Renewable energy: boosted or becalmed?

“… in terms of the electricity market we are at a moment of significant transition. The economics of every other potential source of supply will be measured against the falling costs of wind and solar…”
– Financial Times, 16 October 2017

“Spending on renewables in the UK is set to plummet 95% over the next three years…”
– New Scientist, 5 August 2017

So, who’s right? Are we entering a golden age of renewable energy, or is the growth of renewables faltering?

Falling short

One view, characterised by a New Scientist article published in August, is that renewable energy isn’t taking off fast enough to avoid major global warming. While acknowledging that globally renewables are growing extremely fast, largely thanks to China, the article notes that wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy supply just 8% of the world’s electricity, and only 3% of total global energy use:

“Even counting hydro and nuclear, just 14% of or our energy isn’t from fossil fuels – and this figure has barely changed over the past 25 years.”

The article goes on to point out that most subsidy-free renewable projects remain unprofitable, even as they scale up. And the intermittent and variable nature of renewables calls into question the feasibility of getting all our electricity from wind and solar power.

An “unprecedented acceleration”

Others see the future of renewables in a rosier light. The International Energy Agency’s 2017 review of renewables noted that, as costs decline, wind and solar are becoming increasingly comparable to new-build fossil fuel alternatives in a growing number of countries.

The report highlighted the dominant role of China, which is responsible for 40% of global renewable capacity growth, and is also the world market leader in hydropower and, bioenergy for electricity and heat, as well as electric vehicles. But the IEA also noted the strong growth of renewables in India and the United States. And although the report indicated that renewables growth in the European Union would be 40% lower between 2017-22, compared with the previous five-year period, it pointed to significant progress in some EU countries concerning wind and solar power:

“By 2022, Denmark is expected to be the world leader, with almost 70% of its electricity generation coming from variable renewables. In some European countries (Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom), the share of wind and solar in total generation will exceed 25%.”

Falling costs

Further signs that renewables are reaching a tipping point came in September, when the cost of offshore wind power in the UK reached a record low. The results of competitive auctions for new wind farm contracts to provide clean electricity showed that, for the first time, the cost of generating energy from offshore wind farms fell below the price that nuclear reactors will charge in future. The new wind farms will power the equivalent of more than 3.3 million homes.

The news prompted Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable to call for a radical reappraisal of the government’s energy policy, while The Economist Intelligence Unit said the development showed “the trajectory of cheaper renewable technologies is irreversible”.

Government policy

However, while welcoming the announcement, cautious voices argue that renewables will not fulfil their potential without significant increases in government support. The Green Alliance – a UK environmental policy think tank – has called on the UK government for a rethink on renewables:

“…we are still in the midst of a renewables policy freeze, in place since 2015, under which onshore wind has been banned, solar auctions have been curtailed and energy efficiency measures have slowed. A rapid thaw is needed soon, the government can allocate the final five per cent it needs to spend to meet its climate targets (roughly £0.6 billion) to avoid the clean power gap that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned of in its recent progress report.”

In October, the government published its Clean Growth Strategy, which sets out its proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy through the 2020s. While the Green Alliance welcomed the strategy’s aim to “secure the most industrial and economic advantage from the global transition to a low carbon economy”, the renewables sector was disappointed that the document contained little on the role of onshore wind to help move the UK towards its goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Putting things into perspective

Nearly a third of the UK’s electricity between April and June this year was generated from renewable sources – a new record, and up a quarter on the same period last year. But, while it’s clear that renewables are playing a greater role in UK energy generation, it’s important to maintain a sense of proportion. As the Financial Times has noted:

“Wind and solar are focused almost entirely on the production of electricity, which represents around 40 per cent of final energy demand worldwide and accounts for a slightly higher proportion of total emissions. The main areas of energy consumption — heat, transport beyond light vehicles and industrial use including the production of steel, cement and petrochemicals — are as yet largely unaffected.”

The outlook for renewable sources appears bright, but there’s clearly a long way to go before renewables can overturn the dominant position of fossil fuels in powering the planet.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also find this blog post of interest:

Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

Is 20 plenty? The evidence for lower speed limits

20mph

Image from Flickr user Edinburgh Greens via Creative Commons License

By Donna Gardiner

This week (18-25 May) it’s Walk to School Week – where parents and children are encouraged to leave the car at home and experience the benefits of walking to and from school.

The campaign is particularly important given recent evidence which suggests that the number of children who walk to school is falling. The most recent Department for Transport National Travel Survey found that only 42% of children walked to school regularly in 2013, compared to 47% in 1995/97. Indeed, Britain has one of the lowest levels of children walking or cycling to school in Europe.

A recent YouGov survey of 1,000 parents of five- to 11-year olds in Great Britain found that speeding traffic was the main reason that parents no longer let their children walk to school. In particular, 39% felt that school-run traffic was dangerous. Almost two-thirds reported that they would like to see car-free zones outside both primary and secondary schools, as well as 20 mph speed limits in surrounding areas.

20 mph limits and zones

The introduction of 20 mph speed limits and zones has received widespread interest of late, with a number of large schemes, such as the one planned in Edinburgh, capturing the headlines. The Edinburgh scheme is particularly notable for its scale. It covers over 80% of the city’s roads – effectively making 20 mph the default speed for all of its urban areas. Implementation is due to start in late 2015.

At the other end of the UK, the London Borough of Hackney has this week begun the rollout of its own 20 mph scheme, through which more than 99% of the borough’s roads will become subject to 20 mph limits by October 2015.

The Edinburgh and Hackney schemes join a host of others across the UK, including those in inner London, Liverpool, York, Bath, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Brighton, Oxford and Glasgow.

Support for further implementation

Numerous campaign and road safety groups have called for the greater implementation of 20 mph zones and limits across the UK, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Sustrans, the Campaign for Better Transport, CTC – the national cycling charity, 20’s Plenty for Us, The Slower Speeds Initiative and the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

The UK Government have also shown support for the wider implementation of 20 mph zones and limits. In 2013, they published revised guidance to make it easier for local authorities to implement 20 mph limits and zones in their areas, and earlier this year, new guidance which further supports 20 mph limits was published by Transport Scotland.

There is also clear evidence of the public’s desire for lower speed limits. A recent YouGov survey found that the majority of respondents supported the introduction of 20 mph speed limits in residential streets (65% support or strongly support) and busy shopping areas and busy streets (72%). Improved road safety and children’s safety were the key reasons for this, along with other reasons – such as making our streets more pleasant to live in, encouraging more walking and cycling, reducing noise and improving the quality of life.

The YouGov survey echoes the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, which found 68% of people to be in favour of 20 mile per hour speed limits in residential streets.

Talking of the Hackney scheme, Cllr Feryal Demirci, Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Sustainability, Hackney Council neatly summarises the anticipated benefits of 20 mph zones:

“We strongly believe this 20 mph rollout will be better for everyone. It will mean a safer, calmer and more liveable neighbourhoods for all residents, leading to more walking, cycling and playing outside, which in turn will have a positive impact on health and the community.”

Evidence of the benefits

But does the evidence support these anticipated benefits?

One of the most commonly cited benefit of lower speed limits is improved road safety, resulting from a reduction in the number and severity of collisions. There is widespread evidence that this is the case – for example, research published in the BMJ in 2009 concluded that 20 mph zones were effective measures for reducing road injuries and deaths. Specifically, their introduction was associated with a 41.9% reduction in road casualties, with the effect being greatest in younger children and for the category of killed or seriously injured casualties.

Similar findings have been reported elsewhere, for example, in a review of evidence reported to the London Road Safety Unit, in research by the DfT and by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research.

There is also evidence that lower speed limits may help to tackle health inequalities. This is because children and young adults are more at risk of road traffic accidents within poorer localities than in richer urban neighbourhoods. Indeed, in January 2014, Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford, went as far as to claim that implementing 20 mph speed limits was the main way in which local authorities could effectively improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

Similarly, research published in the Journal of Public Health in 2014 reported that targeting 20 mph zones in deprived areas may be beneficial. It also concluded that “20 mph zones and limits were effective means of improving public health via reduced accidents and injuries”.

Improved public health is another often cited benefit of lower speed limits. Evidence from Bristol and Edinburgh demonstrates that 20 mph zones do indeed encourage increased levels of physical activity, including walking and cycling, and there is also evidence that they improve resident quality of life, through increased opportunities for social interaction and less noise and air pollution.

The reduced levels of pollution also mean that lower speed limits can be better for the environment.

Finally, there is also some evidence that 20 mph zones may result in increased local economic activity – with improved walking environments having many potential benefits for local business. Research conducted by Living Streets in London also found that pedestrians tended to spend more than those arriving by car.

Driver concerns and attitudes

Despite the evidence in their favour, 20 mph zones are not always welcomed with open arms. There remain a number of concerns about the implementation of 20 mph zones, including fears that they may lead to increased levels of congestion, increased carbon emissions, suffer from a lack of enforcement, increase journey times, and increase emergency response times.

Most of these concerns have been countered by research evidence; however, attitudinal barriers remain. In an analysis of a YouGov survey of public attitudes towards 20 mph zones, Professor Alan Tapp of UWE Bristol, reports that a sizable minority of people (31%) claim that ‘If a 20 mph speed limit is introduced, I may not stick to it’. He also points out that 49% felt that ‘It is just too difficult to stay at 20 mph’ and almost a third of people (30%) thought that 20 mph is an example of a nanny state.

The way forward

So despite the progress that has been made, there is clearly still some way to go before 20 mph limits and zones become a fully accepted part of UK towns and cities. Implementing more 20 mph limits is only the start – it seems that there is also a need for local authorities to tackle the negative perceptions of 20 mph zones held by many drivers in order to ensure that 20 mph limits are adhered to in practice.

Sharing evidence of the positive benefits of 20 mph zones and demonstrating that many of the main concerns associated with them are ill-founded is likely to play an important part in encouraging more positive attitudes, changing driver behaviour, and in turn, make streets safer and more enjoyable for children and adults alike.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further information on improving road safety. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading:

Addressing health inequalities: five practical approaches for local authorities (Perspectives in Public Health, 2014)

Reducing unintentional injuries on the roads among children and young people under 25 years (Public Health England, 2014)

Road safety and public health (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 2014)

Achieving safety, sustainability and health goals in transport (Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS), 2014)

Unlimited aspiration for a calmer city (speed limits) (Local Transport Today, 2011)

Sign of the times (20 mph speed limits in Portsmouth) (Parking Review, 2010)

Review of 20 mph zone and limit implementation in England (Department for Transport, 2009)

The positive paybacks of clearing the air

Industrial chimneys

by James Carson

Two reports published last week highlight the potential benefits of policies for reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

In the most detailed assessment to date of the interwoven effects of climate policy on the economy, air pollution, and health, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim that a reduction in carbon emissions could significantly cut the rates of conditions such as asthma and lung disease. The MIT researchers suggest that some carbon-cutting policies could be so effective that they would save more money than the cost of implementation.

“Carbon-reduction policies significantly improve air quality,” explained Noelle Selin, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the study. “In fact, policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions improve air quality by a similar amount as policies specifically targeting air pollution.”

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