Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Too much to blog about

There's too much to blog about in today's papers...

  • At the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth Gordon Brown promises Britain will "lead in carbon-free vehicles, carbon-free homes and carbon-free industry", although he supplemented this by adding that Britain will be a "world leader in energy...from nuclear to renewables". But not energy efficiency?
  • Up in London, the Carbon Trust announced more funding for research into marine energy. It's only £3.5million, but this is helpful, especially in the light of the concerns I expressed about funding for offshore technologies in yesterday's blog.
  • At the United Nations in New York, General Secretary Ban-ki Moon noted that "10 years since Kyoto...most industrialised country emissions are still rising and their per capita emissions remain unacceptably high".
  • Ex-President Bill Clinton has also been focusing this week on combatting climate change in his Clinton Global Initiative, and in an interview with the Financial Times1 suggested that countries such as Britain and Denmark have had faster economic growth than the USA since 2000 precisely because of the development of new green industries. However he was taken to task by the FT's leader column for under-estimating the costs of some of the climate mitigation measures; certainly his own estimates of paybacks on low energy lights and a highly efficient window he had recently installed in his barn were far too optimistic.
  • However in Montreal, all is less optimistic. The International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) is set to reject the European Union's plan to permit the inclusion of international aviation into its cap and trading scheme (the ETS).
  • And if all this action gives the impression that global climate change may yet be averted, the string of mini tornados unleashed by a cold weather front running from Farnborough in Hampshire to Scunthorpe via Luton and Northampton has been blamed by some on climate change. Britain is apparently likely to become more vulnerable to tornados because of its location on the edge of the Atlantic with prevailing Westerly winds picking up energy from the warming seas and creating increasingly violent storms.

So if I am not to simply report things, what am I to say in this blog?

The one common factor is a lack of local action, leading directly to real savings. Neat triplets about carbon-free Britain may lead to action eventually, but when the Government is backtracking on local authority initiatives to raise standards above the minimum (for example through discouraging the so-called "Merton Rule", where councils can require 10% of renewables on most new developments), it's hard to take some of these positive announcements at face value.

Of course, some action is being taken; this evening I was asked by my local radio station to explain just how my local council's policy of carbon-neutral homes would work. I was clearly either too lucid or opaque, as the next question ignored my carefully constructed answer and went for the jugular: "Why is it worth it, with the Chinese opening a coal fired station a week?" I should have quoted Ban-ki Moon back at the interviewer, but rather chickened out, referring to the Chinese only building power stations to meet Western demand for consumer goods. True, but in a week where "Moral Hazard" has become a buzz phrase in connection with Northern Rock, perhaps I too could have pointed out that we have a moral responsibility to take action on Climate Change. Or is that just too po-faced for drive-time radio?

1Full Transcript on www.ft.com, 24-9-2007, editorial comment 25-9-2007

Monday, 24 September 2007

Two Cheers for the Energy Technologies Institute

The Government has finally announced where the new Energy Technologies Institute will be located. It is to be based at the Midlands consortium of universites, centred on Loughborough. The new institute, which will apparently have a budget of £1.1 billion (good news) over 10 years (oh well..) and will be headed by David Clarke, currently head of technology strategy at Rolls-Royce. Six companies - BP, Shell, EDF Energy, Eon, Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce itself will contribute £5mn a year each, leaving a shortfall of some £250 million still to be found to match fund the Government's own contribution of £550 million.

I am slightly of two minds about this institute. On the one hand I welcome it, and the fact that it is levering in significant amounts of private money (if not quite all that the Government had hoped for). But on the other hand, I am concerned that focusing too much money into one place may limit the breadth of innovation, and could risk reducing funding for some of the many other current centres of excellence. I suspect that the Loughborough team's focus will be on engineering solution to energy; this may help generation at all levels from nuclear to renewable. There are also excellent teams working on fuel cells and the hydrogen economy. (And it will be good to see the old BG research centre brought back to life).

However, apart from their excellent work in automotive energy efficiency, I don't see as much evidence of their expertise on the demand side, or on behavioural aspects. It would be a disaster for the UK's move to a sustainable energy economy if the work being done in the ECI in Oxford, focused around consumer behaviour and the uptake of low energy appliances, were to be dissipated, or starved of funds. And in Loughborough you can't get much further from the sea; yet by 2050 much of the UK's energy should be generated offshore, from wind, wave or tidal flow, and the Scottish universites are justifiably proud of their research into this area.

Aha, you might say; is this sour grapes from the energy "don"? Well, yes, I was involved in the very early stages of another consortium bid (centred round a university I have not so far mentioned), and clearly we were not successful. And as my very first post made clear, I am not a real don, so I won't be sending in my CV just yet to the new institute, even though I do have a relative working there...

Monday, 17 September 2007

Could the UK ban the sale of Petrol Cars by 2040?

It's Party Conference Time again, and this year all the major parties are vying to appear greener than each other, especially when it comes to Climate Change. This is probably a Good Thing, as it is throwing out some interesting ideas.

Today it's the turn of the Liberal Democrats. Chris Huhne, their environment spokesperson has come up with two eye-catching ideas about private cars as part of a ten-point plan to achieve a carbon-neutral Britain by 2050:

  • Raise the annual road tax on the worst gas guzzlers to £2,000 a year
  • Ban the sale of Petrol Cars from 2040

Neither of these are likely to happen, as the LibDems are unlikely to form the next Government, or even one by 2040. But they are worth a little consideration.

At first sight, the Road Tax one appears easier to implement. The UK wouldn't need the approval of Brussels, unlike (say) introducing a ban or an emissions cap. And by applying it only to newly manufactured cars, it cannot be accused of penalising poorer consumers who have bought second hand has guzzlers.

However there is one possible downside. Some people — mainly company car drivers — would still choose these gas guzzlers, in the knowledge that they (or their employer) could afford this road tax bill. But the second hand value of such a vehicle would plummet, and many would be become worthless (and hence scrapped or exported to other countries with a less punitive tax regime) whilst still quite new. If they were scrapped, this would be a shocking waste of the embodied energy in the gas-guzzler; if exported it is likely to be to a country with lower petrol taxes, and would lead to them driving a higher mileage than if retained in the UK. Ultimately the only way to prevent new gas-guzzlers appearing on Britain's road is through legislation, restricting the sale of vehicles with high CO2 emissions and this requires concerted European action. The current voluntary agreement to reach 120g/km emissions is not working; the UK Government (of whatever colour) should put pressure on Brussels and act unilaterally in support of the "voluntary" targets to ensure they are met.

The other new idea is to require all cars sold to be zero-carbon by 2040. This appears at first to be even more radical, as at present there are only a handful of ZEVs on sale — mainly small electric vehicles. But let's look at this from a historical perspective and suppose that in 1935 someone had said to the bigwigs at the LNER, GWR1 et alia that within 33 years there would be no steam trains running on Britain's main line railways. I think that would have been received with guffaws of incomprehension: after the companies were hard at work refining their designs to create ever better and faster steam engines. At the LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley had just launched his streamlined Pacifics and Silver Link had set a new world speed record of 112mph in September, and over at the Great Western the Castles and Kings were setting standards for efficiency and reliability. Surely steam would be the principal motive power for at least another 50 years, if not more?

So 33 years is still quite a long time in transport development. I see no reason to doubt our ability to meet the LibDems' target. And if the White House is serious about using technology as the "fix" for Climate Change, then it makes the 2040 zero-carbon cars target look positively easy.

1London & North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway; two of the Big 4 pre-nationalisation rail groupings. Every schoolboy still knows (or should know) that Mallard holds the World Steam Speed record, at 126mph, but this wasn't set until 1938.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Can Wal-Mart do more for the Environment than the Body Shop?

Dame Anita Roddick, who sadly died yesterday aged just 64, will be remembered as the pioneer of ethical retailing. Although she is most famous for the Body Shop's stance "Against Animal Testing", she was active in many areas, including the active sourcing of ingredients from under-developed parts of the world, and charities associated with issues such as HIV-AIDS. In the Body Shop's early years they would take back their trademark simple bottles for refilling, and were also pioneers in renewable energy, investing in a wind farm to power their Littlehampton headquarters.

So it may appear to be almost sacrilege to suggest that Wal-Mart can do more for the environment than the Body Shop. Isn't this the company that famously prevents unions from operating in its stores, and has a reputation for squeezing down prices from suppliers to the level where they are barely economic? Yes it is, but it is also a company that has very publicly committed to making real cuts in its carbon emissions. Bentonville AK is taking a stance on this issue that Washington DC seems to be incapable of. And when the bosses at Wal-Mart tell their store managers to cut energy consumption they do: if not, your job may be at risk.

Wal-Mart's sourcing policies may also help. They have recently mandated that all their US suppliers of detergents must use double concentrate (or more). This will massively reduce packaging and waste, as well as transportation energy. And because of Wal-Mart's massive influence and buying power, almost all US detergent manufacturers are voluntarily following suit. Wal-Mart can achieve what Washington cannot; its detractors have accused it of applying "European standards" (now there's a real insult!) to the environment.

So has Wal-Mart turned from environmental foe to friend? It's too early to be sure; if management does not see a bottom line improvement it may well change its mind, although savings from energy efficiency should be a no-brainer. And critics point out that Wal-Mart's own CO2 emissions are just the tip of a fast-melting iceberg. Much more energy is used throughout the supply chain and by enticing citizens to drive to its big boxes in the suburbs. The Wal-Mart supercenter by the freeway has driven the Main Street Piggly-Wiggly out of business1.

But are Wal-Mart and the Body Shop so different? Aren't they both selling us, the consumer, the goods that we want in a way that we like at the price that we're willing to pay? And if the English middle classes like fancy "ethically sourced" ingredients, rather than a US redneck's industrial product, does that say more about the retailer or the consumer? Do we need the Body Shop's bottles of coconut oil and lime shower gel any more than Wal-Mart's value detergent offering? Is Littlehampton (or Paris, where Body Shop's owners, L'Oréal are based) really nearer to Bentonville than we think?

And to answer the title question, Wal-Mart could do more for the environment than the Body Shop; I just hope that they will.

1 English readers should read this sentence as "The Asda superstore on the bypass has driven the High Street Walter Willson out of business"

Monday, 10 September 2007

We should welcome HIPs in the Home

We should all welcome the extension of the requirement for Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) today (10th September), as part of a Home Improvement Pack (HIP) to three-bedroom homes in the UK. The certificate will show the home's energy efficiency on a scale from A to G, similar to that used for several years on fridges, as well as indicating its environmental performance in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Giving consumers information about their energy performance should encourage the market for low energy homes. It may also provide an opportunity for sellers to raise the value of their homes by making simple energy improvements prior to sale. Yet the Government almost bungled the introduction of the certificates as part of HIPs, with delays to the implementation date that undermined confidence in the market, coming under pressure from an alliance of estate agents and surveyors keen to entrench their members' position in the market.

These certificates provide just enough information to help homebuyers choose the most efficient properties. This will also provide an incentive for sellers to make energy savings upgrades to their homes before putting them onto the market, as they will know that buyers will be able to see the resultant benefits. At a rough estimate, if 5% of homeowners were to take action to improve their property by one energy rating band, this could still lead to annual savings of over 50,000 tonnes of CO2, the main gas contributing to global climate change.

Energy labels are, in general, a Good Thing1 for both consumers and the environment. So although the Conservatives have been unhelpful at times over their introduction on homes (as part of HIPs), it is pleasing to see recent press reports2 that John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith are recommending to the Tories that energy labels should be extended to entertainment products (so-called brown goods). This is even without waiting for instructions from Europe (or perhaps, especially if not being imposed by Europe). This return of bipartisanship is to be welcomed, and we hope that it will extend to the introduction of Energy Performance Certificates (as part of HIPs) in all homes.

1 As might have been approved by Sellar & Yeatman in 1066 and all that. OK, they might not have approved of labels if they thought they were coming from Europe rather than England…

2 Sunday Telegraph, 9 September 2007

Friday, 7 September 2007

Welcome to the Energy Don's Blog

Energy and Climate Change are issues that affect us all - and this blog is a first attempt by someone, who ought to know better, to put his or her thoughts about energy into a blog.

I should start by saying which axes I am grinding. I am passionately in favour of sustainable energy, and greatly concerned by global climate change. Indeed, I am so passionately concerned that I gave up a well paid job somewhere else to come and work in the sector. But...(and there will always be a but), there's a lot of hype around and, to be quite honest, a lot of misinformation, from all sides of the debate. So I will be trying to take a unbiased view of the argument: not dispassionate, just straightforward. That's why I chose the name "Energy Don"; in best academic tradition I will seek to expose the truth, without fear or favour. (But not without plagiarism, occasionally: it wouldn't be a blog otherwise!) I'm not a don of course, but in the blogosphere who is quite what they say they are?

Most of the time I will be "on message" with my employer (which I shall be keeping anonymous; any lawsuits will need to head in er... my direction, not theirs). But at times I will be most certainly "off message".

At all times I will try and keep this lively, and try and point out some of the real issues behind combating climate change, as well as some of the strange side effects. I hope that with over 20 years' experience of the subject I can bring the occasional insight. If not, then someone must tell me and I will stop.

For while you have been reading this another 7,0001 tonnes of carbon have been emitted in Europe alone, quite apart from what's been happening in China, USA...

The Energy Don

1 Source: Eurostat, based on 1 minute reading time, and EU-25 2002 data of 3,750MtC annual emissions.