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This series of articles is a partnership between the Active Building Centre, SPECIFIC and SUNRISE. We each work with academic, industry and community partners to drive change in the construction industry. Our projects have distinct objectives and approaches but our shared message is simple: buildings don’t have to cost the Earth.

Our vision for transformation comes with many challenges across technical, political, social and economic norms. In this series we will share some of the work we’re doing to address each of these.

By Prof. Dave Worsley, Vice President (Innovation), Swansea University

An emerging public consensus recognises that the world is at a tipping point in relation to carbon emissions and global warming. How can the UK show global leadership as an exemplar for the rest of the world? 

What can we do now to transform the way we use energy?

Every year buildings in the UK are responsible for around 40% of the carbon emissions. Much of this is under our control. It is principally around heating.

For decades we have burned things to get heat. We started with trees and when they became in short supply, we turned to coal then oil.

Finally, to reduce at least some of the carbon intensity, we burn gas. For a long time, people championed gas as a clean fuel which it is in terms of smoke, but gas is only half as destructive as coal for melting ice.

The shift to burning gas has reduced deforestation and reduced particle and carbon emissions a significant amount.

But now we need a more radical change.

UK Funding Active Buildings

The UK Government is committing to ambitious targets both for electric cars and new homes built with no gas connection.

At the newly formed Active Building Centre in Swansea we are working with partners across academia, industry and government to help develop Active Buildings, buildings that do not need any gas at all for heating. They can also generate an excess of power which can be used to make money by energy trading or power electric cars.

Solar power can work even in a wet climate such as the UK’s.  We simply need to save the energy for when we need it. And to save it as electricity and heat.

Specific’s first active buildings

Currently in the UK, most of the carbon-based fuels we use are in heating buildings.

With first of a kind demonstrator buildings built by Specific at Swansea University, we are demonstrating how a classroom and office are heated without gas.

For the last year over 20,000 miles I have used only power from these solar powered buildings to drive my electric car, a Nissan Leaf. At least another 6 to 8 electric vehicles regularly use the building power to run their cars, using energy from the sun and subsequently producing no carbon emissions.

Active buildings for people

At the Active Building Centre we plan to help deliver many more of these Active Buildings as part of our work funded through the UK Government’s Transforming Construction Challenge.

This is how we should make all buildings, whether it be homes, offices or factories. Your parcel could be delivered in an electric van charged by the Amazon building it was stored in.

Your children could attend school where all the power they need to teach them, comes from the school. Hospitals where a power outage passes unnoticed as the electricity and heat stored from the sun collected from the building roof and façade are available in abundance  and there are no diesel generators outside making nasty smells.

At home, your house and car working together seamlessly sharing power with energy harvested at work brought home, and when needed, your home fuelling your car.

Worldwide this should be how all buildings are built and powered. As we build more buildings, we get more power.

Active building technology

The technology is available now and through continued innovation the electricity and heat produced will soon be cheaper than what we get from the grid – through both new materials discovery and in implementing manufacturing optimisation methods and digital design.

Historically we transport energy around. This energy is locked up in carbon formats stored from the sun’s rays millions of years ago. Why can’t we move solar energy around instead?

The problem is that something that is hot will always get cold. Moving electricity from a hot climate and distributing it around the world involves considerable expenditure on cables and an inevitable loss of most of the power.

If we can resolve the storage of electricity and heat inter-seasonally we will have the means to transfer solar power around the world like we currently do with coal, oil and gas.

A global solution for the future

As well as the environmental benefits this would bring, it would also bring wealth and opportunity for some of the poorest nations with no resource but sunshine. It would allow countries such as the UK that require lots of power to buy it.

In reality, solving the energy use of new buildings is simply the start.

Within 5 to ten years we can reduce the cost and improve efficiency so that inter-seasonal energy generation and storage and imported ‘solar’ heat and power can become the drivers of the economy.

This will give our children and grandchildren all the opportunities we had without the consequences of irreversible climate change they currently fear.

We can do this now. We need to do this now.

Read blogs in this series from our partners SUNRISE and SPECIFIC:

Blog #1: Public involvement with a community in India

Blog # 2: Designing Active Buildings

Blog #3: The Active Classroom: still providing insights and performing well

Blog #4: Translating Active Buildings to India

Blog #5: Active Buildings for Future Generations

Blog #6: Solar Heat Storage: eliminating gas heating

Blog #7: How renewable energy can transform slum communities