Brexit-fuelled energy efficiency myths

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

From September 1, new energy efficiency rules for vacuum cleaners will limit the power of vacuum cleaners made or sold in the EU to 900 watts (W), down from the current maximum of 1600 W. [clotho98 / Flickr]

Despite negative reports in the British press, EU regulations that cut the amount of energy wasted by household appliances are overwhelmingly popular throughout the UK, writes Dr Jonathan Marshall.

Dr Jonathan Marshall is an energy analyst at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, a non-profit organisation. This opinion piece was first published on the ECIU’s blog

As reliable as night following day, or Arsenal’s first capitulation of the season pushing fans over the edge, the Daily Express is outraged by ‘bonkers’ EU energy efficiency regulations.

With ‘toastergate’ now a mere memory, a classic of the genre has returned. Hoovergate is back, with those pesky EU bureaucrats set to blight the lives of Brits up and down the country, who are simply trying to clean their homes in peace.

From 1 September, new energy efficiency rules for vacuum cleaners will limit the power of vacuum cleaners made or sold in the EU to 900 watts (W), down from the current maximum of 1600 W. This will see a cut in electricity use of more than 50% from 2014, when 2000W monsters were still on offer in UK shops.

As ever, certain harder-to-clean areas of the media are up in arms and have resurrected a few myths on energy efficiency, which this blog aims to dust down in the name of clarity.

“Less powerful vacuum cleaners will not work as well”

So the logic goes, reducing the power of a vacuum cleaner makes it less efficient at cleaning, requiring more effort on the part of long-suffering Brits. However, consumer champions Which? have found that there is no link between a reduction in power and the cleaning performance of a vacuum cleaner:

We have tested thousands of vacuum cleaners over the years and found that more power doesn’t necessarily mean better cleaning. While it is too early to say what the impact of new regulations will be, we have tested vacuum cleaners with 900W motors that do a better job of dust-busting than vacuum cleaners with motors two or three times the size.”

On top of this, Which? note that following the first round of vacuum-based legislation in 2014, the amount of electricity used per carpet vacuum fell by 40%, while the average carpet dust pick-up during a vacuum rose from 72% to 77%.

Way back in 2010, prompted by a visit to the Mr Vacuum Cleaner Museum in Derbyshire, The Daily Telegraph noted that “There may be some method in the Eurocrats’ apparent madness. The 1980s machine – which has a power rating less than a third that of the most recent models – emerged victorious.”

“Nothing to do with energy, climate or saving the planet”

Commenting on the impending ban, critics of energy efficiency policy have claimed that new efficiency regulations are unrelated to energy or climate change.

This is patently untrue. Cutting energy use is the simplest and cheapest way of curbing emissions that lead to climate change. By 2020, EU standards that cut energy waste are forecast to cut the bloc’s carbon emissions by 7%.

By consuming less energy in household tasks, we need to build fewer power stations, so burning less coal and gas. In addition to reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, not using this energy pushes household bills down.

“Energy efficiency measures are unpopular”

Despite media positioning, regulations that cut the amount of energy wasted by household appliances and devices are overwhelmingly popular throughout the UK. Recent polling carried out by ComRes on behalf of ECIU shows that nearly 90% of Brits support subsidies for programmes that reduce energy waste. This view is also seen among Conservative party voters, with a similar proportion in favour of strengthening or maintaining standards to increase the efficiency of household devices.

“Regulations don’t have an impact on household bills”

Since 2008, energy efficiency improvements have saved an average of £290 per year from each home’s energy bill, more than offsetting the increasing cost of sourcing energy from wholesale markets during this time. This is seen starkly in falling domestic electricity consumption, with total residential sector use down 19% between 1990 and 2014 despite a 10% growth in population and a general increase in both the size of homes and number of electric appliances in use over this period.

Resisting future efficiency measures could have an unwelcome effect on household bills. Recent ECIU analysis showed that relaxing standards on just eight appliances (not including vacuum cleaners) could add £90 to annual bills, while other research has shown that increasing efficiency on ovens is set to cut more than £1 billion from national bills.

Assuming just one hour’s use per week, a 900W cleaner would use 36.4 KWh per year less than a soon-to-be-outdated 1600W model. Based on an average of Big Six tariffs, this would save more than £5.70 per year per home. If the 2000W models that were banned in 2014 were still available, this saving increases to more than £9 per home per year.

Looking forward

While many in the EU may be happy to see the back of dissenting British voices on efficiency measures, the debate over how much electricity our appliances consume is likely to rumble on for years to come.

Although efficiency measures are considered as the easiest means of cutting household bills, reducing emissions and driving forward the performance of the devices that fill our homes, resistance remains. Hopefully, though, as energy bills have no sign of fading from the front pages, the respite to hard-up families from more efficient products should be more obvious by the day.

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