The UK website Carbon Brief, which analysed government and industry data, found that 335 terawatt-hours were generated by power plants last year, down by about 1% on the year before. Since 2005 the level has fallen by 16% – or the equivalent of two and a half Hinkley Point C nuclear power stations.
Simon Evans, policy editor at the group, said: “It could be a combination of more efficient appliances, energy-saving lightbulbs and, more recently, LEDs. Then there’s supermarkets installing better fridges, industry using more efficient pumps. Across all of those businesses, efficiency will have been going up. And of course there’s the changing nature of industry in the UK.”
The financial crisis could also have played a role in making homes and businesses more careful with their energy use, he added.
While generation fell almost every year between 2008 and 2014, it remained stable between 2015 and 2017, before resuming its downward march in 2018.
Continuing to use energy more efficiently would help the UK reach its binding climate goals, Evans said. “Using less as an end in itself isn’t the point. But it is the case that meeting carbon targets is made easier if we use energy efficiently.”
Separate data from the National Grid showed that 2018 was the greenest year to date for electricity generation as more power is sourced from renewable sources and less from coal. The carbon intensity from electricity generation was down 6.8% last year and has more than halved since 2013.
The analysis by Carbon Brief found that renewable sources including biomass, hydro, solar and wind power supplied a record 33% of electricity this year, up from 29% last year. Renewables were just 6.7% of the mix in 2009.
Green energy was boosted primarily by new windfarms connecting to the grid, as well as new biomass plants, which included the conversion of a coal unit at Drax power station in north Yorkshire and the conversion of a former coal plant at Lynemouth, Northumberland.
An old coal power station is set to be transformed into a “sustainable village” of 2,000 homes powered by solar panels, in the biggest redevelopment yet of a former UK power plant.
French firm Engie said it had decided against selling off the Rugeley site in Staffordshire and would instead build super efficient houses on the 139-hectare site as part of its bid to “move beyond energy”.
Half of the energy required by the new homes will come from green sources, predominantly solar, which will be fitted on rooftops, in a field and even floating on a lake.
The company is planning for 10 megawatts of solar capacity in total, equivalent to one of the UK’s smaller solar farms.
Batteries will be used across the site, both in homes and at a communal power storage facility, to balance out electricity supply and demand.
The firm is also claiming the homes will be so efficient they will use nearly a third less energy than average new builds. Heating will come not from gas boilers but electric devices such as heat pumps.
Wilfrid Petrie, Engie UK’s chief executive, said: “We are positioning ourselves as going beyond energy into place-making. It’s an example of us closing down our coal power plant and, instead of selling off the land, we’ve decided to regenerate it ourselves.”
There are seven operational coal power stations left in the UK, but all are due to shut by a government deadline of 2025, raising questions over what happens to the sizeable parcels of land afterwards.
While some energy companies are hoping to build gas plants on or adjacent to the old coal sites, others will need to be decommissioned for other uses.
In Shropshire, regeneration firm Harworth is planning to turn the 97-hectare brownfield site of a former power station into a development of homes and commercial units.
Engie said it was eyeing other sites around the country. “There’s a list of similar sites, which we are looking at. It’s not in the hundreds, but there are several,” Petrie said.
Peter Atherton, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, said putting local electricity generation at the heart of new housing projects was almost becoming a prerequisite for developers to get through planning.
“It is the way of the future. There is no doubt large scale housing developments going forward are going to have some form of local generation because it is all the craze,” he said.
Around 30% of the Rugeley project will be classified affordable homes, though it is not clear how much the green energy measures and high building standards will add to the upfront cost of the properties.
Consultation on the scheme starts this month, with construction due to start next year and demolition of the former coal plant – including the cooling towers – due to finish in 2020, with plans for the first people to move in the year after.
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.
Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?
Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.
Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
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.”
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.
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.
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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Will the world become battery-powered? That’s certainly the ambition of Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire turned would-be space explorer and electric car baron.
On Thursday night, Musk unveiled what he called “the missing piece” in sustainable energy: a range of batteries that can be used in homes and businesses to store power from wind or solar or take advantage of cheap electricity to charge up overnight and then be used in peak hours.
Two billion Powerpacks – as the batteries are called – could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs.
“That may seem like an insane number,” Musk said. “We’re talking about trying to change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world.”
The first place to feel the battery charge will be Nevada. Next year, Musk’s Tesla Motors is set to start operating a power-storage-device “gigafactory” across nearly a thousand acres of Nevada real estate. It’s required to contribute .5bn to the local economy, in return for a .25bn tax break.
Battery expert Davide Andrea, an engineer at Colorado-based battery manufacturer Elithion, worries about costs. The most basic home unit will cost ,500. No details have yet emerged about the cost of the large units Tesla is reportedly supplying to companies including Apple and Google to help manage their power supplies.
“Electricity is way too cheap to store in an expensive battery,” Andrea said. “It’s like saying I’m going to be storing my potatoes in a safe. Potatoes are too cheap to store in a safe.”
But Andrea is sold on the idea that batteries are part of a more efficient energy future. He is currently involved in a new project in Boulder to install batteries in homes, in order to ease the strain on power plants and avoid costly rewiring as the sizes of neighborhoods change.
Felix Kramer, a clean energy entrepreneur in California, said he hopes Musk’s presentation on Thursday evening changes minds.
“Tesla demolished the idea that EVs [electric vehicles] were golf carts,” Kramer said. “And maybe they’re about to do it again now. Maybe they’re about to demolish the idea that we can’t switch from coal and gas to wind and solar because of reliability issues. If they convince consumers, that changes the conversation.”
But Andrea and Kramer are enthusiastic about the possibility of greater infrastructure improvements with greater adoption of electric cars. Power provision could get a lot more efficient if cities can be persuaded to draw power from those car batteries, as well as supplying it. That would provide electricity and diminish local reliance on expensive, fossil fuel-powered generators during times of peak demand – when everyone in New York turns on the air conditioner, for example. Nissan is already trying to do this with the Leaf in Japan.
“In a home, the cost of the storage becomes much more important,” Andrea said. “It solves so many problems – the power company no longer has to turn on a dirty power plant during high-demand times. You can use the present wire infrastructure.”
If those sound like lofty goals, they had frankly better be: Musk will have to impress a great many people in order to justify the gobs of money the state of Nevada is giving him – the gigafactory will be allowed to operate essentially tax-free for 10 years and won’t pay property taxes for another 10 afterward. Beyond even that, the state is giving Tesla m in transferable tax credits, which the company can sell to other businesses in the region.
Nor is it the first time Musk has asked the government to chip in: SpaceX receives 5m in help from Nasa.
Still, if Musk’s batteries can merge wind, solar and electric car power into existing grids, that would constitute tremendous economic savings for cash-strapped municipalities everywhere.
“This is within the power of humanity to do,” Musk told the large crowd gathered at Tesla’s design center in a Los Angeles suburb on Thursday. “We have done things like this before. It is not impossible.”
Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.
Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.
Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.
The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.
At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.
Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.
With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.
“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.
Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.
There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”
But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.
Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.
What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.
A new paper published in Climatic Change estimates that when we account for the pollution costs associated with our energy sources, gasoline costs an extra .80 per gallon, diesel an additional .80 per gallon, coal a further 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, and natural gas another 11 cents per kilowatt-hour that we don’t see in our fuel or energy bills.
The study was done by Drew Shindell, formerly of Nasa, now professor of climate sciences at Duke University, and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Panel to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Shindell recently published research noting that aerosols and ozone have a bigger effect on the climate in the northern hemisphere, where humans produce more of those pollutants.
That research led Shindell to question current estimates of the true costs of our energy sources. Much research has gone into estimating the social cost of carbon, which attempts to account for the additional costs from burning fossil fuels via the climate damages their carbon pollution causes. However, this research doesn’t account for the costs associated with other air pollutants released during fossil fuel combustion.
For example, depending on how much more we value a dollar today than in the future (a factor known as ‘discount rate’), Shindell estimates carbon pollution costs us per ton of carbon dioxide emitted in climate damages, and another in additional climate-health impacts like malnutrition that aren’t normally accounted for.
But Shindell also estimates that carbon emissions are relatively cheap compared to other fossil fuel air pollutants. For example, sulfur dioxide costs ,000 per ton, and nitrous oxides ,000 per ton! However, less of these other pollutants are released into the atmosphere during modern fossil fuel combustion.
Electric Cars Cheaper than Gasoline Powered
For an average American car (26 miles per gallon), Shindell estimates that the air pollution emissions altogether cost us 00 in damages per year. In comparison, emissions from energy to power an electric Nissan Leaf would cost us 0 even if purely powered by coal, and 0 if fueled by electricity supplied entirely from natural gas. These costs would become negligible if the electricity came from renewable or nuclear power. Electric vehicles (EVs) are clearly the winners in this cost comparison.
Hence environmental damages are reduced substantially even if an EV is powered from coal-fired electricity, although they are much lower for other electricity sources
The Needed Energy Transition May Have Begun in 2014
The key conclusion from Shindell’s study is that fossil fuels only seem cheap because their market prices don’t reflect their true costs. In reality they are remarkably expensive for society, but taxpayers pick up most of those costs via climate damages and other health effects. Those who argue that we need to continue relying on fossil fuels – like former popular science writer Matt Ridley – just aren’t accounting for the costs of pollution.
These air pollution costs are effectively a massive subsidy, and Shindell likely underestimated their size. When I asked Shindell if he had accounted for recent research by Moore & Diaz showing that climate change slows economic growth, he said,
I saw the Moore and Diaz paper, which was quite interesting, but after my paper had already been accepted so it didn’t make it in there. Indeed if growth is slowed by climate change as in their study, the associated social costs could be much larger … But in general, this is only one of several possible reasons that my values are likely conservative as I’ve left out many things that I didn’t know how to put a price on. That includes the influence of pollution on cognitive function decline, on IQ, and on mental health, the influence of energy on freshwater resources, on national security (e.g. military spending related to oil/gas supplies), the impact of climate change on biodiversity, the effects of ocean acidification, etc.
global emissions of carbon dioxide from the energy sector stalled in 2014, marking the first time in 40 years in which there was a halt or reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas that was not tied to an economic downturn … In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980’s; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.
When we examine the data, 2014 indeed stands out. With 3% GDP growth, it’s the first year on record that energy-related CO2 emissions didn’t increase and GDP nevertheless grew by more than 2%.
The IEA reports that the stagnation in carbon pollution stemmed from a transition away from fossil fuels rather than a drop in energy use due to poor economic conditions, as had been the case in previous years where CO2 emissions didn’t grow.
The IEA attributes the halt in emissions growth to changing patterns of energy consumption in China and OECD countries. In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal. In OECD economies, recent efforts to promote more sustainable growth – including greater energy efficiency and more renewable energy – are producing the desired effect of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s important not to over-interpret a single data point, but it’s a promising sign that carbon pollution emissions didn’t grow in 2014 while the global economy did. This is the sort of “decoupling” of GDP and CO2 that needs to happen for a successful transition away from fossil fuels. Signs that we may have reached peak coal production are also encouraging.
As Shindell’s research shows, it’s an important transition for us to make in order to preserve a livable climate and a healthy economy.