Eco Refurbishment course teaches practical skills to do it yourself

Our popular eco-refurbishment course this month brought together a team of people keen to learn about improving buildings in a sustainable way. Some on the course wanted to make improvements to their homes, others were builders taking the course as part of their professional development. The course was led by Nick Parsons, who has worked for over 25 years in renewable energy, sustainable building and eco-retrofit.

Applying a lime render to insulating boards

This is a really practical course, ideal for anyone who is planning to refurbish an existing building with minimal environmental impact. There were sessions on solid wall insulation, roof insulation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, heat loss, damp, breathability and ecological materials.

roof insulation eco retrofit
The group worked well together. Here are some of the students observing a roof rig demonstration.

The students really appreciated the course:

“Nick was very knowledgable and pragmatic – and he had a great sense of humour!”

“Can I thank yourself and all the staff at CAT for the warm welcome, smiles and hospitality. Everyone enjoyed the Eco Refurb course immensely and I will certainly be looking at additional courses in the future.”

eco renovation course
The course involved a mix of theoretical and practical sessions

We would like to say a big thank-you to Natural Building Technologies, Recovery Insulation and Clan Insulation, who provided materials for the practical sessions on the Eco Refurbishment course. Thanks also to Green Building Press who donated copies of The Green Building Bible for the students. Being able to experience a range of materials made a real difference.

insulation course
A practical session looking at roof insulation

The course will be run again next year. Keep an eye on the short courses calendar to see when the dates are announced. Other related short courses include Straw Bale Building 6th-10th October 2014, Wind Power Systems 18-23rd November and an Introduction to Permaculture 20th-22nd February 2015.

Cooperative housing and low carbon research – lessons from the US

Low carbon renewable energy strategies

This is the fifth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston, in the third blog Paul was in Ohio and for the fourth he was in Utah. Now Paul is in San Francisco, where he visits Stanford University and the ‘Magic’ Community. 

Visiting Stanford University

My research stop in San Francisco’s Bay Area began with a visit to Professor Mark Jacobson at his office at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Mark’s innovative modelling work had originally inspired my trip; initially he developed a robust academic scenario exploring how world energy demands could be met from renewable energy sources. The interest around this work, from journals such as Scientific American led to much more detailed modelling to create ‘50 plans for 50 States’ across the US showing how each could be powered from 100% renewable energy by 2050.

I spent the morning excitedly sharing notes with Mark in his office at the interdisciplinary Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building or ‘Y2E2’ for short. This is the brand new hub for environmental problem solving forms the heart of Stanford’s Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability, linking expertise in “sustainable built systems”, “climate and energy systems”, “oceans and estuaries”, “fresh water”, “energy”, and “land use and conservation”. The building also accommodates researchers from biology, law, medicine, education, anthropology, and economics, as well as civil engineering and Earth systems science. Clearly one of the “greenest” building on the Stanford University Campus, Y2E2 utilises the latest thinking from Arup in energy and water management. Its ‘Coupa Café’ features the best single estate, certified organic and fair trade coffee on Campus to ensure the different disciplines are attracted to this space to cross-fertilise.

Zero Carbon Britain and The Solutions Project

We explored origins of our work, and how it is used, perhaps the key aspect was our approach to the research funding – we both ensured our research was free from corporate funding, to give confidence in its independence to those who use it. Mark offered his insights into Zero Carbon Britain, and compared our communications work with that of ‘the Solutions Project’ that is rapidly emerging around his modelling. The Solutions Project arose in June 2011 when he was meeting with actor Mark Ruffalo, banker Marco Krapels and filmmaker Josh Fox to discuss how they could collaborate around their opposition to extreme energy extraction technologies such as fracking. Their conversation sparked an important realization – it wasn’t enough for them to be against something. They needed to be part of the solution. That prompted them to create a project that can harness the powerful combination of science, business and culture to catalyse the transition to 100% clean, renewable energy – and in the process change how we think about the future. To help me get a better understanding of their communications strategy, Mark set up a meeting for me with the solutions projects communications expert Jon Wank to share ideas on how we can make the findings of this research accessible to those who will use it.

The overwhelming core of our research methodology and findings were very similar. They key technical differences between our scenarios include the following:

  • Mark’s work has a major emphasis on the reduction of the human cost and economic cost of clearer air quality, and so shies away from using any synthetic liquid or gas fuels.
  • His 100% renewable scenarios do not include the significant methane emissions from agriculture and so do not aim to get to net zero emissions.
  • Mark’s scenarios have a target of 100% renewable energy by 2050, rather than 2030, although he stated that he felt it would be technically achievable by 2030, but that would be too fast a cultural shift for the US
  • My meeting with Mark made it very clear to me that our Zero Carbon Britain communications plans should not be modest in their ambitions. Despite much stronger anti-climate change misinformation in the US, the solutions project has attracted the support of a wide range of key celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio, made mainstream TV interviews such as the David Letterman Show (US equivalent of Michael Parkinson), and has attracted significant funding support.
Housing Cooperative Zero Carbon Britain Paul Allen San Francisco
Paul and Mark at Stanford University

Economics are a big part of the solutions project – they have already enrolled expert Marco Krapels and aim to show how this transition makes economic sense for all of us. Mark’s next area of research is to show how global renewable resources may change as the effects of climate change begin to be felt around the world, and the role offshore wind can have in storm mitigation and well as in emissions reduction.

Low carbon renewable energy strategies
50 States: 50 Plans. The Solutions Project

Whilst at Stanford, Mark had also requested that I make a Zero Carbon Britain presentation to his students on the Atmosphere/Energy Seminar programme, so they can see our perspectives on both the modelling and communications. This is also a good way for me to find new contacts for further meetings and investigation. After the lecture, Stanford provided lunch in the Coupa Café so I could spend time talking with the students. On of the students Aniket was particularly taken by my approach and arranged an invitation to Stanford’s Value-science living laboratory – the ‘Magic Community’ in Palo Alto.

The ‘Magic Community’ and ‘Valuescience’ – living our values

I accepted the invitation, the ‘Magic’ community is a living laboratory for Stanford University, it literally provides a home for people learning and communicating how humans can further ‘common good’ by practicing ‘valuescience’ i.e. scientific methods and principles applied to questions of value. I immediately felt at home, it reminded me of the CAT on-site community and of my time living at the Undergrowth Housing Cooperative that grew out of CAT in the mid 1980s.

Their aim is to maximise human wellbeing whilst also reducing their negative impacts. As we shared the most healthy looking salad and fresh vegetable meal I had seen since arriving in the US, I spent time talking with David, Hillary and Robin who form the core group of fellows, each with a tenure of more than fifteen years, and between them they shoulder primary responsibility for operating Magic. They work with several dozen associates and affiliates, including about a dozen who actually live in the Magic residential service learning community. A board of directors oversees the healthy functioning of Magic and they also draw upon support from a board of advisors. Each year hundreds of volunteers, donors, clients, and program participants contribute labour, material, money, and advocacy to make Magic happen.

I explored further what they mean by ‘valuescience’. Basically it is an approach for getting control of your life, so you can consciously make the best choices available, both for yourself and your environment – and can both learn from your mistakes and predict what might work in the future. They were excited to explain that it uses science principals to explore issues of human wellbeing and how this is influenced by lifestyle choices and the values sets that underpins them. They recognise that everyone practices ‘valuescience’ to some degree, although few of us do so consciously, all of us tap only a fraction of its potential, and so we suffer as a result of relying sometimes on choices subliminally biased by commercial interests. Clearly both Magic and its residents were thriving – at a location in which normal ‘nuclear family’ style residential living costs were unbelievable high! They had just completed the construction of an additional brand new super energy efficient residential unit with loads of communal space and two grand pianos! The findings from their ‘valuescience’ research forms part of the academic teaching at Stanford. But the essence of Magic is in a residential service-learning community so that we may better “walk our talk”. They describe their outlook in Thoreau’s words, “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear a word you say.” The evening ended with acoustic guitar and fiddle music ringing around the table, and I caught the very efficient ‘Caltrain’ on to San Francisco with feeling fond comparisons to the CAT on-site community.


Should we all be using heat pumps?

Tobi Kellner
Tobi Kellner


This morning CAT Renewable Energy lecturer and researcher Tobi Kellner has been on the BBC Breakfast Programme, the Today Programme and BBC News talking about heat pumps. The National Trust is installing water source heat pumps in Plas Newydd and Tobi commented on whether these could be something that was rolled out across the UK, and what the environmental impact of that would be. Tobi expands on what the potential for heat pumps is for householders, and the UK generally.  



Heat pumps advice for householders

In my role as renewable energy consultant – and when I worked for CAT’s free Information Service – I often talk to householders who are enthusiastic about renewable energy and want to install a heat pump. However, I generally advise against installing heat pumps in typical UK properties – buildings heated by a gas boiler that is connected to normal radiators. Results from field trials suggest that under these conditions heat pumps typically achieve seasonal performance factors of between 2.0 and 2.5 – that means they supply between 2.0 and 2.5 units of heat for every unit of electricity they consume. That sounds impressive – “up to 250% efficiency”, as some sales brochures would put it. But at the moment most of our electricity is still produced by very inefficient fossil fuel power stations. For example, a coal power station needs three units of heat from coal to produce a unit of electricity. If you now use that unit of electricity to power a heat pump that delivers two units of heat to a building then you’d actually be better off burning coal directly! Our calculations suggest that for existing homes which are on the mains gas grid heat pumps have no significant advantage in terms of money or carbon emissions – much better idea to invest money in improving insulation or maybe installing a solar roof.

An air-source heat pump at CAT

On the other hand, I also advise people who want to build new homes, and here heat pumps can often be a great choice: If you build to a very high standard of energy efficiency (as any new building should be!) and if you design a heating system that can run at fairly low temperatures (for example, underfloor heating with densely spaced pipes can run at 35°C whereas radiators may need 70°C) then heat pumps can be an excellent choice.

Heat pumps in the Graduate School of the Environment

As a lecturer in CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, I currently supervise a student carrying out research into heat pumps for his M.Sc. thesis. Having wired up his own heat pump and house with sensors and data loggers over the last winter, the student built a computer model that allows him to answer questions such as Would the heat pump be able to supply enough heat during a cold winter if it only operates during times of low electricity demand?
Answering question of this type is crucial for our transformation to a renewably powered future, and it’s great to see that our students are taking a lead!

CAT outside Parliament
Tobi and the ZCB team outside parliament

Heat pumps in Zero Carbon Britain

In our Zero Carbon Britain scenario, heat pumps play a central role. When we looked at how we could supply 100% of our energy from UK-based renewables, we noticed two things: First, wind turbines will play a central role in our energy supply as the UK has a fantastic wind resource. And second, even though we assume that in ZCB our buildings will be much better insulated than today, we will still need a lot of heat energy to keep us warm. And in many ways, wind turbines and heat pumps are “a match made in heaven”. On average, we have more wind power in winter when we need more heat (though there are of course periods when it is cold but calm), so there’s a nice match between supply and demand. And heat pumps can even help us deal with variability from renewable electricity sources. You wouldn’t want your lights to go dim whenever the wind blows a bit less. But heat is very easy to store – in the form of hot water, or even in the ‘thermal mass’ of the bricks & mortar of our homes. So you can easily imagine a future where your heat pump works harder at times when there is plenty of wind and little demand (e.g. during a windy night) and stop working during times of peak demand or low renewable energy supply. Our research suggests this could play a significant role in powering future energy supplies, without any impact on comfort. For more information on the role of heat pumps in Zero Carbon Britain, download the report here.


Starting an MSc is a life-changing decision

By Helen Kennedy, who just got back from CAT’s postgraduate open weekend where she came to find out about our new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course. 

Helen Kennedy at Treffyn
Helen Kennedy at Treffyn

Having 22 years’ teaching experience, and not liking the way things have been going for some years, I decided to try somehow to make a difference both to my life and possibly the lives of many others by taking more practical skills and thinking back into the classroom. But how to do it? Budgets are tight and present government educational climate wrong to try to do it from the inside, so, having long been interested in the world of renewable energy, sustainable building methods and permaculture design, I have decided to get trained up and qualified, and try to deliver what I feel is crucial stuff back into the world of primary and secondary education from the outside.

And so I began to look into the possibilities. It didn’t take long to realize that the courses available at CAT offer something you cannot get anywhere else, in terms of the wealth of knowledge concentrated there, the immersive environment, the “what you see around you everywhere reflects what you learn” whole ethos of the site itself, the great reputation of CAT and its long-standing history. I visited CAT as an enthusiastic 7 year old, and remember the revolutionary half-flushing toilets and hand-made wind turbine. From tiny acorns, as the saying goes.

I arrived on Saturday morning feeling excited but rather apprehensive about the weekend, and as the funicular carriage heaved me up the steep slope, it was difficult not to feel seven again, with my weekend’s belongings stuffed in a bag and a thousand questions stuffed in my head.

The gathering of people in front of the WISE building reflected the sheer diversity of those interested and driven to make whatever differences they can to tackle the environmental changes happening to the world, and to learn more about it, or to pass on their expertise, and I was immediately made to feel welcome, and taken on an impromptu tour of some of the work undertaken by students during a week of trying out different wall building and rendering techniques, including home-made lime putty, pizza ovens and a potential sauna. CAT students obviously know how to have fun 😉

CAT students making lime putty last week

The weekend formally began with an introduction to CAT from Tim Coleridge, followed by a lecture about climate change and adaptation delivered at lightning speed by Ranyl Rhydwen, who could get his message across to a sack of spuds, so lively is his style and passionate is his conviction. Catching our breath (!) we were whisked off on tours of some of the AEES [course to be replaced by Sustainability and Adaptation in September] students’ projects, and very industrious stuff it is too. From investigations into the properties of different mixes of hemp shives and lime, to exterior render experiments, some even including flour in the mix, and various different building projects underway, it was all very interesting. Brain overload was avoided by discussing also the social side of things; the starlit sauna up the steep slope behind the WISE building, or a, dare I say it, drinking den down the Magical Mole Hole!

Following a well-earned break, an exemplification of course modules and a Q&A session we went off to find our rooms. The first thing to hit me was the aroma of wood oil, and then the sliding door onto the decking area with daisies and a PV array, courtesy of this year’s REBE students. I could have stayed in there for the rest of the evening, except for the promise of pizza baked in a clay oven, a cool cider, some great company and an unexpected stomp up the slope to see the site from the wind turbines and to get eaten alive by midges as the sun sank behind some lenticular clouds.

Cooking pizza on Saturday night

A peaceful sleep, a renewable shower and a vegetarian CAT-special breakfast later, we were all gathered to listen to Tobi Kellner’s Zero Carbon Britain lecture. This was possibly one of the most powerful 40 minutes I have ever experienced, and one with a hugely positive message. I have since returning home, downloaded the pdf file of this lecture with its brilliantly clear and user-friendly info-graphics.

I had to leave early, to see if my wild-camping partner and dog had made it to Aberdovey in the heat of the weekend (which they had), but my head was left buzzing with all the activities and messages I had seen and heard, and the fabulous folk I met, and hope to meet again, as a student. Fingers crossed.

If you missed the open weekend but are interested in the MSc courses offered at CAT visit the Graduate School of the Environment webpages or contact us.

Analysis: Why we can’t choose fracking

So, we already know why we don’t need fracking, but there are very good reasons for saying we quite simply can’t have it.

“Shale gas is categorically not compatible with the UK’s obligation to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change – the maths on this are clear and unambiguous.”

–  We really can’t sum it up any better than this comment from Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and ex-director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organisation.

But others have said it too:

“The world should not be searching for new sources of fossil fuel. We can’t even burn all of what we already have. We need to keep the coal, oil and the gas in the ground” says Simon Bullock (of Friends of the Earth) on releasing a report on ‘unburnable carbon’ last year.

The Carbon Tracker initiative, looking at fossil fuel reserves already listed by the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies on the stock exchange, state that “just the listed proportion of reserves in the next 40 years is enough to take us beyond 2°C of global warming.” And that these are just 27% of known conventional fossil fuel reserves, not including those from most unconventional sources like fracking.

Economist Dieter Helm sums up the issue: “The problem is that we have too much fossil-fuel  resource, not too little – enough to fry the planet several times over.”

Budgeting our carbon

Kevin Anderson explains what the problem is, when commenting on the shale gas report released recently by the House of Lords: “Climate change is a cumulative issue – it is about the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The 2°C threshold between dangerous and acceptable climate change comes with a carbon budget; i.e. how much CO2 we can emit into the atmosphere.”

The global carbon budget is pretty well defined (here, in the most recent IPCC report see details on ‘cumulative carbon emissions’ (see page 27), and a useful explanation here). We can say what chance we have of avoiding that 2°C threshold given the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere in total – cumulatively. The less carbon we release, the higher our chances of avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change.

But how we share the global carbon budget out amongst countries is a little more tricky. One way to do it would be to say each person in the world gets the same share, starting now, which means a country’s allocation would just be based on its population. But this doesn’t take account of the fact that people in the UK have benefited from being a high emitter in the past . Since most emissions remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, a substantial amount of what is now in the atmosphere is ‘ours’. We can choose to divide the global carbon budget into countries’ shares from different dates – the earlier the date we divide it up, the more responsibility we take for emitting more than our fair share historically.

The chart shows some examples of this:

Figure 1: Comparison between UK’s share of the global carbon budget for different chances of avoiding a 2oC global average temperature rise (orange; red) and the emissions associated with burning various known fossil fuel reserves in the UK (grey, blue). Note: These figures are are calculated excluding emissions from international aviation and shipping, and are in gigatonnes carbon-dioxide (GtCO2), to make data comparable to those for fossil fuel reserves. They do not, for example, include methane (CH4) that may be released in extraction or distribution of gas. in Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future, conventionally we use gigatonnes carbon-dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e) which encompasses all greenhouse gases. For this reason, the budgets used here do not appear the same as those in the latest ZCB report.

The figure above shows exactly what the problem is for the UK – comparing various potential ‘carbon budgets’ to our remaining and potential fossil fuel reserves (both conventional and unconventional). We can see that with a decent (80%) chance of avoiding 2°C, and taking historical responsibility for our emissions back to just 2000 would mean that burning even those conventional fossil fuels projected by UK government would take us way over the 0.4 GtCO2 budget.

If we relax our morals and take almost no historical responsibility, we still can’t burn everything we plan to before blowing our larger budget of 3.4 GtCO2.

In fact, even with a 50/50 chance – which is no better than flipping a coin to see if we will avoid 2°C, and taking almost no responsibility for our actions in the past (bringing our budget to 8.2 GtCO2), we still can’t burn all of the potential conventional fossil fuel reserves in the UK. In fact, Carbon Tracker states in its report “London currently has 105.5 GtCO2 of fossil fuel reserves listed on its exchange”, and that “just one of the largest companies listed in London, such as Shell, BP or Xstrata, has enough reserves to use up the UK’s carbon budget to 2050”

And thats before we even start talking about carbon from unconventional fossil fuels like shale gas from fracking.

Friends of the Earth say “The UK plans on producing far more than a reasonable share of the world’s burnable carbon. Shale gas is just adding to a huge unburnable carbon problem.“

And they’re totally right – no carbon budget for the UK which holds any moral, or ethical sway stretches far enough to be able to start getting at unconventional fossil fuels like those from fracking.

The lesser of two evils?

But isn’t gas better than coal from a carbon perspective? Shouldn’t we be fracking for gas so we can get rid of coal power stations? What about gas as a ‘bridging’, or ‘transition’ fuel to a renewable future?

Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas for the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), reiterated in evidence he submitted to the Committee preparing the Lords’ report (see pages 353-4), states that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.”

Shale gas, like any other fossil fuel, emits carbon dioxide into the air when burnt to produce energy. As such, Anderson comments, “In that regard it is certainly not a transition fuel and if we are serious about our explicit climate change commitments the only appropriate place for shale gas remains deep underground.“

[Note: there are countless more detailed arguments against exploiting shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels as a ‘bridging’ or ‘lower carbon’ fuel. Some can be found here, here and here.]

A better option

It simple: as Bullock states: “The UK should call a halt to new oil, gas and shale gas exploration, and invest in energy efficiency and renewable power instead.” We know this works, and we know we will, regardless of what carbon budget we stick to, have to transition to a zero-carbon and carbon-neutral energy system like that outlined in CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future. We show that we have all the technology we need already, and transforming our society in this way, without fracking for gas, gives us the best chance possible of avoiding that 2oC threshold.

CAT’s course in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment teaches the real solutions for eliminating greenhouse gases from our energy system. Apply now to start in September.

REBE Alumnus Powering Conservation in the Seychelles

Our MSc Renewable Energy and the Built Environment provides its students with the knowledge and practical skills to make a positive impact within the world of Renewable Energy. One of our Alumni, Tim Kirkpatrick, is applying the knowledge he developed on the REBE course in the idyllic island setting of the Seychelles.

Aride boat house

The Seychelles is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, located just south of the equator. With little variance in the length of days and bright sunshine for the vast majority of the year, the Seychelles is an ideal location for the use of Solar Photovoltaics to generate power. However, when it comes to renewable energy, the Seychelles is still behind the times.


Most of the power generated in the Seychelles, either for the grid systems on the larger populated islands or the smaller outlying island communities, is done by the burning of fossil fuels which have to be imported to the Seychelles. This is problematic in a number of ways, firstly the environmental concern, as fuel oil is a contaminant and causes damage and disruption to wildlife if not properly stored, the second is the cost of buying and importing the fuel oil as well as the problems arising from transporting the fuel to smaller islands. Thirdly, due to the noise and cost of running a fuel generator it can only be used sparingly over the course of the day.


“Solar energy is viewed as something of a black art by some in the Seychelles” says Tim Kirkpatrick, an alumnus of CAT’s MSc REBE and GVI’s Climate Care Director. Tim works to provide education and advice on the effects of climate change, as well as offering consultancy services and the design and installation of off-grid PV systems to communities in the outlying islands. Despite PV’s status as a “black art”, Tim has been able to complete some very interesting PV projects with great results. On a 2012 project on the island of Curieuse, Tim designed and installed a PV array to replace a petrol generator at a cost of $9477, taking into account fuel and generator costs this system paid for itself by March 2014 and over a 25 year lifecycle period will result in savings of over $250,000, the CO2 savings are 7955kg per annum.


Tim is also in the process of planning another project on Cousin Island, an ecologically important site for various birds and marine wildlife. This project has been initiated by Birdlife International and Nature Seychelles and aims to replace the generator with a new PV array, it is intended that this will save around £600 per month which can be used on funding continuing research as well as being a form of ‘silent energy’ which will prevent disruption to the wildlife on the island. The project will also save around 8000kg of CO2 per year.  Click here to donate to the project.

To find out more about courses at CAT, attend our open weekend 17-18th May.


Zero Carbon Britain calls for faster emissions reductions in advance of IPCC mitigation report

Leaks from the latest IPCC report from Working Group III, being discussed this week in Berlin suggests it will call for radical emissions reductions globally which will require “large-scale transformations in human societies”. The IPCC will propose a reduction in emissions of 50% (from 2010 levels) by 2030 for developed nations such as the UK.

Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) research from the Centre for Alternative Technology shows how it is possible, and desirable, to reach net zero emissions in the UK by 2030. They will be presenting their work at an event in London (and broadcast online) at 6.30pm, Wed 9th April.


Commenting (ahead of the release of the IPCC report) on why we in the UK might need faster emissions reductions than the IPCC top line figure of 50% by 2030, Alice Hooker-Stroud, Zero Carbon Britain research coordinator says :

“Any greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere from now on risks people’s lives and happiness as well as ecosystems. It isn’t yet clear how likely these levels of emissions would be to increase temperatures by more than two degrees in the latest model, or how the IPCC have divided the responsibility for cutting emissions between rich and poorer nations. Both of these things are important moral questions relating to climate mitigation which the report will have to make a judgement on.

What is clear is that radical action is necessary. Our judgement is that as a rich nation with a long history of high emissions and therefore particular responsibility for the climate problem, we should be doing everything we possibly can to limit climate change impacts around the globe, remembering that all future emissions carry a risk.”

Zero Carbon Britain is a rigorous energy scenario which demonstrates that achieving net zero emissions in the UK by 2030 is technically possible using only current technology, while maintaining a modern standard of living.

The in-depth research, which included modelling hourly energy production and consumption data over a ten year period, shows that net zero emissions are possible using a combination of reducing energy demand, 100% renewable sources of energy and careful management of land.

The IPCC report shows that implementing these kinds of solutions would have several knock-on benefits for human society and the environment, but that we are currently failing to implement them fast enough. They warn that we are currently on track to overshoot the 2 degrees ‘guardrail’ in global average temperature increase, and would have to consider large-scale carbon-negative technologies if emissions aren’t reduced quickly enough.

Alice argues that it is neither sensible or desirable to rely on uncertain, large-scale, carbon-negative future technologies : “We already have everything we need to act responsibly, and play our part in the global effort to tackle climate change. We shouldn’t be relying on future technologies that may or may not get us out of the problem we all saw coming and knew was avoidable.

“Overshooting the 2 degree ‘guardrail’ would be devastating. I wouldn’t call that a plan at all – its reckless and irresponsible. Smaller scale carbon capture by natural ecosystems could play a role in getting the UK to net zero emissions, but we have to respect that there are limits to these systems. There are so many other options for producing low carbon energy and reducing consumption, and there are benefits from choosing to do so.”

Rapidly reducing emissions can’t rely on any single technology. It requires big cultural changes including potential changes to diets, transport patterns and energy consumption. The Zero Carbon Britain scenario includes reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diet to allow for more provision of food from UK sources, all biomass for energy to be grown sustainably in the UK, and expansion of natural ecosystems for carbon capture.

Yet most of these actions required to reduce emissions were highlighted as having multiple benefits in the IPCC Working Group II summary report released last week: “Examples of actions [to mitigate climate change] with co-benefits include (i) improved energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources, leading to reduced emissions of health-damaging climate-altering air pollutants; (ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services.”

Alice concludes on the scale of the transformation necessary: “Large changes will be necessary to act on climate change, but the solutions are here. We can make these changes now, or have changes imposed upon us from a changed climate for generations to come: its our choice.”



Britain’s first ‘fracking village’ shows how to make Zero Carbon Britain a reality

Last year, Balcombe hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Targeted to be first in a new wave of oil and gas drilling, the sleepy West Sussex village found itself in the eye of the national storm surrounding the push for fracking in the UK.

This year will be different. Keen to see a positive, practical response to the divisive fracking debate, residents have set up a clean-energy co-op called REPOWERBalcombe. The goal: build enough community-owned solar power to match the electricity needs of all 760 homes in the village within 2 years.

The REPOWERBalcombe group (Image by 10:10)

It’s bold, it’s brilliant, and it could be the shape of things to come. The Repower approach is already on the rise, and success in Balcombe can help it spread faster.

Today (27th March) they are publicly launching their coop and its aim, for the first time. Climate Change campaign 10:10, has been lending the community a hand to help set it up, and today are launching their “Back Balcombe” campaign, to do exactly that – offering the nation a chance to support the village’s ambition to reject fracking and move to power itself from clean renewable sources, and hopefully inspire people around the UK to get involved with repowering their community

Research from the Centre for Alternative Technology shows that it would be possible to power Britain entirely by renewable energy without having to use fossil fuels. The Zero Carbon Britain report shows that a mixture of renewable energy sources, alongside energy efficiency measures and careful land management could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero within 15 years. Balcombe’s decision to embrace renewable solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels is a very welcome step that exemplifies the decisions that need to be taken for the whole of the UK.

Kit Jones from the Centre for Alternative Technology said:

“This is a brilliant milestone on the path to a Zero Carbon Britain. It is an example of a community that has rejected the endless race for more extreme fossil fuels and embraced a positive alternative. We know that an energy system supplied entirely by renewable energy is possible. We should back Balcome and hope that it inspires other communities to take energy production into their own hands too.”

Joe Nixon, cofounder of REPOWERBalcombe said:

“We all need energy, but buying dirty fossil power from giant utilities is no longer the only option. Advances in renewable technology mean that communities like ours can now generate the energy we need ourselves, locally, in a way that benefits us directly instead of big power companies – and helps the environment instead of harming it. This is win-win for Balcombe and for the planet.

Leo Murray, from 10:10 and the Back Balcombe campaign said:

“People don’t want fracking but are being told there is no alternative if we want to keep the lights on and have secure power supplies. Well there is. Balcombe is sending a clear message that while fracking has to be forced on communities, they choose clean renewable power.

“If the UK is to cut carbon emissions and meet its renewable energy targets it has to take local and community owned energy more seriously. Massive offshore wind farms and tidal turbines are essential but so is our turning our homes, farms, shops, village halls and rivers into clean power stations.”

You can find the website of the REPOWERBalcombe community energy coop here:

You can find out more about Zero Carbon Britain here:

You can find the website of 10:10’s Back Balcombe campaign here:

The village already has some solar power – mostly on homes.


How it works

The first phase of the energy scheme will be all be funded locally. Residents who put money into shares in the the co-op will become joint owners, giving them a say in how it’s run. These local owners will put up the capital needed to repower the village to the equivalent of 10% of its electricity needs.

While REPOWERBalcombe was set up to serve a local need, Balcombe’s status as the front line of fracking in the UK means the project is likely to attract national support.

The group wants to harness this to fund a much larger second phase. Working with 10:10’s Back Balcombe campaign and Energy4All, they’re developing a mechanism that will allow anyone to invest in helping them meet their power needs from clean renewable energy, while keeping control in local hands.

Surplus income from the scheme, (expected to be tens of thousands of pounds a year) will go into a community benefit fund set aside to pay for energy efficiency improvements for local homes and community buildings.

The first installation will be at Grange Farm, a family farm close to the village, with a handful of other sites expected to go public in the next few weeks. Overall REPOWERBalcombe aims to install around three megawatts of capacity overall, adding up to about 12,000 solar panels in total.


Balcombe, in West Sussex (image by 10:10)

High Hopes after Record Breaking Month for Wind Power

A clear success story for UK wind power this December, re-establishing its potential as a powerful force in the UK .

The future looks promising for the growth of wind power thanks to bad weather conditions and howling wind.  Overall, a total of over 2.8m MWh of electricity was provided to the National Grid over the course of the month, enough to power more than 5.7 million UK homes. Moreover, wind power met 10% of total electricity demand during December. The greatest triumph of the day however was on the 21st of December, the busiest shopping time of the year, when wind turbines swung into action and generated 132,812 MWh – thats 17% of the nation’s total energy demand in one day!

Wind turbines in Cornwall
Wind turbines in Cornwall

Predicted targets for a wide range of reforms that could drive more than £100 billion of investment in clean energy infrastructure such as onshore and offshore wind farms are being realised. It has also come at a crucial time for the Energy Bill that came through last year, as it encourages a secure supply of low carbon electricity generation.

Maf Smith, Deputy Chief Executive of RenewableUK said: ‘This is a towering achievement for the British wind energy industry. It provides cast-iron proof that the direction of travel away from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable sources is unstoppable… British wind energy is providing a better alternative – a stable, secure cost-effective supply of home-grown power.’

Small scale wind generation at CAT
Small scale wind generation at CAT

The statistics represent the amount of electricity generated by the National Grid, therefore figures are even higher when taking into account the off grid wind farms and small scale generation.

ZCBlog: Does coal have a role in reducing emissions?

CC. Flickr. Kentucky Photo File.

Coal use for electricity production today

Currently in the UK, around 80% of all our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and using energy. Burning coal, gas and oil emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to climate change. Together, these fuels provide around 90% of the UK’s primary energy supply. Some of these fossil fuels are used directly – petrol and diesel (oil) in our vehicles for example; but some are burnt to produce the electricity we use. Although the burning of coal in fires to heat our homes directly has reduced dramatically over recent decades, we still rely on it to produce most of our electricity by burning it in power stations. If we are to play our part in tackling climate change in the UK, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions swiftly and sharply, it is clear that our methods of energy production must change. There are many ‘lower carbon’, ‘carbon neutral’ and even ‘zero carbon’ methods of energy production that offer us better ways of producing energy, (especially electricity) in the UK.

Replacing or changing coal use in the UK?

In Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future (the report launched in July 2013 by the Zero Carbon Britain project at CAT), we opt for 100% renewable energy production – wind (onshore, and offshore), solar, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, and others – all ‘zero carbon’ or ‘carbon neutral’. With these, and ‘carbon neutral’ synthetic fuels, we can produce enough energy for the UK at the right times – making sure our energy demands are met at all times. In the UK today, however, high on the energy agenda is the conversion of our current coal plants to biomass (see article here about why this is a bad idea), but also about fitting current coal power stations with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) systems. In these plants, coal is still burnt to produce electricity, and most (but not all) of the carbon dioxide emitted is ‘captured’ before it gets into the atmosphere, and then ‘stored’, usually in old oil and gas fields under the sea or underground. This means electricity made from coal plants fitted with CCS can be classed as a ‘lower carbon’ energy source. So, why then, was there outrage from campaigners and environmentalists at the recent COP19 summit – the UNFCCC international negotiation on climate change – when the International Coal and Climate Change summit took place in Warsaw at the same time? Especially since the World Coal Association stated that the coal summit was meant as a contribution, not an alternative, to the UN talks? And why don’t we include coal and CCS in our Zero Carbon Britain scenario?

What is wrong with coal and CCS?

First of all, current standard methods of producing coal, for example mountain top removal for open cast coal mining, are extremely destructive locally and can be very dangerous. Also, coal (or any fossil fuel) power coupled with CCS does not provide a solution in the longer term. There are limits to the CO2 storage capacity of old oil and gas fields, meaning that in the longer-term they would have to be phased out entirely, and replaced by other energy production systems. Whilst it might seem sensible, or cost-effective to use the current infrastructure we have for burning coal, and simply add CCS, it is likely that this will raise the cost of coal-generated electricity, and increase the requirement for energy by at least 20%. We would have to produce far more energy to make CCS systems work, increasing our demand, potentially for coal itself. Furthermore, storage locations for the carbon captured through CCS, must be monitored indefinitely to minimise leakage. We would need to continually pay to keep the carbon safely locked away. This implies unknown costs and effective risk management long into the future, which cannot be guaranteed. And will it really be safely locked away? Whilst abrupt gas leakage events might be seriously damaging to local eco-systems (especially if the storage is underwater), diffuse leaks can be more difficult to stop and would, at least in part, reverse the effect of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place, making it questionable whether or not coal and CCS would really provide the carbon reductions it promises.

CC. Flickr. Sidibousaid60.

Electricity is easy with renewables!

Finally, the thing that strikes us most when creating our Zero Carbon Britain scenario is that electricity – what we currently use coal to produce – is what is produced by almost all renewable sources – wind, wave, hydro, solar PV. It’s easy to produce plenty of electricity from renewables, and its much more efficient than burning coal where lots of energy is lost in the conversion process. In fact, given all the estimated resources in the UK, Zero Carbon Britain research suggests we can produce much more electricity than we require from renewable sources – even if we electrify lots of our systems like transport and heating. So, since not all the greenhouse gas (or carbon dioxide) emissions are captured from an electricity-producing coal plant, even when fitted with CCS, why opt for an electricity production method that is only ‘lower carbon’ (and is less efficient) when there are so many options that are more efficient, and truly ‘zero carbon’? Renewable electricity generation technologies offer larger and more secure greenhouse gas emission reductions. They will last us long into the future, provide jobs, and would allow us to be in control of our own energy production. The UK is blessed with great renewable resources – we are located in one of the windiest places in the world – and our future energy system should play to these strengths.