Ireland’s Sensible Energy Conservation Practices

By Neva Knott

Home, and going through my notes and photographs from Cork, Ireland, where I spent a month, late June to mid-July. Two years ago, I travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland for the same writing workshops. On both trips, I noticed the energy efficiency that is a well-integrated part of life in those two countries of the UK. What’s most impressive is that people in Cork and Edinburgh live very similarly to those of us here in the US. They depend on electricity for heat and lighting, have laptops and TV’s and all the other energy-using modern conveniences. Yet, UK household and per capita energy use is almost half of what it is here in the US.

Not only is energy conservation important in relationship to available energy supply, energy waste translates to carbon emissions and increases global warming. Also, energy conservation is smart household money management.

According to Lindsay Wilson of shrinkthatfootprint.com, households in the UK consume 4.6 thousand kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year, while US households consume 11.7 thousand. Wilson gathered these statistics from World Energy Council.

Wilson also cites per capita usage of electricity. Individuals in the UK use 1.9 thousand kilowatt hours per year, in contrast to the 4.5 thousand for each person in the US.

In Ireland and Scotland both, it is common to see on/off switches next to each electrical outlet. These switches accomplish the same cut-off of electricity flow as unplugging does. For example, each morning when I used the electrical water pot to make tea, I first turned on the switch, then turned on the appliance. When finished, I turned off the appliance and the switch. Same for the microwave, clothes washer, wall outlets. Use of outlet switches is an easy common sense measure. Here at home, I have started unplugging lamps in rooms that are only used occasionally, such as the guest bedroom, and I unplug my TV and wireless router each night. I also unplug my phone and laptop chargers as soon as charging is complete. Even these simple steps have lowered my kWh usage. Imagine how much good those little switches do.

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While going about my daily routine in both Edinburgh and Cork, I noticed the prevalence of automatic motion-sensor lights in public restrooms, hallways, and other such use-specific spaces.

Also, when shops and businesses close for the day, the last person out turns off the lights. At night in these cities, it’s dark, rather than needlessly illuminated by neon marquees and office windows still bright. Not only is turning off commercial lights at the end of the day an energy savings, it is better for nocturnal creatures, and has human health benefit as well. And let’s face it, leaving on those glaring signs and desk lamps on the twelfth floor serve no purpose anyway.

These common sense measures allow for necessary energy use at the time of need, and allow for abundant energy savings by simply switching off the flow of electricity when it’s not needed or in use. Additionally, Ireland has several programs in place to help residents further decrease their consumption of electricity, and other household energy.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland runs a program called The Power of One Street. The program outlines five steps to follow to lower household energy consumption. All steps focus on eliminating energy waste, controlling energy flow, and using attributes of the home–such as natural lighting, and making thoughtful, practical choices about energy usage.

Step 1 evaluates energy use for space heating, Step 2–water usage, Step 3–small power (appliances and such), Step 4–lighting, and Step 5–cooking. Each step takes just a few weeks to implement.

The SEAI website offers anecdotes of actual families that participated, explaining their initial concerns, the changes they made, and the savings in both energy and money. For example, by following the recommendations for Step 3, the Heffernan Family reduced their small power usage by 20 percent, which reduced their carbon footprint by 1.4 tonnes of CO2, and creating a 334 euro ($468) annual savings. The Brennan Family, by following Step 4, reduced their lighting usage by 34 percent, reducing their carbon footprint by .5 tonnes, and created a cash savings of 110 euro ($154) per year.

Practical measures are at the fore of Ireland’s energy management. The other significant difference I noticed was that the rhetoric is different. Energy conservation is not a topic fraught with tension and derisive language, it is not politicized into an us v. them battle. Take, for example, this from the report, Maximising Ireland’s Energy Efficiency–The National Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2009-2020:

“We have been successful in building a knowledge economy, attracting key international organisations because of a skilled and innovative workforce. We now need to challenge ourselves to replicate this success in the energy sector and create a smart economy, one that is underpinned by green goods and services and which leads the world in innovative adaptation of sustainable research. Internationally, the energy sector is increasingly seen by investors as the single most attractive investment opportunity available in a turbulent market. The United Nations Environment Programme, New Green Deal, seeks to mobilise the global economy towards investments in clean technologies. Ireland needs to position itself as central to this process, bringing knowledge, skills and robust practical research with it.”

This statement co-joins business, economics and the discussion energy conservation in a way I’ve not seen in the US.

I was similarly impressed with a couple of signs I saw. Both made plan and clear statements about energy.

One was posted in the dressing room of H & M, a global women’s fashion retailer, urging customers to wash clothes on a lower temperature setting:

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The other was the placard on a fuel tanker that clearly depicted the environmental danger of a spill:

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Here in the US the fashion industry doesn’t give voice to the issue of energy conservation by connecting it to the washing of clothes, and placards on tankers are an obscure set of numbers, letters, and colors that do nothing to communicate to the general public the dangers of spills.

People in Ireland and Scotland live very similarly to people in the US, yet it seemed to me that they have a more honest awareness of the interconnectedness between their way of life and their energy sources, and a more real view of the correlation between energy sources, the natural world, and environmental problems. Both Ireland and Scotland have adopted an attitude of solutions. I hope the US will soon do the same.

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