The low carbon revolution is everywhere you look

James Murray argues that after years on the drawing board low carbon infrastructure has never been more visible

08 Sep 2011, 00:05

Some snapshots from the past fortnight.

If you get a clear day and you are willing to climb up a few of Cumbria's more picturesque fells you can simultaneously see one of the UK's largest nuclear power plants and, if you really squint, a smattering of onshore and offshore wind farms.

Equally, if you travel up both the west and east coast mainlines and you seek distraction from the appalling overcrowding by staring out the window you will notice that wind turbines and solar panels are nowhere near as rare as they used to be.

Similarly, if you are fortunate enough to visit Newcastle you will find that the UK's greenest city (according to one recent study) boasts numerous electric car charge points, a Boris Bike style hire scheme, the groundwork for a geothermal power network, the UK's largest import facility for biomass power feedstocks, and two of the world's leading clean tech research institutions in the form of the National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec) and the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS).

And if you spent one of the few sunny days we've enjoyed over the past few weeks lounging in my local park in Kilburn you would notice that the adjacent primary school has installed a sizable solar array on its south facing roof.

Finally, if, like my partner's cousin you leave your job as an army engineer after three tours of Afghanistan and return home to Kent you can find yourself putting the skills you learnt servicing tanks and military 4x4s to good use working on one of the county's offshore wind farms.

There is nothing unique about these vignettes, but taken together they highlight the fact that the UK's low carbon economy is in the midst of a genuinely exhilarating phase as it moves rapidly from drawing board to execution.

The UK's environmental movement has many strengths and weaknesses, and among its most persistent flaws is an inherent pessimism coupled with a London-centric fixation on politics and policy.

This focus is entirely understandable (and I am as guilty of it as anyone). The global environmental outlook is bleak and despite considerable progress on many fronts US political dysfunction and the quagmire of international climate change negotiations means that it is getting bleaker still. Meanwhile, the scale and pace of the low carbon transition that is required is impossible without highly co-ordinated, proactive, and effective green policies - a lesson that only a handful of our more progressive political leaders appear to have grasped.

But the green commentariat's almost exclusive focus on looming environmental and policy challenges, while understandable and arguably necessary, also risks underplaying the extent to which the low carbon infrastructure we will require is not only available, it is increasingly being used.

This reality was hammered home to me on a press trip to the UK's aspiring North East clean tech hub, which took in Newcastle's geothermal ambitions, plans for local offshore wind turbine manufacturing, Northumbrian Water's efforts to make anaerobic digestion a standard feature of water treatment, and hugely ambitious proposals to build a regional carbon capture and storage network that could one day decarbonise the area's polluting heavy industries.

As the inspiring Professor Dermot Roddy of Newcastle University's Institute for Research on Sustainability (NiRES) puts it: "This region was at the heart of the first industrial revolution, and it can do that again with clean tech. Because of our industry we have the highest per capita emissions in the country, so if we can do it here we can do it anywhere."

So many aspects of the low carbon agenda remain complex and controversial, but what is increasingly plain is that if you can successfully unite green businesses, investors, and policymakers it is possible to rapidly deploy infrastructure that will help cut carbon emissions, improve economic performance, and enhance living standards.

Nor is this phenomenon confined to the North East. At opposite ends of the country in Scotland and Kent and the South West we are beginning to see how wind and marine energy can be harnessed to deliver large quantities of usable renewable energy, while councils have instigated a quiet revolution in waste management that has led to rapid improvements in recycling rates. Even in London green infrastructure that would have been unimaginable even three years ago such as electric car charge points, solar panels and urban wind turbines are all becoming an increasingly visible part of the city's fabric.

None of this is to suggest that green businesses should sit back and celebrate their still modest progress. We are at the very start of a decades long transition with no guarantee of eventual success.

But just as the public is largely unaware of the true scale of the environmental threats we face they are also largely unaware of the opportunities presented by a low carbon economy, and as such the onus is on green business leaders to highlight the way in which low carbon infrastructure is being deployed that both works and can be rolled out at reasonable cost.

The experience of Northumbrian Water's anaerobic digestion (AD) investment programme is informative. The company maintains rising energy costs meant that the installation of AD facilities capable of processing all the effluent in a region and convert it into fertilizer and energy that can be used to power its water treatment plants made economic sense regardless of any environmental advantages. Every utility in the country should now be deploying this technology as quickly as possible, making the UK the first nation to run a key part of its infrastructure using poo power.

By better highlighting successful low carbon infrastructure we can serve to normalise these technologies, making it easier for green businesses to attract investors, gain planning permission, recruit staff, and secure wider public support.

We are entering a crucial phase of development for the UK's low carbon economy as demonstration projects for technologies such as offshore wind, biomass power, solar panels, and electric cars move to full scale deployment, and less mature technologies such as marine power and carbon capture and storage move from laboratory to full scale demonstration. As such the next five to 10 years will see an engineering renaissance that could conclusively tilt the economy onto a low carbon development path.

The best way to ensure this transition happens as quickly as possible is to make the emergence of these technologies so explicit that everyone can't fail to end up with green infrastructure snapshots of their own.

  
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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