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Achieving energy utopia: Are self-powering buildings the answer?

As the current UK government approves plans for construction of a new nuclear power station by EDF, should authorities be looking instead to reroute investment into creating buildings that power themselves?

The debate over nuclear power continues to rage, but in the UK at least it has been deemed the best short-term solution to meet energy needs while helping the government get nearer to those emission reduction goals in place for 2020. But what if authorities were able to dodge the lobbyists, disregard the marginal constituencies and think with a clear mind of the genuinely long-term? Could energy utopia be achieved through buildings, communities and cars that power themselves while emitting very little or no greenhouse gas pollutants; or would it be a mix of renewables, cleaned up fossil fuels and new nuclear? Or would it be something else entirely?

There's no getting away from it: a whopping 40 per cent of the UK's total energy consumption and carbon emissions come from the way its buildings are lit, heated and used. As it dawns on the populace that something needs to be done about this, the past few years have seen increasing numbers of Net Zero-Energy Buildings (NZEBs) created. Passivhaus, a standard originating from Germany that creates buildings that use very little energy for heating and cooling, is seen as a real contender for managing the huge impact that our homes and commercial buildings such as offices, schools, hospitals, museums and prisons have on the environment.

The self-sufficient efficiency drive

While the Passivhaus standard just focuses on energy consumption for heating and cooling it does mean that the buildings designed to the standard are, overall, very energy-efficient. So, combining the Passivhaus approach with in-built renewable energy generators, wind turbines and/or solar panels and Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) elements, for example, means that buildings can be energy-self-sufficient as well as efficient.

There are some buildings in UK already that have taken this approach: the MildMay Community Centre in Islington, for example, which has won awards recognising the innovation and sustainbility ethos in its retrofit design; the Montgomery School in Exeter, which was the first Passivhaus school in the UK and the first zero-carbon school in Europe.

Jon Bootland is the chief executive of Passivhaus Trust, the official body for Passivhaus in the UK. He says: "The Passivhaus Institute is currently researching the best solutions for Passivhaus buildings to generate their own power using renewable energy sources."

At the same time as individual buildings grow more energy efficient and generate their own power, self-sufficient communities have also sprung up around the UK, powering themselves using solar and wind, growing their own food and recycling their own waste. But not everyone in the UK wants to live in communities such as these, and would it really be feasible for them to do so? In order for businesses, public services and households to continue functioning in the way they do now, is the answer to make every building in the UK an NZEB? Is such an energy utopia even possible?

Bootland explains that the Passivhaus standard enables buildings to achieve much lower energy consumption for heating than is required by current building standards. "Combining Passivhaus with self-generation of power through solar and wind means that the goal of making all new buildings in the UK NZEBs is achievable," he says. However, Bootland believes it's unlikely to be achieved by 2016, which is the government's aim. The EU seems to agree as it has introduced a new goal of 'nearly Zero-Energy Buildings' (nZEBs) for all member states. This means that from 2020 all new buildings have to consume very little energy, so can have a small carbon footprint, whereas the original NZEB goal means all buildings should have no carbon emissions at all.

Whilst the retrofit of the MildMay Community Centre has been a success, Bootland also thinks that to retrofit the UK's existing housing stock to make them NZEBs, or even nZEBs, is a much tougher challenge than anyone's really facing up to. "You need a whole-house approach and, as the current market stands, it would be a very expensive job. It would be easier for social housing retrofit projects but a street of privately-owned Victorian terraces that have bay windows and a range of extensions and adaptations, for example, would be a whole other ball game."

All of which is probably why current NZEB, and the new nZEB, goals and building regulations only apply to new-builds. These challenges aside, it's obvious that houses, offices and other commercial buildings have not only to use energy more efficiently but also to go some way in generating what they use too in order to give society any chance of achieving 'energy utopia' in the future.

Dr Julian Allwood, a senior lecturer in Cambridge University's Engineering department and the Cambridge director of the Low Carbon Energy University Alliance with Tsinghua and MIT, also believes that energy-efficient housing is absolutely essential to a low-energy demand future and that, despite the challenges it poses, retrofit of these solutions is more important to the UK than new builds. However, he says, "until we all learn to consume significantly less energy in all areas of life, everything else is just window dressing."

The UK's energy efficient buildings

So, are NZEBs and Passivhaus more than window dressing? And can they really have a big effect on lowering energy demand from the grid and reducing harmful emissions?

The first Passivhaus building in the UK opened its doors in 2008 and by 2013 there were 250. By the end of 2014 there will be 1,000. But Passivhaus is not the only standard to which energy-efficient buildings are built. The Code for Sustainable Homes is the UK's voluntary national standard for the sustainable design and construction of new homes. The latest statistics show that 132,815 post-construction-stage certificates and 200,608 design-stage certificates were issued up to 30 September 2013.

Since the introduction of the code in April 2007, the majority of the certificates issued have been awarded a middle of the road three-star rating. So there is still a way to go to achieve those 2016 NZEB goals.

But the UK's first net zero-carbon house, the Lighthouse at the BRE Innovation Park, Ravenscraig, Lanarkshire, did open in 2007. Built as a prototype, it has unparalleled levels of efficiency in terms of the methods and materials used to construct it, and in its energy use, CO2 emissions and carbon footprint. It was the first residential building to achieve the Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6, the highest standard achievable and the one to which all new homes should be designed and constructed by 2016.

All heat and power is generated on site and the Lighthouse features solar controls combined with integrated building services, which are based around a platform of renewable and sustainable technologies, water-efficiency techniques and passive cooling and ventilation.

If more buildings can achieve the same accreditation then the need for the government to continually build more power stations to feed energy-hungry homes, restaurants, shops and offices would be removed, and the UK would be one step closer to that notional 'energy utopia'.

Travelling smarter

However, it's not just energy-efficient and self-powering buildings that need to be a part of such a utopia. Transport must play a role too. We have already seen greener buses on the streets of many towns and cities - and hybrid cars are becoming somewhat more commonplace - but to achieve utopia needs to see more commitment than that.

Allwood sees progress in the area of fuel consumption: "The fleet average for cars in the UK is 35mpg, but the world record is 15,000 mpg [the PAC II car] and Volkswagen has a concept car – the L1 – that can do 190mpg as a hybrid diesel."

With such improvements to vehicle efficiency, combined with advances already made in cleaning up emissions, perhaps the 'utopia' scenario would be achieved using a mix of renewables, fossils and nuclear. However, Allwood warns that the future will need to be very far advanced from the peak of today's achievements: "The future has to be one where we use just 20 per cent of the energy we use today. We'll only use lightweight small cars, there will be no flying, and current buildings will be retrofitted to passive standards. To manage our energy demands our consumption has to be based on conserving and upgrading what we have, particularly buildings, rather than replacing them."

But surely, once homes, commercial and public buildings, and modes of transport require much less energy and emit little or no harmful emissions, we can concentrate on generating what we do need in better, more sustainable ways rather than focusing on the short-term view of simply creating more to meet immediate demands.

According to Dan Lewis – who wears multiple hats as the chief executive of future energy strategies, the energy policy adviser to the Institute of Directors, and the chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre – that could be by combining the energy sources we're already reliant on with new nanotechnologies and space solar power.

He says: "Rather than making the focus on how we can use less energy we should be focusing on creating it in new ways. We need to have more innovation to provide reliable sources of clean, sustainable energy, then we can use as much of it as we want."

But Allwood's view is that this is not the approach we should be taking: "Everyone – absolutely everyone – has been dreaming that there is a magic answer to the question of creating enough clean energy for at least 30 years. And there isn't."

In a 2009 paper from researchers at the University of Delaware, 'Relocating energy in the social commons: ideas for a sustainable energy utility', published on behalf of the USA's National Association for Science, Technology and Society, achieving energy utopia involves thinking outside of the box. But apparently we're not doing that. The paper says that the two most warmly embraced options are solidly inside the box – namely, nuclear power and industrial-scale renewable energy. So is this where Lewis's idea of nanotechnologies and space solar power comes into play?

Thinking big

The concept of space-based solar power (SBSP) is certainly a compelling one. Non-stop energy being generated from the sun all day, every day, beamed down to earth for us to use whenever we want, safe in the knowledge that the supply will never end. Well, not for a few hundred million years.

But SBSP has been on the radar since the 1970s and all of the research to date has shown that, apart from the almost certainly prohibitive costs of implementing such a system in the first place, there are several other significant hurdles to overcome.

The main one is how to get the power being generated in space beamed down to Earth. Wires are obviously not a feasible solution so it would have to be by microwave or laser transmitters, which then brings in the issue of radiation. Then there's the maintenance of the panels – not so easy to access as Earth-based ones. Then there's the fact that space is an extremely harsh environment and the expected lifetime of SBSP panels; if they don't get hit by meteoroids in the meantime, would be only around a decade.

Thinking small

If the grand idea of space is somewhat impractical, perhaps we should be looking to nanotechnologies to provide the answers.

The way things stand now they can certainly play a part in making wind and solar power generation and distribution more efficient. Lewis says that using nanotechnologies would also mean that we could continue to use fossil fuels without accelerating climate change any further: "There's huge scope to use nano-filters to completely remove all harmful emissions from oil and coal. It's also a myth that we're running out of them. It's just not economically viable for the big energy companies to exploit them."

This is where we come back to his call for more innovation. He believes to find the solutions we're looking for we need to allow for failure as well as success, that we are on the threshold of big change, that cloud computing could play a part. It's already playing a part in how Indian energy company Bharat manages its 200MW fleet of wind farms, so is it unrealistic that future developments could see it taking more of a centre stage role in how consumers access energy and the utility companies deliver it?

Lewis doesn't think so: "Cloud computing energy management can be a repeat of the change we saw 100 years ago in the industrial revolution. Originally factories and mills had their own power generators on-site; then they outsourced their requirements to external power suppliers. In the future the cloud could do the same for the digital revolution to deliver power for homes and businesses in the same way that it delivers software."

A new way of living

When you look at all the arguments, the options and the fact that something definitely has to change if we are even to maintain energy supplies (let alone achieve energy utopia) should the thinking outside the box recommended by Byrne and his cohorts at the University of Delaware lead us to look beyond just generating energy more efficiently and adapting our buildings and transport to use it more resourcefully?

In order to achieve energy utopia perhaps we should be looking at creating a completely new way of living – something like the way that futurist Jacque Fresco is proposing in The Venus Project, perhaps. Started in 1995, the project aims to completely restructure society as we know it through the worldwide implementation of a theoretical design that he calls a resource-based economy. The idea uses sustainable cities, energy efficiency, natural resource management and advanced automation alongside a global socio-economic system based on social cooperation and scientific methodology.

In contrast to Allwood's call for reusing what we've already got, Fresco believes we should create brand new circular cities that operate with minimum energy use, which is supplied by the cleanest renewable technologies available; have efficient transport systems so there's no need for cars; and use indoor hydroponic facilities and outdoor agricultural belts to grow a wide variety of organic plants for food self-sufficiency. He also advocates for robots to do all of the work we've traditionally done ourselves so that we are freed for more creative pursuits. So, perhaps thinking outside the box means striving for complete utopia, rather than just energy utopia.

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