20 Mar 2014

Is sustainability stuck?

Short answer: yes. The whole topic has reached a crossroads and it's not clear which way to go from here.

Many of the existing green policies are proving to be questionable, to say the least, and many of the really big questions are not being addressed, let alone answered.

My own journey through the byways of sustainability has also reached something of a brick wall. Having quietly campaigned for better energy performance in homes, and for tougher and better building regulations, I began to fall out of love with all the red tape involved with projects like the Code for Sustainable Homes and the move the Zero Carbon everything.

Then I got involved with David Mackay's 2050 calculator project and it opened my eyes up to just how big the problem of global carbon emissions actually is and how little difference having tighter building regulations will make in the great scheme of things. I was already convinced that climate change is an existential problem, the like of which we have never faced before, but I have come to question my belief that the world of sustainable building practice is necessarily very relevant to it.

Take deep-retrofit by way of example. Acres of print has been expended on how it should or should not be done. The government has got itself tangled up in knots over the Green Deal which was meant to kickstart radical retrofit but has simply highlighted how difficult it all is. Underlying all this is the plain fact that our existing housing stock is pretty poorly constructed and that it might well be cheaper and simpler just to pull it all down and start again.

Which is also highly unlikely, seeing as how we have 25 million homes in this country. We are having trouble adding more than 0.5% to this total every year, so retrofitting or rebuilding the existing 25 million begins to look like a pie-in-the-sky project.

One of the pointers coming out of David Mackay's work is that there are many ways to skin a cat. Most people — Mackay included — tend to favour a bit of everything, so here a little bit of retrofit, there electric vehicles, plus a bunch of diverse renewables and maybe some nuclear power, not to mention a little behavioural change. But this pot pourri approach tends to ignore the No 1 critical factor which is that within a very short timescale we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels almost entirely. If we can't do that, everything else becomes irrelevant. However, it doesn't follow from this that low carbon/zero carbon energy will either be in short supply or be ruinously expensive. We could in fact face a low carbon energy glut, if we got our act together.

But this isn't something that conventional sustainability is at all comfortable with. It's as if some form of future deprivation or hardship is built into the model. Much of the sustainability agenda is based on the idea that we must conserve as much energy as possible because a) it uses less fossil fuel (which is a good thing) and b) because energy is going to get progressively more expensive. It may, or it may not, but we currently have little idea how much energy will cost in 2050, anymore than we know what house prices will be or what the FTSE 100 will stand at. But we are having to make policy as if we did.

But it's not quite true to say we know nothing about future energy prices. We are currently going through a process over commissioning the Hinkley C nuclear power station where a strike price has been negotiated. This is a guaranteed minimum price which EDF, the operator, will receive over the first 35 operational years of the plant. That takes us to 2058. Now, in general, press comment has been pretty negative about this strike price negotiation because, at £92.50 per MWh, it's roughly twice the price currently being paid to generate electricity from fossil fuel. The strike price may or may not be a rip off — we really won't know until well into the 2030s or 40s —but if this strike price sticks, and if it becomes a template for other low carbon energy sources such as wind farms and tidal lagoons, then it may well give us some sort of indication about just where we are headed.

Put it another way, it may appear to be expensive now, but it begins to give some certainty about future directions in energy prices. It's like an insurance policy stating that energy won't cost anymore than this in 2050 (give or take the effects of inflation).  The only reason it can do this is because the cost of developing nuclear power — in common with most forms of low carbon energy — is mostly to do with upfront capital cost. The running costs tend to be insignificant in comparison.

Here, I don't want to get into the pros and cons of which low carbon energy source we should be building. Just wish to point out that one of the key advantages of having a strike price like this for low carbon energy is that it builds an element of certainty into the process decarbonising everything. It also begins to address the vexed issue of how much retrofitting we should be carrying out because you can at last begin to quantify the potential savings.

The strike price is key to unlocking a sense of direction. Without it, sustainability is all hot air and easy for detractors to shoot down. When you get sound commentators like Robert Wilson praising something written by David Rose in the Daily Mail, we know we have a problem.

14 Feb 2014


I think I've discovered a new disability and, what's more, I think I suffer from it. I've called it taplexia and it's the inability to tell hot taps from cold,  unless they have an 'H' or a 'C' attached to them, or just maybe a red or a blue ring around them.

Now there is a convention here that the hot tap should be situated on the left and the cold on the right. It's even made it into the building regs: where hot and cold taps are provided, the hot tap should be on the left says Part GWhat could be clearer than that? But somehow this convention/regulation has passed me by all these 60 years and I still find myself turning on both taps to find out which is which. The more modern the tap, the worse it seems to get.

Mixer taps in particular leave me completely at sea because they are so designery these days that they eschew all that retro-chique details like red or blue bands. The other morning I was in a strange bathroom (don't ask what I was doing there - this isn't a confessional) and I was faced with a Noughties mixer tap set-up. One spout, two handles:  enough to induce a mild panic. I wanted hot but like the idiot-taplexic that I am I started on the right hand side. What was weird was that after five seconds or so it started running hot and I congratulated myself on guessing correctly. Only it turned out to be but a short burst of hot, presumably because the cold pipe had been inadvertently heated as it passed by a nearby radiator or something. It then ran cold on me and it dawned on me that I must have guessed wrong. Silly me.

So I then went left and ran that one. But after ten seconds or more it was still running cold. Could it be that the right tap was actually the hot one and that I just hadn't been patient enough to let the real hot water find its way to the spout? Should I try it again and see? So I turned off the still cold hot tap on the left and went back right.  Then I stopped myself mid-track. Surely there had to be an easy answer to this? How come I had been turning this pair of mixer taps on and off for more than a minute and still hadn't got a clue which tap was hot and which was cold?  This could only be taplexia in its severest form. A complete failure to adapt to the modern world. For some people it's passwords, for others it's TV remotes. For me, it's taps.

There is of course a simple cure for taplexia. Turn them both on and wait till the ensuing water turns lukewarm. Then you can simply turn one off and—hey voila— even I can work out which is which. But my inner greenie tells me that this is incredibly wasteful habit and I just don't like doing it. So I struggle on with my guesswork approach, often wasting as just as much water by guessing wrong.

Maybe writing about it will help. Maybe not. I won't know until I face another strange set of taps. Even if I do work out a cure, I am still faced with hotel shower syndrome.....or HSS as it's infrequently acronymed. This will find me standing naked in an unfamiliar environment fiddling with dials and levers none of which I have any idea about. It's like it's all been designed to make me feel inadequate.

Is it just me? Or is taplexia widespread?

12 Dec 2013

Does embodied energy really matter?

We are hearing more and more about embodied energy and the role it plays in the carbon story. But what exactly is embodied energy and should we pay attention to it at all? Good questions both and the answers are not straightforward.

Firstly, what defines embodied energy? Essentially, it's the energy used to manufacture a product or construct a building. Thus building a new house involves assembling a long list of diverse materials and each of these materials had to be made from other materials and all this had to be transported from A to B to C to wherever your building site is. All this manufacturing and transportation involves expending energy and so, long before your house is ever lived in and the heating is turned on, the TV and computers get fired up and the lights switched on, you have used a great deal of energy — embodied energy.

My rule of thumb calculations show that a typical detached new house, built using brick and block and timber windows, uses around 40tonnes of CO2 in its construction. Now what does that represent? Let's have some comparators.
• The UK releases around 10 tonnes of CO2 per head of population per annum
• A car driving 12,000 miles a year uses around 4 tonnes of CO2
• A family of four flying to Spain and back uses around 2.5 tonnes
• A typical uninsulated 1970s house burns as much as 15 tonnes of CO2 per annum
• A building regs standard new house will burn around 4 tonnes of CO2 per annum
• Same house built to Passivhaus standard will burn around 1.5 - 2 tonnes of CO2 per annum

So given all that, how does the 40 tonnes of CO2 used to construct a new house stack up? One interesting observation is that if you replace a 15-tonne 1970s house with a 1.5-tonne Passivhaus, you will have achieve a net saving of CO2 within three years. In such an instance, you might feel you could afford to ignore the embodied energy total of 40 tonnes.

But of course, not many new homes are replacement dwellings, so they are in fact adding to the overall load of CO2 which Britain as a whole emits. And very, very few new homes are being built to Passivhaus standards or similar, so more typically they will be adding something like ten years of operational energy use in the construction phase alone.

This balance between embodied energy and operational energy is critical. And complex. You have to make some heroic assumptions, such as how long will a house last? And what will be the carbon intensity of energy in years to come? Does the embodied energy level go up significantly if you add energy saving features such as triple glazing to the design? What about features that may need replacing in the house — such as triple glazed windows — long before the design life of the house is through? There are no straightforward answers here. Everything rests on the assumptions made.

And what about reducing the embodied energy levels in a new house? Well, it can be done. The bulk of the embodied energy in new UK housing goes into the concrete and masonry elements because they are both energy intensive to manufacture and extremely heavy relative to volume. In the model house in the Housebuilders Bible 10, masonry and concrete materials make up 27 tonnes CO2 out of a total of 36 tonnes (that's 75%).

Interestingly, over half of this 27 tonnes of CO2 is made up of bricks and mortar, rather than concrete products. There are ample opportunities to switch to materials with lower embodied energy, such as timber and natural materials like stone and slate. Plastics and foam insulation have minimal impact overall (partly because they are so light) so that switching over to alternative materials such as natural insulation isn't really going to make any significant difference. Nor will switching to lime-based products.

And, of course, there is the question of cost. There are similar calculations to be made about construction costs versus running costs and maintenance costs and in some ways financial costs are a proxy for energy loadings. As people often point out, if carbon was correctly priced from an environmental point of view (i.e. if there was a carbon tax applied across the board), then there would be no need to carry out embodied energy calculations separate to cost calculations.

Which begs the question, should we be worried about embodied energy at all, or is it just an obscure branch of environmentalism, pursued by geeks and nerds, which is ultimately of no consequence. By the time we get to 2050, we will either have sorted out our power supplies so that they are all low carbon and thus talk of embodied energy will be irrelevant, or we will be all heading to hell in a handcart, in which case embodied energy will also be irrelevant.

I'm not sure there is a clearcut answer to any of this but energy wonks (I count myself as one) find it all rather fascinating. If you want to know more @CraigJonesUK is the man. Craig has created the invaluable (and freely available) ICE database which will tell you more about embodied energy than you are ever likely to want to know.

25 Nov 2013

Where have all our targets gone?

The Code for Sustainable Homes has come in for a lot of stick over the years. This blog hasn't spared the boot. But one thing the Code did achieve, when it was first introduced in 2007, was to make us aware of targets. The Code is split into six levels, each one being more demanding than the preceding one below. And, coupled with this, was a ratcheted timetable which suggested that we would all move up, level by level, until we reached Level 6 in 2016. Level 6 was the fabled state of Zero Carbon.

Now it was pretty clear from the start that Zero Carbon was never going to be much more than an aspirational target because it was so damned difficult to build. To get Level 6, a house had to supply all its own energy needs without recourse to fossil fuel. That meant it had to be loaded to the gunnels with PV on the roof and often this wasn't enough. There were many sites where it simply wouldn't have been possible to build a Level 6 house as it was originally envisaged. Only a politician could have dreamed this up.

So almost as soon as the Level 6 Zero Carbon target was conceived, moves started to water it down. First the definition changed to exclude certain forms of energy usage. Then allowable solutions were conceived to make it possible to offset some of the energy production. Then cunningly the actual definition of what zero carbon really meant was postponed indefinitely and eventually it became a mythical non-target, shunted into the long grass.

All along there has been this tension between energy saving and low-carbon energy production. They are quite different beasts and yet many of these eco-targets such as the Code conflated the two, so that you could save less energy if you produced more renewable power. Some saw this as a neat trade-off, others as a cop out.

And then along came Passivhaus which became fashionable in the UK after the Code was set up in 2007. Passivhaus is a target that concentrates solely on energy saving, and eschewed any additional green bling required to make a low energy house a zero carbon one. Most of the leading lights in this debate came to see the sense in separating energy consumption from energy production and the whole drive towards the Level 6, zero carbon target started to come off the rails.

It hasn't been helped by having a Tory party which has undergone a painful recasting of its green credentials and now seems to believe that energy targets and environmental regulations are not business-friendly or are, to turn a phrase, just expensive green crap.

So as we approach 2016, what has happened to our targets? If the Code is to be abandoned, and Passivhaus is still a long way from becoming mainstream, do we have any other environmental building targets to aim for? Well there are other candidates: Rory Bergin gives a good summary here of what he calls the rating tools. And there is good old Part L of the English building regulations which is neither a target nor a rating tool, but a standard which everyone has to adhere to. That's just been upgraded a little and is starting to look a bit more like a Passivhaus-verylite standard. But even Part L has become a political battleground now and it's not clear if it will ever be toughed-up again, or parked as another piece of green crap.

Scotland sings to a different hymnsheet. The Code has never been applied here and instead they have more measured reports, usually chaired by the esteemed Lynne Sullivan. She first did one in 2007 and it was a breath of fresh air compared to what was happening in England at the time. Recently, she has been called in to chair an update and it manages to cover all bases without committing to a target anytime soon.

But the issues don't go away. Should we be saddling new homes with renewable energy at all? Should we allow offsetting or allowable solutions? Shouldn't we be concentrating on building better homes instead? Should we be trying to close the performance gap between how a house is designed and how it is actually built? What about all the other environmental factors — water, drainage, ecology, materials? How much should these be targeted or legislated for? Should we have targets at all, or just basic ground rules also known as building regulations.

The short answer is that we don't know and the arguments go round and round the same circles with advocates of every avenue pushing home their own viewpoints. Against such a background, it becomes increasingly difficult to set targets as there is no longer any general agreement about what they should be.

In the meantime, Europe is coming up with a directive which requires each member state to have a  nearly zero-energy building standard in place by 2020. The working definition of this is that the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered "to a very significant extent" by energy from renewable resources. But it is up to member states to define what these terms mean.

In other words, it's not so very different from the Code for Sustainable Homes, only it's unlikely to set such a demanding target as zero carbon. The clue is in the title: nearly zero-energy. That can be as tough or as easy as you like.

Target culture is all very well as long as the target is far into the future or costs very little to achieve. But the demise of the Code — it's not yet decided but it now seems likely that it will disappear soon — shows that when the targets get too tough, it's our resolve that weakens. This mirrors the process which has gone on behind the scenes at the various climate summits that have tried to update Kyoto. Targets are fine as long as they only apply to others, or are far out into the future.

20 Nov 2013

Collective Custom Selfbuild. What is it?

Short answer is I'm not sure. But something is happening here and I want to find out more.

There is a three and a half minute cartoon you must watch. Link is here. I'm not quite sure I agree with every sentiment but it's nothing if not interesting. And whilst it might come on a bit preachy (reinforced by the music which makes it sound like a wartime information film), there's an awful lot packed into it. It ends with the prophetic words "an idea whose time has come." Cliche? Maybe, but I think it might just be so.

Many of the new policies of the coalition — Community Right to Build, Localism, NPPF granting status to selfbuild for the first time — seem to be combining with grass roots movements like Community Land Trusts, Custombuild sites coming on stream and cohousing developments. And it's all pointing us somewhere a bit different to what we have grown used to, the usual diet of spec built apartments and houses, a little social housing and a small amount of individual selfbuild.

Critics will say it's just the Guardian-reading, Waitrose-shopping middle classes looking for something more interesting than another pilates class or a new farmers' market. But volume housing as practiced in the UK is so damn miserable, and its outcome is so damned expensive that it's about time we found some half-decent alternatives. Not everyone can afford a Grand Design and, even if they could, not everyone wants to live in a five-bedroomed detached house in the countryside. Maybe the answer is lurking in the thought processes behind this video.

It was certainly enough to draw a crowd of 50 or so people to a soft-launch event on Monday night at the offices of AshSakula in London. Lots of movers and shakers in the selbuild world took the trouble to turn up and the enthusiasm was infectious. So much so that I found myself volunteering to organise a tour to Berlin, spiritual home of this sort of thing — baugruppen they call it. They not only do it but they provide guided tours.

Anyone interested in coming along, email me at markbrinkley@mac.com and I'll keep you informed as to dates.

17 Nov 2013

Pandora's Promise

On Friday evening, I went to see what I believe is the first screening of Pandora's Promise in the UK. It's a movie concerned with nuclear power and the only other movie I can think of that touched on this subject was the China Syndrome which, perhaps not surprisingly, featured a little bit in the commentary. The two films take diametrically opposed standpoints.

The China Syndrome was a big Hollywood production starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas and its central premise was that the nuclear power industry is very bad news. It introduced the world to the idea of a meltdown and the very name, China Syndrome, referred to the depth of the hole which would result — i.e. one so deep it would go right through the Earth and emerge on the other side. The film premiered on March 16 1979, just 12 days before the Three Mile Island reactor accident. What timing! Even more coincidentally, one of the actors actually suggests during the film that a China Syndrome-style meltdown would render "an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable." Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania. You couldn't make this up.

The fact is that the Three Mile Island accident didn't burn a hole deep into the ground and that Pennsylvania is still inhabited. Life around the stricken plant carries on pretty much as normal. Since then there have been two more iconic nuclear accidents, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and just the mention of these names is usually enough elicit a shimmer of trepidation from most educated people.

Pandora's Promise takes this particular bull by the horns and starts out in Japan following Mark Lynas on a journey to the stricken Fukushima plant. What's it like? How frightening is it? How much radiation is there? Is it dangerous? I'm just watching and I feel nervous. He dons a protective overall, though it looks about as much use as a chocolate teaspoon to me. And we follow Lynas and director Robert Stone as they get closer and closer to the plant, armed only with a neat little geiger counter which gives them a reading of the background radiation. In fact, if there is a star in this film it is this device which demonstrates simply that there is background radiation everywhere in the world and that it varies significantly from place to place. The radiation levels do increase gradually as they approach the Fukushima plant, but nowhere do they go off the scale and by the end they are standing happily on the beach next to the reactor, apparently in no peril at all.

They take the geiger counter around the world and most tellingly onto Guarapari Beach in Brazil which is known for its radioactive sand in which people immerse themselves as a health cure. They may be nuts, but they are not falling down dead three days later. The natural radioactivity on Guarapari Beach appears to be an order of magnitude larger than that found in the exclusion zones around Fukushima and Chernobyl. Something funny is going on here: it's not what the makers of the China Syndrome wanted us to believe.

We follow the nuclear power story around the world. Much of it is shot in the USA, the cradle of the industry, and we get a potted history of the technology and the people who worked it out. There is footage from Chernobyl and there is lots of footage of various anti-nuclear protests around the world, including the veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott strutting her stuff. In many ways, the film works a similar pathway to Gwyneth Cravens's book Power To Save The World. Cravens features in the film too. It is good to see women involved in this almost entirely male-dominated debate.

I found the film totally absorbing but then I'm a self-confessed energy wonk. It could have dug deeper. France was touched on but only to say how successful their nuclear programme has been. In the discussion which took place afterwards featuring Lynas, Stone and Brian Eno, it was pointed out that the French are under pressure to close down their fleet of 40 nukes to be more like Germany, which has turned its back on nuclear power altogether. The fact that the anti-nuclear meme is still so strong is therefore bound to make Pandora's Promise controversial. It's not light entertainment, for sure, but it's a very easy watch and whatever your views on nuclear power, you are bound to learn something new.

Go see.