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August 2015 - Terra Infirma

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31 August 2015

Solar subsidies must go... eventually

Man installing solar panels

Just weeks after promising to "unleash a solar revolution", UK Energy & Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd has announced the Government is considering a massive 87% cut to Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) for solar energy,  leading to a predictable paroxysm of outrage from the industry and environmental activists. The Government's argument is that it is ahead of its targets on renewable energy, capital costs have plummeted so subsidies are no longer needed, and the budgets are vastly overspent.

While this is strictly true, it is coming at the issue with the view that the target is a maximum, rather than a minimum. There is no such thing as 'too much renewable energy' until we get to grips with climate change. The other big issue is these sudden, colossal changes create uncertainty for investors – not just in installation, but those investing in technological advances.

You can trace the source of this problem back to a certain Miliband, Ed, who held Rudd's post before the 2010 General Election. When Miliband drew up the plans for Feed-in Tariffs, the tariffs were fixed, no matter what happened to the capital costs of solar panels. This meant that, as volumes rose and capital costs plummeted, investors would make a killing, snaffling up the FiT budget at an unsustainable rate.

This flaw wasn't spotted by the incoming coalition Government either who took the reins of a month-old scheme in May 2010. In 2011 they slashed the subsidy as inevitable economic forces took hold, and caused similar outrage to the present one. Before his silly downfall for trying to dodge a speeding offence, DECC Secretary Chris Huhne proposed adopting the German system – where  FiTs track average capital costs – but as far as I am aware, this never happened.

This was a big shame as it would have taken short term politics out of the equation, FiTs would be gradually phased out as solar energy hit 'grid parity', yet investors and innovators would have a predictable economic framework to work in.

A big question is why do mature and declining energy forms such as conventional oil and gas require so many Government subsidies - and why these aren't targeted as well? Maybe these highly inefficient subsidies are a source for topping up the FiT budget? Just saying...


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28 August 2015

Your Sustainability Thought of the Week

Go Green Save Money

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25 August 2015

When we need constancy on Climate Change, we get inconsistency

ObamaA slew of dissonant news items have hit our eyeballs in recent weeks:

  • President Obama launching tough carbon reduction regulations for power stations, then approving oil drilling in the Arctic;
  • Shell's signing up to a climate change resolution to report on how its activities will contribute to reducing temperature rises to 2°C, then starting oil exploration in the Arctic;
  • UK, Energy & Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd making a fine speech on the economic impact of climate change (gist: the right should be as worried as the left), while dismantling many renewable energy/energy efficiency incentives in favour of shale gas.

I have long argued that leadership is key to sustainability. If our leaders aren't acting, then a majority of us won't act. According to academic leadership guru Warren Bennis, one of the key elements in whether we trust our leaders is constancy – "the quality of being faithful and dependable" (see my book The Green Executive for more). Contradictory actions lead to cognitive dissonance which in turn leads to confusion and dismay.

Whether we are leading the free world, a mega-corporation, a start-up or a community group, people expect constancy from us. And, crucially, they will judge it by gut instinct, not by an intellectual argument. Constancy isn't easy, and you'll never manage it 100% of the time, but you need to get the big calls right.


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20 August 2015

Waste is a verb, not a noun

waste is a verb not a nounJust saying...


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18 August 2015

Sustainability Strategy: First Things Last

Environmental data and analysisLast week, straight back from my US sojourn, I had to get my jet-lagged, sleep-deprived brain quickly back in gear for a progress meeting with a major client. We've run two sustainability strategy workshops for them, one at the operational level and one at the executive level and it's now time to bring all that together into a whole.

During the discussion, the client suggested it would be helpful to have a 'horizon diagram' showing the timeframes for different initiatives, with the vital enabling actions in the first tranche.

Both workshops had used a backcasting method which starts at the desired end (10 year objectives) and works backwards to the present day. During the workshops (and the write ups), we arranged the stages from right to left as we produced them, so they could be read 'forwards' in chronological order from left to right, ie present day to 10 years hence. This means we already have two horizon diagrams which we can meld into one (with a little pixie-dust added).

If we had tried to construct a horizon diagram starting from present day and working forwards, the 'first things' would determine the direction of the strategy, not the objectives. There would be no guarantee that those first steps would take us in the right direction. The tail would wag the dog.

So, while in practice you need to put first things first, in planning you've got to leave them until last. That might sound obvious, but I've watched plenty of people try to do it the other way around.

And fail.


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12 August 2015

Happy Birthday to Us!

Terra Infirma is 4 years old!While I've been away in the US of A, Terra Infirma celebrated its ninth Birthday. I often take the excuse at this time of year to indulge in a little navel gazing over the ups and downs of the last year and this time it is a pretty simple story.

2014 dismal.

2015 fantastic!

The end of last year was, from my perspective, dominated by the illness and death of my mother so it is no wonder business was slow. So let's draw a veil over that, and have a look at what has been going so right this year.

  • Green Academy has had something of a resurgence with mega-companies like Sage plc and Dover Corporation signing up for the whole year, and other big names such as Kohler and Royal Haskoning signing up for individual sessions.
  • The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group has gained brilliant new members including Newcastle NHS and Black & Decker.
  • We've taken on a major project with one of the superstars of sustainability, Interface, continued working with long term client NHSBT, and completed a project for Sunderland University.
  • As a result, already this year we have invoiced more than the whole of last year.
  • Plus we've been doing lots of fun stuff including Ask Gareth (as always I need more questions to chew on!).

Overall, I am very proud to be supporting such distinguished clients in making a difference in the world - we must be doing something right.

Looking forward to next year, the lesson I have learnt from 2014 is that we need more mechanisms to deliver value to all of you you when I am personally unavailable. This is a major work in progress and we will be launching several new packages before Christmas. Stay tuned!


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10 August 2015

Getting off the grid


Anyone noticing/blessing my absence on social media action for the last 6 days need fear no longer, I'm back on-line after 6 days camping at Lost Lake, 950m up in the Oregonian Cascades. It was absolutely wonderful too, with the backdrop of old growth forest and the towering Mt Hood like one of those cheesy 70s wilderness posters that many of us grew up with.

lost lake mt hood
Amazing wildlife, too. Just after I took the picture above, an Osprey dived to scoop a fish out of the lake and head back towards its perch. Our daily campsite routine was tolerated by ever entertaining chipmunks doing their chipmunk thing. The potential, if unrealised, appearance of a bear or even a cougar gave the stay a frisson we don't get back in Northumberland.

Despite the compromises of staying in a camping trailer on a site with running water, (compost) toilets, garbage bins and a store, I do like the way camping makes you very aware of your relationship with nature and the benefits/impacts of modern life. There is no way we could have survived here for more than a few days without food supplies. Finite gas/electrical power and a single rubbish bag and the need to empty waste water manually makes it very clear what you are consuming/wasting.

The absence of my favoured deluge of bite-sized internet information forced me into doing something I've let slip recently – reading books properly, 50-60 pages at a time, rather than in 10 page chunks. I'll be bringing something from one of those books, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, back to the business later in the week.

Anyway, this morning we're packing for an afternoon flight and I'll be home with the little 'uns tomorrow. Blogging will continue slightly erratically for the rest of the summer.



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3 August 2015

Book Review: Happy City by Charles Montgomery

happy cityOne of my closest school friends, Conor, now lives with his wife and two kids in a dormitory commuter town in Maryland, USA. My partner and I went to visit about a decade ago and stupidly forgot to take our driving licenses so we couldn't hire a car.

Our first full day there, we wanted to travel into Washington to do the tourist thing. Conor offered to drop us off at the railway station, but, as it was only a mile away, we said we'd walk. Conor said "No way. My Dad tried that once and he came back white and shaking. He had to cross several interstate slip roads and nearly died." The idea that you couldn't walk from a suburban house to a station a mile away – or to any form of shop or other amenity for that matter – simply stunned us.

This kind of living is the target of Charles Montgomery's Happy City. He argues that uncontrolled sprawl makes us unhappy by locking us into our cars and failing to give us space to interact and be convivial. He travels the world to show us exemplars: Vancouver, Bogota, Paris, Freiburg (Germany) and Houten (the Netherlands). As he winds his way, he lightens the design theory with travelogue notes, touring the neighbourhoods with some of the experts he interviews and seeing first hand what they talking about.

While the focus is on the happiness of a city's citizens, Montgomery cleverly weaves in the bigger picture of sustainability. The same solutions that make us happy – local services everybody can access by bus, by foot or on bike – come with a much lower carbon footprint than sprawl.

Montgomery acknowledges limitations in some attempts at urban design, but non-US readers would benefit from a deeper analysis of heroic failure (we already get the 'sprawl bad' message). For example, Malmö famously tried to design a car-free neighbourhood at Western Harbour but ended up having to retrofit a multi-storey carpark – and I could quote more. Given the theme of the book is  urban design, it would be good to know why so many well-meaning designs have failed and others succeed.

That grumble aside, I was certainly inspired by Happy City. Any book that demonstrates so vividly that sustainability, happiness and economic vibrancy can go hand in hand is alright by me.


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