Monday, July 24, 2017

Andernach, where the council employs people to grow food in public places

Plans for “sustainable cities” often miss out a key element of human habitation, food, which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. But there is an increasing number of urban projects globally, run by volunteers and sometimes such as in Germany, funded by local government, that are helping to rectify this problem.

A version of this piece was published on The Fifth Estate on 18 July 2017

According to Gunhild Stordalen, an amazing woman from the EAT Forum in Sweden, food is the main issue around which coalesces all the other threats: climate change (food growing alone is responsible for 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions), poor health, social inequality, soil loss, and biodiversity loss.

“Food is the biggest driver of climate change,” she said at a conference I attended recently. “As two billion more people will be added to the planet this century and more people become affluent, more will eat meat and there is no scientific consensus on solving these interconnected problems. We need action to change this and to end the disconnect between consumption and production”.

Public vegetable planting session in Andernach.
Public planting session in Andernach.
Perhaps the most successful, concerted urban attempt to do this is in the historic town of Andernach, which nestles on the banks of the Rhine in western Germany. Ever since 2008 it has been providing garden space in its parks and other council-owned greenspace for the growing of food and keeping of farm animals, and been an inspiration for hundreds of other towns.

Integrated design includes food growing

It was started by geoecologist Lutz Kosack, who works in the city planning office on urban land conservation measures, and the horticulture engineer Heike Boomgaarden, who developed what Kosack calls a “sustainable building kit system for municipal green space planning, whereby ecological, economic and social aspects were integrated into an overall concept”.

The sign reads Picking allowed, not entering forbidden!
The sign reads 'Picking allowed, not entering forbidden!'.
Agriculture was transplanted literally into urban green space to make healthy food produce accessible to everyone, harvested by the citizens, free of charge. Fruit and vegetable beds were planted around the castle ruins in the centre of town, with the motto: “‘picking allowed” instead of ‘entering forbidden'”.


Plan of Andernach vegetable planting
This plan gives an idea of what has been planted where.

Andernach permaculture site from the air.
The permaculture site from the air.
Meeting with great success, the idea subsequently expanded into a 14-hectare periurban permaculture facility and a wide range of activities, to make public green spaces more creative and to promote urban biodiversity despite “a difficult budgetary situation”.

Huge spin-off benefits

There are many spin-off benefits: the green spaces and projects create meeting places, people are healthier and brownfields are transformed into bee pastures. The long-term unemployed are supported to take part, to gain skills and qualifications. The permaculture holding offers employment, including to refugees, generates revenues from sales of meat, and creates a market for regional products.

…and local government pays salaries to make it work

It was not a grassroots initiative, but the project of a far-sighted city administration, which pays the salaries of those involved and makes the land available. In 2012, Kozack, Boomgaarden and Andreas Görner founded the company “Esslich – Büro für urbane Pflanzkultur”. They have all gone on to spread the concept throughout Germany.

The city’s genetic diversity is extended every year with selected vegetable varieties. Kozack says: “We preferably work with regional plants. Our native flora is much more valuable to wild animals than imported and highly cultivated species, because they have developed over thousands of years and are optimally adapted to each other, as well as adapted to our climate and our soils. Combined with an organic soil improvement and homeopathic plant protection is a solid foundation laid.

“We want to make people experience sustainability that does not mean renunciation but wealth, beauty and harmony”

“We have now professionalised this concept of regionality with the “1 square mile homeland” (2.59 sq km) concept. We want to make people experience sustainability that does not mean renunciation but wealth, beauty and harmony.”

The project has won several awards. The chairman of DUH (one of the award-givers, the German Environmental Help Foundation), Prof. Harald Kächele, observed: “Urban gardening is currently in great demand in many cities in Germany. But the concept of Andernach is unique. Because it addresses all the city residents and beckons them on each walk past the beds to sow and harvest themselves, and thereby change the cityscape in a positive way. ”

Livestock, such as rare breeds of chicken, sheep and pigs are also kept. In 2013, the then mayor, Achim Hütten, said, “We encourage our citizens to enter the flower beds, monitor the growth of green cabbage and so on, and finally harvest and taste them. This is very popular with the residents”.

A city for all, a citizen’s garden

It is a city garden for all citizens, a real citizen’s garden.

Andernach has now become a centre where other cities have come to learn how to do the same thing. As many as 90 other cities in Germany have taken up the idea. For example, Minden, in the springtime, all citizens are invited to a weekend where they plant seeds and seedlings in public places.



In Seattle, they’re also transforming public space into edible gardens


The concept is spreading in the USA too. In the city of Seattle the Beacon Food Forest is intended to transform a public area into an edible permaculture forest. Around 2100 sq m of land has been planted with hundreds of fruit trees, berry bushes, vegetables and herbs, which can be harvested by walkers and residents. The area includes playgrounds, lawns and community gardens for residents’ use.

The origin of all of these projects, Kosach and Boomgaarden acknowledge, can in some way be traced back to a small town in Yorkshire in the north of England.

It probably all started in Yorkshire

Incredible Edible Todmorden has been running since 2007 and inspired a great many copycat projects in towns all over the UK and beyond. These are pretty much all, unlike Andernach, grassroots-initiated, though many have secured the cooperation of the local authority.

The Todmorden project was the brainchild of Pamela Warhurst, Mary Clear and a group of like minded people, who, as they describe in the recent film about the Transition movement, Demain (Tomorrow), just wanted to plant some fruit and veg in vacant spaces in their town. Their idea has fertilised minds far beyond what they could ever have expected at the time. “Our motto was, just do it!” says Pamela in the film.



Preparing a bed for planting outside the health centre in Todmorden.

The Incredible Edible Network lists as members over 100 groups across the UK and many others in Australia, Canada, France and the USA. Its website contains a starter kit and helpful videos for anyone wanting to begin a group in their own area.

Urban gardens can be more productive

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, garden plots can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings with just one square metre capable of providing 20 kilograms of food a year. The food footprint is correspondingly much smaller than imported food. Urban agriculture can generate one job every 100 sq m in production, input supply, marketing and value-addition from producer to consumer.

For all the above reasons, urban growing deserves to be much higher up the agenda of town and city authorities everywhere.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, a Blueprint for Low Impact Living. See his website here.




Monday, July 17, 2017

Europe starts work on making buildings smarter

The European Commission is proposing that a voluntary scheme for rating the “smart readiness” of buildings be adopted by the end of 2019. This scheme will include the development of a smart readiness indicator, and a methodology to calculate this.

Buildings are becoming micro-energy hubs, but the building sector is lagging behind in understanding the implications.

(A version of this article was published on The Fifth Estate on 10 July 2017.)



In Europe, part of the problem is a lack of high-quality data on the building stock. This is hampering efforts to reduce the amount of energy buildings use. There is no consistent data to form a baseline for the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) that rate buildings’ energy use.

This problem is to be tackled from one direction by the development of a voluntary “smart readiness indicator” (SRI) for buildings. The SRI would measure buildings’ capacity to use ICT and electronic systems to optimise operation and interact with the grid.

But, just as there’s no consistent data, there is also no universally accepted definition of what makes a smart building, and there are few initiatives directly linked to indicators.

So work is now underway to try to define what an SRI for buildings looks like.

Why do it?


A smart building environment connects with many processes (bubble diagram)
A smart building environment connects with many processes. Source: BPIE
An SRI’s eventual purpose is to raise awareness amongst building owners and occupants of the value of the electronic automation and monitoring of technical building systems, and to provide confidence and transparency to building users regarding the actual energy and cash savings generated.

An SRI would also align building energy performance – and the current drive to create a Single European Energy Market – with another pan-European idea: the Digital Single Market.

The rationale is that digitalisation of the energy system is rapidly changing the energy landscape, allowing easier integration of renewables, smart grids and the establishment of “smart-ready” buildings.

The benefits of 'smart buildings' (diagram)
The benefits of 'smart buildings' Source: BPIE

As with most things in European legislation, the development of an SRI is complex. It’s bound up with the European Commission’s current process to revise a directive to improve the energy performance of buildings. By 2050, the aim is to decarbonise the building stock as part of developing a secure, competitive and decarbonised Europe-wide energy system.

This revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) was originally meant to incorporate targeted incentives to promote smart-ready systems and digital solutions in the built environment, but has since become less ambitious.

The aim is to promote energy efficiency in buildings and to support cost-effective building renovation with a view to the long term goal of decarbonising the highly inefficient existing European building stock. It’s part of a wider review of the energy efficiency legislation, combining:

  • reassessment of the EU’s energy efficiency target for 2030 – which was just set at a lamentably low rate of 27 per cent
  • a review of the core articles of the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive
  • reinforcing the enabling financing environment including the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) and the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI)

What is an SRI?

According to the European Economic and Social Committee, a smartness indicator will measure a building’s capacity to use ICT and electronic systems to optimise operation and its interaction with the grid by developing a transparent, meaningful indicator that would add value to the EPC without imposing undue data collection or analytical burdens.

Such an indicator would show how capable a building is of letting its occupants assess energy efficiency, control and facilitate their own renewable energy production and consumption, and thus cut energy bills.

A preliminary report for the European Commission’s Energy Directorate by consultants Ecofys with colleagues in a specially created consortium, said these indicators would help with the energy management and maintenance of a building, including automated fault detection; assist in automating the reporting of the energy performance of buildings; assist with data analytics, self-learning control systems and predictive control to optimise building operations; and enable buildings to become active operators in a demand response setting.

The renewable energy context for 'smart buildings'
The renewable energy context for 'smart buildings'. Source: BPIE.





Ecofys with its colleagues is developing the formal definitions for the indicators as Task 1 of a series of five stages up to the proposal of the standard in April next year.


Tasks for the Smart Readiness indicator programme. Flow diagram.

It has listed the ten services that the indicator could cover as: heating, domestic hot water, cooling, mechanical ventilation, lighting, dynamic building envelope, energy generation, demand side management, electric vehicle charging, and monitoring and control.

The SRI must be open and transparent, in order to promote interoperability, or it will not be fit for purpose. This means that companies involved cannot monopolise or impose their own proprietary standards.

Diagram: Interoperability means that devices and services are able to talk to each other in the same language.
Interoperability means that devices and services are able to talk to each other in the same language. Image: Ecofys
“Smart readiness” necessarily implies a readiness to adapt in response to the needs of the occupant and to empower building occupants to take direct control of their energy consumption and/or generation, for example with the management of heating system based on occupancy sensors and dashboards displaying current and historical energy consumption.

It also implies a readiness to facilitate the maintenance and efficient operation of the building in a more automated and controlled manner, for example by indicating when systems need maintenance or repair, or using CO2 sensors to decide when to increase ventilation.

According to Paul Waide and Kjell Bettgenhäuser of Ecofys, speaking at the first conference on this topic in June, “The SRI should balance the need to reliably capture the smart readiness services and functions with the practicality and potential costs of independent assessment. It needs to be practical and provide the most benefit for the effort and cost of assessment.”

Above all, they said, “It needs to convey information which is salient (meaningful) to end-users, be easy to understand and motivate them to save energy.” It will also have to apply to all types of buildings, new and old.

An example of how the smart readiness building indicator could work (diagram from a spreadsheet)
An example of how the indicator could work.

This development process is expected to be complete by April 2018. Anyone interested in following or participating in the development of the indicator can sign up.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, building refurbishment and renewable energy. See his website here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Harmony in Food and Farming – blueprint for a revolution

A review of the Harmony in Food and Farming conference on 10-11 July 2017 in Llandovery College, Wales.

Agriculture is responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We need to feed a growing population a better diet, more sustainably. This conference explored how.

The Harmony 2017 conference was inspired by Charles Windsor's eponymous book and initiated by Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust – which he set up following his disillusionment with the Soil Association.

Harmony Charles Windsor book cover


In his opening speech, before whizzing off in a chopper (how eco is that?), Windsor mentioned that harmony in Welsh is cydseiniad (m.) or cynghanedd (f.) and to work in harmony is cyd-dynnu. Literally this is 'work-together'. The conductor Sir John Gardiner later said in his keynote speech, "music is the foundation of harmony. It is 'the state of being in agreement'".

Harmony is not a word normally used in agriculture. Windsor said that "we can't separate what we are from what we do", and that the bottom line should not be the chief motivating factor in the production of food.


"Spirituality, nature and man are not separate things. Where we do separate them, therein lies the root of the problem. Nature is not an autonomous machine. Farms are not factories, and we must be more balanced and harmonious and diverse. We must put back at least as much as we take out."

He believes that attitudes are changing, to greater realisation that we are all part of the web that supports all life on earth, and that this is why biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere.

Fifty speakers and moderators at the conference took up and explored this theme, as did the chef and his team, providing all the meals for 200-300 people over two and a half days, using local, specially prepared very delicious and nutritious food, which, unusually for a conference, was celebrated and made centre-stage.

Closing loops

Ellen MacArthur
Ellen MacArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur gave a great presentation of her Foundation's work with large corporations, getting them to make their products more recyclable in line with the idea of the 'closed loop economy'. In the diagram illustrating this concept below, on the left are the biodegradable items which should usually be recycled back to the land to feed the soil.

Closed Loop resource use


On the right is the technological 'stuff'. "The loops should maximise the restorative and regenerative potential for the earth," she said. Companies like Renault and BMW (making reusable cars) and Apple's Upgrade system (reusuable phones) are on board.

But there was disagreement privately in the audience, a feeling that the corporations are part of the problem, and what is needed is system change, working locally. Yet others said system change cannot solve everything, particularly in cities or to make large scale, rapid change, and corporations have a place.

MacArthur called cities 'great aggregators' of resources and materials – especially nutrients. The opportunities to collect and reuse these is described in her Foundation's latest publication, URBAN BIOCYCLES, which "highlights the opportunities to capture value, in the form of the energy, nutrients and materials embedded in the significant volume of organic waste flowing through cities, through the application of circular economy principles".

Ending the disconnect

Gunhild Stordalen
Gunhild Stordalen

Gunhild Stordalen is an amazing woman from the EAT Forum in Sweden, who believes food is the main issue around which coalesces all the others: climate change, poor health, social inequality, soil loss, biodiversity loss. "Food is the biggest driver of climate change. As 2 billion more people will be added to the planet this century and more people become affluent, more will eat meat and there is no scientific consensus on solving these interconnected problems," she said. "We need action to change this and to end the disconnect between consumption and production". She thinks this can be done by collaboration across sectors. "We need new business models as much as new practices."

Peter Seggers, of Blaencamel Farm, Cilycennan, feeds his 300 strong community with year-round organic produce by feeding the soil and using polytunnels. He is a thermophilic compost freak. This is his passion, and he composts absolutely everything that is compostable to feed microbes to the soil which increases the nutrients in the food and gives greater protection to the crops from disease.

The heat from compost can be captured and used to grow fruit and other crops that would not grow outside in this climate, inside polytunnels (as it was in Victorian times, such as in the Heligan Estate). There was a trip to his farm on Tuesday afternoon.

He believes that the trick to ending this disconnect between consumers and producers is educating the consumers about the add-on benefits of this kind of food – fighting climate change, feeding the soil, improving biodiversity – through passionate communication, and telling them of the damage done by intensive farming.

Others, such as the veteran Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods, Green and Black's chocolate, and biochar firm Carbon Gold, think that this disconnect will never change until the price of real food is cheaper than fake food. This should be achieved with a tax on the carbon cost of fake food (you know what that is) and a rebate to real food (and that) producers for the amount of carbon they return to the soil.

Richard Young, of the Sustainable Food Trust, agreed with the principle but thought Sams' solution was too technically difficult to implement and that instead a tax on nitrogen fertiliser to reflect the external costs of its use would be easier to implement and just as effective.

Carbon sequestration in soil


Soil care is the central issue. Sams mentioned the 4p1000 initiative – increasing the amount of carbon in the soil by 4 parts per thousand each year would counteract all human GHG emissions, = 16bn tonnes/yr. He said La Vialla farm in Italy sequesters 7 parts per year – the link is to a peer-reviewed research report validating and explaining this.

Other things we shouldn't do, said Seggars, are burn food or food oil or even wood. "Burning wood contributes to premature deaths through air pollution and is a waste of carbon which should be sequestered (in buildings) or returned to the soil in compost or biochar," he said. "We should pay people to sequester carbon – planting trees, feeding the soil and building with timber."

Richard Young is a strong advocate of grassland use and ruminants. He said that grassland sequesters carbon for 50-100 years while cropland loses it for the same period. "It is a myth that ruminants' emissions are a really big problem if they are on grassland in the UK. They are only a problem in indoor intensive farming and in pasture created by deforestation." The latter, he said. is responsible for 15% of global GHGE. Ruminants' methane emissions in the UK form 2% of total emissions – a fair bit but not a lot, and this can be replaced by sequestering more carbon in the soil.

As this crucial paper shows, a range of management practices reduce carbon losses and increase carbon sequestration in grassland soil:
  1. avoiding soil tillage and the conversion of grasslands to arable use;
  2. moderately intensifying nutrient-poor permanent grasslands;
  3. using light grazing instead of heavy grazing;
  4. increasing the duration of grass leys;
  5. converting grass leys to grass-legume mixtures or to permanent grasslands.
This was scientific data which I had been seeking for a while, which confirms that conversion is problematic unless grassland is replaced with agroecological methods of horticulture – which are more intensive in human labour (employing more people) but use minimum tillage and no fossil fuels. They are also more productive per hectare.

Otherwise, despite the cruelty and methane emissions, to feed the world, much existing grasslands should be used for for sheep and cows. Conversion to agroecology produces higher yields of nutritional value per hectare (feeding more people) than pasture. I believe that in the future, as this type of food provision increases in the most appropriate places (for climate and soil quality, such as south-facing, well-drained, sheltered and flood-free areas), some grassland no longer needed can be re-wilded to promote biodiversity and tree-growing.

I urge that there is still a great need for more research on the comparative productivity of agro-ecological and permaculture methods compared to large scale conventional farming methods using artificial inputs. Such figures would really help to make the case for a faster shift away from artificial fertilisers to practices which promote soil care.

There were also talks on local food projects – Farmdrop and The Cambridge Sustainable Food Hub – and Jane Davidson talked about One Planet Development and the sustainability drives of Trinity St. David's University and Wales as a whole, with its world-leading Well-Being of Future Generations Act.

Education

Education was another theme and Richard Dunne, headmaster of Ashley School in Surrey, said schools should feed themselves. He described how he had made the school menu 100% organic and locally sourced, including getting the children to grow and prepare some of it and making the kitchen into a classroom. The school has won the Soil Association Catering Award Scheme, Gold level. They keep prices down by using less meat and parents pay 10p/day more. They teach the geometry of nature and weigh their food waste every day.

The programme also contained sessions on bringing harmony into our lives and conflict resolution.

The whole conference was attended by delegates from as far as Norway and California. They all left feeling that this had been a very special event, hopefully the start of something big, and were determined to put it into practice what they had learned in some way in their own lives and work.

For me, it was inspirational and I met many very interesting people, also meeting curiosity about The One Planet Life and the work of Calon Cymru Network. It was especially weird for me in that it took place inside the grey metal shed (a 'carbuncle'?) that I stare at beyond my office window every day – the Sports Hall of Llandovery College, behind which I live and work!

My view of Llandovery Sports Hall
My view of Llandovery College Sports Hall – inside of which the pictures above were taken.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life.

EU loses nerve to tackle climate change, fuel poverty & slashes 2030 energy efficiency goal

The cost and carbon saving of various energy efficiency measures
Energy efficiency – you know it makes sense, right?


While paying lip service to the Paris Agreement, the European Union has let a minority of countries slash its energy efficiency targets by 90 per cent on the grounds that even modest targets are too expensive. The EU’s commitment to tackling climate change and fuel poverty is now seriously in doubt.

A version of this article was first published in The Fifth Estate on 5 July.

At a meeting of the Energy Council of EU energy ministers on 26 June, where several energy efficiency policies were discussed, agreement on the energy saving target from 2020 to 2030 was hard to achieve, and reaching consensus came at great cost to the level of ambition.

The new target

Currently the energy saving target is a non-binding one of 20 per cent by 2020, compared to baseline projections. A legally binding target of achieving 30 per cent energy use reduction by 2030 had been on the table.

Originally the European Parliament was calling for a 40 per cent target because the EU is already on track to achieve 24 per cent savings by 2030, and deeper savings are easily available and cost-effective. Earlier this year there was wide expectation that the final compromise might be between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.

But at the meeting, some countries demanded that the target should be only voluntary – and other countries demanded that it should be as low as 27 per cent.

In the end a non-binding 30 per cent target was agreed.

This compromise means the new target is less ambitious than the current 20 per cent by 2020 target. Currently countries would have to save 1.5 per cent energy a year. A 30 per cent target by 2030 decreases it to just one per cent between 2026 and 2030, assuming all countries co-operate.

Further loopholes were also added, specifically permitting:
  • the double counting of energy savings from new buildings standards/codes – even though those are already covered by the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive
  • double counting in the period 2021-2030 savings from energy efficiency measures installed before 2021 with lifetimes longer than 23 years – as if they were new savings
  • 15 per cent of on-site renewable energy generation to be treated as energy savings
  • excess savings from the current Article 7 (Energy Efficiency Obligation) period 2014-2020 towards the minimum savings 2021-2030
Observers Jan Rosenow and Richard Cowart calculate that together this will reduce the actual energy savings mandate in the EED from an effective level of 443 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) a year to just 52 Mtoe – a reduction of almost 90 per cent.

Rogues and heroes

The rogue countries that argued for this result were the UK, which allied itself with eastern states Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania. The WWF said these countries “could not even support the final weak deal”.

The British negotiator was Conservative MP Richard Harrington. Where other countries sent their secretaries of state for energy, Britain sent an under-secretary from the business, energy and industrial strategy department, who had only been appointed a week earlier.


Richard Harrington MP
Richard Harrington

The heroes of the day were France, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden and Ireland, who were congratulated by Greens MEP Claude Turmes for fighting hard for a strong deal. He said afterwards that he would use his place on the European Parliament’s Industry Committee to “raise the ambition” of the targets.

EU Energy and Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete commented that finding agreement on the Energy Efficiency Directive was “not easy” and that as a result it fell “below the ambition of the Commission”.

Miguel Arias Canete
Miguel Arias Cañete

Others were equally disappointed. Clémence Hutin, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “These negotiations should have been about ramping up the EU’s climate efforts for 2030, instead we are risking a decade of inaction. EU governments have expressed deep regret at Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, yet they are turning their backs on the main tool for cutting emissions – energy efficiency.”

Benedek Jávor, Greens/EFA MEP said: “There is an engaged energy efficiency community that stands ready to raise ambition levels and invest massively in the energy transition. They just need the right signals from policymakers. To fully unlock this potential, all member states need to give their support. Where some countries lag behind, there is a real risk of higher energy costs and serious competition gaps.”

The European Parliament’s own Impact Assessment had shown that higher levels of ambition would deliver significantly greater benefits, as revealed in the table below.

Level of energy savings:30 per cent33 per cent35 per cent40 per cent
Reduction in gas imports12 per cent23 per cent29 per cent41 per cent
GDP increase in 20300.39 per cent1.45 per cent2.08 per cent4.08 per cent
Additional jobs396,9501,587,8002,428,4004,856,800
Savings in fossil fuel import bills (bn) for 2021-203069.6147.3199.3287.5
Reduction in pollution control and health damage costs (bn/year )4.5-8.315.2-28.419.9-36.630.4-55.9
Total GHG emissions reductions ( per cent to 1990)41 per cent43 per cent44 per cent47 per cent

These are consistent with figures from the De-Risking Energy Efficiency Platform (DEEP) database, which contains close to 6000 individual energy efficiency projects across the member states of the EU. Overall, it shows the cost per kilowatt-hour saved in buildings is 2.5 eurocents and in the industry sector 1.2 eurocents.

Fuel poverty is an issue in all member states. It affects tens of millions of Europeans (between 50 million and 125 million depending on how you measure it). Of the main causes – low income, high energy costs and poor insulation of European dwellings – the directive could do much to affect the latter two.

The Energy Union strategy and the Paris Agreement

The Energy Efficiency Directive forms part of the EU’s Energy Union Strategy.

The general aim of the Energy Union strategy is to move towards the decarbonisation of the EU economy by 2030 and beyond, while strengthening economic growth, consumer protection, innovation and competitiveness. The Commission proposal on energy efficiency updates the current Energy Efficiency Directive 2012/27/EU and was presented in November 2016.

Buildings are the largest single energy consumer in Europe, consuming 40 per cent of final energy.

Even before this meeting, the EU was not on a trajectory to meet its self-assigned 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of “at least” 40 per cent by 2030 below 1990 levels under the Paris Agreement.

According to Climate Action Tracker – which monitors individual countries’ plans to achieve the global aims of the Paris Agreement of limiting warming to 1.5°C – the EU’s domestic emissions are projected to be cut by only 30-39 per cent.

The EU’s target is, anyway, not consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit, says Climate Action Tracker. Extrapolating the current trend to 2050 would give an emissions reduction of 64 per cent below 1990. The EU’s goal is 80-95 per cent.

Looking at energy savings alone, by totalling the amount of savings reported by member states in 2014 and 2015, the total savings target is currently on track to be less than zero.

Factoring in the new, seriously unambitious targets under the Energy Efficiency Directive would make achieving Europe’s goal under the Paris Agreement much harder and more expensive to achieve.

The extra expense comes because it is cheaper to take action now than in the future, and because it is generally cheaper to install measures to save energy than to build new generation plant.

The European Union is now seriously lacking credibility in its position on tackling climate change. What is always puzzling is why energy efficiency – which has been shown innumerable times to have multiple benefits and mostly be more cost-effective than building more generation capacity – has so few friends.

Perhaps we should stop energy ministers deciding such matters and let those unswayable by lobbying from energy suppliers do so instead.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, building refurbishment and renewable energy. See his website here.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Innovative eco-social housing neighbourhood reaches completion in Wales


A version of this article was published on The Fifth Estate on 17 May.
 Glen Peters standing outside one of the  two-bedroomed semi-detached houses.
Glen Peters standing outside one of the two-bedroomed semi-detached houses.

The first tenants have moved into Pentre Solar, an eco-social housing neighbourhood being constructed in Glanrhyd, Wales. ('Pentre' means village in Welsh.)


Dr Glen Peters, chief executive of Western Solar, has an ambition for his company to supply 1000 homes and to work with housing associations and local authorities to provide social housing.


The South-facing front of a three bedroomed house with plenty of glazing to capture the sun's heat. Inside it falls onto a black, melamine-covered concrete floor to absorb the heat.
The South-facing front of a three bedroomed house with plenty of glazing to capture the sun's heat. Inside it falls onto a black, melamine-covered concrete floor to absorb the heat.

The North-facing rear of a three bedroomed eco-house. The homes are clad in local larch. This is projected to last at least 25 years before it needs replacing.
The North-facing rear of a three bedroomed house. The homes are clad in local larch. This is projected to last at least 25 years before it needs replacing. Much care in the detailing of the design should extend the cladding life well beyond this point.

Peters estimates the build cost is about £120 per square foot (AU$19 a square metre). This has led him to set a rental cost of the two-bedroom houses of £480 a month (AU$836), a level in line with the local 106 planning condition of no more than 80 per cent of local market rents. The three-bedroom houses are set at £620 a month (AU$1080). For the developer, this gives a 3.5-4 per cent return on investment.

A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached houses. All the homes have solar roofs.
A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached houses. All the homes have solar roofs.

Local materials and labour

Costs have been kept low and as much as possible of the houses manufactured locally from local materials. In total 80 per cent of the building is manufactured locally out of local timber and 40 per cent – the airtight frames – are manufactured in a nearby factory – a converted cowshed – to be assembled on site.

Peters says the multiplier effect of the benefit to the local community for every £1000 invested is £2200, a factor of 2.2.




The timber frames are kept out of direct contact with the ground to prevent damp from rising:

The timber frame footing kept out of direct contact with the ground to prevent damp from rising.
A footing protected from damp on the patio.


The homes’ design builds upon the developer’s experience of a prototype house, Ty Solar:

The prototype Ty Solar (Ty is Welsh for House so the name means Solar House in English) in West Wales.
The prototype Ty Solar (Ty is Welsh for House so the name means Solar House in English) in West Wales. In the background can be seen the first solar farm in Wales which finance the building of Ty Solar.
Ty Solar was constructed in 2010 using the profit from Peters’ solar farm, the first in Wales. It cost about £75,000 (AU$130,640) to build with a £47,000 (AU$81,870) grant from the Sustainable Development Fund.

The unit costs of the Glanrhyd houses, built on the site of a now-demolished garage, were higher than normal, mainly because of the land reclamation, provision of services and unusual weather-related costs, as well as complying with planning conditions in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The three-bedroom homes occupy 100 square metres, the two-bed ones slightly less, but still feel spacious.

The company is focused on providing social housing as Peters believes there is a reasonable business in creating good quality affordable housing, as none of the large developers seem to interested in doing so.

While it is economic and technically feasible to build these homes, politically Peters’ route has not been easy.

”Politicians have been unduly influenced by volume building companies, and while they love the houses it has been difficult to persuade local authorities and housing associations of the benefit of backing this design, despite the fact that occupants have virtually zero energy bills. The key performance indicators imposed on housing associations are unduly skewed towards capital costs rather than tenant and community welfare,” he says.

He is hoping that when he has occupancy data to back up his case, more housing associations and councils will be interested in the model.

Zero energy bills

The timber frame houses are built according to passive house principles, though are not validated as such due the cost of doing so, versus the benefits.

Each monopitch roof sports 8kW of integrated photovoltaic panels. Over a year these generate surplus energy, providing an income from a feed-in tariff, as well as giving the occupants free electricity. Total energy demand is about 12 per cent of a conventionally built home. Beneath the solar panels is a galvanised steel sheet that laps over the timber frame.

They sit on a concrete slab, unlike the prototype, which was constructed using the box beam method with a suspended timber floor. Peters says concrete is more durable, with more thermal mass and has a lower maintenance requirement, although with a greater carbon footprint.

The windows are double, not triple-glazed, to keep costs low as Peters believes that the incremental benefit of the extra pane of glazing is cancelled by the cost in the mild local climate.

The insulation is all 27cm of recycled newsprint pumped into the cavity. This type of eco-insulation is in general the most economic and ecological. The paint is clay-based – breathable and with no off-gassing. Although more expensive per litre, it requires fewer coats on bare plaster.

The houses all come fitted out with the most efficient washing machine, condenser drier, kitchen, water-saving bathroom with occupancy sensors in areas such as toilets, internet connection, Wi-Fi and an outside socket for charging an electric vehicle. There are LED lights throughout.

modern eco-kitchen

modern eco-bathroom

modern eco-utility room

modern eco-living room in passive solar house
All of these relatively spacious homes are provided with the most energy-efficient appliances and exceptional attention to detail.

Communal electric car


A Nissan Leaf electric car charging outside a solar eco-house.
The Nissan Leaf charging outside one of the houses.
The occupants of the estate have been given a Nissan Leaf to use collectively, charged by the solar panels on the roofs.

“It’s a way of getting neighbours to cooperate with each other and eliminate the need for a second car,” Peters says.

Energy storage

The South-facing homes are generous in their space, their form determined by the maximum depth allowed by the passive heating.

The rest of the heating is provided in a surprising manner, using the best of old technology with new: solar electricity and storage heaters.

A storage heater charged by solar electricity.
An installed storage heater; proven, old technology meeting the new.
Storage heaters contain thermally massive blocks that are heated up by an element. They then release that heat gradually over many subsequent hours.

This form of energy storage was introduced to British homes in the 1960s and ’70s on a special tariff called Economy 7. Since nuclear power stations could not be switched off, unlike other forms of electricity generation, these tariffs allowed people to use nuclear electricity at night – at a lower rate when national demand was low – to charge the storage heaters.

The problem was that by the time the heat was needed, the following evening, they were often too cool and many people subsequently removed them and installed central heating instead.

Here, the idea is to let the storage heaters be heated up during the day by the solar panels on the roof, meaning they are able to provide adequate heating through the evening and night provided that there has been average sunshine (50 per cent of a June summer’s day) during the day.

This may not be the case in the depths of winter and so the homes are also grid-connected. They export surplus energy when there is some – after the electric car and storage heaters have been topped up – and purchase it when not enough has been generated.

“Storage heaters are incredibly cheap,” Peters says, “and a well proven technology. Whereas the storage we had to start with in the prototype house – lithium-ion batteries – were designated a fire risk and we had them taken out. They are also much more expensive.”

A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached passive solar houses.
A pair of two-bedroomed semi-detached passive solar houses.
The prototype house has been monitored and has well exceeded the predicted generation capacity, providing twice the electricity used over the year.

Peters says: “We have spent £2 million (AU$3.5m) researching and developing a sustainable timber building system that is 100 per cent British, powered by solar energy. We hope now to create 1000 homes across Wales and the UK, once the current political uncertainty is out of the way and we have won the argument on the efficacy of timber housing.”

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including:
Find out more and buy the books here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The cheap and reliable form of solar energy storage for homes that is already on the market

How should we store solar electricity? How about as heat? A Swedish research team is storing solar energy in liquid form, but it is still a way off being commercially available. A competing technology using molten salt is already on the market and shortlisted for a major renewable energy prize. But there is already a much cheaper and already well-proven solution now being used in a brand new context...

A shorter version of this article has appeared on The Fifth Estate.

The problem


Solar photovoltaic power it is increasingly being installed on buildings but a major challenge is that it is difficult to store so that it can be delivered when needed.

Storing solar electricity as heat is useful because the world uses more than twice as much energy in the form of heat as electricity. So for solar power to become ubiquitous, it needs to be delivered as heat more than as electricity – and round the clock.

Liquid solar energy

storing solar electricity as heat

The solution of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden is a chemical liquid that can tranport solar energy and then release it as heat whenever it is needed. The research, described in March’s edition of Energy & Environmental Science, describes how the team came up with a way of copying the means by which plants store solar energy – in molecules.

Transforming it into bonds between atoms in a liquid chemical makes it possible to transport it as well as store it.

“The technique means that that we can store the solar energy in chemical bonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” says Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team.

“Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 per cent of the incoming sunlight.”

The research project has come a long way since it began six years ago when the solar energy conversion efficiency was 0.01 per cent and the expensive element ruthenium played a major role in the compound.

Four years later, the system stores 1.1 per cent of the incoming sunlight as latent chemical energy – an improvement of a factor of 100, and ruthenium has been replaced by much cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” Moth-Poulsen says.

“At the same time, we are demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

The process is based on the organic compound norbornadiene, which upon exposure to light converts into quadricyclane.

Hybrid panels

The rooftops of buildings can take advantage of the benefits of installing both solar water heating and photovoltaic modules.

Typical efficiencies for photovoltaic modules are now at least 20 per cent. Solar water heating systems have an efficiency of between 20-80 per cent, depending on the application, location and the required temperature.

Solar water heating systems make use of the full solar spectrum, whereas photovoltaics can only harvest a much more limited proportion.

Some companies have used this difference to design hybrid panels which contain both solar water heating and photovoltaic cells, particularly since the water can be used to stop the photovoltaic panels overheating, making them more efficient. The downside is the expense.

The Swedish researchers think that one of the potential applications for their technology, when it has become more efficient, will be a new generation of hybrid panels that utilise the heat, which can be released from the liquid storage medium.

Concept diagram for the hybrid solar panels
Concept diagram for the hybrid solar panels
They say that combining solar water heating with their system allows for efficient usage of low energy photons for solar water heating combined with storage of the high-energy photons in the form of chemical energy.

Their simulations have persuaded them that these hybrid panels could be up to 80 per cent efficient. In terms of energy density they are comparable to a lithium ion battery.

The team will continue work on the technology to evaluate the potential cost and bringing it down by finding a way to mass produce the constituent chemicals, and to find a non-toxic solvent.

More than a pinch of salt

A totally different technology is from Sunamp, a British company that has developed its technology by collaborating with the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry. It guarantees low-cost materials, exceptional long life, recyclability, safety and high energy density.

The technology has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ashden UK Awards alongside the work of the Passivhaus Trust and the Carbon Co-op, a community benefit society that helps its members to retrofit their homes.

An engineer installing the domestic solar salt battery.
An engineer installing the solar salt battery.


Sunamp’s form of storage uses a salt as a phase change material. This absorbs and releases thermal energy during the process of melting and solidifying respectively.

Similar technology is used on a large scale with concentrating solar thermal power stations, typically located in hot, arid deserts.

In this case it is used for storing energy from photovoltaic panels, waste process heat, or heat from heat pumps and micro CHP (combined heat and power) systems, in order to increase efficiency.

How does it work? In the case of storing solar electrical energy, an electrical element connected to the solar panels heats up the salt, thereby melting it.

The salt is kept liquid in a vacuum-insulated container. When heat is required, cold water is passed through the liquid in a heat exchanger, absorbing the heat and causing the salt to re-solidify. The heated water passes to the tap and the salt is ready to be charged again.

Sunamp’s batteries come in various sizes and can be used in series, meaning they can be used in anything from small homes to large hotels, for example. They take up much less space than a hot water tank, can store heat for longer and are more efficient.

The battery can store heat at half the weight of hot water in a tank storing the same amount of energy. Whether they are cost-effective depends upon the location and pattern of usage.

The easy solution


Tenants moving into a new passive solar mini-housing estate in Wales – Pentre Solar, Glanrhyd, near Cardigan – have roofs covered with grid-connected solar panels and zero energy bills.




Brand new passive solar homes for affordable social housing, covered in solar panels.
The brand new passive solar homes for affordable social housing, covered in solar panels.

Dr Glen Peters, CEO of Western Solar, which is behind the development, has an ambition for his company to supply 1,000 homes and to work with housing associations and local authorities to provide sustainable, solar-powered social housing.

The occupants of the estate have been given a Nissan Leaf electric car to use collectively, charged by the solar panels on the roofs. So that's one form of storage.

But the homes' heating is provided in a surprising manner, using the best of old technology with new: solar electricity and storage heaters.


An installed storage heater in a passive solar house; proven, old technology meeting the new
An installed storage heater in a passive solar house; proven, old technology meeting the new.
Storage heaters contain thermally massive blocks which are heated up by an element. They then release that heat gradually over many subsequent hours.

This form of energy storage was introduced to British homes in the 1960s and '70s on a special tariff called Economy 7. Since nuclear power stations could not be switched off unlike other forms of electricity generation, these tariffs allowed people to use nuclear electricity at night – at a lower rate when national demand was low – to charge the storage heaters.

The problem was that by the time the heat was needed, the following evening, they were often too cool and many people subsequently removed them and installed central heating instead.

Here, the idea is to let the storage heaters be heated up during the day by the solar panels on the roof, meaning that they are able to provide adequate heating through the evening and night provided that there has been average sunshine (50% of a June summer day) during the day.

This may not be the case in the depths of winter and so the homes are also grid-connected. They export surplus energy when there is some – after the electric car and storage heaters have been topped up – and purchase it when not enough has been generated.

"Storage heaters are incredibly cheap," says Glen, "and a well proven technology. Whereas the storage we had to start with in our prototype house – lithium ion batteries – were designated a fire risk and we had them taken out. They are also much more expensive – a couple of hundred rather than thousands of pounds."

This sounds like a solar energy storage solution that deserves far wider application. Good luck to the other technologies, but if I was looking for energy storage for a house, I know which I would choose.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy, including The Expert Guide To Energy Management In Buildings and The Expert Guide to Solar Technology and The Earthscan Expert Guide to Retrofitting Homes for Efficiency. Find out more and buy the books here.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Tory Government in the dock for "shameful" air quality plans

Air pollution in the UK is at unacceptably high levels and the Government has been criticised for not taking the issue seriously, following the release of a “woeful” and “disappointingly unambitious” draft air quality plan, particularly around construction site emissions.

Matthew Pencharz, who brought in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) regulations for construction equipment while he was deputy mayor for environment and energy, called the draft plan “disappointingly unambitious”, calling on the government to help local authorities enforce environmental regulations on construction sites, and to push the use of clean technologies.

Annual UK emissions of NOx since 2000AD
Annual UK emissions of NOx since 2000AD

Emissions from commercial and domestic buildings and construction represent a small but significant proportion of overall UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. In London, construction equipment accounts for some seven per cent of emissions. These lead to unacceptably high NO2 concentrations and are important sources of pollution in towns and cities.

Plans slammed as “woeful”

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth had to take the Government to court to force it to publish the Air Quality Plan, with the government fighting against publication until after the general election.

ClientEarth previously had to sue the Government to force it to even produce draft plans by 24 April and final ones by 31 July, as the Government is in breach of the European clean air rules in many areas.

They also last week won a campaign to persuade the European Union to pass tough new industrial pollution rules that, they say, “could save thousands of lives each year”.

When he finally saw the government’s proposals, James Thornton, chief executive of ClientEarth, accused the government of “passing the buck” to local authorities. He said he had no faith in the central proposal – to set up clean air zones for urban areas – without the imposition of charges to deter the most polluting vehicles from entering the zones.

A clean air zone defines an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality and resources are prioritised and coordinated in a way that delivers improved health benefits and supports economic growth.

“The plan looks much weaker than we had hoped for,” Thornton said. “The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.”

Ed Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary, called the proposals “not a plan, but a cop-out” while London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “We’ve dragged the government kicking and screaming through the courts to produce these belated proposals – but they are toothless and woefully inadequate.”

The proposals involve increasing the number of clean air zones from the current six that are in the planning stage to 27. They estimate that this will cut air pollution and provide cost benefits of over £1 billion ($1.76b).

But local authorities would have to exhaust all other options first and they would not be allowed to introduce charging.

Air pollution and construction

Breakdown of UK national average NOx roadside concentration into sources, 2015
Breakdown of UK national average NOx roadside concentration into sources, 2015


While diesel vehicles are by far the largest source of pollution in urban areas, construction sites are also accused of playing their part. Pollution comes from machinery onsite, vehicles going to and from the sites, and dust.

Construction dust is classified as PM10 – particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, invisible to the naked eye. It can cause a wide range of health problems including respiratory illness, asthma, bronchitis and even cancer.

Diesel particulate matter consists of soot, sulphates and silicates, which easily combine with other toxins in the atmosphere, increasing health risks.

Diesel is also responsible for emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Noxious vapours from oils, glues, thinners, paints, treated woods, plastics, cleaners and other hazardous chemicals widely used on construction sites also contribute to air pollution.

Construction activities can also cause water pollution from diesel and oil; paint, solvents, cleaners and other harmful chemicals; and construction debris and dirt. If land is cleared, soil erosion may send soil into natural waterways turning them turbid and destroying aquatic life.

The website Sustainable Building issues guidelines to construction firms to help them minimise all types of pollution. These include:

  • Minimising land disturbance
  • Leaving maximum vegetation cover
  • Controlling dust through fine water sprays
  • Screening the site, skips and trucks to stop dust spreading
  • Covering piles of building materials like cement, sand and other powders
  • Using non-toxic paints, solvents and other hazardous materials
  • Having a policy to manage toxic substances to prevent spills
  • Covering up and protecting drains
  • Collecting wastewater in settlement tanks then filtering before discharge
  • Disposing of remaining sludge according to environmental regulations
  • Using low sulphur diesel oil
  • Incorporating the latest specifications of particulate filters and catalytic converters
  • Not burning materials on site
  • Reducing noise pollution through careful handling of materials and the use of sound shields
The UK government’s proposals, however, are confined to noting that excavators and bulldozers and other vehicles or engines used in construction must be approved to demonstrate compliance with pollutant emission standards.

New emissions standards for non-road mobile machinery will come into force in January 2019 and new measures to tackle NOx emissions from generators by the end of 2018.

Pencharz called this response “disappointing” and said it should “do more to push the utilisation of clean technologies on construction sites to save both money and emissions and stimulate this high value manufacturing sector”.

The GLA brought in regulations in 2015 to begin the cleaning up of constructions sites. But the government in its draft only refers to regulations from 2019 for new machines, with no regard to the thousands of older, high polluting ones.

In addition, Pencharz notes, other local authorities do not appear to be being encouraged to bring in London-style regulations and, even if they did, any enforcement powers remain weak.

He points out that clean technologies such as batteries, especially for temporary power for construction and events, would markedly reduce air pollution emissions.

Whoever wins the general election will have an uphill battle improving British air quality cost-effectively.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, sustainable building and renewable energy. See his website here.