You may have heard about Passivhaus but what about a Passivschool?  Britian has its first (I’m sure there are plenty in Germany).  The Passivhaus is a German standard of house that requires no heating and nowadays little if any energy input at all.  The Passivschool is a the same thing – only a school (Hackbridge primary) in Sutton Surrey (not far from BedZED).

The school has aimed for materials used in its construction to have a low embodied energy has very high levels of insulation and low levels of air movement and cold bridges.  However the classroom windows can be opened to allow them to deal with future heatwaves.  The school has a lot of on-site renewables including PV’s and a heat pump.  The heat pump can be used to cool in summer and will have elements of heat storage to allow for inter-seasonal heat transfer.

If only all new schools were built this way right?  In fact almost none are.  With only a handful even having on-site renewables.  Unfortunately local authorities have almost no say over schools in their area in England and even if the school ask their rebuild plans to take climate change into account they have a battle on their hands.  A school in Taunton is in this situation.  The parents, pupils and staff have rejected the plans saying they don’t do enough to protect the planet.  I wish them the best of luck.


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2015-09-22 14.12.40I’ve just read an article in the paper on London’s gridlock. Apparently traffic in central London is moving slower (8mph) than in late Victorian times (12mph). Famously in 2015/16 the number 11 bus moved so slowly (4mph on average) it was quicker to walk! I don’t know the stats for Edinburgh but its probably not much better. It certainly took me an hour to go about 3 miles one Friday evening. Back to London. Why is this when the congestion charge has pretty much go rid of all private cars? Private cars – yes. But Uber drivers who use cars – no. Taxis – no. Vans and some lorries – no and of course buses. Amazon deliveries – no. Maybe nature does abhor a vacuum.

The upshot is everyone blames one another and lots of people blame the cyclists who have new super high ways which have taken up road space The cyclists obviously blame one everyone else. London is a big place and one reason is that the government is shared between the assembly and local boroughs. There is lack of coordination between Transport for London and the boroughs according to many commentators, which sounds reasonable. Edinburgh and other big UK cities don’t have that excuse.

Another possible reason is population growth, 1 million in the last 10 years. Edinburgh has also grown. Even if those people rarely leave their house their needs must be serviced (deliveries). Again this sounds plausible. After all how often are new highways built in cities?

What is the solution to the increasing gridlock? The answer is no one seems to have one. There is no doubt that getting people to walk and cycle is at least part of the way around the gridlock issue. Both are much more space efficient than any vehicle. Edinburgh has reintroduced trams but while they are now well used the limited nature of the city centre route has not noticeably reduced traffic congestion. The problem is that vans in particular seem vital to city life providing goods and services to businesses and private individuals in the city centre. There doesn’t seem to be a ready solution – but one needs to be found.

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One thing we have learnt this week – electric car ban has been brought forward

charging point for electric carsThe electric car ban has been brought forward to 2035 from 2040 (including hybrids).  The question is – is this possible?  The next question is does the UK government have a plan.  There’s no sign of one.  It looks like greenwash ahead of COP26 to me.  Lets consider the size of the challenge.  There were 32.5 million cars on Britain’s roads in 2018 (plus at least 3 million vans and a number of trucks that will be in the millions).  Looking at cars only.  In 15 years to get all the petrol and diesel vehicles off the roads you’d have to sell about 2 million a year.  Sales whist they doubled last month are nothing like that.  So what might need to be done to achieve this?  There are many lessons we can draw from Norway where electric cars now account for over 50% of all new sales.

  • First you have to go for it.  The Norwegians have a generous grant scheme (ironically ours is about to be scrapped), this maybe why sales last month were so high with people trying to beat the deadline.  In addition electric cars pay no tax and no congestion charges and are allowed to park for free.
  • Second you need to think out of the box.  The Norwegians have integrated charging points and parking with public transport.  So people do not drive all the way.
  • The charging points are I believe free.
  • There are plenty of them.

A couple of additional points need to be made.  The grid needs to be reinforced so that all the electric cars can be charged.   The Norwegians have had problems with this I’ve heard, with localised power outages.  To support 30 odd million cars on the road takes a lot of electricity so capacity will need to be increased massively.  You can imagine how many charging points we will need as well.  Where on earth are we going to put them?

There are of course differences between Norway and the UK.  The Norwegians have massive amounts of mature hydropower so electric cars make very good sense.  Also its a small market so skewing it is far easier.

One last point has to be made as the electric car ban has been brought forward, electric cars don’t solve the problem of congestion or entirely of particulates.  To do that we need to fill of urban areas with cyclists and pedestrians which is far better.





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Sustainable Aviation?

1280px-heathrow_lon_04_07_77Yesterday a coalition of British airlines, airports and manufacturers called “Sustainable Aviation” announced they would go “net” zero by you guessed it – 2050.  Why is it 2050?  Probably because its so far off it will be someone else’s problem.   The means they by which they go carbon neutral?  Well its all the usual suspects, lets examine them in a bit more detail.

More efficient aircraft

Aircraft are steadily growing more fuel efficient, better engines and lighter materials etc.  This is good and its definitely true.  As a kid I lived under a flight path.  When the aircraft went over you couldn’t hear yourself think.  My mum still has the odd aircraft come over.  They are still loud but far quieter than they were.  A quiet engine is an efficient engine.  However there are limits how far this will get you and at the moment all efficiency gains are being undone by the increase in flights.


We went through this in our book.  To completely substitute worldwide would take an agricultural area the size of Belgium.  The spokesman on the TV news clearly wasn’t talking about complete substitution.  He was also talking about using 2nd generation biofuels, so there would be no food/fuel competition.  I was very surprised to see him mention Fischer–Tropsch.  We describe this in the book.  This reaction takes Hydrogen and carbon monoxide, using a transition metal catalyst, a lot of heat and pressure combines them to make alkanes of any chain length.  The chain length is determined by the pressure used (largely).  The question is where does the feedstock come from (can you make carbon monoxide from dioxide -not sure?), hydrogen could be split from water but do we really want to put a load of renewables in just so we can fly.   So the practicabilities of this are questionable as is the energy return on energy invested for both.  See our book.

Electric aircraft/hydrogen

These are under development and are almost certainly feasible for short haul, but not for long haul.  Long haul requires some kind of new battery technology, if its possible at all.  Regular readers of this blog know I regard hydrogen as a complete waste of space (again see our book).  But even if it did work hydrogen aircraft would require a complete redesign (people talk about a ‘flying wing’).  This would have to pretty much start now and isn’t.  To be fair the spokesmen I heard didn’t mention it.  Nor did they see much contribution from electric aircraft by 2050.


What they are relying on is offsetting.  Largely planting trees or putting in renewables.  The problem with this it seems like you’re doing something, but are you?  Solar panels can be removed or broken.  A lot of this is aimed at the developing world.  Trees die.  We’ve just had an example of this from Turkey.  They planted millions of trees a year or so ago – its thought the great majority are dead already.

What the aviation industry are not relying on, is less people flying or a halt to airport expansion.  This is all a wheeze to make you think they are doing something when they’re not.  In a post carbon world, we won’t by and large be able to fly -get used to it.



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Shrink the footprint to zero

Back in 2013 the Church of England came up with a strategy called “Shrinking the Footprint” it has now decided it needs to shrink the footprint to zero.  The original strategy said this;

The free, easy to use toolkit from Shrinking the Footprint, the CofE’s national environmental campaign, enables all church buildings – historic and modern – to understand and reduce energy use and costs along with cutting their carbon footprint

and that the strategy would,

identify buildings that require additional support“.

This in my experience is probably almost all of them.  My record of visiting or attending different churches suggests almost all them are cavernous places, built with no regard to energy use or even making the congregation feel warm (or comfortable although that’s another issue).  Now the Church has decided  it needs to shrink the footprint to zero by 2045.  It does seem to realise this is going to be a challenge.  Particularly as regards cathedrals.  To my my mind why bother trying to heat these anyway?

Having said that, in 2015 when we went to Paris for the climate change talks we went to meetings at St Merries, near the Beauborg Centre and St Denis Cathedral.  Both were huge.  I don’t feel the cold easily but I’ve rarely been so cold in my life.  I’ve never been able to decide whether the buildings were unheated all the time or whether they had just switched the heating off so as not to be embarrassed.  Its difficult to worship when you’re freezing.  I went to Canterbury more recently and I think they had heated it to an extent although it was not exactly baking.

I don’t really know what the solution to all this is.  We’ve had a think about it in our church.  We put insulation in the roof (we can – many cannot even do this). but then it will escape through the walls and stained glass windows (we have underfloor heating).  We looked at getting more secondary glazing an tried to get a grant for it.  We failed and it wasn’t economic to do without one, although gas prices have at least doubled since.  Our energy use is enormous, partly due to the size of the building – which although not a cathedral is well on the way to the footprint of some of the smaller ones.  Also because the building is in almost constant use.

The first thing is identify your current energy use.  Then model its current patterns (of course these may change), then start to develop a long term strategy.  This will probably involve solar panels and heat pumps since these seem to me the technologies that are most suited to onsite generation.  One of our current interns is doing the first bit of the above as we speak.  I expect though in winter we are going to have to wrap up well in future to shrink the footprint to zero.



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One thing we have learnt this week – High speed rail is controversial

File:Gt Missenden Rally (5743770203).jpg

High speed rail is controversial.  Yes we’re back to rail again, this time as fast as possible. At the moment in the UK HS2 is in the news – a lot.  The costs have escalated throughout the project and are now put at over £100 billion up from £33 billion.  The government is reviewing the whole project, since its coughing up the cash.  Like Hinkley C this is a project many would say as bigger white elephant that this site keeps coming back to…  Coming from the West Midlands I know a number of people who say they are affected by the route (phase 2).  However when I’ve asked how near they are to it, the answers a few miles away.  This to my mind is not the same as having your house knocked down or having it at the bottom of your garden, but anyway…

Reasons for first.

1) We undoubtedly need new rail capacity.  Numbers travelling by train have almost reached the 1913 record, although they’ve dropped a bit in the last few years.  With the climate emergency more people are going to travel by train.  the numbers will certainly increase.

2) This country is big enough to justify high speed rail.  Its crazy that it takes me 4 hours to get to London from Edinburgh.  Forward thinking suggests that trans European high speed rail will be needed to get around and why should this all start in the UK from London?

3) In building it we are building a new piece of infrastructure that will last hundreds of years.  This to me makes the cost overruns while disturbing – seem less important.  The last major line to be built in the UK before HS1 was Great Central, we are using Victorian infrastructure and we certainly need to do something.

4) The alternatives (see below) may not be cheaper and certainly won’t be easier.

5) Billions of pounds have already been spent.

6) There are claims it will regenerate the north.

7) Euston station needs a major revamp.

8) Radio 4 “Costing the Earth” did a programme on the effects of HS1 on the locals.  They had all seem to have learnt to live with it and preferred it to the M20.


1) There is undoubtedly been a loss of  biodiversity.  A number of ancient woodlands are going.  One reason the cost has risen is a lot of tunnelling to mitigate some of this.  I feel very sorry for anyone’s house that is being demolished.  Some of these are of historical significance.

2) The costs have risen dramatically.  There’s a surprise.

3) A lot of the planning of all this is quite frankly knaff.  The construction period is far too long.  I’ve heard experts say this adds to costs.  But some of the route decisions are crazy.  There is no connection to HS1 and the route is coming to Scotland at some unspecified point in the future.   Look at the route near Cannock.  The line splits in two.  One bit seems to be new, the other joins up with the West Coast mainline Birmingham bypass.  They run parallel to one another even cross one another and then join at Crewe.  Sorry can’t get my head around this bit of the route, there might be a good reason…

Between Birmingham and London there is nothing other than the Birmingham interchange.  HS1 stuck some stations in between.  This probably helped mitigate opposition to a certain extent to this project.  To tell people to go north to Birmingham, which I have heard people involved do on the Radio news is insulting.

4) There are always have been alternatives to this and still are.  One alternative is to re-open Great Central (see posts passim).  The other is to upgrade the East and West Coast main lines to true high speed running.

5) There are claims that it will not only not regenerate the north – but is a southern plot to allow people to buy cheap property in the north and commute to work in London.  If you speak to two economists…

What’s going to happen?  No idea, although I strongly suspect that either the whole project will be cut or only the truncated Birmingham section will open.  There are possibilities to cut costs but none of them really add up.  One is terminate at Old Oak Common rather than Euston.   This then means a Cross rail trip into central London which will take longer hence reducing the advantages of the high speed trip.  The other is to run the trains slower but what’s the point in that?

The whole thing is a huge mess.  It was arguably a huge Tory vanity project to appeal to potential voters in the North.  They cannot win, whatever they do they will now upset one lot of supporters -either their new ones in the north or the old ones in the Tory Shires.  I would not be unhappy to see the whole thing dropped, but doing nothing is not an option…

If you want to look the route this is the best map of the route I’ve found.  By doubling clicking you can zoom in.  If you zoom in far enough there is colour coding of the route.  Hold the mouse over the line and it tells you what it is i.e. tunnel.  There are one heck of a lot of these…


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Slow travel by train – its back

201604 Interior of Sleeper Room of CRH2E-NG.JPG

Slow travel by train – its back.  A number of years ago I when I was doing my doctorate I was allowed go one foreign conference.  The one I wanted attend was in Barcelona and I decided to go by train, not wanting to fly.  In those days the high speed line from Paris was under construction.  In fact I was staying at a hotel above the station which was severely disrupted due to the work.  So I decided to go by sleeper.  (I had travelled a lot by sleeper in the past, both in the UK, trans-Siberian to China, in China and in Malaysia/Thailand amongst other places.)

In those days SNCF and Spanish Railways ran a joint sleeper service.  The trip was not without its problems due to a problem with excessive heating on the trains – both ways (I was in exactly the same compartment physically).  Nevertheless sleepers seemed to me to offer a good compromise method of long distance travel – after at night most people want to sleep most of the time –  so its effectively dead time.

However, even at the time it was clear that the European train companies were shutting down their sleeper services.  There have been some exceptions since then.  Honourable mention goes to Eurostar who do an overnight ski train to the French Alps.

With the rise of XR and Greta Thunberg its clear that slow travel by train is back.  Imagine my delight when I heard over the last few weeks that after DB closed their sleepers Austrian Railways have taken over some of their routes even buying some German stock and are starting to reopen a variety of routes around Europe.

It looks like slow travel by train is back see for details.


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Nature is good for environmental awareness

walled gardenNature is good for environmental awareness.  That’s the conclusion from an academic study published today.  In one sense tell me something I wasn’t expecting.  The study suggests that access to any greenery makes people live differently.

Its certainly true in my own life.  I’d been interested and concerned with the environment before I had a garden but become much more interested afterwards.  The reason being you notice stuff.  I noticed a dramatic increase in Autumn particularly in the late 90’s.  Instead of the leaves on the trees being gone by the end of September they were still there in October and November.  Then when I started growing things I noticed the weird weather, particularly springs – which are now very cold or hot or wet.  More recently I’ve seen a dramatic drop in bird numbers over the last few years.  Extinction rebellion have a very apt name.

Would I have noticed this if I’d carried on living in a flat?  Maybe, but to the same extent?  I’m not sure.  The government make this harder.  Gardens can be built on, parks are subject to cuts which at the very least makes them less pleasant to visit and now in England making it more difficult to roam on land.  Yes, nature is good for environmental awareness.  But lots of things seem to be working against it.


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Ethical cobalt


One of the big problems with the electric car revolution is the problem over sourcing cobalt.  (The other increasing one is people tripping over battery charging leads on the pavement which seems to be in the news at the moment.)  The problem is at the moment cobalt is required in all lithium batteries.  It makes up part of the cathode and stabilises it during recharging.

The problem is most of the worlds cobalt is not ethical cobalt. Its mined mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an oxymoron of a title if ever there was one and much of it is mined by greater than 150,000 artisanal miners.  This quaint term means to you and me people mining informally (many of them children) who disappear down shafts dug in the ground.  These are very unsafe and the miners are paid very little money.  Before anyone decides this is just a problem with electric car batteries – its not cobalt is in all lithion batteries (so phones laptops etc).

So what to do? There a number of solutions.  The first is tighten the law in the DRC.  The government is doing so but the country is large chaotic and corrupt.

The second is ethical sourcing, this is also happening.  There are some large mines there run by multinationals and you hope the conditions there are better at least.

The next solution is to use less. Here Mr Musk weighs in saying he will eliminate the metal in the next generation of his cars.  This is said to be a tall order but he has reduced the quantities to 4.5kg car from 11Kg/car (these figures are extraordinary).  A whole heap of companies are working or have reduced lithion battery technologies or different chemistries all together.

The final solution is recycle as much as possible which is always going to be better than ripping new stuff out of the ground.  But we have a long way to go until ethical cobalt.


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One thing we have learnt this week – smart meter saga

metersThe smart meter saga continues.  I had a series of emails over the last few weeks from my energy supplier offering me a smart meter.  They had an attempt at this early this year I think it was, but the whole thing fell through since the smart meter was incompatible with my PV systems.  I believe then I was being offered a first generation smart meter.  This time I was being offered a second generation meter.  So I hoped things had changed.

The installation partner made several attempts at phoning me but did not leave a message. This in of itself made me suspicious of a scam.  I was I’m afraid a bit short with him on the phone at first when he phoned last night.  It seems however he was genuine.  The conversation was brief.  Basically as I understand it the second generation smart meters that my (small supplier) will provide are not compatible with PV systems although there are other suppliers who will offer compatible ones.  (The people on the sustainability forum I signed up say that one or two of them have compatible smart meters.)  Since I don’t want to switch suppliers for social reasons, this leaves me stuck.

The UK government were said to be prioritising PV systems to get fitted with smart meters.  They have taken away our export tariff so any of our power that goes to the grid is free for the energy companies (again some suppliers do give you money – shop around) and all along very few meters work with PV systems.  You really couldn’t make this up.  The idea is such a great one and necessary to know what’s going on the grid in real time.  But the whole thing seems an increasing mess.  The smart meter saga continues.


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