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Town taps technology to curb carbon emissions

In the war on global warming, the southern English town of Woking is tilting at the establishment, but unlike Don Quixote, it is using windmills instead of charging at them.
To accompany feature ENVIRONMENT-CITIES
Efforts in Woking, England, to curb carbon emissions include these street lights, powered by solar panels and small wind turbines atop each pole.Luke Macgregor / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

In the war on global warming, the southern English town of Woking is tilting at the establishment, but unlike Don Quixote, it is using windmills instead of charging at them.

The town of 90,000 has slashed emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from civic buildings by 77 percent and its success is proving a model for giants like nearby London and other cities from Australia and Canada.

“We see ourselves as a pathfinder for others,” said Mick Company, Woking’s climate change project manager. “We are very proud of our successes. Our long-term strategy is to spread what we are doing here to the world.”

Woking’s main low-emission power plant provides heating, lighting and cooling to the main carpark, the town hall, a local hotel, a conference center and an amusement arcade. It will soon power an art gallery and museum as well.

The plant burns gas to generate electricity, captures the exhaust heat -- most of which is lost from conventional power stations -- and uses it to supply hot water. It has a maximum capacity to generate 1,300 kilowatts of electricity, 1,600 KW of heat and 1,200 KW of cooling.

Woking is even testing self-powered street lights, comprising two arms with energy-generating solar panels and a cylindrical wind turbine as a head. On a dark night, the shapes remind one of the Spanish knight, tilting at his enemies.

London eyes design
For London’s deputy mayor Nicky Gavron, Woking offers a glimpse of a possible revolution.

“We are aiming for a low-carbon London,” said Gavron, who has hired Allan Jones, one of the designers of Woking’s energy program, to work his magic in the capital, home to 8 million.

“We are looking at making a big dent in the next five years. This is not just a small Woking model. This is a huge scale-up,” she told Reuters. “Every London borough is bigger than Woking.”

The World Meteorological Organization said last week that CO2 gases had reached their highest ever levels in the atmosphere. Such gases, released from burning fossil fuels, are widely blamed for rising temperatures.

“Cities are centerstage. They are the most vulnerable to climate change but at the same time they make significant contributions to the problem,” Gavron said.

The United Nations estimates that by 2030, around 4.9 billion people, or 60 percent of the world’s population, will live in cities.

Woking’s green plan was driven initially by the need to save money, but the town found it was also cutting CO2 emissions.

As well as the power plant, a large hydrogen fuel cell -- the first of its kind in Britain -- provides heat and power to the local recreation center and rooftop solar panels power sheltered accommodation for pensioners.

Power sold back to grid
Fuel bills in the buildings supplied are lower than in the past, and Woking even sells power back to the national grid.

Gavron’s team want to take this basic model and adapt it to London, where they hope to cut CO2 emissions by 60 percent by 2050. One third of carbon emissions come from buildings.

They plan neighborhood power plants and microgeneration systems such as solar, photovoltaic and small wind turbines.

Starting with new developments and civic buildings from police stations to town halls, Gavron’s Climate Change Agency is also enlisting business in the battle to deliver clean power.

“There is plenty for us there to lead by example. We can’t preach to others if we don’t get our own house in order,” Gavron said. “After all, 70 percent of London’s CO2 emissions are from buildings, and 44 percent of the total is from homes.”

“We want to catalyze the market,” she said.

Gavron accepts costs are an obstacle -- whether developing the energy infrastructure or installing domestic wind turbines. She believes rising demand will bring down prices for the latter and a 25-year investment period should neutralize the former.

New York, other cities
London is not alone in its search for greener pastures.

Last year, officials from cities around the world met in London to discuss conserving energy. A core group from around 20 cities are now working to push the agenda forward, looking at building standards, energy efficiency, sustainability and security of power supply.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has volunteered his city to host a follow-up meeting.