It seems inescapable that the way we live here in the UK and around the world is changing. The impacts of the global economy, the search for sustainable fuel sources and climate change have impacted on us all over the last few years. And when it comes to the home, we will see these changes impact on the way we live, and the efficiency of the buildings that we live and work in- and for good reason.
Since 1970 expectations of personal comfort in the home have risen considerably; the public’s definition of a ‘comfortable’ home temperature has risen from 12C to 17.3C in 2008. And energy consumption within the home has increased by 34% since 1970.
This coupled with the global economic downturn and rapidly fluctuating energy prices has led to 1 in 4 homes in the UK falling into fuel poverty over the last 18 months â€“ or to be more shockingly specific thatâ€™s around 5.5 million homes that have now fallen into fuel poverty.
When we consider that 27% of the UKâ€™s CO2 emissions come from our homes, you can understand the national need to drive down wastefulness of energy consumption and improve our use of essential resources.
Energy efficiency drives are coming to all our homes in the next few years, most pressing is in the shape of the Governmentâ€™s soon to be unveiled Green Deal, encouraging 23 million homes across the UK to sustainably refurbish by 2020.
This is something Iâ€™ve taken great pains to carry out in my own home, reducing the CO2 emissions by 75 % through a massive refurbishment last year (the picture below shows the extent to which we had to strip the house back to), including high levels of insulation, new heating technologies such as heat recovery systems, efficient condensing boilers, solar water heating, solar PV systems and air tightness.
I was recently invited to talk in Desborough, Northamptonshire, where a residential led mixed use development was in public consultation, to be called Grange 2. The application highlighted an Energy Centre as a sustainable solution for the supply of heat and power to new homes and existing businesses.
As a result Origin are proposing a Combined Heat and Power plant that will provide a renewable energy facility. The Energos gasification plant will convert household and business waste into heat and power for the adjacent housing developments and nearby businesses, as well as supplying surplus electricity into the National Grid.
The more sustainably planned homes at Grange 2 will do much to reduce the inhabitantâ€™s environmental impact. I know from experience that those lucky enough to live here will benefit from homes that are warmer, healthier and considerably more affordable to run. Plus! No cold spots, no draughts no wild fluctuations of temperature at night, and security from price hikes in energy costs.Â This will be a major shift for many, and one that offers real improvements in quality of life at home.
But whilst we can make our homes more efficient through improved building techniques and technology, there is still one weak link in our lifestyle carbon footprints, and thatâ€™s us.
Research has demonstrated that unconscious ‘habitual behavior’ is very difficult to change, particularly when it is closely linked with improving conditions. When studied, the challenges facing behavioral change in energy conservation, the messages were stark. Some 40% of people simply had more important things to worry about. They were concerned about climate change, but there was a sense of disempowerment: â€œI can’t change anything, so why bother?â€ Meanwhile there was a willingness to shift blame for high costs to the utility companies rather than take responsibility for personal consumption
Many of us fail to realise that itâ€™s cultural and behavioral adjustment thatâ€™s often causing the issue, it seems that technological development is racing ahead faster than we can adapt and develop.
And this is by no means a new phenomenon:
In 1865, during the Industrial Revolution,Â the English economistÂ William Stanley JevonsÂ observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use actually led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.
The Jevons Paradox, as it is known, has been used to argue thatÂ energy conservationÂ is futile, as increased efficiency may actually increase fuel use. Nevertheless, increased efficiency can improve materialÂ living standards. And this is where it starts to get interesting.
Could a sustainable way of life be actually be a better way of life?
The Rebound Effect occurs when a product (in this case energy) is produced more efficiently so becomes cheaper to use with the result, ironically, being that we use more of it.
Research suggests that up to 30% of energy saved by improving the insulation of homes or the fuel efficiency of cars may be undone because people drive more or turn up the heat once it’s cheaper.
Rebound effects can be explained to some extent by simple economic theory â€“ if price falls, consumption increases, and this means less energy is saved. But there are also behavioral theories that provide other explanations.
These include “moral licensing” which is the idea that when people do something good they feel they have the license to do something ‘bad’, and the “contribution ethic” where people feel they’ve done their fair share and need do no more.
Hand on your heart – whoâ€™s not guilty of thatâ€¦?
So what can be done?
Studies indicate that alongside greater efficiency and cheaper prices, there is a need forÂ comprehensive education packages to focus on human behavioural change. This should outline what similar households are doing and also the other ways that the user can further adapt their lives to cut carbon footprints, save resources and costs.
Simply put- tell customers what others are doing and what more can be done.
It’s important to understand that nearly every action has some carbon footprint associated with it in either primary or secondary ways and we need to work at reducing the impacts of each activity a little – for the benefit of all.
This might be buying energy efficient appliances, turning gadgets off standby, having your bike tyres pumped up and ready to be used or even simply keeping a reusable shopping bag with you.
Theses small changes inÂ behaviorÂ could lead to large changes in energy use: in the UK nearly Â£800m a year is wasted through leaving appliances plugged in, and on at the socket, while around Â£140m is lost by leaving lights on in empty rooms.
Equally, the average household wastes more than Â£400 per year on throwing away perfectly good food! Changing these habits is simple, think of it more as â€œmodern common senseâ€ and every change makes a difference!
Whilst we can each make a small change it’s working together as a community at a local level that we will start to see the real benefits.
And when I mean work together I mean all of us, not just inhabitants but also retailers, local councils, transport groups, waste management companies and energy suppliers â€“ to close the loop on reducing wastage of all our resources â€“ even the ones we donâ€™t really consider.
Whatâ€™s so exciting about the Origin Scheme in Desborough is that through doing something as simple as processing the waste that we canâ€™t recycle, we put this community in greater control. It could put them that much closer to zero waste to landfill through the gasification and power generation of the materials that gets collected.
And what could this mean? More secure, affordable, locally generated energy, supporting and creating local jobs and in the end reducing the embedded carbon of local businesses and the stuff we buy and use every day.
Iâ€™m always surprised when people tell me that eco homes and lifestyles are not for them but when I talk to them about the advantages to you and me, and to the community on a wider scale, who wouldnâ€™t want those benefits?
Sometimes choosing greener energy is one of the most difficult aspects of a sustainable lifestyle â€“ I mean we canâ€™t all have our own wind turbines, solar panels or ground source heat pumps.
But decentralised locally produced energy means that the people who live here will have made a real step towards zero waste to landfill and greener lower carbon lives.
I have spent many years promoting the 3Râ€™s (reduce, reuse, recycle) as an integral element of sustainable living to individuals and communities, so I am delighted to see a 4th R, a recovery scheme such as the one we are seeing in Desborough come into the public domain for consultation. I am confident residents and others in the local community will see for themselves the real benefits that community plans such as these bring in terms of energy security and an opportunity to embrace a more sustainable way of living.