All posts tagged: sustainability
I’m wondering whether the coalition’s rather ambitious claim to be the ‘greenest government ever’ is just a load of hot air. Today, energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne admitted to The Guardian that the government’s flagship Green Investment Bank may not be quite the leviathan institution we all hoped for. In fact, it might not be a bank at all.
It seems the Treasury, which was actually rather benign towards funding for green projects in October’s spending review, has stuck its oar in over the bank’s setup. Those protecting the nation’s purse strings are worried that the bank’s liabilities would be added to the public balance sheet and are instead in favour of creating a smaller ‘fund’.
This was something that sustainability experts had feared would happen. When George Osborne confirmed he would be setting up the GIB with £1 billion of funding, the sector reacted rather cautiously. The problem was a semantic one: would the bank be a bank or a fund? If it is a fund, warned Tim Yeo, chair of the energy and climate change select committee, then it will have limited power. It will not be able to borrow on money markets, which would mean that the initial £1 billion will swiftly melt along with the polar ice.
Businesses have warned that the bank needs at least £4 to £6 billion of initial investment, but to see just how much it really needs, turn back to the commission that dreamt it up. In July, Bob Wigley, chair of the green investment bank commission, said an investment of £550 billion would be needed by 2020 to ensure the UK’s transition to a low carbon economy. A single fund of £1 billion is just scratching the surface, while a properly-financed bank would be able to raise money from ISAs and a number of other ‘green’ financial products.
Paul King, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, says: ‘A well-financed dynamic Green Investment Bank would allow the UK to leverage the necessary private sector finance to meet both climate change targets and boost job creation in the construction sector.’
The bank idea isn’t entirely dead though. In his interview, Mr Huhne says the institution could become a bank once the UK’s deficit has been reduced. The plan was always for it to start off small – Vince Cable hinted at this at the Lib Dem conference in September – but the risk is that a delay in setting up a properly-funded bank will delay development of crucial carbon infrastructure and energy efficiency work. Targets for carbon cuts are looming, and we need to get a move on with cutting our emissions as well the budget deficit.
Not all retrofit projects have the same demands. Andrew Percival, consultant on sustainable property solutions for Kinetics Group, looks at energy efficiency projects in the care home sector.
By 2034 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times that of 2009, reaching 3.5 million and accounting for five per cent of the total population.
The age of the elderly is upon us and it seems logical to assume that many of us will end up living in some form of care facility designed to provide support. Care homes have very specific needs for energy in the form of hot water and space heating that is quite distinct from normal domestic housing.
It is therefore fundamental that we employ ‘carbon intelligence’, which involves developing energy supplies which are intelligently designed and tailored around usage to ease the pressure on supply grids and reduce our carbon footprint.
Evidence shows payback from retrofit work on larger commercial schemes like care facilities is significantly better than most other developments, and the case for retrofit in these buildings is still more compelling with the advent of the Renewable Heat Incentive.
Despite the current euphoria surrounding solar photovoltaic panels and the feed-in-tariff, solar thermal panels remain a vital technology ideally suited as part of a package of measures that can offer huge financial benefits to buildings such as care homes and healthcare facilities. Both use hot water for domestic and space heating in abundance and can make the most of the free energy generate during daylight hours far better than many other applications.
Gathering energy data and forecasting demand before the design stage is always preferable, especially before attempting to size a multiple panel system. Too large a system can often serve to waste unnecessary capital costs and displace vital south facing roof space that could otherwise be supplemented with photovoltaic panels. Let’s face it, any south-facing roof is now an asset and with these systems being designed to last for the next 25 years or more, it is vital that space is used wisely. If you were buying a car for that period, you would make sure you had done your homework before parting with your hard-earned cash.
Solar thermal is a diverse technology which also opens up the way for supplementary space heating as well as hot water. One recent care home project for Bromford Housing Association, which Kinetics’ renewables team included the installation of solar thermal collectors as part of a full system overhaul. This has created a saving of over 2.5 tonnes of carbon and 11500 Kwh of energy for hot water.
A large-scale uptake of renewables is on the cards if we are to meet the low-carbon challenge, and it has never been more important to identify how each technology can be used to maximum effect based on occupancy and use. Solar thermal has an important place in the energy hierarchy, but it is essential that we think intelligently when installing it.
There are plenty of rumours circulating at the moment about plans to scale back two sustainability schemes.
The first, reported this week in The Guardian, is that the government is yielding to pressure from builders to scale back the carbon compliance target. This is the 150 per cent cut in emissions that all zero carbon homes need to make, of which 70 per cent must come from the development itself, including household appliances and heating. The rest can come from off-site renewable energy and offsetting.
Just before Parliament broke for the summer, Grant Shapps announced that he would be looking again at this target. In a written ministerial statement on zero carbon, he said: ‘I will need to be realistic and take account of costs. The government recognises the challenges posed by the 70 per cent level previously proposed and the case for this needs to be re-examined.
‘Therefore I am commissioning more work from the Zero Carbon Hub to test what would be an appropriate level. I have asked the Hub to report back on this as early as they can.’
At the time, sustainability experts were concerned that this meant the government might scale back the target and allow fewer on-site reductions and more offsetting elsewhere. For obvious reasons, offsetting is more popular with polluters than it is with the sustainability world (and this rather hilarious website illustrates why, although make sure you read the small print).
Simon McWhirter, homes campaign manager at WWF, warned he was concerned that ‘the government is looking at this from purely an economic point of view rather than the need to cut carbon.’
The Guardian’s story suggests that these warnings are true and that the government is bending to pressure from builders who are worried that the target currently adds 20 per cent on to the cost of a zero carbon home.
Meanwhile, at Inside Housing, we’ve picked up rumours that the renewable heat incentive is going to be scaled back. This is the thermal version of the feed-in-tariff, and something the industry is desperate to embrace as a means of lowering energy bills and making green heating systems pay.
But sector figures tell us that the scheme will be scaled back in the comprehensive spending review, and will be far less transformative than originally intended. This was backed up recently by a report from think tank Policy Exchange, which called for FiTs to be scrapped and the RHI to be reduced to cover 8.5 per cent of heat from renewables by 2020 rather than 12 per cent.
The Energy and Climate Change department will only say that the scheme is under review. A spokeswoman said: ‘The government is committed to increasing the amount of renewable heat in the UK; this is a crucial part of ensuring we meet our renewable targets, cutting carbon and ensuring energy security.
‘We are currently looking at the Renewable Heat Incentive proposals. We will look to make an announcement on the future of the proposed scheme as soon as possible, likely to be in the autumn.’
This all sounds rather ominous. It would be a great shame to cut back schemes to cut carbon purely on the basis of cost. Unfortunately cutting emissions doesn't always generate a fabulous return, but it still needs to be done. Let's hope that the government has something else up its sleeve if these rumours are indeed true.
Professor Tom Woolley,architect at Rachel Bevan Architects, wasn’t disappointed at all when the government recently failed to define zero carbon. In fact, he’s not a big fan of zero carbon at all.
The term ‘zero carbon’ has become almost meaningless. Ever since the Labour Government began to set targets for zero carbon, any decent work to define what it meant seemed to have come to an end. Zero carbon is a great example of Orwellian doublethink as it rarely means zero and it has little to do with carbon. Thus it is not surprising that the new coalition government has dodged this hot potato.
Many interpret zero carbon as meaning a building should use no energy during its life. This sounds like a great aim until you realise that almost everyone who makes such claims hedges around with excuses and conditions. For housing to reach code level four, five and six means introducing expensive pieces of renewable energy kit that take a lot of energy to manufacture. To meet PassivHaus standards means using active systems that are far from passive.
Furthermore, most buildings are constructed using structural materials and insulations that use a great deal of fossil fuel energy to manufacture. Using cement and concrete and synthetic insulations such as foams and mineral wool can be adding to the problem of global warming rather than mitigating it. About 50 tonnes of CO2 are emitted in constructing a typical house.
Thus zero carbon, even if attainable, which is doubtful, usually ignores embodied energy. There are those who argue that embodied energy doesn’t matter as the most important thing is to save energy over the life of the building, but surely it is preferable to reduce the use of fossil fuel in the short term rather than arguing that it will be saved over 60 years.
There is an alternative to the high-embodied energy approach. If you use low-impact materials, it is possible to lock up carbon in your building fabric as well as starting off with low embodied energy. User timber and other bio-based renewable materials like sheep’s wool, hemp, straw, wood fibre and so on is perfectly possible as these materials have fought their way into the mainstream construction supply chains.
Recent studies commissioned by DECC through the National Non-Food Crops centre by Davis Langdon and the University of Cumbria have begun the process of calculating the carbon saving profile of natural materials. DECC have supported the use of renewable materials through a £50 million grants scheme where hundreds of low-impact houses are being constructed throughout the UK.
Sadly, it seems unlikely that this support will continue under the coalition as they have decide to give a further £600,000 to prop up the Zero Carbon Hub, a quango that has done little to get to grips with zero carbon. They have done little to support the use of natural materials and are unlikely to recognise that renewable materials can have many other benefits. The government needs to support the development of the nascent renewable building materials industry as it is sustainable, uses local resources, creates employment as well as better-embodied energy renewable buildings.
The government made an announcement today on zero carbon: but it wasn’t the one we expected.
Every week for the past two months, I’ve called the Communities and Local Government department to find out when the definition of zero carbon might be published. I was acting on a promise: at the end of May, housing minister Grant Shapps announced he would ‘nail’ the definition of zero carbon ‘within weeks’.
He told Inside Housing that he wanted to press ahead with publishing the standards which all new homes must meet from 2016, and that the industry had waited for too long. We were promised that we would get it before the parliamentary recess, which starts today.
But each week when I spoke to the press office, I was told that there was ‘no date’ for the definition yet, and even yesterday, officials said they couldn’t tell me when the publication might be.
Mr Shapps himself told me only a few weeks ago that he thought the industry wanted more time on pinning the definition down, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when today’s announcement about moving closer to zero carbon failed to actually define what zero carbon is.
Whispers in the corridors of Whitehall that have reached Inside Housing suggest that the definition’s publication will be closer to November, which builders are warning will put the sector on a short deadline to prepare for the advent of zero carbon in 2016.
Although it might seem that today’s announcement was made purely so the government could say that it has at least done something before parliament breaks for the summer, it did include a number of interesting measures. Here’s a rundown of the good and the bad:
- A community energy fund, which developers can pay into to support local energy projects. This means they don’t have to install expensive (and potentially not very useful) renewables on-site, or construct their own off-site renewable energy generators.
- The Zero Carbon Hub is to be part-funded for its work this year to the tune of £600,000.
- We have a confirmation that future revisions to the building regulations will include minimum standards for fabric energy efficiency.
- Mr Shapps has instructed the Zero Carbon Hub to reconsider the carbon compliance target, which demands that developers mitigate 70 per cent of carbon emissions from their sites using renewable energy. There’s a strong hint that the government thinks the current target is too costly, and will try to scale it down.