Monday, 4 August 2014

Get more by using less

I have been meaning to post some tiny tips to help things go further, thereby reducing the environmental impact of making stuff.  Each small act of resurrection or reduction gives me a sense of fulfilment, even pride, that no retail therapy can match.  Here are three!

1 Go halves
We are lucky enough to have a dishwasher, which lightens the burden of keeping house and - some people say - uses less energy than running enough hot water to do the same amount of washing up by hand.  Recalling my postgraduate process engineering at UCL, cleaning is a function of temperature, time, chemical strength and shear.  This last is the physical work done by a brush, or a water jet, to dislodge the soil from the surface being cleaned.  Several years ago, I ran the dishwasher with a tablet in a plastic packet that I believed would dissolve to release the chemical.  At the end of the cycle, I was amused to discover the intact tablet, still in its durable wrap.  What really surprised me was that all the dishes were clean!  The lack of detergent had no perceptible impact on the wash - the mechanical cleaning factors (temperature, time and shear) were sufficient without any soap.

Unilever's business model depends upon you not knowing that we can run our dishwashers and washing machines without detergents.  Of course, the reality is more complex than this.  The sophisticated chemistry of a good quality dishwasher tablet keeps your glassware, crockery and cutlery sparkling after every wash. But I learned that we need LESS of these cleaning products than we are told and I have proved this by repetition over several years.

I now chop each wrapped dishwasher tablet in half with a large blade, on a chopping board - with care because the tablet is hard and the chemicals caustic - and use half the tablet for a full load, on the ECO setting to reduce the electricity needed to run the cycle.  I normally use a dirty knife which then goes back in the dishwasher, rather than making more washing up!

2 Re-enlightenment
As earlier posts in this blog will show, I have been an early adopter of LED lighting in my home.  This has cut my family's electricity use - just for lighting - from 2200 kWh in 2007 (half incandescent, half fluorescent) to just 760 kWh in 2014 (half fluorescent, half LED).  A big factor has been the switch from halogen to CFL to LED.  I won't dwell on the relative merits of fluorescent vs LED halogen replacements but the brightness and colour of GU10 LED lamps are now more than adequate to replace 50w downlights, at around £4 a pop.

These cheap and cheerful lamps run on mains voltage but the LED chips require a constant current at 12 - 18v DC.  For instance, a 12 watt LED lamp needs 1 Amp at 12 volts (W = A x V).  This direct current is delivered by a cheap inverter, housed in the white plastic base.  This is the Achilles heel of the current generation of cheap, bright GU10 lamps.  The state-of-the-art diodes have an expected lifetime of a quarter of a century.  They are mounted in exotically beautiful, machined alloy heatsinks.  Their emitter surfaces are encased in plastic lenses that focus and disperse the white light into the required pattern.  Yet their power supply is cheap and failure-prone.  I have had three fail within a year of purchase - one within a day.  I get replacements under warranty from my supplier but am unwilling to throw away this pinnacle of twenty-first century technology for the sake of a burned-out power supply.


So I turned to Amazon and bought a separate 12W constant current LED driver for a fiver.  This powers the LED lamp beautifully, so now I can fit it in a ceiling lamp, where the exposed low-voltage wiring will not be a problem.


This design flaw in such cheap GU10 LED bulbs is actually an argument in favour of low voltage MR16 LEDs.  These replace 12 volt halogen lamps directly but you MUST exchange the halogen power supply (black box) with a suitable LED driver (white box) in order to achieve the long lifetime anticipated for these new photon factories.


3 Shut down MVHR in summer

When I worked in Pennsylvania in 1990, one of my colleagues in R&D used to lampoon the company's aggressive asset management strategy by saying, "You don't rip your central heating out in summer".  This is, of course, true - but you DO shut it down in summer.  A Twitter exchange with Sofie Pelsmakers at UCL alerted me to the fact that the same can be true for whole-house mechanical ventilation.

I had this fitted in 2007 because we need fresh air in the bedrooms at night but live right under the Heathrow fliightpath and so are woken at 4 or 5 am when the long-haul flights from the far East come in to land.  It uses electricity to pump fresh air into the bedrooms and living room, while extracting stale air from the bathrooms and kitchen.  The energy used to move air is offset by the heat exchanger, 90% efficient, which retains warmth in the house.

Heat-recovery ventilation (HRV) or, more specifically, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) depends on the building being airtight - all pipework penetrations must be sealed with expanding foam, airbricks must be filled in, and so on.  In hot weather, it is preferable to throw open the windows and let any breeze blow through the house.  In this situation, MVHR is a complete waste of energy, like running a fridge with no door!  At the start of this season's hot weather in June, I switched off the MVHR.  Since then our electricity consumption has fallen to its lowest level in the 10 years since I began to record it - just 60 kWh a week in July.  We are a family of four adults in quite a large, detached house but this frugal electricity use would be more typical of a 2 - 3 bedroom flat or terrace.

The message is clear - to save money, cut carbon and reduce energy use, shut down mechanical ventilators when the central heating is off and the windows are open!

Wrapping it all up
In conclusion, much of sustainability is about avoiding waste.  These three little tales of saving - soap, energy or things -  show the lengths to which we can go to avoid waste in our own homes.  I am fortunate to have time to examine things in such detail.  If you have read this far then you too have time to repair and reuse things that fail, to cut down on consumables and to find small ways to save energy at home, at work or in your community.  There is great pleasure in making the most of the things that we find, to quote the Wombles.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Time to change

When I started this blog, I sold my much-loved Honda Civic because I was commuting to London by train and we didn't need two cars in the household.  In 2009, I began volunteering as an expedition supervisor and assessor for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme.  This required a decent sized car, to carry 3 or 4 participants and their kit, together with my own camping gear, to and from the expedition sites.  I chose an old Honda Accord with 80,000 miles on the clock and it has served us admirably - we have driven to the south of France in it, four times in five years, and it is a comfortable long-distance cruiser that gets 40+ mpg.


Now that the Accord is 10 years old, I feel it is time to pass it on while it is still an attractive proposition for a new owner.  That leaves me with the question of what to replace it with.  I need a large boot for my outdoor activities and to take my daughter and all her gear to and from university.  I also want to minimise my contribution to fossil fuel emissions - both CO2 and black carbon, which is accelerating the loss of ice from glaciers and ice-sheets around the world.

The obvious answer is a plug-in hybrid, to achieve zero tailpipe emissions on local runs while still ensuring that we can complete a few hundred miles in remote country, without access to electricity, for Scout camps and DofE expeditions.  However, it would be false accounting to buy a new car, with Tonnes of embodied carbon (the CO2 emissions commissioned by its manufacture), in order to cut the emissions from driving just a few thousand miles a year.  In this scenario, an older car makes sound environmental and economic sense.

A third solution would be to rent a large car for the times I need it and use a low-emission town car for the rest of the time.  I tried to do this when we wanted to drive abroad in 2009 and it was actually cheaper to buy the Honda Accord, so that's what I did.

Now, The Scout Association have partnered with "Go Ultra Low" to promote ultra-low emission vehicles. I have entered their competition to trial a plug-in hybrid for four months.  If chosen, I will be able to demonstrate the capabilities of a clean, state-of-the-art vehicle for outdoor activities like Scouting and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award expeditions.  If it works well for this lifestyle, I will champion this vehicle to others in the Scout Movement and will find it very difficult to go back to a conventional diesel or petrol engine for my voluntary activities.  Fingers crossed!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Give just one thing

I confess that, since running the Sustainable Living Area at last year's Egham Royal Show, I have had nothing new to say on the subject of everyday sustainability.  That changed this morning when I came across a link from Ariane Sherine, the comedy writer and journalist behind the Atheist Bus Campaign, whom I admire greatly.

While there is nothing to be gained from mixing religion and politics with low carbon living, I think Ariane has created the most inspiring guide to sustainable living that I have come across in the six years since I started this occasional blog.  So I would ask you to put aside your Party affiliations, suspend your belief and have a look at this new and uplifting guide to giving of yourself, for the benefit of others.

The only caution I must add, which Ariane has splashed liberally across the website for this new book, is that there is a lot of (for want of a better word) schoolboy humour.  So, if you're up for some impolite language and plenty of light-hearted phallic banter, click away!  Please explore the website as well as downloading Ariane's book, for absolutely no cost whatsoever.

Give Just One Thing




Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Smarter Living is here!

No new posts for a couple of months because I have been working flat out, pedal to the metal, nose to the grindstone, persuading lots of kind and intelligent people to exhibit and talk about sustainability at this year's Egham Royal Show.

I have succeeded!  It's all happening in Egham this weekend.  British Gas have kindly sponsored the sustainability exhibition and have named it the Smarter Living Area.  I'm pleased with the name because it avoids many of the pitfalls of selling sustainability - witness the Government's difficulties marketing the Green Deal, where it seems that the public don't like the words "Green" or "Deal".

Some bright lights in the sustainability firmament have generously volunteered to come along and speak to our visitors about their work and their visions for a better world.  Our Programme of distinguished Speakers is shown below.

If you have time, please come along to the Egham Royal Show this weekend, visit the Smarter Living Area, catch some of our excellent speakers and say Hi to me!  Admission is just £7 (£4 for under 16s) or £18 for a family ticket.  Egham rail station is a short walk from the showground, so you can enjoy low-carbon travel from London and the South-East.  Full details on the Egham Royal Show website.

Hope to see you there,


British Gas Smarter Living Area

Speaker Programme

Saturday 25 August

11 am              Gearoid Lane, British Gas New Markets
“Smart, Connected Homes: A vision for
Britain in 2020”

12:30 pm         David DeChambeau, Southeast Power Engineering  
“Hydro power for
Windsor Castle

2 pm                Dr Paula Owen, Paula Owen Consulting                               
“How to save energy, water and money by living smarter”

2:30 pm          Neil & Michaela Allam, makers of Norbury Blue Cheese
Cheese-making demonstration in the Smarter Living Area marquee

3 pm                Gareth Swain, SITA Surrey
                        “Recycling: Giving waste a second life”

Sunday 26 August

11 am              David DeChambeau, Southeast Power Engineering  
“Hydro power for
Windsor Castle

12 noon           John Condon, the Prince of Wales’ START Initiative
 “Eco Driving”

2 pm               Neil &Michaela Allam, makers of Norbury Blue CheeseCheese-making demonstration in the Smarter Living Area marquee

3 pm                Clare Flynn and Hilary Bruffell, Make it and Mend it
“Thinking outside the bin”

All our distinguished speakers are kindly volunteering their time.  British Gas and the Egham Royal Show would like
to express their gratitude to every speaker, for their valuable contribution to the Show.  
These timings are all approximate: presentations may be delayed by loud events in the main arena.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Sustainable living exhibition

After several years of thinking, doing and blogging about sustainable living, I have been granted the golden opportunity of organising an exhibition on the subject!


The Egham Royal Show is an annual agricultural and community event that is now in its 154th year.  This year, for the first time, the show will feature a Sustainability Exhibition and I have volunteered to organise this.  The sustainability page on our website explains what I am trying to achieve.  I am contacting companies and community organisations in Surrey, Berkshire and London that are proud of their sustainable businesses, products and activities, to invite them to spend a weekend at the Show, engaging with the 8,000 or so visitors that will attend.


Please pass the word around and get in touch with me if you would like to participate as an exhibitor or a sponsor at the sustainable living exhibition on 25 and 26 August.  You can email sustainability@eghamroyalshow.org.uk or call me on 077 1000 6626.  I look forward to hearing from you!



Thursday, 29 March 2012

A secure and sustainable energy future?

In a week of news on sustainability, and on a day of news on our future energy supply, I am reflecting on the British people's awareness of what we use energy for and their expectations of where it will come from in future.

Eric Pickles launched the Government's new National Planning Policy Framework this week, retaining its "presumption in favour of sustainable development".  While its intention is to empower local authorities to implement local plans, the new planning framework risks both commercial development of environmentally sensitive habitats and incoherent implementation of national infrastructure imperatives. The problem is that sustainable development means different things to different people and, when it lies in the hands of local planning departments, consistent interpretation seems unlikely.

The "Planet under Pressure" conference has also taken place in London this week and has today published its "State of the Planet Declaration" . While the passion and concern of the 3,000 delegates in London and the further 3,000 online participants is beyond question, I think the turgid and inaccessible language of this declaration is a missed opportunity to create widespread awareness of the challenges we face in maintaining a sustainable habitat for humanity and all life on earth.

The next piece of today's news is, to my mind, a good thing that could be better.  DECC has published provisional figures for Britain's greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, showing a welcome reduction on 2010 figures.  Home heating emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than the previous year - but just look at the weather we had in those two years!  December 2010 was the coldest December in recorded history, while 2011 started and ended with truly extraordinary warmth.  As DECC notes, the mean temperatures experienced here in the first and last quarters of 2011 were 2.2°C and 4.1°C, respectively,  warmer than the previous year.  This fall in domestic heating emissions is great but is no more sustainable than the weather.  As the Americans say, we have to invest in "winterizing" our homes, businesses and public buildings.

Emissions from electricity generation also fell from 2010, by around 6%. This is attributed both to lower demand (3% less than 2010) and to greater availability of our nuclear generating capacity: the consequence was a 17% fall in gas usage for power generation and an 11% rise in nuclear power.  Some interesting statistics are buried in the Tables (remember that these figures are provisional).  In 2011:

  • Coal accounted for one-quarter of our electricity supply but two-thirds of our CO2 emissions from power stations.  
  • Renewables generated more than 5% of our electricity supply.
CO2 emissions from transport (including domestic flights) were almost flat, falling by just 1.4% from 2010 and remaining within half a percent of 1990 levels.  A growing share of a diminishing pot.   

In this morning's latest headline, Eon and Npower's owner, RWE, announced their withdrawal from the UK nuclear new build consortium, Horizon.  Amid cheers from respected environmental organisations including WWF (an organisation I have supported since their inception over 40 years ago) and Friends of the Earth, who see nuclear power as an unmitigated environmental disaster, there should also be caution.  Our demand for electricity in this country will certainly grow in the coming decades, as population and consumption (the march of the gadgets) both increase and as heating and transport move from fossil fuel combustion to low carbon electricity.

But where will this low carbon electricity come from?  So many concerned nature lovers tell me of their abhorrence of wind turbines, which they see as despoiling this green and pleasant land.  Even offshore wind farms are described as an intrusion into coastal views that have been uninterrupted since the dawn of time.  What I need to know is where these custodians of our beautiful landscape imagine we will get our energy from in the coming decades - a period that will include the rest of my life and the best years of my children's lives.

Youth negotiators asked a critical question at the international climate change negotiations in Bonn in 2009:  "How old will you be in 2050?"  That's the date by which Britain has committed in law to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 1990 levels.  The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set a trajectory to meet this commitment, in our national carbon budgets.  This requires us to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2027 and effectively to decarbonise our electricity generation by 2030.  This is seen as achievable through a combination of renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).  Yet the National Trust and almost everyone who has a window with a view opposes further deployment of wind energy, energy and engineering companies are walking away from new nuclear construction and the Government remains unable to invest its promised £1 billion in a CCS demonstration project because no power generator believes it is affordable, achievable or that there will be sufficient return on investment.

It is for this reason that DECC's new Minister sneaked out his announcement, at midnight on Friday 16 March, that investors in new gas-fired power stations will be able to run them unabated - ie., without CCS - for the next 33 years!  The Committee on Climate Change wrote this week to Ed Davey asking him to reflect on the CCC's carbon budgets, in the light of DECC's granting of these "grandfather rights" to gas generators, and to set clear decarbonisation objectives in the current Energy Market Reform.

What is missing from this story of shortsighted squabbling and failure to act when we must?  Leadership, that's what.  If you manage to read that far, page 6 of today's State of the Planet Declaration includes the succinct phrases, "We must show leadership at all levels.  We must all play our parts".  In Annexe 2, Ban ki-Moon declares his intention to appoint a chief scientific advisor on global sustainability.  Let's hope he picks someone who is not only a scientific virtuoso but also a master communicator.  Without an eloquent and attention-grabbing figurehead to spell out the choices we must make, the squabbling will continue to cover our inaction and the public will continue to believe that their iPads, Sky boxes and microwaves run on pixie dust that won't hurt a fly.


Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Challenging misperceptions around clean energy Part 2

Mercury Falling (apologies to Sting)

You may have read Emma's incisive comment on my previous post, questioning the relevance of US mercury emissions from power generation to the safety of CFLs here in Britain.  I agree!  The objective of my post was to put the case that the climate change resulting from (global) greenhouse gas emissions is a much greater threat to our safety than the trace amounts of mercury present in compact fluorescent lamps.  However, I used American data that didn't answer the question of how CFLs contribute to mercury pollution in Britain.

To put this right, I have examined the mercury emissions arising here in Britain from the Government's Carbon Emissions Reductions Target (CERT) programme, that funded the free distribution and subsidised retail sale of CFLs.  Rightly or wrongly, I am excluding any mining and manufacturing emissions of mercury in the production of these bulbs, since that took place outside the UK.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) of up to 20 watts contain under 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury, the metal vapour that emits ultra-violet light when the bulb is running.  This U-V light excites the white phosphor coating inside the tubes of the CFL, causing the phosphor to fluoresce, and that's how fluorescent lighting works, in a nutshell!  The typical quantity of mercury in a modern CFL is around 4mg mercury, commonly described as "enough to cover the writing tip of a biro".

Up to 350 million compact fluorescent lamps were distributed under CERT between 2008 and 2010, containing around 1.4 Tonnes of mercury in total.  Each is expected to last up to 10 years and to be recycled appropriately at end of life - in which case there is no mercury leakage from CFLs.  In practice, some of these lamps break and many are thrown in the bin when they stop working, releasing their trace of mercury to the environment.

To estimate the release of mercury from these 350 million CFLs, I have assumed that (1) 10% of them fail each year, for 10 years, giving an average working life of 5 years, and (2) HALF these CFLs are broken or binned, rather than being recycled properly.  In this case, 17.5 million of those CFLs supplied under CERT will be broken each year, for 10 years, releasing around 70 kg of mercury a year to the environment.

How does this compare with other sources of mercury emissions here in the UK?  The 2009 National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory  shows that 7.35 Tonnes of mercury were reported to be released in that year.  Some of the sources were: 3.9 T from manufacturing and chemical industries, 1.5 T from cremation and clinical waste incineration, 1.3 Tonnes from power generation and 360kg from landfill.

So the amount of mercury released each year from the CFLs distributed under CERT represents just under one percent of the total annual emissions of this toxic metal in Britain.  We are all exposed to this pollution, principally through our diets - because mercury enters the foodchain - and particularly if we eat the top marine predators like tuna and swordfish.  But the quantities we ingest are minuscule and the risk they present to most of us is, frankly, trivial in comparison with the certain dangers of manmade climate change for us and our descendants.

We live in a 4-bedroom detached house.  Shockingly, it has around 120 bulbs installed!  I first surveyed the energy use of lighting in our home five years ago, when we had 34 energy-saving CFLs and 92 incandescent lights - including halogen lamps.  We now have about 80 CFLs fitted and have replaced almost all the remaining incandescent bulbs with clean, bright LED lighting.  Our electricity usage has halved over the same period, largely through fitting energy-efficient appliances including lighting.

I also have a small, medical thermometer containing mercury, that we used to put in our babies' mouths when they were unwell.  The thermometer contains 2 - 3 times as much mercury as all the CFLs in my house.  I am sad to say that climate change is a far greater threat to my grown-up babies' wellbeing than that thermometer ever was.