Posts Tagged ‘News’

Will the Labrador energy switcher make you switch suppliers?

March 19th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Will the Labrador energy switcher make you switch suppliers?” was written by Adam Vaughan, for The Guardian on Sunday 11th March 2018 16.13 UTC

A device that plugs into a home broadband router and automatically switches supplier when cheaper deals become available is set to revolutionise the home energy market.

The launch of Labrador comes as more and more people are changing their energy companies.

The company’s free service is primarily targeted at the growing number of households which have smart meters, which automate readings. More than 8m have been installed in the UK so far, and energy suppliers have to offer one to every home in the UK by the end of 2020.

Unlike conventional price comparison sites, which require people to actively search for a better deal and input their details and energy use, Labrador will automatically switch people’s accounts when it finds a cheaper tariff.

Jane Lucy, founder and CEO of Labrador, said: “We’re not about behaviour change: we assume consumer lethargy will remain.”

Flipper is a similar service that launched in 2016, relying on accessing a customer’s energy bills, which might be estimated. Labrador believes it will be more accurate, as it use a device that plugs into a customer’s broadband router and talks wirelessly to their smart meters, taking readings direct from them.

While Flipper charges an annual £25 fee, Labrador makes its money like a switching site, by being paid an acquisition fee by suppliers.

Lucy said she expected customers would be switched 1-3 times a year and save on average £300 a year. They are given the choice to tailor their preferences, for example, to just green energy tariffs.

The company has signed up about 500 customers since a soft launch in February, but aims to take 3% of the switching market within five years. In the future the company may branch out into home automation and helping consumers identify individual energy-guzzling appliances, Lucy said.

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An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free

February 4th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free” was written by Rebecca Smithers, for The Observer on Sunday 28th January 2018 00.04 UTC

The war on plastic waste is extending to the UK’s favourite beverage, with a major retailer in the final stages of developing a fully biodegradable paper teabag that does not contain plastic.

The Co-op is to make its own-brand Fairtrade 99 teabags free of polypropylene, a sealant used industry wide to enable teabags to hold their shape, and the guilt-free brew is due to go on sale by the end of the year.

The scale of the problem is huge. According to the trade body the UK Tea and Infusions Association, teabags account for a whopping 96% of the 165 million cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Anti-plastic campaigners have been appealing to consumers to use loose tea or “greener” options such as Japanese-style “pyramids” made of 100% compostable corn starch, but these are more expensive than mainstream mass-produced teabags.

The Co-op, which sells 4.6m boxes of tea a year (367m teabags) has joined forces with its tea supplier, Typhoo, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö – specialists in sustainable fibre solutions – to develop a method of heat-sealing bags to eliminate the more widely used plastic seal.

The biodegradable bag will undergo rigorous testing next month and could be on shelves later this year. It is intended to be rolled out across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections.

“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic,” said Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food. “Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6bn cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.”

But the UK Tea and Infusions Association warned of higher prices for consumers. A spokesman said: “The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now. We know that a significant price rise would have a severely negative effect on sales and seriously reduce the income of farmers from some of the poorest tea-growing regions of the world.”

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Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told

July 5th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told” was written by Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 4th July 2017 05.00 UTC

The UK government is under growing pressure to introduce a money-back return scheme for plastic bottles, in order to tackle huge volumes of waste in a country where 400 bottles are sold every second.

Opposition parties have called on ministers to introduce a deposit return scheme that experts say would drastically reduce the number of plastic bottles littering streets and seas around the UK. Similar schemes have been successfully introduced in at least a dozen countries.

The idea has the backing of global drinks company Coca-Cola and comes amid warnings that the worldwide plastics binge poses as serious a threat as climate change.

Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, urged the government to take swift action. “A deposit return scheme would have widespread public support and would go a long way to ensuring that we recycle as much of our waste as possible,” she said.

Kate Parminter, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said momentum was growing behind calls for a deposit return scheme. “Earlier this year, Coca-Cola said to the Scottish parliament they would back a well-designed deposit return scheme,” she said. “Now that industry are backing this scheme, it is high time the UK government began to throw their weight behind it.”

Last week, new figures obtained by the Guardian established that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021.

Chart

According to an unpublished parliamentary report, more than 4m plastic bottles a week could be prevented from littering streets and marine environments in Britain if authorities adopted the kind of deposit return schemes that operate in countries like Germany and Australia.

The Conservative party’s manifesto did not mention such a scheme in the run-up to last month’s general election, but a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the idea was being considered as part of a wider litter strategy launched in April.

“We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates for plastic bottles, with their collection for recycling rising from less than 13,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 330,000 tonnes in 2015,” the spokesman said. “We are considering further the practical ways in which we can deal with the worst kinds of litter, including plastic bottles.”

However, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green party, said ministers must do more.

“The government is under growing pressure to take action on the plastic bottle crisis,” she said. “With such a slender majority in the House of Commons, and with the public swinging behind the campaign against plastic waste, there is a real chance that ministers will consider introducing a bottle deposit scheme.

“For a government desperate to salvage its reputation, taking such a simple step forward isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves their self-interest too.”

In Scotland, support is growing for a deposit return scheme. Last week, the Scottish National party launched a detailed study into how such a scheme for bottles and cans would work.

Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, said: “Clearly there are a number of issues for the Scottish government to consider when it comes to deposit return schemes, which can only be addressed by carrying out work to understand the design of a potential system.”

Recycling rates for plastic bottles in Britain stand at 59%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Coca-Cola in Britain and Europe has made a U-turn on deposit schemes and now supports their adoption in the UK, after pressure from environment and anti-waste campaigners. “We believe a new approach is needed,” the company said in a report to the environmental audit committee before its inquiry into plastic bottles was dropped after the dissolution of parliament.

“From our experiences in other countries, we believe a well-designed, industry-run drinks container deposit return scheme could help increase recycling and reduce littering,” Coca-Cola added.

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Campaigners say plastic is polluting every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on the planet, with some of it already finding its way into the human food chain.

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Government support needed to unlock billions in green business, says industry

June 6th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Government support needed to unlock billions in green business, says industry” was written by Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 4th June 2017 15.59 UTC

The UK could be a green business powerhouse in the next three decades, but only if given proper support by government, a group representing more than 30 low-carbon companies has said.

The low-carbon economy in the UK employs at least 432,000 people, with a turnover of more than £77bn in 2015. This is larger than industries such as car-making and steelmaking, which are frequently given the spotlight when politicians discuss industry and jobs.

Growth in green business is also expected to outstrip other sectors of the economy, as international opportunities open up for low-carbon goods and services. Investments by major developing countries alone are projected to be tn by the end of the next decade, with green business’s supporters arguing that the UK is well placed to take a share of the burgeoning market.

In a letter to the Guardian, a group representing more than 30 of the UK’s green and low-carbon companies forecast that the low-carbon economy would rocket from 2% of the UK’s GDP today to 13% in the next three decades, boosting both manufacturing and services, but only with government support.
The business leaders urged politicians across the spectrum to respond, as the policies of the next government will play a major role in determining how the sector develops and whether job opportunities are realised. They wrote: “Stable policies to grow the UK’s low-carbon market will be essential to turn this potential into reality and ensure our economy remains competitive on the global stage.” Green businesses have been disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in the sector during the general election campaign, and by the absence of strong public commitments in the manifestos. The signatories to the letter concluded: “We call on the new government to put in place ambitious and long-term policies to tackle climate change and improve the state of the environment at the heart of its industrial strategy and vision for the UK.” The letter was coordinated by the Aldersgate Group and also signed by 11 companies including Kingfisher, Aviva Investors, Anglian Water, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the decision by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change would not make a major dent in the prospects for growth.
He noted that the shift to a more efficient and lower carbon economy is well under way across the globe, with the cost of clean technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, falling rapidly, and investment growing strongly. “Following the commitments made by six world leaders at the recent G7 summit, and the news of greater cooperation between China and the EU on climate change, major global players like the UK must continue to build competitive, low-carbon economies and honour their commitments under the Paris agreement.”
Environmental businesses in the UK have been hit in recent years by swings in government policy that have led to job losses and uncertainty among potential investors. These swings include the scrapping of subsidies and harder planning requirements for onshore wind farms; the slashing of support for solar panels and restrictions on solar farms; the abandonment of the “green deal”, which was intended to boost home insulation; the removal of the promised £1bn funding for carbon capture and storage facilities; and the scrapping of the target to make new homes zero-carbon.
Last week, Labour accused the Conservative government of failing to come up with plans on how to achieve the statutory targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, set out under the Climate Change Act. Green groups fear that a new Conservative government under Theresa May could scrap the Climate Change Act, leaving the UK without firm targets on cutting greenhouse gases. However, the government has pointed to increased investment for electric vehicles, support for new nuclear power stations, and a boost to offshore wind as evidence of its commitment to low-carbon infrastructure.

Since May 2010, the UK has installed more than 11GW of wind power, generating enough electricity for more than 7.8m homes.

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The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower

February 23rd, 2016

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The innovators: looped water system for Earth friendly shower” was written by Shane Hickey, for The Guardian on Sunday 21st February 2016 09.00 UTC

When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.

Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.

This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.

“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”

Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.

The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.

Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.

From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.

But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.

The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.

The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”

The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.

“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”

How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.

Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.

As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.

A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.

So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.

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Australian homes among first to get Tesla’s Powerwall solar-energy battery

September 27th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Australian homes among first to get Tesla’s Powerwall solar-energy battery” was written by Oliver Milman, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 03.08 UTC

Australia will be one of the first countries in the world to get Tesla’s vaunted Powerwall battery storage system, as several other companies scramble to sign up Australia’s growing number of households with solar rooftops.

US firm Tesla said that its 7kWH home energy storage units would be available by the end of the year in Australia, ahead of previous predictions it would arrive in 2016.

The Powerwall is a unit that sits on an interior wall. It has a lithium-ion battery, used to store energy created by solar panels on the household roof.

Tesla, which also makes electric cars, is the most high-profile company in the emerging battery storage industry – an area that is seen as crucial in making intermittent renewable energy such as solar and wind into a reliable accompaniment, or even alternative, to fossil fuel-fired power grids.

Canberra-based firm Reposit Power, which enables people to directly buy and sell their stored electricity, has partnered with Tesla for Powerwall’s launch.

There are a handful of existing Australian alternatives to the Powerwall, such as Redflow, headed by Simon Hackett, who founded Internode. Hackett also sits on the board of the NBN.

“Tesla’s arrival is important because they have such a high profile,” said Prof Anthony Vassallo, a sustainable energy expert at the University of Sydney. “The Tesla product isn’t unique by any stretch, but it’s the Apple brand of the battery storage industry, they have the sex appeal that others don’t.

“Solar PV and batteries are such a wonderful combination. Australians have demonstrated they are quite happy to purchase PV systems, Australia has a great solar resource and to have a battery to store that makes a lot of sense.

“There are packages of PV and batteries being offered by retailers and, as prices come down, we’ll see a lot more of this. Tesla’s price point in the US – of about US,000 (,173) – would be competitive here, it will sharpen up the players to make more efficient and higher-performing systems.”

Vassallo pointed out that the technology still has some way to improve – a 7kWH system will store little more than an hour’s electricity generated by a typical 5kWH solar system, meaning that some people may have to have several Powerwall, or equivalent, systems on their walls.

“I’d be wary of claims that people can go entirely off the grid, but it’s a first step,” he said. “Australia has high electrity prices, and once the price is acceptable I think the take-up will be strong.”

There are more than 1.3m households in Australia with rooftop solar, with the number increasing rapidly as the price of PV systems tumble. State-based tariffs have been gradually withdrawn across the country, while the federal government announced in July that it would instruct the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to favour large-scale solar over rooftop solar in its funding decisions.

Labor has set a target of Australia generating 50% of its electrity from renewable energy by 2030, although has provided little detail on how this would be achieved. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said the goal was “reckless” as the cost of it has not been quantified.

Vassallo said, “Australia could reach that 50% target, it just requires well-designed policies and markets that allow a transition from centralised, large-scale fossil fuels to efficient but variable renewables.

“Storage is a key part to make that happen. The beauty of renewables is that once you’ve managed the capital cost, there is no fuel cost. There’s an energy security there you don’t get with fossil fuels.”

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Climate-smart cities could save the world $22tn, say economists

September 9th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Climate-smart cities could save the world tn, say economists” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 8th September 2015 04.00 UTC

Putting cities on a course of smart growth – with expanded public transit, energy-saving buildings, and better waste management – could save as much as tn and avoid the equivalent in carbon pollution of India’s entire annual output of greenhouse gasses, according to leading economists.

The Global Commission on Economy and Climate, an independent initiative by former finance ministers and leading research institutions from Britain and six other countries, found climate-smart cities would spur economic growth and a better quality of life – at the same time as cutting carbon pollution.

If national governments back those efforts, the savings on transport, buildings, and waste disposal could reach up to tn (£14tn) by 2050, the researchers found. By 2030, those efforts would avoid the equivalent of 3.7 gigatonnes a year – more than India’s current greenhouse gas emissions, the report found.

The finding upends the notion that it is too expensive to do anything about climate change – or that such efforts would make little real difference. Not true, said the researchers.

“There is now increasing evidence that emissions can decrease while economies continue to grow,” said Seth Schultz, a researcher for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group who consulted on the report.

“Becoming more sustainable and putting the world – specifically cities – on a low carbon trajectory is actually feasible and good economics.”

The report called on the world’s leading cities to commit to low carbon development strategies by 2020.

The findings, were released as the United Nations and environmental groups try to spur greater action on climate change ahead of critical negotiations in Paris at the end of the year.

The Paris meeting is seen as a linchpin of efforts to hold warming to 2C by moving the global economy away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

The UN concedes the climate commitments to date fall far short of the 2C goal. But the strategies outlined in the report – some of which are being put into place already – would on their own make up about 20% of that gap, said Amanda Eichel of Bloomberg Philanthropies who also consulted on the report.

Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, with Africa’s urban population growing at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

The right choices now, in terms of long-term planning for urban development and transport, could improve people’s lives and fight climate change, the report found.

Investing in public transport would make the biggest immediate difference, the report found. Air pollution is already choking the sprawling cities of India and China. Traffic jams and accidents are taking a toll on the local economy in cities from Cairo to Sao Paulo.

But building bus lanes, such as those rolling out in Buenos Aires, could cut commuting time by up to 50%, the report said.

Green building standards could cut electricity use, reduce heat island effects, and reduce demand for water. In waste management, biogas from waste could be harnessed as fuel to provide electricity to communities, as was already being done by Lagos in Nigeria and other cities.

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Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris

May 22nd, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Business leaders prepare for limited UN climate deal in Paris” was written by Tom Levitt, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st May 2015 21.04 UTC

Business leaders are preparing for a limited agreement on reducing carbon emissions at the crunch UN summit in Paris later this year, despite growing support from them for carbon pricing and a commitment to cut emissions by enough to avoid more than 2C of global warming.

More than 1,000 business leaders, including the CEOs of Carrefour, Statoil, Total and Unilever, turned up at a business summit on tackling climate change in Paris this week in response to calls from the UN for the private sector to take a more active role in tackling climate change.

They called on policymakers to agree on carbon pricing mechanisms, closer collaboration between business and government on climate policies and a joint public and private sector fund for investing in low-carbon technology, particularly in developing countries.

The meeting comes as UN negotiators are trying to pull together enough emissions reduction commitments to prevent more than 2C of global warming, the level political leaders agreed in 2009 as likely to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The final commitments are needed ahead of the summit of world leaders in December this year.

Business claims frustration

However, business leaders did not expect the necessary emissions reductions or their policy requests to be finalised in December.

“We have to be pragmatic,” French oil group Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné told the Guardian. “If we take the sum of commitments made by countries then I am afraid we will not be on the 2C trajectory. There will be a gap.

“But what is important from the UN talks in December is to have a convergence of companies on the one side and governments on the other. At least some commitments by governments and businesses, and a mechanism in place to improve it,” he said, adding that he is in favour of a carbon pricing principle.

A failure to bring enough emission cut commitments to put the world on track for avoiding global warming of more than 2C is likely to frustrate the majority of businesses, says the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), with more than 30 companies including Ford Motor Company, Unilever, Nissan and H&M having already pledged to set long-term, science-based climate targets. The targets will match the scale needed to meet the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2C.

“A small minority of companies may be relieved to continue on a business as usual pathway in the short term, but it would lead to a build-up of systemic risk in the economy,” says CDP’s CEO Paul Simpson. “The vast majority of companies want to see a managed transition to a low-carbon future and not costly, last-minute regulation or climate chaos.”

French companies were represented in large numbers at this week’s summit, with Renault saying it would be “totally stupid” not to have the right regulations, framework and price signals in place after the UN talks. “We have made the investments and have the technology ready to implement on a larger scale,” said Claire Martin, director for sustainable development at Renault.

Private sector could help meet targets

While some have doubted the sincerity of energy-intensive businesses in particular in tackling climate change, Unilever CEO Paul Polman suggests the private sector could help close the shortfall in emission commitments made by governments. “It is very likely that all the agreements coming in will not add up to what we need to stay below 2C. [Those commitments] will be around 40% of that in reality. That is why we are mobilising the private sector. If we work together we can close that gap.”

However, Claus Stig Pedersen head of corporate sustainability at Novozymes, said the past five years had shown business could not tackle climate change without a strong political deal.

“We had this reaction after the UN talks in Copenhagen in 2009 of disappointment with politicians and I was part of a movement that said okay, let’s just do it ourselves. A lot of business jumped into this space and took some big steps forward, but after some years business in general realised that we couldn’t do this alone.

“There is no way we can do this without partnering with politicians and making agreements going forward. So if we should end up with a Paris failure, like we’ve had before, then I do think we’ve learnt we can’t do it alone. We have all the solutions needed, it’s just about applying it. And regulation, a carbon price and ambitious goals from the UN climate talks will drive that faster,” he added.

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Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue

April 9th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tiny apartments: a small solution to a big sustainability issue” was written by Alison Moodie, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th April 2015 17.29 UTC

For decades now, the residents of Tokyo have been coming up with novel ways to save space – tiny apartments, skyscrapers stuffed with miniature living quarters and hotels where rooms contain little more than a pull-out shelf with a bed. Now, the rest of the world’s big cities may need to start doing something similar.

Growing populations, coupled with housing shortages, are changing the way urban planners, architects and builders are thinking about living spaces. And in the US, one solution lies in modular fabrication.

Modular structures use pre-manufactured units – homes, apartments or offices – that are built in a factory and transported, usually fully built, to the building site, where they are assembled using a crane. Proponents say these “mods” could offer big cities a sustainable path forward.

Building homes in a factory instead of on-site, the theory goes, can yield more standardization, offering potentially safer and more energy efficient – and environmentally friendly – construction. But the extent to which modular buildings offer long-term sustainability solutions to environmental and social housing issues remains unknown.

New developments such as the My Micro NY and Atlantic Yards projects in New York City are the first examples of modular communities: small apartment units made in factories that, once completed, are stacked readymade at the building site, much like Lego pieces.

“[Modular buildings] will be an important innovation that spreads to many urban markets with high real estate values,” said Elisabeth Hamin, department head for landscape architecture and regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

When My Micro NY was announced, the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, highlighted the environmental benefits of the new building. “Modular construction is faster, less expensive, allows for high levels of quality control and significantly reduces waste and truck traffic,” he said. “It’s also safer for workers as construction is done inside in controlled environments.”

Modular construction isn’t a new concept. A version of it has been used in the US as far back as the 1800s; a century later, American families could order a house from a catalogue and assemble it themselves, Ikea-style. But what is new is putting completed units together to form towering high-rises in big cities.

According to the Modular Building Institute (MBI), a nonprofit trade organization, the modular construction of lodgings – including condominiums, apartments, hotels and housing for workers – grew by 31% between 2012 and 2013.

“Demand for multifamily is very high currently,” said Liz Burnett, communications manager at MBI. “Young people are moving out of their parents’ houses, and older adults are seeking smaller homes with less upkeep.”

Millennials are looking for smaller, more affordable and more sustainable living spaces, Hamin said. But in expensive cities like New York, few affordable options exist for those who live alone. And with the city’s increasing housing shortage, condensing more units on one site makes good business sense.

“[Modular construction] is a realistic option for both creating more units in the always-in-demand real-estate market of Manhattan, but also as less costly approaches to affordable housing in the outer boroughs,” said Jorge Mastropietro, a partner at Jorge Mastropietro Atelier in New York.

“Because of the nature of cities like London, Mexico City and Tokyo, for example, people are willing to live in smaller spaces so long as they are maximized for efficiency and have other desirable amenities.”

The My Micro NY Project is the city’s first micro-unit apartment building, consisting of 55 units measuring between 270 and 350 square feet. Currently, each prefabricated apartment is being constructed offsite at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by a company called Capsys Corp, and will be assembled in early June in the Kip’s Bay neighborhood.

Tom O’Hara, a director at Capsys, said he has seen an increased interest in modular construction in the last four to five years.

“We have been contacted to review and explore dozens of projects from many of the city’s most prolific developers,” he said.

The structures are built off-site in a carefully controlled setting, which can result in less construction waste and air pollution, as well as quicker – and less expensive – construction.

Prefabricators like Capsys are capable of producing one module per day, or 35,000-square-feet per month, from their assembly lines, according to Petr Vancura of structural engineering firm Gilsanz Murray Steficek. A building that would otherwise take 24 months to complete through typical construction might take only 15-18 months to deliver using prefabricated modules.

Modular high-rises could also go some way to alleviating New York’s housing shortage, and could help current mayor Bill de Blasio towards his goal of building 200,000 affordable units over the next decade.

“I believe such units may relieve pressure at the lower end of the market and improve communities by allowing lower income households to have a presence in the inner cities again,” said Oliver Grimshaw, UK sales manager at Hanse Haus GmbH, one of the largest builders of pre-manufactured homes in Europe.

“As a result, it would reduce emissions from commuting, increase quality of life and enrich city life.”

However, New York’s ambitious Atlantic Yards project calls the efficiency of modular housing into question. The development, recently renamed Pacific Park Brooklyn, is envisioned as 16 modular apartment blocks. But work was stalled in August on the first building after a bitter disagreement over costs between the complex’s developer Forest City Ratner and its partner, Swedish company Skanska.

Forest City announced last month that it would resume construction on the 32-story tower called B2, but the project may take four years to complete, and not two years as originally planned. The next towers will likely be built via conventional construction, instead of modular, Forest City said in announcement made last spring. Forest City CEO and President MaryAnne Gilmartin said in a recent interview that modular is “an ongoing experiment” that “needs to be validated with a standing building”.

While modular buildings may make green sense during the construction phase, their long-term sustainability is less clear, especially in urban areas. The main issue is adaptability, said Renee Chow, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley.

“They are difficult to fix over time, they don’t hold changes in lifestyle well nor do they accommodate changes in uses,” she said.

In a city like New York, famous for its continual reinvention, modular buildings might not allow people to remain part of a community as their lifestyle changes.

“Think of all the cities we like that have endured yet still hold modern ways of living and uses,” she said. “Will the modules do the same?”

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Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action

March 27th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Earth hour: millions will switch off lights around the world for climate action” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Friday 27th March 2015 09.37 UTC

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said hundreds of millions of Earth hour participants around the world will demand a strong global climate agreement by switching off their lights for an hour on Saturday night.

Many of the world’s brightest lights will go dark at 8:30pm (GMT) as Earth hour marks its ninth year. In a video address, Ban said the symbolic switching-off held more significance than ever, just nine months before a pivotal UN meeting on the climate crisis in Paris.

“Climate change is a people problem. People cause climate change and people suffer from climate change. People can also solve climate change. This December in Paris, the United Nations is bringing nations together to agree a new, universal and meaningful climate agreement. It will be the culmination of a year of action on sustainable development,” said Ban.

More than 7,000 cities in 172 countries are expected to take part in the world’s largest ever demonstration, which has grown from a single World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event in Sydney in 2007.

“Earth Hour shows what is possible when we unite in support of a cause: no individual action is too small, no collective vision is too big. This is the time to use your power,” said Ban.

Organisers said this year’s demonstration would be the biggest yet. Sudhanshu Sarronwala, chair of Earth Hour global said: “Climate change is not just the issue of the hour, it’s the issue of our generation. The lights may go out for one hour, but the actions of millions throughout the year will inspire the solutions required to change climate change.”

Some the world’s most famous landmarks will turn their lights out. The UN building in New York will join London’s Houses of Parliament, Rio de Janeiro’s Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In Bulgaria a giant Danube sturgeon fish will be drawn in fire in the capital, Sofia. Millions of other, more humble, participants will take part by simply switching from electricity to candlelight for an hour.

Colin Butfield, director of campaigns at WWF-UK said the mass participation was a demand for climate action and politicians should take heed. “The fact that such a huge number of people are taking part in Earth Hour across the world and are using it as a moment to inspire action on sustainability in their own communities sends a really clear message that the public is ready to tackle climate change – we now need politicians to show the same drive,” he said.

Britain’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, who has been heavily involved in the climate negotiations at the UN, called for a response to climate change that was commensurate with its threat. “It’s time for everyone to recognise that climate change will touch just about everything we do and everything we care about. Earth Hour is an excellent opportunity for millions of people across the world to take one simple step to show they’re serious about backing action on climate change,” said Davey.

Joy Dominguez
Joy Dominguez, 11, studies under a solar lamp.

Ban said the focus on climate change should not distract from Earth Hour’s other key mission: introducing clean energy to the most remote and impoverished communities on Earth. “By turning out the lights we also highlight that more than a billion people lack access to electricity. Their future wellbeing requires access to clean, affordable energy,” he said.

In 2014 Earth Hour used a crowdfunding platform to raise money and deliver thousands of fuel-efficient stoves to families in Madagascar and solar kits to remote villages in Uganda. The organisation also supplied islands in the Philippines with solar power for the first time and raised money for victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

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