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Embodied Energy

Everything which is made uses up energy to make it. And energy use usually means emitting Carbon Gases and using up natural resources. So, if you buy something which is going to reduce carbon emissions you first need to know how much carbon was emitted in the making of it - the 'embodied energy' - to know how long you'll need to use the thing to 'pay back' the 'carbon debt'. For instance, you need to use electricity to make solar cells, which then produce electricity, but how long do you have to use a cell for before it has 'paid back' the electricity used to make it?

This is important, because there have been technologies (such as some wind turbines, the 'kinetic pavement', early photoelectric cells and some forms of Hydrogen Energy) which actually use up more energy to manufacture than they will ever, ever produce in their entire lifetime - a net waste of time and effort.

But some systems work really well. It is, of course, hugely variable, but, very roughly, insulating your house will pay back the carbon debt in the insulation used in about 6 months, a wind turbine will take about a year and solar panels two years, but a wood stove will repay its debt in only about 30 days (5kW at 6 hrs/day)

For instance... (there's more information at: The ICE database)

MaterialEnergy kW/kgCarbon kg CO2 /kgMaterial density kg/m³
Bricks (common)0.8310.241700
Ceramic sanitary ware8.0331.51
Iron (general)6.9251.917870
Paint - Solvent-borne26.8693.13
Stainless steel15.70596.157850
Steel (general, av. recycled content)5.56771.377800
Vitrified clay pipe (DN 500)2.18830.52

Energy use in buildings: The embodied CO2 of sustainable energy technologies used in buildings: A review article (2018)
Embodied energy and carbon: The ICE database
Methods of calculating Embodied Energy/Carbon in stuff by Nicola Terry (2016)
Wind Turbines: Life cycle energy and greenhouse emissions analysis of wind turbines and the effect of size on energy yield (2009)
Embeded energy in solar cells: Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (2019)

Wikipedia on Embodied Energy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_energy
At the Institute of Civil Engineers: https://www.ice.org.uk/knowledge-and-resources/briefing-sheet/embodied-energy-and-carbon
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