Getting rid of fossil fuels…


This gallery contains 3 photos.

As news of weather stations reading beyond the 400 parts per million of Carbon Dioxide comes in, I ask when and how will we be able to leave fossil fuels behind and therefore be able to avoid runaway global climate … Continue reading

1 year of solar panels + energy costs…

It’s been 1 year since we had the solar PV panels installed on the front roof of our house. It’s been a really inspiring and life-changing experience in many ways and we’re more aware now of how much energy we’re using and what times of day it’s best to use certain energy-intensive appliances.

So, over the year, the panels produced nearly 1250 units of electricity, which will give us around £540 from the feed in tariff (at 43.3p per unit) and equaled 43% of the electricity we used.

The types of fuel we’ve been using are wood, gas and electricity. For gas, there is an equation which the gas companies use to convert the metric units of gas which is burned in the boiler or oven/hob to a KW/h ‘unit’.

units used x calorific value x volume correction / conversion to KWh = gas used in KWh

This is… X units x 39.3 x 1.022640 / 3.6 = X KWh

This allows you to compare the actual energy that is used for gas and electric, in a comparable unit, in this case KWh. This is a bit geeky but the figures below (even for what turns out to be our very low usage) are pretty big, especially when the gas and electric consumption is compared with what our solar panels are generating. Here are our figures for the last year…

(01/01/2011 to 01/01/2012)

Gas = £249.18 or 3371 KWh

Electric = £374.52 or 2923 KWh

(01/02/2011 to 01/02/2012 – our 1st full month generating was February 2011)

Solar panels = £540 (income) or 1248.9 KWh

So, £623.70 spent on gas and electric for the whole year. Add to this the £360 for the 6M3 of firewood for the space heating of the living areas gives £983.70, which is the total spent on fuel/energy for the year.

The total in energy terms (KWh) was 6294 for gas and electric. I’m not sure how to work out the KWh provided by the wood though??

From the cost of £983.70, the income from the solar panels should be deducted (£540), giving a grand total spent on energy for the year of £443.70!

Two really important issues come out of this. The first is the comparison of KWh totals for generated and used, as follows.

Total generated = 1,248.9 KWh

Total consumed = 6,294 KWh

There’s obviously a bid difference there and even with the solar panels, with the consumption roughly 5 times more than the generated (or even more if you add in the unknown energy value for the wood). Solar panel efficiency has got a long way to go before it’s able to claw back some of this difference.

The second thing to highlight is the ‘average’ figures for 3-bed semis, which all the price comparison websites use for their standard figures. These are their figures for consumption per year.

  • Average electricity usage of 3,300 kWh for standard single rate electricity that’s averaged across all regions and
  • Average gas usage of 20,500 kWh per household

Assuming 8p per KWh unit of gas and 10p per KWh unit of electricity would give…

Gas: £0.08 x 20,500 KWh = £1,640

Electric: £0.10 x 3,300 KWh = £330

Combined total = £1,970

If this total figure is used as a comparison, our total of £443.70 is amazing. This is 22% of the average and i’m proud that all the combined features we’ve installed and the way we live has led to this figure. It makes all the chopping of the fire wood much more appealing!

New kitchen worktop…!

We’ve jumped into the DYI in a big way over the last 2 weeks and have now replaced one side of the kitchen worktop with a new, Buck Rogers style, white worktop!

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The gas hob was slightly tricky to finish, but nothing we haven’t tackled before. It involved going to B&Q twice, the first time Claire cycled over there to get a few pieces (such as PFE tape, connectors and a bendy hose), then I went back later to buy another connector and new tape measure and jigsaw blades.

I also fitted a baton under the worktop to support it where there are no units to support it. We’ve gained about 50cms of worktop which makes a good difference and the overall brightness of the space has improved.

Well worth £35 for each side of the kitchen.


Rising fuel costs…

So fuel prices are about to go up again. I’m getting used to prices for everything going up but this is a price rise which will really hurt when it comes to winter, or actually just after when the energy companies start insisting people pay them!

The combined energy bill for the average UK home is £1,200 per year, but edging towards £1,300 after the latest price rises.

I did some research into fuel costs around 6 months ago, during the very cold winter period, which incidentally, was officially the coldest winter for 31 years , according to the Met Office. This was to try and work out what it would cost to install and run a central heating system. This could be useful to a lot of people as it’s not the sort of thing that is commonly looked into, and from the various sources i’ve looked at, it’s also not something which is easy to work out. But, this could have a big impact on how much money is being spent over the winter period.

According to, the following are the averages per household used by ofgem…

  • Average electricity usage of 3,300 kWh for standard single rate electricity that’s averaged across all regions and
  • Average gas usage of 20,500 kWh per household

We did a fair bit of research into electricity prices and consumption when the solar panels were installed, but the gas side wasn’t covered. According to The Energy Shop website, the average gas bill is £780 per year.

Other sites have the total energy figure at nearer £375 per quarter, which totals roughly £1,500. Yet another gas only figure is roughly £760, from a forum.

Another way to work it out is to separate the space heating and water heating & cooking elements, i.e. central heating from other boiler uses, such as cooking, water heating etc. Another site has a ratio of 15,200kWh for space heating & 2,500 kWh for hot water per year. This makes the gas needed for space heating 6 times more than for hot water.

So, a £770 gas bill splits as £660 for space heating and £110 for hot water. I went over our own hot water and cooking only figure to see what it is. This was easy on the British Gas comparison site, which gives you readings information from previous bills.

The comparison it’s giving us is for Gloucester, but this can be further broken down into postcode areas and more specific house types. It’s giving the average for our type of property as 3,800 KWh, with our usage being much lower, at 719 KWh, for the 3 months leading up to that point (April 11th to July 11th). Our usage is 5.2 times less than the Gloucester average!

The total was 4,046.7 KWh for 2010. Multiplied by 6.5p per KWh = £263 for hot water and cooking (not CH). If I use a 4 x ratio, the central heating cost would be £263 x 4 = £1,052.

So, non space heating = £263

Space heating (estimate) = £1,052

Total gas usage (estimate) = £1,315

Overall, the ratio seems to be roughly 4 or 5 times more for space heating, but as I said, it’s very hard to find solid information to base things on, particularly as there is almost no way in practice of separating out the heating and hot water functions, during normal conditions. To get an accurate figures for an accurate ratio, you’d have to setup two boilers which each had different functions, one for space heating and one for hot water & cooking.

Added to this is the cost of buying wood for the wood-burner, which provides most of our space heating (this year it’s £360 for 6 M3, which should be all we need). This is needed from October to March (6 months), but obviously much more during the coldest months during winter).

There is also the cost of the electricity to power the two radiators in both the bedrooms which we use during the winter at night. This is where it gets tricky, as I don’t know how long they are on for each night. The rads we have are efficient oil-filled ones from France, which only draw power for roughly 1/3 of the time that they are turned on, given that some of the heat is stored within the oil and then released slowly.

They are both 1 KW rads which are on for roughly 10 hours per day, so drawing power for 3 hours per day each, or to keep it simple, 6 hours if both are combined. So, 6 KWh (units) per day to power the rads. This is why our electric usage goes up so high in winter!

6 units per day, running for maybe 5 months over winter (estimate again), = 6 x 150 (days) = 900 units total. This works out as £0.105 per unit x 900 = £94.50.

So, the total fuel bill for us at the moment (for space heating, cooking and hot water) can be worked out as follows…

Gas = £263

Wood = £360

Electricity = £94.50

Total = £717.5

I’m not including the other electric costs for appliances as i’m focussing mainly on heating – of air, water, food etc.

The image above shows that even though we are using more than five times less gas, the cost is only three times less! Based on this, the 4 x ratio of extra gas needed doesn’t convert exactly into cost, so if I assume a 2.5 ratio for cost, this would mean £263 gas for non-space heating x 2.5 = £657 just for central heating (space heating).

£263 + £657 = £920 for all gas. So, it would roughly cost us another £657 for the gas for central heating per year. If you wanted to be really picky, you could then take away the electric cost of the rads (given we would have central heating) and part of the wood cost. This could be more like £657 minus £94.50 minus £180 = £382.50.

There are obviously a few guesstimates involved with this but it’s worth going through it before we make a decision, especially given the rising cost of fuel.


Shale gas: the new energy hope or massive global warming…?

Shale gas… A new and untapped sustainable energy source for future generations or a disasterous enterprise which is 20% worse than coal and which will raise global temperature by 3.5C degrees?

Cornell University research…

Robert Howarth – Shale gas & methane

‘US researchers found that shale gas wells leak substantial amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This makes its climate impact worse than conventional gas, they say – and probably worse than coal as well.

“Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon, and is comparable over 100 years,” they write in a paper to be published shortly in the journal Climatic Change.

“We have produced the first comprehensive analysis of the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas,” said lead author Robert Howarth from Cornell University in Ithaca, US.

“We have used the best available data [and] the conclusion is that shale gas may indeed be quite damaging to global warming, quite likely as bad or worse than coal,” he told BBC News.’

And another article citing different (but related research)…

‘Natural gas is not the “panacea” to solve climate change that fossil fuel industry lobbyists have been claiming, according to new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Gas is likely to make up about one-quarter of the world’s energy supply by 2035, according to the study, but that would lead the world to a 3.5C temperature rise. At such a level, global warming could run out of control, deserts would take over in southern Africa, Australia and the western US, and sea level rises could engulf small island states.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, told a press conference in London: “While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

At the end of page 9 of the Cornell University research paper, there is a very clear and very disturbing piece of information…

‘…methane emissions of only 2% to 3% make the GHG (green house gas) footprint of conventional gas worse than oil and coal. Our estimates for fugitive shale-gas emissions are 3.6 to 7.9%.’

Essentially, their research, based on very conservative data, suggests that even at the very low end of methane* emissions from the process of extracting (the main source of leaks – drill out of wells and flow-back of fluids) and delivering standard gas, this energy source is worse than coal and oil – themselves already known to be the worst possible type of energy sources in terms of green house gas emissions.

If the estimates of a 3.9% to 7.9% range of emissions is correct, this obviously makes shale gas far, far worse than any other fuel source.

* Methane (AKA natural gas) is the strongest green house gas (some 25-30 times more potent than CO2), meaning even very small amounts are highly significant.


Wind vs nuclear & coal – lost in energy…

So, what is the future source of electrical power?

The candidates are coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric and tidal. There are other smaller options, such as biomass, but these are the main ones.

Since Fukushima, there has been a lot more of an open debate, and increasing public awareness, of the issues surrounding future energy provision. The key issue has obviously been about nuclear power, but there are equally important questions about other sources of power. If nuclear is not considered an appropriate contender, what will take it’s place?

So, according to Wikipedia, the UK’s existing nuclear output is 10,982 MW, which is 16% of the total consumption in the UK.

A comparison can easily be made with wind power, which is probably the front runner for the UK. The large off-shore wind turbines produce roughly 5 MW each (max. output) and this type of wind power seems to be the trend right now, given less planning restrictions and economies of scale. Approximately 2,196 of these 5 MW wind turbines would be needed to replace the existing nuclear output.

A few recently developed offshore wind farms give an indication of what’s possible right now.

Thanet (off the coast of Kent) is the UK’s largest wind farm and comprises 100 of the 5 MW turbines, for a total of around 300 MW (3 MW per turbine due to inefficiencies). The UK would need 36 of these (100+ turbine) schemes to equal the present nuclear output!

Greater Gabbard wind farm = 500 MW from 140 turbines, at an estimated cost of £1.5 Billion. That’s £3,000,000 (£3M) per MW produced.

London Array scheme in the Thames Estuary = 1000 MW when built, at a cost of £2.2 Billion. That’s £2,000,000 (£2M) per MW produced. This will be the biggest anywhere and will also be the most cost-efficient, due mainly to the economies of scale.

In terms of a comparison with the nuclear option, the Olkiluoto nuclear power reactor being built right now in Finland, will produce 1500 MW and is costing a fixed price of €3 Billion (£2.6 Billion), although there appear to be cost and time over runs! That’s £1,733,000 (£1.73M) per MW produced.

So, the latest nuclear power station being built produces a third more power at a lower cost per MW.

Coal in another major world power source and is the default option for any country, given the vast reserves found in many areas of the planet and the relative cost efficiency of coal. There are 12 coal power stations (over the 100MW output level) in UK, which equals approximately 23,000 MW output. This is more than double the nuclear output.

There is an apparent need to get these off-line as quickly as possible, due to their huge environmental impact (air pollution, radiation, carbon dioxide, acid rain). If all of these were to be taken off-line, this would equal another 76 (100 turbine+) wind schemes.

So to replace just the existing coal and nuclear output with wind, it would need more than 115 wind farms, each of over 100 turbines. This would be more than 11,500 turbines, at 3 MW average each.

This is one of the main problems at the moment. The cost of installing and maintaining completely new grid systems for the wind farms to feed into is massive. This is another reason why conventional land based power stations are more efficient, as they tie into existing grid infrastructure.

Add to this the energy demand of the ‘cost’ of switching every car to electric, rather than petrol, to reduce then eliminate the pollution and carbon from the transport sector. A quote from George Monbiot’s blog on this subject.

The case against reducing electricity supplies is just as clear. For example, the Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology urges a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030 – a goal I strongly support. It also envisages a near-doubling of electricity production. The reason is that the most viable means of decarbonising both transport and heating is to replace the fuels they use with low-carbon electricity. Cut the electricity supply and we’re stuck with oil and gas. If we close down nuclear plants, we must accept an even greater expansion of renewables than currently proposed. Given the tremendous public resistance to even a modest increase in windfarms and new power lines, that’s going to be tough.

A major consideration concerning the roll out of any number of nuclear reactors is the cost of processing the nuclear waste and the long-term storage of that waste. The example from Finland also includes the world’s first (very) long-term, purpose built nuclear storage site, 3 miles from the Olkiluoto power station. Named Onkalo, it will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, for the next 100 years. It will then be back-filled and sealed for 100,000 years.

A recent documentary on this facility, titled Into Eternity (by Danish director Michael Madsen), explores the process which the Finnish authorities went through in deciding to give permission for this facility, as well as the construction itself. I’ve just ordered this film from Amazon so will do a review once I’ve watched it!

An alternative method of dealing with the nuclear waste, and one which I fully support, is to reprocess and recycle the waste. There are many ways to do this and the conclusions to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, ‘spent fuel reprocessing options’ report includes re-processing as an important part of the process. The report also concludes multi-national fuel centres, operating within an independent international framework, are needed.

IAEA – spent fuel reprocessing options – aug 2008

‘The design of advanced reprocessing methods must deal in a comprehensive manner with (1) safety, (2) the control and minimization of plant effluents, (3) minimization of the waste generation, (4) the production of stable and durable waste forms, and (5) economic competitiveness. International collaboration on the development of advanced reprocessing methods, considering the magnitude of the challenges, is essential to facilitate the future deployment of these technologies.’

The significant other side to the whole energy debate is the need for energy conservation and lifestyle changes. This is the tricky part, given it involves billions of individual decisions by members of the public. There is some scope for Government intervention in this issue but, call my cynical, the majority of people really don’t care, let along even accept there is a problem. Hardly furtile ground for a mass uprising towards the necessary clean and sustainable future!

Unless people, companies & organisations are forced by law into it, they generally won’t, unless it’s part of a marketing strategy. The motivated few will not make a big difference, unless that is, you happen to be a senior policy maker in whitehall, and your boss also happens to be that way inclined, and most of the Cabinet are too… etc etc.! They are not getting strong signals about this from the general public and so will be less inclined to act.

The next time you turn on your microwave, tv, computer, ipad, ipod, radio, dishwasher, wireless router, washing machine, blender, kettle, toaster, grill, clothes dryer, hair dryer, camera, fridge or freezer, oven, mobile phone, calculator, lights, car, DVD/CD player, stereo, shaver, clock, bike lights  – think how hard it’s going to be to alter billions of people’s lifestyles and reduce our reliance on these things, in an age of dependence on computers and technology.

Changing people’s perceptions, attitudes and choices is the hard, and I would say, unrealistic path to the solution. How many people still smoke, even with overwhelming evidence which says it causes cancer? Nicotine, like modern electric-eating technology is addictive. Consumerism is addictive. The internet is addictive. No wonder 4 Billion people in the developing world want to experience what we have had in the ‘west’ for the last few decades.


Monbiot on nuclear…

I’ve just read 2 George Monbiot articles (1 from March last year, and the article linked), and I actually agree with both of them! Normally I hate his aggressive style but he seems to be turning that down a bit more recently.

A good article, which puts forward a lot of realistic points, such as many people and groups exaggerating the dangers of radiation, the batteries which are needed to store the electricity that the renewables produce are still far off where they need to be, base load still needs to be established and nuclear had less impact than fossil fuel sources.

The first fossil fuel which countries are already turning to (or sticking with in many cases) is coal. I’ve read some estimates that there are over 300 years of world coal reserves, based on present usage. It is the most abundant fossil fuel and produces are large energy output. The infrastructure and technologies are already in place to exploit coal. It is also fairly cheap to extract and to process (certainly more than nuclear). All this leads to it being the top choice for many countries.

I said in the previous post about the latest nuclear technologies potentially being a solution. I’m still not convinced but it’s far better than coal or oil. Gas is also a poor choice, given it’s relatively limited reserve and the fact that natural gas is made up mostly of methane, which as a green house gas is more than 20 times as damaging as CO2.

The solution is to develop a mix of sources, with a continued emphasis on developing the renewable technology. The combination of solar and improved battery technology can work, it will just needs more time and investment.

If nuclear is ACTUALLY less polluting than coal, oil or gas, it should be seriously considered, particularly as renewable technology is not at the stage where it can contribute to the majority of the country’s power needs – I wish it could and hope one day it will be different!


* since I posted this: not sure how I missed the reference but Monbiot’s article title… ‘Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power’, is a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’! A nod to humour there and I don’t believe he actually does ‘love’ nuclear.

Making a tea…

I’ve been considering all the ways to improve the efficiency of our house…yes, GEEK!

I just posted about the use of wood as a fuel source in the home…Well, the latest thing i’ve looked into is boiling the kettle!

I’ve been thinking about how much I actually use the kettle to make endless cups of tea, at work and at home. Well, the article below is a good summary of the key issues – energy, cost and CO2.

‘Boiling a kettle is a small act repeated many times, and common wisdom is that gas is cheaper than electricity for heating. The results challenge the obvious assumption.’

I wasn’t sure which one was ‘better’ but i’d always noticed that using gas took AGES + loads of heat escaped around the edges of the kettle base! So, it looks like using an electric kettle is overall better, mainly because it is far more efficient at heating the water, even though the actual electricity generation releases more CO2.



We’ve been carrying out a little experiemnt recently. During the cold winter months, we’d been using the electric heaters and tumble dryer, while also using the stove and clothes horse. Then we worked out what 2 months of electricity was going to cost!

The total for January and February was £225. This was during some pretty cold weather and meant an average per month of £112.

For March, we haven’t used the dryer at all and have only turned on the electric rads on a couple of occaisions. We’ve been focussing on hanging out washing and using the stove more.

I’ve just worked out the March figure (so far) and we’ll be sending the reading to LOCO2 on April 1st. So far, it’s £28! That’s roughly 4 times less than the previous month.

If we can average out at £45 per month for heating and power over the year, we’ll be doing well. Obviously our gas bill will now also be less as there is no gas central heating.

We also used just over 1 tonne of wood this winter, which will cost about £130, which is better value than switching on the rads. We used the stove from around October till March, meaning half the year. The same amount of radiator usage might be around £300-400.