frugality rant: coal energy wood
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Britain hasn’t really done very well for a cold-ish country in the Northern Hemisphere on the energy efficiency front, for residential property anyway. I’m not quite sure why this is so – there seem to be a mix of factors at work.
- Old houses – We churn our housing stock very slowly. My first house was a mid-terrace built in 1840 to house the Industrial Revolution workers. It had solid walls but no central heating – the rooms were heated by gas fires when I lived in it.
- Houses not designed for central heating – although it gets cold in winter in the UK it doesn’t get really cold in the same way as in parts of Continental Europe. Even before central heating they often took a whole-house heating approach, for instance using things like the German Kachelofen – apparently it’s called a Masonry Heater in English, which I never knew until now because I’ve never seen one in the UK. It was in the 1970s that central heating arrived in the UK, and combined with the slow turnover of the housing stock means everyone I know has a house where the central heating is a retro-fit.
- General constructional lackadaisical approach. Things like double-glazing came to Britain late in the day – another 1970’s/80s innovation, though Nordic countries have had double and triple-glazing for years. I’ve never come across triple glazing in the UK.
The trouble is the UK winter just isn’t such a big deal as it is in other Northern European countries – our climate is buffered by the close proximity to the sea, so as such we’ve never really sorted ourselves out regarding dealing with the cold. It’s why our roads, runways and railways freeze over (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) and come to a standstill if it’s a bit colder than we are used to. Unlike in places like Norway or even Germany, where if they didn’t have plans in place to tackle serious snow and ice they wouldn’t be able to move for three months we can get away with it, most years.
Now before the 1970s we tended to heat just one room, and everybody congregated in that room, which had the open fire. Although it plays well to an atavistic human race-memory, an open fire is a ghastly way to keep warm in winter – it works by generating a massive uprush of air through the chimney, sucking in the cold air from outside through any crevices it can find, and old British homes have lots of gaps. They’re about 40% efficient at best, can can be as low as 15%. You could end up starting the fire up and finding out other rooms in the house would get colder at times 1 due to the stupendous inrush of cold air sucked in by the fire With an open fire you also get a massive temperature gradient – the bit the cat curls up and lies down on is red hot, but by the time you get to the door it’s brass monkeys and cold and draughty.
However, it is very convivial – Ivan Illich would have approved. It’s not a great match for today’s atomistic virtual living, but in the ’70s we came up with an answer. Rather than heat one or two rooms, we’d heat the whole house! I know this probably doesn’t sound so radical now, but it really was a step-change. Shame that the US peak oil crisis and the Arab Israeli war which generated the 1970s oil shock was to rain on the parade in a few years, and in the UK Arthur Scargill and his chums were going to educate us about energy security closer to home, but it sounded like a great idea at the time.
So we took these leaky old houses, retrofitted a hot water distribution system and radiators into them, put hardboard over the previous fireplaces and hey presto – instant warmth. It wasn’t even that much dearer to run, because the shocking inefficiency of an open coal fire and all the attendant air leaks necessary to not have it kill you due to CO poisoning were eliminated. In the mid 1970s Britain converted from town gas created from coal to natural gas from the North Sea, and we were reasonably happy. Those that couldn’t use gas were pointed towards electric storage heaters in towns and oil-fired systems in the country.
When you heat a room from a coal fire, insulation and draught-proofing doesn’t matter so much
Everything was sorted – except that our houses were still draughty and leaky. When you are heating one room with a coal fire, the draughtiness isn’t such a bad thing, and because that room presents only one or two walls to the outside, you don’t need to mess around with insulation so much, because the radiating surface is small. If you’re lucky, the heated room is on the ground floor 2 so loft insulation is neither here nor there as some of the heat rising is a welcome move, particularly if the bedroom is above. The layout of the typical Victorian two-up two-down house is very conducive to that, and works well with an coal- or gas-fire in the living room with the bedroom above.
So we never bothered insulating our houses, and draught-proofing wasn’t really approved of. That coal fire has got to breathe in from the house as well as breathe out through the chimney, else carbon monoxide will bind to the haemoglobin in your blood and you don’t get to wake up. Ever.
central heating changed all that
Then we installed central heating. All of a sudden those draughts weren’t so useful and because we were now heating the whole house, the whole house is turned into a radiating surface, so there were benefits to be had from insulating the walls and the loft. Our crappy sash windows with a great big space between the sliding panes were also leaky, opening up potential for double glazing salesmen…
It’s easy to insulate the walls if they are cavity walls, and according to the DECC 3 a bit over half of the UK’s dwellings have or can support cavity wall insulation, which largely sorts out wall insulation. This sort of insulation is usually blown in from outside, and is relatively easy to do. Insulating the roofspace or loft with rockwool or fibreglass is also reasonably easy to do if you can get access.
The poor ended up with less well insulated houses – because they lived in older houses with solid walls where you can’t do cavity wall insulation. The way to heat a house like that is to heat one room – I know because that’s what I used to do when I lived in a two-up-two-down, and indeed this is the solution advocated by one Guardianista who has thought about it.
However, it appears that nowadays everyone has the right to heat their entire home; and indeed they do if they can afford it So the last Labour administration, in a remarkable piece of sleight of hand decided that we should all pay to insulate the homes of the poor. As a social goal there may well be something to be said for that, but I always find it’s nice if people ask first. The way they did it was sneaky and underhand. We have an existing method to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It’s called income tax, but politicians hate putting up income tax because people hate them for it and don’t vote them in again.
So they made all our fuel bills larger, so that we could all pitch in to help insulate the homes of the poor. And this does piss me off, because it’s dishonest, and it’s regressive – after all, not only do I end up paying more/getting less, the poor also end up eating the costs in higher energy bills unless they can take advantage of the insulation efforts. The whole thing seems to be an exercise in doubleplusgood Newspeak
The overwhelming reasons for power bills soaring are that fossil fuels are getting more expensive and that two decades of underinvestment by energy companies in the UK’s now creaking energy system has left customers with a steep bill to catch up. [...]
SSE’s own figures, analysed by Reg Platt at the IPPR think tank, show the rise equates to £93 a year. Of that, £23 is due to rising wholesale energy costs and £28 for investment in the grid and meters. VAT adds £5 and another £23 is unaccounted for, but will include SSE’s own costs, profit and projected rises for the next year, during which SSE has pledged to freeze its tariffs. That all means that just one sixth of SSE’s rise – £15 – is due to the rise in government “green taxes”.
Crafty, that – a part of the latest rise isn’t so bad? It’s not this particular rise, it is the total amount including all the stuff that has already been added. We have an evil combination of Soviet-style central planning and redistribution along with some free-market muppetry, it’s no wonder nobody can understand energy prices with everything pulling in different directions like that. The investment in the grid and meters is a ‘green’ requirement, because renewable energy increases the peak to mean ratio on specific sections of the network, which means you have to over-engineer it to handle the peak inflows as well, where previously it was engineered to handled the peak demand (you’d dimension the generation to match expected demand, but patterns in that could be characterised and have daily, weekly, and yearly patterns) .
You can see this if you take a look at this site
If you look at the daily and weekly demand you see a characteristic pattern, and you see a fairly harsh, and random, peak to mean ratio on the wind subchart. It’s also clear that the heavy lifting in this snapshot is done by fossil fuels 4 at about 80% of the total. Wind is ~ 12%, increase that to say 50% target and the unmanaged volatility is going to skyrocket. I can’t get a really clear answer of the wind peak to mean ratio from the chart, but I’d estimate it at about 3:1. If it’s half the generation, then the total volatility will be about 3:2, and we then have the issue that wind isn’t necessarily close to the consumption centres of the country. You get to say where you are putting fossil fuel power stations – sort of, so you can shorten the transmission network a bit. So all that will add up to extra costs and it’s fair enough that power consumers get to eat the cost of engineering the network, that’s part of the cost of supply. However, insulating some people’s homes at everyone else’s cost is social policy, and our government seems to have stolen a march on the Greek method of loading crafty taxes on to hard to avoid consumables – years before the Greeks had the idea!
The investment in meters is because there’s a theory that people manage their usage if they can see it. I personally would leave this up to the consumers – you don’t have to roll out smart meters to track consumption. I purchased a Efergy energy meter to manage this and may upgrade this to identify specific power hogs, and I have probably recovered the capital cost and more in reduced power usage. But not everybody is that interested the consumer needs to understand the difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours and which of those numbers they should try and minimise. If they don’t know they can’t use a smart meter properly. If you want to know, you’ll stump up – again, why everybody has to be provided with this just in case some are interested beats me.
I’ve at least done my bit to pay as little as possible for other people’s insulation – by reducing my energy usage However what I didn’t realise is how shocking these levies are. They aren’t listed explicitly anywhere, but can be seen in the background radiation of their effect on fuel prices. I brazenly pinched this chart from here
Now you have to factor in efficiency into the equation – my wood stove is rated by the manufacturer to be > 70% efficient. Electricity is always 100% efficient 5 in being turned into heat, because you have no exhaust to vent the products of combustion. My gas boiler is over twenty years old and according to the energy saving trust it is about 70% efficient too.So you have to deflate the cost of electricity by 30% to compare it with wood, whereas gas and wood are pretty much of a muchness efficiency-wise for me. That economy7 is about 5.1 p/kWh because you get to use all of it, so it’s cheaper that heating oil or LPG for kWh of heating functionality delivered to your living space 6
According to them I could save £310 p.a. if I bought the latest whizz-bang condensing boiler, which would be impressive it it were true – I pay £500 for gas in a year as it is However, elementary arithmetic indicates they are wrong. Assume a new boiler is 100% efficient. I throw away 30% of my £500 due to the notional inefficiency of my boiler, £150 tops. So they are presuming a higher consumption. Not only that, but the payback period is thus very very long – if it costs £3000 parts and labour to install a boiler I am looking at 20 years to amortise the cost 7, and condensing boilers are notoriously unreliable – I’d be lucky to get ten years service life. So I’ll pass on that, thanks.
Now the interesting part of this is if you look at the cost of wood, in terms of logs. It’s probably safe to say that nobody has yet thought of putting green levies on logs. Wood processing is shockingly manually intensive, and yet is cheaper than anything else other than coal in price per kWh. It’s got to be dearer to harvest, store and dry out for a year or and supply than gas – there are few economies of scale to be had. I suspect gas would be cheaper if it weren’t distorted by social engineering, which guesstimates the social engineering at about 1p out of 3.5p, a heady 28%.
You can take matters into your own hands, however. Burn coal in a multifuel log burner, or if you have children and issues with global warming then pay people to chop up wood and deliver it to you by the ton, which has the nice social engineering byproduct of improving manual employment opportunities in your local area, because wood is a low-density fuel and the economics go pear-shaped as soon as you shift it any significant distance
Do your bit for the country. Declare independence from these chiseling ways. If politicians want us to pay for the poor to insulate their homes then let them man up at the ballot box, say so and do it above the line. Shysters…
Having now discovered this I will be buying coal, if I can get it at the prices quoted. I don’t see why I should be chipping in just so that the Guardian can print this heart-warming tale of four working-age adults getting their house insulated for free on my power bill and now I know how to stop being rooked for this
Rogers believes the ECO scheme should be expanded, not slimmed down. “It’s a brilliant idea. I don’t know why we don’t do more of it.”
Take a guess. Go on, try. Perhaps we don’t do more of it because you run out of other people’s money?
- according to these guys this effect was used in the 19th century to provide coal fired cooling at times! ↩
- you get a double win by having the fire on the ground floor of a two storey house because having a longer chimney is beneficial to getting enough airflow – the pressure difference is proportional to the chimney length if it is adequately insulated. ↩
- DECC – review of the number of cavity walls in Britain ↩
- I regard nuclear as a fossil fuel though not a CO2 generating one, because they ain’t making any more uranium in places we can get at easily, like on earth… ↩
- obviously there are losses in generation and transmission, but these are taken into account in the price per kWh you pay when it crosses your meter ↩
- I am making the assumption that confusedaboutenergy.co.uk haven’t already inflated the cost to compensate for efficiency, which they sort of confirm by saying For further clarity this is the amount of potential energy in the fuel, and not the energy delivered from an appliance ↩
- I expect gas to rise in real terms, which would shorten the period of amortization by some uncertain amount. Even if it’s ten years, that seems to be the anticipated service life of a modern boiler, so I would have to add £300 p.a. to my gas bill just to save up for the cost of the new boiler in 2023, making the efficiency saving of £150/year look very bad value indeed ↩