The burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas to produce energy for homes, offices and factories produces undesirable waste products such as the oxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur.
Many of our technologies, buildings and processes are energy inefficient. We could be getting these same energy services while burning much less coal, oil or gas. Our current standard of living can be maintained using far less energy and causing far less pollution, by improving energy efficiency.
Energy efficiency is a measure of how well a process turns energy input, like electricity, coal or gas, into the required energy service output such as light from a light bulb, cooling from a refrigerator, or heat from a heating system. The more energy efficient the process the less energy input needed to achieve the required level of energy service.
Coal power stations are particularly inefficient generators of electricity (30% efficient compared with 70 to 90% for gas). Only one third of the energy in the fuel ends up as useful electrical energy. The rest is allowed to escape into the atmosphere from huge cooling towers as hot water vapour. By improving the design of the power stations using Combined Heat and Power (CHP) schemes, efficiency can be increased to around 80 per cent.
We can reduce the emissions of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide from coal power stations by introducing sorbents such as limestone. When the limestone reacts with sulphur dioxide, gypsum is created which can be used in plaster. Although this system reduces up to 90% of sulphur emissions it is energy consuming. Nitrogen oxides can be removed by another process.
Renewable energy sources from wind, sun, ocean currents, tides and hydroelectric schemes are available but all have costs, disadvantages and need further research. Cleaner fuels such as gas can be used in preference to oil and coal. The world can use less electricity and energy. We can switch off unnecessary lights, and be more aware about heating (don't leave a window open if the heating is on), and cooking (don't heat up a big oven just for one potato, keep a lid on pans or better still, use pressure cookers or eat more raw foods). We can avoid buying more energy-greedy electrical gadgets. We can cut down on unnecessary car journeys - walk or use a bicycle for short distances.
Heating buildings accounts for 30% of energy use in a typical northern European country. But the energy needed to keep most existing buildings warm in winter, could be cut in half by reducing ventilation rates with draught-proofing and double glazing, by insulating walls, roofs, floors and windows, improving electronic controls of heating systems and replacing old boilers with high efficiency condensing boilers. Energy-efficient homes use 35% less energy than standard homes. The free heat produced by office machinery and the people in the building can be utilised using thermostats installed in each room. Heat exchangers and heat pumps make use of heat, which would otherwise be wasted.
Efficient 'low energy light bulbs' or CFL’s, have been developed which produce the same amount of light using just one-fifth of the power, thereby reducing pollution and running costs by 80%. CFL’s can also last 8 times longer, and while they are initially more expensive than incandescent light bulbs, the savings on running costs and their longer life, means that money is saved within a few years of use. Controls exist which switch off lights when there is enough daylight or no one is in the room. New buildings can be designed which utilise these technologies and save energy.
Home appliances, such as refrigerators, televisions, washing machines and freezers use about one-fifth of all the electricity produced in a typical Western country. In the main, the models we buy and use are very inefficient compared with the most energy-efficient models available. For example, the average refrigerator in the UK uses 350 units of electricity per year. New models in shops use about 270 units per year. The best mass-produced models in Europe use just 80 units per year and models are being developed which use 30 units per year - a 90% saving in electricity over current models. Using proven energy-efficient technology, a 45% saving on current electricity use could be possible, representing savings on electricity bills for every household.
What you can do
Use less energy in the home by:
Build homes that are energy efficient so that less air conditioning and heating is needed. Use the most appropriate building materials and design for your home, depending on the climate. Paint the inside walls a light colour. Dark coloured walls require more light for the same effect. Position trees carefully around the house to provide shade for the building during summer.
Use energy saving devices and wherever possible, use solar powered technology. Laptop computers are generally much more energy efficient than desktop computers.
Try to avoid using a car. Car-pool whenever possible. If you have to have one, drive a car that is fuel-efficient. Catalytic converters can be installed in your unleaded car. For your next car, consider buying a hybrid car with an electric-powered and petrol-fuelled engine. With any car, you can save on fuel costs by keeping the tyres properly inflated, the air filters clean and keeping the engine tuned. When driving, remember that sudden accelerating and braking wastes fuel.
Buy locally grown and produced food: Buying locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from food transportation. One study estimates that the average meal travels 2400 km (1500 miles) from the field to your table.
Be conscious of how much energy you are using including the energy invested in the products you buy - how they are made and how far they have travelled get to you. Are there more energy-friendly alternatives?
Try to avoid buying over-packaged products, particularly plastic packaging. Plastic is made out of petroleum.
Join or support environmental organisations which oppose the development of harmful landfill-burning and other incineration projects.
Your government’s energy supplying authority should have a list of recommended products. If they don’t, ask them to set one up. Ask your governments to promote only those energy projects which are really beneficial to the environment.
Use our lobbying service to write a letter or email your government and ask them to phase out coal power stations and introduce sustainable energy systems powered by wind, sun, ocean currents, tides and biofuels and geothermal energy. Ask them to provide more incentives to use renewable energy, in the form of subsidies and tax breaks so people use less electricity and energy. In addition ask them to introduce subsidies and tax breaks, and laws to make building design and construction conform to energy saving guidelines.
Write a letter or email to the editor of your local newspaper; urge him or her to publish your concerns about local energy issues.