One thing we have learnt this week- two environmental problems solved one to go?

cherry trees and skyIts worth thinking as we head towards the all important Paris climate talks that we have made some progress on two environmental problems.  I was reminded of this this week as England introduces a charge for plastic bags.  Its not the first place in the world to do so nor will it be the last.  The problem of shredded plastic at the visible and microscopic level is a huge one and is going to last for decades (maybe longer) but this is at least the first step in solving it.  Everywhere the charge has been introduced plastic bag use has dropped massively.

The other one of the two environmental problems that has been partially solved is that of the hole in the ozone layer.  Scientists at the British Antarctic survey found it over the Antarctic using a weather balloon.  Caused by CFC’s used as coolant in refrigeration the Montreal protocol lead to their banning.  Not to do so would have let harmful UVC radiation through, something the ozone layer stops.  UVC is radiation our skin is not used to dealing with.  Civilisation has not crashed and alternatives have been found.

Neither of the two environmental problems I have described have been solved completely.  There is an enormous amount of plastic in the ocean and according to a very worrying report on the radio we are eating microscopic plastic everyday.  The hole in the ozone layer is healing but not gone.  Nevertheless starting to solve these two problems should encourage us to start to solve the really big one, climate change.  Of course All athese problems are or were a symptom of our oil and energy addiction.


Posted in climate change, One thing we have learnt this week, other | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Iraq’s energy crisis

Aerial_view_of_Mosul_DamWho would have thought that in a country built on oil there would be a full blown energy crisis?  Yet that is the situation in Iraq today.  Many places get a few hours of electricity a day.  When the power comes back on naturally everyone switches everything back on and the grid cannot cope and goes down again.  Of course Iraq’s energy crisis does not affect everyone, the rich all have their own private generators.  Those who suffer most in the 50 degree C heat are the poorest.

The reason for the energy crisis.  Several fold.  The infrastructure is old, dating from the time of Saddam.  Another complication is parts of Iraq are under the control of Isis.  But the main reason is corruption.  Iraq is not on the face of it short of money and major work was supposed to have been started by now on grid renewal.  The problem is that money seems to have gone elsewhere.  In a bizarre twist I suppose an outcome of the compromise necessary in Iraq’s fledgling democracy each ministry is run by a party or group.  Not only does this ensure corruption but means that the oil ministry won’t sell to the electricity ministry due to unpaid debts.

Iraq naturally gets most of its electricity from oil and gas although there is quite a lot of hydro capacity (in theory).  The Mosul dam (above) was briefly captured by Isis last year but was recaptured.  As an aside its very surprising that Middle Eastern countries are not going for solar in a big way, after all the one thing you guarantee is sunshine and not a cloud in the sky!  The reason has got to be political.  However the ultimate solution to Iraq’s energy crisis is not infrastructure in the first case, but an end to corruption and that is far harder.



Posted in Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week -Shell’s Arctic adventure is over.

Wonder_Lake,_DenaliShell’s Arctic adventure is over, at least for the moment.  This week the company announced it was abandoning Arctic exploration or putting it on hold.  Oil exploration is expensive at the best of times and Shell has written off nearly $5billion dollars in hiring rigs etc. to drill in very challenging environment.  (People say its actually spent $7billion).  What does it have to show for its Arctic adventure?  Not one drop of oil found but a lot of bad feeling.  It comes to something when other oil executives and Lord Browne (ex CEO of BP) criticise you.

The problem with Shell’s Arctic adventure was if something went wrong like it did for BP in the gulf of Mexico it would be impossible to clear up or stop a leak.  The sea (even with climate change) is still frozen for half the year.  A personal theory is that maybe the insurers got cold feet.

Another interesting outcome of Shell’s Arctic adventure was the fact that they found nothing.  People have been claiming there is loads of oil there (and of course there is or was in Alaska), but the fact that Shell found nothing suggests maybe there is not nearly as much as was thought.  We know we are banging up against peak oil when people start extracting shale oil and drilling in the Arctic.  In spiritual terms does the dominion we are given in Genesis really mean there no places off limits and we can do anything? Hopefully Shell’s Arctic adventure is over for good.


Posted in climate change, One thing we have learnt this week, Peak oil | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

UK renewables record broken

decc energy data Q2 2015A UK renewables record has been broken again.  For the first time renewable generated electricity overtook coal and nuclear (separately not combined) in Q2 this year.  Renewables production rose a massive 51% over Q2 2104 making up 25% of total electricity.  The latest renewables record was due in part to increased wind and rainfall but the biggest part of the increase was due to increased solar capacity.  This now looks set to overtake hydro over the entire year.  Solar capacity is now thought to be at least 8GWp, but this is probably an underestimate.  The situation viz a viz coal is helped by the closure of so many coal fired power stations.  It seems certain coal will never overtake renewables again.  Nuclear electricity production fell, something that looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It has to be said whilst UK renewables record was broken the UK’s energy use is still rising.  UK electricity production fell very slightly but electricity use rose, the difference being made up of imports.  Oil use also increased.  Is cheaper oil meaning people are driving more?  Overall the news that the renewables record has been broken is a cause for celebration but not complacency especially as the government is cutting almost all support.


Posted in Renewables, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – Hinkley C

There have two major environmental stories this week and one of them involves emissions at stories this week, the second being Hinkley C.  Hinkley C is something we have covered before multiple times.  None of the arguments against have changed in fact they have intensified. In our book we cover a whole heap of these but new ones keep appearing!



To summarise the sad story so far.  In 2005 Tony Blair (after the general election) said we needed new nuclear build.  EDF said they could build new nuclear without subsidy.  Since then costs have steadily risen and there was a nuclear disaster in Japan.  It became gradually apparent that EDF could not build Hinkley C without some form of subsidy and negotiations between the government and the consortium were taking place.  In the end an electricity price of 9.5p/unit was agreed, index linked for 35 years*.  The reactor would be making toast by 2017.  This was not enough and still no formal agreement was reached to go ahead.  The Chinese appeared on the scene as financiers, but naturally wanting some work.  Ground clearing at the site started, then stopped with almost everyone laid off.  At the same time we have learnt that Areva the French reactor builder is in big trouble financially due to huge delays and cost runs at the Franch and Finnish reactors (same design as Hinkley C).  Then oil and gas prices collapsed.  Recently the Secretary of State for Energy and climate change has admitted that solar is cheaper than nuclear – a wholly remarkable statement.  At the same time the government announced its ending all subsidies for renewables (except offshore wind).  This week the Chancellor on a visit to China has tried to kickstart the project by guaranteeing the loans for the Chinese investors to the tune of £2billion.  Lastly almost everyone in the city and pro-nuclear advocates think this is a bad deal.

Where does this lead us?

It seems slightly more likely that Hinkley C will go ahead but much more likely that it will be a disaster.  The company building it is not in great financial shape.  The technology is only proven to take longer to build and cost more than planned and all the alternatives will be cheaper by the time it opens, in 2025??!!?  The government may cynically kill of the solar industry for the next 5 years until other countries force grid parity, but in 5 years time it will be back.  There will be large chunks of the day/year when very little grid electricity is required and wholesale prices may go negative.  In the meanwhile I think the government will have to decide whether it decides to pay for all or part of this £24 billion project.

* much higher than both the current wholesale price of electricity and higher than all renewable subsidises going ahead, except offshore wind, although recent reports suggests costs of this technology are falling fast and it will be cheaper before Hinkley C opens.


Posted in Nuclear, Transport | Leave a comment

emissions trouble

2015-09-22 14.12.40There have two major environmental stories this week and one of them involves emissions at Volkswagen.  The company has been in trouble for allegedly fiddling its emissions data in the US.  This is becoming a huge story in the business press and this  scandal has caused the companies share price to plunge.  The reason for this is not just reputational damage but also a potential $18 billion dollar fine (about $37,000 per car for clean act volitions) and a huge recall.  What is the company supposed to have done?  Fiddled its NOx figures.  In the US where diesel cars make less than 1% of sales the emissions targets are much tighter than Europe where the sales of diesel cars make up 50% of all sales.  Interestingly though the different methods of emissions testing has made it easier for the company to get away with it.  Apparently in Europe a large number of cars are pulled at random from the production line and tested, in the US just one car is used which makes it easier to doctor.

Apart from Volkswagens alleged dishonesty this whole case raises an important issue to do with emissions, at least indirectly.  The whole method of mileage testing in Europe is a nonsense.  Driving a car round a test track with the vehicle stripped of anything it can be, by skilled drivers simulating different driving conditions is farcical.  In reality most cars return massively lower mileage figures than the manufacturer says (not just Volkswagen but all of them).  This is the real legal emissions scandal and requires urgent attention.


Posted in other, Practical low carbon living, Transport, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – water water everywhere and not a drop to drink

2015-02-19 11.03.39Here in Scotland we have not had a drought or water shortage, but over the last month until the last week there has been very little rain.  The ground in the garden got very dry and many plants started wilting.  For us this was an annoyance in some ways and great in others since it generally meant good weather.  However, in many parts of the world water is an increasing problem.  When we think about climate change we tend to forget water.  A group this week has been trying to get water security put on the Paris climate talks agenda.

Why is water so important.  In biological terms its the universal solvent.  Most biological molecules are soluble in it, and those that aren’t have good reasons not to be.  Its required in photosynthesis in plants as a source of electrons being split as part of this process to produce oxygen (vital to us).

In the bible water (perhaps not surprisingly in such a water stressed region) is seen as an source of life (Joel 1v20), a sign of God’s blessing (Ps23v2, Ez 47v1-11) and cleansing (Ex 29v4).   Israel also had an ambivalent relationship with water – particularly that of the sea (Ps 18:16).

There is enough in theology and science to make us think that water is important.  Why do we in the West have so little care for water and take it for granted?   We switch on the tap and out it comes.  This is probably the reason!

Whilst climate change and water shortages will affect the poorest most of the spillover (pun intended) will affect us.  Some people believe the civil war in Syria is more to do with climate change induced drought than anything else.  Whatever the truth there is little doubt climate change is going to alter rainfall patterns and hence induce water stress in new parts of the world.  This includes the developed world.

In 2012 parts of the UK were in drought in winter, with controls over use.  Then it rained all summer and we had vast floods.  The US is using up its aquifers in the SW and California at an unsustainable rate with implications not just for agriculture but also energy production.  I learnt this week that 26% of US coal fired power stations are in water stressed areas.  Fracking which uses vast amounts of water may not be possible in such water stressed regions such as South East England.  Its now a regular occurrence for French and Swiss nuclear power stations to shut down due to lack of cooling water in the summer and in the late 90’s California had power shortages partly due to a lack of water for its hydro systems.

Water is something we all need to start taking seriously, its a vital resource.


Posted in climate change, One thing we have learnt this week | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pylons to go

PylonHorizonHere’s a nice little story I have found, pylons are to be removed from at least some national parks.  National grid has found some money (£500 million) to do this in England and Wales.  (In Scotland two of the big six own the grid.)   The pylons will be removed in favour of sections of cable and the lucky places are New Forest, Peak district and Snowdonia.

The Dinorwig pumped storage scheme which sits in the middle of Snowdonia shows what can be done. What is so impressive about this scheme is that you would hardly know it was there.  Due to its location in Snowdonia the power station was built in the middle of a mountain and its entrance is where a slate quarry was.  In addition the transmission lines are buried underground for around 6 miles as cables rather than as pylons.  This shows what can be done although replacing the entire national grid with cables rather than pylons would cost hundreds of billions of pounds.  Recently NG has been trying a number of different designs out although even with some of these new look pylons they  could be intrusive.

I personally don’t dislike pylons excessively although I cannot see any from where I live.  The only time I notice them is when they get in my frame for a picture.  This only happens in places of great beauty of course….


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week -Scoraig

I was surprised and amused (bear with me you will see why) to hear an article on the today programme on Scoraig.  Scoraig is a stunningly beautiful but remote crofting community on a peninsular in the north-east of Scotland.  The only way in is a “ferry”, basically a large rowing boat with an outboard motor, or a long walk in (and it takes a long time to get to the walk start since the road is terrible).

00011Scoraig has an interesting history on several counts.  At the beginning of the 70’s a Cambridge graduate called Hugh Piggott then part of the “back to the land movement” moved into Scoraig.  This was part of a general exchange of population I was told, the crofters sick of living without electricity moved out and the hippies who wanted the reverse moved in and took over their houses.  Connecting the community to the grid was too expensive.  After a few year Hugh thought he would like some power and looking around the most obvious resource was the wind.  Being an engineering graduate he built a wind turbine to charge batteries.  The first few were not very reliable but he has got better and better at it, runs courses and has been involved with at least one wind turbine manufacturer in Africa.

The community has gone from strength to strength.  Its very mixed.  When I visited there were still old hippies living in squalor without electricity and people who lived in very luxurious attractive houses.  There are now a lot of wind turbines and lots of PV’s and a little bit of pico hydro.  It has to be said on the quay I saw lots of bags of coal.  There are very few trees on the Scoraig peninsular but there were plantations of saplings to address this problem.

000140000500016The reason why it came up on the radio yesterday is because they have been advertising for a new primary school teacher but apparently not been straight with people about the remoteness of the community (although this advert seems quite honest).  I hope they find someone, its a beautiful place with people struggling to live sustainably like the rest of us.


More info on Hugh Piggott here.



Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Renewables | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An introduction to glycerol

Many years ago we went on a family holiday to York. Driving around the by-pass we happened to see a small scale manufacturer of biodiesel (from waste fat).  This was when biofuels were seen as the saviour of the planet, even by green groups. I stopped and had a chat with the woman in charge.  She asked me as a scientist what she should do with all the glycerol produced as part of the process.  I hadn’t a clue and suggested burning it (not such a great idea with hindsight).  This whole issue of waste glycerol disposal which Jeremy has asked me to write a guest blog on, raises some interesting ecological dilemmas.

Glycerol (also known as glycine) is a colourless viscous liquid with a boiling point of just under 300°C. Technically its an alcohol, with 3 alcohol groups on it, I would prefer to call it propan- 1,2,3-triol (see a) in figure 1)).

glycerol and family figure 1

Glycerol is becoming an increasing waste issue, since its a by-product of soap and biodiesel manufacture.  Chemically when triglycerides (fats or oils) are reacted with an alkali (figure 2. below)


Glycerol is produced along with 3 long chain fatty acids (R is a chemists short hand for a chain of carbons and hydrogen atoms). The only difference chemically in making biodiesel is you add an alcohol to this mix as well.  This ends up bonded instead of the sodium to the fatty acid making an “ester”, which is chemically what biodiesel is.  About 10% of the reaction volume of the biodiesel reaction mixture ends up as glycerol.

There are essentially two options of how to deal with the glycerol glut.  Use the glycerol directly or make it into something useful.  Glycerol has in itself many uses.  Its used in food as a thickener and sweetener (E422).  It has various pharmaceutical uses (my Grandparents had some in bathroom cabinet).  Its used as component of the e-liquid in E-cigarettes.  Glycerol also now utilised by a company to produce electricity to power the formula E racing cars.  They have worked out a way to use it in diesel engines.

These above uses obviously mop a lot of glycerol up.  A more interesting proposition is to chemically modify the glycerol.  Reducing it to a diol with 2 rather than 3 alcohol groups present (b) in the figure 1, produces another set of compounds (either propan-1,3-diol (PDO) or propan-1,2-diol).  Propan-1,2-diol is used as antifreeze on aircraft wings and as lubricant for condoms, its also used to dissolve foodstuffs such as vanilla essence in. Both diols can be used to make plastics, PDO is regarded as more useful.

Another issue is how you convert the glycerol to the diols.  The traditional way is to use metal catalysts and loads of energy. However, increasingly the chemical industry is going biological.  This latter way uses either bacteria or their enzymes to convert glycerol to the diol by fermentation.  The advantages of enzymes are that they can be very specific and use a lot less energy.  I supervised a student project to try this since my bugs grew on glycerol (my idea was to make glycerol into electricity using bacteria). Unfortunately my bugs failed to make PDO from glycerol, possibly due the formation of a antibacterial intermediate called 3-HPA, or the presence of oxygen.  However in itself 3-HPA has a number of potential uses, not least as a potential food preservative.

Plenty of other groups have succeeded in using bugs to make PDO, Dupont are making it from glucose in the form of Corn Syrup.  This offers us the means of making plastics in a more environmentally friendly way and breaking our oil dependence.  Most plastics however are not biodegradable and a biological route only solves some of the problems with our plastic addiction, a bit like electric cars viz à viz oil based vehicles.

Very slightly modified guest post I did for Make Wealth History.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment