One thing we have learnt this week -What to do about energy prices?

energy pricesWhat to do about energy prices?  Whilst the headline oil price has fallen and hence the wholesale price of natural gas has plunged, energy prices in general have not.  The price of gas and electricity is still very high.  Wages have hardly risen and whilst the price of food has fallen back many people are finding life very tough.

There are two solutions to high energy prices for those on low incomes which we covered in our book.  The first is the so called carbon ration or tradeable energy quota.  Whilst we thought this the best and fairest solution to high energy prices and a very effective way of tackling both peak oil and climate change its not on the political agenda at the moment.

The next solution is for those can afford to to subsidise those who cannot afford energy prices either on a individual or mass basis.  I have heard of examples of the former and everyone pays the latter through a government enforced levy on bills.  The energy company I am signed up with does this due to the fact everyone pays the same and no one gets a discount for using direct debit, which tends to benefit the richer members of society.

Yesterday I heard that of an energy company that has come up with another solution to high energy prices.  That is give pre-paid power cards out with food from food banks.  Until recently pre-paid power card meters have been an expensive way for those on low incomes to pay for electricity and gas but costs have regularised with those of other customers who do not pay up front.  Of course the energy company which is one of the big six is not doing this out its own profits, but out of orphan accounts (that is customers they cannot contact who are in credit).  A good idea?  Yes in the absence of other ideas then anything helps, one problem is not everyone on a low income is on pre-paid meters.


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Future food

last subsistance lunchWhat will we eat in the future? What will future food look like? A programme on BBC2 raised these questions this week having followed a family through the decades since the 1950’s and then had a look forward.

How about a synthetic mixture of proteins, vitamins etc. as a drink? Probably not, the family tried this and couldn’t stand the taste. Anyway drinking a liquid however nutritionally balanced misses the point, food is a social thing and its difficult to be social over grey gunk.

Meat. We have got used to cheap meat. The environmental, energy costs and health in the future will be high. These and the demand due to rising richer populations worldwide will mean meat will be much more expensive and we will be eating a lot less of it. This brings us to future food ideas to replace meat. Something low in fat and high protein anyone? Insects -thought not? A third of the world eat insects on a regular basis. For people in the west this something of a tall ask. There is something of a yuk factor around insects but the protein in meat will not be easy to replace (although arguably we overdose on protein and its not great to do so healthwise).

One food trend is that the time taken to prepare meals has plunged from an average of 4.5 hours to 20 minutes now. This time reduction is due to our oil laden processed food. Not only is processed food not great for you for the most part, in the future its unlikely to be as common and more expensive. It is quite possible however to cook nutritious food from scratch in way less than 4.5 hours. There is also danger that processed food is not social food. People take their microwave meals away and eat them in front of the TV. Food is also everywhere when we leave the house with snacks and cafés etc, will this be in the case in a more food limited future?

Another big question is where we will buy this food from. The supermarkets that have come to dominate our lives have in the last few years gone into decline (Tesco’s announced a huge loss today). Many of them of dropped plans for out of town stores and have opened small “local stores” and are loosing money. People increasingly are doing small shops in local shops. The whole food distribution system is very energy intensive. Food grown locally and bought in small shops, this seems to be the trend? In the UK there has been an astonishing 25% increase in small local food shops since 2012. Its not coincidental this has all been at a time of high oil prices. It looks like there is one trend under way that future proofs us to an extent against peak oil

Incidentally whilst it raised some interesting questions the programme blithely ignored the energy of food question completely going along with the abundant energy business as usual scenario although it think meat was not sustainable environmentally. Instead it seems more likely we will have to grow more food ourselves, spend a bit more time in the kitchen and much of what we eat will be seasonal and more expensive. Much in the meat/fruit line will be rarer and more of a treat. On the plus side we will be healthier and food will hopefully become more of a social occasion. Lets hope there will be no food banks.

My homegroup is going to a study on food and the bible. I will write a blog post on this in about a month.


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One thing we have learnt this week -ordinary heroes

logo@2xTearfund has launched a new campaign called ordinary heroes.  For someone who is not heroic like me the name is quite reassuring.  The idea is to get Tearfund supporters to make small changes in their lives to make the world more just and sustainable.

As Tearfund say in the accompanying report;

We live in a century of mingled promise and peril. The decisions we take now and the way we live will have an impact on our children and on generations to come – for good or ill.

They give five foundational ideas for Christians to follow.

1. Live within our fair share of the world’s resources and environmental limits.
2. Respond to poverty and inequality with radical generosity.
3. Speak out prophetically.
4. Use our power as a voter, a citizen and a consumer.
5. Live restoratively and prioritise relationships.

On the web link above Tearfund share some examples to help you start on this journey and become one of an army of ordinary heroes.  The first is to switch to a renewable energy supplier.  Whilst I agree this is a laudable aim I disagree with the implication that if you switch then all the electrons are green that enter your house.  This is untrue, they are exactly the same, but the extra money raised is used to invest in additional renewable capacity.  The second is to engage with political parties during the election campaign,  there is a simple online petition  form to help you do this.  The last is perhaps the most challenging that is to use your spending power wisely so that in your spending you are adding to climate change or exploiting people.  This is a bit of an ethical minefield and requires research.   I’m hoping that the University where most of my pension is held is on the point of divesting, but many spending decisions are difficult to quantify.

Tearfund ask for some ideas from their supporters so here are some that this site has blogged on before.

We have lots more ideas in our book looking at material, energy, transport and food from the very simple to complex and challenging.

I would strongly commend the Tearfund report that goes with the ordinary heroes project as well as the project itself.


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When people think about resource limitations they rarely think about materials.  However, not everyone has ignored this issue.  A few years ago my parent’s church was plagued by thefts of lead from its roof.  After several such raids the churches insurer’s were getting jumpy and threats of premiums going up were made.  The church came up with a solution.  That was pay a Venture Scout to sit up the church tower with a mobile phone.  He didn’t have to long to wait.  One night dozens of police turned up with dogs and caught the thief.  Now they have made a series of security measures that don’t involve venture scouts.  Church roofs were a real problem for thefts, but not the only one relating to materials.  Thefts of copper were also a huge problem from railway lines meaning a huge number of passenger delays.

Since then the problem has eased in the UK for two reasons firstly metal prices have fallen and second the government has made it illegal to sell metals without proof of ownership.  Nevertheless a number of issues related to materials do still present themselves and were covered in an article in New Scientist (14th Feb 2015). These are;

  • The energy used to extract them.
  • The damage made doing so.
  • Where they come from.
  • How much of them is left and the ore strength.
  • How much they can and are recycled.
  • substituablity (will something else do for a particular use).

The table below gives some uses for some materials.

Material Use
Copper wiring
Platinum Catalytic converters/catalysts/anti-cancer drugs
Indium Touchscreens/solar PV
Cobalt batteries/machine tools
Neodymium magnets in electric cars and wind turbines
Silver solar PV
 Gallium mobile phones
 Germanium Camera lenses

Looking at energy of extraction and processing materials vary greatly.  The picture of the periodic table below gives two examples for copper and ruthenium with their recycling rates.  Looking at the energy cost, the figures are vastly different.  But this is of course not the whole story.  The amount of copper mined is much greater than that of ruthenium.  Therefore the amount of energy required for copper production is vast (1).  As we covered in our book it could mean as ore strength falls the quantity of energy used for copper extraction alone could be 30% of all the energy used in the future.

Periodic Table_opt

One apparently simple solution is to recycle.  With something like copper, recycling is easy.  Its used in large quantities and we can generally see it as copper pipes or something tangible.  Recycling for lead copper, zinc and aluminium are all above 50%.  In the case of mobile phones (vast numbers of which are disposed of every year) you would be barely able to see the “rare earths” used and these are therefore very difficult to recycle.  Recycling rates for these are below 1%.

How much of these materials are left is another hotly disputed question.  Rare earth reserves are said in this article to be worrying, but platinum OK.  There has however been research done on collecting the tiny amounts of platinum excreted by catalytic converters in vehicles that end up on the street using bacteria.  This suggests stocks are not so good.

Substituting one material for another is theoretically possible.  Its easier with mainstream materials such as lead or copper, but less easy with some of the rare materials.  Surprisingly these hi-tech industries can be conservative though.  A doctoral student at my university was doing research into using brass as the aerial in mobile phones rather than tungsten, tantalum and cobalt.  She said it works and would avoid the ethical dilemmas associated with materials from conflict zones.  To the best of my knowledge no phone uses this technology.

I have only covered a few of the issues in the area of materials.  I would encourage you send your phone or other electronic devices for recycling (despite what I wrote above) as well as other materials.  There is in any case a contamination problem if these devices end up in landfill.  If you buy a new one why not consider the worlds only fairly traded electronic device.  Also Greg Valerio has set up a fair trade scheme for gold (as jewellery).  Both try to avoid using materials from conflict zones.  We need to substitute as far as possible with simple recyclable materials and build recycling in.

1) Nuss P, Eckelman MJ (2014) Life Cycle Assessment of Metals: A Scientific Synthesis. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101298. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101298


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One thing we have learnt this week -heated by water

Drammen_Heat_PumpHere’s a strange idea I came across this week, one of our homes and businesses heated by water.  The idea of buildings heated by water is not so crazy the more you think about it.  As we outlined in our book whilst there are plenty of viable alternatives for electricity generation to compete with conventional sources the same is not the same with heat.  There are a variety of reasons for this to do with to do with the technology and the retrofitting of it.  One of the technologies we talk about is heat pumps.  These effectively work like a fridge in reverse i.e. you try to cool the air, ground or in this case water.

According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change one million homes could be heated by water.  They have even provided a map of England with mean winter temperatures of various water courses.  The advantage of water heat pumps is they are much more efficient compared to air or ground heat pumps and extract much more heat.  Whilst Scotland and Wales are not included in the mapping the results would not be very different.   This is an idea that really needs district heating systems and is already happening (see picture in Norway above), in Anglesey (Wales) there is a National Trust property heated by water (seawater).  So it can be made to work, still disruptive yes, but there are not a great deal of other alternatives.


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Interconnector-interconnections week the worlds longest interconnector has been announced between the UK and Norway.  (An interconnector is an international transmission line that connects two countries.)  In our book we looked at the problems that switching to renewable electricity on a large scale will bring due to the variability of renewable energy output.  You should read our book for full details, but there are a number of solutions all of which have their pros and cons.

One of these solutions is to use an interconnector and send your excess power to your neighbours.  Gradually a European interconnector network is taking shape which will allow the sharing of electricity.   So for example if its very windy in one part of Europe then the power can be sent somewhere else.

The UK currently has three international ones, one which runs to France built in the 60’s but more recently upgraded to 2GWp capacity, a newer one to the Netherlands with a capacity of about 1GWp and a very new interconnector to Ireland (o.5GWp).  There is also an internal one to Northern Ireland (pictured).  There are 5 additional ones planned in addition to the Norway interconnector, to France, Ireland and Denmark.

The new 1.4GWp UK/Norway interconnector is being sold as being a two way street, in other words its an opportunity for us to sell our power to the Norwegians.  This seems unlikely.   Norway gets almost 99% of its power from mature hydro systems.  Certainly at the moment the UK imports far more electricity from Holland and France than it exports to them.  (The opposite is true for both Irish interconnectors.)  The reasons for this have been over the last few years the utilities have been reluctant to use gas due to its high price.  Its cheaper to buy electricity from abroad.  Now with Coal fired power stations closing there is another reason to import power, capacity is tight. There could be times when power could be flowing away from the UK.  Norway has grid connections with other Scandinavian countries and it possible interconnctors could be a way of dealing with excess UK solar electricity in summer selling it to Denmark or Finland.  I feel we need a balance in what we sell or import, we do not want to be too dependent on others for our power.  On the other hand one of the disadvantages of interconnctors is the power is old off cheap so it does make sense to sell too much power to your neighbours at least until the generating assets have been paid for.  This does not apply to Norway with its mature assets.

There is something else going on here though.  The government is not keen on onshore wind and I wonder whether this signals at least a partial break with renewables policy.


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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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