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The rise of the calculator

Increasingly, we’re not prepared to just accept statements from on high as to the specifics of decisions we have to make. We want to know why, how, and how much – and we want to work it out for ourselves. Call it digital liberation.

Of course, there needs to be a degree of expertise behind any numbers that we then tailor to our want – which explains the rise of the interactive calculator.

We’ve got some good ones of course: the Water Energy Calculator, which has proven so popular that water companies have requested the right to syndicate the technology on home visits and on their own websites.

Then there’s the Solar Energy Calculator and Cashback Calculator for those looking to see just how worthwhile, in terms of both cash and carbon, getting into domestic renewables might be, and the Travel Energy Check geared towards tailored cuts to transport costs.

That’s the self-promotion done. What’s going on elsewhere?

Well, there are the big organisations putting their weight and knowledge behind the appealing graphics: Which? and their running-cost tools for a range of electronic appliances, National Geographic offering a cross-home calculator for people in the States.

Then there’s the smaller firms making their case too. We’ve counted at least two calculators – here and here - looking at switching incandescent light bulbs to more efficient options alone.

The important thing in all these cases is getting your numbers right, then putting them into the right metrics for the right software. Then you’ve got to keep them updated, given that energy is one of the fastest-shifting areas going. But if the knowledge is there, you can create interactive tools to make pretty epic predictions.

This is exemplified by the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s 2050 Pathways calculator. You can enter such large-scale variables of energy supply and demand, to renewables take-up, to even our utilisation of marine algae, all with the aim of assessing the various ways to hit our 2050 climate change targets. Or indeed not, if you choose to enter your data in a pessimistic manner.

Of course what happens in reality is far more important than results in the digital world. Just as ways need to be found to ensure the decarbonisation of our electricity supply, mass energy-efficiency etc. if we’re going to meet any target on anyone’s screen, so too do the results of an online assessment of your home water use need to be transformed into a smaller positive change.

We can calculate theoretical usage and potential savings, but we can’t force you to get on with the implications. Hopefully the increasingly user-friendly availability of the numbers will make the prospect increasingly appealing.

*If you know of any other online calculators that you've found useful, do let everyone know in the comments*

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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