notes from JK

Where’s the sense in the energy bill outrage?

Recent weeks have seen incredible inflation in not only energy bills but in the soundbites that both Labour and Tories are hurling around. On energy costs, the big six energy suppliers and the supposed costs of the ‘green’ elements of household energy bills we’re getting a lot of hot air, but not much sense.

It’s all been rather disheartening as none of the key issues behind the ongoing painful price rises have been addressed. With a likely cold winter ahead meaning more and more will have to choose between heating or eating, we deserve better than the rather poor attempts at electoral positioning that the current policy debate is turning out to be.

This woeful debate follows a trend by successive governments, including the current one, of singularly failing to tackle energy as the huge national challenge and opportunity it genuinely presents. The Tories are in a complete morass over what future energy sources should be: Fracking and nuclear power seem to be their top priorities. Putting aside the environmental madness of these two choices, in the UK they are decades away from producing new energy on a commercial scale for British consumers.

Meanwhile Labour have opted for the electioneering gimmick of an energy bill ‘freeze’ post-election. Labour must think they’ve got a nice bit of candy to offer voters but on the slightest bit of consideration, it doesn’t really make much sense. Firstly pre-announcing a bill freeze means the suppliers are far more likely to edge price increases higher now to give them more bankable income should a freeze really come in play. How much of a ‘Miliband factor’ is in this month’s ~10% price rises I wonder? I also am curious to know what happens during the price freeze if wholesale gas prices skyrocket, especially through a very cold snap when demand greatly increases? Will the government have to use taxpayers’ money to pay the higher costs? I can’t imagine a government forcing shareholders (including our own pension funds) to bear gargantuan losses in the face of genuine raw material cost inflation would last very long in court.

Practicalities aside the bill freeze doesn’t really achieve a whole lot. Yes above inflation energy cost increases hurt the poorest hardest, no doubt. But with the freeze pre-announced I expect price changes before and after the freeze will cover expected losses for the energy firms. And frankly a two year breather after years of increases is hardly a lifeline if you are already choosing between heating and eating.

No, what is needed is massive investment in our energy systems to provide resilient, local, renewable energy that is truly affordable. It’s notable that this month green energy supplier Ecotricity announced that they now have built enough of their own renewable sources to start undercutting the big six suppliers’ prices.

Secondly, and just as important, we must take action to proactively deliver serious energy efficiency for all citizens. This has to be in a way that is cheap and works for everyone, including those in the private rented sector. In Brighton & Hove our work on council blocks has resulted in the first energy bill decrease ever for tenants living in those blocks. Those in fuel poverty need this kind of action to permanently reduce their energy bills far more than they need a short-term freeze which holds no longer term solutions. Of course creating more energy efficient homes not only cuts bills permanently, but also makes the warmer better places to live, which all the health and wellbeing benefits that entails.

Cutting demand through energy efficiency will reduce the strain on supplies, reduce our overseas dependence on unreliable sources of fossil fuels whilst creating lots of jobs for those doing the work. I’d much rather be ensuring that homes are permanently warmer rather than faffing about with billing tweaks. If given the proper funding, councils have a huge role to play in delivering energy efficiency programmes, but only central government can tackle the big six suppliers.

Energy is vital to our health, happiness, economy and national security. A few overheated sound bites and electioneering gimmicks are doing great disservice to the huge importance and potential genuine policy action could make for our citizens. I hope voters, media and the third sector will demand better from the national debate; I promise to do my bit as a Green voice for Brighton & Hove.

notes from JK

Thoughts on incineration after visiting Rabbit Skips

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the facilities of Rabbit Skips in Lancing.

They are an independent local company who service many businesses, particularly construction and events, in the Brighton & Hove area.

I was very interested to know about how they are reducing their environmental impact. I was impressed with the clear passion with which staff did their work and pride in what they had achieved.

Rabbit’s process is a microcosm of what the city council, to an extent, do with residents’ waste.

Waste comes into the site and is sorted. Most of the sorting is done using a variety of electro-mechanical systems and magnets very similar to the Hollingdean Materials Recovery Facility used by the council. The difference being that while the council only put recycling through their system, Rabbit put everything through theirs (other than obviously re-usable large items like doors and girders!)

The sorting is impressive for what it can retrieve from the waste: Soil, wood, metal (even the tiniest screws, springs and nails), plastics, aggregrate and so on. Many of these materials, such as metals, plastics, are sold onto the market for recycling or re-use.

The remaining ‘residue waste’ is broken down into small pieces for use in an incinerator. I’m told it was the UK’s first incinerator using waste to be classified as using biofuel due to the amount of wood-chip and other organic materials that goes in there.

That a relatively small, independent local company managed to get through all the legislative hoops and pull together the financing to build these facilities – which are highly automated – is in itself impressive.

It seemed to my untrained eye that the incinerator has more machinery to clean the exhaust than anything else. Currently, when running both lines, they can generate up to 2MW which is sold as green energy onto the national grid. They would like to sell their heat too, but so far have not found any buyers.

While the majority of waste, when the mix is right, is burnt, they are still left with several tons a day of residue which has to be handled as hazardous waste. They also have a quantity of ash collected by filters which goes into road building – so it’s not a totally zero waste affair.

Let’s be clear, in my view incineration is very much second best to some other waste systems such as digestion technologies and pyrolosis. No process is perfect but in terms of efficiency and emissions they are clearly preferable to incineration. In my view incineration is not much different from landfill, you stick it in the air rather than in the ground, but at least you recover some energy in the process.

It is my goal to see Brighton & Hove using the most efficient, environmentally friendly waste processes possible. Nevertheless firms like Rabbit have a role to play because councils do not handle or process commercial waste. If incineration is to be pursued (and I hope not) it’s certainly better to have smaller, local installations than large mega-sites as for Veolia’s in Newhaven where emissions will be heavily concentrated in one area.

What I can support wholeheartedly is the waste sorting Rabbit are using. We could be using it on the bulk of our waste to push far more of it into the recycling market. The technology is there… but is there the will from the the Tories locally or nationally?

notes from JK

Energy ratings for electric heaters?

There’s a room at the top of our house that gets really cold when the winds get blowing. It’s in a loft conversion, done by previous owners in around 2000. The good folks at Earthwise Construction checked it over and found minimal insulation in the dormer’s walls and roof. There is double glazing but not of a particularly high quality. Making all this good was going to be very expensive and the landlord wasn’t keen.

So I went shopping for an electric heater to help on those particularly cold days. What struck me was the absolute lack of clear labelling or information about the energy efficiency of these products. Looking online and in the usual DIY stores I found very different levels of information on each product. Many used Watts to refer to heat output, some also used Watts to refer to the electrical power usage of the device. Some did one or the other but didn’t specify if these were maximums or averages or something else. Others referred only to BTUs of heat output (that’s British Thermal Units) but not power usage.

Based on my A-level physics level of knowledge I wasn’t able to make easy energy efficiency comparisons between many of the choices. If there is a standard out there which I haven’t unearthed with my Googling, it’s certainly not apparent to the consumer.

Our older housing stock is going to be with us for a long time to come, regardless of whether any Green New Deal of sorts gets implemented. So people are going to need ‘top up’ heating in some rooms at least on colder days. Why not help them make the most efficient choices so they get the most heat per pound spent on electricity? We need a simple clear energy rating system for electric heaters – just like we see for other electrical goods these days.

A similar point is being made about car emissions and fuel efficiency by We Are FutureProof in this video: