Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Eco friendly new-homes at Ellesmere Port

Inside and outside, a Space4 home has the look and feel of a traditional property with the added bonus that the build process is more efficient, where impact on the environment has been reduced. On the outside, properties, built using brick, stone and render feature the familiar elegant design of a Persimmon home while the hi-tech backbone creates new levels of environmental efficiency.

Space4 homes are setting new standards for a whole host of environmental benefits – its patented manufacturing process means properties boast superior fire resistance while the high-performance insulation built into the structural walls deliver superior standards of thermal efficiency. This, together with high quality windows and doors means lower energy consumption and an end to draughts and in the days of ever-escalating utilities costs, the benefits are considerable.

“Going green is more than just a ‘noughties buzzword’ and is something we are placing high on our agenda” comments Gill Dale, field sales manager for Persimmon Homes Mercia.

Gill continues: “As we are proving at The Beeches, going green can be both attractive and affordable. By incorporating eco-friendly Modern Methods of Construction with striking designs that are synonymous with traditional properties, it is possible to be environmentally aware without paying over the odds for a property that looks too cutting edge.”

There are so many benefits to off-site timber frame homes – properties are constructed at a much faster rate which not only reduces effects on the environment, but also means street scenes and developments are completed much quicker – a bonus for anyone who wants to move into what feels like a new community rather than a building site - and The Beeches is no exception.

“Overall Space4 homes help create a better place to live and work. Lower consumption of heating fuels and transport helps reduce CO2 emissions, whilst the use of sustainable, recyclable materials creates less impact on the wider environment. What’s more, getting green should also increase the selling potential should residents wish to relocate in the future – the benefits are endless.”

full article

Can We Trust The Energy Suppliers?

With the value of 'green tariffs' from energy suppliers under question, British Gas has launched a new energy tariff that it insists is the greenest on the market and will make a difference to the environment.
Energy suppliers have been offering 'green tariffs' for a number of years that promise to match your electricity use by putting the same amount of energy from renewable sources – mostly wind farms – back into the national grid.
The problem is that suppliers are already obliged by Government to generate a proportion of the energy they supply from renewables. This amount is far more than the renewable energy required to satisfy the demand from green tariffs, so there is no more renewable energy being generated overall.

The problem was highlighted in a National Consumer Council study this year and the new British Gas tariff has been designed to answer these criticisms. The Zero Carbon tariff promises to generate 12% of users' energy from renewable sources, above what was already being produced under Government obligations.
full article

In addition, the tariff will offset 100% of the users' energy use through carbon-offsetting schemes. The Zero Carbon tariff will cost £84 a year more than the British Gas standard dual fuel tariff.

Alongside the Zero Carbon tariff, British Gas is also launching a Future Energy tariff which, for an extra £20 a year, will make a donation into a non-profit British Gas green fund.

£5 will go to UK schools to help reduce their CO2 emissions. The rest will be invested in development of new renewable technologies and resources.

Gearoid Lane, managing director of British Gas new energy, said: 'Green tariffs are moving from niche to mainstream products and we're leading the industry by offering a tariff that will do more for the environment than any other product currently available.'

Scott Byrom, utilities expert at price comparison website moneysupermarket.com, said: 'Undoubtedly, these products tick all the right boxes from a 'green' point of view, but they come at a cost. Unfortunately, that cost will be to the millions of customers looking to play their part in the fight against climate change and go green.'

'The British Gas Zero Carbon offering is over £150 more than the cheapest dual fuel product around, British Gas Click Energy 3. It is this gap that providers need to bridge in order to gain consumer interest.'

'All customers would be advised to look at online products, such as 'Click Energy 3', and, for those of us who are eco-friendly, donate some of the savings to a green project of our choice.'

the real problem - unsustainable lifestyles

Is it not time to recognise that climate change is yet another symptom of our unsustainable lifestyles, which must now become the focus our efforts?

Yet governments, and those organisations who have now assumed the role of combating climate change, subscribe to the notion that climate change is our central problem and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is the cause of this problem.

Undeniably, climate change is a serious problem but it is only one of a growing list of problems that arise from a fundamental global issue.

However, by focusing on the need to reduce CO2 emissions has reduced the problem to one of carbon dioxide rather than on the unsustainable ways we live our lives.

This oversight has led to the assumption that if we reduce emissions then our problems are solved, hence the focus on carbon sequestration, renewable energies and environmental technologies.
So, what can we do? Obviously, the first thing we need to do is act, and act fast.

Every day we wait, another 30,000 children needlessly die; between 100-150 plant and animal species become extinct; 70,000 hectares of rainforest is destroyed and another 150m tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, another $3.0bn (£1.5bn) is spent on arms and weapons of mass destruction.

We urgently need to think about the more fundamental concept of sustainability and how our lifestyles are threatening not only the environment, but developing countries and global peace and stability.

So, what can we do? Obviously, the first thing we need to do is act, and act fast.

Every day we wait, another 30,000 children needlessly die; between 100-150 plant and animal species become extinct; 70,000 hectares of rainforest is destroyed and another 150m tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, another $3.0bn (£1.5bn) is spent on arms and weapons of mass destruction.

We urgently need to think about the more fundamental concept of sustainability and how our lifestyles are threatening not only the environment, but developing countries and global peace and stability.
full article

Monday, 30 July 2007

MIT students compete in eco-friendly house contest

Imagine never having to pay an electric or heating bill ever again.

That’s precisely what a group of MIT students is trying to accomplish on the corner of Albany and Portland streets.

For weeks, alternating crews of students and Cambridge residents have been hard at work building a house capable of producing its own heat and electricity, all from the power of the sun.

In preparation for an upcoming eco-friendly housing competition in October in Washington, D.C., a team of approximately 40 people, dubbed the “Solar 7” team, have been feverishly assembling a “zero energy” house.

“What that means is it’s a house that’s powered and heated completely off the grid,” said Kurt Keville, one of the team’s volunteer leaders. Keville explained the house, which is to be completed and entered into the 2007 Solar Decathlon, uses a variety of solar energy-absorbing mechanisms to produce clean, free heat and electricity. On the roof, traditional solar panels keep the house lit, and keep household appliances running. On one side of the house, a specially designed wall retains heat and recycles it back into the home.

“It takes a lot of the peaks and valleys out of insulation,” Keville said. “We’re going to be getting a lot of energy production out of [the house’s] southern exposure.”

This year will mark the first time MIT has been invited to the Solar Decathlon, which, according to the competition’s Web site, was conceived by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002. Over the course of seven days, teams from 20 colleges and universities from around the world will be judged on 10 separate aspects of their “zero energy” homes, including architecture, engineering, market viability, communication, comfort, appliances, hot water, lighting and energy balance. Teams are also required to equip their houses with a charging station for an electric car, which will be supplied by the Department of Energy.

During the next few weeks, Keville said the Solar 7 team will be hard at work installing the solar components of the house. Once it is completed and tested for energy efficiency, the team will split the house into two halves, strap it to a pair of flatbed trucks and haul it down to D.C. A daunting task, to be sure, however it’s not the most challenging aspect of the project, according to one of the team’s student leaders.

“Honestly, the most difficult thing about this whole project is that it’s volunteer based,” said Corey Fucetola, a PhD student who’s a member of the team. “We have so many people that are completely gung-ho about the idea of building a zero energy house, but who also have to make a living.”

To learn more about the MIT Solar 7 team, check out their Web site at http://web.mit.edu/solardecathlon/. For more information about the 2007 Solar Decathlon, visit http://www.solardecathlon.org.

full article

Tommy plans an eco house

THE building star of BBC's Ground Force, Tommy Walsh, has embarked on a new project to build a state-of-the-art eco home in March.

He is building the house in the most environmentally friendly and cost-efficient manner possible, with the team choosing construction materials based on their green credentials. The whole project has a budget of just £60,000.

The construction of the two-bedroom detached house is expected to take little more than 60 days and the progress will be shown on television.

Tommy said: "I am very excited about working on such a challenging project. I hope it will highlight environmental issues surrounding new-build houses and help to pave the way for how houses will be built in the future."

The buyer of the home will benefit from a 10-year warranty from LABC New Home Warranty, which covers new and newly converted properties ensuring the home is built to the highest possible standard.
full article

Welsh eco-house 'not green enough'

When it comes to "green" living, Tony Wrench and his partner Jane Faith believed they were as enviromentally-friendly as is possible to be.

Built of timber and roofed with turf, their eco-roundhouse in west Wales - dubbed The Hobbit House by locals - appeared to tick all the boxes.

Insulated with straw, its electricity generated by solar panels and wind power, and using water from a mountain stream, it has been home to the couple and their low-carbon lifestyle for ten years now.

Even the toilet is "green", using a composting and reed bed system to deal with waste naturally.

But, apparently, its not "green" enough, according to the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, who have decided the house in Brithdir Mawr, Newport, does not meet its low-impact development policy.

The couple has now been ordered to demolish the house, which was built on private land at a cost of £3,000 and was unknown to the authorities until it was photographed from the air.

A park planning committee decided the building "failed to make a positive environmental impact" and was "not sustainable".

An ecologist's report to the meeting said it was "likely to have an impact on protected species such as dormice, bats and invertebrates" and concluded that if permission were granted, similiar properties would spring up causing "severe degradation of the National Park landscape."

Now the couple, who make a modest income from woodcraft, woollen rugs and music, have vowed to take their case to the Welsh Assembly in the latest stage of a long-running planning row over the building.

Mr Wrench, 61, said he was "stunned" by the ruling.

The couple grow their own fruit and vegetables, manage without a fridge or washing machine, and a study has confirmed their "carbon footprint" is just a fraction of the national average.

"We are doing everything we possibly can to reduce our carbon footprint. It's about as low as we can get and it demonstrates that an enviromentally sustainable lifestyle is possible," he said.

"So it is complete nonsense what they are saying. We will appeal against it - if not for us, but for all the other people who want to live in a way which is less harmful to the planet."

"There is a need for radical changes in the way we plan for, design and build homes, so we are very disappointed by the decision.

"The house is so beautiful to be in, and the garden so fruitful and bursting with life of all kinds, that I still cannot believe that in a world of such environmental spoilation and with spreading patches of such ugliness, there are still people paid to work on having this home demolished," added Mr Wrench, a wood-turner by trade.

One of the objections to the house was that it was thought that a woodland was not able to provide a sustainable source of fuel and crafts for the couple.

Ifor Jones, the authoritiy's head of conservation, admitted that the rules were strict but they applied to everyone, he said.

"Yes, we do have high hurdles but it is important that any development enhances the environment, rather than detracts from it, " he said. "In this instance the location of the roundhouse and vegetable garden within an area of semi-natural vegetation, comprosing woodland edge and unimproved wet grassland, is considered to have had negative impacts.
full article


A Devon community of thousands of new homes will be a prototype for the "eco towns" proposed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown has ordered the biggest housebuilding programme since the 1940s - and Government officials believe Cranbrook - which is due to be built on farmland east of Exeter - provides a blueprint for future developments.

Senior Government official Richard McCarthy told a specially invited audience of 300 housing experts in Reading: "We must not overlook the need for good design of both homes and communities, the urgent need for the highest environmental standards and lifestyles, and an innovative approach to transport provision.

"Some of you are already making great progress in these areas. East Devon District Council is blazing the trail with the Cranbrook development east of Exeter, which will serve as a prototype of the new eco towns which the Prime Minister has announced, with challenging targets for energy efficiency and rail links into Exeter".

At Cranbrook, 40 per cent of the first 2,900 homes will be "affordable" and around 16.7 per cent of its energy will come from renewable sources. The new town - in which public buildings such as schools will be powered by biomass boilers - will also conform to the latest regulations on water use, building materials and waste.

The conference was told Cranbrook will have its own railway station, and developers will have to abide by government requirements for sustainable homes, which includes a range of standards in terms of energy use, insulation, water use, materials, surface water run-off and waste.

But the details of how the new town will meet its environment targets have yet to be finalised.

Campaigners said labelling Cranbrook an eco town was an attempt to "greenwash" a development that would needlessly damage the environment.

The consortium behind Cranbrook, East Devon New Community Partners, said no homes or buildings where people worked would be built on land with anything greater than a "one in 1,000 year" flood risk. The current requirement is that homes should not be built in an area with a "one in 100 year" risk.
full article

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Tri Iso Super 9 - Heat Insulation and Thermal Reduction System

Tri-iso super 9 is a very reductive heat insulator, excellent for domestic application.

The Product is easy to install and works very effectively. You can buy the product in rolls of 10m2 or 20m2.

Because of the way Tri-iso super 9 is installed it means that the product is able to: Stop the cold in winter and reflect the heat of rooms back inside.
Reflect solar radiation back outside in Summer, thereby preventing overheating of attic rooms.
Seals roof against wind and damp, whilst retaining ventilation.
Retains more warmth in winter.
Prevents lofts overheating in summer.
Saves valuable living space.
Beams and rafters may be left exposed.

14 alternating layers.
2 tear-resistant reinforced reflective films.
2 layers of soft, flexible wadding.
6 layers of closed cell foam.
4 internal reflective films.
Uncompressed thickness: 25mm

Equivalent to 200mm of traditional thick insulation.

Acoustic reduction:
RW:61 db
Fume classification:F1
(NF 16-101).

Roll size: 1.58m x 6.33m long = 10m2

Weight: 7kg

Roll size: 1,58 x 12.66m long = 20m2

Weight: 14kg

Over/Under rafter.
Loft conversions.
Unconverted lofts/wWalls

The product can be used for wall insulation, roof insulation, and floor insulation.
For roof use you can use either under rafter or over; depending on
your particular circumstances wall Tri-iso super 9 can also be used for wall insulation.

There are two types of installation for roof application: Under Rafter & Over Rafter. Over Rafter application involves rolling out the thermal insulation martial vertically from top to bottom of the roof. And then staple to the joists every 50cm. You then need to ensure that the overlay widths are overlaped by 5cm to 10cm. Then cover the joists with jointing tape. Fix the cross battens, breathable roof underlay, counter battens and tile battens before attaching final covering.

Under Rafter application involves rolling out the thermal insulation martial vertically from top to bottom as with the over rafter. Then staple to the joist every 50cm on the underside of the rafter, Then ensure that the overlap is between 5cm to 10cm and then tape the joints. At the bottom of the roof pitch , staple the insulation directly onto the timber wall plate.

For plasterboard lining nail cross battens to the rafters through the insulation and then attach the plasterboard.

Wall installation is similar to roof application. You will need to batten the wall with a minimum batten that will allow a 20mm air gap. The battens will need as an example could be paced 600 centers apart. Then unroll the heat insulation martial from top to bottom of the wall. Staple the insulation product at 50cm intervals on the battens. The overlap required is between 5cm and 10cm and needs to be taped as well for maximum insulation results. To apply plasterboard you will need nail across the battens through the insulation martial to another layer of battens and then attach the plaster board.

Floor application requires a batten frame to be built. This is needed as the product requires a 20mm air gap. This is an important factor so to ensure any heat exchange is made through radiation.

Then staple the insulation product using corrosive resistant staples at 50cm intervals onto the battens & make sure the overlap is between 5cm and 10cm and taped. Then attach the 2nd layer of battens directly above the 1st layer of battens. Then attach the flooring.

Magic Boiler Scheme

The Magic boiler scheme allows you to purchase high efficiency boilers and central heating controls at reduced prices.

By installing simple energy-efficiency measures into your home, you could reduce your fuel bills by up to £200 per year.

To help you make these savings the Magic boiler scheme provides special discounts with various boiler manufacturers and is managed through PTS - Plumbing Trade Supplies.

If you want to buy the boiler yourself, just mention the Magic Boiler Scheme at PTS, or let your plumber know about the scheme and they can gain access to the same discounts.

A £20 cash back is also available when a boiler is purchased at PTS, who will supply you with the necessary application form.

To find out more about the Magic Boiler Scheme
Magic Boiler Pricelist
PTS Plumbing

Rolf Disch has designed a new housewith a solar-collecting array on top that follows the Sun all day long, but the real feat of engineering comes from the structure itself. The entire house rotates on a central axle. The front of the house is composed of triple-glazed glass to point toward that glowing ball of gas in the sky during the winter, while a heavily insulated backside rotates around to keep the heat at bay during those warm summer months.
full article

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Missing carbon mystery: Case solved?

Despite rapid deforestation, Stephen's team also showed that tropical forests are the net source of a mere 100 million tonnes of carbon annually, contrary to previous estimates of 1.8 billion tonnes. This suggests that carbon sequestration in the tropics is substantial enough to almost counterbalance the effects of deforestation. Stephens says "tropical forests are essentially in balance, absorbing as much carbon dioxide as they give off". One reason tropical forests could be absorbing substantially more carbon dioxide than accounted for in the models is the phenomenon known as CO2 fertilization. Trees take in carbon dioxide to grow and when there is more of it they tend to grow faster, being fertilized by carbon dioxide. Also, as temperatures increase with climate change, soil organic matter decomposes more quickly, freeing up nutrients in the ground for forest growth.

Temperate and boreal forests are also being fertilized indirectly by nitrogen, largely from farming and fuel use, according to a study recently published a study in Nature, led by Federico Magnani from the University of Bologna. The study suggests that this is contributing to the carbon sink in northern latitudes, but Magnani says the same could not be true for tropical forests, where phosphorous and not nitrogen determines growth. He says that to understand what is happening in the tropics "we need to know how much of the carbon sink is the result of vegetation regrowth following deforestation, and how much of it comes from substantial carbon sequestration by primary forests". Manuel Gloor of the University of Leeds, UK, also argues that we need more information before any assertions on the whereabouts of the missing carbon sink can be confirmed. "To really settle the question regarding tropical versus northern hemisphere carbon sinks, a substantial amount of atmospheric concentration data over tropical land will be needed," he says.

Tropical forests are, however, rapidly disappearing. Forests in South America, Central Africa and South-East Asia are being cleared for cropland or cattle pasture, and reduced by the expansion of logging and changing patterns of cultivation. The latest IPCC report on mitigating climate change found that during 2004, the contribution of deforestation — primarily in the tropics — and the decay of biomass to global warming was 17.3% of total global greenhouse-gas emissions. "Cutting down tropical forests not only increases carbon emissions but it also removes a strong sink and its potential for offsetting future emissions," says Stephens.

Whether tropical or northern forests store more carbon might ultimately be academic, though, when it comes to mitigating climate change. Stephens believes that "relying on trees to mitigate climate change is not a good long-term strategy, because the carbon they store gets returned to the atmosphere on a timescale of around 30 years when they die and decompose. Afforestation and reforestation can provide short-term sinks to slow warming and possibly give us more time to find solutions, but ultimately we need to get the carbon into the ocean or geologic reservoirs, or not emit it in the first place".

full article

Poison plant could help to cure the planet

The jatropha bush seems an unlikely prize in the hunt for alternative energy, being an ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed. Hitherto, its use to humanity has principally been as a remedy for constipation. Very soon, however, it may be powering your car.

Almost overnight, the unloved Jatropha curcushas become an agricultural and economic celebrity, with the discovery that it may be the ideal biofuel crop, an alternative to fossil fuels for a world dangerously dependent on oil supplies and deeply alarmed by the effects of global warming.

The hardy jatropha, resilient to pests and resistant to drought, produces seeds with up to 40 per cent oil content. When the seeds are crushed, the resulting jatropha oil can be burnt in a standard diesel car, while the residue can also be processed into biomass to power electricity plants.

As the search for alternative energy sources gathers pace and urgency, the jatropha has provoked something like a gold rush. Last week BP announced that it was investing almost £32 million in a jatropha joint venture with the British biofuels company D1 Oils.

Even Bob Geldof has stamped his cachet on jatropha, by becoming a special adviser to Helius Energy, a British company developing the use of jatropha as an alternative to fossil fuels. Lex Worrall, its chief executive, says: “Every hectare can produce 2.7 tonnes of oil and about 4 tonnes of biomass. Every 8,000 hectares of the plant can run a 1.5 megawatt station, enough to power 2,500 homes.”

Jatropha grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Whereas other feed-stocks for biofuel, such as palm oil, rape seed oil or corn for ethanol, require reasonable soils on which other crops might be grown, jatropha is a tough survivor prepared to put down roots almost anywhere.

Scientists say that it can grow in the poorest wasteland, generating topsoil and helping to stall erosion, but also absorbing carbon dioxide as it grows, thus making it carbon-neutral even when burnt. A jatropha bush can live for up to 50 years, producing oil in its second year of growth, and survive up to three years of consecutive drought.

In India about 11 million hectares have been identified as potential land on which to grow jatropha. The first jatropha-fuelled power station is expected to begin supplying electricity in Swaziland in three years. Meanwhile, companies from Europe and India have begun buying up land in Africa as potential jatropha plantations.

Jatropha plantations have been laid out on either side of the railway between Bombay and Delhi, and the train is said to run on more than 15 per cent biofuel. Backers say that the plant can produce four times more fuel per hectare than soya, and ten times more than corn. “Those who are working with jatropha,” Sanju Khan, a site manager for D1 Oils, told the BBC, “are working with the new generation crop, developing a crop from a wild plant — which is hugely exciting.”

Jatropha, a native of Central America, was brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century and has since spread worldwide, even though, until recently, it had few uses: malaria treatment, a windbreak for animals, live fencing and candle-mak-ing. An ingredient in folk remedies around the world, it earned the nickname “physic nut”, but its sap is a skin irritant, and ingesting three untreated seeds can kill a person.

Jatropha has also found a strong supporter in Sir Nicholas Stern, the government economist who emphasised the dangers of global warming in a report this year. He recently advised South Africa to “look for biofuel technologies that can be grown on marginal land, perhaps jatropha”.

However, some fear that in areas dependent on subsistence farming it could force out food crops, increasing the risk of famine.

Some countries are also cautious for other reasons: last year Western Australia banned the plant as invasive and highly toxic to people and animals.

Yet a combination of economic, climatic and political factors have made the search for a more effective biofuel a priority among energy companies. New regulations in Britain require that biofuels comprise 5 per cent of the transport fuel mix by 2010, and the EU has mandated that by 2020 all cars must run on 20 per cent biodiesel. Biodiesel reduces carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 80 per cent compared with petroleum diesel, according to the US Energy Department.

Under the deal between BP and D1, £80 million will be invested in jatropha over the next five years, with plantations in India, southern Africa and SouthEast Asia. There are no exact figures for the amount of land already under jatropha cultivation, but the area is expanding fast. China is planning an 80,000-acre plantation in Sichuan, and the BPD1 team hopes to have a million hectares under cultivation over the next four years.

Jatropha has long been prized for its medicinal qualities. Now it might just help to cure the planet.

- D1 Oils, the UK company leading the jatropha revolution, is growing 430,000 acres of the plant to feed its biodiesel operation on Teesside — 44,000 acres more than three months ago, after a huge planting programme in India. It has also planted two 1,235-acre trial sites this year in West Java, Indonesia. If successful, these will become a 25,000-acre plantation. Elloitt Mannis, the chief executive, says that the aim is to develop energy “from the earth to the engine”.

Jatropha: costs and benefits

- Jatropha needs at least 600mm (23in) of rain a year to thrive. However, it can survive three consecutive years of drought by dropping its leaves

- It is excellent at preventing soil erosion, and the leaves that it drops act as soil-enriching mulch

- The plant prefers alkaline soils

- The cost of 1,000 jatropha saplings (enough for one acre) in Pakistan is about £50, or 5p each

- The cost of 1kg of jatropha seeds in India is the equivalent of about 7p. Each jatropha seedling should be given an area two metres square.

- 20 per cent of seedlings planted will not survive

- Jatropha seedlings yield seeds in the first year after plantation

full article

Friday, 27 July 2007

Building for a cooler planet

In a new, subscriber-only article,New Scientist introduces us to "a climate change expert at the University of Toronto who has developed plans to radically reduce energy use in buildings."
The good news:
- 33% of energy-related CO2 emissions are generated by energy use in buildings
- 29% of that could be cut by 2020 using existing technologies

The bad news:
- By 2020 energy use in US buildings is predicted to rise by 25%
- In China it is predicted to rise by as much as 50%

Danny Harvey likes his Toronto office, especially the 8-square-metre window that lets the sunlight flood in. But one day last week he did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Winter temperatures in the Canadian city can drop to -20 °C, and Harvey estimated that keeping his office at 20 °C in such weather pours 2000 watts of heat through the window. That wastes more energy than boiling a kettle all day.

For Harvey, a climate change expert at the University of Toronto who has developed plans to radically reduce energy use in buildings, that is hard to bear. What he sees outside his window makes it even worse. All across town, the energy sins committed by the architects of his office are being repeated. Apartment blocks are springing up and big windows are in fashion. High-performance windows that could drastically reduce heat loss are available, yet builders are not using the best products. "Every single apartment is a future liability," says Harvey.

It need not be that way. According to a newly published collection of studies by Harvey and others, the carbon dioxide generated by energy use in buildings - a third of the global total of man-made CO2 emissions - could be cut by almost 30 per cent in little more than a decade. The technology to achieve this already exists, in contrast with aviation or power generation, say, where reducing emissions may require significant innovation. What's more, future energy savings mean most of such spending would pay for itself in three to seven years.

So are the studies likely to boost the fight against climate change? Unfortunately not. The papers, which appear in a special issue of Building Research & Information, may map the route towards a much more sustainable future, but construction experts say that much of the world is taking a different path. In China, rapid urbanisation is fuelling a construction boom, and the country's developers are ignoring environmental building codes. Meanwhile, the world's other big greenhouse gas emitter, the US, is building larger houses that are helping wipe out gains from improved efficiency standards. "The trends are in the opposite direction to what we need," says Danny Parker, a buildings researcher at the University of Central Florida in Cocoa.

To see what a different direction might look like, consider the homes built in recent years to Europe's "passive house" standard. By carefully sealing all joints, using high-quality insulation and positioning windows to make the most of sunlight, passive houses can be heated using around a tenth as much energy as the average dwelling. "I can usually heat the house using 10 candles," says Katrin Klingenberg, an architect who built and lives in a passive house in Urbana, Illinois, where winter temperatures regularly drop below -10 °C.

That translates into up to 65 per cent less emissions per house, depending on the energy source. And with 5000 passive houses built every year in Europe, and almost 4000 existing homes being renovated to the same standard each year, emissions savings from those new houses alone will knock 14 per cent off emissions due to the residential sector in 2020, according to a report published last year by a consortium of European building researchers.

The savings get even bigger when you include other measures such as replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs and old electric water heaters with more efficient alternatives. Solar water heaters can cut the energy needed to heat showers and wash clothes, and in sunny climates, solar electricity may also be cost-effective. Simply supplying a slow flow of air at floor level in commercial buildings, rather than the existing practice of pumping in large volumes of air, can cut the energy used for ventilation by up to 60 per cent. "We could have an enormous impact immediately," says Parker.

When Harvey and colleagues combined 80 national and regional surveys on the potential impact of such measures, they concluded that they could cut global CO2 emissions due to energy use in buildings by 29 per cent by 2020 (Building Research & Information, vol 35, p 379). That would increase by a further 4 to 7 per cent if agreements such as the Kyoto protocol pushed up the price of fossil fuels, forcing people to burn less to heat residential and commercial buildings. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the same figures in a report in May, it noted that the potential savings in this area were the biggest of all those it looked at, from agriculture to transport.

While Europe is steadily embracing energy-efficient housing, progress in the US has been much more patchy. Houses may have become better insulated and appliances such as washing machines more efficient, but appliances have also proliferated. The average house size has doubled since 1940, says Parker, and towns are springing up in the south of the country, where air conditioning comes as standard in many new homes. Klingenberg's house is a rarity; only one more has been built in the US since hers in 2003. So despite the potential for savings, the US Department of Energy predicts that energy consumption in residential and commercial buildings will grow at over 1 per cent annually from now until 2030.

China is starting from relatively low rates of energy use, but catching up quickly. In 2004, Chinese homes consumed around a sixth of the American average. Since then, however, the country has added enough new buildings to house the occupants of New York City three times over. Nor is that a sudden surge: over the last 30 years, government policies aimed at shifting surplus rural labour into cities have more than doubled China's urban population to more than half a billion.

As the country becomes more wealthy, these new urban dwellers will be able to afford heating and air conditioning, so energy use will soar. Unpublished projections developed by Mark Levine, an energy-efficiency expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, suggest that China's buildings will consume 50 per cent more energy overall by 2020, as more are built and incomes rise. Building researchers do not dispute China's right to develop in this way, but point out that China could be building energy-efficient houses as it expands, and yet is not.

Looked at purely in terms of costs and benefits, American and Chinese consumers ought to be adopting energy-efficiency measures, since many produce net savings in just a few years. Klingenberg says that her house cost just 10 per cent more than average and will pay for itself in seven years. However, building researchers point out that such market forces often fail because so many different parties are involved in constructing and running properties. It is not in a landlord's interest to invest in better insulation, for example, since tenants pay heating bills. Many consumers also doubt whether energy efficiency will translate into real savings.

What can be done to reverse these trends? Since the market is failing to generate emissions cuts, experts in energy efficiency say governments should step in. When Diana Ürge-Vorsatz of the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and her colleagues rated 20 policies for reducing emissions, top marks for impact and cost-effectiveness went to targeted regulations, such as building codes (Building Research & Information, vol 35, p 458).

In the UK, for example, the government has committed to making all new houses carbon-neutral by 2016. The growth of passive houses in Germany, which is building more than 2000 every year, is in part due to tax breaks and low-interest loans offered by the government.

Such codes could be implemented in the US, but efforts have so far been confined to isolated state-level or voluntary schemes. "There has been no real push nationally to do something," says Parker. "We're still coming out of the fog of having a leadership that says climate change doesn't exist."

In China there are positive signs, but perhaps only superficially so. In March the government announced a single set of building codes that are similar to US standards, and says it wants developers in the largest cities to adhere to them by 2010. If implemented they would cut energy use in new buildings by up to 65 per cent.

However, there is no guarantee that developers will take notice, notes Timothy Hui of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a US environmental group that has an office in Beijing. Only 15 per cent of new homes conform to existing standards, he says, although that number is up from 5 per cent just a few years ago. Hui adds that compliance depends on training many new inspectors.

The problem of educating people is common to the different housing challenges facing countries around the world. The technology for low-energy houses has existed since the 1970s, but architects and developers are not familiar with it. Even though Europe is taking a lead, governments there still struggle to persuade the many groups involved in house building, from town planners to local contractors, to factor emissions reductions into their plans.

"Everyone has to be heading in the right direction," says Robert Lowe, a buildings researcher at University College London. And right now, he adds, "nobody is doing that quick enough".
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Thursday, 26 July 2007

New York buildings use ice blocks to chill air

NEW YORK -- Some who operate skyscrapers and apartment buildings around New York City have found a cool alternative to traditional air conditioners.

They're using an energy-saving system that relies on blocks of ice to pump chilly air.

Not only are they taking some of the strain off the city's power grid, they're saving money and reducing pollution.

According to the state's Energy Research and Development Authority, an ice cooling system in Credit Suisse's offices in the Metropolitan Life tower in Manhattan is equal to taking 223 cars off the streets or planting 1.9 million acres of trees to absorb carbon dioxide from electrical use for a year.

Because electricity is needed to make the ice, water is frozen in large silver tanks at night when power demands are low.

The cool air from the ice blocks is then piped through the building.

At night the water is frozen again and the cycle repeated.

Officials say there are at least three-thousand ice-cooling systems worldwide.

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Ozone has 'strong climate effect'

Ozone could be a much more important driver of climate change than scientists had previously predicted, according to a study in Nature journal.

The authors say the effects of this greenhouse gas - known by the formula O3 - have been largely overlooked.

Ozone near the ground damages plants, reducing their ability to mop up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

As a consequence, more CO2 will build up in the atmosphere instead of being taken up by plants.

This in turn will speed up climate change, say the Nature authors.

"Ozone could be twice as important as we previously thought as a driver of climate change," co-author Peter Cox, from the University of Exeter, UK, told the BBC News website.

Scientists already knew that ozone higher up in the atmosphere acted as a "direct" greenhouse gas, trapping infrared heat energy that would otherwise escape into space.

Ozone closer to the ground is formed in a reaction between sunlight and other greenhouse gases such as nitrogen oxides, methane and carbon monoxide.

Greenhouse emissions stemming from human activities have led to elevated ozone levels across large tracts of the Earth's surface.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The Big Debate: Should my carbon footprint be taxed?

First, what is a carbon footprint?

Think of it as a way of measuring how heavily we all tread on the planet. It's a colourful way of expressing the amount of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, we each emit each year. And this is serious stuff ­ it's measured in tonnes.

How many tonnes?

It depends on who you are and where ­ and above all ­ how you live. On average each of us in Britain has a carbon footprint of about nine tonnes. That compares with about 20 tonnes for each American and around 18 tonnes for each Australian. But the Swiss and the Swedes ­ with higher standards of living than us ­ manage to keep theirs down to about six tonnes.And the big difference,of course, is with the Third World. The average Chinese carbon footprint is about three tonnes, the average Indian one about one tonne and the average Ethiopian about a tenth of a tonne. Lightest of all in their impact are the people of Chad, contributing just one hundredth of a tonne of carbon dioxide each ­ that's 900 times less than us.

Does that matter?

Yes. It matters in rich countries like ours because our profligancy is helping to drive climate change: 44 per cent of all Britain's emissions of carbon dioxide come as a result of the choices we each make in our daily lives ­ such as how we use transport and heat and light our homes. And it matters in poor ones, because they will have to use more energy ­ much of it from the fossil fuels that emit the greenhouse gas ­ if they are to develop. Their need to grow means that we will have to cut our carbon footprints even more if we are to avert global warming running out of control. Science suggests that people in rich counties will have to shrink theirs by 80 per cent by the middle of the century.

Can it be done?

Absolutely. Really simple things like installing energy-efficient light bulbs, improving the insulation of our homes, and not leaving appliances on standby can do a lot. Investments such as getting a hybrid car, or installing solar panels on the roof, can do a great deal more. And new technologies and techniques will keep coming onstream. But human nature being what it is, it would be a great help if Governments took measures to encourage ­ or push ­ us to save energy.

What sort of measures?

Those most mentioned are "economic instruments" ­ which often boils down to a fancy way of describing taxes. Green taxes are becoming ever more popular: opinion polls suggest that Britons back them by a 2 to 1 majority. All the main political parties support them, if to differing extents ­ and several have been introduced by successive Governments, mainly on industry, over the past 15 years. Other countries, particularly Scandinavian ones, have done more. But nowhere has even begun to tap their full potential.

Won't that mean paying even more tax?

Not if it's done properly, as part of what has come to be called " ecological tax reform". That involves reducing taxes like income tax and national insurance by the same amount as green ones are increased, so that the Government's total "take" remains the same. We would therefore be paying more for electricity and petrol, but out of a bigger pay packet. In fact, this could create many more jobs as well as cutting pollution.

How so?

Income tax and national insurance effectively penalise work and employment, things we ought to be promoting, whereas green taxes bear down on things like pollution, which we should be curbing. Ecological tax reform would therefore switch the burden from "goods" to "bads", giving companies a greater incentive to lay off kilowatt hours than to sack people. Indeed a big EU study concluded that it would create at least 2.7 million jobs across Europe, while tackling global warming. Taxes on labour have helped cause employers to use labour 20 times more productively over the last 150 years. Increasing energy costs, partly through taxation, could cause firms to make similar improvements in efficiency, greatly reducing pollution.

But won't this just disappear into the Treasury's coffers?

It could do, but it would be much better ­ at least at first ­ to spend the money on things that will help tackle global warming. People are suspicious: two thirds of Britons believe that governments use climate change as a way of increasing revenue. Making sure that money from green taxes was spent on green projects ­ like improving the infrastructure for public transport ­ would help allay this concern and achieve a double whammy for the environment.

Surely there are drawbacks?

Indeed there are. Perhaps the biggest is that, while income tax is " progressive", hitting richer people harder, taxes on energy could be " regressive", disproportionately hurting the poor, who tend to spend a greater part of their income on keeping warm or getting around. But the Netherlands has shown that these can be tweaked so that they actually benefit the poor, by providing cheap energy to meet basic needs while charging more for luxury use.

So is tax always best?

Not necessarily. People do not always respond to price signals as neatly as economists like to think. Look at how many people still use old incandescent light bulbs even though they cost much more in electricity bills than new energy-efficient ones. It's unfashionable to say so, but regulation can work best. Australia for example has announced it is banning sale of the old style bulbs by 2010.

What about the future?

The really radical idea, increasingly supported by some leading politicians, is to introduce 'personal carbon allowances'. These would give everyone a set allowance of carbon dioxide each year ­ but allow these to be bought and sold. Thus those who wanted to emit more ­ for example by frequent flying - could buy some of the allowance of those who lived more modestly. It would not exactly be a tax - but, one way or another, people who want to have big carbon footprints in future are likely to have to pay heavily.

What is HSBC doing to help? Find out more at
For HSBC, carbon matters. The energy we use to heat, light and cool our buildings and power our IT equipment emits large amounts of CO2. So does our business travel. Increasing levels of CO2, caused by human activity, contribute to climate change and HSBC believes that climate change is the greatest environmental challenge we face this century. As a result, we:

* Measure our carbon footprint and report annually on how much carbon dioxide we emit;

* Manage our carbon footprint to reduce the amount of energy we consume. HSBC has recently committed a further £45 million over the next five years to reduce the bank's carbon footprint. The Global Environmental Efficiency Programme will enable HSBC offices worldwide to showcase environmental innovation and share best practice through a series of initiatives, involving renewable energy technologies, waste reduction programmes and employee engagement to help the bank achieve its environmental reduction targets;

* Buy green electricity. In many parts of the world, including the UK, HSBC buys electricity from renewable sources ­ generated from wind, water, the sun or biogas ­ which produces fewer or no CO2 emissions;

* Offset the remaining CO2 emissions we produce.

HSBC believes accounting for the CO2 we emit is the right thing to do. In 2005, HSBC was the first major bank ­ and the first FTSE 100 company ­ to become carbon neutral. Going carbon neutral reflects our desire to act responsibly and reduce our carbon footprint. As a carbon neutral company, HSBC will incur the additional costs that arise from buying carbon offsets to neutralise the remaining CO2 emissions we produce from our operations.

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Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are

The middle classes congratulate themselves on going green, then carry on buying and flying as much as before

It wasn't meant to happen like this. The climate scientists told us that our winters would become wetter and our summers drier. So I can't claim that these floods were caused by climate change, or are even consistent with the models. But, like the ghost of Christmas yet to come, they offer us a glimpse of the possible winter world that we will inhabit if we don't sort ourselves out.

With rising sea levels and more winter rain - and remember that when the trees are dormant and the soils saturated, there are fewer places for the rain to go - all it will take is a freshwater flood to coincide with a high spring tide and we have a formula for full-blown disaster. We have now seen how localised floods can wipe out essential services and overwhelm emergency workers. But this month's events don't even register beside some of the predictions circulating in learned journals. Our primary political struggle must be to prevent the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The only question now worth asking about climate change is how.

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Will EU see the light?

Peter Mandelson, never far from controversy if he can help it, is at the centre of a jolly little row ... over energy-saving light bulbs.

The EU has decreed that Europeans should switch from common incandescent bulbs by 2020 as the latest as part of its "world-beating" campaign against climate change and the European Lamp Companies Federation has pledged that it will phase them out by 2015, reducing CO2 emissions by 60% or 23 megatonnes and giving consumers a €7bn (£4.7bn) windfall by saving 63,000 gigawatt-hours of juice - and 27 fewer power stations.

But there's a snag, and it's not just Greenpeace, which says they can be done away with by 2010. ("When products become trendy, markets can move very quickly to meet demand," says its Sharon Becker, pointing to digital mobile phone cameras and iPods.)

The lamp-makers are falling out over Mandy's plans to end anti-dumping duties on Chinese bulbs which push up prices by as much as two-thirds.

Osram, part of Siemens, complained to a meeting of trade officials this week about Mandy's plans to eliminate the tariffs; its fellow federation member, Philips, wants them removed. So no decision until after the summer break.

But what lies behind this spat?

The Dutch group, Europe's biggest producer, happens to import a lot of energy-efficient bulbs from China, many of them its own; so does Osram but a lot less. So Mandy's snouts smell a rat: Osram wants the duties to stay because it will hit Philips even harder than itself so it's all about market-share, really.

As if that weren't enough, America's GE and Sylvania are lined up behind the Dutch. But Osram can count on Günter Verheugen, the EU's industry commissioner and German industry lobbyist within the Berlaymont, as well as Michael Glos, Germany's economy minister.

But Philips' crucial backing may come from white knight Tesco (and other retailers, including the Foreign Trade Association which has just written to consumer minister Gareth Thomas asking him to vote the Osram proposals down).

Britain's - and increasingly Europe's - biggest grocer will buy the "green" bulbs from wherever and slash prices. That too is good for market share.

If the wheels of policy-making turn slowly in Brussels...?

In the German capital's stunning new Hauptbahnhof they won't even turn at all as traindrivers vote on an all-out strike over their modest 31% pay demand. (The German economic crisis is over so, bitteschön, let's stop penny-pinching wage-cuts).

But, at least, after years of shillyshallying and backbiting, the grand coalition government has agreed a Fahrplan for part-privatisation of Deutsche Bahn, the state-owned rail and logistics company.

The timetable will see a stake "below or around 25%" worth €3bn floated off to private investors by the end of next year at the latest - if Bundestag and Bundesrat, the two parliamentary chambers, approve (not proven).

Eventually 49% could be in free float though that is in doubt, according to Wolfgang Tiefensee, transport minister. Even so, the initial IPO would be the biggest for seven years: since Deutsche Post raised €5.8bn in November 2000.

The idea has been around for almost two decades - and delayed by fears over repeating the British experience with the rushed and botched privatisation of British Rail and its division into several businesses, with services completely separated from the network of tracks, stations etc.

The German constitution or Basic Law lays down that the infrastructure must remain in state hands and it will remain heavily subsidised (€2.5bn a year) for at least 15 years while DB will stay an integrated company. Tiefensee says: "No investor will get a single kilometre of track."

But few are convinced it will work. Critics, like Michael Bauchmüller in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, says this is the worst of all worlds, bringing no competition and no benefit for travellers.

Claus Matecki of the DGB, the German TUC, says: "The central aim of rail reform, namely putting more traffic on the tracks, risks landing in the sidings." And the upper chamber, the Bundesrat, is majority opposed.

Still, the plans suggest that Germany, with its new squeaky-clean budget, could sell off further chunks of Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post in the coming months. As long as none of the shares ends up in the hands of the new "locusts" - the state-controlled investment or sovereign funds so beloved of Alistair Darling.

It's only a game, isn't it?

Europe's gambling industry is on the warpath against protectionist measures to expand the scope of state monopolies in the new era of online gaming and betting that sees millions watch high-powered poker tournaments on TV screens in countless bars.

It has just notched up a victory in Danish courts which could bring further legal action across Europe and the US. A Copenhagen judge has ruled that tournament poker - Texas Hold'em in this case - is a game of skill, not chance.

The Danish Poker Association, prosecuted by the police for violating the criminal code which forbids "non-licensed" gambling in public places and for commercial gain, is celebrating.

Its lawyer, Anders Hansen of Danders & More, says this is the first time anywhere in the world that the rules of poker have been scrutinised and the court has recognised that "a poker tournament played over many hours requires a range of strategic, analytical and mathematical skills".

He points out that similar cases are pending in Holland, Germany and France.

But British lawyers doubt whether prudent, po-faced Gordon Brown will support a similar EU-wide ruling on the regulation of poker clubs after his decision to ban super casinos and UK court rulings at variance with the Danes.

And the Danish casino operators, acting against the poker players through their lobby Horesta, are even sourer now...

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Renewable energy could 'rape' nature

Ramping up the use of renewable energy would lead to the "rape of nature", meaning nuclear power should be developed instead. So argues noted conservation biologist and climate change researcher Jesse Ausubel in an opinion piece based on his and others' research.

Ausubel says the key renewable energy sources, including sun, wind, and biomass, would all require vast amounts of land if developed up to large scale production – unlike nuclear power. That land would be far better left alone, he says.

Renewables are "boutique fuels" says Ausubel, of Rockefeller University in New York, US. "They look attractive when they are quite small. But if we start producing renewable energy on a large scale, the fallout is going to be horrible."

Instead, Ausubel argues for renewed development of nuclear. "If we want to minimise the rape of nature, the best energy solution is increased efficiency, natural gas with carbon capture, and nuclear power."

'Massive infrastructure'

Ausubel draws his conclusions by analysing the amount of energy renewables, natural gas, and nuclear can produce in terms of power per square metre of land used. Moreover, he claims that as renewable energy use increases, this measure of efficiency will decrease as the best land for wind, biomass, and solar power gets used up.

Using biofuels to obtain the same amount of energy as a 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant would require 2500 square kilometres of prime Midwestern farm land, Ausubel says. "We should be sparing land for nature, not using it as pasture for cars and trucks," he adds.

Solar power is much more efficient than biofuel in terms of the area of land used, but it would still require 150 square kilometres of photovoltaic cells to match the energy production of the 1000 MW nuclear plant. In another example, he says meeting the 2005 US electricity demand via wind power alone would need 780,000 square kilometres, an area the size of Texas.

Part of the land used in Ausubel's calculations is for storage and transportation: "Any renewable energy supply needs a massive infrastructure, including steel, metal, pipes, cables, concrete, and access roads."

'Heretical demagogue'

However, other experts who have seen Ausubel’s study are highly critical, both of its conclusions and its inflammatory rhetoric.

"To have a debate on the various issues is good, but setting himself up as a demagogue with this heretical stuff, takes away from the focus and value of the debate," says John Turner of the US government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Turner says that even if the US got all of its power from solar energy, it would still need less than half the amount of land that has been paved over for highways. Further, it need not take up additional land. “We could get a quarter of our energy just from covering rooftops of existing buildings,” he says.

The same "dual use" also applies to wind power. "The footprint for wind is only 5% of the land that it covers," says Turner. "Farmers can still farm the land that the turbines are on."

Turner says looking solely at land use is an oversimplification of the issue. "I’m not sure I’d want to build one of these nuclear plants in Afghanistan, but we could certainly put in wind and solar power," he adds.

'Taboo subject'

Turner also highlights the risks of nuclear waste storage. "It has to be safely stored for 100,000 years," says Turner. "To dismiss that as a simple waiting game is totally irresponsible."

However, public perceptions of nuclear energy are changing. A new study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that 35% of the US population wants to increase nuclear power use. The figure has risen from 28% in 2002.

And not everyone disagrees entirely with Ausubel. The land argument is valid, says David Keith, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

“I think the argument is crucial and correct and something the environmental community hasn’t wrapped its head around,” Keith says. “I don’t see any scenario where we won’t have an environmental holocaust from biomass if we rely on it for more than a third of global energy production. But this doesn’t apply to all renewables.”

Keith notes that solar power has 10 times the energy density of biomass and its cost is likely to drop as the technology advances.

Ausubel thinks he represents a silent majority of scientists concerned about renewables. “I think I’m saying what many of my colleagues know, but have felt its taboo to say,” he says.

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Call to stop patio heaters sale

People are being told to wear jumpers instead of relying on patio heaters, in an attempt to cut carbon emissions.

The Energy Saving Trust has urged retailers to stop selling the heaters after a report suggesting their use will almost double over the next year.

It says the number of privately owned units in the UK will rise from 1.2 million to 2.3 million.

Each heater uses the same amount of energy in six months as a kitchen gas hob does in a year, the Trust said.

Chief executive Philip Sellwood said: "Why don't people just wear a jumper?"

After interviewing 1,192 UK households, researchers found that Yorkshire and Humberside had the highest rate of current or intended patio heater owners, on 18%.


The lowest rate was in the East of England, on 3%.

Two-thirds of patio heater owners said they used theirs once or twice a week.

Half of owners switched theirs on during the hottest months of the year, July and August.

Mr Sellwood said: "We are calling for responsible retailers to reconsider the sale of patio heaters in light of the substantial amount of carbon emissions they produce."

It is thought that the recently imposed smoking ban in enclosed public places in England will lead to more outdoor smoking and an increase in commercial patio heaters.

Mr Sellwood said: "People are also influencing the larger, more damaging commercial sector, with a third of pub-goers choosing pubs where there is a patio heater.

"Landlords are helping to make patio heaters desirable - which they are not."

Some 31% of people who responded to the survey said they liked to sit outside pubs and would choose one with outdoor heating.

Last month, London Mayor Ken Livingstone called for a halt in the spread of "wasteful" patio heaters and urged retailers not to promote them.

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Monday, 23 July 2007

Plug-in hybrids seen as vehicles for change

The widespread use of plug-in hybrid vehicles — which could be driven up to 40 miles on electric power alone — would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States without overloading the nation's power grid, according to a new study.

The upbeat news for plug-ins, seen by many as the next big step in environmentally friendly automotive technology, came with two caveats. Achieving the maximum air quality improvements would require a significant cut in the pollution produced by electric utilities. It's also dependent on large-scale adoption of plug-in hybrids, which may not be in new-car showrooms for several years.

Even so, backers of plug-in technology were heartened by the latest findings, which could help defuse the claim that the vehicles simply would transfer the source of air pollution from vehicle tailpipes to power station smokestacks.

The study "finally gives an environmental stamp of approval" to plug-in hybrids, said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an advocacy group in Palo Alto. "It shows that even with today's power grid, plug-in hybrids are a great idea."

The current generation of hybrid cars and SUVs reduce fuel consumption by switching between a gasoline engine and a battery-powered system that is recharged during braking.

Several major automakers, including General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., are working on plug-ins. Barring a breakthrough in battery technology, however, most say it will be several years before the vehicles are available at dealers.

Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally, in Southern California last week to announce a plug-in hybrid pilot project with Southern California Edison, said a production model was five to 10 years away. GM has said it hopes to have the Volt, a plug-in electric car, in showrooms by 2010, but that date is contingent on "a technological breakthrough" on more powerful lithium-ion batteries, a spokesman said.

Cost is also an issue. Some experts estimate plug-in technology could add $10,000 to the sticker price. Even with gas selling for more than $3 a gallon and electricity costs for plug-ins pegged at the equivalent of less than $1 a gallon, that's a significant markup.

Converting a hybrid into a plug-in can cost even more. It also voids the car's warranty, a Toyota spokesman said.

A raft of proposals has been introduced in Congress that would provide incentives to manufacturers and buyers of plug-ins, as well as provide additional funding for battery development and mandate the use of plug-ins in government vehicle fleets.

"It's frustrating for a consumer," said Quyen Ton of Tustin, an electrical engineer who said he would buy a plug-in if one were available. "Even though you know it's valuable technology, you can't go out and actually buy one."

Hybrid versions of traditional cars can improve fuel economy by 40% or more. The Toyota Prius, the bestselling hybrid, gets 46 miles per gallon in combined city-highway driving, according to the latest government estimates. The average for all 2006 model cars sold in the U.S. was 24.6 mpg.

Plug-in hybrids use a more powerful array of lithium-ion batteries and are recharged using a standard home electric outlet. That enables the car to travel up to 40 miles, by some estimates, on electricity alone before the battery is depleted and the hybrid powertrain takes over.

That could allow the typical Southern California commuter to make it to work and back only on electrons, based on government estimates that the average commute in the region in 2005 was around 19 miles each way.

Priuses modified to run as plug-ins have achieved more than 100 mpg.

The study released Thursday was conducted by two nonprofit groups, the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It measured how the nation's air quality would be affected under varying levels of plug-in hybrid use and pollution control at power plants.

According to the study, a marginal improvement in power plant emissions, coupled with ownership of plug-ins by 20% of U.S. drivers by 2050 — the report's worst-case scenario — would cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 163 million tons.

Under a "middle case" scenario, which assumes plug-ins make up 62% of U.S. passenger vehicles by 2050 and utilities adopt more stringent pollution-control measures, emissions would be cut by 468 million tons a year.

That would be equal to removing 82.5 million vehicles, about a third of the light vehicles on the road today.

"The study clearly shows that the benefits from pluggable hybrids are greater if the power sector is cleaner," said Dan Lashof, science director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help combat global warming, and increasing the fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles would reduce the nation's dependence on petroleum, the nonprofit groups said.

The study estimated that a 60% market share for plug-in hybrids would tap only 7% to 8% of the electricity available nationwide in 2050. That finding jibes with a study released late last year by the Department of Energy that concluded that "the existing electric power system could generate most of the electricity consumed" by plug-ins. However, the DOE study noted that the power supply situation is tighter in California, a popular market for hybrids.

Although the study estimates that plug-ins would become available in 2010, the outlook for the vehicles is murky. That's mainly because of questions about lithium ion batteries, which have caused fires in laptop computers.

"We have no indication that lithium ion batteries are a practical application for automobiles yet," said Robert Faraday, publisher of the Truth About Cars website.
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Influence of global warming seen in changing rains

The pattern of rainfall around the world is being changed by greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities, researchers have shown for the first time.

Tropical regions north of the equator, including such areas as the Sahel in Africa which borders the Sahara desert, have already begun to get even drier and will continue to do so, the data show. Regions in the far north, including Canada, Northern Europe and Russia, will get wetter, as will the southern tropics.

Detecting the effects of climate change on rainfall patterns has proved much more elusive than temperature changes because of the much greater natural variability of precipitation.

The key was to take results from 92 computer simulations, using 14 different global circulation models, and to compare the average of these with actual rainfall data over wide bands of latitude around the world.

The results show a clear agreement with the observed trends in global rainfall data over the past century. In fact, although they agree in direction, the observed changes were much stronger than the predictions.

"Over the 20th century, we now detect the signal [in rainfall changes] that is predicted by climate models," says Francis Zwiers, one of the research team. "If you're able to reproduce the past, you also have greater confidence for predictions of the future."

Dry zone

Zwiers, of Environment Canada in Toronto, says that the pattern shows a substantial drying of the region from the equator up to 30° north. This band encompasses all of north Africa, as well as India, southeast Asia, Mexico and northern South America. Some of these regions, such as the Sahara and Sahel in Africa, are already among the world's driest.

Regions further to the south, including the rainforest regions of central Africa and South America, have begun to get increased rainfall and will continue to get wetter.

The findings are important, Zwiers says, because "as humans, our activities are much more constrained by limits of water than by temperature. In places where agriculture is marginal, it will become more marginal in the future".

Precipitation extremes

Richard Seager, a climatologist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, US, says this detection of 20th century rainfall changes seems "barely discernible from the noise right now", but he agrees that the projected trends for the coming century shown by the combined climate models are a highly convincing prediction.

Seager's own research has shown that, in addition to the trends shown by Zwiers' team, there will also be a significant drying of areas in the northern subtropics, including the US southwest and the Mediterranean.

But aside from the overall trends, Zwiers says an important message from the combined models is that they consistently show that, for all regions, there will be a significant increase in extremes of precipitation – both floods and droughts. Thus, even desert areas that will undergo serious drying could simultaneously suffer greater risks of flash flooding.

"More or less uniformly across all the models, these extreme events will become more intense just about everywhere," he says.

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England under water: scientists confirm global warming link to increased rain

It's official: the heavier rainfall in Britain is being caused by climate change, a major new scientific study will reveal this week, as the country reels from summer downpours of unprecedented ferocity.

More intense rainstorms across parts of the northern hemisphere are being generated by man-made global warming, the study has established for the first time ­ an effect which has long been predicted but never before proved.

The study's findings will be all the more dramatic for being disclosed as Britain struggles to recover from the phenomenal drenching of the past few days, during which more than a month's worth of rain fell in a few hours in some places, and floods forced thousands from their homes.

The "major rainfall event" of last Friday ­ fully predicted as such by the Met Office ­ has given the country a quite exceptional battering, with the Thames still rising. In Gloucester water levels had reached 34 feet, just 12 inches below flood defences ­ the same level as during the flood of 1947 ­ although a police spokesman said last night that the River Severn had stopped rising.
Meteorologists agree that the miserably wet British summer of 2007 has generally been caused by a southward shift towards Britain of the jetstream, the high-level airflow that brings depressions eastwards across the Atlantic. This is fairly normal. But debate is going on about whether climate change may be responsible for the intensity of the two freak rainfall episodes, which have caused flooding the like of which has never been seen in many places.

This is because the computer models used to predict the future course of global warming all show heavier rainfall, and indeed, "extreme rainfall events", as one of its principal consequences.

The new study, carried out jointly by several national climate research institutes using their supercomputer climate models, including the Hadley Centre of the UK Met Office, does not prove that any one event, including the rain of the past few days in Britain, is climate-change related.

But it certainly supports the idea, by showing that in recent decades rainfall has increased over several areas of the world, including the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere, and linking this directly, for the first time, to global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.

The study is being published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, and its details are under embargo and cannot be reported until then. But its main findings have caused a stir, and are being freely discussed by climate scientists in the Met Office, the Hadley Centre and the Department for Environment For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
One source familiar with the study's conclusions said: "What this does is establish for the first time that there is a distinct 'human fingerprint' in the changes in precipitation patterns ­ the increases in rainfall ­ observed in the northern hemisphere mid-latitudes, which includes Britain.

"That means, it is not just the climate's natural variability which has caused the increases, but there is a detectable human cause ­ climate change, caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. The 'human fingerprint' has been detected before in temperature rises, but never before in rainfall. So this is very significant.

"Some people would argue that you can't take a single event and pin that on climate change, but what happened in Britain last Friday fits quite easily with these conclusions. It does seem to have a certain resonance with what they're finding in this research."
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BA attacked for 'risible' carbon offsetting

The airline industry has come under fire from MPs for not doing enough about carbon offsetting.
British Airways was singled out for stinging criticism with its efforts on offsetting described as "risible".

A report from the Environmental Audit Committee said airlines should make it easier for passengers to buy offsets because it had a part to play in reducing greenhouse gases.

Offsetting works by allowing customers or companies to pay towards CO2 emission reduction projects - such as planting trees - to make amends for the greenhouse gases they produce themselves.
The report said it was important that individuals, organisations and companies should be encouraged to offset because in the short-term it had a part to play in cutting CO2 emissions - one of the biggest causes of climate change.

The report said:
# Carbon offsets have a role to play in cutting carbon emissions and raising awareness of climate change;
# Encouraging offsets must not inhibit increased efforts to cut emissions;
# Research is needed to find out if buying offsets makes people more or less determined to cut their own carbon footprint;
# Airlines must make it easier for passengers to buy offsets;
# The Government should compel the most carbon-intensive businesses to offer offset services;
# Individuals should be given a compulsory-choice option for offsetting when procuring carbon intensive goods and services;
# Government and business must agree the definition of "carbon neutral" when applied to business and develop appropriate audit standards.
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Sunday, 22 July 2007

Solar Power Wins Enthusiasts but Not Money

The trade association for the nuclear power industry recently asked 1,000 Americans what energy source they thought would be used most for generating electricity in 15 years. The top choice? Not nuclear plants, or coal or natural gas. The winner was the sun, cited by 27 percent of those polled.Scientists long ago calculated that an hour’s worth of the sunlight bathing the planet held far more energy than humans worldwide could use in a year, and the first practical devices for converting light to electricity were designed more than half a century ago.

Yet research on solar power and methods for storing intermittent energy has long received less spending, both in the United States and in other industrialized countries, than energy options with more political support.

Indeed, there are few major programs looking for ways to drastically reduce the cost of converting sunlight to energy and — of equal if not more importance — of efficiently storing it for when the sun is not shining.

Scientists are hoping to expand the range of sunlight’s wavelengths that can be absorbed, and to cut the amount of energy the cells lose to heat. One goal is to make materials to force photons to ricochet around inside the silicon to give up more of their energy.

For decades, conventional nuclear power and nuclear fusion received dominant shares of government energy-research money. While venture capitalists often support the commercialization of new technologies, basic research money comes almost entirely from the federal government.

These days, a growing amount of government money is headed to the farm-state favorite, biofuels, and to research on burning coal while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping smokestack gas.

In the current fiscal year, the Energy Department plans to spend $159 million on solar research and development. It will spend nearly double, $303 million, on nuclear energy research and development, and nearly triple, $427 million, on coal, as well as $167 million on other fossil fuel research and development.

Raymond L. Orbach, the under secretary of energy for science, said the administration’s challenge was to spread a finite pot of money to all the technologies that will help supply energy without adding to global warming. “No one source of energy that we know of is going to solve it,” Dr. Orbach said. “This is about a portfolio.”

In the battle for money from Washington, solar lobbyists say they are outgunned by their counterparts representing coal, corn and the atom.

“Coal and nuclear count their lobbying budgets in the tens of millions,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “We count ours in the tens of thousands.”

Government spending on energy research has long been shaped by political constituencies. Nuclear power, for example, has enjoyed consistent support from the Senate Energy Committee no matter which party is in power — in large part because Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete V. Domenici, the Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican, are both from New Mexico, home to Los Alamos National Laboratory and a branch of the Sandia National Laboratories.
Biofuels, mostly ethanol and biodiesel, have attracted lawmakers who support farm subsidies. Last year an impromptu coalition established a goal of producing 25 percent of the country’s energy, including vehicle fuel, from renewable sources by 2025. Legislation to that effect attracted 34 senators and 69 representatives as co-sponsors; the resolutions are pending in both houses. Most of the measure’s supporters are from agricultural areas.

For the moment, the strongest government support for solar power is coming from the states, not Washington. But there, too, the focus remains on stimulating markets, not laboratory research.

The federal government is proposing more spending on solar research now, but not enough to set off a large, sustained energy quest, many experts say.

“This is not an arena where private energy companies are likely to make the breakthrough,” said Nathan S. Lewis, head of a solar-research laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Many environmental organizations are pushing for tax credits for people who buy solar equipment, which helps manufacturing but not research.

Still, some experts say government-financed research efforts often go awry. And several government officials defended the current effort, saying an outsize investment in solar research is not needed because the industry is already in high gear.

Bush administration officials say they are committed to making power from photovoltaic technology as well as “solar thermal” systems competitive with other sources by 2015.

Alexander Karsner, the lead Energy Department official for renewable energy technology and efficiency, said the expanded use of photovoltaic cells could have its greatest impact by substantially reducing the energy thirst of new buildings.

To be sure, there are some promising signs in solar energy.

Big arrays of mirrors that concentrate sunlight to run turbines, which first emerged in the early 1980s, are resurgent in sun-baked places like the American Southwest, Spain and Australia. Some developers say this solar thermal technology is competitive now with power generated by natural gas when demand, and prices, hit periodic peaks.

With more research, the solar thermal method might allow for storing energy. Currently, all solar power is hampered by a lack of storage capability.

“The scale on which things actually have to happen on energy is not fully either appreciated or transmitted to the public,” said Dr. Lewis of Caltech. “You have to find a really cheap way to capture that light, for the price of carpet or paint, and also convert it efficiently into something humans can use for energy.”

After more than two decades in which research on converting solar power to electricity largely lapsed, the Bush administration and lawmakers in Congress are now discussing more money for the field. Dr. Orbach said the Energy Department’s proposed research plan for 2008 to 2012 includes $1.1 billion for solar advances, more than the $896 million going toward fusion.

But many scientists, perhaps seasoned by past energy cycles, doubt that the new burst of interest is sufficient to lure the best young minds in chemistry and physics. After encouraging 346 research groups last year to seek grants for surmounting hurdles to harnessing solar power, the Energy Department this year ended up awarding $22.7 million over three years to 27 projects — hardly the stuff of an energy revolution, several scientists said.

“There is plenty of intellectual firepower in the U.S.,” said Prashant V. Kamat, an expert in the chemistry of solar cells at the University of Notre Dame, who has some Energy Department financing. “But there is limited encouragement to take up the challenge.”

full article

Oil and gas may run short by 2015, say industry experts

Humanity is approaching an unprecedented crisis when not enough oil and gas will be produced to keep industrial civilisation running, the world's top oilmen warned last week.

The warning – which is being hailed as a "tipping point" on both sides of the Atlantic – marks the first time that the industry has accepted that it may soon no longer be able to meet demand for its products. In Facing the Hard Truths about Energy, it gives authoritative support to concern about impending shortages, following a similar alert by the International Energy Agency less than two weeks ago.
he report concludes that "the global supply of oil and natural gas from the conventional sources ... is unlikely to meet ... growth in demand over the next 25 years". It says that "many observers think that 80 per cent of existing oil production will need to be replaced by 2030" to keep up present supplies "in addition to volumes required to meet existing demand." But, it adds, there are "accumulating risks to replacing current production and increasing supplies".

Though vast amounts of oil and gas remain underground, "complex challenges" and "global uncertainties" are likely to put an end to "the sufficient, reliable and economic energy supplies upon which people depend". And the crunch could come sooner, with oil production becoming "a significant challenge as early as 2015". This chimes with the International Energy Agency's prediction that oil supplies could become "extremely tight" in five years.
The report says the fuel efficiency of cars should be increased "at the maximum rate possible" and there should be a crackdown on 4x4s. It calls for "aggressive energy efficiency standards for buildings, and measures to "set an effective cost for emitting carbon dioxide" to combat global warming.
full article

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Making your house an eco house

The trouble is not many people have the know how or the inclination to take such projects on.

But turning a 19th Century end of terrace £200,000 house into an ecohome of the future was a labour of love for Russell Smith.
Much of Britain's new housing stock is being made more environmentally friendly but what about older properties?
"Russell Smith has shown that converting old houses into low energy, environmentally friendly homes can be done. It is not so much household appliances that matter but the structure and fabric of the building itself.

"Energy prices are going up so his experiment will be a real eye opener to see how much it costs to heat his home in the coming months. I was particularly interested in the recycled newspaper, wool and other materials he used for insulation and draught proofing.

"The fact is old and existing housing stock needs to be upgraded to safeguard the heritage for future generations. What may seem expensive now will in fact prove money well spent for the future.
"This property is a single-skinned (non cavity-walled) house built in 1870 and was in need of renovation throughout. Due to its ubiquitous design and decorative standard it was a prime candidate for applying and testing eco-principles for future reproduction.

"Clearly, if we can achieve significant reductions in energy consumption with this house, we can do it anywhere. I am expecting the insulations for example to pay for themselves between 5 and 8 years.

There is underfloor heating in every room. This requires hot water at a lower temperature than a radiator system and therefore can reduce heating energy by up to 60 per cent. Supplied by Invisible Heating Systems, this will pay for itself in around 8 years from energy savings.

"Insulation is such that we believe that in mid-winter when it is -4 degrees outside, we will only need around 1.5kW to heat the house. i.e. by going downstairs in the morning I can heat the whole of the downstairs by turning the kettle on!"

So what is the detailed breakdown of this Surrey ecohouse?

Energy efficiency - Insulation

Walls - can lose 35 per cent of all heat without treatment
All insulations are internally applied. All have varied speed of install and varied cost of materials, but total costs are expected to be relatively similar.
Living room - 175mm modern blown plastic materials (Celotex and Kingspan) on a metal stud framework - installed by a dry-lining contractor - very quick.
Dining room - 200mm sheep wool insulation (Thermafleece) on timber stud framework - carpenter installed.
Kitchen and extension - to be insulated externally with wood-fibre board then rendered with timber - DIY.
Bedroom 2 - 150mm Blown plastic materials (Celotex) fixed hard up against the wall - 2 hours for installation of the whole wall.
Office - 175mm Recycled news paper insulation (Warmcel) sprayed wet into a timber framework by specialist contractor.
Bathroom - recycled cotton and hemp insulation on timber stud framework - DIY installed.
Loft - Mineral Wool insulation (Rockwool) within a timber framework - DIY.
Multi-foil insulation (Tri-Iso Super 10) on a loft party wall.
Ground Floors - can lose 15 per cent of all heat without treatment.
Dining Room - 150mm recycled newspaper insulation (Warmcel) on suspended under timber flooring.
Living Room - 200mm Expanded Polystyrene insulation (Vencil Resil) under and to the side of a 125mm concrete slab. Underfloor heating is inside the slab. The slab will act as a large night storage heater. Concrete has recycled glass instead of sand and this will be polished to save on any further flooring materials.
Kitchen -Screed floor over the underfloor heating.
Roofs - can lose 15 per cent of all heat without treatment
Office - 300mm recycled news paper insulation (Warmcel) pumped into a timber framework by specialist contractor
Loft -400mm recycled news paper insulation (Warmcel) pumped into a flat roof by specialist contractor. This was done with a 'complete' roof, holes drilled, and repaired afterwards to prove that this is possible for all roofs.

Hot Water System

Solar Thermal systems manufactured by Solaron and supplied by Capital Solar warm to heat approximately 70 per cent of water through the year. These panels lie totally flat on new flat roof.


Low energy bulbs throughout, in particular, direct replacements for conventional halogen bulbs with mini fluorescents. All energy saving bulbs pay for themselves in approximately one year.

Water Efficiency

Low flow toilet - 4 and 2 litre flush as opposed to the 6 and 3 in regular toilets.
Taps - Retrofit spray nozzles on taps to reduce water use.
Shower - High spray shower head.

Water Recycling

This system has the capability to store 1200 litres of rainwater collected from the various roofs of the house.

The system has been built from fittings bought from local hardware stores and some more inventive thinking to provide a system that will provide approximately 50 per cent of the home's water needs for a total cost of £250. This pays for itself in 5 years. Rainwater is used to flush the toilets and for washing machine.
full article