28 Jul 2010

Renewable Heat Incentive: the chaos continues

I have already blogged extensively about the Renwable Heat Incentive (the RHI), and the problematic nature of this proposed subsidy for heat pumps, biomass boilers and hot water solar panels. It was launched back in February 2010 as a “consultation document” but, in truth, it was rather more than this because it gave details not only of the projected subsidies available but also of a timetable. It stated that it would come into effect in April 2011 and that anyone installing renewable heat equipment after July 2009 would qualify for the incentive. That sounds like a a detailed proposal to me. The document called for responses by April. That deadline has long since passed and there has been no word since then about what will happen next.

A change of government in May hasn’t helped, particularly as spending cuts now seem to be the order of the day. Potential customers are all delaying orders until the position of the RHI becomes clear. Manufacturers and installers are now having to lay off staff because the market has dried up because of the confusion. All that is needed is some guidance from central government to relieve the situation.

So yesterday, Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, gets up in parliament and delivers his first annual energy statement. Everyone connected to this small industry is holding their breath for news of the RHI. And this is what he says. “In the heating sector, I can confirm our strong commitment to action on renewable heat. The Government is considering responses to the Renewable Heat Incentive consultation and will set out detailed options following the Spending Review.”

Groans all round. That could mean anything. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything soonish. My guess is that we now won’t see any response to the RHI Consultation until sometime in 2011. By which time this small industry will be a whole lot smaller.

27 Jul 2010

The Accidental Landlords

I’ve never been a big fan of buy-to-let. I don’t do it, and I don’t tend to write about it. But I am not hung up about it and I know lots of people who swear by it, and use it to build their life savings up. Normally they are pretty savvy and know what they are getting into, but I do have some friends who have been bounced into it and haven’t a clue what it’s all about. And I thought I would share their tale with you.

The house in question is in a terraced street in Nottingham. They have no connection with Nottingham and live about 100 miles away. It came into their possession via an inheritance. Very nice too, you might think, except that the property has a mortgage on it and the rent they receive only just covers the mortgage, so it’s not exactly a bountiful gift. They’d very much like to sell it and pay off the mortgage and have done with, but the house has a sitting tenant and he won’t let them have access. They don’t have a key and they don’t have a phone number. So they write and make appointments, and drive to Nottingham, but he doesn’t open the door. He is either deliberately out, or he hides inside. They stand outside, scratch their heads, and feel foolish. Then they drive home, having wasted a day, and wonder what on earth they should do next.

How should they proceed? I don’t know. Buy-to-let is not my thing, partly because I wish to avoid situations like this. I thought I’d blog about it and maybe garner some suggestions.

19 Jul 2010

Why are we saving water?

Is it me or is there something fundamentally wrong about Part G and the water calculator? It troubles me. I think the introduction of the water calculator methodology is taking the building regs into areas where they really shouldn’t be venturing. And I think it’s all going to come unstuck.

For those readers who haven’t a clue what I am banging on about, you could do worse than read through some of the stuff I have already blogged about on this topic. In essence, the regs now require that when you submit plans for a new house, you have to show that your water-using appliances will notionally only consume 125litres of water per person per day. You do this via a little spreadsheet-type-thingy called the Water Calculator which ranks appliances such as showers, taps, toilets and washing machines and gives them all notional scores set out in litres/person/day.

You can see where they are coming from, and I understand how the Water Calculator came into being. They want us to use water wisely and not just pour it down the drains.

There are two very simple ways of achieving this goal, and one very complicated one. The simple ways are to 1) charge the right amount for the water and 2) insist that appliances sold should meet defined efficiency standards. The complicated way is what Part G is now insisting on. Which is to try and regulate the end user behaviour by making them purchase water efficient appliances when they are building a new house.

The problems with this approach are numerous. Firstly, it only applies to new homes. Thus regular power showers will still be available from stores, but you will only be able to buy them if you want to replace an existing bathroom. Can you imagine how infuriating that will be to people building a new home? Can you imagine going to buy a new TV and being told you can only have a plasma one if you live in an old house?

So what will happen? People will get their eco-shower heads passed by the building inspector, and then rip them out and put in the power showers they have by now started salivating about. Nothing illegal about this at all. It’s just what happens when you make unenforceable regulations like this.

Nowhere in this Calculator approach is there any recognition of whether a particular shower or tap or bath is any good. It’s all down to the flow rate, or the flush quantity. For instance, a 4lt toilet is only beneficial if it works on the first flush. If you have to flush two or three times every time you take a dump, you might just as well fix an 8lt loo. But the spreadsheet isn’t concerned with this at all.

Manufacturers can’t even produce “Part G compliant” gear, because Part G doesn’t set any limits for indivual appliances; it’s only concerned with this overall total of 125lts/person/day and it leaves the end users to decide how they will meet this target.

Part G has also got holes as big as a swimming pool. Literally. Swimming pools are exempt from the calculations. Far be it for me to turn class warrior, but somehow this little “oversight” does rather stick in the craw.

But there is something else that troubles me too. Whilst I am convinced by the arguments that we should be using less fossil fuel, I still have my doubts about whether water is quite the precious resource that we keep being told it is. Put another way, why are we being asked to make all these sacrifices?

Are we actually short of water? The situation varies enormously across the country. Not something Part G can take into account as it applies across England & Wales. Even in the dry and populous South East, we are rarely hit with water shortages. If there is an impending crisis, it is likely to be as much an infrastructure failure as anything. We could have invested in a national water grid, but instead have chosen to do things on a piecemeal basis.

The one thing which would make matters worse is a huge housebuilding programme in places like the Thames Estuary. Limiting water consumption in areas like this makes sense, but it could easily be done by local bye-laws. It doesn’t require national building regs to be changed.

What about the environmental impact of using water? Again, a very difficult thing to measure, because there are many impacts and they are not readily comparable. But an interesting blog piece over on oCo Carbon suggests that one major impact, the carbon intensity of unheated tap water, is quite small. It ranks at 0.59gmsCO2/lt. This means that the carbon intensity of the water piped into the home of the average 150litre/day person is just 32kg/annum, the equivalent of running a 6watt appliance throughout the year. It’s dwarfed by the energy used to heat much of this water — as much as 50% of what we consume via the mains is heated before it’s poured back down the drains.

Now there are good arguments to limit the flow of heated water in order to save energy, but this is not what Part G is all about. It’s explicitly trying to stop us using too much water, not trying to stop us using too much hot water. If hot water was the target, then there would be no need to include toilets in the Water Calculator.

To be fair, the topic of water consumption is more complicated than my brief summary suggests. We are also indirect consumers of water and almost everything we consume involves the use of water somewhere along the way, sometimes extraordinary amounts of the stuff. The same blog piece points to a report which suggests that our water footprint is 30 times larger than what we directly consume in our homes. It may well be, although just how you would go about measuring it is something I can’t begin to comprehend. But no way is Part G and its Water Calculator going to have any effect on this and it all makes a mockery of Part G’s attempts to limit the flow of our show heads.

6 Jul 2010

A tale for our times

Northstowe and the Cambridge Guided Busway were inextricably bound. Northstowe, a proposed eco town of 10,000 homes, made no sense without the Guided Bus. And the Guided Bus, the world’s longest such route, made no sense without Northstowe residents using it to get in and out of Cambridge, 6 miles away. And because other new settlements around Cambridge had been built before the transport infrastructure was in place — thus turning them into car dependent exurbs — the Guided Bus route had to be up and running before Northstowe became a reality. That was the Plan.

But now it looks as though Northstowe has been cancelled. It certainly hasn’t been started, and there is no appetite to make a start. Another crucial part of the transport infrastructure that had to be in place before Northstowe became a reality was the upgrading of the overloaded A14, the east-west trunk road that bisects the countryside between Northstowe and Cambridge. This project was about ten times more expensive than the Guided Busway and, guess what, it’s been put on hold indefinitely by the new government.

But at least we have a Guided Busway? Now even this is in doubt. It’s nearly two years late, and it’s still being “snagged.” The original budget of £120million has been blown apart. The latest estimate puts the bill at over £160million. Worse still, 25% of the costs were to be raised from the developers of Northstowe. Hmm. That's never going to happen unless someone actually builds Northstowe.

The rumours circulating now are that the council has no desire to ever open the Guided Busway because it will lose money from Day One. It is in fact quite content to keep the “snagging” going because it’s cheaper than subsidising the operating costs. Looks like we could end up with the world's most expensive cycleway.

Cambridge’s over-arching growth agenda looks to be in tatters. For years, we were told that businesses were queuing up to move into our science parks, our hospital was about to expand from employing 11,000 to 17,000 and that there was an unquenchable demand for low cost housing. Now it all looks like pie in the sky. Just another example of ambitious plans being funded with easy credit, and expropriated profits from developments.