Bloggers’ Interview: Chris Huhne

The other day, an elite group of bloggers* (and myself) met up with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (and a Lib Dem to boot), for a nice chat. I will leave it to those terribly organised people who actually took an audio recording of the interview to relay in accurate quotes Chris’s exact words (or indeed to simply upload the audio), but here are my own impressions of the interview. Some of them might well now be familiar from Chris’s speech today.

Whilst we were getting sat down, we admired Chris’s shiny Susan Kramer for President badge – a decision he justified on the grounds that he believes that she will be much better able to devote the appropriate amount of time to the job from her position of not-being-an-MP.

That out of the way, we got down to business. One of the most exciting aspects of the coalition government is the opportunity it gives us to move the green agenda forward. With a coalition agreement full of good things for the environment, and a Lib Dem minister installed in the relevant ministry, as well as commitments from the Prime Minister himself that this will be the “greenest government ever”, there is good reason to expect great things of this government on these issues. It has been a bit of a disappointment that since the government was formed, the frantic pace of announcements from some government departments has not been matched by Huhne’s own corner of Whitehall.

It was heartening, therefore, that Chris was keen to tell us about the government’s “Green Deal”, the details of which he expects to be announcing some time around the second week of November. The programme will seek to massively improve the energy efficiency of Britain’s existing housing stock, a massive task which must be undertaken if we are to reach our international commitments on carbon emissions by 2050. By that time, the government hopes that our entire housing stock will be much more energy efficient, with proper insulation, double glazing, and so on.

It is an improvement which is desperately needed. The average house in Britain uses more energy to heat it than those in many Scandinavian countries, where (given the colder climate) we would expect them to use more than us. There is clearly, therefore, considerable scope to reduce our energy demands in this area.

Learning from similar programmes which have been set up in places like Australia already, with some problems associated, Chris hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls which such schemes have run into in the past. The programme should have pilot schemes running fairly soon, with the full on programme getting underway in 2012. Thousands of jobs will be supported by the scheme, which will be on a scale not seen in the rather timid programmes we have seen so far. This will therefore represent the beginning of the kind of green growth and green jobs which the party has long talked about.

The basis of the Green Deal will be that energy companies pay for the improvements people make to their homes, which will then be paid back by the consumer as part of their bills. The consumer’s energy requirements will decrease sufficiently, however, that even whilst they are contributing as part of their bills to the costs of the work undertaken, their costs will still be lower than they otherwise would be in most cases. Assuming it works, this sounds like a very sensible win-win for all concerned.

A couple of categories of house will not find themselves in this position, however: “hard to heat” homes (with no cavity walls, for instance) which will be more expensive to improve, and the homes of the fuel poor, who often currently run their homes at lower temperatures than they would ideally be able to. In the latter case, Chris would expect (and encourage) those people to run their homes at a decent temperature after the improvements have been made, which would of course mean that some of the saving in energy requirements is negated.

Moving on, we felt it wouldn’t be right to talk to Chris without raising the nuclear issue. Personally, I have never quite been in the same place as my party on this issue. Much as I would like to see Britain getting its electricity from mostly renewable sources in the future, there is nevertheless an approaching gap in our capacity (with so many old nuclear plants going offline in the next 10-20 years) that will probably have to be filled with one last generation of nuclear fission plants, in my opinion. So I do not share the anguish of some in the party that the coalition is going to allow new nuclear to go ahead, so long as it is not subsidised by the state.

Interestingly, Chris is technically entitled to abstain from votes in parliament on the legislation to enable this, since the coalition allows the Lib Dems to abstain on the issue. Perhaps sensibly, however, Chris recognises that it would look rather odd for the minister to abstain on their own legislation, so he is likely to vote for it. As he is keen to point out, opposition to nuclear power in the Lib Dem party is motivated by a variety of underpinnings, with some “theologically” opposed to them, and some simply finding it hard to believe that they are a cost effective option. Coming from the latter camp, it isn’t actually all that inconsistent for Chris to vote for new nuclear, since the government has made it quite clear that it will not be receiving subsidy.

What this does imply is that we were wrong as a party to suggest that it would not be possible for new nuclear to be built without subsidy. Chris is quite open about this, saying explicitly that he was wrong in assuming that was the case. More hearteningly, Chris is also all too aware that we are currently the third worst country in the EU in terms of installed renewable generation capacity. He is determined that by the end of this government we will be the fastest improving country on renewables.

Moving on, Joe asked Chris about the international dimension to his work. Was he expecting an agreement to come out of the forthcoming talks in Cancun, following the dashed hopes at last year’s talks. Unfortunately, Chris does not sound optimistic, since much of the progress that can be made hinges on the USA being able to deliver support for any agreement from the house of representatives and the senate. With President Obama struggling to deliver any such agreement currently, and a swing to the right expected from the forthcoming midterm elections, the outlook does not look overly optimistic. Nonetheless, Chris is pushing ahead with what he feels he can currently do, which is to draw together the countries of the EU to reinvigorate European unity and leadership on the issue. As individuals, the EU member states can only do so much, but as with so many other things, together the EU can wield much greater influence. Chris reminded us that Russia signed Kyoto mainly because of pressure from the EU, not because they actually believed in its importance.

Next up, Alex wanted to know about the future of the RHI and the CHP. Much as Chris wanted to reassure Alex, who has a personal interest in this, he wasn’t able to give any specific commitments at the moment, since the RHI is, like so many other things, a part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Nonetheless, it is “inconceivable” that heat would not be supported in some way by the government, for the simple reason that without a heat strategy we will simply not be able to reach our legal obligations on emissions.

Dragging the tone down from lofty environmentalism to low politics, I asked Chris what the balance was between thinking of himself as “the Lib Dem on the frontline” on the green agenda within the coalition, and how much he simply thinks of himself as “the minister”, getting on with an important government job. By the sounds of it (and I had already got this impression from much of what Chris said throughout the interview), he does not consider himself to be on the frontline of any battles for influence between the coalition parties, at least not in his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. This is such an important area that Chris’s preferred approach has been to seek ways forward which will command wide support, not just from the Tories but also from Labour, so that they need not be interrupted by any future changes of government. This may also explain the lack of hasty announcements of policy from Huhne’s department, in the way that some might suggest have been forthcoming from other departments.

Of course, Chris also has responsibilities as a member of various committees, and he hinted that his position on the committee which deals with European issues is perhaps what brings him most often to think in terms of pushing for the Lib Dem line.

Lastly, we covered the advance of multi-party politics. Chris tends to the view that the people who are struggling most to catch up with the new way things are done are the journalists. Nonetheless, the new politics will require a politeness and respect which has not been a common feature of our politics in the past.

With our time at an end, we grabbed a quick group photo, and Chris went on his way. Overall, I was very impressed with Chris’s willingness still to meet us lesser mortals, and to discuss his work in government so transparently.

*A full list of my marvellous and sexy blogger colleagues (with apologies to those who aren’t yet bloggers and I therefore can’t link to!):

Alex Foster

Millennium‘s Daddy Richard

Prateek Buch

Alex Folkes

Mary Reid

Joe Jordan

Helen Duffett

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George Monbiot vs. Agas

Some time ago now, George Monbiot wrote a piece in the Guardian refuting the cosy back-slapping sense of Aga owners that their cooker was an efficient, even ethical, choice of appliance. Yesterday, an interview with Aga’s chief executive, William McGrath appeared in the paper, exploring this argument. They’ve put the transcript up on the website here. The comments thread quickly descended into (amongst other things) people accusing George of deliberately making McGrath look bad by reproducing all the hesitation and repetition of conversational speech in writing, leading George to pop up in the comments thread with the following comment:

The audio tape was given to an independent transcriber. She transcribed it. The Guardian put it online. How’s that for a conspiracy? Pretty devious, I’d say.

The other bizarre comments were mostly to the effect that George was in some way “bullying” the chief executive of a large company by expecting him to have a clear idea what he was talking about, where what he was talking about was his own company’s products and the claims made about said products.

In any case, I’d say if he wanted to show up McGrath’s woolly thinking, he missed a trick. I spent an hour or so going through the transcript trying to put together a coherent string of proper sentences out of the raw materials provided, the better to reveal the clash of ideas at the heart of the conversation (which is indeed rather obfuscated by the literal-mindedness of the transcript).

The results I reproduce below. What I would say they show, every bit as much as his hesitant manner might have done, is the completely confused argument on McGrath’s side. In assembling it, I attempted to be as sympathetic as possible to the person whose words I was interpreting, articulating fully any argument that made sense that their words hinted towards. Nevertheless, there were swathes of McGrath’s contributions where I really couldn’t, with the best will in the world, see what he was trying to say. If you feel like comparing the one on the Graun website with mine, then you’ll see what I mean (and you have too much time on your hands). Most of what he says is just a hastily strung together collection of marketing speak.

Anyway, here’s my modified transcript:

MONBIOT: I’m George Monbiot and I’m talking to William McGrath who’s the chief executive of Aga Rangemaster who’s kindly come in to talk about Aga’s environmental performance. And we’ve had a bit of a spat about this in the paper where I wrote a paragraph or two expressing my displeasure with Aga’s environmental performance and William wrote a response column to put me right. And now we finally meet and we can discuss this in person. So thanks very much indeed for coming in to talk about this.

MCGRATH: It’s a pleasure.

MONBIOT: Now I’ve read the claims that Aga makes about its green credentials. And one of the things you keep emphasizing is that Agas are green because they last indefinitely. That’s a disaster for an energy using device isn’t it?

MCGRATH: Well I think the fact that Agas do last a life time, do last for many, many years is just one of the features of the Aga. The fact that actually cast iron is a product which does last for generations and then can be recycled I think is actually a really positive feature of the product. And when you’ve put that together with some of the other characteristics of the Aga, that make it so loved in the UK today and in many places around the world, I think we feel that the cast iron story, which goes right back to 1709, continues to be relevant today. And the technology that goes with cast iron, that product which does last such a long time, is something that will meet the agenda for the next generations as well as generations that have gone by.

MONBIOT: You say that the Aga lasts a life time. More efficient appliances come onto the market every year. Your Agas might be problematic in 2009. In 2059 they’re going to be massively outdated and extremely inefficient by comparison to everything else available then, aren’t they?

MCGRATH: Well I think you’ve got to look at the very nature of the Aga and what it is as a heat storage product. And I would argue that the way the market is developing, when we’re looking at, say, a 13-amp Aga product which uses over night electricity, I think that is going to be a very relevant product over the years ahead, as people look to have level loading of production. And I think linking the Aga, the electric Aga that we’ve now developed in recent years, into micro generation, those are very much coming components. What is needed in the domestic market is to have more products which can absorb electricity to act as a battery in the home. And I think both micro and indeed larger producers of electricity that are looking to level load will be very interested in a domestic product which can use electricity in that way. And our new products aren’t just about electricity. We’re talking about bio fuels and that sort of thing, products where the industry itself is looking at new ideas, new products which they can bring to the market and the Aga is ready and waiting for those new products as they come to market.

MONBIOT: Okay well we’ll deal with those point by point as we go along. But I’m not sure you’ve completely grasped what I’m driving at here because my point is that even if the Aga is perfectly suited for conditions today or 2015, even if it were the most efficient appliance on the market today, the fact that it lasts a lifetime means that it necessarily becomes outdated by comparison to what else will be available towards the end of that life time.

MCGRATH: Well George, if you look back over the life time of many people’s Agas today they’ve actually modified themselves over the years. So what started life maybe as solid fuel Agas may now be oil Agas. And indeed one of the things we’re looking at right now is to upgrade those Agas to the latest technology, where you can actually take your oil and transform it into an electric Aga. Yeah, we’re alive to all these new technologies and ideas coming on board and yes, clearly new things are coming to market all the time. We for example are one of the largest companies selling, through Rangemaster today, induction hobs and selling induction range cookers. We’re always alive. As a company we’ve put many years and a lot of money into looking at all the technologies that are available. What that has told us is yes, for some of the products we should be making things like induction mainstream in the UK. I think we’ve played a big part in that. But all this is also telling us that cast iron cooking remains not only very attractive to people as being at the heart of the home, a great way of cooking – radiated heat cooking is a fantastic way to cook – but it is not off the pace at all. It’s exactly on the pace in terms of new technology that’s coming through.

MONBIOT: But your customers are still lumbered with this very large piece of cast iron which might or might not be adaptable to those future constraints.

MCGRATH: I think lumbered’s really not quite the right word. I think basically having a heat storage product in the home, a very efficient radiator when it’s giving useful heat into the kitchen, is much more efficient than a standard water based system. An electric Aga is extremely efficient, well over ninety per cent efficient. You can look at some of the Rayburn products which are condensing boiler versions, well over ninety per cent efficient. You’re talking about something that on the boiler side of our business, is right up there with the best in the market. So I don’t think we need to feel that we’re in any way off the pace against where the market, the industry has got at the moment. Indeed as a British company we feel that we’re in a position to be taking some of these technologies into other countries. We don’t feel there are lessons that we haven’t learned from Germany or Italy. We think as a British company taking products overseas that actually we’ve got a lot to say.

MONBIOT: How much carbon dioxide is produced in manufacturing an Aga?

MCGRATH: I think the basic smelting iron-ore, and then we clearly produce the – in relation to the total life time, the amount of carbon dioxide is actually quite modest. The bigger figure to look at, which is the fair comment-

MONBIOT: So how much is it?

MCGRATH: I think, in terms of carbon dioxide production per unit, it’s probably something around, I should think, fifteen tons [Correction: McGrath has since said that he meant 1.5 tons, not fifteen] of carbon I should ..

MONBIOT: Fifteen tons?

MCGRATH: Yeah so ..

MONBIOT: .. the cement required to build an average British home produces five tons of carbon dioxide. We’re talking about roughly the total amount of CO2 required to construct a home, fifteen tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a staggering amount.

MCGRATH: You’re a great user of the word “staggering”. Where I think the numbers are much more relevant is on the ongoing use of carbon dioxide in the home where as we all know – and this is a figure unfortunately you got so wrong in your original article, for the average home was using one and a half tons when actually as you know it’s actually six or seven and a half.

MONBIOT: Yes. I’d just like to point out that I, I was the one who requested the correction having found that the Parliamentary Select Committee document that I was using for the average home emissions had actually got it wrong.

MCGRATH: That’s fine. But as we well know that the answer is six tons, seven and a half tons for a four bedroom, four person home. The Aga, the carbon dioxide emission from an Aga, depends on which version you’re using but it’d be something like three and a half tons.

MONBIOT: Not according to your figures. Using the figures off your web site your thirteen amp electric Aga is producing 6.1 tons of carbon dioxide a year. That’s slightly above the average carbon dioxide emissions for an ordinary home.

MCGRATH: If you take into account the modern versions now which are using the latest version which use the AIMS(?) product ..

MONBIOT: No this is the modern version.

MCGRATH: .. our calculation for that comes out at 3.5 to 4. The natural gas version comes in at 4 to 4.5. So, if you multiply using standard stats through the numbers that you’ve got there, we calculate the numbers to be from 3.5 to 4.5 tons which against the 6 to 7.5 tons demonstrates that actually the Aga home doesn’t use more energy than an alternative home. Now clearly lots of people have different ways of managing their home to which they’re obviously perfectly entitled. We feel that the Aga, by the time you take into account all the roles it plays in the home, not only as a cooker but also as a radiator and providing so many appliances that the Aga home can have a better energy performance than comparable homes.

MONBIOT: Are you seriously trying to tell me that the average Aga produces less carbon dioxide for the services it delivers than comparable products producing the same services?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: Okay. So now according again to the figures on your web site, using the kilowatt hours figure that you produced for your Agas, you could boil a kettle for two people, two cups of tea, ninety nine times a day for the same amount of electricity that your Aga is using.

MCGRATH: The point is, where I think you’re being unfair, you’re not looking at the role that the Aga or the Rayburn is playing in people’s homes and can continue to play in the future. The factor you’ve got to look at which is more relevant than purely picking on a multiplication of kettles is to actually look at the useful heat in the kitchen. And clearly one of the major attractions that people see in the Aga in the home is the warmth in the kitchen and that can indeed percolate into a number of rooms in the house. So you have to see it as a combination, absolutely direct in the case of the Rayburn, of a cooker, which is its primary function, and also the overall role it plays in warmth in the home. And that’s where I think we’re differing a little bit is to see that having a heat-sump in the home which can play this broader role is actually a jolly attractive way, not only because it is so much the heart of the home for so many people, but also in energy and environmental efficiency, it is actually a jolly useful way of running the home. And over the last five years what we’ve been doing at Aga is really to have a five point plan of things that we felt we should be doing to address the environmental agenda. So the fact that you raise the points now was actually, from our point of view, quite good news because we would like to communicate more widely the sort of things we have been doing. And that really comes back to flexibility of the product. That’s why we’re making it into a product which is not always on. You can turn it off more readily, modulating use. We’ve looked at all our products and raising efficiency. That’s why if you look at HETAS or any of the industry bodies, our products are right up there at the top in efficiency. The work we’ve done on Rayburn for example is tremendous, the things we’ve done with the condensing boilers are really well ahead of the market. One of the things which I think is interesting as well, we’re looking at case emissions which is about how much of that useful heat is sent into the home. People do use that energy. We do though have ways of actually having less heat coming into the room or linking that heat maybe back into heat pumps.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well for all these grand claims you make about Aga ..

MCGRATH: They’re not grand claims though.

MONBIOT: .. we are still talking about a single device which uses, according to my figures, the entire carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. According to your figures three quarters of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home. We are talking about a device which doesn’t run the lights, which doesn’t run the TV, which doesn’t run the central heating system, which performs only a few of those functions.

MCGRATH: No, a large number of those functions such that when you work it all through we think that the Aga home does not necessarily need to use more energy than alternative homes.

MONBIOT: But it can’t possibly add up can it? Because if the Aga is producing between three quarters and one hundred per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions of the average home and yet it only fulfils a part of those functions, maximum about fifty per cent, then there’s no way that it could be an environmentally friendly device.

MCGRATH: Clearly we will not always agree on all those figures. In terms of an environmentally friendly device I think you’ve then got to say where is it going next. And I think that’s where you look at some of the work we’re doing on linking it into micro generation. And I think that is fascinating, if you’re looking for the domestic market – and I think we should all be looking at this sort of area, which lends itself to micro generation. The electric Aga does lend itself to that. We’re being approached by a whole series of micro generation producers. Why? Because they need a domestic product which can absorb energy that is produced sporadically during the day. So clearly that may be coming from solar, that maybe coming from wind, it may be coming from heat pumps which I think may be really quite attractive.

MONBIOT: You’re going to power an Aga off heat pumps?

MCGRATH: It’s a linking in to the total generation you can have from ..

MONBIOT: Sorry, can I just pin this down? You intend to power an Aga off heat pumps? Is that correct?

MCGRATH: We are currently talking to one of the producers, about how they can produce energy that comes from various sources, including heat pumps, or linking back energy from the Aga into a heat pump, or into a Stirling engine.

MONBIOT: Yeah. Can I just pin you down on this because I’m quite struck by this notion. Your idea is that you would use a heat pump to power an Aga. Is that correct?

MCGRATH: It would add – if you’re producing electricity for the home in a domestic context then clearly we have a product which can take a small amount of electricity being produced over a long period of time and you have to have a heat-sump of some sort which can absorb that energy.

MONBIOT: So you see the heat pump as one of these electricity producing devices do you?

MCGRATH: Electricity devices which can link into the Aga. The other end of the spectrum which I ..

MONBIOT: But the heat pump is not an electricity producing device, it’s an electricity using device.

MCGRATH: In terms of the linking it back round, you’re actually using the energy being produced by the Aga, rather than going into the room, can go back into the heat pump system.

MONBIOT: Yeah but you’ve just told me it’s an electricity producing device which would be used to power the Aga and it’s actually quite the opposite.

MCGRATH: What I’m saying is link it with micro generating producers, different formats, different forms, a Stirling engine and some of the other powers, it’s fair comment that they need to see the Aga as part of that overall package.

MONBIOT: Okay let’s just talk about this micro generation because all the recent figures that I’ve seen suggest that micro wind and micro solar PV in this country is a complete waste of time and money.

MCGRATH: I think we’ve done a lot of work, again, over recent years to examine all those potential sources. We’ve been right at the forefront talking to people about what is the right way of doing things. We believe that one of the really attractive packages we have come up with, which I think now is going to become commercially viable, is linking solar collectors, which are a readily available technology, with a wood burning Aga stove – another carbon neutral energy source – and putting that together with a Rayburn which is one of our key products. That package put together with an intelligent management device actually reproduces a package which meets all the current building regulations for new build.

MONBIOT: You’re talking about solar PV are you?

MCGRATH: We’re talking about solar collectors, so that they’ll simply heat the water through a tube – and I sent you some of the data on that.

MONBIOT: Oh so you’re talking about solar thermal?

MCGRATH: Yes exactly.

MONBIOT: Right.

MCGRATH: So putting that together with an Aga stove, that is really a very attractive and viable package. So when you dismiss this..

MONBIOT: Well it’s not going to help people who’ve just bought an electricity using Aga is it?

MCGRATH: I think you’re being obtuse.

MONBIOT: No, no, no, you’ve just completely changed the terms of – I asked you specifically about using solar or wind production of electricity to power an Aga which is what you’ve just been talking about.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: And now you’ve started talking about using solar thermal with wood powered Rayburns.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: That’s not the question that I was asking about. So let’s just finish off that issue about wind and solar photovoltaic electricity used to power an Aga. This is part of your vision?

MCGRATH: Yeah. What I was saying is we have – and this is where I think we deserve more credit than you’re giving – looked at all these technologies. Which technology comes through and proves to be economic as you say remains to be seen. But we as a company have, for example, our own wind turbine to examine how effective that can be, and I think we agree that only in certain areas of the country will that actually prove to be effective. Our wind turbine happens to be in Telford which is not the windiest part of the country and it does generate, it is linked up to our Aga in our R and D centre. Yes it does work. Does it generate enough power consistently to be economically viable for the consumer at this point? Probably not. If more money is spent on that technology? Possibly yes. Solar clearly is another area which is developing fast. I was giving you an example of where I’m quite excited that work we’re doing in our R and D team, looking at solar, has found a package which is economically viable and is not a waste of time as you dismiss. So what we’re saying, as a business we need to look at all these different opportunities, which one works best for our customer base remains to be seen. But the important point for us as a business is to be absolutely joining in the debate and at the forefront. If I turn it onto a subject which I know is dear to your heart, which is the future of nuclear, one of the issues I think that is going to be very interesting is what actually happens as the energy needs of this country increase, where are they going to come from? There’s obviously a big lobby at the moment for more nuclear power stations. One of the things that you could definitely not do with a nuclear power station is turn it down or turn it off. So in my view, you need more products which level load. So I think there should be a real effort to have more products in the home which use overnight electricity, avoiding those peaks that send energy being used to pump water uphill in mountains in Wales (which would seem a curious thing to be doing). If there were more products in the home which actually used energy overnight so we had more level loading, that seems to be quite an interesting idea. We’ve had a product which uses overnight electricity for twenty five years, when we find out EDF – very interesting – and more of the producers are intent on looking at split tariffs, I think that is part of a drive for greater level loading. And really quite an attractive feature of what we should be looking at in terms of our energy management in the home is having more products which can absorb energy, which brings us back to where we started with the cast iron, I think absolutely a relevant product, not an irrelevant product. We’re not claiming we’ve got all the answers yet but we’re right in there. And I think that product which absorbs energy and other products comparable to Aga, that actually can take energy over night and release it during the day into the home is actually a very attractive product. So the debate is not as simple as it started, with you highlighting a technology that clearly – coal Agas we haven’t made for ten years..

MONBIOT: Still make coal Rayburns don’t you?

MCGRATH: We have solid fuel products.

MONBIOT: Solid fuel meaning coal?

MCGRATH: Solid but, primarily, those products now clearly do work on multi fuel, but most of those products that are actually doing very nicely now are really driven around wood burning which is ..

MONBIOT: You’re selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel Rayburns?

MCGRATH: The largest growth now is wood burning Rayburns.

MONBIOT: That’s not the question I asked. Are you selling more wood burning Rayburns than multi fuel?

MCGRATH: We’re selling more wood burning Rayburns today than any other type of product.

MONBIOT: So purely wood burning Rayburns are out-selling the multi fuel Rayburns?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: And by what sort of figure?

MCGRATH: What’s happened in the last couple of years, since wood has become a readily available product, we’ve introduced new lines in wood burning products which are the fastest growth areas. And that is overtaking what was the largest element of the products for Rayburns which was actually split pretty much down the middle between gas and oil. So it’s a really interesting area, again, that the technology linking with wood has taken off so rapidly. And again we have, with the stoves and with the Rayburns in particular, and hopefully maybe in due course with wood burning products as well – it’s another technology we’re very enthusiastic for – we’re absolutely looking for practical technologies to apply with these products. And so the imagery that you would possibly use that suggests it’s a retro product is just not fair. It’s just not right actually.

MONBIOT: Right. And surely the point with wood and pellets and any other form of bio mass is that the supply’s always going to be constrained isn’t it? There are limited places in which it can be grown if we’re not going to eat into arable land or we’re not going to cause unsustainable rates of deforestation. And this means that they have to be used as efficiently as possible. So it seems crazy to be using them to fire devices which are on twenty four hours a day.

MCGRATH: Well the Rayburn products we’re talking are not, in the first place, necessarily on all day.

MONBIOT: Not necessarily.

MCGRATH: No, not necessarily. They can be. It depends on people’s actual desires and needs. People will have to warm their home. The Rayburn is a multifunctional product. Remember it does oven, it does the cooking, it does the central heating, it does the hot water.

MONBIOT: Does the central heating?

MCGRATH: Yes.

MONBIOT: All of the central heating?

MCGRATH: Yes you clearly have a little bit of homework to be done here. The Rayburn and our Stanley products in Ireland, the nature of those products is the majority of those products, overwhelming majority of those, do all those functions. That’s why we’re ..

MONBIOT: Not all of them do though do they?

MCGRATH: Some don’t. You can have products that don’t do the central heating and the hot water. But Rayburn and Stanley products, they are very much a workhorse product where they do the central heating, the hot water and the cooking.

MONBIOT: But they are still a woefully inefficient use of that wood fuel by comparison to say a modern batch boiler.

MCGRATH: No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: No. No.

MONBIOT: Yes.

MCGRATH: The Rayburn products are right up there. If you look in all the HETAS listings, our products are eighty, ninety per cent efficient, so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: Rayburn products are directly programmable so ..

MONBIOT: What percentage of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: In terms of which proportion keep them on all the time, I think the same as they can now with Aga. I think most people would do as they would with a boiler system. If you’re looking at a Rayburn you’re talking about a boiler system.

MONBIOT: What proportion of your customers keep them on all the time?

MCGRATH: I should think very few keep them on all the time.

MONBIOT: You don’t have any figures?

MCGRATH: We don’t have…

MONBIOT: Wouldn’t that be one of the first things you’d want to find out if you’re trying to go green?

MCGRATH: I think basically the people who’ve got a Rayburn system would be running it in the same way that they would be running a central heating system cos that’s what it is providing. It’s providing a boiler, a central heating system.

MONBIOT: It seems strange to me that you don’t have figures.

MCGRATH: In terms of how people run their homes we’re not actually going round asking, telling people exactly what they should do.

MONBIOT: No it’s not a question of telling them what to do it’s a question of asking what they are doing.

MCGRATH: I think that most people would be running a Rayburn in a similar way to any other central heating system. The variety of ways in which people run that system is tremendous. Some people will run it all the time, certainly during the winter. Some people have it off at night. That’s what we worked on for the Aga system, why we introduced our AIMS system to make sure those products are as flexible as the Rayburn systems.

MONBIOT: Now your AIMS system, Intelligent Management System, this puts the Aga into slumber mode, doesn’t it, for much of the time. But even during slumber mode which is what you encourage people to use when they go on holiday, it’s still putting out as much heat as an average radiator according to your web site.

MCGRATH: I think if you’re away they have the ability now to have it turned off so it’ll programme itself to come on again when they get back over night.

MONBIOT: But the advice you give them is that you keep it on slumber mode when you go on holiday.

MCGRATH: When you’re out you can keep it on slumber mode or you can turn it off. So it’s going to go to a much lower temperature level. So it …

MONBIOT: Yes but it’s still using heat when they’re on holiday and it’s still using heat when people are asleep. It’s still making use of fuel which is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: It’s not being completely wasted.

MONBIOT: Well of course if they’re on holiday it is being completely wasted.

MCGRATH: In which case we would expect them to have the option of turning it off and it will turn itself back on when they come back. The whole point with the Intelligent Management System was that it will calculate when to..

MONBIOT: Okay, can I just quote your site to you then?

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: “The system can also be set to holiday mode which will keep the Aga on either the lowest energy setting or off during the selected dates”. Why would you encourage people to keep it on the lowest energy setting when they’re away on holiday?

MCGRATH: I think it depends how long they’re away for. In the middle, many people for ..

MONBIOT: I don’t keep my central heating on when I’m away on holiday.

MCGRATH: No many people who go away over night, may well leave the central heating turned down when they’re away. So that gives an alternative to doing that.

MONBIOT: But that’s not going on holiday. Going away over night is not the same as going on holiday is it?

MCGRATH: Okay. But now I think you’re into semantics. I think it gives you that flexibility.

MONBIOT: Well it’s pretty clear what that means isn’t it?

MCGRATH: Okay.

MONBIOT: And when I go on holiday and when ordinary people with central heating systems go on holiday they do not leave the central heating on when they’re on holiday do they?

MCGRATH: No. So basically they have the option with this product to turn it off. If you would like to ..

MONBIOT: But they have the encouragement ..

MCGRATH: .. clarify the wording between nights away and a holiday, whether a weekend away qualifies as a holiday or whatever I think is probably something we should move beyond.

MONBIOT: Well no, perhaps we shouldn’t do that. And perhaps you should also create a bit of clarification with the rest of the way in which you encourage people to use it because again according to your web site it says it’s supplied preset, this system with two active periods each day. “In this mode your Aga will be at normal temperature ready to cook breakfast in the morning, drop down to a lower temperature during the day and then return to normal temperature ready to prepare dinner in the evening”.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: Summer or winter.

MCGRATH: I think it depends, that’s the whole thing. What we’re saying is we’ve added a great deal of flexibility into the product. How people use it in the home is entirely up to them. I think what you’ve seen from the kind of responses we’ve had from people all round the country, people have their own lifestyles, the way in which they wish to use it. We’ve tried to make it easier for them to have more options which is why the AIMS system, now available in electricity, is going to be available later in the year on gas as well and with oil products as well. We are making tremendous progress in all these areas. And the extra feature, which I think is very important, is going to come through this year. The other area that we’ve been looking at, apart from the micro generation, is looking at the existing store base.

MONBIOT: Okay. Let me just finish off on this AIMS business, this Aga Intelligent Management System business because you are encouraging people, even with this most modern, most up to date system that you have you are still encouraging people to keep their machine on all day during the summer.

MCGRATH: Many people will turn the Aga off during the summer.

MONBIOT: Turn it off all together? Turn it off all together?

MCGRATH: Many people would turn it off during the summer.

MONBIOT: And use their cooker? They would use a separate hob?

MCGRATH: They would use maybe a separate – we actually provide, as I’m sure if you’ve looked on the web site you will see. Many people have an Aga in combination with what we call a companion which does give you the option if the Aga’s off, part of the overall Aga includes a standard hob and an oven as part of our package. So you again have that built in flexibility.

MONBIOT: But the great majority of houses that I’ve been in which have an Aga also have a cooker. And they might use the cooker sometimes and use the Aga sometimes. So far from reducing the turnover of appliances you’re actually increasing the number of appliances aren’t you?

MCGRATH: They, basically ..

MONBIOT: Well are you not?

MCGRATH: No basic..

MONBIOT: You’re adding an appliance on top of the appliances they already have.

MCGRATH: No you have a sing..

MONBIOT: They have a central heating system. They have a cooker. And they have an Aga.

MCGRATH: They have an Aga which can incorporate a conventional cooker as part of that package. When you’re looking at de-cluttering your home and the number of appliances one of the questions that you really should also add is looking at, as the government is keen that we should do, energy management holistically in the home. Look at the de-cluttering effect of some of the things that you don’t need that people can choose not to have that many people in responding to this debate have actually recognised, things like the tumble dryer, things like the kettle, things like the toaster, all of which have to be produced, all of which have very short lifetimes so ..

MONBIOT: And people still have kettles to put on their Agas don’t they?

MCGRATH: They have kettles which last a lot longer than the products to which you refer. We think that over the life time of the Aga, which you surprisingly didn’t think was a good idea to have a long life, the number of appliances that other people may have got through will be a lot longer.

MONBIOT: But they’re still getting through their cookers aren’t they? Because they’re buying their cookers along side their Agas. That’s certainly the case in every house I’ve ever been in which has an Aga.

MCGRATH: Well perhaps you haven’t been in too many houses with this product ..

MONBIOT: Okay well give me the figures. Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Basically you’re selling, in terms of people who’ve got Agas now, many of them will not have an additional …

MONBIOT: You say “many”. Give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Many of those cookers may have been out there for a long time …

MONBIOT: No, no, give me the figures.

MCGRATH: George, of the products we sell ..

MONBIOT: You’re making these statements. You’re saying that my impression is wrong. Now it might be wrong but I want to hear from you that it is wrong because you’re going to give me the figures.

MCGRATH: Well I would ..

MONBIOT: You don’t seem to have surveyed your customers very much.

MCGRATH: No we have tremendous feedback from lots of the customers. That’s why ..

MONBIOT: But not on these critical issues that I’m asking you about.

MCGRATH: .. on how many people have and use an additional cooker. I think probably most people who are buying an Aga now, probably about half of them would have an inbuilt companion. I’m sure many people would have an additional cooker. But remember where the Aga comes from. Many people who’ve had an Aga for a very long time, very much linking back into the farming community as a working product, would, in many cases, not have another additional product. And if they do, maybe for the summer months, it would largely now come from the product we do incorporate, the companion. So, all we’re saying is when you come back to the product, all the different things we’ve got on offer, what we’re saying, as a British company that is employing, is, we think that we are right at the forefront of range cooking. Range cooking is a very legitimate and exciting way of doing things that has appealed to many people over many years. We have, within our Aga and with our Rangemaster business, we have about fifty people working in R and D. So we’re working right at the forefront, in all the different technologies that are coming. We want to make sure that we can offer the best available products that incorporate all new technologies, as we can see it relevant to our customer base. All we’re saying, that I think you’re being possibly unfair in not recognising, is just what a good idea cast iron is as a cooker, and as a way of having a centrepiece to your home. And I come back to linking in with micro generation and other kinds of generation, bio fuels as well. We are there for all that debate. And simply to provide knocking copy seems a little unfair.

MONBIOT: Okay. Well let’s talk about bio fuels. You raised this as another of the selling points that Agas can be converted to use liquid bio fuels.

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: Are you aware that most liquid bio fuels produce more greenhouse gases than petroleum as well as contributing to global food shortages?

MCGRATH: I think – going back to the point I’m saying – we have been keen to look at all those different ways of doing things, including bio fuels. Of course we’re aware that the development of that hasn’t been easy, and given all these different pressures on the kind of bio fuels that come through, it is not commercially readily available. What we’re saying is we have burner technology, that is available now which, when the market for bio fuels, in whatever form it takes, arises, will be compatible with that. Now does it, does x, y or z particular product prove to be appropriate, environmentally appropriate, we’re not really in a position to say.

MONBIOT: Okay.

MCGRATH: We have a product which again is at that cutting edge and ready for that sort of development.

MONBIOT: Okay. So you’re selling Agas as a green alternative on the grounds that they might or might not one day be compatible with micro generation which might or might not be economically viable ..

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: That they might or might not one day be compatible with bio fuels which might or might not be the ethical way to go. There’s a whole series of ifs and buts and possibilities here ..

MCGRATH: Sure.

MONBIOT: .. and you’re using those to try to persuade us that your sales of Agas today which are an incredibly energy intensive, energy consuming product, are thereby validated.

MCGRATH: What I’m saying is that the Aga today is validated against current ways of running your home. And it’s moved on a long way in recent years cos we’ve addressed these topics by a lot of investment, by the production of electricity into the total model mix. So yes, we think it’s absolutely valid. It’s what people see as an appropriate way of managing their home, having their busy family life. People do see it as the centrepiece, not only having great food but also lending itself to so much of the relevant themes of the day. Yes of course it’s valid today and I don’t see why you’re so determinedly knocking a British company that has a valid product today, is employing lots of people, producing world leading products today and is absolutely joining in on the debate on where we should go next and how things could be made better in the future. You’re dismissing it. That is really rather disappointing, that actually you cannot see that all the work we’re doing in the different formats, linking in with all these different opportunities that are out there, predicated on the fact that actually we think that the cast iron cooker with radiating heat into the home is actually a cracking way of approaching things. And actually when you do look at the different energy sources that are out there yes you should be looking to see more of these products produced internationally by a world class British company. I enjoin you to say yes it’s a positive for the British economy. It’s a positive way forward, very much attuned to the overall green agenda. And I think you’re somebody that we would like to see actually coming on board. Because we think we are the kind of company that people like yourself should be rooting for, not attacking.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

"Green" Gas?

Reading this report on the BBC News site, I was struck by the following paragraph:

Today’s report will contribute to the growing debate about heat, which produces 47% of the UK’s CO2 emissions – much more than electricity or transport. The government will soon launch a consultation on a heat strategy.

Aaaaaaaaargh!!!! Why the hell hasn’t the government already started working out the most difficult part of achieving its 80% cut to emissions? For fuck’s sake, guys, hurry up, we don’t have long!

That goes doubly so because the problem is an exceedingly prickly one, as anyone who’s read, say, George Monbiot’s “Heat” should be aware. Gas is the most efficient producer of heat (as opposed to electricity), but burning it requires a separate infrastructure for its supply, and shifting to hydrogen and combined heat and power (one option) would likely* require a proper, serious commitment from the government to get around the old “no market until all the infrastructure’s in place / no incentive to install the infrastructure because there’s currently no market for it” problem, because the pipes required are different to the ones we currently use to supply natural gas. (* I say likely because I’m sure market fans would argue that companies should be able to see far enough into the future to see a way to make profit down the line, but I have to say, given how good the market has been at thinking long term so far, I’m skeptical.)

The other option is finding enough renewably sourced gas to replace most natural gas (unlikely, and relies on a wasteful economy just when we’re trying to move away from one), moving to things like woodchip burners (not great, a lot of woodchip to be transported about), electrical heating (inefficient, but, with a lot of renewable electricity, an option), or converting all our housing stock to passive houses (also not easy).

What becomes clear is that all the options involve some serious changes and a big, proper commitment from government to a particular strategy. Electrical generation is one thing, but heating our homes and workplaces is a very knotty problem with no simple answers. Anyone looking at this in even a cursory manner could have told you this years ago. So hurry up, government!

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Cameron Reverts To Type

Well, today David Cameron made the speech that made clear what his opponents have been saying all along: That his first year or two as leader were a complete fiction designed to de-toxify the Tory brand. Now that he’s ahead in the polls, he feels comfortable speaking with conviction about the things he actually believes. Lets take a quick look at some of the contrasts.

In his speech accepting the leadership of the party, Cameron said:

We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain. I love this country as it is, not as it was, and I believe our best days lie ahead.

Today’s Cameron, though, seems to have no problems grumbling about modern Britain, even criticising as out of touch those who caution against his exaggerated rhetoric:

Some say our society isn’t broken. I wonder what world they live in. Leave aside that almost two million children are brought up in households where no one works. Or that there are housing estates in Britain where people have a lower life expectancy than in the Gaza Strip. Just consider the senseless, barbaric violence on our streets. Children killing children. Twenty-seven kids murdered on the streets of London this year. A gun crime every hour. A serious knife crime every half hour. A million victims from alcohol related-attacks.

But it’s not just the crime; not even the anti-social behaviour. It’s the angry, harsh culture of incivility that seems to be all around us. When in one generation we seem to have abandoned the habits of all human history that in a civilised society, adults have a proper role – a responsibility – to uphold rules and order in the public realm not just for their own children but for other people’s too.

2005’s Cameron was keen that

my children, your children, grow up in a country where the streets are safe, the public space isn’t filthy, where it isn’t a hassle to get around, you can own your own home and where climate change and the environment aren’t an afterthought.

but today’s Cameron made the environment exactly that, tacking onto the end of his speech a solitary sentence on the environment proper, just before coming into the final stretch of his speech:

We changed because knew we had to make ourselves relevant to the twenty-first century.

You didn’t champion green politics as greenwash, but because climate change is devastating our environment because the energy gap is a real and growing threat to our security and because $100-a-barrel oil is hitting families every time they fill up their car and pay their heating bills.

To be fair, the other part of the speech that mentioned the environment was this:

I am also a child of my time. I want a clean environment as well as a safe one.

What strikes you about these two quotes? Most obvious is how far the environment has fallen down the agenda. Compare it to, say, this bit of his 2006 leader’s speech to conference:

As you might have gathered by now, I am passionate about our environment. It’s a very personal commitment. I grew up in the countryside. I’ve always loved the outdoors. As you can see if you look around this conference, I’m quite keen on trees.

We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth – sustainable prosperity. The Stern report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day.

So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Today, I want to tell the British people some uncomfortable truths. There is a price for progress in tackling climate change. Yes of course low-energy light bulbs, hybrid cars – even a windmill on your roof can make a difference and also save money.

But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework. Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year. That would create a price for carbon in our economy. What does that mean? It means that things which produce more carbon will get more expensive. Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option.

It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility – to the next generation.

And I’ll tell you something:In politics, it’s much easier to take steps that will be painful if political parties work together, instead of playing it for partisan advantage. That’s what we have offered to do. We have asked Tony Blair to put a climate change bill in the Queen’s speech. If he does, we’ll back it. So come on, prime minister. It’s your last few months in office. It’s your last Queen’s speech. Use it to do something for the environment.

At no point in 2008’s speech was there a section on the environment as an issue. In the first quote, the environment is an example of a change to the Tory party. In the second, it’s a piece of character window-dressing for Brand Cameron. Neither sees any hint of a policy direction like 2006’s quote. In both cases, the issue is not important in and of itself, but because of what it supposedly says about Cameron or the changes he has brought to the party. If that isn’t a clear demonstration from Cameron that he doesn’t really care about the environment as an issue, he merely recognises its potency as a vehicle for changing public perception of him and his party, then I don’t know what is.

Some of the Cameron of the past even proves to be quite prophetic about the present. For instance:

I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back.

Appropriately enough, today’s more sober, substantive speech sounded very much more like a Tory speech; no sentence would have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

Let’s also note that whilst the Tories are far too “responsible” to make commitments to cut taxes on low income taxpayers (managing only a fairly pathetic, fiddling Council Tax Freeze that has been taken apart skillfully elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that one here), they aren’t beyond making commitments to help payers of Inheritance Tax, and now also Corporation Tax. The only real commitment that Cameron has made that will genuinely affect most people on low incomes is his moralising Marriage Bonus.

The real turning point in British politics in the last year or two was not Brown’s bottled election, it was Cameron’s back-pedalling on grammar schools, and the quiet distancing of the party from the Goldsmith-Gummer review. That was the point where it became clear that his party could only be pushed so far before they would grumble too much. That is the turnaround that could really make a difference to our country in the long run, not whether Gordon Brown hung on for a couple more years and achieved very little other than reacting to events.