One thing we have learnt this week – Power to the people

walney 1 and 2Power to the people- not the cry of “Citizen Smith” (look it up), but a programme on BBC4 this week following SSE energy over a year.  Scottish and Southern Energy is one of the “big six”, its ex now retired boss Ian Marchant attends my church and wrote the forward to our book.  Power to the people episode one used an old coal fired power station and an offshore wind farm to highlight the changes and challenges in the UK energy system.  What was slightly annoying was that the unseen interviewer tried to constantly play up the differences between the two energy sources and their staff.  So the coal fired staff came across as anti-wind and climate sceptic.  (The crew maintaining the wind turbines saw it as the future but at the same time as just another form of energy generation).  The only part of “Power to the people” that looked at anything else was the bit that looked at SSE’s brand new high tech energy to waste plant.  This will do base load but as was pointed out has only a fraction of the old coal fired power station next door, which it was pretty clear was going to have to close.  “Power to the people” has made no mention of solar yet and its interesting to see what the other programmes will cover.

There were some interesting things I learnt though.  The struggle to keep the 50 year old coal plant going (they had a fire which took one unit off line).  This has lessons for new nuclear power stations where the people who designed it will be long dead by the time they are closed.  One problem being that coal power is now competing with other sources (such as wind).  This means a plant that was designed for baseload operation goes off and off line.  The sheer amount of coal needed (all imported) to keep the station going is also huge.

On the wind front its not quite so low carbon as it might seem.  There is a huge crew keeping it going and in a completely staged incident the programme watched two people being winched onto the top of a wind turbine (there is a platform on it but it still looked hair raising).  I say staged because they normally go out by boat but the weather was supposedly too bad- in fact there was not a cloud in the sky and a calm sea!

One last thing.  I think Ian Marchant would have made an ethical and business case for investment in renewables.   Its current CEO in “Power to the people” suggested it was driven by government.


PS off to Paris for climate change lobbying by bike/train.  I will try to update on progress via FB and twitter (

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Art exhibition in the nuclear zone

10668295_1133346013348006_545104614_nWhich is the most remote art exhibition in the world? Or maybe not the most remote art exhibition but the hardest to reach? Or the art exhibition perhaps you would not want to reach? The answer is almost certainly at least to some of the above questions is the art exhibition in the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone.  “Don’t follow the wind” is an art exhibition with a difference put together by some famous artists (well I’ve only heard of Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei).  The title is based on the idea of people fleeing the invisible plume of radiation in 2011.  Click on this link to learn very little.

The artists have created their art exhibition in series of abandoned buildings, a farm, a house a warehouse and a recreation centre. Whilst in the Guardian’s article today there were some descriptions of the art* (very Turner prize), there are no pictures, no catalog and people will only be able to visit the art exhibition when the place is inhabitable again. So not in our lifetime then.


* Ai Weiwei has one exhibit that is lights powered by a solar panel for two hours every morning.  One of the other artists Ahmet Ogut has apparently based his on a locals set of Samurai armour.

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One thing we have learnt this week -WEO 2015

weo2015As we fast approach Paris COP21 (which yours truly is cycling to with TEARFUND) the latest IEA WEO 2015 is out.  Is peak oil going to mean low oil prices and not high ones?  This is one of the suggestions in the latest IEA WEO 2015.  The theory goes like this; renewables are now so cheap or will become so the oil, coal and gas prices will stay low.  That and a surfeit of oil with both unconventional and conventional producers competing could keep the oil price low into the 2020’s.  Other findings from WEO 2015.

  • Renewables account for around half of all electricity production by 2040.
  • US shale oil needs a price of $65/barrel.
  • Whilst oil and gas prices have fallen in price these price falls are undercut by the more expensive production costs as all the easy to extract fields have been used up.
  • The cost of energy efficiency has also plunged.

WEO 2015 also sees dangers, we will still be fairly dependent on oil and gas even in 2040.  Low prices mean no exploration or production for unconventional sources.  This and increased demand in particular mean there could be a rebound in oil prices at some unspecified point.  Another danger is that low oil prices will lead to less renewables investment.  All in all as we go towards COP21 an encouragement.   The future is renewable although as we have written in our book this is only part of our oil dependency issue.


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Are diesel’s days numbered?

2015-09-22 14.12.40Are diesel’s days numbered?  This has been the question that people have been asking in the last few weeks since the Volkswagen scandal.  People in Europe (not the US sales are very low there) were persuaded to buy diesel cars for a couple of reasons.  Lower CO2 emissions and much better economy.  These were reinforced by tax breaks on the fuel.  Essentially what happened is this; the French government decided to support its carmakers by getting then to develop diesel cars after the first oil crisis.  The same thing happened in the US but after some real clunkers America gave up (which affects US thinking on diesel cars until today).  The French and then other European manufacturers persevered.  The early models were poor, I remember as a child a friends mother giving me a lift home in French one.  We had to sit in the snow for 5 minutes while the fuel warmed up.  It was also difficult to buy diesel fuel, only filling stations used by trucks sold it.

However,  in recent years the technology has improved.  Glowplugs mean no waiting for warmup, turbochargers mean its not like driving a taxi and diesel fuel is available everywhere.  There is just one problem NOx (nitrogen oxides).  Nitrogen gas is a triple bonded molecule formed of two nitrogen atoms.  Breaking it takes a lot of energy, combustion supplies that energy and for some reason diesel cars produce more NOx than petrol cars.  NOx forms acid rain, exacerbates asthma and other lung pathologies and causes stomach cancer.  Its also a greenhouse gas.

We like many others switched to diesel for the reasons above, but have recently switched back (before all this broke so for unrelated reasons).  I miss the power of the diesel car, which always had grunt however loaded up and its economy.  Our petrol car is a bit underpowered and needs a larger engine (sometimes lack of power this is dangerous – I’m not a speed freak).  However I’m glad we switched.   Whilst it looked like petrol cars were going the way of the dodo round here I have read today (completely coincidently apparently) that car manufacturers have been working on petrol cars.  There are now models coming out with turbochargers (ironic since they were developed for petrol) and achieve 100mpg, in the same range as diesel cars.

Of course a couple of things need to be said.  First, however economical our cars are we need to cut down on their use for reasons regular readers of this site will be familiar with.  Second, there is at least a possibility that real world data may have been doctored and these cars are not as good in real life as they are made out.  Nevertheless the fact that manufacturers are working on petrol models and they are getting “greener” is encouraging.


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One thing we have learnt this week -power cuts

power cuts

Candles will they soon be needed?!

How close has the UK been to power cuts this week?  Pretty close seems to be the answer, or at least of it not power cuts then reducing the voltage so the lights dim.  First national grid told everyone to crank out the power, then later it issued a statuary demand-side balancing reserve (DSBR) notice after issuing a notification of inadequate system margin (NISM).  The DSBR means large industrial users voluntarily reduce their demand (in return they normally pay a discount for the electricity they use).  This apparently was the first time its ever been issued.  In the end peak demand at 17:00 was met partly by buying power from one supplier at 250p/unit!

There are number of things to say.  First everyone blames renewables.  Its true Wednesday was very dull, often foggy and still.  There is so much wind capacity on the grid its often meeting 12-15% of demand now according to one analyst.  Of course most of the time this demand is less than peak demand so the wind output can be quite low yet still do quite well % wise.  As it happens on Wednesday when the notices were issued I was in the central belt in Scotland and many of the wind turbines were working quite well.  (I remember being surprised since I could not see any movement in the trees).  At 17:00 there will not be any solar since its dark.  However, the real reason could be seen on the NETA electricity pages.   On Tuesday a number of coal and gas fired power stations went of line due to break downs.  This tightened margins making power cuts more likely.  Ultimately though whilst managing the grid in the age of renewables is more challenging its not impossible and the countries where there are outages generally don’t have much renewable power.

Are there going to be power cuts?  Probably not, but I would not bet on it.  One thing working in national grids favour is demand is falling.  A mixture of more energy efficient devices and higher electricity prices are meaning we are all using less.  Our book offers suggestions on how to do even more.  There is one final lesson we have seen a bit of yesterday which happened in California when they had outages, that is electricity prices surge.


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Genes and breeds

800px-Dexter_cow,_Three_Counties_ShowI read an obituary of someone called Joe Henson this week, founder of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.  For those of you in the UK his son Adam is a presenter of “Countryfile” and Joe has featured on it a few times as well.  We may have a lot to thank Joe Henson for in the future.  He started the Rare Breeds survival trust which aims to ensure the survival of rare breeds of farm animals.  What is even more surprising about this story is that Joe Henson did not even come from a farming background but was the son of an actor.

One of the big problems of modern agriculture is the limited gene pool used.  This applies not just to breeds of farm animals but also breeds of plants.  This may have aesthetic taste implications (see our “apple day” post) but the narrow genetic range matters for a number of other reasons.  The first is that a disease could wipe the animal or plant out leaving us vulnerable.  This happened with maize in the US in the 1970’s.  The second is these rare breeds may have useful genetic traits which could be bred into the wider population.  We need to preserve these breeds for those reasons and since we would lose part of our heritage.  This is particularly true for our family.  One of my ancestors bred the Dexter cow (pic above).  It was saved by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and is no longer endangered.  Thanks Joe.


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One thing we have learnt this week- mesolithic “eco-home”

1024px-Stonehenge_back_wideYou might be wondering why there is a picture of Stonehenge at the top of this blog post, it turns out archaeologists have found an “eco-home” near it.   Its a bit of a silly story since I doubt if mesolithic man was thinking about the environment when building it.   It seems that our ancestors used a fallen tree as one wall and the pit left by the fallen tree as a place to live.  Both were lined with stones.  A post was erected about 10m away to support a roof linked to the eco-home.  What has got archaeologists so excited was the use of stones which were heated by a fire elsewhere and placing them close to where people slept, which was safer.  Its other eco features included a lot of animal skins as insulation.  People occupied the eco-home for about 90 years.  However, in my mind the slightly later underground houses at Skara Brae in Orkney are far more sophisticated.

The whole eco-home issue does raise some contemporary issues though.  The archaeologists compared the occupants of the eco-home living in relative harmony with their environment with that of the A303 20m away.  Another issue is the idea of earth houses which are obviously not new (what is), having a low impact on the environment, particularly visually.  From the aesthetic point of view it this idea of underground living maybe part of a solution to the UK’s housing crisis although there are other impacts they do not solve.


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New Nuclear

Last week I covered some of the background of the new nuclear deal on Hinkley C and others with China and EDF.  In this post we will look at some of the other problems with the new nuclear deal.  There are a variety of problems in the way of this happening which may still mean it won’t see the light of day.  These are in no particular order;

Costs – as alluded to in last weeks post the only track record the EPR has is one of cost overruns and delays.  There are still rumours of a £10 billion shortfall in funding even after the Chinese agreed to stump up £6 billion.  It will not be easy for the EDF and CGN to raise the money since the city thinks the deal is a bad one and even if they do the interest rates on the loans will be high.  Its quite easy to see construction starting and then 5 years down the line the companies running to the government essentially saying if you want this your going to have to help fund it.  I think this is a very likely outcome if construction gets going.

Energy costs – one of the central problems of new nuclear as we outlined in our book is that its costs are constantly rising as the renewable alternatives are constantly falling.  I was going to write more about this but Jeremy has put an excellent blog post up on this on Make Wealth History.  The graphs in his post give two strong messages.  First its irrelevant in comparing nuclear costs with renewables costs today (although the Secretary of State for energy and climate change said PV was cheaper now than new nuclear on the Today programme a few weeks ago).  The time for new nuclear build is at least 10 years, in addition there is talk of this reactor being there for 60 years.  Second, within 10 years all technologies will be cheaper in the best case scenarios with new nuclear.  After 15 years cheaper full stop.  Jeremy has left out offshore wind but this is almost certainly going to be cheaper after 10-15 years as well, costs are falling fast.  After 30-40 year even this will be much cheaper.  So would wave and tidal, the current very expensive rivals.  Incidentally the same will be true for fracked gas it won’t be able to compete on costs soon either.

This has implications that go beyond economics.  You don’t have to be too cynical to see the government’s attacks on everything from energy efficiency to the Feed in tariff (FIT) as a way of trying to close down the alternatives to fracking and nuclear.  Having had a brief go at responding to the FIT “consultation” there were some worrying suggestions in it that have not been picked up on by many people.  The biggest one is the idea of making micro-generators pay for the privilege of connecting to the grid.  This has been tried in the US but failed.  Could it come here?  There is little doubt that for 3-4 years the likely FIT cuts will kill new solar dead.  But in 4-5 years time solar will be at grid parity so it will be back -unsubsidised.  Then the government and energy companies lose control.  The energy companies don’t care where their power comes from they just want it to be cheap.  Its clear they will have to be forced to buy new nuclear electricity to make this work.  Could we be taxed for having PV on our roofs?  Maybe, but could they stop us fitting batteries and going as off grid as possible?  In five years max these will be a very cheap.

Regulation – finally don’t underestimate the difficulties in regulating all this with the language barrier.  Its said the Chinese want to take a hit on Hinkley C to build their own designs at Bradwell and Sizewell.  There is no guarantee that he UK regulator will approve the Chinese design although they will be under worrying amounts of political pressure to do so.  A mere handful of people will have the ability to read the and translate the technical documentation before regulatory approval and during any construction phase.  Deeply worrying.


New nuclear looks more likely to go ahead, but the economics look terrible.  The steel industry maybe complaining about electricity costs now but in 30 years time if we get 30-40% of our electricity from new nuclear they really will be paying.  Its more likely than not any new build will go bust before its finished or after.  The question is what is the implication for energy security?  Also the stakes could not be higher for EDF and Areva.  Their survival as well as that of the nuclear power industry in Europe probably depend on this being a success, which on the history of the nuclear industry and the EPR looks very unlikely.

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One thing we have learnt this week-the EPR disaster

1024px-Anti-EPR_demonstration_in_Toulouse_0192_2007-03-17This week the British and Chinese governments have signed a deal with the French to build a new “EPR” reactor at Hinkley C.  Yes its the ongoing saga of Hinkley C again!  And it looks like remaining a saga.  The EPR reactor or European Pressurised Water reactor to give it its full title, is a “third generation” tweak of the design that went wrong at Three Mile Island.  To say at the outset I think this deal that has been cooked up is a really bad one- so do loads of pro-nuclear people, a lot of people in the city of London etc.  Even the chancellors father in law who was an energy minister thinks it stinks (Sunday lunch looks like being interesting for some years to come).  The reasons why people are against it include; the cost, which is enormous (certainly the most expensive power plant ever built), the involvement of the Chinese who have somehow been persuaded to pay for a third of it and the reactors track record.

This last issue is worth looking at.  Since Chernobyl democracies haven’t been awash with new reactor orders so all the manufacturers have small order books.  This means to be fair the pool of EPR projects to consider is small to start with.  However, every single EPR is behind schedule and over cost.

Finland Olkiluoto 3 construction started in 2005, due to go online 2009, now said to be 2018 (don’t hold your breath).  It was built for a fixed cost which Areva its manufacturer has tried to get out of.  Legal action continues between TVO (the consortium who ordered it) and Areva (I believe both ways).

France Flamanville 3.  Like Finland mistakes in construction have made this reactor way over schedule and cost.  Construction started in 2007, due to go online 2011, now 2018.

China two EPR’s being built.  Construction of one EPR started in 2009, currently running 2 years late, may come on line this year.

Its a lamentable record, does not install confidence.  There are still doubts that this Hinkley project will go ahead.  EDF have said every year since 2008 its going to.  However it does seem much more likely to at least start.  I’ll look at some the other problems and issues in another post.


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Apple day an update

DSC_1314Around this time in late October, many places around the UK are celebrating Apple Day.  It’s a commemoration launched by the charity “Common Ground” back in 1990, to celebrate “apples, orchards and local distinctiveness”.  We have good reason to celebrate:  the climate in the British Isles is particularly suitable for producing good flavoured apples, and also we have an amazing heritage of apple varieties.  The incredible species Malus domestica has over 5,000 named varieties, and many thousand more un-named:  essentially every apple pip if planted would result in a new variety.  Heritage varieties with names like Ashmead’s Kernel, Ribston Pippin and Adam’s Pearmain are now becoming more widely known and treasured for their texture, aroma and flavor.  Unfortunately you are unlikely to find them on the shelves of your supermarket, as the global apple supply market is dominated by four apple varieties of Antipodean origin: Gala, Braeburn, Jazz and Cripp’s Pink (marketed as “Pink Lady”).  These four and their close relatives have the advantage of being good, consistent yielders and do not bruise easily during transport.  They also have a consistent texture and flavor, week after week, that many older varieties struggle to maintain.  They are not all grown on the other side of the world: Gala makes up over 20% of the UK apple crop, and the area is increasing as varieties like Cox decline.

Part of the reason that we see only a few varieties on sale is our changing shopping habits – we mostly shop at the supermarkets, who are all tied in to global supply chains so that apples are available year-round.  The old high street greengrocers are mostly gone, though a good street market stall may have a box or two of some different apples for sale.  Farm shops are another place to look for interesting varieties.

Last Saturday we had an Apple Day celebration in our village hall.  Over twenty different varieties were on sale, and a further twenty or so on display, from the odd looking “Codling” to the “Bloody ploughman” – the giant cooking apple “Edward VII” to the diminutive “Katy”. If we lose these varieties we lose something of our national heritage, and the best way to make sure they stay around is to eat them!  So ask around for something a bit different, see if you can find a variety with an odd sounding name, buy a pound or two, and have a bite.

Since Andy wrote about his apple day above the situation has not changed much.  We are still generally growing as a country a very narrow range of apples.  Its interesting and encouraging in a way that varieties Andy mentions above in the shops that were grown in South Africa etc. such as Gala, are now grown in the UK.  There are also one or new varieties on offer (at least to me).  However, there is one new area of concern, that of worker exploitation.  Channel 4 news yesterday had an article on packers on a UK farm from Eastern Europe being treated as little better than slaves.  Increasingly I’m trying to make my own apple day and grow my own.  I’ve planted three small trees.  The picture at the top shows some of the apples that neighbours and friends grew in our city before we made them into cider.  It just shows what can be done and I would encourage the reader to visit an apple day or make their own!

Andy (with update by Neil).  Apple day is one of our most popular posts but many of the issues have not altered.

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