Power cut

The race is on to develop houses that are more energy efficient, environmentally sound and affordable.

Most of us simply flick a switch when we need electricity without a thought about how that energy is generated, where it comes from or how it gets to us. Yet the production of electricity has greater environmental impact than virtually any other single human activity.

The US Energy Information Administration predicts that the use of electricity in the industrialised world will increase by only 1.8 per cent annually (a figure considerably lower than in the past) until 2020, partly because of energy efficiency gains for some electronic appliances.

But the UK’s Energy Saving Trust estimates that if current trends continue, household energy consumption in the UK will have risen by six per cent over the period 1990 to 2010. The government has set the target of having 10 per cent of the country’s electricity requirements met entirely by renewable energy by 2010.

So far it has focused its efforts almost solely on the industrial sector which consumes 27 per cent of UK electricity. However, the biggest challenge will be to encourage UK households which account for 32 per cent of the total to reduce their energy use.

The UK has one of the most expensive home energy systems in the world with households having to spend more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on power. More than five million households are fuel poor because of a combination of badly insulated homes and low income. According to the Energy Saving Trust, this resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths last winter. Learning how to become more energy efficient could save both lives and the environment.

Government initiatives, such as the Home Energy Conservation Act, the Energy Saving Trust itself and the Carbon Trust, and independent charities such as the National Energy Foundation and National Energy Action, seek to promote sustainable and efficient use of energy in the residential and commercial sector. They support a number of energy-efficiency projects currently being tried out.

National Energy Action, in Newcastle upon Tyne, develops and promotes energy-efficiency services to tackle the heating and insulation problems of low-income households. With Powergen, NEA has set up the Energy Efficiency Standards of Performance flexibility scheme. Called the SOP2 Flexi Programme, it incorporates a series of energy-efficient projects throughout the East Midlands.

The programme has focused on small projects that can create more energy-efficient communities with small means: solar water heating panels are being tried out, stickers with tips on how to use household appliances more efficiently and brochures with the title ‘How to be Warm and Healthy in Your Home’ have been distributed.

Others are taking conservation a step further by designing and selling appliances that use energy more efficiently. These are convenient because users don’t have to think about how much energy they are using – the item consumes as little energy as possible of its own accord.

However, UK households do not appear to have gone much further than energy-saving light bulbs, which use 75 per cent less energy than a standard bulb and last 12 times longer. Replacing a single 100W bulb with a 20W screw-in compact fluorescent could save up to £96 of electricity over the life of the bulb.

Worldwide there have been a number of technological developments that can cut energy consumption. In the US the Conserv Freezer, which is powered by solar energy and sold by Real Goods, uses no CFC products for insulation or coolant. It is constructed of all-recyclable components, and uses a minuscule 540 watt-hours per day.

One example of energy conservation that could be used in the UK comes from Scandinavia. Ecological home projects have been tested out for 25 years, and in Sweden entirely green homes are already on the market. One of the producers is Nordic Trabygg, which believes that a home should be a healthy and energy-efficient environment.

In its Ecological Houses ecological cellulose is used in the ceiling and walls to insulate and help the regulation of humidity indoors when it varies outdoors. The house has ventilators in each room, through which fresh air enters the house. ‘Old’ air is sucked out of the house through fans in bathroom and kitchen. Materials are all natural, such as wooden floors and roof, and plaster and board for walls. Plastic floors or any other material that might emit formaldehyde is avoided.

A solar linked to a water-based circulation system embedded in all floors heats the house effectively. No radiators are necessary. Appliances are energy efficient and all rubbish is sorted and recycled. The cost of an Ecological House, which you partly design yourself, starts from £100,000. Nordic Trabygg cannot offer ecological flats, although they could potentially be built using similar principles, says managing director Peter Alberg.

Sweden’s Eco-houses use 30-50 per cent less energy than their standard households, depending on the chosen heating system. Considering that a standard UK home uses 39 per cent more energy on heating than its Swedish equivalent, the Eco-home sets a good example for future design.

Sidebar: Smart with a social conscience

The UK is catching up with its Nordic cousins when it comes to successfully designing the energy-efficient home.

The Integer action research programme, formed in 1996, has drawn together 27 organisations from across the building industry. Its aim is to provide environmentally acceptable housing to the private and public sectors.

The original Integer demonstration house, the Millennium House built in Watford in 1998, had 50 per cent of the energy requirements of a normal house. This was partly through a high degree of insulation, plus features such as a southwest-facing conservatory acting as a passive solar collector.

Intelligent technologies included conservatory blinds that furl and unfurl in response to the sun’s brightness, while the house is ventilated naturally through ‘stack effect’ ducts in the kitchen and bathroom. Sustainable energy sources such as solar power for domestic hot water were used.

Such features have been included in homes the organisation has since built in other UK locations, using materials such as cellulose recycled newsprint as insulation and fencing constructed from plastic recovered from used milk cartons.

Integer is now working with Westminster Council to provide an energy-efficient means of refurbishing tower blocks in the borough. First on the list is Glastonbury House in Pimlico, where heating is currently centrally managed and runs 24 hours a day. This means the only way residents can control the temperature is to open windows, which is extremely wasteful. But Integer hopes to reduce both energy use and carbon emissions by 50 per cent.

As well as improving insulation, heating and lighting systems, communal lighting will be powered by wind turbines and photovoltaic panels on the block’s roof. Recycling of used washing-up and bath water and harvesting rainwater should also reduce water consumption by 40 per cent.

Although integrating new technologies into an older building is more difficult than starting afresh, Andy Haynes, a business analyst with I&I, part of the Integer team, says the social housing sector has enormous potential. ‘Constructing a building accounts for only 20 per cent of its total lifetime cost,’ he says. ‘Private sector developers may be less keen to install systems which bring down the overall cost as, once sold, they relinquish all contact with a structure. However, the reverse is true with social housing and councils are very keen to do all they can.’