Thursday, 17 January 2019

Chateau L and the planet: Part I

Our family life is largely centred around meals around the dining table. That’s where we gather, where we share the day, where we discuss the news and tell each other stories. There are no TV dinners in our house, there is no grab and go. Despite our busy schedule we always try and make time for this daily event. It’s something I hope our kids will take forward – how do families spend time together if they don’t do this? Topics of conversation are varied. We talk about Trump, we talk about Brexit, we talk about school, books, things we heard on the radio. We talk about family. We talk about holidays, books, music and food. I try and talk about birds and plants….. There are few taboos, a few nights ago for example we ended up talking about FGM. There is no shying away from things like this, it is best that kids are informed, and actually you would be surprised at how early school’s start sex education and a number of other things under a banner they call “citizenship”. Our kids are exposed to a broad palette.

As I mentioned to in my last post, one topic that we talk a lot about is the environment. Like many of you I have been reading some very very sobering things about the state of the planet. Our family is not a wasteful one, but neither are we saints. Also, I suspect, like many there was a pervading and overriding thought of “What difference can we make, nobody else bothers, why should we?”, and certainly if you have ever visited America it is enough to make you wonder why anybody bothers. In fact it makes you want to weep. But there are five of us, and the upshot is we think that we can do better. It requires some changes, but none of it is hard, and we think that we can make a small difference.  I feel faintly embarrassed and more than a little sanctimonious for even typing this, and I am not holding myself up as a shining beacon of sustainability, but I just felt that if I outlined a few easy things that we have started to do then maybe it would encourage others to do the same. No doubt some will say “Oh we have been doing that for years”, and if you have then that is great and you are ahead of us. Of course this will never be enough for the more radical members of the green movement, but in my opinion it isn’t the full-on eco warriors who will drive the change that is needed. It’s the thousands upon thousands of normal families like ours, living normal working lives, who en masses can help to stem the tide. I already wrote about changing our diet, but what else? Well, what about energy use?
  • Gas. We already changed our energy supplier last year to one that only uses green energy, waving goodbye to the big national supplier that we had used for years but that ultimately is not doing enough. If sufficient people make that conscious choice then things will change. In doing so we lost our smart meter which is a bit of a shame and means we can no longer see our real-time energy use. But we do have one of those supposedly intelligent thermostats, and after Christmas I went onto the app and reduced the temperature at all points in the day by a full 2 degrees. It is noticeably colder in the house, but it is also noticeable that the boiler is not on as much. Obviously this is variable depending on the weather outside, but all things being equal our gas consumption should drop. Also as of last year Chateau L has a new boiler, replacing one that was at least 15 years old. Whilst our motivation for this wasn’t reduced consumption, it is a fact that it is significantly more efficient than the old one.
  • Electricity. I wasn’t sure about this as it seems that ever more things require a power supply these days. Several mobile phones need charging nearly every day for instance, and all those smart-home devices that we simply didn’t have two years ago are in an “always on” state. With our smart meter gone it is a lot harder to see what we’re using, but there are some good stats on the internet on exactly how much this constant stand-by uses. An Amazon Echo Dot for instance, of which we have several, draws a constant 1.7-3W of power. A smart hub used to control lights draws 1.5W. I dutifully added up all of these various devices that are now dotted around Chateau L and discovered that over a year they use 170KwH – about £20 - simply from being plugged in, and it’s actually not much more if they’re actually being used, playing music etc. That’s actually a lot better than I thought but nonetheless it’s an increase versus where we were. Luckily there are all sorts of things that go the other way – if you wanted to make a change the easiest of these is LED light bulbs. I don’t know how many lights the average house has but after the renovation and turret extension Chateau L has 78 (I actually counted!), and nearly every single one of these is now an LED. Previously we had a mix of halogen, CFL, fluorescent tubes and ancient filaments, albeit that we had half as many lights. The big difference is that the new rooms have lots of LED downlights in the ceilings, but despite this increase the overall wattage of bulbs in the house is 20% of what it was. I find that incredible, image how much energy people wasted in the past! I’ve had a go at working out what our real-life usage does to this, a relatively detailed estimate of what we used prior to the building work but with older style bulbs, versus what we use now including the extra rooms but with LED bulbs. I think that annually we have dropped from around 825KwH to 275KwH, saving around £75. That may not sound a lot but it easily eclipses the increase associated with the various smart devices. And the benefit of smart devices is that I can turn off anything that has been accidentally left on with just a tap on my phone no matter where I am - no more lights left on all day. Each house and each family living in it is different, I’ve only looked at lighting and smart devices here, and of course switching out all the old bulbs for new comes at a manufacturing cost. That said LEDs seem to go on forever whereas I was frequently having to change those supposedly long-life bulbs. I propose to not even venture down that road - one thing I have learned over the last few weeks is that working out any kind of totally accurate view of any one person’s overall impact on this earth is practically impossible. There is plenty more to have a look at as well.
  • Petrol. For a long time we had two cars. For the last two years though we have only had one, and that does not get used very often or go very far. For instance I no longer engage in twitching, nor any kind of year-listing other than locally on foot. In fact now that I think about it my UK birding is about as carbon neutral as it could possibly be. Unfortunately we still need a car, or rather it would be inconvenient not to have one immediately available. I am giving thought to getting rid of it though, mainly for economic reasons, and especially as so many other options are coming online all the time. For now we’re keeping it, but fundamentally buses, trains and tubes are the way we all get around on a daily basis. Bicycles would be better, especially for Mrs L and I. She however cycles when the weather is nice, whereas I am just far too lazy always injured in some way that prevents exercise.
So that concludes part one of this essay. Part two is on the way. I ended up writing so much I felt that people might give up before I finished so I've split it into two. After that normal service will resume as I still haven't seen a Fieldfare this year....


  1. The essay is unnecessary because you've rendered the issue irrelevant from first principles.

    Two adults replaced by three children = planetary in-sustainability.

    Basic observation.

  2. Plenty of food for thought there Jono. I should up my game to be honest. I need to have a long, hard look in the mirror...

    1. I think most people probably do, which is why I wrote this.

  3. Couple of thoughts;
    Green Gas - no such thing unless you have a biodigester - what is actually being offered? There are renewables for electricity but not for gas.
    For lighting you need to include the cost of producing the bulbs as well as the energy in use. LEDs are the solution, CF needed horrible things such as mercury and good to see them go even if they saved energy in use.

    1. Well what they say is 100% renewable electricity and 100% carbon offset gas, although I don't know how they achieve the latter.

      I did mention manufacturing cost of an led bulb but I don't know what it is. Hopefully less that the power saved over the life of the bulb otherwise we are all being sold a lie.