One thing we have learnt this week – Oil company greenwash?

DSCN1669Is the recent interest in renewables by oil companies just greenwash?  A long time ago I took a friend from church who worked for Wood Mackenzie (a research and consultancy firm involved in the mining and oil industries) to a Scottish parliament renewable energy group meeting.  No peak oil or climate sceptic afterwards he said “you do know Neil that all this interest by the oil companies in renewables is just greenwash?”.  At the time the oil majors had big interests in renewables.  Big is a relative term none of the their green interests could in any way be said to be a major part of their businesses.  But at that time BP had major solar and some wind farm interests.  BP solar was at one time the second largest PV manufacturer in the world.  I bought their modules which are still on my main roof.  They even branded themselves at “beyond petroleum”.   Shell had wind and solar manufacturing interests.  BP sold their PV subsidiary and closed their research labs at the aptly named Sunbury in the UK.  Shell sold their PV manufacturing to Total of France.  (There were said to be reliability issues with modules Shell sold in the developing world.)

It seemed as though the oil companies had given up on renewables until recently.  But now the oil majors are dipping a toe in the alternative waters.  Apart from Saudi Arabia which as I have written about is saying they want to get out of oil, Statoil, Total and Shell are all involved in some way.  The question is why?  Is it the Paris climate talks, peak oil, falling oil prices or the fact they can pick up renewable assets cheap at the moment?  Who knows. The sums they are investing are a very small part of their revenues (less than 1%).  Greenwash?  We will see only Total is thought to be serious according to many environmentalists.


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One thing we have learnt this week -cycling and lorries

2015-11-26 12.35.23As a peak oil and climate site we like to encourage cycling.  As the particulate crisis deepens one way to combat this is to encourage walking and cycling.  I have just heard on the BBC radio 4 “You and Yours” consumer programme that so far this year there have been no cycling fatalities due to lorries in London.  All new trucks entering London have to be fitted with extra mirrors and side guards to prevent cyclists being pulled underneath.  And all lorry drivers apparently have to spend half a day cycling in London as part of a driving safety course.

There was a time when I was a student when I cycled in London (without a helmet).  It seems suicidal now.  I was knocked off by a woman in car to turned left across  me.  She was more worried that I might have scratched her Merc than about me.  In those days there were few of us cycling on the road in London, now there are loads.  I was happy to overtake buses and lorries on the left and we used to see turning right as the main hazard.  No longer. Most fatalities involving buses, lorries and cyclists involve the cyclist being squashed on the left hand side of the vehicle.  I’m an increasingly cautious cyclist.

However, it should be said that lorry drivers cannot hold all the blame.  Cyclists cycle without due care and attention and give cycling a bad name.  Its amazing how many cyclists I see jumping lights (though few cycling on pavements).  Its difficult to say why so many more people are cycling.  Its certainly quicker for short trips around town, keeps you fit and builds fitness into your daily routine.  Increased environmental awareness could be another reason, as could the rise in the oil prices.  For whatever reason there are a lot of people just jumping on bikes and peddling off, which is never a good idea.  We suggested in our book you did not do this but instead linked up with one of the many cycling pressure groups who run training courses on how to cycle safely in cities.  As a keen cyclist I want to encourage the maximum number of people to cycle, its a wonderful way to get around.  However we need to do it sensibly.


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Are “experiences” good for you?

DSC_2310There has been a lot of talk about experiences recently.  As economists puzzle on very low growth rates throughout the Western world one theory going around is that we have hit peak stuff.  People are said to be materially satisfied so buying less material goods and looking to experiences instead.  These experiences may be going out for a meal or doing something on holiday like bungy jumping or hot air ballooning, to name two examples at random.   There is a theory that property prices are are so high that younger people priced out of them are simply spending their money on experiences.  However, are we simply swapping one problem for another?  Whilst an iphone takes emits 70kg of carbon dioxide in manufacture and uses non renewable resources, experiences that involve travel are not carbon neutral and could involve the intensive use of energy.  Cheap flights mean people can jet off for a long weekend a long way away and do.

As a Christian can I show a more low carbon sustainable way?  At the moment despite my problems I’m trying to think and pray about gratitude.  Most of us in the West are “lucky” and live easy lives in relative peace and good health.  We need to seek experiences that are simpler and more sustainable (this not to say we cannot ever go on holiday).  I’m also trying to spend time with God in quiet reflective way.  As part of this I went and sat by my apple tree and spent time in silence admiring its blossom.  Its a really special time of year when it comes out since it only lasts a few days.  This may sound a bit hippish until you read Job 37v14-16.

Pay attention to this, Job!  Stand still and consider the wonders God works. Do you know how God commands them, how he makes lightning flash in his storm cloud? Do you know about the balancing of the clouds, that wondrous activity of him who is perfect in knowledge?


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One thing we have learnt this week -Electric cars are selling like hot cakes in Japan

charging point for electric carsElectric cars are selling like hot cakes in Japan.  It the third largest market in the world.  The reasons for this are unclear but it has more charging points than petrol stations according to a recent survey by Nissan.  When it comes to electric cars the Japanese seem to be suffering less from range anxiety than others.  Presumably this lack of concern is due to 40,000 charging points compared to 35,000 petrol stations.  This is about the same as the whole of Western Europe.

We should not exaggerate though not all these these charging points would be public some will be in peoples garages.  Also petrol stations have multiple pumps.  With each car taking half an hour to charge to 80% capacity then being stuck behind a couple of others in a queue for a single charging point could be a very frustrating experience.  Before electric cars really take off there need to be lot more charging points including multiple ones (as well as longer ranges).

Electric cars selling so well in Japan is somewhat of a surprise with a potential shortage of electricity although there has been a massive amount of renewables investment since 2011.  Questions still hover over electric cars though, not least over lithium supplies.


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edible weeds

Many weeds are edible weeds although this is not widely known.  Faced with an epidemic of two weeds in particular I thought I had better put this edible weeds theory in practice and try and eat my way to controlling them.  This I would add was after researching about them on the internet.  Please don’t just launch in and eat anything you find, there is a lot of stuff that is poisonous, even if it is less in common plants than I thought.  Another thing to watch is that you don’t forage something rare.  There have been mushroom foraging bans in several parts of England due to their rarity.  However the edible weeds I am talking about are not rare and never will be.

The first is the dandelion.  See pic below.  Said to be high in antioxidants and vitamins A, C and K (sky high) as well as some other useful compounds.  The mature leaves are said to be a bit bitter.

DSC_2304 The second of the edible weeds is ground elder.  See pic below.  Again lots of minerals and vitamins.


Introduced to the UK by the Romans and related to the carrot the stuff is a grade A gardening nightmare.  The Romans didn’t introduce it for its beauty (see pic) they considered it a delicacy.  Again eat the young leaves.  Its said to taste a bit like spinach.  After checking it was not poisonous (honest) I cooked it as I would spinach for the wife.  It did not go down well.  This time with both plants I cut the leaves up loosing the tougher veins and fry them in a spicy chicken dish and in risotto.  To be honest I could not taste them, but hopefully the benefits of the vitamins A and K will still be there.  C is destroyed by cooking.


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One thing we have learnt this week – power cut

metersWe had a power cut last Sunday.  It was inconvenient and lasted less than an hour.  I cannot remember when the last one was although I remember it happening.  Probably two years ago at lunch time.  This power cut was on Sunday morning at breakfast.  It set me thinking.  What couldn’t I do that I could before it occurred?

  • I couldn’t finish my breakfast.  I had eaten one piece of toast and was about to make one more when the light went out.  I couldn’t do it under the grill since the gas cooker does not work without electricity.
  • I couldn’t have the light on (not vital since it was quite bright outside).
  • I could not have the heating on.  It had been cold overnight but was bright and the house warms up fast under such conditions. So I did not have the heating on anyway.
  • I could only partially shave.  I have recently bought a new razor since the foil mount on the old one was on the way out.  All new razors (annoyingly I felt at the time) have built in rechargeable batteries even if they are mains powered.  This seemed like a good idea now but it ran out before I’d finished.  Luckily I have a grooming shaver which although slow finished the job.
  • I could not use the internet to post to the book’s FB page or check my email.  Not vital.
  • Our solar PV panels were down so no power for us or the grid.  They disconnect when the grid is down and switch off.
  • I could read my print bible, pray and read my newspaper and these I did.

Its impossible to find any information on a power cut.  I don’t know why it happened or how extensive it was.  In a perverse way I was hoping it would affect church.  No overly loud rock type music, no overhead, no lighting (and the building is dark), no heating and great difficulties delivering a sermon in a large building.  However, the church building is 300 years old and our forefathers managed to do church without electricity.  It would make the church think.

Finally it made me think of all the places in the world that have to manage with power cuts on a regular basis and how dangerous and debilitating it is.  It also made me wonder whether the UK will have enough power to prevent power cuts.  So far 25% renewable electricity is not causing problems but the closure of so much old kit so fast may lead to a shortage of capacity.



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Sea level rise

Sometimes you switch on the radio and hear a few words and straight away know exactly what and where they are talking about, it was like that with me and sea level rise a few weeks ago.  They were talking about a place called Fairbourne in Wales and the threat posed to it by sea level rise caused by climate change.  As it happens I have been there on holiday twice and thus recognised it.  The problem is as I realised as soon as I got there the first time is its below sea level.

00001Fairbourne was founded as a resort by Arthur McDougall of flour making fame in the 1800’s.  He wanted to create a large resort to capitalise on Victorian tourism brought about by the railway. Despite what you see in the picture its quite a small place and never really succeeded as a resort.  Nowadays really a very modest resort and place where people go to retire.

On the radio they were talking about the threat to people’s houses caused by sea level rise.  Whilst I said its below sea level its protected by vary large shingle sea wall.  Its this that is at risk as sea levels rise.  The problem they were talking about was that people have bought houses are effectively unable to sell them.  This got me thinking.  Whilst I feel very sorry for those living in blighted houses in Fairbourne the problems caused by sea level rise in the developing world will be far worse.  There people could loose their houses, farmland and even their lives.  Its difficult to say how much sea levels will rise, but it could be as much as 60cm by 2100.  This would have devastating effects on small island nations and coastal communities probably affecting hundreds of millions of people.


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One thing we have learnt this week- radiation danger Chernobyl 30 years on

In the first post I started giving some background information on radiation danger on the event of the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl.  Most people accept the dangers of high doses of radiation.  The disagreement is over whether constant small doses of radiation are bad for you.  This area is confusing with lots of polemical websites putting opposite points of view.  To add to the murk even for someone who has worked with radiation in the lab the units used are confusing.  A couple more background points (no pun intended) I need to made before we move on.  The first is that we are constantly exposed to radiation all the time.  The sources are from space (cosmic rays) and from naturally occurring radioisotopes in our bodies and environment.  Even this background dose seems to be disputed with some people saying its about 6millisieverts/year, others putting it lower at 1-3.  It is said to have risen due to bomb tests and civil nuclear power.  The second point is that radiation damage occurs by what is regarded as ionising radiation (that mentioned in the first post) forming free radicals.  These are shortlived atom(s) with unusual and unstable number of unpaired electrons.  They interact rapidly with chemicals in our body such as DNA damaging them.  This can lead to cancers but also other effects such cardiovascular disease.

There are several areas of uncertainty when it comes to low doses.  The first as was made plain in the letter given in the link above is where and how the dose is received.  The unit dose for gamma rays and alpha particles could be the same but the alpha emitter must be swallowed or on the skin.  Hence the dose could be delivered in a concentrated manner to one particular organ.  The same dose of gamma over the whole body would likely not be as damaging.  As an example of this I went to dentist today.  He would not give me an X-ray since it was too soon after the last one.  The dose would have been 0.1millisieverts which is not much in whole body terms, but of course I would be getting it on one small part of jaw.

The second area of uncertainty arises from if you were living close to Chernobyl what particular isotope you ingested.  I worked with Iodine-125 (the number refers to its atomic mass).  This is a potent gamma emitter and is produced in nuclear reactors.  Its leaked from reactors such as Calder Hall in the past.  However the turnover of iodine in the thyroid gland is very high.  We had a stock of iodine tablets, if you were irradiated you take some some of these and pee the radiation out.  Radioactive sodium or elements chemically similar to it would be the same.  The problem arises where the turnover is slow or almost non-existent.  Radioactive carbon is one example and strontium which is similar enough to calcium to end up in the bone marrow is another.

Another area of uncertainty is that the idea of a cumulative dose is hard to measure at low levels and hard to work with scientifically.

The last problem is due to the ethics of exposing people to low levels of radiation.  This tends to automatically limit the studies.  Theses (such as they are) have used Japanese bomb survivors, Chernobyl cleanup workers, people living around nuclear plants and astronauts (the dose they receive cannot really be described as low though).

The evidence stacks up as follows.  There do seem to be more cancers in Nagasaki survivors who received low doses (see  There has been one very large study on Chernobyl clean up workers which claims a significant increase in Leukaemia rates.  There have been some studies that have found Leukaemia rate increases around nuclear power plants.  To the best of my knowledge there have been no major increases in cancer rates in astronauts.

I would ask the following questions about the above.  How did scientists determine the Nagasaki survivors dose retrospectively and know it was low?   On the Chernobyl workers as we wrote in our book its hard in the ex-Soviet Union to determine whether someone has died of other causes due to the low life expectancy and very unhealthy lifestyles (its also difficult to get hold of such data in Russia).  On the childhood Leukaemia rates the data does not always prove a link (in fact in this table only one study does show a significant rate).  The problem with these latter studies as you will see is that the numbers are so small.  A small number of outliers can skew the stats.

Looking into this from what I have found I don’t think the low level radiation dose theory is proven.  However that does not mean I would want to live in the Chernobyl exclusion zone or think the scientific logic is flawed.  Essentially at an individual level you are looking a random event.  It takes changes to 3 or 4 genes to trigger cancer.  Radiation could be the trigger for all or none of these, it depends where you are are and what you are in contact with.  There is though a precautionary principle and many effects in biology are exponential i.e.  a small trigger has a huge effect.  There is no good reason to build more nuclear power stations for a variety of reasons -this is just another one. We may have to rely on space research to look for an answer here.


PS Incidentally I heard a epidemiologist on the 5pm news last night who confirmed my points on the Chernobyl workers it looks like there was an effect buts its hard to prove.

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Chernobyl 30 years on – is radiation all that dangerous?

The anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is exactly 30 years ago this week.  There have been 3 major nuclear disasters (and countless near misses arguably).  The first was Three Mile Island in 1979.  This put some people off but the alternatives weren’t great.  The second was Chernobyl which changed my mind about nuclear power.  The third was of course at Fukishima which has confirmed many of our fears.  Now of course there are many and an increasing number of alternatives (which are also cheaper).  In all three disasters a total core meltdown was narrowly avoided.  Chernobyl was the worst since of the three since there was no proper containment.  The fear many of have is that the nuclear industry have little idea once a core meltdown is underway how to stop it and so far doing so has relied on a degree of luck.

Each disaster has cranked up Nuclear costs as more safety features are built in by regulators.  In the Western world this has led to a mere handful of reactors being started since Chernobyl and now an increasing number of pro-nuclear academics are questioning the existing safety regime in a bid to lower these costs.  Part of their argument is that radiation is not as dangerous as all that, so if there was another disaster things would not be that bad.  (I’ve actually heard this said on the radio over the last few months.)   Just what is radiation and just how dangerous is it?

First a bit of physics.  An atom is composed of a nucleus with elections orbiting around it (in simple terms).  The nucleus consists of protons (positively charged) and neutrons (as the name implies no charge).   These are added together and called the atomic mass (electrons being smaller are ignored).  The atomic mass is shown as a superscript in front of the element symbol (see below).  The atomic number (the number of protons is shown as a subscript).  The atomic number tells us which element it is.  The neutrons have no effect on the chemistry of the atom (slight exaggeration) and their number can vary for the same element.  Its the ratio of neutrons to protons that decides whether the element is stable.  A high number of extra neutrons (generally in heavier elements) makes it less likely.  Atoms that are not stable (and most are stable) undergo radioactive decay and produce sub-atomic bits we call radiation. There are four main types of radiation all of whose sources are a bit weird on the face of it and a full understanding probably depends on a deep knowledge of sub-atomic physics.  In releasing radiation the element changes into another.  As a final point these elements can be present in chemical compounds and that makes no difference to their decay.

The first type of radiation is when a neutron converts to proton and in doing so emits an electron (told you its weird).  This form of radiation is not too dangerous unless you ingest the source.  Electrons travel only very short distances through any matter including air.  In this example radioactive carbon 14 decays to nitrogen 14 (the normal form not radioactive).

beta decayThe next form produces anti-matter (yes it does exist) when a proton converts to a neutron.  This produces a positive electron.  When is this meets a normal electron its annihilated producing gamma rays (see below).  Little danger here unless the source is inside you are very close contact. In this example sodium decays to neon, beta is positively charged.

positron decayThe third form is alpha particle radiation.  This is a helium nuclei and is made up of protons and neutrons.  Again air and materials stop it, but if swallowed this is much more of a danger since the particles are bigger.  Here in this example the element radon decays to the radioactive gas radon.

alpha decayThe last form is gamma rays these are formed of electromagnetic radiation like light (except a much shorter wavelength).  These will travel large distances in air and through matter.  They are formed from the decay of alpha and beta emitters.  These can do great damage.

When a particular individual atom decays is a random unpredictable event.  How fast a group of atoms decays is predictable and the rate depends on the starting radioactive element.  These rates we call half lives.  This is simply the time that its takes mass x to decay to half its radioactivity.  The half life can vary from microseconds to 1019 years with everything in between.  Atoms that decay will end up as a stable non-radioactive elements.  Many atoms decay through a series of radioactive steps, the decay of radium shown above is part of the decay of uranium which ends up as lead.  In the next post I will look at the biological effects and the controversy.




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One thing we have learnt this week -ode to meters

metersCarol Ann Duffy the poet laureate is write an ode to gas meters.  As poet laureate her job is to comment on and to celebrate national life.  With conventional meters being phased out she wants to celebrate the demise of the whirring meter which apparently has been with us for 100 years.  The article mentions just gas meters but of course electricity meters are going as well.  All the old meters are supposed to go by 2020 to be replaced by smart-meters (not very long).

Whilst in a way this is a silly story there is a serious point to it.  This blog has written about smart meters a number of times.  It sees them as vital to managing our grid with a increasing amounts of renewable electricity.  It could save grid reinforcement and will certainly make billing easier for the energy companies (whether that will help the customers is a moot point).  My concerns are over the type of communication used to connect to the utilities and remote cut-off with the dangers of hacking which this entails.  There could also be crime issue with hacking as well.

I have a whole heap of different meters having multiple PV systems as well as gas.  Recently I had to have the electricity ones inspected by my energy company.  There were problems with this caused by my energy company which led to discussions on the phone.  They didn’t know that the government has prioritised smart meters for people with PV systems.  When I mentioned this they told something I did know, that current smart meters are not compatible with PV systems!  I’m not sure how many houses in the UK have PV systems fitted, you read different figures, but its certainly greater than 200,000 and even after the cuts increasing all the time.  Two issues arise from this problem.  First what happens if you try to fit a PV system to a house with a smart meter (relatively unlikely) and what happens if you already have a PV system (increasingly likely) and your utility turns up to fit one.  This whole business looks like running and running like a whirring old meter.  Maybe our poet laureate should write a poem about the whole saga.


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