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The Guardian: Society: Building the future: Innovations: The new power generation

EXTRACT: Shell admits that “no one can make an accurate prediction of when and where new deposits will be found, or how much exists” but it does not expect major shortages for 20-30 years. The reality, though, is that the oil majors are spending nearly $100bn a year on exploration, and are not renewing their reserves, while growing demand from China, India and surging economies is pushing us to the edge of production.


Society: Building the future: Innovations: The new power generation: The government has pronounced on it and the construction industry has acknowledged it, but will technology advance in time to create a sustainable energy infrastructure?

BY JOHN VIDAL, The Guardian – United Kingdom
Published: Apr 18, 2007

In under nine years’ time, no new home will be legally built in Britain unless it is “carbon-neutral”- in other words the building must have no net emissions of carbon dioxide. If that sounds revolutionary, it is, and when housing minister Yvette Cooper announced the initiative last year, there was a sharp intake of breath from industry.

That the government planned to cut CO2 emissions by at least 60% by 2050 was known, but seemed a long way off. Cooper’s announcement was the first real signal that the construction and housing industries would have to wise up, fast. Publicly, they accept the future technical and intellectual challenges; privately, many people wonder if they can actually be met.

It’s all very well constructing a few houses to the high energy-saving standards and kitting them out with wind generators or heat pumps, say the sceptics. But it’s another thing building 200,000 homes a year that effectively do not require power at all. Will the factories be there to turn out solar panels and turbines? Can the timber, plastic, insulation and glass industries come up with the goods in enough quantity? Developers build houses and don’t think about how they work. Are the skills there? Can profits still be made? Will the houses be affordable? Can the bureaucracy and planning permissions be sorted?

The jury is out, but the construction industry now accepts that it must urgently change the way it has operated for many years. As the environment debate gathers pace, companies that have until recently paid little or no attention to energy supplies, or insulation or recycling, are realising that energy is now a mainstream political and social issue, one that is not going away, and one that will bankrupt companies if they do not change.

The trouble is, the future of energy is profoundly uncertain. Problem One for the industry, which is responsible for some of the heaviest emissions of carbon is: will there even be enough energy around? This has always been taken for granted but such is the huge increase in demand for all fuels that the chances of shortages are high. In a recent report, the OECD group of 29 rich countries says that $20bn must be invested in energy infrastructure every year over the next 25 years just to meet the demand for the new generation of energy-intensive computers, mobile phones and plasma TVs.

There is, too, the looming reality of “peak oil”. According to some highly qualified engineers and analysts, the world is already near its peak of global oil production – the point where we have extracted half the reserves. Shell admits that “no one can make an accurate prediction of when and where new deposits will be found, or how much exists” but it does not expect major shortages for 20-30 years. The reality, though, is that the oil majors are spending nearly $100bn a year on exploration, and are not renewing their reserves, while growing demand from China, India and surging economies is pushing us to the edge of production.

The facts are blunt. In 2005 the world produced 81m barrels of oil a day. By 2030, the UN’s International Energy Agency expects demand to be more than 130m barrels a day. But last year, working flat out, the companies extracted only 82m barrels a day. “It is simply impossible to extract oil in the quantities that are expected to be needed,” says Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review, a magazine published by the Energy Institute in London.

He and others, including former oil company geologists, financial analysts and traders, say that conventional oil reserves are now declining about 4%-6% a year. Eighteen large oil-producing countries, including Britain, and 32 smaller ones, all have declining production.

Jeremy Leggett, former oilman and Greenpeace chief scientist, now chief executive of photo-voltaic electricity company Solar Century, says the decline in discoveries is serious. “There were 16 oil fields larger than 500m barrels found in 2000, just nine in 2001 and since then there have been only three. We need to produce 3m barrels a day more each year, but are depleting at 4-5m barrels each year, so we need to find nearly 8m barrels a day of new oil each year,” says Leggett. “That is [the equivalent of] one Saudi Arabia every year and a bit more. We should be very worried. Time is short and we are not even at the point where we admit we have a problem.”

Fossil fuels

There’s plenty of coal around, but in a carbon-restrained world it will be harder and harder to justify using it. The alternatives to fossil fuels all have supply problems and none is expected to dominate future energy markets. The government favours a new generation of between six and 12 nuclear power stations, which would require a vast amount of concrete – and therefore carbon emissions – to build, but would thereafter be carbon neutral. But no one has really worked out how to deal with the waste.

Major investments in energy have a typical lifespan of between eight and 30 years, so any shift from one source to another comes slowly. But there is now a sense of urgency and possibility, says environment secretary David Miliband. He estimates that 40% of all the UK’s energy plants, and a similar percentage of its housing stock, will have been replaced by 2035, which suggests that Britain at least can become energy efficient if it makes the right decisions now.

There is increasing debate about whether Britain can live on renewables. Wind power is attractive, especially when sited offshore, but needs immense investment and scale to match other power sources; wave and tidal power are the most exciting possibilities, but have barely been developed; hydrogen is slowly emerging but needs renewable electricity to be emission-free; and fuel cells and biomass are equally underdeveloped.

But there is real optimism, too. All political parties want to see a great push on “micro-generation” – energy derived at household level from small-scale wind and photo-voltaic appliances, as well as heat pumps, and combined heat and power boilers. The big idea is that every building can become a mini power station, consuming electricity from the grid, but also generating it from its own appliances, and selling it back to the grid. There are already more than 100,000 micro-generating appliances installed, but this is expected to rise to many millions as and when their price falls, planning restrictions are lifted, and the grid is forced to pay a reasonable price for the electricity the generators produce.

There is equal optimism that the most important thing that industry can do is invest in new technologies to reduce demand for energy. That means thinking differently about construction and considering how best to store warmth, how to reuse it and reduce the need for it, as well as rethinking the materials that are used to build it. Attention is increasingly moving towards innovative industrial design, to try to reduce the “embedded” energy, inherent in every appliance, building, good and crop.

The changes are coming thick and fast but, like every other industrial sector, the construction industry is playing catch-up and having to learn to operate differently. The only certainty is that in 30 years’ time, when energy is recognised as a truly valuable resource and roads and all developments are constructed in very different ways, everyone will wonder how the industry could have operated in the dark and wasteful days of 2007.


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