. Although lithium-iron-phosphate battery technology is improving rapidly, and will continue to do so for decades, full-size car batteries now cost at least €7,000. Getting mainstream manufacturers to build large volumes of electric cars that will take his batteries is another formidable challenge. Third, he has to persuade retailers to install the equipment to swap batteries automatically.

But our weary European scepticism needs to be rested for a moment. The long-run economics favour this idea. My sums suggest that at current UK petrol prices it costs at least six times more to drive a mile on petrol than it does on electricity. Battery prices will fall and performance will improve. At some point it is going to be so much cheaper to power a car with electrons rather than octane that even the slothful auto industry will switch. When the market has tipped it won’t be long before passenger cars are all electric. Agassi may be too early, and his business model may require too much capital, but electric cars are coming soon.

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