If you ask me

Opinions on the key issues in technology: this issue, zero-carbon buildings and the potential of solar flight.

Zero-carbon buildings

It is challenging, but possible, to produce a brand new home that requires virtually no heating beyond human bodies and sunshine. And any energy that is used for lights, appliances and hot water can be provided on site, to give a net zero carbon home.

With existing housing the challenge is far more formidable. As we are demolishing so few homes each year, by 2050 there will be 25 million of today's 26 million UK homes still standing. To reduce these even to low carbon is a tough task, involving every one of us.

The new Energy Performance Certificates are providing a helpful step, by grading our homes from 'A' to 'G' in terms of energy efficiency. Once you can measure something, you can begin to deal with it. One of the major policy options is to introduce a mandatory minimum standard, so that a highly polluting, energy-inefficient property cannot be resold until it has been improved. This is similar to the approach that has been taken with cars and the MoT, and with inefficient fridges and lightbulbs. This proposal could be made more palatable for the public by the government providing low-interest loans, or stamp duty rebates for those who make the improvements quickly.

All energy efficiency improvements require capital expenditure, whether on loft insulation, a low-energy lightbulb or 'A'-rated appliance. The one group in society that does not have capital are those on a low income, particularly the fuel poor. If you are unable to afford sufficient energy to keep warm, you are not going to have surplus money for insulation. Added to which, many of the fuel poor live in rented accommodation so the landlord has most of the responsibility for the standard of the dwelling.

The government has a legal obligation to eradicate fuel poverty for all households by 2016, although it is not on the right trajectory to achieve this. However, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's announcement on 11 September was a step in the right direction, with £910m of money from the utilities earmarked for energy efficiency upgrades, often in the homes of the fuel poor. This was not a windfall tax by name, but, as long as it is not passed on to consumers, it could be a partial one in reality.

The rapid rise in energy prices is causing problems for many households and there are calls for immediate help, through additional income or fuel vouchers. For the moment, the government has rejected this approach, partly because the winter fuel payments already cost £2bn each year: all pensioners receive an additional £200 or so, regardless of income. A more appropriate policy would be to aim this money at the really needy, whether pensioners or not.

With all energy policies, the involvement of capital expenditure means that the solutions are expensive and often slow. Therefore, the sooner we start, the more likely it is that we could achieve significant carbon savings by 2050. The present recessionary climate should provide an additional opportunity: many construction workers have lost their jobs on new buildings, so could be diverted to help with the existing stock. Households that improve the energy efficiency of their home have real savings in running costs, which is important.

Brenda Boardman is with the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. She will be speaking at the IET event 'Zero carbon building' in London on 19 November (www.theiet.org/zerocarbon [new window]).

Solar flight isn't just personal

In the last issue of E&T we carried a story about Solar Impulse, a project to fly a manned aircraft around the world powered only by the sun. Coincidentally, just after the magazine was published I had the opportunity to hear Bertrand Piccard, the project's initiator and president, when he spoke to an audience of invited guests at a Cambridge Consultants showcase event.

The scion of a family of eminent explorers, Piccard is a man with a grand vision. Describing himself on his website as "scientist-adventurer, psychiatrist and aeronaut", he captained Breitling Orbiter 3 on the first round-the-world non-stop balloon flight with Brian Jones in 1999. It would be easy to believe that his latest venture is just another personal challenge, with nothing more than curiosity value for the rest of us. That would be wrong.

Solar Impulse is a Piccard's contribution to the cause of renewable energies, both as a metaphor and a practical demonstration of how the world can move on from its dependence on fossil fuels.

His message - or one of them, anyway - is that we can't replace oil with solar energy. First, we have to find ways of doing the things we want to do while using far less energy than we do now. Once we have cut demand, we can look for better ways of meeting it.

Many other people and organisations have made the same point, including the IET in its 'Energy Principles', published last year (see 'Factfiles' on our website), but it doesn't seem to have sunk into the public consciousness yet. Piccard wants to capture people's imagination, challenging millions to think in new ways. With an aircraft that has the wingspan of an A380 superjumbo and the weight of a car, he ought to achieve at least the first part of that objective.

Solar Impulse will not be the first plane to take to the air with solar panels on its wings, but, unlike its predecessors, this one will store energy during the day so it can keep flying at night (chemical energy in lithium-ion batteries and potential energy by climbing to 9,000ft before sunset and falling gradually during the hours of darkness). What's more, it will have to carry the weight of a pilot. This isn't just another UAV; it's intended to open the door to emission-free passenger flight.

An impossible dream? Perhaps. But Piccard knows that industry doesn't invest to save the ice caps: "As long as protecting the environment is expensive, it will never work. It has to be profitable." With the fluctuating price of oil, now seems a good time to look for other ways of doing things. The team behind Solar Impulse is doing just that.

Piccard's father and grandfather both achieved things that others said were impossible (www.bertrandpiccard.com [new window]); they didn't just have ideas, they made them happen. All we have to do, he says, is to "break out of the mental jails of our certainties". Simple, really.

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