One thing we have learnt this week – climate action

2015-11-28 13.05.21As the climate change talks in Poland grind on climate action is at risk.  Governments worldwide are not doing enough.  It looks like CO2 emissions for this year are going to be at new high.  After no increase for a new years which was very encouraging CO2 emissions are rising.  Added to which President Macron has at least delayed increases in fuel costs which were officially aimed at tackling climate change.  If governments continue to back down in the face of political protest on this issue we are doomed.  The particular politics of Macron, the way he was elected and the scheme itself maybe mean we should not read to much into it.  The British Colombia climate tax scheme which I may cover in a future blog is a better model.  Nevertheless its discouraging news and leads me to think that a number of fundamental errors have been made over the the last nearly 4 decades.

The first is not to start immediately on climate action.  The first Earth summit took place in 1986 in Rio.  If governments had started making modest changes then we could have at least mitigated the problem earlier.  Climate change is a classic frog in cold water scenario and a future generations issue.  It creeps up on you and will largely affect someone else.  This makes it difficult for politicians to manage why upset the electorate when there is little gain to be had today.  This lack of action in the past means change now has to be more drastic.

This leads me to the second mistake made by policy makers.  Not to link climate change to resource depletion.  They are two sides of the same coin.  To remind people we live on the finite planet and we are using finite quantities of uranium, coal, gas and oil in my view would have helped make the change argument.  I largely blame green groups for this.  Their counter argument when I have discussed it with representatives was two fold.  First that it muddied the waters and and second that we could not afford to burn all the fossil fuels anyway.  This last point is true but clearly the climate only argument has not resonated with the public.  I rest my case.

The last argument on taking climate action is that change is good.  New technologies can create jobs and in many ways what we would be loosing is not worth having anyway.  Tackle this and we should end up in a kinder gentler world.  This point has not been made forcefully enough.

On the positive side we can see that people will take action and lobby when they see something, the classic current example being plastic.  This summer’s heatwave does seem to have tripped something.  My church has written environmental care into its next 5 year strategy.


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solar PV growth

DSC_4304We need some encouragement as pessimism at the current climate talks makes the news. So when I found an article on solar PV growth via Make Wealth History saying it would be the dominant form of electricity generation I was very pleased.  Then I had a think about it and a look at the BP data from their annual Review of World Energy.

Several of the assertions made in the the blogs are entirely correct.  The IEA and others have completely underestimated global growth of renewables generally as well as cost reductions.  Could they be currently be doing this with batteries and electric vehicles?  Is this really because they don’t understand the exponential growth curve?!

Its also true that a 41% increase in installation every year doubles capacity every two years (its actually 98% but near enough).  The growth is clearly exponential in nature.   I plotted the capacity data in Libreoffice calc as an exponential fit.  The R2 value was over 0.99.

Its also true that the growth between 2006-2016 was 48% a year on average (installed capacity) according to BP.

However are the claims about PV’s dominance correct (or at least by 2022)?  There is a difference between capacity and output.  Solar PV has quite a low capacity factor (of about 20% if memory serves me correct).  That is output is at max about 20% of the time.  This is obvious since its dark on average 50% of the year anywhere in the world.   At the moment (2017) according to BP total global electricity production is 25551 TWh/year and of that 442 TWh/year was supplied by solar PV.  This is just over 1.7%.  Electricity use is increasing by about 2.7%/year (far from exponential).  So the good news is that PV is closing on other forms of production.  Additional good news, if PV is the dominant new power form (which it is) and increases at its current rate then by 2022 then PV will produce about 55% of global electricity.  This assumes no major growth in other forms of capacity and assumes 2.7% growth in electricity demand.  However a closer look at BP’s data show this would overstate the case.  PV is doubling in terms of power output every 3 to 4 years.  This means that sadly PV will not be the dominant power source by 2022 on current growth trends it will be responsible for up to about 4% of global electricity production.

I’ve plotted the data for PV electricity production and capacity out in the graph below.

PV solar growthWe will know if we are on track next June when this years BP data comes out.  With exponential output at the same rate as capacity electricity production by PV should be about 3.5% of the total for 2018.  This seems unlikely since installation slowed in 2017.  For what its worth I think will be the dominant global power source – unfortunately we are some way short of this.




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One thing we have learnt this week – rewilding

640px-Beaver_lakeI decided to blog on something a bit different this week, rewilding.  I read an article on the re-introduction of Pine Martins into the Forest of Dean.  This is a small example of rewilding which covers a wide range of different things.  For example I also read an article this week on the new forest to cover East-West over the North of England and the best way of encouraging the trees to seed themself.  At the extremes it can cover the reintroduction of predators such as wolves or turning over the countryside to wild countryside rather than growing things.

There is a very long and unhappy human story of animal and plant introductions into countries.  The Grey Squirrel was introduced into this country cause it looked cute.  It eats anything in the garden (believe me I know) and causes destruction if it gets in your roof (again we know).  Other critters were introduced to control pests and then didn’t such as the cane toad in Australia to control beetles eating sugar cane.  It couldn’t get at the beetles and has been eating other native species as a result.  Other species were introduced to farm such as Mink in the UK for the fur trade.  I don’t approve of that but neither do I approve of the vivs releasing them into the wild were they have attacked various native species (also Wild Boar).   Some species have been introduced by mistake (wasps in New Zealand and rats almost anywhere remote).  Introduced plant species also cause chaos, such as Japanese Knotweed in the UK.

A common problem of the above is when the re-introduction is at the top of the food chain.  There are some things in Australasia that do eat cane toads or have learnt to eat them.  The same is true of the Grey Squirrel.  Its been found out recently that Pine Martins prey on them.  They also eat Red’s but the Red’s are used to them.  Greys are not.  Pine Martins were killed by gamekeepers since they were believed to eat the game birds. The remaining population was found in the highlands of Scotland.  Recently people have discovered the Pine Martin’s are spreading south.  The same has been found in the Republic of Ireland.  So the rewilding to the Forest of Dean is at the low end of scale by merely re-introducing a native species from one part of the country to another were it has been eliminated.  Far more controversial is to re-introduce a species that has been wiped out.  That has been done with Beavers in the UK.   These were hunted to extinction for their fur.  One of the big problems that is going to be caused by climate change is flooding.  One way of mitigating this is to dam streams up stream.  This slows the water down and causes the land to absorb it.  Its a big and expensive project for humans but why not get something cute to do it for nothing.  As we wrote in our book there is case for turning the upland areas of Britain over to trees which could be used for all sorts of uses.  I’m not sure about bringing back Wolves and Lynx though or turning most agricultural land over to the wild.


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hydrogen heat

DSC_1715We cannot seem to get away from hydrogen as a solution –  this time hydrogen heat.  I was reminded of this by a link on Make Wealth History this morning.  Apparently an Australian company is working on a new form of hydrogen powered car.  Last week the Committee on Climate Change produced a report saying we should replace our methane with hydrogen.  This is sort of going backwards to town gas which before the discovery of natural gas was produced from coal and contained amongst other things hydrogen.  In fact its going backwards in more ways than one.  Bizarrely the one thing this report says is that the hydrogen should not come from electrolysis using renewable electricity.  I say bizarrely but given my previous many criticisms of hydrogen its obvious it would be better to make renewable electricity and use straight electric heating.  The CCC suggest using reforming natural gas to hydrogen and then piping it to hydrogen heat.  The CO2 would captured using carbon capture and storage.

Where to start.  As I have said before you don’t have to move hydrogen too far before you have taken more energy to do so than you get back (references provided in this link).  To make it practical the country would have to have a lot carbon capture and storage (C&C) facilities so you were as near to one as possible.  Added to this C&C is untried on a large scale and will be very very expensive.  Its not zero carbon and is a bit like sweeping dirt under the carpet.  The whole idea is only temporary since gas is a finite resource in any case.  The CCC actually suggest themselves that using hydrogen alone for this purpose is impractical and householders would have to install other technologies alongside the hydrogen boilers such as heat pumps (something we said in our book is almost certainly impractical on a large scale and in most existing houses).  There is also a question over whether the existing pipework will leak to much although many in the industry do seem to think its going to be all right.

Changing our heat system from natural gas (or oil) to something sustainable is undoubtedly going to be very difficult.  I’m very pro renewables but for heat they do not look great (see our book) but this above idea is cloud cuckoo land.


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Ionic wind powered flight

1280px-heathrow_lon_04_07_77I read an interesting news report on ionic wind powered flight this week.  I like most people have never heard of such a thing.  I was going to do a blog on a report on hard to cut carbon intensive areas (and plan to still do so).  This report covered industrial sectors and shipping but left out other areas of extreme difficulty for decarbonisation namely heat and flying.

On the whole I’m a bit cynical when people say to me all we need is some form of completely new technology.  This is since I see it as an excuse for inaction ans also I think most of the technology we have is as up to the job as its going to be and we should not rely on some mythical new technology.  Just occasionally something brand new shakes this worldview and this is one of these points.

First a brief explanation on the physics of flight.  There are two types of objects that take to the air those that are lighter than air (airships/some seeds) and those that are more dense and heavier (almost anything else).  These latter objects must be powered to move through the air, the former will at least drift. There are four fundamental forces that act on heavy airborne objects; gravity (no explanation required), thrust (to move object usually forward), drag (friction essentially acting against the forward motion) and lift (an upwards reaction to the motion of the object through the air).  Air is described as a fluid since it the force needed to deform depends on the speed of deformation, not how much it deformed.  As long as thrust is enough to overcome gravity and drag then the resistance caused by the wing moving through the air will at least keep the object airborne.  Up until now thrust has come from turboprop engines or post WWII jet engines.

There is talk of electric aircraft covered on this blog in past.  But these are based on conventional turbprop aircraft powered by electricity rather than oil.  Ionic wind powered flight is completely different.  The wing of the aircraft is fitted with electrodes.  A thin wire seems to protrude forward from the aircraft wing.  This is positively charged compared to the electrode on the wing.  The potential difference ionises nitrogen in the air.  This moves to the other electrode displacing air and generating thrust.

Don’t get too excited yet there has been a simple demonstration that it works.  Which it does.  The system has the following advantages if it can be scaled up.  Its inherently quiet and electricity powered.  It would be lighter than an aircraft using electricity to power turboprops since it misses out the heavy engines.  This could increase range/decrease power consumption etc.  The big problem is where is the electricity going to come from when all the other sectors of our economy require electrification?  Does any aircraft really overcome this problem?  An interesting idea though.


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Coals to eco homes! to eco homes!  An old coal fired power station in the West Midlands is to be transformed into an eco village of 2000 homes.  This coal fired power station that closed in 2016 is one I recognise.  Its not so far from where I grew up.  I even went on a Youth For Christ camp within sight of it. The homes will be powered by solar PV modules both on top of their roofs and elsewhere even floating on a lake.  They will be heated by ground source heat pumps and will use 30% less energy than conventional houses.  The French firm Engie that owns the site is doing it to move beyond traditional dirty energy.

Coals to eco homes is a worthy sounding project.  Taking an ugly coal powered plant down and replacing it with houses will probably face little objections locally.   Old power stations seem a good way to deal with the housing shortage.  There are a whole heap of such power stations that have closed recently in the Trent Valley where housing could be built.  There are some questions though.  How cheap will these houses be?  And will they be fitted as described?  2000 heat pumps use a lot of juice and the grid may require reinforcement locally.  One question is why are houses not being built to passiv house standards which would require no heat?  The bigger picture is that all over the world coal fired power plants are closing.  This seems unstoppable even in America.


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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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