One thing we have learnt this week- lithium mining in Cornwall

Lithium_paraffinLithium mining in Cornwall looks like it could be possible this week.  As the costs of wind and solar fall below the cost of all other forms of energy on disparate parts of the planet and sales of hybrid/electric cars/laptops/phones/pads etc. continue to grow strongly the worlds’ demand for this metal is insatiable.  The old conundrum of variability of renewable output looks like being solved over the next 5 years or so with a wide variety of energy storage solutions being worked on.  The lead solution is lithium batteries however, hence the need to find new sources.

As we wrote in our book we had concerns over lithium mining and also concerns over whether there was enough of the bright shiny metal to go round.

The greatest concern may not be the issue of electricity, but that of lithium and neodymium supply. Currently all electric cars use lithium batteries and the electric motors require elements known as ‘rare earths’ (especially neodymium) to make powerful permanent magnets. There are 27 million cars in the UK and around 600
million worldwide. It seems to us that replacing all these with electric cars with lithium batteries, let alone increasing the number, may not be possible. There is also an ethical issue which Christians should be concerned about, which is where the lithium comes from and how it is mined. At the moment most lithium is mined in South America and the largest potential reserves are in high-altitude desert in Bolivia, which is a unique ecosystem. There has to be concern that we may exchange one problem of damage to the environment caused by our driving for another. Bolivia also wants a cut of the
action, that is, to add value to the supply chain by getting fairly paid for the materials it sells us and preferably making the batteries there.

Lithium mining in Cornwall has some attractions.  Firstly in a developed country higher environmental standards are likely to be enforced.  Second, there is another attraction of Lithium mining in Cornwall.  That is the lithium is present in hot brine.  The water is hot from the decay of uranium in the granite.  The mining could therefore be combined with a useful source of renewable energy by sinking boreholes.  This could make the whole process more carbon neutral.  The concern I have is that extraction process takes very large tanks (using evaporation) although the company concerned say there is a new process which takes a lot less surface area and is much more environmentally friendly.  In addition there maybe no use for hot water where the mining takes place (in rural areas) although there are now low temperature turbines capable of producing electricity.

I’d give this idea a cautious welcome.  The companies website is here but gives very few details.


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New years predictions

new years predictionsIts common to make some new years predictions at this time of year so whilst its a bit late here goes.

1) the big story of the year will be (apart from Trump) automation.  Trump wants to effectively to end globalisation and bring back jobs.  This in itself will be very difficult to achieve but apart from globalisation automation is making this harder.  By automation I mean not just robots but also “intelligent” algorithms.  An insurance company sacked 10 people the other week and replaced them with a computer which interacts with customers to offer them the best deal.  Expect more of this moving up the income scale with a lot of concerned talk about it this year.

2) Following and heavily related to this are driverless cars and drones, expect to hear a lot more about this in 2017.  A boon or a menace?  Driverless vehicles will certainly will lay off millions of drivers in the long term if they succeed.  As a cyclist I can hardly wait to start sharing the road with these.  Will Amazon get its delivery drones in the air this year?  This is an incredibly stupid idea and will end up killing people.

All of the automation relies on the idea of cheap limitless energy.  Even if you assume that robots use less energy and laid off staff no longer commute, the unemployed workers are not going to use zero energy sitting at home watching daytime TV.  Does a delivery drone use less energy than a van delivering multiple parcels in one round?  I don’t know but I doubt if there is much in it.

3) The next of my new years predictions is we will hear a lot more about the idea of the universal basic income this year.  Trials are going ahead in Finland and Holland with small scale trails moated in Scotland.  Whilst I am a firm supporter I do not think like many of its proponents this is a solution to automation (unless you tax robots which seems to defeat the point of them).  The reason I support it are multiple, but one reason is the current social security system is not fit for purpose.

4)  Solar PV installation will continue to soar worldwide.  There is no stopping renewables now its mainstream.  This will be despite Trump trying to sabotage the Paris agreement and bring back coal and fracking.  Renewable energy is becoming cheap nothing can stop it.

5) Politics will continue in its unpredictable and much more extreme form.  As a push back against much of the above voters will go in large numbers for extreme nationalist parties pedalling simplistic lies.  As the annual richfest starts at Davos the global elite* claim to get this but don’t.

6) Christians by and large will continue to ignore the environment and the global warming crisis.  (Safest prediction of the lot).


*I would like to point out in brexit terms the elite campaigned on both sides and I voted remain.  See the end of the sentence before this.

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Variable rate electricity

metersLast week a small energy supplier was in the news for offering its customers variable rate electricity.  In one way there is nothing new about all this.  People who used (or use) a lot of electricity at night (mostly those like my grandparents who had storage heaters*) had a system of variable rate electricity that involved two meters (economy 7 or economy 10).  This was complicated to install but relatively simple on the maths calculations.  The power at night was about a fifth of daytime and the system was a means of using some electricity at night in the days when power stations had to be left on all the time (or at least a lot more often).  Now of course we have variable supply (renewables) and increasingly variable demand.  People rarely sit down on mass to watch a particular TV programme.

One way to match supply and demand is said to be variable pricing and this is what the energy company is offering via a smart meter (so simpler to install).    The electricity under this scheme is at its most expansive between 4 and 7pm when peak demand is highest and cheapest at night with at least another daytime rate.

Whilst this is the way we are going with smart meters there are some issues of concern.  The first is if you are cooking using an electric cooker then this offer is not for you for obvious reasons.  Second, following on from this point switching your consumption to cheaper times may not be possible.  Third the whole idea works on the premise that you switch heavy usage to night.  This is a concern for a number of reasons.  Using washing machines and dryers at night is not recommended there have been a number of fires recently.  Another problem is that their use could be antisocial affecting neighbours.  Lastly working out how much your energy use is costing you and lowering its cost will involve a considerable amount of time and effort.

As this is the way we are going we are going we are going to have to live with it.  It could be wider societal changes such as multiple TV channels, a more 24 lifestyle and electric cars will even out power consumption.


*actually thinking about this my Grandparents house was heated by a bizarre mixture of heating methods.  Depending on which bit you were in a coal fired boiler, night storage heaters and a coal fired stove in the lounge.  The house was freezing – at least upstairs.

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One thing we have learnt this week – dementia and pollution

2014-06-28 11.42.29Is there a link between dementia and pollution?  A new study in Canada has suggested that people who live near main roads are more likely to suffer dementia.  For those living within 50m of a main road its a 7% increase in risk.  The risk drops off very steeply with distance.  Of course correlation is not the same as causation and dementia is a complex condition with a number of causes and as they put it on the news last night the chief risk factor is age.

This blog has covered other pollution health stories before.  One was the extraordinary theory the developed world’s postwar crime wave was caused by lead in petrol.  Although that paper was said be convincing there was one huge flaw in its argument I could see.  That was, the drop in crime that has occurred started immediately as the lead was removed from petrol.  Since lead in the body cannot be removed (that’s part of its problem) it seems unlikely lead was the cause.  However this study on dementia and pollution does need to be taken seriously.  For starters the team looked at the health of everyone on Ontario for over a decade.  This was 6.6 million people.  The drop with distance also matches what we know about particulate pollution which is levels fall off with distance very rapidly.  From the biological perspective we know particulates contain microscopic quantities of transition metals such as iron and copper.  These react with hydrogen peroxide which is produced as a by product of respiration forming free radicals which damage almost all molecules in the body they come in contact with.  Free radical and metals have been implicated as a cause of Alzheimers disease.

Particulates have been cited as one of the causes of a host of diseases, these include strokes, heart disease and asthma.  Surely it is time for a more radical look at transport?  To move much more to cycling and walking.  This is one problem that electric cars cannot totally solve since according to George Monbiot up to 50% of a car’s pollution is not due to what comes out of the exhaust but other interactions such as the tyres with the road.

In the meanwhile on thing that is said to help dementia is walking and cycling so get going!  Happy new year.


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One thing we have learnt this week “clean energy” hits 50%

In the last quarter for which there is any data clean energy hit 50%.  This was largely due to renewables especially wind and solar and the total clean energy output was about 5% higher than Q3 last year.  This is definitely a milestone and there is no going back.

However, I would not necessarily call biomass clean energy and certainly would not put nuclear under that definition.  It really depends on the source of the biomass an whether it is waste.  For example there is one small power station that generates electricity from chicken waste, which seems good to me.  There is another small wood powered power station in Scotland that uses waste from a wood factory next door and in Yorkshire another power plant is going to use wood waste brought by canal that would otherwise go to landfill.  However I have problems with Drax using wood cut down especially imported from the US.

This news has been announced when it seems the cost of electricity from wind and solar is hitting new lows and undercutting all other power sources.  Its nice after this year of all years to end on a reasonably optimistic note.  Have a happy Christmas and a happy new year.


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One thing we have learnt this week – energy prices

DSC_1715Energy prices seem to be going up and down simultaneously.   That’s the news today in the UK.  To explain.  Most of the big six suppliers are holding off on price increases or even cutting prices but warning of big increases to come in the spring.  One supplier is cutting its gas prices but freezing its electricity prices until the spring.  It has then warned that electricity prices will increase by quite a lot (nearly 10%).  Are these rises justified, -possibly?  Brexit has made the pound drop and the cost imported fuels rise (I remember being promised we would have the power to cut VAT on energy bills by 5% but these are bigger rises than that).  Wholesale gas prices are said to have risen and France is buying up all the spare electricity it can.

So what’s going on regarding energy prices?  As this blog has covered before there have been big hikes in energy prices and these have been politically controversial.  They without any doubt led to steep cuts in renewable energy  and energy efficiency support.  The big energy companies are hoping they can get away with if they delay until the spring when energy demand falls.

This makes we wonder if seasonal differential pricing is one way of dealing with energy price increases.  In summer when there is plentiful solar power prices could be very low.  In winter they could be higher.  People who struggle to pay could save in the summer and use the money to pay for energy in the winter.  Its not ideal but it might work and even in the UK this to a certain extent happening anyway with solar pushing wholesale prices right down.  Smart meters should so it is said lead to highly variable differential pricing.

In the meanwhile our book has a whole heap of different ways you can save energy.  Shop around for the best deal and consider switching to the smaller companies.  Happy Christmas.


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John Glenn an appreciation

Last week John Glenn died.  I didn’t know much about him.  I knew the name and knew he was an early astronaut, but not much more than that.  What I did not know was that he was a Christian with a strong interest in the environment.

The experience of going into space has affected men and women in different ways.  Many of the Apollo astronauts are said to have struggled with the experience.  But views such as earth rise from the moon have also made some astronauts much more concerned about the environment.  Indeed earth rise from the moon is said to have launched the whole modern environmental movement, although you could have also said this of the book “Silent Spring”.  Maybe it was both.  I don’t have enough information on whether it was this that made John Glenn concerned about this issue but his obituary says that he was an early exponent of environmentalism who wanted the head of the environmental protection agency to have a seat in the US cabinet.

John Glenn had a fascinating and full life from a decorated fighter pilot in both World war II and the Korean war to Astronaut and democratic senator for 24 years.  In 1998 in a move reminiscent of the film “Space Cowboys” (which must have got the idea from this event) he went back into space as crew on the space shuttle.  Whilst this was controversial at the time they compared his health data from thirty odd years before.

We need more people of the calibre of John Glenn.  All I can say is Godspeed John Glenn you will be missed.


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One thing we have learnt this week- the tale of two types of electricity storage

5240237605_a2ce66a6e0_bThis work two stories on  electricity storage have made the news (or parts of it).  The first was that of diesel “farms”.  (Have you noticed everything is a farm nowadays, solar wind etc).  Diesel “farms” are so unlike a conventional farm, although on second thoughts…  Diesel “farms” are a boom area in the UK with the closing of so many conventional power stations and a risk of the “lights going out”.  They are controversial for two reasons.  The first is that of money.  Diesel “farms” are a licence to print money for their operators, profits could be as high as £500 over the next few years.  They are paid for being on standby so this money is not necessarily for when they operate, being paid for being on standby.

The second area of controversy is about the people who have to live near them and have started to kick up a fuss.  Of course diesel engine pollution is kicking up a big stink (no pun intended) at the moment due to urban particulate pollution.  It turns out this is not the only problem with diesel farms.  The other is noise pollution.  Unlike wind farms and solar farms diesel farms are in or close to urban areas in old factories etc.

However another form of electricity storage is being encouraged by National grid.  That is battery storage.  This has made it into the capacity market in the UK for the first time this week.  Suggestions are that GW’s of capacity are in the offing.  If so this will make the case for new nuclear even harder.  There are those that say that pollution from lithium batteries are displaced to the point of production.  Its true that all energy causes pollution, but that makes it still more important to use less of it.  This argument also ignores the fact that diesal farms have to made as well.  We voiced concerns over lithium in our book but I know which system I would rather have next door.



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Will OPEC fix the oil price?

entrance_opec_headquarter_viennaWill OPEC fix the oil price?  A few days ago the cartel met to try to agree production cuts.  The aim?  To push the oil price up from where it alternates between $45 and $50 a barrel to between $50 and $60/barrel.  As this blog has written before there a number of contradictory things going on.  Most oil producing countries whilst being able to sell the oil they take from the ground at a profit, are not currently able to sell it at a high enough price required by their economies.  Moreover there are indications that Saudi Arabia needs to keep pumping due its dependency on natural gas for electricity.  Other members play beggar my neighbour.  There are also indications that Saudi Arabia wanted to hit Iran and Russia for political reasons, finish off the US shale industry and possibly hit electric cars.

The problem is that Saudi Arabia needs the money that oil brings.  It has decided that the money is getting more important with huge government cuts taking place and the Saudi’s having to borrow (partly to fund at least one ruinous war).  In a strange move given the politics Russia has been brought in and said it will cut production.  Russia needs the cash too.  Will this OPEC fix work?  Probably not.  It never has before.  Few of the countries can be relied on to stick at their production quotas, certainly by looking at history.  US shale producers have cut their costs and stand ready to increase production and oil stocks are very high.  However in the short term its succeeded and it looks like the days of very cheap petrol and diesel are behind us for the moment.  Good news for the planet and renewables.


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Castro and Cuba’s peak oil moment

Luchar contra lo imposible.jpg

There has a lot of talk about Fidel Castro this week after his death.  What you think about him and his legacy seems to depend on which side of the political spectrum you lie…  No one is all bad and living in Cuba seems to have its pluses as well as a large number of minuses.  I will try to cut across the two in an even handed way.

The first thing to say that Castro was a dictator.  He like so many others before (and to come) of the right and left promised to introduce democracy and didn’t.  We have to face the fact that if you opposed his regime at the very least you would get in a degree of trouble.  More recently his oppression of lesbian and gays has come to light.  In addition the economy has never done very well and there is even under communism a lot of poverty in Cuba.  Added to this as I remember Castro got involved in a lot of wars in a lot of other places including in Angola where up to 30,000 Cubans came into conflict with amongst others South African troops.  For many on the left this is OK since its not yankee imperialism.   And of course by accepting nuclear missiles on his territory he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war*.  He could not have been ignorant of what he was doing.

However there are some plus points which many on the right also seem to find difficult.  Firstly the regime that Castro ousted (that of the aptly named Batista) was a terrible one that oppressed the poor and had links to the mob.  Castro at the very least was no worse, just different, or at least no more despotic.  Castro also invested heavily in Health and Education.  The health service was very good.  So good that many other countries drew on it.  It also had a pharmaceutical development arm and developed a vaccine against Meningitis B before anyone else.  Where I previously worked we had a Cuban on secondment from one the pharmaceutical companies.  She was very competent but just didn’t want to talk about politics.  A 100% literacy rate is not to be sniffed at either and these services were free, bizarrely in many communist countries they aren’t.

What is of most interest in the transition movement and this blog is what happened in the early 1990’s.  Cuba had a peak oil moment.  Cuba was massively propped up by the Soviet Union.  This included oil of which Cuba has no indigenous production.  The taps were turned off almost overnight.  Cuba had been given the oil and could not afford to import it.  Unfortunately what happened next works best in a dictatorship.  Readers of this blog know that almost all of modern life including agriculture is heavily dependent on oil.  No oil no food.  There was a danger of starvation.  So the Cuban government ordered food to be grown everywhere including in cities.  BBC “Gardeners World” went to have a look and at least on documentary film has been made about it.  Given the ruinous state of the economy many city buildings (many very beautiful) are shells and are being used to grow food in.  The food is organic (no pesticides).  The Cubans have done a remarkable job in showing it is possible to live without much oil for agriculture and that for all Cuba’s problems and Castro’s shortcomings is a real legacy


* One astounding fact that came to light this week was the tension was diffused by Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador having a meeting at New York restaurant.

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