Inventive eco-solutions to the planet’s environmental challenges

Nappies made from jellyfish; drones that make electricity; a flame-free alternative to cremation. Unlikely as they may seem, these are just three of the ideas that are emerging to tackle some of the environmental challenges facing the modern world.

Those challenges are many and growing. Climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, rising levels of waste, and dwindling energy supplies all pose threats to health, wellbeing, quality of life, and even to the existence of humanity.

While national and local governments have responded to these challenges by passing legislation and investing in sustainable initiatives, entrepreneurs are coming up with some intriguing eco-friendly ideas.

Taking the sting out of waste management

An Israeli company has found an inventive way to simultaneously tackle a growing global menace in the world’s oceans and a pernicious waste issue. Increasing levels of ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – have resulted in an explosion in jellyfish populations. Now, scientists working with Tel Aviv-based startup, Cine’al, have found a way to turn jellyfish into a super-absorbent material called “hydromash”. Within next year, the company plans to market nappies, tampons and bandages made from hydromash, which takes less than a month to biodegrade (compared to the hundreds of years for synthetic disposables to break down).

Will consumers take to products made from jellyfish?  Cine’al’s chairman thinks so.

“I’m not worried about this, and in many products it’s likely that the consumer won’t even know about it, similar to many other products with ingredients that are derived from animals and plants.”

 Lift-off for airborne energy

In March of this year, wind farms in Scotland set a new record for the amount of electricity sent to the national grid, generating the equivalent of 58% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the month. In recent years, Denmark has also reported impressive achievements from its investment in windfarms.  Such examples demonstrate the potential of wind power, which is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.

But conventional wind power equipment is expensive to set up, with the foundations and towers for the turbines making up around 30% of the capital required. However, an alternative may soon be breezing onto the wind power scene.

In April, German energy giant E.ON announced plans to invest €3 million in developing the commercialisation of autonomous flying drones to produce electricity. The technology – which uses a kite-like sail to harvest the energy of high-altitude wind currents – is still in its infancy. But E.ON clearly believes in the potential of airborne power. Last year the company invested €5.9 million in a Scottish developer which plans to create a kite-driven power station.

 Ashes to ashes – without the global warming

Benjamin Franklin, famously observed that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world. As a prolific inventor with an interest in energy conservation, he might have been cheered to learn that 21st century entrepreneurs have discovered an eco-friendly way to deal with one of those certainties.

Resomation (also known as biocremation) is a process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to break down organic materials within a few hours, but without the environmentally harmful greenhouse gases generated by conventional cremation methods. The resulting water can be funnelled into municipal water treatment facilities, while the ashes are returned to the family of the deceased.

The idea has already been applied commercially in the United States, and is now set to be introduced to the UK. In March, the Rowley Regis crematorium in the West Midlands received approval from Sandwell Council to install resomation equipment. The council noted that:

“…resomation allows individuals and families to express their environmental concerns and values in a very positive manner with one of their final actions in life.”

Innovative remedies for a planet in need

While these examples may seem odd, and even unnerving, it’s worth remembering that ideas once considered implausible, dangerous or downright daft are now becoming more widely accepted.

Forty years ago, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. Today, it’s seen as imperative for households, businesses and local authorities. Similarly, vegetable oil has advanced from a purely experimental fuel to a cleaner alternative to diesel.

It seems that, when it comes to the environmental challenges facing the world, necessity really is the mother of invention.


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Eating or heating: tackling fuel poverty in the UK

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It is a complete scandal that people die because they can’t afford to heat their homes. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the tragic circumstances and daily dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ faced by many thousands of people in Britain today.”

Those were the words of I, Daniel Blake lead actor Dave Johns as he backed a report published in November 2016 by the charity National Energy Action. The report, which looked at the health problems related to fuel poverty, claimed that a child born today may never see fuel poverty eradicated from the UK unless more assistance is given struggling families.

Identifying the “fuel poor”

In England, according to the most recent official government statistics, more than 2.3 million (10%) households are living in fuel poverty. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cornwall are among the places worst affected. At risk groups include single parent households with dependent children, rural households, and those living in the private rented sector. Research also highlights that those customers who use prepay meters, which include a large proportion of the most vulnerable customers, are more likely to be “fuel poor” as they do not have the flexible tariff options and reduced rate deals which are offered to customers who pay via direct debit.

The picture is not much better elsewhere in the UK. A report produced by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group estimated that there are currently over 800,000 households (35%) living in fuel poverty, with levels as high as 50% in rural areas. Meanwhile, in Wales the latest estimates suggest that 23% of households are currently living in fuel poverty.

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Tackling the causes of fuel poverty

Not being able to afford to heat your home, or having to choose between eating or heating is the stark choice many families in the UK are being forced to make, however it is clear that fuel poverty stems from a number of different factors, including the cost of fuel, the price of energy, and rising energy consumption habits.

The latest Scottish Government strategy on tackling fuel poverty suggests that four drivers of fuel poverty need to be tackled before fuel poverty can be eradicated. These are:

  • Raising incomes  8 out of 10 households (in Scotland) in income poverty are also fuel poor.
  • Making energy costs affordable  in many cases the cost of fuel is rising faster than household incomes.
  • Improving energy performance in housing  people living in a home with low energy performance are 3.5 times as likely to be suffering from fuel poverty as those in a home with high energy performance.
  • Changing habits of energy use  adopting energy-saving behaviours can make a significant difference to fuel bills by reducing overall demand. There is also a need to better understand and increase use of “green energy”.

But what about energy suppliers?

In December 2016, a report from Turn2Us suggested  that two million households suffer from fuel poverty. Subsequently, the “big six” energy suppliers met at Westminster to discuss what they could do to help tackle fuel poverty. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for energy companies to take action to reduce fuel poverty. However, they are coming under increasing pressure to help tackle fuel poverty, by reflecting some of their profit margins in the rates they give to customers. The idea of automatically putting vulnerable or “at risk” customers onto the lowest fuel tariff was discussed. However the bulk of the discussion, according to reports, concentrated on how to increase awareness of existing options, including the government-led Warm Home Discount, individual support grants, the Cold Weather Payment, and practical support from suppliers themselves.warm fire

Practical strategies to tackle fuel poverty

A number of schemes have been developed to try to help tackle fuel poverty, with national roll outs being supplemented by more localised programmes often funded by local authorities or charities.

In November 2016 the Scottish Government pledged an extra £10m to be spent on tackling fuel poverty. £9m was allocated for councils and housing associations to make it easier for tenants to heat their homes. A further £1m is to be made available to provide interest free loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

Other schemes have also been introduced by local authorities to try and tackle fuel poverty, including Ready to Switch? Launched in November 2012, Peterborough City Council’s collective switching scheme uses the combined buying power of residents and businesses within the community to negotiate cheaper prices with energy companies. According to figures from Peterborough Council, to date, hundreds of households have switched to save on gas and electricity, with some reducing annual bills by nearly £150.

Boilers on prescription (BoP) is a new funding stream which is being tested in a number of local authority areas, including Sunderland. The fund is managed through NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and householders at risk of cold related illnesses are referred for heating upgrades via health professionals. One of the main ideas behind BoP is to reduce a resident’s need for NHS interventions by improving their thermal comfort at home. It is hoped that a warmer, healthier home could reduce the number of GP appointments or emergency admissions.

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Altering the design of new homes and subsidising the retrofitting of older ones is also a key policy strategy for tackling fuel poverty. Providing homes which are designed or adapted to be energy efficient through improved insulation, the installation of solar panels or using appropriate lighting or heating systems will allow the government not only to reduce fuel poverty in the present, but should also reduce the likelihood of more people falling into fuel poverty in the future. Reducing the demand for energy by creating homes which use less of it may also help to drive down the cost of energy, resulting in even bigger savings. However, it is not just the responsibility of individual homeowners to carry out these improvements. Local authorities, housing associations and private landlords also need to (and have in many instances) recognise the vital role they play, particularly in relation to more vulnerable customers who are at increased risk of falling into fuel poverty. Retrofitting has been increasingly popular in other parts of Europe, as these case study examples show.

The issue of fuel poverty in the UK does not appear to be going anywhere fast. Despite the attempts of governments across the UK to reduce the figure, in many areas the number of people falling into fuel poverty continues to rise. While there are individual areas of good practice aiming to help some of the UK’s most vulnerable families to heat their homes, it is clear that a wider commitment to combat the underlying causes of fuel poverty is needed, along with a recognition that there is a responsibility across the board to provide help and information to families suffering as a result of fuel poverty.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our blog on the Dutch Energiesprong model and our research briefing on retrofitting (member access only).

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Reflections from the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference

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The theme of this year’s conference posed a question to speakers and delegates of the conference: is the current planning climate in Scotland presenting “new opportunities, or more of the same?”

Delegates came together in the COSLA building in Edinburgh to discuss all areas of planning and environmental law in Scotland. The gathering included a range of organisations and sectors, including lawyers and solicitors, planners, engineers, academics and civil servants.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

The morning session focused on energy, infrastructure and economic development. Ross Martin (@SCDIChief), chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry kicked the day off with a discussion of place making in Scotland. He highlighted the economic benefit of good planning, noting that when it is done well planning has a core role in economic development strategies and can facilitate growth within an area.

This was followed by a discussion from Professor Becky Lunn from the University of Strathclyde who gave delegates some interesting food for thought in her discussion of the environmental, economic and moral consequences of Scotland’s energy choices.  A day after Ineos imported its first container of US shale gas to its Grangemouth refinery, Professor Lunn told delegates, that no energy solution is problem free, but “if we (Scotland) say no to the domestic production of gas and nuclear energy we are saying yes to something else”- the demand needs to be met regardless of whether the energy is produced in the UK or not. She questioned the moral arguments that it could be acceptable to import shale from elsewhere, while we are not content enough with the level of safety, the security of regulation and its wider environmental impact to do it ourselves (something which was picked up on by Ruth Davidson later that same day in FMQ’s). Professor Lunn advocated a strong public element to discussion, and a robust and well-informed debate around long term energy choices. She also warned against “crisis led” energy policy-making dictated by rhetoric of “fear and shortage”.

housing estate

 

Head of planning at Homes for Scotland, Tammy Adams (@TammyHFS) discussed the delivery of high quality homes in Scotland within the wider planning context. She highlighted the challenges and opportunities for house building, arguing that delivering new homes in Scotland should be “a golden thread” running through the Scottish planning system, and that an effort should be made to better align market realities and site strategy, but maintain flexibility of delivery.

The penultimate session of the morning was delivered by Sara Thiam, director of the Institution of Civil Engineers Scotland. She looked at the role of infrastructure and planning. Sara discussed the potential of devolution to city regions to grow the economy by allowing city regions to plan and build infrastructure which reflects their local social and economic needs. She also spoke about the need to be strategic about infrastructure choices, not just pushing increased finance for infrastructure, but targeting it strategically, investing in green infrastructure where possible, and thinking long-term about projects and desired outcomes.

The morning was brought to a close by event sponsors Terra Firma Chambers who provided some useful insights into  up-to-date case law, including notable cases that many delegates could draw on for their day to day decision making and planning submissions.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

The afternoon session opened with a panel session which featured insights from four speakers: Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at Ulster University; Craig McLaren, RTPI Director of Scotland and Ireland; John McNairney, Chief Planner at the Scottish Government; and John Hamilton, CEO Winchburgh. The discussions focussed on the new opportunities presented in planning in Scotland, including the review of planning, building homes, creating more joined up planning and the planning process more generally. Discussions were wide ranging, generating a lot of interaction both within the panel and between the panel and the delegates. The discussions were wrapped up by a second case law update.

The final presentation of the day was delivered by Steve Rogers, Head of Planning and Regulatory Services at Dumfries and Galloway Council and Chair of Heads of Planning Scotland. He spoke about his experiences with smart resourcing and the importance of leadership in planning.

Overall it was a day full of insight and expertise, which provided everyone who attended with the opportunity to think critically about the state of planning in Scotland from a number of different positions. It posed questions to be considered, allowed delegates to reflect on their day to day practice and highlighted opportunities and potential barriers for planning in Scotland in the future.


An annual subscription to SPEL Journal is £145. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Christine Eccleson, SPEL Journal’s Advertising Manager, on 0141 574 1905 or email christine.eccleson@Idoxgroup.com

SPEL Journal is read by decision makers in Scottish planning authorities, planning law practices, planning consultancies, surveyors, civil engineers, environmental managers and developers across Scotland. It is also valued by many practitioners outside of Scotland who need to keep abreast of developments.

 

ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

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‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

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

 

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In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a clear promise:

“We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”

Soon after winning the election, the Conservative government followed through on this commitment, introducing three key changes concerning onshore wind in England and Wales:

  1. New planning guidance was issued stating that onshore wind farms must be sited in areas “identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan”, and that any objections from local communities to proposed developments must be “fully addressed”.
  2. Energy secretary Amber Rudd announced the phasing-out of renewables subsidies, with onshore wind subsidies ending a year earlier than planned, in April 2016.
  3. The government’s 2015 Energy Bill (England and Wales) included a measure to devolve powers to determine major onshore wind farm applications (with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts) to local authorities.

Onshore wind in context

Since the construction of the UK’s first commercial wind farm in 1991, onshore wind energy has grown to become the country’s largest source of renewable energy generation. With more than 8GW of operational capacity, onshore wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December.

An Office for National Statistics survey reported that, in 2014, about 3,000 businesses were operating in the onshore wind sector, which employed 6,500 people across the UK – 3,000 in England, 2,500 in Scotland, and 500 each in Wales and Northern Ireland, generating £2.8bn.

Renewable UK, which represents the wind and marine energy sector, argues that onshore wind is an environmentally-friendly and cost effective form of energy:

“A modern 2.5MW (commercial scale) turbine, on a reasonable site, will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year – enough to make 230 million cups of tea.”

In recent years, higher capacity turbines and improvements and reductions in installation, operation and maintenance costs have made onshore wind more economically attractive. The European Wind Energy Association claims that onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new power generation in Europe.

Responses to the policy changes

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party acknowledged that onshore wind makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix, but observed that onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, and are unable by themselves to provide the capacity that a stable energy system requires. The government has since underlined that there is no longer any need for subsidising onshore wind and that the £800m in subsidies added about £10.00 to an annual household energy bill.

An article in The Economist agreed that subsidies for renewables were too generous and pointed out that onshore wind is an unreliable energy source. This was echoed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said:  “There is absolutely no place for subsidising wind – a failed medieval technology which during the coldest day of the year so far produced only 0.75 per cent of the electricity load.”

However, environmental campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, argued that scrapping support for wind turbines, rather than phasing them out, would increase the cost of meeting carbon reduction targets, or increase the risk of missing them. This, in turn, they said would lead the UK to pursue more expensive decarbonisation options, resulting in additional costs to consumers.

Meanwhile, energy companies warned that the policy changes had made some renewable power projects “uninvestable”.  In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that one renewable energy company had scrapped nine onshore wind projects in England in the previous four months, halting investments of more than £250m. The company said it had instead switched its investments to projects in the Netherlands and Germany.

In Scotland, which has 61% of the UK’s onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Government has stressed that it continues to support onshore wind and other sources of renewable energy. In December 2015, Scottish chief planner John McNairney wrote to Scotland’s heads of planning explaining that the administration has not changed its stance on onshore wind farms or energy targets.

The planning changes

With regard to the planning aspects of the policy reforms, the Royal Town Planning Institute questioned the need to enable major wind farm projects to be decided locally, given that local planning authorities already have final consenting power for onshore wind farms under 50 megawatts, which make up the majority of applications.

In July 2015, Planning Resource reported that the policy was already having an impact. Kieran Tarpy, managing director at planning consultancy Entrust, said that within days of the new guidance being announced one council had refused a planning application based on the need for community backing. He predicted that the policy changes would have a “dramatic impact” on the number of proposals going into the system.

However, last month, Planning Resource reported that some local authorities, including councils in Hull, Cumbria and Devon, have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy.

The UK government may still be committed to halting the spread of onshore wind farms, but it appears that rumours of the death of onshore wind have been exaggerated.

What next for energy efficient homes?

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Guest post, by Dr Alina Congreve, Centre for Cities, University of Hertfordshire, and
Dr Dan Greenwood, University of Westminster

The controversy surrounding the scrapping of the zero carbon target for new homes continues, despite its removal by the government in July 2015. The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee report, published in March 2016, was highly critical of the government’s approach to energy efficiency and housing. There has also been a strong reaction to the closure of the Zero Carbon Hub at the end of March. The Hub was widely regarded as an exemplary model of collaboration between government, industry and third sector.

Critics of the government’s approach to new housing policy point out that the initial drivers behind the zero carbon target have not gone away. European requirements that all new buildings are ‘nearly zero’ energy by 2021 are still in place. The Climate Change Act requires a fall in emissions of 80% by 2050 (from a 2006 baseline). Given the limits to reduction from retrofitting existing buildings, emissions reductions from new build need to be even higher.

There is a widespread view within the sector that the most effective way to achieve energy efficient new homes is through regulation, supported by appropriate tools and training developed in collaboration with the industry. For planners working in local authorities, the options for requiring developers to go beyond the Building Regulations are severely curtailed. Following the Housing Standards Review, they can no longer require developers to build to higher levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Influencing new development through stronger regulations was a key part of many cities’ climate action plans.

In spite of this, local authorities are still able to set higher environmental requirements for commercial buildings and insist that developers build to BREEAM standards. When the costs and savings of regulation are calculated by the government the energy savings to office occupants are included in the calculations. However, when the costs of energy standards for new homes are calculated by the government, energy savings for households are not included. The current processes of reviewing policy are based on financial costs and benefits, but value judgements are made about which costs are included. The Housing Standards Review has created a long period of uncertainty for the industry. The transaction costs that result from this uncertainty, such as staff training or product development to meet a new standard that is subsequently withdrawn, are also not included in policy impact financial calculations.

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In the short-term, strengthening Building Regulations or modernizing regulatory tools such as the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) seem unlikely. Voluntary codes and standards can have an important complementary role to play alongside regulation. Some landowners who wish to go beyond the legal minimum find a benchmark developed by a third party valuable. Current examples can be found in Norwich, where the city council is using a combination of AECB and Passivhaus standards on sites that it owns and are being developed for housing. In the current market for new homes, consumer drivers are relatively weak and buyers and mortgage lenders rarely place a premium on energy efficiency or other sustainable features. There is, however, the potential to do more to change this situation. If a standard adds value to a property by appealing to buyers, then the business case to do more becomes much stronger.


These views are based on a report carried out for the  Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Trust on the Future for policy and standards for low and zero carbon new homes. The report draws on over 70 interviews with key stakeholders in the industry. It is available free to download.

Alina Congreve is an Associate at the Centre for Cities at the University of Hertfordshire. An experienced sustainability and built environment professional, Alina has specialist expertise in a number of areas, including sustainability and new residential development and resource efficiency in construction.

Read our other blog posts on energy efficient homes:

Fossil fuel divestment:an idea whose time has come?

Introduction

Within just a few years, fossil fuel divestment has overtaken previous campaigns targeting apartheid in South Africa and tobacco advertising to become the fastest growing divestment movement in history.

In September, a report from Arabella Advisors found that 436 institutions and 2,040 individuals across 43 countries and representing $2.6 trillion in assets had committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.

What is Fossil Fuel Divestment?

Organisations, communities and individuals commit to fossil fuel divestment (FFD) by making a public pledge to stop buying stocks, bonds and investment funds from energy companies whose primary business relies upon coal, gas or oil. They also promise to invest in climate solutions, such as clean energy and sustainable agriculture.

Who’s involved in FFD?

The roots of the FFD movement may be found in the college campuses of the United States, where student campaigning has resulted in around 40 educational institutions (including the universities of California, Georgetown and Stanford) making full or partial divestments from fossil fuels.

The movement has spread rapidly beyond the education sector, taking in religious groups, municipalities, NGOs and healthcare organisations. While most divesting institutions are US-based, FFD has also become a worldwide movement, with the cities of Oslo in Norway and Uppsala in Sweden, and the Australian Capital Territory Government making their own commitments. Pledges to divest from fossil fuels have also been made by some surprising sources, including the Australian city of Newcastle (home to the largest coal port in the world) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune).

In the UK, the FFD movement has also seen exponential growth. Last year, the University of Glasgow became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Since then, other higher education institutions, including the universities of Oxford and Surrey and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have made pledges to reduce their fossil fuel investments.

Four UK local authorities – Oxford, Bristol, Kirklees and Cambridge – have committed to FFD, while councils in York, Bradford, Reading and Hackney are reviewing their fossil fuel investments.

Other high-profile organisations committing to FFD include the British Medical Association and the Environment Agency’s pension fund.

The factors driving FFD

Moral and economic arguments have converged to propel fossil fuel divestment. FFD advocates say it’s morally wrong to profit from climate change, a view powerfully expressed by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

“Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

There is also a growing recognition in the business world of the financial risks associated with investment in fossil fuels. As the Arabella Advisors report observed:

“Reports by Citigroup analysts, HSBC, Mercer, the International Energy Agency, Bank of England, Carbon Tracker Initiative, and others have offered evidence of a significant, quantifiable risk to portfolios exposed to fossil fuel assets in a carbon constrained world. The leaders of several of the largest institutions to divest in the past year have cited climate risk to investment portfolios as a key factor in their decisions.”

At the same time, falling costs have made renewable energy more attractive both to consumers and investors, although investment in clean energy is far from the estimated $1 trillion annually needed to limit global warming to 2˚C.

Resistance and resurgence

FFD is not without its critics, and some organisations have resisted pressure to change.  Last month the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rejected calls to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Instead, MIT argued that engaging with the fossil fuels industry was a more effective way to address climate change. Similarly, Harvard University has declined to stop buying fossil fuel company stocks, claiming its research and teaching contributes to a better understanding of global warming.

But FFD campaigners are not backing down. In May the University of Edinburgh ruled out a wholesale sell-off of its £27m investments in oil, gas and coal companies. However, after a 10-day occupation by students the university clarified its position, and announced it would fully divest from three of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers within six months.

There is also growing pressure on local authority pension funds to reduce their fossil fuel investments. In September, it was reported that UK local government pension funds hold over £14 billion in coal, oil and gas companies.

The focus now shifts to the UN Climate Change Conference, starting today in Paris. Divestment campaigners are making it clear that they expect governments attending the Paris summit to follow the lead of the FFD movement by committing to phase out support for the consumption and production of fossil fuels.


 

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in environment policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading

A beginner’s guide to fossil fuel divestment

The case for fossil-fuel divestment

Another world first for London Underground: energy from braking trains

By James Carson

London’s Tube may be the oldest underground network in the world, but it’s still breaking new ground. Last month, engineers began testing a process that enables waste energy from Tube train brakes to be collected and recycled.

In just one week of operation, the new technology recovered enough power to run a station as large as Holborn for more than two days per week. Transport for London (TfL) believes the results show that the new green technology could allow London Underground to tap into a previously inaccessible resource, reducing its overall carbon footprint and saving as much as £6m every year for reinvestment in improving transport.

State-of-the-art

The new ‘inverter’ system was used for the first time at the Cloudesley Road substation on the Victoria line for a five-week trial. It works by collecting energy generated by the trains when they brake before feeding it back into the power mains as electricity.

Commenting on the successful trial, Chris Tong, LU’s Head of Power and Cooling, said:

‘This state-of-the-art regenerative braking system has the potential to transform how we power stations across the TfL network, unlocking massive power savings and significantly reducing our energy bills.”

As well as saving energy, the technology has the added benefit of reducing the amount of heat generated by trains braking in tunnels, which in turn would reduce the energy required to operate London Underground’s cooling systems.

“The trial puts London at the cutting edge of this kind of technology,” said Matthew Pencharz, London’s deputy mayor for environment and energy. “And it clearly demonstrates how energy from trains can be recovered to power Tube stations, making the network more environmentally friendly and cost-effective.”

‘Green’ modernisation

The trial follows a number of other measures put in place by the Mayor and Transport for London to ‘green’ the Capital’s Tube system. In January, it was announced that the historic Greenwich Power Station would be revamped to transform it into a low-carbon power generator for the Tube network. Its six new gas engines will replace existing boilers and provide cheaper, cleaner power for the Tube, with waste heat being channelled into a new local heat network that will also benefit residents.

Green technology is an important part of London Underground’s largest programme of modernisation in decades, with major stations, trains, track and control systems being updated or replaced to provide a 30 per cent increase in capacity across the Tube network.

Recycling energy from braking systems is one example of ways in which engineers and architects are thinking more creatively about meeting the needs of a rapidly growing city. Another radical proposal from a London architecture practice has suggested replacing the Circle Line with a high-speed travelator!


 

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in transport and environment policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading*

Equipping London for the challenges of the future

Waste not, want not at TfL (waste management at Transport for London)

Squeezing in (off-peak working and commuting in London)

Leading London into a smarter future (Transport for London)

World class? London’s transport – progress and future challenges

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

The Aktivhaus: is this the future of sustainable living?

DEU, Stuttgart, Dokumentation Aufbau Pavillon Wei§enhofsiedlung, Werner Sobek Design GmbH , Fertigstellung: 2014 , DIGITAL 100 MB 8 Bit. - ©Zooey Braun; Veroeffentlichung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Beleg / permission required for reproduction, mention of copyright, complimentary copy, FUER WERBENUTZUNG RUECKSPRACHE ERFORDERLICH!/ PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR ADVERTISING!

Photo reproduced with permission of Werner Sobek Design GmbH , Fertigstellung: ©Zooey Braun

By James Carson

Earlier this year, we looked at a style of building known as Passivhaus, which is playing an important role in creating energy-efficient homes. Now, another concept – the Aktivhaus – is taking this approach even further, graduating from energy-saving to energy-generating homes.

The Aktivhaus concept

Like Passivhaus, the Aktivhaus has its origins in Germany. Stuttgart-based architect Werner Sobek defines Aktivhaus buildings as those which:

  • offset their annual total energy consumption in a sustainable manner;
  • anticipate and react accordingly to relevant changes both inside and outside the house;
  • continuously measure and optimise all energy streams.

Sobek’s idea has been realised in the form of a building called B10. This prototype Aktivhaus – prefabricated offsite and assembled in a single day – is located at the Weissenhof settlement in Stuttgart. It’s an appropriate site for applying a revolutionary concept – in 1927 the Weissenhof estate hosted a housing exhibition that included designs by leading lights in modern architecture, such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The Aktivhaus enacted

On the face of it, B10 is an 85 square-metre box with a full-length window. But its sophisticated design means the Aktivhaus can generate twice as much electric power from sustainable energy sources as it consumes. This means it can not only satisfy its own electricity needs, but can also power two electric cars and a neighbouring house built by Le Corbusier for the 1927 exhibition.

The ‘active’ element in the Aktivhaus is a mini computer, connected to the internet, that monitors weather forecasts and enables the house to respond accordingly, with different rooms heated or cooled at different times of the day. Other elements include a highly efficient heating system, web app-operated functions to control lighting and window blinds, and 17mm thick vacuum glazing whose three layers keep heat in and draughts out.

Werner Sobek believes that the Aktivhaus concept is not only applicable to new homes. “Our system is very helpful for old buildings,” he told the New York Times.

Some might feel it best to leave the imperfections as they are and not invest in major energy improvements and instead rely on the surplus energy from a ‘sister house,’ but the system can also help you decide to make modest changes to the windows or to improve the boiler.”

DEU, Stuttgart, Musterhaus Wei§enhofsiedlung, AWerner Sobek Design, Fertigstellung: 2014 , DIGITAL 100 MB 8 Bit. - ©Zooey Braun; Veroeffentlichung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Beleg / permission required for reproduction, mention of copyright, complimentary copy, FUER WERBENUTZUNG RUECKSPRACHE ERFORDERLICH!/ PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR ADVERTISING!

Photo reproduced with permission of Werner Sobek Design, Fertigstellung: 2014: ©Zooey Braun

Over three years, researchers will study B10’s performance as a real-life residence. The building can later be dismantled and reassembled elsewhere, and when it reaches the end of its life almost all parts of the Aktivhaus have been designed to be recycled.

With construction costs of €100,000 and the technology inside priced at a further €600,000, the Aktivhaus is hardly an affordable housing option. But eventual scaling up of production could drive those costs down.

In the meantime, the ideas coming out of the Aktivhaus project may influence those looking for ways to tackle the ongoing issues of housing shortages, climate change and fuel poverty.


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

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Further reading*

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Thermal vision (energy-efficient retrofit for social housing block)

Warmer outlook (energy efficient housing)

Building sustainable homes

Footprint: three Passivhaus projects

Building the future: the economic and fiscal impacts of making homes efficient

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

Building Britain’s future: how the Infrastructure Act will affect local authorities

By Steven McGinty

After several months of debate, the Infrastructure Act was given royal assent on the 12th February 2015, introducing a number of important changes. The Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech with the intention to:

“bolster investment in infrastructure and reform planning law to improve economic competitiveness”.

On the day of its assent, Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, expanded on this, explaining that:

“This act will hugely boost Britain’s competitiveness in transport, energy provision, housing development and nationally significant infrastructure projects. Cost efficient infrastructure development is all part of the government’s long term economic plan, boosting competitiveness, jobs and growth.”

The Act has resulted in a number of policy changes.  The majority of these are relatively mundane and are unlikely to engender much public scrutiny; however, there are a few high profile and controversial changes. Below I’ve outlined some of the most important changes for local authorities, as well as communities.

Land Registry

The Act has introduced changes to Local Land Charges, transferring responsibility from individual local councils in England and Wales to the Land Registry, which will be providing a broader range of services. This was recommended in the ‘Land Registry, Wider Powers and Local Land Charges’ report, which suggested a need to standardise costs and provide a more predictable service.

This has been criticised by the Local Government Association (LGA), who have suggested that local councils are best placed to meet the needs of businesses and local residents.  They have also raised concerns about the costs involved in making technical changes to local council systems, as well as the disruption it would cause to the property market. It’s estimated that local councils have about 20 million entries on their registers of Local Land Charges, across 350 local councils.

Community Rights and energy exploration (fracking and renewable energy)

Individuals within or connected to a community have been given the rights to buy a stake in renewable electricity schemes.  This appears to have been well received, as local residents are now able to receive some of the financial benefits of local electricity production.

However, changes to hydraulic fracking have been a lot more controversial.  The Act allows energy companies the right to exploit petroleum or deep geothermal energy, without notifying the owners of the land, as long as it’s at least 300 meters below surface level. They also have the right to put any substance underground, to change the condition of the land, and to leave material behind.

Not surprisingly, campaigners, such as Simon Clydesdale from Greenpeace UK, have criticised these changes, suggesting that the new legislation is encouraging fracking and is so loosely worded that it could possibly permit the burial of nuclear waste.

Discharge of Planning Conditions

The Act makes it clear that certain types of planning conditions can be discharged if on application to the local authority, the developer has not had a decision made within the prescribed period. It also allows the Secretary of State to make a development order relating to the discharge of a planning condition in an area. This would mean that local authorities would not be able to stop these developments for lack of written approval.

Mayoral Development Orders

These orders provide greater powers to the Mayor of London to grant planning permission for development on specified sites within Greater London. It’s been seen as a useful reform to make it easier for planning permission to be granted on complex sites that cross local authority boundaries. This has been viewed as important for tackling London’s housing shortage.

Although not all of the changes are as high profile as fracking, it’s important that local authorities take time to examine the Infrastructure Act, and to make sure that they are ready to respond to the new legislative environment.


Although many of the changes in the Infrastructure Act will not come into force until a later date, local authorities need to be aware of the possible impact on planning processes and procedures.

Over two thirds of UK local authorities use Idox solutions to effectively manage the property and development lifecycle.

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

Further reading