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It's a planning lottery

Local authorities need to take a more consistent and flexible approach to planning for renewables, says Mark Wilkins (right), renewable technology marketing development manager at Vaillant
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PLANNING law changes introduced to encourage wider adoption of renewable energy systems are well meaning, but flawed. There is a lack of consistency between different local authorities and a need for more flexibility.
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One large m&e contractor recently pointed out that his company was subject to 42 separate renewable energy targets because it worked for clients across the country. This postcode lottery creates confusion, is expensive and wasteful, and puts people off renewables.

Rigid application of planning policies is often self-defeating. We know there are buildings out there with biomass boilers installed but never fired up, just so the client can satisfy a local authority on-site renewables quota. Madness!

The Merton Rule and its benchmark 10% on-site renewables target has become the industry's mantra. Building services specialists backed it as the best we had, while the property sector almost universally hated it for putting it in a planning straightjacket.

It is possible to sympathise with both views. If your aim is to save carbon, then no method is better than another and if on-site renewables are simply not the most sensible or cost-effective way of reducing a building's carbon footprint then developers should have the option to look for other solutions.

This penny does seem to have dropped with government which is considering a more flexible approach in its forthcoming new Planning Policy Statement (PPS 22).

Housing minister Yvette Cooper wants local authorities to be creative and to support 'a revolution in how we design, heat and power new developments'.

'We want to achieve a 25% reduction in carbon emissions from new homes by 2010, nearly 50% by 2013, before reaching zero carbon by 2016,' she stated in a letter to Merton Council.

'We also want to achieve ambitious carbon reductions from new commercial buildings...this will only be possible with both higher levels of energy efficiency and much greater use of local renewable and low carbon energy.'

The new approach aims to be 'sufficiently flexible to allow for off-site as well as on-site renewable technologies' while also 'minimising carbon emissions and maximising the scope for innovation'.

This flexible approach is critical. The heating industry must be able to examine its options when considering how to meet sustainable benchmarks, and solutions must be cost-effective and appropriate to the project. Otherwise we will stifle innovation and fail to meet the need for affordable dwellings.

PPS 22 will include provision for local conditions and move away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Biomass might be a great solution in a rural location but is it viable in an urban environment? However, Ms Cooper must resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Merton Plus, as the proposed rule is called, could undermine renewables. If the best solution for a site is to meet its renewable obligation via off-site supplies, who is going to ensure the client continues to receive its power from that source? The liberalisation of the energy supply market means customers are free to switch suppliers. Green energy is more expensive, so there will be a strong incentive for end users to shop around for cheaper supplies, which may not come from renewable sources.

On-site generation avoids this problem and effectively ties the consumer to at least a proportion of green energy. Planning policy must be thought through and the necessary safeguards put in place before government moves away from Merton as it currently stands.
Having said that, it is equally important engineers and developers are able to be creative. Innovation and customer choice are key considerations for manufacturers like Vaillant. The company championed high efficiency condensing boilers in the UK and is now a leading player in the solar thermal market.

As the market develops and energy targets toughen, the need for this kind of choice will only increase. Planning policies need to adapt too. This is not to say that radical and initially unpopular policies don't work. Recent research carried out by London South Bank University has revealed Ken Livingstone's London Plan, introduced in 2004 to howls of dismay from large parts of the property industry, called for 10% of a new development's energy needs to be delivered by on-site renewables - and this is set to rise to 20% in 2010.

Developers objected to what they saw as an unfairly prescriptive approach, but the researchers have discovered that builders and planners have adapted and adjusted their approaches over time.

A study of 113 planning applications showed the London Plan was stimulating a 26% improvement in CO2 performance in new buildings and would cut around 135,000 tonnes of carbon emissions annually. The study also showed more than three quarters of carbon savings came from energy efficiency measures, and the target for 10% of further CO2 savings from on-site renewables was met by late 2005.

The London Plan has encouraged wider use of renewables but probably even more valuably it is encouraging building designers to improve the energy base load of a building as a fundamental first step.

If you design a low energy building in the first place, it is much easier and cost-effective to deliver 10% or 20% of its energy needs via renewables. It is this kind of flexible approach that will make renewable heating a more attractive, long-term proposition to end users.

1 January 2008

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