Last Wednesday, 17th May, was when the last CIBSE Yorkshire meeting was held and presented by Chris Jones who is a Building Services Engineer and a Fellow of the Energy Institute, as well as a Chartered Environmentalist and Incorporated Engineer. He is also one of the most immediately credible speakers who can take his audience on a well reasoned journey at a vast rate of knots I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. If you were not impressed with his knowledge, you would be his passion and commitment to what he was saying.
The talk was titled “Energy – Joining the Dots” and the aim was to look at the global picture around energy use and then bring it back to what services engineers can influence and do on a practical level.
This post has been very difficult to write; before the session I promised to take notes for a friend, while afterwards the best I could manage was a tweet to say it was fantastic, but my notes failed me. After a couple of days sleeping on it, they seem to have found their own sense and so I’ve put fingers to keyboard.
Chris opened up the discussion with the statement that we are currently using up 150% of the earths resources and if things do not change this will increase to 500% by 2050. He then fielded the question; is Shale Gas the answer to solving the 2020 target or should we focus on developing solutions which will cost more, but deliver better payback?
Put it another way, could piling resources and money in to developing these longer term solutions be the best way to spark development and industry that would break the economic deadlock we appear to be in economically?
Moving quickly on, Chris raised the question of how important liquid fuels are, the immediate example being petrol and diesel. He did not dwell on this point, he just mentioned the fuel farce where the threat of fuel strikes was enough to cause panic buying, which in turn closed petrol stations as they had been sucked dry. Ironically, before the presentation, the DECC had announced that talks with Unite had broken down and I was wondering if it would be a case of “here we go again”…
As that thought crossed my mind, Chris was already on to his next one, Carbon trading, and how if it was working properly, with a realistic tariff in place most firms would fold. “Would taxation be a more realistic way forward?” he asked.
We then moved on to the fact that the power generation infrastructure is essentially passed its use by date. A number of nuclear power stations have already had their lives extended, as has gas and coal generators. Where do we go to fill the gap when these units either fail or have to come off line?
Given that the estimated cost of regaining energy security has been put at between £135 billion and £200 billion to get our infrastructure up to scratch it is clear there is no easy answer to find or put in to action.
After a brief discussion regarding the development of renewable sources in other countries, Chris made an eloquent and ironic point by asking a simple question; why do people hate wind so much because it is a blot on the landscape when you consider Fukishima, Chernobyl and that you can’t walk all the way down the beach at Windscale?
We literally whizzed through a number of other aspects which were broadly:
- Were the Feed In Tariff’s effectively quashed by the big 6 energy companies because they did not want to administer dealing with 1000’s of small generators?
- Should we just stick with fossil fuel for now in the expectation that more will be found?
- Is there a connection between economic growth/falls and energy use and is it feasible to have a long term growth economy given the link?
- We are less effective at extracting energy from a given input; Roman farming would get roughly 1.2 units from every 1 unit put in when we in our high tech age are putting 150 units in to get 6 out. We are getting a benefit though – a substantially smaller part of the population is working on the land for a start.
This took us to the most interesting, alarming and certainly controversial part of the discussion as a whole when talking about Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI).
Given the amount of energy taken to implement some renewable technologies, when the EROEI is considered, it is hard to justify going ahead with those schemes. Similarly, when you consider the difficulties that schemes such as wind farms can have getting through planning, the furore over the Green Deal and other schemes aimed at reducing energy use and carbon output, are we just going to carry on walking the same path until we reach the point of no return?
Which leads on to a significant issue; just when is the point of no return? That is a good question. It has been acknowledged that efficiency gains are incremental, while energy use increases are factorial and also that we are passed the point of peak oil and peak gas, without actually knowing it at the time.
Is it possible that when the politically and public will unites to take positive action no matter what it takes, that we don’t have the energy resources to invest in solving the problem? If so, who will bear the brunt of the short fall? Given that in 2010 1 in 5 families were in fuel poverty and this figure rose to 1 in 4 in 2011 it is possibly not going to take a lot of working out. In isolation those figures in themselves are remarkable – would you ever have thought that 25% of families would be considered in poverty of any description?
So what is the answer? There wasn’t one, but the point of resource use taxation was raised and against this background, looking at just this one area, it is hard to argue with.
The one answer which can not be argued with at the end of the day is that considering recycling, energy, carbon, water, pollution in isolation is a start, but the only long term way forward is to simply reduce the amount of resources that we use as a whole. Why? Even if you do not believe in global warming, peak oil and the other concerns regarding what is bundled as “green issues” or matters for the “hair shirt brigade”, being environmental gluttons is becoming socially unacceptable and expensive; the time when demonstrating your green credentials was having a recycle bin in the office and an ignored environmental policy on your website are long gone.
It could be considered to be a very pessimistic evening, full of doom and gloom. It almost felt that way, but I considered it more as listening to someone who knew considerably more than I did spelling it out in simple terms, you might say, sitting me down and telling me how it is.
There was an optimistic note when Chris rounded it off with a thought on a different subject which made us all smile; as a species, when faced with a problem, why do we only actually become focused on fixing it when it becomes a crisis? The bit that made us smile – thankfully, he said, we are quite good at it!
So where do you stand? Within the office, this piece sparked debate before it was written when I was outlining it to the team. There are lots of questions and it would be good to see your answers so the debate can continue.
As a question of my own, how do you see Building Services Engineers being able to contribute to solving the problem, or in fact, the building design industry as a whole?
I hope you’ll share your thoughts!