I’ve been a CIBSE member for over 5 years now, and whilst I do enjoy reading the CIBSE Journal it is somewhat depressing to have the same stories come up time and time again, for example the gap between building design and performance, another government scheme that is being scrapped (Green Deal, Code for Sustainable Homes, Feed-in-Tariff, CRC, now the entirety of DECC), how BIM is on the verge of taking over yet still hasn’t.. etc.
I’ve recently had a couple of years off to look after my daughter and have had time to do more reading, including of ‘Post-Capitalism’ by Paul Mason and ‘The limits of Neoliberalism’ by William Davies which I would highly recommend, and it has got me thinking more about economics and some of the things I wish I had known when I was a practising engineer/sustainability consultant given a big part of my work ended up being carrying out Cost-Benefit-Analysis and Whole-Life-Costing of different technologies.
I thought I was just dealing with numbers when I was carrying out these calculations, and as an Engineer I love numbers, they are my friend. But in economics numbers are not playing by the rules of physics, they are playing by the rules of the market which are neither constant nor unbiased.
To show you what I mean here is a thought experiment: What if an oil company were to discover an oil field that was very expensive to access, but contained an infinite supply of oil. Would they drill? I think they would have the following qualms: If the supply is infinite, won’t the price of oil tend to zero? How would I recoup my investment in getting it out? What would it do to the profitability of all my other oil wells? If everyone knows its an infinite supply wouldn’t they get a bit antsy about a corporation declaring control over it? I think they would then pretend they had never found it, and make sure nobody else could.
This pretty much seems to be our global attitude to renewable energy as generated ultimately by the sun which guarantees an almost infinite supply (4-5 billion years). Economic modelling can’t handle disruptive technology or the concept of an infinite supply (infinite growth of demand being the lifeblood of our economy), so pricing renewable energy so that it is comparable to oil or gas when we are planning to frack even Yorkshire, is an impossibility.
When I was dutifully carrying out my cost-benefit-analysis of installing renewable energy technology for building projects and calculating the future energy cost savings clients could make, I wasn’t thinking about this and how politically charged the numbers I was using were (renewable energy costs being based on government subsidies and conventional energy costs being based on the stability or lack thereof in the Middle East and how much we are prepared to frack in our own backyard) and how useless it rendered the final numbers I generated.
In discussions with clients I wish I had explained to them the nonesensicalness of trying to compare renewable energy and conventional energy costs. Maybe that would have stopped them from focusing so much on their bottom line and get them to select building solutions on the basis of their environmental and health benefits instead.
If all of CIBSEs members did this, as an added bonus maybe it would help to move on some of the stories in the CIBSE Journal!