This 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.
Will 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.
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.
Here’s an interesting idea I heard about this week – ice based cooling. One of the big problems as a solar PV homeowner is what to do with your surplus power output. Certainly in the UK what used to be called “spillover” to the grid gets such a low export tariff that its much better to use yourself. The question is how? Many people use it to heat their water using immersion heaters, but there is only so much you can do. Battery storage is definitely coming. A company in California has had an another idea- ice based cooling.
The homeowner or even the utility (if loads of solar electricity is going to the grid) directs the home unit to freeze water. The ice is then used to cool central air conditioning coolant and can cool the house for up to 4 hours. Apparently in some buildings over half the energy use is down to air con. This would help reduce the costs of that once the unit has paid for itself. One advantage is it is said to have a 20 life span which is much better than batteries. The other advantage is that peak solar output in hot countries often correlates with air con use and air con use is a huge and growing user of energy. The final advantage is that the system could be modular and used in commercial buildings. In the UK this is less useful (although air con use is growing), but if I lived somewhere hot I would certainly think about it.
Solar is not quite dead in the UK. Admittedly the installation figures in Q3 at 85Mwp were the lowest for some years. But there are some encouragements from the data. First of all most of the installations were on private domestic roofs. It looks like despite the low levels of support through the highly reduced FIT that domestic users can still make the PV installations payback in a reasonable time scale. The second encouragement is that there are still large scale ground mounted installations taking place. The ones I have heard of are council led community share issues. These are way too late for any support so its interesting that these can still be made to pay.
Its a great pity the way things have turned out with an abrupt turning off of the support tap. If the government had anticipated such success then a digression could have been much better planned. As it is a lot of installer jobs have been lost. Nevertheless solar is not quite dead in the UK and there maybe sufficient demand going forward to keep at least some of the installer base going for a few years until the day when grid parity is reached. With ground mounted at a large scale we may be already there.
Could a nuclear power shutdown in France lead to power cuts and price increases in the UK? At the moment France has shut down a third of its reactors and facing a very real possibility of an energy crisis with power cuts. Why has this nuclear power shutdown taken place? The disastrous way behind schedule way, over cost construction of the new reactor at Flamanville in Normandy has opened some very serious cans of worms. Problems have been found in the containment vessel with too much carbon in the steel, this weakens it. Its thought this fault might be replicated in a third of the existing nuclear fleet as well and so a nuclear power shutdown has taken place whilst checks are made. Its worse than this though, since at the same time falsification of safety documents relating to a variety of other components has been discovered to have taken place. Documents are being checked all the way back to 1943 and other countries reactors maybe involved if the French provided components. A Japanese company is also implicated in falsification of safety documents on its nuclear components and has provided parts for the French Nuclear industry.
So why would this effect us? UK power prices have been under pressure for a number of reasons before this. First, no one is investing much in new large scale kit (except for off-shore wind). Second, other renewables have been hit by cuts in support. Third, all the coal fired plants are closing. And lastly Brexit has pushed up the cost of imported fuels (gas/coal/uranium) due to the fall in the pound. The latest problem is that we import electricity from France through the 2GWp cross channel. This makes up about 5% of UK electricity. Whilst its not true to say it as they did on the radio this morning it was explicitly built to import French nuclear electricity, over the years the proportion we import over what we export to France has risen. That is to last month. Then France has been desperately importing our power. So why can’t the French buy power from elsewhere? Well they can and are buying coal fired power from Germany but they are going to have to buy one heck of a lot. Also one source of potential power is down, that is Scandinavian hydro. There has been a severe lack of rain and so output is way down. Another potential source is Spain which has a great solar and wind and has bailed the French out of lesser problems in the past. Spanish solar insolation in winter is the same as the UK’s in Summer. However the Spanish government is taxing its solar output so presumably people are trying to hide their output. So wholesale prices in the UK, France and the rest of Europe have soared.
What are the implications? First all the above means we will see electricity cost increases this winter. There probably will not be power cuts in the UK if there is no major bit of kit that goes down. France however must be lucky to get away without some. Lastly this vindicates all the criticisms we made of nuclear power in our book. It raises real questions over the honesty of the nuclear power industry. If you look on our book’s Amazon page there is a criticism of our stance by someone from the World Nuclear Association. With everything that has happened since then (disasters/delays/cost overuns and now this) I am struggling to work out what we wrote that was wrong?
Hygge pronounced “heurgha” is the latest Scandi craze which you cannot have missed reading about recently. There are now a host of books in English telling you how to achieve it. The word is hard to translate and define but seems to mean, as far I can see, a sort of personal wellbeing and taking pleasure in simple things. Examples I have read about include lighting candles, sitting by the fire and having friends around for a meal. Denmark is the happiest country in the world and many people put this down to Hygge. Given all that has happened in 2016, IS, terrorism, Brexit and Trump collectively we need all the Hygge we can get. And on a personal basis I need it as well. 2016 has been a very mixed year for me too.
Hygge for Christians does led to some questions though. I don’t think there is a mystical element to it that should concern us. The bigger problem is that of self interest. The danger is you are concentrating on your own wellbeing rather than that of others by going for excessive amounts of me time. The bible tells us that others interests are as important as ours (for example think of the story of the good Samaritan). If you closet yourself away in front of the fire (big Hygge for me) all the time and go into denial about the outside world then this in my view would be wrong.
On the plus side in principle many of the Hygge ideas are fairly cheap or even non materialistic and many involve interaction with other people (even if they may be friends). So a mixed issue then for Hygge but as long as its not taken to extremes of introspection its probably helpful and fits in with a low carbon world.
President Trump. Two words I find it difficult but not surprising to type. After Brexit I have thought it was highly likely he would win for some months. There are two reasons for this one of which is covered below and the other is the polls which simply cannot be trusted anywhere at the moment. There are two questions raised by President Trump. The first is the implications for policy change and the second is why and what can we do about it?
On policy change the most worrying as far as this site is concerned, climate change and energy policy. Trump thinks that climate change is a Chinese plot to destroy America’s economy. Where to start? This view alone shows he is serially unsuited to be president. Apart from the complete (wilful?) ignorance about the history of climate change perhaps its best to say if the Chinese are plotting why do they have the largest renewables programme in history, which is costing them billions of dollars? We have just ratified the Paris treaty and now its at risk. The second area of concern is Trump’s vision of resurrecting the coal industry (just as the pesky Chinese are doing the exact opposite). As the Chinese have found coal fired power has a whole heap of pollution problems apart from CO2. The big problem for Trump is that soon, if not already on the best sites, wind/solar/storage will be cheaper than coal (and probably create more jobs too). This leaves the question of what he will do? Tax solar like Spain, or subsidise coal and fracking (which I assume is also in the mix).
This site has always taken an interest in politics as does our book since our view was we need to change the way we live radically to cope with energy security and climate issues and that is by its very nature political. In all the Western world people are hurting. Neoliberalism and globalisation have meant only the very wealthiest have got wealthier over the last 30 years. Where jobs have been created they have tended to be insecure and poorly paid (I know something of this myself). Both Brexit and the US election are a kickback against this. Electoral commentators and traditional political parties still have not come to terms with this which has manifested itself in the rise of nationalism and nationalistic parties pretty much everywhere. Its highly debatable whether a billionaire with very simplistic solutions will solve the very real problems caused by globalisation. Last time large scale protectionism was tried we had a world war. Quite what the solutions to this are I don’t know, but we need to start finding them fast as automation is going to make this far worse.
Like Brexit its hard to see anything good coming out of the Trump victory. It won’t achieve what those who voted for it want and do real damage. I cannot condemn those voted for either though, even if I think they have disadvantaged themselves by doing so. However, we who do not agree with these outcomes really need to think about solutions for a way forward, fast.
In 2014 the Journal “Endocrinology” published a paper on fracking and so called “gender benders”. In a really very nice piece of research they took water samples from both fracking and reference sites outside the fracking area. They then tested the water for endocrine disrupting chemicals (“gender benders”). To explain the science. The authors looked for chemicals found in the water samples and which exhibited androgenic, anti-androgenic, estrogenic or anti-estogenic properties. A n androgen is a chemical (usually a steroid) that promotes male characteristics in vertebrates. Estrogens have the same function in women (and a lot of other biological functions in both sexes). Confusingly men have low concentrations of estrogens and women androgens. The best known and strongest estrogen is 17β-estradiol and the best known androgen is testosterone, although there are a variety of other closely related steroids with lower biological effects.
There have been concerns about “gender benders” for years. These concerns fall into two areas. The first source of concern is steroids such as progesterone and estradiol and their analogues entering water supplies from oral contraceptives. Basically women urinate them out. They are at low concentration and are relatively resistant to breakdown by bacteria. The second worry is that of is chemicals added to plastics (such as pthalate esters) to give them specific properties such a hardness, malleability etc. Of course we now know plastic is now widely distributed in the environment as micro particles. Again these chemicals are at low concentration and relatively resistant to biological breakdown. In principle both sources are easy to deal with in drinking water by the use of activated charcoal. This binds all organic matter in the water. This is an expensive solution however and not all water companies have done so for example in the UK.
Its easy to see why having the female contraceptive pill in drinking water may not be a good idea but what about the other “gender benders”? Hormones bind to and activate specific proteins. Protein binding takes place by specific 3D arrangement of molecules that bind to binding sites on the protein. Surprisingly the gender benders can mimic the hormone molecules’ 3D shape even though their overall structure is often totally different from a steroid. The presence of all these chemicals even at a tiny concentration can unbalance certain parts of our metabolism. Nothing is proven but there is evidence that reproductive problems such as rising levels of infertility, cancers such as testicular cancer and other reproductive cancers could be linked to these chemicals.
It seems that a variety of such “gender benders” are being used in the fracking process. What the authors did was sample water from inside and outside the fracking areas in Colorado. They extracted the fairly insoluble “gender benders” into an organic phase (methanol) dried and concentrated them. These concentrated stocks were then diluted to make a final experimental concentration of 4x or 40x the concentration they were sampled at. Human cell lines were genetically modified to express the main androgen and estrogen receptor genes linked to a gene from fireflies. Adding samples or androgen/estrogen controls of known amounts led the chemicals to bind to the genes of interest and make the firefly genes fluoresce, allowing a comparison between the natural and mimicking chemicals. This fluorescence was then measured and gave a measure of the androgenic, anti-androgenic, estrogenic or anti-estrogenic properties of the chemicals. In addition chemicals known to be used in fracking were also tried using this biological assay method.
Antiestrogenic, antiandrogenic, and strong estrogenic effects were found in the chemicals and waters tested. Most of the sites tested had at least some biological effects and effects were were found in two separate river samples. What does this mean? Obviously the levels tested were concentrated compared to the original samples but this discrepancy would be overcome by constant low exposure and low exposure does seem to be an issue. Another objection is that people are not directly drinking the water. In the rural US many people are not on mains water. More worrying is that the effects were found in river water. This will supply cities downstream and without proper treatment these chemicals will be entering the water supply. What is surprising is that when you look the chemical structures of some of the chemicals used in this study online their structures are nothing like steroids. Is this an argument against all fracking? No not in of itself, but it does add to the other arguments and begs the question with gender benders being a considerable problem already do we want to add to it?
Original paper can be seen here.
The Paris climate change agreement is now in force. After more than 30 years of talking now is the time for action. I was amazed to think that it is nearly a year since and some others cycled to Paris (or part way) to lobby for a climate change agreement.
What does it mean? It comments the world to trying to limit global temperature rises to 1.5%. It is not binding in this regard but relies on voluntary pledges. However the raising of these pledges is legally binding on the signatories. There are a whole heap of other measures about mitigation and other stuff some of which is binding and and some not.
Its not perfect. So far the pledges are not sufficient to meet a 2% target. However as I have blogged about this week there are big changes in the energy system taking place particularly regarding coal. It is probable that global emissions will start to fall faster than we think, lets hope so anyway. There are lots of challenges ahead, not least the threat of a Trump presidency. Its now time for all of us to play our part, lots of ideas in our book. But for the moment all I can say is “praise the Lord”. I thought this day would never come.