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technical & practice

The Energy White Paper includes a commitment to more funding for renewables and for higher building standards.

Confirming its intent to toughen up Part L, raise the efficiency and use of condensing boilers, promote more efficient appliances and endorse further changes in taxation, the Energy White Paper released earlier this month states the government's intention to set up a Better Buildings Summit. This forum will bring together representatives from housebuilders, the Housing Corporation, the construction industry and 'others', to consider how best to improve the sustainability of all aspects of construction and design.

Matters for consideration will include off-site construction, photovoltaics, CHP (combined heat and power) and the maintenance of the Enhanced Capital Allowances Scheme, which enables businesses to claim 100 per cent first-year capital allowances on investment in energysaving technologies.

Survivalist policy

The White Paper intends to set out a new energy policy 'to meet tomorrow's challenges' - most notably to create a low carbon economy through the promotion of renewables. Essentially, however, it proposes an energy policy that advocates self-sufficiency in a global economy.

At face value, the paper seems reminiscent of the 1972 report, Limits To Growth. But whereas that 30-year old bestseller was based on an overinflated concern at the depletion of global resources (which turned out to be completely misinformed), the Energy White Paper takes a national preoccupation with lower resources as its starting point to launch into a dissertation about Britain's role in a future world of perceived instability and uncertainty.

It says: 'As we shift to being once again a net energy importer, we may become potentially more vulnerable to price fluctuations and interruptions to supply caused by regulatory failures, political instability or conflict in other parts of the world.'

But, lest we forget, the UK is currently one of only two leading industrial nations to be net energy exporters (Canada being the other), and is still producing from significant domestic oil reserves. So why the dystopian scenario?

Recognising, though, that renewables provide just 3 per cent of current energy demand, the report admits that carbon fuel resources from abroad will be required to fill the gap for the foreseeable future. So the report boasts that the government 'will work internationally to promote regional stability, economic reform, open and competitive markets and appropriate environmental policies in the regions that supply most of the world's oil and gas'. An inflated fear about the instability of the oil-producing regions has pushed the government to retrench.

Key commitments

The central plank of the Energy White Paper is to cut the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 'about' 2050, 'with real progress by 2020'. Secondly, the government wants energy to be produced locally, through micro-generation projects, pushing the regular inclusion of solar panels on houses, for example, to ensure dwellings become zero emission in 20 years' time.

The previous incarnation of the environment ministry (the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions) stated that buildings produce around half of all man-made carbon emissions in this country (the majority of which are generated in use rather than in manufacture), and the new Building Regulations outline the reductions needed to comply with Britain's Kyoto obligations. However, apart from a few gas stoves and oil-fired ovens, carbon dioxide emissions do not originate in the home, but at power stations. If you receive power from a coal-fired power station, it does not matter how efficient your lightbulbs are. Similarly, an old-fashioned, inefficient lighting system will cause no carbon dioxide emissions if powered by a nuclear power station.

Although not specifying targets, the White Paper is clear that nuclear power, which it admits is 'currently an important source of carbon-free electricity' is not on the cards, because 'its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity'. As nuclear power stations provide a quarter of the UK's energy needs, but most stations are scheduled for decommissioning in 2010, we should prepare to see carbon emissions rise dramatically in seven years, unless something drastic is done.

Instead, the report lauds Elean Power Station in Sutton, near Ely, which is the UK's first straw-fired power plant, with an output of 36MW from 200,000 tonnes of straw - with contracted supplies from local farmers, revealing, possibly, the hidden benefit of set-aside.

Less is not more

The report points out that over the past 30 years, 'our economy has doubled in size, while energy use has hardly increased'. This may reflect efficiencies within the system that stem naturally from a developing economy, but it does not necessarily follow that the opposite is true - that an energy efficient economy is a progressive or developing economy, but rather that it is essentially a parsimonious one.

While significant amounts of money will be spent on defending the current decrepit infrastructure, the underlying message is clear; that 'the cheapest and safest ways of addressing all our goals is to use less energy (and) we will use market instruments to achieve our goals'.

Logically, an energy-efficient, sustainable, carbon-free future will be one of parochial, small-scale survivalist self-sufficiency. Come back Tom and Barbara, all is forgiven.

To download the Energy White Paper (140pp) log on to

www. dti. gov. uk/ energy/whitepaper/ourenergyfuture.pdf

Spheral Solar of Cambridge, Ontario, in Canada has developed flexible solar panels that can be draped to fit three-dimensional curvatures.

Currently promoted as rivalling fossil fuel-based electricity on a comparative cost base, the so-called 'break-resistant'panels comprise tiny silicon beads (recycled from the microchip industry) bonded between thin aluminium foil substrates to form individual solar cells.

The spheres are, in fact, individual single crystal silicon cells connecting the two sheets of foil that act as electrical contacts.

Klaus Woerner, chief executive officer, says the silicon produces a sunlight-to-energy conversion rate that is competitive with multicrystalline solar cells. 'We fully expect to revolutionise the solar energy industry for two reasons, 'he says. 'First, the design requires only a fraction of the materials to produce the same amount of energy.

Second, it can be incorporated into even the most complex building designs.'

Traditional solar panels contain silicon wafers bonded to glass to form heavy, fragile and inflexible units. Spheral Solar material's lightness and flexibility is now being assessed for applications in a range of consumer product designs (mobile phone covers etc) and should help reduce the market price of solar products generally.

Air apparent?

First there was the giant Buddha sculpture-cum-temple in northern India, a self-sufficient structure by Aros architects that utilised cooling winds and aquifers to maintain a natural balance. Now EnviroMission is proposing an equally massive sculptural structure for the Buronga district of New South Wales, Australia. This time, though, there is no secondary function: it is solely an energy creating form.

Scheduled for completion in 2006, the building is based on a self-sustaining model of chimney air flows to create a natural power station.

The Solar Tower comes in two parts: the 1,000m-high chimney (which has been given clearance by Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority) and a glazed canopy surrounding the central core. It is intended that the £320 million structure will generate up to 200MW of power to service 200,000 homes. By incorporating a storage facility within the structure, the tower will be able to produce electricity 24 hours a day.

Australia's Energy Supply Association has said £18 billion needs to be invested in electricity infrastructure during the next 20 years to meet the country's growing demand. The cost-benefit analysis has had to consider the implication of the scale of the building.

The tower itself is about 150m wide, but it is situated in the centre of a massive glass canopy that covers a circular area 4.5 miles in diameter. This vast expanse of glazing slopes towards the tower, rising from 1m high at the perimeter to 25m at the tower interface.

The technology simply relies on natural air flows. Air underneath the glass is warmed by the greenhouse effect to about 32degreesC above the external ambient temperature and is drawn up through the chimney. Air flows are anticipated at 15m/sec, creating a powerful updraft that will pass through 32 lightweight alloy turbines at the base of the tower.

Even though the power plant will generate enough electricity to power 200,000 homes, its massive scale will also sterilise an area of land sufficient to build 205,000 new houses at the muchlauded density of 50 plots/hectare.

THE GENERATING GAME

Currently, geothermal energy exploitation takes place in bores of up to 3km depth.There are three different types of energy extraction: the generation of electricity from hot steam or hot water reservoirs (with temperatures above 150degreesC); direct use for heating; and the use of heat pumps to take up the thermal energy in near-surface sediment.

The cost of generating electricity from geothermal sources is deemed to be competitive on large-scale products. In Europe, electricity is generated from geothermal sources only in Italy and Iceland. The possibilities, particularly in Iceland, have not been exhausted. In Germany, geothermal generation of electricity can be expected only in the medium-term future using hot-dry-rock technology. However, embryonic geothermal technologies like the state-of-the-art 2.5km-deep borehole in Aachen, Germany, are being developed to take up heat from normal ground conditions. This project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 380 tonnes a year.

The massive costs for this still experimental technology will be directed into a localised scheme to heat a single building of the university campus.

While 380 tonnes may seem like a great deal, it is worth remembering that global emissions compared with carbon dioxide sinks (that is the amount of alleged 'excess'CO 2 in the atmosphere) is about 7.5GT (7.5 x 10 tonnes), although admittedly only about half this figure is usually attributed to anthropomorphic causes. Furthermore, just to be pedantic, since the flow and return pipes in the Aachen programme have to be encased in concrete (and concrete with steel 'aggregates'to maximise thermal transmission), geothermal technology could be challenged for indulging cementitious products that cause the highest carbon emissions during its production.

STATIC ENERGY PRODUCTION

A recent Economist article described the work of Ian Castles, former head of Australia's national office of statistics, and David Henderson, formerly chief economist of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), challenging the results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Their critique suggests that the IPCC had made unreasonable predictions about the future development - and hence wealth generation - of developing countries. While criticism of the IPCC is rare, maybe this is not the most positive criticism that could be levelled.

Most predictions of the future have a static view of society.Over the 100-year timescale of Kyoto, surely much can be done to find technological solutions to problems. We all know that Holland would have a problem with extant sea levels had it not implemented infrastructural methods of overcoming them, while Bangladesh continues to suffer rainy season floods.Similarly, hurricanes are devastating to Asian countries but are the subject of humorous TV home-video programmes in the US.

This tends to suggest that the implications of weather events are more social than natural; that increased wealth and technical nous brings a greater ability to rise above mere survival.

BULLET POINTS

Data from the US Navy, researching submarine ventilation requirements, shows that humans produce 0.036kg of CO 2, even when asleep. Multiply that by six billion and you have a dangerously reductive Malthusian policy for environmentalists to play with.

The Energy Savings Trust says each UK home produces six tonnes of CO 2 every year, with 4.8 million tonnes coming from washing and drying activities.But given the various non-efficient power production facilities around the country, this approach simply blames the user for national energy production and transportation pollution.

A 100W lightbulb creates 3.2 x 10 -9 tonnes of CO 2 every 30 minutes.To translate, that is 0.5kg of CO2 over a year.

Most emissions figures take into account energy generation, transport and embodied energy costs, resulting in the user being asked to take responsibility (or blame) for production costs.

Although a relatively modern car travelling at 30mph instead of 20mph is known to reduce CO 2emissions by 1,100kg per year, increasing speed has not found its way into the Energy White Paper advice .But guidance from America's Northern Climate Exchange suggests that 'walking, running, biking (and) skipping can make a big difference'.

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