Category Archives: Buildings

Locomore & Railway Renewables

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Trains are inherently a better system than cars or buses for moving large numbers of people between cities. They tend to both faster and more energy efficient. Steel wheels on steel rails produce very much less friction than rubber wheels on tarmac, and being very long and narrow they need displace little air relative to the number of passengers they carry, again adding to their efficiency.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about municipalisation and contrasted this with the limitations of both privatized and nationalised industries. Allowing space for start-ups to try new ideas is part of this pluralistic provision. In banking, health care, energy infrastructure and much else Germany has a much more diverse provision of services. One exception is Deutsche Bahn which still runs 99% of the trains in Germany.

A couple of weeks ago a new Crowdfunded start-up company called Locomore started operating its first train which runs between Stuttgart and Berlin. They only have one train, an old 1970’s model, painted in retro orange and brown. It’s innovative in so many ways, offering very low fares, with trains using 100% renewable electricity and selling organic fair trade food and drink. Perhaps most innovative of all is a system where you can book a seat near people with similar interests, with the intention of sparking interesting conversation.

Ideally we’d like our railways to be powered by renewables. Five years ago I blogged about Deutsche Bahn’s plans to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Over the last five years the cost of most forms of renewable energy has come down dramatically and that timescale now looks hopelessly lacking in ambition. Locomore buys renewable electricity for its train, and is one of the first to do so. In Chile the metro system of Santiago gets 60% of its energy from renewables. Many train operators are installing on site renewables. One of my favourite buildings is Blackfriars Station in London, which has an impressive solar roof. Some train tracks are having solar canopies installed and these could in theory supply all the electricity needed to run a whole countries train network.

Tesla & Energy Innovation


Tesla’s new solar roof tiles.

Elon Musk and his Tesla company are making multi-billion dollar investments in a number of mutually reinforcing technologies, which taken together point to a very different energy future. His $5bn gigafactory is being built near the appropriately named settlement of Sparks, Nevada. When completed in 2020 it will be the biggest building in the world and will be churning out electric cars and batteries on a prodigious scale. It will be powered entirely by its own on-site solar, wind and geothermal energy, with no doubt plenty of battery storage!

Tesla has just unveiled solar photovoltaic roofing tiles that look great and are cheaper and more durable than building a traditional roof and then retro fitting ordinary solar panels. I see this as the future for solar roofs on new houses, and on many retrofits. Simultaneously Tesla is in the process of buying SolarCity for $2.6 bn, which will give them a huge entrance into the solar roof market. Tesla has also recently unveiled the new Powerwall 2, a higher capacity, more energy dense battery for domestic households. Many Californian households will be able to generate all their household and motoring energy from their own roofs, and store it to match domestic supply and demand. They might also use the battery to buy cheap grid electricity at times of oversupply on the grid and sell it back at times of peak demand, so making money in the process, and helping the grid level out fluctuating supply and demand.

A few weeks ago Tesla signed a contract with Southern California Edison to supply 80MWh of their Powerpack grid scale energy storage batteries. These grid scale batteries and the domestic batteries, combined with various other storage technologies, are changing the nature of the electricity industry. Couple this with falling demand as a result of ever increasing energy efficiency, and the results are profound. Baseload becomes an obsolete concept. Pacific Gas & Electric have just announced that they plan to shut down the huge 2.2 GW Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2025, many years earlier than planned, simply because it is too costly and inflexible to operate. It is old technology. Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant in California. Coal has pretty much ended as a part of the Californian energy mix but its place has largely been taken by gas, but that too will diminish as efficiency plus renewables plus storage become ever more important. It is a moot point which should be phased out first, gas with its carbon emissions or nuclear with its risks (and Diablo is very close to geological fault!). Either way, California is heading toward a 100% renewable energy future. It will be fascinating to see how Tesla develops over the next decade and what contribution it makes to that 100% renewables goal.

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.