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July 2009 - Terra Infirma

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31 July 2009

More on Marksies...

Yesterday, I interviewed Richard Gillies, Director of CSR, Plan A and Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencers for my second book. He gave some really great insights into how and why they're delivering Plan A (because there is no Plan B), including their first eco-factory in Sri Lanka, which you can see on the Telegraph TV video above.

The company is somewhat coy about what return they have got on their initial £200m five year programme of improvements. The official line is that it has been "cost-neutral, moving into being cost negative". The main reason why they don't want to be candid on this is that the main driver for Plan A is to reinforce the 'trusted brand image' of M&S;, rather than deliver cost savings, and they don't want to appear to be mercenary by trumpeting financial savings. But it goes to show that, if you do it properly, green business won't cost you, but save you money.

Richard said that he saw Plan A as a change management programme, but of all the change programmes he has delivered before, this has been the easiest one to sell to stakeholders both within and outside the business. However there still was a language barrier between the 'CSR junkies' and the 'commercial animals' even though their interests were aligned.

His prime piece of advice was "seeing is believing - show people examples to get them on board".

Wise words from a leader in the field.

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29 July 2009

Glen Bennett, EAE Ltd

Yesterday I interviewed Glen Bennett, founder and MD of EAE Ltd, a Scottish leaflet marketing business. This video, made by young people as part of a wider project, shows some of the achievements he has made on his objective of making the company zero carbon.

What the video doesn't show is the trials and tribulations Glen went through. The wind turbine took them 2½ years to get installed - they had to work with 22 different organisations to do it. Many were clearly not up to the job - one planner asked what ‘kWh’ stood for, another tried to kill the project at the last minute for (unnecessary) noise testing.

Then, as soon as it was installed, EAE were hit with a business rate increase as the turbine counted as a business improvement! That levy has now been removed, but only after Glen ran a media campaign to point out the stupidity of the situation. Excess electricity from the turbine is simply dumped onto the grid for free as the current set up for charging would cost more than it would generate.

Why is this not easier? Why should pioneers like Glen have to go through the modern day equivalent of the 12 tasks of Hercules to cut his company's carbon footprint? The recent Government strategies will lower some of these bureaucratic barriers, but Glen's story shows that it ain't always easy being green.

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27 July 2009

Engineering the Future

I'm a member of the Institute of Engineering & Technology - back when I was appointed a member it was the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE). These engineering institutes have been around for a long time and they're very prestigious - you can't just turn up and pay your fees, you have to demonstrate a wide range of competencies gained through structured training, fulfil professional criteria and undergo a tough interview.

I joined as a student/graduate member during my sandwich course and later became an associate member. When I was deciding whether to apply for full membership, I had just completed 3 years in the environment/sustainability field and I was wondering if it was really for me. Just at that time, the IEE created the "Engineering for a Sustainable Future" network, so I thought "Yes! This is my spiritual home". But what a furore erupted in the letters page of the monthly news! The term "political correctness" featured heavily - "it is not the role of the engineer to get involved in a political agenda, harumph, grumble etc". One letter even blamed climate change on wind turbines slowing the prevailing winds, I kid you not.

What a difference eight years makes! The IET's journal now features a clutch of sustainability news stories and articles every issue and every third or fourth issue seems to be a special on some aspect of the field - the last but one being on "fuels for the future". And of course they should. Look at the issues - renewable energy systems, energy storage, grid connections, energy efficiency, industrial control systems, replacing goods with data, future fuels, intelligent grids, monitoring systems (including smart meters), building design, vehicle design, lightweight materials - the list is endless. Engineers are at the core of sustainability and they now see it as an exciting, fast moving and cutting edge ride to get on.

So well done to the IEE/IET for facing down the old duffers - onwards and upwards!

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24 July 2009

Jaime Lerner at TED

Another TED talk, this time from visionary Brazilian architect-cum-mayor, Jaime Lerner who is most famous for creating the most sustainable city on earth. The talk is more idiosyncratic than astonishing, but interesting nonetheless.

BTW, you can see my summary of Lerner's contribution to sustainability on

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22 July 2009

Still can't afford this Green Stuff?

I've just been interviewing Paula Widdowson, Director of CSR for Northern Foods for book#2. Their CSR efforts saved them £2m last year, and they expect £4m this year and £11m the year after. Less enlightened companies are still saying "we can't afford to do this in a recession!" How can they afford not to?

Great tip from Paula: Northern Foods colour code their machines with small stickers. Red means "leave this on", Amber says "If you think this should/could be switched off, then ask" and Green says "If this isn't doing anything, then switch it off". For one of their factories, this cost £22 to implement. Genius.

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20 July 2009

M&S derides less green rivals

Have you noticed these new ads for Marks & Spencers? Normally green marketing is cuddly, twee and/or semi-apologetic in nature, but this is one of the first macho takes on it that I've seen - "we're so tough we're not phased by a mere recession, like our wimpy competitors". This is great stuff - positive, confident and competitive. Of course it helps that M&S;'s Plan A has given the company a bigger return than its £200m budget.

I'll be interviewing the man in charge of Plan A at the end of July, so will be able to provide some insights then.

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17 July 2009

Friday fun

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Green Wednesday?

And lo! It came to pass that the UK did publish a huge raft of low carbon strategies on one day in July. And as promised, here is my quick guide.

1. Carbon Transition Plan

This is the over-arching document of the set. The overall emissions savings will come from:

  • 54% - power and heavy industry - through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme
  • 19% - transport
  • 13% - homes and communities
  • 9% - "workplaces and jobs"
  • 4% - farming, land and waste

Much of what is in the plan is already known - the four Carbon Capture & Storage demos, more energy efficient housing, smart meters in all homes, but it is supplemented with help for "the vulnerable" - particularly elderly people so they don't bear the costs. One surprise, given the amount of debate on the topic, is that the Government is predicting the amount of nuclear energy in the mix will fall to 8% from its current 13%. Given that the overall pie is set to reduce, this is a significant drop indeed. The inclusion of farming is one aspect which is often ignored.

What is missing? The grid is apparently going to get bigger and smarter, but not regionalised. There is nothing about Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) or Combined Heat & Power (CHP). Offshored emissions from our consumption don't get a look in either - as usual there is a tight line drawn around the UK labelled "our responsibility: their responsibility". This issue will cause debate with developing nations in Copenhagen later this year as they bear much of the carbon burden of our lifestyles.

2. Renewable Energy Strategy

The Government is proposing that by 2020, renewables will represent:

  • 30% of electricity generation
  • 12% of heat
  • 10% of transport

In terms of electricity, there will be a big investment in offshore wind, wave and tidal and sustainable bioenergy.

Feed-In Tariffs were the first thing I looked for and, hurrah, they're there. Except they've been re-named "renewable energy cash backs". While I can see that this might create a bit more public interest than the rather technocratic accepted term, especially the word 'cash', I don't like the term "cash-back". If you are selling renewable energy to the grid, then you're selling renewable energy to the grid, not receiving some sort of rebate. The name might discourage, say community interest companies or social enterprises who want to make some money. But whatever the name FITs will appear by next April and should stimulate the kind of boom in small scale regeneration seen in Germany.

There is a lot of discussion in the document of the Renewable Heat Initiative, but this appears to be a work in progress.

3. Low Carbon Transport Strategy

This one is rather woolly - the two main aspects are:

  • low carbon technologies - more efficient vehicles, cleaner fuels, electric vehicle infrastructure and sustainable biofuels.
  • better choices - low carbon public transport, more transport nodes, cycle racks at railway stations and 18 more cycle demonstration towns.

Aviation is one topic the green groups have been keeping a beady eye on and the strategy is rather vague here. The Government has said they don't want to see foreign holidays go back to the preserve of the middle classes, but they're being somewhat disingenuous as the big increase in air traffic has been the middle classes peppering their year with a series of city breaks. I always liked the idea floated by the Tories a few years ago that everyone would get one tax-free flight a year (the average Brit takes less than one flight in a year) and then there would be hefty taxes on further flights. This seemed a fair way forward, but it was hastily withdrawn under a barrage from the right-wing press (I suspect the measure would have hit journalists more than most).

Only a small part of the strategy involves 'no travel' options with a weasely statement that home working doesn't always have carbon benefits - it does according to the DfT's own research I read! Home working cuts out aircon, commuting and it encourages the use of local services.

In addition, I would like to have seen more statutory requirements to provide road space or alternatives to cyclists. What about making all footpaths in non 20/30mph zones dual use?

4. Low Carbon Industrial Strategy

This is probably the most dense of the four documents with a whole raft of bodies, quangos and existing schemes being utilised to encourage the low carbon supply chain. I've never been convinced the Government's approach has been correct on this one as it, as usual, revolves around competition for funding (previous R&D;/Innovation funds have a 1/8 success rate which means the other 7/8 putting a huge amount of work into the application for no joy) and business advice which tends to follow a one-size fits all approach. I found it difficult to trace through all the finance options in this strategy and I guess most entrepreneurs would as well.

IMHO public sector business advice is almost an oxymoron. Yes, you can get the right people in to deliver it (and I do some), but they usually get caught up in red tape, rigid structures, byzantine rules and target chasing.

Basically green markets will follow demand. Governments can stimulate demand by public procurement, tax breaks for low carbon technologies and penalties for high carbon technologies. This will allow good ideas to penetrate the market (as opposed to those who some committee of quangocrats decides are most viable). Private sector investment will follow the market opportunities and the ideas to exploit them. There is some of all of this in the strategy, but again I found the options dense and difficult to evaluate for effectiveness, which tells its own story.

So, while there's nothing wrong with the intentions of this strategy, it should be sleeker, leaner and clearer and less dependent on public sector intervention.


I could be cynical and say there is very little new in these proposals - and I'd be right - most simply soup up current Government schemes to be bolder and faster in their delivery, or introduce well tried elements that the Government has been foot-dragging on for a very long time, like feed-in tariffs. But what is remarkable is the boldness, scope, ambition and coherence of the plan. Someone has been working very hard to bring all this together and they don't seem to have the caveats and wriggle room which have characterised such strategies for the last 10 years. So why the sudden boldness? Is this a Government on its way out saying "Well we're trailing so far behind in the polls we might as well go for it?" Or is climate change secretary Ed Miliband really a bold visionary, striding out across the low carbon landscape? Who knows?

The plans have generally gone down well with stakeholders, with the only dissent being the difference between the CBI ("more nuclear!") and the green groups ("no nuclear!"). The more reactionary press is trying to spin a "energy bill hike/green stealth tax" line on the fact that domestic energy bills may start rising in 2015 (before that, extra costs should be offset by energy efficiency savings), indulging in some cherry-picking/worse case scenario tactics, but after the shock-horror headlines, the strategies get fairly even-handed coverage.

So, overall, I would give these proposals an 'B+', not perfect, but a big leap forward from the 'C-' I would have given the Government before. To get an 'A' we would need to see more distributed energy, consideration of the UK's indirect carbon footprint overseas, clearer financial incentives and, just to make me happy, compulsory standards for cycle
provision on highways.

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15 July 2009

Low carbon strategies - but are they too little, too late?

The UK Government is launching a raft of strategies today: Low Carbon Transition Plan, a Renewable Energy Strategy and the Low Carbon Industrial Strategy. I'll be reviewing them and posting a summary later in the week.

In the meantime, wind turbine manufacturer Vesta is closing its UK plant to concentrate production in China, Denmark and Germany (the latter two having feed-in legislation for renewable energy). The Government claims that the UK will have a booming low carbon sector look a bit flimsy if they're going to let this happen. Yesterday I interviewed Roy Stanley, Chairman of the Tanfield Group which owns the world's oldest electric vehicle manufacturer, Smith's (first model 1935, would you believe?). What struck me about our conversation was how a relatively modest increase in orders would drive down the supply chain costs very quickly and make the vehicles much more competitive on capital costs (they are cheaper on through life costs already). Tax breaks and public sector procurement could make this happen very quickly and create a snowball effect.

So, I'd like to see a bit less strategy and quite a lot more action. Tax breaks, public procurement and feed-in legislation would go a long way to creating sustainable markets for the low carbon industry and then we'd see a boom. We shall wait and see...

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13 July 2009

Book Review: The Solar Economy by Hermann Scheer

German MP and Solar Champion Hermann Scheer wrote this book about 10 years ago and it has been available in English for about 7 years, but apart from a few historical references, there is little out of date about this book. Scheer was responsible for introducing feed-in legislation in Germany which has been responsible for a huge boost in the uptake of renewables and the supporting renewables industry.

The book can be a bit difficult to read, partly due to a slightly clunky style and partly due to Scheer's tendency to go off on a rant about something he feels strongly about in the middle of a well argued point. But his main arguments are:

1. There is a prevailing myth that non-renewable sources of energy will support us for ever and that renewable sources cannot. The earth receives 15,000 times as much solar energy as man uses in any year, so it is up to our ingenuity to capture and use as much of this as we need.

2. International agreements such as the Kyoto agreement are a dangerous distraction as they encourage individual nations to delay action, and the compromises inherent in such an agreement leads to the lowest common denominator being adopted rather than a race to see who can do best.

3. The current energy infrastructure is designed to take a number of highly concentrated forms of energy and distributing them to a diffuse number of users. Renewable energy is diffuse and the most efficient way of using it is directly at source (eg a house using the electricity generated on its roof). This requires a completely different distribution system and localised storage systems.

4. As a result of this mismatch, energy statistics are flawed as they omit existing autonomous renewable energy systems (eg domestic solar hot water systems, wood burning stoves, solar powered calculators, solar powered road signs etc) and passive renewable energy use, such as passive solar gain of housing and natural daylighting.

5. The fossil (and nuclear) fuel industries are over-subsidised and are given near monopoly control over some markets. These vested interests must be confronted and routed out before solar can thrive. Existing energy companies should bear the societal costs of their industry.

6. Solar resources (biomaterials, biofuels) can and should replace their oil-based equivalents without disrupting food supplies. Given the recent outcry over food prices and the effect on them of biofuel production, this is one of the few places in the book where it showed its age.

So, instead of the big centralised distribution systems (which are becoming global in many cases), Scheer proposes a localised system of distribution grids, owned by local and regional authorities (Scheer believes that privatisation should only occur where competition is possible). Feed-In Legislation would guarantee grid access for small scale generators, breaking up the dominance of big energy companies. He also proposes the grid operators could also provide other solar resources including biofuels and biochemicals, but I felt that this might be where his politics overstepped his logic - there is no practical reason why there shouldn't be competition in the supply and distribution of vehicle fuel and solid fuels.

It was very appropriate to be reading this book on various train trips in Belgium where I could see the really positive effect of a feed-in tariff. As I said before it can be a bit clunky and a bit ranty in places, but this is still a very stimulating and thought provoking read from one of the true champions of renewable energy.

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10 July 2009

The Three Secrets of Green Business is on Amazon!

My book is now on Amazon - for pre-orders only, I'm afraid.

The Three Secrets of Green Business by Gareth Kane

More details and another way of pre-ordering on the Earthscan website.


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A thought for Friday: Do you think...

... when this was built in 1770, did people complain about shadow flicker, bird strikes or aesthetic impacts, or did they just see at as an essential energy source?

BTW, this one, in Bruges, is still grinding corn. Don't think the steps would meet modern building regs tho!


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8 July 2009

Global or Local?

There are reports today that the Copenhagen process to agree a post-Kyoto global climate change agreement will stall as China and India will not play ball.

I'm currently reading "The Solar Economy" by maverick German MP Hermann Scheer. A full book review will follow, but he argues that Kyoto style agreements are simply an excuse to delay action and end up with the lowest common denominator as a result of the inevitable compromises. Scheer argues that nations would be much better off acting alone, acting quickly and acting ambitiously. I'm beginning to understand his point...

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6 July 2009

New! Green Gurus site

If you were wondering why I asked for your favourite Green thinkers a while ago, here's the answer: I've started a new website called Green Gurus (

As the name suggests, it will assess the contribution made to the environmental/sustainability cause by some of the leading thinkers in the field. It will be infrequently updated as these entries require quite a bit of research and are usually the results of me catching up on some of the unread classics on my bookcase. I would really appreciate feedback in the comments - feel free to disagree!

The first two entries are for James Lovelock of Gaia fame and William McDonough and Michael Braungart who developed the Cradle to Cradle concept.

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2 July 2009

Boss Paints

As I mentioned on Monday, I'm in Belgium and visited Boss Paints on Tuesday to interview the boss, Toon Bossuyt. Boss has done many clever things, many of which will feature in my next book, but one is to produce 25% of the electricity supply from solar PV on the roof.

Belgium has gone solar mad - there are incentives for installation and a feed-in tariff to guarantee a decent return. When Boss first put 64 panels on the roof, it was the biggest in Belgium. Now they have 1477, but they've still not retained that accolade. When I've been travelling to and fro by train it is rare not to see one roof in every suburb or village with a sizeable array.

In the picture above, there's a silver coating on the roof which keeps the buildings cool in summer - it also has an albedo effect - reflecting the suns' rays back into space without causing climate change. Clever.

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