We need honesty, not short-term headline grabbing, from politicians about the real reason energy bills are going ever upwards, argues Richard Griffiths of Parity Projects.
For a long time, people like me have yearned for the day that energy bills would become a talking point in people’s homes and in the national press. The idea being that if they stop being something that people just pay automatically, and instead become something that people stop and think about, we might finally see people taking steps to reduce them.
Towards the end of last year, our wish came true. Energy bills were suddenly and consistently headline news. Unfortunately, the surge in interest didn’t quite pan out how I might have hoped.
It all started with Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy pricesas a means of reigning in the excesses of greedy energy companies. Under pressure to respond with measures of his own, David Cameron then promised to cut so-called ‘green taxes’, suggesting that it was, in fact, these charges that were pushing people into a choice between eating and heating.
The debate raged on, and eventually the prime minister followed through with his promise and set in motion changes to the Energy Company Obligation (and various other schemes) designed to shave £50 off the average UK bill.
Now, to me, the idea of cutting energy efficiency programmes as a means of reducing people’s bills is absurd. But putting that to one side for a moment, perhaps the real crime here is actually the failure of either party to engage with the public on the real causes of high energy bills in the UK.
That failure means that a few weeks later, we find ourselves back to the status quo. The newspaper editors have been sated and the public will, in due course, see a small and temporary downward pressure on their bills. But the root cause lurks in the shadows, waiting to rear its head again.
Many, like Mr Miliband blame energy companies. True enough, they make some pretty hefty profits, and engage in some pretty unsavoury behaviour from time to time, but – as they like to point out – their margins aren’t huge (though they are bigger than they’d like us to believe). In fact, the unit prices we pay for energy in the UK compare very favourably to the rest of Europe.
Then there are environmental and social levies (the more accurate name for green taxes). These charges, many of which are actually designed to reduce bills in the long-term, or diversify our energy supply, actually make up a relatively small proportion of the average bill, at around 7% of the total.
So maybe we all can put the screws on energy companies, regulating them to make pricing more transparent, and helping people to switch to the cheapest provider. And we can do as the coalition have done, and fiddle with the policies that add a few percentage points to our bills. But all we’re doing is rearranging the proverbial deckchairs.
In the UK, the main driver of our high bills is our old and leaky housing stock. Years of low energy prices have led us to neglect the energy efficiency of our homes and, despite some steady improvements over recent years, our homes and the way we use them leave a lot to be desired.
According to the Energy Bill Revolution campaign, UK homes rank near the bottom of the league table for efficiency, and compare still less well when you consider how they perform compared to their potential. Every day in our work here at Parity Projects, we find opportunities for customers to save hundreds of pounds on their bills, more often than not for a very modest up-front investment. And these are things that will deliver savings year after year, unlike a short-term price freeze or a cut to the levies placed on bills.
What we needed last year was political honesty, rather than short-term headline grabbing. Ministers (and the opposition) are afraid to admit that energy prices are going to go up and up (and up), and more scared still to explain that it’s us that are largely to blame. It’s our unwillingness to spend an afternoon clearing and insulating the loft, or our desire to sit in the house in shorts and T-shirt even in the depths of winter, that is often leading us to gasp at the sight of our bills.
Sure, there are some that need help to make their homes warmer (which a stuttering green deal and cuts to ECO aren’t helping), but for most of us it is our failure to take responsibility that is the real problem.
If government can encourage a much more grown up conversation on energy bills, and give us all a share of the responsibility for taking action, then we’ll all be better off for it.
Richard Griffiths is business development manager for award-winning home energy efficiency consultancy Parity Projects. He has a background in climate and energy policy and campaigning, having worked at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and with the UK Green Building Council.
5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable
Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.
1. Weather stripping
If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.
Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.
Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.
2. Programmable thermostats
Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.
Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!
3. Low-flow water hardware
With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.
Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.
Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.
4. Energy efficient light bulbs
An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.
New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.
5. Installing solar panels
Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.
Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.
From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!
These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.
Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?
Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?
Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.
Is Biofuel Green?
One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.
Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?
Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.
Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.
Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.
Benefits Of Biomass
The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.
Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.