The true impacts of using sustainable energy sources
Renewable energy sources and the concept of sustainable energy have been around for thousands of years; from before we discovered we could harness the wind to sail across the seas. But doing them on a mass scale became less cost-effective and we turned to energy resources that have a huge environmental impact; coal and gas. We need a new and improved energy system that will sustain our energy security forever.
Investments in renewables are increasing, and demand is building, but time is running out for our world as our energy needs and our emissions continue to climb. But for some of us who have the resource, making the swap to solar energy combined with modern improvements in efficiency and energy storage could have a transformative impact on the energy sector.
Arky's Sustainable household energy
Arky, one of The Climate App team members and climate scientist advisors holds a PhD in physics with a major in thermal physics and theoretical thermal engineering. He worked in Japan studying applied superconductivity for energy applications and later moved to Australia to join a privately-funded project of a large superconducting homopolar generator. He is also a graduate in Renewable energy Technology from the Energy Institute of Technology.
Half of Arky's roof is covered in solar panels, and yet he sells 3x what he consumes to the grid. What’s more, he has gone fully electric - that’s right, no gas boiler or stove - AND has reduced his neighbour's energy bills too! Here he talks about his experience with solar energy as a sustainable energy source:
"Today I want to tell you a story about how I have eliminated the gas supply in my house. We bought our first family home just two and a half years ago in the sunny Queensland state of Australia. As strange as it sounds, developers still build houses in 2020 with gas supply to be used as water heating and cooking fuel. What’s more interesting, Aussie plumbers, a new generation of people on the ground, are largely taught that gas use for heating water is a sustainable practice.
As a keen environmentalist, certified renewable energy specialist and a PhD in Thermophysics and theoretical thermodynamics, I can’t look at this pitiful state of affairs without my blood boiling. This entrenchment of fossil fuels in everyday life, greenwashing of gas as a sustainable “transition fuel” while our homes are persistently and stubbornly poorly insulated, and tremendous renewable resources are not used to even the tiniest of its true potential. And those trivial issues have not been addressed in any sensible manner, despite decades of opportunity to do so. And they are not addressed even now when we are evidently entering into a more intense phase of energy crisis.
As much as my blood boils from outrage at the utter incompetence or, possibly, systemic corporate corruption, of global decision-makers, I still need to heat and boil my water. My first quest in our new home was going 100% electric and installing a rooftop solar system. The first shock came when I ran into a number of administrative barriers – pathetic, yet rather stubborn. Dumb and stubborn people with power can be a huge hindrance to energy transition — never underestimate a fool with power. This is a story for a separate text and is very illustrative of resistance to sustainable housing features at every single level of the real estate industry.
Long story short, nobody stands between me and my solar panels, this is absolutely unacceptable. This only slowed me down by about a year, but as a result, sustainable developments have only accelerated, as following my footsteps and support five other neighbours from my community have installed solar and some have even gone fully electric. What’s more, we have implemented a shared solar resource scheme in the community-owned "embedded network" which has resulted in “community solar discounts” for non-solar neighbours, and a generous reimbursement for solar energy export for those neighbours who have rooftop solar, helping them to keep their bills in credit throughout the year. Solar is not just the "tree-huggers' pipe dream", it's actually a very sensible business decision.
On the roof of our house, we installed a 9.9 kW solar panel array, a maximum that could be supported safely by the roof — another question of why the roofs of new buildings are so weak, — and could be safely connected to the single-phase residential grid. A, 275 L heat pump hot water tank and an induction cooktop — the cheapest we could buy in IKEA. Our almost brand-new gas equipment is still sitting in storage, as we are hesitant to sell it and even indirectly contribute to gas consumption. Our solar and energy-efficient equipment installation celebrated its anniversary just over a month ago, and it’s a nice moment to look at its performance.
First of all, natural gas has simply disappeared from our life. We used to consume about 32.5 MJ/day for the first year living in the house — 9 kWh of thermal energy per day in more convenient energy units (about 3,300 kWh/year). It was rather interesting to observe the reaction of the energy company’s customer support to my request to completely abolish the gas supply: not due to moving to another property, but simply because I don’t want it anymore. This is probably not a frequent request, and the girl on the other side of the line confirmed my request a couple of times in order to make sure I understand what I am doing.
Our electricity consumption before the transition was 4,800 kWh per year for a household of four. After we went fully electric, our total energy consumption increased to 7,200 kWh — no surprises here as a large portion of our energy came from gas before and had to be replaced by electricity.
Yet, only 3,500 kWh came from the grid. Despite increasing our energy consumption more than 1.5 times, our consumption of energy from the grid — and in the case of Australia it’s predominantly fossil fuel-based — has actually dropped by 27%, more than a quarter.
Overall production of our solar system in the past rather rainy year was 13,900 kWh, which is nearly twice our consumption. Therefore, we export a lot of energy and our neighbours in the townhouse complex can be sure that up to 25% of the energy they consume is solar. This is a beautiful example of sharing your renewable energy with the community, as most of the solar energy generated within the community is consumed internally and helps neighbours to save on their energy bills. Overall, we sell to the grid nearly three times as much as we consume (2.92 times to be specific). This all comes from a solar panels array which is just 46 m² in the area and is covering only half of our roof.
Essentially a townhouse that was meant to consume 3,300 kWh of natural gas and 4,800 kWh of electricity became a power plant, whose net export (difference between export and import) is about 6,700 kWh per year. And we haven’t improved the insulation of our house just yet, and haven’t implemented some more energy efficiency and energy-saving use strategies, so the research is ongoing. However, we already use condensate (water) generously generated by the heat pump hot water system to hydrate our backyard plants instead of simply sending it down the drain, which helps to save water and energy further. Knowledge and a regenerative mindset are the keys to sustainability.
Think about it — gas has completely disappeared from our life, our grid electricity consumption has been reduced by one quarter, and on top of it sends 6,700 kWh to the grid – pretty much equivalent consumption of another fully-electric household.
As for the economic side of it, this system creates about $2200 per year of value (a typical energy bill of a household in our neighbourhood), and on top of it approximately $400 of credit on our energy account, which makes a simple payback period of around four years. I think at this point in history it’s one of the best investments one can make.
It’s a wonderful story, of course, but please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to sell it as “good news” because it’s not. Mainstream buildings (business and residential) are still far from this idyllic “renewable household", they are poorly insulated, consumption behaviour is far from responsible (with zero awareness or even a will to know where the energy comes from), gas is widely considered by the industry as a sustainable fuel and is persistently connected to new developments, while heat pump systems for all sorts of heating applications are more of a niche technology outside of refrigerators and air-conditioners in building with miserable insulation. And solar panels are not even a default option for new developments despite low costs and a whole host of obvious advantages. It’s almost like the world is designed specifically to use as much energy in general and fossil fuels in particular as possible.
We also must not forget the ecological footprint of sustainable housing measures themselves. Of course, we generally use them up only once and then with good maintenance and some minor repairs we can enjoy nearly “free” energy for a few decades, but this doesn’t negate the fact that initially they must be made, transported and installed. And even though renewable energy deniers who keep repeating their mantra that “solar panels will never generate more energy than it took to make them” are completely and I would say pathetically wrong, even under our nearly ideal Queensland sun it will take between 3 and 3.5 years (double that in the UK for example), before I can say that the energy, we use is carbon-neutral, let alone “carbon-negative”.
So far, our home systems are deep inside a period of energy payback. I highlighted the carbon footprint of renewable energy and sustainable housing measures not to take hope from you, but to convey the urgency of action needed. Inaction and continuation of old wasteful methods of using energy are destructive — it is a war against the living planet, no other suitable comparison I can think of.
But energy transition also needs energy and it also takes time for this energy invested in the energy transitions (therefore, carbon budget spent) to be paid back by the system. And the delay between installation and more or less “true” green generation is from one to several years, depending on the type of the system and its region of operation. There is no way to make this message pleasant and nice – we are in a crisis and we must act immediately to decouple energy production from the use of fossil fuels AND minimise absolute consumption of energy and also minimise material consumption in general.
We (the civilization) do have the knowledge and the technologies to do it, and we had them for quite a while — and my humble case study is a neat demonstration. But what has been done so far globally is too little too late: as it seems there is not much political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground. And leaving fossil fuels in the ground (while also radically reducing animal agriculture) is the only sensible climate action.
Again - we know it's possible while actually making the lives of ordinary folk better. Our politicians have failed, and have been failing us for about four decades, all of their actions have only led to environmental degradation and the acceleration of catastrophic climate change. At this point it depends on us, the regular people, specifically the citizens of rich technologically developed countries, the "earthlings with privileges". In my opinion, those with privileges have the largest duty of care, nobody is going to fix it for us - the only evidence we have is supporting the opposite. And if we are to slow down the environmental catastrophe which is unfolding in front of our eyes and keep the planet in a more or less liveable state, we must act now. And don't ask me how — I have said enough, start thinking for yourself."
Conserving our world for future generations
Sustainable energy sources are crucial to the prevention of global warming and climate change. Now they are becoming more heavily invested in, purchased by the everyday folk, the market for them has grown and we can now use them without compromising on our energy consumption, or our wallets. The mindblowing fact that we CAN meet our energy needs with renewables without the major environmental impacts in the long term will eventually transform the energy sector when the demand increases. It's up to us to start purchasing these options and driving that demand in the right direction.