Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Smarter Living is here!

No new posts for a couple of months because I have been working flat out, pedal to the metal, nose to the grindstone, persuading lots of kind and intelligent people to exhibit and talk about sustainability at this year's Egham Royal Show.

I have succeeded!  It's all happening in Egham this weekend.  British Gas have kindly sponsored the sustainability exhibition and have named it the Smarter Living Area.  I'm pleased with the name because it avoids many of the pitfalls of selling sustainability - witness the Government's difficulties marketing the Green Deal, where it seems that the public don't like the words "Green" or "Deal".

Some bright lights in the sustainability firmament have generously volunteered to come along and speak to our visitors about their work and their visions for a better world.  Our Programme of distinguished Speakers is shown below.

If you have time, please come along to the Egham Royal Show this weekend, visit the Smarter Living Area, catch some of our excellent speakers and say Hi to me!  Admission is just £7 (£4 for under 16s) or £18 for a family ticket.  Egham rail station is a short walk from the showground, so you can enjoy low-carbon travel from London and the South-East.  Full details on the Egham Royal Show website.

Hope to see you there,

British Gas Smarter Living Area

Speaker Programme

Saturday 25 August

11 am              Gearoid Lane, British Gas New Markets
“Smart, Connected Homes: A vision for
Britain in 2020”

12:30 pm         David DeChambeau, Southeast Power Engineering  
“Hydro power for
Windsor Castle

2 pm                Dr Paula Owen, Paula Owen Consulting                               
“How to save energy, water and money by living smarter”

2:30 pm          Neil & Michaela Allam, makers of Norbury Blue Cheese
Cheese-making demonstration in the Smarter Living Area marquee

3 pm                Gareth Swain, SITA Surrey
                        “Recycling: Giving waste a second life”

Sunday 26 August

11 am              David DeChambeau, Southeast Power Engineering  
“Hydro power for
Windsor Castle

12 noon           John Condon, the Prince of Wales’ START Initiative
 “Eco Driving”

2 pm               Neil &Michaela Allam, makers of Norbury Blue CheeseCheese-making demonstration in the Smarter Living Area marquee

3 pm                Clare Flynn and Hilary Bruffell, Make it and Mend it
“Thinking outside the bin”

All our distinguished speakers are kindly volunteering their time.  British Gas and the Egham Royal Show would like
to express their gratitude to every speaker, for their valuable contribution to the Show.  
These timings are all approximate: presentations may be delayed by loud events in the main arena.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Sustainable living exhibition

After several years of thinking, doing and blogging about sustainable living, I have been granted the golden opportunity of organising an exhibition on the subject!

The Egham Royal Show is an annual agricultural and community event that is now in its 154th year.  This year, for the first time, the show will feature a Sustainability Exhibition and I have volunteered to organise this.  The sustainability page on our website explains what I am trying to achieve.  I am contacting companies and community organisations in Surrey, Berkshire and London that are proud of their sustainable businesses, products and activities, to invite them to spend a weekend at the Show, engaging with the 8,000 or so visitors that will attend.

Please pass the word around and get in touch with me if you would like to participate as an exhibitor or a sponsor at the sustainable living exhibition on 25 and 26 August.  You can email sustainability@eghamroyalshow.org.uk or call me on 077 1000 6626.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A secure and sustainable energy future?

In a week of news on sustainability, and on a day of news on our future energy supply, I am reflecting on the British people's awareness of what we use energy for and their expectations of where it will come from in future.

Eric Pickles launched the Government's new National Planning Policy Framework this week, retaining its "presumption in favour of sustainable development".  While its intention is to empower local authorities to implement local plans, the new planning framework risks both commercial development of environmentally sensitive habitats and incoherent implementation of national infrastructure imperatives. The problem is that sustainable development means different things to different people and, when it lies in the hands of local planning departments, consistent interpretation seems unlikely.

The "Planet under Pressure" conference has also taken place in London this week and has today published its "State of the Planet Declaration" . While the passion and concern of the 3,000 delegates in London and the further 3,000 online participants is beyond question, I think the turgid and inaccessible language of this declaration is a missed opportunity to create widespread awareness of the challenges we face in maintaining a sustainable habitat for humanity and all life on earth.

The next piece of today's news is, to my mind, a good thing that could be better.  DECC has published provisional figures for Britain's greenhouse gas emissions in 2011, showing a welcome reduction on 2010 figures.  Home heating emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than the previous year - but just look at the weather we had in those two years!  December 2010 was the coldest December in recorded history, while 2011 started and ended with truly extraordinary warmth.  As DECC notes, the mean temperatures experienced here in the first and last quarters of 2011 were 2.2°C and 4.1°C, respectively,  warmer than the previous year.  This fall in domestic heating emissions is great but is no more sustainable than the weather.  As the Americans say, we have to invest in "winterizing" our homes, businesses and public buildings.

Emissions from electricity generation also fell from 2010, by around 6%. This is attributed both to lower demand (3% less than 2010) and to greater availability of our nuclear generating capacity: the consequence was a 17% fall in gas usage for power generation and an 11% rise in nuclear power.  Some interesting statistics are buried in the Tables (remember that these figures are provisional).  In 2011:

  • Coal accounted for one-quarter of our electricity supply but two-thirds of our CO2 emissions from power stations.  
  • Renewables generated more than 5% of our electricity supply.
CO2 emissions from transport (including domestic flights) were almost flat, falling by just 1.4% from 2010 and remaining within half a percent of 1990 levels.  A growing share of a diminishing pot.   

In this morning's latest headline, Eon and Npower's owner, RWE, announced their withdrawal from the UK nuclear new build consortium, Horizon.  Amid cheers from respected environmental organisations including WWF (an organisation I have supported since their inception over 40 years ago) and Friends of the Earth, who see nuclear power as an unmitigated environmental disaster, there should also be caution.  Our demand for electricity in this country will certainly grow in the coming decades, as population and consumption (the march of the gadgets) both increase and as heating and transport move from fossil fuel combustion to low carbon electricity.

But where will this low carbon electricity come from?  So many concerned nature lovers tell me of their abhorrence of wind turbines, which they see as despoiling this green and pleasant land.  Even offshore wind farms are described as an intrusion into coastal views that have been uninterrupted since the dawn of time.  What I need to know is where these custodians of our beautiful landscape imagine we will get our energy from in the coming decades - a period that will include the rest of my life and the best years of my children's lives.

Youth negotiators asked a critical question at the international climate change negotiations in Bonn in 2009:  "How old will you be in 2050?"  That's the date by which Britain has committed in law to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 20% of 1990 levels.  The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has set a trajectory to meet this commitment, in our national carbon budgets.  This requires us to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2027 and effectively to decarbonise our electricity generation by 2030.  This is seen as achievable through a combination of renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS).  Yet the National Trust and almost everyone who has a window with a view opposes further deployment of wind energy, energy and engineering companies are walking away from new nuclear construction and the Government remains unable to invest its promised £1 billion in a CCS demonstration project because no power generator believes it is affordable, achievable or that there will be sufficient return on investment.

It is for this reason that DECC's new Minister sneaked out his announcement, at midnight on Friday 16 March, that investors in new gas-fired power stations will be able to run them unabated - ie., without CCS - for the next 33 years!  The Committee on Climate Change wrote this week to Ed Davey asking him to reflect on the CCC's carbon budgets, in the light of DECC's granting of these "grandfather rights" to gas generators, and to set clear decarbonisation objectives in the current Energy Market Reform.

What is missing from this story of shortsighted squabbling and failure to act when we must?  Leadership, that's what.  If you manage to read that far, page 6 of today's State of the Planet Declaration includes the succinct phrases, "We must show leadership at all levels.  We must all play our parts".  In Annexe 2, Ban ki-Moon declares his intention to appoint a chief scientific advisor on global sustainability.  Let's hope he picks someone who is not only a scientific virtuoso but also a master communicator.  Without an eloquent and attention-grabbing figurehead to spell out the choices we must make, the squabbling will continue to cover our inaction and the public will continue to believe that their iPads, Sky boxes and microwaves run on pixie dust that won't hurt a fly.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Challenging misperceptions around clean energy Part 2

Mercury Falling (apologies to Sting)

You may have read Emma's incisive comment on my previous post, questioning the relevance of US mercury emissions from power generation to the safety of CFLs here in Britain.  I agree!  The objective of my post was to put the case that the climate change resulting from (global) greenhouse gas emissions is a much greater threat to our safety than the trace amounts of mercury present in compact fluorescent lamps.  However, I used American data that didn't answer the question of how CFLs contribute to mercury pollution in Britain.

To put this right, I have examined the mercury emissions arising here in Britain from the Government's Carbon Emissions Reductions Target (CERT) programme, that funded the free distribution and subsidised retail sale of CFLs.  Rightly or wrongly, I am excluding any mining and manufacturing emissions of mercury in the production of these bulbs, since that took place outside the UK.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) of up to 20 watts contain under 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury, the metal vapour that emits ultra-violet light when the bulb is running.  This U-V light excites the white phosphor coating inside the tubes of the CFL, causing the phosphor to fluoresce, and that's how fluorescent lighting works, in a nutshell!  The typical quantity of mercury in a modern CFL is around 4mg mercury, commonly described as "enough to cover the writing tip of a biro".

Up to 350 million compact fluorescent lamps were distributed under CERT between 2008 and 2010, containing around 1.4 Tonnes of mercury in total.  Each is expected to last up to 10 years and to be recycled appropriately at end of life - in which case there is no mercury leakage from CFLs.  In practice, some of these lamps break and many are thrown in the bin when they stop working, releasing their trace of mercury to the environment.

To estimate the release of mercury from these 350 million CFLs, I have assumed that (1) 10% of them fail each year, for 10 years, giving an average working life of 5 years, and (2) HALF these CFLs are broken or binned, rather than being recycled properly.  In this case, 17.5 million of those CFLs supplied under CERT will be broken each year, for 10 years, releasing around 70 kg of mercury a year to the environment.

How does this compare with other sources of mercury emissions here in the UK?  The 2009 National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory  shows that 7.35 Tonnes of mercury were reported to be released in that year.  Some of the sources were: 3.9 T from manufacturing and chemical industries, 1.5 T from cremation and clinical waste incineration, 1.3 Tonnes from power generation and 360kg from landfill.

So the amount of mercury released each year from the CFLs distributed under CERT represents just under one percent of the total annual emissions of this toxic metal in Britain.  We are all exposed to this pollution, principally through our diets - because mercury enters the foodchain - and particularly if we eat the top marine predators like tuna and swordfish.  But the quantities we ingest are minuscule and the risk they present to most of us is, frankly, trivial in comparison with the certain dangers of manmade climate change for us and our descendants.

We live in a 4-bedroom detached house.  Shockingly, it has around 120 bulbs installed!  I first surveyed the energy use of lighting in our home five years ago, when we had 34 energy-saving CFLs and 92 incandescent lights - including halogen lamps.  We now have about 80 CFLs fitted and have replaced almost all the remaining incandescent bulbs with clean, bright LED lighting.  Our electricity usage has halved over the same period, largely through fitting energy-efficient appliances including lighting.

I also have a small, medical thermometer containing mercury, that we used to put in our babies' mouths when they were unwell.  The thermometer contains 2 - 3 times as much mercury as all the CFLs in my house.  I am sad to say that climate change is a far greater threat to my grown-up babies' wellbeing than that thermometer ever was.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Challenging misperceptions around clean energy

Which are the greater threat, heavy metals or greenhouse gases? 

Most people are happy to agree that LED lighting is clean, efficient and the way forward - when the balance of quality, performance and price becomes acceptable for mainstream customers in our high streets and retail parks.  Until then, we can get along with the current generation of energy-saving lights, known as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).  In recent years they have been given away by energy companies, and sold for pennies in supermarkets, under the Government's Carbon Emissions Reductions Target (CERT) programme.  Those days are gone, however, as you will know if you have had to buy any CFLs recently - they cost anything from £2 to £6 each, which is pretty much what they should cost - they last many years and save many times their own cost in electricity over their lifetimes .

There are some downsides with CFLs:

  • they can take a long time to reach full brightness
  • their colour rendition is usually less attractive than that of old-fashioned tungsten incandescent bulbs and halogen lights
  • their brightness can fall substantially over their lifetimes
  • they contain traces of mercury and, at the end of their life, they need to be disposed of through suitable recycling facilities.
These issues have led some green campaigners to argue that we should not have banned traditional bulbs, or subsidised distribution of CFLs in recent years, because it was the wrong technology: instead, we should have waited until now - or even until 2014, when the performance and price of LED lighting will really be ready to compete with incandescent bulbs.  Their feeling is that long warm-up times and poor quality light from CFLs have turned consumers against low-energy lighting, so that the adoption of great LED lights will be held back by people's bad experiences of CFLs.  

More concerning, they oppose CFLs because of the presence of trace amounts of mercury in these bulbs.  Some bulbs will be broken in the home, exposing families to traces of mercury vapour, and many will be disposed of through household waste, potentially venting their heavy metal waste to our atmosphere or soil.  In response to this, should we all be so concerned about mercury in our CFLs that we insist on keeping our incandescent lightbulbs, stockpiling them from online retailers before they run out forever?  Well, NO.  That would be a disproportionate reaction to a misunderstood threat.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website sets out the origins and consequences of mercury contamination, here.  The principal manmade source of mercury contamination is from burning coal.  The coal is burned in order to generate electricity, to power our homes and businesses.  In Britain today, lighting accounts for about 20% of electricity demand (source).

Here's a decent analysis of the mercury released through using a traditional, incandescent light and an energy-saving compact fluorescent lamp.  The CFL contains about 5 milligrams of mercury.  Generating the power to run it for its typical lifetime of 7,500 hours releases a further 3.5mg mercury.  That gives a maximium total mercury release of 8.5mg, if the bulb is not properly recycled when it stops working.  

How about the old-fashioned, tungsten incandescent lamp?  It will only last 1000 hours.  Powering a succession of these bulbs, with the same brightness as our CFL, for 7,500 hours will release 13 mg mercury from coal.  From this, we can conclude that (a) it's important to recycle CFLs (and all fluorescent lights) properly and (b) old-fashioned lightbulbs cause much more mercury to be released into the environment than CFLs, through their inefficient use of electricity.

Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are much more significant for our future wellbeing than traces of mercury.  Dr James Hansen of NASA has written, in "Storms of my Grandchildren" (2009), that the greenhouse gases emitted from a large coal-fired power station over its operating lifespan of around 25 years will be responsible for driving 400 species to extinction, through climate change.  

CFLs have been available for about 20 years and, by using them since the mid-nineties, we have reduced emissions of both mercury and carbon dioxide from Britain's power stations.  They have been unarguably a good thing in the battle against manmade global warming.

There is no doubt that LEDs are a cleaner, greener, brighter solution for the future of lighting but they are only now beginning to challenge CFLs as the low energy lighting solution of choice, in terms of performance, quality and cost.  I have adopted LED lighting in my home as widely as I can but the great majority of my lights are compact fluorescents and I still depend on these to keep my energy bills and carbon footprint low while providing warm, welcoming lighting in almost every room of the house.  The LEDs to replace these are nowhere near competitive yet and I shall be loving my CFLs until the new lighting technology can beat them on performance, quality and total lifetime cost.  

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The thorny (or should that be bony?) subject of what we eat

I was recently told by a colleague that, "we were born to eat flesh". As a biologist, I would beg to differ.  Our dentition, evolved from an omnivorous diet, combines cutting and grinding actions.  While our canines and incisors can tear into meat, our molars enable us to chew fibrous plant material in much the same way that ruminants do.  We are well adapted to a diet of fruit, vegetables and grains - supplemented with meat when we can get it.  Our short alimentary canal indicates that, rather than being born to eat meat, we were born to cook.  The combination of farming and fire provides plentiful calories in our diet that are much more readily absorbed than the resistant flesh of raw animal and plant tissues.  Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at University College, London, observes wryly that anyone trying to live exclusively on raw food would die of malnutrition within 90 days.

This led onto the subject of fish because my colleague felt "more strongly about the waste involved with eating fish than with cows, sheep, pigs, chicken, etc."  On the day of this exchange, I happened to be cooking sea bream for dinner.  Whenever we buy whole fish, I boil up the leftovers with a few vegetables and a drop of lemon juice or vinegar to produce a richly-flavoured broth.  Left to chill, the broth sets to a loose jelly which forms the base for another delicious meal, such as risotto or paella.  The only waste is the guts and a handful of sharp fishbones that can be composted.

Of course, there can be waste a-plenty in the supply chain.  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "Fish Fight" campaign has raised our awareness of the appalling practice known as discards, where perfectly edible, dead fish are thrown back into the sea because the vessel has exceeded its fishing quotas.  At the same time, Greenpeace campaigned against the use of purse-seine nets and Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) to fish for tuna, as these methods result in carnage for other species including shark, dolphins and endangered sea turtles.  This incredible campaign resulted in the immediate end to these fishing practices by all the major producers and retailers of tinned tuna.

No such consumer revolution has yet been sparked against the rape of tropical peatland rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are home to all three species of orangutan, in pursuit of the latest gold rush.  Palm oil is present in about a quarter of all grocery products.  It is widely used in toiletries and cosmetics.  Most insidious is its inclusion, by law, as biodiesel in our transport fuel, under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). Liquid biofuels, including palm oil, produced from clearing virgin rainforest have a carbon intensity that is many times that of the fossil fuels they are intended to replace.  Yet that is not stopping Eric Pickles and his Department for Communities and Local Government from granting planning consent for palm-oil fired power stations in Britain, under the deceptive claim that biofuels are a central component of Britain's plans to decarbonise our energy infrastructure in the coming decades.

Industry moves to secure sustainable supplies of palm oil, through the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are a figleaf, however well intentioned, that is allowing the continued destruction of remaining orang-utan habitat.  Most of the major retailers and brands supplying our consumer goods have pledged to use only sustainably-sourced palm oil by 2015.  In the meantime, deliveries of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil to the UK remain unsold because so few of the major players are yet prepared to take the competitive hit of paying more for this ethical ingredient while they can still get the cheap oil, whose by-product is deforestation, leading directly to gargantuan greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and the deaths of our few remaining cousins, whose name comes from the Malay language and means "people of the forest".

So what are the most sustainable and ethical foods in our diets? Allotment-holders, by their toil, earn the right to eat fresh, healthy, seasonal vegetables with no food miles whatsoever.  Those of us with less time, talent and tenacity continue to depend on the supermarket for our weekly shop.  The best we can do there, I believe, is to buy locally-grown food that is in season, avoiding the need for fossil fuels to heat greenhouses and to fly ripe produce to our tables from around the world.   Meat and dairy products are among the most carbon-intensive foods we can buy and so it makes sense to eat less of these foods.

Instead, consider the point made by Colin Tudge in his excellent study of the history and future of food production, "So Shall we Reap" (2002).   Traditional combinations of staple foods (carbohydrate-rich grains and roots) with vegetables or pulses have developed as regional cuisines around the world.  The blend of proteins in each of these combinations provide all the essential amino acids we need to remain healthy.  Tudge's examples include rice and tofu (bean curd) in the Far East, rice and peas in the West Indies, tortillas (maize) and frijoles (beans) in Mexico - and even baked beans on toast (wheat)!  We have all experienced other, traditional combinations of carbohydrate and vegetables, from pasta and beans to potatoes and peas.

The message to take away is that meat and dairy products are not the core of a sustainable, ethical and healthy diet.  That role is reserved for the rainbow varieties of peas, beans, pulses and vegetables which we can combine with our staple foods, transforming them from monotonous carbs into delicious, nutritious and aesthetic cuisine.  And if there WAS a take-away serving that, I'd be the first to order a home delivery from their carbon-neutral rickshaw service!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Why we need to use energy more sustainably

My guest blog on the British Gas Customer Newsroom website.

Two photographs illustrate the article.  The first depicts my schoolfriend, David Kidd, fitting a Navitron solar thermal heating system on my roof.  He's standing safely in a long, horizontal valley between two pitched roofs so no need for a harness.  The second shows the excellent downlights that I fitted into the bathroom cabinet recently, replacing 60 watts of halogen lights with 7.2 watts of warm white LED cabinet units from www.ledcentre.uk.com

Many people argue that we can best engage the public in climate change action using positive terms, such as money to be saved, rather than evoking fear and other negative sentiments by describing the threats of unmitigated warming.  A recent scholarly analysis of climate change communications by Jacqueline Stewart, of George Washington University, gives examples of effective and counter-productive attempts to communicate climate change but concludes only that success depends on the specific message, messenger and circumstances.

I believe people need to hear the truth about our situation - how can we care about something we aren't aware of? - but agree that this needs to be coupled with positive messages on what we can do about it.  

This guest post is my attempt to communicate the big picture on consumption, carbon emissions and consequences, together with clear proposals for personal action to reduce all three.  I am pleased that British Gas have agreed to post it on their customer website and hope that it will reach a wide audience.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Numbers not Adjectives

In the words of Professor David Mackay, we need "numbers, not adjectives" to compare, understand and manage our country's energy supplies and our own energy demands.  In this spirit, here are two charts.

The first shows my family's energy use at home each year from 2006 to 2011.  For reasons I have made clear throughout this blog, we used 52% less energy in 2011 than in 2006.

The second chart shows the costs of this energy.

Sticking to Prof. Mackay's injunction, I will simply note that, despite increases in the unit costs we pay for energy over this period, our total bill for energy in 2011 was 38% smaller than we paid in 2006.

There are all sorts of issues, from fuel poverty to carbon emissions, that this comparison does not address.  The simple point that it illustrates well, however, is that individual efforts and investments to use energy more efficiently have a real impact on our energy bills.  If my family had used as much energy in 2011 as we did in 2006, our bills would have risen by 17% over this period - despite switching to a cheaper supplier at the end of 2008.

And the carbon emissions from our energy use?  I calculate that, in 2006, these amounted to 8 Tonnes CO2.  In 2011, our annual emissions were down to 3.6 Tonnes CO2.  The total reduction over five years (2007 - 11) amounts to 15.7 Tonnes.

This may not sound much compared with, for example, long-haul flights, but we haven't taken any of those in the last five years either.  Cutting carbon makes each and every part of life more sustainable, from holidays to heating, from commuting to computing and from diet to DIY.  Oh dear, I've forgotten the Professor's advice and slipped into rhetoric so I'd better stop and leave you to do the maths.