Tuesday, 28 June 2016

What is it like to drive an electric car? - our experiences

By coincidence, two Energy Group members acquired an electric car in January: Ian and James. However they have very different experiences: they have different cars; Ian bought his while James has a rental agreement; Ian mainly charges his at home from his PV panels while James’ car is mainly charged at work. They both agree that driving an electric car requires some planning and adaptation but they love to drive their new vehicles and have no regrets.

Hanna, Ian’s niece, demonstrates how to charge Ian’s electric BMW.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Route Vegetables - a cycling tour of Growing Spaces

Cycling around Cambridge on a warm Saturday afternoon (11th June) on the Route Vegetables tour I was amazed by the sheer variety of vegetable and herb plots we have created through the Growing Spaces project. Some of them I had passed by many times without realising they were ours. Thanks to Marie for organising this tour of enlightenment and thanks to Toni for telling us about the different plots. Each one is tended by a different person or team of people but Toni somehow manages to keep track.

Marie inspecting Mizuna leaves at ARU

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Sustainable Drainage – and why you need drought tolerant plants in a rain garden

On Saturday 28th May, Simon Bunn from Cambridge City Council took us on a tour of sustainable drainage features on the new housing estates around Trumpington. It may have been a Saturday morning but this was definitely worth getting up for. Thanks to Dawn and the Staying Dry project for organising this! There is nothing like getting out into the field to understand how things work at a landscape scale. Here are some photos to show you what we saw.

Simon describing the swale
This is Simon telling us about the first feature, which is a swale. But first, you need to know what is the point of sustainable drainage.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Funding Transition Cambridge

A guest post from Jacky.

In these ever more austere times of cutbacks and shrinking public resources, I often wonder how we in Transition Cambridge seem to be so active and busy as a group with not very much cash to hand.

Our income streams are small and mostly operate in the background: a donations bowl at shows and events, a Local Giving page, and the occasional random windfall cheque - from a grateful individual who benefited in some way from our activities! Some Transition groups have successfully applied for grants and funding and a small contribution from successful grant applications made under the TC name goes to help fund our running costs. There are a surprising number of grant opportunities around, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand pounds. Check out the Resources page on our website where there's a link to a handy page of local money pots. If you know of any others, do let us know or post details on our Facebook page. Occasionally a bigger; windfall comes along: the Sharing Feast of Liberated Food and Song in March raised over £500 to share between Transition Cambridge and Food Cycle.

Over the last few years we've been able to buy important resources (see pictures) but mostly our funds are spent on things with a relatively short life: beautiful posters and leaflets, often designed on a shoestring budget or by generous donations of time and expertise. Also we have expenses for essentials that keep the whole Transition Cambridge machine running such as website hosting, MeetUp membership fees and the odd stamp and envelope.

This super-large marquee is great for events that might need rain protection.

Our beautiful eye-catching Transition Cambridge display banner – light and portable, it gets several outings per year

Cropshare uses hoes purchased with a Sustainable City grant from Cambridge City Council

It's good to know that we can make things can happen without much  cash – but also good to remember  that none of it would happen without  the  energy,  passion and  community spirit of Transitioners!   

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Transitioning to a circular economy

At the last energy group meeting the topic was the circular economy and how we can help to make it happen. Just as it is a challenge to achieve economic growth without using more energy, it is a challenge to do so without using more materials. However, given that we only have one finite planet we cannot sustainably use more and more materials.

I volunteered to research the subject ahead of the meeting and you can read my full report, including points made during the discussion, on my website here. Here are some interesting facts and some of the advice about helping the circular economy happen.

Fact 1: EU regulations require car manufacturers to recycle 85% of the materials in cars that have come to the end of their life. In the UK we usually do this by bashing the car into small pieces and sorting the bits. In Poland they employ people to take the cars apart by hand.

Fact 2:  In Canada there is a company called The Beer Store that reuses all its bottles and packaging.  They run a deposit scheme to encourage people to bring back the packaging back. Bottles are reused 12-15 times and 97.7% of their bottles are returned. Many other countries also have a deposit scheme but the returned bottles are recycled rather than reused. The main aim is to reduce litter.

Fact 3: Composite stuff is much harder to recycle than stuff made of one material. For example disposable coffee cups are often made of cardboard with a plastic liner. There is one company in the UK called SimplyCups that can take these apart and recycle the bits.

Fact 4: In the linear economy manufacturers get money by selling us stuff and they have little to gain by making it last a long time. From their point of view, the sooner it breaks the sooner we need a new one. Also it doesn't benefit the manufacturers if stuff is easy to repair. However, if we were to rent stuff then the supply company gets lots of benefit from making stuff last a long time and being easy to repair. Renting changes the whole business model in a way that encourages less material use.

Here are some things we can do to encourage the circular economy to become more mainstream.

  • When buying stuff, consider buying second hand. 
  •  When you have stuff you do not need, consider selling it or giving it to a charity shop. 
  • If your stuff needs mending, consider taking it to a professional repair service. 
  • If you are a designer consider ease of recycling as part of your design 
  • Campaign for returnable bottles with deposits, like in Denmark, Germany and Canada 
  • The next time you need to replace an appliance, consider renting instead.
CCF has some advice about this as well - and a challenge for you - on their Circular Cambridge campaign website.

Our next meeting will be about the energy used to make things - embodied energy. It is easy enough to find out how much energy you use when you operate your car, computer, house, kettle or whatever - but how much energy was used to make them? 

Friday, 12 February 2016

We love green energy

The easiest thing you can do for climate change? Switch energy supplier.

This Saturday I will be in the market square outside the Guildhall - wearing my thickest soled boots - encouraging you to switch to a green electricity supplier. We are doing this with other volunteers from the Cambridge Climate Alliance. I have been buying green electricity pretty much since I got involved with Transition Cambridge. It seemed to me to be the right thing to do. Let me explain.

We as consumers have power. When we exercise our choices not to buy the cheapest thing but the best thing, we expand the market and make those best things more available. Free range eggs, fair trade bananas, organic food in general – these are more and more available because we choose to buy them even when they aren’t the cheapest.

Green energy is better than fossil fuels. My electricity supplier uses mainly wind power and solar, but also energy from waste and water power. Green energy is extremely low in carbon emissions – even compared with fossil power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage which is supposed to be low carbon (see table). Since a quarter of our energy related carbon emissions come from generatlng electricity, switching to 100% green electricity would make a huge difference.

TechnologyCarbon emissions gCO2/kWh
Current average electricity supply
Coal with CCS
(integrated gasifier combined cycle)
Gas with CCS
(combined cycle)
Solar PV panels
(polycrystalline Si)
Onshore wind
Offshore wind
Data from Current and Future Lifecycle emissions of key 'low carbon' technologies and alternatives (for CCC) except current average supply from DEFRA carbon factors

Green energy is better in other respects too. It means investment and jobs in the UK. It doesn’t rely on complicated supply lines through unstable political regimes. Most green electricity is also clean electricity too - there are no pollutants emitted from working solar panels or wind turbines. Wind has a bad press for being dangerous to birds and bats but even the RSPB is now building its own wind turbine (see Why is the RSPB erecting a wind turbine?).

Like a lot of other ‘best’ things, 100% green electricity costs a little bit more. A few days ago I did a cost comparison of the best Big Six deal I could find with the best green supplier. For a medium electricity using household the extra cost is just 20p/day – approximately the cost of one fair trade organic banana from Tesco.

Of course if you haven’t compared tariffs recently you probably aren’t on the best tariff anyway – switching to green electricity may not cost you any more than you are paying already.

When I switched to green energy it was arguably unnecessary because the government required electricity companies to supply an increasing proportion of power from renewables. It worked pretty well – in 2014 the actual proportion was 19%, compared to less than 4% a decade before. However, the government is closing down that scheme and the new policy, contracts for difference is purely budget driven with no targets. So if I hadn’t already switched I would certainly switch now, because we need to tell the electricity supply companies that we aren’t only interested in price – we want our electricity to be clean and safe for the planet too. After all, climate change is expensive - cleaning up after storms and floods and coping with droughts costs a lot of money.

We often hear that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels anyway – so why does it cost more at all? The simplest answer is that although renewables can be cheaper in the long term they have a high investment cost up front – and investors don’t like to wait twenty years for payback time. So the costs are higher in the short term to pay for that investment. Also we have a lot of infrastructure already invested in fossil fuels and it is cheaper to keep that going than pay for new clean infrastructure.

Living a low carbon lifestyle can be difficult because often the easy choices are not the low carbon choices. When it’s raining it’s easier to get in the car than on the bike. It’s easier to buy a ready made meal of unknown origins than to make something from scratch. But switching to a green energy supplier is about the easiest thing you can do. You just choose one, tell them what you want, and wait for it happen.

There are three main green energy suppliers:

All are small as yet but they are growing fast. Ovo Energy tripled in size in one year and now has 500,000 customers. So you won’t be on your own. If you love green energy - why not switch?

See also our information sheet ‘We Love Green Energy’ which I will be handing out on Saturday.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Cambridge City Council consults with environmental groups on Climate Change

Bev Sedley, Kati Preston and James Smith at the Climate Change Strategy Workshop
I am always impressed when I have dealings with Cambridge City Council officers on climate change issues because they care just as much as we do and are always keen to work with us where we can. Right now the council is in the closing stages of the five yearly review of their climate change strategy and I was delighted when David Kidston (Strategy and Partnerships manager) picked up our idea for a workshop to discuss the plan and ran with it. The date was set for 2nd Feb and in the end there were about 30 people there room a whole range of environmental groups in Cambridge including 38 degrees, Pivotal, Cambridge Past Present and Future,  Cambridge Carbon Footprint and of course Transition Cambridge.  Fortunately the Guildhall has some good sized rooms.

It was a bit of a rush, trying to review the whole strategy in 90 minutes but we did a valiant job. David asked for our comments and ideas on each of the 5 objectives and there were council experts to answer questions and explain. So, for example, the reason why the strategy calls for electric taxis but not electric buses is because there are no electric double decker electric buses on the market yet - and single decker buses can’t handle enough people. Emma Davies said she was delighted that we supported their idea to use planning rules to promote energy saving measures as consequential improvements. (So for example, if someone has plans for a home extension they would be required to take measures to reduce energy use in the rest of the house at the same time, where feasible). But mainly the council wanted to hear our new ideas, of which there were plenty. Suggestions included the council buying electricity from a green energy supplier, adjusting the park and ride bus services to improve uptake in those services, running an Open Eco Office event along the lines of CCF’s Open Eco Homes, and many more.

In fact the council has already achieved significant carbon savings from previous projects such as switching to LED lighting (Corn Exchange and some car parks), upgrading heating and cooling equipment (various swimming pools and leisure centres and offices) and even a heat recovery system at the crematorium. However, most of us didn’t know about this and there was a general feeling that communicating these successes to more people would change perceptions and raise aspirations across the city.

Also there will soon be a ‘Cambridge Sustainable Housing Guide’ that will set higher standards for sustainability and energy efficiency than current building regulations. Unfortunately this will only apply to new social housing sites and developments owned by the council because the council is not allowed to apply it more widely.

We covered a lot in a very short space of time, and David Kidston said that all of our captured comments would be included in their report to councillors.