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Community energy: what you need to know

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The UK’s first Community Energy Fortnight began on Saturday, hoping to inspire and engage people with the concept of community energy. Francesca Baker looks at what this means, and picks out a few of the UK’s most successful initiatives. Who knows; they may even be on your very own doorstop.

Energy comes from the big companies, right? The TV works because some multinational pumps electricity to it, and we keep warm because years ago, British Gas was set up and spawned hundreds of other companies.

While this may be the case, there is an alternative. Community energy is simply the act of, or the output from, people coming together to fuel the activities of their local area and the people who live within it.

Saving energy, and generating it, are hot topics, and in recent years we have seen things change, so that like many areas of concern it seems wholly natural and obvious to harness it at a community level.

Click here to read The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013

The reasons for this growing trend are well documented, but important enough to be documented again. Climate change has highlighted a need to find alternative solutions for fossil fuels.

The average UK citizen emits 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the paper thin ozone layer every year. The dwindling natural resources of oil, gas, and coal – fossil fuels – is not only causing environmental problems but economic ones, thrusting prices higher and higher as companies and governments fear that fuel tipping point.

Even if we don’t run out, political and precarious international relations are often the basis of so many of the fuel transactions that things may get more and more precarious.

Higher costs of the raw materials mean higher energy bills, something that is hitting people even harder in economically austere Britain. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 4 million Britons live in fuel poverty, meaning that they are unable to heat their homes and fuel activity that is considered to be that of a basic level, without spending more than 10% of their income.

Of course, governments are taking action, and the UK government has committed to make changes, aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But to reach the levels required by the EU, the UK must increase its use of renewable energy five fold in the next seven years, from 3% to 15%. For all the talk, we are currently still relying upon fossil fuels for around 97% of our energy use.

So if government pledges are not resulting in the changes needed, where can we find the answer?

There has been a growing trend for localisation and decentralisation (ironically, also from the centre – Big Society anyone?) and when you consider that individuals are the ones that are hit hardest by rises costs and that 49% of the UK’s emissions comes from home energy and personal travel, it makes sense to start at home – and have a global impact at the same time.

Recognising not only the environmental and economic value, but the empowering and liberating effect that local initiatives can have, many communities have chosen to undertake projects that may not payoff in economic terms immediately and are a longer term investments, generating energy in a more sustainable fashion, with a side portion of social cohesion.

So where are some of the communities embracing the opportunity to make changes to the way energy is generated, consumed, saved and viewed amongst the local people?

Bradford-on-Avon

Stimulated by winning the Green Streets competition that funded energy efficiency upgrades for 98 homes, two schools and three community buildings, local group Climate Friendly Bradford-on-Avon set about implementing a behaviour change programme, consisting of leaflets, posters, education projects, smart meters and solar installations.

By altering the perception of what individuals can and should do, the group is creating a ripple effect that spins out from energy efficient advocates, and aims to help the area become carbon neutral by 2050.

Stirling

A similar project is underway in Stirling where Going Carbon Neutral Stirling has planted community herb gardens, showcased pedal powered smoothie makers and encourage neighbours to get together to share food, tools and lifts as part of their big street challenge.

Findhorn

Findhorn is a pretty impressive civil site as it is, with its own 750 kilotwatt (kw) wind farm, solar hot water and large-scale food growing operation, but its latest experiment is a new wood chip boiler, an example of how waste products can generate useful fuels.

The local timber mill generates wood hip which is used by the boiler to heat lock community buildings. As well as this, leftover ash from the system is used to nourish food crops. Although currently not paying for itself, the reduction of £12,000 on fuel bills is significant.

One of the reasons that it works so well is the compact nature of the settlement – again an example of how sensible things that everyone knows (snuggling up keeps you warm) can and should be used not only at an individual but a community level.

Settle

Also using local industry and power to their advantage is Settle Hydro, a reverse Archimedean Screw that sits at Settle Weir near Bridge End Water Mill and draws power from the River Rubble to fuel buildings and sell back electricity to the grid.

Currie Community High School

Another place reducing energy bills to the tune of around £12,000 is south-west Edinburgh’s Currie Community High School. Along with fraught proofing, low energy lighting and a new swimming pool cover, it has installed a solar thermal array and a wind turbine.
Rightly educating students at a young age when they are interested in the world around them and forming habits that they will take with them through life, the school is not only saving 69 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year but creating budding energy efficient advocates.

London

It is not only middle class and small communities in rural England that are making changes. Transition Belsize in north-west London persuaded Camden council to supply draught proofing materials; Peckham Power is a collective of people combining time and resources, and En10ergy in Muswill Hill has set up a low-carbon buying group to negotiate bulk discounts on expensive items such as solar panels, which had been installed on local buildings including a Marks & Spencer store and a church.

For more information about Community Energy Fortnight, and to find events in your area, click here.

Francesca Baker is curious about life and enjoys writing about it. A freelance journalist, event organiser, and minor marketing whizz, she has plenty of ideas, and likes to share them. She writes about music, literature, life, travel, art, London, and other general musings, and organises events that contain at least one of the above. You can find out more at www.andsoshethinks.co.uk.

Further reading:

UK’s first Community Energy Fortnight set to create ‘clear pathway’ for local people

Manifesto published to accelerate ‘community energy revolution’

Harnessing the power of a community

Community renewables: creating sustainable wealth with values

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013

Francesca Baker is curious about life and enjoys writing about it. A freelance journalist, event organiser, and minor marketing whizz, she has plenty of ideas, and likes to share them. She writes about music, literature, life, travel, art, London, and other general musings, and organises events that contain at least one of the above. You can find out more at www.andsoshethinks.co.uk.

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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