Back to a report from the BBC again today. The news that Ruth Kelly has announced that there will be changes in building regulations and planning so that all houses built after 2016 will be ‘zero carbon’.
It is curious, at least for someone who’s been interested in this field for a fair few years now that 2006 very much, if nothing else, marks the year of ‘environmental issues’ beginning to get the real attention by Government and politicians that it deserves.
Probably too late in all honesty as we should have been doing all this 10 years ago but never mind, better late than never.
So on that basis I really do welcome the noises eminating from Westminster and indeed across the country from various local authorities that these issues are finally being taken seriously.
Right, that’s the nice bit over with, let’s get into the real nitty gritty of the issue. Now just for the record I’ve been doing a fair bit of research on ‘carbon neutrality’ for a while now, mainly in conjunction with and contributing towards the debate in the Co-operative Party. I also reckon that although many speak out on the issue, there’s actually a very weak understanding amongst both the general public but more worryingly, amongst those actually making the decisions about this issue.
I’ll reserve other areas of the discussion for another time and only concentrate on housing today as that seems to be the focus from my best mate Ruth Kelly.
We should start by defining carbon-neutrality, it’s a term bandied about quite a lot in the media and political circles but it’s bloody amazing how many people don’t actually get it. It is that through a process whatever it may be, the amount of carbon emitted into the environment equals the amount of carbon consumed at the start and throughout the process involved. That’s a bit abstract I know so here’s an examples.
A tree. Trees are primarily made out of carbon, they are probably the best example of a carbon neutral cycle. When the tree grows, it absorbs carbon from it’s surroundings to form its structure. Now this is a bit for all those muppets who think we can solve global warming by planting lots of trees. Tree lifecylces are carbon neutral, not a true form of carbon capture, at least in any real long term sense, I’m meaning more than a couple hundred years here just for clarification as that’s the general lifespan of a tree. When a tree dies, the carbon it absorbed throughout its life is released back into the environment. This is primarily in one of two ways. Either it rots naturally or someone comes along and burns it. This is one of those ironic situations, at least for the casual viewer, that using wood as a source of heating by burning it is actually quite an environmentally friendly thing to do. The tree absorbed the carbon through it’s lifecycle, which is then released through burning with the possible by-product of producing warmth to heat a house. I’ll come back to wood burning stoves later.
Now carbon-neutral is the buzz word at the moment, although today’s announcement is using the term carbon-zero and the article has a nifty little deinition for us.
“A zero carbon house is defined as a property with “zero net emissions of carbon dioxide from all energy use in the home”.
This is a clever phrase because it only relates to the input and output of energy for the house, not transport pollution or other associated environmental or carbon issues, you’ll see what I mean later. And for those who can do this, there won’t be any Stamp Duty to pay which is nice. Apart from one thing. It’s near on bloody impossible to achieve this situation. And here’s why.
A good look at the lovely pie chart in the BBC article is advised at this point which shows the proportion of energy used within a household. This chart has been around for a while and is as pretty good a guide as any bit of statistical data ever can be. Let’s do the little things first.
Cold appliances, fridges and freezers. There’s not a lot you can do here except buy the most efficient models, they’re pretty much an essential to modern living short of going back to the old cold slab under the stairs approach of the Victorians and that ain’t going to keep the frozen pizza frozen for very long. Sadly there’s not much available in terms of doing much about this energy being used apart from the continued increases in efficiency from the industry.
Consumer electricals, all those lovely things like TV’s, computers, hifi’s etc that make life wonderful, or not, depending on your perspective. Again, there’s a lot that can be done in terms of efficiency here and even good practice like not leaving them on standby, although see my other article on this subject to get a better understanding, it really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as a method of saving the planet. Again industry is bringing out more efficient models and even now seems to be getting the hint that on/off switches are quite a good idea. One bit of advice for the ‘lads’ out there who pine after Plasma screens. Next time you have a look at one in a shop, feel the heat it gives off. They consume a hell of a lot of electricity and should be avoided by those who are watching their electricity bills.
Cooking. Here it gets a bit more complicated. Let’s take an electric cooker for starters. Now in most cases of electrical products, heat is an unfortunate by-product that isn’t required and represents a level of inneficiency in the product. However, in cooking, it’s actually the heat that we’re after. Cookers come with efficiency ratings like most products but pretty much they’re not as important a guide as efficiency in turning electricity into heat doesn’t vary much. This also poses a dilemma for those seeking to make a positive contribution to our planets environment that I will come back to in a bit, but electricity is a very inneficient way of producing heat compared to something like a gas cooker. However gas is a fossil fuel so that’s a big no no if we’re taking about trying to achieve a carbon-zero household.
Lighting. OK, it’s only 3% of energy use but here it is quite easy to switch to a more efficent system and as an example, the Penguin house has nine light fixtures. Seven of these run on energy efficient bulbs. The other two are nice spots that Mrs Penguin won’t let me take down, although there are new energy saving spot bulbs emerging on to the market but the prices are a bit prohibitive at the moment and the LED technology isn’t quite there yet. Yes, we can make a difference here but it’s still only a tiny proportion of all household energy use.
Wet appliances. Short of doing the washing by hand, a washing machine is another one of those essentials, again, it’s getting the most efficient model to cut down on energy that’s the order of the day here. Then there’s a dishwasher. This is another one of those problems because doing the dishes by hand doesn’t use electricity. However it does mean using more water than the modern highly efficient dishwashers, and water needs heating. So if you’re heating more water and thus using more energy to do that, does it conterbalance the electricity used by the dishwasher? I haven’t found a single study on this one, although there’s plenty on comparisions between the two when it comes to water conservation but that’s another issue although the dishwasher wins hands down on that one.
Right, now we’re on to the biggies and thus where things are really going to make a difference.
Water heating at 24% of domestic energy consumption. The vast majority of people heat their water by only a couple of different methods. Either by electric or a fossil fuel (mainly gas). Now if we’re talking ‘zero-carbon’ then the fossil fuel option is out of the window again, despite as in our house, a gas combi-boiler system being the most efficient method of heating water (it only heats water on demand and not to a storage tank). Electricity, again, a bloody inneficient way to heat water but if we’re talking ‘zero-carbon’ then it’s going to have to factor somewhere as one of the only source of heating water to a sufficient temperature for it to be usuable for things like baths, showers, washing up etc.
Back to wood burning stoves again as promised. Now these can achieve the temperatures desired, as indeed can pellet systems which have the ability to be hopper fed and automated so no getting up to a cold morning to heat up the boiler. There’s also systems that work on bio-fuels which are all carbon-neutral.
So can we do it here?
Yes we can. However, these fuels, short of having lots of land to grow the stuff yourself have to be transported and stored on site. Which requires space and transport costs, which innevitably means more traffic and a shifting of carbon emmissions from the household to transport. Not to mention that they require industrial processes that consume energy and shitloads of land to grow the stuff in the first place. At best, it’s not very efficient, at worst, all we’d be doing is shifting the carbon-emission problem from one area to another. Probably not a bad idea if you live in the countryside and can grow the stuff yourself, but in a highly urbanised country such as Britain it’s not a viable approach for the majority of households, especially not flats. (storage)
There are however a few other options available, that don’t heat the water to sufficient temperature for use but heat it enough to then be given a top up of heat by another system. These are solar and geothermic.
Solar systems aren’t that expensive taking into account the general expense expected for a household heating system. There’s also Government grants available which is nice too. These involve a simple system stuck on the roof which pumps water through the panels, usually a solar powered pump, the sun heats the water up a bit and it’s fed back down into the the storage tank and the heat is topped up by a more conventional heating method. Basically it increases the efficiency of the system, it doesn’t replace it. It is however geared up to a storage tank system where there is a constant, or timed hot water store and therefore isn’t necessarily more efficent than a combi-boiler system. They can be made to work with a combi-boiler system but the prices are prohibitive as you can quite happily add