The answer to the future energy needs of the UK is to be found in the power plants of Woking. Or should that be the wind farms of Denmark? Hang on …
I was recently invited by the deputy mayor of London, Nicky Gavron, to a dinner to discuss rolling out combined heat and power facilities across London. The vision was attractive – to use an innovative financing mechanism to install CHP plants across the capital, thereby reducing by as much as 70% the energy loss from traditional fuel sources, at the same time as reducing energy costs for the consumer.
Apparently, CHP systems need about 1000 homes to be viable, and work even better if they are combined with community facilities that can soak up excess heat as power.
The inspiration for this endeavour in sustainability is, somewhat surprisingly, the town of Woking in Surrey. Woking council has taken a lead in installing CHP facilities and private wiring systems in substantial parts of the town, selling spare electricity back to the National Grid at a profit.
The plan, as explained by the nascent London climate change unit partnership, is to use a mix of new communities in the Thames Gateway and major estate renewal projects to kickstart a transformation in the way that London receives and uses its power. The 2012 Olympics would obviously provide an excellent opportunity to accomplish this.
I left the dinner with a certain degree of excitement and anticipation. My anticipation lasted approximately two days until a well-informed friend suggested to me that there were difficulties. His main contention was that the finances wouldn't stack up – too much upfront cost, too long a financial return, they won't raise the private finance, and so on. Seeing my disappointment, he left me with a hearty, “cheer up, Jon: the future is wind power”.
Apparently, the UK is somewhat behind the times in terms of exploiting this force of nature. The Americans and the Germans are already well ahead of us, but the real stars of the show are the Danes, who have 0.88 kW of installed capacity per person, compared with 0.01 kW in the UK. Already, the west of Denmark has nearly achieved the 20% renewable energy goal to which the UK aspires by 2020. Given that we share pretty much the same latitude and weather conditions as the Danes, the prospects for the UK look good.
This was clearly excellent news, which served to cheer me up, until another, even better-informed, friend told me that the whole wind thing wouldn't work either. The Danish success was not what it seemed. They were entirely reliant on hydro-power from Norway and Sweden on the many days when the wind didn't blow sufficiently or blew too hard. The sheer variability in weather conditions meant that wind could, at best, be only a very partial answer in the UK. Based on the Danish experience, it would cost an awful lot of money to replicate the load capacity achieved over there.
I sometimes feel, perhaps unfairly, that I know more about what I should not be doing, whether building on flood plains or disturbing long-eared bats, than what I should be doing
Suitably confused, I was left wondering whether perhaps hydro-power is the answer, or hydrogen cells, or something else entirely.
The point is that, embarrassingly, I don't know. As chief executive of the Housing Corporation, I have more than £1.5bn of investment resources every year to leverage change in activities and behaviour. But when it comes to environmental performance, I am poorly educated about which direction or directions I should be pulling in. I sometimes feel, perhaps unfairly, that I know more about what I should not be doing, whether building on flood-plains or disturbing long-eared bats, than what I should be doing.
About a year ago, the Sustainable Buildings Task Force came up with an admirably clear report that said we needed a single code that dealt with four priority issues – energy, waste, water and materials. This would build on the Ecohomes system and would provide a single set of criteria that all building procurers could follow.
It seems to me that if, together, we could deliver on this code, that would be a major step forward for the whole building industry. Most of us are familiar with Ecohomes and are used to applying that standard at its various levels. If we could embed the same concepts in a code that covered all building types, it would give us greater certainty in knowing that we were all pitching at the same targets, and it would also provide a basis for sharing innovation.
In the meantime, I am not proud of my ignorance, but I suspect I am not alone.
Jon Rouse is chief executive of the Housing Corporation