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Chapter 5 of "Short Circuit" - page 5

Lift agencies and car-pools are only suited to longer journeys and for the 75% of journeys which are under five miles, the bike is probably the best solution. The European city which has been most successful in getting people to use bicycles instead of cars is Groningen in the Netherlands where, as a result of action by the local council, 50% of journeys are now made on two wheels 40. "We are trying to find a balance between accessibility and liveability by giving priority to the bicycle and public transport" Marcel Bloemkolk of the city's department of town planning, traffic and economic affairs told me. "We try to keep the use of cars to a minimum". This is no easy task for an urban area with 170,000 inhabitants which serves as the regional centre for the whole northern Netherlands and to which over 30,000 people travel by car to work each day.

The first steps were taken in 1979 when the council simply closed certain streets to traffic other than delivery vehicles, buses and bikes after what Bloemkolk admits was inadequate consultation. "It wasn't the way we would do it nowadays," he says. The closures meant that the inner city, which is about a kilometre in diameter, was divided into four sectors and cars could not cross from one sector to another except by going out on to the inner ring road. The result was an outcry from car-owners and retailers. "The matter became heavily politicised which was not at all helpful and the retailers made things worse for themselves by putting advertisements in the newspapers suggesting that the city was surrounded by barbed wire. That must have cost them a lot of business," Bloemkolk says.

"It was horrible at first" Wilma Naaijer told me in her father's fabric shop, 't Binnehuis. "People got lost in the new one-way system and they could only park for two hours. We lost business and shops in outlying towns advertised saying that that they had no parking problems."

On the other hand, there were improvements. Several streets were pedestrianised or had their road widths narrowed and the Great Market Place, which had effectively been little more than a traffic roundabout, became a public space once more. "Under the 1979 plan public transport including taxis, cyclists and pedestrians could move freely between the sectors," Bloemkolk says. "Retailers' income dropped for a year or two until people got used to the new system. Some shops had to move, but that would have happened anyway in some cases."

In Groningen today the council is eliminating the last parking spaces in the central area ("There are very few but people drive around looking for them" Bloemkolk says). Instead, car owners can pay a guilder (40p) per half-hour to park beyond the inner ring road and walk into the central area, or they park without charge on the outer ring and take the free and frequent bus service to the centre. The money collected from people parking close to the inner ring covers the operating costs of the buses for those who park further out.

Since almost everyone now walks, cycles or takes a bus into the central area, the planners have much more freedom about where retail developments within it should be. "The shops were too concentrated before. They all wanted to be close to each other. Now we can offer them good sites on attractive streets which previously had a messy and worn-out appearance. You can do a lot more with a street if it has no cars," Bloemkolk says. Big stores like IKEA, which feel they need to be close to a carpark so that customers can get bulky purchases away are sited on the inner ring and allowed to have their own small underground car parks for which their customers must pay.

While restricting the car has certainly cut the number of road accidents and made Groningen a more attractive place, it is hard to say how much energy it has saved. True, council surveys show that car traffic is about 15% lower and cycle usage 10-15% higher than in cities of comparable size in the Netherlands, which, in comparison with anywhere in Britain and Ireland, look after their cyclists well. However, the strategy of both the council and the retailers, who now work closely together, is to use Groningen's new-found attractiveness to attract extra shoppers to travel there, mostly by car, from further and further away. "The shopkeepers want more pedestrianised streets and we think there is room for 20-40,000 sq metres more retailing space on top of the 80-90,000 sq. metres we have at present," Bloemkolk told me "We have to keep Groningen competitive. We're getting people from Germany now especially when the shops there are closed on Saturday afternoons."

Though its motives might be mixed, Groningen has a lot to teach other places about how to persuade people to cycle and to use public transport instead of their cars 41. "If you want to stimulate the use of bicycles, biking must be fast, comfortable and safe" says Bloemkolk, who is a member of the Dutch Cyclists' Union. "We have therefore created a large number of special facilities for bicycles. The most important is a cohesive network of cycle routes beside main roads and along roads with little motor traffic. It is very important that the network is as fine-meshed as possible to cut distances and travelling time, so we've built bridges and cut-throughs for pedestrians and cyclists only. Cyclists can use almost all one-way streets in both directions; at traffic lights we give them waiting spaces in front of cars and allow them to turn right against a red light. Bicycle racks have been erected in the city centre and at bus and rail stations and guarded bicycle shelters have been opened, too, some with lockers, toilets and phones. We've also started a campaign against bicycle theft."

On public transport, Bloemkolk says that the council's planning policy has been to site buildings where a lot of people will work near existing bus routes and the railway station. It has also tried to integrate the different forms of public transport: "They must form one network from the train for long distances to local buses and taxis for transport in the city, and there must be as few delays as possible. We have special bus lanes and traffic lights which can be changed by a transmitter in the bus" he says. Buses passing through the central area, however, are restricted to 15km per hour to be more pedestrian friendly. The plan is to replace the present diesel-powered vehicles on these routes with hybrid vehicles which will run on LPG most of the time but on batteries in the city centre to cut noise and emissions there.Click for 2002 update by Caroline Whyte

Another city which has tried to promote the bicycle with great success is Davis in California, where roughly a quarter of all journeys are made on two wheels. (The best British city is York, which claims 10%). The policy dates back to the mid-1960s when the University of California campus there increased its student numbers sharply with the result that many more bikes were being used on streets designed primarily for cars. In the city council elections in 1966, cycleways became the major issue and a majority of candidates who supported their construction were elected. Now, the city, which has a population of 50,000, a third of them students, has 37 miles of bike lanes running beside roads and 29 miles of stand-alone bike paths. It also has an ambitious ten-year $21m. programme to build more.

But the pleasant tree-shaded 'down-town' area of Davis is unhealthily quiet and the merchants have plenty of time to express their concern. The staff in the city planning office are worried too: their surveys show that, while the number of bike journeys is not falling, it is not growing either although the city's population is expanding each year. As a result, cycling contributes a smaller and smaller percentage of all journeys made. The problem is that Winger's Department Store in the downtown area closed in 1986 and a major shopping mall opened outside the city boundary 18 months later. Sales tax receipts in Davis, which are now a third or a half of those in comparable towns, slumped as people started shopping outside its borders. "The reason the number of cycle journeys has not increased is that people need cars to get to the Mall," a planning officer told me.

Marcel Bloemkolk of Groningen sympathised when I told him the story. "It's important to keep the central area compact. Groningen wouldn't want a megastore on the edge of town" he said.

Can horse transport make a comeback? (Click for panel from original book)

2. SAVINGS IN THE HOME

Davis has, however, been much more successful in saving energy in the most important area under local control - the 27% share of total energy consumption used in the home. Its technique is to ensure that all new houses are built to the most stringent energy-saving standards that California state law allows it to impose. This has not meant that houses built by developers are more expensive than they would otherwise have been: in any town, the price of a new house is determined by what the market will bear rather than the cost of construction and, if a developer has to spend an additional $5,000 to reach a building code's standards, that is $5,000 less he can afford to pay for the site. The landowner loses while the householder gains from lower heating, lighting and cooling bills and a higher resale value: the first houses to be built to the new standards now fetch 12% more than similar conventional houses of the same age 43.

So enthusiastic is Davis about the results it is getting from demanding high building standards that it publishes a monthly newsletter, The Biketown Builder, to keep contractors and others up to date with the latest regulations. Inspections of houses under construction are frequent and stringent and the city has its planning officers devote a lot of their time to talking to architects and builders about possible improvements to their plans not just for the houses themselves but the way they are laid out.

Energy efficiency should be designed into a sub-division at the start rather than tacked on afterwards, a policy statement issued by Davis City Council stresses, before listing the features its staff will be looking for in planning applications. These include placing the buildings to take heat from the winter sun ('building envelopes should be designed to provide solar access to the south facing glazing of buildings... on the winter design day of December 21 when the angle of the sun is 20.7 degrees') and to use the prevailing breezes in summer to keep cool . As a result, a minimum of 80% of detached houses on a subdivision have to have their long axes running within 22.5 degrees of east-west. Planting plans have to be prepared which shade parking and play areas as well as the houses themselves and paved areas generally have to be minimised to reduce heat gain. Another stipulation is that a convenient system of paths be provided for pedestrians and cyclists.44

If similar requirements had been adopted in Herefordshire, it would have been much easier for David Olivier of Energy Advisory Associates to find a site for the highly energy-efficient demonstration house he started planning in 1990. Although the house had several of the features of the traditional cottages of the area - a long, thin shape, facing south, with a low slate roof and small windows at the rear - three potential sites had to be dropped when the district councils responsible rejected it entirely. On the fourth site, the local council wanted the house turned round to face the road, which happened to run to the north. A year's negotiations were required before the councillors changed their minds. Construction should begin in 1996.

Click on thumbnail to see full-sized diagram (92 K) of David Olivier's energy-saving house, which ran into planning consent problems.

The key feature of the house is that it will require only a tenth of the energy used to provide heating, lighting and hot water in a British house built to current standards. Moreover, as much of the energy the house does require will come from the sun - its south-facing roof it will have 10 sq. metres of solar collector for hot water and 15 sq. metres of photovoltaic cells for electricity which will be banked in the grid - its fossil energy consumption should be 3% of that of a normal home. This is made possible because it has about four times the level of thermal insulation built into a normal new house, plus very much better windows which will capture more heat from the sun each year than they lose. No British manufacturer was interested in making these because they could not see a market developing for them, so the sealed glazing units will be imported from Canada and be mounted in locally-grown timber frames.

Some of the house will be local stone and concrete blocks will be used for the load-bearing walls as these take only a third of the energy used to make bricks. PVC, lead, insulation foamed with HCFCs and glues made with formaldehyde will be avoided for environmental reasons. "The amount of embodied energy in the materials for the house will be slightly less than for a normal dwelling," Olivier says, a fact which leads him to hope that building costs for similar houses will be very little more than for conventional ones once their insulation levels and energy systems became standard. "There's negligible experience of building houses like this in Britain but taking the Swiss and German experience is a guide, the extra cost should not be above 5%. Even in this country, I know buildings which have gone halfway towards the performance we are aiming for here with no extra cost," he says. One of these is a 1992 house in Charlbury, in Oxfordshire, which has cut its total energy consumption, including that for lighting, cooking and appliances, by 70%. Another is a London house which has 8" (200mm) of insulation in the roof, 6.5" (165mm) in the cavities and 10" (250mm) under the floor.

Professor Owen Lewis, the director of the Energy Research Group at the School of Architecture, University College, Dublin, agrees that the extra cost of a really energy-efficient house should be very modest. "It is greatly exaggerated by the building industry. I would say that 5% is the upper limit since, once you get the rate of heat loss down to a low level, you can make substantial savings because you do not have to instal boilers, chimneys and central heating systems. [Olivier's house has no central heating system or wood-burning stove. Cooking will be with either bottled or bio gas]. At some point, however, you run into diminishing returns and it's not worth spending more." In part, this is because the occupants of the house and their lights and appliances will release enough heat to cover the remaining loss, much of which will be through the ventilation system as a result of the necessity to change the air continually.

In any case, it might be cheaper to capture replacement energy from the sun rather than to spend more on extra insulation. Susan Roal's house in Oxford is the first in Britain to generate more electricity from the 48 solar panels on its roof than its occupants will use in the course of a year. Like Olivier's, it uses the grid as a battery, feeding the surplus into it when the sun is strong and drawing out at night. It is one of the developments which makes Lewis excited about the progress being made with photovoltaics. "We're working with a Spanish firm which is building cells into its curtain-walling which costs no more than any other good quality cladding. It comes in six metre high units which are fixed vertically. People tell us it is inefficient to place them this way because they need to be angled to capture the maximum amount of sun but we tell them that, since the electricity is essentially free, the level of efficiency doesn't bother us."

Given the minimal extra cost, could a British or Irish council adopt Davis-style policies and demand much higher levels of energy efficiency than those set out in the national building regulations from the planning applications coming before it? "Yes, if the climate of opinion was right," says a friend who is a senior planning officer. "In fact, a group of planners in Britain is already working in that direction"45.

But building new houses to much higher standards can only be part of the solution as at current rates of demolition and new construction, over half of the UK housing stock will still date from before 1965 in thirty years' time and thus have been built before it was necessary to meet any legal thermal insulation standards at all 46. The average energy rating of British houses is between 40 and 50 on the government's misleading Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) scale which ranges from 1 to a maximum of 100, 1 being poor and 100 being the most energy efficient. You might think that a house with a rating of one would lose all the heat put into it almost immediately while one with a rating of 100 would retain it indefinitely but since the laws of thermodynamics make it quite impossible to achieve a perfect level of insulation, any scale with an upper limit has to be misconceived. "My house is off the scale - it comes out at about 250," David Olivier says. "Houses built under current Building Regulations are between 60 and 70 but that's based on how they are on paper, not how they actually perform when they are built."

Energy used by a typical British household
HEATING (gas)45%
HOT WATER (gas)16%
LIGHTING (electric)1%
TV ETC (electric)0.5%
COOKING (electric)3%
DISHWASHER (electric)2%
FRIDGE/ FREEZER (electric)2%
WASHING-MACHINE/ DRYER (electric)0.5%
CAR30%

How, then, can a community's existing houses be brought up to a reasonable level of energy efficiency? Because it costs the municipally-owned electricity companies of Denmark less to show someone how to save a unit of electricity than they would have to pay in interest to generate that unit if they had to build a new power station, they are generally reckoned to have had more experience than anyone else in Europe in getting their customers to cut power demand. According to AKF, the Danish Institute of Local Government Studies 48, the main obstacle preventing households cutting electricity consumption is ignorance. In an experiment , three groups of households, none of which used electricity for room heating, were sent literature on ways they could save power and offered low-cost loans if they wanted to adopt any of the measures. They were also given a leaflet on how to read their electricity meters. As a result of these simple measures, Group One cut its the electricity demand by 7.4%. Group Two had the price of its electricity increased as well and its demand dropped by 8.3%. Group Three received the same treatment as group two except that its members were also visited by consultants. It cut its energy use by 10%. These savings were achieved largely because people changed their habits as only a limited number of light bulbs and appliances were replaced with more efficient types. 49

Over a longer period, as more equipment became due for renewal, much deeper cuts would have been possible, as has been demonstrated by the Billsavers Project run by the Lothian and Edinburgh Environmental Partnership, LEEP. The project studied electricity use in 100 low-income households for a full year before supplying them with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs and helping them get their appliances replaced or repaired. "Significant savings are being achieved from installing CFLs, the most extreme example being overall savings/reductions of 70%," writes Robert Barnham, the project development officer . "[Also], there are already cases where the replacement of an appliances where the replacement of an appliance is expected to result in first-year running cost savings matching the replacement costs. The most significant savings are through replacing fridges and fridge-freezers; though low rated in terms of actual wattage, they are on continuously and in certain cases older models are using up to ten times the energy of an efficient replacement model."50 In view of these findings, LEEP is looking at the potential electricity savings in a hundred middle- and upper-class households and has a scheme under which families can buy CFL bulbs from it with loans from local credit unions. "Development of an energy services company may be a longer-term opportunity incorporating advice, soft financing, retailing and contracting," Barnham writes.

Click for 2002 Update on LEEP by Simon Lee, LEEP's director

The Bristol Energy Centre (now the Centre for Sustainable Energy), which was set up as an offshoot of the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in Wales to show what alternative technologies could do in an urban context, has already set up a company which aims to reduce not just electricity use but a household's total energy consumption. The Centre believes that the main obstacles to a general improvement in domestic energy standards are that many householders don't know what to do and that, even if they did, they would find it too much hassle to arrange for a contractor to do the work, particularly as they do not trust contractors anyway. On top of that, householders may not have the ready cash to pay for whatever needs to be done. To tackle these problems, the Centre has formed The Energy Club in partnership with a regional electricity company, Northern Electric, and Lothbury Services Ltd, a firm of financial consultants, and launched a trial project in two communities outside Bristol, Yate and Nailsea, in October 1995. In the test, owner-occupiers were subjected to 'an intensive marketing approach' backed by a letter of support from the local council, urging them to explore ways of cutting their energy bills by telephoning the Club. "With our computer software we can do quite a lot by asking people questions over the phone," a Club spokesman told me . "We give them an estimate of the sort of savings they are likely to make, which are usually around 200 a year or 20-30% of their energy bills, and some idea of how much it is likely to cost. If they are still interested, we carry out a survey and organise contractors to do the work for them. If necessary, we can arrange the finance through a personal loan over five years from a high-street bank. The current rate of interest is 14.6% and the savings they make should be enough to cover their repayments."51

The Club is nothing if not ambitious and expects 'to have delivered total energy packages to more than 2.5 million households' after five years' full operation, saving members 'some £500m. per year' and cutting CO2 emissions by some 1.4 million tonnes of carbon equivalent annually.52 "We can bring houses up to 60 or 70 on the SAP scale," the spokesman told me. "Just how many houses we do will depend on how many other people see the commercial opportunity and come in. No government grants are involved." When I pointed out that cheaper loans would be available from a credit union and that this would keep the interest payments in the community, he reflected the widespread attitude in Britain that CUs are only for the poor and said that bank loans were 'more appropriate to the sector [that is, owner-occupiers] in which they were operating.' However, they were looking at CUs as a possible source of loans for people living in social housing when they developed schemes for them.

Click for 2002 update on the Energy Club by Simon Roberts, Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy

Much higher standards of energy efficiency can be achieved in existing houses than the Energy Club expects to make. In Schiedam in the Netherlands, for example, the local council has super-insulated an estate of 448 flats built in 1956 and in need of major renovation. It externally insulated the external walls by covering them with six inches (150mm) of expanded polystyrene, followed by metal mesh and a concrete rendering. (This is the most efficient way to insulate any existing building - far better and easier than lining the walls with insulation inside - and visitors to the former East Germany can scarcely have failed to notice how extensively the technique is being used there to improve the housing stock.) Three additional inches (70mm) of insulation were put in the roofs, existing balconies were glazed and the windows replaced with double-glazed, argon-filled units with a heat-reflecting silver oxide coating, fitted in timber frames. New space heating systems were also installed. "These measures brought the flats up to the standard of the best new Dutch buildings and they use 90% less energy than the average for the Dutch housing stock," David Olivier told me 53.

The latest British estimate is that, if every household adopted all the energy-saving techniques open to it including fitting full double-glazing, putting six inches of glass-fibre in the loft, draught-proofing, insulating the walls, and moving to the most efficient light bulbs and domestic appliances, total domestic energy use would fall by almost 40% even if people did not take all their savings in the form of lower fuel bills but allowed themselves the luxury of warmer rooms as well.54 Moreover, if householders did the installation work themselves, they would get at least a 15% return on most of their spending. Even if they had to employ contractors, the majority of their money would give an 8% or better return.

The obstacles to energy-saving are therefore not therefore technical or financial. They are essentially social - and that is where community attitudes and actions come in.

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Contact information   for Chapter 5

Footnotes for Chapter 5

Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7
Epilogue 2002/3 Updates Links Site Map