Green Campaign Obscures Need for Raw Power

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week May 2006

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London Wall was a Hollywood dream. Soaring glass slabs provided a perfect backdrop for sci-fi films set in the future, when floating cars carried people in sparkly catsuits to their one day’s work a month.   But the future is full of surprises. Here we are in a new millennium, still choked by exhausts, clad in pinstripes and working 18-hour days. The slabs are gone, however.

  Moor House was among the biggest, thrown 200ft onto the City skyline at a time when size and location were the only considerations. It lasted less than four decades before being replaced by the elegant, sweeping curves of a new building last year, now called Moorhouse. Yet this new vision has already shown how difficult it is to predict even a few years ahead. The first big tenant, HVB bank, came in and demanded almost twice as much power planned by developers Hammerson and Henderson Global in Foster & Partners’ lean, green design.

   In the furore over global warming and energy saving, one factor is easily overlooked: occupiers are more interested in safety today than saving tomorrow.. HVB has to obey fierce regulations which impose huge fines if its dealing systems go down. The bank needs rock solid electricity supplies.  Developers are aware of these demands but it is difficult to know where to draw the line. Hammerson director for offices Michael Baker says the new block was designed on the basis that about 80% of the 325,000 sq ft would be taken by relatively low-energy users like lawyers, because they were dominant in the market at the time. In fact, banks have taken the lead and could end up with all the space.

  HVB’s request for 200Watts/sq metre meant allocating an extra 3,000 sq ft to plant. But reserving this amount of space at the outset on a speculative building could have been economically disastrous if it was not used.   The solution is to build in flexibility. ‘You don’t have to provide all that power from day one, just ensure that it can be done if needed,’ says Baker. Room was left for two extra generators in the basement and extra plant on the roof.

   The danger is not to revert to the over-specified buildings that once blighted the market. But power within buildings is not the only problem. Reliable supplies from generators is now a concern. A shadow has hung over occupiers since California went dark a few years ago, then blackouts hit closer to home in the Midlands and south London. Winter was expected to bring trouble but the danger is not over.  Summer brings peak demand in places like central London because of the heavy drain from air-conditioning in around half the 600m sq ft of commercial space.  As big dealing floors become commonplace, developers and occupiers have been negotiating for duplicate power supplies.

  The City Corporation saw the need for a more comprehensive approach and spent five years persuading electricity regulators of the economic catastrophe if the nation’s financial heart stopped beating.  Supplier EDF has now been allowed to spend more than £20m upgrading the central London network, ensuring that if one part fails, others kick in. Meanwhile the National Grid is planning a £200m main feed via north London.

    But that merely postpones an impending crisis. The capital’s commercial buildings consume almost 9,000 Gigawatt hours [GWh] of electricity a year and almost as much again for heating [one GWh is equivalent to a million one-kilowatt electric fires burning for an hour]. The City alone uses 2,500 GWh – more than four times that used by businesses in a large provincial town like Plymouth, while Greater London takes more than three times the whole North East region.

  Within 20 years – only half the life of the former Moor House - this is expected to climb by 15% as commercial space soars from 57m sq metres to more than 70m sq metres, according to a study by the Mayor of London and Greenpeace.  And that is despite construction standards which will reduce requirements for electricity by 30% per sq metre in new buildings.    Deputy City Surveyor Peter Bennett suggests that as standby generators are now standard fixtures in major schemes, they could be linked into local networks so that if power goes down, others could kick in. The problem is that occupiers would put their own needs first.

   A more feasible solution could be a series of new high-efficiency local generators. The City is exploring possibilities with big developers while the Mayor is working along similar lines with EDF.  This could take years, however. In the meantime, occupiers could begin to demand back-up power for the most modest developments. Even low-power businesses face critical damage if their computers go down and, if supplies become suspect, a generator in the basement could make all the difference to letting space.

Electricity Consumption [GWh]

                                                Domestic                                Commercial

Wales                                       5,602                                       10,970

Scotland                                   12,317                                     17,982

North East                                4,578                                       8,129

North West                              13,316                                     20,913

Yorks/Humberside                   9,760                                       15,842

E Midlands                               8,775                                       15,686

W Midlands                             10,761                                     16,632

East England                             12,267                                     15,844

London                                    13,496                                     26,870*

South East                                17,354                                     23,704

South West                              11,518                                     15,189

* includes 2,458GWh City of London

Source: Government Regional Energy Statistics 2004