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The Big Energy Saving Challenge

Transition Omagh Energy Project. After many months spent wringing hands and declaring much like Captain Peacock in Juno and the Peacock that "Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis" - (Captain Boyle, Act III), Transition Omagh slowly moves into action. Early in 2011, the energy group awakens, scratches, yawns, stands up, sniffs the air and trots off purposefully. It is not long before one of the group comes back with a proposal, a filled in application that needed signing and the possibility for us to seriously reduce our carbon footprint. It was exciting and great at the same time, because at last we had something that was measurable, practical, attractive to peoples wallets and the promise of engaging many.

Les was the man behind the application and responsible for creating this great opportunity. What he applied for, was for Transition Omagh to be selected to participate in a competition that was being rolled out here in Northern Ireland by Power NI called Power NI’s BIG Energy Saving Challenge. Six communities were selected to get ‘switched on’ to energy saving as they try to win £20,000 for their community.

On the strength of his application Transition Omagh was one of those selected to participate in the Big Energy Saving Challenge. So far so good but what did this entail? Application success was based on the group’s experience in organising an energy saving project (or community project), an action plan for achieving energy saving targets within the group, evidence of how the group will employ Power NI’s products/services and website in its attempt to become more energy efficient, how the group intends to utilise the rewards for energy saving measures, the extent of intended participation by each household in the group during the course of the competition.

Our first ‘BIG’ meeting was held early in July at Glenhordial Permaculture Farm. At this meeting we discovered what we had committed to as a group, none of it terribly onerous! The first major demand was enthusiasm and a certain commitment to persuading our reluctant households to compete in various energy saving efforts over a period of at least a year. Previous to any of this, all those taking part had to participate in a home energy check. You could take this on line at Power NI.

The second important thing was a willingness to share your experience and data; (e.g. units used according to your electricity bills, etc.). The third point was that we would work together for the benefit of the whole group. The Home Energy Check (HEC) produced interesting results for some folk. Here in our case we ended up with an energy rating of E, which apparently is the average for NI! Curious that, because we have an efficient wood/gas boiler for heating and solar panels backed up with another wood stove for water, also have all the non sexy stuff such as insulation, draft proofing etc. and have been independent of oil for the last five years. We were still rated surprisingly high energy users, even though we purchase eco energy and our online billing tells us we have no emissions! Whilst I know it is about raising energy awareness, I feel the home energy check could have been designed just a little better.


 What did we get in return for this? Anyone who attended that day received an energy-saving pack for taking part in the home energy check. This included an energy meter which you can mount anywhere in the house, it has the ability to measure and translate energy units into pounds and pennies. That little gismo is a most wondrous device. I have it above the immersion switch in the kitchen and just opposite where the electric kettle hangs out. The presence of that “yoke” on the wall (as referred to by our teenagers) had an effective and dramatic change on our energy use as a family. See the chart attached. What else was in that energy saving pack? There were a number of low energy bulbs and yet another gismo (by now you are probably beginning to realise that I am not terribly au-fait with electrical gadgets). Anyway’s this other "yoke" works when you plug it in to your television or computer it then stops it from being on standby- can’t really see the point of it ‘cause we just use the off switch!

 So what else does the Big Energy Saving Challenge involve?

Our next step was to plan on how to act on the recommendations of the HEC results. They said “Our heating system would benefit from a programmer and room thermostat to enable the boiler to switch off when no heat is required. This would reduce the amount of energy used in our home and lower our fuel bills. Thermostatic radiator valves should also be installed, to allow the temperature of each room to be controlled to suit individual needs, adding to comfort and reducing heating bills”. (well thats what they said) We didn’t do it ‘cause Billy (long suffering better half ) says ”once our boiler is lit, its always making heat as it is wood powered and not as controllable as a conventional boiler, any wood in it burns up until there is no more, whether there is a demand for heat or not” no we haven’t installed thermostats  and we already have radiator valves.

The HEC suggested installing solar photovoltaics (solar PV). A solar PV system is one which converts light directly into electricity via panels placed on the roof with no waste and no emissions and is most effective on a south facing roof. Him indoors (Billy that is) suggested that as the feed-in tariffs were changing, and since no-one knows what the life of solar photovoltaics will be after 25 years and the amount of embedded energy in them, they represented a false energy economy.

Score: Power NI HEC 0, Billy 2

The HEC made a number of suggestions around mains gas usage, however as its not available in this part of the world (least ways not until they start the Fracking here ) these are irrelevant.The final suggestion made by the HEC was to install a wind turbine.....Billy’s response was interesting ....but definitely not positive, theory backed up by battery cost and life, embedded energy of concrete and metal v’s energy produced, maintenance cost and so on.

Score: Power NI HEC 0, Billy 3

We had three more steps that we could have taken, one was to make an application for free or cash back insulation offers from PowerNI. However Billy maintains that it wasn’t worth the trouble and bother of lifting the wooden floors in the attic to add in a rather small amount of insulation.

Our next step was to make a list of all the costs and quantities of fuel used in our household energy consumption over the past year. We did this and reckon that roughly our power costs £650.00 per year and that we burn about 5 to 6m3 of wood per year depending on the wood. The idea for this is to build a picture of the total energy use of the group and then try to show a year on year improvement. A commendable output, and giving point to all of this. So for us some parts of this were little more than green washing but other parts of this project certainly did reduce our energy output. It will be interesting when we pull all the figures together at the end to see if we manage a reduction of energy use in Transition Omagh Land.

Our final step was to confirm if we would like to have a thermal imaging survey done; this uses heat sensitive cameras to highlight any weak points in the house that lets out heat, thus allowing us to plug the energy leaks (theoretically speaking). Leaving the last word to Billy “may as well try it, though I dont know what we are going to do with the information”.

On the plus side, this got some folk involved that up until now had been dormant members of Transition. It also brought in fresh faces. It looks like we will reduce our energy use and thereby our carbon footprint. There may be a small economic benefit for those that participated. One or two members had insulation work done and are really very pleased with the result. We had a lot of coverage in the press because of the project. So weighing it all up yes the Big Energy Saving Challenge was very worthwhile for Transition Omagh....and its not over yet, there is a small matter of £20,000.00 out there!