There was never really any doubt about the subject of this blog for me. It always had to be about “the wettest drought on record”. It is usually easier to get people to sign up to sustainable water during a drought, (although, conversely, it makes it harder as soon as the drought is over.) But this “drought” has proved far harder because of the amount of rainfall. Plus the fact that the south west of England and the Midlands were classified as being in drought even as the unprecedented April rains were falling made it even more of a PR disaster.
Definition of drought
So what exactly were the conditions that lead to the drought being announced? It was well documented that there had been below average winter rainfall over the last two winters leading to exceptionally low ground water levels. In addition, reservoir levels were low at a time when they needed to be full. In England and Walesit is the Environment Agency (EA) that decides when to call a drought, and it defines drought in two different ways. Environmental drought
is when a shortage of rainfall has a detrimental impact on the environment and water company supply drought
is when a shortage of rainfall causes concern for the ability of water companies to supply their customers. The EA makes a decision to move to drought status based on a series of factors including meteorological, hydrological, environmental, agricultural, and public supply.[i]
(I would also add political here but that is just my opinion.) The drought designated areas increased rapidly from the 12th
March until, by the 16th
April, over 75% of England was officially in drought; the subsequent sodden April and early May resulted in a lifting of formal drought status from many areas although the south east and east of England still officially remain in drought
How can we prevent further droughts?
This question is often posed, but it is not the question that needs to be asked. As we cannot control how much rain falls, we should be asking: “How do we manage our water supplies so that prolonged periods of below average rainfall do not result in a problem?” Obviously there are many solutions, from collecting rainwater, recycling greywater, reducing leakage (both in the mains and in customer’s branch pipes), retrofitting water efficient appliances and just using less! As these messages were drowned out (excuse the pun) by the call to transfer water from wetter to drier areas let’s look at how possible that would be.
Transferring water from Scotland to South East England
Areas of Scotland (e.g. the Highlands) do get a lot of water (up to 4000mm/year) but the east of Scotland gets no more than the east of England at 600mm/year. And, in 2010, when the east of Scotland experienced a drought, there was no transfer of water from the west to the east because (just as between Scotland and South East England) the infrastructure to provide large scale water transfer doesn’t exist, and the cost to build it is extremely high.[i]
For a pipeline to be built between Scotland or the north of England to the south east there needs to be a guaranteed profit to incentivise the billions of pounds worth of investment that is needed. A guaranteed profit requires a guaranteed demand. But since 2005 there have been just two hosepipe bans in the south east (and one in the north west!). if the pipeline had already been built, in six out of the last eight years there would have been no demand for this extra water. That is poor odds on which to invest so much money and it is unlikely the shareholders of a private water company would support such a decision. Nor, one would imagine, would the people of Scotland. Of course we can argue that climate change will lead to more likelihood of drought and maybe it will, but in fact, in the UK, wetter, rather than drier winters, are indicated on current climate change modelling. The solution is unworkable without major Government backing, and that will not happen however much local politicians in the south east want it to.
A smarter message
At the start of the hosepipe ban Thames Water flooded London with posters that read “There is a drought. Please save water
” splashed across a picture of cracked earth, which in reality, if not on the posters, quickly turned into a sea of mud. Eventually the sodden April weather resulted in a change to the message which now reads “Yes we know it’s been raining a lot recently but there are still water shortages.
” This is a far more useful message, and yet it still implies, that never mind, it will soon be over and then you can go back to using as much water as you want. We need to highlight a far smarter message.[ii]
It should be as follows: the UK requires a 14% reduction in water use down from 150 litres to 130 litres/person/day and that using water sustainably is something we should be doing all the time, across the whole of the UK, not just during a drought and not just in the south east.
This blog is an edited version of an article that will appear in the summer edition of Green Building Magazine
United Utilities have recently built a 35 mile long supply pipeline to link Liverpool and Manchester. it cost £125 million, £3.6 million per mile. And, as Panorama’s “Drinking our Rivers Dry? (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013pzns
) showed, the Environment Agency and Thames Water are arguing (to the detriment of the River Kennet) over who should pay for a pipeline just a few miles long, precisely because of the cost of such a solution.
By Robert Borruso, Independant Energy Consultant and Green Register trainer
While the renewables industry, and in particular the PV crowd, are still smarting over the governments’ decision to halve their subsides overnight, back in December, the wider global issues of what to do when Kyoto expires at the end of the year have hardly been talked about. But what that fiasco1 did, to my mind, was to illustrate just how difficult any further agreement will be.
First, let’s look at what paying 1302 times more for something than it is actually worth has achieved. For a start a massive growth in the rate of PV installations; anyone with a roof and/or a good credit record could look forward to a 6-8% return on investment, and 10-12% if they were a higher rate tax payer. It was a no brainer. Those on low incomes or living in flats needs not apply, but I don’t want to talk about the regressive nature of the scheme here. Beyond this there is the legitimate claim that the scheme has brought down installation costs, which was the aim all along, a laudable achievement and some justification to cut the FiT early. But before we all get too carried away with this success and the current ‘cheapness’ of PV’s I would like to take a step back and examine what has actually delivered these price reductions.
As far as I’m aware there was no significant PV manufacturing going on the UK in 2009 and there isn’t now. All the jobs created have been in sales, marketing and installation. Whilst not wishing to denigrate the work of these people (well maybe marketing) these are hardly leading edge technology jobs that are going to lift us out of recession. Because PV cells are imported, the PV FiT has served to worsen our balance of trade deficit unlike wind and hydro where there is home manufacturing. A 50% reduction in the price of a green technology is still good news, but this reduction might not be quite as it seems. For a start, back in the days when PVs were funded by the Low Carbon Buildings Programme prices were inflated. The question ‘How much does a system cost? was often answered by ‘How big is the grant?’. Prices have reduced quite dramatically, but is the 43p kWh subsidy responsible? I think not. Since 2009 global PV production has nearly tripled to 50GWp3 of which the UK accounted for 0.8 GWp4 (of consumption). It is the massive increase in the global production of PVs, and the economies of scale such an expansion delivers, that has brought about the price reductions seen, not the FiT.5
Interestingly, almost all of this expansion has been in the manufacture of crystalline cells. Yet five or so years ago all the interest was in thin film technology with its inherent low energy of manufacture and therefore low costs, so what happened? Well, in a word, China. One of the reasons why PV’s, especially the more efficient crystalline type, have always been so expensive is the large amount of energy (i.e. electric furnace use) required to heat Silicon to 1000ºC and hold it there long enough to grow suitable crystals. But China has cheap energy as well as cheap labour so it’s the ideal place to mass produce PV’s and that’s exactly what has happened. The problem here of course is where China is getting all this cheap energy from – for the most part brown coal or mega dams.
This brings me back to my point that PVs are a good example (not to mention an ironic one) why an inclusive binding Kyoto replacement will be almost impossible to achieve. A product that is championed in the UK as a cornerstone of our carbon reduction strategy is only possible at anything like a sensible cost so long as the Chinese don’t have to account for all the CO2 they emit on our behalf making the products we need to demonstrate our commitment to the environment.
1. What the government should have done was to remove the index linking and make any income taxable. Over the 25 year term that would have ‘saved’ as much money as the cut to 21p but preserved the easy to sell 43p rate. In fact a better scheme all round would have been a top-up subsidy whereby any electricity price below say 25p was topped up so as the price of electricity rises and the income from that increases the amount given out falls but that’s another story.
2. 43p paid per kWh of electricity generated means about 80p is spent to save each kg of CO2. The current internationally traded price of a kg of CO2 (i.e. under EU ETS is 0.6p). This is the price at which industry considers it is worth spending money to save carbon. True this figure is probably too low but……..
5. After 30 years of waiting it has to be said.