IN THE ETHER

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The sun has more net energy to give than the ground without piercing water tables, going through drains or undermining neighbours' foundations as ground source heat pumps frequently will.

If utilities do not want electricity exported directly to the grid the surplus energy can be stored in the equivalent of a large immersion heater tank or stored in an electric car.

The electric car can additionally be connected through a standardised charging connector to a smart community network supplying the grid with electricity at times of peak electricity demand and charging the car again at times of low demand.

*****

You cannot divorce the emerging cladding crisis from insulation.

The reason the contentious cladding may contain materials such as plastics or foam is for their insulation value or to reduce weight. They do not add to loadbearing capacity, structural integrity or weathering compared with other materials; probably the reverse.

The cladding crisis is an insulation materials crisis.

Pressure to insulate cheaply has led to the use of these materials and they have been deployed beyond cladding where it might have been better to use heavier, non-combustible materials.

The spread of flame risk may be less in these other contexts but before the findings of the Grenfell enquiry are published we should hold off any dash to insulate using these materials.

Residential buildings do not need to be airtight either. In most cases they should be allowed to breathe - to have air changes - to prevent condensation and the build up of viruses, bacteria and spores within them detrimental to good health.

Look at the recent residential tower block blazes (since low rise fires are less reported at a national scale) and at schools with misted up windows during coronavirus and these lessons should have been learnt.

We learnt from the Great Fire as we did 400 years later from Ronan Point. No longer were churches combustible; no longer would tower block floors collapse or cladding readily blast outwards. What had been accepted practice had to change. The tower of Sir Christopher Wren's Grade I listed St Magnus the Martyr

The late Victorians were the most environmentally conscious builders we have ever known, especially in southern England which has different climatic conditions to the rest of the U.K. where driving rain is more of a problem.

A proper understanding of natural ventilation minimized the dangers of coal combustion until the great boon in comfort brought about by natural gas central heating in the 1960s.

The old town gas was poisonous and its combustion a bit dangerous to leave unsupervised, especially if the flame went out. Coal or coke, unsupervised, was safer.

The subsequent greater industrialisation after the Victorians of building material production resulted in some dangerous products - asbestos, formaldehyde containing chipboard binders, CFC-emitting and flammable foams and an increasing load of plastics in domestic buildings, some of which the post-millennium building regulations regime is too agnostic about.

Eventually, natural gas space heating will go but only when all electricity generation is renewable - a government objective - and the price of electricity not too far distant from that of natural gas supply.

The net price differential could be narrowed if householders were encouraged to generate some solar power but both the climate change lobby and government have been largely silent on this, another strategic error of both like encouraging diesel technology (a way to burn a somewhat unwanted and dirty fraction from the oil refining process) in the past.

In most residential cases heat pumps and hydrogen will not cut it on environmental and safety grounds but at least the government is being encouraging to entrepreneurs in this field. It is in the nature of science and engineering that most of what science demonstrates as technically possible is not in engineering terms feasible at a mass scale.

Unless one is to move to energy consuming mechanical ventilation, the need and desirability of natural ventilation in British dwellings will remain. If these produce 14% of carbon emissions any comprehensive insulation regime will reduce this by a maximum of two percentage points and possibly not at all because it is well known that insulation upgrades tend to happen when people want to expand their living space and that, too, needs heating.

*****

'Levelling up' can work. After the Grenfell enquiry has concluded, offer some grants in the coldest parts of Britain; forget about approving the builders used; let the householders apply the grants for energy efficiency in the way they choose and see the creative solutions that result.





ENERGY SAVING IN BRITAIN


Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT


The CBI is a lobby organisation that has lived in a fantasy world for many years now.


The last time it misjudged its importance relative to the government by lecturing it in relation to Brexit the response was a cancellation of a corporation tax cut.

The reason it got little sympathy anywhere else is that it is often seen as a drummer boy for big business to the detriment of small business, which needs a more level economic playing field, and citizens.

The Covid-19 economy has taken out many small and medium sized businesses so it is accepted that the survivors will have an easier time but they also need an environment where properly entrepreneurial challengers can emerge, not just financially engineered companies like middle market restaurant chains in the last cycle.

The CBI is drum beating that no domestic boilers should be sold after 2025.

Yes they should.

Residential properties should once again be properly rewarded for producing solar energy and selling the surplus to the grid. They once were here and they are in Germany, Florida and elsewhere. Amortising the cost of solar panels is easier now as the cost of the technology has fallen substantially. The properties can use existing gas boilers to meet surge demand just as the electricity industry burns gas to meet surge demand. Due to transmission losses it is more efficient to burn it in the home. No immensely awkward or speculative technologies like ground bore heat exchangers or hydrogen fuel are involved.

Be in no doubt the domestic sector would like to use less purchased energy and it is not householders who are leaving lights on 6am - 10pm and heating every space full tilt in those hours.

There is a perceived void in what industry should do be doing.

The electricity supply industry should get renewable energy to be 80% of generating capacity by 2025 - but it will be forgiven if it cannot.

Commercial and administrative users are much more wasteful of gas heating than domestic ones. So the CBI should install a ground bore heat exchanger (heat pump) at its HQ by 2025 and cease using gas, if it does, by 2025 - and if it says it cannot on its site well take it from the building sector that most blocks of flats cannot and most existing houses cannot either.

The CBI, and the Labour Party too, should commit to reducing total energy consumption at their HQs by 10% a year until 2025, without offsetting and subject to audit, something they will find easy to do without changing boilers .... or even boring in the interim.

The electricity grid cannot readily meet the increased demand for electricity from new cars and vans going electric by 2030 let alone houses giving up boilers by 2025 so the option of hybrid is not unwise especially as generation has to move to renewable before you can justify substitution.

Traditional building construction has much to recommend it. This is being written by natural light and with no heat on after office hours.

The existing housing stock should not be upgraded by using plastic core insulation or foam insulation which may be either flammable or eventually degrade to release toxic substances. This is not upgrading.

The crisis emerging in tower block cladding replacement is partly due to earlier ill-informed pressure to retrofit for insulation purposes. The reported costs for replacing known defective cladding is £15 billion. The grants that were to be provided for retrofitting homes amounted to £1.5 billion.

For whatever reasons the latter scheme was pulled it is clear it would not make sense to retrofit homes with similar materials to those that are having to be stripped out.

These materials are not permitted in most jurisdictions with advanced building codes. Fire authorities cannot be guaranteed to save you in low or high rise buildings that ignite with these materials due to a deficiency in equipment. A whole county may not have a working ladder that reaches to 18 metres.

Fitting a solar panel on an elevation or panels on a roof is the low hanging fruit that should be taken first at less risk and at less cost and inconvenience.

Even in winter it can preheat the water used in your central heating and reduce your bill at greatly less capital cost than heat pumps which can still spectacularly fail to do the job properly in winter and use a large amount of electricity. If someone cannot pay their electricity bill they cannot use their heat pump either.

Natural gas is moderately explosive and we had our warning in the Ronan Point disaster. Hydrogen is highly explosive and one would not want it coming down the gas pipes into ones' homes.

Unfortunately our Committee on Climate Change is lacking in building technology expertise and too slow to move on to a post-Grenfell world.

Now is not the time to say the lion's share of hidden subsidy through electricity bills has to be reserved for nuclear generation so there is little money for anything else and in any case we want to favour big boy generators and not reduce total electricity demand.

That world has gone and even if households do not get paid for their excess electricity generation they know local solar heating is zero carbon and will be able to measure their contribution. With the advent of electric cars they may be able to store excess electricity, assuming they produce it, in their cars.