One thing we have learnt this week- the big energy debate

bedroom wallThe Guardian has started a year long project called “the big energy debate”.  What is worrying and interesting is that despite the fuss over energy prices over the last year how disengaged people are from all the whole energy problem.  As part of the big energy debate the Guardian has done some opinion polling.  An astounding 2% of people thought energy was one of the most important issues facing the UK.  This was despite over 80% being concerned about bills.  But only 32% thought it would influence the way they vote.

People seem unaware of their acute dependency on energy for example look at mobile devices.  These take energy to manufacture, transport and above all use, with constant recharging.  There are some encouragements from the big energy debate survey, there was very high support for renewables, particularly solar.  Nuclear, biomass and coal were the least popular with fracking in between.  Fracking other polls as well as this suggest is a fairly even three way split between don’t knows and antis/pros.  Once it arrives in your backyard though its very unpopular.

We have a triple dilemma of affordability, security of supply and climate commitments.  These often seem to contradict.  But people do have to get their heads around this issue, the days of endless cheap energy are over.  Hopefully the big energy debate will help to move things forward.  It seems to be taking place on twitter and if “No oil in the lamp” can work out how to use it, it may well join in.


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Self Sufficient August

Self Sufficient Augustlast subsistance lunch

It was going to be “No Buy July”- the challenge was to go without money for a month.  But we delayed the challenge by a month for a variety of reasons: most of our crops were not ready until late July; we spent the first half of July staying with friends in the Alps; and I had bad morning sickness that could only be alleviated by constant snacking. We couldn’t come up with such a catchy (corny?) title for August, but it was a lot more practicable. We slackened the rules a bit, from not using money at all, to not shopping or buying food and drink.

I did buy some tickets for the fringe festival- but hey, that only comes round once a year and we had lots of visitors who were keen to go to shows. It would have been sad not to join them, and mean to expect them to pay for us. Other than that, and direct debits for telephone, broadband, power and council tax, I did not pay for anything during the month (my excuse being that I need these for work as I work from home).

We definitely didn’t starve, in fact we ate very well, and very healthily on vegetables from the garden and meat from the freezer.  We started the month with most of a roe deer in the freezer- we hadn’t caught it ourselves, but we had butchered it. We also did a shop on July 31st and bought plenty of flour, pasta, rice, eggs, fat, cheese and sugar. We did not stock up on luxury items like chocolate,  biscuits or frozen pizza because we felt that this was against the spirit of the challenge. We bought enough milk for the first week only. This was going to be the crux for me. I’d made it through “no-dairy February”, but that was before getting pregnant. Thankfully our friends looked after me (and baby) by bartering milk for our beans, jam and accommodation.

We did not have to skimp on entertainment, and hosted more meals than we were hosted for. We were also able to give away plenty of beans, carrots, courgettes and jam. I supplemented our own produce with raspberries and blackberries from Blackford hill. I also eyed up the bunnies as an additional protein source, but decided that any attempt to catch one would probably end up with me in a gorse bush looking stupid.

During the second half of the month the weather turned unseasonably cold and dreich.  All but two of the tomatoes stayed green and the peapods failed to fill out. It did not affect us greatly as we had tinned tomatoes in the cupboard, but it did give us a small sense of what true subsistence might feel like: in a word, vulnerable.

In summary, this is what I learned:

  • How to make granola, gooseberry cordial and courgette bhajis;
  • That fruit juice is not an essential item for the weekly shop;
  • That there is great pleasure in giving and receiving simple things;
  • That beans are OK as a commodity for bartering, but home brew beer is better; and
  • What it feels like to have your food supply at the mercy of the weather.

Guest blog by Ruth.


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One thing we have learnt this week – battery powered trains

intercity_rossoSearch the internet for “battery powered trains” and you get a whole pile of people trying to sell you children’s toys.  But this story is not about toys but real battery powered trains.  Bombardier the only manufacturer of trains in the UK at the moment (although Hitachi are building a factory in NE England) are experimenting on battery powered trains with the aid of a UK government grant.

The UK has some the lowest percentage of railway electrification in Europe but this is changing with another 1500 miles due to be electrified (excluding HS2).  Electrification in the UK got going in a big way with the DC third rail network in SE England and one or two other places.  By and large the one or two other places such as bits of track in Liverpool got converted to standard AC overhead wiring but the third rail is still a huge part of the UK’s electrification system.  In the 1960′s modern electrification got under-way with the West Coast main line from London to Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool.  In the 1980′s the East Coast Main line was electrified from London to Edinburgh and Leeds. Other electrification was carried out from London to East Anglia.  There is a theme emerging here all lines radiate to London.  This makes economic sense and is largely true although the West Coast electrification allowed a most local commuter routes in Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow to electrified.

There is a move to electric trains, for a variety of reasons they are quieter, cheaper to run as the oil price has soared, more reliable, easier to source and faster.  New less London centric routes due to be electrified include a number in the North of England across the Pennines and around Manchester and Leeds, also branches off the West and East coast main lines to Blackpool and Hull.  Glasgow/Edinburgh via Bathgate has been reopened and electrified and Birmingham to Southampton via Oxford will be electrified.  London centric routes that will be electrified include London, Bristol to Swansea (with all the south valley commuter branches electrified) and London to Sheffield.  Plus some other short routes and extensions.

All in all a huge programme.  But even this leaves many routes incomplete.  So for example whilst London Bristol will go electric the route onto Cornwall will not be.   So trains will run the first hundred miles or so to Bristol under the wires, then on as diesels to Cornwall.  This is crazy and where battery powered trains could come in.  Its easy to imagine a train that charges as it runs from the wires on some parts of routes and then continues on battery power the rest of the way.  Even if couldn’t return it could be recharged in a siding first.  This is the advantage of electricity, its a universal infrastructure.

Of course there is nothing new about battery powered trains when the Railways were nationalised British Rail Engineering looked at sodium sulphur battery technology in the 1970′s.  Bombardier are looking at lithium technology batteries.  Tests of the battery powered trains will commence in earnest later on this year.


clipart from

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Renewable energy breaks new records

 2 new wind turbines recently erected on the former airfield at Eye in Suffolk

2 new wind turbines recently erected on the former airfield at Eye in Suffolk

Renewable energy breaks new records in the UK, Germany and the US.  Last weekend on Sunday, its estimated that 75% of Germany’s electricity came from a a mixture of biomass, wind, solar and hydro.  And it wasn’t even a particularly sunny day.  This follows a spring where renewable energy breaks new records in both the US and UK.  In the US renewable electricity has surged to over 14%, a target that it was thought would not be reached until 2040!  In the UK as well renewable energy breaks new records with 20% of electricity coming from renewable sources.

Schoolhouse at Scoraig off grid and fitted with PV's.

Schoolhouse at Scoraig off grid and fitted with PV’s.

All this is encouraging but in both terms of climate change and energy security, but there are still issues.  The US continues to export emissions as coal and off-shoring.  So global carbon emissions rise even as renewables output soars.  The production of vast amounts of solar power in Germany is leading to grid issues which we have covered on this blog.  Nevertheless with all the issues in the Ukraine its better to have these problems than buying gas from Mr Putin.

And of course there is always energy conservation, using less is by far the best option.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Libya again

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about Libya.  I wish I did not have to write a follow up.  The situation has got much worse since.  A few days ago Egyptian and UAE fighters bombed Islamist militias.  There are two rival governments and different groups fighting it out on the ground in what is a very confused situation as the county rapidly sinks into a civil war.

In March I wrote;

Does that Libya is on the brink matter?  I think it does for three reasons.

  • First, there is a humanitarian issue. 
  • Second, we will have a refugee crisis much closer to Europe. 
  • Lastly the raison d’etre of this blog, energy security.  The graph below shows the oil and gas production for Libya (source BP statistical review of world energy 2013).

Libyan oil and gas productionNothing has changed to alter what I wrote but with other problems in the middle east and other parts of the Ukraine its not surprising that the world’s eyes are not on Libya.  But they need to be and once Libya becomes like Syria they will be.  In the meanwhile little oil and gas coming out this will put more pressure on Saudi Arabia to pump more.  This is all right as long as they are able to do so and shows that shale oil is not going to be the game changer that most people think it will be.  We are still horribly dependent on declining stocks of conventional oil.


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Is endless growth possible?

plastic bottle greenhouse at CATI was going to blog about something else today but then I read an article by Chris Huhne suggesting endless growth maybe possible.  I just had to respond.  We looked at the question of whether endless growth possible in our book in much more detail than I have space for here.  However, to pick up on some of the general points we made that seem relevant. We wrote….

Thermodynamics limits substitution. This criticism focuses in on the fact that there are physical limits on the efficiency of energy conversion, and these reduce our options for substituting one technology with another. The classic example of this is the idea
of the hydrogen economy.

The first criticism I would make is based on this excerpt above, the piece took no account of the energy return on energy invested (EROEI).  To give an example, you have to invest energy in building a solar panel before you get a return on the energy invested, the ratio of the two is known as the EROEI.  The figure for renewables varies greatly with a lack of agreement even between studies, so for example solar PV it returns energy in the order of 2-8 over its lifetime over the energy used to make it.  This is OK but is very close to stated minimum limits of a ratio 3-5 [1].  I love solar PV and have it fitted to my house but I would therefore not suggest trying to run an industrial society solely from this technology.  Luckily other renewables have much higher EROEI figures.  The much maligned wind turbine has a very good energy return.  Nevertheless it seems to me we will have both less energy to “play with” and how much energy each good and service takes will have to be accounted for and justified.  A final point is that as we have extracted all the easy fossil fuels the EROEI ratio for coal, oil and gas has plummeted.

The second query I have over whether endless growth is possible is over the by-products of fossil fuels.  The main thing that comes to mind is plastics. We wrote..

Limits of the market and technology. How much technological substitution is really possible? If some natural resources are depleting they may not be replaceable.

Again we have covered this in much more detail in our book and I skirted around this issue in my doctorate a bit.  Using natural materials to replace all our plastic is probably not possible since we would have to use natural materials to supply bacteria to make bioplastic (this currently is most likely scenario).  The land area required is enormous and there is competition even for agricultural waste products for other things.

The third downer on endless growth is that of other materials, again not mentioned by Chris Huhne.  By these we mean metals.  Again this is something we had a quick look at in our book.  Like fossil fuels we have used all the easy to extract mineral resources up.  We wrote…

There is an estimate that 40 per cent of global energy might be required to extract metals by 2050“. [2]

This also assumes we are not running out of mineral resources.

The final objection to endless growth is as we wrote;

the ‘Jevon’s paradox’ or the “‘Khazzoom-Brookes postulate’ after the economists who produced this theory. Essentially it means an increase in energy efficiency does not necessarily lead to a decrease in energy use”.

So in other words you buy an LED and use the money saved to do something else.  Since everything we do takes energy…

To stand even the vaguest chance of endless growth at the very least we need to do a lot of recycling of plastic and metals, almost 100%.  There was another question the article failed to deal with.  Is endless growth even desirable.  Something again from a Christian perspective we have had a go at looking at in our book, but that is another blog post…


1. Hall, C.A.S.; Balogh, S.; Murphy, D.J. What is the Minimum EROI That a SustainableSociety Must Have? Energies 2009, 2, 25–47.

2. Reinventing the Wheel: A Circular Economy for Resource Security, Green
alliance, 2011. This report summarises very neatly the findings and the potential
problems using a number of sources.


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One thing we have learnt this week – fracking

DSC_1715Fracking has been in the news again this week.  An anti-fracking camp has been set up near Blackpool, Ineos have announced they have bought all the fracking rights in Central Scotland and protesters glued themselves to DEFRA’s entrance in London amongst other things. Ineos a somewhat controversial company want the gas to run their oil refinery at Grangemouth.  Last year they got UK and Scottish government money (mostly UK money) to keep their refinery open.  The money is to be used to build an import terminal for cheap foreign gas.  The fracking is a means of hedging their bets.

Its not easy to find the wholesale price of gas in the UK but one of the small providers does put it up.   Natural gas prices projected one year in the future have fallen a lot since January being high and remarkably stable up until then.  Ineos are right to be worried though, the price falls over the summer and we had a mild winter.  Russia has cut gas supplies off to the Ukraine, this has little impact yet because of low summer demand and Ukraine’s declining indigenous production, but expect trouble this winter*.  With reserves being possibly at a peak even with shale gas, prices can only move up.  Where I think Ineos are wrong is to put their faith in fracking.  Its highly likely that trying to start fracking in the most crowded part of Scotland will not go down well and lead to mass protest.  The process will not be as easy as they think and as we outlined in our book the fact that wells deplete very fast only puts back the day a little when you have to manage without gas.


* much of the remaining production is both Crimea and Western Ukraine.

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magic bullets

cartoon_bulletThe other week the news was full of how bad diesel cars were for the environment, diesel cars being one the latest green magic bullets.  Apparently particulates from diesel engines not only harm our immediate environment but also add to climate change by ending up on glaciers in India.  As you might remember dark materials absorb infra-red radiation and light coloured materials reflect radiation.  Thus the argument goes we are adding to global warming.  In addition diesel engines put out more nitrogen oxides.  These cause acid rain and are bad for our health.  A few years ago governments were encouraging diesel car purchase.  Not so much in the UK, but in Europe the duty on the fuel is lower and thus the cost per litre is cheaper than petrol.  Wood-burners are also I think are wrongly blamed for the same problems. This got me thinking about some other green “magic bullets”.


One of the biggest ones.  I fell for this one.  For a short while it looked like guilt free driving.  Even some green groups as well as governments encouraged its use.  (For a climate sceptic potted history see here).  We worked out that with current technology there were several problems to do with food competition and energy returns, these are outlined in much more detail in our book.

Nuclear power

The next of the magic bullets that I want to cover is nuclear power.  I’ve never fallen for this one, but governments have.  Again we outline the drawbacks in our book.  As an example of the problems with nuclear as solutions to energy security and climate change, Tony Blair said the UK should build new nukes in 2005.  In 2014 nothing has happened except some site preparation has taken place one one site.  There is still no certainty anything will ever get built.   In the US the situation is much the same.  In countries that are building reactors such as France and Finland huge delays and cost overruns have occurred.

Clean coal

Clean coal is the next of our magic bullets.  Again governments were very keen on this pre economic slump.  I remember going to meetings on this exciting technology and how it was the answer to our problems.  There are some small pilot scale projects in place but nothing on a major scale anywhere in the world.  Cost has been the main problem.  The electricity will be very expensive and governments at the moment don’t want to subsidise it.

Wind power (onshore)

Governments at one time were very keen on this one of our magic bullets.  Then local opposition wore their support down (and the cost of subsidy). It should be added that polling suggests wind is a very popular source of power, opposition is very vocal and localised and effective.  Some parts of the UK government and climate sceptics have wrongly blamed them for the high cost of electricity (the real culprit is natural gas).  I like wind turbines but even I don’t want to see them everywhere.  They are also not a total solution since the wind does not always blow.

Offshore wind

Offshore wind is definitely one of the UK’s magic bullets (we have more capacity than the rest of the world put together).  It has the advantages that potentially the turbines are out of sight (although some offshore farms have been opposed in the UK and US since people will see them) and the turbines are much more productive than on shore turbines.  The main problems are peoples opposition to the grid connections where they come ashore and the high cost.  Unless this high cost can be lowered then magic bullet status is assured (plus the wind does not always blow).

Electric cars

I have a suspicion these could be the next of our magic bullets.  Again in our book we have outlined some of the potential problems.  The biggest ones are cost, range and where the electricity is coming from.  Again the danger signs are there, that is governments are very keen.  The problem is that if costs fall some of the other disadvantages may come to be major problems.


Current biggest of our magic bullets is fracking, if only people in Europe would put up with the noise, traffic, contaminated water etc. then the gas prices would plunge.  The only problem is this makes windpower NIMBYism look like a kids teaparty.  Also even the ex CEO of BP has said it won’t lower gas prices in the UK.  Wells deplete very quickly and only a tiny % of the gas is extractable.  Don’t hold your breath on this one.

Solar power

This technology has some of the unfortunate signs of being one of the magic bullets.  Its a technology I love and have fitted to my house. Governments also love it, or loved it, again its blamed for inflating electricity costs (perhaps unfairly).    The problem is that it works too darned well.  Yesterday Germany produced most of its electricity from renewables (mostly solar).  The drawback is what to do with all that surplus power (something we have covered here before).  The Germans are starting to find ways round it including energy storage and other countries with high penetration of solar PV need to do the same fast, especially as  falling costs mean no subsidy will be needed in less than 10 years pretty much anywhere.

Energy conservation and lifestyle change is not seen as one of the above magic bullets by governments.  Yet funnily enough this is where some of the most effective action has been.  In the EU white good/cars/lightbulbs/houses have been energy rated A-G.  The EU and Australia phased out incandescent bulbs.   These less publicised changes have had real effect on energy demand in my country.  In the UK 17:00 hours is seen as peak demand, this peak demand according to national grid is now falling.  The private sector has innovated massively, white goods are much more energy efficient and LED’s have a fantastic quality of light at a much lower cost.

Many of the problems with the magic bullets above can be solved.  Diesel cars can be fitted with particulate filters (although these bring their own problems) and catalytic converters to deal with nitrogen oxides (as long as platinum supplies hold up).  Renewables output can be stored (technologies exist).  I’m just not sure that peak oil and climate change have any single magic bullets.


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One thing we have learnt this week – oil prices

oil pricesOne of the big surprises of recent weeks has been  oil prices.  With all the turmoil throughout the middle east I would have expected oil prices to be soaring.  Instead they are doing the opposite.  Certainly throughout my life whenever there has been violence between Israel and its neighbours oil prices have soared.  But apart from that consider other flash points which should have increased oil prices.

  • There is barely any oil coming out of Libya as it slides towards civil war.
  • Syria is in chaos and it has some oil, many of the oil fields are under the control of the rebels who sell it the Assad regime.
  • ISIS have captured a refinery and major oil fields from the Iraqi government.

The reason for this fall in oil prices is simple the Saudis have opened the taps.  The question is how much longer the Saudis continue to be the swing producers of last resort? There are indications from Wikileaks that this situation may not be able to continue much longer with very high oil prices the result.  Remember for every extra barrel they pump now that is one less barrel they can pump in the future.  It is also worth remembering that the IEA is relying on Iraq boosting production to meet future global demand, something that seems very unlikely to happen.


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eating meat

Is eating meat sustainable?  This controversial subject has been raised again in a couple of recent academic studies.  However, like most areas to do with the environment the whole subject of eating meat is more complicated and less open and shut than it might seem.  Some of the issues that need considering are what type of meat, where its grown, where its consumed and if we stop eating it what we eat instead and also where that is grown.

Emissions and energy use (of direct interest to this site) fall into the energy consumption of the feed used to feed cattle, the emissions from the cattle (belching and breaking wind) and the transport of large animals to market and the meat preparation and storage.  Plus the use of water.  The infographic below from the Environmental Working Group shows the relative carbon emissions for different foods.  Please click on the graphic to visit their site which has a lot more info and is well referenced.

green_house_proteinsThere is no doubt that growing grains to feed to beef cattle as happens in the US is crazily inefficient.  Ruminants turn a tiny proportion of what they eat into protein.  But the situation in the UK is slightly different.  Much of our sheep and cattle are raised on marginal land and are largely or solely grass fed.  This is particularly the case in Scotland.  There are few other agricultural options for this land, although we could grow wood on it for future biofuel.  Whilst this grass fed beef gets round the energy use from growing grains as feed it still doesn’t overcome the next objection to eating meat that of methane emissions.  These however, come from cattle, eating pork and chicken reduces these emissions greatly (see graph).  There is also research going on to vaccinate the cattle against the gut bacteria that cause the problem.

The final issue of eating meat is that of the energy use in the transport, preparation and storage of the meat.  This is an issue common to many foods.  The best thing to do is to eat as locally grown food as possible (preferably growing some it yourself).  As the graph above shows these emissions are surprisingly small for all foods and make-up a minority of the energy use for everything apart from potatoes.  In a post oil world though with energy shortages this “post growing” energy use could be an increasing problem.

If we are going to stop eating meat we need to replace the protein.  The main alternatives are fish and soya.  The graph from EWG gives little information on fish apart from tuna, which has little advantage over chicken and nothing on soya (although Tofu is very low on the graph).  But he second paper by Scarborough et al. referenced in the link above on UK food emissions does and they are about the same as tofu.  The problem with fish and soya is that neither are very sustainable.  Fish stocks are being overfished and soya is mostly grown in the tropics intensively, with issue of rainforest deforestation.  There is little point in growing soya when we release the carbon from trees chopped down to grow it on into the atmosphere.  In addition a lot of soya is used to feed cattle and fish.

I hope you have seen from the post that the issue of what to eat to reduce your environmental impact is not simple.  I think there are a number of key points.

  • Eat less meat.
  • If you do eat meat, eat chicken or pork.
  • Cut down on cheese and milk.
  • Minimise waste at your end.
  • Eat as locally as possible (grow as much as you can yourself).

There are good health reasons to do much of the above.

Finally a word on vegetarianism in the bible.  Genesis 1v29-30 seems to suggest anything is permissible to eat as does Acts10v9-15.  Paul suggests (Rom 14v2-3) believers who eat or don’t eat meat should not look down on their fellow believer who does the opposite.  As a Christian I am think the bible is neutral on the issue and its up to individual conscience (1 Tim4v1-4).

the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit Rom14v17

I’m starting to look at my meat consumption.  The paper from Scarborough et al. suggests around a 100g of meat person per day doubles emissions and its very easy to eat that much.  I’m going to see if I can aim for 50g, I have already cut my dairy consumption back hard (eating almost no cheese).


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