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

Living France - - Contents -

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.


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-ser­ 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.


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.


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 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.


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 ( 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

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