Nuclear is more expensive than we thought? That’s the lesson this week as the private consortium tasked with cleaning up the UK’s “magnox” reactors is laying off 1600 workers. There is a suspicion that this could be a prelude to the private consortium demanding more government money. The reason being given that the task is much more complex than anticipated. A completely separate contract for the clean-up of Sellafield involving a different group of companies has been ended due to problems.
Nuclear is more expensive than we thought, tell me something I was not expecting! The reason nuclear is more expensive than we thought? No thought went into how to dismantle these reactors when they were designed. You also wonder how much is going into decommissioning with new reactor designs? One problem is its unlikely the designers will be alive when any decommissioning takes place. Just think how difficult it is to communicate complex ideas in writing for someone who have not met 40-50 years in the future? Especially on something like a nuclear power station. It doesn’t matter does it anyway its some else’s mess.
Meanwhile negotiations on Hinkley C continue with lots of construction jobs being cut there. As reported on this site over the last few years this new nuclear power station hangs in the balance. (And by extension all the other proposed ones in the UK). It still seems unlikely to go ahead and its therefore less surprising that the government has been pressing ahead with plans for 3-4 new interconnectors. In the meanwhile renewables (in particular solar is leaping ahead) and the plans were confirmed this week for another large offshore wind farm. Nuclear is looking increasingly out of kilter as yesterdays technology.
As a community energy scheme opened in Bristol last week there could be problems getting other such schemes off the ground due to grid capacity restrictions. This is very much the case in SW England and Wales. It seems that solar in particular has been a victim of its own success leading to warnings of grid capacity restrictions. The local owners of the low voltage distribution network have warned that even large rooftop systems (not domestic but commercial) may be refused connections. I’ve always been a bit surprised that large wind was warned it could be subject to grid capacity restrictions, but so many of these large solar schemes have sailed through (some estimate 1.6GWp in the first quarter of 2015 alone) without any problems. An internet search finds the same thing happening all over the world from Japan to California.
The problem is the grid was never designed with small scale generation in mind but a few very large power plants with the grid connecting these to demand. Now increasingly electricity is flowing in all directions. On sunny days the grid locally cannot cope. Since solar is so easy and fast to install, its the fall guy.
One of of life’s great mysteries is why junk food is so much cheaper than unprocessed food. Almost everything we use is laden with oil or gas (as embedded energy). In fact its difficult to think of anything in modern life that isn’t oil dependent. Junk food or processed food is highly dependent on oil as is all food but even more so since its made in a factory packaged in plastic etc.
Its a very strange fact that has been highlighted again this week in a report that processed food is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables. What is even more surprising is that after the rise in oil prices in recent years the trend is getting more pronounced. Junk food is getting cheaper and fresh food is getting more expensive. Even more surprising is that this trend is not just in developed countries but also developing countries. In some of the major BRIC countries and South Korea the price of fruit and veg rose 91% over the period 1991-2012 and the price of junk food 20%. All this is having a devastating effect on health worldwide with a shocking 70% of Mexicans being overweight or obese.
As to why this price differential has opened up so much the reports explanations are unconvincing. One theory put forward on the news is the lack of seasonality in fresh vegetables. Since demand is met anytime from anywhere using long oil dependent supply lines this has pushed up the price of fresh food. What is certain though is we are sitting on a health timebomb that as the report ruefully states no country has found a solution for so far.
What an earth is going to happen to the oil price? This is the question going around in my head at the moment. The oil price has been creeping up almost unnoticed over the last month or so, as a % quite a lot, but in dollar terms not that much. Its not recovered much of the ground it lost last year though and when you look at the graph in this article you can see why. The whole of OPEC is pumping more oil except for some reason UAE. Even Libya is managing to increase its output (although its not pumping very much). Add in shale oil in the US and its obvious we have a glut with everyone playing beggar my neighbour. The question is how long will it last and why are the Saudis so keen on keeping the oil price low? At the moment the oil is being pumped and either sold at a loss or stored. The underlying geography of peak oil has not altered. Conventional oil has peaked (almost all non-OPEC oil is in decline) and shale oil a short term fix. There are oil reasons to think despite this prices may not recover quickly, peak demand in OECD countries, slowing demand in China and a glut of oil stored.
As the UK’s general election campaign draws to its bad tempered close (for the moment?) the big surprise is how little climate change and energy policy has featured as an issue. After all the UK government (whoever that will be) is going to have to attend the major conference on climate change in Paris this winter and hopefully sign a treaty. Most parties involved in the election campaign have barely mentioned climate change (even the greens). The Observer newspaper poll on climate change last weekend found climate change way down most voters priorities. Even amongst green voters only 21% thought it the most important issue and I have heard green supporters complain about its apparent exclusion. Climate change as an issue apparently did not feature in the leaders TV debates either.
This is not a party political piece on who has the best policy. Some parties are complete climate sceptics (UKIP), the Tories barely mentioned renewable energy at all, but talked about nuclear power and fracking. Labour put energy policy in the shape of a price freeze centre stage (something I have reservations about) and the Scots Nats have put a moratorium on fracking for the moment but don’t totally rule it out (by definition). The Lib Dems are very positive about renewables, but support failed nuclear power.
The reasons why this did not get covered in the election campaign is very simple. The electorate do not consider it an important issue and everyone is in denial about peak oil and climate change.
image above from wikimedia commons.
Is the current global refugee crisis going to be a picnic when compared with climate refugees? At the moment in the UK general election some surveys have immigration as the number 1 issue. At the same time thousands of boat people are trying to get across the Mediterranean and thousands have drowned doing so due to the inhumanity of human trafficking. Everyday being news reports of fresh human tragedy. As of 2013 the UNHCR says there were 51 million displaced persons worldwide due to persecution, war etc. This is the largest number since the second world war.
The first thing to say (contrary to belief) is most of these people don’t travel too far. 33 million of these displaced people are displaced in their own country (Syria for example). Then a number of others also don’t go too far, being in the neighbouring countries. Again to use Syria as an example 2 million Syrians are in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The problem that is overwhelming Europe is actually the tip of the iceberg and most refugees are a burden on equally poor neighbours. There are of course economic migrants from central America into the US and from Asia/Africa into the UK. The question is will man made climate change lead to an even worse problem of climate refugees?
Wild weather and rising sea levels could not only affect agriculture, but also cities, many of which are by the sea. Countries such as Yemen are running out of water (and oil). Potentially the number of people who end up as climate refugees could be much larger than the current 51 million currently displaced by war and that well known liberal/environmental organisation, the US military, is concerned that climate change will lead to more conflict. Part of the problem is we don’t know how many there are likely to be, but currently the UNHCR reckons there are 22 million environmental refugees already. The Nansen Initiative states there have been 1.6 billion people been displaced by natural disasters since 2000.
It seems likely that at first like today most people would try to move to other parts of their country and neighbouring countries like to today. Nevertheless with climate change disproportionately affecting the poorest countries first and with climate change having no borders it seems likely that the refugee problem is going to get far far worse. Future estimates are hard to come by but one is about 350m/year by 2050. The UNHCR seem reluctant to give figures, but see this as a very worrying problem.
The question is what to do about all this? The first thing to recognise is that we should try to stop the problem at source. We need a binding treaty in Paris to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees C, preferably less. However it does seem we are stuck with a certain degree of warming and hence climate chaos. The second strategy is that of mitigation. The rich countries are supposed to be setting up a climate fund to help with this regard, but most pledges have not been honoured so far (the UK being an exception). There is of course only so much mitigation that you can do against say sea level rise. If your country shrinks or disappears (as island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans seem likely to do) then mitigation will be of limited use. The UNHCR has a policy of keeping climate refugees as much as possible in their counties of origin. This may not be possible. The next solution is of course migration. In my view we have a duty to let people in, since we have caused the problem and they have not. But we need to have a discussion starting now about how many under what circumstances. There is one final issue, in 2050 we will have (effectively) run out of oil, travel will be much more expensive and limited. This works both ways both with migration one way and aid the other.
Picture from wikimedia commons.
The big news this morning is that the Church of England has divested at least partially from investments in tar sands and coal. I was very disappointed to learn that the Church of England had investments in tar sands although not totally surprised. Extraction of oil from tar sands are as we wrote in our book is;
“... not only very environmentally unfriendly in its pollution,
use of water and sand, but is also extremely energy intensive, using natural gas.“
Investment on companies that mine coal is even less surprising but equally disappointing, coal is the most polluting fuel going.
Many years ago at my wife’s cousins funeral I met someone on the church’s investment board. In my discussion with him I could not get across the concept of ethical investment being a good idea at all. Many people think that the Church has full control over its investments, but it doesn’t as a state church have much say over its investments, these are run by a branch of the state the Church Commissioners. We are not talking about a huge sum of money here but the fact that the Church of England has divested will I believe have a disproportionate influence. At least the Church is now starting to stand up for Christian principles in this area.
Is 41:17. The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.
Over to you now Wellcome Trust.
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The Guardian as part of its divestment campaign published a series of letters from readers as the Wellcome Trust calling for it to divest from holdings in fossil fuels. I had a look and wondered what I would say…
Dear Wellcome Trust,
you and the Bill Gates foundation are probably the biggest private benefactors in the human health field today. We live in a world where its very difficult to make a difference to reducing our carbon footprint. This is one of the problems individuals face. What difference can the little changes we can undertake in our own lives make in the face as something as overwhelming as climate change? We can choose not to fly, cut our meat consumption, install solar panels and more insulation. All these I have done and yet we are apparently up against a new coal fired power station in China opening every week. The Wellcome Trust is not an individual though you are in effect a huge number of individuals. What you can do would have an effect. By divestment in fossil fuel holdings you would send a huge message. The fossil fuel age is over.
There are other reasons for divestment. As I wrote above the Wellcome Trust exists primarily to improve human health. The greatest threat to human health is climate change. Climate change will mean rising sea levels and climate weather chaos affecting harvests, as well as the threat of emerging new diseases for both humans and agriculture. You don’t need me to spell out the health implications of all that. Doesn’t it seem crazy to undermine your health effort by investing in something that is having the very opposite effect.
The remaining reason for divestment is financial. Are fossil fuels really a good investment any more? We have had nearly two decades of rising oil and gas prices as conventional supplies of oil have peaked. The problem is these high prices have set us up for expensive fossil fuels. Unconventional gas and oil cannot be produced at low prices and the easy cheap stuff has gone. At the moment there is enough of both with unconventional fossil fuels production from the US lowering prices massively. Going forward prices will rise but in all likelihood become very volatile with unpredictable effects on the global economy. Its unknown precisely what will happen but it maybe that prices will see saw up and down as recession caused by high prices alternates with boom caused by low prices. This outcome seems an unlikely to be a good investment now or in future.
Finally if there is a strong binding agreement on climate change the above will be meaningless all the fossil fuels will become worthless. In that case divestment will seem like a good move.
What to do about energy prices? Whilst the headline oil price has fallen and hence the wholesale price of natural gas has plunged, energy prices in general have not. The price of gas and electricity is still very high. Wages have hardly risen and whilst the price of food has fallen back many people are finding life very tough.
There are two solutions to high energy prices for those on low incomes which we covered in our book. The first is the so called carbon ration or tradeable energy quota. Whilst we thought this the best and fairest solution to high energy prices and a very effective way of tackling both peak oil and climate change its not on the political agenda at the moment.
The next solution is for those can afford to to subsidise those who cannot afford energy prices either on a individual or mass basis. I have heard of examples of the former and everyone pays the latter through a government enforced levy on bills. The energy company I am signed up with does this due to the fact everyone pays the same and no one gets a discount for using direct debit, which tends to benefit the richer members of society.
Yesterday I heard that of an energy company that has come up with another solution to high energy prices. That is give pre-paid power cards out with food from food banks. Until recently pre-paid power card meters have been an expensive way for those on low incomes to pay for electricity and gas but costs have regularised with those of other customers who do not pay up front. Of course the energy company which is one of the big six is not doing this out its own profits, but out of orphan accounts (that is customers they cannot contact who are in credit). A good idea? Yes in the absence of other ideas then anything helps, one problem is not everyone on a low income is on pre-paid meters.
What will we eat in the future? What will future food look like? A programme on BBC2 raised these questions this week having followed a family through the decades since the 1950’s and then had a look forward.
How about a synthetic mixture of proteins, vitamins etc. as a drink? Probably not, the family tried this and couldn’t stand the taste. Anyway drinking a liquid however nutritionally balanced misses the point, food is a social thing and its difficult to be social over grey gunk.
Meat. We have got used to cheap meat. The environmental, energy costs and health in the future will be high. These and the demand due to rising richer populations worldwide will mean meat will be much more expensive and we will be eating a lot less of it. This brings us to future food ideas to replace meat. Something low in fat and high protein anyone? Insects -thought not? A third of the world eat insects on a regular basis. For people in the west this something of a tall ask. There is something of a yuk factor around insects but the protein in meat will not be easy to replace (although arguably we overdose on protein and its not great to do so healthwise).
One food trend is that the time taken to prepare meals has plunged from an average of 4.5 hours to 20 minutes now. This time reduction is due to our oil laden processed food. Not only is processed food not great for you for the most part, in the future its unlikely to be as common and more expensive. It is quite possible however to cook nutritious food from scratch in way less than 4.5 hours. There is also danger that processed food is not social food. People take their microwave meals away and eat them in front of the TV. Food is also everywhere when we leave the house with snacks and cafés etc, will this be in the case in a more food limited future?
Another big question is where we will buy this food from. The supermarkets that have come to dominate our lives have in the last few years gone into decline (Tesco’s announced a huge loss today). Many of them of dropped plans for out of town stores and have opened small “local stores” and are loosing money. People increasingly are doing small shops in local shops. The whole food distribution system is very energy intensive. Food grown locally and bought in small shops, this seems to be the trend? In the UK there has been an astonishing 25% increase in small local food shops since 2012. Its not coincidental this has all been at a time of high oil prices. It looks like there is one trend under way that future proofs us to an extent against peak oil
Incidentally whilst it raised some interesting questions the programme blithely ignored the energy of food question completely going along with the abundant energy business as usual scenario although it think meat was not sustainable environmentally. Instead it seems more likely we will have to grow more food ourselves, spend a bit more time in the kitchen and much of what we eat will be seasonal and more expensive. Much in the meat/fruit line will be rarer and more of a treat. On the plus side we will be healthier and food will hopefully become more of a social occasion. Lets hope there will be no food banks.
My homegroup is going to a study on food and the bible. I will write a blog post on this in about a month.