Kildare's Gerd Benndorf is making the big change to a low-carbon life, step by step

Reducing the carbon footprint

Conor McHugh


Conor McHugh


Kildare's Gerd Benndorf is making the big change to a low-carbon life, step by step

Gerd Benndorf

The warning is stark, we have a decade, essentially, to get our act together, say UN scientists, in order to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees centigrade.

That warning came last October, and you would think that worldwide, it would prompt a suspension of all the unimportant frivolities that pass for governance, in favour of the development (and maybe even the implementation) of an action plan.

Yet alas no — it seems that not even that warning could rouse the governments of the world to consider our self-preservation.

“It’s clear that the public is taking it far more seriously than the government,” says my interviewee last Thursday morning over coffee in his quiet kitchen near Staplestown. He means the Irish government, but you could pick any, really.

Gerd Benndorf, a German native who has lived in Ireland for decades, works as an engineer whose company, Galileo Energy Serevices, specialises in heating systems for large buildings — schools, hospitals, swimming pools and the like.

A few years ago he concluded, reasonably enough, that if he was going to be advising people on installing the most efficient heating systems for their own particular buildings, then maybe he should be practicing what he preaches.

So, with his engineer’s eye, he looked at his own life and that of his family and considered where changes could be made to reduce his own carbon footprint.

He even started measuring it.

“Now, it’s not scientific,” he admits, as he presents me with an Excel spreadsheet of how much carbon he has generated and, since 2017, how much he has saved.

Gerd and his wife Maria built their home in 1999 with a geothermal heating system, which has been upgraded.

In recent years, they have added greater insulation, solar panels for creating electricity and panels for creating hot water.

Gerd has changed his own car to electric, and Maria now drives a plug-in hybrid.

Between everything, they’ve managed to bring their carbon emissions down considerably.

Out of our wide ranging coversation over a number of hours, a couple of key messages emerged.

Our carbon footprint is determined mainly by three things: the type of energy we use, the amount we use and where we get it from.

The cleanest energy we can use in our daily lives is electricity — whether it’s for heating your home, cooking or your car.

With a geothermal system, Gerd is getting good heat from an efficient source.

The one exception to that is if you are commuting by either walking or cycling, which has zero impact on your carbon footprint.

Cycling is the most energy-efficient form of transport in existance, and Gerd himself occasionally cycles to his office in Celbridge, although his requirement to drop his kids to school in nearby Salesian College gets in the way.

In the past few years he has changed his car twice, and has now foresaken his Volkwagen Taureg and Audi A6 for a Nissan Leaf. The first two were diesel-powered, and even at a time when diesel engines, especially in German cars, are at their most efficient, he estimates he was churning out 5.84 tonnes of CO2 a year. That’s now down to 2.2 tonnes.

His Nissan Leaf is, he says, perfect for the kind of driving he does — to Celbridge or Carlow, or to his wife’s family in Rathangan.

When he heads to Killarney, by driving carefully and not at full motorway speeds, he can get away with just one 20-minute coffee/recharging stop.

“I believe that 90% of drivers would be happy with an electric car,” he says.

And it’s a fine car — he particularly likes how, while it’s still plugged in on cold mornings, it will use the electricity from the charging station to warm the seats and steering wheel before he gets in!

He also likes that, on a weekly basis, it costs him about €10 to charge to drive 800km. It would cost €60 in my own efficient diesel VW Golf to do likewise.

The one downside is that he feels the suspension isn’t as good as it should be, but overall, that’s a minor gripe.

Home heating is where reducing the electricity you use, and knowing where you get it from, comes into play.

We all know that insulating your house and facing south are important ways to reduce the amount of electricity you use, and he has done that to a degree, but on the other side of the equation, Gerd has gone one step further and installed 4Kw of solar panels on the roof of his garage.

For reference, 3Kw is the mimium you’d need to fully power the average household — so he’s a bit above that.

However, 4kw is only a measure of the amount of electricity the panels could produce on the brightest days.

Last Thursday, a slightly overcast morning, they were only pumping out 500 watts, which is one eighth of their maximum capacity.

These photo voltaic panels used to be very expensive, to a point where it might take hundreds of years to recoup the investment, and were really only the preserve of the well-heeled among environmentalists.

The price has now dropped considerably in the past decade to a point where, Gerd reckons, a €6,000 investment in 4 kws by today’s prices (likely to be considerably less in a couple of years) would pay for itself in 10 years.

Small domestic windturbines are the same. You can now buy a 300 watt turbine for as little as €200 or less, which is a huge improvement even on a couple of years ago when it was roughly €1.50 per watt.

But again, it is important to note that 300 watts is what they will produce at maximum capacity.

Gerd’s strong view is that the regulations need to change so that people who use solar panels or small turbines to create their own electricity can supply their excess energy back to the grid. While this is, in effect, a financial incentive, there’s also an element of enabling the public to make a constribution to help their neighbour and overall reduce Ireland’s carbon footprint.

It could also be a way of increasing Ireland’s use of renewable energy in circumstances where large wind farms prove controversial and emotive.

Alas, Ireland is an outlier in this respect. Most other nations in Europe have had the ‘buy-in tariff’ for many years now.