Electricity and Appliances
After the use of mains gas for central heating, the use of electricity is most people’s biggest contribution to their carbon footprint from activities in the home. However, a lot of electricity is needlessly wasted, so it is easy to make savings.
Electricity and appliances tips:
The generation of electricity in coal or gas power stations contributes to climate change through emissions of carbon dioxide, so saving electricity helps to limit global warming. Although nuclear power stations emit less carbon dioxide in operation, when construction, fuel processing and decommissioning are included their emissions are not insignificant. Electricity from renewable sources, such as wind turbines, generates negligible emissions in operation although they too have a small carbon footprint associated with their manufacture. However, the consumption of electricity has grown steadily. For example, there was a doubling in electricity consumption by domestic appliances and lighting in Great Britain between 1970 and 1992 although growth has now slowed to less than 1% per year.
A lot of electricity in the home is needlessly wasted because the appliances are poorly designed or we don’t take care to switch them off. It is easy to make substantial savings simply by switching off the appliances we already have at the wall socket and by buying more efficient appliances when we replace them.
Some appliances are seen as essential or labour-saving devices, such as fridges, washing machines and dishwashers, whereas others are items to entertain or cosset us. Reducing the number of appliances we own and use is another way of reducing our contribution to climate change.
In the UK, most electricity is generated at power stations from a mix of fuels such as coal, gas and nuclear although renewables now contribute around 12% of the UK’s electricity. On average 1 kWh of electricity delivered to our homes has caused the emissions of 0.590 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent. The average annual UK emissions from using electricity in the home are around 1000 kg per person or 2300 kg per household. This represents around 15% of the average annual “direct” emissions. More careful use and choice of appliances is an easy way to cut back on your personal carbon dioxide emissions.
Choosing a “green” electricity tariff, which encourages the generation of electricity from renewable sources (some suppliers even offer electricity from 100% renewable sources), will help to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity generated in the UK.
Electricity is around 3 times more expensive, per kWh or unit, than gas and energy prices are rising every year. You can reduce your electricity bill by paying more attention to switching off appliances at the wall socket and by buying the most energy efficient ones. Choosing the most efficient appliance can lead to large savings over its lifetime.
If you choose a high-quality appliance when buying a new one, it is likely to last longer before it needs to be replaced and therefore, in the long-term, to save on resources.
1. Switching off and stand-by
Every day we probably switch a few tens of appliances on and off without a thought. We also probably assume that OFF means off and that an appliance that is “off” is no longer consuming any electricity. Unfortunately this is not always true. Some appliances that are apparently “off” still consume small amounts of electricity which, added up over a year, can come to substantial amounts. For example, my (rather old) PC and video-player consume 15W and 24W, respectively, when apparently switched off! In total that means up to 131 and 210 units of electricity (kWh) per year, respectively.
Other appliances indicate that they are on stand-by with a red light. This is a sure sign that the appliance is wasting electricity. These days electrical appliances only take a few seconds to ‘warm up’ after being switched on and there is really no need to leave them on stand-by. In addition phone and other battery chargers are wasteful if left on continuously: switch them off once the battery has been charged.
You should always switch off an appliance at the wall socket. That is the only way to be sure that it is not wasting electricity when not being used.
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As an example let’s take an appliance that consumes 15 W when nominally switched off and which on average is used for one hour a day. That means for 23 hours a day for 365 days a year it is wasting electricity – this amounts to a total of 126 kWh per year! This equates to the emission of 75 kg of carbon dioxide. If you multiply this by maybe ten for all the other appliances in your home, either on stand-by or not switched off at the wall, you can see how a lot of carbon dioxide is being emitted on your behalf without you knowing it. Typical appliances that waste energy like this are PCs and printers, washing machines, video and CD players, TV sets and modems/routers.
Using the above example you can see that a single appliance which is wasting 126 kWh per year may be costing you around £16 per year. The total annual cost for all appliances left on stand-by in your home could exceed £125!
2. Measuring what you use
The only sure way to begin to manage your electricity consumption is to measure it. That way you will be able to see how steps you are taking are leading to a reduction in consumption.
Your electricity bills will give you some idea of how much electricity you are using, but these are often based on (inaccurate) estimated readings. Rather than waiting for bills to arrive, find out where your electricity meter is and learn how to read it.
If you measure your electricity consumption overnight, when most appliances are nominally OFF, you will discover your ‘base load’ consumption: it may not be as low as you imagine! If you read the meter every 2-4 weeks you will soon get a feel for your consumption, which should vary only slightly with the time of year (unless your home is heated by electricity).
An alternative way of monitoring consumption, especially if the meter is inaccessible, is to use wireless technology to display, at a location of your choice, the electricity your home is using. A pick-up sensor is installed near where the mains cable enters the property and this radios real-time information to the indoor display.
Another approach is to use a “power meter” or “energy meter” to measure the consumption of individual appliances. This is a device that plugs into a standard 13A socket and contains its own socket into which the appliance can be plugged. It displays watts, amps and volts and can even work out the cumulative energy consumption of appliances like fridges that cycle on and off.
Home Energy Saving sells both types of electricity monitor.
The savings in emissions that can be made will depend on individual circumstances. However if you can locate and turn off appliances that are consuming electricity when on stand-by, or even when apparently switched off, you will be well on the road to cutting your emissions. Seeing what your consumption is may also encourage you to set yourself some target reductions.
Reading your meter and keeping a simple record of your consumption costs nothing. Indeed, as you start to become aware of how much electricity you’re using, you may well find your consumption and bills start to fall.
Metering devices that use wireless technology cost upwards of £30. Power or energy meters such as the Kill-a-watt, cost around £20. If you buy either of these devices, and hunt down and switch off all those wasteful appliances at the wall socket, they could easily pay for themselves within a year.
Once you have used a power meter in your own home, try lending it to family, friends and colleagues. You will do them a good turn and save them money too.
3. Buying new electrical goods
Buying a new appliance, especially white goods such as washing-machines, fridges and dishwashers, is a relatively rare event for most of us and it is easy to get carried away by the salesman’s patter and the excitement of the event. However to minimise your carbon dioxide emissions for the lifetime of the appliance, maybe 10-20 years, it is important to chose the most energy efficient appliance you can afford. You can also ask the salesperson about the energy that went into the manufacture and delivery of the appliance, also known as the "embodied energy". Sometimes the emissions from embodied energy can exceed the emissions from the use of the appliance during its lifetime.
There are two labels to look for. One is the Energy Saving Recommended label of the Energy Saving Trust and the other is the EU Energy Label used for some, but not all, appliances. The latter employs a grading scheme from A to G where A is the most efficient (or even A+++ for some products) and G the least. This label also provides you with additional information about energy consumption and running costs. Check out too whether the appliance really switches itself off or remains on stand-by and don’t buy an appliance which has a greater capacity than you need. Go to the Energy Saving Trust website for more information.
When buying computing equipment insist that it has an Energy Star 5 label to ensure you buy the most energy efficient equipment. For more advice click here.
Since December 2011 a mandatory energy efficiency labelling scheme has applied to all new TVs. Be aware that the electrical consumption of a TV depends on the screen area. If you go from a 20 inch to a 30 inch screen, the electricity consumption will more than double. Almost all TVs these days have flat plasma or LCD (liquid crystal display) screens. LCD TVs are not much more energy-hungry than the old CRT (cathode-ray tube) TVs, and some are even less energy-hungry. Plasma TVs on the other hand use about twice as much electricity as a modern LCD TV. Some TVs have ambient light sensors which reduce the TVs energy consumption in darker rooms. Many TVs offer stand-by consumptions of 0.2-0.3 watts (less than 3 kWh per year).
Buying the most energy efficient appliance makes good environmental sense because it means that you will be minimising your carbon dioxide emissions.
Buying the most energy efficient appliance means that you will spend less money on operating the appliance over its lifetime because it will use less electricity. For example, if you save £20 a year from using an A-rated appliance that may add up to £200-400 over its lifetime.
By opting for the most energy-efficient appliance you are sending a message that you care about energy efficiency. That may encourage the manufacturer to make their appliances even more efficient, and the retailer to stock more energy-efficient appliances.
4. Appliances to avoid
There are a number of appliances that fall into the category of luxury or gimmicky goods that are energy-hungry and so for environmental reasons are best avoided.
Air conditioning should not be needed in a well insulated home: see our strategies for keeping cool in summer.
Patio heaters are particularly wasteful as they only heat up the atmosphere. For this reason, B&Q even decided in 2008 not to sell patio heaters any more.
Outdoor hot tubs and spas also waste a lot of energy, unless solar heated, especially if not well-insulated.
Open electric fires are inefficient and can be replaced by modern alternatives such as oil-filled radiators or storage heaters.
Leaf blowers and chain saws, when used to cut up logs, are generally unnecessary - a broom or rake and a bow saw could be used instead.
It is wasteful to use heaters in conservatories as conservatories are essentially poorly insulated glass boxes, designed to benefit from passive solar heating in warmer months and not to be used as year-round extensions of the home.
All the above appliances are wasteful of electricity, gas or petrol, almost all of which are derived from fossil fuels and cause greenhouse gas emissions.
As these appliances use a lot of energy, they are expensive to run, and they are often expensive to buy in the first place.
5. Choosing your electricity supplier
Electricity in the UK is provided by a large number of suppliers whose power stations use mainly coal, gas or nuclear as the primary fuel. Suppliers don’t always spell out exactly what their particular mix of fuels is. If you wish to buy the most “green” electricity, i.e. that which emits the least greenhouse gas during its generation, then you will need to shop around. Visit the Green Electricity Marketplace for information on the “green” credentials of suppliers.
The best bet is to go for a supplier which generates a large proportion of electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, wind or biofuels. However all electricity suppliers were required by law (the so-called Renewables Obligation) to ensure that they sourced at least 10% of their supply from renewables by 2010 or else be fined. Therefore in choosing your supplier, ideally you need to ensure that any extra money you pay for green electricity is being spent on renewables over and above the legal requirement which they have to meet anyway.
The more you buy electricity from a supplier who depends on renewable electricity, the more you will help to reduce the average amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity generated in the UK.
The average annual UK emissions from using electricity in the home are around 1000 kg per person or 2300 kg per household. If you buy your electricity from a 100% renewable source, you are effectively eliminating these emissions from your carbon footprint.
You can compare tariffs here. “Green” tariffs usually cost more than standard ones, but this can be a very effective way of reducing your contribution to climate change.
Using a truly “green” supplier will directly support the growth of renewable energy in UK and send a powerful message to electricity companies that you care about this issue.
If you would like to give feedback on this site, or have any suggestions for improvement, please contact us. We are particularly keen to hear about other organisations and initiatives in and around Winchester which can help people reduce their carbon footprint.
The information on this page is provided in good faith and reflects our understanding of the underlying science and technology at the time of writing, but we cannot guarantee that it is wholly accurate. All figures for costs, savings and other matters are estimates: the actual figures will depend on your particular circumstances and may differ (perhaps significantly) from those shown. Although we have included links to various organisations, we are not recommending these organisations: it is your responsibility to check that they are suitable for your needs. Nonetheless, if you experience difficulties with any of the links or organisations, or believe that any of the information presented here is inaccurate, please let us know and we will update this page if we consider it necessary.