As Theresa May announces the government’s pledge for net zero UK carbon emissions by 2050, Apteco MD James Alty discusses the renovation of the company’s office in Warwick, UK, and the key decisions made during the process to help reduce its environmental impact.
On Wednesday 12 June 2019, Theresa May announced the government’s intention to commit the UK to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and, as a result, put the country ahead of any other major western economy to propose and pursue such a target.
‘Net zero’, outlined by the BBC, means “emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or—in the most difficult examples—offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.”
Some may say that it’s too little too late, others may comment that it’s too optimistic a target to reach in that time frame, but one thing is clear: to tackle climate change and help work toward the 2050 target, we all have a part to play. So following Mrs May’s announcement, I thought I’d reflect on Apteco’s fossil fuel usage.
Apteco is based in a Grade II Listed 18th century building in the centre of Warwick, UK. The building as it stands today, is far from what we first found. We refurbished the building in 2009 ahead of moving into it and, as you’d imagine, it wasn’t a quick process (not least because of a fraudster contractor, but that’s a different story for another day), and we had a lot of decisions to make. One of the many topics we had to tackle was our energy usage.
After discussions about the building approach, we obtained planning permission and listed building consent to install an air-source heat pump heating and cooling system. The listed building consent enabled us to modify the building to install pipework and ceiling units to deliver the heating and cooling. We balanced this intrusive work on the listed building with re-establishment of decorative ceiling covings, complete redecoration and so on to improve the standard of the entire building.
We installed a Mitsubishi P650 air source heat pump in the courtyard and indoor units appropriately sized for each room. The Mitsubishi system is clever enough to allow heating and cooling in different rooms concurrently, but we installed a smaller, separate system for our server room so we don’t have to run the main heat pump 24/7. This saves energy and reduces noise for our neighbours. The Mitsubishi heat pump is actually two smaller heat pumps working together, but in total it is rated at maximum 21.5kW electrical energy input to generate a maximum of 82.5kW heat output. That means for every unit of electrical energy we put in, we get 3.8 units of heat! The electrical energy we use for the heat pump is 100% green. We buy ours from Ecotricity who generate a proportion of the energy they sell from their own windmills and take inputs from other 100% green renewable sources.
When we installed the heat pump, we also removed the gas supply from the building. We’ve had a few comedy visits from gas meter readers over the years since, but showing them the capped pipe in the cellar and lack of meter generally convinces them that we haven’t used any gas for quite some time!
We also fitted secondary double glazing on all of the original windows and sealed unit double glazing in the replacement windows at the rear of the building. This minimises the heat loss during winter, but is openable for fresh air during the summer. Our top floor office now has windows on all four sides so we can get natural air conditioning whichever way the wind is blowing. Draft proofing and double glazing are some of the most cost effective steps you can take to reduce energy use.
In the years since the original refurbishment, we have gone further and installed solar photovoltaic and solar thermal panels on the roof. The photovoltaic panels are on the main, south facing roof and generate electricity from daylight. Our 16 panels are rated at 4kW peak and have generated 20,555 kWh in the seven years since they were installed. That is 20 megawatt hours which sounds like ‘power station’ capacity, but remember we have generated that total over seven years where a power station could produce that continuously hour after hour! Our solar panel management software estimates that we have saved a total of 14 tonnes of CO2 emissions by generating this electricity ourselves.
Our solar thermal panels are used to heat water for staff showers. We encourage cycle commuting to work and have three showers in our changing room. Two of these are fed from the solar / Economy 7 heated tank and one is electric for the days when there are more runners and riders than the tank can cover! The payback period of our solar panels will still take many years from our original investment in 2012, but it is good to feel we are contributing already to saving greenhouse emissions.
My personal interest in green energy started in the hot summer of 1976 when I was 12. My Dad was a mechanical engineering lecturer at Warwick University and he had a sabbatical that year working at The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth. We lived there as a family for the six weeks of the school holidays. It was a bit of a hippy commune in those days, but my sister and I were used to our parents’ alternative lifestyle with anti-nuclear stickers on the car, muesli and homemade wholemeal bread as part of a mostly vegetarian diet at home. How normal those ideas feel today!
At CAT, I learned about windmills and water turbines, organic gardening, biogas generators and solar panels of all shapes and sizes. I remember seeing a solar PV panel the size of a credit card and puzzling over how it could generate electricity from sunlight with no moving parts. I returned to CAT many times over the years and volunteered there in the summer holidays each year during university. I worked on all sorts of projects, but the most memorable was at Dulas Engineering—a CAT spin off technical consultancy—where we made 50 battery control systems for a UN project providing portable wind power for Mongolian nomads!
My Dad went on to write the ‘Engineering Design for Alternative Technology’ course for Warwick University and co-edit ‘An Alternative Energy Strategy for the United Kingdom’ published in 1978. That strategy was updated 30 years later as ‘Zero Carbon Britain’, which you can read about here.
One of Apteco’s more unusual decisions was to purchase a log cabin in Snowdonia. We use it occasionally for off-site company meetings and events (including ‘LogFest’ our annual camping weekend), but mostly as a great place for staff and their families to take a break and enjoy nature in the Snowdonia national park. Whether walking, cycling, running or chilling, it is a great place to be.
However, when we bought it, the property had an oil-fired boiler and we needed occasional deliveries of rather smelly fossil fuel. Fortunately, the property has a stream that had a hydro-electric installation about 100 years ago before the national grid arrived. We’ve worked with Snowdonia hydro and Natural Resources Wales to get planning permission and all the environmental consents necessary to build a new hydro-electric plant. We’ve removed the oil boiler and tank and replaced it with an electric boiler (think big immersion heater!) that heats water for the existing radiators. The hydro scheme should be commissioned and connected to the grid in the next month or so and then we will be a net contributor with 100% clean green electricity generated from Snowdonia’s abundant rainfall.
I’ll use a little of that clean energy to charge my electric car. I drive a Tesla which can reach Snowdonia easily enough but needs a charge to get home. So far, I’ve helped convince both my Mum and my sister to buy electric cars; it really does feel like the future as soon as you drive one! I have no anxiety about the range of the car as there are ample charge points around the country and the motorway network. We plan to fit a charge point at our office, so if you come to visit for a training course or a meeting in an electric vehicle we will soon be able to charge you up.
There is still much to do on climate change, but I’m pleased to say Apteco is playing its part!