Response to the Chancellor’s Spending Review

The Chancellor’s statement yesterday was well trailed beforehand so there were few surprises. It seems that the “greenest government ever” is in fact true blue in tooth and claw with a continuing policy of reducing leadership in central government (by decreasing funding of staff) and increasing the expectation of self-reliance by industry.

Buried in the lengthy statement that dwelt very largely on the “back to work” theme was the commissioning of HST1, the prospect of a new North South Crossrail and additional funds for flood defences. All good news for the concrete farmers.

As far as greenness was concerned, there was little said but it is clear that the message concerning the long term availability of secure energy is now well embedded. A number of key issues were put forward:

  • Firstly there was the promise of a strike price for electricity that may bring the construction of new nuclear a little nearer. Without this underpinning of future revenues the private sector is always going to be shy of the massive investments needed with very long term recovery periods.
  • Secondly there was the promise of additional investment incentive for shale gas exploration. Shale gas has the potential to fill a difficult hole in energy supply whilst the nuclear builds take place. Hardly green but a pragmatic response badly needed.

One of the difficult issues our industry is going to face is the additional loss of leadership/sponsorship and infrastructure that civil servants have given us through departments such as DCLG, BIS and DECC. As their resources have been pared to the bone, it is unsurprising that delays associated with regulation, planning reform, energy reduction programmes (Green Deal for example) are becoming ever more visible. The question is do we have the energy will and resource to fill that void? The Chancellor specifically identified other industries as the future – “synthetic biology to grapheme” but did not repeat his earlier commitment to a zero carbon built environment.

In a nutshell my take-away from this statement is one of the need for self-reliance and the need to build better “regulation” from within our community rather than expect government to lead. Either that or don a cowboy hat.

Making CHP ‘do-able’

Front view of a CHP unit

The Government’s set a target for the UK to generate 15.5 GWe from combined heat and power (CHP) by 2020. Today, only 5.5 GWe is generated from CHP. So, how do we deal with this target shortfall in CHP?

The planning department has, in recent years, relaxed their policy on approving CHP plant projects. On the other hand, they try to insist on new building design incorporating CHP.  Of course, nobody likes to be coerced like this. But what is more important is that arguably this approach is not effective. For example, design engineers sometimes find it difficult to justify using CHP instead of the traditional boiler. It is seen to be too costly to build the CHP where the return on carbon reduction will be so little.

There is nothing inherently wrong with CHP, but rather in how we apply it. This large kit, even with better efficiency, is not suitable for a building-by-building application. We need to think at a community scale. It works perfectly well in district heating, or even a small community with several buildings. The key is to have more buildings where the load profile requires a constant energy demand.

CHP is more costly than traditional boilers. When it comes in a larger scale, the capital investment will probably be rejected by your finance director. But, does that really have to be the end of the story?

A happy ending with Energy Supply Contracting?

Perhaps, if you haven’t already done so, you should consider Energy Supply Contracting (which is also called Contract Energy Management in the UK). The service providers (ESCOs) provide low carbon energy to the clients, and the advantage of this business model is that it can allow the end user to enjoy low carbon energy without any upfront cost.

More thoughts on this particular model to follow – but what do you think? Can you tell me about any good or bad experiences with this?

Look at carbon, not energy

We urgently need a clear strategy for decarbonising the grid…and here’s why.

by thinkpanama, creative commons, flickr

The world is still awash with energy.

Peak oil may have passed but peak coal has not. Nor has peak gas, and nuclear and renewables are now a rising trend.  In other words, the problem is not a shortage of energy it is too much carbon.

The trouble is, at the moment it’s hard to find a quick and easy way of taking carbon out of the primary fuel mix. So, the focus is on reducing loads, getting more out of each unit of carbon fuel, and using so-called renewables to substitute for fossil fuel.

We’re too used to having energy on tap, generated and piped from a distance. Community scale services challenge this view of life (we’ll be debating this at our briefing). Low-carbon communities attempt to use waste in order to distribute relatively low-grade heat rather than high-grade energy.

This heat is ‘free’ insofar as it recovers energy from electrical generation, household waste, or from geothermal sources. Of course, nothing is actually free. Pipe work, pumping, capital costs and so forth means that fixed costs can exceed the notional cost of the primary fuel burned to generate distributed heat.

Because of high capital costs and the long lifetime of systems (like water mains), financial planning for low-carbon communities needs to take the long view.

We  don’t know what the carbon advantage of such systems will be in the future. If there is a significant and quick (economically speaking) rise in zero carbon wind and marine generation, and carbon sequestration in coal fired plants becomes the norm, then the carbon intensity of the grid will reduce to the point where the advantage of community based systems is lost.  In short the carbon arguments for community heating systems depend crucially on the speed of decarbonisation of the grid.

This is a community-scale heating dilemma. We should have invested in CHP/DH a couple of decades ago when we had access to North sea gas – instead we face the prospect of digging up the roads yet again and forcing householders to abandon their cherished boilers. But, without a guaranteed connected load and the effective displacement of high carbon intensity grid supply it will be difficult to make community scale heating financially attractive to a commercial investor.

So, we should focus on decarbonising the grid or develop heat-sharing technologies through low-carbon communities?  These are mega questions and need a national strategy where government must lead the way. What will be the role of the building services engineer and construction teams in planning and delivery whole-community solutions?

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