Posts Tagged ‘Renewable energy’

A burning issue: should we really be subsidising the biomass industry?

25/05/2012

Is the extensive burning of biomass for electricity generation a good use of (arguably) renewable resources and an important contribution to the low-carbon economy? Or is it in fact a threat to our environment and the timber industry, and an inefficient use of a very valuable resource?

In this guest post, Stirling-based building product manufacturer Norbord argues the latter.

What is the most responsible use of timber?

The background
Wood is a valuable resource, which, unlike other sources of renewable energy, is limited due to available land area and the length of the growing cycle. In the UK, current sustainable harvest is fully utilised by Norbord and other manufacturers through a lifecycle of grow –> use –> re-use –> recycle – and then, and only then, –> recover for energy.

This responsible and environmentally efficient lifecycle ensures carbon is stored for many years before being released back into the atmosphere when it is finally burned to produce energy.

As part of its commitment to a low carbon economy, the Government has introduced subsidies to electricity generators under the Renewables Obligation (RO). These subsidies incentivise the burning of wood for electricity-only generation, at efficiency levels of less than 30%.

The issue
The wood panel industry relies entirely on UK wood (virgin and recovered), which is now under huge pressure from the large-scale biomass energy sector. In simple terms, our industry is under threat because the Government subsidies allow the energy generators to pay more than double the price currently paid by the UK wood panel industry for its primary raw material. As a result, this has driven up average wood prices by 60% in the last five years.

And the problem looks set to grow. There has been a huge increase in the number of planning applications for biomass power stations that generate electricity by burning wood. These plants have the capacity to consume many times the entire UK’s timber harvest. Additionally, the Government is introducing subsidies with respect to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which will further distort the market.

Biomass protest (image by faul on Flickr)

The impact
The threat to the wood panel industry is clear, however the current legislation has wider-reaching consequences too:

• The loss of the wood panel industry would cost tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, many of them in manufacturing, damaging already fragile economies.
• The environmental impact – the inefficient burning of wood will in fact generate a net increase in UK CO2 emissions, to the order of hundreds of millions of tonnes.
• UK bill-payers, already struggling with rising costs for household energy, are actually paying £810 million a year for these so-called ‘green’ subsidies through hidden charges in their bills.
• Consumers will experience significant price increases on wood panel products and other manufactured items, driven by the rising cost of raw materials.
• Large negative impact on the UK’s balance of trade, as we would need to import wood from overseas to meet demand.
• Distortion of the ‘Hierarchy of Use’ for wood, to which the UK Government is committed.

What’s being done?
The Wood Panel Industries Federation’s Make Wood Work and Stop Burning our Trees campaigns are backed by Norbord and the other UK panel producers, and supported by other forest product industry organisations. They are national campaigns aimed at persuading the Government to encourage the best possible use of this valuable and limited material.

Working with leading organisations within the building trade, we are lobbying the government to review current and proposed legislation. An Early Day Motion has been tabled in Parliament in support of the Make Wood Work campaign. Specifically, we are asking the Government:

1. To respect the obligated “Hierarchy of Use” in the framing of legislation.
2. To review the RO and RHI incentives with respect to their distortion of this Hierarchy.
3. To incentivise the use of wood for energy only after its full lifecycle use, for carbon storage.
4. To better integrate the process across disparate Government Departments.
5. To commit to, and deliver on, an expansion of productive woodlands.
6. To engage fully with the wood processing industry as represented by the Wood Panel Industries Federation (WPIF) and Confor (Confederation of Forest Industries).

How can you help?
The Biomass Issue has consequences for the UK economy, our environment and for the tens of thousands of UK workers whose jobs are at risk as a result of this legislation.

Please support our campaign by signing the petition.

Thank you to Norbord for this guest post. What are your views on biomass and the Government incentives? Whether you are in opposition to the above or in support of it, I would love to hear from you.

In the meantime, here is some more background information:

The great PV break-through

15/03/2012

Ross McGuinness is Area Sales Manager for Kingspan Insulate and Generate. In this guest post, he celebrates the unprecedented take-up of solar PV, but warns it’s too early to break out the Champagne just yet…

The massive expansion of solar PV capacity in the UK has passed another milestone recently. Just a couple of weeks ago, SPV broke through the symbolic barrier of 1,000MW of installed capacity.

Sunset reflected in a solar panel, by ToGa Wanderings on Flickr

This growth has been rapid: in April 2010 there was a mere 26MW installed nationally. 23 months down the line and the industry has topped 1GW, which is a stunning result. The driver behind this seismic shift towards green, renewable energy is without a doubt the government-backed Feed-in Tariff (FiT).

This is all very positive news, and with the announcement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change some weeks ago stating their wish to have 22GW installed by 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy in the SPV garden.

This announcement of several weeks ago has set out something of a roadmap for PV, but key questions need to be addressed before the industry will come out and support the new policy.

The government has destroyed any trust it may have had with the sector and it will take quite some time to repair what has become a fractious relationship. Continued court actions and appeals mean that, in the short term at least, a cloud hangs over SPV in the UK right now.

Looking at what is proposed by government, many industry insiders believe that it will be challenging to convince consumers to invest in SPV at the new rates. One of the main drivers of SPV has been the willingness of investment firms to “fund” SPV, hence the plethora of “free” installs whereby the end user got the benefit of free or discounted electricity and the funder got the Feed-in Tariff.

The new FiT rates will make it unlikely that similar funding models would be viable from an investor perspective. Funders look for an IRR of a minimum return of 7%; anything less and they simply go elsewhere for their fix. The government is on record as stating that they envisage returns of ca. 5% and will strive to ensure they do not go any higher by linking the price of PV modules to the FiT rate.

On the face of it this is a good proposal and should go some way to preventing the “Boom and Bust” that has beleaguered the industry. The mechanism has the potential to provide a sustainable and controlled future for the FiT.

In the long term, this is a positive for the industry, but short term – bearing in mind the skepticism and mistrust about the government’s attitude, and also bearing in mind the further cuts announced for July – you can understand why many are not cracking out the champagne just yet.

Solar panels in a low-tech setting: Breckenridge, Colorado

The belief is that Westminster is out of touch with where the industry is at, but most crucially and disappointingly, they fail to see where the industry can go. The Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change tweeted a couple of weeks ago that the Germans had just announced big cuts to their FiT scheme, implying that he was actually correct in pursuing the cuts here – blissfully ignoring the fact that Germany has had a Feed-in Tariff for the past decade, has a total installed capacity close on 25GW and operates on a completely different scale to the UK.

Under the new rates, the German government is proposing to pay €0.135/kWh for ground-mounted solar farms with a capacity of 10MW or less, and for rooftop installations that are 1–10MW in size. Germany is lightyears ahead of what is currently viable in this country.

There are, however, some reasons to be optimistic. The Chinese government last week directed the leading polysilicon and solar cell manufacturers to increase production, which should see prices continue to fall. That’s good news for consumers and probably bad news for non-Chinese manufacturers. China really does seem to be attempting to establish itself as the SPV equivalent of the Middle East. Continued downward pressure on price of SPV definitely looks set to continue in the short-to-medium term.

The great PV breakthrough should achieve one thing, however: SPV will at least now receive the recognition it deserves as a viable and high-quality alternative to fossil fuels. The SPV industry deserves recognition in Government energy strategy.

There is simply no reason why, if there is willingness on behalf of the powers that be, that by 2020 the UK cannot have the 22GW of solar capacity that government says it wishes to have.

Ross McGuinness, Area Sales Manager, Kingspan Insulate and Generate

Twitter: @rossmcguinness   Email: ross.mcguinness@kingspan.com

Spotlight on solar air heating

15/03/2012

Andrew Brewster leads the Renewables Design Team for the CA Group – a specialist building envelope manufacturer and installer. In this guest post, he puts one of the lesser-known solar technologies under the spotlight:

Solar air heating is a proven technology that has been developed specifically for heating large spaces. With high-profile advocates including The Royal Mail, Marks & Spencer and Jaguar Land Rover, the technology is increasingly expected to become part of the sustainability strategy of those companies leading the charge for environmental responsibility.

Harnessing sunrays to heat large spaces

What is solar air heating?
Solar air heating works by harnessing the sun’s energy via a Transpired Solar Collector (TSC), or SolarWall®. The SolarWall® technology pre-heats fresh, outside air, which is then actively drawn into the building’s heating system, contributing considerably to a reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

The technology is 100% renewable and has the effect of dramatically reducing a building’s overall heating requirement, providing significant savings in energy consumption and carbon emissions.

SolarWall® in action
CA Group recently installed the world’s largest SolarWall® on a single building for Marks & Spencer, at the retail giant’s 80,000m² East Midlands Distribution Centre (EMDC) in Castle Donington. The 4,500m² Transpired Solar Collector is expected to reduce the building’s heating requirement by somewhere in the region of 30%, by generating more than 1,135,000kWh and saving over 256t of CO2 per annum.

The SolarWall® can be seen in action at the Jaguar Land Rover training academy in this video:

The benefits
The revolutionary solar air heating system has the lowest capital cost and the highest known efficiency of any active solar technology in the world (up to 80%), generating in excess of 500 Watts of thermal energy per square meter on a clear day [Dr. Chuck Keutcher, U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)].

It also offers the quickest return on investment, with an estimated payback period of three years on new build and eight years on retrofit applications. So as well as being an excellent option from an environmental perspective, it is also one that makes good commercial sense.

Global recognition
SolarWall® has been available for almost 30 years and is used in over 35 countries globally. A number of companies have tried to emulate the system but, due to a lack of understanding and third-party testing, they have been unable to replicate SolarWall®’s level of system performance.

In the UK, as part of its ongoing development and accreditation, the technology has received the independent endorsement of five leading authorities: Oxford Brookes University, the Welsh Assembly, Cardiff University, BSRIA and BRE.

CA Group has seen a significant uptake in the technology because of the very tangible results it delivers. As awareness of the technology’s capabilities increase, the Group anticipates that solar air heating will become part of the sustainability strategy of more and more companies looking for cost-effective ways of making the biggest impact on their CO2 emissions.

CA Group’s interactive Renewables Guide offers further information on solar air heating and other renewable options geared towards the generation of power and heat for commercial, industrial and distribution centres.

Solar power and feed-in tariffs

08/09/2011

A sunny day after the endless wet of August got me thinking about solar power.

AltText

Solar Energy System - Jeremy Levine Design on Flickr

In April 2010 the government introduced a feed-in tariff (FiT) to encourage low carbon electricity generation, particularly by organisations not traditionally associated with electricity generation. In effect the government was paying a generous fixed price for electricity being fed into the grid from small-scale renewables projects.

– Anaerobic digestion
– Hydro
– Micro-CHP
– Solar PV
– Wind

In February 2011 the government announced it wanted to reduce the incentives for large solar farms, although by targetting installations over 50kW in size this included larger rooftop installations on public and private buildings, as well larger field sites.

A reduction in the feed-in tariff from around 41 pence/kWh down to 19 pence/kWh (or less) for schemes completed after the 1st August 2011 has now been implemented.

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Go and put another jumper on: strategic steps to a low-carbon UK

11/05/2011

Wool jumper

Halfway I hope... by ingermaaike2, on Flickr


Let’s start with a quick question.

The UK is currently committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least what percentage by 2050, relative to 1990 levels?

[Answer at the bottom]

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has a section on its website relating to a low-carbon UK and the above commitment.

There’s a fascinating calculator tool that allows you to balance the UK’s energy demand with the energy supply and monitor the resultant greenhouse emissions.

It’s a bit like playing SimCity and other ‘strategic life-simulation computer games’.

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Consider what the average temperature of homes should be.

DECC reports that the mean internal temperature of UK homes during the winter months was 17.5°C in 2007 compared to 16°C in 1990 and 12°C in 1970. Historically, the temperature people choose to heat their homes at has increased over the years.

You’re offered various choices ranging from letting this growth trend continue to 20°C by 2030 through to reducing average internal temperatures to 1990 levels.

The commentary is amusingly sobering. ‘Householders can experience today’s levels of thermal comfort whilst also reducing energy demand by wearing warmer clothing or by heating the house in a smarter way.’

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Or how significantly should home insulation be improved.

This time your choices range from reducing leakiness by between 25 and 50%, with varying percentages of the existing housing stock being upgraded (floor insulation / cavity wall insulation / triple glazing) and all new houses being built to Energy Saving Trust or even PassivHaus standards.

The most stringent level would half the power required to maintain a given temperature, although this would be partially offset by a growing housing stock and any failure to reverse the trend towards warmer homes.

—-

And it goes on to cover how we heat our homes and businesses, the efficiency of our lighting and appliances, how we travel and how goods are moved around.

And then it’s on the supply side. How many nuclear power stations should there be? Or carbon capture and storage power stations? How many wind turbines? How much of the agricultural land should be devoted to growing biofuels? Should the numbers of methane-producing livestock be reduced? Have you considered harvesting marine algae?

And what level of energy security do we need? What do we need in reserve if there’s a cold snap or an incoming pipeline is closed down?

It’s actually quite difficult to do.

—-

There are also example pathways from experts and interested parties.

Everyone broadly agrees that demand needs to be reduced by around a third, which usually encompasses electrifying domestic transport, shifting up to 50% of freight off roads to electric railways, making planes more fuel efficient and building to PassivHaus standards.

It’s on the supply side that there are disagreements. Friends of the Earth achieves the 2050 target with no new nuclear or carbon capture and storage, and a heavy emphasis on onshore wind turbines, solar energy and geothermal electricity. Whilst the Energy Technologies Institute take a broader mix of supply sources, including 13 new nuclear power stations along with wind, wave and hydroelectric sources.

Have a look – it’s thought provoking.

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[80%. Which is a lot.]

The realities of living in a PassivHaus

07/02/2011

Thermal image of a PassiveHouse (Young Germany)

Once the scaffolding is down and the blower door test has been passed, what is it actually like to live in a PassivHaus? How does it feel to occupy a house that is kept warm using only your own body heat; a house that is completely airtight and needs no conventional heating system? How does it change your behaviour, needs and habits?

PassiveHouse as a concept

The concept of the passive house (or PassivHaus for the internationalists amongst us) is becoming increasingly well known amongst British architects, contractors, developers and clients. It has moved from being yet another forward-thinking construction method that is adopted in mainland Europe but largely ignored in this country, to being championed by a number of UK built environment professionals.

Information abounds when it comes to PassivHaus certification requirements, test results, design detailing, building physics and heat capacities. The Passipedia website is a good resource in this respect. It also gives an interesting historical review of  passive houses from the past. Did you know, for example, that Fridtjof Nansen’s 1883 polar exploration ship Fram functioned like a PassivHaus? Nansen wrote:

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Kevin McCloud at Ecobuild

04/03/2010

Kevin McCloud talks to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) about why he finds EcoBuild an exciting event and why he likes the idea of Feed-in Tariffs and microgeneration.

Foster’s Masdar City: putting sustainable energy to the test

29/01/2010

OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr

Foster + Partners’ Masdar City development in Abu Dhabi is getting a lot of press and blog coverage at the moment. The project is, in the architects’ words, “a six million square metre sustainable development that uses the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies, to achieve a carbon-neutral, zero waste community. It will be a centre for the development of new ideas for energy production”.

Building recently published pictures of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The nicely detailed terracotta-coloured GRC cladding of the city’s first completed building reflects aspects of traditional Islamic architecture.

Masdar’s energy will come entirely from renewable resources:

• a 40–60 megawatt solar power plant
• roof-mounted photovoltaic modules
• wind farms outside the city’s perimeter
• geothermal power
• waste-to-energy
• the world’s largest hydrogen power plant

Behind the scenes, Masdar will also host the world’s first real-time study to test the effectiveness of smart home appliances in reducing electricity consumption during peak demand periods, as detailed in Abu Dhabi’s newspaper The National.

Narrow, shaded streets (OnePlanetCommunities on Flickr)

General Electric (GE) selected Masdar City for this pilot project because its electricity will be distributed through a ‘smart grid’ that combines power transmission with the internet.

The two-year Masdar City test will use ‘demand response enabled appliances’ specifically designed for the pilot programme, and will involve some of the city’s first residents. Test results will be of great interest in the European Union, which aims for 80% of all households to be equipped with a smart electricity meter by 2020.

For an alternative view, see this debate on Treehugger on whether a development like Masdar can ever be ‘truly sustainable’.

ESI references:

Cleaning Europe’s waterways: the floating island of Physalia

19/01/2010
Physalia

Physalia on the Seine, Paris

Vincent Callebaut Architectures has designed Physalia, a floating structure that takes its name and shape from the Portuguese Man o’ War. It has, however, a friendlier purpose than its venomous, invertebrate namesake.

Variously described as an amphibious garden and a floating island, the structure is designed to sail down the polluted rivers of major European cities, purifying the water as it goes.

Physalia

The East elevation: solar panels and vegetation

Entirely self-powered via solar panel cladding and pneumatic roof membranes, Physalia crafts are intended to help clean the Seine, Thames, Volga, Danube and Escaut using the following process:

  • The vessel has an aluminum surface covering its steel structure.
  • A titanium dioxide layer of anatase form reduces water pollution when reacting with ultraviolet rays.
  • In addition to being a self-cleaning vessel, it can absorb and recycle through a photo-catalytic effect.
  • Physalia’s double hull is criss-crossed by a hydraulic network that filters the fluvial water and purifies it biologically, thanks to its planted roof.
Physalia

The deck of the vessel

Other projects have fused conceptual architecture with water purification systems: the Whitney Water Purification Facility and Park, designed by Steven Holl Architects, was chosen as one of the Top Ten Green projects for 2007 by the American Institute of Architects.

The ecofriend blog showcases another floating island used for water purification on a smaller scale: this one, in Poland, is powered by people on exercise bikes…

(Images by kind permission of Vincent Callebaut Architectures.)

ESI references

Low exergy buildings – using the right type of energy

07/01/2010
Office building Rijkswaterstaat / Paul de Ruiter on Arch Daily

Office building Rijkswaterstaat / Paul de Ruiter on Arch Daily

Buildings account for one third of the world’s primary energy demand. The Energy Conservation in Buildings and Community Systems (ECBCS) Programme, which is operated by the IEA (International Energy Agency), ‘carries out research and development activities toward near-zero energy and carbon emissions in the built environment.’

One part of this research – Annex 49 – is looking at developing ‘concepts for reducing the exergy demand in the built environment.’

It takes for granted the need to reduce the requirement for energy (i.e. insulation) and increase the efficiency of systems (i.e. boiler efficiency). Rather, it focuses on how the energy that is needed, for heating and cooling say, can be provided by low valued rather than high valued sources.

In this context, low valued energy is derived from the sun, heat pumps or other renewable resources, whilst high valued sources equate to fossil fuels.

For an overview that is both thorough and understandable try the guidebook on the lowex.org site.

Case studies can also serve as a useful introduction into the subject:

The office building of the Centre for Sustainable Building is a demonstration and research project for the German research programme on ‘solar optimised building’.

Rijkswaterstaat is a demonstration project for the Dutch sustainable and low-energy building programme. ‘The available natural resources of water, sun and earth are harnessed to the maximum in and around the office.’

Bregenz Art Museum in Austria is another example. Its climate control system was designed as a structural cooling / heating unit, and allows the building to do without conventional air-conditioning units under normal operating conditions.

ESI references: