Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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

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

But that is precisely what Doc Chaos has.

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

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

Front cover
Back cover

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

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

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

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

No kidding.

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

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

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

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

You can buy Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect here

Monday, April 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, April 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gas grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The role of hydrogen in decarbonising buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The options for micro-CHP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hydrogen in the home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Thorpe is the author of:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sweden aims to lead the world on carbon-free steel production

While the UK government equivocates on the degree to which it should support the UK steel industry following Indian company Tata Steel's decision to close its British steel-production facilities with the loss of around 40,000 jobs, the Swedish government, by contrast, last week announced plans to make its steel production facilities a world leader by developing a radical new carbon-free method of producing the material.

The world is presently experiencing a glut of steel production. China is heavily subsidising its plants, and stands accused of dumping cheap steel on world markets.

Tata is citing this, and high carbon taxes in the UK, on its decision to close its South Wales plant in Port Talbot. Workers and unions are furious and they and the Labour Party are calling for nationalisation of the plants and the reduction of carbon taxes. The British government refuses to consider nationalisation.

What a contrast with Sweden. Last Monday saw Magnus Hall, President and CEO of Vattenfall, the Swedish state-owned energy company, together with Swedish steel producer SSAB, and Swedish iron ore extractor LKAB, announce the start of a long-term research project aimed at developing a production method for steel based on the use of hydrogen to replace the use of coal or natural gas, generated from carbon-emission-free energy sources.

L:R: Martin Lindqvist, SSAB's President and CEO, Jan Moström, President and CEO of LKAB, and Magnus Hall, President and CEO of Vattenfall at the press conference.

The announcement represents a long-term commitment to securing not only a future for steel-making in that country, but for zero-carbon steel-making, potentially across the world.

Around the world, over 75% of all industrial energy usage is accounted for by only four sectors, of which iron and steel forms the largest. This is because energy costs as a proportion of total costs in steel making are high – up to 40%.

Any country that cracks how to produce steel without emitting atmospheric carbon will become a world leader in the race to decarbonise human activity and it will achieve a huge competitive advantage. Sweden has announced that it wants to be that leader.

The announcement was made on a webcast by SSAB's President and CEO, Martin Lindqvist, and his opposite number at LKAB, Jan Moström, with the full support of the Swedish government, represented by its Minister for Enterprise and Innovation, Mikael Damberg.

Lindqvist said: "Lots of things are made of iron and steel, we need to reduce fuel consumption but also to eliminate carbon emissions altogether for a sustainable world."

In Sweden, steel production is now the biggest CO2 emitter. Lindqvist said that "The Swedish steel production industry is already competitive but the emissions are very large, 37% of total emissions, and large on a global scale. Iron ore production is most commonly in a blast furnace using virgin material and coal and you get CO2 emissions. If you use the direct production method you use natural gas, and you also make CO2.

"So the big difference here will be to use hydrogen instead of gas or coal. Then you make water as a by-product. The key is the origin of the hydrogen gas."

Diagram of the proposed steel production method.

Hydrogen from what?

So where will it come from? Sweden is already one of the most progressive countries in the world in the energy transition to a fossil-free world, with 52% of energy already being renewable, 40% being low-carbon nuclear, a target of being carbon-neutral by 2050 and a policy roadmap for 2025-2050 due next January.

State-owned Vattenfall runs seven nuclear power stations in the country, but is to decommission two of them. The other five are expected to remain operational until 2040-45. The company manages plants in five northern European nations, some of which are fossil-based, but in Sweden, the installed capacity generation mix is 59% hydropower, 33% nuclear, 1.88% wind, 4.87% fossil fuel and 1.31% biomass and waste.

Vattenfall's Hall remarked that "Vattenfall has worked in Sweden for long time on electricity supply and now Sweden has almost CO2-free production of electricity. We can use this to create totally CO2-free steel production. It will be economic, and does include existing nuclear power. But how can an energy user requiring 15-20 terawatts do this with renewable and climate-friendly energy? That's what we seek to find out."

It will involve a significant ramping up of generation capacity, principally of wind-power, to make the hydrogen gas, he said.

"We are producing hydrogen already in Germany on a small scale, and will look into how to do this on a large scale. We don't know how big the pilot will be. We don't see us having nuclear power after 2045, so it will be windpower, but the problem will be maintaining capacity, at all times, and flexibility. That adds onto our discussions about how renewables will work."

Lindqvist went on to say that the feasibility study will take eight years, until 2024. "Then we will have a demonstration plant by 2025 or so, so this is a long term project. There are a lot of different elements to be investigated, it's a big and complicated project. We need political involvement. We ask politicians to support this and integration with the labour policy, and to link energy and social policy. In return, we commit to contribute with time and resources to do this. We can make a great contribution to reducing emissions in line with Sweden's 2045 goal.

The projected timescale

"We have a unique opportunity," he concluded. "We think we can make the necessary changes to become a more sustainable society and that's why we are doing this."

But what about the production of the raw material, iron ore? As an extractor of ore, LKAB has been in action for 126 years. Moström said that their steel-making market had changed to direct production, using iron ore pellets which the company now produces. "Our direct reduction pellets are very low gangue and rich in iron which gives them a high energy efficiency in the direct reduction process as well as in the electric arc furnace process. The pellets also create better conditions for the production of cleaner steel. We're also developing ways of further reducing the carbon dioxide emissions from our pelletizing process."

Relative carbon intensity of different iron ores.

Minister Damberg called the proposal "a great initiative, since we want to be one of the first fossil-free welfare states in Europe. The Swedish economy is booming, with 4% growth, but world growth is slowing down, and this is affecting commodity prices. We want to stay ahead as a world leader, and so are thinking long-term.

"Coal must be replaced in the steel process, and this is a large technical leap required. The success of ths project will mean a great step in the battle against climate change, but also a great step for Swedish industry. In our dialogue with industry we always emphasise the long term perspective and I welcome that industry agrees.

"Sweden wants to be a world leader in the sustainable producion of steel, with a new industrial strategy for Sweden which includes sustainability and competitiveness on a global stage."


But how much will it cost? Nobody knew yet, but it was acknowledged that it would be "billions". "We need to reduce the cost of hydrogen production at scale, while at the same time, the cost of having carbon emissions will become more expensive,, making hydrogen more attractive.

It's a big gamble but a visionary one. "There are lots of extra values for having CO2-free iron and steel on an industrial scale," said Damberg, who didn't want to talk costs. "This is a pre-study stage, then there'll be a pilot, then a production facility, but we see political, economic and environmental gains. On a European level there should be much interest in this, and on a global level.

Lindqvist did say: "It's going to be billions. It's a risk, and we want to check in practice it's possible. You never know, but we wouldn't start if we didn't think we had a fair chance of succeeding."

There are many ways to produce hydrogen, but electrolysis-splitting of water using an electric current is the likeliest contender for the scale required. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory's wind-to-hydrogen project has been going on for over five years and results two years ago saw a cost estimate of between $4 and $5 per kilogram of hydrogen.

Since hydrogen contains 33.3kWh of energy per kilogram, then to provide 15 TWh would require 500 million kilograms, which would cost $2.5 billion at that price. Using British levelised costs for a coal plant built in 2018 for comparison, at £1.695 billion (=$2.43 bn) for the same amount of power, using wind power is not much dearer than using coal.

But this back-of-the-envelope calculation does not begin to take into account the savings that will be inherent in the new steel production process that will be developed, the chances to reuse hydrogen, and the opportunities of scale.

The team might well be in with a chance.

David Thorpe is the author of:

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The tragic effects of neglecting energy efficiency

The British government's policies on energy efficiency are causing a crisis in the industry where confidence has hit an all-time low. This is coming at a time when, by contrast, consumers and investors are beginning to gain enthusiasm for energy efficiency, not just in the UK but in Europe and the USA. More and more accurate tools are being devised to improve the energy use of buildings, whether involving newbuilds or retrofit projects. But none of this is yet affecting the tragic victims of neglecting energy efficiency.

The double whammy

The latest quarterly Energy Efficiency Trends report on the non-residential energy efficiency market has revealed that confidence is at an all-time low amongst suppliers. Declines in customer orders have led them to report almost universally negative views of British government action on energy efficiency. Most "consider the government’s management of energy efficiency policy as ineffective". Low energy prices and the “perception of cheap energy costs going forward” have combined with this to make a double whammy for the sector.

UK trends for orders in energy efficiency

But this is not the case from the consumers' angle. Building owners or managers were far more positive, with eight out of ten reporting undertaking projects, of which LED lighting continued to dominate investment. Spending was reported to be increasing, and – especially reassuring – there were signs of increasing awareness (and deployment) of robust performance measurement (installing M&V - Measurement and Verification tools) to help ensure that investments do return the expected financial savings.

Building owners commissioning retrofits

Lighting the way

As mentioned above, upgrading street lighting to LEDs is a new popular trend in energy efficiency investing. A recent high profile investment in this area is the loan of £9.87 million over four financial years by the UK >Green Investment Bank to Stirling Council in Scotland, announced last week. This will help the municipality to save £31 million over the thirty years of the lights' expected life by erecting 12,000 LED lamps and 4,000 lamp posts.

Stirling is following the nearby city of Glasgow in taking this step. Power consumption is forecast to fall by 63%, and 14,400 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to be saved over the project's lifetime. Scotland's Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, supported the investment, saying that "The Scottish Government has designated energy efficiency as an infrastructure investment priority that looks to build on our track record in renewables in demonstrating the multiple benefits from investing in low carbon infrastructure".

The loan comes from the Green Investment Bank's 'Green Loan' scheme that is specifically designed to help local authorities make the switch to low energy streetlights and to improve energy efficiency in the National Health Service. Edward Northam, Head of Investment Banking at the GIB, said that "more and more local authorities are considering the benefits of the spend-to-save approach, with Stirling becoming the third UK council to opt for a Green Loan".

Banking certainty

Other investment banks are also seeing the advantage of investing in energy efficiency. The European Investment Bank (EIB) is lending a further €19.5 million – the second tranche of a €42 million loan – to finance part two of a refurbishment programme for multi-family apartment housing in Bucharest. This represents about 75% of the project’s cost.

The Bank has already provided some €400 million to finance the energy efficiency refurbishment of multi-apartment buildings in the city. The work is expected to save around 50% of the heating energy used in the 140 buildings – comprising 9,500 apartments – that's about 74 GWh per year.

Reducing energy use in buildings has other benefits besides saving money and carbon emissions. Independently validated research correlates that it makes the building's occupants happier. The increase in customer confidence may show that the message is finally getting through about the ten-eighty-ten rule, discovered in 2013. This is that ten percent of the total lifetime cost of the average commercial building comes from its construction; eighty per cent is spent on operating it during its lifetime; the remaining ten percent is in dismantling it.

Therefore ninety percent of a building’s costs are entirely influenced by its design, construction and operation. This rule comes from numerous studies, including the Egan Report on Rethinking construction. Research from BSRIA and BRE has shown how better planning at new building or refurbishment design stage and greater care in implementation result in lower operational costs and better building performance – and therefore greater occupant satisfaction.

Josefina Lindblom, policy adviser at the European Commission with responsibility for resource efficiency in the building sector, is an advocate of a whole lifecycle costing of energy use in the construction, arguing for a wider approach to evaluating performance and resource efficiency. She can be seen in a series of videos, the Construction Climate Talks, part of the Construction Climate Challenge Initiative.

Tools to achieve better confidence

Measuring lifetime impacts is the new trend in energy efficiency investment and a number of tools are being developed for this purpose.

In the USA, the bar has been raised by the LEED Dynamic Plaque. This is billed as "the next step in measuring and improving building performance over the life of these buildings". LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a third-party certification system. Dynamic Plaque is a display in a building's lobby or other prominent location, that uses data streams, the results of annual surveys and aspects of building performance data to generate a self-updating LEED performance score.

LEED Platinum plaque
LEED Platinum plaque

Everyone is therefore able to see how the building is performing in relation to the use of energy, water, waste, transportation and to occupant experience. The display includes a timeline that allows for comparison between the current period and previous months or years, and average scores from other LEED certified buildings. This allows building facilities staff and even tenants/occupiers to take an active role in improving the efficiency and performance of the building. There is even an iPhone app that goes with it.

LEED Platinum iPhone app
LEED Platinum plaque iPhone app

In Europe, an even bigger four-year project to benchmark real-world building performance is reaching its conclusion. Called DIRECTION, the deep understanding of building performance that it has generated is now being made available to designers, owners, constructors, local authorities and all interested parties.

It combines energy optimisation, highly efficient equipment and advanced energy management. This has been complemented with economic analysis and reporting, to create "a proven, sustainable model for construction".

The DIRECTION Best Practices Book offers 19 best practices from Munich (Germany), Valladolid (Spain) and Bolzano (Italy) which summarise the key recommendations to the energy efficiency sector. These are shown below:

 DIRECTION Best Practices Book key recommendations to the energy efficiency sector
 DIRECTION Best Practices Book key recommendations to the energy efficiency sector.

Finally, another proprietary toolkit that is available for managers gives a practical methodology to identify and mitigate risks during large-scale retrofits. It is presently being used by the Greater London Authority’s RE:NEW programme.

Its originator, Lisa Pasquale, of consultancy Six Cylinder, was recently recognised for her work with a Rising Star of 2016 award from the UK Green Building Council. Lisa says she sees her own mission as "raising awareness of certain shortfalls in our industry and influencing practices to improve performance outcomes for the built environment and construction sectors, and the people they serve".

Even greater advances are in the pipeline. Algorithms are being developed that will take Building Information Modelling (BIM) and M&V, or 'smart metering' to the next level. These will allow the improvement of lighting and heating and cooling systems by identifying systems that aren’t working as intended — such as thermostats that don’t change temperatures at assigned times — and correcting them.

So far, these algorithms have worked well in the lab (specifically the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). Now PNNL is testing them in the real world use, after which an Oregon-based company, NorthWrite, will adapt them for cloud-based software.

These advances should all help to give municipalities, developers and building owners or managers greater confidence in investing in energy efficiency. In the UK this should help to give optimism to suppliers in the sector. The laggards are the UK government, and the real losers, sadly, are the victims of fuel poverty in uninsulated homes. New research shows that 9,000 extra deaths were caused by low indoor temperatures in the UK in the winter of 2014-15.

Unfortunately the cost of death doesn't figure in business spreadsheets. Nor can these 'building occupants' ever fill out a survey to quantify their 'occupant experience'. Seen from this perspective, do you get the feeling that all the above seems a trifle, well, academic?

David Thorpe is the author of: