The government admission at Ecobuild this week of the abysmal first year for its flagship green deal programme hides bigger issues with energy strategy.
Ed Davey, energy and climate change secretary, chose the high-profile sustainable design, construction and energy event at the ExCeL exhibition centre in London to confirm that the green deal loan scheme designed to fund household green efficiencies had been “disappointing” in its first year.
That’s putting it mildly. The scheme is costly, unproductive and a tactical car crash. Whether it survives to celebrate its second birthday in 2015 is open to heated debate but Davey’s optimistic tone about the green deal’s future has been drowned in a sea of data on the scheme’s costs.
Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) figures show that £33.2m has been spent in operating costs alone for the scheme, around £45,500 for each of the 746 homes currently on the green deal. Money better spent saving energy, I think.
For balance, Davey advised the Ecobuild audience that a million homes in England and Wales will have been insulated under the broader green deal scheme and its sister Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) since January last year.
While every little bit helps in reducing energy consumption, both the green deal and ECO do appear to be tinkering at the edges. There are clear and present dangers in the energy field that will demand a much more coherent, long-term and far broader national strategy.
The drivers for this demand are many but with one prime mover – rising costs of energy production. The government itself admits that “the era of cheap energy is over”. Many power stations are reaching end-of-life or are being mothballed to meet carbon emissions targets and investment in new productive capacity is being hampered by the uncertainties in the sector.
Renewable energy shows promise but even there, the lack of clear government leadership is discouraging investment, the latest being the decision this week by RES to scrap plans for a £300m biomass plant in Northumberland, blaming “inconsistent” government support.
Fracking is the darling of many members of the coalition but this will take years to produce energy, even if the conditions are favourable. The same goes for the planned new nuclear power station in Somerset, which will come on-stream in around 10 years’ time, and the energy unit cost will be very high.
Meanwhile back in the real world, at least one energy chief has warned of the risks of black outs because supply will soon be unable to meet demand at peak times. Sam Laidlaw, Centrica’s chief executive, told the BBC, “No new power stations are being sanctioned at the moment because everybody is worried about the political situation.”
All of which makes it imperative that the government acts now, and decisively, to help businesses, households and organisations to cut substantially the amount of energy (and water) they consume.
This has to go much further than Davey’s Ecobuild announcement that new incentives, announced later this month, would spark fresh interest in the green deal. The deal itself is limited in the energy reductions it can facilitate. The scope has to be much broader and much more active in promoting all areas of energy reduction, particularly in low-energy lighting which is currently not covered.
There should be no confusion that quality LED lighting, for example, retrofitted to an existing home, will repay purchase costs very quickly with energy saved and go on reducing energy consumption for many years.
But this simple fact is still not widely known. At Ecobuild this week, many visitors we talked with were surprised to learn about how energy efficient LED lighting is – with energy savings of up to 90% – as well as the longevity of LED products. A quality LED should last around 50,000 hours. That’s 10 times the lifespan of a compact fluorescent and 25 times longer than an incandescent bulb.
Further associated savings should accrue from reduced strain on council recycling services, increasing the benefit for the environment.
Another area untouched, but included, in the green deal is water efficiency. While there is limited scope for support to install eco showers, eco shower heads, eco taps and tap aerators, the actual take up has been low to zero in the past year.
Reducing water consumption by more than 50 per cent through these simple, efficient products is a clear winner because it reduces energy used to heat and pump water, while providing quick payback.
A new green deal that explicitly supported and promoted these ‘quick-result’ solutions as part of the broader package of longer-return energy-saving measures like loft insulation, double glazing, solar panels, efficient boilers and wall insulation, should achieve more for the consumer and help take the strain off the National Grid.
Mark Sait is managing director of SaveMoneyCutCarbon.com.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
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.
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 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.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
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.
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