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The carbon trail behind carbon-saving technologies?

December 15, 2009

Wood, as an energy-generating alternative to the dirty and finite resource that is coal, looks to have plenty of potential to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.  It’s a carbon-neutral fuel because the carbon dioxide given off is balanced by what the tree used during its life.

So plans for a series of biomass-fired plants, as reported in The Times recently, should be welcomed…except that, sadly, nothing is ever that simple in the world of sustainability.

Just one of the new plants being built (that at Port Talbot) will consume each year the equivalent of 30% of the UK’s domestic annual wood harvest.  Therefore, most of the wood supplies will have to be imported from overseas.  Shipping this wood in such large quantities will leave a trail of carbon emissions in its wake, thus cancelling out a chunk of the environmental gains these power stations are intended to provide.

There is a further knock-on effect.  The price of wood will rise due to demand, meaning that manufacturers of wood-based products (such as garden furniture) will suffer, with more woe too for the recession-hit construction industry.

There are echoes here of the rather better-known debate surrounding biofuels.  If crops are to be grown for fuel, where do we plant the crops for food?  Plus there’s all that energy needed to power the tractors harvesting these crops, not to mention the chemical plants turning beans into biodiesel and the transportation of the finished fuel. 

There’s a social impact, too, before the seeds are even under the soil: farmers in developing countries face being on the receiving end of aggressive land-grabbing by those eager to exploit a lucrative alternative to growing food.  It is hard enough weighing up any initiative’s carbon savings potential without factoring in these human costs as well.

If it’s any consolation, matters are simpler for homeowners and businesses going down the solar thermal route.  SolarUK’s solar panels are manufactured in the UK (East Sussex to be precise) so assuming they are being installed here they won’t need to cross any oceans.  This, and the materials used in their construction, enables a LaZer2 solar collector to become carbon neutral after only around nine months, which is substantially less than the tested versions of other companies.

A SolarUK panel won’t harm the visual environment either, their frames being a sleek all-black design.  Indeed, if the National Trust considered them suitable for its Elizabethan, Grade I listed Nunnington Hall – and got them through the planning process – it’s clearly possible, even on the most sensitive of buildings, to find a spot for them where they don’t offend the eye yet are still exposed to the sun’s clean energy.

solar panels on a roof

Solar panels on a roof, Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet permalink
    December 16, 2009 9:53 pm

    I had not realised how unobtrusive Solar Panels were when looking atthe panels on the picture of Nunnington Hall. I am surprised that they are not more in use on public buildings and stately homes. If they save money all the more reason to have them, perhaps more advertising is needed.

  2. solarukweblog permalink*
    December 18, 2009 12:46 pm

    English Heritage provides advice on renewable energy for owners of ‘traditional’ homes, including planning matters:

  3. philipchallis permalink
    February 24, 2010 3:12 pm

    Solar panels are very obviously the way forward and I would suggest just like Local councils are funding energy saving by way of cavity wall insulation and new CH boilers the next step is obviously Solar Panels.

    A point of interest on the same topic of Carbon saving technologies little has been said on modern TV’s apart from generally speaking people are opting to purchase one as Digital Tv is rolled out across the UK. You would have thought that set top box’s at £20. would have been the consumers choice particularly in our current economic climate. Something I discovered by accident was that my old analogue TV 32in consumed 500watts of electricity while it’s modern counterpart 150watts. Now that is a significant saving and if you multiplied that by every home – very siognificant. Perhaps the council should fund new TV’s?
    They probably will now as I have a modern set.

    Samsung TV

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