Monthly Archives: May 2016

Better Buildings

Oakmeadow Primary

Oakmeadow Primary School. First Passive House School in UK

Every time a new building is designed and built it should be an opportunity to improve energy efficiency. Standards are gradually improving, in some places quite dramatically. In Ireland, about a month ago, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown was the first place in the English speaking world to make Passive House standard mandatory on all new housing. Dublin has just voted to do the same. Meanwhile in UK we had the lower, but still very good Zero Carbon Homes legislation that Labour introduced, stupidly this government scrapped last year, and now the House of Lords are trying to re-instate.

One argument one often hears against these higher standards is that they increase the cost of building. However this does not have to be the case, with intelligent design and construction. Oakmeadow Primary School in Wolverhampton was built in 2011, the first Passive House standard school in Britain. It was built within the normal school budget, so no additional cost for building, yet it resulted in a reduced annual energy bill, from £85,000 to £12,000. What’s not to like?

Some cities, such as San Francisco, are now making fitting solar panels to all new buildings mandatory. Again by doing this at scale and integrating them into the buildings during construction rather than retrospectively fitting them onto existing roofs costs should be kept down.

Making houses in factories and assembling them on-site allows for greater accuracy and air-tightness and should also reduce costs. I’ve blogged before about ArchiHaus’ plans in UK and this week Jeremy Williams has blogged about Acre homes who are doing something similar in America. All great stuff, and clearly the future of construction, despite the chaos and confusion of current British government policy!

I’ve met a number of individuals recently who live in homes that not only have no energy bills, but receive an income from energy. Some even recharge electric cars as well as provide their own heating, lighting and other energy requirements and an income from selling surplus electricity. This could be a goal for the vast majority of new buildings.

The speed of change

UK coal decline

UK coal decline

Things are happening faster than most people predicted, and certainly faster than most governments even begin to understand, in both positive and negative ways. The bad news is that the climate is warming at an ever increasing rate as a brilliant new graphic from climate scientist Ed Hawkins shows. The evidence is mounting that fracking is even more destructive than previously thought. The failure of most of the fossil fuel giants to change is sealing their demise: huge bonuses to top executives at the loss making BP, Exxon and Chevron companies symbolises their decadent slide towards probable bankruptcy.

Last week for several periods of a few hours at a time the UK stopped generating any electricity from coal fired power stations, for the first time since the nineteenth century. For a few years yet a little coal will be used, especially in winter, but within a decade it will have totally ceased. Globally coal is now in rapid decline.

Meanwhile renewables are experiencing exponential growth. The amount of solar power deployed in the world has doubled seven times since the start of the millennium and wind four times. The mathematics of exponential growth is extraordinary: a few more doublings and the era of fossil fuels will be over. I’ve long advocated 100% renewable forms of energy for electricity, heating, cooling and transport, and now momentum is really building globally toward this goal. The cost of renewables continues to fall and it is simply killing off the competition.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewables is now happening faster than just about anyone had been expecting, but whether that is going to be fast enough to avoid the worst ravages of climate change is still unknown. Of course for humanity to secure an ecologically sustainable and socially just future much more needs to change than just the energy we use, but make no mistake, this change is a vital step in securing that future, and it will have huge repercussions throughout the global economy.

Local elections: reflections

Greens win in Battenhall

Greens win in Battenhall

All the results are in at last from the UK local elections. No great breakthroughs in terms of building a more ecologically sustainable and socially just future, but several small victories.

Perhaps the best results were in Scotland, where the Scottish Green Party went from 2 to 6 MSP’s, including Ross Greer who at just 21 is the youngest MSP. Congratulations to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Nationalist Party who won 63 seats, just two short of a majority. I can envisage SNP/Green collaboration to pursue some really great policy initiatives taking Scotland on an increasingly divergent course from Cameron’s England.

The other region where the Green Party did well was here in the West Midlands, particularly in Solihull and in Worcester. In Worcester Louis Stephen won the Battenhall ward from the Tories and Neil Laurenson held the St Stephen ward, which means that the Tories lost their control of the council. Labour and the Greens may be able to cooperate to get better policies enacted as a result. In Solihull the Greens have gone from 8 to 10 councillors. A highlight there was Chris Williams increasing his vote share to 75% in a 4 corner race in Chelmsley Wood.

In London the Green Party retained two members of the London Assembly, where Baroness Jenny Jones and Darren Jonhson were both standing down after 16 years as Assembly Members. In their place Sian Berry and Caroline Russell were elected. In the mayoral contest Sian Berry managed to come in third, out of a packed field of a dozen candidates. Labour’s Sadiq Khan becomes mayor. He’ll probably be reasonably good on social justice and human rights issues, but unlikely to take a leadership role when it comes to London’s ecological footprint.

As ever it seems progress through party politics is a slow, patchy and frustrating business. Technological innovation is zooming ahead in leaps and bounds, improving the possibilities for building an ecologically sustainable and socially just future, if only we had the politicians capable of seeing the opportunities!

Shifting Investments

Glenn, David & Cathy from SHIFFT, with 6th form students.

Glenn, David & Cathy from SHIFFT, with 6th form students.

A couple of days ago I went along to the Hereford River Carnival: lots of great floats, stalls and good community fun for all the family. There was a sort of festival within a festival as New Leaf had created the h.Energy village which featured a number of local organisations advocating greater sustainability. I stopped and chatted with lots of old friends and met some new faces. One of the groups with a stall was the new SHIFFT group, which stands for Stop Herefordshire’s Investments in Fossil Fuels Today. It’s part of the rapidly growing global movement lobbying for disinvestment from fossil fuels.

A few days earlier I went up to Llandrindod Wells to have a look around and talk to the people at Riversimple and see their amazing hydrogen fuel cell car. Robert Llewellyn, the actor and comedian from Red Dwarf fame, also happened to be visiting, making an edition of his Fully Charged video blog. I think we were both suitably impressed with what a breakthrough this car is. I’ve sung its praises a number of times on this blog. Riversimple currently are crowdfunding. This is to raise equity, so has a fairly high degree of risk involved, but also the potential to buy into an early stage start-up company which might well be a very lucrative investment. It is also of course just about as ethical an investment as I can imagine. They’ve kept the minimum investment at just £50 and would love to have many thousands of small investors.

Globally vast sums of money are flooding out of the fossil fuel sector, in part driven by the ethical arguments about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground to prevent the worst ravages of climate change, and in part due to the realization that these reserves are very likely to become stranded assets, so undermining the perceived value of oil, gas and coal companies. The money is beginning to flow into the renewables sector in vast amounts. I mentioned in my last blog about the £229 billion that went into renewable electricity generation last year. On top of all this wind and solar comes the whole raft of cleantech innovation start-ups such as Riversimple. I do hope they achieve their crowdfunding objective, initially of one million pounds, with a further two similar sized tranches following on.