Why save energy?

Project by Max Gibbens, Bath Spa University, 2013

You may have heard from many people and organisations that saving energy is an important and crucial goal. Major supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsburys and ASDA have been changing the way they think in order to save energy. Even giant internet companies such as Google[1] and TV providers such as Sky Tv[2] have been making their operations “carbon neutral”. The government has been spreading the word about the importance of saving energy to help future generations and there’s even a chance that your son or daughter has been taught that saving energy is saving the world.

But why save energy? How exactly does saving energy impact on the globe? Everyone has their own opinion as to whether it is really worth investing time into reducing their energy usage. By reading through this guide, we hope you will agree that saving energy is beneficial both to yourself and to the people around you!

By reducing energy usage, you can help contribute to preserving the environment and to saving your family and yourself a substantial amount of money at the same time! By being more sustainable in your daily habits you can influence the future of the world.

What is being sustainable?

The term “sustainability” has been bandied around by a lot of figureheads and companies, but the term itself is dynamic! Different people have different views on what sustainability really means. In a nutshell, sustainability is using resources efficiently to maintain a constant level of wellbeing whilst reducing impacts on future generations and the environment. This has also been described in the Brandt report by the UN (1987) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Renewable energy and building materials, for example, are sustainable, as the resources used will regenerate themselves with little or no impact to the environment or future stocks of the resource used.

Being sustainable has a giant amount of pros. By conserving resources such as woodlands, fuels, metals and other goods, we can ensure that many years into the future, we (along with our children and friends) shall benefit from the same resources as we do today. An example of this includes recycling, which has reduced the amount of new wood used in newspapers by just under 80%![3] Simple things such as this allow us to preserve forests, which benefit our environment, enjoyment and health. By being sustainable with energy, how we make it and how it is used, we can ensure that the Earth can keep providing for many years.

Green Leaf by George Hodan

Green Leaf by George Hodan

The environment and climate change

The environment is the key sustaining force of the world. Rivers, forests, plains, mountains, even deserts are crucial to the way that we live day to day. It provides the essentials for life such as food and building materials. By using the environment we are able to live the lifestyles present today. Wellbeing and health have increased over the past 100 years owing to leaps and bounds in technology and goods manufacture.

That being said however, we are slowly but surely impacting the environment by using energy. Our fuel mix is currently only around 10% renewable. This also varies depending on weather conditions[4][5]. Burning fossil fuels (which makes up a staggering 70% of our fuel mixture) leads to a gradual warming of the Earth’s average temperature through CO2 emissions. The change in the atmosphere will lead to a variety of effects across the world, such as the melting of permafrost, releases of deep oceanic gas reserves, expansion of water through simply heating it up or adding ice water, reflectivity changes (albedo), and various other damaging effects, which slowly multiply the change in climate.

Why is this a problem? Well, changes in the climate that we (and wildlife) are used to will start to affect people’s livelihoods, whether through flooding, disasters or even simply affecting crop yields and wildlife patterns. We cannot keep up with the changes that will happen if we are not careful.

Mechanism: How are we changing the climate?

By ZooFari (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ZooFari (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Earth is a complex system of energies that are in constant change. The weather is one of the most dynamic systems on the planet and it all takes place in the atmosphere. Ground processes such as erosion, or cycles such as the carbon cycle, all interact with the atmosphere as well.

The sun, surprisingly, also has a large impact on how the Earth acts. The amount of sunlight hitting the Earth will influence its weather patterns and global cycles, much like the accelerator pedal does to an engine. The sunlight that hits the Earth is mostly reflected back by reflective surfaces, such as ice caps, the ocean and green vegetation. Some light stays down after being absorbed by the ground or bounced off clouds. CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” also have an impact by reflecting radiation back towards Earth, not allowing it to escape. This leads to a gradual warming of the planet’s surface. We know this as Global Warming.

How does making energy affect the environment?

The biggest contributor CO2 in the environment is simply using your car, electricity or gas.

Just by using a washing machine or even cooker, you will be using energy made by CO2 heavy power plants or even burning fossil fuels yourself in person! Unless you generate your own electricity or take up an eco-friendly energy provider, most of your day to day actions WILL produce CO2. Even buying some products will contribute more CO2 than others![6] The reason goods give off carbon is simple. The creation of goods often involves gas, petroleum or electricity. The chemicals burnt to make electricity or heat are often rich in carbon. Combustion of these chemicals releases CO2 when it reacts with the air around us, thus adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere. Of course this process can be easily reduced. By changing habits and technology, we can reduce the amount given off throughout the country!

Energy resources also require taking fossil fuels out of the ground, which in itself requires massive amounts of fuel and machinery, thus adding to the carbon in the environment. By taking resources out of the ground, we will be reducing known stocks of oil, coal, gas and other materials. By pushing the resource availability on the planet, we have to invest in new mines, refineries, logging camps and wells. All of these industries have important impacts on the environment, no matter the country. This can range from ruining the groundwater and soil quality of local areas to ruining whole landscapes by creating mines. The Amazon rainforest is an example of how an ecosystem can be damaged through exploitation. The mineral rich soils make for easy picking but the damage done whilst using the harsh chemicals required for mineral extraction, combined with the cutting down of forest and various plant life, adds to the degradation of the overall environment.

Images © Greenpeace / Dean S are copyright of Greenpeace

Images © Greenpeace / Dean S are copyright of Greenpeace

The Amazon rainforest (and many others rainforests across the world) suffers from a lack of decent soil. The main driving force of these areas is the thin layer of organic rotten matter on the top of sand. By taking away the topsoil and surrounding trees, the land is rendered unusable. There is no easy reforesting of this land and that is a problem. Just alone, the Amazon rainforest provides 20% of our oxygen intake. No wonder it is referred to as the “lungs of the world”.

The issue of deforestation combined with the burning of fossil fuels creates a multiplied effect on the environment. By removing the carbon dioxide “sinks” (Significant removers of CO2 from the environment) that trees provide and then burning the wood, we are releasing the stored carbon from many years ago back into the atmosphere without providing a way of taking it back in. The land cleared is also often used to farm animals such as cattle. The over intensive use of the land contributes to further soil degradation and releases of methane gas (another great player in global warming). The is the easiest solution for farmers? Cut down more land and start farming there instead. You can quickly see how one factor can greatly multiply!

Another problem with depleting resources is finding alternative sources of energy. Once the viable reserves of fossil fuels have been depleted, we will have to find a way of using other sources such as biomass, biofuel, oil sands or deep trapped oil within shale deposits. These forms of fuel have their pros and definite cons.

In the case of biofuel, we can engineer fuel out of crops and waste byproducts of farming. Gas can be farmed from the methane in landfills and animal effluence or crop byproducts. Electricity can be generated through through the burning of straw, wood pellet, sawdust and even landfill-bound rubbish itself. Even oil is engineerable through algae blooms and plant mass[7]. The idea behind this technology is that we can be environmentally friendly by avoiding massive drilling operations as well as try to reduce emissions given off by the fuel itself[8]. That being said however, the plants currently used to make this fuel compete with our food farms. Attempting to reach 100% biofuel mix within the fuel chain of the UK, let alone the world, is impossible if we want to eat unless we reduce our car usage dramatically. The amount of food used to fill a single fuel tank could easily feed someone for a year. Some non-governmental organisations insist that biofuels will have negative effects on the livelihoods of the poor[9]. Biofuel, for now, is certainly a supplement.

When the conventional oil deposits are depleted, we shall be looking for deeper and more obscure sources. The oil sands, primarily found in Canada, are currently difficult to extract properly or economically. The oil sands have large reserves that could supply 100 billion barrels of current proven reserve amounts). Seventy per cent of these reserves are found in Canada[10]. The process of extracting the oil requires extensive machinery and plants in order to separate the sand and heavier elements from the oil. Difficulties arise when heavy metals found within the oil sands, such as lead and cadmium, have to be contained properly. Currently, the processes used to extract such oils use significant amounts of energy for little oil gain[11]. Stones and top soil also have to be stored, creating eye sores on the land. Another downside is the effect on aquatic life. In 2007, the University of Alberta (this province contains some of the largest oil sands) found that deformities in fish and other wildlife could be linked to the chemicals put into the water supply by the oil operations[12].

Hydraulic fracking is another method of extracting oil. This has taken America by storm and is said to be the way of providing America will oil for the next 70 years or more. Many methods for fracking exist, but the main one is the injection of water. Fracking will enable us to tap previously unreachable or unviable reserves so that oil can continue to be provided at the rate needed. Some, however, have linked fracking to small earthquakes and have argued that the technique is dangerous to the local water supply and surroundings. An excellent summary of the possible impacts of fracking can be found at: http://www.dangersoffracking.com/.

Water Drops by Anna Langova

Water Drops by Anna Langova

Of course, fracking has its pros. Many researchers have claimed that the earthquakes caused are of little significance[13]. The water table itself is much higher than the area affected by the fracking liquids and if the machinery is  installed correctly, no leakage should occur. As viable as fracking is however, it will still impact the environment through water extraction and emissions. Fracking is a possibility in Bath and Somerset. Even the Mendips have potential: if you were to rub some Mendip sandstone between your fingers, you may smell oil. Recently, a proposal to start fracking in the Mendips was opposed by Bath and North East Somerset Council[14]. If plans for fracking do go ahead, there is no reason why Somerset would not be targeted again.

Another alternative fuel that has been recently suggested is Nuclear power, which provides another 20% of our energy. The amount of CO2 per gram of fuel is little. However, we will still need to find disposal sites for the waste as well as uranium deposits for the fuel (which is finite). Although the technology has come in leaps and bounds, we still need to find secure and weatherproof rock formations for waste storage. Along with this, the security needed to protect this waste will be paramount. Leaks within nuclear containers have the possibility to ruin local wildlife and water supplies. This scenario isn’t too far-fetched: even though most sites are perfectly safe, there has been. Do a quick search for “Hanford Nuclear Reserve” and you’ll find “America’s Most Polluted Site”[15]. Nuclear power has its potential, especially with the new Gen 3 reactors that will soon be rolling out across the world. However, like other energy sources, we can’t afford to simply rely on nuclear fuels.

Consequences to the human population

Warm weather from the accelerated climate change has the ability to speed up the movement of tropical diseases across the world. Illnesses such as dengue fever have the potential to reach to higher latitudes than before and tolocations previously untouched, as well as to intensify in the areas it currently covers. The UN believes that dengue fever alone may affect up to 3.5 billion people in 2085 if current rates continue[16][17]. It has also been suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that rates of malaria within developing countries such as Bangladesh could increase by 400 million people. [18]

Flooding within the UK is also set to make a reappearance, along with hosepipe bans. Extreme weather events will increase in frequency as the environment retains more energy from the sun, because an increase in energy leads to processes changing and speeding up unpredictably. Warmer air can in principle carry more water, which leads to great periods of rainfall . The Guardian has a very digestible article on how flooding could increase through global warming at [19]. The Association of British Insurers has already put the cost of the 2007 floods in the UK at £3 billion. [20]

Just searching on academic search engines such as Google Scholar will bring up a barrage of papers relating climate change to flood events within the UK. On the one hand the possibility of washout summers and property damage has never been more likely. On the other hand droughts are a give and take possibility. Both the newspapers and scientific journals are bidding on both sides.

On the topic of flooding, the rise in sea level will also play a large factor in the flooding of coastal areas. Low lying flats will experience greater amounts of flooding relating to tidal movements or surges of varying levels. Sea levels will increase as changes to the average temperature of colder glacial areas results in stored water melting into the oceans. Christian Aid has predicted that by 2100, 35 million people in Bangladesh alone could be displaced by rising sea levels. Even places of great tourist interest can be affected. Venice and islands such as Tuvalu will be among the first flooded areas when water starts to rise.[21]

The knock-on effects of logging, exploitation and climate change will be the loss of animals’ habitats resulting in the disappearance of animals. The destruction of wildlife zones through flooding or logging would increase extinction rates, estimated to be at least 10,000 species a year[22]. Logging can also lead to desertification in which during deforestation (the removal of vegetation) increases erosion and leaves soil vulnerable to drying out and baking into dust. Again, this reduces the habitable zones for rare or sensitive animals and insects. We know for a fact that we can’t discover every animal or creature on our planet, but we also know that attacking sensitive zones will decrease our chance of finding new species. What’s the direct effect on humans in this case? New plant species and animals can provide exotic new chemicals and mechanisms needed for medical science! New chemical formulae could be found and replicated to help against life threatening diseases such as malaria and cancer[23].

Crops and their loss will be the biggest impact of global climate change. As weather changes, thhose crops that lack resilience to extreme changes, whether that be the cold, hot, dry or wet, will die. This will affect the food availability of the western world as well as reduce crop yields and affect the stability and livelihood of countries with poor resources. The consequences of this would increase global food prices and create mass social instability across less developed countries[24][25][26]. Increased movements of pests such as locusts as areas become more habitable for them will also lead to decreases in global crop yields and the unique need for more expensive or dangerous chemicals.

Is it really happening?

The question of whether global warming or climate change is happening is a difficult one. The IPCC  has concluded with 90% certainty that global climate change is happening and that human actions are to blame.[27] Various groups and universities have also concluded that the evidence is compelling and have pledged their support. The scientific community is keen to back up the ideas of human induced climate change, with the vast majority saying it is happening.[28] There are even websites dedicated to counterpointing arguments against climate change, such as Skepticalscience.com which provides a good explanation of commonly used points against climate change, found here: http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php.

That being said however, there are groups (whether scientific or not) claiming that humans have no impact whatsoever on the change in global temperature. Instead, opposing scientists often claim that the changes are either natural or unknown in cause.

Various arguments against climate change concern sunspot activity, ice age cycles, volcanic activity or the spin of the Earth adjusting itself to expose certain areas of the globe to solar radiation more. These are perfectly valid reasons for the warming up of the planet. Whether humans are influencing the speed of these factors is still debated by the public and scientists.

What is the best course of action? Adopt a critical outlook on everything you hear. For example, if you are unsure about sunspots then simply look up the arguments for and against them! Even be critical of this guide. Who wrote this? Can you trust them? Can you trust others? Sourcing your information is important for weeding out bias, which can spread uncertainty about human’s influence on climate change. In the end, you make your own decision!

Bias can be dangerous. You need to make sure that the scientists you listen to are impartial and funded through neutral means. There have been recent examples of scientific fraud from both sides of the argument. On the side of climate change supporters, there was “Climategate” when emails by professors at the University of East Anglia were leaked just before the Copenhagen conference. One of the most crucial conferences for discussing climate change and policy. These emails were said to be proof of fraud within the climate change supporters camp. It is said however that the emails leaked online have been debunked and explained.[29]

On the side of climate change denial however, some argue that there has been an almost replication of the “tobacco lobbyists”[30][31]. The thinktanks and various anti global warming groups have been criticised for being funded through companies that have a greater interest in fossil fuels, such as Koch Industries[32].  Politics can also be a great player as seen in the US. Global warming has become a political weapon for the two opposing Republican and Democrat parties. Since around 2008, climate change was a scientific issue. Now both parties use environmental policy as a “weapon”.[33]

In the end, climate change is difficult to predict as so many variables are involved. Even vast computer models struggle to get the full picture. Who is right? You can look at the data and decide for yourself.

The economics of being energy efficient

Did you know that Bath as a city emits 20% more CO2 emissions when it comes to domestic heating and electricity than the national average? Bath is preserved as a heritage site![34] Since 1987, the city has been preserved in all its Victorian/Georgian splendour. This however has led to less than energy efficient housing stock in Bath . The old style of housing lacks modern insulation technology such as cavity walls, and old age takes its toll on how airtight the builds truly are. The satchel style of window so prevalent in Bath is prone to loosening, letting out warm air. Single glazing is also common in Bath’s housing because double glazing requires planning permission. The combined effect leads to greater energy loss.

Luckily, weatherproofing and insulating your house has never been so easy! There are many ways to improve the energy efficiency within your house and over time you will save a fortune on your bills (which as we know, isn’t going to drop in price any time soon).

Saving heat

By reducing the flow of heat from your house, your boiler and hot water systems will incur less strain and thus use fewer resources. Changing your boiler to a newer, more energy efficient model can also be cost effective. (Over 55% of heating bills are generated from the boiler itself)[35]. Weatherstripping windows can reduce draughts, and techniques such as cavity wall insulation can reduce the movement of heat through walls. There’s a great deal you can do to vary cost!

Many professionals are available to advise about the changes needed to make your leaky house into a power (saving) house! Those with poor or limited incomes or who are unable to make huge monetary commitments can benefit from The Green Deal, which makes buying a boiler almost costless.

This deal is simple. Firstly, you consider all the changes that you could make to your house. For example, it could be a good idea to replace that decrepit old boiler with a newer, more efficient one. Perhaps you may want to go further and get a biomass boiler or solar water panels. Not all the options are high impact, however: some of the funding can go towards loft and cavity wall insulation.

You then find an assessor within the local area. You can find details at [36]. They will look around your house and tell you what you are eligible for. This could cost you up to £120; some assessors, however, can do it cheaper or even for nothing at all! After that, you select the options that you want and a date will be set for the work to begin. The period of work will vary from a day to a few days depending on your requirements.

Solar  Panels by Vera Kratochvil

Solar
Panels
by Vera Kratochvil

The cost of the installed equipment and improvements will be paid back through the savings you make! There will be no change on your gas bill at all. Instead, you will pay the same but benefit from a warmer home and the knowledge that you’re helping to save the environment while the savings are used to pay off your improvements. They should pay off within a few years (even faster if you’re more efficient by habit!) and soon enough you’ll be seeing those savings on your bill as well.

Of course, changing your living habits also helps when it comes to saving energy. Putting a free stripe thermometer within your house will help you judge when your heating is too high (or too low!). Changing your living space around to save heat will reduce your energy cost for many years, allowing you to spend money on more important things.

Saving energy

Your electricity bill also contributes to your yearly running costs. By reducing the amount of energy intensive appliances use within your house, you can save huge amounts of money over time! The appliances will basically pay for themselves through savings. The sustainability blog “Sust-it” has a comprehensive table of A++ appliances along with other stats such as carbon intensity, energy usage and the cost of the machine itself [37].

Advice on how to enact all of the changes you would have to make to your house in order to save money and energy can be found on the Energy Efficient Widcombe website! Just look up some of the guides to proofing your house. Even changing your energy supplier to a greener alternative would benefit the environment! You can find many UK suppliers online who employ large amounts of renewable technology.

Wind Turbine by Petr Kratochvil

Wind Turbine by Petr Kratochvil

Society

Energy usage also has an impact on society. The way that we source and use our fuel can affect many people across the country. Britain is a trade dependent country and thus requires imports of fuel to function properly. We have shut down a lot of our coal fields (as evident in the 1960s and 70s) and moved on to using gas and oil from the North Sea (which has peaked and will remain for at least 40 years[38]). The energy demand for the UK, along with the competitive nature of the market, has led to more imports being brought into the country to meet our energy needs[39]. Since 2004, the UK has been an importer and the gap between import and export has increased.

This has put us in a position of possible vulnerability. Most of the world’s exporters of oil and gas are at a significant distance and can suffer from political instability. Exploitative regimes and countries with human rights issues often supply us with fuel. Along with the moral implications, if international tensions start to arise we are left at the mercy of market pricing, which can be fixed, and possible fuel embargoes.

This can be easily solved by decreasing our energy usage and ensuring our fuel sources are taken from moral and renewable sources that are usable regardless of political status. We can become a community that is resistant to global changes and climate change by becoming  a “transitional community”[40].

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=12037&picture=vegetable-garden

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=12037&picture=vegetable-garden

As well as becoming resistant to global changes in energy prices, we can also face against fuel poverty! Fuel poverty is a huge issue in some parts of the country. Bath has one of the highest excess winter death rates in the entire country.  Working together with partners such as the “Transitional Bath” organisation and as a neighbourhood, we can raise awareness of these unnecessary deaths and work together to save money and heat when it comes to the winter months, which, as we have seen, could possibly get worse.

Education

As well as saving yourself money, it also pays off in education. Awareness of the earth’s processes can help mitigate disaster as well as prevent future ones. By saving energy, we can learn about the processes that surround us in everyday life, for example: where our energy comes from, our consumption, the cost, the environmental factors and the economic ones as well. If not simply learning about the nature around us, we would also be changing our lifestyles. This is the best way of showing companies just what we want. By changing habits, soon enough being eco won’t be any different to not being it.

Our children will also benefit from the knowledge. Being brought up on sustainable knowledge, they will be more likely to have healthier and more stable lives. Simple acts such as teaching your child to turn off lights or put on a jumper when cold is enough to start a huge chain reaction! By ingraining responsibility and the methods to be environmentally friendly and cost effective into a new generation, we will be ensuring that the planet will remain just as fresh as it was many years ago.

Excellent and inspiring information can be found on the World Wide Fund for Nature website along with organisations like Earthwatch.

Making Bath an example for the country!

Bulb by George Hodan

Bulb by George Hodan

Finally, Bath has an image within the country. People know Bath for its upmarket shops, its heritage and its beautiful, picturesque buildings. Why can’t we add “environmentally conscious” to that list? Such a simple array of changes can make Bath a warmer, more efficient and low impact settlement. If you have an idea, why not tell your friends or make a group or even a business around it? Pooling resources will create a sense of community as well as reduce the living costs of our city’s people! Whether you change a single light bulb or install a whole solar system, by yourself or with friends, you will be influencing a lot more than your wallet. You will be contributing to the continuation of a liveable, bearable Earth.

That sounds rather enjoyable doesn’t it?


[11] http://pipelineobserver.ca/oil-sands-mining-uses-up-almost-as-much-energy-as-it-produces/
[12] EN Kelly, JW Short, DW Schindler, PV Hodson, M Ma, AK Kwan and BL Fortin (2009). “Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributarie”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 106 (52): 22346–22351.