How green is your house?
Do your bit for the planet and save money at the same time by making your home more eco-friendly
Last month I looked at how feasible it is to live completely off-grid in France, and while making your home completely energy selfsufficient might be too radical for most of us, a mix of renewable power and conventional energy is a very viable option. Installing solar panels, geothermal heating and a biomass-burning furnace will reduce your carbon footprint, and in the long term, it will also cut your fuel and electricity bill.
In the Montagne Noire, north of Carcassonne, where I have a home, I see a lot of windscreen and bumper stickers bearing the slogan ‘Nuclear power: no thanks’ in a variety of languages. However, most of my neighbours seem able to compromise their knee-jerk opposition to nuclear energy in return for electricity prices that are among the cheapest in Europe. Some of my less techsavvy greenie visitors from the UK praise France’s ever-more-ardent love for clean, carbon-conscientious trains and urban transport, and are crestfallen when I point out that their hired electric car is, for all practical purposes, nuclear powered.
More than 80% of my electricity is nuclear-generated, according to my EDF bill. It’s not easy being green when there’s so little financial incentive to change. And, of course, many would argue that nuclear power is in fact the only realistic solution to the problem of curbing carbon consumption – at least in the short to medium term.
The French government certainly thinks so. In 2015, it introduced legislation calling for 40% of French electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Meanwhile, France is doubling down on nuclear power too. In St-Paul-lès-Durance, not far north of Marseille, building has begun on humanity’s largest ever scientific project. ITER will demonstrate nuclear fusion power on a commercial scale, be operational within a decade, and will usher in a new era of nuclear energy that produces no long-life waste. And, with renewables such as solar and wind power, could even lead to a carbon-free future.
The stuff of science fiction? Yes. But science fiction has a way of becoming reality. Just ask Jules Verne.
CUTTING DOWN ON FOSSIL FUELS
While you’re waiting for that new, clear, nuclear dawn to come, however, you may be considering more modest ways of going green. If you want to salve your carbon conscience, your first priority should be cutting down on fossil fuels.
In France, that’s easier than in the UK. Carbon-neutral fuels like wood or biomass pellets from sustainable plantations are readily available, while much of France has plenty of sunshine, so solar power is a very viable option. Even using a domestic-sized turbine to generate your own electricity from wind (and even selling the surplus back to EDF) is an increasingly attractive option for homeowners.
Unfortunately, the French government has rowed back somewhat on the very generous incentives it announced 10 years ago for French residents who installed a range of eco-friendly systems and energysaving measures.
However, there are still interest-free loans and CITE (crédit d’impôt pour la transition énergétique) tax breaks of up to 30% for householders who install photovoltaic panels, geothermal or airpump systems, domestic wind turbines and more efficient insulation. Local and regional grants and tax breaks are also available in many parts of France, so ask your mairie and conseil général for details. The official website renovation-info-service.gouv.fr/ also provides up-to-date information on loans, grants and tax rebates.
Of course, as I suggested last month, one obvious solution is to look at what you can do without in the way of appliances – do you really need a pool, air conditioning, freezer, tumble dryer, and dishwasher? For many, the answer to that question is an unequivocal ‘yes’. We don’t want to go back to a life without luxuries and laboursaving devices. So let’s assume we’re looking for a no-compromise solution that will let us keep them.
HOW TO MAKE SAVINGS USE SOLAR POWER
If you’re looking for an off-the-peg solution, installing photovoltaic (‘solar’) panels is a no-brainer. PVPs, which generate clean electricity from sunlight, are virtually plug and play. They’re not dependent on direct sunshine; all that’s required is daylight. Six roof-mounted panels will generate up to 1,800kW a year – enough to power lighting and electrical appliances including TV, computers, fridge and freezer. You’ll still want mains electricity as a winter backup and to run more power-hungry items such as a washer-dryer, but installing PVPs will cut your EDF bill.
Taking the chill off the swimming pool is another drain on resources if you’re using oil, LPG or electricity. Even if you use solar power for nothing else, installing a solar pool heating system is a cheap and efficient solution. A typical system comprises a filter pump and flow control valve to circulate pool water through plastic, rubber or glazed solar collectors. How much it will cost depends on the size of your pool and how warm you like your water, but as a very rough guide the cheapest systems should cost less than €1,000, and manufacturers claim a working life of up to 20 years.
REPLACE OIL-FIRED DEVICES
An even bigger saving on conventional fuels can be made by replacing your oilfired system with a clean biomass boiler for hot water and central heating. Though not initially cheap, this will eventually pay for itself, though how quickly it does so depends on the price of oil and gas.
Heating oil has dropped in price since its 2012 peak, when filling a thousandlitre tank would have cost around €970, according to statista.com. Last year, it cost around €600, and this year the price has jumped to around €780 for 1,000 litres, producing around 9,000 kWh of energy. That means heating oil currently costs more than three times as much as wood per kilowatt-hour.
The latest wood or pellet-burning boilers can match conventional oil-fired devices in terms of power, producing the same output for less than half the cost of oil, depending on what type of wood or pelleted fuel you use. Unlike log-burning fires, pelleted burners can be fitted with hoppers that hold up to a week’s worth of pellets. You still need to empty the ash residue every few days, so they’re undeniably a bit more hassle than electric or oil-fired systems, but they’re a lot more convenient and efficient than traditional fires. And if you’re punctilious about where you source your fuel, making sure it comes from sustainable sources, they are carbon neutral. The catch is the high cost of installation, up to four times as much as the cost of an oil-fired or electric system, so your biomass boiler could take 10 years to pay for itself. That said, once it’s installed you’ll no longer have to worry about the upward-trending price of oil.
CONSIDER GEOTHERMAL HEATING
Geothermal heating is another increasingly popular option. Using the ground to heat or cool your home and warm your pool is counter-intuitive – but it works. The earth’s surface absorbs almost 50% of the sun’s thermal energy. Shallow ground source systems use ground loops to tap the stored warmth of the sun. The earth itself generates heat, so 10-15 metres below the surface the ground is at a constant temperature of 10-12 degrees, so deeper geothermal systems are more effective for year-round use.
Though geothermal systems need electricity to pump water through their heating loops, they generate five times as much power as they use, so are highly efficient. The snag is that you need quite a bit of land to accommodate the long ground loops, and installing underfloor piping is problematic in older houses, so geothermal is a more suitable option for new-build homes.
A purist might argue that air conditioning is a luxury that a truly green household can live without: just open a window. Those of us who have tried to sleep in an attic bedroom in Provence in high summer might disagree.
Air-conditioning systems are becoming less harmful to the environment as the hydrofluorocarbons they use for cooling are phased out, but if you’re at all worried about global warming you may feel a twinge of guilt about pumping yet more heat into the already scorching summer air. Sadly, there’s no easy fix for this, but you can reduce the need for air conditioning by installing more effective insulation, especially in roof spaces.
In fact, upgrading your insulation is probably the single most cost-effective measure you can take to make your French home greener. Grants and tax breaks are widely available, it’s not hard to do, and you’ll see results immediately in terms of money saved, cooler summers and warmer winters. Introducing an ambitious national ‘climate plan’ in July, France’s newly appointed climate minister Nicolas Hulot said the government would make thermal renovation of French homes a national priority. Green energy will make France more energy-independent and reduce power bills for French consumers, the minister said.
To feel truly environmentally smug, consider using hemp-based products like the insulation batts (boards) produced by Biofib’Isolation, a French company based in Vendée ( biofib.com). Hemp straw is a completely renewable resource – it’s a byproduct of hemp grown for oil and cattle feed, not for recreational purposes – and as fields of fast-growing hemp soak up carbon dioxide much faster than forests do, cultivation actually helps to reduce atmospheric CO2.
So, renewable energy isn’t just for tree-huggers. Pick and mix your energy sources, and the long-term savings will please even climate-change sceptics. Think green – it really can pay dividends.
“Local and regional grants and tax breaks are available”
Robin Gauldie is a freelance journalist and former editor of Climate Change – Addressing the Challenge. His French home is near Carcassonne