Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Monday, 23 October 2006 11:34 UK

Saving energy on the home front

By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

Energy efficient light bulb (Image: BBC)
Seeing the light? Energy efficient bulbs have become an eco-icon

"Are you doing your bit?" That has been the message to encourage households in the UK to be more energy savvy.

The green gurus in government have been telling us that just a few simple actions can cut our demand for energy, while saving us money and easing the pressure on the planet.

But why are ministers so concerned about what we do in our own homes?

In environmental terms, households are responsible for about 27% of the UK's carbon emissions, and account for almost a third of the nation's total energy consumption.

So energy experts say any serious attempt to reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere has to involve looking at ways to curb energy use in people's homes.

Since 1970, the demand from UK households has increased by 32%. The growth of electrical and electronic goods, central heating systems and the use of lighting has outstripped efforts to curtail demand through better insulation and more energy efficient goods.

So where is the energy being used in the average home? According to government figures, 61% is used for heating, 23% for hot water, 3% for cooking and 13% for lighting and electrical appliances.

Estimated annual CO2 emissions from devices left on standby:
Stereos - 1,600,000 tonnes
Videos - 960,000 tonnes
TVs - 480,000 tonnes
Consoles - 390,000 tonnes
DVD players - 100,000 tonnes
Set-top boxes - 60,000 tonnes
(Source: Energy Saving Trust)

The Energy Saving Trust (EST) says it is possible for households to cut consumption by 20% through a range of measures.

For example, turning the heating system's thermostat down by 1C can cut heating bills by 10%, and washing clothes at 30C uses 40% less energy than what is used for hot washes.

A survey by the government-funded organisation found that the average household has up to 12 gadgets left on standby or charging at any one time, and that more than 740m of electricity is being wasted by things being left ticking over.

The EST also says that a third of the energy used to heat an un-insulated house is wasted because of heat loss through the walls. It recommends loft and wall cavity insulation as major ways to cut heat loss.

Smart choice

But for most people, the only connection they have with energy is either the quarterly bill that drops on the doormat, or the monthly standing order. The amount of kilowatt hours (kWhs) or gas therms either used by their boiler or saved by their loft insulation means very little or nothing at all.

Smart meter (Image: More Associates)

That's why Energywatch, otherwise known as the Electricity and Gas Consumer Council, is championing the cause of "smart meters", which they say can deliver savings of up to 10%.

Instead of being tucked away in a cupboard under the stairs clocking the amount of kWhs being used, smart meters can be read remotely by energy suppliers for more accurate bills, and they can display the amount of energy used as pounds and pence.

The most advanced versions of these devices allow people to closely monitor where energy is being consumed in their homes, and where it is being wasted; such as devices left on standby.

Cutting choice

But there is only so much home-owners can do. Eventually, boilers and fridge freezers have to be replaced, and less efficient models are generally cheaper to buy than the most energy efficient.

Environmental groups argue that over the life of a product, the extra cost of buying an energy efficient product is soon repaid by the amount the energy it saves, especially while energy prices are so high.

But why should consumers have to head into a shop with an armful of leaflets and energy calculations, argues the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable.

The environmental advisers to the government are calling on ministers to get "radical".

Instead of leaving shoppers to weigh up the environmental pros and cons of products, the roundtable says ministers must work with manufacturers and retailers to get the most damaging goods off the shelves and replace them with environmentally sustainable devices.

Standby button (BBC)

This has been acknowledged by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the ministry responsible for improving energy efficiency efforts and curbing climate change.

In its Climate Change Programme report, published in March, it said that it would launch a "major new initiative to strengthen consumer demand for energy efficiency, working closely with energy suppliers and through local authorities". It said it would invest 20m in the scheme over the next two years.

In the report, Defra said the government had tightened building regulations to ensure all new or refurbished homes met tighter energy performance standards.

For existing homes, many of which are more than half a century old, Defra operates an Energy Efficiency Commitment (EEC) scheme.

The EEC, funded by a levy on electricity and gas bills, obliges suppliers to install energy saving measures in households. Ofgem, the energy regulator, says about 10m homes to date have benefited, each saving an average of 35 a year on their bills.

But when it comes to an outright ban on inefficient products, ministers say such unilateral action could breach EU free-trade rules.

Must try harder

As part of its ongoing review of its energy policy, the European Commission published its Energy Efficiency Action Plan (EEAP) last week.

If the measures are approved, it will cut Europe's energy consumption by 20% by 2020, and save 100bn euros (67bn).

The action plan includes measures that will target energy wastage from electronic devices' standby modes, and inefficient PCs and electrical goods.

If approved by the EU's 25 member states and the European Parliament, the EEAP will be adopted into national energy strategies and policies.

Commission President Jose Barroso hopes the EU-wide measures will act as a global benchmark.

UK homes are the most wasteful in Europe when it comes to energy, according to the latest research from the EST.

The findings must come as a double-edge sword to the trust, which was set up to encourage households to be more efficient.

It looks like everyone is going to have to try a little bit harder.

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