Monday, July 18, 2016

Could the UK's gas grid be converted to hydrogen?

[NOTE: An earlier version of this piece appeared on 13 July on The Fifth Estate. This version has been updated.]

A new study claims converting the UK gas grid to carry hydrogen instead of natural gas will help to meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets and is technically feasible without much disruption to consumers. It proposes Leeds as a pilot city, but there are still major problems to be overcome before it can go ahead.

The proposal is called the H21 Leeds City Gate and the report has been produced by the North of England’s gas distributor, Northern Gas Networks, which is clearly worried by what could happen to its assets down the line, as the country reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent of 1990 values by 2050, which is the target.

It commissioned Kiwa Gastec, Amec Foster Wheeler, and Wales & West Utilities to assess the prospects for converting the gas network to take hydrogen instead of natural gas for cooking in heating, beginning in Leeds and eventually covering the entire UK.

The study is backed by no less than four other recent reports, all making the case for using the existing gas grid, which serves almost half the UK population, for either biogas or hydrogen or a combination.
A UK-wide conversion of the grid to hydrogen gas could, it’s claimed by H21, reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with domestic heating and cooking – currently over 30 per cent of the UK’s total emissions – by a minimum of 73 per cent, as well as supporting decarbonisation of transport and local electricity generation.

The report argues that a hydrogen gas grid could use the existing underground natural gas pipe network, and that household appliances can be converted to run on hydrogen with far less disruption and expense than converting to renewable energy sources.

Dan Sadler, H21 project manager at Northern Gas Networks, said: “Households won’t be required to buy new appliances. The conversion process will be similar to that carried out in the 1960s and ’70s when 40 million appliances across 14 million households were converted from town gas to natural gas. We’d have special teams, working street by street to make the conversion as smooth as possible for customers with minimal impact in the homes and the highways.”

H21 says the project would be funded the same way as happened during that first conversion. This would allow the costs to be paid back over time and, alongside energy efficiency measures, would have a minimal impact on household energy bills.

Household appliances will, however, need to be upgraded or modified.

Pure hydrogen embrittles many pipeline steels causing cracking and many pipes are made of iron, but they are slowly being changed to polypropylene at a cost of around £1 billion (AU$1.75b) a year. This cost is spread across consumer bills.

NGN is proposing that Leeds, the UK’s third largest city, is used as a prototype test bed, and the conversion would take place from 2026-29. If successful, there would be a rollout across the UK, implemented at the pace required.

The government has cautiously welcomed the report as a contribution to the debate on Britain’s energy future.

John Loughhead, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, said: “Meeting the challenge of the Climate Change Act is a huge technical and business challenge. The H21 Leeds City Gate project has usefully explored one possible contribution to meeting this challenge. DECC, and wider UK government, are looking forward to seeing the full findings of the project in the final report.”

The Leeds proposal has received backing from local authorities and businesses including Leeds City Council, the Leeds City Region LEP and Tees Valley Unlimited LEP.

Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s executive member for environment and sustainability, said: “Transforming Leeds into a hydrogen city would be a bold step. It could play a crucial role in how we heat and power our homes in the future alongside other sustainable energy sources.”

NGN is asking for £70-100 million to take the project to the next stage.

Big hurdles

There are several problems with NGN’s proposal besides replacing the pipes, to do with the energy content of hydrogen, and the process of obtaining it.

NGN is proposing the hydrogen be derived from North Sea natural gas with the carbon dioxide removed and placed securely back under the sea so that it doesn’t contribute to global warming.

But at present there is no proof this can work or will be cost-effective. 

Let’s look at this a little more closely.

Most hydrogen in the lithosphere is bonded to oxygen in water. Over 90 per cent of today’s hydrogen is mainly produced by a process called steam reforming, which uses fossil fuels – natural gas, oil or coal – as a source of the hydrogen. The carbon dioxide is removed and vented to the atmosphere.

Hydrogen produced from gas this way is two to three times the cost of the original fuel.

Of course, the energy content of hydrogen is less than that of the original fuel. The claimed energy efficiency for natural gas reforming is 75 per cent. Furthermore, by weight, a unit of hydrogen contains around three times more energy than natural gas or petrol:

  • Hydrogen: 33.33 kWh/kg
  • Natural gas: (82-93 per cent methane): 10.6-13.1 kWh/kg
  • Petrol: 12.0 kWh/kg
  • Methane: 13.9 kWh/kg
But natural gas is 7.857 times more dense than hydrogen, and we buy it by volume. Since natural gas carries 41.7 per cent less energy per unit of weight, you’d need to pipe to people’s homes just over three times as much volume of uncompressed hydrogen for them to get the same amount of energy, so the pipes will be under greater pressure to compensate.

Then there’s the climate change problem. The global warming potential of producing hydrogen using the steam reforming process is 13.7kg CO2-e per kg of hydrogen produced. Coal gasification, another major production method, delivers even worse emission levels.

A typical steam methane reforming hydrogen plant with a production rate of one million cubic metres of hydrogen a day produces 0.3-0.4 million standard cubic meters of CO2 a day, which is normally vented into the atmosphere.

To fully attain the benefits of using hydrogen, we must therefore either produce it from renewable energy – or capture and store somewhere the carbon dioxide removed during steam reforming – a process called carbon capture and storage. H21 is proposing the latter.

The renewables option

There are at least eight sustainable ways of producing hydrogen. Electrolysis of water is the cheapest but currently is much more expensive, around US$1500/kWh.

A comparison of photoelectrochemical (PEC) and photovoltaic-electrolytic (PV-E) ways of producing hydrogen with low CO2 and CO2-neutral energy sources indicated that base-case PEC hydrogen is not currently cost-competitive with electrolysis using electricity supplied by nuclear power or from fossil-fuels in conjunction with carbon capture and storage.

They are currently an order of magnitude greater in cost than electricity prices with no clear economic advantage to hydrogen storage as of yet.

A number of possibly cheaper technical breakthroughs are in the wings but we don’t yet know if and when they will be commercially viable.

Analysts at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory who have looked into the feasibility of hydrogen, assume that 53kWh are required for an electrolyser to produce a kilogram of hydrogen (remember that’s 33kWh when converted), so we’d need a lot of renewable energy to create all the hydrogen to feed the grid.

It might just be more effective to send the electricity straight there and use it directly for heating and cooking.

The CCS option

The H21 proposal has been welcomed by Scottish Carbon Capture & Storage, a research partnership that includes the British Geological Survey, whose director, Stuart Haszeldine, called steam reforming with carbon capture and storage “the least cost method of generating the large amounts of hydrogen required”.

So he is right. Except that no one knows how much it will cost.

The H21 report points towards the very few existing CCS projects in the US and elsewhere – but these operate under very different conditions.

Ever since CCS was first proposed over 15 years ago, I have been sceptical that it could work. It has always been seen as a get-out-of-jail card to permit business as usual in terms of fossil fuels and energy use while seeming to tackle climate change.

Every single deadline and target to get economically viable demonstration and proof-of-concept projects off the ground has been missed in Europe.

This crucial hurdle needs to be overcome – perhaps by backing a completely different and sustainable route to making the hydrogen, or by using the carbon dioxide removed as a feedstock for fuels, chemistry and polymers.

This is called Carbon Storage and Utilisation (CCU).

CCU for the production of fuels, chemicals and materials has emerged as a possible complementary alternative to CO2 storage, but the report does not mention it. Nor do the two other reports on adapting the gas network produced last week.

"CCS is basically a non-profit technology, where every step is costly. CCU however has the potential to produce value-added products that have a market and can generate a profit." says Dr Lothar Mennicken, German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The report CCU in the Green Economy from The Centre for Low Carbon Futures shows CCU can be profitable with short payback times on investment.

It says: "Although only a partial solution to the CO2 problem, under some conditions using CO2 for CCU rather than storing it underground can add value as well as offsetting some of the CCS costs."

But what are the life-cycle carbon emissions of hydrogen production using SMR plus CCS/CCU?


The latest UK government estimated LCA CO2 emission figures for NG combustion are 184.45 g/kWh plus 24.83 g/kWh emitted by the supply system, totalling 209.28 g/kWh.

But this depends on the gas source: e.g., liquefying natural gas in Qatar, transporting it in refrigerated ships, transporting it in special depots, reclassifying and compressing it into the transmission system can add around another 20 g/kWh, totalling 230 g/kWh.

The carbon footprint of SMR+CCS has been evaluated as 269 g/kWh using the lowest 184.45g/kWh figure above and assuming an efficiency for the process of 68.4%. But applying this to the more accurate lifecycle figure for NG of 230 g/kWh obtains 336.26 g/kWh.

If 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted by combustion is captured by CCS or CCU this still leaves [184.45/0.687] x 0.1 + 20 + 24.83 g/kWh = 71.68g/kWh emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent gases – a not insignificant amount.

H21Leeds puts the figure higher, at 85.83g/kWh. Hardly zero carbon – so H2 generation by renewable energy + electrolysis might be a necessary option in the future.

So, for the time being H21 is an interesting dream – but we must wait to see if it can become a reality.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, July 11, 2016

UK energy and environment sectors face post-Brexit uncertainty

[note: Originally published in The Fifth Estate, on 28.6.16.]

The UK energy market and the prospects for environmental safeguards face an uncertain future following the country’s referendum vote to leave the European Union.

One-fifth of British business leaders said they were considering moving operations abroad after the vote, according to a survey by the Institute of Directors. One in four also planned to freeze recruitment and over a third said it would cause them to cut investment.

Immediately following the announcement of the result, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven commented: “Many of the laws that make our drinking and bathing water safe, our air cleaner, our fishing industry more sustainable and our climate safer now hang by a thread… The climate change-denying wing of the Conservative Party will be strengthened by this vote.”

Jacob Hayler, the executive director of the Environmental Services Association, which represents the UK’s resource and waste management industry, also voiced the opinion that the result would “extend and intensify the uncertainty around both our industry and the UK more generally”.

“The danger now is that the waste and recycling sector is placed at the bottom of the government’s in-tray.”

He promised to “make the case for the circular economy within the UK”.

The effects on investment prospects are likely to be negative for these sectors. Last year the National Grid commissioned research from Vivid Economics on the impact of Brexit on the British energy sector, which concluded that investment costs would increase due to the “uncertainty arising from Brexit negotiations” at a time when the country is “undertaking a historic level of investment in energy infrastructure”.

This view was echoed following the announcement by Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management, who said that energy companies could be most exposed to the effects of a Brexit. Plans for capital intensive projects such as offshore wind and new nuclear power stations are particularly vulnerable.

Although EDF chief executive Jean-Bernard Lévy said the UK’s decision would have no impact on EDF Energy’s strategy to build Hinkley Point C – the first new nuclear power station built in the UK in almost 20 years – this was contradicted by Fiona Reilly, PwC’s global head of nuclear capital projects and infrastructure. She said the decision to leave the EU “could have a significant impact on our nuclear program”, citing “access to capital and investor confidence”, but also the need to “renegotiate our involvement in the Euratom Treaty and our 123 Agreement with the US”.

Jonathan Grant, director of PwC sustainability and climate change, called the result “a major setback for the type of collaboration needed to tackle global environmental issues like climate change”, and said “there is a risk that it could kick EU ratification of the Paris Agreement into the long grass”.

Professor Steve Cowley, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the country’s nuclear research agency, told the BBC that over 1000 clean energy exploration jobs may be lost. Scientific research benefits greatly from EU partnerships and funding. Researchers are afraid, he said, that £55 million (AU$99m) in annual European Commission funding would be withdrawn.

While the decision to leave will not affect the UK’s climate change goals, as they are enshrined in law at a national level under the Climate Change Act 1998, there will still be implications. The UK’s own emissions will have to be deducted from the EU’s, which count together under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement.

The deduction could impair the EU’s perceived performance since, as the UK is a relatively high performer, it helps to counteract the lesser performance of other member states. The UK will also have to submit its own Nationally Determined Contribution to the UNFCCC process, since at present all member states are covered by a single document.

Christiana Figueres, before the vote, had already said that a pro-Brexit result would mean the Paris Agreement “would require recalibration”. Following the vote, Ian Duncan, the only Conservative MEP for Scotland and the British lead MEP on the bill to revise the Emissions Trading System, resigned. In his letter he said: “It is with quite some regret that I take this step. I believe passionately in the need to address climate change.”

Whether the UK will continue to participate in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme is uncertain. European carbon prices fell over 15 per cent following the Brexit vote. If negotiations result in Britain adopting the EEA + EFTA model, then, like Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland, it will do so. Otherwise, arrangements will have to be made to compensate those companies which hold a surplus of emission allowances under the cap and trade scheme.

Also, the country will be free of the targets set by the EU Renewable Energy Directive and the restrictions under EU state aid, which could free the government to curtail renewable energy support regimes, as long as it still kept within the Climate Change Act’s restrictions. Many right-wing politicians would like to see this Act withdrawn, however.

But any subsidies must still comply with the World Trade Organisation’s subsidy regime – which arises from the same principles as EU State aid rules.

It’s unlikely that Brexit will reprieve the death sentence hanging over the UK coal-fired power stations and many older gas plants. The law stipulating that their greenhouse gas emissions are too high to permit them to continue was the EU Industrial Emissions Directive 2010, which passed into national law. The UK Government is anyway proposing (subject to consultation) to close all unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025.

A particular area of concern is the future of Europe’s ambitious plan to liberalise and harmonise its energy market and grids, known as Energy Union. The UK Government has always pushed the European market to be more liberal. Regardless of Brexit, cooperation with the EU internal energy market will still be necessary because of the electricity interconnectors and gas flows between the British Isles and the continent.

So whatever rules the EU opts for in the Energy Union market will have to be complied with by the UK without it having been able to participate in their formulation – unless the UK succeeds in negotiating to remain a member of the bodies that write the rules, such as ACER, ENTSO-E and ENTSO-G.

Karel Beckman, editor-in-chief of Energy Post, commented that policymakers in Brussels should reconsider the Energy Union and opt “for more realistic forms of market integration”.

Energy and the environment hardly figured in the public debates during the referendum campaign. But the vote’s legacy could have a much greater impact on both.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Politicians strive to reassure infrastructure investors following Brexit vote

[note: Originally published on The Fifth Estate, on 5.7.16.]

The outlook for investment in housing, infrastructure and green energy projects in the UK remains uncertain following the referendum decision to leave the European Union, but politicians are now seeking to reassure industry and investors.

Over double the number of industry professionals (60 per cent vs 28 per cent) believe that Brexit will have a negative rather than positive long-term effect on the UK construction industry, with 12 per cent unsure, in an ongoing online poll among those in the UK building industry.

But looking closer, the picture becomes different for different sub-sectors and projects, with infrastructure projects, housing projects and green energy projects each facing differing challenges following the vote.

Infrastructure

The UK has plans for several big infrastructure projects, not least HS2 – a new high-speed rail link from London to the north – and Hinkley C nuclear power station, plus a number of offshore wind farms, Crossrail 2, numerous housing projects and the so-called “northern powerhouse” – a plan to rebalance the economy of Britain by investing in the North of England.

If any projects are to fall by the wayside they are likely to be HS2 and the expansion of Heathrow airport, both of which require substantial amounts of public money. Hinkley is also in serious doubt, but for quite a few additional reasons, not least the precarious nature of energy company EDF’s status and uncertainty about the technology chosen for the reactor.

Also at risk are smaller regeneration infrastructure projects (often road improvements) in England worth in total about £5.3 billion (AU$9.3b), according to the Local Government Association.

In Wales, which, unlike Scotland, London, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, did vote Leave, the future of the £500 million (AU$882m) annual grant Wales receives from the EU is in doubt.

Welsh government’s first minister Carwyn Jones, calling Leave campaigners “clueless”, says major projects are “in difficulty” because of the Brexit vote, and there are “hundreds of vital EU-funded projects right across Wales whose future is now in the balance”. Funding had been allocated to improve main roads and build the South Wales Metro rail link, a project with a £2 billion (AU$3.5b) price tag that would have received £150 million (AU$265m) from the EU.

House building

Housebuilders suffered a big drop in share prices – an average of 18 per cent – following the referendum result, but there has been some recovery since then. Tony Williams, an analyst at Building Value, says he still expects a slowdown in building, but the underlying momentum will still be strong because of the chronic under-supply of homes in the UK. The devaluation of the pound could actually attract foreign buyers to buy bargain property, particularly in London.

As to how sustainable these homes of the future will be, UK Green Building Council policy adviser Richard Twinn pointed to the fact there is nothing in UK legislation saying it has to meet a sustainability target, except for a requirement in the Housing and Planning Act for the secretary of state to “undertake a review” of energy efficiency measures, with no actual action required by UK law.

The UK’s chief energy efficiency policy is derived from the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, which requires all new buildings to be nearly zero-energy buildings from 2021, and may now be scrapped.

Other environmental protections at risk that derive from important European Directives protect birds and natural habitats. Developers have often found these a hindrance, but any attempt to roll back such protection will prompt vociferous opposition from environmentalists.

Green energy

The UK green energy sector last year had a market value of £16b (AU$28b) and employed around 117,000 people, according to the Renewable Energy Association. So far, no projects have been cancelled, and the sector is cautiously optimistic.

Marianne Wiinholt, chief financial officer for Denmark’s Dong Energy, which is building some of the UK’s largest offshore wind farms, says the UK’s energy policy is based on the need to replace old coal-fired power stations. She says any subsidies the UK government disburses to assist the construction of offshore wind farms are enshrined in private contracts “and will thus not be affected by the outcome of the EU vote”.

Many turbine blades for North Sea wind farms are made in Hull, on the north-east coast of England. These factories are not currently under threat, at least in the short term, says factory owner Siemens. Most of these big companies have hedging plans in place to cosset them from currency fluctuations.

Terri Wills, chief executive of the World Green Building Council, says that because the economic and environmental case for tackling climate change has in many ways already been won amongst policymakers, Brexit will make little difference.

“There is a sense that the green agenda is good for business, good for retaining amazing staff, good for us being strong corporate citizens looking to the long term and good for making sure corporations are resilient. So there is a business case for this. I think the market just wants to see that the government recognises that.”

The government has gone some way towards providing this recognition by last week adopting the 2050 emissions reduction target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change and agreeing with its damning report on its own progress, showing that it continues to be committed to the UK’s Climate Change Act and remain a leader on climate action.

Confidence building

Politicians have, in the last few days, been taking other steps to rebuild confidence in British investment plans.

Government infrastructure commissioner Sadie Morgan attempted to calm fears by saying she has “every confidence” projects will go ahead – because infrastructure spending is critical to lifting the country out of the Brexit crisis.

“As far as the [National Infrastructure Commission] is concerned, it’s business as usual,” she told a House of Commons reception for the construction industry.

“If anything is going to get us out of this hole it’s infrastructure.”

MP Conor McGinn, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Construction and Urban Development, told those at the gathering that the country was entering “really challenging and unprecedented times” so it was crucial for the government to “work in partnership” with construction firms to overcome the challenges.

Chancellor George Osborne on Monday set out a five-point plan that includes a proposal to set the level of corporation tax at under 15 per cent – the lowest of any major economy – to stimulate investment including in the north of England. The decision to leave the EU potentially threatens the UK’s relationship with China, which Osborne had been at pains to build in order to attract inward investment. Osborne has said he will reassure China and other countries that Britain is still open for business.

He will be encouraged by a bounce back in the value of the top British shares index on Monday, led by mining stocks, and with the blue-chip FTSE 100 index at its highest level since August 2015, following a slump after the referendum result. The Sterling’s weakness since then has, reports investing.com, provided a cushion to the FTSE 100, “since many of the index’s international companies can benefit from a weaker pound which would help exports”.

Finally, one of the contenders for the leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Crabb, has proposed a £100bn “Growing Britain Fund”. This would use government borrowing to fund infrastructure investment and invest in projects such as flood defences, a national fibre-optic broadband network, Crossrail 2, social housing, school buildings and new prisons.

European reaction

Further afield, the inward looking referendum result has jolted confidence around the world in the values formerly associated with not only Britain but the whole of the EU: pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity, equality and a commitment to sustainable development and poverty eradication globally.

EU leaders who gathered in Brussels for a crisis summit last week were almost unanimous in their opinions about how the EU needs to change as a result. There can no longer be ‘business as usual”, they said. “Europe needs change.”

“Nothing would be worse than the status quo.”

But there has been no sign yet of these feelings being translated into action. The first post-Brexit vote decision made in Brussels was to bow to corporate lobbying and extend the licence of the controversial toxic herbicide glyphosate for another 18 months. This “shows the executive is failing to learn the clear lesson that the EU needs to finally start listening to its citizens again,” said Bart Staes, a Belgian Green MEP.

This was a view even felt by the Commission itself, and is a result of the complex, often remote and unaccountable way in which decisions can be made at the European level.

Until this changes, the public in many other member countries will continue to demand their own referendum, like Britain’s, putting the European project, which has brought peace, stability and prosperity to the continent for the last 50 years, under threat.

All in all, it seems that investors are going to have to live with uncertainty for some time to come.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, May 30, 2016

EU campaign to improve building efficiency faces uphill battle

Green member of the Linz municipal government in Austria Eva Schobesberger says accounting rules on energy efficiency investment need to change.

Green member of the Linz municipal government in Austria Eva Schobesberger says accounting rules on energy efficiency investment need to change.

Last month saw the launch of the Investor Confidence Project Europe, ironically the brainchild of an American NGO, the Environmental Defense Fund. Its purpose is to help connect real estate developers who need private investment with quality-guaranteed energy efficiency projects that deliver both financial and environmental results.

One of the founder members of the group is Deutsche Bank’s European Energy Efficiency Fund. The launch was welcomed by Lada Strelnikova, director Deutsche asset management and investment manager for the EEEF, who said, “As an alternative, innovative financing instrument for energy efficiency projects in the public sector, we, in Europe, believe standardised energy upgrade approaches can accelerate project progress and facilitate a more structured project development approach to get access to financing.”

ICP’s Investor Ready Energy Efficiency certified projects are accredited against industry standards and best practices, which is intended to reduce transaction costs and to increase confidence in savings to help engage private capital and scale up energy efficiency investments globally.

“The potential market for building retrofits in Europe is upwards of €100 billion [AU$155.66b] a year, presenting a massive, untapped investment opportunity,” ICP Europe’s director Panama Bartholomy said.

“It offers investors a common language to compare risks and savings makes projects simpler, decisions easier, and project performance more reliable. We invite cities, building owners and local governments to help develop these types of projects and meet our investor network to help finance them.”

Red tape barrier

But there may not be a queue of people rushing to beat on their door, at least from the public sector. One reason amongst many is a clause in European Commission accounting rules defining how the costs of retrofitting public buildings for energy efficiency are accounted for on the balance sheets of governments and local authorities.

These “Eurostat” rules currently classify such investments by default as government expenditure, despite the fact that projects are frequently being financed wholly or in part by the private sector – who also take the risk. The direct consequence is that such investments are counted towards public sector debt.

The rules are being questioned by Climate Alliance, a group that has over 1700 members from municipalities throughout Europe, and which stands for “a holistic approach to climate protection”.

It is criticising these rules as “a major disincentive to act because the investment appears on the government’s balance sheet”.

“In many European countries, the focus is on reducing public sector debt, so anything which appears to increase it, even though it does not in reality, is not going to happen,” Green member of the Linz municipal government in Austria Eva Schobesberger said.

Schobesberger is the city’s councillor for women, environment, nature conservation and education, and was top candidate of the Linz Greens for the municipal elections in 2015 and the first Green mayor candidate.

“We need to look again at whether the accounting rules are fit for purpose and deliver progress on the Stability Pact objectives, such as halting unnecessary public spending. Energy efficiency projects in our building stock are just about that,” she said.

The Eurostat Guidance Note for public authorities on the impact of energy performance contracts on government accounts was issued 7 August 2015 and says:

“As a practical rule, given the high likelihood that capital expenditure incurred in the context of EPCs would have to be recorded in government accounts anyway, Eurostat considers that all capital expenditure within EPCs should be treated, by default, as government expenditure through gross fixed capital information (or as intermediate consumption in the case of simple service procurement, as described above).”

The guidance does allow for the occasional exception:

“Whenever for some individual sizeable contract there would be a presumption that it could satisfy all conditions for being a PPP and at the same time be recorded off-government balance sheet, an analysis might be conducted by the National Statistical Institute of the country involved, in co-operation with Eurostat.”

A spokesman said the rules were under consideration for review, but this could take a very long time.

But how accurate are EPCs anyway?

There is also the question of how useful Energy Performance Certificates are. The latest statistics for the UK (and it should be noted that for public buildings Display Energy Certificates are used, which show the actual energy consumption of a building and are accompanied by reports which provide recommendations on potential energy saving measures similar to EPCs) show that 258,960 EPCs have been issued since the scheme began in 2008.

Only eight per cent of these buildings have a rating of A or B. Fifty-nine per cent are in the C and D bracket with the remaining in the E,F and G bracket. Seventy per cent of Display Energy Certificates and 66 per cent of Non-Domestic Energy Performance Certificated lodged across London have a rating of D or below. There is clearly much room for improvement.

Research has also shown that EPCs may not accurately reflect the actual energy use of buildings.

For example, research published by the Royal Institution of Charter Surveyors in 2012 suggested that “… in low labelled dwellings the energy use is less than expected, in the high labelled dwellings the energy use is somewhat higher than expected”.

Another 2012 report by Jones Lang LaSalle and the Better Buildings Partnership, based on a study of over 200 buildings, found that “…EPCs alone are not sufficient in delivering the Government’s decarbonisation targets nor are they capable of accurately portraying a building’s true energy efficiency”.

The British Association of Energy Conscious Builders, whose members are passionate about building energy efficiency, responded to a recent government consultation on EPCs by urging the government “to look not just at EPC ratings but also at the installed performance of efficiency improvements”.

It believes that just as there are warranties for boiler installations, so should there be for “the design, specification and installation of the full range of other energy efficiency interventions”. It cites as an example how the detailing of a solid wall insulation installation can affect the final heat loss through the walls by as much as 30 per cent.

This of course is all the more an argument for ICP’s protocols, which do just that in order to boost confidence in the final results. It is a reason not to rely on EPCs alone. But unless Eurostat rules are changed, the owners of public buildings are going to have to mount some pretty fierce financial arguments to make the case for much-needed energy efficient retrofits. Either that, or avoid reference to EPCs altogether.
David Thorpe is the author of:

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Western China makes steps to sustainable building

Green architecture, Chongqing, China

Chongqing Taoyuanju Community Center by Vector Architects

China is increasing its efforts to make its buildings more sustainable with a new four-year program that kicked off following a two-day conference earlier this month in Chongqing.

The conference brought together more than 250 participants from national and local governments, Chinese enterprises and associations from all provinces in Western China as well as related German organisations.

Building energy consumption in China has increased by 40 per cent since 1990 and accounts for about 30 per cent of total final energy consumption. Although in recent years there has been a significant growth in green buildings in China, the development is still at an early stage in western China.

In this part of the world, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) play a vital role in building sector but their staff often lack knowledge and skills in the field of sustainable building and have a limited access to financing.

The SusBuild project aims to foster sustainable building practices among these small companies in Chongqing City and Yunnan province. It is funded by a European Union project called Switch Asia II. This is concerned with capacity building, providing technical support and raising awareness of large-scale commercial buildings, strengthening the capacity of financial institutions for providing green loans to these kind of companies, and promoting the idea of a sustainable building sector to decision-makers at national and local levels.

For Europe there is the added benefit of fostering a business network locally and between the EU and China.

The conference addressed three topics: sustainable building materials and components, sustainable building design and construction, and energy management in buildings.

Lena Tholen and Christopher Moore from the influential German Wuppertal Institut, which initiated the project, shared European experiences of energy management in sustainable buildings, giving a policy perspective, and the design and construction of sustainable buildings.

Participants visited pilot project buildings and an industry park aiming at developing modern building industry clusters in Chongqin Quijiang District.

Amongst the buildings that the delegates saw were the green roofs of the Chongqing Taoyuanju Community Center, designed by Beijing-based Vector Architects. This is blanketed with plants, from vine-covered walls to the undulating green roof that mimics the shape of the surrounding hillside. The design includes a rainwater collection and reuse system, passive ventilation, permeable pavement, and locally sourced materials.

Chongqing Taoyuanju Community Center by Vector Architects

One building in the complex has earned LEED Gold certification. Xizi Otis Chongqing Plant won the award for its sustainable construction, reduced water use, energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality, among other measures. It also recycled 90 per cent of the waste generated during its construction phase, which used locally sourced materials to reduce its carbon footprint. It utilises an ongoing operations management process to minimise environmental impact.

The factory manufactures an elevator design that is a favourite of green buildings. The Gen2 elevator reduces energy consumption by up to 75 per cent compared with traditional elevators by using a regenerative drive, LED lighting and sleep mode for elevator lights and fans.

Also in the area is a regeneration project for a 22-hectare former iron and steelworks dating back to the 1930s in the Dadukou district that is designed to make it economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. The former gasometer is now a business hotel for an area that has a mixed economy with compact planning to ensure good connectivity; and sustainable forms of transport – buses, trams and pedestrian route.


'Magic Mountains'.

In this district the authorities recently held a contest to design a new green business district. One entry, from the CEBO/Chongqing University team, was for a development populated with buildings that resemble prismatic mountain peaks called Magic Mountains.

The tops of the buildings have plants growing out of them and the design includes passive cooling and heating, a plan that encourages biking and walking, and measures to reduce the overall consumption of resources and energy by 22 per cent.

The university hosts a low carbon green building international joint research centre which this entry was intended to showcase.

SWITCH Asia II will continue until the end of 2019.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It's 30 years since Chernobyl. Let's have a party!

It's 30 years since the world's worst nuclear accident. Something worth celebrating? Only if you have the darkest sense of humour.

But that is precisely what Doc Chaos has.

With such a dire subject – an accident that was the product of farcical behaviour within a maniacal industry – gallows humour is a perfectly legitimate response.

That's what I thought at the time and I still do. My response was to write my satirical novella: Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect. Published by Hooligan Press in 1988 and illustrated by the finest of comics artists at the time, it was a great success in the independent publishing world.

Front cover
Back cover


I donated the proceeds to the World Information Service on Energy, which campaigned then, and still does now, against nuclear power. They provided an afterword to that edition.

Four years ago the story was published in a new e-book edition together with a new Doc Chaos short story, The Last Laugh.



I continue to campaign against nuclear power and was recently invited to join the Nuclear Consulting Group.

One of its members has published an article to coincide with today's anniversary, assessing the death toll of the accident, in which he reaches the not very surprising conclusion: "[Chernobyl] raises the vexed question of trust in governments and international agencies, which, for many people, does not exist or has been eroded after Chernobyl and Fukushima."

No kidding.

Who is Doc Chaos? He's the radioactive peddler. As he says in The Last Laugh:

"The first time around, I gave them the promise of cheap energy and a Cold War that must have saved millions of lives. The second time, I gave them low carbon energy, and prolonged their illusions by a couple of decades. I play the long game. Don't worry I'll be back."

How can you trust them when they are so gullible to the peddlers of nuclear technology like EDF, who promise the world and either fail to deliver or spike your drink with caesium. Then try to pretend that everything is fine.

Later, the good doctor muses:
"I am the smiling conman, the artful bodger, the devil spawn of Prometheus, the quantum Quixote, the quixotic salesman with the quack cure, the fast-talking, fusion-pushing fantassin of plenty, peddling the fantasy of foison forever. And they bought it.
"'Do you remember,' I reminisce wistfully, 'How I persuaded them that despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and terrorists running around with truckloads of depleted uranium, that I could save them from global warming?'
We share a gentle chuckle as the shadows lengthen.
'Those were the best of days... Feted at high level conferences, brokering billion-dollar deals, shafting the anti-nuclear do-gooders, sweet-talking the politicians.'"
The last laugh – you've got to have it.

You can buy Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect here

Monday, April 25, 2016

An off-site pre-fab approach to Passivhaus 'deep retrofit'


A new approach to retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency to a high standard has been deemed so successful that a British company is opening a new factory for offsite fabrication of a retrofit system that will be then taken on to the site for installation.

These kits involve a wrap-around solution for an existing building that also includes ventilation to ensure good air quality and, because it uses off-site construction, the upgrade process can take as little as three weeks and means that the occupants do not have to move out during the upgrade.

The company, Beattie Passive Retrofit, has secured patents in 57 countries for its innovative solution, which is called TCosy and been developed with funding from Innovate UK, that channels public financial support to private sector R&D to foster low carbon innovation.


The company’s approach, founded on the stringent and verifiable Passivhaus energy performance standard, also involves using locally-trained labour. Passivhaus standard is hard to achieve because it demands that the contractors achieve a high level of airtightness. However, due to the simple system and factory construction much of the uncertainty is taken out of achieving this. The standard can attain an 85% reduction, or £1000 per year, in heating fuel costs for the average house.

Residents of 6 flats in a 3-storey, apartment block owned by Solihull Community Council near Birmingham, England are amongst the first to benefit from the system, following a three-year collaborative R&D project between Encraft, a low-carbon buildings engineering consultancy, Coventry University and a local social enterprise called Jericho Foundation who trained people facing significant personal or occupational barriers to build the system.

Beattie's CEO Ron Beattie, who founded the company in 2008, said: "We have designed the retrofit process to be as simple and efficient for all parties involved. Having tested the processes we've proved we can deliver energy savings over the life of a building."

Ron Beattie provides an overview of the innovative Beattie Passive Build System and Retrofit System - The TCosy – filmed at the 2015 Passivhaus conference.

Gareth Cavill, Beattie Passive's lead architect, said that "the process begins by producing the architectural drawings in house. The information goes to the factory where the frames  are manufactured and then taken to the site where they are erected. We source the windows and doors from one of our supply partners in Europe due to their advanced quality and cost advantages."

He added that the insulation used within the timber frames consists of expanded polystyrene eco-beads.



Isabel Beattie, Head of Strategy and Development stated that "The estimated price for a retrofit is £550 per square meter of floor area including the frame, windows and doors," she said. "This makes a three-bedroom detached house retrofit typically cost £45,000. Our clients are expected to be social housing providers, developers and self builders."

The approach is similar to that offered by the Investor Confidence Project, in providing a guaranteed rate of return and financial package to investors, the key being the simplicity and certainty guaranteed to the investor and to the housing provider of the whole offer.


Ron Beattie believes this approach will solve a key problem facing what is called 'deep retrofit' agendas – financing their comparatively large upfront cost. "Once we can guarantee energy savings, we believe that pension funds and other long-term investors will be prepared to lend over 30 years, with a return after that. And we will have pulled people out of fuel poverty," he said.

"We showed estate agents in Birmingham what we’re doing and their studies suggest a £65,000 uplift in value on a £120,000 property, because you are putting a new building over the top of the old one. If redecorated, with a new kitchen and bathroom, you’re looking at a completely new house." This raises the possibility of generating a profit from deep retrofitting.

Isabel observed that they were already talking to some pension companies about investing in retrofits for future roll-out at scale. "We estimate that savings generated by the retrofit of on average 85% of heating requirements would help pay back the investment within 30 years. With this type of programme the tenants generally pay one fee that includes rent and energy, and it is from this income that the housing provider would pay back the investor. The fee would be reduced slightly for the tenant compared to the non-retrofitted rent, and they will also have warmer, healthier home."

Solihull homes before cladding.
"We have new sales staff and an architect. Work is coming in and growth is going to be very fast," added Ron optimistically. "We are due to start manufacturing in the factory soon and we’ve got seven or eight homes booked in, ready to go. They range from private client, multi-million pound houses to standard affordable homes for Hertfordshire Council – different ends of the market, but the same process."

To fill the demand the company will soon open a factory on the Scottow Enterprise Park, formerly RAF Coltishall. With 57 patents secured abroad, it is clearly confident that expansion on a large scale is possible one small proofs of concept are installed. With 20 million homes in the UK alone needing a low-energy retrofit, the market is clearly huge.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, April 18, 2016

Leeds' plan to be the world's first hydrogen city

Leeds hydrogen city plan involves building “steam methane reformer” plants around the city to remove the carbon from methane in the national gas grid.
The 'hydrogen city' plan involves building “steam methane reformer” plants around the city to remove the carbon from methane in the national gas grid.

A £55 million pilot project to convert the natural gas network in the city of Leeds to take hydrogen gas is being proposed by the city's gas network provider. The 'hydrogen city' proposal is a leading example of how some cities and energy supply companies are considering ways to decarbonise heating and cooking in the future and become less dependent on fossil fuels. Hydrogen produces only water and heat when burnt and, if made using renewable fuels, is zero carbon.

Northern Gas Networks is responsible for maintaining the gas grid infrastructure for 2.7 million homes in the north of England. In this area, 85% of buildings use gas for heating space and water and for cooking. The company sees the conversion of this network to take hydrogen as affordable and possible on an incremental scale. It also sees potential for using the hydrogen for a vehicle refuelling network and for heating, possibly using micro-CHP, as part of the UK Government's 'Northern Powerhouse' project.

The plan to make Leeds a “hydrogen city” would eventually cost about £2 billion and involve converting all domestic gas boilers and cookers to run on hydrogen. Northern Gas Networks (NGN) has already received £300,000 funding from energy regulator Ofgem to develop the idea.

How much it will cost per year in billions of pounds Sterling in 2010 value to convert and install natural gas and hydrogen residential heat technologies to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions in 2050.

How much it will cost per year in billions of pounds Sterling in 2010 value to convert and install natural gas and hydrogen residential heat technologies to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions in 2050. Each point represents the average annual investment over a 5-year period.  Source

A report commissioned by NGN from KPMG consultants says that what's called the H21 Leeds city Gate hydrogen project would position natural gas as more than a 'transitional fuel' on the UK's pathway to a low carbon economy. Desktop modelling has shown that the current gas network in the UK and particular in Leeds is large enough to convert hydrogen, and that because of its unique positioning, Leeds should be the first city to convert.

“Households in Leeds could potentially cook and heat their homes using pure hydrogen within 10 – 15 years,” a spokesman for NGN said. The city would then become a centre of excellence for the hydrogen economy, it is thought.

The project is now looking to secure £55 million to develop a roadmap to hydrogen consisting of evidence that would back up the project's viability. The work is seen as split into 16 work packages, covering over 50 projects. Part of this work will be to determine an overall strategy for UK wide conversion over time.

Conversion would be a major infrastructural transformation, and many hydrogen compatible appliances and burners would need to be installed or converted, and a workforce trained to undertake the process. Hydrogen and electricity would become the dominant heating fuels by 2050.

The gas grid


The UK benefits from an extensive natural gas pipeline network that supplies 84% of homes. Worldwide, natural gas supplies around 20% of residential heat, primarily in OECD countries.

Many of the old (local) low-pressure distribution iron pipes are having to be replaced by polyethylene, and by 2030 this will be complete and they will be able to take hydrogen.

The (national) high-pressure gas distribution pipes on the other hand are made of steel, which is unsuitable to transport hydrogen, so a separate network for taking the hydrogen would have to be constructed. This has happened before, when the network was converted from town gas to natural gas over a 10-year period, so it is known to be feasible.

Using hydrogen in the network is just one idea for its future, rather than decommission it completely, after the use of natural gas has to be abandoned to meet the constraints of climate change. Other possible uses are to carry bio-methane from the anaerobic digestion of organic waste, and hydrogen injection.

A 2013 academic study on the future of the UK gas network determined that from a cost point of view, hydrogen conversion was the cheapest option, and recommended that the government adopted a long-term strategy to do so. It concluded that renewable methane from anaerobic digestion could probably only ever meet around ten per cent of total gas demand due to the limited availability of the waste organic matter (food and agricultural waste).
 The range of heat appliances in homes in 2050 necessary to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions.

The range of heat appliances in homes in 2050 necessary to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions. Source

One of the drivers for the project is the UK's 2008 Climate Change Act, which requires the government to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 by 80% relative to 1990 levels.

A major stumbling block for this strategy is the problem of carbon capture and storage. If the hydrogen is produced by reforming methane, which is composed of carbon and hydrogen, the hydrogen would be pumped into the gas grid, but the carbon would need to be stored underground to prevent it entering the atmosphere. The likeliest place for storing it is back underneath the North Sea, where the gas came from in the first place.

However, last year the government scrapped a £1 billion carbon capture and storage pilot project that would test out this idea, so no one yet knows whether this will work.

The use of hydrogen in the gas grid does have the backing of the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers, which has already said it will help in developing standards for the construction and testing of hydrogen gas distribution systems and safety.

The role of hydrogen in decarbonising buildings

A study published two years ago criticised governments for not considering the role hydrogen could play in decarbonising buildings and heating. It concluded that fuel cells can especially offer wider energy system benefits for high-latitude countries because of their peak electricity demands in winter; but the same could be true in low latitude countries which have a high electricity demand for air conditioning.

The study argues that gas networks could prove difficult to displace with alternatives, particularly because consumers who have them like their gas boilers, which they perceive as safe, cheap, effective and easy to control, so why not adapt the existing markets and infrastructure for gaseous heating fuels and convert these to use hydrogen?

Both of the above academic studies are co-authored by Paul E. Dodds of University College London, an expert in energy economics. But the UK government also appears to be backing the idea, building on a 2012 strategy paper on The Future of Heating: A strategic framework for low carbon heat in the UK.

This paper argues that although constructing a high-pressure national grid for delivering hydrogen to households could be very costly, as intercity pipes would need to resist high-pressure hydrogen and corrosion, low-pressure local grids may be a more viable solution. This will potentially enable them to be connected to other local means of supplying the gas, for example by the electrolytic splitting of water using renewable electricity when more of it is being generated than is required at the time, such as by wind power at night.

A follow-up 2014 White Paper from the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell (H2FC) SUPERGEN Hub examined the roles and potential benefits of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies for heat provision in future low-carbon energy systems. It agreed with the idea and proposed that in the shorter term small amounts of hydrogen be injected into the gas networks to reduce the emissions intensity of grid gas.

It also criticised government policies on renewable heat for marginalising hydrogen and fuel cells.

This approach, together with the use of fuel cell micro-CHP, would reduce the need to depend on heat pumps as the main solution for decarbonising heating. Heat pumps have recently been criticised because they either require a lot of space or, in the case of air course heat pumps, are too noisy.

The options for micro-CHP

Micro-CHP (combined heat and power) is a boiler that not only heats a building but also generates electricity. It's around the size of a small fridge or washing machine.  Like their big brother, conventional CHP, it uses the gas more efficiently, making the boiler 90% efficient.

The current crop of models are based on the Stirling engine, Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) or internal combustion engine.  The first two have high thermal efficiency and output but low electrical efficiency (10%), and this is a sticking point. 

The cumulative number of fuel cell micro-CHP systems deployed in three major regions, showing historic growth (solid lines) and near-term projections (dotted lines).

The cumulative number of fuel cell micro-CHP systems deployed in three major regions, showing historic growth (solid lines) and near-term projections (dotted lines). Source.

A 2011 trial by the UK’s Carbon Trust concluded that micro-CHP can cut electricity bills and overall CO2 emissions by 15–20% when they’re the lead boiler in larger contexts like care homes, district schemes, apartment blocks and leisure centres.  The best application for them therefore is a medium-to-large, moderately well-insulated building, perhaps with solid walls, solid floors and no loft space, that is hard to insulate well and has a relatively large heat demand; or a cluster of buildings.

Micro-CHP offers more limited benefits for smaller and newer dwellings, however, because they are more energy-efficient or have too little requirement for heat.

The key to success in micro-CHP is matching the thermal output to the building’s pattern of use, so that they operate not intermittently but for many hours at a time, making the value of electricity generated pay for the marginal investment as quickly as possible. It therefore works best with a buffer storage tank to save the surplus heat for later. Grid connection for electricity export is crucial to micro-CHP’s widespread acceptance.

On average, half of all electricity generated by a typical 1kWe micro-CHP device is exported to the grid, as it’s not needed at the time. Reliability is also a key issue; service agreements will be essential. 

Superinsulated homes will have to wait until the next generation of machines, based on fuel cells. These generally come in two types – proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). They have a heat to power ratio that is approximately equal, so for example they could produce 5kW of heat and 5kW of electricity.

CO2 savings from fuel cells are therefore country- and site-specific, depending on the carbon intensity of grid electricity and on the heating system that is displaced.

At five times the installation cost of residential gas boilers (around £12,000 for 1 kW residential systems, but costs are falling 10–15% per year), they're not cheap but are beginning to compete with other low-carbon heating technologies and their running costs are lower, even without public policy support.

Hydrogen in the home

 The range of heat appliances in homes in 2050 necessary to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions, with and without hydrogen conversion.

The range of heat appliances in homes in 2050 necessary to achieve an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions, with and without hydrogen conversion. Source

By contrast, could we live with hydrogen? The physical properties of hydrogen differ from natural gas, so switching to hydrogen would require changes not only to the gas network but to heating and cooking appliances.

Gas appliances designed for natural gas cannot generally be used directly with hydrogen, mainly because the combustion velocity or flame speed is higher for hydrogen than for natural gas. Conversion would mean replacing the burner heads. Hydrogen also spontaneously ignites much more quickly than natural gas, which will necessitate modifications to spark-ignition gas engines and gas turbines to avoid flashback and knocking.

Hydrogen has a lower calorific value than natural gas per unit of volume, so a greater volume of gas must be burned for the same heat level. But this is made up for by the fact that the gas flows quicker under the same pressure due to its lighter molecules. Hydrogen is also invisible and odourless, so would need odorants to be added to it to enable detection for safety reasons.

However, because hydrogen can be burnt directly in a combi-boiler it requires no additional space in the home. Hydrogen boilers are also much cheaper than heat pumps. They could therefore provide zero-carbon heat without much disruption to living patterns, while being affordable.

Hydrogen may also be used for district heating. Boilers designed specifically for hydrogen are under development.

Gas heat pumps may also be converted to hydrogen. These are already commercially available in some countries for household or commercial use, and have much higher efficiencies than gas boilers.

The road to a hydrogen city is clearly a long one that is not without difficulties. However, Northern Gas Networks is one gas network operator that is not going to give up the value of its assets easily and is determined to explore the options.

Leeds, a pioneer city of the first industrial revolution, could yet become a pioneer of the post-carbon revolution.

David Thorpe is the author of: