Official – Time to Act on Air Quality in the UK

At last it’s official and there should be no hiding place for the UK in improving its air quality as Court orders UK to cut NO2 air pollution. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that we now know, better than ever, what the causes of poor air quality are and what is needed to do it. Central to that is political will both at the national and local level. Unfortunately, therein lies the issue. Nationally there is reluctance to tell local authorities what to do and the trend has been to incentivise them to do the right thing through the provision of small pots of money to remedy dirty buses or encourage the uptake of electric vehicle charge points. Locally there has been real fear of appearing anti-car. It has meant local authorities have got themselves into a proper tangle with conflicting policies for regeneration and growth overriding policies to promote air quality.

Whilst the announcement is welcome, how convenient for it to come during Purdah such that no politician has been able to step up and take responsibility for the inaction of the current government or previous governments. Yes, this really has been a failing of both Labour and the Conservative / LibDem coalition. Instead a fairly weak comment from DEFRA A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent years and as this judgement recognises, work is already underway on revised plans (since February 2014) to meet EU targets on NO2 as soon as possible. “It has always been the government’s position to submit these plans before the end of this year. Meeting NO2 limits is a common challenge across Europe with 17 member states exceeding limits.” ClientEarth lawyers recently told a hearing that enforcement by the court was the only “effective remedy” for the UK’s “ongoing breach” of European Union law.

Previous blogs I have suggested what the solution might be. These words were drafted when I worked for the City Council in Sheffield, a city that has a better understanding of its air quality issues than most, but has yet to make any real inroads, despite some great things happening with EVs.

So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modeled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).

Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.

Across South Yorkshire we have identified a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.

 

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Energy Services – energy as a service, not a commodity

There is a really great piece written by Elizabeth Shove and Matt Watson (No more meters? Let’s make energy a service, not a commodity.) that neatly summarises the concept of energy as a service, not a commodity published on The Conversation website today. Those of you that have ready previous blogs I have written will know that I have eluded to this in my thoughts on district heating and I find it interesting that the concept appears to be less attractive here in the UK whereas elsewhere, particularly the USA, it has greater traction and a stronger marketplace.

The authors rightly say We all pay energy bills and we understand that energy is delivered through wires and pipes into boilers, TVs, kettles and so forth. However, it is not the energy, as such, that consumers’ value. In paying energy bills, people are really paying for the services that energy makes possible: for thermal comfort, for entertainment or for a cooked meal. In other words, it is the ability to watch a favourite TV soap (while consuming a favourite TV dinner) and the cosiness of the home that really matters.”

It’s not just the home of course. Businesses now recognise the concept of the energy service more readily than energy purchase and the opportunity to spread capital investment costs over 10, or even 20, years is appealing in a resource constrained world. Public sector organisations like NHS Trusts and local authorities are well positioned given their relatively stable property portfolios (even with the purge of unwanted buildings under the Government’s austerity measures) giving them a long term view of investment. But others too, such as colleges, schools and universities share those same characteristics. If you’ve been where you are for 100 years, why not take a punt on being there in 30 or 40 years time and taking a longer term view of your property portfolio?

It’s those organisations with aging building stock that can benefit most from ESCO and energy performance contracting. But there are significant opportunities in investing in energy systems, energy centres and grids that support a whole range of existing and new buildings where the real money and opportunity is. If you can generate and use energy you have generated on site you can build in not just carbon and cost savings, but resilience to failures of grids outside your control. You can start to achieve standards ahead of the Government’s own energy strategies.

As the authors say “We are already seeing the emergence of Energy Service Companies (ESCos) which guarantee a fixed energy bill as long as the company can install efficiency measures in your home or office. Other providers offer multi-utility tariffs, bundling together rent, water and energy into a single bill. At the moment it is unclear whether these novel forms of “energy-plus” provision are forerunners of arrangements that are set to become the norm, of if they will remain niche solutions for a few. Whatever else, these moments of flux remind us that energy and energy services are never set in stone.”

Enactus – Best Kept Sustainability Secret in Global HE?

Last week I attended, for the first time, the Enactus National Finals in London and was totally struck by the sheer enthusiasm, innovation, sporting and supportive community that has been nurtured by the Enactus UK team and the participating universities.

35 universities groups of active Enactus teams from across the UK competed in showcasing their superb projects and it was hard to not be impressed by any of them. The five finalists (Queens University Belfast, Leeds, Southampton, Sheffield and Nottingham) were, perhaps, standouts in terms of the quality of the projects and the maturity of their thinking. Augmented by slick, well rehearsed and emotive presentations, those five certainly deserved their place on the final stage. Southampton were overall winners with Southampton in 2nd place with some brilliant projects.

I only learnt about Enactus less than a year ago when the president of the Nottingham branch contacted me to develop ideas of how The University of Nottingham might work more closely with them. Within a few minutes it was clear there were plenty of opportunities for us to work collaboratively on local projects and support their ideas for some spectacular overseas projects like Empower Malawi and Aquor.

I would encourage you to investigate further the great work underway across universities in the UK and overseas that are being carried out by highly motivated, smart students on a voluntary basis. They build their Enactus work around their courses of study and add so much value to their CVs they are sought after graduates at the end of it. The impressive panel of alumni who judged the UK National Finals is testimony to that.

Enactus thrives because it has autonomy, imagination and because it empowers students. Every single project they are working on improves the lives of the people they work with by tackling social, environmental and economic challenges. They are making a fantastic difference to the lives of communities all over the UK and globally. Branches across the globe will come together in October to compete in the World Cup and Southampton will be the UK’s representative.

This movement is an incredibly important part of the higher education sector’s contribution to sustainable development and should be recognised as such.

Consumer Protection Needed for Heat Networks – Which?

In the wake of the UK Government’s Heat Strategy and subsequent investment in heat mapping, feasibility studies and heat networks “the need for the UK’s district heating industry to be properly regulated has been emphasised by a survey from leading consumer watchdog, Which?

“The watchdog has called on the British government to reconsider allowing the UK’s emerging district heat market to operate without regulation, after research revealed that many customers feel ripped off and confused by contracts they cannot escape from.”

In the UK, regulation has hardly kept energy companies on track but consumers are likely to seek some protection when committing to long term connections with sole suppliers of heat. My experience of networks in Sheffield suggests this to be the case. Even if the product is good, the price stable and the infrastructure sound, consumers (led, often, by their insurers interest in liabilities) will seek protection. The cost of this will be borne by the end-user without doubt and this might mean some marginally economic schemes will fall by the wayside.

The report, unveiled yesterday, said some district heat providers effectively create monopolies because properties linked into the networks cannot switch suppliers if they are unhappy with the service. This is, in most cases, fact. Many UK heat networks have heat supplied from one source, or one supplier. Only when you start to see integrated heat networks with multiple technologies and suppliers will you see genuine competition that will self-regulate. Heat networks are a long way from that position.

The news, which comes just at a time when the Association for Decentralised Energy is pushing its new code of practice, called Heat Trust. Around 210,000 homes in the UK are currently connected to the networks and this is expected to rise to eight million by 2030 as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the heat sector.

Stirling Efforts Among Universities 

I attended my first conference convened by The Association of University Directors of Estates this week hosted in the wonderful grounds of Stirling University. Sat in the carved valley of the Forth surrounded by white capped hills and mountains it made for a spectacular setting.

But it wasn’t all about appearances. There was some really good substance to the conference too. Ian Diamond attended to give a timely insight in to his recently published report to universities. There was honesty and inspiration in spades too – some fabulous ‘lessons learned’ sessions in open plenary with both The University of Birmingham and Glasgow School of Arts sharing their stories of recovery from fires which had devastating impacts on their operations spreading over days in the case of the former and months in the case of the latter.

There were sessions that inspired too. I attended a workshop session led by Atelier Ten who gave an overview of the work they have been doing to ‘Green the Ivy League’ with long term strategic planning in the estates of Yale and Harvard Business School where they have developed plans, standards, policies and solutions that will get them to their carbon reduction targets. They are doing this through ensuring new build projects meet the highest standards possible, by identifying how they can invest in larger scale energy infrastructure and, crucially, how they will improve the existing building stock. We know that universities all over the world are well motivated to invest in inspirational, complex, low carbon buildings. It’s equally recognised how challenging it can be to keep older existing stock performing well. The nature of capital rich and revenue poor businesses. The challenge hasn’t gone away but the case study presented at Yale was an excellent example of a deep refurb that creates better, healthier, more productive working environments for staff and students alike. Who wouldn’t want that?

There was some lively debate about the future of sustainability metrics and reporting performance within the sector. AUDE has shown some real leadership on this and is working with Arup to develop ideas in partnership with the EAUC and People and Planet over the coming months. The session was a scene setter for forthcoming regional workshops AUDE are running to which Directors of Estates and sustainability professionals are invited to attend to help shape this further.

On the final day after an fantastically hospitable and enjoyable evening in the setting of Stirling Castle, complete with pipers, haggis and a wee dram, it was left to Philip Ross of Unwork to share his insights into how technology is changing the very nature of society, communities and interaction. It’s profound impact on the type of spaces we require and desire in the future is clear. Generation Z just don’t work generations before them. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) really is just the start. The level of interactivity is only going to increase.

With insight from the current Union of Student President at Stirling and one its more famous alumni, Lord Reid of Cardowan, it was a fitting end it a thought provoking conference, reminding us to take the longer term view, to remain optimistic and resilient and to Kiss with Confidence.