Friday, 24 August 2012

Saving your energy

I've just watched the news on T.V., where people were being interviewed about price increases for electricity and gas. There seemed to be a lot of blame apportioned to the energy companies, but I'm not sure that's the whole story.

We could endlessly debate the merits of profit-making private energy suppliers versus the old system of public-sector gas and electricity boards. But we'd still be watching T.V. news stories about price increases.

The profits of the energy companies are the most obvious and visible aspect. The less obvious one is that the gas we use in our homes, and to fuel our power stations, is increasingly coming from abroad. The U.K. isn't self-sufficient in gas, even though we have all the North Sea oil and gas rigs. They can't meet the demand on their own, so the gas we use is being piped from further and further afield.

The longer the pipeline, the more it costs to operate and maintain it. Also, when you deal with overseas countries, you often deal in overseas currencies that can change in value - as you'll know if you've been abroad on holiday. More importantly, when the energy companies buy the gas, they're only a middleman. The foreign gas supplier can put their prices up when they want, and if the energy companies or their customers (that's you and me) aren't willing to pay the extra, then the supplier doesn't have to give it to us. But because there are limited places to obtain gas, the choice of alternative supplier is also limited.

Obviously, if the supplier's price is too high, then few energy companies would buy from them at all. But the point I'm trying to make is that your home energy supplier doesn't have as much influence on prices as you might think.

So the way to pay less for your household energy in the long term is to cut back on use. Changing supplier might also save you save you some money, but the wholesale price to your supplier will likely be the same, and it's the one thing you can't change.

You could also look at more efficient appliances when it comes time to buy replacements. For example, wood burning stoves are touted as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to a gas fire. We're still trying to figure out if a wood burner is cheaper overall though, as the cheapest log burner we can find is around £400, plus fitting and some necessary building works. When an electric fire costs around £100, and a basic electric heater is less than £20, then I'm not really sure which is the cheapest option overall. Will the increased cost of electricity outweigh the low purchase price? I don't know, but I think I'd need my calculator to work it out!

In the meantime, the cost of energy will increase, and unfortunately, none of us will have much choice but to carry on paying for it. The best we can do is try to use less, which will help the environment too.

Image: Gas Flame by George Shuklin, Public Domain. Obtained via

Monday, 20 August 2012

The case of the missing blog post...

No need to call Sherlock Holmes! It's just that this weekend's intended blog post didn't make it onto the site.

I had written most of an article, but got stuck while checking my facts. I'm a bit old fashioned that way - I don't like to publish something without being reasonably sure of what I'm saying. Five minutes of fact checking before publishing is far better than spending lots of time having to apologise and correct articles afterwards.

In the commercial news media, it seems there is an ever-increasing pressure to bypass the fact-checking stage. A friend, who was close to the industry for many years, tells me that checking facts means that there's a delay in getting the news out. In today's world of instant connectivity, this means that some other media outlet might break the news before you. And that costs money.

The same friend tells me that the professional journalists he knows are keen to check their facts. But, as the documentary film "Starsuckers" shows, journalists are not always given the time to check facts by their employer, due to commercial pressures to get the news out. Accuracy, it seems, doesn't sell half as well as a good headline.

And so, as old-fashioned as it may seem, my originally intended blog post has been sent back to the drawing board because of incorrect facts.  But I hope you'll agree that it's better to have a missing post than a misleading post.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Shopping local

On a recent visit to Belgium, I noticed something was missing from the outskirts of the towns and cities I visited: large supermarkets. I began to wonder if I'd just not noticed them. After all, if they didn't exist, where did people buy their food?

I eventually saw some smaller supermarkets in the suburbs, but they were a long way from the massive American-style retail parks common to the UK.

All became clear after a visit to a small town centre cafe, where I indulged in a capuccino and some people watching. I noticed that many locals came into town on their bicycles. They bought meat from the local butcher, bread from the local baker, vegetables from the greengrocer, and bumped into friends for a chat along the way. There was a small town centre supermarket, but it didn't have a car park. Again, most customers walked or cycled. There were no massive queues, no big car park traffic jams, and no-one losing their temper.

No, I hadn't fallen asleep and started dreaming. This was real. In some respects, it was like being transported back in time 30 years, to a time when the high street was the centre of retail trade in the UK. But it was also surprising that shopping in this way could still be an easy, stress-free experience - even with today's high-speed lifestyle, and even if you had to go to several shops just to get the basic essentials.

In the process of going into several independent shops on a regular basis, you'd meet several familiar faces. Those shop owners would get to know their customers personally, without needing a computer and a loyalty card to track their regular purchases. In turn, this seems to foster a sense of community. And that's an experience that the out-of-town megastores have difficulty matching.

In the process of demanding low prices and instant availability, I wonder if we've lost something quite important at the heart of our communities.

So shop local - maybe your community needs you!

Image: adapted from Maastricht Shopping Street by Redvers, Public Domain, obtained via (yes, I know Maastricht isn't in Belgium, but I am impressed that you're reading this bit at the bottom).

Saturday, 4 August 2012

How bad are bananas?

I have to admit, I don't actually like bananas. But I've just bought a book called "How bad are bananas? (the carbon footprint of everything)". And it contains far more than just musings on bendy-shaped yellow fruit.

Bananas galore!
Image: Martin Wiesheu
The author, Mike Berners-Lee, meausres carbon footprints for a living. While it's not an exact science, he does at least explain how he arrived at his figures, and is very careful with some of his results that contradict popular wisdom.

I even found the answers to the hand drier versus paper towel debate and the fruit juice dilemma :
  • Using two paper towels is equivalent to using an electric hand drier. Surprisingly, there is no difference in the energy used, even though the paper towels are usually transported by truck. So if you can get away with using a single paper towel, that's the more environmentally friendly option. However, even this is trumped by a cyclonic hand drier, like the Dyson Airblade, which wins hands down.
  • Fresh juice seems to beat concentrated juice. Oranges are usually transported by boat, which is fairly efficient. However, creating fruit juice concentrate uses lots of energy. So despite the fact that concentrates are made to reduce the volume and weight of the juice, so it can be transported more easily, it doesn't translate into less energy being used overall. It just means that a single boat can carry more.
I found some other surprising facts about transportation that I hadn't considered. For example, a bottle of wine imported from New Zealand to the UK could have a lower carbon footprint than one from Italy. Products from within Europe tend to be transported by road, whereas the New Zealand wine will arrive on a boat. So even though Italy is closer to the UK, it's the mode of transport that makes the biggest difference. The concept of "food miles" is beginning to look a bit suspect to me now.

By the way, the same logic applies to bananas too. They may come from far away, but they usually arrive by boat.

Which begs the question, why don't we ship more freight by sea and waterway?

Photo by Martin Wiesheu, CC-BY-SA licence, obtained via