renewable energy

Low carbon lifeboats

The RNLI have been doing the same thing for 190 years: saving lives at sea. But they’re bang up to date with some great innovations in carbon cutting.

You probably know the RNLI (that’s the Royal National Lifeboat Institution) for their bright orange boats. You may have seen them zooming across stormy waves to rescue those caught in bad weather at sea. Since the charity was founded in 1824, they’ve saved over 140,000 lives!

Photo: Jaqian,  Creative Commons

Photo: Jaqian, Creative Commons

But what the RNLI are less famous for is their ambitious efforts to cut their carbon.

From encouraging cycling to work to developing their own renewable heating technology using the sea, the RNLI really are pulling out all the stops.

It all began ten years ago with their members. RNLI staff were hearing increased calls to improve their environmental credentials.

But the RNLI can’t do a ‘standard’ package of green measures because they’re not a standard organisation. Their lifeboat stations are often out in the middle of nowhere and cannot be easily maintained. They need their high performance lifeboats to make speedy rescues, and cold and wet crews returning from a rescue need warming up quickly.

Photo: Defence Images,  Creative Commons

Photo: Defence Images, Creative Commons

But rather than using that as an excuse, the RNLI rose to the challenge. They started with some ground source heat pumps. These systems heat water in coiled pipes under ground, which is then filtered through a heat pump and used for underfloor heating.

'The under-floor heating has proved to be one of the best assets of the new station. In the winter I often arrive at the station on my motorbike cold and wet, so when I leave my kit on the floor while in a hurry to get the boat launched, it's all dry on my return!'

Exmouth Coxswain Tim Mock

In these early stages, the RNLI were concerned about temperature control. They also installed some fan heaters, just in case. At Hoylake lifeboat station, near Liverpool, in snowy January, the crew were asked  how the heating was working. ‘Oh we haven’t used it, the ground source heat pump has supplied everything we need’.  

RNLI Exmouth lifeboat and station: Crowcombe Al,  Creative Commons

RNLI Exmouth lifeboat and station: Crowcombe Al, Creative Commons

And the innovation didn’t stop there. Since then they’ve installed 14 ground source heat pumps in their stations, fitted solar PV to 17 stations and built one wind turbine for a Scottish station.

Their most recent project has been to develop their own water source heat pump. This brand new technology works on the same principals as the ground source heat pump, but using the plentiful supply of ocean the lifeboat stations have on their doorsteps. It was first installed to heat Lizard lifeboat station, Cornwall, and there are now five in different stations around the country. 


Lizard lifeboat station, Cornwall, is powered by the new water source heat pump

Their 2014 target is to generate 550MWh of renewable power, that’s 5% of their total electricity! Spread over 236 stations and a host of other buildings, that aint half bad.

And its not just about energy. The RNLI are making sure they reuse materials to manufacture new lifeboats and kit. They hold annual E-days to encourage their staff and volunteers to use low carbon transport, and organise energy audits to try to minimise overnight energy wastage.

Photo: RNLI,  Creative Commons

Photo: RNLI, Creative Commons

And what about the lifeboats themselves? They rely very heavily on diesel fuel at the moment. But given their impressive heating innovations, we’re hoping they’ll find a great way to cut carbon on the boats too.

Photo: Lucy Hughes,  Creative Commons

Photo: Lucy Hughes, Creative Commons

You can read more about the RNLI's environmental policies here

Photo: Tony, Creative Commons