Monday 25 January 2010

Reports from the front line

As I've recently joined a Carbon Conversations group as well as a Transition Circle, I've decided to use this week writing about my family's efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. Following the pattern of those groups I'm going to write about the energy we use at home today, and later about travel and food.

Carbon Conversations suggests that an initial target for many of us might be to get down to one tonne of carbon dioxide, person per year, in each of four areas - home energy, travel, food, and stuff. That's a similar target to the one many of us in the Transition Circles have set, which is to get below half the national average emissions. So as I go along I'll report on how we're doing against those targets. In the case of home energy we're currently keeping our emissions down to about 0.7 tonnes per person per year - so we've achieved that particular target, although of course we'll continue to see how much further we can go.

For most of us the two largest items in home energy use are space heating and water heating. I live with Angie and our three children in an old cottage (possibly 300 years old) in the countryside near Shotesham. When we first got here the heating was all by electric night storage heaters. A few years ago we replaced those with a big woodburner that heats radiators and also the hot water; and we also put in a solar panel to heat the hot water. The woodburner succeeds in keeping most of the house at about 14 degrees, and the living room at maybe 18 degrees. But that requires a lot of wood - we get a two-and-a-half cubic meter load every fortnight or so in the winter, except when I can scavenge wood locally. Stacking, moving and sometimes chopping the wood takes at least half an hour a day. But it's a pleasure to have a fire burning in the living room.

The solar panel has been a bit of a nightmare. The person who installed it, despite having many years' experience, made a complete hash of it, and proved unable to fix it. More recently Lee from Norfolk Solar has been doing his best to recover the situation, and we're waiting to see later this year how that's working out. I wish I'd got Lee to install it in the first place.

I've also done a great deal of work over the years to try to insulate the house while also making it drier. We put in double-glazed windows, which conserved heat but accentuated the damp problems - these old houses were built to inhale and exhale moisture. I've replaced old solid floors with new suspended ones, stripped paint off a damp wall and returned it to limewash, and added ventilation. I've had to learn a lot about damp and old buildings, and spent a lot of time just observing how the house behaves over the seasons. Finally it feels like the house is reasonably dry - which of course makes it more comfortable and reduces its need for heat.

Burning wood results in almost zero emissions - though it's a bit of a cheat in the sense that there's only enough wood around for a few of us to do it. So the emissions we do need to count are from the electricity we use. We've reduced this by about 25% over the last year or so, but we're still getting through a hefty 16kWh a day between the five of us. Since I joined the Transition Circle I've been working to find out where all that electricity is going - using an Owl-type monitor as well as a plug-in appliance monitor.

It turns out that the biggest energy user in the house is one I hadn't even thought about - a 100w electric towel rail in the bathroom. When we installed it years ago I thought 100w is nothing - just like a lightbulb. But now 100w is approximately the sum of all the lightbulbs in the house, and the thing is on 24 hours a day, using 2.4kWh a day. We've tried just turning it off, but in the winter at least that's a bit miserable. My next plan is to put it on a timeswitch.

The next biggest item is the fridge-freezer. Because we're in the middle of nowhere we probably need a freezer - the alternative might be more unplanned shopping trips. The next is probably cooking, and then (in the winter at least) the tumble drier. We try to dry things on the line when possible, but in wet and cold weather we've struggled to find an alternative to the drier that works for this family in this particular house. The fifth-biggest item is the electric shower - it uses about 1kWh for a short shower - so I've stopped showering and taken to washing (and washing my hair) at the sink instead. I've not had any complaints so far, but perhaps you're all just being polite.

How has all this been for us? Certainly it's taken a fair bit of effort, a willingness to do things like carrying in wood, or hanging out washing, rather than just accepting the convenience of central heating that just turns itself on and off effortlessly. Certainly there have been tensions, when family members have felt the house was too cold, or the water not hot when they wanted it. But for me it just feels like the natural and right way to go about it - I'd be uncomfortable if I wasn't making at least reasonable efforts to reduce unnecessary carbon emissions.

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