How to look after the watts

The bill payer running around the house screaming at teenagers to ‘turn that light out’ was a sit com staple in the 1980’s, but with electricity bills going through the roof it is no longer a subject for cheap jokes. Before you start looking at turning off everything in your house, though, it might be worth taking a closer look at where your electricity is going. 

It helps to understand how electricity usage is measured and priced. You pay for each kilowatt hour (kWh) you use, currently at a rate of around 34p if you pay by direct debit. A kWh is the power, or number of watts, a device uses multiplied by the time for which it is using power. So a washing machine, say, that uses 500 watts for two hours will use 1kWh (a kilowatt is 1,000 watts). 

If you have a smart meter and a device that shows how much energy you are using it is easy to see the difference turning on a kettle or hairdryer makes. But there is another important element to your consumption that is harder to see, which is the base load. This is the power your house uses even when you are asleep or on holiday. 

When we first got a smart meter, we found that even when we thought nothing was going on, the house was drawing a not inconsiderable 541 watts all the time. So, every day our base load was 541 x 24 or nearly 13kWh, costing £4.42 a day at the current capped unit price.

We decided to find out what was drawing all this power. We happened to have a remote-controlled plug we use to switch our Christmas lights on and off which measures the power used by the device connected to it. You can buy similar plugs quite cheaply. 

Moving this plug around the various sockets in the house enabled us to figure out where we were ‘leaking’ power. 

We started in the kitchen. When we moved into our house the kitchen had just a tiny ‘beer’ type fridge. We carried on using it but added a larger larder style one too. Turns out this tiny fridge, being old and inefficient, was using nearly 70 watts every hour, every day. Turning it off saved 613 kWh or £208 a year

The bigger fridge was also old and expensive to run, using 92 watts an hour. It was in need of a new thermostat too, so rather than replace the part we decided to replace it altogether with a more energy efficient model which draws just 26 watts. That saves us a further £196 a year at current prices.

Our next find came with our back-up system, dating back to the days before online backup. Despite now only being used to stream an occasional film it was still on 24/7, using up 102 watts and costing over £300 a year. That’s more than a Netflix and Spotify subscription combined! Safe to say, we pulled its plug.

The fridge and back-up system were the big easy wins, but by measuring every circuit we found others to add to our energy cost savings. One important one was anything left on standby when not in use.

This included the TV, which is friends with various other electrical boxes, and just on standby they were eating 30 watts an hour. We saved £74 a year by buying a voice controlled smart plug that links to the TV remote and disconnects the TV and associated electronics from the mains when we turn off the TV.

We fitted smart plugs to anything else that was drawing significant power while in standby so they are turned off when not needed. 

If you’re not sure which devices to check, computers and audio and video equipment are good places to look, or just measure anything that has a glowing red light even when you aren’t using it. 

Overall, we were able to reduce our base load from 541 to 233 watts, a saving of around £900 a year. Admittedly we had to buy a new fridge and five smart plugs, but you can see that rather than rushing to buy solar panels, heat pumps and battery storage, you can make savings on your energy spending by looking at the little things. Or, to paraphrase a well known saying, if you look after the watts then the kilowatts will look after themselves!

ACT: three years and counting!

On April 18th 2019, Audrey Compton was standing outside Forde House, the home of Teignbridge District Council (TDC), with a group of people holding banners. They were there to lobby the council to pass the climate emergency declaration proposal put forward by Councillor Jackie Hook. 

“We really didn’t think it would pass, but it did, unanimously, and with an amended carbon neutral target date of 2025, which was quite a surprise,” says Audrey, a Teign Valley farmer and environmental campaigner.

That target date was the most ambitious in the country, says Fuad Al-Tawil who was also at Forde House that day. “We thought it would be tough for the council to meet that target so suggested setting up a support group.”

The suggestion was welcomed, and Action on Climate in Teignbridge (ACT) was formed in the summer of 2019 following a public meeting in July at Coombeshead Academy in Newton Abbot attended by about 200 people. 

Fuad says: “The idea was to support TDC to deliver on its climate emergency declaration and to work with community organisations in Teignbridge, including parish and town councils, as a bridge between them and TDC.”

New ways of working

A voluntary organisation working with a district council was a novel idea – unique even. Fast forward three years and how has that worked out? Well, the monthly meetings still happen and ACT has given freely of its expertise and opinions, which appear to be valued. It has at times offered a critical voice, and remains completely independent of the council. “We have built a good and pretty unusual relationship with the council,” says Fuad.

Kate Benham, ACT chairperson, says it has been a learning curve for both parties. “The council moves slowly, which can be frustrating, but it’s a case of understanding what it can and can’t do.”

ACT members join Councillor Jackie Hook and council officer Will Easton to view work on renewable energy projects at the Teignmouth Lido in July 2022

Andrew Shadrake, a founding member of ACT, believes ACT has kept the pressure on the council: “Things have happened that wouldn’t have happened without us. We offer a resource, particularly on technical knowledge, that TDC relies on.”

However, the reality remains that carbon emissions have barely budged. Says Fuad: “ACT has  succeeded in doing what we set out to do, in terms of supporting the district council and engaging the community. But in delivering on what matters, carbon reduction, we haven’t succeeded.”

Action on nature and carbon

ACT has had success on the ecological front, in particular with its Wildlife Wardens scheme, launched in the autumn of 2020. There are now 100 volunteer wardens spread across Teignbridge who have received training and do what they can to help wildlife in their parish.

Wildlife Wardens being trained to complete surveys by the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre

“It’s been twice as successful as I ever hoped,” says Audrey, who set up the scheme and runs it with Flavio Winkler-Ford, a part-time paid coordinator.

“The great thing is wardens follow their own interests rather than ACT telling them what to do,” she adds. 

Spurred by the success of wildlife wardens, in early 2022 ACT launched the Carbon Cutters initiative in a renewed effort to move the dial on carbon emissions. Trying to achieve this through engaging with local councils has proved tough. ACT will continue to work with councils, but will concentrate on engaging with community groups for the Carbon Cutters scheme.

“We are working with around 13 groups so far,” says Kate. “They are hugely enthusiastic and really want to help.” The scheme is run by part-time paid coordinator Peta Howell, with the help of a group of ACT members.

Still going strong

Demonstrating the global carbon budget at the Energy Roadshow in September 2022

Three years since launch, ACT still has a core group of enthusiastic, ambitious and committed people, and a wider membership of close to 450. That’s an achievement in itself, says Andrew.

Moreover, with Wildlife Wardens, and now Carbon Cutters, “we have tested and succeeded in developing a model for people to take action. We have also demonstrated a way of moving a district along, and raised the profile of climate change in the community.”

Flexibility is a key strength. “We are an evolving organisation that is learning all the time,” says Kate. “It’s good that we’re not afraid to change direction if we need to and try new things.” Mandy Cole, a psychologist who volunteers with ACT says it’s also important that “we don’t tell people what to do. We listen and learn more about what would help them to do more about climate change.”

There is also the personal reward for ACT members that comes with taking positive action, working with like-minded people and just having fun. For Audrey, “the last three years with ACT have been the most productive of 20 years of campaigning on climate change”.