Beyond The Green Deal - What Now For The Construction Sector?

As DECC's Green Deal stutters to a halt the construction industry has been left wondering where it will go next. The answer could lay in the need to ensure our cities cope better during extreme weather conditions.

If they are to remain sustainable cities must exhale warm air throughout the summer and breathe it back in during the winter. Cambridge UK based Steinkrug believes its large scale heat energy storage system will provide respiratory systems for cites and also put construction companies on a growth path that will last for the next one and a half decades. The company also believes the system will make cities more ‘age friendly’ as Europe’s urban boomer generation becomes increasingly climate sensitive.

A serious problem has been creeping up on urban planners for over a decade. Warning bells first rang in 2003 when 70,000 people across Europe died during a short but intense heat wave. 14,000 of these deaths were in France and 9,000 in Germany – most of the victims were elderly. Several cold snaps have also seen death rates rise across Europe – once again primarily amongst the elderly. Little has changed since 2003 save for a increase in the average age of Europe’s population. During the next decade many of the boomer generation reach the end of their lives with the UK’s annual death rate set to peak at around 800,000 in 2026. A heat wave on the scale of 2003 would see annual deaths concentrated into a two-week period with urban areas particularly hard hit. Such a mortality event would overwhelm the health services of most European cities - and prove politically disastrous. Claiming the victims would have died some time soon anyway would not play well in parliament or with the victim’s relatives.

We are sleep walking towards this potential disaster because cities are becoming warmer during summer while still experiencing periods of sub zero temperatures during the winter. Although global warming may be contributing to this trend much of the rise in summer temperatures is due to the growth of built environments that encourage the formation of what are known as ‘urban heat islands.’ Infrastructures, such as underground rail networks, have been accumulating heat for decades or, in the case of London, for over a century. Glass facades trap heat that is retained within the fabric of buildings and during summer large amounts of electrical energy is used to pump this heat out into the atmosphere. Even in the medium term this becomes self-defeating as it causes the ambient temperature of the city itself to rise. Ironically during the winter still larger amounts of electrical energy are used to keep buildings warm while the ambient temperature of the city is cooled by airflow through wind canyons between high-rise buildings.

Steinkrug has developed an overarching energy management solution that aims to help cities breathe more easily and prevent the formation of potential life threatening urban heat islands. The system works on both a micro and macro level with a mixture of passive heat collection and ventilation for individual buildings and the storage and retrieval of heat from large-scale pieces of infrastructure such as roads and railways. Warm air is moved through infrastructure in ducts while heat can also be extracted using conventional ground sourced heat pumps. It is envisaged the system will move heat out from the centre of cities towards the periphery during the summer and draw it back in during the autumn and early part of the winter.

As well as making cities more age friendly Steinkrug sees the system providing a boost for companies in the construction industry. Heating and ventilation suppliers as well as civil engineering groups will be able to use the technology as a key component in new construction projects. It will also provide a source of zero carbon heating and cooling for urban areas. The company sees this approach to heat storage as providing the construction sector with a more coherent energy management strategy than the one put forward by DECC.

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Peter Kruger

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