Although it doesn’t feel so long ago, it has been two years since I wrote about the mounting risk of investing in fossil fuels; in short, great portions of the reserves we are currently spending billions per year to discover and explore will have to remain unburnt if we are to avoid more than 2C of global temperature rise, leaving eye-wateringly valuable assets stranded under the ground and potentially creating a global financial crash far more serious than the one from which we are just starting to emerge.
As alarming a prospect as this is, it received relatively little attention until the recent publication of a study by University College London (UCL) that states not only will new reserves need to remain untapped, but that of the resources we are already aware, 80% of coal, 50% of gas and 30% of oil must remain unused and underground. With those figures in view, suddenly people are paying attention.
If the world is to take the threat of temperature rise seriously, strictly mandated limits on fossil fuel production will have to be implemented in the near future. Of course, reserves are not equally distributed around the world and these caps will certainly hit some locations much harder than others. Looking at where the majority of the remaining known resources are located, what strikes me about the UCL report is that those countries facing the biggest slashes to traditional fuel production are also those whose economies rely most heavily on its continued exploitation.
Take Russia and the Middle East for example; they face their own natural environmental challenges, with Russia’s plunging cold and the arid desert expanses of the Middle East acting as hostile barriers to thriving economies, yet both have managed to create vast sums of domestic wealth. How? Directly through the exploitation of natural fuel reserves. Unfortunately the University’s report would see this industry decimated, suggesting that the Middle East must abandon 40% of its oil and 60% of its gas, and that the majority of Russian coal must also remain unmined. Is it even remotely realistic to expect that these nations will halt production when it is the only abundant resource they have with which to maintain their economies? It seems especially optimistic given the current over-production of oil in Saudi Arabia, with which they are hoping to bankrupt Russia and thereby gain a monopoly hold over the market; fossil fuels are being used as global strategic weapons, and it is unlikely that anyone will lay down their arms in the hope of some greater good.
Even more ethically challenging is the issue surrounding the countries, indeed, continents, that have historically lacked the financial resources to even begin to utilise their reserves to support economies and develop infrastructure. For example, The UCL report claims that Africa must leave 80% of its known coal in the ground, but this same coal could provide a much-needed source of income that other nations, the UK included, have lent upon for decades to secure a higher quality of life for their inhabitants. Is it fair to deny them the financial support that fossil fuel production brings simply because richer countries got there first, especially when those countries drive the vast majority of fossil fuel consumption in the first place? Britain built its empire on coal during the industrial revolution, and it seems wrong to now deny Africa the chance to escape poverty using the same channels.
It is clear that the world is headed for an important gear change: soon there will be no option but to move away from our carbon-based present towards a future based on cleaner energy. Less clear is what the journey between the two points looks like. It may be laughably idealistic, but the most ethical route is surely one that demands countries with the ability to do so to move towards renewables with immediate effect, sourcing any requirement they have for coal, oil, or gas from financially poor but resource rich countries. These areas would then be in a position to build their infrastructure just as we have used fossil fuels to build ours, and to use the resource as a springboard until such a time as they were able to diversify away towards a low carbon economy.
Wishful thinking? Almost certainly. In truth, hopes of a global consensus on this issue are unlikely ever to be realised, and it will become more a question of exploiting resources in the safest way through carbon capture and storage technology. One thing is for sure: any plan based on restricting access to cheap fuel is doomed to fail from the start, so we have no other choice but to address the problem and create long-term, sustainable solutions.
About the author:
As Chairman of the Rolton Group, Peter Rolton provides high-level strategic advice to a range of governmental, public sector and commercial clients. He is an acknowledged specialist in the renewable energy sector, and a passionate advocate of informed debate.
Peter holds particular expertise in the areas of site-wide energy planning, zero carbon power generation, low carbon design, carbon offsetting and the application of renewable technology. He has acted as a Government advisor on numerous consultations and white papers, presenting to the Secretary of State on a number of occasions on the subject of renewable planning and public sector engagement. He has worked as a strategic partner with some of the world’s largest and most successful blue-chip companies.
Peter is both a chartered building services engineer and a chartered member of the Institute of Energy, and has gained accreditation under the Carbon Trust Consultant Accreditation Scheme for solution development, with particular expertise in the establishment of energy strategies. He has been the architect of the path through which Rolton Group has addressed the challenges of renewables, carbon and the built environment.
Photo: rachelmolenda via Flickr
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.