Britain's most eco-friendly neighbours

Keeping up with the Joneses has never been better for the planet

By Ginetta Vedrickas
Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00
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Ever wondered where the greenest street in Britain is? Thanks to a project run to cut energy use, the aptly named Green Lane in Cookridge, Leeds, has just won a competition to find the street with the greenest residents.

The residents of Green Lane weren't always so eco-minded, but were part of Green Streets, a year-long experiment to see if ordinary householders could cut their energy usage by 25 per cent and reduce their carbon footprint. The project pitted eight families on eight different streets in eight different regions across the UK against one another to see which street could make the biggest energy savings. It was the brainchild of British Gas, which gave each street £30,000 to spend on energy-saving equipment, from energy-saving lightbulbs and loft insulation through to solar panels, boilers and kettles.

The project ended last month, and findings show that some home owners saved more than 30 per cent of energy, with a few saving more than 50 per cent, drastically reducing their fuel costs. Ian and Janine Lewis live in Green Lane with their children, Bethany, 10, Samuel, seven, and Sophie, two, and reduced their energy use by more than 45 per cent throughout the year, shaving almost £700 off their annual bills. Ian explains that, thanks to the equipment they received, the project wasn't too much of an ordeal. "We wouldn't describe ourselves as eco-warriors, but by making a few simple changes to our routine, we saved energy and money." As part of the project, the family received a new boiler and kettle and a "smart metre" to monitor their energy use. "We were shocked by some things; for instance, the iron and kettle, which both use loads of electricity. We now try to iron less and only fill the kettle with the water we need. We've also ditched our electric lawnmower and use a manual one."

An efficient boiler with a choice of settings allowed the family to use heating only when they really needed it, but they also made other small changes. "I fitted foil behind the radiators to reflect heat back in, but we also made a habit of turning off lights when not in the room, putting lids on pans and even sharing bathwater!" Ian laughs, adding that the children, who received a special award for their contribution, were fully behind the experiment. "We've always recycled and the children walk to school, but they made a point of not switching on the TV after school and we all ate more salads, so we used less gas."

The family found that an unexpected advantage of taking part in the project was getting to knowtheir neighbours, with whom they held monthly meetings to share tips and get advice from an energy adviser. "It's been great for the whole community, but if everyone across the UK did the same, it would make a huge difference," says Ian, who is putting their savings toward a family holiday. Green Lane residents have collectively won £50,000 to spend on making a community building of their choice more energy-efficient.

Households account for a quarter of total UK carbon-dioxide emissions, and poor insulation means that around £1 in every £3 currently spent heating UK homes is wasted. Gearóid Lane, the director of British Gas New Energy, found that the 64 families who took part liked the element of being tempted by the carrot rather than the stick, and says that the competition element worked well. "The trick is in injecting excitement into what can be a boring subject, but the families involved seemed to enjoy the competitive and community element." Lane admits that Green Lane, consisting mainly of 1960s stock, was easy to insulate, giving them an advantage, but hopes that the project inspires similar schemes across the UK. Lane is optimistic that the Government will use the findings for policy planning (several MPs, including Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, visited the project).

The experiment was monitored by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), an independent think tank, which is producing a report into the challenge and making recommendations to the Government on the back of the experiment's findings. If all British households followed suit, the UK could beat the Government's target to cut carbon emissions by saving 35 million tons of carbon dioxide, the annual carbon emissions of three coal-fired power stations. The Government is currently deciding on strategies to reduce emissions and plans to roll out the use of smart metres from 2010. Matthew Lockwood of the IPPR monitored the project and wants to see a quicker response on the back of the project's success. "There's been nothing like this before," he says. "It was a small project, but it's had a big impact."

Lockwood accepts that consumers may be sceptical about energy companies' motives, since they are under scrutiny for failing to pass on price cuts to consumers despite tumbling oil prices. Consumers can, however, get free advice on how to make their homes more environmentally friendly. British Gas now works with local authorities and groups such as Age Concern to target particular groups of home owners who could benefit from tailored energy surveys.

"There is distrust, but firms are regulated and now have to offer advice about your home," says Lockwood. "There is also a big programme of subsidised insulation." Much green debate centres on building sustainable homes, but Lockwood notes that "nine in 10 of the homes we will live in by 2020 have been built; we need creative approaches to prioritise carbon reduction in a recession".

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