UN warns of climate-induced hunger by 2050, as Germany continues to struggle with coal

November 16th, 2017 no comment

Climate change is leading to severe droughts in some areas and rising sea levels in others, leading to flooding, which poses a serious risk to human habitation around the world.

The World Food Programme (WFP) report advises that risk assessments specific to each region be conducted to better understand the challenges and come up with appropriate solutions.   

For example, in North Africa, farmers are facing more frequent and more intense heatwaves, coupled with declining water availability, whereas in South Asia the farmers are threatened by worsening floods and cyclones, as well as longer-term threats to the stability of monsoon cycles and the annual water flow from glacier-fed rivers.

“Different groups are affected by different types of risks, at different intensities and at different times,” said Gernot Laganda, director of climate and disaster risk reduction programmes at WFP.

Building greater resilience to the threats will require “layers” of responses, he said. While catastrophic threats inducing large-scale losses of crops or animals might be dealt with by insurance plans, the increasingly regular seasonal threats can’t be insured against, as the problems are too frequent.

The WFP report aims to give governments and food security organisations a clearer picture of the challenges faced. It has a particular focus on regions under serious pressure, such as Africa and Asia. Areas can also have their own unique challenges that aggravate the climate issues, such as political conflicts in Africa that cause new shortages of food and a consequent rise in hunger levels.

“We are not going to achieve zero hunger by 2030 if we do not factor climate-related shocks and stresses into our equation,” Laganda said. “Climate needs to factor into food security discussions at a country level in a much bigger form than it does now.”

Meanwhile, with global climate talks being held in her home country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under renewed pressure to commit to ending Germany’s use of coal-fired power.

Despite her reknowned commitment to the global effort to curb climate change, Merkel thus far has refusesd to set a deadline to phase out coal, despite fresh calls to do so from green groups and developing countries. Merkel has acknowledged that Germany’s reliance on burning coal to generate electricity is one reason it is not on track to cut its carbon emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Germany currently generates about 40 per cent of its electricity from coal, including the light-brown variety called lignite that is considered to be one of the most heavily-polluting fossil fuels.

“Now, at the end of 2017, we know that we’re still missing a big chunk,” Merkel said. “Coal, especially lignite, must contribute a significant part to achieving these goals. What exactly that will be is something we will discuss very precisely in the coming days.”

Speaking to leaders and ministers from around the world, she said there will be “hard discussions” on the issue in her upcoming talks with the Green party and the pro-business Free Democrats on forming a new government.

Merkel has a long-running fractious relationship with coal in Germany. Her coalition with the Green Party increasingly hinges on closing more coal plants, yet Germany’s reliance on coal continues. The increasingly thorny issue of coal-fired power plants followed Merkel’s landmark announcement in 2011 that Germany would abandon nuclear power completely by 2022.

“Angela Merkel has missed her chance to show her leadership qualities on climate change,” said Mohamed Adow of the charity Christian Aid.

“A UN climate summit on home soil was the perfect place to bury coal and set the date that Germany would phase out the dirtiest fossil fuel.”

Speaking immediately after her at the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron said his country was committed to ending the use of coal by 2021. The task is made a lot easier for France by the fact the country hardly has any coal-fired plants and still gets most of its electricity from nuclear power.

Several other countries, including Britain, Canada and Italy, have also announced they will stop using coal in the coming years.

The talks in Bonn have largely centred on hammering out the precise rules for implementing the Paris climate accord.

The 2015 agreement was seen as a political landmark because a firm target was set for countries to try to keep global warming below 2°C.

But achieving this goal has been made harder by Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris accord and threat to withdraw the US in 2020 unless it is renegotiated.

Carbon emissions associated with UK’s electricity generation have halved since 2012

November 15th, 2017 no comment

The study, for power company Drax, found that the emissions associated with each unit of electricity produced fell 47 per cent in this time period, in part due to coal being replaced by gas and renewables.

The researchers also found that further carbon savings could be achieved if consumers delayed their consumption of energy to coincide with off-peak usage times, for instance, by washing clothes at night.

“Widespread load-shifting across the country would allow low-carbon baseload generators to have longer running hours, and mean less need for diesel and coal peaking plants,” the report reads.

“It would also smooth out power prices between peak and off-peak times, reducing trading risk for all market participants. Ultimately, this could allow the system to absorb more intermittent renewable energy, thus lowering emissions.”

Significant changes to the way in which Britain generates electricity has seen the country move 13 places up the league table of 33 large power-consuming countries (those which produce over 100 TWh annually) to seventh since 2012.

This is the fastest reduction in its carbon pollution from electricity generation of any country in that time and is partly thanks to an 80 per cent drop in coal generation over the period.

The report also notes that the Carbon Price Floor – a top-up tax to boost the cost of carbon in the EU –  is significantly higher in the UK than other European countries. It costs £23 per tonne of CO2 in the UK versus just £5 per tonne on the continent.

Pollution levels were found to have dropped from 516 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity in 2012 to 275 grams in 2016.

The countries with lowest carbon pollution from their electricity system all have extensive hydropower resources, such as Norway, which has the cleanest power, or in the case of France relies heavily on nuclear reactors.

But while Britain’s carbon intensity may have halved, most other countries have only moved by 10 per cent over the last four years. South Africa and India have the dirtiest power systems in the league table, with most of their electricity generated from coal.

“Britain is reducing its carbon emissions from electricity faster than any other major company, and this has happened because the carbon price and lower gas prices have forced coal off the system – the amount of coal-fired power generation in Britain has fallen 80% between 2012 and 2016,” said Dr Iain Staffell, a researcher at Imperial College London.

The report was commissioned by power company Drax which has switched half its coal-fired power station to biomass. Biomass – woodchip sourced from places such as southern US forests – is not subject to the carbon price, although some environmental groups have raised concerns about how environmentally-friendly the energy source is.

The company is calling for the government to continue to support a “meaningful” carbon price in the autumn Budget to ensure the UK’s commitments on climate change are met.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK’s Clean Growth Strategy has innovation at the heart of our approach, with over £2.5bn of government investment in the UK from 2015 to 2021.”

“The message we will be taking to this week’s COP23 climate change summit in Bonn is that you don’t have to choose between economic growth and carbon reduction.” 

Major restoration project launched for world’s first iron bridge

November 13th, 2017 no comment

The bridge was originally erected in 1779 and is considered to be the first single span arch bridge in the world to be made of cast iron.

English Heritage described it as “one of the wonders of the modern world” and has launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to raise all the funds necessary to keep it standing.

“This historic bridge is suffering with stresses in its ironwork. Only careful conservation will protect it so that people in the future can enjoy it just as we do today,” the charity writes on its crowd funding page.

“We’ve undertaken years of detailed analysis of the bridge, so we now know more than ever before about how its structure functions.

“We will soon start to clean, repair and replace the different elements of the bridge: the iron radials and braces holding the bridge together, the deck plates and wedges, and the main iron arch itself. We’ll then re-paint the entire structure and renew the road surface to protect it from the elements.

English Heritage said that the project was highly complex, even the erection of the scaffolding proved challenging as it needs to be suspended above a river and without causing damage to the historic bridge itself.

The entire project is expected to take over a year to complete.

As work starts to preserve the Iron Bridge, whose ironwork is now cracking, English Heritage revealed a €1m  (£880,000) donation from a German foundation towards the restoration project.

The charity, which looks after the bridge, described it as the “great-great grandfather” of today’s railways and skyscrapers.

Surveys have shown the Iron Bridge is under threat from cracking due to stresses in the ironwork dating from the original construction, ground movement over the centuries and an earthquake in the 19th century which pushed the two sides of the gorge it spans closer together.

With the donation from the German Hermann Reemtsma Foundation, only £25,000 more is needed to fund the project, and English Heritage is asking members of the public to donate to the campaign.

Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s chief executive, said: “The Iron Bridge is one of the most important – if not the most important – bridges ever built.

“It sits in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and is open to everyone to visit, for free, every day of the year. But after two centuries, its cast iron is cracking and if it is to survive, the bridge needs our support.”

Following its erection, cast iron became widely used in the construction of bridges and buildings, and although it was closed for vehicles in 1934 when it was designated as an ancient monument, the Iron Bridge still stands as a monument to industrial development.

MPs hear fears of recruitment crisis fallout from UK’s Euratom split

November 13th, 2017 no comment

Civil nuclear insiders fear the UK government is blasé about the impact that a scarcity of nuclear inspectors could have on the electricity-distribution network after Brexit.

The UK has given notice of its intention to quit Euratom at the same time as it withdraws from the European Union in March 2019 – but there are concerns Whitehall may have underestimated the number of inspectors required by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to keep the country compliant with non-proliferation rules.

At a meeting in Parliament to discuss the implications of expanding the ONR’s remit, the organisation’s deputy chief inspector Mina Golshan said around 30 new recruits would be needed in the short to medium term. Golshan said: “We need to continue with our recruitment if we are to staff ourselves to deliver the new safeguards function.”

E&T understands the number of inspectors needed may ultimately be even higher than the figure quoted and that the government is planning to provide whatever funding is required to recruit them.

Since a highly specialised background and at least five years’ worth of specific training is needed, sufficient personnel could prove hard to come by. There is only a small talent pool available worldwide, and, as one nuclear expert put it when talking to E&T, Britain “can’t just go down the Job Centre and find several dozen nuclear inspectors”.

Though separate from the European Union, Euratom is governed by the bloc’s institutions – including the politically contentious European Court of Justice. The body helps carry out inspections mandated by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure no civil nuclear material is diverted for atomic weapons uses.

The ONR currently carries out separate health and safety functions – but the government wants to expand that role to encompass the work done by Euratom.

The nuclear industry operates according to rules separate from those set for many other types of trade by the World Trade Organisation, meaning a so-called hard Brexit – involving Britain leaving without transitional arrangement in place – could prove particularly problematic.

In a worst case scenario, power plants such as Sizewell B – which relies extensively on US company Westinghouse’s technology and components – could be forced to shut down since, under American law, it is illegal for that country’s firms to share intellectual property with foreign nations without any nuclear cooperation agreement in place.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to a request for comment. However, the government has previously stated that it is attempting to establish fresh nuclear cooperation agreements in time.

Nuclear minister Richard Harrington last week told MPs probing the implications of the UK’s Euratom exit that the government intends to set up an internationally approved safeguards regime. He said “constructive progress” had been made in talks with the IAEA and US in a bid to ensure supply chains remained unharmed.

Shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead asked about the costs of the additional manpower needed by the ONR.

“Where is the money going to come from?” he said. “This is new work that hasn’t previously been budgeted for and that will require a lot more resource to undertake.

“The safeguards unit in the ONR currently comprises eight professional staff. Within a period between now and March 2019, roughly speaking, the ONR has got to find probably around 30 staff – qualified nuclear inspectors, highly skilled and trained, able to take on that responsibility.”

Euratom employs around 40 people in relation to safeguarding around UK establishments. It might potentially be possible for the ONR to poach some of these inspectors, who are understood to currently be domiciled in the UK and who may wish to apply to fill the new vacancies.

Rupert Cowen, a nuclear energy specialist at the law firm Prospect Law, told MPs on the Nuclear Safeguards Bill Committee that he was “very worried” about the potential for the UK’s energy sector to be hit by interruptions after Brexit.

There is a very substantial concern… that this bill as it stands will not allow a safeguards regime that is neutral in its application to the commercial parties that are participating in the industry,” he said, adding that nuclear agreements with the EU, US, South Korea, Japan and others would have to be renegotiated – and that the UK would be “at the mercy of the political will” of those states.

“It is unfortunately inevitable that we are going to be faced with discussions of renegotiating our nuclear cooperation agreements with key counterparties who are neither motivated to agree quickly nor able to because they have their own international obligations for recognising the adequacy of our safeguard arrangements,” Cowen said.

He added: “I can’t imagine the United States immediately withdrawing its expertise from the various sites, but they may choose to do so… There is a real concern that the ability to exchange information [with the UK] will potentially be illegal at the time we come out of Euratom if we don’t have successor arrangements in place.”

Cowen stressed he was not opposed to the Bill but warned: “It’s the disruption that frightens us. That isn’t scare stories – it’s a very real possibility. In terms of energy generation and spent fuels, it’s all going to stop if we don’t get it organised.

“I’m not saying in 10 years’ time we won’t have resolved it, but the next two or three years look pretty bleak. That’s the worry.”

The power of poo: energy from excrement

November 8th, 2017 no comment

Portland, Oregon, USA

The Bureau of Environmental Services for Portland has a great system in place to make the most of its waste. The city’s sewage is usually decomposed into methane gas, which is captured by their wastewater plants and turned into energy and electricity. Yet there are now plans to partner up with Northwest Natural Gas and sell the remaining converted effluent as a substitute for diesel fuel for cars, lorries and buses.

Back in April, the Portland City Council approved a $9m project to process the city’s sewer gas into marketable natural fuel. According to the Bureau, Portland’s two solid waste treatment plants use 77 per cent of the sewer’s methane to generate energy, and the remaining 23 per cent will be treated to create renewable energy to be processed as fuel for diesel vehicles.

The Bureau says the new facility can produce natural gas to power the equivalent of 154 bin lorries.

Ladner, British Columbia, Canada

Farmer Jerry Keulen from SeaBridge Farm is turning manure from his cows into reusable energy. In fact, he is one of many North American farmers taking advantage of their livestock’s poo by using a mini anaerobic digester to break down waste into renewable natural gas (RNG). Keulen has support of electric power and gas distribution company Fortis BC.

Purifying the gas means that it could be put into the Fortis BC system, fundamentally replacing natural gas altogether. This year, the provincial government endorsed RNG as part of its climate leadership plan. Rich Coleman, Deputy Premier and Minister of Natural Gas Development, said: “We are creating market opportunities for British Columbia’s natural gas sector, offering utilities flexibility to create new incentive programs so we can continue to build a strong economy and a cleaner future.”

California also has a ‘Dairy Manure Digester Development’ programme and, so far, there are 16 dairy digester operations in that state.

Grand Junction, Colorado, USA

The Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant is processing eight million US gallons of human waste into biomethane, or RNG. This gas fuels about 40 public service vehicles such as street sweepers and buses.

The project, which is worth $2.8m, could reduce greenhouse gases by as much as 80 per cent and has been developed for over a decade.

Raw biogas collected from the anaerobic digestion plant is upgraded to RNG, and can be used as heat, fuel or electricity.

The underground pipeline is almost six miles long and carries the compressed RNG from the wastewater plant to the city’s fleet fuelling station. It’s estimated that about 460 gasoline gallon equivalents (GGEs) will be produced on-site every day.

Detroit, Michigan, USA

Back in October, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was nearing completion of its anaerobic digester, which will convert more than 400 tonnes of animal manure into renewable energy. This will power the zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. The left-over compost will be spread on the zoo’s gardens and donated to the community.

DZS is the first zoo in the country to have an anaerobic digester, which will also use food scraps to increase the biogas production.

Reading, UK

The Bus Hound, the UK’s poo-powered bus, which set the speed record for a regular service bus with a top speed of 76.8mph (123.5km/h) back in 2015, is part of a fleet of vehicles set up by Reading Buses.

Thirty-four biomethane gas-powered Scania buses were added in 2013, and the fuel for the vehicles is produced from farm waste and injected into the national gas grid – the whole process is essentially carbon neutral.

Leeds, UK

Yorkshire Water has invested £72m in a project at its Knostrop wastewater treatment works, in which a state-of-the-art sludge treatment and anaerobic digestion facility will be built.

Four 25-metre-high concrete sludge digester tanks are already constructed. Estimated for completion in 2020, Yorkshire Water says the facility will recycle 94 per cent of Leeds’ sewage sludge, be capable of processing 131 tonnes of dry sludge a day, generate 55 per cent of its own electricity (the equivalent of providing power to 8,000 homes), and reduce the Knostrop site’s carbon emissions by 15 per cent.

Rwanda, East Africa

Sanitation company Pivot has two initiatives, Pivot Works and Pivot Fuel. Works is a city-scale treatment solution that converts human waste into renewable fuel.

According to Pivot, only 10 per cent of human waste generated in low-income countries gets treated, and traditional treatment plants are expensive, with infrastructure in many low-income cities being almost non-existent. Treating wastewater with sewer networks and aerobic treatment costs $75bn per year globally. Bad sanitation kills over two million people every year.

Pivot Works’ factories convert human waste to solid, hygienic Pivot Fuel. This is then sold to industrial customers like cement companies, and the revenue covers costs to sanitise and process the waste. According to the company, this transforms wastewater treatment from a huge cost sink into a system that pays for itself.

Kenya, East Africa

The Nakuru Water and Sanitation Services Company is manufacturing briquettes from human faeces for cooking and heating.

The waste is dried, treated in a kiln and carbonised with sawdust at 300°C. The resulting product is processed into balls and sold by the kilo. Treating the excrement removes dangerous pathogens and the smell, and will improve sanitation in poorer areas.

Nakuru is the fourth largest city in Kenya, and only one in four residents have access to the town’s sewer system – waste is often buried in lower-income areas, or dumped in rivers.

More locals are warming to the product, and it’s reported that the briquettes are odourless, burn very well for a long time, and cook food at a good speed.

Spain

In northern Spain, renovation is under way on an abandoned farmhouse to power it entirely on poo. Meghan Sapp and her start-up renewable energy company Planet Energy have designed the eco-house, which will be self-sustaining and uses waste from humans and animals to generate renewable energy.

The Netherlands

Near the end of last year, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs pledged to spend €150m on a project to help the nation’s farmers to turn cow manure into energy.

The Netherlands’ agriculture industry is behind 10 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and methane from dairy farms is a key culprit. Farmers will be able to lease out anaerobic digesters to help reduce the emissions. The system works via a machine taking cow manure from the farm to a digester dome outside, and according to environment website Inhabitat, other machines will extract phosphates and nitrates. Farmers can use this for fertiliser and can then sell the biogas at a 12-year fixed price, which the Dutch government will subsidise.

Xiangyang, China

On an island in central China’s Xiangyang city is a steel complex processing several hundred tonnes of human waste.

Composed of human excrement and other matter, hazardous sludge – a by-product of the sewage treatment process – is becoming an increasing problem in China but, when processed, the energy produced from the factory is enough to fuel 400 cars. 

The magnitude of the toxic slurry in China is triggering the country to find more sources of clean, renewable energy, including the increase of sludge-to-energy projects. Other cities, such as Hefei, Chengdu, Changsha and Chongqing, are also experimenting with processing sludge into an energy source.

Beijing, China

Agricultural pollution is another problem plaguing China, with animal poo leaking into rivers and lakes, so farmers will now be paid to turn their livestock’s manure into fertiliser and power.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Chinese livestock farms produce almost four billion tonnes of waste every year.

Back in August, the Chinese government announced a plan to give farmers subsidies to build animal waste processing facilities to treat manure and make fertiliser, and to install biogas plants to generate electricity.

Reporting to Reuters, Zhong Luqing, director of the fertiliser department at the ministry, said: “We will strengthen policy support and increase subsidies to support farmers to use organic fertiliser… especially large-scale farmers, family farms and cooperatives.”

Beijing is allegedly targeting zero growth of chemical fertiliser and pesticide by 2020, urging farmers to use fewer chemicals and switch to animal manure instead. At the moment, China uses about a third of the world’s fertilisers.

Australia

Almost 40 per cent of households in Australia own at least one dog, and the 4.2 million canines will generate 6.3 million tonnes of poo in their lifetimes.

According to the Melbourne project Poo Power!, as the dog population in Australia grows, so will the issue of dog waste disposal in their communities, which are faced with increasing population growth and urbanisation, a limited amount of suitable park spaces and shrinking landfill sites.

Poo Power! wants to tap into the 1,400 tonnes of dog poo discarded daily – the company designed a biogas generator to showcase how the energy produced from dog poo and other organic wastes can be used to provide power to light dog parks in the early morning and evening peak periods. 

London’s super-sewer: is there light at the end of the tunnel?

November 8th, 2017 no comment

Beneath London lies an engineering marvel few of the city’s inhabitants stop to consider despite relying on it whenever they flush their toilets. Fewer still have ever seen it.

The city’s sewerage system, designed by civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette around 150 years ago, was built to last and still works as smoothly as it ever did, despite being so unappreciated. Effectively a network of press-ganged culverted rivers draining into the centre of the great conurbation, Bazalgette’s sewers are unexpectedly beautiful. They boast inch-perfect brickwork more worthy of a temple than a channel for urine and faeces. It’s strangely peaceful down there too, sheltered from all the noise of the metropolis.

One legacy of Bazalgette’s project that Londoners might be familiar with is the way he also beautified the city above. Aside from the obvious aesthetic advantages of consigning overflowing cesspits to the dustbin of history, the great man left behind a network of verdant embankments, along which Victorian families loved to promenade. 

His visionary scheme, ordered by then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, is often credited with having done more for public health than the foundation of the National Health Service by helping vanquish cholera in the city. Today, his sewers remain an otherworldly repository of the hopes and dreams Londoners flush away along with their waste. Wedding rings are sometimes found down there amid the effluent, as (predictably perhaps) are shoals of dead goldfish. There are bullet casings and coins dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

E&T recently joined Thames Water workers for a special behind-the-scenes tour of one of the oldest parts of the sewerage network. We witnessed the notorious lumps of kitchen fat and conglomerations of wet wipes (remember not to flush those) and heard tales of super-sized rats living off discarded junk food that finds its way into the sewers of the West End.

Bazalgette’s network, including his suitably grand pumping stations, was built to serve a city of four million inhabitants. Its population is now double that, and the fact that the old sewers act as a drainage system for rainwater as well as carrying away all the dirty water from the capital’s homes and workplaces means a total of 20 million tonnes of raw sewage ends up being dumped into the tidal section of the Thames every year. That lowers oxygen levels, suffocating fish – an environmental scandal.

Just as MPs were prompted to act in Bazalgette’s day because they could not bear the stink from the river permeating Parliament, so politicians decided sullying one of the most iconic waterways in the world with millions of tonnes of raw sewage annually was no longer defensible. Thus, three years ago they rubber-stamped construction of what will be the equivalent of a motorway for sewage and excess surface water runoff.

The ‘super-sewer’, as it is known in the media, will be London’s biggest sewerage upgrade since Bazalgette’s time. The project will consist of a 16-mile-long tunnel, running from Acton in the west to an expanded sewage treatment works at Beckton in the east. It will get progressively deeper, going from about 30m at its westernmost point to a maximum depth of around 75m, enabling gravity to carry the contents to its destination, where it will be pumped up into the treatment works.

One part of the ‘super-sewer’, the Lee Tunnel, has already been built and is said to be London’s deepest tunnel. Whenever it rains and the old sewers overfill, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, as the mammoth project is officially known, will swing into action and pick up the slack.

The work is predicted to cost around £4.2bn, with water bills likely to rise as a result. Critics claim the scheme is overly expensive and say potentially cheaper techniques for dealing with river pollution by limiting surface water run-off were not sufficiently explored. Some have also queried the somewhat opaque funding structure put in place to make the project feasible. Tideway is owned by a consortium of investors that comprises Allianz, Amber Infrastructure, Dalmore Capital and DIF. More than two million UK pensioners have an indirect investment in Tideway through pension funds managed by the investors.

Supporters stress the ‘super-sewer’ will make this vital part of London’s infrastructure fit for purpose for the next 120 years. Perhaps surprisingly for such a modern project, it uses age-old tunnelling techniques essentially unchanged – aside from the introduction of some types of new technology – since Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the first tunnel under the Thames in 1843. Integral to the workings of the Thames Tideway Tunnel are the old Victorian sewers that still serve London so dependably after all these years.

“Our tunnel doesn’t replace Bazalgette’s sewage system,” stresses Geoff Loader, head of stakeholder engagement at Tideway, the organisation building the new tunnel, as he guides a party of sewer enthusiasts on a boat tour along the Thames. “We simply back that system up and stop it from using the river.”

Construction and testing of the tunnel is expected to be complete in around a decade’s time. The scheme has been timed so as to use part of the workforce that built Crossrail. Four enormous tunnel-boring machines are shortly to be transported to London by sea and river from continental Europe to start this new chapter in the city’s engineering history.

“The tunnelling machines we use are bigger than those used for Crossrail,” says Loader. “They’re not going to tunnel quite as far, though. If you talk to Tideway engineers, size really matters. Talk to Crossrail engineers and they’ll tell you the length is much more important.”

As was the case with Bazalgette’s scheme, the Thames Tideway Tunnel will also lead to changes along the river at road level.

“In total, three and a half acres [1.4ha] of new public realm and foreshore will be created and left behind as a result of this project,” Loader explains. That includes a piazza type lookout point at Blackfriars and a similar space reclaimed from the river opposite the London Eye.

His colleague Hannah Shroot expects the improvements above ground will help “reconnect people with the river”.

That is a theme Tideway is eager to stress. The company is aiming to transport as much material as possible by river during construction, resulting in an overall increase of 60 per cent in freight traffic on the Thames, and 600 river-based jobs will be created. Many hope this will act as a catalyst for transporting more material, and perhaps increasing numbers of commuters, using the so-called ‘blue infrastructure’, thereby helping cut pollution from roads.

“It’s not just about planning for the future, it’s about how we can use the river now and maximise its potential,” says Shroot.

The Thames Tideway Tunnel has received markedly less media attention than, say, the Channel Tunnel or Crossrail – perhaps because sewers are inherently unglamorous. However, Shroot says anyone who loves the Thames should see its significance. “The river is one of the most iconic assets our city has, and I think sometimes people don’t realise how much sewage goes into it and that we all have a duty to look after it. It’s just really important we look after it and protect it for future generations.”

The Thames has already come a long way since it was declared biologically dead in the 1950s. Seals and even porpoises are a not uncommon sight, particularly downriver. In decades to come, Londoners might take delight in a rejuvenated aquatic ecosystem featuring salmon, eel and otters. Who knows, visitors to the IET’s Savoy Place venue, located next to Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment, might even be allowed to venture into the newly cleansed water for a quick dip before drying off and hurrying in through the front door. 

Oxford Street pedestrianisation plan on track for 2018

November 8th, 2017 no comment

The proposal will see extra seating installed for shoppers and a new 800m-long work of public art could also be commissioned for the length of the former carriageway.

The carriageway would be raised to be level with the existing pavements between Orchard Street and Oxford Circus during this first stage.

The additional space should also help to alleviate the crowding that builds up on the Street, especially during peak times such as weekends and prior to Christmas.

While all east-west traffic will be restricted from entering Oxford Street between Orchard Street and Oxford Circus, north-south routes through that section will be maintained.

The traffic restrictions will also include cyclists who would need to dismount when travelling along Oxford Street, although plans are also underway to improve conditions for cyclists in the surrounding area.

The stretch between Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube station will be pedestrianised first in 2018. 2019 will see traffic removed all the way to Tottenham Court Road station, before the same happens up to Marble Arch in 2020.

The plans are not final and will be open to public consultation until 17 December 2017. If approved, the first stage of the scheme will aim to coincide with the launch of Elizabeth Line services through Central London in December 2018.

The plans have been designed to fit with the wider extensive improvements being made across the West End, including the transformation of Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road stations in advance of the Elizabeth line, the Baker Street two-way project and changes to the Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street area.

The scheme will also see a range of measures implemented to help protect the wider area from traffic and air quality impacts.

New and extended taxi ranks would be created close to Oxford Street to allow black cabs to continue to pick up and drop off.

“Whether you’re a local resident, a business, or shop in some of the area’s famous stores, our plans will make the area substantially cleaner and safer for everyone, creating one of the finest public spaces in the world,” Khan said.

“Alongside the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, the Oxford Street area will be truly transformed over the coming years. We will continue to work closely with residents, businesses and Westminster Council to ensure the plans are the very best they can be, including investing in wider pavements, pedestrian crossings, more taxi ranks and further high-quality cycling infrastructure to support everyone living and working in the wider area.” 

Book interview: Sir Simon Jenkins – ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’

November 7th, 2017 no comment

“British railway stations today are probably looking better than they did in the 19th century,” says Sir Simon Jenkins. He should know. A lifelong enthusiast for railway architecture, he’s done more than most to be qualified to make such a statement.

His latest book, ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’, tells the story in thumbnail architectural biographies of how the station has ridden the highs and lows of nearly two centuries of expansion and decline. There have been great eras of station building and prolonged bouts of demolition. This is their story in 100 snapshots, backed up by two fascinating essays.

Jenkins’ CV features a number of prominent appointments associated with the railway industry. For a decade he was on the board of British Rail, as well as having founded the Railway Heritage Trust, which has left him with a “deep interest in British railway buildings”. He goes on to say that he wanted to find a way to bring “the architectural quality of railway stations in Britain” to public attention, “especially given the fact that in the past 50 years they’ve gone through a desperate neglect, only to find that recently they have been revived”.

Jenkins says that the main reason for writing his heavily illustrated book (with photographs by some of the finest railway photographers of the day) is that these buildings are, despite the neglect, “very interesting too because of their eclecticism. And now that they are being intensively used again, I believe that if you describe some of this architecture and the architects behind it – many of them unknown – you’ll give people a much better interest in them. I’m a journalist,” says Jenkins, former editor of the Times newspaper, “but architecture has always been my sideline.”

He’s also the author of several numerical-format books, such as ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ and ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, “but I certainly wasn’t going to do a thousand stations. In fact, I’m never going to do a thousand of anything ever again.”

But keeping the numbers down created room for a brace of extended essays on the history of the station. “I thought this would concentrate the mind if I did the one hundred best. We know what the heritage tradition of the train is – there are thousands of books on that – but we know much less about stations.”

Although the rise of the railway is commonly thought of as a Victorian phenomenon, that is a popular misconception. “I always think of it as a Georgian thing.” (Sticklers note that while the railways started during the reign of King William IV, his short reign is somewhat confusingly categorised by historians as ‘Georgian’). The start was inauspicious, with railway stations “being little more than places to get on and off the train and buy a ticket, which I suppose they still are in a sense”. But there was none of the grand ‘cathedral building’ that we associate with the later, great London terminals such as Paddington or King’s Cross.

“Broadly speaking, they started off as fairly modest places made of brick and stone, thrown up very quickly because basically the railway companies wanted to get going as quickly as they could. And these were the products of the ‘Mania’, which was an extraordinary period in the late 1830s to the late 1840s when the network of railways in Britain was more or less built. There was this great burst of activity and people really went mad. There were times when there were five, six, seven or eight north-south lines. It was chaotic, unregulated and, in many ways, stupid and wasteful.”

A few decades later there was a period of consolidation when the competitor companies combined and “a certain amount of order was brought to the process”.

Jenkins then goes into a lengthy linear narrative, describing in authoritative detail how the advent of steel as a construction material allowed the wealthy railway companies to display their power in magnificent London railway terminals. “But it is something of a misconception that the stations were all designed simply to be imposing. In fact, the earlier ones were designed to be the opposite. They were meant to be unobtrusive, domestic and familiar to the passengers. Often they were built to blend in with country estate architecture.”

By the First World War this period of expansion stopped. “Everything collapsed. No new lines were built and the only activity was on the Underground in London, where there are some very interesting stations. After the Second World War modernisation killed the station stone dead.”

In the 1960s came the great decline and devastation of the railways under the ‘Beeching Axe’, in which Richard Beeching, chairman of British Rail, oversaw cuts to the network that were to result in a loss of thousands of miles of track. “He was a great man, but he was under the influence of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, who was ordering him to make the railway pay its way.” At this time, says Jenkins, the railway in Britain was essentially an industry in managed decline, in which “thousands of stations were lost”.

 It wasn’t until the 1980s, when conservationists started to take Victorian architecture seriously, that anything was done to preserve the heritage of railway stations. The author recalls when he first got interested in stations as a boy, his parents would routinely ask him: “why are you interested in those things? They’re dirty, disgusting places.”

He thinks that the best thing we can do to preserve our station heritage is to “clean the wretched things”. And while in terms of preservation they may “lack the untouchability of churches and the legal protection of historic buildings”, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their future. After their recent ‘decline and devastation’, Britain’s stations are undergoing a renaissance. And Jenkins is right: they do scrub up nicely, as a quick visit to King’s Cross or St Pancras will confirm. 

‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins is published by Viking, £25.
Read Vitali Vitaliev’s review here

‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’

We read it for you

Railway stations are among the most neglected aspects of British architecture. The vast majority of them were built in the Victorian era, only to be abandoned to a cruel fate at the hands of a government that in the 1960s saw the railway as an industry in managed decline. Hundreds of stations were closed, but thankfully many survived, to be restored and returned to their former glory.

In his new book, ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’, former Times newspaper editor Sir Simon Jenkins takes us on a tour of his personal favourites, from the most humble of request stops at Dolau to the industrial cathedral of Paddington.

In a brace of introductory essays the author takes us on a journey of the rise and unfortunate demise of the railway and its accompanying buildings, leaving us with a glimmer of hope that Britain is finally starting to take its station heritage seriously again.

Brave new railway world

Extract

The railway is not just a train. It is an industry wedded to time. It requires the meticulous management of people and machines under the rule of that immutable icon, the clock. It demands of its acolytes powers of memory and skill, rather than art or imagination. It appeals to so-called nerds, but in a manner that goes beyond crankshafts and timetables. The organisation of a railway is mesmeric, dedicated to certainty, reliability and predictability. Time is an absolute. A late car journey is just one of those things; a late train journey is an offence against order. The railway stands proxy for all of life’s journeys, from our hopeful beginnings to our intended ends.

To the early-Victorian imagination this proxy was widely seen as a monster. It was born of philistine capitalism, inducing in conservatives at every level of society a fear of change. The word ‘railway’ foretold an unknown and probably dangerous future – as once did the word ‘atomic’ or perhaps today’s ‘robotic’. The railway’s energy seemed demonic, and the path down which it led seemed frightening. Its promise of wealth drove men mad.

With this alarm went a widespread dismay at the aesthetic of the new railway and its buildings. John Ruskin was fascinated by steam engines, marveling at the ‘Titan hammer-strokes beating out these glittering cylinders and timely-respondent valves … in noiseless gliding and omnipotence of grasp’. Yet, when it came to stations he was appalled. They displayed the worst manifestations of industrialisation. As he travelled the railway network, Ruskin saw his glorious landscapes ruined and images of his beloved Venice abused in station arches, columns and windows.

Edited extract from ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins, reproduced with permission

 

English Heritage stately homes open their doors to Google Street View

November 7th, 2017 no comment

Thousands of rooms, objects and artworks have been photographed and catalogued and their stories told through new and immersive online experiences.

The project uses gigapixel cameras to bring 29 historic sites across England to life for an international audience.

From Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, where King Arthur is said to have been conceived, to a Cold War Bunker in York, armchair heritage buffs will be able to explore some of England’s most famous and unusual historic sites through videos, high-resolution photography and 360-degree tours.

Matt Thompson, head of collections at English Heritage, said: “In our new role as a charity, English Heritage is looking for innovative ways to open our sites to the public and share their fascinating stories with them.

“Now thanks to Google Arts & Culture’s technology, we’ve been able to bring people closer to our historic masterpieces than ever before, open up our storehouses to a global audience and showcase hitherto unseen artefacts.”

For the first time, people will get to see the details in Antonio Zucchi’s 18th century ceiling paintings at Kenwood House, London, and the 17th century Elysium ceiling at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire, both of which have been photographed in ultra-high definition.

They will also be able to view the largely unseen vast 1820 painting of the Battle of Hastings by Frank Wilkin, which hangs on the walls of the private school at Battle Abbey, East Sussex.

Google’s Street View is allowing people to remotely explore the labyrinthine corridors and workshops of the Victorian J. W. Evans silver factory in Birmingham, normally only open to the public for pre-booked guided tours.

The technology is also opening up the store of 160,000 historical artefacts at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, revealing items such as a Roman sculpture of the goddess Venus, a medieval stone corbel, or bracket, with a carved face and a 19th-century wood and iron tower used to change electric lamps in London’s Covent Garden Market building.

The partnership is the first time Google Arts & Culture has worked with a heritage organisation and the first time it has worked with an institution covering multiple sites.

Amit Sood, director of Google Arts & Culture, said: “England has such a rich, diverse, and interesting heritage – spanning literally centuries.

“English Heritage has done such an amazing job in preserving iconic art and sites, allowing us a glimpse into what life was like in a different time.

“Google Arts & Culture are proud to partner with English Heritage and use the power of technology to share these wonders and stories with a global audience.”

The new project can be accessed here.

Last year, a Google Street View tour was set up to allow the public to access private parts of Cambridge University’s colleges usually closed to visitors.

The power of poo: energy from excrement

November 7th, 2017 no comment

Portland, Oregon, USA

The Bureau of Environmental Services for Portland has a great system in place to make the most of its waste. The city’s sewage is usually decomposed into methane gas, which is captured by their wastewater plants and turned into energy and electricity. Yet there are now plans to partner up with Northwest Natural Gas and sell the remaining converted effluent as a substitute for diesel fuel for cars, lorries and buses.

Back in April, the Portland City Council approved a $9m project to process the city’s sewer gas into marketable natural fuel. According to the Bureau, Portland’s two solid waste treatment plants use 77 per cent of the sewer’s methane to generate energy, and the remaining 23 per cent will be treated to create renewable energy to be processed as fuel for diesel vehicles.

The Bureau says the new facility can produce natural gas to power the equivalent of 154 bin lorries.

Ladner, British Columbia, Canada

Farmer Jerry Keulen from SeaBridge Farm is turning manure from his cows into reusable energy. In fact, he is one of many North American farmers taking advantage of their livestock’s poo by using a mini anaerobic digester to break down waste into renewable natural gas (RNG). Keulen has support of electric power and gas distribution company Fortis BC.

Purifying the gas means that it could be put into the Fortis BC system, fundamentally replacing natural gas altogether. This year, the provincial government endorsed RNG as part of its climate leadership plan. Rich Coleman, Deputy Premier and Minister of Natural Gas Development, said: “We are creating market opportunities for British Columbia’s natural gas sector, offering utilities flexibility to create new incentive programs so we can continue to build a strong economy and a cleaner future.”

California also has a ‘Dairy Manure Digester Development’ programme and, so far, there are 16 dairy digester operations in that state.

Grand Junction, Colorado, USA

The Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant is processing eight million US gallons of human waste into biomethane, or RNG. This gas fuels about 40 public service vehicles such as street sweepers and buses.

The project, which is worth $2.8m, could reduce greenhouse gases by as much as 80 per cent and has been developed for over a decade.

Raw biogas collected from the anaerobic digestion plant is upgraded to RNG, and can be used as heat, fuel or electricity.

The underground pipeline is almost six miles long and carries the compressed RNG from the wastewater plant to the city’s fleet fuelling station. It’s estimated that about 460 gasoline gallon equivalents (GGEs) will be produced on-site every day.

Detroit, Michigan, USA

Back in October, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was nearing completion of its anaerobic digester, which will convert more than 400 tonnes of animal manure into renewable energy. This will power the zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. The left-over compost will be spread on the zoo’s gardens and donated to the community.

DZS is the first zoo in the country to have an anaerobic digester, which will also use food scraps to increase the biogas production.

Reading, UK

The Bus Hound, the UK’s poo-powered bus, which set the speed record for a regular service bus with a top speed of 76.8mph (123.5km/h) back in 2015, is part of a fleet of vehicles set up by Reading Buses.

Thirty-four biomethane gas-powered Scania buses were added in 2013, and the fuel for the vehicles is produced from farm waste and injected into the national gas grid – the whole process is essentially carbon neutral.

Leeds, UK

Yorkshire Water has invested £72m in a project at its Knostrop wastewater treatment works, in which a state-of-the-art sludge treatment and anaerobic digestion facility will be built.

Four 25-metre-high concrete sludge digester tanks are already constructed. Estimated for completion in 2020, Yorkshire Water says the facility will recycle 94 per cent of Leeds’ sewage sludge, be capable of processing 131 tonnes of dry sludge a day, generate 55 per cent of its own electricity (the equivalent of providing power to 8,000 homes), and reduce the Knostrop site’s carbon emissions by 15 per cent.

Rwanda, East Africa

Sanitation company Pivot has two initiatives, Pivot Works and Pivot Fuel. Works is a city-scale treatment solution that converts human waste into renewable fuel.

According to Pivot, only 10 per cent of human waste generated in low-income countries gets treated, and traditional treatment plants are expensive, with infrastructure in many low-income cities being almost non-existent. Treating wastewater with sewer networks and aerobic treatment costs $75bn per year globally. Bad sanitation kills over two million people every year.

Pivot Works’ factories convert human waste to solid, hygienic Pivot Fuel. This is then sold to industrial customers like cement companies, and the revenue covers costs to sanitise and process the waste. According to the company, this transforms wastewater treatment from a huge cost sink into a system that pays for itself.

Kenya, East Africa

The Nakuru Water and Sanitation Services Company is manufacturing briquettes from human faeces for cooking and heating.

The waste is dried, treated in a kiln and carbonised with sawdust at 300°C. The resulting product is processed into balls and sold by the kilo. Treating the excrement removes dangerous pathogens and the smell, and will improve sanitation in poorer areas.

Nakuru is the fourth largest city in Kenya, and only one in four residents have access to the town’s sewer system – waste is often buried in lower-income areas, or dumped in rivers.

More locals are warming to the product, and it’s reported that the briquettes are odourless, burn very well for a long time, and cook food at a good speed.

Spain

In northern Spain, renovation is under way on an abandoned farmhouse to power it entirely on poo. Meghan Sapp and her start-up renewable energy company Planet Energy have designed the eco-house, which will be self-sustaining and uses waste from humans and animals to generate renewable energy.

The Netherlands

Near the end of last year, the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs pledged to spend €150m on a project to help the nation’s farmers to turn cow manure into energy.

The Netherlands’ agriculture industry is behind 10 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and methane from dairy farms is a key culprit. Farmers will be able to lease out anaerobic digesters to help reduce the emissions. The system works via a machine taking cow manure from the farm to a digester dome outside, and according to environment website Inhabitat, other machines will extract phosphates and nitrates. Farmers can use this for fertiliser and can then sell the biogas at a 12-year fixed price, which the Dutch government will subsidise.

Xiangyang, China

On an island in central China’s Xiangyang city is a steel complex processing several hundred tonnes of human waste.

Composed of human excrement and other matter, hazardous sludge – a by-product of the sewage treatment process – is becoming an increasing problem in China but, when processed, the energy produced from the factory is enough to fuel 400 cars. 

The magnitude of the toxic slurry in China is triggering the country to find more sources of clean, renewable energy, including the increase of sludge-to-energy projects. Other cities, such as Hefei, Chengdu, Changsha and Chongqing, are also experimenting with processing sludge into an energy source.

Beijing, China

Agricultural pollution is another problem plaguing China, with animal poo leaking into rivers and lakes, so farmers will now be paid to turn their livestock’s manure into fertiliser and power.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Chinese livestock farms produce almost four billion tonnes of waste every year.

Back in August, the Chinese government announced a plan to give farmers subsidies to build animal waste processing facilities to treat manure and make fertiliser, and to install biogas plants to generate electricity.

Reporting to Reuters, Zhong Luqing, director of the fertiliser department at the ministry, said: “We will strengthen policy support and increase subsidies to support farmers to use organic fertiliser… especially large-scale farmers, family farms and cooperatives.”

Beijing is allegedly targeting zero growth of chemical fertiliser and pesticide by 2020, urging farmers to use fewer chemicals and switch to animal manure instead. At the moment, China uses about a third of the world’s fertilisers.

Australia

Almost 40 per cent of households in Australia own at least one dog, and the 4.2 million canines will generate 6.3 million tonnes of poo in their lifetimes.

According to the Melbourne project Poo Power!, as the dog population in Australia grows, so will the issue of dog waste disposal in their communities, which are faced with increasing population growth and urbanisation, a limited amount of suitable park spaces and shrinking landfill sites.

Poo Power! wants to tap into the 1,400 tonnes of dog poo discarded daily – the company designed a biogas generator to showcase how the energy produced from dog poo and other organic wastes can be used to provide power to light dog parks in the early morning and evening peak periods.