16 Feb 2012

Pathways to Darkness?

My interest in the energy debate knows no bounds. I have recently dedicated at least four lengthy train journeys, pouring over my trusty iPad, to reading two newly published pathways and trying to make sense of them.

I feel I deserve a medal. This stuff is not easy going and, as I look around the carriage at other people reading novels or magazines, or staring vacantly at the passing countryside, I sometimes wonder why I am doing this. I'm certainly not getting paid for it and every now and then I get overcome by the urge to doze off. Nevertheless, it is interesting, sort of, and I have a feeling that if I don't do it, no one else will.

First out of the traps is the delightfully named Less is More which, as has already been pointed out on Twitter, weighs in at an ironic 282 pages. The document - it's basically an ebook - has the imprint of the AECB. It has a foreword, an executive summary and then, on page 22, a preface by AECB chairman Chris Herring. It's principal author is David Olivier, who I have known for 30 years, and the whole project has the feel of being his magnum opus. It's full of fascinating insights and little-known facts. For instance, did you know that:

Energy efficiency measures can reduce a tram's electricity consumption by some 75% from 4 to 1kWh/vehicle.km, although doors are opened so often that winter space heating is likely to take another 0.5kWh/vehicle.km, even with reversible heat pumps.

or that Chaudes-Aigues in Central France has had geothermal district heating since the 14th century?

Less is More is full of these little teasers that make energy wonks like me trill with delight, and make you marvel at a life spent collecting such gems. But this great strength is also its weakness because somewhere in all these pages you become aware that the bigger picture is getting lost and that our pathway through the woods has become obscured by all the fascinating discoveries we have made along the way.

Because the destination of the pathway is to get to 2050 with the lights on, our homes warm and almost no carbon getting released and, in this respect, Less is More doesn't convince. It's future is something pretty similar to the one that Denmark has mapped out — there are lots and lots of references to Denmark — which involves no nuclear power and not that much in the way of renewables, but lots and lots of energy efficiency and piped heat networks. But nowhere is there an explanation of why Denmark's pathway is the one we should follow and nowhere is there an examination of whether Denmark has got it right.

Nuclear power is dismissed because the risk of an accident is uninsurable and therefore this constitutes a hidden subsidy which makes it, in turn, uncommercial. I'm not convinced by this argument either. But it's arguably beside the point, because the whole thesis is based on the idea that we simply don't need very much energy by 2050, and certainly not very much electricity. The government line — broadly speaking that espoused by David Mackay and the 2050 calculator project — is that we should decarbonise the grid and move everything towards electric powered this and that. Less is More doesn't buy into this, and pushes towards using a combination of waste heat, liquid fuels derived from surplus windpower and concentrated solar power, and a world dedicated to energy efficiency. Or negawatts, to borrow a term from Amory Lovins.

Less Is More sets out to show that negawatts are cheapest and best, and is at its strongest when describing how a future built environment might work. But negawatts will only get you so far and, for one thing, you can't really do a convincing pathway without dealing with the transport sector. If you don't electrify transport, it's hard to see where you will get the carbon savings from. Transport does get dealt with in the appendix, but the electricfy-it-all option is dismissed in favour of making what we have more efficient.

The reason for our coming to this view is that none of the post-oil options for road, sea and air transport appear attractive.

Maybe this is true, but a pathway still has to deal with this. And if it's not a complete pathway, what is exactly is it all about?

The same criticism applies to Achieving Zero, which emanates from Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, although it too bears the hand of an author, Brenda Boardman, who will be familiar to all who trawl these areas. Achieving Zero is subtitled Delivering Future-friendly Buildings so you can at once see that, like Less is More, its solutions will be somewhat skewed towards buildings — transport doesn't even get a look in here. It's also been supported by Greenpeace which may have helped with the production costs but doesn't do a great deal to establish its independence.

Not that it's slavishly following a Greenpeace line. Like Less Is More, its future scenario is non-nuclear, but it doesn't make a big thing about it because the emphasis is all on energy efficiency in our buildings. Where it differs from Less Is More is in its emphasis is on policy levers, such as using Energy Performance Certificates as both carrots and sticks to encourage building owners to undertake refurbishments. And there is an examination of Personal Carbon Allowances which just about everybody interested in this field sees as a really good idea but politically would seem to be a complete non-starter.

Achieving Zero falls into the trap of assuming that the existing housing stock can be upgraded easily. "Beyond 2025, the need for any space heating will disappear as properties are made low-energy or brought up to Passivhaus standard." I wish. This is no mean feat and I fear it would take rather more than the odd council tax rebate or stamp duty holiday. It would be simpler and possibly cheaper to demolish and rebuild every house in the UK - at a rate of around 750,000 houses per year. (Last year we built just 100,000 new homes, by way of comparison.) Methinks she underestimates the size of the task in hand, let alone the complete impracticability!

The main problem with both these publications is that they are painting a nuclear-free, energy constrained 2050 when it's now beginning to look that this may not be such a great idea. If you replace difficult to manage renewables (farmed electricity) with a steady flow of low carbon nuclear power, then the actions needed to meet 2050 obligations change drastically and the scope and depth of energy efficiency measures becomes much more manageable. With nuclear, we don't have to dig up every road in the country, we might not have to rebuild every house, we may even get away without carbon rationing. Whilst it may not be what green builders want to hear, the nuclear option is beginning to look far more achievable, far more acceptable. To my mind, this is now the big question to address and any pathway that choses to ignore it is starting in the wrong place.


  1. Hi Mark,

    I had a brief trawl through Less is More and came to a similar conclusion as you. I cannot now recall where I read that approximately 84% of the housing stock for 2050 is already in existence.

    Not sure whether you have seen this report from the Royal Academy of Engineering:


    I find the reports from RAE and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers quite refreshing. After all, these are the people who are going to have to build our future.


    1. I have it noted somewhere that the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission predicted 70%, but I definitely saw one ~80% too. Now I've googled it and the BRE says 75%.

      Either way it is a large majority.

  2. I'm not sure this isn't a red herring but the maths is pretty simple. It depends on how many new houses (not replacements) we build by 2050. We have around 25 million now. If we build at current rates of 100k/annum, we will have another 4 million by 2050, which would mean we have 86% in existence now. If we built 250k/annum, like we did 5 years ago, then it's 71% in existence now.

    I'm afraid my money would be on it being nearer to 86% than 71%. Either way, it doesn't affect the size of the retrofit problem. That stays at 25m homes.

  3. Mike,

    I hadn't seen this Royal Academy of Engineering report before. I've just had a trawl and, bugger me, if it's not another pathway, or at least a draft for a possible pathway. I liked the piece by the lady author in Wales who had teething troubles with her heat pump: I have heard other similar stories over the years by disgruntled visitors at the Homebuilding & Renovating shows.

    But like the other two pathways I have written about hear, there is no examination of how much low carbon power (OK, electricity) we will have in 2050. It may be looking at the problem from the other end of the telescope- if you follow on from this, you might be able to work out how much we need. But a complete pathway has to look at both demand and supply.

    1. Hi Mark,

      You might like to look at this report from the RAE titled Generating the Future:


      Essentially, the engineers are saying we, everyone of us, need to get off our backsides and get on with deploying energy efficiency measures and all existing types of renewable and low carbon energy generation, whilst we still have time.

      I wont comment about heat pumps here. Perhaps that could be the subject of another post?


    2. Hi Mike, its my belief that elements within every strategy will figure in some way in the move towards 2050,the developments currently underway by the likes of Microcontinuum in the USA with their revolutionary work on thin film solar nantenna with laboratory achieved generation levels over 92% are, once they have achieved mass production, going to revolutionise alternative energy production. The largest problem facing humanity, I believe, is our apparent aim to breed ourselves into possible species extinction. Unless we can accept the fact that while it is considered our human right to bear children the corollary, human responsibility must be addressed by each and every one of us. Unraveling the years of ill thought out government policies worldwide to assure a sustainable future for all will I believe relegate the questions surrounding improvements to our built environment to that of a sideshow to the main event.

  4. Mark,
    Apologies for picking up this thread late in the day. I read LIM a few weeks ago, all the way through – it’s worth the effort, I recommend it to the House, even as I so agree with the second paragraph of your review.

    That said, I think your review rather missed the key point in LIM, that the all-electric DECC 2050 pathways lack resilience, to put it kindly. Their Achilles heel is the huge diurnal and interseasonal swings in demand that would pose unique challenges for an energy supply system based largely on electricity.

    LIM proposes four core components to a more sustainable future. 1) Using intermittent supply options like wind to create synthetic fuels which might enable the existing transport fuel supply infrastructure to continue. 2) Local large scale hot water storage, potentially interseasonal, to buffer swings in heat demand. 3) District heating to deliver the stored heat and facilitate CHP, including from power stations. 4) A high (but not Passivhaus) level of energy efficiency retrofit (no triple glazing for example). These all create a strategy to maximise the resilience of electricity supplies for essential uses such as keeping the lights on and sustaining our digital contemporary lifestyles.

    I agree with LIM that its ideas urgently warrant closer scrutiny by organisations with more resources at their disposal, DECC for example. It is surely you who is going out on a limb by suggesting nuclear can avoid both digging up the streets and refurbishing the existing building stock. All pathways of good standing have a big slice of energy efficiency as a starting point because this seems to be a lot cheaper than ‘predict and provide’ via a zero or low carbon fuel supply. Trying to match supply and demand using only electricity (nuclear or otherwise) is a real potential show stopper.

    On which topic, have you looked at http://www.ted.com/talks/amory_lovins_a_50_year_plan_for_energy.html


  5. Robert,

    I understand the gist of what LIM is calling for. All I am really saying is that it's going to be ten times easier if we have a large number of nukes to power it. Nuclear doesn't lack resilience. Renewables do.