Renewable Energy – The Vital Missing Link

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

For years, renewable energy, especially solar power and wind, has offered the tantalising prospect of almost zero carbon energy; tantalising because, even as costs fall, solar and wind are inherently unreliable, especially in temperate climates such as those that we ‘enjoy ‘in regions like Western Europe, and much of North America not to mention most of the developed world.

While a lot of progress has been made in demand response, which manages the energy that we need to match that which is available at any given time, we need a cheap, safe and efficient way of storing electrical power. Up until now, storage of electrical power in particular has been expensive and inefficient, and sometimes a bit scary.

The electrical vehicle market of course already faces this problem in spades. Electric cars are never likely to become main-stream so long as they need to go through a lengthy recharge process every 200 miles or so. It is therefore no surprise that much of the running is being made by manufacturers of vehicle batteries.

Tesla’s announcement that it is moving into the home energy storage market could represent a significant step. Being able to store electrical power not only makes local wind and solar power generation more practicable, it could also be invaluable in the many areas of the world where the grid is unreliable or virtually non-existent.

The biggest barrier, at least initially,  is likely to be the price tag. The 7kW battery which could, for example power a laptop for two days, or run one full cycle of a washing machine, or boil 10 kettles, will cost $3,000 to buy: That’s a very pricey home laundry service, and a frighteningly expensive cup of coffee, especially if you only need to use it occasionally.  The 10kW version represents slightly better value.

At this stage this is surely going to appeal only to wealthier individuals living away from a reliable grid, or those willing to pay to make a green gesture.  However, as with other technology initially aimed at the ‘smart home’ we may well find that much of the demand is actually from businesses. If you are running a business, even a small one, then any loss of service can do you immense damage. If an investment of a few thousand pounds or dollars can help guarantee that you will keep running, then it may well seem like an attractive return on investment.”

A further significant sign is Tesla’s announcement of an alliance with the international Energy Intelligence software supplier EnerNOC, which already has a presence in the USA, Canada, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, Ireland, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Ultimately, success for energy storage in buildings, as in vehicles is likely to hinge on the two Cs: cost and capacity. It is a familiar catch 22 situation with most new and emerging technologies, where the market is waiting for the price to fall, but, other things being equal, production costs will only fall once you have achieved  real economies of scale.  The other factors that could influence the market are regulation, requiring builders or building owners to make provision for storage, or someone willing to take a loss leading initiative.

Safety concerns will also need to be allayed, given problems that have occurred with various types of battery technology, whether in laptops or vehicles. Storing a lot of energy in a very small space, inside the home is always going to raise concerns. And while batteries may offer the most promising option at the moment, other forms of energy storage might prove more effective in the end.

Still, the paradox is that sometimes problems get solved precisely because they are so big. The whole direction that the world is moving in, the growing realisation that we need to slash CO2 emissions,  demands cheap, efficient, safe energy storage. It seems likely that companies like Tesla, along with the other major energy companies involved in energy storage  will continue to concentrate their fire power on this until a viable solution emerges. And for the first few who get this right, or even approximately right, the potential returns are huge.

For then we really will have found the missing link.

BSRIA and ECA working together in order to keep the lights on!

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the ECA at this important event

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the ECA at this important event

Ofgem has sounded serious warning bells about UK’s generating margin falling from about 14% to sub 4% levels around 2016. Ed Milliband’s statement of a Labour Government freezing energy bills could hardly come at a worse moment and could in fact result in a greater likelihood of brown or blackouts.  View event details and book on-line.

Major investment is needed in the electricity network and the new wave of nuclear power stations recently announced will not come online until at least 2020. The debate over alternative fuels like shale gas still needs to be had, to assess its suitability and impact on the future of UK energy. And whilst standby generation may seem an easy option and undoubtedly this will form part of the solution, it also needs to be highlighted that it cannot necessarily be relied on as a last-minute solution, for when the crunch comes, fuel will be in high demand and availability will plummet.

So where does that leave the rest of us? There are few benefits to a power outage; the only redeeming effects being an increase in self-reliance and a chance for the standby power industry to shine.

The risks to business is high, even more so due to the current lack of awareness and most may well have no contingency plan to keep their businesses running. Companies face disruption through possible loss of process and equipment failure.

BSRIA is pleased to be working alongside the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA). Our forthcoming event at Central Hall in London looks at the scale of the problem of reduced electricity supply capacity at peak times in the coming years. We look to identify solutions that can be adopted in order to reduce the risk to the core business and also the support needed for building owner operators, facilities mangers, contractors and service providers to allow them to provide the maximum provision during challenging times.

This event is free to BSRIA and ECA members, but also open to a wider audience.

View the full programme and book on-line

ECA members are able to book free by emailing their free payment code to

Smart metering makes BPE easy…or does it?

BSRIA's Alan Gilbert

Head of BSRIA Instrument Solutions Alan Gilbert

Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) is here to stay. With government driving towards 20% reduction in costs for its built estate and increasing unwillingness to accept design predictions as sufficient to prove outcomes, objective measurement will be key. Government Soft Landings (GSL) and the implied BPE activities attest to this. In the housing sector regulation is increasingly looking to proof of performance (airtightness for example) with a growing European focus on providing owners with objective labeling of homes. The recent announcements of the 2013 revisions of Part L have largely focused on fabric issues but it seems likely that attention will now turn to the performance of installed HVAC plant and associated controls which themselves will present a challenge in proving that combinations of low carbon technologies are indeed working properly.

All this is happening at the same time as measures to introduce smart metering are coming on-stream. With a commitment to have full implementation by 2020, smart meters should provide a powerful means to assist with BPE of both commercial and non-commercial buildings but will they really realise this objective?

Just how “smart” is smart in the context of metering? At its lowest level the smart meter simply offers a remote display of energy use (often expressed in £) so that users are sensitised to consumption. Rarely are both gas and electricity monitored and I know of no instance where water is included as well. This is a shame: water (especially hot water) is an increasing proportion of dwelling energy use and is largely ignored by householders. There is increasing evidence that this kind of visible display can have good initial impact but that users rapidly de-sensitise. Really, these meters are not smart but simply remote display devices.

More commonly “smart” means that meter readings can be transmitted to the supply company on a scheduled basis. This is the type currently planned to be used in the present roll-out. Again it is unlikely that all three services are monitored and the data is often collected at no more than half hour intervals. As an alternative to self-read or estimated billing they are undoubtedly an improvement and will help electricity companies come to terms with balancing home generation and network loading but the thorny problem of access to data remains to be overcome.

Finally there is the possibility of the “really smart” meter which will permit full two way communication between utility and user thus bringing into reality the possibility of sophisticated demand management options for the power companies. Potentially this could be a rich source of data for BPE but ownership of the protocols and access rights are likely to be a serious hurdle to potential third party users of this resource.

Even if full access to a multi-service, duplex remote metering scheme is possible it cannot provide the additional data that a proper BPE service demands. In order to interpret energy use data additional sensors are needed to enable forensic analysis. Internal temperatures, occupancy rates, casual gains from white goods and local weather, all are needed to understand and normalise energy use back to some design criteria. Even when all this is achieved there is often no substitute for “feet on the ground” to interview occupants or spot unusual behaviours.

Access to large volumes of user data is one key requirement to understanding just how the various interventions in existing dwellings or

British Gas Smart Meter

British Gas Smart Meter

the application of new regulations in the built environment sector are working. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) has developed a restricted access National Energy Efficiency Data-Framework (NEED) and this has proven invaluable in understanding the real impact of certain measures such as cavity fill retrofits. Unfortunately this kind of data is not readily available to the wider research community at present nor is it fed from real-time or near real-time sources. This makes it unsuitable for analysis of individual properties.

We want to really deliver truly low energy (an carbon) buildings that are also healthy, productive and comfortable to use but,until the tangle of issues associated with privacy and smart metering are resolved then there is little alternative or more of this kind of work that will not only resolve issues in individual dwellings but also create a new generation of people able to interpret complex building physics and behavioural data. Surely a good thing in itself. If however we really want to look at effects in the wider population of buildings then DECC should be encouraged to invest in NEED and roll it out to wider research community so that academics, business and industry can better identify opportunity for action in bringing UK nearer to its legal carbon commitments.

For more information about BSRIA’s involvement in BPE including a presentation defining BPE as well as information on how Soft Landings fits in click here.

What happens when the lights go out?

In July we posted a blog about whether the lights will go out in the UK. This blog discussed the startling fact that the peak demand on our electricity supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. With this comes the real risk that consumers will be exposed to outages “blackouts” and voltage dips “brownouts”. There is debate about whether this could happen, Datamonitor’s director of energy and utilities research and analysis, Neil Atkinson has commented that in practice the lights won’t go out in the UK or at least not for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried or ignore the problem all together. He states that the Government hasn’t put sufficient contingency plans in place for the future of the UK’s supply and demand, that the Green Deal and the dwindling hopes of Nuclear power aren’t enough.

The ECA are less optimistic than Datamonitor. Bill Wright, head of energy solutions, states that the intended increasing reliance on wind power assumes that the UK as a whole will not be affected by periods of cold weather at the same time as minimum wind. This is something that has to be considered though, for if the UK were to suffer a harsh or long winter like we saw in 2012/2013 then there is a real risk that we could end up facing lights out this year or during any winter that is out of the ordinary.

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

There is also Ed Milliband’s pledge to freeze energy costs for customers to consider. Will this pledge speed up the process of blackouts and brownouts or it will have no impact at all? The government’s Fuel Poverty Report 2013 suggests there are already 4.8 million households in the UK that are already suffering with blackouts so Ed’s pledge won’t necessarily make any difference.

But what if it does? What will happen if the lights do go out?

BSRIA held a number of parallel workshops in June to discuss that possibility. The workshop covered the effects blackouts would have in the UK, the risks for business, the systems required, the continuity plans and what BSRIA will do. Here are some of the conclusions:

Effects of power outages

There are many potential effects that come with a long power outage. At the moment, most power outages don’t last more than an

An image of Channel 4's The Blackout

An image of Channel 4’s The Blackout

hour so there are minimal risks but the longer the outage, the more opportunity for chaos to ensue. The loss of power could lead to an increase in crime due to diminished security options e.g. alarms and security cameras leading to shops being broken into and civil disorder (a dramatization of the potential damage can be seen in Channel 4’s The Blackout). The country’s communication and transport systems would soon break down and there is a high risk to the economy due to closed businesses and lack of trade. There are few benefits to a power outage; the only redeeming effects being an increase in self-reliance and a chance for the standby power industry to shine.

Risks for business

If power outages have such an impact on society in general, then the risks to business are high as well, even more so due to the current lack of awareness in businesses. If they are unaware of the future problems, then they may well have made no contingency plan to keep their businesses running. Without a contingency plan, they face disruption to their work through either staff shortages (staff may be unable to get into work due to the breakdown of transport), or loss of process and equipment failure. If companies are dependent on computers or other technology, then they risk losing business or missing deadlines, resulting in damage to reputation and loss of profit.

Required systems and contingency plans

To help the UK prepare for the risk of future power outages, the workshop came up with some ideas for required systems and contingency plans that could help reduce the damage caused. Here are some of those. Firstly, education is key and more needs to be done to raise awareness. BSRIA is in a prime position to promote and facilitate this. Starting with the low-hanging fruit, buildings should make maximum use of natural light and ventilation to reduce base energy load. Critical areas or services need to be identified and ring-fenced to maximise the opportunity for them to run when other systems go down. There needs to be a way of controlling the amount of energy used in buildings and this is where energy services and building energy management systems could play a very important role. Incentives, such as variable tariffs from utilities, would encourage changes in consumer behaviour and more investment in smart technology. The debate over alternative fuels like shale gas needs to be had to assess its suitability and impact on the future of UK energy. Whilst standby generation may seem an easy option, and undoubtedly this will form part of the solution, it also needs to be highlighted that it cannot necessarily be relied on as a last-minute solution, for when the crunch comes, it will be in high demand and availability will plummet.

Continuity plans need to be made for a multitude of scenarios. The Government and businesses alike, need to prioritise the services

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

they need most and make sure they are supported in the best possible ways. If blackouts are expected to become a regular part of our lives, then announcing them in advance will help companies to plan closures or change working hours. Companies also need to think about how their employees work; the fact is, we are highly dependent on technology like laptops and mobile phones. Without the means to recharge their batteries they quickly become redundant and we become unproductive, so companies need to think of alternative methods to keep their workforce useful – we may even have to resort to good old pen and paper!

What BSRIA could do

 From the workshops, it was suggested that BSRIA can help raise awareness and provide education on the subject. This could take a range of forms, and conferences, publications and guidance for continuity planning were just some of the activities suggested. BSRIA can also work with other organisations towards these goals to help limit the risks for everyone.

When will the lights go out?

In the UK and some other countries the maximum demand on our supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. In the UK we have a total supply capacity of 80 Gigawatts, and only around 67GW is available at any one time according to OFGEM director-general Alistair Buchanan. The maximum demand last winter was 60.5GW and the peak summer demand isn’t much less. It would only take a prolonged cold spell or a power station failure to drop the supply capacity below our maximum demand.

What this means in practice to an individual customer is that there is an increased risk of outages or voltage dips. It has been predicted that this could be a one in twelve chance of losing power in a year for any customer by 2015 and an increasing risk until either the supply capacity is increased or demand is cut. In the UK we are closing our coal fired power stations, decommissioning our old nuclear stations and not building new capacity fast enough to replace them. Read more about this in The Spectator.

Last week OFGEM published electricity supply and demand forecasts, showing that spare capacity has fallen as more gas-fired plants have been mothballed. It reiterated warnings that even if blackouts are avoided, power prices will rise steeply.  With the UK generation capacity margin likely to drop to 2% by 2015 the competition for supplies is likely to push prices up by 20%. Read more in The Telegraph.

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

The profile of generation capacity over the next ten years is affected by political decisions such as closure of coal-fired power stations, extending the life of old nuclear stations, availability of imported gas, introduction of fracking for shale gas and planning permission for renewable energy.

Businesses need to prepare for the increased risk to protect their business continuity. At a recent BSRIA workshop, business leaders talked about how they could respond to the risks and the knock-on effects of power outages.

There are two main approaches:

  • reducing demand, including demand side management
  • adapting to a less reliable power supply with standby power.

But the effects of power outage on security of supplies, transport and even public order and crime need to be considered.  The process of planning for outages and continuity of power is part of a more general process of Business Continuity Management, for which there is a British Standard Code of Practice, BS25999.  This Standard covers all the threats to business continuity, but with the risk of power loss to a business and its supply chain and the effects of power loss on staff, customers and the public there may be a need to re-assess the risks and amend the business continuity plan.

OFGEM are hosting a Working Group to develop solutions to network capacity problems using the Low Carbon Networks Fund.  Their recent seminar presented the results of commercial and domestic demonstration projects.  The domestic demand peaks at nearly double the daytime demand between 4pm and 8pm on weekdays.  The early part of this peak coincides with the last hour of the working day so commercial demand is also high.  Various approaches to demand management are being trialled in different areas of the UK including incentives and variable pricing.

There are incentives for customers agreeing to cut their demand when local supply nears capacity.  These are set up locally with different priorities, such as the Thames Valley Vision which utilises Automated Demand Response and Business Consumer Consortia along with energy storage to reduce peak demands and avoid the need for supply network reinforcement.

In summary, the UK electricity supply network is expected to become less reliable and this will affect consumers as soon as 2015.  If consumers don’t do something they are likely to be hit by power cuts more often.  Solutions include planning for power failures, checking the reliability of standby systems, negotiating demand reduction facilities or permanently reducing demand.

BSRIA is keen to work with building operators, manufacturers, network operators, consultants and anyone involved in power continuity management.

How much light do we need?

Olympic ring sunglasses with flashing LED lights

Olympic ring sunglasses with flashing LED lights

As electric lighting developed, recommended light levels were raised. This was due to; in part, increased luminous efficacy of lamps, overall national prosperity and the availability of relatively cheap electricity. However, with the oil crisis in the 1970s energy costs suddenly rose steeply and lighting levels became static and are basically the same today.

More recently, many common visual tasks have been made easier by the introduction of electronic visual displays replacing printing and handwriting and many office occupants are satisfied with lighting levels less than the recommended 500 lux.

In future should lighting levels be based, not simply on visual efficiency, but on requirements of good health? Electric lighting originally supplemented daylight but now we are totally dependent upon it and people are rarely reliant on daylight alone whilst indoors. Deep plan offices and shopping malls are illuminated all the time regardless of the amount of daylight available. Traditional outdoor sports are now played in enclosed stadia and at night. Even our cars have tinted windows to reduce the amount of daylight. Lifestyles today spend less time outdoors. A lunchtime kick-about outdoors in the car park is more likely to be a sandwich at your desk these days.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) was identified in the 1980s and is considered to be because of the lesser amount of daylight during the winter months (for northern hemisphere). Treatments suggested include exposure to 10,000 lux of white light for at least one hour a day, although more recently 300 lux of green light is considered to be equally effective.

I can remember my grandfather suggesting that time should be found to view the distant green hills, and he offered two reasons. To focus at ‘infinity’ relaxed the eye muscles, and green was a restful colour in the middle of the visual spectrum. He was a countryman at heart and I suspect it also gave him a chance to dream.

Introducing more daylight in our lives must be a benefit. We just don’t know how to quantify its value.

Book Review: Death of a lightbulb, John Otten (2012)

Otten, John. (2012) Death of a light bulb. Blue Ocean Publishing. (ISBN 978-1-907527-08-1)

This book examines electric light, not simply as a technological invention but as the creation of a worldwide industry which has transformed the quality of life for millions of people. The humble domestic light bulb has long been an icon for inventiveness and inspiration. It well deserved this recognition when its impact on civilization in the last century is considered. Much has been written about the early struggles to find suitable materials for filaments and machinery capable of creating a high quality vacuum. Electric light was highly desirable and a great improvement over the flickering and odorous alternatives. It directly led to public electricity generation and distribution. It is difficult for those living in the Western World today to imagine life without electricity.

To meet the demand required investment and speculation on an amazing scale together with mass production of the lamps. It is this story about creating industrial empires and the lengths then taken to protect their profits and assets. Competition and co-operation existed side by side with all the weapons of modern business. These included controlling ownership by shareholders, webs of intermediary companies, and legal contests. The application of patents provided protection and the opportunity to control market penetration. Global transport and distribution had not been fully developed so to reach distant markets could mean agreements with companies considered as direct competito rs nearer to home. Cartels could influence supply and retail pricing. Many of these actions would be considered dubious today with calls for greater transparency and level playing fields.

This story has not been documented for many years and John Otten has provided an insight into the complex web of a modern, highly successful industry. His extensive research into areas not always well documented is to be commended and is augmented by his long career within the lamp making industry. Previous work was written around the first half of twentieth century and information regarding the second half of twentieth century makes a valuable addition to lighting history.

The title makes reference to the final twist in the story. Most products follow a conventional life cycle with sales rising to a peak and slowly going into decline. With many modern devices this life cycle can be a very short period of just a few years, but the light bulb appeared to be almost everlasting. It did not fade away but has been virtually executed by European legislation banning its production and sale. This policy has also been accepted by other countries around the world but is not yet universal with the United States, New Zealand and Canada still fighting in some quarters for its survival. This final phase is still being acted out and the full story behind it may not appear for some time but in the meanwhile the life of the lamp making industry is a worthy model to study of how to turn a simple idea into a life changing experience for millions of people.

Are designers keeping up?

BS EN 12464-1, Light and Lighting, Part 1 indoor workplaces, was first published in 2002. It included a schedule of recommended minimum task illuminances for a range of industrial, institutional and commercial applications. These values were similar to those previously in the Society of Light and Lighting Code. Originally the SLL values were ‘general’ illumination for the complete floor area thus enabling equipment and workers to be positioned anywhere in the space. A convenience when electricity was cheap.

However the BS specifically refers to ‘task’ illumination, normally only a small part of the gross floor area. The rest of the room would require less illuminance and thus considerable capital and operating cost savings can be made. But where are the task areas? Often the client has no idea when the lighting design is carried out. The designer then has to revert to ‘general‘ illumination to guarantee adequate lighting of the task. However the client will pay for the over lighting of the ‘non-task’ areas.

This problem of insufficient information is compounded by the changes included in the revision to BS EN 12464-1 last year. Introduced for the first time is the requirement for mean cylindrical illuminance in the space to provide good visual communication and recognition of objects. This should be no less than 50 lux, and for areas where good visual communication is important like offices, meeting and teaching areas not less than 150 lux. Although the concept of cylindrical illumination is not new it has not been widely considered for the routine lighting of workplaces.

How do many existing lighting schemes meet these new requirements? Very few published photographs of interiors include a full complement of ‘workers’ so there is little subjective evidence of how modern lighting affects the appearance of the human face. Accurate measurement could be a problem. Added to this is the same problem outlined above, the lack of occupational information of the space.

The Standard only considers the requirements of ‘workers’ so places where customers or visitors dominate lighting requirement need to be considered separately.

Are Compact Fluorescent Lamps welcome in your home?

Fluorescent lamp technology is certainly not new and when linear lamps became available after the Second World War their advantages were rapidly recognised by both industry and commerce so that by the 1970s fluorescent lighting had become a standard method of interior lighting for most buildings.

It therefore seemed reasonable that Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) introduced in the 1980s would be equally well accepted in the home by domestic consumers. However home users were not immediately impressed by the long-term savings, and were deterred by the high initial costs. Indifferent or poor colour rendering, physical incompatibility, mercury hazards, unfulfilled marketing claims and slow warm up were perceived as disadvantages.

 The arguments for and against CFLs became polarised and European governments decided to tip the scales by “banning” domestic filament lamps. Retailers meanwhile adopted “loss leader” pricing of CFLs and the popular national press reacted with health scares from mercury and ultraviolet radiation. The consequence was consumer confusion. However the argument has shifted with rising energy costs having a significant impact on domestic budgets and technological progress has addressed to some extent the earlier quality issues.

 There is now the opportunity to make a more rational judgement. Most information has been biased one way or the other. However there is now an independent and thorough assessment of CFLs that factually examines many of the issues and is well worth reading:

“An examination into the use of CFLs in the domestic environment”. James Thomas Duff (2011) has been published in the new CIBSE SDAR Journal for September. 

 No single lamp type can solve all lighting problems. The choice should be determined by the particular activities and thus the lighting needs of the occupants, rather than the architecture or design of the dwelling. Many building services operate in part to preserve the fabric and environment whereas lighting is only required when the space is occupied. As soon as it is vacated the lighting can, and should be switched off. Lighting is for the people, and the home is where personal character prevails. The choice is yours but hopefully it can now be based on sound facts rather than scare-mongering or “prohibition”.

Wasted light

Part of the efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings is to set air tightness requirements. At the same time natural ventilation is being considered as a viable option to mechanical air conditioning.

There is a parallel with lighting where the use of daylight has benefits for both energy consumption and occupant well-being. The past age of cheap electricity however encouraged architecture to ignore daylight and to assume electric lighting to be available at all times. This magnanimous use of light continues today, demonstrated by the national press regularly showing large office blocks with all their lights blazing long after the workers have gone home.

This presents two opportunities to save energy. The first is to optimise the use of lighting controls coupled with the education of building users and occupants. If people do not understand the need to switch off when vacating a space then it is likely that any lighting controls installed will change this behaviour.

The second aspect is the amount of now expensively produced electric light that simply goes out the window. After dark this loss could be reduced by blinds provided they are drawn. Perhaps there is a photochromic sensitive glass that becomes opaque and highly reflecting when there is an absence of daylight.

So how about a campaign for “light-tight” buildings? Something to consider for the 2013 edition of Part L?

Richard Forster is a Lighting Expert with over 40 years experience in lighting, both as an engineer and consultant. As a well-respected author and lecturer, his wealth of knowledge is continually used by BSRIA.

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