One thing we have learnt this week – Henderson Island

Henderson Island-110246.jpgHenderson Island we have learnt this week is not only one of the most remote places on earth but possibly one of the most polluted.  Henderson Island is an uninhabited overseas British territory which is part of the Pitcairn group where the mutineers from the bounty hid out.   Scientists did a survey in 2015 and found 18 tonnes of plastic on the islands.  This does not sound that much but its the highest density found anywhere and looks totally shocking in the pictures.  The saddest one was of a hermit crab making its home in a bit of plastic.

With recent reports detailing plastic waste at the bottom of the Marina trench and widespread PCB pollution in marine life we are starting to realise that some of the environmental problems we have unthinkingly caused are going to be very complicated to clear up – not to say expensive.

I’m trying to collect plastic outside and minimise my use but its still very difficult to do.  So much of our foodstuffs are packed in it.  There was a big debate about plastic versus paper bags a few years ago.  The proponents of plastic were strongly arguing that paper bags took more energy to make.  However at least they rot and don’t end somewhere as pristine as Henderson Island.

Neil

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Britain’s lost cycle network

Britain’s lost cycle network.  One thing I have always been impressed with was the cycle network in Germany.  This was much better than that in Holland.  Part of the reason for this is the need for drainage ditches which limits the paths to one side of the road.  In Germany the metalled cycle paths were on both sides of the road.  Well it seems that the UK had a cycle network like this at one time and it might in many cases need unburying.  Read on below for this interesting post by Jeremy Williams on the subject reposted by me.

Neil

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how London once had the beginnings of an electric taxi fleet, which was then lost for 120 years. Here’s another lost sustainable transport initiative that could still be recovered: Britain’s 1930s cycle path network.

Beginning in 1934, the Ministry of Transport began building cycle paths alongside new roads. They were separate from the traffic and often paved in red tarmac, and connected towns to new suburbs or ran next to new arterial roads. It made particular sense at the time. Fewer people had cars, and many more people cycled. In some parts of the country, over half of road traffic was bicycles. In rush hour that could rise to 80%.

The cycle path network grew all through the 30s, before coming to an abrupt end in 1940. The Second World War put huge pressure on government budgets in every department, and the cycle paths were not considered essential spending. Investment in cycling infrastructure paused, and existing paths were not maintained. If we had kept it, Britain may have nurtured and supported a cycling culture like the one found in the Netherlands today. Instead, the planned network and the paths themselves were abandoned – another forgotten casualty of WW2, like Britain’s food culture or that early electric car charging network.

They’re back in the frame today because historian and cyclist Carlton Reid uncovered references to this lost network in the course of researching a new book (Bike Boom: The unexpected resurgence of cycling). He was able to map the network using Google Streetview, and has pieced together 300 miles of lost paths. “Some of the 1930s-era cycleways I’ve identified are either fully or partially buried,” he says. “Most are above ground, in full view but they are not recognised for what they are, which is innovative-for-the-time cycle-specific infrastructure that’s more than 80-years-old.”

What’s really useful about this is that many of these cycle routes could be brought back. Browse through the photos of them, and many of them are just sitting there, needing nothing more than a cycle path designation and some signage. Others are used as off-street parking. Some are overgrown and in need of refurbishment, but even if the path itself is no longer viable, the space for one was allocated when the road was built. It would be much easier to add cycle infrastructure along these existing routes than trying to squeeze it in elsewhere.

As a next step, Reid has launched a crowdfunding project to fund further research and advocacy, all aimed at saving these cycle routes and getting them back in use. It met its target in a matter of days, but you can still support it and play a part in restoring the network.

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One thing we have learnt this week – energy storage solutions

5240237605_a2ce66a6e0_bNissan has this week announced that it has partnered with an American company to manufacture and market energy storage solutions.  These are lithium ion batteries made at its UK plant.  It will also use if the customer wants it second hand car batteries in the units.

The units will be about the size of a conventional boiler.  Its difficult to say how much they will cost but reading between the lines I would say the initial cost is about £5000 including installation.  The question is at this cost can such energy storage solutions pay for themselves in the lifetime of the system*.  I think its doubtful.  Looking at my numbers for my exported electricity the avoided cost saving is about 11p/unit and I will export about 1MWh this year.  You do the math.  The companies reckon the saving is much higher £43/month.  How they get this figure and what size systems its calculated on I have no idea.  Almost certainly the larger the systems the more export the better the economics.  However, with large systems you are more likely to fell your batteries then start sending electricity to the grid with just one such unit.  Buying two or more units puts the economics back to square one.  One way the economics can be improved is that such systems encourage the use of “time of day deals”.   I don’t know.  I think its a great idea I’m sure I will have one – but the costs will have to fall first.

Neil

* lifetime of batteries the rest of the system will last longer so replacing the batteries only (which will be cheaper and cheaper) will improve the economics once you have been through one cycle of batteries (10 years).  Once the system has paid for itself it will also make PV payback quicker.

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One thing we have learnt this week – cycling is good for you

2016-09-14-17-16-48The idea that cycling is good for you is up there with the status of the pope and what bears get up to in woods, but its nice to have proof.  The UK Biobank has done a huge study looking at health outcomes comparing those who cycle and walk and do no exercise at all.  The consisted of over 250,000 people although less than 7000 cycled at all to work.  Surprise surprise that they found those who cycled as commuters had less mortality over the 3 years of the study (cancer and stroke).  The differences in health outcome were highly significant.

What is interesting is it really is a case of cycling is good for you.  Walking or mixed mode commuting is a lot less beneficial.  A bit of walking doesn’t seem to make much difference which is a bit disappointing.  “Mixed mode” commuting had some health benefits but only if there was a cycling element.

This finding should feed into transport strategies particularly with the current particulate NOx issues.  Increasing cycling rates are a win win win.  Better long term health, less smog and a more pleasant urban environment.  Since only 3% of all journeys in the UK are made by bike there is plenty of room for improvement and better health and lifestyle outcomes.

Neil

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Informal recycling

UpcyclesymbolI was on my way somewhere yesterday when I met a homeless man doing some informal recycling.  He was one of these people who I think has unfortunately become institutionally homeless and probably prefers being homeless (surprising but true).  We had quite a chat about his haul of informal recycling.  What never ceases to amaze me is what and how much people throw away.  Almost everything he had in his very large holdall bag, suitcase and other smaller bag had been found in various bins.  This next bit is a little like the conveyor belt on the “Generation Game” (for those who can remember that).  Those who cannot look it up.  The haul included;

A brand new looking shower radio shaped like a fish (with batteries still in it was loud) with a cord attached to dangle it from the shower or taps.  A down sleeping bag and something to make a bivvy bag.  Foodstuffs (slightly more dodgy this) consisting of two half eaten apples and a complete tub of crème fraiche.  We had a chat about use by dates and using our nose.  The man also dug out a complete set of wooden blinds which he was loath to part with (or at least put back), but had no use for.  He asked me if I wanted them.  I declined having no use for them.  They looked perfectly OK though.  When I came back an hour later he was still there and offered me the blinds again having packed his haul into his bags.  He also seemed in the meanwhile to have found one of these plastic tool boxes that joiners use, with tools still in it?!

This encounter apart from cheering me up no end, reinforced how much people chuck away without thinking about it. With the exception of the apples and the possible exception of the crème fraiche everything was perfectly serviceable and the bin was a normal landfill bin used by flats.  At least this very cheery chap was extending the usage and life of some of this “junk”.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – organic farming

harvest finished in autumn_optThe BBC consumer programme  “You and Yours” was turned over to organic farming for a whole programme on Monday.  The programme looked at a variety of aspects of organics from a Danish and UK perspective.  Denmark was chosen since it has the highest proportion of organic food sold in the world.  In it I learnt something surprising.   Organic farming could improve crop yields.

The general thought is that yields of organic crops are lower than non-organic crops.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Firstly most crops with the exception of legumes have been bred (using classical methods) to require huge volumes of nitrogen based fertilizers (see past blog posts on this site).  This produces high yields but takes a lot of energy and at a large environmental cost.  A large part of the destruction of the Great Barrier reef is down agricultural run off, as well as climate change.  Soils are also being destroyed by excessive use of nitrogen based fertilizers.  Another reason for lower crop yields (and production of meat) is pests and diseases.

Imagine my surprise when one of a number of farmers interviewed who was embracing organic farming was doing so to raise yields.  This farmer grew wheat (needs loads of nitrogen) but his harvest had dropped from 3 tonnes/Ha to 1tonne/Ha.  The reason?  Lots of black grass in his wheat.  I’d not heard of this, although I do recognise it.  Its a common and attractive garden plant, although clearly a huge pest.  It turns out the best way to deal with it is organically.  Other farmers were switching for economic reasons, they take a hit on yields but get a higher price.

The programme also looked at the alleged health benefits (better nutrition) of organic food.  This is much more contentious and difficult to prove.  To prove this you need to grow exactly the same crop variety, in exactly the same soil, under exactly the same environmental conditions, harvest it at the same time and analysis the crops in the same lab using the same instrumentation and reagents at the same time (and I’ve probably missed something out).  As this can prove difficult even in the same field, few studies have been done.   There have been some studies that suggest that organic milk has a higher content of 3-ω-fatty acids, one of the two essential fatty acids we need but cannot make.  However it has a lower concentration of 6-ω-fatty acids (the other one) and its unclear how much milk has anyway of this fatty acid.  It not listed as one of the main sources.  On a follow up report on today’s programme more questions were asked about the health benefits of organic food.  There are some studies to suggest that some pesticides act as “gender benders”.  This site had a look at this regarding fracking.  This seems plausible to me since a very wide range of different compounds can act in this way.  I would also point out that so many pesticides are withdrawn from use due to safety concerns.

I buy organic food on occasions and grow organic food, but I would not get hung up on it.  Its more important to eat a balanced healthy diet with as local food as possible.  However having said that it seems crazy not to buy something that avoids a whole heap of problems and is not sustainable in the long term.

Neil

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air pollution

1024px-Diesel_particulate_filter_01I’ve read a recent bit of research on air pollution from China.  The research looked at particulate  (PM10) levels across the major cities in China and the effect on mortality?  The findings were unsurprising in many ways but also showed some surprises.

  • PM10 levels vary widely from city to city.
  • A 10μg/m3 change in PM10 concentration raised the death rate by a mean of 0.44%.
  • The previous 2 days PM10 levels had a significant effect on death rates.
  • The effects were greater for cardiovascular and respiratory disease deaths.
  • Older people were much more vulnerable than young people to death.
  • The PM10 concentration had less effect in more polluted cities.

Of course diesel engines (much in the news at the moment) are not the only cause of PM10s.  So are a wide variety of other sources from coal fired power stations (common in China and other places but closing like mad), vehicle tyres, wood burning, petrol engines, industry and gas central heating.  So local effects are likely.  It could also depend on prevailing weather conditions.

The fact that the previous two days particulate concentrations is not surprising either.  Weather and the fact that the PM10 concentrations have to have a biological effect helps to explain that one.  You would also expect since you are looking at mortality that the cause of death will have to be acute.  It should be remembered that scientists are coming to the conclusion that long term effects are also occurring on fertility and the brain etc.

The last two conclusions are more surprising.  In the West PM10s have been found to have acute effects on the very young as well.  The last finding is even more surprising.  This suggests that air pollution effect are not cumulative?   One drawback of this useful piece of research is that other pollutants were not examined such as NOx, SOx, these also have effects on human health and maybe responsible for some of the mortality.  There is much to think about here as policymakers worldwide grapple with this problem.

BMJ 2017;356:j667

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – energy storage

Kraftwerk_Huntorf_innenEnergy storage gets talked about a lot at the moment.  When this subject is mentioned its almost always Li ion batteries.  There are other options for energy storage but these are tending to get forgotten about.  There is pumped storage of course but there are a also a variety of mechanical systems.  These include flywheels (there is I believe a small demonstration scheme in New York) and compressed air systems.  One of these has been operating in Germany since the 1970’s with 290MWp capacity and another smaller 110MWp in the US since the 1990’s.  Both seem to have operated without any problems.  It would be useful not to put all our eggs in the Li ion basket just in case there is not enough lithium for cars and other uses.

The technology is fairly straightforward.  A bit like a cycle tyre you use excess energy to compress air (to about the same pressure as a tyre) and store it under pressure, when you want energy you let the air flow out through turbines.  There are few drawbacks though.  If you ever pump a tyre up you will know the pump gets very hot.  This is because the molecules of air are colliding more and more with each other as the pressure increases.  As you will remember when you let the air out the opposite effect occurs.  The valve gets very cold.   This hot/cold dichotomy is regarded as a problem I think since the turbines work both ways and the kit cannot be expected to withstand extremes of temperature.  The air is usually cooled on compression and then warmed on decompression.   In principle the heat can be recovered from the compression phase and used in the second – either directly or indirectly and thereby raise the efficiency of the process.  Another drawback is implied by the above photo of the German plant, its not pretty, basically it looks like a huge warehouse.  The energy density is relatively low of such systems so it makes sense only to build very large schemes- hence extenuating the aesthetics problem.

The reason I’m writing this is that I learnt of a scheme in Northern Ireland to use caves with a larger compressed energy storage scheme.  The scheme has been awarded the funding as part of the EU’s TEN-E project (despite Brexit).  A little bit more background.  Northern Ireland has its own grid.  As far as I know its not connected to the Republics’ grid but is to the UK grid.  Electricity has always been more expensive in Northern Ireland, so much so that when the solar PV grant scheme was operating it was much more generous to take this into account.

Putting compressed energy storage into caves has drawbacks.  The oxygen must not react with the rock or interact with micro-organisms and of course must not leak.  For these reasons old salt workings are ideal and this is the type of cave at Islandmagee.

I hope this scheme goes ahead since one heck of alot of EU money has gone into it so far with even more to follow.  Whether this type of energy storage solution will become commonplace if caves are used I think is open to question.  Like nuclear each scheme would end up being individual and bespoke which makes it more expensive.  The uglier warehouse type could be very cheap to build though.  The technology is believed to be competitive with other energy generation systems.

Neil

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The biggest environmental problems

car data 2016The was an environmental sermon at church this week.  This got me thinking about what I considered the biggest environmental problems.  Whilst I don’t think we’ve got climate change and peak oil entirely licked, things at least on the energy front are moving strongly in the right direction.  Trump of course threatens action on these but even he will find it difficult to force up the costs of wind, solar and energy storage.

The biggest environmental problems currently in my view comprise the particulates issue and plastic pollution*.  The second of these is a real shocker.  Go anywhere in the country and shredded plastic is stuck on trees.  My garden is not completely immune and most if it is down to me, from bits of plastic sheeting I have used to cover stuff which has shredded in the wind.  My pledge is collect all this as I find it from now on.

On the former there was some very interesting articles on the radio this morning.  The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is to introduce a congestion charge for diesel cars and independent emissions testing.  The most revealing interview was with the government’s former chief scientific advisor Sir David King who advised government 20 years ago when the decision to encourage diesels was made.  He said the decision was made to go far diesels for climate change reasons knowing that there was a problem over particulates but trusting the car manufacturers who promised to solve it.  The problem was they have not.  The graph above shows the depth of the problem on NOx.  The data is official data for current models on sale in the UK (source DFT).  The difference is extremely highly significant for over 2000 different models and shows that petrol cars produce significantly less NOx.  The error bars show the standard deviations of the data.  There is no doubt we need to change to petrol/electric/walking/cycling as fast as possible.

* of course these problems are related to the other two anyway.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – solar fuels

Bill Gates recently visited a lab developDSC_2305ing solar fuels at Caltech.  Readers of this blog will know that I’m not a great fan of the so called hydrogen economy.  The problem with hydrogen is that has a very low energy density compared to other fuels.  Another drawback is that it will require a whole new infrastructure.  Add some carbon atoms to the hydrogen and the energy density increases dramatically.  There are long standing ways of doing this one way is to use the Fischer-Tropsch method.  In this an alkane carbon chain of any length can be built from carbon and hydrogen by tweaking the reaction conditions.  Whilst this method may have some applications in making chemical feedstocks in a post oil world the energy return is very poor since the reaction only occurs at very high temperatures (400-500°C).

What if you could make such fuels at low temperatures using light as the energy source to to split water to hydrogen and oxygen and then combine the hydrogen and carbon from carbon dioxide at low temperatures.  Sort of like photosynthesis, in fact some groups are trying to use this as a basis for making solar fuels.  Algae is one possibility people have been working on.  If the problems with this could be cracked then many of the drawbacks of the renewable economy.  There would be a source of renewable transport fuel, a way of tying up carbon from the atmosphere and even a means of storing renewable energy inter-seasonally.  However as we outlined in our book there is one major problem with all this.  That is land area.  If you considered using every plant as fuel on the planet then its unlikely there would be enough for our energy needs.  The land area to make even an appreciable dent in the liquid fuel replacement problem would be huge.

Neil

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