I’m a staunch advocate of sustainability. Being an engineer, I make things - and one of my life goals is for everything I build to use as little energy (and therefore carbon emissions) as possible. Because, in my view, I can contribute to limiting climate change, even in a small way.
This week, the UK has seen the hottest temperatures in recorded history. All of our infrastructure experienced failures - roads, railways, electricity grids. There were droughts, and the firefighters were busier than they have ever been since World War 2. Our homes are ill equipped for these kinds of temperatures and this will cost lives.
Most news outlets were quite clear: this heatwave is a direct result of climate change. The Sun and the Daily Express gave it a different spin - we’re all getting a free holiday right on our doorstep! Hooray! 🙄
There are things we could be doing right now that could help us do something about this mess. But instead, our government continues to block them and enable NIMBYs to object to necessary infrastructure changes in order to secure support from their - primarily rich, land owning - party members.
We don’t need to wait for some fancy technological advances, small scale nuclear reactors, carbon capture, nuclear fusion or anything else exotic. Sure, they’ll be great decades down the line - but we have the means today to move away from fossil fuels. We also have the means - today - to reduce our energy consumption.
Other than energy use in industry, transport represents the 3rd largest emitter of CO2 globally. Almost as much as Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use.
A massive amount of this is driven by road transport (see Figure 8.1). There are two ways we can address this, and we need to do both:
- Make cars more CO2 efficient
- Reduce the number of cars being driven
A lot of the talk has been about number 1 - Battery Electric Vehicles are light years less carbon intense than even the most efficient petrol ICE car - which is great. Manufacturing electric cars is more carbon intense than petrol cars - but the lack of tailpipe emissions more than counters this over the lifetime of a vehicle (Carbon Brief).
But the best way to reduce emissions from a car is … not to have one. Even an EV produces emissions, just fewer than any conventional car (which will also reduce as the grid is decarbonised).
How can we do that? Deploying traffic evaporation techniques - like Low-traffic neighborhoods, low emissions zones and increasing cycling infrastructure’s share of road space all contribute to a reduction in the amount of cars on the road - and we can (and have) deployed them in a short period. Unfortunately, these kinds of schemes attract vocal opponents who object to authorities restricting their freedom to pollute the air around other people’s streets in exchange for getting to their destination marginally faster. These schemes need to have the time to prove their worth - any changes to infrastructure take some time to bed in.
Per passenger kilometre - other than electric bicycles and walking - the most carbon efficient modes are trains and busses (Figure 8.6). And the best part - the more people use those modes, the more efficient they become. As ridership goes up, emissions per passenger goes down.
Bus companies need to be regulated to limit how much they can exploit passengers, but given flexibility to manage their levels of service to suit their demand. Demand responsive transport needs to be more widely available under operating contracts. They should be incentivised by passenger experience, not by pure revenue - taking a bus should be a good option for local travel.
We also need to make the rail network better functioning for longer trips, more attractive to passengers and affordable. The franchise system has turned the whole network into a complex game of finger pointing and exchange of wooden dollars between the train operators and Network Rail whilst subsidising parts of the network seemingly randomly - all at the cost to the passenger experience. Air travel looks comparatively cheap and easy by comparison, and is the logical choice - despite being many many times more polluting than the equivalent train journey. Don’t be fooled, Great British Rail is not going to fix that - the system will still be there, just with a new brand plastered across it to make people feel like it’s more uniform than it really is.
We cannot afford to risk one of these measures not working - so we have to do all of them right now.
National Grid is working towards net zero in 2050 and has been for some time. They committed to phasing out coal and they’ve almost done it.
We still burn a lot of gas - even when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Every m^3 of natural gas burnt is around 2kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. And releasing it un-burnt is even worse - up to 25x worse. We need more generation capacity - the less gas we use, the better.
Contrary to this, some believe that we should be gaining our “energy sovereignty” by investing in fracking or North Sea oil and gas exploration. Whilst it does (somewhat) insulate us from global gas price shocks, it doesn’t help us get away from using gas in the first place.
There is argument that says that because renewable energy does not deliver on demand, that we need grid scale storage in order to keep that energy for when it’s needed. But thanks to distributed generation and demand side response - we can dump energy into non-time critical loads (like heating water tanks, charging batteries) when renewable energy is plentiful means that during peak consumption, demand is lower.
This in turn means we need to fire up fewer gas “peaker” plants, and overall, burn less gas.
Wind turbines are extraordinarily efficient. This doesn’t change throughout their lifespan - there are no fluctuating fuel prices, only maintenance costs - which are broadly stable. Solar, similarly - the one off construction costs (which have fallen by 80% in the last decade) and limited maintenance costs are the only driver. In recent history - due to the covid pandemic and the Russian war with Ukraine - we have finally reached the point where Solar PV has a lower LCOE than fossil fuels (Figure S.3), and the UK Government also reports that wind is already there (see Chart 4.1). Both off and on shore wind and large scale solar all beat the most efficient gas power plants (Combined Cycle Gas Turbine) in £/MWhr.
And thankfully, many projects are popping up in the UK to take advantage of this. But - NIMBYs are always keen to block these kinds of developments (whilst pretending not to be NIMBYs, apparently), because they “like the idea of solar farms” just not them being anywhere near them.
The war in Ukraine has changed priorities, though. Gas prices soaring - and energy prices with them. The UK is looking to regain control over it’s energy market with it’s British Energy Security Strategy. What a great time to accelerate proven renewable green technology to give us ownership of our energy generation and resist external factors, right? So, what did the government do to seize this opportunity? They’re going to keeping coal and gas plants online longer term whilst pouring money into new technologies that are yet to be deployable at scale like Carbon Capture, low carbon hydrogen generation and modular nuclear reactors - and explore more gas and oil in the North Sea.
Make no mistake - these new technologies are absolutely important long term. The key being long term. The longer we put off doing something about this crisis, the harder it is going to be to limit the damage that climate change causes the world. We need to do something now.
At least, this price shock has prompted a reform of the energy market
The saving grace is the reduction in consent time for offshore wind and the simplification of onshore wind planning applications. Oh, except the (probable) new PM is now pledging to continue to block on-shore wind farms instead of fast-tracking them (one of the few good things BoJo proposed). So, on-shore wind will continue to be difficult and risky to invest in.
The other notable feature of this energy security is a complete lack of any attempt to reduce our energy usage - or at least reduce the impact of the average person having less of it.
Going back to the energy use by sector - energy in buildings is 17% of our global greenhouse emissions and most of that will be for heating and cooling.
At the end of 2020, 14.3 million properties had cavity wall insulation (70 per cent of properties with a cavity wall), 16.6 million had loft insulation (66 per cent of properties with a loft) and 772,000 had solid wall insulation (nine per cent of properties with solid walls)
Lets turn that around.
At the end of 2020, there were 27.8 million households in the UK. 4.29 million properties with cavity walls did not have cavity wall insulation. 5.47 million homes with a loft did not have loft insulation. 62.5 thousand homes with solid walls, didn’t have solid wall insulation.
If we say that the average energy consumption for gas in the UK is 12,400kWh per year - most of which will be for heating - and that cavity wall insulation saves around 1/3rd of the energy required for the same heating - then every one of those houses wastes 3720 kWhr per year in energy from gas.
That comes to an average of an astonishing 1.8 GW loss, from homes with cavity walls but no insulation. This is equivalent to the power output by the second largest gas power plant in the UK, Staythorpe Power Station.
Insulation to keep the heat in isn’t the end of it, though. The increased summer temperatures mean that there are homes that are at risk of overheating. Insulation works in both directions - it can help keep the heat out as much as it keeps the heat in.
The problem is, the properties without cavity wall insulation generally are the ones that have some barrier. My property is one of those. It has concrete gutters - unless we have them removed or resealed, no cavity wall insulation installer will proceed - as these concrete gutters tend to leak into the cavity over time. Wet cavity wall insulation is as bad or worse than no cavity wall insulation - so they’ll (rightly) refuse to install it. Rectifying this problem for the building easily triples or quadruples the cost of installing insulation - making it wholly unattainable - and especially galling in this case was a result of the failings of the government in the 60’s being willing to compromise standards of building materials.
The government has issued numerous (often poorly executed and underperforming) grants over the years for installing insulation - but most of them target the “easy wins”. Cavity Wall insulation, when trivial, is quite cheap and fast - and can add up to big numbers that sound impressive and feel like you’re making progress. But at this point, the remaining 4.29 million properties that remain uninsulated are not trivial. And yet, there’s no inclination from the government to assist in reducing that massive continuing energy leak. In addition, in order to qualify for grants to replace your gas boiler with an air source heat pump - you must have an insulated home as a pre-requisite. So as far as they’re concerned, those 4.29 million homes are a lost cause. They’re creating an incentive to demolish the building and start again - which most home owners are reticent to do, and probably won’t - unless they’re “lucky” enough to have their property bought up by a developer who can, and can move somewhere more efficient.
So, it looks like our government has decided to choose the path which maximises giving money to big corporations, propping up the fossil fuel industry and leaving the average citizen overheating in their poorly insulated homes paying more than they can afford for energy that’s polluting the planet. All with the prospect of “in the next few years, we’ll have used all your tax money to develop magical technology to make it all better again, pinkie pwomise 🤩”
I don’t buy it.
So, what would I do?
- Remove as many barriers to developing off and on shore wind farms, and solar farms, as possible - immediately
I’m sorry, but NIMBYs are going to have to suck it up. I’m sure they’ll be thanking us when their beloved fields aren’t a charred husk due to wildfires. This is the only way to regain our energy security without locking ourselves into decades more of fossil fuel dependency.
If that means adding a consultation period so they can be appealed in 5 years time, then so be it - but we need to deploy it fast.
- Subsidise wind and solar projects that can deliver in the next 12 months with central funding
If they’re in progress and can be sped up with money, we should do that. Climate change affects everyone, it’s only fair for everyone to contribute.
- Reform the energy market to incentivise load levelling and use of renewable power
Now that we have technology that can react to generation supply in real time, reward companies that can take the excess capacity off the grid and displace load from peak times. Design a financial incentive to levelling out the demand curve. Hopefully, this is something that is on the way.
In addition, fix the VAT rates so that gas is rated the same as electricity per kWhr, to encourage electrification of heating.
- Reduce funding for advanced energy technology with a long delivery timescale, and prioritise short to medium term projects with low risk
Carbon Capture could well be part of our future, but it is still years from delivering any sizable facilities that will reduce emissions in a meaningful way. The longer we delay, the more it will have to make up for. Putting solar farms in space … it’s NIMBYism in it’s ultimate form - and so far off delivering energy to the grid that it’s laughable. In space, nobody can hear you complain about your blighted landscape, I guess? If these things are really that promising and commercially viable, investors will support them - there’s no need for the UK government to throw taxpayer money in at this stage when they could be making a tangible difference today.
- Properly fund and subsidise public transport for the good of citizens
Deconstruct the labyrinthine rail franchise system (and GBR is just that by another name …), pay the staff properly and fairly, make the singular metric for performance the customer experience - to encourage passengers back onto the network. Invest in it’s infrastructure so it’s resilient to the changing climate.
Regulate bus operators more strictly but flexibly, to ensure they provide a minimum level of service that is consummate with the demand for their services. Make bus transport less arduous to deliver, make it more flexible, and prevent monopolies from forming and charging extortionate prices. Link subsidies to passenger experience.
- Design a thorough, fair and sensible grant scheme which addresses properties which are poorly insulated
Don’t rush this through - take some time to research and find a way to insulate more homes, and fairly fund this grant or loan. This will deliver value over decades, so it’s worth taking the time to do it properly. This may involve placing a levy on homes which could be insulated, but aren’t.
Also consider how we can eradicate badly insulated homes entirely - perhaps through some kind of scrappage scheme that encourages and makes practical rebuilding properties that are beyond economic repair.
- Incentivise sustainable property development
Roll out more traffic reduction strategies and reward local councils for doing so. Encourage property developers to install EV charging points everywhere - and make range anxiety something of the past. Remove the plug-in vehicle subsidy (!), and add a “fossil fuel vehicle levy”. Encourage development close to existing infrastructure - make towns and cities walkable - so fewer people need cars in the first place. Reward councils for investing in cycling and walking infrastructure.
- Introduce a ramping tax on carbon intense industries
Give polluting industries a strong incentive to reduce their emissions over time, and tax them based on emitted carbon at an increasing rate over the next 10 years.
Would that work? Seems more pragmatic than the current offering to me, at least - and based more in the reality of now than a some optimistic future.