Monday, 28 February 2011

Are wood-burning stoves the greenest way to heat your home?

Barnsley Council - 2006 Ashden Award winner
A new paper commissioned by the Sustainable Building Association (AECB) questions whether wood-burning stoves are the greenest way to heat your home. The authors of the paper argue that burning biomass creates as much carbon emissions per unit of heat as burning coal. Mike Pepler, our UK Projects Manager, responds.

  • Burning wood has never been completely carbon neutral, as chainsaws and vehicles use fossil fuels.
  • The comment from the authors that the wood should be used in buildings and fences instead of burning it is fine, but there’s plenty of wood around that isn’t fit for those uses – I know, I cut plenty of it down myself! This includes trees that haven’t grown straight and species that are not generally used in large quantities for construction (e.g. birch, sycamore, hornbeam, of which I have plenty...). It's also worth pointing out that because wood for construction is more valuable than wood for heating, most woodland owners won't be burning wood that could have gone to construction, as it just doesn't make financial sense.
  • Another point is that to produce wood for construction, the trees must be left to grow to a much larger size. As they get bigger, they grow slower, so regular coppicing on 15-20 year cycle actually keeps the trees in the rapid-growth mode, so absorbing CO2 faster than mature trees.
  • The other issue is that we ought to be building less, not more, in future - no matter what we build from. New buildings equate to new energy demand. Granted we will need some new ones, but I doubt if it would be enough to use up all the wood we’re currently burning, even if it was fit for that use.
  • One other point to consider is that we only produce about 20% of the wood and wood-product (paper, card, etc.) that we use in this country, so we really need to reduce our use of all these products as a priority, and put what we have to the best use we can. For instance, for construction when the wood is good enough, for fencing, etc if it’s poorer, and for heating after that.
(pic: 2006 Ashden Award winner, Woodpile at Smithies Depot, where waste wood is converted to biomass fuel)

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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rapid rise in oil prices shows "how little slack there is"

The Financial Times reports that half of Libya's oil production has shut down. The impact that has had on the price of oil has been swift. This morning London Brent oil prices soared to $120.

What's remarkable is that while Libya has been producing 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, the United States alone consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day. As The Atlantic reports:

Given Libya's relatively small contribution to the global oil supply, the turmoil in the energy and stock markets resulting from Libyan unrest lets you know how little slack there is in the oil market.

See also: Chris Huhne says the break-even for low-carbon economy is $100 a barrel oil.

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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

As oil hits high today of $109 a barrel, and Gaddafi threatens his own people, the case for renewables gets ever stronger

The Guardian announced an hour ago: "Oil price hits highest point since September 2008. Brent crude for April delivery has just exceeded $108.70, its price on Monday. It was trading at $109.29 at 2:15pm, having hit highs of $109.45."

Nomurua has also said this afternoon oil prices may surge to $220 a barrel if political unrest in North Africa halts exports from Libya and Algeria.

Last week the Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne said the break-even for a low-carbon economy is $100 a barrel oil.

The Independent reports that events in Cairo and Tripoli have made David Cameron recalibrate British foreign policy. Cameron says:

"For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk."

"As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse."

Hard to think of a better advert for renewables than the ugly sight of despots in oil-rich countries threatening to attack their own people. The link between our high demand for oil and the suppression of democracy is not hard to see.

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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Eco-location, eco-location, eco-location

In a recent article in the LA Times, experts at the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology argue that the location where buildings are built should be as important in forming ecocredentials as the energy performance of the site. Factoring in the energy used whilst commuting to work could force businesses to reconsider what it means to be green. For example, a site in downtown Chicago where 65% of its employees commute by either walking, cycling or taking public transport, scores favourably against a comparable site in the suburbs of Illinois where 99% would be forced to travel by car.

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Monday, 21 February 2011

Transforming the face of energy: solar across Asia, Africa and Latin America

Rural Energy Foundation - 2010 Ashden Awards
(Demonstrating a d.light solar lamp to villagers, Uganda)

In the second of a new series, Carla Jones highlights some ground-breaking solar projects working in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The solar PV system includes quite an exceptional little piece of kit: the solar PV module. It literally harnesses the energy from sunshine and transforms it into electricity. A solar module, re-chargeable battery, controller, lamps and wiring together make up the solar home system (SHS).

Solar 'power station' at retailers in Tororo
(pic: A solar home system on display at a retailers in Uganda)

Enterprises are bringing solar energy to communities with no access to modern energy - currently about one third of the world. They are having profound impacts on education and health and are finding creative ways to do so. They are bringing education to remote waterside communities in Bangladesh in PV-powered boats, installing solar in schools and hospitals in West Africa, improving healthcare for inaccessible communities in the Upper Amazon and bringing vaccines to remote villages in Nigeria with solar-powered fridges. Solar pholtavoltaics have the potential to take modern energy to people living far from main gridlines in a ways that are cheaper and more reliable than their fossil fuel alternatives.

Solar also helps trade. For example, consider Lesbia Sebastiana Diaz, a shopkeeper in Rama, Nicaragua who is now able to open three hours longer each day thanks to the benefits of solar lighting, earning $40 extra a day and saving on kerosene. Each SHS saves 100 litres, or $340 worth, of kerosene ever year.

SELCO - 2005 Ashden Award winner
(Solar lamps can be rented out to street vendors in India)

Above all, the best solar projects ensure that quality systems reach people in a way that is affordable and sustainable in the long-term. They set up technical colleges to train local technicians, offer micro-credit, establish savings schemes and co-operatives, develop and support solar dealers to market and expand thier products, and, embark on the local production of solar system components to boost local capacity and the local economy.

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Friday, 18 February 2011

Solar companies consider legal challenge over subsidies

More than 20 energy companies have hired law firm Eversheds to challenge the Government's decision to review £360m in subsidies for "solar farms".

"The law firm has drafted a letter warning that many of the UK's largest solar companies are prepared to take the Government to judicial review for failing to consider all the consequences and not consulting widely enough."

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

You can follow today's State of Green Business Forum tweet by tweet

The State of Green Business Report was released in Washington D.C. today.

There's an impressive list of speakers at the State of Green Business Forum that includes William McDonough, architect and author of Cradle to Cradle, Jigar Shah CEO, Carbon War Room, and Jeffrey Swartz, CEO, Timberland.

You can follow the State of Green Business Forum on Twitter. The hashtag is #sogb. These 10 tweets from the morning's sessions give a flavour:

@VOXGlobal: Jeff Swartz of Timberland: We need consumer friendly labels to help them make smart #Susty choices. #SOGB

@beccbrown #sogb learning how packaging can be made from mushrooms from @evocative - cool! Can just put it in your garden after opening package.

@beccbrown #sogb a trash bag of styrofoam is equivalent to nearly a gallon of gas in energy- & it's made for disposal! Pouring oil down the toilet

@biggreenpurse #SOGB inspiring presentation from @ecocradle on styrene packaging alternative made from mushrooms. No pollution, no toxins.

@FHSustain Carbon War Room CEO Jigar Shah: World needs to save 17 gigatons of CO2 by 2020. How? Deploy new tech, build infrastructure to scale. #SOGB

@beccbrown #sogb Jigar Shah says: stop talking about lightbulbs! Most carbon is upstream and is systemic.

@DianeMacEarchean #sogb Jigar shah:Think big: it's not about less water when you brush your teeth. It's about 40% of h2o supply leaking away.

@greentie Kevin Moss: Not everything can be measured, but what is measured makes an impact. #sogb #sustainability #metrics #csr #business #mba

@thedatadiva The question is will "source maps" resonate with consumers & affect their choices? #sogb

@thedatadiva @kevinlmoss is on the stage at #sogb "Not everything can be measured" Creating MEANINGFUL metrics to move the needle.

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Oscar-nominated movie "Gasland" lifts lid on gas industry's darker side

Now the Baftas are over, the movie industry turns its mind to the Oscars. There's one movie in the running that highlights the damage to the environment done by "fracking". Gloria Dawson reports.

When we talk about polluting fossil fuels, coal and oil are cited as the villains. Coal wins the prize for producing the most CO2 when burnt, as well as heavy particulates which cause ‘black soot’ in the polar regions and respiratory disease. Oil, meanwhile, gets a bad press not only because of its carbon intensity, but more recently for the Gulf of Mexico accident, and for the extraordinarily environmentally destructive project to extract bitumen from soils of Northern Canada.

Gas is often thought of as the ‘least worst’ option – plentiful, easy and relatively sustainable to extract and lower-carbon. However, Josh Fox’s documentary, ‘Gasland’, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar last month, has begun to change this.

Fox began the film when his family was offered $100,000 for permission to drill for gas on their land. The gas company was proposing to use hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’, where millions of gallons of chemically-laced water are pumped at high pressure into the ground, causing the rock to fracture and natural gas to be released, which can then be stored.

Fox decided to travel across the US to find out what fracking does. He found that in 34 states of the country, communities of people suffer from carcinogen-contaminated drinking water, unexplained illnesses, flammable gas in their water systems, explosions from build-ups, and spillages of contaminated water near where this type of drilling is taking place. The US Environmental Protection Agency has in some cases advised residents not to drink tap water and to use a fan whilst showering to blow away harmful gas.

Hydraulic fracturing used to be a ‘last resort’ gas extraction process, but as accessible supplies dry up it has become increasingly popular. It has been subject to deregulation in the US. A US Energy Bill in 2005 exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and various other pieces of environmental legislation. This has made it incredibly difficult for people to obtain details about the content of water that has made them ill, or to make the companies involved accountable for what they do.

The gas industry, of course, wants the perception of gas as a benign, even ‘green’ fuel option to remain. A propaganda war has begun, with gas companies accusing Fox of manipulating facts, and the film’s website and Facebook page have now mobilised a global outcry at the effects of fracking. The film has put fracking, and ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel extraction under the spotlight and there are signs that legislators are taking concerns seriously. The state of New York, for example, is now considering a moratorium on fracking, and Congress is considering legislation to include gas drilling in the Safe Water Drinking Act again. But fracking is still a growing industry across the US and other countries.

Digging and drilling for more coal, oil and gas - in America, UK and the rest of Europe – is seen as necessary for ‘energy security’, reducing dependence on politically uncertain sources of fossil fuels in Central Asia and the Middle East. With ‘conventional’ reserves of oil and gas dwindling, we may be heading for swapping one kind of insecurity with another, closer to home.

You can find out more about the film at and watch the trailer here.

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Monday, 14 February 2011

Ashden Award winners to receive free technical support from ERM in new initiative

CRELUZ - 2010 Ashden Awards
As part of an initiative to unlock the potential of low carbon ventures across the developing world, the ERM Foundation in partnership with the Ashden Awards, will enable sustainable energy projects to develop with technical consulting from ERM.

Mariana Mazon, our international business support manager, has proposed a number of previous Ashden Award winners who could benefit from ERM consultants' support. These will be selected from a pool of projects provided need and skills can be matched. These include a biomass gasification electricity company in India, a mini hydro cooperative in Brazil and a biogas programme working in Vietnam.

After being selected, several ERM consultants will work on a project between February and April. As an added bonus, three of the projects with the greatest potential to scale will be selected by a panel to receive grants totalling £10,000.

(pic: Dam and bridge at Usina Granja Velha, built by 2010 winner CRELUZ in Brazil)

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Friday, 11 February 2011

Architects need to work with behavioural scientists to understand how people use energy within buildings

A new report by the UK Energy Research Centre, announced today on BBC Online, highlights the fact that behaviour change is too often overlooked by energy policies.

Homes account for 45% of the UK’s energy use. To reduce this energy use significantly, we need to consider more than just the technologies that improve the efficiency of buildings. The report argues that once people start using buildings, they do so in complex ways.

Erik Bischard, lead researcher in the Energy House Project at the University of Salford, explains:

"The built environment community is dominated at the construction phase by technicians and engineers who are driven by specifications and tight budgets...

"Human behaviour, once the building is occupied, is often seen as someone else's problem - but this is a dangerously mistaken view. Almost half of greenhouses gases emitted are as a result of how we use buildings.”

Architects need to work closely work with behavioural scientists to assess the way that people use buildings. Ultimately, the report suggests, smart buildings aren’t the solution — smart people are.

(pic: courtesy of BBC Online - the Energy House Project)

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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

D.light launches microfinance project to bring solar to poorest in Northern India

Our 2010 Gold Award winner D.light design has launched a micro finance project, in partnership with Christain Aid, that will bring solar lighting to 4,400 rural households in three Indian states in its first year.

The Northen Indian states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh have the worst rural electrification track record in India. The majority of people living in these states are socially excluded communities, mainly minority ethnic and caste groups, known as Adivasi and Dalits respectively. On average, these communities have a family income of less than 200 rupees per month, so they are unable to afford the 549 or 1699 rupees that D.light’s lanterns cost in India.

Energy, though, is already an expensive outgoing for poor households. In a country where almost 45% of households have no access to electricity, kerosene lamps are cheap to buy, but expensive to run. A survey revealed that on average families spend between 50 and 90 rupees a month on kerosene for lighting. Kerosene is also dangerous.

D.light and Christian Aid are developing a financing mechanism that will allow poor communities to avoid kerosene, leapfrog the grid and move straight to solar lighting. This project aims to reduce family monthly expenditure on lighting by 50%, increase family incomes by 20-30% and reduce CO2 emissions by 10,000 tonnes. Christian Aid has provided funding for the first 2,500 lanterns and will work with its Indian partners to identify young people to become 'rural entrepreneurs' who can manage the distribution and finance alongside a network of women's self-help groups. Two local partner organisations will work with the entrepreneurs to promote the technology within the villages, train the entrepreneurs in financial management and ensure the sustainability of the project.

Community self-help groups will collect orders from villagers and supply the solar lanterns on credit, charged at 12% annual interest over 10 months. This interest covers administrative costs and allows money to be reinvested in new stock, eventually making the whole project self-sustaining. D.light will supply the lanterns and train the rural entrepreneurs in customer education, battery replacement and sales and demand generation.

(pic: Woman in India with her D.light Kiran lamp)

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Monday, 7 February 2011

Recent events in Egypt highlight the delicate balance between oil, food prices and political stability

An article in The Oil Drum links oil, food prices and political stability in Egypt. With Egypt’s income from oil exports rapidly falling, its plans to reduce food subsidies, along with rising prices, were a trigger for unrest. Mike Pepler, our UK awards manager, explains the key points:

  • Egypt has been an oil exporter, but exports have now dropped to zero due to both rising domestic consumption and falling production.
  • Although Egypt does still export gas, it has made no new export contracts since 2008. The money available for subsidising food is in decline.
  • The Egyptian population has quadrupled over the last 60 years, and they now import 40% of their food.
  • Meanwhile, food prices are rising globally in part due to supply issues (global wheat harvests fell last year due to fires and floods in various parts of the world for instance) and, as I recently explained, due to the fact that our fossil fuel use is integrally linked with our food production system.
  • Recent rises in oil prices are tied in closely with increases in the price of food.
(pic: graph courtesy of the Oil Drum shows the close relationship food prices and oil prices)

See also:

We need to remember our food system is linked to our energy use

How events in Egypt affect oil prices

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Thursday, 3 February 2011

Technologies changing the face of energy: biogas projects in Asia and Africa

BSP Nepal - 2005 Ashden Award winner
(pic: cooking on biogas in Nepal)

In the first of a new series, Carla Jones highlights some impressive biogas projects in Asia and Africa.

The way biogas works is quite simple: take an airtight container (usually a brick chamber under the ground), fill it with some organic matter (manure, human waste or kitchen waste are the most common), and let the bacteria break it down. What comes out is biogas, that can be burned for cooking. The residue is a nutrient-rich fertilizer for crops.

Typically, a single fixed-dome biogas system is made from brick and sits underground. Many of our winners, though, have taken this design further. VK-NARDEP has developed a small bamboo-framed model, ARTI has designed a ‘balcony’ digester for apartments, and KIST in Rwanda has built a system of five interlocking chambers.
KIST - 2005 Ashden Award winner
(KIST installing a large biogas system at a Rwandan prison)

Biogas has great potential in many settings. Schools, prisons, homes and farms can all benefit.

Eating lunch cooked on biogas - Tania School - under the tree
(Eating lunch cooked on biogas, Tania School, Kenya)

The chamber is fed from readily available organic components, from toilet sewage and livestock manure to kitchen waste.

Biotech: 2007 Ashden Award winner
(Portable household biogas plant in Kerala, India)

Imagine saving two hours a day of collecting firewood, avoiding the dangerous smoke from your kitchen, and ridding your community from the stench and danger of animal waste. For 100,000 pig-farming households in Vietnam, biogas is achieving just that. Elsewhere it is achieving even more. In Shaanxi Province, China, families have an extra $380 a year from saved fuelwood and the income from extra crops. Urban users of compact biogas systems in India save half of their LPG use. In Karnataka, India, SKG Sangha has ensured the residue from biogas increases its value through vermicomposting, which brings extra income.

And biogas helps the surrounding environment. In Shaanxi Province, China, each biogas digester saves 4.5 tonnes of fuelwood per year, avoiding deforestation in a region that suffers soil erosion and dust storms. In Rwanda, the KIST programme saves 1,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.

The most successful projects engage the end-user and wider community over the longer term. They employ and train local technicians to install the system and to provide after-sale service. The programme operated by the Vietnamese Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development in partnership with the Dutch organisation SNV employs 1,800 masons who now, as a result of the success of the scheme, install as many systems as self-employed masons as they do within the government programme. The support from the Biogas Sector Partnership (BSP) in Nepal has helped to ensure there are 11,000 long-term jobs within the biogas sector. Their success is reflected in the regional development of technical capacity and demand in the sector as a whole.

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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

How events in Egypt affect oil prices

With oil reaching $100 a barrel, the Independent's Hamish McRea considers how events in Tunisia and Egypt will affect the demand for oil.

"Though neither Tunisia nor Egypt are significant oil producers themselves, they have set in motion concerns about wider regional instability – and that in turn should remind us that the world is tremendously dependent on the Middle East and will almost certainly become more so over the next couple of decades."

The reason?

"Non-Opec oil is difficult oil: it is under the sea or in the Arctic, or bound up in tar sands from which it has to be separated. By contrast, Opec oil just comes straight out of the ground. In any case, even if the technical difficulties can be overcome, the actual ability of non-Opec producers to carry on ramping up production is in question. As a result Opec, producing less than 40 per cent of the total now, will be producing nearly half the world's oil in 2030, and most of that increase will come from the Middle East".

(Pic: Tahrir square, photo credit: BBC News Online)

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