Sunday, 2 August 2009

A house that lives off power

Builders may grouse about the impossibility of making Britain’s homes green but a Danish window group believes it has the answer.
In July the Simonsen family moved into a pioneering eco-home near the city of Aarhus. The so-called Home for Life, built by Velux, a 60-year-old firm still owned by the founding Rasmussen family, doesn’t need to take gas or electricity from the grid. Thanks to its big windows, solar heating and natural ventilation, the house will generate more power (in summer) than it consumes.
So how does it work? Solar heaters provide the hot water and photo-voltaic cells on the roof power the appliances. The house feeds excess power into the grid, which pays for the electricity used in winter when the sun shines less.
Per Arnold Andersen, one of Velux’s chief architects, said comfort hasn’t been sacrificed. “The worst thing you can do is just insulate, insulate, insulate. In Denmark there are some pretty scary examples of housing from the 1970s with tiny windows, low natural light and a poor indoor climate,” he said.
Insulating without thought for summertime temperatures can lead to homeowners buying air conditioners, and poor natural lighting means they are more likely to have lights on during the day, he added.
To prevent the house overheating, smart windows regulate the airflow, venting heat automatically through roof skylights.
The big question, of course, is expense, and not every new home can be perfectly angled to capture maximum sunlight or wind.
Andersen declined to say how much the Home for Life had cost but said that rolling out the design on a large scale would make it affordable. “Our approach is simple and is based on known technology. It is more expensive initially but the pay-back time will be fairly good.
“When you look at the lifetime of the building, it will be cheaper.”

Wind power – a cautionary word

Sunday, 2 August 2009
All new technologies carry risk. That is true of benign new technologies as well as the old industrial sort. This paper's report on the potential health hazards of wind turbines, generators of eco-friendly wind power, will be unwelcome for many environmentalists and indeed for the Government, which for entirely creditable reasons is committed to a great increase in their number. But a new book by a New York paediatrician, Dr Nina Pierpont, on which our report is based and which draws on international studies, ought not to be ignored.
This paper is in favour of wind turbines. But Dr Pierpont suggests that the vibrations and low-level subsonic noise that is emitted can cause a range of health problems, including sleep disorders, and may aggravate more serious underlying conditions. She attributes this to the fact that the human ear is far more sensitive to vibrations, not merely audible noise, than we have assumed. And the disruption to the ear's vestibular system – directly linked to our sense of balance – caused by vibrations and low-level noise from turbines is a factor that the British Government has not, so far, taken into account in assessing whether to commission wind farms. For the sake of public reassurance, it should.
This newspaper believes that Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy, ought to study these findings, as indeed should the Department for Health. And we do so as firm supporters of the principle that Britain must take its environmental responsibilities seriously, and as a supporter of Mr Miliband's radical White Paper on energy. It is not incompatible with support for green issues to suggest that the move towards renewable energy sources should take account of human health concerns. Indeed, the Government stands a far greater chance of winning public support for reducing carbon emissions if it shows it is receptive to new scientific findings. Public health issues and eco-sensitivity must not be mutually exclusive if people are to be won over to the larger project of changing our patterns of energy consumption.
We hope, therefore, that Mr Miliband will not simply dismiss Dr Pierpont's book, which will be published in October, simply as ammunition for what he describes as "socially unacceptable" opposition to wind power. Dr Pierpont's research was self-funded, and she is not personally opposed to wind turbines. Only last week, we saw the consequences of a cavalier attitude to health in the decommissioning of the steelworks at Corby, which resulted in some children conceived at the time being born with deformities. If the Government were to continue to commission and site wind farms without regard for these new scientific findings, ministers, or their successors, may be laying the taxpayer open to the possibility of large claims for compensation. More importantly, they may be exposing innocent members of the public, including children, to avoidable health problems.
The obvious recommendations that flow from the new research about the effects of wind turbines on a range of health issues – effects that also flow, to a lesser extent, from reflected light off the blades – are actually relatively modest. Foremost, there is an urgent need for credible official research into the health effects of the turbines. Then there is a prudential argument for postponing the commissioning of land-based wind farms until they are shown to be safe. At the very least, they should be treated like electricity pylons, and houses should not be built close by – the French government allows a radius of 1.5km for residential developments near wind turbines, while Dr Pierpont recommends a radius of 2km.
This approach may seem contrary to a vigorous commitment to greener energy, but it need not be. Additionally, wind power is just one of several good options. It may seem perverse just now, given the weather, to argue for solar energy, but the German government has made huge strides in the past decade in promoting the production and use of solar energy panels. It has set a useful example, which the White Paper seeks to emulate, in encouraging citizens to generate solar energy for sale to the national grid. Japan too, has embraced solar energy. There is also wave power, a potentially vast source of energy, which should be explored further.
In any event, Dr Pierpont has made an important contribution to a debate about wind turbines that should be conducted not between champions and opponents of renewable energy, but within the community of those who want this country to behave in an environmentally responsible way. That we can and should do.

Solar-powered soldiers in the pipeline

Darpa, the US defence research agency, is devoting $100m to alternative energy. But will it be commercially viable?
By Steve LeVine
Sunday, 2 August 2009
Nine years ago, Robert Nowak, an electro-chemicals expert for the US Defence Department, learned that senior generals weren't happy with their troops' electronic gear. While the night vision, laser, and GPS devices worked well, the batteries that powered them weighed some 25lb per soldier, heavy enough to hurt some of the troops.
So Nowak, who worked at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Defence Department's research branch, solicited bids for a new device that would power a soldier's gear at a 10th of the weight and a fraction of the $100 (£60) cost of the batteries. Today, the original 18 companies that took up Nowak's challenge have been whittled down to two: Livermore, California-based UltraCell and Adaptive Materials of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their solution: small, sturdy fuel cells that can power a soldier's clutch of mobile devices for a week on a gallon or so of methanol or propane. Battle-ready versions of the fuel cells will be available this year.
Darpa regards the result as a game-changer for the military – akin to the potential shift in the automobile market from petrol-driven to hybrid or electric cars. Before the fuel cells: "If you were in Afghanistan and had a battery, you basically had to go to another country to get it recharged," says Nowak, who is now retired.
Consumers and businesses might someday gain as well. Both companies are testing models for the US commercial market. First targets: city police forces and makers of recreational vehicles.
The big drive to create a viable alternative-energy future – by Detroit, multinationals such as IBM and BP, and Silicon Valley startups – is well known. But there's another serious player in this sphere: the US military, and especially Darpa.
Created at the height of the Cold War to bolster US military technology after the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite launch, the agency has a long history of innovation. Most famously, Darpa's researchers first linked together computers at four locations in the early 1960s to form the Arpanet, a computer network for researchers that was the core of what eventually grew into the internet. Other breakthroughs have lead to the commercial development of semiconductors, GPS, and Unix, the widely used computer operating system. There have been some serious gaffes as well, including mechanical elephants to carry troops through Vietnam's jungles and an ill-conceived search for people gifted with psychic powers. But on the whole, Darpa has a strong record of bringing ideas from the lab to the real world.
Can Darpa now score another double success by changing how both the military and civilian worlds consume and produce energy? The Arlington, Virginia-based agency's first goal is always to magnify the might of the US armed forces. That's why it is devoting an estimated $100m of its $3bn annual budget to alternative energy. The US forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are voracious consumers of energy. As a result, they have become perilously dependent on long, costly, and vulnerable convoys of diesel-fuel tankers. More vehicles are used to transport and guard the fuel – mostly for running generators for air conditioning, laptops, and other gear at US bases and posts – than are deployed in actual combat, according to a May report by the Military Advisory Board. With the expense of convoys and guards thrown in, the cost of a gallon of fuel used at the front can range from $15 to several hundred dollars, says the same report. So the army has set an overall goal of significantly reducing its fuel requirements. Under its plan, fuel and supply shipments to 5,000-troop brigades would be reduced from the current once every few days to just one a month.
Darpa describes itself as an incubator of long-shot technologies too risky for almost anyone else to take on. The agency operates by issuing challenges to companies that are so tough they are called " Darpa-hard". Typically, Darpa requires contractors to come up with solutions that are orders of magnitude superior to current technology. It pays companies – from startups to IBM – as well as top universities to meet a goal. Then, other than imposing strict reporting requirements, the agency gets out of the way of the researchers' work.
In addition to spurring the development of palm-size fuel cells, Darpa has contracted with companies to miniaturise solar cells that would supplant the need for generators. It now wants to develop inexpensive diesel and jet fuel from algae that could be produced in the battle zone. All three programmes include the aim of accelerating the manufacture of any new product by private companies, from whom the military could buy.
The agency certainly has no shortage of ambition. Take its solar panel programme. Current technology converts into electricity just about 20 per cent of the sunlight that hits silicon panels. DuPont and the University of Delaware are partners in a Darpa contract worth up to $100m to elevate efficiency to 40 per cent, at an affordable price. The idea is to capture the sunlight that would normally fall across a square-metre solar panel and concentrate it into a cell about the size of a fingernail. A number of those miniaturised cells would be arrayed across a panel that could be folded up and toted into battle, where it would power the needs of a half-dozen to a dozen soldiers. "It's an aggressive goal," says Brian Pierce, who is managing the Darpa programme. In contrast, solar cell maker SolFocus of Mountain View, California, is working on similar technology for civilian applications but is aiming for much more modest efficiency gains.
Darpa wants the cost of the new panel not to exceed $1,500 – compared with the more than $15,000 DuPont recently spent on a working model of the panel and its cells. Dan Laubacher, DuPont's manager for the project, says the system is at least two years away from delivery to the military. But as production ramps up, he says, the ultimate cost "could be lower" than the $1,500 targeted by Darpa. Eventually, as costs come down, DuPont hopes to sell the panels to utilities.
Darpa-inspired fuel efforts would change the military. How much the agency could change the commercial alternative energy industry is a matter of debate. Some in Silicon Valley welcome Darpa's commitment. Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and one of the most active venture capitalists in alternative energy in the valley, notes that so far both the private and public sectors have failed to make a definitive breakthrough in alternative energy. "Nobody knows the right answer. So the more the merrier," he says. "Darpa's ability to take a long-term view of research is positive."
However, some argue that alternative energy is unlike other Darpa efforts in the past, when the agency had a tremendous impact. In nurturing a proto-internet, for example, Darpa was alone in the field. Now hundreds of companies are exploring solar panel technology, doing advanced battery research, and experimenting with algae-based biofuels. This is also a global field, where Japan, Germany, and China already have the lead in critical areas.
Others say Darpa's goals can be unrealistic. Darpa wants to reduce the current cost of algae-based fuel from $20-$30 per gallon down to $3. In January, Darpa awarded contracts worth up to $34.8m to two companies to produce aviation fuel at $3 a gallon from algae. The competitors are General Atomics, best known for its Predator drone, and Science Applications International. They have three years to do it. Some doubt these companies – or any company – can achieve that goal.
Chris Somerville, the director of the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California Berkeley, has specifically avoided investment in algae-based fuel because his team does not see costs dropping below $10 a gallon. "We're sceptical that that's going to be possible," Somerville says of the $3 price target. Darpa's answer, as expressed by Nowak, is simple: "If you want to change the world," he says, "set the bar high."
This story also appears in the current issue of BusinessWeek

Are wind farms a health risk? US scientist identifies 'wind turbine syndrome'

Noise and vibration coming from large turbines are behind an increase in heart disease, migraine, panic attacks and other health problems, according to research by an American doctor
By Margareta Pagano
Sunday, 2 August 2009
Living too close to wind turbines can cause heart disease, tinnitus, vertigo, panic attacks, migraines and sleep deprivation, according to groundbreaking research to be published later this year by an American doctor.
Dr Nina Pierpont, a leading New York paediatrician, has been studying the symptoms displayed by people living near wind turbines in the US, the UK, Italy, Ireland and Canada for more than five years. Her findings have led her to confirm what she has identified as a new health risk, wind turbine syndrome (WTS). This is the disruption or abnormal stimulation of the inner ear's vestibular system by turbine infrasound and low-frequency noise, the most distinctive feature of which is a group of symptoms which she calls visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance, or VVVD. They cause problems ranging from internal pulsation, quivering, nervousness, fear, a compulsion to flee, chest tightness and tachycardia – increased heart rate. Turbine noise can also trigger nightmares and other disorders in children as well as harm cognitive development in the young, she claims. However, Dr Pierpont also makes it clear that not all people living close to turbines are susceptible.
Until now, the Government and the wind companies have denied any health risks associated with the powerful noises and vibrations emitted by wind turbines. Acoustic engineers working for the wind energy companies and the Government say that aerodynamic noise produced by turbines pose no risk to health, a view endorsed recently by acousticians at Salford University. They have argued that earlier claims by Dr Pierpont are "imaginary" and are likely to argue that her latest findings are based on a sample too small to be authoritative.
At the heart of Dr Pierpont's findings is that humans are affected by low-frequency noise and vibrations from wind turbines through their ear bones, rather like fish and other amphibians. That humans have the same sensitivity as fish is based on new discoveries made by scientists at Manchester University and New South Wales last year. This, she claims, overturns the medical orthodoxy of the past 70 years on which acousticians working for wind farms are using to base their noise measurements. "It has been gospel among acousticians for years that if a person can't hear a sound, it's too weak for it to be detected or registered by any other part of the body," she said. "But this is no longer true. Humans can hear through the bones. This is amazing. It would be heretical if it hadn't been shown in a well-conducted experiment."
In the UK, Dr Christopher Hanning, founder of the British Sleep Society, who has also backed her research, said: "Dr Pierpont's detailed recording of the harm caused by wind turbine noise will lay firm foundations for future research. It should be required reading for all planners considering wind farms. Like so many earlier medical pioneers exposing the weaknesses of current orthodoxy, Dr Pierpont has been subject to much denigration and criticism and ... it is tribute to her strength of character and conviction that this important book is going to reach publication."
Dr Pierpont's thesis, which is to be published in October by K-Selected Books, has been peer reviewed and includes an endorsement from Professor Lord May, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government. Lord May describes her research as "impressive, interesting and important".
Her new material about the impact of turbine noise on health will be of concern to the Government given its plans for about 4,000 new wind turbines across the country. Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has made wind power a central part of his new green policy to encourage renewable energy sources. Another 3,000 are planned off-shore.
Drawing on the early work of Dr Amanda Harry, a British GP in Portsmouth who had been alerted by her patients to the potential health risk, Dr Pierpont gathered together 10 further families from around the world who were living near large wind turbines, giving her a cluster of 38 people, from infants to age 75, to explore the pathophysiology of WTS for the case series. Eight of the 10 families she analysed for the study have now moved away from their homes.
In a rare interview, Dr Pierpont, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told The Independent on Sunday: "There is no doubt that my clinical research shows that the infrasonic to ultrasonic noise and vibrations emitted by wind turbines cause the symptoms which I am calling wind turbine syndrome. There are about 12 different health problems associated with WTS and these range from tachycardia, sleep disturbance, headaches, tinnitus, nausea, visual blurring, panic attacks with sensations of internal quivering to more general irritability.
"The wind industry will try to discredit me and disparage me, but I can cope with that. This is not unlike the tobacco industry dismissing health issues from smoking. The wind industry, however, is not composed of clinicians, nor is it made up of people suffering from wind turbines." The IoS has a copy of the confidential manuscript which is exhaustive in its research protocol and detailed case series, drawing on the work of leading otolaryngologists and neurotologists – ear, nose and throat clinical specialists.
Some of the earliest research into the impact of low-frequency noise and vibrations was undertaken by Portuguese doctors studying the effects on military and civil personnel flying at high altitudes and at supersonic speed. They found that this exposure may also cause the rare illness, vibroacoustic disorder or VAD, which causes changes to the structure of certain organs such as the heart and lungs and may well be caused by vibrations from turbines. Another powerful side effect of turbines is the impact which the light thrown off the blades – known as flicker – has on people who suffer from migraines and epilepsy.
Campaigners have consistently argued that much research hitherto has been based on written complaints to environmental health officers and manufacturers, not on science-based research. But in Denmark, Germany and France, governments are moving towards building new wind farms off-shore because of concern over the potential health and environmental risks. In the UK there are no such controls, and a growing number of lobbyists, noise experts and government officials are also beginning to query the statutory noise levels being given to councils when deciding on planning applications from wind farm manufacturers. Lobbyists claim a new method of measuring is needed.
Dr Pierpont, who has funded all the research herself and is independent of any organisation, recommends at least a 2km set-back distance between potential wind turbines and people's homes, said: "It is irresponsible of the wind turbine companies – and governments – to continue building wind turbines so close to where people live until there has been a proper epidemiological investigation of the full impact on human health.
"What I have shown in my research is that many people – not all – who have been living close to a wind turbine running near their homes display a range of health illnesses and that when they move away, many of these problems also go away."
A breakthrough into understanding more of the impact of vibrations came last year, she said, when scientists at Manchester University and Prince of Wales Clinical School and Medical Research Institute in Sydney showed that the normal human vestibular system has a fish or frog-like sensitivity to low-frequency vibration. This was a turning point in understanding the nature of the problem, Dr Pierpont added, because it overturns the orthodoxy of the current way of measuring noise. "It is clear from the new evidence that the methods being used by acousticians goes back to research first carried out in the 1930s and is now outdated."
Dr Pierpont added that the wind turbine companies constantly argue that the health problems are "imaginary, psychosomatic or malingering". But she said their claims are "rubbish" and that medical evidence supports that the reported symptoms are real.
Case study: 'My husband had pneumonia, my father-in-law had a heart attack. Nobody was ill before'
Jane Davis, 53, a retired NHS manager, and her husband, Julian, 44, a farmer, lived in Spalding, Lincolnshire, until the noise of a wind farm 930m away forced them to leave
"People describe the noise as like an aeroplane that never arrives. My husband developed pneumonia very quickly after the turbines went up, having never had chest problems before. We suffer constant headaches and ear nuisance. My mother-in-law developed pneumonia and my husband developed atrial fibrillation – a rapid heartbeat. He had no pre-existing heart disease. Our blood pressure has gone up. My father-in-law has suffered a heart attack, tinnitus and marked hearing loss.
" I understand this can be regarded as a coincidence, but nobody was ill before 2006."
The defence: 'Wind turbines are quiet and safe'
The British Wind Energy Association, UK's biggest renewable energy trade association, said last night: "One of the first things first-time visitors to wind farms usually say is that they are surprised how quiet the turbines are.
"To put things in context: the London Borough of Westminster registered around 300,000 noise complaints from residents in 2008, none from wind turbines. The total number of noise complaints to local councils across the country runs into millions.
"In contrast, an independent study on wind farms and noise in 2007 found only four complaints from about 2,000 turbines in the country, three of which were resolved by the time the report was published.
"Wind turbines are quiet, safe and sustainable. It is not surprising that, according to a DTI report, 94 per cent of people who live near wind turbines are in favour of them. There is no scientific research to suggest that wind turbines are in any way harmful, and even many of the detractors of wind energy are honest enough to admit this.
"Noise from wind farms is a non-problem, and we need to move away from this unproductive and unscientific debate, and focus on our targets on reducing carbon emissions."

Britain's low-carbon bonanza will go to foreign firms

Tricia Holly Davis
The blueprint for Britain’s green revolution was launched this month at a low-carbon bus factory in Surrey.
Yet as the government attempts to cut emissions and build a low-carbon energy system, the bus plant is likely to be a rare example of homegrown green manufacturing. Today Britain is almost entirely dependent on foreign multinationals to provide the equipment and expertise needed to decarbonise the country. And despite the government’s grand plans, industry executives say it has failed to remove the barriers that have restricted the growth of new firms.
Vestas is a good example. Last week the Danish firm decided to close Britain’s only large factory that makes parts for wind turbines. Workers staged a sit-in protest against the closure and remain at the plant this weekend. The company said it was moving production to America where the demand for onshore wind power was stronger.
“The whole idea of this huge green British industry is a lot of hype,” said Peter Hunter of NEG Micon UK, which built the plant before it was bought by Vestas.
The government has put wind energy at the centre of its plans to remake Britain’s energy infrastructure. Crucially, though, the bane of the industry — planning — remains unresolved. The average onshore windfarm takes two years to get planning approval, one of Vestas’ biggest complaints. The government’s new Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will decide on big applications, should help speed up offshore wind projects but won’t help onshore developers. The commission can only decide on projects of 50MW or greater; the average onshore project is 30MW. Furthermore, the Tories have opposed the planning commission and have vowed to overhaul it.
Critics say it is little surprise, then, that Britain — endowed with enormous offshore wind-power potential — doesn’t have a single homegrown company to provide for the market. Our continental neighbours Denmark, Germany and Spain, on the other hand, are home to six of the world’s top 10 turbine manufacturers and employ 80,000 people in the wind sector. Britain employs 4,000.
The accountancy firm Ernst & Young recently warned that if Britain didn’t resolve the planning issue it would risk a huge drop in investment, with only £53 billion invested by 2015 compared with the £90 billion projected. As a result, it said, Britain would miss its 2020 renewable-energy targets and create 40,000 fewer green jobs.
In the meantime, Britain remains vulnerable to the whims of foreign manufacturers which will, naturally, set up where they can make the most money with the least hassle. Mark Wilson, of the advisory firm Catalyst Corporate Finance, said: “A reliance on overseas investors is alarming for two reasons. First, there is a risk that our clean energy infrastructure won’t get built if investors turn their attention to more lucrative markets, as Vestas has done, and we will therefore miss our renewables targets. Second, most of the returns would flow out of Britain to overseas firms.” According to Nathan Goode, of accountants Grant Thornton, this is already happening under the UK’s renewables obligation certificate (ROC) scheme, the government’s main subsidy programme to encourage the building of low-carbon energy plants.
In April’s budget, the government ratcheted up the ROCs payable to offshore wind, tidal and biomass developers. Goode said the move has had unintended consequences. “The extra subsidy just pays for price inflation on turbines that are being manufactured abroad,” he said. “The money is actually leaking out of the British economy.”
The price of ROCs is also unpredictable. Under the scheme, utilities must source an annually increasing percentage of their energy from clean sources such as wind. They can either buy ROCs from renewable developers to meet their obligation or pay a fine into a central fund that is distributed to providers of clean energy. Utilyx, an energy consultancy, said the value of ROCs could drop by two-thirds, from £18 per kilowatt hour to as little as £5 over the next three years as more projects come onstream. This would be a huge blow for renewable-energy firms dependent on that income.
A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research said the government could replace ROCs with more straightforward subsidy programmes that have proved effective elsewhere — such as Germany’s feed-in tariffs or the Danish system of loan guarantees given to projects that use Danish-made turbines.
“Without some radical changes, the only thing likely to land on British shores is the cable bringing in the power,” said Hunter.
Being aware of our energy consumption, like learning a language, would be a lot easier if we were taught from an early age. The inventors of Power-Hog, entrants in the Greener Gadget Competition, think they can help. They have created a piggy bank with a twist. Plug the Power-Hog’s tail into the outlet and whichever electric device you want to use into the snout. Children drop a coin in its back and are given 30 minutes of television or video-game time. Of course, the bright bulbs might just work out how to unplug the Hog and bypass this clever invention.

Ed Miliband's carbon neutral homes pledge in peril

Developers may be willing to pay the price and shun a demand that new homes must be carbon neutral by 2016
Andrew Stone
If Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, is to be believed, by 2016 every new home built in Britain will be carbon neutral. It’s a laudable goal, but even compared with the highly ambitious targets that have become so typical of the march toward Britain’s “green revolution”, it is a tall order.
The building industry has issued a fresh warning that the plan poses a greater danger than a few missed targets. Fewer new houses will be built, price rises will make new developments too expensive for aspiring homebuyers, and a recovery of the sector will be hindered.
Britain is one of the worst countries in Europe for energy efficiency. The government’s zero-carbon goal is the most ambitious in the world and it falls on the still-struggling housing industry to lead the way. Not surprisingly, support among property developers is lukewarm.
According to a recent survey from Loughborough University’s civil and building engineering department, construction firms would rather pay fines for not meeting the new targets than risk losses on developments for which there may not be a market.
“There’s a danger this is going to be a barrier rather than a stimulus for the market,” said Mohamed Osmani, a lecturer at the university who commissioned the study.
The problem, industry argues, is that making new homes energy efficient — kitting them out with gadgets such as rooftop turbines, solar panels and cavity insulation — could add up to £40,000 to the price. How much of that the government will subsidise, and which technologies will work best, is still unclear.
“There are no benchmarks or data and builders have a problem believing in the potential of clean and renewable technology to achieve these goals. If there are not enough financial and technical incentives, they will prefer to absorb financial penalties rather than implement the new standards,” said Osmani.
The industry is also concerned that without an established market for carbon-neutral homes, mortgage providers may baulk at lending against houses that appear to be more expensive than less energy-efficient homes of a similar size.
Britain is trying to do something that has taken others decades to achieve. Casey Cole of Fontenergy, which helps developers create low-carbon energy-generation projects, said: “Denmark’s reaction to the oil crisis in the 1970s was to move away from gas and oil towards community-owned district heating — combined heat and power networks that move the heat from incinerators and power stations. We are starting 20 to 30 years later.”
Builders questioned in the Loughborough survey found the timescale too ambitious. “The study showed they believe these standards could be achieved — but not by 2016. A more realistic date for designers and housebuilders is somewhere around 2021 to 2024,” Osmani said. The slump in the housing market has further complicated the situation.
Nicholas Doyle, project director of Places for People, one of Britain’s largest housing associations, said the upshot could be a bottleneck in the supply of new homes at a time when demand will be climbing back to pre-slump levels.
“The challenge is how to pay for this and not have an impact on the number of new starts,” said Doyle. “We cannot afford to slow down the number of new homes built. Housing demand has not gone away. There is still a growing population and limited supply.”
It is also unclear what cocktail of technologies and building techniques will work best. But with 2016 looming, some housebuilders could be forced into commissioning sustainable power-generation projects that pose unknown technical, commercial and legal challenges.
Cole said: “Developers are used to putting in gas fittings and walking away, but things are more complicated when you provide heat or move renewably-generated energy.”
What is certain is that the government will have to play a big role in creating the right financial incentives. “The provision for feed-in tariffs in the energy Bill last year could offer a long-term and reliable source of revenue,” said Doyle. “There’s a role for government in facilitating the delivery of this. We need it to help funders come on board to create these funding mechanisms.”
It is in the government’s interest, after all: fostering a green building industry would help achieve its lofty goal of creating 400,000 jobs in low-carbon sectors. Some fear, however, that the 2016 standards could even make new housing less sustainable overall. The focus on making each housing unit carbon neutral may lead to lower-density developments that use more greenfield space and encourage more car use, said Aurore Julien, at Llewelyn Davies Yeang, an architectural practice.
“The new standards may have contradictory consequences,” she said. “They will be easier to achieve for greenfield developments with low density that have more roof space for solar panels and wind turbines. Are these developments in the interests of sustainability? Maybe the target should be more to do with high in-built energy efficiency.”

Wind turbine factory closure date put back

The planned closure date of a wind turbine factory which is being occupied by workers as part of a campaign to save their jobs has been put back.

Published: 8:00AM BST 01 Aug 2009

Vestas Wind Systems was due to close its plant in Newport on the Isle of Wight yesterday, with the loss of over 600 jobs.
A 90-day consultation with the workers was due to end yesterday, but employees have received letters saying the timescale had been extended.

The extension follows a delay in legal moves to end the occupation of the site, which will be heard by a county court on the island next week.
The Rail Maritime and Transport union said the development was "another massive victory" for the campaign to save the factory.
General secretary Bob Crow said: "Delaying the possible closure date to an unspecified point in the future gives us a real opportunity to sit down with the Government and the company to work out a solution to save the factory and the jobs."
A group of 10 workers have been staging a sit-in for the past two weeks, supported by climate change activists who have set up a camp outside the plant.
The Danish-owned firm issued a statement this week explaining that due to the company's expansion in the US, it had announced plans a year ago to convert the production at the factory on the Isle of Wight from 40-metre blades for the V82 turbine to 44-metre blades for the V90 wind turbine, a turbine which is particularly well-suited for the UK onshore and offshore market.
"The decision followed the UK government's announcement on 26 June 2008 of its plan for how to ensure the country would meet its obligation under the EU target of achieving 20% renewable energy by 2020.
"Despite the UK government's strong commitment to renewable energy - which was reconfirmed on 15 July 2009 by its Low Carbon Transition Plan - the local planning process for the construction of new onshore wind power plants in the UK remains an obstacle to the development of a more favourable market for onshore wind power. Since offshore wind power is still on a project basis, a large and stable market for onshore wind power is vital to secure a stable production flow.
"As a result of the current market conditions in Northern Europe and the planning process in the UK, Vestas has decided not to move forward with its plans to convert the factory into the production of 44-metre blades," said the firm.
More supporters are expected to travel to the Isle of Wight over the weekend, while the RMT said it remained "deeply concerned" about the well-being of the workers occupying the factory amid claims that they were being allowed limited access to food.
The union is taking legal advice about possible breaches of the Human Rights Act

It's wrong to believe that nature is always best

At last, the myth about organic food being better for us has been exploded. Maybe now we can get down to the serious business of feeding our growing population
Robin McKie
The Observer, Sunday 2 August 2009
For years, it was the nation's favourite growth industry. Throughout the Nineties and for much of this decade, organic leeks, carrots, onions and other fruit and vegetables enjoyed a startling upsurge in popularity. More and more supermarket shelf space was devoted to their sale as the middle class rushed for food that was natural and free of pesticides while local entrepreneurs, their car boots bulging with knobbly turnips and strange-looking potatoes, delivered an ever-increasing number of organic veggie boxes to households round the country.
According to one industry estimate, the organic food market was worth more than £2bn in Britain last year and were it not for the recession might have continued to swell for years to come. Today, organically managed farms and estates account for 4% of all UK agricultural land. Despite our financial problems, and the expense of producing low-yield organic foods, it seems the nation still expects its food to be wholesome.
But last week, the movement's image suffered a blow when the Food Standards Agency published a report that examined the different nutrient levels found in crops and livestock from both organic and non-organic farming. It also looked at the health benefits of eating organic food - and decided that there were none.
"Looking at all of the studies published in the last 50 years, we have concluded that there's no good evidence that consumption of organic food is beneficial to health based on the nutrient content," said Dr Alan Dangour, who led the review by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
These were harsh words and they went down like a slimy caterpillar on a lettuce leaf with the movement and its devotees. Letter writers to newspapers and columnists rushed to defend organic food while the Soil Association, the industry body that sets standards for organic farmers, attacked the FSA, describing its report as "limited". It also criticised Dangour for not addressing the issue of pesticide toxin levels in non-organic food, a major issue for organic farmers.
Yet the report - for all its alleged flaws - is an important one. For a start, it is certainly not the work of dogmatic and intractably hostile opponents of the cause: "A cancerous conspiracy," said one food writer. In fact, it raises key global issues.
The world is approaching an environmental crisis that will be triggered by food and water shortages, rising populations and climate change caused by our industrial activities: "A perfect storm," according to the government's chief scientist John Beddington. "Things will start getting really worrying if we don't tackle these problems," he said earlier this year.
Thus an analysis that raises concerns about how food is grown in this country is destined to be enlightening. After all, if organic food is no more beneficial in terms of nutrition than other, standard foodstuffs, why should we pay excessive prices to eat the stuff? Why devote more land to its production?
These are good questions to which the organic movement has clear answers. Their crops cut the danger of pesticide poisoning, improve animal welfare, increase biodiversity and help sustainability. Not a bad package. You may not get a carrot that makes you healthier when you pick an organic one, but at least you won't be swallowing toxins and you will also help the environment. Practically and ethically, it sounds a good buy.
Well, up to a point. For a start, the idea that organic fruit and veg contain no harmful chemicals compared with non-organic produce is simply wrong, scientists argue. Certainly, there are pesticide residues in the latter but there is no evidence these are cumulatively harmful.
More to the point, organic crops - because they are untreated with chemicals - have correspondingly high levels of natural fungal toxins. Thus they balance out: artificial pesticide residues in non-organic crops, natural fungal toxins in organic. The only real difference is that the former are cheaper to grow - and this takes us to the heart of the issue, according to Professor Ottoline Leyser of York University.
"People think that the more natural something is, the better it is for them. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is the opposite that is the true: the closer a plant is to its natural state, the more likely it is that it will poison you. Naturally, plants do not want to be eaten, so we have spent 10,000 years developing agriculture and breeding out harmful traits from crops. 'Natural agriculture' is a contradiction in terms."
And this is a critical point. The idea that natural is good and anything else is bad has become deeply rooted in society. Yet the belief is flawed, for it implies the living world exists merely to provide humans with bounteous amounts of produce. Nature is a shopping trolley created for our exploitation, in other words. But fields are not natural and crops are not natural. They are the end result of thousands of years of hard work and experimentation by human beings. And that is why agricultural produce is good for us today.
This point, stressed by Leyser, is important because of the organic movement's hostility to agricultural innovation. Major changes are required in the ways we farm our nation. We need to cut our use of nitrogen fertilisers because their manufacture is linked to high carbon dioxide emissions and we need to play our part in limiting climate change. At the same time, we need to improve food production in Britain as the nation's population rises. Currently, there are around 61 million people living in the UK. By 2051, this figure is expected to reach 77 million: a large number of extra mouths to feed.
Turning to organic farming could help us deal with the former problem, given the restrictions it places on the use of artificial fertilisers, but that, in turn, would only cripple our ability to feed our swelling numbers - because of the low crop yields that would ensue.
One solution would be to turn to GM foods and to develop crops whose DNA has been altered so they fix their own nitrogen and so do not need large amounts of artificial fertilisers to maintain the high yields of foodstuffs we are going to need by the middle of the century. It is a sound idea. Yet it is anathema to the organic movement wedded, as it is, to its semi-religious belief that everything in nature is tickety-boo and everything that comes from the laboratory, or from years of careful experiment by men and women, is somehow tainted and must therefore be rejected.
This is a flawed vision of nature and one that is increasingly at odds with the nation's needs. This does not mean to say that organic farming has no role to play in the stewardship of Britain. As Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University and a UN agricultural adviser says, the practice - with pesticide restrictions - has clearly been of benefit to the country in terms of maintaining biodiversity and encouraging animal welfare.
"However, there are plenty of standard farms that now score well on these issues," he added.
Horizons are shifting, in other words, and the organic movement needs to think about moving on. It is only natural, after all.
• Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer