Developers Forced to Find Alternative Energy

Copyright: David Lawson - published Property Week May 2006

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London Mayor Ken Livingstone can be irritating and outrageous but has a habit of leading where others follow. The congestion charge and social housing quotas raised angry screams but are now supported by planners across the UK.  A similar chorus of complaint can be expected over demands that new developments must ensure 10% of energy comes from renewable sources,  yet local planners are already following this lead. Even New Labour, which squirms with embarrassment about accepting its leading rebel back into the fold, is riding his coat-tails.

  The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is trawling through local plans to ensure ‘a minimum percentage’ of renewable energy is demanded. That may be less than 10% but could still raise big problems.  The first is confusion. Developers are drowning in suggestions for alternative energy. A ‘toolkit’ produced for the London Energy partnership by environmental consultant Faber Maunsell runs to over 200 pages and covers more than a dozen techniques. The second is practicality. Energy Minister Malcolm Wickes and Tory leader David Cameron proudly announced green credentials by saying they would put wind generators on their roofs. Engineers quickly warned that the first big gale would see them roofless.  So what are the real possibilities of meeting planning demands? Major developments are likely to include a cocktail of techniques including wind generators, photovoltaic panels, solar heating, alternative fuels, combined heat and power plants [CHP] and ground bores for heating and/or cooling. Smaller ones can expect can expect a trickle-down effect as planners increasingly look for some effort to be green.

None of this is new. A wall of photo-electric panels made Doxford Solar Office in Sunderland a landmark more than 10 years ago. The Queen’s quarters at Buckingham Palace have been cooled by ground water for some time. The problems, however, are also just as well established.   Trevor Silver, who masterminded Doxford while at developer Akeler, admitted later that solar power was uneconomic without grants.  That did not stop him believing buildings needed to be ‘future proofed’ against potential energy taxes.  Bores were planned below two Akeler office blocks in west London which would cut energy consumption 35% by drawing on ground heat in winter while dumping the excess in summer.

  Neither happened, as Silver moved on to set up developer Landid but he now hopes to explore similar ideas for a 200,000 sq ft business park in Leatherhead.  Yet he remains candid about the problems.  Every new building in a city centre cannot dump heat this way as it will eventually warm the ground, he says.  Water engineer James Dodds of consultant JDIH, is also deeply concerned that planners may not be looking ahead. Within the life of a building, pipes drawing cooler water from the ground may become useless if heat seeps across from myriad ones putting it into the rocks, he says.

   The best solution would be buying green energy from current suppliers, says Andrew Bray, head of energy management at Johnson Controls. But there is simply not enough to go around. Renewables provide only 3% of current supply.  It is becoming critical for the property industry to sit down and work out co-ordinated policies to prevent such problems, says Silver. One possibility is involvement in creating local power stations drawing fuel from renewable sources.

  Some developers are already moving in this direction. Stanhope plans local generation for a regenerated Bracknell town centre powered by woodchips from surrounding forests. Other kinds of ‘biomass’ include burning waste, a technique particularly favoured by planners as part of CHP plant. This would draw in development too modest to consider radical techniques. But planners could soon make compulsory anyway, with permissions conditional on connection or contribution to local generation.

 Developers could limit the burden by taking energy more seriously, says Paul Appleby, associate director at environmental consultant URS. Efficient design saves far more than green generation. Tougher building regulations introduced in April and the potential impact of energy labelling will help, but engineers are still not brought in early enough to influence designs, he says. Occupiers must also change their ways. Lighting alone makes up 20% of office energy bills, so simple procedures such as timers can make a huge difference. Other techniques such as reducing the number of air changes and auto-shutdown of computer screens can also reduce consumption. The problem is that electricity is still so cheap that most don’t even know how much energy they use, says Bray. Just accumulating this information for analysis can help plan savings for a time when energy will play a key role in the type and amount of space they occupy.