The home, household goods & services

Think Small and Go Local

A growing trend of households and small businesses generating their own electricity could see a shift in the balance away from the fossil fuel-run power plants that currently dominate the industry. As well as solar power cells, wind turbines and old-fashioned water wheels can take advantage of natural resources, but there is also the rise of innovations such as the bio-gas fermenter, for times when the weather can’t be relied upon. The fermenter turns agricultural waste, such as manure and chaff, into methane, which powers an electricity generator. The waste heat from the process is used to heat water for nearby homes. Using these techniques, the German town of Freimant is not only self-sufficient, but in 2007 generated a surplus of 2.3 million kilowatt-hours, which it sold back to the national grid. And this is not about some commune hoping to shut itself off from the world, but rather a modern, and quickly growing, movement. Nor is it simply about wresting control out of the hands of the big power companies. Generating power locally is simply more efficient. The average power plant loses 70% of the energy of fossil fuels during the conversion process through heat to the atmosphere or water cooling. The remaining power loses a further 7% from transmission lines.

Presently the large utility companies account for 67% of electricity generated globally. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook predicts that even in its ‘alternative scenario’ (in which governments push hard for energy savings), the large power plants will still account for around 50% of the new power facilities coming online by 2030, while locally generated power will account for just 20%. But there are other predictions of an ‘alternative alternative’ scenario, in which governments will have a role to play in breaking the ‘carbon lock-in’. Denmark, currently the world’s most energy-efficient country, is leading the field in locally generated power. Denmark was the first country to introduce a ‘feed-in tariff’ to promote local energy, and now less than one-third of the country’s energy comes form big utilities. And Denmark isn’t the only one. Germany introduced a feed-in tariff in 2004 and now is a world leader in solar power, with 400,000 households and small businesses set up for solar power generation. Some countries with utility oligopolies may have trouble getting the big companies to let go of their stranglehold, but great opportunities for setting up locally generated power can be found in countries in the developing world, where the long distance power network is still under developed.
Ref: Newsweek (US), 21-28 April 2008, ‘Big Power Goes Local’, Stefan Thiel.
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Search words: Energy, power, power distribution
Trend tags: Energy crisis, peak oil, alternative energy

The Fifth Fuel

There is little doubt that if governments want to get serious about battling climate change, then energy efficiency, rather than simply alternative fuel sources, will have a huge role to play. Known by some as ‘negawatts’, energy efficiency can be just as effective in satisfying the demand for power, without the polluting by-products of traditional fuels. In fact the only by-product of efficiency comes in the form of savings in power bills and less money spent on power stations. The International Energy Agency, in its greenest prediction, thinks that two-thirds of emissions averted would come from greater efficiency. The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) believes that if the world wishes to keep the concentration of greenhouse gases below 50 parts per million (a target advocated by many scientists), then energy efficiency would get us halfway there. It’s not just about the environmental aspect either, putting money into energy efficiency schemes could prove extremely profitable. Although big bucks would need to be spent up front – US$170 billion a year until 2020 – big investments would be expected to pay for themselves fairly quickly. So if it’s good for the environment and for the wallet, why isn’t everyone getting on board? To some extent they are.

The amount of energy used to create each dollar of output – or ‘energy intensity’ – is falling by around 1.5% per year globally. But according to the MGI there are still billions of dollars in opportunities still to be taken advantage of. One problem is that in the eyes of consumers, electricity and fuel is often too cheap to be worth saving. In fact, in countries or states where energy is cheaper, efficiency goes down with it. Conversely Denmark, the world’s most energy efficient country, has high power prices. Another problem is that taking advantage of potential energy savings can often be confusing and time-consuming for consumers. One tactic is to improve the kind of information available to customers. America and Europe both have labelling schemes for identifying energy-efficient houses and products – Europe’s is compulsory. But such labels are easily ignored by customers, who more often purchase in favour of price, appearance or convenience. Financial incentives are another way of going about it, with America offering tax credits to manufacturers of extra-efficient appliances and China plans to subsidise makers of compact fluorescent light bulbs. Other governments simply introduce new standards. Australia has proposed banning incandescent light bulbs altogether. Japan has its Top Runner Scheme, which identifies the most efficient appliances on the market. Competitors must improve on these efficiencies within four to six years or face fines. But all of these energy savings could be undermined by what’s known as the ‘rebound effect’. If the demand for energy falls, prices will come down too, and this in turn may prompt greater power usage.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 10 May 2008, ‘The elusive negawatt’.
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Search words: Energy, energy efficiency

Tomorrow’s tenements

Across America, thousands of suburban homes are deserted. The yards are overgrown, vandals have kicked in doors and the homeless are moving in. In Lee County Florida, where one in four houses has been vacated, burglaries rose 35% in the first half of 2007, while robberies rose 58% Even in nicer neighbourhoods, such as the Franklin Reserve of Elk Grove in California, where some houses once sold for more than US$500,000, the situation is the same. This rise in vacancies in suburban America has been for the most part attributed to the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent foreclosures. But the problem is part of a much bigger shift in housing demand. For the past 60 years, the growth in housing demand has been in the direction of the suburbs, with people moving out of the city to avoid its high crime rates and poverty. During the 1960s and 1970s, moving to the suburbs was seen as a sign of affluence, but by the time the 1990s came around, the city was becoming gentrified. Television shows such as Seinfeld and Sex and the City promoted city living, while Desperate Housewives painted he suburbs as a place of soullessness and moral decay. And it’s more than just changing preferences, a changing demographic is helping the shift. When Baby Boomers had their young families, they made up more than half of all households, in 2000, families with children accounted for just a third of households, and by 2025, this is expected to fall to just a quarter. In addition to the rise of young single households, Baby Boomers with empty nests are moving back to the city.

With the rise and rise of petrol prices, car-based suburban living may not continue to be affordable either. The demand for urban living can be seen in the price of houses. 20 years ago it was considerably cheaper to live in the city centre than in the suburbs; now it is 40% to 200% more expensive per square foot of living space. It’s not just central cities that have seen this price rise. Suburban towns with walkable urban centres are also in demand. Builders and developers are attempting to fix the imbalance in demand by creating more urban living spaces and by building attractive urban centres in the suburbs. The demand is not going to be easy to fulfil, as US cities only increase their housing and commercial space by, at most, 3% per year. Meanwhile the empty suburban homes require of a solution of their own. The problem is that these massive suburban landscapes are hard to undo once they’re built. Some have been bulldozed and turned into parks or reforested, but this is unlikely in most cases, as purchasing entire neighbourhoods from so many different owners is virtually impossible. It’s more likely that houses on the outskirts of the city will be sold at bargain prices to lower income families and eventually converted into apartments.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), March 2008, ‘The Next Slum?’, Christopher B Leinberger.
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Search words: Cities, housing
Trend tags: Urbanisation

The Rise of Modern Pet Pharma

Anti-obesity pills or psychiatric treatment for dogs may seem like a ridiculous idea, but these kinds of treatments for pets represent a rapidly expanding market. Surveys by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reveal that 77% of American dog owners and 52% of cat owners gave their animals some form of medication in 2007, up by 25% in both counts from 2004. And it’s not just the crazy cat lady. A trend towards humanisation – attributing human emotions and therefore emotional problems – of our pets has opened up the market. There are now more pets and more spending per pet, with Baby Boomers spending money on their pets as their children finish college. Those involved with the field of behavioural pharmacology say that drug therapies can treat problems that in the past have led to euthanasia for pets. Aggression is the leading issue that brings pet owners to seek help for (and the biggest reason for animals being left at shelters). Dogs are now being prescribed Prozac for the problem.

Separation anxiety is another major issue, with approximately 14% of pets affected. Eli Lilly have brought Reconcile, a doggy-Prozac in chewable beef flavour. Pfizer treats absent-minded pets with their Anapryl product, and in 2007 they released Slentrol, the country’s first canine anti-obesity medication. There are fears that this kind of treatment is more for the benefit of the owners than the pets. Some of these so-called ‘behavioural problems’ such as clawing furniture of guarding food are actually normal, and even healthy, for animals. Other problems, such as obesity, can be easily fixed without the use of diet pills. It’s believed that the causes of these mood disorders in pets are essentially the same as the causes for human emotional problems – faulty genetics, depressing environments and too little exercise. As pets are forced to share the same unhealthy environments as us, they inevitably develop the same problems. Critics of the pharmacological aids say that modern pet owners are increasingly trying to ‘sterilise’ pet ownership, wanting affection and play that they can switch on and off like a TiVo.
Ref: The New York Times, 13 July 2008, ‘Pill-Popping Pets’, James Vlahos.
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Search words: Pets, pharma, medicine, animals

The Future of Lawns

Observing the Earth from above, NASA recently made the startling discovery that in the US, lawns were the most prevalent irrigated crop, beating even corn. Working to challenge this obsession with lawns is a man named Fritz Haeg, who set up his program Edible Estates to pull up grass across the country and replace it with fruit and vegetables. Haeg describes the suburban lawn as ‘vegetative perversion’, with a monochromatic sheen achieved through fertilizers, pesticides and the use of precious water. Others have described the lawn as a totalitarian landscape that has as little to with gardening as floor waxing or road paving. People’s obsessions with their lawns are also time-consuming, with suggestions that more time spent on lawn care represents less time spent in the bedroom. Previously, keeping a lawn was only for the wealthy, as it was such a labour-intensive process. Then in the 19th century, the invention of chemical fertiliser and the lawnmower meant having a lawn was accessible for most. Now lawns are so widespread that the industry is worth around $8 billion globally. Supporters of the lawn, including those in the industry of lawn products, maintain that the lawns reduce run off, cool the environment, release oxygen and even dampen noise. They could, of course, make people happy but nobody seem to be thinking about this.
Ref: Financial Times (UK), 21-22 June 2008, ‘Turf wars’, Simon Bush.
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Search words: Lawns, grass, turf, gardens, water
Trend tags: Sustainability, the environment