Big energy thoughts for Christmas

As scientists push back the boundaries of their knowledge of complex issues like the origins of life and the universe it sometimes seems that as many new questions result from this knowledge as there are old ones answered. Take Father Christmas.

Physicists believe that because he travels at speeds very close to the speed of light time passes much slower for him which means that he can travel around the world in one night. They also believe that he is able to transform matter into energy which allows him to travel at such unimaginably fast speeds. They don’t however know how he does it or how he manages his energy bills.

For the rest of us, the most effective way to reduce our energy bills is to use less energy. Citizens Advice is campaigning to promote Big Energy Saving Week which takes place from 27 to 31 January 2014. What constitutes Big Energy Saving? Not a list that begins and ends with “turn off your phone charger”. Though turning off any electrical appliance when it is not in use is to be encouraged, merely turning off a phone charger for a day saves about as much energy as a car travelling at 40 mph consumes in one second.To make a Big Energy difference a lot more than the phone charger needs to be turned off.

What about buying a hydrogen powered car? This is not an energy efficient solution. The average traditional car powered by fossil fuel consumes roughly 80 kWh per hundred km. A hydrogen powered car consumes about 450 kWh per km. An all electric car on the other hand uses approximately 20 kWh per km.

Let’s look at solar power. There are two ways of making use of the energy available from the sun. A solar panel can capture heat from the sun to help produce hot water consumed by a household. A trial carried out in the UK several years ago established that a 3 m² solar panel could provide enough energy to heat the water used by an average family between April and September and to make a contribution to the requirement during the rest of the year.

The other solar energy option is to fit photovoltaic (PV) panels. Energy produced in this way can be used to satisfy electrical demand in a household and the extra energy not required can be sold back to the National Grid at a subsidized rate called the Feed in Tariff. Unfortunately the solar powered electricity produced in this way is mostly available when demand is at its lowest.  The total cost of subsidizing the government’s various environmental initiatives (which includes the Feed in Tariff) on average amounts to about 9% of a typical dual fuel bill. David Cameron recently announced that the cost of subsidizing environmental measures included in fuel bills would be “rolled back”.  Indeed the rates payable under the Feed in Tariff scheme are coming down.  A PV panel installation registered before 31 January 2013 can still be expected to have created an income of.more than £12,000 over twenty years.

Another option is to consider a heat pump. These use electricity to generate heat from the air or from the ground and they are up to 5 times more efficient than a condensing gas boiler or an oil boiler. The fact that they are more expensive to install than fossil fuel fired boilers has been recognized by the government and in June of this year it announced that a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) would be open to applications in the spring of 2014. The payment is calculated according to the quantity of renewable energy produced. Over a seven-year period for a three bedroomed house, approximately £7,500 would be available for air source heat pump installations and just under £20,000 for ground source installations. These figures reflect the fact that the ground source system is more expensive to install.

The most effective measure we can all take is to turn down the thermostats in our homes and wear warmer clothing. Each degree centigrade reduction in household temperature will achieve (roughly) a 10% heating cost saving

Politicians generate a lot of energy talking about energy. The need for a joined up long-term energy strategy is illustrated by the extent of the challenge of ending our love affair with fossil fuels. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased dramatically since 1800 and scientific opinion is pretty unequivocal that this is having a negative impact on our climate. To illustrate the scale of what is involved; imagine the UK having halved its energy consumption by 2050 to approximately 60 kWh per person per day. To satisfy this demand, 50 nuclear power stations, a wind farm covering an area the size of Wales and a solar powered photovoltaic installation over twice the size of London in the Sahara desert with all the associated infrastructure would have to have been constructed to give us a carbon free solution

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