One thing we have learnt this week- UK greenhouse emissions fell last year

uk GHG data






According to government statistics released this week UK greenhouse emissions fell last year by nearly 9%.  The reasons for this are;

  • A mild winter in 2013/14 meant less gas use to heat our houses.
  • Reduced use of coal for power generation as coal fired plant has been retired.
  • A massive increase in renewable electricity output with almost 20% of electricity coming from renewable sources (particularly high in the final quarter).
  • North sea oil production was at a record low, but gas production increased.

This fall is now becoming a longterm trend in greenhouse emissions.  It does not mean that we have decoupled growth from greenhouse emissions (for starters we offshore a lot of production to countries like China).  There are also other related challenges and questions.  Will the fall continue with the recent fall in energy prices?  How will we cope with the retirement of so much coal plant (with more to come)?  How will we cope with very large outputs of solar electricity in summer?  How will we heat our houses in the future (renewable heat has limitations and has yet to make any significant inroads into the UK energy scene).  We cover many of these issues in our book.  There are solutions but they require forward planning.

Chart data source DECC.


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Lent thoughts

lent wordleHow is lent so far for you?  A few weeks ago I posted that we as a family were going to eat less meat.  This is something I have wanted to do for some time.  There are several reasons for this.  One is carbon emissions, the second is general sustainability.  Meat takes a lot of energy to grow and it seems very likely that with energy shortages and population increases eating the amount of meat we do now will become impossible.  Also my cooking had become stuck in a rut and a lent challenge was one way of getting out of it.  Relating eating less meat to growing as a Christian has been more difficult, but lent is a process.  It not only the sacrifice that is part of it but other stuff that is happening as well.  For example my church has put up a lent blog which has been helpful at times.

So far since lent has started we have eaten meat two or three times.  My cooking has been stretched as I have learnt that “lentils are really great”.  I have discovered a wealth of new recipes (the internet makes it easy to find recipes for free).  So far so good and this will hopefully be a permanent change, which is surely what lent is about.  More ideas can be found here.


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One thing we have learnt this week- divestment

divestmentThe big story of the week has to be divestment (more specifically fossil fuel divestment).   Increasingly individuals, philanthropic investment  funds, educational institutions and (I’m glad to say) churches are selling their shares in fossil fuel companies.  The divestment  movement which has been likened to that over slavery started in the US but is now spreading worldwide and judging by the numbers last autumn was in the early stages of exponential growth.  Its actually very hard to keep pace, since every few days a new victory is announced.  Last week on the plus side the London assembly voted to pull its pension funds out of fossil fuels (although its ultimately up to the mayor), Oxford University put a decision off.  Last Autumn Glasgow University was the first University in Europe to divest.  The Guardian also joined the fray last week asking the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome trust to divest as well as thinking about the Guardians own divestment plans.  The moral logic over this push is obvious both these philanthropic organisations work to improve human health, something climate change is working against.

There are also good financial reasons to do so.  The first is the idea of a carbon bubble.  We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels left in the ground and expect to meet a 2 degree target.  If there is a strong agreement in Paris, these reserves maybe become stranded assets.  An increasing number of politicians are warning about this and also the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney.  Some people reckon this could even cause another global crash since so much of the assets of pension funds is tied up in fossil fuels.

The second reason for divestment is the expansion of renewable energy technologies (and I would add efficiency technologies such as LED’s).  The expansion of solar power in particular is always underestimated by analysts.  As the costs fall towards subsidy free economics then these technologies could take off explosively undercutting fossil fuel production. If there is a weak agreement in Paris then one outcome as a sop is governments pushing renewables harder.

Divestment looks like being a huge story over the next year and shows early signs of being very successful, I’m proud to say many churches are leading the way on this although there is still a long way to go.


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Powered by pee

bug on mfc

Bacteria on one of my anode fibres (too few unfortunately) taken using a scanning electron microscope.

A few weeks ago I heard a story about loos powered by Pee and an appeal for students to use the toilets.  I recognised what they were talking about since this is the area I did my doctorate in- that is microbial fuel cells.  Microbial fuel cells (MFC’s) use the potential energy available in molecules such as glucose and derive energy from it -a process called respiration.  All forms of respiration end up with electrons being transferred from the energy rich molecules to a terminal electron acceptor (a process of chemical reduction).  This transfer of electrons is coupled to the formation of the universal energy currency of all living things, ATP, therefore generating energy for the organism.   In humans our terminal election acceptor is oxygen, which is reduced to water.  Bacteria vary in their terminal electron acceptor.  Some can use oxygen, some anaerobic bacteria cannot but instead use a other molecules such as nitrates, organic compounds to a variety of metals.  Some can use both oxygen and other electron acceptors depending on conditions.

In microbial fuel cells we get bacteria to transfer their electrons to the anode and then we can use some of these electrons to do work (see diagram below).  Some of the electrons must be combined with oxygen and protons produced as part of the respiration process to make water.

mfcThere are two methods of electron transfer from the bacterium to an anode, indirect by naturally produced molecules or some organic dyes or by direct transfer via proteins on the surface of the bacteria.  The latter method is preferred since its more efficient and dyes need periodic replacement.  However not all bugs have this direct transfer ability (the ones I tried in my doctorate didn’t).  In our bodies cells the final stages of electron transfer take place inside the cells and the same is true of most bacteria.  Only bacteria with additional protein extensions to the outside of the cells can transfer the electrons to the anode.  In a toilet powered by pee bacteria use urea to make electricity, the MFC could either be seeded with electrogenic bacteria or wait for a natural population to build up.

The advantage of microbial fuel cells is they are at their best almost 100% efficient as energy conversion devices.  The disadvantage is they produce very small amounts of current at low voltages (and unlike chemical fuel cells no heat).  This low power output means they would need a huge surface area to do anything useful.  Various niche uses have been proposed or tried, remote sensing buoys, treating brewery waste or producing electricity from sewage.  Something such as lights in a refugee camp powered by pee is a simple but effective idea.  The energy source is constantly replenishing.  MFC’s are certainly not the answer to peak oil or climate change but may find some uses yet.



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One thing we have learnt this week – the yin and yang of climate change

yin and yang of climate changeOver the last week Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben have written long pieces in the Guardian acting as the yin and yang of climate change.  Naomi Klein has pointed out all the huge challenges we have to make in a very short time and Bill McKibben has been more optimistic pointing the real progress that has been made. Both are right and I would recommend readers of this blog to read both articles which are better than I can write here.

Naomi Klein looks at the reasons we do not change our direction of travel when we are staring future climate disaster in the face and firmly blames our current economic system.  It is our great misfortune to have a climate crisis when any deviation from free market capitalism is greeted with howls of horror from multi-billionaires.  This is correct, but in many ways not helpful.  As the editor of the Guardian wrote in a editorial launching the series, climate change is seen as left wing issue.  This is unhelpful in the US and increasingly in the UK.  There has to be something in it for the political right to able to latch onto for us to crack this problem.  Naomi Klein then goes onto confound this and tick every left wing box saying that in this crisis there is an opportunity to rebuild society in a fairer different way.  Something else I absolutely agree with but undoing the thoughts behind Mr Rusbridger’s editorial.    Mark Lynas wrote an article yesterday criticising Naomi Klein’s views but even he sees we need some regulation (in his terms a carbon price) and I also think for any new nuclear reactors.   There is just enough evidence to suggest that a market solution might work (sulpher dioxide reduction in the US), but no evidence to suggest this will happen without government regulation.  The problem is particularly in the US some people reject even the smallest amount of regulation.

Bill McKibben (a fellow Christian) argues that progress has been made in stopping some of the most damaging fossil fuel projects such as XL and fracking in Europe.  That disinvestment is acting to keep fossil fuels in the ground and renewables are fast taking the place of traditional energy sources.  All these are true, but we have to be realistic.

On fracking and XL the jury is still out.  Here in Scotland there is no final ban on fracking merely a freeze on a decision, on XL Obama hasn’t signed it off and could still do so.  The low oil price is perhaps more relevant here at the moment.

When it comes to disinvestment its too early to say.  Neither fracking or the related XL pipeline (and their like) is helped (ironically) by the crash in oil prices.  The disinvestment momentum is growing fast and we are really only at the beginning of the process.  So far there is little evidence that its hit the oil majors share prices, but I find this exciting.  Only today I have heard that the London assembly has voted to disinvest fossil fuel company shares from its employees pensions (as have many church denominations).  Watch this space this is going to be massive and may save those who do from “stranded assets”.

Looking at renewables (Bill calls the solar thaw) there is much to be encouraged about.  Back in 2002-4 when I invested in solar technologies people thought I was mad and the feed in tariff was a distant dream.  Now its difficult in the UK to go anywhere and not see PV modules (impossible in Germany).   Costs of solar PV have fallen by getting onto 100% over the last 5 years and records have been broken for installation and output (just look at our Facebook page)  Nevertheless the pushback is on in many countries (its too expensive/ugly/doesn’t work etc.) and it has to be said that so far renewables have had little impact on the total carbon emissions (even in Germany).

What we do know is that we have very difficult climate negotiations coming up in Paris.  We also know that politicians are not being straight with us about the implications of this.  Things could go one of two ways with regard to peak oil.  A robust climate agreement will mean we cannot burn all the remaining fossil fuel stocks.  We could end up with “stranded assets”, worthless fossil fuels and a bizarre voluntary version of peak oil.  The other alternative is there is no agreement we continue to try to extract increasingly expensive fossil fuels and the more traditional version of peak oil is back.  Within a few years the oil price will soar again since all the easy to extract fossil fuels have been used.

Either way the reality of our lives over the next few decades will be this.

  • Foreign air travel will be a thing of the past.  Cars will be expensive and our use of them will be much more limited than today.
  • We will have almost entirely locally grown vegetarian food (and grow as much as we can ourselves).
  • Energy will be more expensive and more limited.
  •  Material goods will limited and expensive and any made will be almost 100% recyclable.

And yes those of us who are dissatisfied with our current economic system do see all the above as an opportunity, however I accept not everyone does and these people have to be brought into the climate conversation.  That’s the ying and yang of climate change and why you need to read our book.


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Lime part 5. Finishing off.

DSC_1801Finishing off this series on lime (which has to be said is offered as more of a reference) I will describe the use of hydraulic lime and the overall effects the calcitherm system has had on the house

With both presses sticking the boards on is easy using the calcitherm glue. You can mix by volume/weight but I did it by consistency in small batches. (The glue sets fast only mix what you need.) The boards stick on easily although using calcitherm glue to seal the joins between boards can be time consuming. The boards are easily cut with a saw (careful they are fragile and can snap), but you do not want to breath in the calcium silicate powder.  If joins are not flat and if lumps of glue poke out gently use sandpaper to improve the surface.

The next job was to skim a thin layer of hydraulic lime plaster onto the boards. This is scary since you will see this. Hydraulic lime is made from limestone with clay impurities in it.  This ensures it sets underwater (and that it keeps longer unused in the bag).  The reason I used this was that it was recommended by my local lime supplier as it was very fine.  I skimmed a hydraulic lime layer on by trial and error using a steel float and large decorating spatulas. With all these types of materials they say you should sweep the tool upwards. They also say you should do put two layers of a few millimetres on. I found one to be enough. I also found its easier the thinner the layer of lime you skim on.  Again as above my workmanship is far from perfect, but only when you shine a bright light directly on it can you see its imperfections.

The final bit of finishing off is to paint the lime (this the only reason to add it to cover the calcitherm boards). On the downstairs press I used breathable clay paint. This is not as breathable as limewash. The paint looks good when fresh and is easy to apply but tends to discolour going brown.  On the upstairs press I used limewash which is a kind of thin paint made from lime with added mineral dye.  This has the consistency of cream. I requires multiple layers (>5 in my experience) and good wetting of the surface before and for many hours after its application. I found using a small paint roller was the best way of applying it (note they say this cannot be used for paint again).

Has it worked? Aesthetically both presses look great – at least from a distance.  In terms of usability as shelves, the downstairs one works fine, the upstairs one seems mostly OK.
The downstairs one did not noticeably make the house more breathable.  The effect of the upstairs one has been dramatic.  The whole house is less damp (including downstairs), which is very surprising given the small area of the press (less than 2m2). With an external temperature of less than about 8 degrees C our windows would be covered in condensation, this has almost completely disappeared and when its there in rooms with doors closed at night it dissipates quickly once they are left open in the morning. We have had some Aspergillus niger on the bottom of the upstairs press. This should not happen since the lime is very alkaline.  Hopefully this is just that I had not put enough layers of lime wash on. I am adding some more.

I would thoroughly recommend the calcitherm system.  The only problem is the expense which makes its affordable for small areas rather than the entire outside wall of your house.



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One thing we have learnt this week- landfill

plastic bottle greenhouse at CATLandfill sites all over the UK are closing due to soaring rates of recycling.  Ironically today we got our new smaller bin for non-recoverable waste.  This is clearly marked for landfill as I suspect this makes a difference as far as what people put in it.  Whilst as this site has blogged on before recycling rates in England have stalled the latest story looks very encouraging with 100m tonnes sent to landfill in 1997 down to 39m tonnes in 2013.  By 2020 this will be a mere 10% of its 2009 levels when 90% of all waste went to landfill.

The reasons for this can be put down to one thing.  Tax, or more precisely the landfill tax introduced by the labour government (and credit due maintained by all governments since).  This paid by all who send stuff to landfill is taxed per tonne and has been progressively raised by successive governments.  Currently £80/tonne its set to rise another £2.50 in the next few weeks.  This tax does not force local government or waste companies to recycle more, they could pay the tax, but it strongly encourages it. When people say that the taxes do not work the landfill tax is the ultimate counter argument.  Since companies and local government know that the tax will continue to rise they can plan accordingly.  Far from destroying the waste management companies the landfill tax is enabling them to switch to being a mix of energy production companies (waste methane, energy from waste, solar panels on ex landfill sites) and specialist recycling companies.  The landfill sites in any case need decades of cleaning up with careful management.

We should not be complacent, there is still much that we cannot recycle especially in the electronic line (subject of a future post) and we keep going to rural parts of Wales and Scotland and finding very poor recycling facilities.  Interestingly I read this week that the French government is forcing anyone who sells stuff in France to say how long it will last and help to combat “planned obsolescence”.  Also we should remember that most plastics can only be recycled so many times and that burning waste to make energy is not the best of ideas.  So reducing the amount of waste we use is of vital importance.

Meanwhile here is one idea to reduce waste “swap and share” our homegroup tried and has proved very popular.  It also fits in well with lent.  See our a lent guide for more ideas.


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One thing we have learnt this week – rapid charge battery

1024px-2010_Mitsubishi_i_MiEV_hatchback_(2010-10-16)_03An Israeli company claims to have invented a new type of rapid charge battery that can charge a mobile phone in 30 seconds!  What’s equally extraordinary is that this breakthrough has come out Alzheimer’s disease research.  The team discovered some polypeptides which could hold a very high charge.  (A polypeptide is a short chain protein, identical in general structure but far shorter.)  The main initial use of this rapid charge battery is set to be mobile phone charging.  I can see the advantages for this use, my phone takes 2.5 hours to charge. However, this use does not strike me as vital.

The more interesting use is as a new rapid charge battery for electric cars.  The company website suggests a charge time of 5 minutes for a car with a range of 300 miles.  If true this would be revolutionary.  There are several reasons why electric cars have not taken off.  The first is their higher up front cost due the battery cost.  This as we blogged on before shows signs of falling.  The second is “range anxiety”.  To go on holiday last year would have meant 3 probably 4 charges for us.  My understanding is that 30 minutes will give an 80% charge to a typical car, then how long it takes to get to 100% is very unclear.  But it will be a time since as the voltage in a battery rises towards its open circuit voltage the rate of charging falls.  You see this on a mobile phone/laptop etc. it gets most of the way there in an hour but then charges with frustrating slowness.

The rapid charge battery could change all this, 5 minutes would be comparable to a normal petrol filling stop in time.  It would also solve the problem that apparently happens in that the limited number of charging points get occupied for hours.  There is other advantages in principle with the rapid charge battery.  Its biological nature sets us free from the damage caused by mining and resource limitations.  It should be possible to make the polypeptide using bacteria in culture.

There are two problems with this the rapid charge battery.  It cannot be retrofitted on existing devices due to its very high rates of charging.  Also its biological nature would mean it could be degraded by bacteria/fungi.  When the battery comes to the end of its life it makes disposal easy but in the meanwhile could cause problems.


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Lime part 3. Lime plaster

Downstairs press with wallpaper coming off due to damp.

Downstairs press with wallpaper coming off due to damp.

In parts 1 and 2 of this occasional series on lime we looked at the background to lime and the use of lime mortar in re-pointing walls, today in the last  parts we will look at the use of lime plaster.  Warning- I have found this the most challenging of the lime materials to work with.  Unlike re-pointing walls I have had to use tools such as floats (mostly a steel float).

The reason why I wanted to use this is to insulate an “Edinburgh Press”.  This is a shallow cupboard built into the wall, often with a door so it looks like it leads to a room.  We have four of these.  Two of these have caused no problem being on the boundary wall with our neighbours and therefore internal.  The other two, one upstairs in our lounge and the other downstairs in one bedroom have had huge damp problems.  The upstairs one had a door, we removed this and gave it to a homeless charity (this only gave modest damp improvements).   The problem is they cut into external wall and act as a “cold bridge”, that is an area of heat loss which leads to a build up of condensation.  My attempts at insulating both presses with non-breathable insulation failed.  They were still damp and had Aspergillus niger growing (which is an increasing health hazard) effectively making them unusable as shelves.

I needed a solution and my first thought was to brick the ground floor press up.  As a last resort in 2011 I rang Historic Scotland who in those days had a free advice line.  They recommended calcitherm and told me how to use it. I rarely mention products by name and I’m certainly not being paid for it, but its hard to avoid and this is one I would highly recommend.  Essentially calcitherm is a breathable board formed of calcium silicate through a chemical reaction, it is then dried and compressed.  Its highly insulating keeping heat in but letting water vapour out.  Basically its use is as follows.  Skim a layer of flat lime plaster onto the surface you are going to mount the board on (in my case stone), stick the calcitherm on with special breathable glue, then skim another layer of lime plaster on top and paint this either with breathable paint (or better still lime wash).

All this will be described later on this blog site.


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One thing we have learnt this week – energy outlook 2035

wind turbine in France from below bladesBP produces two important energy documents a year, the “Statistical Review of World Energy” and the “Energy outlook”.  The energy outlook has just been published looking forward to 2035.  This post will pick out some of the most salient points and make some comments on them.

  • BP see energy demand rising inexorably.  They say that global population will be 1.6 billion higher in 2035 and these people will need at least some energy.  Thus energy demand will rise almost 40% over the next 20 years.  My view is this is broadly correct, global population will not have peaked in 20 years and it seems a likely value.  The BP energy outlook examines the economics behind this data which I have ignored.
  • The energy outlook 2035 prediction of where this energy demand growth comes from is very interesting.  It looks like energy demand has peaked in the developed world.  All future growth comes from the developing world.  This is something this blog has covered before.  Again this seems likely but is predicated on off-shoring and globalisation.  With peak oil this will go into reverse and may reverse this trend in both the developed and developing world.  At the same time this growth in energy demand is slowing everywhere.
  • BP see where this energy is coming from changing.  The share from coal and oil plunges, gas rises and renewables overtakes nuclear and hydro.  Whilst the share of of coal and oil declines the total amount used is still growing overall (developed world only).  BP still see a major role for oil and gas (funny that) and probably underestimate renewables contribution (most people have in the past).
  • On costs they give a wide range but solar could be competitive with onshore wind, gas and coal by 2035.  Nuclear is not even compared!  Again this is conservative on solar.  Once solar hits grid parity which is close in many countries its growth will be explosive meaning costs plummet further.
  • One of the most interesting predictions in the Energy outlook 2035 is around shale oil and gas.  BP think the contribution made by these will be negligible except in the USA.  This is down to social and geological factors.  Like the IEA BP think that US shale oil will go into decline soon but gas won’t.  I’m not sure I agree about US gas production, but its hard to argue with their overall view.  Shale is never going to happen in most places.
  • The most worrying finding is that carbon emissions rise 25% by 2035.  They have to be falling long before this to stand any chance of limiting any increase to 2ºC.  The reasons for this predicted failure are insufficient penetration of renewables in my view.  One piece of good news from the energy outlook is that energy efficiency is rising and making an increasing contribution

Overall can we meet all this increasing energy demand from fossil fuels?  It seems unlikely.  Peak oil is not dead merely sleeping.

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