John-Paul Flintoff: How low can you go?

John-Paul Flintoff

How low can you go?

Reducing my energy needs to 2,000 Watts (or thereabouts)

Somewhere upstairs, my wife is sitting in bright light beside a warm radiator, sipping tea, flicking through glossy magazines as she blow dries her hair – and consuming in 30 minutes about half the energy used by the typical Bangladeshi all day.

And I’m trying to make up for that. I’m sitting in the dark. The heating is off. I’m wearing two jumpers, a hat and a scarf and a pair of fingerless gloves I improvised out of old socks that had gone at the ankle.

I’m writing this on an ancient manual typewriter. It’s not easy. Unlike a computer, a typewriter doesn’t let you move blocks of text around and there’s no word count function. You can’t press a button and switch to the internet to look something up. It’s also bone-shakingly hard work – a bit like a work out at the gym.

But I’m enjoying myself. For starters, there is no junk email. And it makes me extremely happy to think of all the electricity I’m saving. Because recent calculations suggest that IT will very soon overtake aviation as a guzzler of energy. All these videos on YouTube and unread blogs take up space on servers that suck ever increasing amounts from the grid. It was recently shown that an avatar on Second Life, the online game, uses the same amount of energy as the average Brazilian.

Then there are all the gadgets that we can’t seem to live without. All the batteries that need recharging. In fact, it was the batteries going on my mouse that got me thinking about using this typewriter. And now I am planning to de-escalate my digital life altogether. Out with the computer unless strictly necessary, and in with the typewriter. Out with the Palm Pilot and in with the paper diary.

The planet is heating up, the weather turning more than ever unpredictable. The forests are dying and animal species too – at such a rate that its been described as the sixth great extinction (or was it the fifth? If this typewriter went online I could look it up).

On top of that, even major corporate reports now accept that the world’s oil production will peak in as little as three years, if it hasn’t already, and go into terminal decline.

For both these reasons it has become imperative to save as much energy as we can – reducing emissions and preserving valuable fuels to help make the transition to a renewable energy infrastructure.

And to do this we need a target. James Hansen, the Nasa scientist who has done so much to raise the issue of global warming, argues that we should focus our minds on the safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere – 350 parts per million. He may be right, but it doesn’t work for me.

More helpful, I believe, is research from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology identifying the amount of energy that every one of us must stick to if we’re to keep the planet hospitable: precisely 2,000 watts.

As a rate of consumption, 2,000W would keep a two-bar electric fire running constantly, or 20 not-very-eco incandescent light bulbs. (Or, if you prefer, it’s the power you’d get from 22 humans trudging endlessly on a treadmill.)

Watts are like the rate at which water flows out of a tap. The total energy used is measured by timing the flow (how long the tap has been running at that rate). This gives the total amount of water in the bath, or rather the watt-hours for which your utility company bills you. Thus, over 24 hours, consumption at a rate of 2,000W totals 48,000 watt-hours (48 kilowatt-hours or kWh). In a year, as I’ve tried to explain rather desperately to my wife, that comes to 17,520kWh.

Twenty light bulbs doesn’t sound much, considering that it must cover all our needs, in every part of our lives: not only energy we consume at home but our individual share of infrastructure such as road-building and sewage, and the energy that goes into everything we buy. So if you want to run the oven or drive a car, you must turn off several light bulbs.

In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult, because 2,000W is more or less the amount the average human uses already. But that’s an average. In practice, consumption varies enormously. The typical Bangladeshi uses just 200W. Across Europe the figure is about 5,400W. In the U.S it’s a stonking 11,400W.

The Swiss scientists believe that 2,000W is sustainable only as long as the whole world sticks to it. The disparity between nations is unsustainable, they say. It’s a basic matter of fairness. And increasing energy use in developing countries beyond 2,000W a head would be ecologically catastrophic – so we must learn to use less.

The head of the Swiss federal department of the environment, transport, energy and communications, Moritz Leuenberger, concedes that the target seems, initially, unrealistic. “But the necessary technology already exists.”

Indeed, the Swiss have taken the 2,000W Society into the mainstream. A major pilot scheme has been going for seven years in Basel, involving cooperation between industry, universities, research institutes and government bodies. The city of Zurich joined the project in 2005 and the canton of Geneva declared its interest in 2008.

The director of the overall project, architect and urban planner Roland Stulz, emphasizes that the 2,000W Society need not be a hard place. “It’s not about starving, it’s not having less comfort or fun.” Indeed, he tells me one of his colleagues has already attained the 2,000W life. “It’s about a creative approach to the future.”

The three big areas of energy use are food, transport and the home, each accounting for roughly a third of our needs. On the first two I have already made progress. I get my food from local, seasonal suppliers (including my own allotment). I don’t eat a lot of meat, and I often eat food raw. As for transport, I’ve got an electric car but usually cycle or take the bus. (I work at home so don’t travel that much anyway – just as well because it’s hard to live the 2,000W life if you drive or fly much, or even at all).

So, the home: a leaky Victorian terraced house in north London. Hoping to make savings here I recently got my hands on several eco books, of which the most comprehensive is probably The Carbon-Free Home, by Stephen & Rebekah Hren. This has much to say about the various ways we can save energy, including the suggestion that we install composting loos to save all the pumping and purification (to drinking standard) of water, that we simply flush away.

Thames Water, my own supplier, calculates a rate of 0.5763 watt-hours per litre. The typical person in Britain uses 160 litres a day. But rather than install a composting loo just yet, I buy two interruptible flush kits from Interflush and fix them inside my cisterns. From now on I can flush just exactly what I need to clear the pan – a tiny bit, a bit more, or the whole lot. (I never flush after wee, except if we’ve got visitors. Too much information!)

As for the heating: I turn it off when I’m on my own. After all, the only thing that needs warmth is me, and I can always put on another jumper. There’s statistics on the internet somewhere about how much energy you save every degree you lower the thermostat – but turning the whole thing off is a lot more effective than saving the odd degree.

To get to grips with my electrical needs, I recently acquired an Electrisave energy monitor and wandered around the house turning on lights and appliances to see how much they all used. After a day or so I felt that I had got all I needed from it. Now it was just another pointless gadget, I felt responsible for all the “embodied” energy that had gone into making it. I decided the best thing to do was to give it away so that someone else could benefit. Thus, I had discovered by myself the 2,000W Society motto, that “using, rather than owning”, is the way forward.

I didn’t really need the Electrisave anyway. I’d have done just as well learning a tiny bit of physics – which I missed at school – and conducting my own energy audit. If you know this already, forgive me: the electrical consumption (in watts) of any given item can be calculated by multiplying the volts by the amps.

The Carbon-Free Home recommends going through the entire house and making an inventory of every device, then recording every time you turn the appliance on and off. You may be thinking, “Wow, that would take too much time!” If that’s the case, you’re probably using way too many appliances and your need for an energy diary is that much greater. If the rest of your household refuse to participate, you can either try to note down their appliances or restrict the diary to yourself.

What a lot of domestic strife is concealed by that last sentence.

Among other bits of advice The Carbon-Free Home recommends, unsurprisingly, that nothing should be left on standby. The authors don’t much approve of devices whose function is merely to amuse: “Is there ever such a thing as an efficient use of a video console, or does it always represent a failure of imagination?” Clothes should be left to dry in the sun, or at least in the air, because tumble driers can use as much as 6kW. Indeed, “Appliances that use electric resistance heat must go.”

I can see what they mean. The iron uses 3,250W, but have never been big on ironing. The kettle uses a relatively modest 2,300W, so I decide henceforth to make my tea using a Storm Kettle, designed for camping, which boils a whole litre using just a few scraps of newspaper and two small sticks. Alas, this is not fast – and with the heating off I’m in constant need of hot drinks.

Then there’s my wife’s hairdryer. This uses 3,250W, like the iron. “Instead of using a hairdryer,” the book’s authors recommend, “get a less maintenance-intensive haircut, shower in the evening, or dry hair with a towel or in sunshine.”

They have obviously not met my wife, who has what she herself terms “bonkers” hair. If she doesn’t blow dry it straight it goes weirdly frizzy, which is why she does that every morning at vast cost in energy and emissions. I have tried to suggest that she might grow it a bit longer, so that the hair’s own weight pulls it into some order, but she refuses to believe it would work – something about split ends – and not being a hairdresser I’m in no position to judge. I’ve refrained, for now, for suggesting that she eliminate the problem altogether by shaving it all off.

Mercifully, it turns out that we can make enormous savings without yet banning hairdryers. Scientists estimate that roughly two thirds of the primary energy consumed today is wasted, usually in the form of heat that nobody wants or uses. (primary energy is the energy contained in a lump of coal, whereas “useful” energy is the light emitted by a bulb once the coal has been burned to make steam, the steam has powered a turbine, and the resulting electricity has been transmitted over the grid). With currently available technologies we can reduce that waste significantly, according to the man who supplies electricity to my house.

In the early 90s, Dave Vincent was a hippy, living in an ex-military vehicle and surviving off-grid with his own minimal energy arrangements, including a tiny windmill. It was this that gave him the idea that led him to drop back into the mainstream, where he set up the first wind powered electricity company in Britain, Ecotricity.

Today, Vince lives in a house with all the usual power hungry apps, fridges and freezers and so on, and he thinks it’s impractical to give them all up. Instead, we should buy the most efficient models when upgrading and put as much as possible of our domestic load into evenings and even the middle of the night.

The national grid has massive spikes in demand – the classic case is the ad break in the middle of the World Cup Final, when everybody goes to put the kettle on. To cope with these peaks, the grid has to run at a big surplus, and there’s also a lot of energy wasted by running the grid down when demand is low. Some plants come on only to meet peaks, and they’re generally the dirtiest ones. We could save a lot of energy if we flattened the peaks and troughs.

“If we put a chunk of electric demand into the night time,” says Vince, “we could save several hundred MW of capacity. It would be the equivalent of all the nuclear power, or about 20 per cent of the entire grid. I like to call this ‘intelligent demand’. At the moment we just have ‘on demand’.”

In other words, just by setting things to work in the middle of the night – the washing machine, or the oven when I’m baking bread – I can significantly reduce my contribution to national energy use.

“We can do a lot with simple behaviour change,” says Vince. “Like turning off lights and shutting doors when you leave a room. Some people still don’t do that.”

But is behavioural change really simple? In my experience it is the hard bit. If I tell Harriet that she has left the lights on, or used too much hot water to wash up, or left doors open, she reacts as if I have poked her in the eye.

Colin Mather, chair of the Esk Valley Community Energy Group, in north Yorkshire – one of innumerable similar groups popping up all over the country – shares my experience of people being unwilling to change behaviour.

His group was set up three years ago with a grant to promote simple things like insulation. “We did a survey of 600 homes in the area and had a 50% response rate, which is extremely good. That was to see the condition of the houses and whether they had insulation. Then we targeted people and told them about grants – it is very difficult to find out what is available. And we had people starting to take this up. But I still see people who haven’t done it yet. They say, ‘I know I should, but I haven’t got round to it yet’. People are very hard to change, even when it’s in their own interest.”

It might help if they knew how much they could benefit. This year the average domestic fuel bill reached £1,000 a year for the first time. By reducing consumption to 2,000W per person households could save more than £600 a year.

The Swiss inventors of the 2,000W Society say this is not only about reducing consumption. It’s also imperative, they say, that we move quickly towards generating three-quarters of our energy renewably. Mather’s group is typical of many others in looking to set up its own renewable installation – and experiencing great frustration.

Surveyors identified several sites in the Esk suitable for generating hydro power, but the Environment Agency is opposed, because the river is good for salmon. “They say, ‘Why don’t you do it somewhere else?’ Because this is where we live. They’re not interested in energy, only fish.”

Other groups have had problems getting permission for wind turbines, too well documented to need spelling out here.

A community group nearer to me is Transition Belsize, part of the nationwide Transition Town movement preparing for life after cheap oil and amid climate chaos. One of the members I met is David Fleming, architect of the Tradeable Energy Quota, an idea which enables the sparing to sell their allocation to people who are more prodigal. Without a fair system, Fleming believes energy problems will be resolved as they were in the US in the 70s, with shootings in petrol stations. So until TEQs become official, the best I can do to prepare is to reduce my energy needs to the bare minimum.

Another member of Transition Belsize is Alexis Rowell, eco champion on Camden Council. Rowell tells me that 890 people looked around a local show house, the Camden Eco Home, in a single weekend in September – “Proof, if proof were needed, that people want to see how a Victorian property can be refurbished to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills by 80%.”

Rowell, a former BBC journalist turned full time Lib Dem councillor, believes that insulation of roof, floor and external walls is key. “Add in decent double glazing and hey presto, you have an energy efficient cocoon. The lesson is that we have to do the boring stuff, not the eco bling – wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, grey water recycling and ground source heat pumps. None of these makes much sense for the individual household, though they may for big organisations.”

I went to see the Camden Eco Home for myself. On every external wall, builders had put thick insulation on the inside – because the house is in a conservation area, and the appearance can’t be changed.

I couldn’t really see Harriet agreeing to that. It’s a heck of a job. We would have to move the mouldings on the ceiling and several book cases, and we’d lose a hefty chunk of floor space.

But it makes a lot more sense to do the walls, roof and floor than the double glazing – about six times the energy saving and half the cost.

On the way home, I dropped into a hardware shop and bought several yards of insulation for around the doors and windows. I also bought a brush to fit below the front door, to reduce draughts. I’m happy to report that the effect was immediately perceptible, and without any high tech measuring device.

After that, I went to a dinner party in a part of London where it seems that everybody drives a 4×4. I sat next to a woman who listened politely as I described the steps I’d taken towards the 2,000W life. She wondered if I’d hit the target. Honestly, I had no idea: the online tool for assessing this is as yet available only in German.

Regardless, she said there was “no point” doing whatever I was doing. I would be better off lobbying the UN, she said, or the government. Then she changed tack, admitting that climate change and energy issues leave her feeling hopeless. “Just look at India and China,” she said, meaning that they are becoming bigger users of energy all the time.

This was certainly demoralising. For some time now people had received no replies to the emails they sent me, and found my phone was usually turned off. Had I lost friends – and for nothing? No, her point was easy enough to refute. If we do nothing we are really in trouble, whereas we might just make a difference by taking action. If your car is heading for a cliff and the prospect of falling alarms you, you don’t for that reason say there’s no point applying the break. Far less lobby the government to tell you to apply it.

Like many people, this woman was paralysed by the scale of the problem combined with the urgency. But we can’t do everything at once. And the good news is that we don’t need to. The Swiss founders of the 2,000W Society point out that infrastructure needs replacing at a rate of 2% a year anyway, so we can make a great deal of change incrementally.

As for India and China – we don’t need to go round the world to find people who make our task more difficult. In many cases, they can be found in our own homes. The person who does most to hold me up in my mission to save the world is my wife, with her crazy hair dryer habit.

But as I looked away from my miserable, paralysed neighbour, I glimpsed my wife talking animatedly, her hair immaculately straight and shiny. I remembered that, though she may not like the idea of insulating interior walls, or sticking polythene sheets over the windows as a low budget alternative to double glazing, she has to put up with me talking about composting loos, turning the heating down and wagging my finger at her about the lights she leaves on, and sitting in the garden making tea out of rain water, using a pair of damp sticks. She’s my wife, she uses far too many kilowatts, but I love her and we are in this together. Anyway, I rather like the way she does her hair.

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