Saturday, 7 April 2018

Four little changes to help save the planet

We were realistic about our aims
(we didn't believe claims of miracles)

I'd been mulling a brief blog post on the subject of efficiency and environmental awareness, when I stumbled upon the following energy-saving tip from a reader in a weekend tabloid:

Change your lightbulbs at home to LED versions. We did it and immediately saved £80 a month on the electric bill.

Source: The Sun, "Sun Savers", 30th March 2018; suggestion from Andrea Towler of Cleethorpes, Lincs.

This simple suggestion rattled me sufficiently to bring forward my planned post. Why? Because it's either hyperbole or an example of staggering waste. There's too much wilful ignorance in technology and mathematics already to allow this to go unchallenged. (Witness, for example, the number of celebrities who star on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown - a comedy quiz panel show whose game element is almost half arithmetic - and then shamelessly both proclaim and prove themselves to be hopeless at even very basic numeracy.)

As an occasional STEM Ambassador, it feels like obvious exaggeration such as this needs to be exposed and explained - not just accepted as fact. I don't necessarily have the academic clout to point out statistical flaws in over-hyped research papers or to counter-argue snake-oil salesmen; I rely on the likes of Ben Goldacre and Sense About Science to do that. But I can at least run the numbers suggested here and demonstrate that they are almost certainly fictional - whether a simple mistake or an outright sensationalist lie.

If we assume that the replaced lightbulbs were 50W on average (perhaps halogen, otherwise genuine old-style incandescent bulbs of 40W - 60W) and that the replacement LEDs were 5W, then that's an energy saving of 90%. Meaning that, to save £80, the reader was spending almost £90 a month, just on lighting. For context, that's almost twice what we spend on household energy in total - heating, laundry, cooking and all. The only house that uses this much electricity on its lighting is one that happens to have a massive cannabis farm in its cellar.

The average UK electricity price is 14.37p per kWh, so this reader was allegedly spending wasting almost 21kWh on lighting every day. That is virtually impossible for a normal house. That's more than forty 50W lightbulbs left on for ten hours every single day. If nothing else, that would be an incredible strain on the occupants' eyes, and the house would be uncomfortably warm in the summer. It would surely imply that the occupants leave all the lights on during the daylight hours, even in rooms that are unoccupied.

OFGEM says that a typical house consumes 3,300kWh in a year making these claimed savings sound even more implausible. Really, the only way that this story makes any sense at all is if Ms Towler meant to say that she saved £80 per year, not per month.

That all said, I did want to write a self-congratulatory blog post on energy savings because my household has done some good things to improve our environmental impact this year - without the expectation of miracles:

We changed our energy provider

The most common advice for saving on household energy costs - yet surprisingly rarely followed - is to shop around for a new supplier. (And shop around again when any introductory period ends.) Switching is genuinely easy. It takes about a month to process but both our old and new providers kept in touch throughout.

But we went further than simply trying to save a bit of money. There are now a decent number of smaller energy companies that not only offer better value unit rates than the big incumbents, but also provide electricity from 100% renewable sources. Our new provider also offers a welcome bonus for referrals, so get in touch if you're interested in switching.

And, of course, the more people who sign up to such a tariff, the better the market for renewable energy will be in the future. The UK is quietly doing pretty well at generating electricity from renewable sources (including nuclear). The fascinating Electric Insights shows how much of Britain's energy is being generated by different fuel sources in real time, and you can plot graphs showing generation (and demand) over different time periods.

But it's sad that even the relatively uncontroversial position of celebrating Britain generating all of its electricity for a three-day period without the use of coal, for the first time since the 1880s manages to get more than its fair share of scientifically-illiterate commentators attempting to disparage this milestone.

We got rid of the most energy-hungry appliance

Sometimes it's quite hard to identify which appliances are causing problems, which makes it hard to figure out where to make efficiency savings. Not in our case. We had an energy meter and it was pretty clear that there was one single thing that was energy hungry way above everything else in the house: the power shower. So we replaced it.

The energy meter worked by being clamped around the main electricity cable into the home; it did not need any specialist wiring. It then transmitted instantaneous and daily consumption data to a display unit. The display showed, without any doubt, that the shower was consuming some 7kW. Even a couple of relatively short showers in a day could easily account for half of our electricity consumption.

We could compare days when we weren't in the house (because we were on holiday, for example) with those that we were. Even when away, the house obviously uses some electricity for running the fridge, say, and the heater in our fish tank. On the days we were present, almost 100% of the electricity we used above top of this background level could be attributed to the shower. Everything else barely registered.

We offset all of our carbon emissions

Carbon offsetting is not just something that is done by large companies; individuals can do it too. Sometimes it is offered as an add-on to flight bookings. For everything else, individuals would need to pick a project to support that would provide the right level of offsetting.

The World Land Trust is a reputable charity that can help with this. By "reputable", I mean that it is a UK-based charity that is endorsed by high-profile conservationists who ought to know what they are talking about. The Trust provides a simple calculator for household energy use - including travel - that converts to a suggested charitable donation. The Trust then uses donations to buy land and plant forests in various places around the world, in conjunction with local charities and managed by local people.

Now clearly, not everybody can afford to make a one-off payment to offset a year's carbon emissions. But if it's a cause that you care about, you can use the offsetting calculator without commitment; and you can send charitable donations (which, being a UK charity, may include GiftAid) in smaller or regular payments, if you prefer. In our case, we found that the offset value was similar to the amounts that we were already donating to several other causes we care about.

We changed our search engine

Indisputably, it's easier to be virtuous when it's free. Sometimes a simple change of habit can make a big difference at no cost. Ecosia is a search engine that uses its advertising revenues to plant trees - so that you can literally help to save the world every time you search. Search results are good and come with the added bonus of adding a thin layer of privacy. You can easily set Ecosia to be your browser's default search engine (they provide full instructions on their site). They also have an app - essentially a branded version of an open-source browser - so that you can continue to support them from your mobile device.

At the time of writing, Ecosia earns enough money to plant a tree every 1.1 seconds. That's improved even in the couple of months that I've been using the site.

With current concerns over privacy on the major search engines, lots of people are looking to switch. Some of the other suggestions are as good at searching, but none are as good for the planet.