Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Low Energy Refurbishment

Seeing as it was me that started this environmental revolution at The Castle nearly a year ago, and given the amount and time and effort that everyone here has put in, it’s about time I owned up to what I’ve been doing to further the cause.

Well, I’ve been overseeing the whole process of making our business sustainable and continuing to learn as much as I can about what climate change means for us and what we can do about it. The climbing world is taking notice of our environmental commitment at The Castle. Last month I was interviewed by Es Tresidder for UKClimbing.com as part of an article about climbers and climate change. http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=2038 It’s a well presented piece which got a lot of responses. However, my main practical task is to turn this historic Victorian water pumping station into a low energy building. That’s not going to be easy because it was designed for a completely different purpose to the one it’s being used for now. The Victorians weren’t too worried about heating, draught-proofing or insulation. Retro fitting those items without damaging the original structure, all of which is subject to a Grade 2* listing by English Heritage, will be a challenge.

Earlier this year we commissioned a feasibility study, from a firm of specialist low energy building services consultants, to tell us what the potential is to both conserve energy and generate our own renewable energy at The Castle. The conclusions of the study were unexpected but very illuminating. For a start we’re using far more energy that we assumed and it looks like our options for replacing it with renewable energy generated on site are severely limited. So, not a great start, but I’ve learned a lot from the study so far and there is still hope that we can achieve our goal of a carbon neutral business. When I embarked on this project I tried not to have too many preconceived ideas but I confess that I thought it would be a question of spending a bit of money, tweaking a few of our operating procedures and emerging into a brightly lit new, eco friendly world. It’s not going to be quite that easy. In fact I don’t think we’re going to achieve our goals without a fundamental change in the way we think about energy, food and transport.

So, why are we using more energy than we thought? In short, we don’t know! We assumed that our energy usage would be fairly low because our operation is fairly clunky and down to earth with no unnecessary frills. However, it turns out that, we use twice as much energy per square meter a typical dry sports centre (i.e. one where playing in water isn’t the main focus). At first we wondered if it was a mistake or if one of our neighbours had tapped into our supply and was having a non-stop party at our expense. A far more likely explanation is that the centre has developed organically over fourteen years with extra electrical circuits and gas heaters added on when needed and a lot of our electrical equipment is old or second hand. It’s all been tested to make sure it’s safe but efficiency has never really been considered.

The feasibility study also gave us an indication of how much renewable energy we could expect to generate on site and the various technologies that we could use. Once all the practicalities have been considered this came down to a very short list.
1. We have a huge south facing roof so solar water heating and solar photovoltaic (PV) generation are viable but expensive.
2. Wind power is a possibility but it doesn’t tend to work well in unban areas and the listed status of our building will be a consideration. We’re investigating this option by monitoring wind conditions at roof level but the chances of it being viable are fairly slim.
3. Ground source heat pumps use warmth in the ground to bring low level heat into a building but they take power to pump the fluids round so they’re best thought of as very efficient electric heating rather than a renewable source of energy. We still need to get the electricity to run them from somewhere.
4. The remaining option is biomass heating using wood or plant oil as fuel in a boiler. A lot of businesses and even households are going down this route because it’s relatively cheap both to install and run, it’s seen as renewable and non polluting because the CO2 produced is equal to that absorbed by the plants as they grew and it’s seen as abundant. Unfortunately, I don’t see it that way. If we’re talking about someone living in a shack in a wood and burning coppiced timber for heating and cooking then biomass is a sustainable, low carbon fuel. Commercially, it’s nothing of the sort. The energy involved in transporting and processing the fuel represents up to two thirds of the energy released when it’s burned. All biomass produces particulates and toxins when it’s burned. Some are worse than others. But, my biggest problem with it is that it takes up agricultural land. In a world that’s running out of food (yes we are and Britain isn’t immune) using agricultural land to grow energy crops doesn’t make any kind of sense. This is bound to be a controversial view, and hope it starts a debate; however, we’re not going to be using biomass heating.

In short, solar power is our only reliable option for renewable energy, so how much of it can we produce? Maybe about one fifth of the energy we currently use! It’s going to take some serious efficiency measures to balance our energy use with our energy generation. But why would we need to do that? We’re a climbing centre not a power station. Surely, we can just convert everything over to electrical power and buy it from a 100% renewable source (which we already do) and then we’ll be carbon neutral, at least as far as energy’s concerned, won’t we? Technically, that’s probably true but do you honestly think that approach would be sustainable if everyone took the same attitude, using as much energy as they want as long as the power company tells you it’s green? There’s lots of scope for debate on this issue as well but this approach doesn’t make any sense to me.

I believe we need to drastically reduce our energy consumption to get as close as possible to the amount of energy we can produce ourselves and then source the remainder intelligently. A typical approach to reducing energy consumption would be to examine all our areas of energy consumption and make them as efficient as we can. I intend to take the opposite approach and completely rethink our energy use buy considering what we need to run the centre and not basing it on what we do now. I think that’s the only way we’ll find out how efficient we can get. This may sound radical and unmanageable but once we have a plan we’ve given ourselves five years to implement it so it doesn’t have to mean ripping the place apart and putting it back together again all in one go.

Generating our own energy gives us some resilience to supply interruptions and price fluctuations. Teaming up with some of our neighbours to share resources would bring even greater local resilience and this is something we can try to do as the project progresses, but how do we source the remainder of our energy needs intelligently? Well, we can buy our energy from a 100% renewable supplier, which we already do. We also need to support the development of national infrastructure which will allow large scale, efficient renewable energy generation to be made available to everyone. This support could take the form of offsetting some of the carbon emissions we can’t reduce any more (once we’ve done all we can) by supporting appropriate renewable generation schemes. This is something we’re going to look into.

The first practical step at The Castle is to install a monitoring system so that we can see where all our energy is going in real time and develop an understanding of what functions use the most energy and how that can be improved. Then we’ll be in a position to design something better. The monitoring system will be installed this month and we’re taking the opportunity to record gas and water use plus internal temperatures with the same system.

I’ll let you know what we learn from the monitoring programme and what we intend to do next.

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