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Ashden Awards: Can sustainable energy scale up?



Renewable energy usage in the UK has seen a staggering 540% increase in the past ten years, while carbon emissions have dropped 26%. Part of this change may be because of advances in renewable energy technology, the introduction of renewables subsidies and the UK’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

And yet renewable and sustainable forms of energy still only account for 4% of the UK’s total annual energy consumption. Are we really making fast enough progress towards achieving the scale that’s needed for renewables to replace fossil fuels over the next few decades?

There are many barriers that are hampering the efforts of those who are trying to build a low-carbon future, including technological, financial, political and behavioural. The good news is, there are a growing number of organisations that are helping overcome these barriers, and finding a way to scale up their sustainable energy ideas.

With Ashden’s 2015 Awards less than a month away, here are three of this year’s UK Awards finalists, and the barriers they have overcome.

Max Fordham –

Max Fordham is an environmental engineering company that has been helping design and retrofit buildings with sustainability as the main priority for over 50 years. This goes against the grain of what is often practised in the building sector, which is historically very conservative and where cutting costs is often the goal.

By working with architects in optimising building performance from day one of a project, Max Fordham ensures they are as energy-efficient as possible. But even the best-designed buildings can gobble energy if they are not used properly, so Max Fordham carries out rigorous post-occupancy evaluations, working with the new occupants to make sure they get the best out of their building. Max Fordham has truly broken down the barriers of convention in its field, and is not shy about the fact – it regularly presents its work through trade publications and events, encouraging others to follow its lead.

Demand Logic –

Building Management Systems (BMSs) monitor and control the heating, ventilation and lighting of most large commercial and public buildings, but the sheer quantity of data they have access to means that making sense of it is all beyond the skills of a mere human being. Demand logic has created a system that can unearth energy-saving gems from these swathes of data, using ‘machine learning’ to analyse it and distil it into easy-to-read charts and graphs that highlight ‘energy insanities’, such as rooms that are being both heated and cooled, air conditioning running overnight and undiagnosed faults in equipment.

By making sense of the torrent of data that streams through a BMS, Demand Logic is enabling building managers to cut energy use, saving money on bills for the occupants while also cutting maintenance costs for the building owner. The potential for the technology is huge: with BMSs in use across the globe, managing millions of square metres of floor space, the energy savings that can be delivered are equally dramatic. By overcoming the technological barriers in its way, Demand Logic is on the path to reaching its full potential as a market leader in their field.

TGV Hydro –

TGV Hydro, a social enterprise based in Wales, is taking advantage of the country’s abundant hills and rainfall to pioneer cost-effective and streamlined methods of building micro-hydro projects. Getting planning permission and the required licenses was the main barrier TGV Hydro faced in its infancy, as well as the challenge of cutting costs. However, through local demonstration and unrelenting perseverance, it has become the benchmark for sustainable, low-impact micro-hydro in Wales.

TGV Hydro has also been able to significantly cut the cost of its micro-hydro systems by helping start Hydrolite, a local turbine manufacturer, by involving site owners in the construction of the projects and by keeping their business lean and agile. There’s room for significant expansion of micro-hydro within Wales, and also other hilly areas of the UK, and TGV Hydro has shown that the barriers of permissions, licensing and development cost are not insurmountable.

Learning more

This is just a small preview of the inspirational work of these organisations, all of which are striving to create a sustainable UK. If you’d like to find out more, come and meet the some of these and other Ashden Awards finalists in person at the Ashden UK seminar on 11 of June.

About the 2015 Ashden Awards

Ashden is a charity that rewards and promotes sustainable energy pioneers in the UK and across the globe.  Tickets for Ashden’s UK Seminar, Power Struggles: Overcoming the barriers to scaling up sustainable energy, are on sale now. You can book your place here. Tickets for the Ashden Awards Ceremony in the evening of 11 June are on sale here.

Julia Hawkins is PR and Digital Media Manager at Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy

Further reading:

2015 International Ashden Awards shortlist unveiled

An Ashden evening with Ed Davey and Zac Goldsmith

Abundance and Ecotricity among winners at Ashden Awards (2014)


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By 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 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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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

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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