As winter draws to a close, evenings lengthen, and central heating can, at long last, be turned down, it is, perhaps, a good time to reflect on the amount of energy used to keep warm during the winter months. The reality may be quite shocking, particularly if you live in an older property.
Heating homes accounts for a significant proportion of energy usage, and billions is wasted each year where housing stock is not adequately insulated and energy efficiency is not maximised. For any individual or family, being green and reducing your carbon footprint may seem a drop in the ocean of energy saving that is required across the world, but governments are highlighting the need to focus on individual homes and businesses as well as designing broader energy strategies.
Ground Breaking Initiatives for Energy Efficiency
This effectively means that governments will need to work increasingly with homeowners, housing providers and businesses to bring about significant changes to energy usage habits. An example of this is the UK Government’s Green Deal which was launched at the start of 2013. This is a government initiative to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses in the UK, with the upfront costs being financed by repayments made via the household energy bill. The central point is that estimated savings should cover the cost of the improvements, and establishing that this is the case is crucial to a Green Deal Plan proceeding. Whilst government backed and regulated, the scheme involves a private arrangement between providers of the home improvement, be it insulation, solar panels, a more efficient boiler, etc., and the householder.
The Rise of Renewable Power
Using energy in the most efficient manner and generating clean power are aims that go hand in hand. The European Union has set binding target for the year 2020. Known as 20-20-20, these are:
- A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
- Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%;
- A 20% improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency.
Governments give financial and infrastructure support to industry to research and develop new technologies which are pioneering renewable, zero-emission energy generation. Some of these projects, such as testing devices to convert wave and tidal power into electricity, are about increasing the percentage of renewable energy supplied to the grid, whilst others, such as improvements in the cost effectiveness of solar photovoltaic panels (solar PV), translate directly into technologies that are accessible to homeowners, and allow individual households to generate their own power, and sell any surplus to the grid.
The Ticking Clock of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Emissions of greenhouse gases have increased dramatically since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Ice core samples from Antarctica show stable readings – 260 to 280 parts per million (ppm) – for some 10,000 years until this time, but present day readings, taken at the Moana Loa Observatory in Hawaii, give a live count of the current level as it approaches 400ppm.
The sources of these emissions come from all areas of life, so saving energy at community and individual level has great significance. Community projects, such as those generating combined heat and power locally, effectively decentralises energy provision and offer exciting examples of what a greener future may look like. Using a combination of waste products or fossil fuels, small scale power plants can supply electricity to a community or civic building, e.g. a hospital, and utilise the heat created as a by-product of the generation process to supply warmth to nearby buildings. Whilst this method may still use a conventional power source, it can offer significant increases in efficiency (up to 80% at the point of use, compared to averages of around 38% for a coal fired power station).
Achieving targets for reduced CO2 emissions requires a multiplicity of ideas. Some industries, such as aviation and shipping, offer a particular challenge when it comes to cutting emissions, whereas ensuring that millions of homes are properly insulated, whilst easier to achieve in principle, does require popular support.
The switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy generation is likely to take many years and offers numerous challenges and opportunities for innovation. Likewise, there will probably continue to be many ways to make our homes progressively more energy efficient in the future.