On 9th January 2007 Yvette Cooper, made a speech to the House Builders Federation. She talked about higher standards for new homes and mentioned the need for better insulation. She then announced that all new homes within ten years must be zero carbon, and thus it seems that the concept of zero carbon homes was brought into being.
Like motherhood and apple pie it sounds all very splendid and praiseworthy but unlike motherhood and apple pie it suffers no one knowing what Ms Cooper actually meant by this concept and I am sure that she herself did not know what she meant because here we all are, nearly a year and a half later, when government civil servants are still trying to “discover” what the definition of a zero carbon home comprises.
Ms Cooper is one of those very clever Oxbridge politicians; she studied philosophy, politics and economics but unfortunately does not seem to understand the particular combination of thermodynamics and chemistry that makes a zero carbon home incapable of existing except in the mind of a politician.
There have already been a number of attempts by civil servants to define what a zero carbon home would mean in practise and how its energy would be constructed. The latest attempt was explained to me and other members of the UK Solar thermal industry by a solemn civil servant at an industry meeting organised last Friday by the Renewable Energy Association in the BERR Conference Centre in London.
Trying to work backwards – have a definition first and try to figure out what it means – may work in politics, philosophy or even economics but in science it leads to some hilarious outcomes. This is what has happened with the modelling that has been done in an effort to discover what Ms Cooper meant by a Zero Carbon Home – we cannot of course ask her because she doesn’t know.
The modelling makes various assumptions but the chief one is that the home has to generate 100% of its energy both heat and electrical no matter what that means. In the case of the modelling the conclusion was reached that the way to achieve 100% (but having no more that two forms of renewable energy) was to have a wood burning combined heat and power boiler.
This enables you to create all the electrical and heat energy from one source – wood burning.
Because of the need to have the device running in summer when heat demand only relates to water heating but electrical demand is still there, you will have to dump the summer heat somewhere – possibly in the soil or a nearby lake or river – so that the home can hold its 100% badge!
The modelling does not of course live in the real world because the concept being modelled also belongs in fairyland. I guess the modellers may have recognised that it is neither efficient or desirable or environmentally responsible to turn wood into carbon dioxide for six months of the year and waste the energy created by the burning by dumping it.
I guess the modellers were told to assume that the carbon dioxide created by wood burning is 100% offset by new wood growth; this is an extremely dangerous assumption because it fails to recognise that the carbon cycle does not work that way. There are huge losses of carbon dioxide that could not be taken up by new growth without afforestation in the United Kingdom on a huge scale and I cannot see this happening because of the competing claims on land for food and recreation and conservation.
I also guess the modellers assumed that every one of the new so called zero carbon homes would rigorously and meticulously maintain their very high cost smoke filtration systems regardless of the affordability of the maintenance and that no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (including PAH16) would ever leak into their own homes or those of neighbours to bring their carcinogenic qualities with them.
I could go on, but must not fall into the trap of blaming the modellers for following their brief. In essence travelling along Ms Cooper’s undefined and unknown road leads us to a much worse place than we live in now; it eschews the ability to use proven benign technologies like solar thermal and photovoltaics which can generate energy benignly. It also fails to recognise the need to use our land for carbon sequestration – growing trees, letting them decay naturally with their hums entering the soil and staying there.
When Ms Cooper came up with her big idea of a zero carbon home, it is a shame that no one took her quietly to one side and explained that the science did not enable her to achieve that vision without creating much more harm than using the present building standards.
Ms Cooper has now moved on and is now Secretary to the Treasury where she has grappled with things like the credit crunch, the sub prime debacle and the Northern Rock failure and no doubt is still grappling. She is a friend of Gordon Brown and introduced Home Information Packs into law, which few understand, fewer read and which often contain energy information about the home that is just plain wrong.
As things now stand the government has two choices: (1) define zero carbon homes as ones which have all possible measures such as solar panels, heat recovery, PV etc but use “green” electricity sold by energy companies as being generated from wind turbines or (2) define these kinds of homes in a way that requires acres of forests to be logged in order to dump heat in summer and creating carbon dioxide without an energy requirement for six months of the year.
It is bad enough to create carbon dioxide when you need energy, but to do it in order to waste energy is plain immoral.
The final irony is that only around 100,000 homes are built in the United Kingdom each year. They are not a significant part of the problem which is caused by the 26 million old homes; the effort, time and expense that is going into a Zero Carbon Home concept could be used to establish the best standards for lowest carbon emissions in new homes leaving plenty of time effort and energy left over to tackle the real problem.
Filed under: carbon emissions, climate change, electricity, global warming, gordon brown, heat, microgeneration, Northern Rock, solar, solar energy, solar panels, Yvette Cooper Tagged: | afforestration, dumping heat, health problems with wood burning, PAH 16, Renewable Energy Association, zero carbon homes, zero carbon modelling