15 April 2006

Give small solutions a chance

By Andrew Boswell

The economist E F Schumacher inspired a generation with his book Small is Beautiful, now a well known catch-phrase. Even then, in 1973, the world seemed to have gone crazy with growth for growth's sake, and he posited that we could be more prosperous, and more importantly, truly happy, if we forsake the big and started to develop the small.

After 30 years of missed opportunities, his vision seems all the more real and pertinent as we face multiple problems today, many of them environmental, which threaten our very future and quality of life. Intrinsic scale and structure are key issues in the debates, taking place nationally about our energy future, and locally about how we deal with Norfolk's waste.

In both cases, government has got locked into 'big solutions' forcing polarised debates: nuclear – 'yes' or 'no', big incinerator - 'yes' or 'no'. Those in power are locked into the 'big' mindset, and their reviews and consultations inevitably ask the wrong questions.

The government's Energy consultation closed on Thursday. It missed the key question – how do we scale our energy supply and structure our economy for maximum decarbonisation and future energy security.

A recent report from Greenpeace did ask the right questions, and gave the answers using an evidence based approach. It used a sophisticated computer model (WADE) to evaluate two scenarios for 2023 – continuing with a centralised power generation system based around new nuclear build and increasing gas imports, and restructuring our energy system on a decentralised model.

In decentralising energy production, new electricity generation comes from a variety of smaller scale sources. Housing estates, hospital, schools and public buildings, and our own homes are heated and powered by small scale gas and biomass generators. While gas is necessary for the mid-term future, home wind mills, and solar electricity and water panels - and large scale wind, tidal, wave and biomass – would drastically reduce our need for it.

Large scale generation is wasteful as big power stations loose huge amounts of energy – up to 70% in cooling towers or cooling water. Further electricity is lost in the transmission and distribution system.

Greenpeace showed that the decentralised approach was cleaner - 17% less CO2 emissions; more secure - 14% less gas needed importing even after cutting any new nuclear build. This is because small to medium scale decentralised power generates much more energy from less raw fuel. It is also cheaper, a benefit which can be passed on to the consumer.

Back in Norfolk, we need an urgent solution to our waste. Amazingly, Councillor Woodbridge, leader of Broadland Council, recently called for the incinerator(s) to be placed in Norfolk's worst performing recycling districts – a sort of punishment. Surely there is a better way, and could it be found too in a small to medium scale, decentralised solution?

Image: an impression of how the new incinerator at Longwater Industrial Estate in Costessey could look if it is built.

Certainly building a big incinerator in Costessey would not only punish the people of Norwich, many of whom do their best to recycle, but it would also punish nearby Broadland and South Norfolk residents because of concerns about the effect of emissions on human health and the environment.

On 17th March, the UK's first full-scale municipal biowaste digester was opened at Ludlow, Shropshire using Anaerobic Digestion (AD) to process food waste, garden waste and cardboard collected each week from 19,000 households. Interestingly, the capital costs of this small-scale facility are significantly lower, per tonne of waste processed, than for the proposed Costessey incinerator.

A real Norfolk revolution would be heralded by ditching the big incinerator(s), and establishing instead a county-wide network of small to medium AD facilities. These would be closer to the source of the waste, and most could be built by extending sites on the already well established network of waste collection stations. They would also create jobs throughout the County.

The capital and running savings made, in this decentralised model, should then be invested in Zero Waste reclamation parks for non-digestible waste (about 30%) such as the one being developed in Lowestoft. Such approaches have significantly increased recycling levels to 70% in a decade in cities like Bath and Canberra. Councils in Norfolk could achieve this with a 'joined up' approach and commitment.

Councillor Woodbridge is right that we must invest in better recycling facilities and Norwich does serially fail each budget round to allocate enough funds for recycling. Many residents want to recycle better, but are hampered in doing so by lack of proper support by the City Council.

We can start building a positive future for Norfolk and the UK now by lobbying government for decentralised, small-medium scale strategies for our energy production, and waste management.