28 Sept 2010

Ed Miliband's Reckless Adventure

Ed Miliband has featured on this blog before, when I questioned his integrity as Minister for Climate Change during the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. It struck me at the time that he was a disingenuous chancer, and subsequent events seem to have born this out.

He's grabbed the main prize, the Labour Party Leadership, by selling out to the unions, stabbing his brother in the back in the process. Now I can't look at him without thinking he's a poisonous shit, and I wouldn't trust him to run the tombola at my village fete. Instead of electing a new leader, the Labour Party stage managed a public humiliation of epic proportions, and I suspect the ramifications will reverberate for a long time to come.

24 Sept 2010

Selfbuild reclaim statistics update

I have been taking at look at the UK’s selfbuild VAT reclaim figures. These are a key statistic, used to measure the size and the health of the selfbuild market where, uniquely in Europe, new homebuilding is zero-rated for VAT purposes. What I have managed to glean from the Revenue & Customs are figures for DIY VAT reclaims from March 2008 to August 2010.

There were 11,115 claims processed in YE Apr 2008, 10,067 in YE Apr 2009, and 3,675 in the first five months of this current tax year. Extrapolated forward, that suggest a yearly total of around 9,000 for YE Apr 2011. Whilst the number of selfbuild reclaims is currently falling by about 10% a year, the average payout is rising from £7,800 (2008) to £8,750 (2010 to date).

How do these figures compare with the past? The last time I did this exercise, in Aug 2007 (at the end of the housing boom), the average number of reclaims had been between 10,000 and 12,000 for more than ten years. The size of reclaim had grown from £4,000 in the 90s to £6,500 in YE 2007.

So there is both good and bad news for selfbuild in these figures. The number of reclaims is in decline, though that's hardly surprising given the state of the property market generally — in fact, selfbuild has proven remarkably resilient. If this year's trend continues, then this will be the first year this century that the number of reclaims has fallen below 10,000. But the size of the market, measured by cash being spent, is holding up well. The total VAT payout in each of these years I have just looked at looks like it's going to be of the order of £85m.

What the figures reveal
Firstly, they don’t really tell you the size of the selfbuild market. The only people that make DIY reclaims are non-professionals who aren’t registered for VAT and who buy materials on their own account. Therefore there will be lots of selfbuilds that never appear in these figures. We have to guess how many more, but you won’t be far out if you were to add 30%-50% to these numbers.

On the other hand, people completing half-built homes (inc loft shell complexes) can also make DIY reclaims under this scheme, so there are some claims coming in that aren't really traditional selfbuild. But how many loft shell apartments are being sold at the moment?

What about the dramatic increase in the amount being spent? I can see two obvious reasons for this. Firstly,people are building larger homes (or maybe they are building a greater proportion of large ones and a smaller proportion of small ones). Secondly, selfbuilders specifying more upmarket materials, in line with housebuilding generally. Granite worktops, underfloor heating, hardwood floors, etc. Doesn't sound very recessionary, but it tallies with a greater number of larger homes. As mortgage finance has been difficult these past few years, there would seem to be a greater proportion of silver-grey selfbuilds. And that's hair colour I'm talking about, not cedar cladding.

If you want to know more about the DIY VAT reclaim scheme, the relevant page is here.

Just because it's a PassivHaus, it doesn't make it Green

Still ruminating about Wednesday's Grand Designs, which featured one of the first certified Passive Houses in England, an extraordinary earth-sheltered structure built under an existing barn in the Cotswolds. You can read about it here.

It has already sparked a fair amount of controversy, much of it visible on the Channel 4 website. I liked this one. Not very eco in my view. It's all very well coming up with the technical solutions; PV, passive design, insulation etc. What about the carbon footprint of this project? First of all; location, in the middle of the country-side is not a very sustainable place for a home. Car journeys everywhere. Secondly, What about the 3500 cubic metres of soil and stone? Where has it gone and how much fuel was used to get it there? Then you have the temporary steel frame, lots of concrete and other building materials. A large carbon footprint. All for what? Energy savings and a good view from the roof. I'm hopeful that the next Grand Design won't be based on this level of eco-bling.
Posted by Mark Butt on 23/09/2010 13:23:31

Well you can always find someone to carp about something. My issue is that this house wouldn't have been built underground if it hadn't been for the ridiculous state of our planning laws - it sneaked through under the old Gummer clause which allows building in open countryside if the design is exceptional (i.e ridiculously expensive). There's nothing remotely green about that, and making it a PassivHaus doesn't really alter that at all. It would have been much more sensible to build a more modest structure above ground and, no, it wouldn't have ruined the view.

It gets worse. The first certified PassivHaus structure in Ireland is up and running and, guess what, it's a branch of Tesco. Now, there is no reason why Tesco shouldn't build a low-energy store in Tramore - it probably makes good business sense for them - but there is enough of the old hippy in me to feel distinctly queasy about anything to do with the giant, town-eating, car-loving monster that is Tesco plc. If they are part of the solution, then I must be part of the problem!

14 Sept 2010

More on the biomass debate

My last post resulted in the following email:


I came across your blog this morning. I’ve seen a few discussions lately about the “greenness” of wood burning and I have a question of sorts you might be able to shed a little light on.

If I developed a mechanical widget that pulled CO2 out of the atmosphere and reacted it with some black magic producing useable energy and returning the CO2 a brief instant later to the atmosphere at the same rate it was removed a brief instant earlier, no doubt I’d qualify for all sorts of subsidies, praises and accolades.

So why is it, when I do the same thing over a slightly longer period of time, it’s suddenly as bad or worse than sending equivalent tonnages of carbon that’s been sequestered for a few tens or hundreds of million years into the atmosphere? On that time scale, burning even 100 year old wood is a very short carbon cycle.

Burning a 100 year old chunk of wood is simply putting back the carbon that was in the atmosphere 100 years ago, not increasing the total on a geological time scale and doing so prevents adding some amount of fossil carbon to the total in circulation.

We can’t, but if we could live entirely off burning wood, growing new wood at the same rate we consumed old wood and not release another atom of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the natural sequestration of carbon would ensure that atmospheric carbon levels would decline very quickly, wouldn’t it?

So why all the fuss over burning wood?

Just curious.


Rick Gresham
Portland, OR

The nice thing about this letter is that you can immediately see the good points of the pro-biomass burning argument. Burning biomass is just fine because it doesn't add a whit to atmospheric CO2. Surely it can be at least part of the solution? You might just as well draw energy from the destruction of wood as let it rot naturally? All good points.

But the counter points are just a little stronger.

• The finite globe. There isn't and never will be anything like enough biomass available to burn to keep 6-10 billion people warm and happy. It will be a struggle to keep everyone fed. So why encourage burning it? It's not the solution.

• OK, you can't eat trees. But it's a two stage process. The first bit - the growing of it - is good news for atmospheric CO2; the second bit - the burning - is bad news. On balance they cancel each other out, but how much better it would be if we could encourage the first bit and delay the second bit. If the gap between growing and burning could be extended from 100 years to 200 years, then we are giving the atmosphere an extra 100 year breathing space at a time it could surely do with it. Therefore, it follows that if we should subsidise anything, it should be the use of biomass as a building material, thus extending the capacity of biomass to lock up carbon for longer than would happen naturally.

• There is a British-centric argument going on here which may not translate in woody Oregon. We have a proposal on the table to introduce a subsidy for burning biomass, the first of its kind in the world, to be known as the Renewable Heat Incentive. It's controversial, as you can imagine. So the argument here isn't just whether it's good or bad to burn biomass, but whether it's a good idea to give money to people to get them burning it.

• Rick's widget would be something new. It would be a miracle. It would change everything. In contrast, timber and biomass resources are things we are already blessed with. They do act like this miraculous widget, but only if everything that is burned is subsequently replaced. In other words, only if the resource is sustainably managed. That bit is critical. In fact, it's key. If we subsidise the burning of biomass, we risk upsetting this balance. People will hunt out biomass to burn without any guarantee that what they harvest will be replaced. And the more the craze for biomass grows, the bigger this pressure will become.

• We are not talking about a few wood burning stoves here. They are not the problem. It's the industrialisation of the process which threatens everything. If you start switching coal-burning power plants over to biomass (and it's already happening), then this supposedly huge untapped resource is very rapidly going to be coming under pressure. The more pressure on the resource, the less likelihood it will be managed sustainably. Just ask the fishermen.

13 Sept 2010

Biomass: a big dead end?

Why is it that government consultation documents are so long? It seems that 140 pages is the standard length. Added to the turgid writing styles which are routinely adopted, it makes it incredibly tiresome to try and tease out the points they are making. Very often, they can be summarised in a few choice bullet points (though sometimes little important details get hidden on pages 92 or 114).

If you want to see a difficult topic dealt with succinctly and sensitively, take a look at this discussion doucment posted on the AECB website. It’s written by two AECB stalwarts, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke, and it deals with the thorny issue of whether burning biomass is really as green as its been made out (by several lengthy government sponsored consultation documents). The answer, even more succinctly put, is No.

You could write masses more about this topic, but the argument wouldn’t get any clearer or more coherent. For they argue that growing wood (or other biomass crops) just to burn is really just another form of offsetting. And that, as wood burning releases more CO2 than mains gas (per kWh), pretending biomass is a near zero-carbon fuel is a conceit. And to subsidize wood burning, which is what the Renwable Heat Incentive proposes, is a nonsense.

The argument isn’t black and white. It makes sense to burn some biomass, as not everything woody that we grow can be used for anything other than burning, and you might just as well burn it as let it rot in the ground. But that's no reason to subsidise it. A more coherent approach would be to subsidise the use of wood or other biomass products in buildings, to lock away the carbon for as many years as possible.