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Energy efficient lighting: A Nobel cause

 Posted by on 11 November 2014
Nov 112014

Blue LED image in the dark

LED lighting is a technology making a reputation for itself – so much so, in fact, that it’s now got a Noble Prize for Physics to its name. Well, sort of; Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamur received the accolade for developing the blue LED which ultimately made white light LED lamps possible.

It’s a very practical victory in the Physics category of Nobel Prize-giving, with previous winners often coming from the fields of theoretical and particle physics. But it’s definitely a winner for the times, with Frances Saunders, president of Britain’s Institute of Physics, emphasising the potential energy savings of the breakthrough:

With 20 percent of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to 4 percent. Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura’s research has made this possible and this prize recognizes this contribution.”

LEDs are not the last frontier for energy efficient lighting. In fact, such a high profile honour could further stimulate the race to even higher levels of efficiency.

Two-thirds of the Nobel-winning research team were based in Japan, and it is here too where some say the next generation technologies will emerge from. In particular, carbon nanotubes are seen as likely to eventually replace silicon parts in light sources – with one flat model from a research team at Tohuku University claiming power consumption of a hundred times lower than today’s LEDs. Yes, you did read that right.

It seems that the technological leaps forward in lighting our spaces while using less energy are still potentially massive, but as for what’s available now, there are some who remain to be convinced.

An opinion piece in the New York Times on the back of the Nobel Prize raised a note of caution; the potential of something of an economic ‘rebound effect’ whereby demand for the LEDs, and new uses for them, could outstrip their efficiency savings. The pieces authors cite lighting examples from history: Kerosene replacing gas lamps, electric lighting trumping kerosene and so on, with more overall energy consumption. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the piece ends with something of a call to arms for more of a widespread change in energy generation:

Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world… But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.”

We’d definitely second the low carbon energy call, though wouldn’t share the view that LED savings can’t be made (see our report on LED installations in social housing for a bit of evidence on that). That said, with all low carbon advances, potential rebounds are always something to guard against.

Apr 252014

Japan pylons

In the last few decades, there have been many ambassadors for energy efficiency, including ourselves. But it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been an entire nation emblematic of the impact of widespread energy efficiency measures – until now.

Japan has managed to replace half of its nuclear capacity simply by conserving energy, following the earthquakes of 2011 and subsequent closure of its nuclear facilities. Predictions that the country would have to start importing millions of tonnes of cheap (and dirty) coal have simply not come to pass.

While a surge in energy efficiency measures in businesses and homes (plus some slackening of work dress codes to account for slightly warmer offices) in the immediate aftermath of the disaster was predictable, a continuation of good habits, and avoiding the dreaded ‘rebound effect’ was less so.

Essentially, Japan seems to have proved to the world that energy efficiency, even in a variable climate, does not impact so greatly on comfort. It’s about simple, sensible moves, proper energy auditing of commercial and domestic premises, and realising that some things, like giant outdoor screens, are superfluous when faced with the reality of threats to energy security.

Plans for coal-fired plants are still theoretically on the agenda but renewable energy, particularly solar, is picking up the energy supply slack so fast that these plans may never see the light of day. Greenpeace’s Lauri Myllyvirta says:

By the time these plants are on-line, the output could be rendered obsolete due to the rapidly dropping price of renewable energy.”

It took a disaster for Japan to develop good energy habits – but clearly it need not require such a shock for major nations to follow suit. Major studies have shown that the United States could cut its energy use by a fifth within a decade, while here in the UK, government research showed potential to reduce demand by 40 per cent by 2030. Energy efficiency en masse involves a complex mesh of infrastructural and behavioural changes, but it’s the quickest and cheapest capacity-builder, highlighting that less is still best.

Mar 262014


Pushing us towards changing our ways can range anywhere from ‘keeping up with the greens’ vision of neighbourly competition, to positive reinforcement and appreciation, to making a fun game out of behaving better. The effects of change can mean anything from massive savings on energy bills to ‘rebounding’, and possibly making matters worse.

Now, a thought-provoking editorial by suggests that it might be worth avoiding trying to appeal consciously to peoples’ altruism, and guide them instead towards making ‘good’ choices without knowing about it.

The piece cites the example of a dishwasher powder manufacturer that wants to reduce packaging, suggesting that branding the resulting product as ‘eco-friendly’ may well backfire, as people associate the positive action with a sense of compromise, even if there is no compromise at all. The solution, according to writer Rory Sutherland, is to make small tablets with a colourful, well-designed ‘powerball’:

I am using less product and less packaging, but I am completely unconscious of any reduction in efficacy as a consequence of the reduced volume. In fact, I think they are better than powder… You just allow people to do good while remaining blissfully unaware of the good they are doing — through an appeal to their instinctive self-interest.”

More controversially perhaps, Sutherland goes on to question the motives for altruism, noting a trend for ‘conspicuous non-consumption’; or to be seen as not trying too hard, thereby increasing status in the eyes of others. There are many more points in the piece (many of which are likely to enrage as much as excite), but the conclusions reached still offer up some faith in other human motivations which can reach positive ends:

Perhaps the best way to save the world is by stealth. Or by appealing to other innate instincts — for fairness, or reciprocity or via appeals to loyalty to a defined group, through social norms or reputational shame.”

Unconscious motivations are all well and good, but for those looking to save cash as well as cut carbon wherever possible in their buying habits, there is still a place for giving some very conscious guidance. For instance, accurate labelling can help people make informed and scientific choices.

A 2009 study by consumer group, Consumer Choices,  found more than a third of consumers report that they ‘always’ or ‘often’ look out for green product information – and this figure is likely to be on the rise. Indeed, in our recent survey on advertising green products, nearly 60 per cent said visible stats and evidence would make them more likely to buy. Whatever their reasons for thinking in a more sustainable way, it’s still worth offering the customer what they want when they reach the store.

Jan 032014

Close-up of solar panel

There are few better ways to start the year than in a community-spirited fashion. It’s to be hoped the government feels the same, with the publication of DECC’s Community Energy Strategy said to be imminent.

A ResPublica study from late last year showed that community owned energy in the UK could grow to 89 times its current size, with the right support.

When you compare community energy’s contribution to the grid in the UK (0.3 per cent) to that of Germany (46 per cent) you can certainly see there’s much room for improvement. As the report states, such projects can reduce bills, increase energy market competition and bring in much-needed local tax revenue to invest in services. In can also help local people have a stake in their own future. Those involved in local energy generation are at less risk of falling into the trap of the ‘rebound effect’ too, says the report:

The growth of community energy is self reinforcing as two-thirds of communities reinvest or intend to reinvest revenue from renewables in further projects of energy efficiency.”

A BBC article about community solar in the South West highlighted a case study where more than half the shareholders are locals. Funded by the people; energy used by the people – neat.

The founder of the Glastonbury Festival, Michael Eavis, is also throwing his weight behind community energy – but like many supporters of Britain’s green belt and those concerned about the country’s food production capacity, he’s against plonking solar panels on pastureland. He used to be the proud owner of the UK’s largest solar farm, on the roofs of his cow shed – but there are bigger generators these days. In fact, over the last decade, community energy capacity as a whole has grown by over 1,300 per cent.

Having sustainable incentives and support in place is absolutely vital for small-scale renewable energy to flourish – and recent news from Spain provides a cautionary note.

A tax designed for those who generate their own energy – ostensibly to pay for grid maintenance – has resulted in a severe backlash. The move comes after the country slashed its Feed-in Tariff. Austerity is tough, even on those trying to future-proof themselves against energy fluctuations. The BBC reports that it’s pushing some solar enthusiasts off-grid. One restaurant cited is investing in insulation to maximise gains, and batteries for energy storage.

Things are rarely as simple as ‘plug and play’ in the world of low-carbon energy, and rarely as convenient as one technology fits all. Solar is enjoying a boom, but it’ll take the right conditions for renewable heat, small wind and even hydropower to flourish too if we’re to increase local involvement in the UK’s energy future.

Apr 242013

European map in green

As an organisation that’s been banging the drum of behaviour change and its centrality to reducing carbon emissions for many years, it’s always nice to see a bit of third party vindication – if it were needed.

A new European Energy Agency report has done just that. It says that a fifth of the energy currently used by EU member states could be cut with effective policies to tackle the bad behaviours that caused emissions to rocket by a quarter in the last couple of decades.

For all the fancy new technology advances we discuss in these parts, it does come back to the simple things when considering the home front in the fight for cleaner, cheaper ways of doing things. Some of the most popular pages on our website are the ones that offer that solid, everyday advice.

But then the technologies are part of a more sustainable vision too – there’s no other way. With this in mind, the report also advocates the importance of shifting what is considered ‘normal’ by people in terms of energy consumption, from the way we receive our energy, to the cars we drive and the energy infrastructure around us. When sustainability is ingrained in, well, pretty much everything, it’s hard to be the naysayer standing apart.

But then there are the things that make us change, and change faster. Governments and organisations like ourselves not only have to constantly bolster their credibility to elicit change, but work out the best ways of getting people moving along the right lines without appearing overbearing or dogmatic.

That could be the friendly nudge of neighbourly competition to inspiring energy efficiency schemes happening on your doorstep. It definitely does not want to involve a hefty dose of the dreaded ‘rebound effect’ after positive actions have been completed.

Convinced? Maybe you’d quite like those top tips for carbon and money savings driven home again. If so, click here and start making that change. From thermostats to light bulbs, all the classics are there. Be one of Europe’s finest.

Does hope come in blocks?

 Posted by on 5 December 2012
Dec 052012

The rise of energy efficiency retrofit projects in high-rise blocks is something we’ve looked at before on the blog, highlighting some good working examples from Manchester and Barking of what you can do when smart thinking and finance is applied to a potentially tricky task.

Now, the London School of Economics (LSE) have really looked at the subject. In particular, their focus was the human impact. Talking in-depth to residents of the Edward Woods Estate in west London as their homes got an energy makeover, High Rise Hope is one of the most profound impressions yet of life in state of retrofit.

Concrete tower blocks are some of the most vulnerable structures to cold and damp. This makes them high priorities to improve. At the same time, the report points out that as estates like Edward Woods usually have a single freeholder, it makes it easier to take on a large, all-encompassing project that saves costs and time when compared to a bit-by-bit approach.

As a touch of background, the project in question involved external insulation, improved heating systems, lighting and solar PV as well as changes to areas of the buildings’ use as part of the general regeneration of the area. So what did the people there make of it all?

Satisfaction of residents is a key factor in any on-going regeneration, and here, people were generally happy with two years’ worth of works on the estate. Communication, as always, was key: nearly 90 per cent felt well-updated as things progressed.

With many people on the estate in or at risk of fuel poverty, energy bills were a big concern as the scheme began – but only a third were confident their homes would be warmer, less damp and cheaper to run after the improvements were made. 40 per cent felt they couldn’t save more energy than they already do.

The report suggests checking back in a year to see if energy and bill-savings are indeed realised, but also makes pains to press home the realities of the ‘rebound effect’ – where energy efficiency improvements can be cancelled out by shifts in behaviour that accommodate the changes (we’ve blogged on this before too – have a read – but this is what LSE have to say on this case:

“The biggest benefits of the project, particularly in terms of delivering the intended energy and financial savings will only be realised if residents participate fully by changing their behaviour in the use of energy and observing the good practice guidance around how windows, ventilation, and heating are used efficiently.

“Being more aware of some energy saving measures primes people to think of other energy efficiency measures, creating a multiplier effect. If information is delivered effectively about the energy saving merits of this scheme, it may not 9 only reduce energy consumption from space heating, but from other appliances.”

There’s little better than good, informed, old-fashioned energy-saving advice delivered person-to-person, and our SHIMMER report also showed that a level of ‘technological engagement’ via easy-to-use smart home energy displays can help people in or at risk of fuel poverty compound savings and manage household finances better.

Of course this is an extra thing to think about where an already ambitious programme or works like this is concerned – but it may well be worth the extra effort to make social investment truly hit home.

  • Since writing this blog, it’s been pointed out that Green Alliance also have a new report out looking at very similar issues. Sustainable living in tower blocks is clearly very much the Zeitgeist – and with good reason. You can check out their take on things, Towering ambitions, on their website.

Lag to the future

 Posted by on 23 July 2012
Jul 232012

There’s lots of potential Green Deal players that are currently carefully feeling their way into what their role might be in this new age of energy efficiency.

Research and technical know-how is absolutely key, and also understanding how things might work at a local level. We’re working with organisations that want to do just this, and this blog’s an ideal place to highlight the case studies that are producing results.

There’s few better examples than Affinity Sutton’s award-winning Futurefit programme. We are working with the affordable housing provider, providing technical support in installing packages of measures in 102 homes across house types typical of the social housing sector, at different levels of cost.

These are not ‘show homes’, the more aspirational dream scenario for anyone looking to live in a greener home, not was the focus on maximum reduction in carbon emissions regardless of cost. It’s clear that the right way of doing things is to take a practical approach, looking exactly what bang you can get for your buck, so to speak. That’s exactly what Futurefit’s about.

It’s also about how best to bring green living advice into the mix during major retrofit work – vitally important if you want to compound those savings and avoid the dreaded ‘rebound effect.’

We’re all hoping it will prove excellent guidance for housing associations to make practical decisions on the right measures for the right homes, how installing them works, how an Affinity Sutton-sized housing provider can design financial models that deliver, and how best to keep everyone, not least the residents, happy throughout the process. Not easy, but achievable when done right.

We’ve got a detailed report available of what we learnt from the installation phase of the scheme. From air-tightness to householder satisfaction surveys to where this all could fit into the Green Deal, you’ll find it all there.

Apr 202012

Not on the smart home's watch...

Often it’s the auxiliary benefits of energy efficiency measures that prove the ‘tipping point’ between just thinking about getting them done and biting the bullet.

Some of our recent research has also shown that people are even prepared to pay a bit more for measures that show this sort of ‘value added’ – the added security that comes with double glazing, for example.

It turns out that smart home energy management systems may have the ultimate auxiliary benefit for the suspicious parent. reported the story of and Australian dad and avid remote energy monitor inspector who managed to snoop out his kids’ house party while he was out having dinner 500 miles away.

After initial confusion at seeing a hefty energy-use spike in his absence, it was teenagers in his company completed the sell-out of his own progeny, by explaining what was really going on. After calling his daughter, she did try and slow down the energy consumption, but too little too late: busted.

There are some concerns that mass smart metering could only benefit energy companies through more accurate customer usage information – but we’re keen to ensure that armed with the correct information, this isn’t the case, and that households can really make a change towards wiser energy choices.

What’s more, this story does seem to illustrate that the micro, domestic ‘conversations’ between man and meter may be just as telling as the macro ones at corporate level.

We’ve had our blogger Steven Harris transcribing (imaginary?) discussions with his own smart home before – and it remains to be seen whether such an energy boffin will be able to resist the temptation for teen snooping opportunities as his children grow older.

All this said, it doesn’t have to mean eternal enmity between teen and machine –the less money parents spend on bills, the more they’ve got to treat their kids to that thing they’ve been on at them about for months on end (without becoming a huge victim of the rebound effect, naturally). Perhaps all that we’ll see is the secret house party having something of a low-carbon makeover…

Mar 282012


Facing the 'cake and eat it' conundrum can be a chore

By Michael Morrison

The pivotal annual break-up points of New Year and Valentine’s Day may be a distant memory, but most of us are still finding ourselves on the rebound in a big way.

We’ve all done it. You’re having a good time, not a care in the world when, without realising it, you’ve have rebounded right back to where you were before all your hard work. Following? I’m not talking about your relationship status, but instead a real-life growing concern in the green-minded community.

Regular readers may twig that we’ve talked about the rebound effect a lot on this blog of late – from the theories of William Stanley Jevons  to my Scottish colleague Zoe’s slightly worrying analysis that it could be the start of our ethical downfall - but forgive me for joining the debate. It’s a very ‘now’ debate after all; one that can move quickly from very personal concerns to big, sweeping problems if we’re not careful. 

How it works is this: you decide to save energy and money by getting loft insulation fitted, or perhaps installing a couple of solar panels on the roof. Great! But then, gradually, without really realising it, you start to think ‘Well, my loft’s fully insulated, so I guess I could turn the thermostat up just a little’. Or ‘I use a hippo in my toilet so I’m just going to enjoy a few more minutes in the shower now and again’.

Before you know it though, your life may be that little bit more comfortable but your energy use and expenditure has gone right back to where it was before you did anything. Maybe the dating analogy is going further than I thought…

Basically you can’t have your cake and eat it. 

In January British Gas announced that it had cut 5% off electricity bills of 5 million customers, a move which competitors EDF and SSE also announced. After the mammoth hike-up of domestic energy bills across all major suppliers in late-2011, the move will offer little respite to most homes. But with the average home set to save around £20 – 30 a year as a result, it’s worth looking at just what energy-saving measures you can spend that money on. Before you rebound it on Saturday night’s taxi home… 

This blog is no stranger to investigating energy-saving gadgets, but even I was surprised by how many small, cheap products there are out there that not only help you save energy but also pay for themselves many times over in doing so. For example, I read about the H2O-100 Power Water Pressure Powered Shower Radio. A radio which plumbs directly into your shower and is powered by the mains water supply. Oh, and it’s totally waterproof. Simple but hugely effective. Okay so it won’t save you that much energy, but it only takes a few small measures for you to see the benefit on your power bills. And it also proves that not rebounding can be as enteratining as caving into temptation.

Using a similar approach is a very savvy installation indeed. Some boilers are being shipped pre-fitted with a tiny turbine in the mains gas inlet pipe. This spins and produces electricity for free, which in turn generates all the electricity your boiler needs to operate. Of course micro-generators like these are a long way off producing enough power to dramatically cut our fuel bills but, in the meantime, you could a lot worse than spending your £25 fuel savings on an energy monitor

These little beauties wirelessly attach to either your mains electricity supply or gas inlet pipe and give you accurate and live figures on how much fuel you are using, how much it costs and estimated greenhouse gas emissions. And you can fit them yourselves in a matter of minutes. And these are only £25? Yes. Kind of makes you wonder why energy suppliers have been faffing about with 9-digit numbers and estimates all these years.  

The real benefit of an energy monitor is being able to see exactly how your fuel consumption is affected by separate actions or appliances. If you can physically see the numbers and cost rising every time you turn on that electric blanket you’ll quickly think twice about using it in future.

So maybe the realisation you’re rebounding can have you wind up forging a beautiful new relationship with your energy consumption. Seeing what you’re using is of course just the start. To fight the power that the temptation towards rebounding exerts, we’ve got to not only cosy up to our monitors, but act on what they’re telling us. Some might say it is just like a human relationship.

Reduce, rebound, reoffend?

 Posted by on 22 February 2012
Feb 222012

By Zoe Holliday

I’m not much of an athlete. Don’t get me wrong, I try. But over the past year, my sporting attempts have led to two broken fingers, rope burns behind my knees, and a serious ankle sprain from tripping over my own feet. 

So when I managed to jog a reasonable distance last weekend without either stopping or breaking myself, I felt that I deserved a reward. When I got home, I ate half a bag of cookies and a packet of smarties. Then I realised that by piling on the calories just after burning them off, I had pretty much negated the point of going on the run in the first place. 

Similarly, the intended carbon savings from energy efficiency measures are often not realised in practice, because people spend the money they save on other goods or services that require an energy input. This is the so-called ‘rebound effect.’ The effect was illustrated perfectly in 2009, when Tesco introduced their ‘Turn Lights Into Flights’ campaign – encouraging shoppers to use the clubcard points they earned buying energy saving light bulbs on airmiles. Not a campaign to win over the Guardian readers. 

Pinned to the partition in front of my desk is a postcard with the poster from the Second World War that’s above these words.  I bought it a few years ago because I thought it was amusing from an energy saving perspective. ‘My,’ I thought to myself, ‘how times have changed.’ Turned out to be maybe not so much.

The rebound effect is well-documented (we’ve covered it in previous articles on this blog) and is even taken into account in the Energy Saving Trust’s savings calculations. What is less well documented, however, is the reason why we rebound. But getting to an understanding of these values and motivations will be crucial if we want to minimise the impact of rebound on potential energy savings. 

The most common explanation is simply that increased energy efficiency makes energy cheaper. And if this is the case, then we need to be looking at how we market energy efficiency measures – if we persuade people to act because of financial savings, it should come as no surprise that they want to use their savings on other energy-consuming services. Likewise, if we tell people that their homes will be warmer after installing insulation, it should not be a shock when they turn their thermostat up after the measures have been installed. 

A less well documented theory for the rebound effect is ‘moral self-licensing’ – the idea that by doing something for the environment, people feel ‘morally licensed’ to make less environmental choices in other domains. In a recent study by Verena Tiefenbeck, half of the residents in a 200 block apartment block in Boston were given weekly feedback on their water consumption and how it compared to their neighbours’. As expected, those who received feedback reduced their water consumption by around 7.4% compared to those who did not – but a more surprising result was that these households also increased electricity consumption by 5.7% relative to the control group during this time. 

Interestingly, there is evidence that this moral licensing may even extend outwith the environmental domain. A 2009 study by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong suggested that the actual act of purchasing green products may have the counter-intuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviours. In a series of experiments, Mazar and Zhong showed that after buying green products, participants appeared less willing to share a set amount of money, and were more likely to cheat, lie and steal than those who had bought conventional products. (Maybe this explains the fact that Antony Worrall Thompson, a passionate advocate of organic farming, was recently caught shoplifting?!)

 It’s worth noting that a number of concerns have been raised about the validity of these experiments, as the participants were not actual green consumers and were under lab conditions. But I do believe that if we are to maximise the effectiveness of energy efficiency campaigns (and reduce petty crime), there is a real need to understand what motivates the rebound effect.

In particular, we need to understand that decisions aren’t made in isolation but are shaped by people’s values. If energy saving is marketed by appealing to extrinsic values like popularity, image, conformity or wealth, then it should come as no surprise when they choose to make use of their greater wealth, or to compensate for the fact that they have behaved better than others in one way by self-licensing more indulgent behaviour in another way. 

If we are to counter-act the rebound effect, energy saving messaging needs to convey not extrinsic values but a sense of our moral duty to help meet the climate change challenge and make sure we all have a stable, sustainable future.