Sustainability is one of the catchwords of our day, and frequently misunderstood or misused. Ed Owen speaks to Pell Frischmann director of sustainability Tim Jervis about quantifying sustainability and his plan to take carbon out of the UK’s infrastructure.
Tim Jervis is wathing the price of petrol with great interest. Prices at the pumps have increased by 50% in the last year. But Jervis, Pell Frischmann director of sustainability, thinks that this will inevitably be a boost to those with a sustainable agenda.
Modal shift is one area of great interest to engineers – getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. "£1.50/l has been put forward as the tipping point," says Jervis, a former academic and veteran of the energy industry. "At that point, what is traditionally the largest cost – the deterioration of the vehicle – is no longer the case. The fuel then becomes the greatest cost."
As anyone with a car will know, £1.50/l for unleaded petrol is not far away. Jervis says that further increases are inevitable: "In 12 to 18 months it might not be economic to drive to Bristol. The margin at which refineries operate has been squeezed, as crude oil prices have risen. Petrol prices have not kept pace and refineries are shouldering this difference for now."
Once refineries decide to restore their margins, then petrol and diesel prices will again shootup. Jervis says refineries have already done this in China and India, where increased margins have paradoxically triggered a boom in petroleum products – as refineries work to process as much oil as possible at increased margins.
Jervis takes sustainability seriously; mentioning that he has friends arriving from the US with some embarrassment he says: "They are flying, I’m afraid."
Appointed as Pell Frischmann's sole sustainability guru a year ago, his department has now expanded, and he leads a team of five. For him, sustainability means asking clients: "How could your business output be independent of oil prices?" and he can provide some of the answers.
"I am the focal point for the company’s sustainability activity," he says. "For example, using post-tensioned slabs reduces the volume of concrete needed, reducing the carbon output. It is already a sustainable practice, but it is not labelled as ‘sustainable’. Good engineering already has the qualities of sustainability," he says.
Jervis is highly suspicious of emotive arguments for sustainability, and has developed a system to quantify how carbon-intensive a project is. Projects are put through a "sustainability assessment exercise, using engineering. We use numbers, not adjectives for performance", he says.
"For example, under US sustainability Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) codes, a building can be awarded points for providing cycle racks. In places like Dubai, a building can be designed with cycle racks and appear to be sustainable under LEED codes, despite laws prohibiting cycling," he says.
Another academic, Professor Doug Crawford-Brown, formerly of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been poached to develop the company’s matrix of sustainability to assess the carbon footprint of a project, allowing designers to simulate the impact of different building practices or materials on the final design. Crawford-Brown is a high-profile contributor to the development of LEED codes and tries to expose these sustainable anomalies.
But Jervis's mind does not stop there. "If I was a dictator, this is what I would do," he says. "We need to spend to upgrade our infrastructure, upgrading the electricity supply. Gas prices will continue to go up, and we need to leave it behind."
Jervis has formulated a way to eliminate hydrocarbons – by re-engineering society.
"First, we need concentrated solar power, positioned in the desert and then piped over to us using a direct current (DC) grid." Jervis says we already rely on unstable states in North Africa and the Middle East for our oil, so why not clean fuel, too? A DC rather than our existing alternating current (AC) grid is essential because it allows more efficient transport of electricity.
"We also need safe nuclear power – probably pebble-bed reactors – to completely decarbonise our electricity supply. These reactors can also supply heat," he says.
By using these sources of renewable and nuclear power, Jervis says we can eliminate the need for hydrocarbons – completely. "We need to re-create the transport network, to electrify it. We need plug-in cars to electrify transport, but also electric heating and cooling systems."
Jervis says his vision is possible with today's technology. However, he has doubts about existing methods of reducing carbon emissions.
"Carbon trading works by a cap, and trading. But the only effective way is through the cap. Trading is neutralising the benefits. The trading system is flawed because emissions are still going up."
He says this reduces the impact of existing renewable technologies. "Compensating neutralises the benefit. We need technological advantages – carbon trading is dirtying a green industry," he says. Carbon capture technology is "not as obvious a solution as we would like to think".
A hydrogen economy is also a non-starter, he says. "Hydrogen is not a good carrier of energy – it is very heavy. Battery technology should be able to keep up with our demands," he says.
He also has one simple method that would reduce the carbon footprint of everyone – to reverse the pricing structure of gas and electricity bills.
"The first chunk of electricity you pay for is more expensive than the last chunk. You have discounts for bulk. So you are therefore incentivised to use more electricity and when you save, you save only the cheapest electricity.
"If you reverse this price differential, then this would also help solve fuel poverty, because the poor would spend the cheap energy first and budget better." Jervis recently presented this simple solution, which would automatically encourage householders to use less energy, to business secretary John Hutton.
Jervis is also suspicious of the government's eco-towns, which are designed around the car. "I do not think they are sustainable. If fossil fuel was non-existent, then who would live there? To be genuinely sustainable you have to be independent of carbon," he says.
"Masterplanners need to make localism built-in, so there is less physical travel. People should be able to use telepresence and work from home." Much better, he says, is the Masdar development in Abu Dhabi, which has adopted these ideas, in addition to concentrated solar power, to power this sustainable city in the desert.
He also has solutions for his friends inconveniently arriving by air: "There are real opportunities with second generation biofuels. First generation fuels have been a disaster." Second generation biofuels can be made from waste products and do not require growing oil-rich crops, recently shown to have negative environmental consequences.
But while Jervis may not become a dictator any time soon, many of his ideas are based on sound economic principles. If eliminating the carbon components of society is in the long run cheaper, then this is, Jervis admits, is probably the single most powerful argument for sustainability.
MA (Hons) Electrical, Electronic and Information Systems Engineering
PhD “Connectionist Adaptive Control”. Neural networks, Bayesian probabilistic modelling, non-linear optimisation methods and adaptive control.
2005 - 2006: Head of Energy, Scientific Generics.
2006: Present:Director - Cambridge Energy Forum, a Cambridge, UK-based think-tank linking Cambridge University, UK energy policy and industry.
Director of Sustainability with Pell Frischmann/Conseco International
Defence Training Review
Al Zeina, Abu Dhabi
Kings Cross Central
Vauxhall Bridge Road
Married with a baby girl.