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Setting a green choices policy

One of our early groups has asked us if we have any model policies for making choices based on payback periods, running costs, and the like. We don’t, but we have some suggestions and are asking around.

Community groups are usually cash-poor, and this can make it hard to do more than buy the cheapest easy-to-find replacement for critical items at the time that they break. This can be very expensive in the long run, and it can also be bad for the environment – because it tends to block them from taking advantage of new technologies. One of our early groups has asked us for some model policies that they can think about in order to frame their own. We don’t have one, so we’re asking around for who might. Meanwhile, here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

If I were writing a policy, I would include keeping a register of critical assets that affect energy use with a prediction of when the asset is going to fail, and require someone to review it once a year. This would help groups not get locked into poor choices. Some of these assets are obvious, like boilers. Knowing ahead of time what’s required to put in a heat pump and arranging that work before the boiler fails is the only feasible way to make the switch. Some of the relevant assets aren’t obvious, like the floor covering on the ground floor of the building. If there’s no crawl space under the building, the floor covering has to come up to stick in underfloor insulation and heating, and groups are very reluctant to make that change if they’ve recently put new flooring in.

Many organisations have policies about how to make decisions based on a combination of initial cost (including any work required for installation and the lost income from any building “down time”), running cost (including energy consumption, consumables like ink, and maintenance), how long the item’s useful life is likely to be, and risk. Risk comes into it because it’s expensive to have service outages and it’s also easier to manage finances if you have a good idea what your expenses are going to be. For investments like insulation that don’t immediately serve the building users but are about saving money and carbon, payback period is also useful. For cash-strapped community groups, opportunity cost is also a useful concept, because it’s no good paying a higher initial cost if that means you can’t do something else which is even more important to the organisation’s mission. Since possible choices may have different features, there can also be an element of looking at whether the features match what you require and also what you find desirable, a lot like a modern job interview. The estimated carbon costs of the choices can also be compared, and it’s important to think over the entire lifecycle, since embodied carbon costs involved in making something are often overlooked. It’s hard to weigh these things against each other so I’d be tempted to just say these are the things that should be considered, maybe with the full treatment for big investments and less carefully for smaller ones.

If you have specific suggestions about model policies, who might have them, and what additional concepts are important, we’d be happy to hear them. We think this is a question that more than one group will ask.

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