Dealing with the Blair factor

M&E Sustainability - Jim O'Neil
Focus on how energy is being consumed — Jim O’Neil.

Politicians want to spend huge amounts of our money on new forms of energy generation. Jim O’Neil, chairman of M&E Sustainability, says they are looking in the wrong place.

Tony Blair is back in our lives. He has resurfaced as a champion bent on saving the world from climate change. And how is he going to do this? According to a report he has produced, the answer is to spend £98 billion a year of public money building carbon-sequestration plants and nuclear reactors.

He, like many politicians, believes new technologies are the only way forward. Politicians are, not surprisingly, averse to proposing any measures that might suggest people should change their lifestyles, even mildly, because it is not a vote winner. By taking that as a starting position, they are inevitably wedded to spending vast sums of money.

‘The answer to climate change is the development of science and technology,’ Blair told a national newspaper recently. ‘We will get changes in the way we consume, but we will be consuming differently, not necessarily less.’


Our industry, not surprisingly, sees it rather differently. Yes, technology is vital, and, yes, we need financial stimulation to accelerate the development of improvements in low-carbon products, but we must first focus on how energy is being consumed.



With central power generation crumbling and the threat of power blackouts on the horizon, we must plug our energy gap. Adequate nuclear-power capability is at least 20 years away, and carbon sequestration is unproven — making it potentially even further in the future.

The power-generation industry is already embarked on a £235 billion programme to modernise our infrastructure over the next decade. Suppliers need this massive sum because they are committed to hugely expensive alternatives such as wind power.

Energy Minister Lord Hunt has announced proposals to build 7000 new wind turbines around the coast at a cost to the taxpayer of £15 billion and, overall, he has stated that we could create an extra 25 GW of capacity from wind. Unfortunately, what he doesn’t say is that for every 5 MW of conventional power you are trying to replace, you need 25 MW of wind power because the wind does not blow all the time.

This is accepted by the National Grid, which also estimates that total wind capacity will grow to 16 GW by 2015/16 — all of which will have to be backed up by some form of conventional (carbon-emitting) power generation to compensate for the fact that weather inconveniently refuses to follow patterns that match peaks in consumer demands.

Developing wind power is too slow, does not remove enough carbon and is way too expensive — especially during a global economic meltdown. We simply must focus on cutting energy consumption — which is quicker, easier and far less costly.

M&E Turbine

Buildings are responsible for about 44% of all the carbon emissions in this country, according to the Government’s 2003 Energy White Paper. At a recent All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group meeting, vice chairman Lord Rupert Redesdale told a group of building-industry specialists that over a billion tonnes of carbon could be saved from existing buildings by introducing very simple measures that are currently being ignored by our Government, such as improving glazing and insulation standards.

Our priority within M&E Sustainability, the joint venture between the ECA and the HVCA, is to promote low-carbon solutions across building services. Partly that involves providing technical guidance and support for low-carbon technologies, but, more importantly, focuses on best practice in energy efficiency.


Our sector is centrally placed. Improving the performance of buildings is bread and butter work to M&E firms. According to TACMA, the Association of Controls Manufacturers, 17 million British homes do not have the minimum level of central-heating controls to meet Part L of the Building Regulations; our industry can fix that.


Commercial buildings consume on average around 30% more energy than they should, and many are far worse than that. The reason is a combination of poorly commissioned systems, minimal or no controls and lack of maintenance. These are all areas we can tackle.

Oversized cooling plant is a particular bugbear of energy auditors, who are finding that many systems have been designed to cope with peak summer temperatures that occur only for very short periods. In a large number of buildings, a further 10% capacity (for luck!) has been added — taking the plant size way beyond the optimum and having a hugely detrimental impact on lifecycle running costs.

Mr Blair and co. will be blissfully unaware of these issues, but cumulatively they have a massive impact on carbon emissions. And many commentators talk in terms of energy efficiency and low-carbon solutions as if they were somehow different, when they are, in fact, inextricably linked.

For example, the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive is actually about ‘carbon performance’ because it targets CO2 emissions. Similarly, the requirements of Part L talk in terms of CO2 emission and reduction rather than energy performance. So the 18 to 25% reduction in carbon performance introduced by the 2006 version of Part L compared with the 2002 Part L actually requires around a 30% reduction in the energy consumption of a given building.

If the Government really wants to cut carbon emissions without spending billions of pounds that it doesn’t have. It must focus on buildings — and the only people who can practically tackle the failings of our existing building stock are M&E engineers.

Jim O’Neil is chairman of M&E Sustainability and technical-services director at Shepherd Engineering Services.

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