Friday, 4 January 2008

Energy-saving exercise highlights challenge we face

Published: 04 January, 2008
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

IN this first week of 2008 I wish every reader and your families all the best in peace, prosperity and health.

To that end, as an MSP on the Scottish Parliament's Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee (TICC), I'll be heavily engaged this year in weighing up how people all over Scotland should take practical steps to reduce all of our CO2 output. By next New Year the SNP Government should have consulted and produced a bill to underpin an ambitious three per cent reduction year-on-year to reach an 80 per cent overall reduction of CO2 by 2050.

Such ambitions are likely to be testing but they are long overdue and vital to our planet. To this end I've been engaged as one of the MSPs from all five parties on an energy-saving exercise to improve our own homes as an example to others. That's why a progress report is an apt contribution when I'm writing this column on a cold, wet January afternoon.

Jack McConnell (Labour), Jim Hume (Lib Dem), Mary Scanlon (Conservative), Robin Harper (Green) and I have had professional energy surveys of our houses. We have had thermal image photos taken to reveal the heat-leakage points and we have been offered commercially available CurrentCost monitors to measure the energy use of various domestic appliances. In return, before July we should have taken steps to improve our energy ratings. We will each contribute £100 to go to the winner, who will be the member whose property has most improved its NHER energy rating. That MSP will then offer the £500 to the charity of their choice.

Now for the mixed news of the initial surveys. Our home, built in 1994 – a modern version of a one-and-a-half-storey cottage with wooden porch and two dormer windows – came out top in the initial calculations of each of the five houses. This shows we have an energy rating of 6.1, just above the Scottish median figure of 6.0. But new houses should have an energy rating of 8.0 on a scale of 0 to 10!

The independent energy-efficiency consultant then explained the good news that our home produced 3.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per year as a result of the energy we use: This amount is much lower than the UK average. Any energy-efficiency measures undertaken will reduce these CO2 emissions as well as our fuel bills.

On top of that, the thermographic comparison of the five MSPs' properties showed that all revealed areas of inconsistency indicative of missing or damaged insulation. The most heat loss came from Jack McConnell's house in Wishaw; next was Mary Scanlon's, in Inverness; third worst was Jim Hume's cottage in Selkirk; and then Robin Harper's in Edinburgh was second. Our home in Evanton was "in the best condition".

The big issue for all of us is how we can tackle the problems the surveys reveal, because it's an issue that affects every home and public building in the land.


SEVERAL pertinent questions come to mind. It costs to get professional surveys of energy ratings and thermal images. If we are all to follow through suggested improvements to reduce CO2 emissions from our homes these involve costs for improved insulation around our windows and in the eaves, for a more efficient boiler or for large domestic items such as a replacement for our old energy-inefficient washing machine. It could also require considerable investment in home energy equipment such as wind, solar or heat pumps.

I was discussing these with the local builder of our house at the village dance on Hogmanay. On New Year's Day we first-footed a very successful eco-friendly architect friend, Neil Sutherland, to discuss a long-planned extension to create our modern but and ben.

Their reactions confirmed my views. For a start, the national planning laws need to be much stricter. The builders should get training in better insulation. The measurement of energy ratings should be carried out by building standards officers of the local authority. All builders need to see thermal images of their work so as to spot the problem areas of potential heat loss. So who should provide these? Once again it has to be a public service.

I've made enquiries and I understand there's an underused thermal imaging camera in council HQ in Inverness. I've encouraged our local councillor to get the use of it and make some pictures of a variety of homes. But the fact is it should be standard practice as part of a house log that shows the energy rating of each property and improvements made by the owner. It should be passed from owner to owner by law.

That's why I'm pleased that the SNP Government has trebled the cash available for home renewables. But it behoves the local planning departments of each council to aid and not hinder this process. Evidence of unreasonable obstruction by individual planners must be rooted out by councillors. Far too many homes with lovely gold bath-taps and scant regard to total insulation have been recommended for planning approval in the past, while eco-friendly homes made of wood and other non-vernacular materials have been blue-pencilled before planning committees even meet.

I'll have a lot more to say on this subject as we get down to improving our own home over these next few months. I'd like to thank the partners who conceived the MSP Energy Challenge. They are Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Energy Saving Trust, and I must also thank my fellow MSPs who have exposed their dwellings to scrutiny. It's a service to everyone that we can all be proud of.

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