25 Feb 2009

Trying to Stay Positive

It’s been a very strange year or so, hasn’t it? I have just been reviewing my blog posts since I started in July 2005 and have concluded that my contribution level is down by a half. I peaked in the summer of 2007 – 14 posts in July that year. In stark contrast, this post will be only the 9th for the first two months of 2009. It feels as though my output is mirroring the general lack of construction news and events, sitting as it all does in the midst of the most dire recession in living memory.

Other building bloggers seem rather quiet as well. There’s been a fair amount of discussion about the various government consultations doing the rounds, but it’s been against a backdrop of “does it really make any difference.” Everyone is so concentrated on keeping afloat amidst the bad economic tide that it seems not that many people have the energy to discuss the rarefied points of zero carbon, especially as it all seems to have been conceived in a world of ever-expanding growth, a world which now seems to have hit the buffers. Is this all but a temporary blip? Or is it the beginning of a new era of human development where growth will no longer be taken for granted, nor even particularly desired?

I have no idea, no more than anyone else. But I do detect a subtle shift in the mood of friends and colleagues, which might be summarised in the phrase “Enough Tat!” It’s almost as if everyone has been sated with consumer goods and experiences and now they just want to be left alone in peace.

Take foreign travel as a good example. A generation ago, flying off to exotic places was aspirational and appealing: today, it’s become the humiliation that is RyanAir where you are penalised if you want to bring a suitcase with you. And the chances are that, when you get to where you are going, it will have already been ruined by mass tourism. There’s something very depressing about that, isn’t there?

Sometime last year, I was listening in on a conversation where some young thing was boasting about having “discovered” some wonderful beach where there simply weren’t any tourists. It was the sort of conversation we have all been party to over the years. Twenty years ago I would have thought “fantastic, I’d love to go there.” Today my condolences go out to the beach.

18 Feb 2009

Eco Bollocks Award: Heat and Energy Strategy

Another consultation has landed on our desks from the government. This is the long promised one about the existing stock, called the Heat and Energy Saving Strategy Consultation. It’s a stinker. It’s so awful that I am awarding it an Eco Bollocks award. The only other document to get the award was Ken Livingstone’s London Climate Change Action Plan (nearly two years ago) and I have to say this is worse, much worse. Here’s why.

Those of you familiar with these government consultation exercises will immediately feel at home here. For a start, it’s much too long, weighing in at 144 pages and asking no less than 29 questions. The idea being that these questions will prompt you to respond to the matters in the text. Amazingly, six of these questions ask for supporting evidence, just as they might if you were doing an A level. For example:

Q20: Besides removing the threshold for consequential
improvements, which will be considered in the consultation
on changes to the Buildings Regulation in 2009, are there any
other options for wider building regulation that you would
like to see considered in the longer term? Please support
your answer with evidence for the effectiveness of your

Would Wikipedia do? Or would you lose marks?

The fact that they are asking for citations is a major clue to what this is all about. They are looking for expert witnesses who will be able to finesse what is already there. They don’t want Joe Public just chiming in with his sixpence worth, they want serious professionals who live and breathe district heating and energy rating schemes. But this will necessarily include many professionals who make their living by promoting district heating or energy ratings. The whole exercise is thus coded so that only those with a vested interest can make sense of it, or will bother to answer the questions.

Now that would be OK if this was a well balanced and thought provoking document. Which it isn’t. It lurches from one assumption to another, and nowhere is there an analysis of just how much carbon is going to be saved by the different measures. Nor, crucially, how much will be met by energy saving measures, and how much by creating renewable energy sources.

That of course is the $64,000 question that no one can yet answer.

To be fair to this document, it does ask the question once, in a backhand sort of way:

Q26: As electricity generation overall becomes much less carbon
intensive than today, the advantages of CHP powered by fossil fuel in reducing carbon emissions will diminish, although it will continue to be a cost-effective energy efficiency measure. When do you think CHP powered by fossil fuels will no longer help to reduce emissions because the alternatives are less carbon intensive?

The background is examined in just one paragraph. The Committee on Climate Change has suggested that, once the carbon intensity of electricity falls below 200gCO2/kWh, it will be more carbon efficient to use electricity to produce hot water and space heating, rather than by through a condensing boiler, even when using established technologies such as electric bar or storage heaters.

It really does all boil down to this, the carbon intensity of electricity. Get this down to below 50gCO2/kWh and we are saved. Leave it up where it is now — around 430gCO2/kWh and we are doomed. That is the challenge. The lower (and quicker) we reduce this figure, the less we have to worry about energy saving measures. For instance, there is no point spending (yet more) billions on building district heating systems if, by 2025, they are rendered redundant because the carbon intensity of grid electricity has fallen below the level which makes sense for fossil-fuel based district heating.

The problem is that all of us are hamstrung by this dilemma. If we want to keep society running smoothly and we want our great grandchildren to go on enjoying a reasonable standard of living, then we have to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. But does that mean we have to use less energy or might we find ways of making energy without producing CO2? Or a bit of both?

No one knows the answer to this conundrum. It’s like trying to predict where the FTSE 100 or house prices will be in 2025. It’s all speculation.

This consultation document doesn’t even address this dilemma. And, unlike Livingstone’s plan for London, it doesn’t even place any figures into the mix. It’s an over lengthy Word document when what is needed is an Excel spreadsheet.

As such, it goes into far too much detail about issues the government frankly shouldn’t even be concerned with like CHP focus group websites and Heat Market Forums. It’s a symptom of this government’s desire to micro-manage, when it’s role ought to be setting broad frameworks.

In particular, the government should be busy setting new tax signals with the aim of redesigning our energy usage. There are a number of very obvious steps it could take, similar to those seen with vehicle taxation, which would reward people who green their buildings and penalise those who don’t. A re-engineered tax system, based on carbon emissions, wouldn’t happen overnight, but could be introduced over a period of time, and related to how quickly or slowly we were simultaneously managing to green our electricity supply. What’s desperately needed is Treasury involvement with this process, but it’s just not there. Which suggests to me that, once again, that the real economic masters of the universe are still only paying lip service to the problem. They are still desperately pursuing that currently elusive goal of economic growth, which is precisely what has caused all our climate problems in the first place. Until the Treasury is completely on board, consultations like this will never be more than green window dressing.

By the way, it’s interesting to compare this document with the one written last year by Gavin Killip for the FMB, Building a Greener Britain. Killip’s is a far better read: his 18 policy recommendations (summarised in one page, bless him) make far more sense than anything in this consultation document. What’s more you can read it and feel hopeful. In contrast, wading through the Heat and Energy Strategy fills you with gloom. And a sense of foreboding.

Maybe it’s the pictures of Ed Milliband, Hazel Blears and Margaret Beckett in the Foreword, each with that “Trust Us, We Know What We Are Doing” expression on their faces. That’s enough to give anyone the creeps.

11 Feb 2009

Bankers say sorry, Brown doesn't

I caught part of the bankers’ apology to the Treasury Select Committee yesterday whilst pounding the treadmill at my gym. My impression was that the bankers themselves were a lot more dignified than the politicians, who seemed to want to act like a lynch mob. The questioning was lightweight and feeble, of the kind that was obviously trying to score a few cheap points, rather than shedding illumination on what really happened and why.

And, of course, what none of the politicians would admit was that this whole credit crunch has been a systematic failure and that they have been as much a part of it as the bankers. This morning the news that Sir James Crosby has resigned from his post at the FSA, having been undone by an HBOS whistle-blower, merely puts the whole thing into perspective. Crosby was once a chief executive at free-wheeling HBOS and was specifically selected by Gordon Brown as a key economic advisor.

Meanwhile Gordon “I’ve put an end to boom and bust” Brown marches on defiantly, as if this is all a minor irritation. But his economic boasting whilst Chancellor was absolutely central to the national mood to carry on borrowing. He must know that, even if he feels unable to admit it. I suppose that it’s difficult for a politician to own up to gross negligence whilst still holding onto power, but Brown would be far more likeable if he could show a little humility and stop blaming everybody else. He prides himself on setting the Bank of England free to set interest rates back in 1997, but then ignores the fact that he gave them a bogus inflation target to aim at, ignoring as it did both the cost of housing and the mortgage rate. Consequently, the property bubble and its accompanying borrowing binge was allowed to continue unchecked. Keeping Britain out of the euro was meant to give us the freedom to control this type of problem, but it made no difference. Brown didn’t see it coming, any more than the bankers of RBS and HBOS. Only the nutters over at Houseprice Crash called it right. Now how come they aren’t invited to sort it out, now that the discredited Crosby has gone?

We all know that Brown has a blind eye. What we didn’t know was that he depended on it.

6 Feb 2009

More on energy and the existing stock

Two great posts from Casey Cole on the problems of reducing energy use in the existing stock. I sort of go along with everything he writes, except I get stuck at the end of the later post, where he contends that

once we’ve identified the heat, we have to start moving it from where it’s created to where it’s needed

In theory, fine. But in practice, how do we move low-grade heat more than a few tens of metres? The only technology widely available for shifting energy around long distances is electricity cables. And electricity is manifestly high-grade energy.

Biofuel is really a red herring here: everyone agrees there will never be nearly enough of it to cover the huge demand for heating.

Community CHP plants everywhere, with pumped hot water laid on for every locality? Maybe, but the overall efficiencies of CHP plants are not that great. It would be a huge infrastructural project for rather limited benefit, especially as roof mounted solar panels provide an alternative method of getting hot water to each household for half the year.

So just what?

These are very basic questions and at the moment there don’t appear to be any totally coherent answers out there.

PS I think this is a much more important question that the Zero Carbon consultation.