BP energy outlook – another look

china emissions by sourceAnother look at the BP energy outlook.  One thing that used to be said by climate sceptics was there was no point in doing anything about climate change since China was producing so much more pollution.  Its an argument I have not heard made for some time perhaps for a variety of reasons.  Here is the data plotted that I pulled out of the BP energy outlook 2018.  The graph shows emissions from coal, gas and oil for this country.  As you can see two of the three are going to peak and start falling according to BP one of them soon in the case of coal (or it may already have peaked).  This is hardly the actions of a country that is doing nothing.  As we have covered on this site before there are a variety of reasons for China’s actions including old fashioned air pollution.

The graph below shows the historical and projected growth rates in different types of generation.  As you see the idea that we should do nothing since China is opening a new coal fired power station every week is a little out of date.

china energy changeThere are many things I do not like about the current Chinese government, but their action on climate change is to commended.  Their contribution is also vital to meet the Paris targets and this criticism of them is out of date.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Renewable heat

Southampton_District_Energy_SchemeRenewable heat is one of the biggest problems facing the environmentally sustainable economy.  That’s why governments worldwide have concentrated on switching to renewable electricity.  There are plenty of options which in this latter area that work well and as we have seen the costs have plummeted.   Renewable heat by contrast is as we covered in our book is a highly disruptive technology with less options and common underlying drawback.  This week I have learnt of a partial solution to this issue.

There is a lot more detail in our book which I would highly recommend for a look at this issue but in brief here is a summary of each technology and its pros and cons.

Air source heat pumps.  Heat pumps work on the same principle as a fridge.  Think of the hot air you get out of the back as the inside is chilled.  As the name implies these extract heat from the air.  There are number of problems with this technology the main ones being they are noisy, use lots of electricity and work less and less effectively when you want the most heat.  I have a friend who bought one and said it was rubbish, they are however very much used in Norway.  Presumably the Norwegians switch them on in Autumn and leave them on till the spring.  The thermal mass of their well insulated buildings would keep them warm and their hydroelectricity is cheap.  The advantage is they are easy to retro-fit.

Ground source heat pumps.  Cousin of the above and work on the same principle this time extracting heat from the ground or water.  Much more efficient (particularly using water) you could be much more confident your house would be warm.  The main problem is they are very disruptive to fit and use a lot of electricity (requiring grid reinforcement).  You either bury a tube all over your (very large) garden or sink two very deep boreholes.  A form of solar geothermal heat.

Solar collectors.  See below.

Wood.  There is not enough of this to go around, it might have a possible niche use in some district heating systems (see below) or an individual basis

Inter-seasonal heat transfer.  Basically you capture the renewable heat in summer (I’m thinking from conservatories rather than solar panels), store it in some way and use throughout the winter.  There are chemical methods but the easiest is to use a large tank of water.  This up until now is my personal future favourite (more for a lack of  better alternatives).  The disadvantages are disruptive retro fit and poor summers (would have to be combined with electric backups).

Gas.  There is possibility of using anaerobic digestion to make about 25% of our (UK) gas needs.  This is tantalisingly high but relies on a steady stream of food waste.  The gas needs to also have the same calorific value as natural gas (so would fracked or imported gas).  There is a little of this gas going onto the grid at the moment.  The huge advantage is that there is no retrofit issue hence would be the cheapest of the above.  To make it go around we would need to use a lot less each.  Perhaps this is a partial solution.

All the above have one common drawback.  They are all low temperature systems that use low temperature systems either special radiators or underfloor heating and require very well insulated buildings.

District heating.  Very common in Scandinavia and growing slowly here.  However what technology is the heat to come from above?  A mix?  This week I heard of an idea.  This is to use heat from abandoned coal mines.  There are literally thousands of these scattered over the UK.  Many surprisingly near or even under major cities.  If you think about it mines are always hot with geothermal heat.  They also tend to flood.  This renewable heat and we are talking about near Glasgow in this study 12°C can be extracted using very highly efficient heat exchangers and pumped to houses.   There is a scheme in Southampton that uses hot rocks but the principle is the same and coal mines are probably easier to access.  There are two potential huge drawbacks.  The first is would work better as a low energy system the second is that is going to be disruptive and therefore expensive to fit. We would have to build a network of pipes.  One reason the Edinburgh tram scheme may have run over price was the problem of lost (orphan) pipes and wires still in use.  This could be seen as an advantage though we could sort the whole lot out and make maintenance easier in the long term with out having to dig roads up all the time…


Posted in climate change, Community energy, One thing we have learnt this week, peak gas, Practical low carbon living, Renewable heat, Renewables | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sustainable energy update – part 2

Nissan_Leaf_002Last week I blogged on a sustainable energy update on  the book”Sustainable Energy — without the hot air” by the late Professor David JC MacKay.  The blog post became too long so I’ve split it in two.  Here continues another look at the book in the light of events…

Aircraft.  Who would have thought it that short haul electric aircraft are under development.  Professor MacKay does talk about electric aircraft and describes the energy use of one which is exactly the same as a normal aircraft.  He not unreasonably asks if we do have such aircraft are under development then where is the energy going to come from?  The only change as I have mentioned before is in battery technology.

Cars.  There has been surprisingly little change here on the face of it.  Professor MacKay suggests ranges that are not exceeded today and there are not that many electric cars on the road (although its reached the stage that its not that uncommon to see one).  The main changes are in the political and manufacturing drive towards them becoming commonplace.  Also the battery technology is undergoing regular incremental improvement and the costs have plummeted and continue to do so.  When the book was written with the ranges suggested by Professor MacKay there would have been little room for any passengers or luggage!  As we looked at in the last post the multiplier effect of so many items is important and even small improvements in battery technology will make the overall energy use lower.

There is one more point that Professor MacKay talks about.  That is the use of car batteries to store energy as grid backup.  This was in vogue at one point then went out of vogue with the government and now seems to back in.  The main problem as we wrote in our book is getting people to sacrifice their car use.  What has changed is the cost of batteries has made home storage for people with renewable energy systems a practical possibility.  Huge battery systems are also being built as grid storage.

Wind Turbines.  Two things have changed since book was written in the UK.  Onshore wind has pretty much been banned to appease nimbys.  The second is that offshore wind prices have plunged and electricity is now cheaper than nuclear (one thing he definitely did not foresee although neither did many other people).  The reason for this is the size of turbines has increased dramatically.  When the book was written most turbines being installed out at sea were probably 2-3MWh peak output.  Now we are approaching 15MWh per turbine with 20 being talked about.  The question is do these large turbines offer any advantages in terms of space?  Turbines upwind interfere with those downwind and put stress on them and lower their power output.  In the E-version of the book Professor MacKay does not show his calculations.  He comes up with huge areas required.  This question has been impossible for me to determine definitively.  If people have the figures they are not letting on.  An anti-wind site in the US says the answer is that the larger the turbine they need to be spaced relatively further apart.  However the academic links given don’t reveal this.  I think it must be true- its logical.  Therefore bigger size does not mean more capacity for a given area, just much lower costs.   Predicting a given number of turbines per unit area is a mugs game anyway.  This site gave two offshore wind farms which used the same turbine (I looked this up) and the areas were very different, presumably due to the sea bed?

There are things that Professor MacKay did not see.  One of which is surprising that he did not is that wind turbines are being put in deeper and deeper water.  This makes his area availability calculations wrong.  As does the use of floating turbines which are also coming along fast.  The last thing to say is the load factor (fraction of time turbines operate at full output) for UK offhore wind is almost 40%.

No book is perfect and making predictions is never easy (we know).  Professor MacKay future proofed some of his predictions but not others.  Overall today we can produce more power from less for less money and increasingly store it.  The overall conclusion that we cannot switch wholesale to renewables and maintain our current lifestyles is still correct though.  We can however get closer than Professor MacKay thought for less money.


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One thing we have learnt this week – average driving speed

average traffic speedThe average driving speed (in England but I’m sure the story is the same on other nations) is falling according to Department for Transport figures.  I’ve downloaded the data and plotted it out (shown above).  The point is that with the average driving speed falling will it soon be quicker to cycle?  The average speed has fallen from about 20mph to under 18mph in 4 years.  Its easy to see from the trend line I’ve fitted to the data that the trend in the data that has a very regular pattern to it and that within another 8 years the average driving speed will be about 12mph.  The average cycling speed is about 14mph for men and 12mph for women.  So it does look like on the current trend in England it will soon be quicker to cycle than to drive.

There are two very different conclusions you could draw from this data.  The first is to build more roads and build your way out of the problem.  History suggests this won’t work.  Besides in urban areas the scope for building more or wider roads is very limited.

The second conclusion is that to reduce congestion you need to encourage the alternatives like walking, cycling and public transport.   The advantages of this are obvious, better health, less pollution and a more pleasant cityscape.

As you can see there are up and down spikes in the speed.  These are higher during the summer holidays and fall again in November.  Presumably as the weather worsens people start driving again and also snow can reduce speeds.   This fact must have lessons to get people out their cars.  You have to make as easy, cheap and pleasant as possible.
Thanks to Make Wealth History for alerting me to this story.


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Sustainable energy update

1024px-PVeff(rev171030)A sustainable energy update.  I have been thinking about “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air” by the late Professor David JC MacKay.  I had another look at the PV data a few months ago on this site. I’ve ben thinking about some of his conclusions and how they still stack up.  The book was published in 2009.

There has been no major unforeseen new technology (nor will there be), but there have been both incremental and even major changes in some areas.  I’ll consider a number of these briefly and draw some conclusions in this sustainable energy update in the next post.

First re-reading the PV section I had a look at what module efficiency he had used.  Interestingly he used 2 figures.  He used 20% for domestic installations and 10% for stuff in fields.  He used the lower figure since he thought they could be massed produced and used in fields if they were low efficiency and hence cheaper.  This is the first thing that he got wrong (wrong is too stronger a statement but the PV world has changed dramatically in a way no could have seen) in less than 10 years.  Module prices have collapsed.  PV electricity is almost competitive with that on the grid and an unsubsidised solar farm has opened.   Most PV capacity (of which there is a lot) in the UK is in fields.  Domestic PV cell efficiency has not generally reached 20% but is generally in the 17% range.  There are however modules you can buy that are 22% efficient and I doubt if those on solar farms are of a lower efficiency than domestic ones (they are same modules).  There is one remaining prediction that McKay is looking to get wrong on module efficiency.  He doubted if modules could be made more than 30% efficient and be massed produced.  The data shows that modules in the lab are at almost 50%*.  It seems likely that the 30% figure will be breached at some point its only a case of when.  Why is this important?  Obviously you can pack more energy output into a given area.  With as I blogged on previously PV capacity in the UK have barely scratched the surface this means McKay’s figures are too low even looking only at optimal sites.

Energy efficiency is something that Professor McKay considered very important.  For what its worth so do I and the next part of the sustainable energy update will consider this.  Running a renewable energy economy is much much easier if we radically reduce our energy use.  One way of doing this is to use more energy efficient lighting.  Professor McKay was writing about LED’s which were in their infancy then and very expensive.  Since then the “ban the bulb” has forced the technology to come on leaps and bounds.  The quality of light is indistinguishable from incandescent bulbs and the cost has plummeted.   Use of this technology allows  a big potential saving on lighting energy use which Professor McKay estimates as 2.7kwh per person.  He kind of foresaw this though saying in a few years LED’s would be the way to go.  One major disagreement I had with the book was over devices on standby.  He said switch them off but it makes little difference compared to our overall energy use.  I can sort of see where he is coming from.  Apart from the first argument there is the person that says I don’t leave anything on standby so I can fly.  I always thought Professor McKay lived in a house with not many devices plugged in and charging.  Its the shear number per house multiplied by 22 million (UK).  Again the situation has changed and EU directive has limited such things as  phone chargers to 0.1W I believe and all other electrical stuff you buy has become more energy efficient.  But consider 22 million houses with 2 chargers left on all the time per year this is 52MW a year.  Still not much but consider all the other stuff left on all the time in your house….  As a last thought there is one thing Professor McKay mentions that uses more energy than in 2009.  That is the broadband router.  We have had to have another one recently.  It uses exactly double the amount that the old one used which was anyway more than was listed in the book.

The next part of the sustainable energy update will consider planes, cars and wind turbines…


*please note thermodynamic limits are about 60%

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Does nature have inherent value?

Bombus hypnorum the Tree bumblebeeDoes nature have inherent value?  On the news over the last week there has been a lot of talk over the loss of songbirds in Europe, mainly France where the survey was done.  The same is true here though.  Last Autumn there were a series of letters to the Guardian stating that there had been a huge drop in the number of insects.  This was obvious it was said since there were no longer insects splatted over the front bumpers of cars.   Its funny how you do not notice something until someone points it out…  But the letter writers were right.  I also saw less insects in the garden last summer both in variety and in numbers with hindsight.

Not a week goes by without some threat to a species in the natural world being reported and this has led me and others thinking about this from a biblical perspective.  Starting in Genesis God states that the earth and all creation is  good (Gen1v24).  Interestingly he states this before the creation of mankind.  But Psalm 104 which by “coincidence” was one of my readings this week backs this up, or even goes even further on the inherent value of nature.

The whole Psalm is a meditation on nature. There is too much here except to pick out a few points, but its well reading through and would make ideal meditation material.   It talks about God’s provision not just for humans but also the wildlife (14, 21, 27) and plants (16).  The whole Psalm shouts about the inherent value of nature and suggests God rejoices in his works.

At the end of the Psalm there is a hint that perhaps sinning is linked to not caring for his creation.  Even if this is a stretch too far theologically there is an implicit need to care for God’s creation both in this Psalm and other passages.  There is no doubt we are all culpable for the destruction that is going on either directly or indirectly due to our lifestyles and will be judged for this one day.

PS there is some good news in the news today, there has been an increase in the numbers of garden birds in the UK and this shows something we can do to combat losses in the countryside – feed them.


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One thing we have learnt this week – subsidy free renewables

walney 1 and 2Subsidy free renewables are growing closer according to an industry report this week.  No one wants a subsidy for their energy system.  It distorts any kind of market and is at the whim of consumer opinion and government will.  But in the UK the price of solar and wind have fallen so far we are close to this happening (2025).  To do so will almost kill of the construction of new gas plants completely.  The reasons for this are partly the shear volume of renewable kit and partly the increased use of energy storage, the price of batteries is also plunging.  Of course there is at the point when no subsidies are required ther is a problem.  This is the payback can be still very long.  Subsidy free renewables at this point will suffer slightly.  Nevertheless the report see £20 billion of investment between now and 2030.  Most of this will be wind (offshore) due to the drop in solar power support but now subsidy free solar is coming on stream as well.

As this area tends to move faster than anticipated then its likely that renewable deployment will be faster and higher then this anyway.  Meanwhile in Australia renewables deployment is continuing apace and leading to a fall in electricity prices…


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Reopening railway lines

800px-Beeching2.svgOne of the most exciting developments in transport is reopening railway lines.  The Beeching cuts that I have blogged on before were planned to cut most of the UK’s rail capacity.  Beeching (an engineer) in the end managed to close about a third of our capacity.  This map shows what the route network would have looked like (black).  Pretty much nothing in Wales, not much in Scotland and England only main trunk routes.

Beeching envisaged buses taking over from the rural bus lines and main lines being used for fast freight trains.  We know what happened there.  Rural buses are almost non-existent and freight has never achieved its full potential (although he was right on the importance of rail freight).  In the 1980’s Thatcher proposed closing all but about 1800 miles and turning the routes into roads.  Question would you rather have an extra road running by your house or a railway with a few trains an hour?  This plan was dropped after huge protest as was the worst of the Beeching cuts.  The pullback from both has left our railways viable for for future expansion which either of the above would not have done.  Almost ever since the closures campaigners have been trying to reinstate lines.  The rise in passenger traffic, climate change, transport chaos on the roads and yes the high oil price has made reopening railway lines viable again.  It even now government policy.  I was asked to sign a petition this week on this.  Which I did.

In recent years we have seen our biggest reopening yet the Borders railway.  Others such as to Portishead are under way.  Reopening these lines is expensive and we should aim for the low hanging fruit.  Examples of this fall into 3 categories.

The first is where the lines are poen and currently used for freight only.  An example is Ashington – Blyth – Newcastle.

The second is where the line is only recently been closed so the line has not been built on.  An example here is Thornton – Leven in Fife.  The track is still down (although needs renewal).

The last is where much of the existing route is still there and only short stretches need putting back.  Many examples here.  Bathgate to Glasgow (which I use) was reopened recently all the way allowing Glasgow – Edinburgh travel.  The Great central line and Worcester to Derby via Dudley are other ones.  Opening the railways lines closed is vital so support your local groups.

A full list can be seen here.


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One thing we have learnt this week – fast charging

250px-Parallel_plate_capacitor.svgCould fast charging electric cars be on the way?  I have written about this before but this week I learnt of another report on a new fast charging technology.   There are a number of problems with electric car adaption (apart from the one that it does not solve the general problems caused by cars).

  • The first is cost.
  • The second is range.
  • The third s charging point numbers.
  • The fourth is charging time.
  • The fifth is number of models.
  • The last is grid capacity.

Car costs are falling as battery production capacity builds so this becoming less of an issue.  The fact that all manufacturers have pledged to make majority electric vehicles will help this and this does not like being a limiting factor at the moment.  Ranges have increased dramatically over the last 5 years and are said to be increasing at around 6-8% a year.  There are said to be enough charging points at the moment but due to the number of street parked cars this could be an issue in the future.  You can see where the idea of people not owning a car in the future but using autonomous vehicles comes in.  My view is the idea of car ownership will be much harder to shift than people think and this issue could act as a brake (sic) on electric cars.

One limit is said to be a narrow range of models but the answer to point one applies here as well.  The grid capacity issue is a major one if electric cars really take off and will be very expensive to solve.  We are not just talking about generating capacity but the grid itself will need upgrading.  Certainly in the UK the grid needs renewing anyway.  So this may be a beneficial happen-stance.  For electric cars to succeed they need to be cheap to buy, cheap to run (undoubtedly true now), you need good range, you need reliable charging, find a charging point easily and last you car needs to charge fast.

At the moment charging is too slow.  It needs to be as quick as filling a tank.  A variety of solutions have been proposed to this problem.  This includes battery swapping, new battery technology and the use of capacitors.  The first two have not really happened leaving an entry point for the last idea.  Capacitors are not a battery but hold the opposite charge on two plates separated by an insulator.  When connected to a power supply electrons are removed from one plate and supplied to the other.  When you connect to a power demand the reverse occurs.  Charging and discharging is very quick and they have a long life.  Up and till now they do not have capacity to run a car for more than a few miles.  Bu various groups are working on new super capacitors using nano materials such as graphene.  The advantage of nano materials is they can build up enormous surface areas for tiny amounts of material.  In the short term these researchers and companies say that they see capacitors as an addition to batteries handling braking and acceleration which put strains on the car battery.  Its is easy to see this fast charging method is the way to go though and will mitigate many of the problems alluded to above.


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One thing we have learnt this week – kinder country

cartoon on snowDoes snow make for a kinder country?  It was noticeable how life changed when a fair amount of snow created complete disruption.  (We can argue about whether we need to spend a lot of money to make our infrastructure snow proof – this might be necessary with climate change.)  But for 48 hours the whole of the UK ground to a complete standstill.  The sense of change and community and a kinder country was very noticeable.  Churches threw open their doors to the homeless.  Businesses and people donated food and clothes (a person in my homegroup saw this in action as a volunteer).  Hotels through open their doors to stranded travellers and again supermarkets donated food.  Neighbours rallied around one another.

The biggest change was on the roads and streets.  The streets were reclaimed by children and pedestrians.  A video on line showed a man snow boarding down a street in Glasgow.  The reason for all this was a complete absence of traffic.  And how refreshing it was.  I saw lots of people walking back from the shops with their shopping.  It even took a few days here for the traffic to get back to normal.

The question is could we replicate this in the future?  Even electric cars do not totally solve the problems of pollution and excessive traffic.  Of course there were drawbacks, the shops were almost all closed apart from the supermarkets that were fast running out of food.  The snow made us see the precariousnesses of life.  Our dependency on supply lines at the moment dominated by fossil fuels was plain to see.  It would be good if we could reduce our dependence on the motor car.  Life would be so much better.


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