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Archive for May, 2008

Listening to Radio 4 on my phone on the way home I heard the evening news: Gordon Brown, keen to show he’s doing all he can to ease the fuel crisis, has taken two decisive actions.

First he’s met with North Sea oil producers to urge them to pump more petroleum from their fields, which have been in decline since 1999. He apparently managed to persuade these producers to up their output by promising them a tax break (i.e. subsidy), which will make costly enhanced recovery techniques economically viable.

The total additional output is expected to amount to about 50 million barrels, enough to keep the world running for about 13 hours. Given that petroleum is a fungible globally traded commodity (there’s no such thing as local prices as the oil price is entirely determined by global factors), this tiny drop in the bucket won’t do anything to lower the price of fuel here in the UK or anywhere else. And you’ve got to think that if $130 a barrel wasn’t enough to stimulate recovery, maybe that subsidy would be better spent elsewhere. After all, given the record profits posted by oil companies this year, I think we could find one or two other technologies more deserving of a break.

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When it comes to carbon from energy and the built environment, misdirected government measures (however good the intention) are now likely to do more harm than good. Eye-catching initiatives, if and when they fail, provide justification to cynics and people whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo. And more importantly the measures waste time and damage the chances of introducing more effective alternatives in future.

We’re seeing this now with the zero carbon targets. As the UKGBC recently found, the targets as they stand will be impossible to meet for up to 80% of new homes. The current zero carbon definition is a great idea very badly expressed.

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Weird reporting in the Observer today on the IEA’s upcoming study on the narrowing margin between oil demand and oil availability. Two snippets:

The International Energy Agency has ordered an inquiry into whether the world could run out of oil, The Observer has learnt.

Wow, hard hitting stuff from the IEA (and the Observer). I hadn’t realised it was possible that we wouldn’t run out of oil. Finite resource, projected exponential growth in demand. You might have thought it was a no brainer. I appreciate that there are some convincing arguments out there for why peak oil might still be several years off but I hadn’t realised there was anyone out there pushing the view that oil is infinite.

IEA researchers have warned that even if there is enough oil under the ground, which is probable, supply difficulties could emerge because national oil companies and Western multinationals have failed to invest sufficiently…

So the IEA says there is probably enough oil under the ground? Enough for what? To run the world forever? To avoid peak oil in 2012? What?

It’s just odd that the Observer would write in such a vague and useless way about a topic that’s tied for first on the end-of-the-world watch list.

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From out of nowhere, twice in one week, there have been indications that a feed in tariff is on the way. First, at Tuesday’s PRASEG (Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group) meeting, BERR and DEFRA both hinted that a feed in tariff would replace the renewables obligation for installations under 50kW. Then on Thursday at Think08, Hillary Benn delivered the same message (thanks to Phil for pointing that out).

So how soon might this happen? Probably not as quick as we’d like as it’s likely to require a change to the RO legislation. But until then hopefully small generators will be able to console themselves with double ROCs.

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If you build to Passivhaus standard, there’s no point in putting in a wet heating system. In fact, the key to the economics of Passivhaus design is that a conventional heating system is rendered redundant: you’re supposed to use the resulting savings to help fund the efficiency measures. Instead of a boiler and radiators you might only need a small electric heating coil in your mechanical ventilation system.

Level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes is modelled on the Passivhaus standard. As a result, until the Code changes, you’re likely to see more and more developers trying to move towards electric heating systems. You might argue that given the quantities of electricity we’re talking about (15 kWh/m2.yr), even if you source the electricity from the grid, it’s no carbon catastrophe. Unless you consider the bigger picture.

Making new buildings zero carbon is an excellent requirement, but by focusing our efforts (and a hell of a lot of money) on ratcheting down the heat demand from new buildings, we throw away the huge opportunity of using new developments to slash emissions from existing stock. (more…)

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