Why tuition fees have to go

No sooner than I wrote this, Corbyn backtracked on the issue of student fees, indicating how he doesn’t understand the issue…..

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I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.

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The arguments put forward for fees are that…

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A review of Arcologies

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Figure 1: Arcologies could drastically reduce the environmental impact of cities

One concept for how to reduce the environmental impact of cities is arcologies. The word itself is a combination of the words “architecture” and “ecology”, which neatly sums up the idea of developing self sustaining buildings with the minimum of environmental impact. Such buildings would not only provide housing, public services, shops and businesses, but would also grow their own food within the building (or on the grounds surrounding it), even recycling all of the buildings waste and manufacturing much of its own goods. If you are unfamiliar with the concept this TEDx by Jeff Stein should help. Also I’d recommend this pod-cast by Issac Arthur.

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Figure 2: China’s proposed forest city will use trees to help reduce air pollution and smog [Credit: BOERI, 2017]

In theory given that the plants inside such a structure could produce enough oxygen to sustain the population you could theoretically put such a building on the moon if necessary, or in a dome at the bottom of the ocean. This concept was first introduced by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri in the 1950’s. While no true arcology exists in the world, its certainly a concept that has influenced eco-building designers for quite sometime, as well as also being a stable of science fiction. So I thought it would be useful to look at the concept of arcologies in a bit more detail.

One misconception we need to get away from is that arcologies have to be tall mega structures. Certainly quite a few of those proposed over the years have tended to be fairly large. For example the NOAH (New Orleans Arcology Habitat) concept, which would be 1,200 ft tall and house 40,000 people. Or the X-seed concept, a 4km high 800 storey building that would support up to a million people.

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Figure 3: The X-seed concept from Japan is an example of an ultra tall arcology

However, there’s no reason why they can’t be smaller or have a lower floor count. Arcosanti, Soleri’s own arcology concept, is only few stories high. And it isn’t a single building but a cluster of them. Probably the closest to an actual arcology we’ve come is Dubai’s Masdar city where most of the buildings are only a few stories high. However, certainly quite a few of the proposals have been fairly tall, as often the goal is to change how densely populated cities work.

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Figure 4: Masdar city in the UAE is a good example of a low rise arcology [Credit: Foster & Partners, 2008]

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the pro’s and cons’ of arcologies is to throw around some numbers. So firstly, how much floor area do you need to create a “self sustaining” community? Well in the UK the current recommendation is 50m2 for a single bedroom flat and about 85m2 for a three bedroom flat. So let’s assume 70m2 per person, as I want to assume we’re not cramming people in like sardines. This would also exceed the average flat size per capita in most countries. That said there is an argument to be made for making flats smaller for environmental reasons, but we’ll overestimate all the same.

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Figure 5: Average flat size per person [Credit: Shrinkthatfootprint, 2012]

Next let’s assume about 50m2 per person for public services (e.g. schools, a medical centre, council offices, library, etc.), shops and other amenities and 50m2 per person for gardens, green spaces and public areas. Growing food within a building would most likely involve using greenhouses and hydroponics. These can intensive grow crops, often stacking plants into a very small area, growing them under red light in climate controlled conditions to increase the yield. I’m going to assume 30m2, because I came across a paper sometime ago from some NASA study suggesting that was about enough to support a single person. I’ve lost that paper, but this source here implies 49,210 people could be sustained by 1km2 of aeroponics (implying you’d need just 20m2 per person).

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Figure 6: Hydroponic or aeroponic farming can intensively grow food indoors to help feed residents of an arcology

Now granted these studies assume you’re eating nothing but porridge oats or potatoes, while I’m assuming we’ll be more interested in growing fruits and vegetables, which would wouldn’t be as efficient. However this is where I’d question some of the concepts behind an arcology, notably the issue of being completely self sustaining in terms of food production. This “Juche” like concept has never sat well with me. I see the point of trying to reduce environmental impacts, but at the end of the day its going to be a lot easier to grow most crops outside in a field rather than inside a building. So my assumption of 30m2 probably isn’t enough to make the building fully self sustaining. But its likely to be enough to supplement the occupants diet. And we are devoting remember a further 50m2 for gardens and other green spaces, which could include allotments  and urban farms.

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Figure 7: Allotments, a type of urban farming that became popular during and after world war II in Europe, are starting to become popular again

I’m going to add up these areas and add on an extra 25% to represent the area taken up by services, e.g. risers for lifts, stairs, service floors, etc. One problem with ultra tall builds is the so-called lift conundrum. This states that the higher a building gets, the more of its useful floor area gets devoted towards fitting lifts. An arcology gets around this problem to some degree because we’re spreading people out more, as compared to a normal high rise building. And given that such buildings incorporate shops and offices within them, often on intermediate floors between residential floors, people won’t need to leave the building that often, meaning most journey’s will only be between a few floors and we would probably encourage residents to simply take the stairs.

Either way, adding up all of these areas we come up with about 250m2 per person. Taking this number I will consider three basic designs. For the first one, which I’ll call “arco-cylinder” ,we’ll assume a cylinder 50m in diameter and about 400m high. Such a building would have a floor area of around 250,000 m2 and could therefore house 1,000 people. Next we’ll look at the Sky City 1000 concept. This proposes a building 1,000m high and 400m in diameter, with a total total floor area of 8 km², which could accommodate 32,000 people. Rather than a simple skyscraper, the Sky City consists of 14 dish-shaped ‘Space Plateaus‘ stacked one upon the other, inside which the residents live in a self contained community.

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Figure 8: The Sky City 1000 concept [Credit: Utopicus, 2013]

As a contrast to these two skyscrapers I’m going to also include a low rise building just 6 floors high and 40x40m square (likelihood is we’d probably go for more rectangular blocks around a central garden or forum, but it will occupy the same area on site) built to passivhaus standards which houses just 80 people. This will include a further 4,000m2 of garden space on site (e.g. central court yard and park land or allotments around the edges) rather than putting this area within the building itself. I’m only going to assume for this concept that the ground floor is occupied by shops, public services and offices (e.g. about 16% of the overall floor area, v’s the 20% assumption made with the other two). In place of hydroponic farms we’ll put some greenhouses on the roof, where there would be room for up to 1,600m2 of them (about 20m2 per person, so again slightly less than with the previous two, but we’d be using some of the green space around the building for an urban farm as well). We’ll call this one the “eco-block” and its worth noting its not that dissimilar to some existing developments.

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Figure 9: Bedzed eco building concept [Credit: Zedfactory 2007]

Land area

So the first question is how many of these would we need to house the current UK population? And what level of population could they support? Well the UK’s cities occupy 27,400 km2 of land area (about 11% of the UK’s total land area). So in theory, taking just 10% of the UK’s existing urban area, our “arco-cylinder” concept could house 700 million people and the Sky city concept could house 350 million. So with just 1% and 2% respectively of the UK’s urban land covered with these, you could house the entire UK population.

The eco-block concept could house 34 million people, which means that using 20% of the UK’s urban land area you could house the entire current UK population with eco-blocks. This is one of the advantages of arcologies, even relatively low rise ones surrounded by green areas are still able to house a large number of people, yet still providing them with a larger floor space in which to live.

Arguably the above comparison wasn’t really fair as it compared the ground footprint area of the two taller ones with no provision for any gap between them, while we factored in a large area of green space around the “eco-block”. So let’s recompute, we’ll take the maximum dimension of the two taller buildings (e.g. the height) and space them that distance away from one another (likely they’d be built as a cluster of several towers closer together, but we’ll assume the same land area allocated to each of them).

So assuming we then built one arco-cylinder spaced 400m apart across all of the UK’s urban land, you could accommodate 230 million people (or just the UK’s current population using 30% of all urban land). With Sky city’s spaced 1 km apart, you could house 890 million people within the UK’s existing urban areas (or the whole of the UK’s current population on just 7% of all urban land). Replace all of the UK’s cities with eco-blocks and you could accommodate 340 million people.

And remember, we’re assuming each of these buildings is now surrounded by a lot of empty space. The footprint of each arco-cylinder will occupy just 1.6% of the land area we are assigning to it, the Sky city only 12.5% and the eco-block 25%. So that’s lots of empty green space that could be used for other purposes, such as urban farms and allotments, or renewable energy systems.

Now I’m not advising covering the entire country in arcologies as a realistic planning strategy, I’m merely pointing out that when someone tells you that “Britain is full” that’s baloney. You could double or triple the UK’s population and not have to build a single home on the green belt. The reason why the UK has a housing crisis is that since the 80’s the rate of house building has been falling and the country’s stock of council houses was decimated by the Thatcher government. Also the population is rising (only recently due to immigration, generally its been people living longer) and household sizes are shrinking (more people living alone) which has increased demand for homes.

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Figure 10: UK housebuilding [Credit: Shelter, 2012]

Isaac Arthur in his podcast on arcologies estimates that if you put one 125m diameter arcology with 5,000 people in it, one per square mile along the US coast you could house half a billion people, leaving the whole of the US interior either devoted to farmland or as national park land. Its worth noting that Issac applies a larger amount of floor area than I do. In his calculations, he assumes more than enough to render an arcology fully self sufficient, so it won’t really need much farmland to support these buildings. Putting one down every square mile (i.e. one tower occupying about 0.5% of that square mile) across the whole of America and you could support a population in the tens of billions. So no, America isn’t full either, not even close.

Heating and cooling

Isaac Arthur’s video also mentions how arcologies might have a major cooling problem. Well not necessarily, it depends on where you build it and how its designed. But certainly heating and cooling of any buildings is often the main source of energy consumption. This is in fact the very element of the arcology concept that has been most heavily incorporated into modern buildings, as I discussed in a prior post.

Good insulation can limit heat losses in winter while good use of solar shading can limit solar gains and reduce overheating in summer. Natural convection can also be utilised to reduce energy consumption. For example, the double skinned facade can be used to either heat a building in the winter. Or by using natural convection, we can create a stack effect that will draw hot air out of the building.

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Figure 11: The Double skinned facade [Credit: tboake, 2009]

By positioning the inlets at the ground floor and drawing the air through the ground (which will always be about 10-12’C) we can effectively cool the building naturally. Solar PV facades can perform a similar function, with the added benefit that the air flow will help to cool the PV panels and improve their efficiency. Similarly Masdar uses wind towers to help naturally cool the city down.

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Figure 12: Earth connection cooling [Credit: Readon & Clarke, 2013]

The layout of a building can help reduce its energy consumption. Clustering the hydroponics or greenhouses towards the top of our structure (where it tends to be warmest) would produce an immediate energy saving, as well as resolve a number of the issues I mentioned with regard to lifts (as people won’t need to get off on these upper floors as often). Harvesting rainwater and storing it in tanks higher up would also reduce the energy consuming with regard to water pumping (both for irrigation and the needs of occupants). Although it would mean the support columns would need to be a bit thicker to account for all that extra weight (making the building a bit more expensive to build).

Isaac mentions putting a fusion reactor in the basement of arcologies. Well if you do have a cooling problem the worst thing you could do is put a reactor in the basement (for every unit of electricity that reactor generates, its going to pump out at least 2 units of heat!). Of course there’s nothing to stop you building one nearby and then shunting the energy it produces back to the building or neighbouring buildings clustered around it. And while we don’t have fusion power, we do have biomass CHP and fuel cells which can essentially do the same job.

Any sort of thermal power plant can also help heat the building in winter and using the absorption chiller effect you can use waste heat from your power plant to provide cooling in summer. The same applies to solar thermal collectors mounted on the roof.

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Figure 13: Solar thermal energy is rapidly becoming one of the key sources of domestic renewable heat generation [Credit: Ariston Thermo, 2014]

You will notice how many of the heating and cooling options I’ve mentioned can do both heating or cooling. This is important because in reality we often face both problems, the need to both cool and heat a building at different times of the day or year. Even in Dubai you’ll need to heat buildings on occasions (it gets pretty cold in the desert at night you know!).

The rookie mistake of many architects is to emphasise one of these two at the expense of the other. E.g. they’re designing an office building, they know that cooling tends to be a big problem with office buildings, so they design the building to leak heat away like a sieve. Only trouble is, on Monday mornings in the winter (after the building has been left unoccupied over the weekend), or around Christmas time (when the weather’s cold and occupancy will be lower) its freezing inside and the female staff are going around with massive coats on mumbling something about “winter is coming”.

In another example the double skinned facade concept is only as good as its shading device. Install one without a proper shading device (and I’ve seen plenty of examples of this) and you might actually increase the buildings carbon footprint, because it will be at risk of overheating in summer or on sunny winter days.

So all in all, there are ways we can heat or cool down any building, be it a single story house or a 1km tall arcology, but it does require some careful analysis from the design team. And generally it means considering options that can perform both heating and cooling.

Energy

So how much energy would the occupants of our arcology use? Well the current best practice in the EU is 115 kWh/yr/m2 for residential property, 80kWh/yr/m2 for a passivhaus, 125 kWh/yr/m2 for commercial property. These figures include the energy load for heating and cooling, assuming best practice (as outlined above). Hydroponics energy use is a bit harder to estimate, I’ve seen a range of figures going from 12-100 kWh/yr/m2, so I’m going to pick a median value of about 50 kWh/yr/m2 and 20 kWh/yr/m2 for our gardens and green spaces (we’ll need lighting during the night and water pumping). I’m going to slap a further 250 kWh/yr on each occupant to cover things like lifts, shared utilities and parasitic loads. Do the maths and this suggests each occupant of our arcologies would use around 17,500 kWh/yr, against a UK average of 37,750 kWh/yr, so that’s a reduction of 54%.

That said, keep in mind the arcology figure, while it includes some of the transportation, services and food production energy consumption, it doesn’t include all of that allocation. On the other hand, we’ve probably overestimated the floor area and essentially assumed a higher standard of living on the arcology side. Its also going to be a lot easier to incorporate public transport into the arcology model than the way we current plan out cities (the larger ones will have a subway station in the basement, the smaller ones will be clustered around a transportation hub). Making it easier for people to live car free, which significantly reduces energy consumption. We’ve also ignored the benefits of economies of scale that the larger arcologies would benefit from. So my guess is these weighting all these factors, the residents of an arcology should have a lower rate of energy consumption, but by how much lower is the question.

But could an arcology completely generate all its own power? Well if we cover about 50% of the south facing surface area of each of our arcologies with PV panels or solar thermal collectors (for domestic hot water), installed a ground source heat pump, put some wind turbines on the upper parts of the taller ones we could meet between 25% (for the Sky City) and 60% (for the eco-block) of the resident’s total energy consumption.

I would note that I’m not saying that making an arcology completely self sustaining from an energy point of view is impossible (because there are buildings that are capable of doing that right now, earthships for example). It depends on the consumption rates and also to what extend are we willing to compromise the design of the building or increase the construction costs to allow a higher yield of renewable energy. This is often the dilemma faced with BIR’s (building integrated renewables). There’s also the option of a CHP plant (running on hydrogen or biomass), either within the building or nearby (likely feeding power and heat to a number of nearby arcologies), which would easily bring the power levels up to 100%.

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Figure 14: Building integrated renewables encorporate renewable energy systems within the building itself

And given that our buildings only occupy between 1.6% to 25% of the land we’ve assigned to them, there’s no reason why some of this land couldn’t have solar panels or wind turbines mounted on it. And yes a few quick sums shows that all three easily exceed 100% if we do that.

Although that said, in the same way its always going to be more economic to grow crops in a field outside of urban areas, its always going to be more economic to put a solar panel in a desert or stick a large multi-megawatt wind turbine on a hill in Scotland than incorporate it into a building. Even so generating some significant proportion of a building’s energy use via renewables, in a building where the occupants already consume a lot less energy, is definitely going in the right direction.

Fire safety

Its perhaps worth briefly mentioning fire safety. One issue with draping plants over the side of the building (as some arcology designers like to do), is that this is a potential route for fire to spread. Now, so long as precautions are taken to contain the fire, i.e. there is no way for the fire to get inside the building, or we put the plants inside a glazed facade (but with open windows that can be closed off automatically in the event of a fire) with a sprinkler system (we’ll need to be able to water the plants anyway!), then there’s no reason why this should be a show stopper. Similarly the double skinned facade I mentioned will need fire dampers to seal it off and a set of fire breaks every couple of floors on very tall buildings.

This is all important, because as I’ve discussed before, we’d like to use as much low-embodied energy materials (and easily recycled material) as possible, such as wood for example. Fire isn’t a show stopper for this, so long as adequate fire protection measures are in place to limit or slow the spread of any fire (e.g. fireproof cladding around any flammable material, sprinklers, fire doors, adequate evacuation routes, etc.), giving residence’s time to get out and fire fighters to get in.

The upside down skyscraper

Another idea is the concept of inverting our arcology and building it downwards rather than up. Would this be a good idea? Well its not going to be easy. As I discussed before (with regard to underground nuclear reactors), building underground is expensive and time consuming. Often the phase of any construction project that you try and minimise is the phase involving deep excavation and building the foundations, as this tends to be more prone to delays and unexpected cost overruns.

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Figure 15: Earthscraper concept [Credit: BNKR, 2011]

We also need to consider the issue of water intrusion. Dig a pit in your garden, go in for lunch and you’ll probably come out to find the pit has flooded. So the walls of our upside down skyscraper will have to be fully water tight to stop the building flooding (which isn’t an easy thing to do with concrete, hence why flooding in basements isn’t that uncommon). And the deeper we go, the worse the problem gets because of the rise in ground pressure and thus the head of water trying to push into our building increases.

There’s also the matter of heating, cooling and ventilation. The soil in the UK is generally (as noted earlier) around about 10-12’C year round. Given that soil has a much higher rate of thermal conductivity compared to air, this means we’re going to have a major heating problem year round. Now in a warmer climate this lower ground temperature would have advantages (although note the ground temperature in these countries is usually a bit higher although it will generally be lower than the surface air temperature) as it could help keep the building cool.

But we’re still going to have to provide hot water to residence and ventilation. And given that we now need to pump all of that air and water up and down from the surface (in the other arcologies we can get by with a service area every couple of floors or use natural convection as described). So we’re probably still going to end up with reasonably high energy consumption.

All in all, my guess is that such a structure will be more expensive to build than existing skyscrapers and probably more expensive to run.

Urban planning in reverse

So as we’ve seen, arcologies are significantly more land area efficient. Even the low rise option (the eco-block), where the building itself only occupies 25% of the actual land area assigned to it, would still have a higher housing density than most of the UK’s existing cities, 12,500 people per km2 against London’s current population density of 5,500 people/km2. With shops and public services essentially on site or nearby, we can help reduce (or eliminate) the dependence on cars.

And as noted its not too dissimilar to a number of current or proposed housing developments. Arcologies are more energy efficient, more ecologically friendly and potentially self powering (up to a point!). And while we probably can’t produce all of our food for the resident’s on site (but then again, my point isn’t so much could we? but more should we?) we can certainly significantly reduce the resident’s food miles. So why aren’t we building arcologies?

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Figure 16: We face something of a choice between low rise concepts like the Organicity…..[Credit: Jones, 2017]

Well quite simply put, only 50% of the floor area of our arcology can be sold on by a developer, while if he eliminates those green spaces and growing areas, this rises to 80% (the balance being taken up by services). There is little economic incentive to build them.

And even this idea of mixing commercial property, public services and residential areas in the same building can be difficult to justify. If you put a building up in the central business district of most cities its going to be more profitable to fill it with commercial property (with maybe a few penthouses on the upper floors). Outside the CBD, the value of commercial property falls and its more profitable to fill it with residential units. Also there’s the small matter of zoning laws. So there is a lack of joined up thinking here.

Building regulations can also be an issue. In most countries the building regulations for an office building or commercial property are often different from those for a residential block or factory. In any sort of mixed development we generally have to apply the most stringent standards across the entire building. This is particularly true when it comes to fire safety. So that’s going to push up the costs. So there would be a need for incentives from government to encourage these sorts of developments. And if anything, the problem in recent years has been that government’s have done the complete opposite.

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Figure 17: …or more strip mall development

Governments, both sides of the Atlantic have for too long encouraged strip mall development. Not only is this bad as it creates urban sprawl, but it also decreases the efficiency of public transport and thus increases car ownership, which pushes up carbon emissions. Keep in mind the figure for population density given for London above represents the average for central London. The average population density across the whole of the London metropolitan area is just 1,500 persons/km2. And most UK cities are a lot less densely populated than London.

By contrast Paris or Athens, historic cities with relatively few skyscrapers (but equally less strip mall development) have a population density of 21,000 person/km2 and 19,135 persons/km2 respectively. Indeed, its interesting to note how the planners of cities like Paris, or Edinburgh’s New Town, were closer to the arcology concept than our modern urban planners, given that they incorporated green spaces, commercial property and residential space all within the same development. And they were doing this centuries ago. Indeed, so close is Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town development to the eco-block concept above, I’m wondering if I should just rename it “New Town 2.0”.

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Figure 18: Edinburgh’s Georgian era New Town is now a world heritage site

So the major obstacle to arcologies, or eco buildings in general, is the fact that we have gone backwards in terms of urban planning and development over the last few centuries. If there’s anything conclusion we can draw from this analysis, its the need to reverse those policies.

Posted in Biomass, CHP, clean energy, climate change, environment, future, housing, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, space, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

E is for Euratom, C is for post brexit chaos

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When article 50 was declared, both the bill and letter sent to the EU clearly stated the UK was leaving Euratom (the EU’s nuclear agency) as well as the EU. I was slightly confused by this as it seems to contradict something I’ve long noted about the Tories, their illogical devotion towards nuclear energy. I did wonder whether this represented a moment of clarity (that nuclear power is a waste of time and money), or was it just another sign that they haven’t got a clue with what they are doing. I think we’ll have to conclude it was the latter.

Euratom is a European agency that has various responsibilities. They act as a single market for nuclear energy components, nuclear fuels (i.e uranium supplies), medical isotopes, regulation of the nuclear industry (notably its safe handling procedures) as well as research into long term nuclear projects such as the ITER fusion project.

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The sticking point for the UK is that two key components of Euratom are free movement of people (so nuclear scientists can move around unobstructed) and accepting the rulings of the ECJ. These are not minor points in the small print, but central to how Euratom works. As the UK is leaving the single market and specifically going out of it way to restrict free movement and the dominion of the ECJ, this means they will have to leave Euratom on brexit.

The consequences of leaving Euratom could be rather serious. As some nuclear scientists have pointed out it could mean a go-slow (if not an all stop) to nuclear energy projects across the UK, it could lead to shortages of nuclear fuel, qualified experts and medical isotopes. I mean I’m not exactly a fan of nuclear energy, but a messy disintegration of the industry is hardly something positive.

It dawning on them that leaving Euratom might actually be a bad thing, only now are the brexiters starting to panic. Dominic Cummings, who was campaign director for vote Leave, sent out a furious tweet condemning this decision, as did several MP’s who voted for article 50, despite the fact that leaving Euratom was included in that bill. So one must conclude that Cummings had no idea what he was campaigning for (the dog who caught the bus and all that) and many of the Tory MP’s didn’t even bother to read the article 50 bill before voting on it.

Meanwhile Dave2 has suggested the UK could remain an “associate” member of Euratom. This indicates many of the brexiters are still acting under the “have our cake and eat it” delusion. While it is true that Switzerland, America and China are associate members of Euratom, their circumstances are very different.

Switzerland has only a handful of reactors, which they are planning to decommission without replacement. So any impact of free movement and the domain of the ECJ doesn’t really effect them much and it won’t effect them for much longer. The US and China are only in the club so that they can ensure their scientists can attend conferences or work on projects such as ITER. The aren’t particularly concerned about a couple of Europeans scientists coming over to their country to do the same and the ECJ element of Euratom is unlikely to ever effect them.

But the brexiters seem to think that in 2020 they can just self-invite themselves to the next Euratom board meeting and nobody will mind. Well no, they will be marched off site by security and thrown out onto the street. In order for the UK to gain associate membership all of the existing members will have to agree. And if the UK has just undertaken a messy exit and refused to pay its exit bill then I can guarantee you that someone will black ball them and they’ll be told to take a hike.

Now in theory, the UK could set up its own version of Euratom. There are agencies such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority or NNL (national nuclear laboratories) who could take over some of its responsibilities. However they lack the infrastructure, staff and international agreements to perform that role. Now if the government were to accept the reality that they’ll be chucked out of Euratom upon brexit and started the process to prepare for that now, its just about doable for them to be ready in two years time. But there’s the problem. The penny hasn’t dropped with them yet, they won’t and hence the risk of chaos.

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The UK’s post-brexit Euratom solution

And of course spending a few hundred million to replicate work which the EU does anyway is hardly sensible use of taxpayers money. But it is merely one of a dozen other EU agencies whose work will have to be replicated here in the UK at a cost of probably a few billion a year. And again, its not as if we can just hit a light switch, recruiting all of those staff, building up the infrastructure to support all these agencies is going to take time and time isn’t something the UK has in abundance. And what most of those agencies will be doing is googling the relevant EU laws and basically plagiarising them, much as the so-called repeal bill, won’t repeal a thing, but will simply plagiarise lots of EU legislation.

For example, take the airline industry. The UK will lose access to the European open skies agreement on brexit. Already in anticipation of this Easyjet has set up a subsidiary in Austria and is applying for an EU based operating license. Also they are already 49% owned by European shareholders (they have to be 50.1%) so its not too difficult to envisage them becoming a European airline post-brexit. Ryanair have warned of serious repercussions post-brexit. BA might be okay, as they don’t fly to many European destinations, but there will inevitably be knock on effects, given that their parent company IAG is not majority European owned (probably they and Ryanair will need to hold a share buy back and then fire sale after brexit to retain access to the EU’s skies). But its likely all in all that far from UK airlines expanding their operations, the opposite will happen, which kind raises questions as to what’s the point of expanding Heathrow.

So while I suspect many of the UK’s anti-nuclear campaigners will react with glee to this little fiasco, it contains some very worrying news as it suggests a very messy UK exit, post-brexit.

Posted in economics, energy, environment, nuclear, politics, technology | 4 Comments

Volvo, electric cars and the value of red tape

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Figure 1: There has been massive growth in EV’s in Scandinavia recently

Last week Volvo announced that they were planning to only build hybrid or battery electric cars after 2019. And France went so far as to suggest they will ban all petrol powered cars from 2040 onwards. Well in many respects this isn’t really a surprise.

In 2009 the EU brought out its latest targets for vehicle emissions, which included a target for fleet average carbon emissions of 95 g/COper km by 2021. I recall pointing out to students at the time that if you did the maths this was a very tall order to achieve with any conventional power train, for any car above the size of a small hatchback. So in effect what the EU did with these targets was effectively ban the sale of all non-hybrid, electric or alternative fuelled cars above a certain vehicle size from 2021.

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Figure 2: Falling vehicle emissions within the EU [Source: SMMT.co.uk, 2012]

And on the horizon is the possibility of driverless cars. Now fully driverless cars are probably some way off. However its probable that we’ll gradually see more and more driver assist features creeping in. This has some big implications, because such features do tie in a bit better with a system of car rental (rather than individual car ownership) which also ties in better with electric powertrains (as there will always be a car sitting on charge, you don’t need to worry about charging up your own car). Also cars under computer control tend to eliminate bad driving habits that lead to excessive fuel consumption (e.g. accelerating hard, driving too fast, etc.). So we could be on the verge of a major paradigm shift in how vehicles are owned and operated.

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Figure 3: Vehicle automation levels

That Volvo was the first car company to break cover isn’t really surprising, given that they tend to focus on mid-size to estate sized cars, they don’t really do small cars. So they were always going to be adversely effected by these proposals more than the rest of the car industry. And improvements in EV technology, combined with a large, cheap and low carbon electricity grid, means there’s been massive growth in the EV market in Scandinavia recently, in particular in Norway.

But wait, how can EU laws influence the sale of electric cars in Norway? (outside the EU, Volvo incidentally does a lot of its business in Norway but is based in Sweden). And isn’t Volvo owned by Ford?…actually now its owned by Geely in China…how can the EU influence the policy of a Chinese company? Well because this is the thing that the brexiters, both those on the right and the left, don’t get about the EU.

The EU sets the rules for the largest collective economy on the planet. The choice for any company is therefore relatively simple A) start singing from the EU’s hymn sheet. or B) Cut yourself out of the world’s largest market for your product. Unsurprisingly the vastly majority of firms will chose A and it doesn’t matter what Trump, the Brexiters or the Chinese say or do. Shock horror, capitalists will spend good money developing products to conform to EU law if they reckon they can make a profit out of doing so, who would have guessed!…..well…ah…me!

The fact is that if there was no EU, then we’d probably not be in the position we are when it comes to action on climate change, protecting the environment, promoting electric cars, tackling world poverty, removal of roaming charges or sustaining fish stocks (which recently reported improvements, largely thanks to EU rules). Its practically unthinkable that such progress could have been made in any of these areas had it not been for the EU.

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Figure 4: While EU fisheries policy isn’t perfect, fish stocks are starting to rebound

Back in the UK the Tories are pushing on with the so-called “great repeal bill” which will repeal nothing, instead it will transfer much of that pesky EU “red tape the brexiters claim to hate into UK law (you know, rules that makes cars safer, stop buildings burning down, or ensuring child’s toy’s are made from non-toxic chemicals, etc.).

But minsters and civil servants will have the opportunity too eliminate the laws they don’t like (which will probably mean stripping out all the rules that protect workers rights or the environment). Originally the Tories were promising a “bonfire of regulations” post-brexit….well until the Grenfell tower disaster. Even so the repeal bill does give them a chance to strip down the protections offered by EU law, once the news cycle has moved on.

Now Corbyn says he’ll try to stop the Tories. But what he fails to understand is A) he doesn’t have a majority. B) unless he’s prepared to vote against the law altogether and derail the brexit process, the Tories will just call his bluff, as they’ve done before. And C) we’re assuming that the present EU laws on welfare, labour and the environment are perfect, when they are not. By leaving the EU, the UK will have no input into future changes in EU legislation. Now granted, if they EU changes it rules in the future, this will produce a ripple effect and we’ll see some of those changes transfer to the UK, but that won’t always happen. And the UK will have no future say on what these changes will be.

In essence Corbyn’s policy on brexit is that he’s leaving it up to the 27 EU countries to be the grown ups in the room, while he and his supporters get to live in their hard left fantasy la la land….until the next election, when he gets wiped out and finds himself living in a UKIP fantasy land, but it will be too late to do anything then.

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Figure 5: UK car industry…in 2020?

Meanwhile the Tories, run the risk of the UK being left behind in a rapidly changing world. We could well see a scenario where Europeans come on holiday to the UK to laugh at those funny old cars the British drive (a bit like how the Trabant or Lada’s were viewed a few decades back).

Posted in cars, climate change, economics, peak oil, politics, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Conservative flip flop syndrome

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Back in the middle ages they believed that madness was a disease and that you could catch it if you hung around people who were crazy. You do have to wonder these days whether they had a point. One has to question if conservatism is a mental health condition caused by exposure to right wing media lies, combined with the memory span of a goldfish and an inability to understand the concepts of irony or hypocrisy.

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How did the Republicans go from this….

For example, I was updating some notes this week on the history of environmental protection. One thing that stands out is how many Republican presidents keep cropping up, not as opponents of environmentalism, but as supporters of it. Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) is known as the father of American environmental conservation, founding 6 national parks in his presidency. Nixon founded the EPA, tightened the clean air act and signed the endangered species act. In 1987 the IPCC was established by the UN with funds from America during the Reagan presidency, as was the Montreal Protocol (to prevent CFC’s damaging the ozone layer). His successor G. H. W. Bush wasn’t quite so great, but he did attended the Rio earth summit, tightened the clean air act and introduced the oil pollution act (although only after the Exxon Valdez disaster).

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…..to this!

This is not to say that democrats didn’t do their bit for the environment. The clean air act was originally introduced by LBJ, Carter funded renewables research (which is now a $250 billion a year industry), Clinton signed the Kyoto protocol and Obama signed up to the Paris climate accords. But the fact is that up until about the 1990’s environmental protection was a non partisan issue, something that modern conservatives seemed to have forgotten. Indeed if anyone took a strong line against environmental protection, it tended to be the soviet block countries (or their allies on the hard left in the west), who saw it as an impediment to progress.

But if we are to believe the propaganda from Fox news, that environmentalist are all left wingers with some sort of sinister “agenda”, or that global warming is a Chinese conspiracy. Then the main perpetrators of this plot include several pass Republican presidents…oh and the US military! If we were to take the current US republican party at its word, then Nixon, the guy who made his name by sitting on the HUAC during the red scare, is a communist. Well he kept that quiet!

And as I was working we had news closer to home in London. In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, Corbyn suggests the government should requisition empty flats in the area to house the homeless. Oh you can’t do that we were told. Typical Trotskyist ranting the Daily Mail told us…only that’s what the government’s now done. They’re putting up a number of those made homeless in a posh pad down the road, where the residents have paid about £1.5 million for a flat (who are thus none too happy about a load of plebs moving in).

And Theresa “the walking dead” May was doing this while taking a break from hyperventilating over the recent electoral disaster. She told us we need to back her in the election, because if you back Corbyn you’ll end up with a coalition of chaos. The day before the election the Daily Mail had a 13 page spread on Corbyn’s supposed links to terrorism. Basically Corbyn and McDonnell being the naive leftie liberals that they are, met with Sinn Fein seeing them as just another hard left party and potential allies, when it is widely known in Ireland that they are linked to all sorts of criminal activity. It does raise questions about Corbyn’s judgement (as in he’s a bit naïve and has lived far too long in a London bubble), but that’s about it….

….48 hrs later, Mrs strong and stable weak and wobbly has lost her big gamble and she’s preparing to go into a coalition with her “friends and allies” the DUP aka the old testament with fortnightly bin collections, a party well known for its links to terrorism. Is the Daily Mail now going to do a 13 page spread on Theresa May’s links to terrorism? And an alliance with the DUP sounds like a recipe for chaos. If she actually wanted a “strong and stable” government why not arrange a government of national unity for the duration of the brexit negotiations?

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Coalition of chaos…..

Furthermore I recall at the previous election how the Tories spent the entire campaign going on about how Ed Miliband would be in the pocket of those sneaky Scots, who would demanding all sorts of special favours….and now the Tories, having put the country through multiple layers of austerity because apparently there’s no magic money tree, has found a billion or so to bribe the DUP with down the back of the sofa. Consider that each DUP MP is now costing more than it would cost to sign Ronaldo. Ya, that’s public money well spent!

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….strong and stable?

And if the DUP actually had any principles there’s no way they’d have allowed free abortions on the NHS to pass. Now I’m not saying this is a bad idea, but I’m pointing out the glaring hypocrisy of what the DUP and their creationist religion are saying on the pulpit on Sundays, and what the party is doing. Well I suppose Judas was bought for twenty pieces of silver, so they at least held out for a bit more cash. The fact is even the religious right will sell out if you put enough money on the table.

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Deficit reduction has been a central Tory policy for many years now….

And then we have the queen’s speech…which was a bit on the short side, you wonder why she even bothered to show up (worth seeing Jonathan Pie’s take on it). In fact I’m surprised she didn’t show up still wearing her night dress and proceeded to give the speech while flossing her teeth. But the big headline was May’s “great repeal billthe most inaccurately named bill in UK legislative history. Because its not going to repeal anything, its going to transfer a whole bunch of EU legislation from EU law into UK law. And it will do so in a very undemocratic way. Ministers and civil servants will decide what to keep and what not, parliament will be given a simple take it or leave it vote (and no doubt face foaming at the mouth editorials from the tabloids branding them “enemies of the people” if they vote no).

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….and it probably explains why the UK is one of only 3 EU countries which has seen wages decline since 2007….and the other two are Greece & Portugal!

Yes we were told in the referendum we needed to “take back control”, bring back sovereignty to parliament. Yet now we are trading laws scrutinised and approved by democratically elected MEP’s, for laws enacted without any parliamentary scrutiny by Tory party insiders (and their financial donors in smoke filled rooms), faceless civil servants (i.e. the good old boy’s network) and the DUP (basically the Westboro baptist church). Ya that’s sounds so much better!

And who came up with this “European Union” anyway? A united states of Europe, who needs that! Open borders, who came up with that idea? And the European convention of human rights, what sort of a Tortskyist, snail eating surrender monkey dreamth this one up….I think you’ll find that all three cases were the idea of a guy called “Churchill. That’s the former Tory leader (I think he was in charge during a war, Brexiters might want to google him) not the dog from the TV ad. For, as with the environment, up until the 1990’s the EU and European co-operation was not a partisan issue. If either side did take a strongly anti-EU position, it was the far left. During the previous EU referendum back in the 70’s it was darling of the left Tony Benn who led the no vote and Margaret Thatcher who campaigned in favour of the EU. Yes, if we believe the Daily Mail, Churchill and Thatcher are “enemies of the people” who “hated Britain”.

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Typical rant from an unpatriotic Trot!

Returning to America, one of the main reasons why Trump won was because the Christian conservatives came out in large numbers to vote for him. So these so-called “values voters”, who thought that some boorist behaviour from Bill Clinton was grounds for impeachment (yet G. W. Bush lying to congress over the Iraq war, or his father and Reagan committing high treason over Iran/Contra isn’t worthy of impeachment), went and voted for Trump, a known sexual predator who is as much a Christian as Ted Bundy. If Trump has a religion its his own ego. Yet all of these so-called “values voters” went to a ballot box, passed over Hilary’s name (she’s very firmly a Christian…presumably she mostly prays for the strength not to strangle her husband some night!) and voted for Mr pussy grabber instead.

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Also libertarian support for Johnson collapsed at the last minute. So libertarians voted for a president who was promising all sorts of protectionist measures, the very opposite of what they wanted.

And why was FBI chief Comey fired? Well officially because of how he handled the investigation of Hilary’s e-mails, the very thing Trump had been praising him just a few months ago.

And Obama, what was one of his biggest crimes? Oh he wanted to bring in gun control. I mean where did this idea get started, hasn’t he ever heard of the 2nd amendment? Well the thing is that for most of US history gun controls were a lot stricter. The infamous gun fight at the Ok corral was an attempt by the Earp’s to enforce local guns laws. And as I discussed recently both Reagan and the senior Bush passed gun laws during their tenure. Indeed, they did far more to restrict firearms than Obama, who had been graded an F by the anti-gun Brady foundation.

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Then there was also Obama’s awful health care bill. I mean where did he get the idea for Obamacare from?….Mitt Romney! You know, the presidential candidate, who introduced a healthcare bill in his own state, which Obama’s staff basically plagiarised and congress watered down. Then blink and a couple of years later Romney is saying that a watered down version of his own healthcare bill is a bridge too far and socialism.

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Back in the UK we have the continuing slow motion train wreck of Hinkley C and yet another report coming out questioning why is this project going ahead. As I’ve discussed before the Tory position on nuclear amounts to flip flops on flip flops. Firstly we need this reactor because renewables are too expensive, why Hinkley can be built without any subsidy. With ballooning costs and falling renewable prices now Hinkley need a huge whack of a subsidy, far exceeding anything ever given to renewables. We were told renewables can’t be built fast enough. Well in the time its taken the UK to hum and haw about Hinkley, far more renewable electricity has been added to the grid than Hinkley will generate. One is forced to the conclusion that the Tories are only in favour of nuclear because so many on the left are against it.

I’m surprised right wingers don’t break their own necks with all these rapid U-turns! The mental gymnastics they must go through would leave Simone Biles feeling dizzy.

So what’s going on here, how did the political right lose its way? Multiple reasons. Firstly, the media, both the tabloids and outlets like Fox news, realised that if you hold an audience the best way to do that is scare the bejasus out of them with ridiculous scare stories levelled at some easily identified scapegoat (environmentalists, dark skinned foreigners, liberals, etc.), combined with comforting lies and celebrity soft porn. Why waste a pile of money on good fact checked journalism which takes weeks to put together, when you can pay some gutter press meth head to roll out of the sewer every morning and slap together some piece about how the BBC is ruining house prices (the first thing my Daily Mail headline generator came up with!). Fake news, is not a new thing, its been going on for decades, if not longer.

Also there’s a big difference between our current politicians and those of the past. One would be forgiven for thinking that Thatcher and Nixon must have been much less right wing than May and Trump. Actually the opposite is true. Its just that politicians of the past were pragmatist. They understood that good politics is about good compromise. Its about listening to people. So if a bunch of scientists show up and say we’ve got a problem with the ozone layer, you’d be a fool to ignore them. A load of business leaders tell you that being in the EU is central to long term growth, then you need to put aside your own prejudices and listen. And if you want to get your legislation passed, you need to toss the other side of the aisle the odd bone every now and then. As Lincoln (Republican) said, A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Our current crop of politicians are very different. They are mostly from fairly privileged backgrounds, privately educated, career politicians with little experience of the real world, who have scarcely had any contact with anyone outside of tight bubble of like minded people from a similar privileged background. Even the likes of Churchill (from a very privileged background) had more real world experience than most of our current politicians. They have no clue how to listen. Many on the right don’t even seem to be aware of the idea.

Also they have learned to play from the same hymn sheet as the media. You want to get lots of votes in a hurry? Well rather than coming up with some sort of coherent policy, which takes a lot of time and needs input from a lot of people (political scientists, economists, focus groups, pollsters, etc.). Instead just take some snappy tabloid friendly headlines, run them up the flag pole and see who salutes.

In fact I would argue, the problem with the political right these days is that many on the right don’t believe in their own ideology anymore. Often the most fanatical defenders of any ideology are those who understand it the least. True Christians will understand for example that the bible is not literally word for word true, because its the bible not an insurance policy. If the bible were literally true then we’d celebrate mass in a lawyer’s office not in a church. Its only the nutcases who are blowing up abortion clinics (how can people who are pro-life be in favour of the death penalty?) who hold this position, largely because they simply don’t get the message the bible is trying to get across but are too pigheaded to admit as much, even to themselves. Similarly the ISIS guys running around blowing up mosques and killing innocents (more often than not Muslims) are no more Muslim than Alex Jones.

And similarly if those on the right truly understood the ideology that they claim to support they would know better than to make such a fuss about issues such as environmental protection or the odd EU regulation intended to stop houses burning down in a fire. This explains how their leaders can engage in the most comical of flip flopping and U-turns and nobody on the right calls them out. We can have right wing bloggers telling us how terrible EU regulations are, then practically wet themselves in anticipation of a law that will transfer a mass of EU law into UK law forever without any democratic scrutiny. In essence the political right has no ideology, they are a tribe who wants power for no reason other than to stop anyone else having it. And then, like the dog who caught the bus, once they have it, they’ve no clue what to do with it…other than do a few favours for the corporate allies who sponsored their campaign.

….Or alternatively we need to start classifying conservatism as a mental health condition. A contagious disease of the mind that is spread via right wing websites and media.

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Symptoms of Conservatism include memory loss, mistrust of technology, the young or foreigners…

Do you feel anxious, angry and distressed? Do you have in irrational fear of foreigners? Are you paranoid about vaccines or science in general? You might have conservatism, a highly contagious and dangerous condition, but one that is fortunately easily treatable.

First of all, avoid all social media and right wing tabloids. Next, take to careful fact checking of everything you hear and careful consideration of all the facts before reaching any opinion, which you should be willing to question again, should those facts change. Should you have memory problems you should consider getting a notepad and writing stuff down. Bed rest can help, as can reading of certain proscribed websites (e.g the guardian or rationalwiki) to contract the BS you’ve previously been exposed too. In serious cases you might want to talk to your doctor for a prescription for drugs like Islamophobin. While infected with conservatism you should avoid operating any complex machinery (such as ballot boxes) or signing any legal documents.

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Grenfell tower update

daryanblog

grenfell_panel_rytest Cladding samples are being taken away for testing across the UK

Given recent events I think an update was needed on the Grenfell fire situation as events have moved rather quickly. As I wrote my last piece there were reports in the media which suggested that the contractors at Grenfell may have used cladding products that weren’t suitably fireproof (and illegal on a building this tall). I was inclined to ignore these rumours until such time as they was confirmed by official sources, ideally the ongoing investigation into the fire. The UK media is well known for jumping to the wrong conclusions and I didn’t think it as credible that such a huge error could have been made given how well regulated the building trade is in the UK.

Well it would appear I was wrong. Tests on panels from the buildings and on other structures across the UK have…

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Grenfell tower fire

A fire in the Grenfell tower complex in London, which has left an estimated 58 dead has shocked the UK, leading to protests, as well as exposing the deep divisions that exist between the have nots and have loads in the London property market. It has also left a lot of questions to be answered as regards how the fire spread and the degree to which recent refurbishments to the tower complex may have played a role in the tragedy.

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Figure 1: the Grenfell tower fire

The fire appears to have spread up the building via a facade, recently installed in the building to improve both the building’s look as well as its environmental performance. Now there’s a lot of he say’s she say’s in the media on this topic, which I’ll try to make some sense out of. But suffice to say we’ll need to wait for the official investigations to conclude before coming up with anything definitive. Some newspapers are already calling for council officials (which is Tory btw) and company executives to be jailed, which is jumping the gun. Ya and why don’t we form an angry lynch mob while we are at it…cos I think I think that would be heading for number 10 first!

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Figure 2: Outline of the Grenfell block and how the fire spread [Source: The Independent UK, 2017]

No doubt the anti-environmental brigade will be using this incident as “proof” that refurbishing buildings to make them more energy efficient turns them into death traps, and there’s been stories like that circulating in the media. But this simply isn’t true. There have been fires in refurbished tower blocks like this before, which have been contained to the floor on which the fire occurred, without spreading up the facade. Or where the fire has spread, it only affected a few flats, over several hours and was ultimately extinguished by the fire brigade before any serious damage occurred and the building was safely evacuated.

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Figure 3: Fires have occurred in refurbished tower block before (this in Townhead in 2007), but have generally been contained

I recall one incident for example an incident in a block in Townhead, where a flat fire occurred (word around the estate was that someone got the munches after coming home from the pub, but rather than going and getting a take away, they decided to do some midnight cooking….with predictable results!) on a recently refurbished block of flats. It result in some unsightly damage to the facade, which given that this block is visible from Glasgow’s main bus station was a bit of an eye sore. But as you can see from the photo above, it didn’t spread. So there’s no reason why such work can’t be undertaken without compromising the building’s safety. That said the devil is in the detail.

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Figure 4: Detail of the Facade on the Grenfell block

Generally insulation isn’t necessarily going to be flammable and if it is, its generally protected from fire by some fireproof layer to slow or limit the spread of any fire. E.g. mineral wool has pretty good flame retardant properties. Polythene insulation materials can be protected with a inflammable layer (e.g. Gypsum drywall). This will never stop a fire completely, but then again a large enough fire will basically burn through anything in its path, indeed the temperature will eventually get so hot that even the steel holding the building up will melt. The goal is to slow the fire down sufficiently to give residents time to get out and the fire brigade time to get in and tackle the blaze. Certainly this is the problem with the Grenfell centre, the fire spread far too quickly, going all the way to the top of the building in a bit less than an hour.

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Figure 5: The Chimney effect

Based on what’s come out on the internet (which may or may not be true of course) there are three possible causes. Firstly, the chimney effect. If there was a gap between the facade and the original building walls, then the flames could have spread up this gap. Normal practice would be to put a fire break at least every couple of floors across any gaps (or ideally every floor). Keep in mind the panels used are modular, so that’s not a difficult thing to do. So that’s one question the investigation will need to get an answer too.

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Figure 6: How fires can spread up the facade of a tower

Another possibility is that the residents claim that the newly installed panels were mounted on wood bonded to aluminium. This would also present a means for the fire to spread. As the aluminium heated up, it would conduct the heat upwards, heating the timber on other floors to the point where it ignited. Again, proper fire proofing of the facade would limit the spread of the fire by these means.

Another consideration is that 1970’s era tower block’s aren’t terribly safe to begin with. Refurbishing them mightn’t make them more dangerous, but that’s because they are dangerous enough as it is. There are chinks in their armour. Often for example fire proof barriers, notably in dry risers and service ducts aren’t complete, there’s often gaps or inappropriate material has been used. Windows and doors which should contain a fire, simply don’t work. I recall viewing a flat of this era once and noticing that the front door, which should be a fire door, wasn’t one (modern practice would be for all front doors and most of the interior doors to be fire doors). To keep smoke and fire from spreading fire doors are supposed to close and seal off the different parts of the building, but a lot of older fire doors just don’t do this very well, allowing smoke and fire to spread quicker than it should. So a third possible cause would be the fire spread internally and then spread to the facade, e.g. a fire in a gas riser.

But all things being equal, given the recent renovations to the building, which included improvements to fire safety, the fire shouldn’t have spread so fast. But clearly this didn’t happen. There is also a question as to government regulation, as the government was warned by a report on previous fires, which they ignored and even sought to remove fire regulations. The actions of the Tory run council must be questioned, perhaps awarding the contract to do the refurb via the old boys network on the condition it was done on the cheap (as the government has done with a number of recent contracts, e.g. the security at the Olympics or the assessment of disabilities).

Also the actions of residents has to be considered. I’ve found fire doors in tower blocks propped open because someone was too lazy to have to constantly open and close them. This immediately defeats the purpose of having a self closing fire door in the first place! Some residents will also do things like store flammable material (e.g. rubbish or old furniture) in corridors or on balconies. So educating residents and enforcing fire safety is important.

On which point another issue with this fire was the “stay put” advice given to residents. Many also complained about how the fire alarms on their floor didn’t go off. On the one hand, this is to be expected. Do you really want to have to evacuate and go down 16 floors in your night clothes every time a neighbour on the 30th floor burns the toast? But on the other hand there are times when you do need to evacuate the whole block.

In more modern buildings there will often be an intercom system, to allow the concierge or fire brigade to communicate with residents and advice them of what is going on. If the smoke alarms are wired into the building management computer, then it can track the spread of a fire by seeing how the smoke spreads and activate alarms on neighbouring floors as required (or if it sees a certain number triggered on more than one floor, turn on all the fire alarms and declare a full scale evacuation). If its tied into the sprinkler system, it can also selectively turn on sprinklers to help contain the fire without any human intervention. But of course integrating all of that hardware into an existing block isn’t going to be easy, nor is it cheap.

And speaking of which, there is the question of sprinklers. Why did the sprinklers not stop this fire? Well because it didn’t have any. That said, assuming the fire did spread via the facade (and that’s not yet proven), sprinklers won’t have been able to stop it spreading, so its kind of a moot point. That said, the UK also has something of a backward view of sprinklers, where they are seen as a means of protecting property rather than saving lives. Hence they are often not required by law (only buildings built after 2007 need to have them, but only if higher than 30m tall), although your insurer might insist on them. So we can have the hypocrisy of building control signing off on a building design as safe, only for the insurer to turn around and say, nope its a tinder box, include sprinklers. The end result is that more valuable property such as hotels, office blocks or high end residential blocks can have sprinklers, but less valuable buildings (where we plebs live!) don’t have them.

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Figure 7: A tower block fire in Dubai, with no fatalities, largely thanks to the sprinkler system

In other countries, where they have a longer history of high rise living and thus more experience of high rise fires, the legal situation is very different. And generally this means they are a lot stricter in terms of what’s allowed and where sprinklers need to be installed. But even so, its patchy. To make matters worse there are four separate policies on fire safety in the UK in England, Scotland, NI & Wales.

This is the sort situation where intervention from the EU is needed. This has been resisted by the building lobby and the euroskeptics who regard the EU as a bunch of Elf & Safety killjoys. Hopefully this fire might be the nudge that’s needed to convince the EU to intervene. Of course ironically, given that the UK is about to leave the EU, it will be excluded from these changes. We’ll have to wait for the Tories to do something.

And that’s the problem, as my guess is once the anger has died away they’ll likely just fudge the issue. Bottom line, which is more likely, that the Tories will undertake costly repairs of tower blocks full of pleb’s and require private landlords to spend a lot of money doing up their property. Or will they just they just bury it in a public inquiry that takes a decade, then bring in some meaningless voluntary codes and have the Daily Mail blame the whole mess on migrants and environmentalists? This is the thing that Corbyn doesn’t get about the EU, it shouldn’t matter who is in charge of the country, measures will be brought in if they are needed across the whole EU.

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Figure 8: Economic depravity in the Kensington & Chelsea council area

Also this incident does expose the chronic problems affecting the UK’s housing problems. The UK has something of a housing crisis with soaring rents and a massive waiting list for council houses, largely thanks to past and present Tory government policy. I recall one brexit voter trying to argue that he was voting leave because his daughter couldn’t get a council house and this all the fault of foreigners. As the graph below shows construction of both social housing and the available stock fell during Thatcher’s reign and the country has never recovered since. Recent Tory squeezing of council and housing association budgets as well as their right to buy scheme have all squeezed already stretched system yet further. Hence we can have the absurdity of people living in squalid tiny box room flats in one of the world’s richest cities.

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Figure 9: Changes to the UK housing stock, housing completions since 1920

By contrast in the rest of Europe, its very different. Not only do they have a larger supply of social housing, but some of their blocks are so well maintained and designed some are actually world heritage sites. I mean architecture students travel from around the world to visit these estates. About the only reason I’d take students to a UK council estate was if I wanted to show them how NOT to do social housing…or I just didn’t like them very much and hoped they’d get mugged!

And there is an element of the UK paying the price for the mistakes of the past, notably those made by labour governments of the 60’s and 70’s (i.e. the sort of labour government Corbyn wants to have). The fact is that lot of the UK’s tower blocks are cheap ugly blocks of concrete, which are just not fit for purpose, they were thrown up in a hurry on a shoe string budget, with little thought for the long term implications. Trying to refurbish them, while its better than doing nothing, it is basically an attempt to try and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. There is a credible argument for simply imploding many of these buildings and starting again from scratch. Of course, that’s not cheap and it would take a significant period of time to implement.

However my worry is that with the Tories in charge their policy will be to use this as an excuse to firstly do nothing and stop all refurbishment of council blocks, leaving many people living in damp, cold, unsafe and generally unhealthy living conditions. And then gut the UK’s social housing system entirely.

Posted in economics, efficiency, energy, housing, Passivhaus, politics, power | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments