Eco-towns under fire

2 min read

Engineers have expressed fear that the government’s eco-towns will not utilise innovative technology and will instead become ‘slightly better versions’ of normal housing developments.

The government recently unveiled locations for four new ‘zero carbon developments’ in Norfolk, Oxfordshire, east Hants and Cornwall. The eco-town scheme, which will break ground in 2016, will include technology such as smart metering to track energy use, community heat sources and charging points for electric cars.

Simon Harrison, chair of the energy sector panel for the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said engineering societies such as the IET fear the government is missing an opportunity to push new eco-friendly technologies through these eco-towns.

‘If you want to do an eco-town, do one that really pushes the technology,’ he said. ‘Don’t just do one that is a slightly glorified and slightly better version of a normal housing development.’

The IET, along with ICE, the IMechE and the Royal Academy of Engineers, offered a list of innovations for the government to consider.

Through a letter addressed to the Communities and Local Government department, the group suggested eco-towns could rely on combined heat and power energy from waste schemes with district heating networks and thermal storage capacity.

Harrison said this would be an improvement on the community heating sources being promoted by the government. Other suggestions included community-led and owned renewable energy schemes, advanced materials for home insulation and potable and grey water systems.

Harrison said the eco-towns should be treated like the space programme.

‘The space programme produced all sorts of innovations that flowed down into other things,’ he said. ‘The eco-towns should be accompanied by a substantial dissemination programme. So all the lessons that were learnt were put out to the market.’

For example, Harrison said builders could learn how to fabricate a house without energy losses at the points where pieces are bolted together.

The technologies currently being promoted for the eco-towns will not be quick to implement. Harrison said the lack of engineering expertise in government can sometimes lead to a severe misunderstanding of the time it takes to deploy a technology.

‘It comes up in so many different areas,’ he said. ‘For example there is some level of understanding on the complexity of delivering a nuclear power station, but there is still a great optimism over how long it might take.’

Harrison said this is likely to be the case with smart metering, which will be a major IT and communications problem.

‘You’ve got an awful lot of data that’s going to be flowing to and fro you’ve got issues of data security and how that’s managed,’ he said. ‘If we are to roll out smart meters to all the homes in the UK, it is going to be a 10 year job.’

Siobhan Wagner