One thing we have learnt this week – gas extraction and earthquakes

I watched a fascinating and worrying report on channel4 this week on gas extraction and earthquakes, in of all places Holland.  The first really major hydrocarbon finds in Western Europe post WWII were made in Holland.  I remember studying it in my O-level geography.  Unlike the north sea these finds were largely on land.  The finds (and these were big fields) stimulated North Sea exploration.  The fields were centred on Groningen and came on stream in the early sixties.  The following graph shows the output over the years (source BP statistical review of world energy).

dutch natural gas outputThe problem the Dutch have found is one of earthquakes.  Its become such a serious problem that the Dutch government are forcing production to cease (albeit gradually).  There has clearly been a huge scandal with up to 8 billion euros of damage.  Many people are waiting for compensation and have had to move out of their homes but it also includes public buildings.  Channel4 showed at least one school closed with the pupils having to use huts.  (Its so bad they showed an earthquake drill in a school).

So what has gas extraction and earthquakes to do with us in the UK?  Well the government has allowed fracking to go ahead in England.  So far amid huge public opposition (increasingly from Tory MP’s in rural areas as well) its going ahead at just one site in Lancashire.  It been stopped about 6 time due to earthquakes.  These are very minor, but the threshold has been set much lower than in Holland where it was set at 4 on the Richter scale.

It does seem that oil and gas extraction causes earthquakes on a regular basis.  At my children’s school there was a British geological survey map on the wall.  This showed the distribution of earthquakes over the UK.  What was interesting was the great majority were in the part of the north sea where the oil and gas fields were.  All this has been invisible due to the minor tremors being out at sea.  In the UK there is tiny amount of onshore oil and gas up until now.  The Dutch set their levels where there is said to be no damage to buildings, but clearly there has been a huge issue.  Albeit one that I missed when we were on holiday in Holland.

The geology is different in Holland from the UK being sandstone and its conventional gas.  However we are running a huge fracking experiment.  There is pressure on the government to liberalise both the planning and earthquake levels (with levels set so low it simply cannot be economic).  We cannot know what will happen if fracking really takes off and could be struck with huge problems if we do since clearly earthquakes down the Richter scale clearly cause significant damage.


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Power for the people

I read an inspiring article in TEAR times about bringing power for the people.  The article involved a micro-hydro plant at the village of Mahadevsthan, Nepal.  I’ve researched it a bit more on line and the outcomes are even better than I thought.  There are number of lessons to be learnt here, but first I will give a few details about the plant.  Mahadevsthan is located in the Dhading District of Nepal, its mountainous and reasonably remote and very suitable for micro-hydro.   The system is 26kWp output and was installed in 2008.  According to TEARFUND it powers 550 homes, 3 schools, businesses and a clinic.  The paper I found puts it at less than that at around 200 homes.  So what can we learn from all this in providing more power for the people.

1)  The technology is appropriate for the place.  Solar PV and wind would almost certainly not have worked as well. Nepal has an enormous under exploited hydro resource (about 83GWp, about 42GWp of which would be economically viable).  Its capacity in hydro terms is about 650MWp at the moment along with some thermal plant.  It imports about 25% of its total (rising) demand from India.

2)  This is a classic market failure.  Like many things such as new housing or sewage its not worth investors putting the money in due to very low returns but the benefits as we we will see below are very considerable.   The money came from a variety of sources which included various Nepali development funds (its seems likely to me that this money  was ultimately largely from overseas donors who fund these).

3) There was community involvement.  The villagers were asked about whether they wanted such a system.  They paid for around 21-26% and took out a bank loan.  There was no imposition from outside.  They pay for the electricity – its not free.

4)  Its sustainable although there has been a slight drop in fish numbers in the stream used there has been no other environmental impact.  Looking at the figures above there would be a tendency to think big and go for huge valley flooding schemes.  Far better would be many small schemes such as this initially not grid connected but in time linked up.  The fact that its been going for 10 years is also very encouraging.  Its not fallen into disrepair as so many imposed technologies have in the developing world.


5) Its had an enormous impact on village life.  The recent paper looked at village satisfaction (very high).  Both it and the TEARFUND article have shown how much its changes life for the better.  Before people lugged kerosene up the mountain for heating and lighting.  It was polluting, added to climate change and was straining peoples eyes.  Now children and adults have access to computers, the internet and mobile phones as well as fridges.  The biggest surprise to me was its time saving aspect.  This meant people did not have to spend hours grinding wheat by hand but minutes.  This has allowed families to start other businesses and improve their income.

This is a classic market failure and TEARFUND is asking people to sign and get the world bank to fund many more of these systems.  Sign here to extend power for the people.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Is nuclear dead?

Is nuclear dead? Yes is the short answer.  The longer answer is slightly more nuanced.  This week Toshiba abandoned plans for a new nuclear power plant at Moorside near Sellafield.  Its not really a surprise.  The project has looked half baked from the start.  Toshiba took over Westinghouse’s nuclear business in the US and tried to build 4 Westinghouse AP1000’s there.  This led to near bankruptcy and Toshiba having to sell its chip business.  The idea was to build several of these units at Moorside opening in 6 years time.  Now this project has collapsed.  The problem is multifaceted for nuclear.  No one has found a way to build without some kind of subsidy.  The costs keep rising.  And renewables are now not just cheaper but an order of magnitude cheaper (and getting cheaper as nuclear is doing the opposite).  Our book was very much criticized by a leading nuclear proponent, but I would point out that since then no new nuclear has been built in the UK or the US and all the schemes are collapsing.  Renewables and energy storage are not.  I accept that we cannot simply replace our current lifestyle and run it on renewables.  We need to double our electricity output to electrify the economy and will be difficult to do by renewables only.  However is nuclear dead?  Yes its too expensive dangerous and no on knows what to do with the waste.  The future belongs to wind, solar and energy storage along with hopefully tidal power in the longer term.


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One thing we have learnt this week – food from air

George Monbiot wrote an article on a weird sounding idea “food from air” in the Guardian this week.  All bacteria need an energy source (a source of electrons).  Most bacteria also need a carbon source (usually the same molecule e.g. glucose) to make proteins and DNA etc.  However, bacteria that are photosynthetic (and there are many) use light as the source of electrons and CO2 as the carbon source.  There are other slightly more unusual bacteria that do not photosynthesis but can still use CO2 as the carbon source.  It is this group that solar foods are using.  The energy source is hydrogen produced by electrolysis using solar powered electricity.  The idea is the bacteria are harvested for their protein which we then eat.  The diagram below swiped from the pdf file they sent me when I registered on their website outlines the process.

food from air.jpegThe advantages claimed are ones relating to land area and and soil use (there is no soil involved).  Its also not weather dependent ( a big advantage going forward).  Nor does it need light.The question is is food from air more efficient in terms of land area than conventional farming?  Also would it have public acceptability?  Looking at acceptability the answer is almost certainly yes.  After we eat Quorn which is fungi based.  I would add making the bacteria suitable flavour wise will involve continue to involve stuff grown in fields.  Nutritionally they claim it contains all the essential aminoacids (we cannot make them all ourselves).

The big question is how much of contribution doe we want it to make?  Should it as George seems to think replace conventional agriculture?  I am a bit suspicious  of the land area claims made over artificial meat and the same with this.  There are a lot of us and replacing conventional food with biotechnological products will not be easy.  This is despite the fact you could carry out the process underground.  In addition I’m not a big fan of hydrogen.  The reason its been used is to avoid the necessity of using light as an energy source (which gives its own problems as we looked at with Algae in our book) in addition from the biology point of view hydrogen is a high potential energy source of electrons.  From the electrolysis point of view thanks to thermodynamics its not terribly efficient and of course the land area ceded by growing stuff is required by solar PV to power the splitting of water.  Can this make a contribution to cutting our meat consumption?  Certainly.  Is it the answer to all our problems no.  I’d rather eat this than insects though*.


* I quite happily eat Quorn.




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The future of agriculture

wheatI’ve been thinking about the future of agriculture this week.  This first arose since I read a very interesting article on the use of robots in agriculture.  They are already in use to a limited extent.  At the moment robots are pruning grapes, milking and picking lettuce and strawberries.  They are also mapping farmland in a forensic manner.  Soil varies over farmland due to the underlying geology, topology and physical features.  This affects light, shade, moisture and soil pH.  Small robots are mapping farms in incredible detail which allows precision agriculture.

But all this is only the start.  Two British companies are developing robots that will do precision weeding and add fertilizer in precise ways at the level of the plant and harvest broccoli.  All this raises a whole series of ethical and other questions.   Precision agriculture using robots offers clear environmental benefits at the plant level.  The weeding robot identifies the weeds and blasts them with a laser rather than using pesticide.  Robotic farming according to its proponents offers less ploughing, ripping out hedgerows as well as less pesticide use (and presumably higher yields).  However I see some big potential drawbacks.  First robots will require energy.  Both to run and also to make (often forgotten).  Some of the small ones could be fitted with solar PV but this vision is one of a high energy future which is not necessarily the way things are going to go.  The second issue is that of employment.  The number of people employed in agriculture has been falling for the last 200 years and is pretty minimal now.  The areas where large numbers of people are employed is in seasonal fruit picking.  Brexit has thrown this into sharp relief since British people do not seem to want to do this anymore and many of the workers are from the EU (reports have suggested they are not always well treated).  Wherever the production is done the process at the moment creates some employment.  At least one of the companies involved recognises this and is determined its products will not put people out of work although how they can do this is unclear to me.

The future of agriculture has another vision that I saw on the TV news tonight.  That is rewilding.  The vision is non intensive agriculture with the land turned over to free foraging cattle, pigs and tourism. Unlike the vision above its a high employment vision with the farmer talking about the farm now having 1870’s levels of employment.  Its a reasonably low energy vision.   The problem is this is not about feeding the world.  There you have it two different futures.  Diametrically opposed.


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One thing we have learnt this week – which source of power is cheapest?

Which source of power is cheapest?  That question was raised this week when the green MP Caroline Lucas claimed onshore wind (which is effectively banned in England) was the cheapest source of electricity.  This got the BBC’s fact check to examine the figures.

It does in fact confirm she is right (just).  Wind is cheaper than all the alternatives.  This was in 2014 too so things should have improved.  I decided to have a look and found data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy from 2016.  This is  shown below suggesting something slightly different.

power production costs different sourcesFirstly, the department gave a range of costs so I worked out the mean cost (shown as the blue column) and the standard error of the mean (SEM – shown as the bars).  The SEM gives a range of the costs given.  This data shows that wind is slightly more expensive than combined cycle gas turbines but cheaper than everything else.  Please note nuclear costs are not shown currently but only going forward and so this data is for 2025.  I assume new build, but the chances of this being at this cost or by this date are for the birds.  Lots of different types of coal all with carbon capture and storage are listed.  I took the cheapest, like nuclear there is very little chance of any of this being built and all the coal plants are shutting anyway.  As I write this there is almost nothing coal powered on the grid and loads more wind than nuclear.  Solar is large stuff in fields not that on your roof (the latter makes more sense to me but is not costed).  Combined cycle gas plant varies from open cycle in that the heat from the exhaust gases are captured and used (there are other differences too).

Which source of power is cheapest? It probably depends on when you ask the question.  There is little difference between the gas and onshore wind costs and looking at the SEM bars the cheapest wind is still slightly cheaper than gas just not the mean.  I suspect the change on 2014-6 was due to lower gas prices.  Incidentally going forward both wind and solar are predicted to be cheaper than everything else, so its crazy not to invest in them.



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Saudi oil

Rub_al_Khali_002Saudi oil is back in the news at the moment following the murder of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi by the Saudis.  Larry Elliot wrote an article arguing we are less dependent on Saudi oil and any bust up over the murder which involved Saudi Arabia cutting of the taps would be ineffective.

But is this true?  Its certainly true that every time there is an oil crisis it boosts the alternatives.  In the 1970’s two oil crisis’s helped spur an interest in peak oil and renewable energy (mine and many others).  Unfortunately President Carter’s huge solar panel programme was cut by Ronald Reagan.  Electric cars came onto the market and were killed off by big oil.  Nevertheless you can see the roots of where we are in now in what happened then.

However a glance at the BP Statistical review of World energy shows that the US is using almost 20mbd of oil (still lower than 2007 incidentally) and produces about 13mbd (despite all the fracking hype).  This is about 4mbd up from its low point in the conventional oils decline. (Of course people forget that conventional oil fields are still declining in the US and fracked oil has to make for this as well as meet any increase in demand.)  If (and its a big if) the Saudis turned off the taps then there would be huge increase in the oil price which as few people has noticed been creeping up.  However if they did that they would be harming mainly themselves.  The alternatives would be very economically viable and the West would really concentrate on curbing its addiction to oil.  However the oil price increase would hit Western economies very hard and probably give us another global banking crisis and crash.  For this reason and and also due to arms sales the West will not confront the Saudis.  Its strange isn’t that the terrible murder of one man leads to a huge row but what they are doing in Yemen has no effect on our relations.


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Coffee power

bug on mfc

Soon coffee producers in Columbia could be producing coffee power thanks to funding from the UK government.  The idea is to produce electricity from coffee waste using bacteria in microbial fuel cells.  This is the area I did my doctorate in- that is microbial fuel cells (not coffee).   I’ve blogged on it in the past and a more technical explanation is here.  Some types of bacteria have the ability to transfer electrons to external compounds therefore producing a current.  Coffee waste will either contain such bacteria or will pick them up from the environment that the coffee waste is put in.  There are sufficient energy source molecules present in the coffee waste to drive the process.

The advantage is that coffee waste will constitute a disposal problem.  You cannot just dump it in a river.  Bacteria will break it down and use all the oxygen suffocating the fish and other river life.  Microbial fuel cells are also very very efficient.  Almost 100% of the “fuels” potential energy is transferred to electricity.  In a conventional fuel cell its about 50%.   The big problem with microbial fuel cells is that they produce physically very small amounts of power.  This make them a niche energy source.  They are typically suited to recovering some electricity from waste as part of a process.  Incidentally the university of Surrey who did the research have come up with really cheap kit to carry out the whole coffee power process in costing a few pounds.


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One thing we have learnt this week – food deserts

Melons growing on fence.

Melons growing on fence.

We have learnt this week that more than a million people in the UK live in food deserts.  These are poorer places where either a lack of transport or supermarkets or other food shops make the purchase of healthy food difficult to impossible.  Its a strange but true fact that healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy processed food high in fat or sugar.  That’s why so many low income individuals are obese and also why obesity is getting more and more common.

A variety of solutions have been proposed to this problem which to varying extents exists across the Western World.  In the US supermarkets have been subsidised to move into low income neighbourhoods.  In France and now the UK very low cost supermarkets have been setup that use food past its best by.

In Bristol though there are more holistic solutions.  A local church ( The River Church) runs a not for profit cafe so people can get low cost healthier meals.  The second idea is an urban farm combined with a shop to buy fresh produce just above the church.  The two seem to be separate organisations.  You can buy eggs, homemade jams  and other preserves from its shop.  Meanwhile the ( Hartcliffe Health & Environment Action Group) encourages people to grow food on allotments and sells fresh produce cheaper than the supermarkets.  It also offer cooking lessons since people are becoming deskilled at cooking anything (true of both rich and poor).

Food is going to expensive in a post oil world.  But there is a chance to solve environmental and social/health problems in one go.  The lessons of these projects is there is no silver bullets to food deserts  and different groups with different groups need to work together.


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Maker space

43788119_1135480189940189_4856292381688856576_n 43879620_1135480293273512_2441814509799604224_nThe other night I popped around the corner to the local maker space.  I was after some wood to complete repairs to my garden shed which have taken me a large part of the summer.  They didn’t have what I wanted but I spent some time there looking around and finding out what was going on.

The site is derelict and waiting for someone to build on it.  In the meanwhile various groups have been allowed to use for low cost.  There was a gardening project growing food in raised box beds although for some reason that has moved across the road to another waste area awaiting development.

On their website it says the following;

“The Forge is a pop-up community maker space in Edinburgh. Based in renovated shipping containers, it’s a place where people can come together to build, design, fix and learn. In a time when many people feel increasingly confused by the pace of technological change, the Forge exists to help us re-engage with how the things around us are made.”

I think this is true in this age of globalisation, eco concern and as our manufacturing has offshored people seem increasingly wanting to reconnect with making and repairing stuff.  Sewing is another area of big interest.  The project is setup for both woodworking and metalworking with a working forge.  People there were making tools and even  a geodesic dome made from fringe poster hoardings.  The group encourage people to come along and show others what to do.  (I’m not one of these experts).  Its recently been set up as a community interest company and looks like its going from strength to strength.  It better to repair and use bits of scrap wood to make useful stuff than throw it away.  More details on the maker space can be found here.


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