The fashion for microgeneration reveals a sluggish approach to the future.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

The recent BRE Resource05 seminars, at the Building Research Establishment in Garston, near Watford, generated no heat…and precious little light.

The building research and consultancy outfit BRE has been reinventing itself for some time now, symbolised by the huge Environmental Building designed by architects Feilden Clegg in 1997.

Here, environmental research and the impact that construction activity has upon the environment is symbolically represented by a building that wears its heart on its sleeve. Its huge turrets flaunt the natural ventilation flows within the building as an example to all about the responsible way to design a building – minimising the reliance on energy-profligate air-conditioning and optimising natural air-flows.

The Environmental Building dominates the mass of ‘unsustainable’ jerry-built structures on the rest of the site, in the same way that the environmental approach now dominates the way that the BRE deals with its research.

The Resource05 event is just one of the ways that BRE gets its eco-message across. Billed as a ‘low-carbon technology showcase’, it was based around the new DTI consultation document Microgeneration Strategy and Low Carbon Buildings Programme (1). Microgeneration (generating power locally rather than by centralised power sources) is the way forward, it seems. The hope is that, although most of us weren’t convinced that small was beautiful in the 1970s, we might be won over today.

The consultation document – which should be read in conjunction with the government’s energy white paper (2) – explores the need to increase ‘micro-CHP, micro-wind, micro-hydro, solar thermal and photovoltaics, ground and air source heat pumps, fuel cells (and any other low carbon small-scale generating technology)’. Part of the idea behind this, as energy minister Malcolm Wicks says, is to maintain a ‘secure’ supply of energy. This is premised on the fear of oil supplies becoming a target for ‘terror networks’ or hurricanes, or human error or some other catastrophic act that could result in the entire system being jeopardised for the sake of one person or act.

Inflated claims about the causes and effects of global warming – hinted at as a possible cause of the recent events in New Orleans – were used to worry the audience into realising that something needed to be done. Meanwhile, Robert Hastings, of the organisation Architecture Energy & Environment in Switzerland, was less sanguine about terrorism. We need, he said, ‘to instil terror in people to make them reduce energy usage’. When the ends justify the means, regardless of facts, it’s any port in a hurricane.

There was a clear mood of survivalism evident throughout the day, with most contributions reflecting on the folly of universal supply, and the renewed interest in local generation. ‘The lights may have gone out in your neighbourhood, but I’ve still got enough to see me through’, was the message coming through. Edward Hyams, chairman of the Energy Savings Trust, argued that microgeneration strategies are ‘essential to insulate society from future energy shocks’.

Referring to the recent over-hyped fuel protests, Rod Janssen (an ‘energy consultant’) said that ‘increasing fuel prices sends the right message’, meaning that we need the price mechanism set at a high enough level to ‘encourage’ us to use less fuel. This would drive us towards more innovative forms of energy supplies. Hastings, meanwhile, simply informed us that SUVs were a crazy – as opposed to luxurious – way to travel.

Next up, Bernard Bulkin, a former chief scientist at BP who is now a commissioner with the Sustainable Development Commission, said that we needed ‘labels, labels, labels to guide consumer choice’. Lest we thought he was just being helpful, he actually meant that we should be steered in our choices away from environmentally insensitive products.

For example, he insisted that plasma screens are an ‘unnecessary extravagance’; patio heaters should not be sold because they waste too much heat to the surroundings; and we should collect rainwater in butts. The advocates of the microgeneration revolution are keen to encourage us to produce locally, to the point of producing personally.
Or not producing at all. As a recent editorial in the Independent put it, ‘small actions such as putting on an extra sweater instead of turning up the heating…will help the planet’ (3).

The process of liberalising the planning laws to permit the construction of otherwise unacceptable wind turbines is a policy already under consideration. Indeed, Planning Policy Statement 22, Renewable Energy (PPS 22), now states that ‘local planning authorities should specifically encourage such schemes through positively expressed policies in local development documents’ (4).

The conference was keen to open up ‘debate’. Indeed, the representative from the DTI was so keen on debate that she refused to make her allotted speech because she didn’t want to take time away from the audience. It became evident, though, that critical engagement in this conference was limited – exemplified by the fact that most people asking the questions were, in some form or other, from state-sponsored quangos, grant-aided consultancies or directly funded government agencies. Some radicals often criticise independent commentators for representing corporate interests, but there seems to be no recognition that they themselves are even less independent of mainstream state-sponsored political directives. Most people were there to fine-tune the DTI consultation demands for microgeneration, not to engage critically with its limitations.

Most people seemed to think that microgeneration was more than just an energy policy. Part of the process of the consultative dialogue – albeit an artificial one – is to draw people into the process of civic engagement. It became clearer, as the day went on, that this was a debate about involving people; about getting people to behave responsibly, to consider the error of their wasteful ways, and to play a part in making things better by considering what they could do to produce energy locally.

At the end of the seminar, a questioner from the back demanded changes to the planning laws to stop anyone putting a neighbouring building up that might slow down the wind to his rooftop windmill. He also insisted that houses should only be approved for construction if they faced south to catch maximum sunlight. Another questioner demanded carbon rationing, whereas carbon sequestration by technological means was frowned on as a naive technical fix. Many wanted to see more natural local materials used in construction.

And so it goes. A conference designed to be an open dialogue turns out to be yet another incestuous soliloquy – an ode to a tree: ‘I think that I shall never see / A dwelling lovely as a tree / you’re carbon based / how I love thee.’

By celebrating the local, the fears and fragmentation of society will continue to be reinforced by these isolated, wind-powered NIMBYists. I came away from the conference thinking that I didn’t want to belong to a community that had such people as its members.

Austin Williams is director of the Future Cities Project. He is speaking at the What is community? session at the Battle of Ideas in London on 29 October 2005

(1) Microgeneration Strategy and Low Carbon Buildings Programme, Department of Trade and Industry, June 2005

(2) Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy, Department of Trade and Industry, 2003

(3) ‘Seeing The Green Light’, Julia Stephenson, Independent, 20 September 2005

(4) Planning Policy Statement 22: Renewable Energy, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2004

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Topics Politics


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