The Witness of Our Buildings
Information sheets to help Friends make our buildings less damaging to the environment

Global Warming and Fossil Fuels
Most of the energy we use in our buildings for heating, hot water, lights, appliances and cooking comes from burning "fossil fuels" (coal, gas, or oil) either directly, or indirectly through the use of electricity. Fossil fuels contain energy from the sun, stored in plant material over millions of years, then buried under the earth for millions more, which we are rapidly using up. They are non-renewable, and burning them generates carbon dioxide and other pollution. The rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is changing the Earth’s climate. It is expected to lead to rising sea levels, more storms, floods and droughts, loss of habitats and species, and the need for drastic changes in agriculture. Clearly we need to reduce the amount of pollution, and specifically CO2 production, from the energy use of our buildings. The amount of CO2 we generate from energy use in our buildings depends mainly on three factors: 1. the fuels or energy sources that we choose; 2. the efficiency of our appliances and heating systems, and the level of insulation of the building; 3. the amount that we use those appliances and heating systems – the temperature, lighting and ventilation levels we want to maintain, etc. This sheet addresses the first of these factors, for the second see the information sheet entitled “I: Energy Conservation”. The third obviously involves more controversial issues that are addressed in the QGA booklet, Living Lightly.

Environmental impacts of energy use
Whatever kind of energy we use, we are likely to have an environmental impact. Coal is one of the most environmentally damaging fuels – from the impacts of mining on habitats and groundwater to the high levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and smoke that are produced when it is burned. Burning coal also produces more CO2 per unit of energy than any other fuel. The following chart shows the amounts of CO2 (in kg) released in providing a single unit (kWh) of energy, whether in the form of electricity or of heat. It illustrates several points: 1. Using renewables, such as wind, solar, biomass and wave energy, results in near-zero CO2 emissions1. In many ways the choice of these fuels solves the pollution problem at one stroke, but there are practical difficulties. Solar energy for heating buildings needs massive buildings or other form of heat store to store the heat over a period of cloudy winter days. However solar water heating panels are a possibility if you use a lot of hot water and can afford the initial outlay. Wood from a sustainable source can be used now in local clean burning wood stoves, but lacks the automatic control and timing (and frost protection!) we have become used to in our heating systems. (Electricity from nuclear power is a special case which we will deal with later)


In fact, some CO2 is actually produced when the generating facilities are built, in particular from cementmaking for concrete. Sources of Heating (January 2002) Page 1

2. The fossil based fuels pollute roughly in order of their density. Natural gas is the lightest fuel, and is almost exclusively made up of methane, CH4. On the other end of the spectrum, the solid fuels are made up of compounds that contain much more Carbon relative to Hydrogen. They produce much more CO2 for a unit of energy. Note that wood from deforestation is included here, since if a wood is cleared and prevented from growing again, it will emit CO2 which will act as a global warming gas. If, however, the area is allowed to grow again, the growing trees will capture the CO2 emitted by the previous crops burning. In this way, the net CO2 emissions are zero and it becomes a renewable resource. Following on from this, note that the solution to planting trees to absorb the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is fatally flawed – each year another area of wood land would have to be planted, and simple calculations will quickly show that in only a few years the UK would run out of land for planting. 3. Electricity is a special case. Electricity is not a fuel but can be an energy carrier and is normally generated upon demand. What we can do is look at the sources from which our electricity is generated, and see how polluting they are.

Solar heat Wood - sustainable Electricity from Wind, Water Natural Gas Propane (eg Calor) Petrol Domestic Heating Oil Heavy Oil Wood - Deforestation Coal Anthracite Coke Electricity (UK 1998 average) Electricity (UK 1980 average) Electricity from Coal


Fossil based or non renewables


Kg CO2 per kWh



The bulk of our electricity used to be produced from burning coal. The conversion of heat to electricity is fundamentally limited by the laws of thermodynamics, which results in three units of heat being produced for each unit of electricity from a traditional coal-fired station. The remaining two units of electricity are dumped to the atmosphere as low grade heat. So a coal fired power station will produce roughly three times as much CO2 pollution than using the fuel directly, as shown in the chart above. Of course, the cost of electricity is also several times that of fossil fuels for the same reason. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also produced by burning coal. These gases combine with water to form acid rain, causing damage to trees and other plants, and acidification of lakes, killing fish and other aquatic species. From 1980 to 1998 Britain made a large reduction in pollution from electricity generation, mostly by the change from coal and oil (85% down to 35%) to natural gas (1% up to 32%) and nuclear (12% up to 30%). Whilst this is a commendable result in terms of straight CO2 emissions, there is some cause for concern. This is in the huge increase in nuclear power, with it’s attendant dangers. The fact that nearly a third of our electricity now comes from nuclear power is hidden since it is made up partly from “imports” from France, which is over 90% nuclear generated. Finally, the contribution from renewables to the total UK generation. According to the UK Energy Digest (DTI) renewable energy electricity generation increased from about 7GWh to about 10GWh between 1995 and 1999 although before 1995 it was pretty well constant. However in 1990 the vast majority of renewable electricity was from large scale hydro whereas in 1999 it was about half. The DTI includes waste combustion and landfill gas in its renewables count, and wind and small scale hydro only account for 11% of their figure but they are growing rapidly. The concern is that this growth is maintained.

Sources of Heating (January 2002)

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Conclusions and advice
What conclusions should Friends make about the source of energy for heating their properties, in accordance with making them less damaging to the environment? Firstly, the use of electricity for heating and hot water use should be reconsidered. It is almost always more efficient to use a fossil fuel and an efficient boiler than electricity, although for rarely used buildings, e.g. Meetings Houses only used on Sundays, the cost of changing to a fossil fuel is unlikely to be recovered in the life of the heating system from fuel savings at present fuel costs. Switching to a ‘green’ electricity supplier would be a good option in such cases - see below. Secondly, ensure that when appliances and lighting are due to be replaced, you choose the most efficient ones possible. The EST and SEDBUK websites (www.est.co.uk and www.sedbuk.com) contain useful information on appliances, lights and boilers. Third, consider signing up to a “green tariff” for electricity consumption. If possible, use a tariff that actually sells you electricity from a renewable source, rather than some which merely “invest” the extra cost for future renewable generation construction. Alternative suppliers Juice and RSPB energy cost no more than a conventional supplier but at the time of writing they do not supply business customers which most PMs will be. Unit[e] supplies businesses and is the recommended as the greenest of the companies by Friends of the Earth (it supplies only from renewables), but charges around 10% more than conventional electricity suppliers. Contact details for some green electricity suppliers are listed below or look up www.greenelectricity.org which will describe all the green suppliers for your region and provides on-line sign-up for some of them including Unit[e]. Fourth, work on making our buildings as energy efficient as possible. This is covered in detail in Information Sheet No. I (“Energy Conservation”) and Information Sheet No. VIII (“Design, Construction, and Extension”). Remember that if a new build scheme is to be undertaken, then it is possible to reduce the heating load of a building to near zero by the simple application of correct insulation and glazing details! For Historic buildings, large reductions can be made by focussing on zoning according to use, boiler efficiency, heating controls, insulation of lofts and window draught proofing. (see Information Sheet No. I)

Useful Contacts
Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT): Machynlleth, Powys SA20 9AZ; 01654 702400; www.cat.org.uk Some green electricity suppliers: Juice (npower/Greenpeace: 0800 316 2610; www.npower.com/juice RSPB Energy: 0800 0288 552 Unit[e]: 0845 601 1410; www.unit-e.co.uk (This Building Sheet is based on Quaker Green Concern's The Witness of Our Buildings Information Sheet II. Sources of Heating dated July 1997. We are grateful to Peter Warm of AECB for help in updating this sheet) (Copied on 100% recycled post consumer waste paper)

Sources of Heating (January 2002)

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