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Archive for the ‘Water’ Category

Greenest Chelsea Yet

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It’s that time again, and the Chelsea Flower Show, “the ultimate event in the gardening year”, is in full swing. The show, flagship event of the Royal Horticultural Society, is being loudly promoted as the ‘greenest’ ever. Mind you, they seem to say that every year. They’re certainly placing a great deal of emphasis on things like recycling, reuse and waste avoidance, with exhibitors incorporating rainwater collection, solar power and permeable paving in their projects. The RHS itself has laid down strict environmental guidelines:

  • All wood products on sale must be from sustainable sources
  • Patio heaters have been banned
  • Glass and plastic in restaurants and food outlets must be recycled, along with at least half the carpet used at the show
  • The use of peat has been banned

Show organiser Bob Sweet, who has taken to carrying a camera around the displays with him so he can photograph what is being thrown into skips, said there was a much greater focus on environmental concerns this year. For the first time exhibitors have been asked to list where their plants had come from, in order to ensure ethical sourcing.

Traditionally, plants from the exhibits and show gardens have always been sold off at the end, often at knockdown prices, but this idea is being extended this year. Community gardens, city farms, school gardens and allotments associations could get their hands on free plants and materials, thanks to a scheme set up by Good Gifts, the ethical gifts catalogue. The company has recently negotiated with the RHS to run a recycling depot for gardens at the show, and expects items like plants, turf, bricks, stone, paving, breeze blocks, plant pots and timber to be available.

The RHS has responded to the challenge of eliminating the use of plastic bags by replacing them at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show with eco-friendly fully-compostible carriers made with GM-free non-food grade corn starch. 350,000 bags, supplied by small family-owned company Ecosac in Shropshire, will be distributed to visitors throughout the five day event. One does wonder exactly how many of those bags will be composted.

All very commendable, but why has it taken so long to get this far? I know gardeners tend to be traditional types, especially the stuffed shirts and blazers that run the RHS, but really!


Written by Pete Smith

May 22, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Green Light For London Desalination

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Boris Johnson paddling a coracleLondon’s new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has dropped a legal challenge to Thames Water’s proposed £200 million desalination plant in Beckton, East London. The High Court challenge was initiated by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, on the grounds that the project was inefficient and bad for the environment.

Mr Livingstone said cleaner, cheaper and less wasteful alternatives should be found to avoid the “energy-guzzling and carbon-intensive” way the plant was run. According to Times Online, Boris Johnson withdrew the case after Thames Water “promised to introduce a series of environmentally-friendly measures”.

The plant will use reverse osmosis to remove salt from river water. Osmosis occurs between two solutions of different concentrations or strengths. A very fine membrane separating the solutions allows liquid (but not the dissolved solids) to pass from the weak solution to the strong solution.

Over time, the concentration of the two liquids will balance out but pressurising the stronger solution can stop the flow. If the pressure on the stronger solution is increased further the osmotic process is reversed and the liquid passes from the stronger solution making it more concentrated. This reverse osmosis process can be used to remove water from a saline solution (i.e. brackish water) thus providing a desalination technology.

The first reverse osmosis water treatment plant was built in California and started working in 1965. The nice thing about this technology is that it’s highly scalable, suitable for large projects like Beckton, producing enough water for 400,000 homes, right down to small-scale devices like Red Button Design’s ROSS (‘Innovate or Die‘)

According to Thames Water’s FAQ page, the process will be timed to extract water during the three hours leading up to low tide, minimising the salt content to less than one-third that of seawater. This means that the plant will use approximately half the energy required to treat pure sea water, and around 15% of that used by the most energy-intensive thermal desalination plants.

The plant “will use around 6.3MW a year over a 25-year lifespan”. Hmmm, not sure what that means, someone doesn’t know the difference between a megawatt and a megawatt-hour it seems. More work needed, must try harder. Thames Water have “given a legally binding commitment that 100% of the plant’s energy needs will be met from renewable energy”. Options being considered are wind power, and used cooking fat and oil. Initially, however, the plant will be powered by biodiesel, which raises the old questions, where will the biodiesel come from, and what environmental damage will be caused in producing it? I bet it’ll have some palm oil in it.

Interesting how the word ‘sustainable’ doesn’t show up in Thames Water’s information on the plant, it’s all about ‘renewable’ energy, which is more difficult for the green lobby to take exception to. They’re learning.

Written by Pete Smith

May 13, 2008 at 10:12 am

Monsoon Britain

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monsoon britain

Prepare for more floods. Last summer was the second wettest on record and experts who have studied over 250 years’ worth of rainfall and river flow patterns say we must prepare for worse to come. Professor Stuart Lane, from Durham University’s new Institute of Hazard and Risk, says that after about 30 to 40 less eventful years, we seem to be entering a ‘flood-rich’ period. More flooding is likely over a number of decades.

Prof. Lane, who publishes his research in the current edition of the academic journal Geography, set out to examine the wet summer of 2007 in the light of climate change. His work shows that some of the links made between the summer 2007 floods and climate change were wrong. Our current predictions of climate change for summer should result in weather patterns that were the exact opposite of what actually happened in 2007.

In looking at longer rainfall and river flow records, Prof. Lane shows that we have forgotten just how normal flooding in the UK is. Seasonal rainfall and river flow patterns dating back to 1753 suggest fluctuations between very wet and very dry periods, each lasting for a few years at a time, but also very long periods of a few decades that can be particularly wet or particularly dry.

In terms of river flooding, the period since the early 1960s and until the late 1990s appears to be relatively flood free, especially when compared with some periods in the late 19th century and early 20th Century. As a result of analysing rainfall and river flow patterns, Prof. Lane believes that the UK is entering a flood rich period that we haven’t seen for a number of decades.

“We entered a generally flood-poor period in the 1960s, earlier in some parts of the country, later in others. This does not mean there was no flooding, just that there was much less than before the 1960s and what we are seeing now. This has lowered our own awareness of flood risk in the UK. This has made it easier to go on building on floodplains. It has also helped us to believe that we can manage flooding without too much cost, simply because there was not that much flooding to manage.

“We have also not been good at recognising just how flood-prone we can be. More than three-quarters of our flood records start in the flood-poor period that begins in the 1960s. This matters because we set our flood protection in terms of return periods – the average number of years between floods of a given size. We have probably under-estimated the frequency of flooding, which is now happening, as it did before the 1960s, much more often that we are used to.

“The problem is that many of our decisions over what development to allow and what defences to build rely upon a good estimate of these return periods. The government estimates that 2.1 million properties and 5 million people are at risk of flooding. In his review of the summer floods Sir Michael Pitt was wise to say that flooding should be given the same priority as terrorism.

“We are now having to learn to live with levels of flooding that are beyond most people’s living memory, something that most of us have forgotten how to do.”

Durham University news release

Institute of Hazard and Risk Research web site

Written by Pete Smith

May 9, 2008 at 10:51 am

Innovate Or Die

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AquaductThe winner of the Innovate or Die Pedal Powered Machine competition is the Aquaduct, a pedal-powered vehicle that stores, filters and transports water. Intended for use in developing countries where clean water is scarce and obtaining it is challenging, the Aquaduct comprises a storage tank, filter, peristaltic pump, clean tank and clutch, mounted within a tricycle-like assembly. As the rider pedals, the pump draws water from the storage tank, through a filter to a 2 gallon clean tank, which can be removed on arrival. When more water is needed, the tank is replaced, the clutch engaged and the Aquaduct can be pedalled while stationary. Videos of all 102 entries to the competition can be viewed here.

ROSSSome of this sounds a little familiar. In December 2007, the BBC’s Dragons’ Den featured a team from Red Button Design, a Glasgow based speculative design company, seeking funding for a product called “Reverse Osmosis Sanitation System” (ROSS), “an innovative water transport, sanitation and storage device designed to bring relief to the 1.2 billion people across the world without access to safe water.” See their pitch here.

The core principles behind both devices are very similar, using the energy from the circular motion of the wheels to pump water through a filter, but the implementations are very different, with the Aquaduct designed to be ridden while ROSS is a tank pulled by a pedestrian.  The Aquaduct won a competition sponsored by Specialized, the cycle company, so the form of the solution was pre-determined by the entry rules. “The answer’s a bicycle, now what’s the problem?” The ROSS team, on the other hand, used the problem as a starting point, and this shows, as does their awareness of issues such as simplicity, robustness, maintenance and cost of ownership. I’m sure that both devices could do a worthwhile job, but on cost grounds alone ROSS wins hands down, at around £20 a pop. Where can you get a customised tricycle for £20 nowadays? Which is more likely to be stolen, a bike or a water tank?

There’s some amazing snobbishness about technology for developing countries. One of the Dragons wanted to compare costs between ROSS and a conventional standpipe/purification plant, as if to suggest this was the only ‘proper’ solution to the water problem. When Freeplay wanted to push Trevor Baylis’s clockwork radio out in the developing world, people got very sniffy about fobbing Africans and Indians off with ‘primitive’ technology. The idea that leaving a plastic bottle of contaminated water in the sun for a day would kill nearly all the microbes was scorned across the board because it would be seen to remove the urgency for providing wells and standpipes. Never mind that thousands of lives could be saved.

Back in the 70s and 80s, there was a brief attempt to move away from the term ‘alternative technology’ to ‘appropriate technology’. These two devices are undoubtedly appropriate, not just for the task they have to perform, but for the environment in which they will be put to work.

UK’s First Community Hydro Scheme

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A new community-owned hydro power project has launched a share offer today. Torrs Hydro New Mills Ltd plans to install new hydro-electric technology in the 200 year old weir at the Torrs in New Mills, Derbyshire. The company, a joint venture between Water Power Enterprises and High Peak Friends of the Earth, is an ‘Industrial and Provident Society’ which was officially formed in September 2007. It has four founding directors and has now launched a share offer to help raise £126,000 for the project. Each share will cost £1 with a minimum shareholding of £250 and a maximum of £20,000. Shareholders will get a “modest” rate of interest on the shares, but most of the profit from the project will go as grants for regeneration and environmental projects in the New Mills area.

The hydro project, only the second of its kind to be installed in the UK, will generate enough green electricity for 140 homes, as well as cash to fund local regeneration schemes. It uses a modernised version of a 2000 year old Greek invention – the Archimedean screw – to generate energy. The technology is very efficient at generating electricity from weirs, and has huge potential for installation in other old mill sites throughout the region.

Richard Body of High Peak Friends of the Earth said:

“This region’s got an abundance of water power which can deliver pollution-free energy. By investing in the regeneration of these old hydro sites we can do our bit to tackle climate change and regenerate our communities at the same time. However we also need to see the Government do much more to help renewable technologies such this flourish in the UK. They can start by introducing a strong climate change law which commits the UK to cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by at least 3 percent a year.”

Prospectus (available by download from Saturday 24th November 2007)

High Peak FoE Press releases

Water Power Enterprises

Food Facts

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I’d like to recommend an excellent CNN article about food and the environment. Here are some highlights:

  • According to the UK’s Soil Association, 50 percent of the increase in global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 1990 has been tied to changes in land use –mainly because of farming practices.
  • The Food Climate Research Network estimates that 31% of EU greenhouse emissions come from the food chain.
  • More than half of that, 18% of total emissions, comes from meat production. The “average burger man…emits the equivalent of 1.5 tons more CO2 every year than the standard vegan,” reports The Guardian.
  • According to Farmers Weekly, the amount of food that is air-freighted around the world has increased by 140 percent since 1990.
  • The UK, for example, now imports more food than it exports, with 95% of its fruit and 50% of its vegetables coming from overseas.
  • The global transportation sector contributes 14% of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A recent report from the International Maritime Organization says that, contrary to previous data, the shipping industry globally emits twice as much greenhouse gases — 1.2 billion tons — as the aviation industry, which emits between 600 and 650 million tons annually.
  • By the end of this century, climate change-induced floods and droughts could cost India 30% of its total food production; and China 37% of its wheat, rice and corn crops.
  • The amount of arable land per person is shrinking, says the FAO, from 0.38 hectares in 1970 to 0.23 in 2000, to 0.15 in 2050.
  • The IPCC says that by 2080 3.2 billion people will suffer water shortages.
  • If the EU were to replace just 10 percent of its fuel needs with biofuel, it would require 72 percent of its arable land.
  • Poor African farmers are now opting to sell crops like cassava for use as alternative energy instead of food because they get paid more for it.
  • China, one of the world’s leading corn exporters, withheld stocks last year for the purpose of biofuels.

All of which makes Matt’s recent question “How to feed Britain?” even more immediate and pressing.

Written by Pete Smith

November 22, 2007 at 12:05 pm

Eden Project On The Edge

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Eden Project ‘The Edge’

The Eden Project is already a world-renowned attraction and now it’s looking to add an extra edge to its success. Their latest building, the Edge, will demonstrate options for energy supply, water conservation and waste management intended to act as models of how we all might live in the next decades. From :

“Its scale and ambition will make the Edge an international icon of sustainability, showing mankind is capable of amazing things. The building will be a model of cutting-edge architecture and technology, harvesting water and energy from the sun, wind, and rain to show how we all might live in the future. It will be a testament to one-planet living, built to the lowest possible carbon footprint and designed to last.

“The awe-inspiring oasis, desert, water gardens and underground chambers inside the Edge will become somewhere to inspire and explore new solutions, rethink our values and our goals, work together to create a positive future.

“The point of the Edge is that while resources may be limited, the imagination isn’t. The building will create a setting for asking questions fundamental to our future

  • What makes humans content?
  • How can we still find richness in our lives without rampant consumption?
  • What lessons from the past can inform the future?

“We will look back to understand how people coped with change in the past. We will look at people living ‘on the edge’ today to learn from the ingenious solutions they have put into practice. We will look forward to explore how we can find the spirit, imagination and knowledge to adapt to the challenges facing us.

“The Edge won’t be a building about climate change, it will be a building because of climate change.”

Sounds wonderful, but once you’ve fought your way past all that blowsy rhetoric, what have you got? Using language reminiscent of an Olympic bid, under the flag of sustainability, the Eden Project wants to build another biome to attract more visitors and generate more revenue. Why should we care? Because Eden wants to fund this with Lottery money. The Big Lottery Fund has put up a prize of £50m to be granted to a single “inspirational” project as part of The People’s £50 Million Lottery Giveaway. The Edge is one of four shortlisted projects, along with Sustrans’ Connect2, Sherwood:The Living Legend and the Black Country Urban Park.

The winning project will be decided by public vote in December 2007. Have your say at