Monday, 13 July 2015

'Organic' air is bad for you

Poor air quality is killing more people in the UK than smoking and alcohol combined; accounting for 29,000 premature deaths every year, according to Public Health England.

The recent heatwave has focused attention on the effects of outdoor pollutants and has exacerbated already serious problems with transport emissions, but there is also a major problem INSIDE buildings.
Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) may be responsible for the loss of over 200,000 ‘healthy life years’ in Britain, according to a new study published by the Finnish National Institute for Health & Welfare(THL). Its research appears to prove the link between exposure to indoor pollutants and cardiovascular disease, as well as a number of other health hazards leading to reduced life expectancy.
57% of the total burden relates to cardiovascular diseases, 23% to lung cancer, 12% to asthma and the remaining 8% relates to other respiratory conditions, the Institute reported, adding that changing the way buildings are ventilated could reduce the overall impact of indoor air pollution by as much as 38%.
Making this link to the health impact on building occupants is timely because of the UK government’s current legal tangle with the European Union over our appalling record on air quality.
The UK has been in breach of Europe’s air pollution limits since 2010, leading the European Commission and environmental lawyers to launch separate legal actions that carry fines of up to £300m a year.  Lawyers acting for the European Commission said the UK's failure to act on air quality was “perhaps the longest running infringement of EU law in history”. 
Just as in the 70s and 80s when government health advisers started to recognise the need to act over the impact of smoking on cancer and heart disease, so today we see growing evidence of the health impact of airborne particles and other gaseous pollutants.
However, there still seems to be a perception that air brought into a building via ‘natural’ ventilation is, in some way, organic – and therefore wholesome; while anything processed by a ventilation fan or through a filter is the equivalent of genetically modified crops and to be treated with suspicion.
This myth really needs to be dispelled, particularly in the light of the UK’s newly acquired status as the dirty air champion of Europe. The growing risk of outdoor pollutants entering buildings is adding to the problem posed by the various threats that already exist indoors including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in carpets, paints etc.
People spend more than 90% of their lives indoors; often in sedentary occupations and with the windows open because the building is overheated.
The situation has been exacerbated over the last two decades by the drive to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, which has involved making them more airtight. Sealing up buildings puts pressure on ventilation systems to dilute rising levels of CO2 and replenish oxygen while simultaneously trying to prevent the rising number of harmful external pollutants from finding their way inside. This is very hard to achieve ‘naturally’.
It is not surprising that the European Commission is putting pressure on the UK. Its Environment Committee has revealed that poor air quality is responsible for 360,000 premature deaths across the continent.  Many airborne particles are precisely the right size for inhalation into lungs and the body has no way of removing these invaders so they go on to cause damage and disease to vital organs.
The government admits that Greater London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire will remain in breach of EU air quality law until beyond 2030 – an extraordinary admission, but one that proves the depth and seriousness of this issue. Recently London’s Oxford Street was labelled ‘the most polluted street in the world’ due to extraordinarily high levels of traffic pollution. New studies have linked nitrogen oxide (NO2), which is often caused by petrol and diesel emissions, to higher rates of lung cancer and heart failure. 
This threat continues to grow because government policy was focused on reducing CO2 emissions leading to the promotion of diesel vehicles. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared diesel particulates as a Class 1 carcinogen.
In Central London the concentration of diesel and nitrogen oxide (NOx) is about three times the WHO recommended level.  This figure was only made public following a challenge from the Campaign for Clean Air, which estimates that London suffers a 20% increase in mortality rates as a result.
If you live on a busy arterial road in London you are continually exposed to two or three times more harmful inhalable particulates than the WHO warning level and it is also slowly starting to dawn on people that if you have a problem with outside air pollution; you are likely to have a problem inside the nearby buildings.
There are a lot of shops and offices on Oxford Street with their doors and windows open, for example, and in thousands of schools around the country, children are finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate in their polluted classrooms. Inside hospitals, most of which are located in busy urban areas, patients are at the mercy of harmful airborne particulates in poorly ventilated wards.
The Healthvent EU research project, carried out by the Technical University of Denmark, reported that almost two thirds of the burden of disease due to IAQ was from pollutants coming into the building.
For good health and productivity the air needs to be about 20-24degC with a relative humidity (RH) of about 40-60%. The ventilation system needs to dilute CO2 levels and replace oxygen – it’s a very fine balance and, because of the heavy focus on reducing energy use, many building managers are using ‘natural’ methods as much as possible and getting the balance wrong.
Air tight building envelopes are a good way of saving money and keeping out external pollutants, but opening windows is not a good idea if you don’t know the level of pollutants in the outside air – and you will undermine the energy saving strategy.
It is very hard to get the right balance of temperature, humidity and air quality through ‘natural’ means alone and it is essential to invest in proper maintenance of air handling units and ductwork hygiene to keep particulate levels under control.
A well-sealed building envelope and effective filtration of incoming supply air can reduce particle penetration by 78%, according to a range of studies. This shows that testing a building for airtightness is just as much a health issue as part of an energy saving strategy.
The recently revised BS EN 15780 standard also provides recommended inspection time periods for air systems to improve monitoring and the B&ES Guide to Good Practice for ventilation system hygiene (TR/19) provides contractors with clear guidelines in line with this standard.
B&ES has also set up an Indoor Air Quality Strategy Team to gather as much information as possible about this hugely important area and help building engineering services firms advise their clients. We have plenty of technical expertise and a range of solutions, but find ourselves continually preaching to the converted. The big task is communicating to the wider world that buildings are not always safe havens from pollution – just as they don’t always successfully exclude the environment when it is too hot or too cold outside.
As the country’s air pollution crisis intensifies, we have a national platform to promote better understanding of the need for high quality building ventilation accompanied by proper, planned maintenance.
There is nothing ‘wholesome’ or even ‘natural’ about urban air. It is, in no way, organic and, just as it took time for scientists to establish that diesel engines were not the carbon answer; so it will take time for people to recognise the facts about indoor air quality and the need for urgent action.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Face west, young man

The age of generous subsidies for renewables is over. Our new government will not be re-opening the coffers – unless the Greens make it into a true ‘rainbow coalition’.
Renewable technologies and installations will have to stand on their feet and be competitive in the open market. The cost of products has fallen rapidly, reducing the need for subsidy and driving us closer to grid parity with fossil fuels.
And that is how it should be…although it is fair to ask whether this would have happened without subsidy creating the market in the first place.
Whatever their merits at the time, feed-in tariffs overheated the solar PV market and led to a lot of inappropriate installations. Similarly with heat pumps; the subsidies meant developers were installing electric systems in homes on the main gas grid – leaving a legacy of systems that will never pay for themselves either economically or in carbon saving.
Fortunately, we now seem to be entering a new era where each possible solution – renewable or conventional – will have to satisfy economic and environmental criteria on their own merits. What might surprise people is that many renewable technologies will still be the most economic choice. 
Building clients looking long-term are starting to view investment in fossil fuel technologies as decidedly uncertain – they are concerned about ending up with stranded assets in ten or 15 years’ time. Although we have enjoyed significant falls in tariffs since the oil producing countries, in tandem with emerging shale gas markets, drove down the wholesale energy price; the long-term picture for oil, gas and coal is increasingly uncertain and ‘energy security’ is coming back onto the agenda.
Couple that with growing maturity and more technical innovation in the renewable sector; and you have a recipe for greater investment in small scale, building specific renewables. For example, one big drawback with solar panels is that they are usually positioned facing south to capture the most intensive solar energy. However, demand for power tends to be lowest in the middle of the day because homes are unoccupied and commercial buildings use more natural daylight and less heating – but that is when the sun is in the south.
The industry has battled long and hard with the problem of how to store renewable energy for when you need it most, but it also has an alternative solution: Solar panels that automatically adjust their position east to west tracking the sun are now available. This makes it possible to use solar energy for longer periods in the day, which fundamentally alters the economic equation. We can expect to see their wider adoption in the UK in the near future.
This kind of solution is not expensive and is why technology is set to play a much bigger role than subsidies. As a result, the renewable industry has a much more sustainable, long-term look about it with greater job security for everyone it employs.

Energy was never their thing

The ‘greenest government ever’ marked their final weeks in power by confirming what most of us realised more or less as soon as they came to power: They never really got this energy efficiency thing.
Although on the face of it the last five years saw significant progress on carbon reduction and this was acknowledged by the Committee on Climate Change; this had more to do with the recession and the reduction in the use of coal in power generation – rather than anything the coalition did to promote energy efficiency.
On energy ‘policy’, the administration twisted and turned; chopped and changed; and moved in whatever direction they thought the ‘business’ world wanted them to go. Their policies on renewables and the Green Deal revealed their complete lack of conviction on this issue. And, as a final flourish, they set out to abolish Display Energy Certificates (DECs) from public buildings - just three years after announcing they planned to extend their use into the private sector.
The Conservatives are instinctively anti-regulation and consider anything to do with setting minimum standards an imposition on business. Unfortunately, almost every energy or carbon abatement measure was caught in the political cross-fire because the Conservatives set out to reinforce their business credentials ahead of the General Election and to emphasise the apparent anti-business stance taken by the Labour opposition.
I can understand, to a degree, their fear of over-regulation, but the UK is heading very rapidly towards the other extreme and we have clearly entered a period where it is not about developing long-term strategy on energy, but scoring political points. We cannot expect the market alone to deliver minimum energy standards in buildings because clients will, in most cases, opt for the cheapest solution unless there is, at least, some measure of compulsion.
Having said that, a number of private property firms have introduced voluntary DECs because they can see the commercial value in measuring, monitoring and being upfront about their energy performance.  How ironic in light of the government’s latest move.
Even more ironic is the fact that remote metering is being imposed on the private building sector by the department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). In a clear case of double standards, private users will be scrutinised in order to make it easier for energy suppliers to charge them – despite delays to the roll out programme and growing unease about smart meter technology; while DCLG sets about removing the one mechanism that has some chance of impelling the public sector to tackle its energy waste. 
U turn
You have to fear for the future of the regulations now in place designed to compel landlords to bring their properties up to EPC band E or F by April 2018. Is there a U-turn coming there as well? I guess we will see once we know the colour of the next administration.
DECs and EPCs - and BREEAM ratings for that matter - are far from perfect and suffer from poor enforcement. It is very rare for anyone to actually go back and check the building was performing as claimed, however, the principle is essential.
We cannot progress towards carbon and energy saving targets without proper measurement and monitoring of ‘actual’ energy consumption in buildings – this really is a first base issue.
It is also not an onerous burden on business. Quite the opposite; it adds value to buildings. A building that is cheaper to run is better designed and operated and, therefore, more comfortable to inhabit leading to more productive occupants. As has already been shown in Australia and other parts of the world, such buildings command better rents.
Blue chip property firms here have woken up to this fact, which is why they want higher energy ratings for their buildings - there is a clear business benefit. Why, therefore, did our ‘pro-business’ government not see it the same way? And can we hope that the next one will see this whole energy policy ‘thing’ differently?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Air filtration for all!

Local and central government officials have missed (or ignored) the link between outside air pollution and building related health problems for years.

Within the building engineering community we have been pointing out for some time that polluted air does not simply mysteriously disappear when it reaches a building. On the contrary, it has a catastrophic impact on indoor air quality (IAQ).

Yet, while there have been plenty of high profile efforts to measure outside air pollutants and lots of political grandstanding on the issue – there has been almost total silence on what all this means for the indoor environment. This is despite the fact that we spend most of our lives indoors.
However, the release of the Environmental Audit Committee’s latest report just before Christmas could mark a significant change of direction.
This group of influential government advisers is now calling for the installation of air filtration in all existing school buildings close to pollution hot spots. Their report clearly explains the impact of diesel vehicle emissions; nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and particulate pollution on building occupants.
They said air pollution was now a ‘public health crisis’ causing nearly as many deaths as smoking in the UK every year – about 29,000. They want changes made to the National Planning Policy Framework and new guidance to ensure local authorities prioritise IAQ before granting planning permission for new schools, hospitals and clinics.
NOx is known to cause inflammation of the airways, reduce lung function and exacerbate asthma while particulates are linked to heart and lung diseases as well as certain cancers. Traffic is responsible for 42% of carbon monoxide, 46% of nitrogen oxides and 26% of particulate matter pollution. The Committee also pointed out that the problem had become much worse because of the promotion of diesel vehicles in a bid to cut CO2 emissions.
Committee chair Joan Walley said the main priority was to ‘stop a new generation of children being exposed’ to these risks by retrofitting air filtration in more than 1,000 schools close to major roads. She added that it made ‘sound economic sense’ to filter the air coming into buildings in polluted areas – particularly urban centres.
B&ES speakers recently addressed the Healthcare Estates conference in Manchester where it was agreed that, despite the desperate need for cost savings across the NHS, building systems are rarely inspected, serviced or updated. A few weeks later Channel 4 News revealed the growing scandal about unserviced fire dampers in the ductwork at the PFI flagship Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
The NHS is already at the forefront of the General Election campaign – and as usual the arguments are all about funding. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the debate could be a bit broader and bit more intelligent.
There is, therefore, a great opportunity here to ram home the message that, while ventilation systems may be ‘out of sight out of mind’ and the air we breathe is invisible, that does not make the link between airborne pollutants and increasing rates of respiratory disease less obvious.
Current NHS technical design guidance is exclusively focused on managing the risk posed by the transmission of infections inside a building – again paying no heed to the dangers lurking outside. However, the building engineering services industry has a wide range of solutions to offer  including filtration, but also other (mainly low cost) improvements, such as upgrading fans and simple maintenance. These could not only reduce health risks to building occupants, but also do it in a way that improves the overall efficiency of the ventilation and so significantly cut running costs.
This same argument applies to a wide range of buildings under attack from outside air pollutants with vulnerable occupants at risk – schools being the most obvious example.
Save lives and save money – now surely that’s got to be a vote winner?

Monday, 17 November 2014

So they do listen!

The coalition government has struggled with renewables; falling out repeatedly with the industry and creating damaging uncertainty for investors by continually moving the goalposts and changing policy direction.
However, they have been more or less consistent on solar farms and the new Environment Secretary Liz Truss hammered the final nail into their coffin this week calling them ‘a blight on the landscape’.
The renewables industry hoped she would be more sympathetic than her predecessor Owen Paterson – who has now gone completely rogue by calling on the government to tear up the Climate Change Act – but she has kept up his attack on solar farms by scrapping subsidies for any new developments.
Chris Huhne drastically reduced the Feed-in-Tariff for solar power when he was Climate Change Minister and this latest announcement marks the end of a steady erosion of a misguided policy, which dates back to the previous Labour administration.
I am not claiming too much credit here, but B&ES (we were the HVCA back then) warned the government that solar farms would suck up a huge proportion of the public subsidy available for solar power in this blog in March 2011: ‘Farms are for food – not solar panels’.
It took a while for the penny to drop, but it was clear from the outset that, if farmers could make more money from FITs than from growing food, they would hand over their fields to the solar speculators.
The subsidies were designed to create a market for solar power by encouraging householders and small businesses to install panels on their roofs and, therefore, generate electricity close to the point of use and benefit directly themselves. Instead – and who can blame savvy financial investors from seizing the opportunity – commercial organisations saw them as a source of profit.
The UK now has more than 250 solar farms, which have pushed more of our food production overseas contributing to rising prices. And as I said at the time:
‘The FIT scheme was not intended to be an alternative to the equities markets, but to stimulate the generation of household renewable power. [Huhne] is, rightly, concerned that the subsidies are, instead, making their way into the pockets of so-called “shrewd investors”…’
I also warned that they risked putting the solar energy industry into reverse if they were too draconian with their cuts to the FiTs scheme – which is precisely what happened. However, getting solar panels out of the countryside and onto otherwise underused roof space was the right thing to do.
Perhaps, in this case at least, the government was listening to the industry.

Energy efficiency is not a tax

The General Election campaign is off and running as the political party conference season comes to a close and the emotive subject of housing looks set to be a key battleground.
The Conservatives tried to grab the political high ground at their conference in Birmingham by announcing 100,000 new homes for young (under 40) first-time-buyers at a 20% price discount.
This came hot on the heels of Ed Miliband’s pledge to ensure the country would have all the homes it needs by 2025. A hugely ambitious aim and almost as ambitious as the ‘war on cold homes’ announced by the Labour Party that would make it illegal for landlords to rent poorly insulated and inefficiently heated properties.
The trouble is 2025 is a long way away – and the ‘cold war’ policy would only come into effect in 2027! Our politicians are very good at taking a long-term view if it means they can get away with a huge target that they will not have to account for themselves. They are less good at making long-term decisions on energy policy.
Zero carbon
The Prime Minister has also tailored his own headline grabber for readers of the Daily Mail by insisting that the 20% discount would be achieved by exempting house builders from certain property taxes and…the zero carbon homes standard.
The ‘greenest government ever’ really don’t get this low energy thing at all, do they? This is just the latest example of them dumping low carbon measures because they regard them as a tax burden on ‘business’ and ‘hard working families’.
Unlike the car industry where the manufacturers were challenged to develop new standards and met them, the house builder appears incapable of meeting this challenge and government accepts their arguments at face value. This is not an industry that is suffering. When did you last hear a housebuilder issue a profits warning?
The fact is that energy efficient buildings don’t just save energy – they are also built to better standards. Why not take the opportunity to stimulate the first time buyer market with high quality, low energy housing on a cost basis that can then be replicated right across our housing market? Then it would be up to the industry to deliver.
Finding an excuse to drop energy standards is all too easy for our government. Energy saving is not a tax – it is a benefit.

Calling time on the smart meter rip off

Margaret Hodge MP, who chairs the influential parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts, believes the British public is being ripped off by the £12.1bn smart meter programme.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has instructed energy suppliers to install 53 million smart meters in 28 million homes and two million small businesses by 2020 at a cost of £215 per meter. The cost will, of course, be passed on to individual householders and businesses through their energy bills.
This was yet another of those ‘flagship’ green policies espoused by the government, but has turned out to be, in effect, simply a way of helping utility companies increase profits by helping them cut their operating costs.
The impact on energy saving is now accepted to be almost negligible. Even DECC’s own figures suggest the use of smart meters will cut the average annual energy bill of £1,328 by just 2%. Not much of a return on investment – I suspect most householders would, given the choice, keep the £215.

Even this modest saving depends on consumers becoming more ‘energy savvy’ and changing their behaviour as a result of the additional information provided by the meter. That’s a huge assumption, as Ms Hodge’s committee were quick to point out, and they are clearly hard to ignore because the upshot is the second urgent parliamentary enquiry conducted by the Energy and Climate Change Committee into this issue in less than two years.
Interestingly, in the wording announcing this enquiry ‘energy efficiency’ does not figure. The Committee talks about ‘benefits to consumers, suppliers and the UK energy infrastructure’ by allowing energy suppliers to take remote gas and electricity readings and that overall ‘savings’ will be £18.8bn.
The figures are all over the place and nobody is quite sure where they are coming from. Hodge’s committee said DECC was depending ‘heavily’ on assumed competition in the energy industry to control costs and deliver benefits. ‘Relying on market forces to keep costs down may not be enough on its own to protect consumers,’ she said. ‘Energy suppliers are concerned that it may cost more to persuade reluctant customers to accept the new meters.’

Ms Hodge said DECC should require suppliers to provide ‘a clear breakdown for consumers of the cost of smart meters, their operational cost savings from stopping meter readings and whether consumers are achieving the expected reductions in energy consumption’.
There is also a very real danger that the Government is backing an obsolete technology that is actually not really ‘smart’ at all. It is already possible to control heating and cooling systems using apps on phones that are really ‘smart’ and via the Internet of Things. Consumers are also only looking for trends in energy consumption, these devices are accurate to @10% which makes them perfectly good enough for that function. The smart meter will only really reduce energy supplier costs through remote reading.
Why, therefore, is the government even consulting on the positively antiquated approach of a physical in-home display that is going to prove unpopular with consumers and logistically nightmarish to carry out? They should simply cancel the programme now and throw everything behind app-based energy information and control; invest in a huge public information programme that explains how consumers can access information and use it to save money – and save everyone £215.
With a General Election looming that would be the kind of nice little sleight of hand giveaway politicians love so much and might even convince us that the ‘greenest government ever’ has, finally, got to grips with at least one aspect of energy policy.