Introduction

In October 2001 the Royal Institute of British Architects hosted a conference on the subject of Sustainability at the Cutting Edge, which inspired the title of this book. The opening address was delivered by Sir John Houghton, a world authority on climate change issues. The aim of the conference was to provide an overview of the science and technology behind sources of renewable energy which would assume prominence in the next decade. This review was placed in the context of increasing concern about the impact of climate change and the fact that the built environment in countries like the UK is the worst culprit in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

What has changed since the first edition was published in 2003?

Scientists are being continually surprised at the rate at which global-warming-related events are happening. Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets are melting faster than ever, as are mountain glaciers; permafrost is melting with dire consequences for buildings and roads; hurricanes in the 4 and 5 category are occurring with increasing frequency. Predictions of the impact of global warming on long-term temperatures are being regularly upgraded.

There is now a widespread acceptance of the human responsibility for most of the global warming. Even the White House accepts the science but still does not agree with most nations as to the solution. On the other hand, with Russia coming on board, the Kyoto Protocol was finally ratified. Unfortunately it is evident that very few signatories are on course to meet their obligations.

A UK government report of March 2006 gives an indication of the role of CO2 in forcing global warming over the next 100 years if current emission levels are not curbed. Emissions are continuing to rise, even in the UK, despite its ambitious abatement targets. The economies of China and India are growing at 9% and 7% per year respectively. Most of that expansion is generated by fossil fuels, predominantly coal. Figure 1 indicates the contribution to global warming up to 2100 of current greenhouse gases relative to CO2. Each greenhouse gas has a different capacity to cause warming depending on its radiative properties, molecular weight and life within the atmosphere.

The second Iraq war has introduced a huge uncertainty factor into security of oil supplies since the Middle East boasts the main concentration of reserves. The monopoly of gas supplies by Russia led to serious supply problems for neighbouring Ukraine in 2005, which had repercussions across much of Europe. Towards the end of 2005 the oil price exceeded a record $70 a barrel with a prediction that it will exceed $100 a barrel within a year. Wholesale gas price rose 60% in a year. These events are changing the climate of opinion as regards renewables.

Methane 24%

Nitrous Others oxide 3% 10%

Nitrous Others oxide 3% 10%

Methane 24%

Carbon dioxide 63%

Global Warming Potentials for selected gases from the IPCC Third Assessment Report

Carbon dioxide 63%

Global Warming Potentials for selected gases from the IPCC Third Assessment Report

Figure 1 Relative contributions to global warming over the next 100 years of current greenhouse gases according to DEFRA

On a world scale there is increasing investment in research and development of clean energy technologies with a number of major advances since the 2003 edition. At the same time, some of the technologies which were on the margins are now moving into the mainstream.

Soon we should see the next generation of PVs on the market, probably based on nano-technology which will be significantly cheaper than silicon-based cells. Already in Germany and Japan economies of scale are being realized, thanks to government support. By, say, 2020, here millions of homes and offices could be pocket power stations feeding the grid or creating hydrogen for fuel cells. The UK government is coming round to acknowledging this in its 2006 report on a new microgeneration programme called 'Our Energy Strategy - power from the people'. This includes microfuel cells.

Buildings are likely to play a major role in a future energy scenario. They can be daytime power stations through photovoltaic cells (PVs) on roofs and elevations and microcombined heat and power. The Energy Saving Trust argues that 30-40% of the UK's electricity could come from home installations by 2050. At the moment PVs are not cost-effective set against conventional fossil generation. But things are changing as fossil fuel security becomes questionable. So, not only should we factor-in the climate change benefit but also the security gain. Quantify these and offset them against the cost and PVs will soon be a viable proposition.

Fuel cell technology is where another major breakthrough should occur. Many analysts believe that fuel cells will be the prime energy source in the future both for buildings and for transport. Their fuel is hydrogen and oxygen from the air and their products: water, heat and electricity. Being modular, they can be scaled to meet almost any requirement, from an individual home to a grid-connected power plant. For the next two decades or so static fuel cells will get their hydrogen from reformed natural gas. By 2050 experts predict we will have fully embraced the hydrogen economy. Making hydrogen will be the principal energy-related industry. Mark this quote from the President of Texaco Technology Ventures, from an address to the US House of Representatives Science Committee:

Market forces, greenery, and innovation are shaping the future of our industry and propelling us inexorably towards hydrogen energy. Those who don't pursue it ... will rue it.

The dream of high-energy physics is commercial nuclear fusion, said to be appreciably safer than fission and not nearly so productive of waste. Now that massive international research funding is being directed towards it, mostly to a huge facility in Japan, there is growing confidence that it will be market-ready by the middle of the century.

As regards high energy density renewables, the UK is almost uniquely favoured with some of the strongest tidal currents and range of rise and fall in the world. A few demonstration projects are in place which should inspire even the most cautious government that there are reliable and tested technologies that can produce predictable electricity up to gigawatt scale from the marine environment.

In the UK energy policy is focused on wind power to deliver its CO2 abatement targets up to 2020. However, since 2003 there has been increasing uncertainty about the capacity of wind to perform to expectations. For example, James Lovelock1 quotes Niels Gram of the Danish Federation of Industries: 'Many of us thought that wind was the 100% solution for the future but we were wrong. In fact, taking all energy needs into account, it is only a 3% solution.' Lovelock also cites evidence from Germany that wind energy was available only 16% of the time. Based on his calculations, to supply the UK's present electricity needs would require 138,000 2 MW machines at three to the square mile thus covering an area larger than Wales. Despite the voices of caution the UK is going ahead with vast new offshore wind farms, notably the 270 unit 1000 MW installation off the Kent coast.

There is also a professional view that the most unpredictable power which the grid could accommodate without becoming destabilized is 10 GW.2 Alongside these supply initiatives it is essential that we look seriously at demand-side reductions. There is no excuse now not to embrace superinsulation standards for domestic buildings. It's time we abandoned our superstitious attachment to cavity walls. On the continent they have no problem with this.

In commercial buildings the main energy cost is often electricity, mostly for lighting. This is set to change dramatically with the development of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) producing white light. An LED around 1-2 cm will emit the equivalent of a 60 W bulb using only 3 W. It will have a life expectancy of 100,000 hours.

Developments in optical fibre technology will also reduce energy demand in the commercial sector. The photonic revolution is almost upon us, and will be fully realized when the barriers to photonic switching are overcome. Then the all-photonic computer will use much less power and generate almost no heat.

There is no doubt that information technology will progress at an exponential rate. Photonic materials will play a major part in this revolution. The vision is for the whole world to be linked to an optical fibre superhighway based on photonic materials. The same must be said of nano-technology, which is already leading developments in next generation photovoltaic cells.3

In March 2006 the UK government admitted that it was not going to achieve its target of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010. Ironically, this coincided with the fact that in April 2006 a private member's bill, The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill, received the Royal Assent and, in the same month, new Building Regulations Part L (conservation of fuel and power) came into force. These are framed in such a way as to make buildings be considered holistically rather than element by element. This is a significant departure which will encourage architects and designers to work as a team from the outset of a project. It will also favour designers who are versatile with 3D modelling software since there is a 'simplified building energy model' (SBEM) with software which aims to make the design process easier.

The first edition began with a transcript of the keynote lecture presented by Sir John Houghton at the RIBA conference that inspired this book. For the second edition he has kindly agreed to replace this with his Prince Philip Lecture delivered at the Royal Society of Arts in May 2005 entitled Climate change and sustainable energy. It would be impossible to find a more appropriate introduction to the new edition.

Peter F. Smith

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