How to save energy at home
One third of all energy is used at home, and more than 80 per cent of that is used for heating. Saving energy is probably the most important thing we can do for the environment.
It doesn’t matter what sort of home we live in, there are lots of measures we can all take: insulate as much as possible to prevent heat escaping, support renewable energy by switching to a green electricity supplier and get rid of all those energy-guzzling light bulbs.
As for batteries (we bought 700 million last year), it’s far better to recharge than to recycle. Remember, if we, as consumers, don’t change our behaviour, businesses and governments certainly won’t.
In Scandinavia they’re far better at insulating buildings than we are in the UK. Insulation makes an enormous difference to the cost of heating and should be top of your list of energy-saving measures. If you live in a flat, it’s worth checking with your landlord how the building is insulated, if it’s not obvious.
Once you’ve decided to insulate, think about which material to use. Understanding the technical issues can be tricky. For example, the environmental performance of a material might be good, but will it be suitable for where you want to use it? It’s also important to consider ventilation – buildings need to breathe. Any material is better than none, and each has its pros and cons.
Recycling newspapers and telephone directories for insulation is an excellent use of waste. The material makes an effective insulator and is particularly good at getting into all the nooks and crannies. It also has excellent soundproofing qualities, and in terms of cost is competitive with synthetic materials.
The powder has to be sprayed by a professional installer, isn’t suitable for cavity walls and doesn’t perform well if it gets wet.
Sheep’s wool has superb insulating qualities, is safe, easy to install and isn’t badly affected by moisture. It takes the least amount of energy to produce of all insulation materials, but is also the most expensive, costing about four times more than glass fibre. It has to be chemically treated for pest- and fire-resistance; the same chemicals can also be used in sheep dipping.
Glass fibre is made from melted-down glass, which can come from recycled materials. It’s widely available and cheap, but it takes a lot of energy to make, releases solvent emissions or VOCs, and doesn’t biodegrade when disposed of. There are also health concerns about installing it because fine particles are released, so it’s vital to wear a mask.
It doesn’t work so well if it gets wet or if its fibres flatten, which they may do over time.
Mineral wool is made from melted-down volcanic rocks and steel slag, and sometimes from 100 per cent recycled materials. It’s fireproof, cheap and widely available, but like glass fibre it takes a lot of energy to make, releases fine particles when being installed (remember the mask) and its performance may be reduced by the fibres flattening over time or getting wet.
Polystyrene – expanded and extruded
These foams can be made with recycled materials, are long-lasting and have good resistance to moisture, air movement, rot and compression. Extruded polystyrene requires more processing than expanded and therefore double the amount of energy to produce – three times more than mineral wool. They are made with petrochemicals, release solvent emissions and produce toxic fumes when burnt. Performance is said to deteriorate over time as gases are released.
Polyurethane/polyisocyanurate board and foam
Foam and board are excellent insulators and can fit into narrow spaces where other materials would be less effective. They’re particularly suitable for cavity wall insulation, but not so good for fitting snugly between rafters.
However, they’re the most energy-intensive insulating materials to make and they use chemicals that are powerful greenhouse gases. Ironically, these HFCs were introduced as a replacement to ozone-depleting CFCs in the 1990s. Like other foams, they produce toxic fumes when burnt.
Changing electricity supplier is something everyone can do; it only takes a few minutes online. Some of the green electricity suppliers charge a little more than the standard suppliers, but not all of them.
The best reason to change is to support renewable energy generation. But if you have wind turbines, solar panels or a CHP (combined heat and power) boiler, you’ll also want to check out how much you’ll be paid for electricity fed back into the grid. The Government has set minimum targets for the amount of renewable energy electricity companies must provide. But we must support companies exceeding these targets, rather than just meeting their legal obligations.
Below is a survey of the greener electricity schemes. My ratings are based on the extent to which you will be furthering the cause of renewable energy if you switch to them.
Green electricity suppliers
Ecotricity offers two green electricity packages. The Old Energy Scheme, as it is known, charges a premium for supplying 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, but there are no profits to be invested in renewable energy. Most of Ecotricity’s 15,000 customers, however, have signed up to their New Energy Scheme. This buys 75 per cent of its electricity from mainstream generators and 25 per cent from renewable suppliers.
This is profitable and so the firm is able to invest in renewable energy – chiefly wind. Ecotricity is supported by WWF and the Soil Association. It has a tree-planting scheme and pays a good rate for renewable energy produced at home.
All electricity supplied to Good Energy’s 18,000 customers is renewable. Good Energy is simply a supply company and does not generate any electricity itself – it buys it from others.
The company pays a good rate for renewable energy produced at home, and has set up a scheme called Smartgen in partnership with HSBC bank to encourage farmers and landowners to generate renewable energy.
Green Energy Plus 10, the most popular of this firm’s two schemes, commits to supplying 10 per cent more renewable energy than the Government requires it to do. Green Energy Plus 100 costs nearly 10 per cent more, but all of it comes from renewable sources. The firm supports small-scale hydro power schemes and offers a variable rate on home-produced renewable energy.
Npower is one of the largest UK power companies, and its Juice scheme, launched in partnership with Greenpeace, has more than 50,000 customers. All the electricity initially came from one off-shore wind farm, but others are coming on stream.
Tariffs are the same as for other Npower customers, the company has an energy-efficiency advice service, is a supporter of heat pumps and pays a good rate for home-produced renewable energy.
My gripe is that Npower includes the renewable energy bought by Juice customers as part of what it is legally required to produce by Government diktat, rather than buying extra.
Eco Energy – Northern Ireland Electricity
Just two per cent of NIE’s 750,000 customers – 15,000 in total – have signed up to its Eco Energy scheme, which contributes to renewable energy generation over and above Government requirements. With links to organisations such as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Woodland Trust, the Eco Energy scheme promotes new technologies, such as CHP, and supports tree planting.
NIE gives higher rates for home solar energy than for other renewables because it is generated at peak times.
RSPB Energy – Scottish and Southern Energy
Scottish and Southern, which runs RSPB Energy, claims to be the country’s largest generator of renewable energy, most of which comes from large-scale hydro power. Ninety per cent of the electricity for RSPB Energy comes from hydro and 10 per cent from other renewables and CHP. Money is donated to the organisation and used to buy endangered bird habitats and wetlands. Wind is in the mix, but the RSPB campaigns to ensure turbines are not in areas where they disturb birds.
Power 2 – Scottish and Southern Energy
All the energy supplied to Power 2 customers comes from large-scale hydro power. Money raised is used to sponsor the Tree Council’s Walk in the Woods Campaign (www.treecouncil.org.uk). Scottish and Southern also supports large-scale tree-planting.
Customers pay more to join EDF’s Green Energy Fund, and the money, along with a matching contribution from EDF, is invested in renewable energy projects. Only a small percentage of the power you buy comes from renewables. EDF has recently set up another scheme called Climate Balance, which enables customers to carbon-offset their energy use.
For up-to-date comparisons of green electricity schemes, see the Green Electricity Marketplace at www.greenelectricity.org.
Before you even think about installing renewable energy systems in your home, make sure you’ve done all you can on energy efficiency, boiler systems and insulation – that is, unless you’re undertaking a major renovation or building a house from scratch.
You also have to be aware that cost savings are likely to be made over quite a number of years, so this isn’t generally something that’s worth doing solely on financial grounds.
Here is a summary of the main renewable energy options that are available for home power. Please note that the sustainability and environmental benefits will vary enormously, depending on your situation.
Ground-source heat pumps
Pros: long-term, reliable use of renewable energy; relatively short pay-back period.
Pros: cheap, plant-derived fuel source.
Combined heat and power (CHP)
Pros: supplies home-produced electricity from gas, which reduces CO2 emissions.
Air-source heat pumps
Pros: inexpensive technology that uses readily available air.
Fuel-cell heat and power
Pros: flexible, high-tech clean power using energy that could be sourced from renewable technologies and stored.
Household wind turbine
Pros: uses renewable energy from wind; becoming affordable.
Solar thermal (hot water)
Pros: gets energy from the sun; the most widely used renewable technology to date.
Pros: high-efficiency mass-market boiler that fits current legal requirements.
Solar electricity (photovoltaics)
Pros: uses renewable energy from the sun; low maintenance costs.
Solar thermal (heating)
Pros: uses renewable energy from the sun.
I bought a brilliant electricity-saving device called Electrisave. Essentially it’s a meter that tells you how many kilos of greenhouse gases your house is consuming per hour and also works out the cost. It’s so simple to set up that once you’ve had a go you can lend it to others. I’m an excellent sales person for the device because everyone who comes to my house goes away saying they’re going to get one.
So what’s so good about it? Well, it doesn’t look very exciting – there’s an attachment to fix to the wire coming from your electricity meter, and a hand-held screen a little bigger than a pocket notebook. Once I had set it up, a friend and I ran around the house turning everything off to get the reading down to nought. We thought we’d found every electrical device, but something was still on the screen. Then – eureka! – we switched off a CD player in one of my sons’ bedrooms and we had a “zero-energy house”.
As we switched on the fridge, freezer and telephones, one by one, we discovered how much electricity they were using. I’ve now taken a number of energy-saving measures, such as plugging all the TV-related appliances in to a panel of sockets so they can all be switched off at the same time.
The meter is also a great advertisement for energy-efficient lighting – they barely register on the screen, whereas ordinary bulbs have quite an impact.
An Electrisave meter isn’t cheap (rrp £80). It could, however, save you up to 25% on your bill.
As more of us work from home, we’re buying a huge range of equipment, such as flat screens, laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, routers and keyboards. You don’t have to know what all these things do to understand that they make our homes even more power-hungry. Have you noticed how many more plugs and wires are needed to support the modern lifestyle? The back of my desk looks like Spaghetti Junction.
LCD screens are far more energy efficient than their predecessors, the bulky cathode ray tubes (CRTs). But that’s when you compare them size for size. The problem is that, as with TVs, screens are getting bigger, and that means more energy. But the real waste happens when computers and their related attachments are not even being used – when they’re in standby mode.
I know that many people leave their computers on all the time. “It takes ages to power up,” friends say. Or “It’s not good for the computer to be switched off and on.” This last excuse is rarely valid because most computers are discarded long before they’ve had time to wear out.
And some people will turn off their computer but forget about things like broadband connections, speakers or printers. They’re all mini energy guzzlers which, taken as a whole, amount to a lot.
Finally, I’ve heard people say that you shouldn’t turn lights out because it uses more energy to turn them back on again. Not true. It’s much better to turn lights off when you don’t need them.