Heritage concern as MPs look at scheme to cut their carbon footprint
A plan to slash the carbon footprint of the houses of parliament by almost a third using wind turbines, tidal power and underground boreholes is being considered by Palace of Westminster officials. A detailed study into the greening of the parliamentary estate, commissioned by MPs and peers shows how parliament could be partly powered by a 35m high wind turbine on the neighbouring Victoria Gardens and a field of tidal power turbines in the Thames next to the members’ terraces.
A borehole, dug 120m into London’s chalk aquifer, is planned to provide pure drinking water and another, drilled into Black Rod’s garden, would cool the air in the debating chambers instead of electricity hungry airconditioning units. There are also plans to spend millions fitting double glazing to draughty windows and installing minature power stations in the cellars which will take the palace partly “off-grid”. According to the plans, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the project will cost at least £20m. The designs have been drawn up on the orders of the Serjeant at Arms and Black Rod by BDP Sustainability, a firm of engineers and architects who have advised Tesco on improving the sustainability of its stores. The House of Commons administration committee is scheduled to consider the plans formally early next year.
The Palace of Westminster uses enough electricity to power 6,500 households and generates so much carbon dioxide, it would take a forest of more than 2,500 trees to soak it up. Its environmental impact – which includes buying 18,720 bottles of water last year and creating 2,252 tonnes of rubbish – has angered some MPs who have put pressure on the parliamentary authorities to improve parliament’s green credentials. “We can’t afford to do nothing and that is exactly what parliament has done for too long,” said Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, who has calculated that electricity consumption in the Commons has risen 86% since 1997. “Parliament at the moment is extremely unfriendly to the environment. Now, if we accept these measures there’s a chance we could become an emblem of sustainability for the country. The measures outlined here are very welcome indeed.”
Most prominent would be a 35m high, 1.65megawatt wind turbine on Victoria Gardens which would generate electricity and save 787 tonnes of CO2 a year. Average wind speeds of eight metres a second are at the lower limits of feasibililty, but the report’s authors argue that the turbine would reduce parliament’s current carbon dioxide emissions by 7.4%. The turbine would rise above the treetops to make “a bold statement to the nation on government commitment to renewable energy”.
There is likely to be strong opposition from planning bodies who are concerned that the turbine could mar the Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin-designed masterpiece which is listed as a world heritage site.
Rosemarie MacQueen, director of planning at Westminster city council, said the renovations “must meet very challenging criteria” and must “reconcile vitally important, but potentially competing, agendas” to win approval. “This is contentious,” added Heloise Brown, conservation adviser at the Victorian Society.
Frank Doran, Labour MP for Aberdeen North, and chairman of the Commons administration committee, said: “If the wind turbine is located close to the palace pretty much every view of this grade 1 listed building would be affected. We have to consider the heritage status of the House of Commons and we have to deliver a good return on the public money we will be spending. But I want us to be ambitious and it is important that we set an example for the country with the technology we finally implement.”
The Reichstag in Berlin – home of the German parliament – already produces its own electricity from biodiesel using generators which also warm and cool the building. Many of Westminster’s boilers will be replaced with similar technology. Gas-fired “tri-generation” plants, which are almost three times as efficient than power stations, are planned. Excess heat from the process of creating electricity is used on-site to warm meeting rooms and public spaces.
According to BDP, only 30% of energy released in conventional gas power stations becomes electricity because so much disappears from cooling towers or is lost in transmission. Under tri-generation spare heat can even be converted into cold water using an absorption chiller, which can then be used to supplement airconditioning. The plant would cost about £1m but would reduce the carbon dioxide footprint by 6.2%.
The Palace of Westminster is also catching up with the Scottish parliament where water to flush toilets is provided by boreholes on site. Ten million litres of rainwater a year will be harvested from the palace’s pitched roofs and stored in tanks beneath courtyards to flush 153 toilets. It could save 13 tonnes of CO2 per year in treating water and pumping it to parliament. Perhaps the most ambitious plan involves the first hydro-electric power station built to harness the power of the Thames.
The stretch alongside Westminster is thought to be one of the few areas where turbines might work. It has a tidal range of up to six metres and a security exclusion zone keeps the area free of boats and would allow the turbines to work unhindered.
Around 50 three-metre diameter turbines would be submerged. They would save 47 tonnes of CO2 per year – 0.45% of CO2 emissions. A similar project was tested in New York’s East river this year and the currents proved so strong they sheared off the turbine blades.
The Queen is also planning a hydro-electric power station at Windsor to power the castle and Buckingham Palace. Her aides have struggled to make it pay on paper.
The Palace of Westminster has set targets of reducing CO2 by 8% by 2012 and 16% by 2020. But the feasibility study shows that a 29% reduction by 2020 is possible. More ambitious plans – including a wind turbine in the Thames estuary or a marine turbine in Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland – could cut carbon footprints by more than half, the consultants estimate.
“The project is at its early stage where we are looking at a number of options,” said John Prew, acting director of the parliamentary estate. “A report is likely to be presented to the house administration committee early next year.”
By Robert Booth
12 November 2007
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