Carbon-free energy: seeing isn’t believing

Carbon-free energy: seeing isn’t believingExperts are at last pointing out that the take-up of potentially excellent green technologies in the wrong locations can damage the credibility of the equipment, giving a good process a bad name.

The trend gives credibility to those who object to renewables for perhaps the ‘wrong’ reasons, and may deter people who may otherwise be keen to ‘do their bit.’

All sectors need to respond meaningfully to the challenges posed by climate change, and the built environment is set to receive an increasing share of the spotlight very soon.

It is critical that the debate gets a full airing, so it was useful for a body such as the Carbon Trust to recently have added their voice to the debate in this way, pointing out that home wind turbines in urban areas actually cost more carbon to manufacture and transport than they save by producing carbon free electricity.

Many of the firms that we advise are only too aware that turbines can rate a poor second to other alternatives such as a ground source heat pump, or solar water heating, particularly in urban locations.

For those promoting a development site, it is usually an easy sell to describe to a council planning committee how you will apply a defined number of turbines at a site to generate a particular energy yield – and so satisfy the exacting guidelines known as the Merton Rule.

But the proof is in performance, and poorly sited turbines may well not produce the expected yield.

We need better both from developers and the authorities, and in particular, a change in the law to avoid widespread wasted resources.

For example, it may be far better for a developer to contribute to a local or regional fund which can be invested more rationally in the most appropriate local renewable technologies than to have many individuals squandering money on a local but ineffective technology.

This can be lawfully secured through the existing s.106 planning obligation route, or in due course through the proposed Community Infrastructure Levy which will operate on Council-area or larger scales.

Small scale domestic turbines do have their place, but only as part of a comprehensive drive to promote energy efficiency and local energy generation to enhance the effectiveness of the national grid.

Clearly, the inexorable fuel price hikes mean the financial payback for small scale renewable technologies is improving practically by the minute.

However this only holds true if the right technologies are applied in the right locations – good intentions and taking easy steps towards being seen to be green are not enough.

We need an efficient policy mapped out in Westminster with strong support for feed-in tariffs and intelligent delivery on the ground, by developers with support from local planning authorities.

Stronger Government subsidy and feed-in tariffs are essential if the UK is to comply with its international legal commitments to make carbon reduction (Kyoto, UNFCCC and others) and to increase the proportion of energy generated by renewables.

With the onset of the Carbon Reduction Commitment (“CRC”), around 5000 non-energy intensive organisations will be required to take part in a new emissions trading scheme for the first time and reduce their carbon emissions.

These are all organisations that are not currently involved in the European-wide emissions trading system or have otherwise had to sign up to Climate Change Agreements, and who have not yet taken steps to internalise the societal costs of their emissions.

The objective of the CRC is to reduce emissions in large non-energy intensive organisations by 1.2 million tonnes of carbon per year by 2020.

And if your business energy bill is equivalent to approximately £500,000 a year, then your organisation will likely be caught by the CRC.

When working out how your organisation might reduce its energy use in accordance with its new cap, use of micro-turbines may be worthy of consideration – but they may not be deserve to be in the mix at all.

And interestingly for those keen to be seen to be green, the CRC intends to introduce a league table ranking the performance of specific organisations to encourage more prompt behavioural change. You have been warned.

Steven McNab is a partner in the planning and environment team at Travers Smith.