31 Mar 2011

On cherry picking science

How many people died as a result of the Chernobyl accident in 1986? 43 or "up to a million?" Take a look at this set to between George "I luv nuclear power" Monbiot and Helen "Fried Brains" Caldicott. Watch it right through - it gets close to meltdown by the end.

Here's some choice quotes from Helen Caldicott:

• "George you don't understand internal emitters - you've bought the propaganda of the nuclear industry."

• "It's not low level to the cells exposed." "Incubation time is 2 to 60 years."

• "I'm a highly trained physician, I came second in my year of medicine, doctors can't lie." Really?

Behind the heat of this debate, there is an argument about the effects of low-level radiation. On the one hand, we do not and never have lived in a world free from radiation - we are constantly exposed to it, whether zapping us from outer space or seeping out of the Earth's core. It doesn't appear to be a problem for life on Earth. But equally well, our nuclear activities have caused the release on tiny amounts of radioactive substances which don't appear to exist "naturally," if that is the word for background radiation. Do these substances cause mutations? Do they kill anyone? Can we safely ignore them? Or are we building up a toxic legacy which will last for centuries?

I don't begin to know the answer. That's what makes me a nuclear agnostic. But I take George's point about the cherry picking. The anti-nuclear advocates may well be as guilty as the climate change deniers in choosing which bits of evidence they select to back up their case. No doubt it's the same with GM "Frankenstein" foods. To get an informed opinion, you'd have to spend months reading all the relevant literature, months which I don't have. I'll keep my punditry to matters housing.

But that means we all tend to leave stuff like this to "the experts" and when the experts disagree it's no wonder we get confused.

17 Mar 2011

Those dodgy housing demand figures

If ever a meme was unravelling fast, it's the idea that we are suffering from a "housing shortage." I first starting questioning this assumption back in 2007, and have re-visited the issue from time to time, although for much of that time I felt I was pissing in the wind.

But recently, I have heard others questioning this long-held orthodoxy too and it now shows signs of going viral. Graham Norwood's blog Property Newshound this morning carries a piece called Figures That Don't Add up. And David Ireland at the Empty Homes Agency wrote a brilliant piece on his blog called 5 Big Housing Lies and why the Public Doesn't Buy the Housing Crisis.

It's not that we have enough homes, it's that there is really no way of telling what enough is, and all the measurements of housing demand are never anything more than extrapolating past trends into the future. Let's see how this works.

Back in 1919, there were only about 5 or 6 million homes in the UK. Today there are around 24 or 25 million. The population has gone up from around 35 million back then to 61 million today. So in 1919 there were 5.8 people for every house; today it's 2.5 people for every house. What does that tell you? That we have more space? Yes. That we are richer? Yes. That there is a trend towards smaller households? No argument with that.

But the housing shortage argument is largely based on saying that this trend towards smaller households is the cause of all this housebuilding, rather than the result of it. And that, as we are "demanding" to live in smaller and smaller households, we must therefore build more homes to meet this demand. But there is a debate here to be had about whether we really are all demanding to live alone, because that is what more and more of us seem to be doing (myself included).

And another point worth making here. This concentration on the number of new homes being built obscures other related issues, namely the size of the average home (is it growing or shrinking?) and the quality of the existing stock. There is a huge amount of low-level building work going on all over the country with people extending their homes, and this greatly adds to the overall amenity of the housing stock, and it ought to be measured as well and summed up to together with the amount of new housing. In other words, what really matters is not the simple number of homes in existence but the overall floor area available per person, and the quality of the housing. These would be much more telling statistics which would inform us about the state of the nation's housing, but they are not published because a) they are not known, and b) there is no lobby campaigning for them to be improved.

10 Mar 2011

Renewable Heat Incentive: kicked into touch

So today, at long last, the government (in this case DECC or the Department of Energy and Climate Change) published the details of the Renewable Heat Incentive. Ever since the last administration announced this dog of an idea in February 2010, it's been subject to a constant barrage of criticism from just about all sides. Even the manufacturers and installers of heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar panels have been throwing mud at the ministry. Not because they are against the subsidy in principle, but because the way it's been managed means that many of them haven't had any work for a year whilst their potential customers wait to see what this incentive would actually consist of.

So? Was it worth waiting for?

Well, the bad news is that the domestic customer — i.e. your typical selfbuilder — is barely any the wiser than they were yesterday. Listen up. This is what the boys from the ministry have hit upon. They have divided the market into two, domestic and non-domestic (or commercial). And whilst the non-domestic customers can plug into the incentive more or less right away, the domestic side has been put on hold for another 18 months. "Until the Green Deal comes into effect" is what they are saying. Now if the Green Deal has anything like the same smooth trajectory that the Renewable Heat Incentive has enjoyed, you can take a pretty fair guess that it won't be appearing in 2012. Methinks it's really just a delaying tactic.

Now what they are saying is that come 2012 (or whenever) there will be a payment based on how much energy you use, but they haven't actually said you how much it will be yet. And yet they expect people to make informed decisions on this basis!

All is not lost. There is a transitional arrangement for domestics which has been put in place from this July and it's to be called the RHI premium payment. This is a capital grant, very similar to the ones we have already had (first Clear Skies, then the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, neither of which was a resounding success, as they kept running out of money). And they have published a table of how much these new installation grants will be worth.

• Solar Thermal - £300/unit

• Air Source Heat Pumps - £850/unit

• Biomass boilers - £950/unit

• Ground Source Heat Pumps - £1250/unit

They have set aside £15million to fund these payments and expect to have 25,000 installations going through it before it gets reviewed. By my calcs, that's an average grant of £600. If it's anything like the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, it'll be doled out on a first come first serve basis and when the money runs out, tough.

Now these amounts are not to be sniffed at, but neither are they generous. They are at best appetite wetters. The real action is expected to be coming in from the tariffs which will pay so much per kWh consumed. But they haven't published tariffs for the domestic sector. Domestics will have to wait (18 months?) before they find out what the rates will be. It's a bit like taking out a mortgage and being told that you'll find out the interest rate sometime in the future. Not really terribly compelling, is it?

If the non-domestic tariffs are anything to go by (and these have been published today), it looks as if tariffs will be greatly reduced from the levels suggested in the original consultation document. For instance:
• Ground source heat pumps: consultation doc tariff 7p/kWh for 23yrs, today's tariff 4.3p/kWh for 20 yrs
• Solar thermal: consultation doc tariff 18p/kWh for 20 yrs, today's tariff 8.5p/kWh for 20 yrs

You get the drift. It's cuts all round before the RHI has even started. One can only surmise that, by 2012, the rates will drift even lower.

Now sir source heat pumps (ASHP) — what fate awaits them? Well, it's intriguing. As you can see, ASHP qualifies for a premium payment of £850. But the non-domestic tariffs don't support ASHP. How can this be? Buried elsewhere in the main document is a rather cryptic statement that states:

Air source heat pumps will not be supported from the outset because more work is needed to better understand the costs associated with the technology and, for air to air heat pumps, work is ongoing to develop a robust methodology for measuring heat delivered in the form of hot air. Subject to successful conclusion of this work and other factors (such as the role of cooling as opposed to heating in such systems) we intend to extend eligibility to this technology from 2012.

And if the work isn't successfully concluded? Presumably, ASHP will be dropped from the scheme. It hardly breathes confidence into the market, does it?

So it's all a bit of a dog's dinner. What started out as something like the Feed-in-Tariff for heating technologies is getting watered down to a mixture of a small installation grant and a bit of extra help with the bills. Arguably, this is what it should have been all along, as the supported technologies have questionable green credentials at best. But the problem is that the delay in implementing this incentive has contrived to all but cripple the small businesses it was setting out to support. And the consumer, especially the off-gas grid selfbuilder (who was potentially the main beneficiary of the RHI) is still left groping around in the dark as to how to heat their home. I anticipate being swamped with queries about home heating strategies at the Homebuilding & Renovating show later this month and I can tell you now that I won't have a clue what to say.

The Renewable Heat Incentive has now become a case study in how NOT to go about it. What was designed as a policy to kick-start an industry has ended up kicking it into touch.

9 Mar 2011

What if we face an energy glut?

Something I have blogged about before but seems all the more pressing since taking part in the 2050 Pathway debate, and playing with Prof David Mackay's 2050 calculator. Far from having to batten everything down to prepare for a world of extremely expensive low-carbon energy and possibly limited supplies, what if we end up with a glut of the stuff?

Press the nuclear option Button 4 on the calculator and it's immediately apparent that we are producing far more energy than we need without insulating a single house or fitting a single heat pump anywhere. OK, it's electrical energy and there are dozens of applications (mostly transport) which would struggle to cope with electricity as a fuel right now, but if we could gradually shift most of this across to electricity by 2050, we'd be home and dry. Well, not quite. I can't somehow see electric planes taking off, but just about everything else can be run on either electricity or fuel cells. Which require bucket loads of hydrogen, which is energy intensive to split from various compounds, but in a world of energy gluts, we have no problem using excess electricity to manufacture hydrogen.

But nuclear power? It's not sexy, is it? It's very expensive to build nuclear plants (but is it any more expensive than any of the other options?). And there are problems with nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste. And with uranium supplies. I know all that. But are these problems insurmountable? How about using thorium as a fuel instead? There's lot's of it and it's difficult to use it for nuclear weapons.

What's clear to me now is that it's going to be extremely difficult to reduce carbon emissions without using nuclear, even if it's only a partial solution. It involves getting lots of newish technologies to interact with one another and also involves managing intermittent supplies. Technically, it's all possible but it's not without huge risks too.

The problem of signing up to the nuclear Button 4 option is (for a housing blog) that it makes an awful lot of the demand-reduction stuff (which is my meat and drink) redundant. No more worrying about insulation and airtightness, nor about heat pumps or biomass or district heating. We could just plug electric boilers in everywhere and be done with.

It all seems extremely inelegant. But maybe it is the future? In a world where we are all mentally preparing to live the Good Life, the Jetsons will triumph after all.

3 Mar 2011

Thoughts on Ecobuild 2011

I have been going to Ecobuild religiously for five years now (since before it was even called Ecobuild), and have been blogging about it in 2007, 2008, 2009 but not 2010 despite definitely being there. At least I think I was. It does all rather go in a blur.

Why go at all? Well, it proves you are still alive and well for one thing, though you have to be quite fit to survive what feels like an ordeal. This year Ecobuild moved to the Excel Centre for the first time and it took over the entire length of both the north and south halls. Though there were masses of people I know attending the event, it's now so big that it was possible to wander around almost invisible at times, as I only really know about 0.01% of the construction business in this country and the other 99.9% could just as well be commuters on the tube. Except of course the Excel Centre isn't on the tube and the delightful DLR isn't really big enough to cope with a massive exhibition like this. So getting there isn't much fun and, in truth, being there isn't that much fun either.

So I go largely for the crack. A chance to hob nob with like-minded souls and a chance to meet a few new ones, which I did. I heard some interesting tales:
• some horror stories about solar cowboys and their high pressure sales tactics (thanks Geoff)
• some insights into the world of MVHR in Ireland (it works - thanks David)
• some good news for people wanting wood burning stoves in airtight houses (check out Schiedel Chimney's Swiftair system)
• That the world of low energy lighting is now split 50:50 between LEDs and CFs. LEDs seem to be replacing halogen.
• that there are apparently more prisoners than farmers in the USA.

But EcoBuild 2012? Let's see...