Why it hurts, and why it didn’t have to
Rod Holt has volunteered with Otley 2030 for the past three years. He's expert on energy and retrofit, having spent the past decade experimenting on ways to make his own house more energy-efficient. Here he shares his thoughts on the cost of gas...
Home sweet home?
To maintain a comfortable bank balance, you need to put money into your account at the same rate you’re withdrawing it. If you’re heading into the uncomfortable red zone, you either have to reduce your outgoings or increase the money you’re paying into your account. To maintain a comfortable temperature in your house, you have to put warmth into it as fast as it is getting out. If the temperature in your house is heading into the uncomfortable chilly zone, you either have to reduce the heat lost from your house, or put more warmth in.
In the UK, we have enjoyed many years of abundant, cheap coal, followed by many more years of abundant, cheap gas, so putting extra warmth into our houses in winter has so far been easy. We have had little incentive to do anything about the huge quantities of warmth escaping from our homes, and disappearing uselessly into the chilly winter sky. Gas was so inexpensive that it didn’t really matter, and gas bills were to many folk little more than an inconvenience. Now that the world is wheel-spinning to make good the losses inflicted upon business by Covid, demand for energy is high, and world gas and oil prices reflect this. The war in Ukraine is further rattling the markets, and there is now the possibility that Putin will shut down his gas exports to Europe, and the ensuing scarcity would inevitably drive prices much higher still.
British gas consumers are exposed to these increases, and electricity - although increasingly generated from our own renewable sources - is still heavily dependent on gas turbine generation.
Electricity now costs more than ever before, and further price rises seem highly likely. Almost uniquely in Europe, we in the U.K. know very little about conserving energy in our homes, which consequently cool down faster than those of any other European country if the heating goes off. Our houses are really primitive and really wasteful, meaning that British householders are hit harder by energy price rises than our continental neighbours in their more efficient houses. We are now paying the price for not being sufficiently interested in the energy performance of our homes, and for electing a government that continues to ignore expert advice to improve efficiency standards in old and new buildings alike.
Fossil Fuel - Friend or Foe?
Those working in the oil and gas industries have long been celebrated for providing our warmth and mobility, and for lubricating the wheels of industry, and were rewarded accordingly. But in July 1977, James Black, the chief scientist of the US oil giant Exxon told the company’s management committee,
“There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels"
This explosive revelation threatened the very basis of the prosperity of the fossil fuel industry, which, employing similar tactics to those developed by the tobacco companies, embarked on a persuasive and well-funded campaign to conceal, distort and deny this unhappy prognosis, every aspect of which has since been borne out.
There was, almost fifty years ago, general agreement among scientists as to the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, but that campaign of misinformation has been so effective that many continue to this day to deny the validity of climate science, in spite of the growing catalogue of disaster which can be attributed with ever-increasing certainty to the burning of hydrocarbons. There has then been for many years a very good reason to improve the ability of our houses to retain the warmth we cherish, and so avoid colossal fuel consumption and the associated huge emission of CO2, and this was recognised in 2006 by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown who proposed the introduction of Zero Carbon Homes (scrapped by a later government), and more recently by the U.K. Climate Change Committee, whose recommendations on the matter still wait to be fully implemented, and whose Chairman, Lord Deben, describes the thermal performance of current newbuild houses as “crap.”
At the same time, various ill-conceived government schemes to improve the efficiency of our older houses have failed, and the short term nature of these, and faltering support for them, provide little incentive for the acquisition of the relevant skills among the workforce. Little wonder then that winter visitors from Scandinavia refer to “cold radiating from the walls” of their hosts’ houses, nor is it in the least surprising to more forward-looking British people that there’s a cost of living crisis.
It is entirely possible (but not cheap) to modify an existing house to very much increase its efficiency and comfort, and in the process remove its need to burn gas, which inevitably releases CO2 into the atmosphere and is now ruinously expensive. Electric power, on the other hand, is increasingly generated from renewable, very low carbon sources, and occasional zero carbon operation of the national grid is anticipated from 2025, with full decarbonisation scheduled for 2050. Although perhaps a useful option for small, very highly insulated properties, simply switching to electric heating is not realistic on a large scale. This would require a five-fold increase in national electricity production, as our houses currently consume about four times as much energy from gas as they do from electricity.
A big increase in the ability of the fabric (walls, floors, roof, windows etc) of our houses to retain warmth within the house offers obvious savings, and allows the little heat which continues to be needed to be economically supplied by an electric heat pump with an efficiency of about 300%. Although a grid connection is still needed to deal with seasonal differences between local renewable supply and demand, a year’s electricity can then be provided by a rooftop array of solar panels, and old Otley houses treated this way have already been shown to require little expenditure on energy, reducing, in one case, an annual bill of over £2,000 to £17.44.
What are we waiting for?
In the interests of maintaining a stable climate for our grandchildren’s benefit, many organisations from Insulate Britain to the International Energy Agency call for a rapid increase in energy efficiency and an immediate move away from fossil fuels. Recent events in Eastern Europe demonstrate the geopolitical consequences of our carelessness when choosing how we use and obtain our energy - for along with the water vapour, CO2 and NO2 drifting out of the exhaust of our central heating boilers, there is also the faint smell of blood from the numerous innocent Ukrainians killed and maimed in Putin’s murderous onslaught, which is funded by Europe’s petroleum imports to the tune of $285 million per day. While it was once said that we couldn’t afford to make the necessary improvements, it is now obvious to all but the most rabid proponents of burning toxic fluids from holes in the ground, that we cannot any longer afford not to make them.
We could do a lot of retrofitting and build a lot of renewable energy infrastructure for $285 million dollars per day, and to see that money used to trash the climate and to make missiles, shells and bombs is an abomination, which will be consigned to history as soon as our elected representatives wake up and wholeheartedly commit to the transition we need.
The oily avaricious tentacles of the fossil fuel industry wriggle and squirm seductively around the corridors of Westminster and the offices of the right-wing press, and need to be evicted just as firmly as the Russian oligarchs and their poisonous money, as these both operate to support power structures corrosive to human wellbeing, as is now clear for all to see.
We need, individually and collectively, to take a greater interest in the life-support mechanisms upon which we rely, and if our government will not facilitate the changes we need, we should elect another one that understands that waste on such a colossal scale is in nobody’s interests other than those of Putin & co, and the oil companies who have time and again callously pursued their selfish agenda, regardless of the cost to humanity.
This has been a vitally important issue for years; now at last it can be seen to be so.