Monday, 19 December 2011

Warm winter, green Christmas and other stories

This time last year, I wrote a post for this blog called "What Colour Christmas are you Dreaming Of?"
I covered food, pressies and the merits of real vs. artificial trees.  It's all still valid so I won't harp on about these things again but I just want to add this BRILLIANT picture of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future from Best Foot Forward!

What was most memorable about last Christmas was the weather - we had the coldest December on record in England, with snow on the ground from the beginning of the month almost until Christmas Day.  This year, in southern Britain, we had such a long, warm autumn that trees were coming into bud and flowers blooming in November!  Even December has hardly been cold and the Met Office have confirmed that we're in for a green Christmas.

The extreme winter of 2010 meant high consumption of gas to heat homes, with scare stories of "just 7 days supply" held in Britain.  This year's mild winter has enabled my family to keep our home warm with much less gas: so much so that our consumption for 2011 is down more than 30% on 2010.

This dramatic decrease is due to weather rather than my home's efficiency or my family's behaviours relating to energy use, so should be reflected across the region.  None of us know what temperatures we will face next week, next month or next year and I take no credit for the weather.  However, I imagine that our country's 2011 carbon emissions will be lower than 2010, because of this climatic variation.

I have continued to cut my home's electricity usage, by replacing even more halogen lights.  A couple of years ago, I replaced the fluorescent under-cabinet lights in my kitchen with LED link-lights but was left with overhead halogen lights totalling 350 watts.  LED lights with the colour and brightness needed to replace 50 watt halogen downlights are now becoming available and I have fitted two Edison GU10 bulbs, each with 3 X 2 watt CREE LEDs, above the kitchen sink.  Even these are not as bright as the MR16 halogens they replaced, so I am holding off on replacing the two most critical lights in the kitchen, above the oven and kitchen table.

However, the room's main illumination is a mirrored cluster of 10 watt and 20 watt halogen bulbs, totalling 150 watts.  The power supply in this lamp recently burned out, giving me the opportunity to replace it with a suitable LED driver and to fit warm white LED lamps and G4 bulbs in place of the halogens.  I purchased these from and they were delivered the next day - in the middle of the pre-Christmas rush.

The chrome lamp units have a really high quality feel and I am amazed that the light they provide is simply BETTER than the illumination we got from the halogen bulbs they have replaced.  What is more surprising is the feeling of warmth that this bright light creates.  The mirrored cluster has 12 light fittings and the whole thing now uses the same amount of electricity that a single one of the halogen bulbs used to consume!  I have bought another three of these lamp units, to convert the bathroom lights from 60 watt halogen to 7 watt LED.

I worked really hard to cut my home's carbon emissions by 10% last year, to deliver my 10:10 promise, but the bitterly cold weather scuppered this for me.  This year's mild winter has enabled me to reduce my home's CO2 by more than 20% which more than makes up for missing last year's target.  The effects of warm weather and more efficient use of electricity have combined to save almost a Tonne of CO2 emissions from our home's energy usage in 2011 (3.6 Tonnes), compared with 2010 (4.6 Tonnes).

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Why my (or your) carbon footprint matters

At the Ashden Awards in June, I was lucky enough to meet Emma Murphy, one of the founders of the green PR outfit, Life Size Media.  She combines great technical understanding of climate change mitigation with a creative flair for communicating the subject.  I mention this because they are now running a poll on the question, "Do you think it's important to know your carbon footprint?"  Quite apart from the audience selection bias of their followers, I suspect that very few people have a clear idea of their own carbon footprint and almost nobody can be sure of their own direct and indirect contribution to humanity's greenhouse gas emissions, the scale of which is illustrated beautifully by a post on Karina Rubiera's blog:

Here are some of the confusing carbon emissions measurements that I have come across today:
1) My local leisure centre used 6 million kWh of gas last year and its carbon emissions were almost 1500 Tonnes CO2e.  I go there once every few months: how much of that carbon footprint has my name on it?
2) The local boys' secondary school, that my son and I both attended and where my wife is a governor, had publicly reported emissions of 984 Tonnes CO2e in 2008.
3) Intensively reared lamb in the USA causes CO2-equivalent emissions of almost 40kg for every kilo of meat.  Some of this is due to methane emissions from the ruminant gut but much is due to the agricultural feedstock: lamb raised on hill-farms in Britain would, quite literally, embody much less carbon emissions than their grain-reared cousins imprisoned in American feedlots.
4) Duncan Clark, of 10:10 and the Guardian, has reflected deeply on the question of short-haul flights in his blog post today.  He concludes that our personal carbon emissions matter much less than the effect that our awareness-raising can have on those of others.

Of course, I agree that communication and awareness-raising are at the heart of the matter.  Duncan and Emma are both leading exponents of sustainability communications and yet even they, I think they would agree, have limited ability to reach out to the wider public, at home and abroad, and engage them in the battle against dangerous climate change due to fossil carbon emissions from unsustainable behaviours and practices in so many aspects of our contemporary lifestyles.  The clamour of commercial concerns, urging us to consume and spend so that they can grow and profit, is usually too loud and incessant for quiet voices of restraint and reflection to be heard.

This is one reason why I think it matters that each of us considers our own carbon footprint and makes sure to reduce it over time.  If you will excuse the clumsy analogy, it's the ethical equivalent of a medical thermometer for my environmental conscience.  The 10:10 campaign grabbed the attention of 100,000 people last year, along with 1000s of businesses and institutions, and focused them on the challenge of cutting their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010.  Positive, purposeful progress - what an amazing achievement!  It's still full steam ahead for the good ship 10:10 and their challenge to each of us now is to cut 10% every year.

However, it's not enough to know the amount of indirect emissions that feature in my personal carbon account simply for being a citizen - including healthcare, education, defence, government, transport and other infrastructure.  I cannot influence these through my own efforts.  The direct carbon impacts of my activities and decisions are much more important to me in measuring my personal responsibility for human-induced climate change.  I want to know, and reduce, the carbon footprint of my personal consumption - such as transport, diet, shopping, entertainment and home energy use.

Useful books and online tools abound to help me know my numbers but, where possible, I favour direct measurement.  It's simple, accurate and reflects my improvements every year.  At home, just put regular meter readings into a basic spreadsheet and, with a couple of standard conversion factors, you can see directly what progress you are making towards cutting your carbon year on year.  This graph shows our home's total energy use for the calendar years 2009 -11.

The next one is smoothed using Moving Annual Totals (MAT) for electricity and gas use, and carbon emissions, over the same period. You can see that the green line has been bumping along just above 4 Tonnes/year CO2 emissions since May 2011: by contrast, our home energy use in 2006 emitted more than 8 Tonnes CO2.

These direct measurements and graphs are not to everyone's taste but they motivate me to remain focused on our home's energy use.  If you don't want to make your own spreadsheet, Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) have already done it for you!  Just sign up to iMeasure and they'll prompt you to type in your meter readings every Monday.  Over time, iMeasure shows you your home's energy consumption, and its carbon footprint, in a variety of ways.  The two features that I find most impressive are the weekly energy performance rating (A-G) that it gives your home and the rolling competition with neighbours in our local Carbon Club - we're nothing if not competitive!

Similarly, I keep a little logbook in the driver's door pocket of my car, to record my fuel consumption.  I multiply the litres of diesel purchased by 2.68 (kg CO2 per litre) to calculate my direct driving emissions. I have to make some estimates for maintenance and embodied emissions in the car's manufacture: these last go down for every additional year that I keep the car on the road but do they offset the direct emissions from a newer, more efficient vehicle?  Mike Berners-Lee wrote this excellent piece in the Guardian, from his book, "How Bad Are Bananas?".  There was also a great decision tree for keeping or replacing an older car - I'll post a link if I can find one.

For travel by public transport, eating, reading, holidays, gadgets, etc., the Guardian's quick carbon calculator, posted by Duncan Clark in 2009 and created by Small World Consulting, is the best footprint calculator I know.

To sum up, I think it does matter that we each care about our individual carbon footprint, gain some idea of its size and become engaged in whittling it down over time.  It's not going to stop dangerous, manmade climate change in its tracks but it is an ethical, personal response to the moral challenge of treading lightly on the Earth and the living world that we continue to share it with.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A sustainable summer

A summer to remember!  The joy of rail.  The beauty of Italian cities.  The weak pound.  Endless blackberries.

We haven't flown abroad on holiday for several years, for rather obvious environmental reasons, yet we love the experience of European travel and are loathe to give up our annual immersion in other languages, cultures, climate and cuisine. This year, despite the poor exchange rate, we decided to travel to Italy for our summer holiday, to see places we haven't seen before and to give our 16-year old daughter a more memorable European experience.  We invested plenty of time up front in planning our itinerary and accommodation, so that we could book the right trains on Rail Europe as soon as they became available, 3 months before travel.  All our plans bore fruit, every train throughout the holiday ran on time and we loved the adventure of watching countryside, seas and mountains from our panoramic windows.  Our hotels in Paris, Rome and Venice were all well situated for exploring these great cities on foot and by underground or river bus.  Our most relaxing break was in an apartment overlooking the small village of Argegno, on the shore of Lake Como, which we reached by ferry and bus.

Last year, the carbon emissions from our family of four travelling to the Tarn region of southwest France and back, by car and cross-channel ferry*, were around 670 kg - or 170 kg CO2 per head.  According to Best Foot Forward, in their study commissioned by Rail Europe, the equivalent emissions for this year's holiday by rail for the three of us were about 135 kg - a mere 45 kg CO2 per head.  Conversely, if three of us had flown to Rome and back, our journey's climate change impact (including radiative forcing, due to the altitude of the plane's emissions) would have been 1,660 kg - or 550 kg CO2 per head, according to the Carbon Footprint calculator.

So, a European family holiday by train results in less than a tenth of the carbon emissions of the same holiday by plane.  The same holiday by car results in 3-4 times the emissions of the train but only a third of the plane.

Scaling this up, I have just returned from a fabulous week at Scout camp in Belgium.  22 of us travelled by Eurostar and 5 leaders took our kit across in a car and a van.  The GHG emissions from our 22 return rail journeys were just 57 kg CO2, the same as those from one single passenger making the same trip by plane!  Adding in the car and van journeys (475 kg CO2*) gives a carbon footprint, for 27 of us and our kit travelling to and from camp, totalling 530 kg - only 20 kg CO2 per person.

And the blackberries?  I'm not talking about the rioters' social medium of choice but rather the extended harvest of wild fruit we have enjoyed this summer.  Spurred on by the hot, dry spring, all our apples, blackberries and other wild food are offering a prolonged and bountiful harvest of succulent fruit.  Even the mushrooms seem to be coming out early this year - if you know what to collect and eat safely, you are in for an outstanding season of delicious, free food!

* Modern cross-channel ferries emit around 8kg per passenger (return journey), according to the Best Foot Forward study reported on the SeaFrance website.  I have included this amount in all the driving calculations shown in this post.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Inspiring Energy Events

The annual Ashden Awards for sustainable energy enterprises were presented in London this month and I was lucky enough to be able to join their seminar at the Royal Geographical Society.  The morning session, chaired by Jonathan Porritt, focused on UK projects and the international session in the afternoon was chaired by the Guardian editor, Madeline Bunting.  During each session, the five finalists in their category screened a film summarising their project's achievements and the representative of the organisation gave a short speech about their work.  In the case of the UK finallists, this was posited as an "elevator pitch" to Chris Huhne and David Cameron, to persuade them what needs to be done to make Britain a great place to invest in sustainable energy technologies.

The films themselves are one of the Ashden Awards greatest achievements.  I look forward to screening them to the right audiences when the opportunities arise but you can view them yourself on the Ashden Awards website, for both the UK and international finalists.

After the films and pitches, the Chairs facilitated a couple of really useful discussion of pertinent issues - in the case of the international session, Local Clean Energy for the Poor.  This brought in technologists, regulators and investors and considered some of the artificial obstacles raised by institutional backers, aiming to verify the outcomes achieved with their support.  This discussion also highlighted the merits of grid vs. off-grid energy systems, with all parties agreeing that mini-grids, as seen in Peru and Ecuador, are often the best way to bring efficient, low carbon energy to poor rural communities.

As in previous years, I was greatly inspired by the overseas projects, which seem to exemplify courage and creativity in meeting the needs of - literally - billions of under-served people in the developing world.  I was privileged to chat at length with Suraj Wahab Olugburo, the founder of Toyola Energy Ltd of Ghana, who explained his elegant business model that provides work and income for over 500 entrepreneurs in making and selling the Toyola stove, which allows families to cook on half the charcoal needed for traditional stoves.  His simple credit scheme allows the local sales agent to give the stove to a family, with a collecting tin: each day that the customer does NOT need to pay for charcoal (because the stove halves their usage), they put their charcoal money into the tin.  After a few months, they have saved enough to pay for the stove!

The UK projects were also an inspiration this year and I was delighted to learn that one of the finallists, Radian Housing, was about to open a flagship project in Windsor, where they have built 9 new houses in Tinkers Lane - one is Code 6 (essentially zero carbon) and the others are all Code 5 dwellings, which are highly efficient in the way they use energy.  I was delighted to attend the opening ceremony last week, where our Mayor cut the ribbon and some of the residents opened their new homes to all the visitors.  We were a distinctly non-technical audience and the main take-home message was that these houses are very attractive, liveable homes that require no special skills from their residents.  Sure, some behaviours can be learned (for example, with a huge solar PV power station on the roof, it's worth running the washing machine when the sun is shining) but all the buildings' clean technologies simply run themselves itself without placing any responsibilities on the household.

It was a great pleasure to learn that these two finallists, Toyola and Radian, received the two Gold Awards at the Ashden Awards ceremony, on the evening of the day after the conference.

The other inspiring energy event that I have attended this month was, surprisingly, the RBWM Sustainability Panel at the Town Hall in Maidenhead.  After a slow start, discussion moved to the Government's disclosure requirements for greenhouse gas emissions.  The responsible officer outlined the framework of Scope I, Scope II and Scope III reporting but focused on the costs and complexity of data-gathering and analysis.  The councillors set a different pace, however, reminding the panel that residents expect leadership from their council and that time is of the essence in moving to meaningful reporting of these GHG emissions.  This decision was passed unanimously.  Good on them!

The same tone was maintained when considering energy reporting, with annual overviews by invoice described as insufficient and unsatisfactory.  The vice-chair, Councillor Sharp, called for electricity and gas usage by site to be reported "at least monthly".  On Energy Action Plans, the Chairman called for focus on the significant few actions, to make real progress.  Lastly, proposals for solar photovoltaic installations up to 50kWp on council buildings were reviewed and the vice-chair, Cllr. Sharp, now well into his stride, said, "We must do it now.  Must do it now!"  The Chairman concurred, saying "We want it and we want it tomorrow."

Having sat through a few of the previous administration's Sustainability Panels, which I felt were typically bogged down in politics, I found the new council's can-do mentality so empowering.  In the closing words of the Chairman, Cllr. David Coppinger, it's time to move from talking to doing.  Amen to that.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

A change is brewing

Last week, our Bosch kettle died.  We bought it in March 2009, 26 months ago, with a 24 month warranty.  I stripped it down but could not get close enough to the sealed electronics to to find the fault.  It just blows the 13A fuse in the plug every time we switch it on.  I called Bosch customer service, to find out what could be done.  They told me to send it back to their workshop, with a cheque for £9, and they would investigate the fault and let me know what needed to be done to repair the kettle.  I might just do that, to see if we can keep this  otherwise high quality appliance in service rather than having to recycle it.  However, I can't imagine that many people would be prepared to throw good money after bad to prolong the life of stuff that has become essentially disposable.

In the meantime, we need a kettle.  Making tea and coffee with a saucepan is all very well on the odd occasion, such as a power cut, but we're all used to brewing up a hot drink in a matter of minutes.  I have been trying to track down an old-fashioned kettle with a heat exchanger skirt, for use on our gas hob.  My Grandma used to have a Simplex kettle like this and I found the company's website but there has been no response so far from their Contact Form.

I'm fairly clear, however, that the rest of the family won't tolerate life without an electric kettle that switches itself off when it comes to the boil.  I have long been fascinated with the Eco Kettle, which combines an onboard water reservoir with a clearly-calibrated boiling chamber, designed to make it consummately easy to boil only the amount of water that you need.  I decided to get one from Ecotopia, because they offered the best price and the fastest service, and I was pleasantly surprised to take delivery of a chrome Eco Kettle 2 the following day.

Having lived with the new gadget for a couple of days, I am happy with almost all aspects of its performance.  It's very quiet because it uses a less powerful element than most ordinary kettles.  This makes no appreciable difference to boiling times for one or two cups but must take slightly longer than a regular kettle to boil a teapotful, I suppose.  It's certainly heavy because it's carrying a full tank of water even when you're just boiling one cup.  However, the weight is not a problem for my family and the Eco Kettle is very well balanced and pours cleanly.  It also lives up to its promise, making it truly effortless to boil just the amount you need.

The one thing that makes no sense is that the kettle is terribly slow to switch off, once the water has boiled.  The power stays on for more than 10 seconds after the water can be seen and heard to be boiling vigorously.  When boiling a full charge of water, the EcoKettle moves around violently and seems ready to jump off its base.  It hasn't actually spilled any boiling water yet but it seems likely that this aspect of the design needs to be refined, so that the Eco Kettle doesn't waste electricity raising steam while the boil detector makes up its mind to turn the power off.  More importantly, any possibility of scalding from spitting liquid or even a spilt kettle is a serious safety issue.  I'll share my concern with the manufacturer and report back any response that they offer.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Simple Energy Saving at home

I was very pleased that Julian Worricker read out my email in full on Radio 4's "You & Yours" programme today.  You can Listen Again on iPlayer here, until Monday 16 May - around 46 minutes in.  Here's what I sent into the programme:

"It's worth all the effort to insulate, switch off and replace inefficient bulbs and appliances.  I have managed to cut my family's home electricity use in half, and our gas consumption by a third, since 2006.  The cost of insulation, light bulbs and an A+ refrigerator were quickly paid back and my energy bills are a third lower now than they were in 2006."

Of course, I couldn't provide the evidence behind this on the programme, so I will do this here.  I was also struck by Julian's response: he said, "That's very positive from his point of view but we don't all have the time to do that".  Accepting this viewpoint, the challenge is to make it so easy for people to use energy wisely in their homes that they find it only natural to cut waste and save money on their bills.

In 2006, our home used 30,400 kWh of energy: 21,200 units of gas and 9,200 of electricity.  This cost almost £1500.  Since then I have invested in great tranches of loft insulation, all shapes and sizes of energy-saving light bulbs, a condensing boiler, a solar thermal panel (the boiler has been off for weeks now), an efficient larder fridge and the 8 watt Fit-PC computer (strictly a net-top) that I am writing this blog on now.  We have also pulled together as a family to change our behaviour, switching everything off at the mains when not needed, keeping the thermostat down low in the winter and generally striving to avoid wasting energy.

2010 was an unusual year, starting and ending with prolonged spells of extreme cold.  As a result, our 2010 energy use was greater than expected.  However, 2011 has been unseasonably warm so far and our energy consumption since January has been 20% lower than the same period last year.  In the past 12 months, we have used a total of 17,200 kWh at home: 12,800 units of gas and 4,400 kWh of electricity.  This graph shows our annual energy costs, for gas and electricity, over the past five years.  I've also included my estimate for 2011 and we are on track to spend just £1000 on home energy this year:

The point of all this data is to make clear the savings to be had by using energy wisely.  If my family's power consumption had remained at 2006 levels, we would now be paying over £1,700 a year for our gas and electricity.  On the news today, Centrica warned that forward gas prices for next winter are 25% higher than they were at this time last year.  This makes it apparent that everyone's energy bills will rise - unless they act to reduce their usage!  The investments needed are one-off costs but the payback comes ever after - in my case,  a saving of £60 a month on the cost of home energy.  The higher the price, the bigger the saving.  What's stopping you, Julian?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Let's recycle more!

We have had kerbside recycling in Windsor for quite a few years.  Several years ago, I learned that our local authority, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, won't accept mixed plastics (ie., plastic food packaging other than bottles) for recycling.  At this point I took Greenpeace's advice and started to clean and collect my family's own mixed plastic packaging (yoghurt pots, margarine tubs, ready meal trays, fruit punnets, etc) in anticipation of future recycling services.  My collection of mixed plastics has featured prominently in the local paper and was also used artistically last year, to make a "10%" sign in front of Windsor Castle, in support of the Global Day of Doing on 10 October 2010 (10/10/10).

Other Boroughs across the country now collect mixed plastic - the latest to announce this service is the neighbouring Woking Borough Council, who have a contract with Biffa to recycle all types of plastic (other than bags and films) within their domestic, co-mingled kerbside collection.  Biffa have acquired Greenstar WES and their new mixed plastics recycling facility, opened this month in Redcar, will be able to sort and bale 20,000 Tonnes of mixed plastics each year.

Closer to home, this morning Neil Grundon (a founder member of our Sustainable Windsor group) showed me around Grundon's materials recovery facility (MRF) in Colnbrook.  They are able to sort and bale steel and aluminium cans, paper and cardboard, mixed plastics.  They also collect glass which is used as aggregate in roadbuilding or for recycling.  Grundon recycle household waste from nearby boroughs such as Guildford, Spelthorne and Hillingdon.  I took some of my mixed plastic packaging along with me today, to see how well their sorting process coped with it.

I was delighted to see my carefully laundered yoghurt pots and margarine tubs flying along the final conveyor into the mixed plastics silo, ready for baling.  Black plastics are hard to sort, at present, because an optical process, near infra-red reflectance (NIR), is used for the sorting.  However, these could be separated from the final waste stream in future by an additional sorting machine that is "trained" to work on black plastics.

Recoup, a charity promoting the RECycling Of Used Plastics, publishes an annual report on the collection of plastic packaging from UK Households.  In their latest report, RECOUP reports that mixed plastics (ie., rigid plastic packaging other than bottles) are actively recycled by 120 local authorities in the UK, out of 401 that they contacted.

Despite all this progress in the recycling of mixed plastics nationally, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead seems to be locked in a recycling time-warp!  The Royal Borough's current waste and recycling contractor is Veolia and there is no indication on the Veolia website that they are prepared ever to provide a mixed plastics recycling service to their municipal customers.  The waste and recycling contract for Windsor and Maidenhead is up for renewal this year.  Clearly Biffa and Grundon are competent, commercial partners who should be allowed to tender for this valuable contract.  Will the Council insist on the provision of a wider range of recycling streams from the company that successfully tenders for this valuable contract - or will the business stay with Veolia because they can offer the lowest price?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

EcoBuild fires the imagination

I headed over to the EcoBuild exhibition in Docklands yesterday.  The Travelcard from Windsor is now valid on the Docklands Light Railway, so it's quick and cheap to travel right to the door of the ExCel centre.  There were well over 2,000 exhibitors, so it's impossible to see everything in a few hours but I was able to pick out a few highlights.

There is a boom in flat roof technologies!  Many commercial buildings have load-bearing roofs that are unused and the Government's Feed-In Tariffs are making solar PV an attractive option for buisnesses and home-owners alike.  What's new is the range of alternatives to traditional silicon panels mounted on A-frames.  Lots of thin film solar technologies have now reached the market.  Producing fewer watts per square metre, meaning larger panels, thin film photovoltaics are also cheaper to buy than the same generating capacity of crystalline panels.  Moreover, they harvest a wider spectrum of radiant energy and so are more effective in overcast conditions - quite well suited to our climate.  Being thin, cheap and, in many cases, flexible, they can simply be glued onto roofing decks, facing straight up.  The most attractive design was from US company, Solyndra.   Designed to simply be placed over large roof areas, each flat panel has many horizontal photovoltaic rods and is shaped like a car roofrack.  The advantages are that the individual tubes are fixed at the correct angle for optimum power generation whilst the flat racks let wind and rain through, meaning that they don't need bolts or ballast to keep them in place in stormy weather.  Then there were the integrated solar PV and thermal panels, generating electricity and hot water, the advantage being that the water flow keeps the solar panels at the low temperatures needed for optimum generating efficiency.  Most confusing, there was even a solar thermal panel running on refrigerant gases that is claimed to generate heat in the dark of night as well as in the daylight!  I think that, in reality, this is an air-source heat pump which is boosted by the sun's warmth during the day.

Beyond solar panels, the most attractive designs were of green roof technologies, bringing biodiversity back to 'urban deserts' and helping to clean up the air we breathe in our towns and cities.  The most beautiful display was from Blackdown green roofs of Somerset who had planted so many spring flowers into their flowing sedum roof that it looked like an Alpine meadow and would not have been out of place at Chelsea.

Under all these working rooftops were a bewildering array of structural, insulating and cladding materials together with hyper-efficient doors and windows.  For green plumbing and heating, there were oodles of heat pump systems (these use a little electricity to harvest a lot of renewable energy) and new, high-efficiency radiators that run at the lower water temperatures provided by heat pumps or even our current, gas-fired condensing boilers when operating at their most efficient.  To save electricity at home, the brilliant VPhase system retails at around £200 plus fitting.  This simple fit-and-forget technology is widely employed in commercial buildings.  VPhase is the domestic version that has been proven in large-scale trials over the last five years and will cut the average home's electricity usage by 8 - 10%.

Surprisingly few LED lighting suppliers were exhibiting but the architectural lights on show from Deltalight were simply mind-blowing.  Their secret is the tiniest LED chips, giving incredibly sharp edges to the light thrown from these low-power sources.  The only downside was the price ...

If I had the money and the land, I would love to take the best of  these technologies and build a sustainable home needing no fossil fuel energy for heating and lighting.  That's the point of these exhibitions - to make us dream!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Windsor news

Congratulations if you've found your way here from the article in this week's Windsor Express - it's on page 17 of the digital edition - and thanks for looking me up!

Francis Batt, the journalist who wrote this flattering story, has helped to promote our local efforts on 10:10 and mixed plastics recycling (which has earned me some local notoriety, and much ribbing from my friends).  He has rather bravely featured the idea of biomethane - energy from sewage - which the National Grid say could eventually provide most of the gas for domestic customers in Britain.  Last year, British Gas became the first energy company to inject biomethane into the National Grid.  As a member of their Customer Panel, I proposed that this could be marketed as a green tariff: the world's first Dual Fuel deal offering 100% renewable energy to households wishing to minimise their environmental impact.  To their credit, British Gas are taking the idea very seriously and have proposed to launch something along these lines during 2011.

Elsewhere in the paper, a letter from Mike (a resident of Bolton Road) lampooned Councillor Maxwell, the chairman of the Royal Borough's Sustainability Panel, for his suggestion that the council investigate the provision of charging points for electric vehicles in Windsor and require taxi drivers to replace their cars with electric ones.  He describes the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change as "insanity" and asks, "has anyone done the calculations - the cost of providing electric capacity to charge up 11 million vehicles?".  The answer to this question, of course, is yes - for starters, Mike could try Professor David Mackay, FRS, the author of "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air".

Mike's unreconstructed world view appears to be that batty green councillors are interfering with the perfectly well running fossil fuel economy and that they should just stick to the day job of running council services.  I don't mean to put words into Mike's mouth but, unlike him, I did attend the Sustainability Panel when electric vehicles and charging points were discussed and I do know what was said.  I shall be setting the record straight in my own letter to the paper and I hope this is published in the coming weeks.

Bright and early this morning, Hannah, Laura and I got together with Sue, the organiser of the Thames Valley Farmers' Markets, to discuss how Sustainable Windsor can support the local farmers who are selling their produce direct to Windsor residents.  We sampled some local cheeses and then bought bread, fish and beer to take home.  I loved the sign on the stall selling watercress from the Basingstoke area - "Total Food Miles = 27.4".  There is much scope for us to highlight the environmental benefits of these local and sustainable products and perhaps, as we develop Sustainable Windsor during the coming year, we can help them to grow their businesses in our town.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Worldwide CO2 emissions

A fascinating graphical report in the Guardian online shows the CO2 emissions from energy use in 2009 from every country in the world.  Here is a link to the article.

The data comes from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and does not reflect total Greenhouse Gas emissions from human activities.  The principal omissions are carbon (as CO2 and methane) released from tropical deforestation and other land use changes and the agricultural production of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.  Taken as a whole, global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities equal approx. 50 billion Tonnes CO2-e per annum.

What it does show is the phenomenal growth in emissions from China.  A decade ago, in 2000, China emitted 2.8 billion Tonnes of  CO2 from energy use.  In 2009, the country's emissions had risen by a further 4.9 billion Tonnes to 7.7 billion Tonnes, a quarter of the world's total carbon emissions from energy use.  CO2 emissions from energy use in Asia and Oceania as a whole have grown by 6 Billion Tonnes, from 7.2 Billion to 13.3 Billion Tonnes over this period.

Over the same period, the combined emissions from energy use in both Europe and North America fell just 5% from 11.3 Billion Tonnes to 10.7 Billion Tonnes CO2.

The consequence, not seen in this graphic of current energy use, is that the world's annual emissions from energy use have risen by 6.6 Billion Tonnes CO2 since 2000 - more than a quarter of the total emissions in that year.  As reported by BP and other oil companies in January, their outlook is that exponential growth of carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption will continue unchecked for the next 40 years.  If they are right then catastrophic, runaway climate change is guaranteed.

As Ban Ki-Moon said in Davos last week, the world's economic model is environmental suicide.

Mr Ban's solution, endorsed by the delegates at this session of the World Economic Forum on Friday, is to "tear down the walls between a green agenda and a growth agenda.  There is no time to waste."

In response, the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, called for a "modern trinity" of growth, social justice and environmental responsibility - the triple-bottom-line of responsible development.

Even the President and CEO of WalMart, Mike Duke, chipped in, "Business should not see a conflict between doing what is right for business and what is right for the world".

Friday, 28 January 2011

On Board with British Gas again

During 2010, I volunteered to take part in British Gas' Customer Panel.  They selected a cross-section of around 30 customers to visit a range of their businesses, talk to lots of managers and staff and share our views on what the company can do better for its customers.

The reason I joined was my passion for energy efficiency and renewable generation: I wanted British Gas and its parent company, Centrica, to help all their customers use energy wisely and to lead the transformation of Britain's energy infrastructure towards a future of intelligent distribution of low carbon power.  

At our final presentation to the Board of British Gas last August, I posed a suite of direct challenges to the company on the theme of leading Britain to a low carbon future.  I am delighted to say that the company and its directors have been completely open to my suggestions and they have indicated their intention to act on the vast majority of these proposals.  Indeed, British Gas has committed to act on many of the recommendations that the Customer Panel developed, across all five themes - customer service, simpler billing, clearer prices, open communications and low carbon leadership.

This year, British Gas will continue to deliver the recommendations of the Customer Panel and has invited a number of panellists - including me - to join their new Customer Board, monitor the way that these improvements are implemented and continue to challenge their senior managers to serve British Gas customers better.

Some people wonder why I am giving my time to a commercial business in this way.  To be treated as a valued guest and shown around a major corporation is rewarding in itself and to develop cogent proposals for improving that business is an exciting intellectual pursuit.  My most important motivation for volunteering is the hope that this investment of time and enthusiasm will influence the strategy and performance of the company and that, as a result, millions of British Gas' customers will be made aware of the reasons and opportunities to save energy in their homes.  

The company tells us that it is "Looking after your world".  
To paraphrase Archimedes, I see the new Customer Board at British Gas as a fulcrum, a place to stand and press the case for clean energy and sustainable business practices, from a customer's perspective.  I might just have a long enough lever to move "your world", that British Gas looks after, a little closer towards the needs of Earth - the world that we all depend on for our very existence.  

Carbon-Neutral Ashton Hayes and a new Climate Leader

Fabulous talk at Transition Maidenhead on Tuesday evening by Garry Charnock, the driving force behind Ashton Hayes becoming Britain's first carbon-neutral community.  As Garry made clear, "carbon-neutral" is a vision rather than a destination, and a vision that has resulted in verified reductions of this community's carbon footprint by around 25% in their first five years.  Exciting plans lie ahead and the goodwill, the community spirit that has built up through the enthusiasm of everyone puling together, has drawn even the most sceptical residents into this unique, sustainable movement.

Carbon-neutral Ashton Hayes asked commercial donors to fund their launch - and quickly had £3,500 cash with none of the strings that come with grant funds.  400 adults came to their launch event, and the BBC World service broadcast it to 120 million people worldwide!  Garry told us that residents like to get their news from their local papers, so this is a much better way of reaching the local community than putting leaflets through doors.  He also observed that, up and down the country, the sustainable communities that succeed are the ones that engage children - working with schools is an essential ingredient.

Another secret of success has been the long-term involvement of the geography department at the nearby University of Chester.  Students and academics benchmarked the Year 1 carbon footprint of the village (5,000 Tonnes CO2-e) and provided feedback to every home.  Ongoing surveys established the carbon reductions of all households in the village - demonstrating that even the people who didn't sign up to the campaign had reduced their emissions as a result of the all the buzz and chatter about it in their village.  The pub landlord was a great example: initially a vocal sceptic, he turned to the carbon-neutral group when his energy bills were threatening his business.  A team from the University spent a day measuring the pub's energy use and he achieved an immediate cut in his monthly bill of 20% as a result.  Thereafter, he became a real advocate for the scheme and 9,000 other Punch Taverns nationwide learned about his reduced energy bills.

Community cohesion is a strong motivator and carbon-neutral Ashton Hayes has kept people involved through parties in peoples' homes.  A community shop provides local food ingredients without excess packaging and a community electric car (Nissan Leaf) will soon be bookable through the shop, which will take a small cut of the fees in return for managing this service.  The village has produced a toolkit to replicate their Carbon-Neutral community and this has allowed Eden Mills to become the first community in Canada to go carbon neutral.

Garry's rules:

  1. Keep it non-political: their MP wanted to speak at the launch but this was not allowed.  
  2. Don't fall out with anyone: the biggest petrolheads and most frequent flyers are key assets in a carbon reduction campaign!
  3. Carbon footprint information and feedback is private but ALWAYS share news of successes (e.g., new renewables or energy efficiency measures installed) with neighbours!
My feelings, having listened to Garry, is that unimaginable change has been achieved by unswerving passion.  There are just so many ways in which his project could have stalled but, instead of letting people say "No", Garry has brought his community together and drafted powerful resource providers in to make great things happen.  He embodies the inspired leadership needed to tackle climate change in  communities of all sizes, from villages to nations, continents and the world.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Two invitations

If you live near to Maidenhead or Egham then one or other of these events may be of interest to you.  Both are free to attend and no booking is necessary.

Transition Maidenhead have invited Garry Charnock to speak about Britain's first carbon-neutral community.  Garry is from the rural village of Ashton Hayes in Cheshire and their community website is a great read.

Come and hear Garry describe the villagers' experiences of going carbon-neutral, at the Desborough Suite in Maidenhead Town Hall on Tuesday, 25 January, from 7 until 9:30pm.  After Garry's talk, there will be an opportunity to meet and chat with members of Transition and Sustainability groups from the Thames Valley and beyond.
Royal Holloway, University of London, in Englefield Green are hosting their Annual Sustainability Lecture on Monday 31 January at 6:15pm.  This event is organised by Dr Laura Spence, one of Sustainable Windsor's founders.  The speaker will be the eminent scientist, Professor Lord Robert May, who was until recently President of The Royal Society, and before that Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and Head of its Office of Science & Technology. He is a member of the UK Committee on Climate Change.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The first results are in ...

America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just published the first analyses of global average temperatures for 2010.

Here are the 15 warmest years from 1880 to 2010
(average of global land and sea surface temperature records):
Rank         Year              Difference vs. 20th century average
1=             2005                0.62°C
1=             2010                0.62°C
3               1998                0.60°C
4=             2003                0.58°C
4=             2002                0.58°C
6=             2006                0.56°C
6=             2009                0.56°C
8               2007                0.55°C
9               2004                0.54°C
10             2001                0.52°C
11=           2008                0.48°C
11=           1997                0.48°C
13             1999                0.42°C
14             1995                0.41°C
15             2000                0.39°C
These are all in my daughter's lifetime.  How old is she?  15.

NASA have just released their analysis, confirming the ranking for the warmest 8 years on record (with a slight discrepancy between 7th and 8th place).

The Guardian reports that more analyses of the world's climate in 2010 are due later this month from the Met Office and the World  Meteorological Organisation.

Update:  Here is the Met Office data, with a handy table comparing these three data sets.  Interesting to note the difference in their reporting of temperature anomalies for these years.