| Lewis Akenji
Energy Vampires and Glowing Insects – Household Energy Consumption
“This heavenly choir of light doesn’t last too long. Just before you realise you’ve suspended breathing the lights start fading.”
———-Let there be light———-
As recently as the mid 19th century, if you
were fortunate enough to live on the main street, by night you’d look through a
window of your dimly lit building and see a lamplighter give life to the
lamppost. Depending on your status and/or your location, the lamp inside your
room could have been made of anything from clay or stone up to silver or gold,
and the reservoir filled with any one of kerosene, fish oil, castor oil or
olive oil. Those dimly lit streets and eye-itching lamp smoke were not the
romantic stuff that classic novels build in our imagination.
Price and brightness of lighting mattered.
These though were not regarded in consideration of the efficiency of the system.
Why think of efficiency, after all. The population at the time was sparse
(unless you were one of those few who felt they shouldn’t breathe the same
oxygen as the teeming peasants), the resources of generous Earth were thought
limitless, and the general view towards technological innovation at the time was
less cynical – that it advanced the well-being of humanity.
When in 1809 the English inventor Humphry
Davy demonstrated the first arc lamp – the ancestor of the incandescent light
bulb – at the British Royal Institution, he used a 2000-cell battery. Given the
efficiency standards of today, that would have lit an entire district of that
era. A couple of decades later, demonstrating improvements in the electric
light, the Scotsman James Lindsay could “read a book at a distance of one and a
half feet” – less than half a meter. However it was Thomas Edison, in the last
quarter of the century, with combined traits of an inventor and a shrewd son of
the industrial revolution, who democratized lighting and lifted households out
of darkness. He is the father of the modern light bulb as we have at home
today. This came to my mind this summer at the Balaton as I used light from my
mobile phone to read the last exciting pages of a book. I then began to reflect
on the passive abundance of light we now experience.
Any Biology teacher would tell, that
teaching reproduction to active teenagers could lead to several things, some of
them unplanned. Something we did as secondary school students is not out of
secret knowledge, but the systemic lapses that made this particular experiment
in reproduction possible are unwelcome.
After lessons on egg fertilisation and
incubation, we decided we could make our own chicks out of fresh eggs. The
teacher had told it as a passing story, but our curiosity pushed us to retrace
the steps. So we snatched three eggs from under a free-range chicken and placed
them in a cardboard box. We disconnected one of the incandescent light bulbs in
my bedroom and fitted it in the box. The bulb stayed on, heating the inside of
the box for three weeks during which we regularly gently turned the eggs about.
Sure enough, on the 21st day we had two yellow chicks – one egg hadn’t made it
– chirping after us as if we were their parents. The bulb had done it!
The incandescent bulb is essentially a
heater which, by the way, also gives off light. It works on the same thermodynamics
principle as the bread toaster and the water boiler or, as in the above
experiment, the incubator heater. Electrical current is passed through a metal
of high resistance. As it resists the current, tiny particles that make up the
metal are charged and become intensely excited, causing the metal to heat up to
extremely high temperatures – becomes red hot, you might say. In the boiler the
heat boils your tea water; in the toaster, it browns or burns the toast. The
filament of the light bulb, when heated to above 2000 degrees Celsius, gives
off visible light.
Because until now we believed we could
burrow all we want through Earth and it wouldn’t cave in on us, we invested in
the more consumptive and less productive properties of the bulb.
The incandescent bulb now hangs over almost
every home. Like many other artefacts of our modern lifestyle which we’re still
to revise, as a light source it operates at an astounding 90% inefficiency.
That is, if you pay a bill of 1000 HUF for electricity consumption by light
bulbs at home, only 100 HUF of that amount would have actually produced light.
The rest – 900 HUF – is paid for waste. If you add the losses in the cables due
to flux during transmission, and the times the lights are on when there’s no
one in the room, we’re operating at roughly 97% inefficiency. That same
incandescent bulb which has lit our way over a century to domestic superfluity
has come to epitomize the wastefulness around which our civilisation is built.
We’ve lit our way through the dark tunnels of
history, burrowing through time, and have arrived at the floodplains of energy
technology. The light is so bright it’s blinding. With a casual flip of the
switch we can turn night to day, push a button and the TV comes on, turn a knob
and the electric cooker is on. If you’re already living into the digital future,
you don’t even need to touch anything. Just program your house and when you say
abracadabra the golden lights become yours. Where this energy comes from, how
it gets to our homes, and how we can sustain this are alien questions to
consumers. As we’re being jarred into reality to address issues of energy
sufficiency, energy, as it now seems, would be the final arbiter of our
Light is an intrusion where darkness was.
Two reinforcing patterns on energy resources
will determine our future direction on the issue. On the one hand, the rate of
demand for energy is soaring. On the other hand, resources such as fossil fuel,
the energy source on which the modern economy grinds, are burning out. Except
perhaps for a few people working for oil companies, most expert models give us
anything between 20 and 50 years to burn our fossil bridges. Further compounding
the issue is the heated problem of climate change, mostly driven by conversion
of these fuels into greenhouse gases.
When it comes to lifestyles, this is the
age of paradoxes. The European Environmental Agency, EEA, reports that the
number of persons per household is decreasing, while houses are getting bigger.
(The average household size in Hungary decreased from 3.1 in 1960 to 2.47 in
2005.) Building more and bigger houses puts pressures on land and available
resources, biodiversity, and leads to urban sprawl. With bigger houses, there
is more space requiring more energy for cooling or heating. Janet Sawin,
writing in the “State of the World 2004”, also notes that “Between 1973 and
1992, shrinking household size in industrial countries alone accounted for a
20% increase in energy use per person.” By the EEA’s estimates, in the report
“Household Consumption and the Environment”, heating takes up by far the
largest household use of energy in the EU, consuming 70%.
That we burn that much energy on heating
does not mean our homes are saunas. We simply fail to maintain them and the
heat from the heater passes through our homes on its way to heating up the
biosphere. George Monbiot, author of “Heat: How we can stop the planet
burning”, arguably one of the most well-researched yet optimistic books on the
climate change issue, calls our average home “warm air tunnels: they keep us
warm almost incidentally, as the heat pours pass us and into the street.” By several estimates, minor attention to
insulation at home – airtight windows and doors, repair cracks on wall, fill up
holes, remove thermal bridges – requiring less than 20,000 HUF could bring
heating costs down by as much as 40%. We feel the hot winds of an energy desert
blowing towards us, still out of ignorance, carelessness or laziness, we keep houses
that are like cracked and punctured water vessels in the Sahara.
Manufacturers are busy churning out more
powered appliances for us to buy – Wall-size TVs, room-size refrigerators,
computer-strength mobile phones, cinema-quality DVD players and
factory-capacity microwave ovens. These take up more physical space, clog
mental space and use up high amounts of energy. A large plasma TV, for example,
uses five times as much energy as a more conventional cathode ray set. Sawin
writes that home appliances consume about 30% of industrial countries’ energy
use and 12% of their greenhouse emissions.
Among problems related to disposal of
electronic waste, mounting to about 6.5 million tonnes per year in Europe, the EEA bemoans the
“serious hazards associated with carcinogenic substances which can be leached
to soil and groundwater over the medium and long term.” These aside, two
observations on energy consumption patterns have surprised even technophiles.
———-The “rebound effect” and “standby power”——–
Far from Davy’s 2000-cell lamp in the early
1800s, technology has become sleek and much more eco-efficient. However agencies
such as the EEA, and the UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, have
noticed that while products have become more efficient, the sheer increase in
volume of consumption tends to offset these gains in efficiency. This is the
so-called rebound effect. The average energy consumption per unit for large
appliances (dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines) fell by 21% between
1990 and 2002, but total energy consumption fell by just 2%, mainly because
people bought more appliances. The TV set might have become more efficient and
affordable, but if we choose to then buy one TV for every room in the house our
overall effect becomes worse; those low prices and energy efficiency become a
curse instead of a virtue.
Another false friend of energy conservation
is “standby power.” But for a few of them, our electronic appliances are
designed to go on “standby” or to “sleep” when we’re not using them. The
presumption is that no energy is being consumed while in this mode. But research
by the International Energy Agency found that, “between 3 and 13 per cent of residential
electricity use in OECD Member countries can be attributed to standby power consumption.”
Take, for example, the VCR. While in standby mode, it consumes 19 times more
electricity than it does while recording.
Standby power could sound like a small
issue, until one looks at the practical implications. To demonstrate with a
common example, the Energy Savings Trust in the UK estimates that mobile phone
chargers left plugged in waste over £60m and are responsible for a quarter of a
million tonnes of CO2 in the UK every year. When I first read this figure I was
astounded, so I decided to do some digging up. I came across a BBC interview
with Markus Terho, director of environmental affairs at Nokia, who testified
that Nokia chargers draw about 0.1-0.5 watts when plugged in but a phone is not
connected. Millions of mobile phone chargers left unplugged unlocked the reason
for the £60m waste of energy. Sawin, in the “State of the World 2004” report,
calculates that by 2020 standby power will require “almost 400 500 megawatt
power plants that will emit more than 600 million tons of CO2 annually.”
The future though could be different if we
look at the past – or at least at nature. One of the biggest Indian festivals
is Diwali, or the Festival of Light, which is a celebration of victory of
goodness over evil. As a symbol of hope for humankind, during the festival
earthen lamps are lit amidst decorations of flowers, watched over by the gods. Additionally,
experiencing Diwali is mixture of the breathtaking beauty of Indians adorned in
brilliant ceremonial wear and the mischief of children playing about with
explosive Chinese firecrackers.
After experiencing Diwali, I travelled with
my host family to the village of Chinchavli, less than half a day’s drive inland from Mumbai. Soon after the
sun had fallen behind the undulations in the horizon, dusk deepened towards
darkness. At the foot of the mountain we spread our mats on the veranda of a
hut. I lay on my back looking into space, hardly seeing. My friend and host
Kunal Jadhav lay to my right, followed by his friends. This being traditional India,
the women of the family lay on a separate mat; all of us in a parallel
formation, looking up into the deepening sky. Not infrequently one of us would
loudly slap a body part, fighting a lost battle against mosquitoes. Other than
that, our breathing and little adjusting moves was all the noise from our part.
But that is not to say it was quiet out there.
Crickets sang, snakes hissed – at high
pitches that drove metallic surround sound through the ear into the head like
corkscrews. Frogs croaked, mice
squeaked; there was howling, yowling and bawling from all around us. That was
before the glowing insects came out, carrying their own light inside and
shining out through their bellies.
It started with just a few flashing points
of luminous green in the sky. The darkness became punctuated with their bioluminescent
light. Gradually more of the family of fireflies came out. They would appear
like low-hanging stars or tiny meteorites, draw a quick line of light and then
switch off. As more lightning bugs lit up, the air became filled with beautiful
chaos of green lines of light – straight, curved, criss-crossed, angular.
Imagine hundreds, thousands of tiny fire starters, fire acrobats, neon-light
art installations and Christmas-lights parachutes drifting in the sky – all of
them all at once, doing their thing without any decided pattern and without
colliding with each other. Better still, imagine the milky way drawn closer and
the stars gone positively crazy.
This heavenly choir of light doesn’t last
too long. Just before you realise you’ve suspended breathing the lights start
Recognising the problem of growing energy
consumption by houses and households, the European Union has passed the Energy
Performance of Buildings Directive with overall objective to “promote the
improvement of energy performance of buildings.” Among some key points, all new
buildings, as well as large existing buildings undergoing refurbishment must
meet certain minimum energy requirements. It also requires that all buildings
should undergo ‘energy certification’ prior to sale. Most of the focus is on
technology or systems of heating and cooling that are energy efficient. Before
this directive though, some bright ideas have been around the corner and could
have been easily promoted through better policies.
The Passive House is an approach to
building that integrates energy performance considerations at the very
conceptual stage of the building. Underlying the approach is the use of design,
material, and positioning of a building in a way that requires little or no
external energy input to heat or cool inside. Surface exposure of the building
is minimised to reduce exposure to external temperature differences. Windows
are placed in a direction to optimise daylight and solar heating, and window
sizes maintain a balance between incoming light and energy loss. Super
insulation is used and the building is airtight, but ventilation employs simple
technology that ensures proper air circulation. In fact the Passive House is so
simple yet efficient that heating it takes little more than the heat emitted by
the bodies of those living in the house. Think of it: suppose a couple is
making love, the heat generated from that activity stays in and warms the
Other approaches to building include
zero-energy building, energy-plus building, low-energy building, autonomous
building, green building, self-sufficient home, passive solar building design,
etc. In addition to being more sustainable and healthier to live in, buildings
using one or more of these approaches are cheaper in the long run than
conventional buildings. In some cases, initial investments into better
buildings could be about 10% higher, but in just a few years the savings more
than compensate for the initial additional costs.
Even after ensuring that an efficient house
is built, while living in it there’s still the problem of increasing powered
appliances and overall demand for energy. To buy time technology such as solar
panels is now widely available. With the advent of liberalisation of the energy
market, green energy grids will become a viable option. There’re also energy
labels and standards for consumer appliances. The Energy Star, the European
Energy label, are but a few attempts to help consumers make better choices. Smart
meters are also helping consumers regulate their habits. By using smart meters
attached to individual appliances, instead of one gross energy bill at the end
of the month, each time an appliance is on a small gadget attached to it
displays to the user how much in monetary terms is being consumed. Households
that install smart meters typically save about 12% on energy bills. Energy
sounds so abstract and consumers are alienated unless they can count it terms
As for our friend the incandescent light
bulb, it would seem we have to bid farewell and finally write an epitaph, even
if with nostalgia, on Thomas Edison’s grave. What if there is a bulb that
produces just as much light or more, lasts even longer, yet consumes only a
fraction of the energy that the incandescent bulb does? In fact there is, and far
from being futuristic, it is widely available, even in Tesco.
The Compact Fluorescent lamp (CFL) uses 75%
less energy than the incandescent bulb, produces more light, and lasts between
six and twelve times longer. At moment, it is slightly more expensive but the
gains from its energy savings and its longer lifespan offset this price
difference. Furthermore, to burrow from economic logic, the more people who buy
CFLs the lower the price will become.
Australia has announced a ban on the incandescent bulb. The EU has announced it
will ban them by 2010. Canada, Chile and some states in the US are now
in the process. As the incandescent bulb shines out, CFLs are switching on.
The future of lighting however belongs to
the Light Emitting Diode (LED). Originally developed for digital clocks and
dashboards, they have advanced in recent years to be able to serve for home
lighting. They use extremely low wattage and last over a hundred times more
than the incandescent bulb. At this point I’m reminded of the fireflies in India.
Luminescence firefly light results from a chemical
reaction in which chemical energy is converted to radiant energy. No heat is
emitted in the process; almost 100% of a firefly’s luminescence is given off as
light. By comparison, a normal electric light bulb gives off only 10% of its
energy as light, while 90% is wasted as heat.
Energy conservation programs are high up on
policy to-do lists, led by eco-efficient technologies. But these are only half-baked
measures. Any attempts to deal with the energy issue will need a brave, near-complete
overhaul of our dependence on traditional energy resources. In closing the
gates after eco-efficiency, and in the tokenism of its execution, the
government has sought to find a pleasantly deceptive balance that pleases the
market and keeps optimists in the crowd smiling. But the shroud is expensive;
as the light intensity increases, we’re beginning to see clearer.
We need to look back several decades to
understand why, renewable or non-renewable, we’ve now come to energy deserts. Although
we keep talking of energy shortage, the real problem starts with over
Whatever one may conceive sustainability to
be, myopia and inbreeding do it a great disservice. Because government policies
cannot see beyond market solutions, we’ve only gone as far as eco-efficiency.
Some 15 years ago, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, an
association of some 200 of the world’s most powerful corporations, coined the
phrase eco-efficiency and brought it to governments at the Earth Summit. This was
a market-based solution to issues of sustainability: through “goods and
services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life while progressively
reducing environmental impacts of goods and resource intensity throughout the
entire life-cycle to a level at least in line with the Earth’s estimated
carrying capacity.” The term eco-efficiency has since come to define the
limits of policy, as if it was proof that the market can get us out of the
crises it created in the first place. That eco-efficiency is a gift of industry
to governments is a telltale of who buys the toys and who the kid is.
Janet Sawin recounts the beginning of the
recent era of setting energy efficiency standards. When “oil prices suddenly
leaped skywards in the early 1970s, governments and consumers reacted by
setting efficiency standards and conserving fuel.” In the 30-odd years since we
started enforcing energy standards, governments have tried every position in
bed with companies, giving birth to thousands of millionaires while boosting further
consumption. The paradox is that with each sleeker technology we’ve also
developed larger appetites and our consumption has accumulated, cancelling out
any savings that could have been made. Thus the problem of energy shortage
keeps growing, while we sleep in dark comforts under blinding lights of
materially developed consumer economies. To be born into the light is a sad
privilege which industrial nations should celebrate with some melancholy.
———-The Inner Glow———-
Light is an intrusion where darkness was. Some
people are afraid to sit in silence; some to be in vast open spaces like the
ocean. We’re afraid of darkness: darkness leaves us alone, to our thoughts, to
look at ourselves.
Urban Sociologists talk of photo pollution,
the annoying and harmful flood of artificial lights around us all round the
clock – lit up billboard posters, neon signs, the TV standby light, the
fluorescing hand of the clock, the green timer on the microwave oven, the
neighbours leaking light, the red light district. While the health and social
effects of photo pollution have been well established, the phenomenon itself is
only symptomatic: of the pursuit for the external at the expense of what’s
inside. In a materially driven society, the image of the person counts more
than the person. And so we dim the lights inside and switch on the ones outside
for others to see. We seek happiness from seeing that they can see us, not that
we can see ourselves. Yet at the end of the day we’re all sitting alone in a
dark room somewhere inside, left to ourselves, even when the lights outside are
The mind is a more powerful and infinitely
rechargeable battery than any Energizer battery, fossil or bio-fuel. We’ve
managed to distract ourselves from our inner resources, to amass material gadgets
that promise to be electronic messiahs. Our houses are now competing with the
size of church buildings, our TV sets bigger than church windows, our music
sets challenge the volume of church bells, the computer has made each of us a
creator and master of the world. But now the fuel of our new religious
artifacts is only dripping; these artifacts are beginning to suck the energy
out of us instead. Buying more and more efficient technology is just marking
time. Until we learn to curb our appetites, to reduce our consumption, it’d be
hard to see the lights at the end of the tunnel.
The author, Lewis Akenji, is a
consultant on sustainability research, communication and management. He
currently serves as the Central and Eastern European Network for Sustainability.