Is the current energy generation model going to break?

954838_204501379701698_1765426126_nIs the current energy generation model going to break?  Maybe not immediately but over the next 10 years?  This is the question many free market analysts are starting to ask.  Over the last decade but with increasing speed over the last 5 years the cost of renewables, especially solar, has fallen.  Solar by 80%.  Much of this massive increase in solar capacity is distributed generation, that is its on the low voltage distribution network.  So its its relatively small scale with the largest arrays being ground mounted at the 5-10MWp scale.  Much of its on people’s roofs and sheds or in their gardens at the kW scale.  Its this that should worry the utilities with their current energy generation model.  This existing model goes all the way back to Edison. The big boys generate lots of power in large power stations and sell it to us.  Once lots of people start generating their own electricity in large quantities things start to get interesting.  Instead of power flowing one way, power is flowing in all directions.

Many people have dismissed micro-generation has being pointless since each individual array generates so little compared to a large power station.  But lots of small arrays add up and of course you are cutting the demand for centralised generation.  We have seen this in Germany with at weekends huge amounts of solar generated electricity hitting the grid.  This summer most of electricity generated was solar in origin on some days.  The problem is what to do with this surplus power?  The best thing is for people to use themselves, with most feed-in tariffs this is what makes sense.  In our household we do everything we can to achieve this using the breadmaker and washing machine during daylight hours.  But even with a small system its impossible to stop “spill over” onto the grid.  The obvious thing to do is to store the power, which is what they are encouraging people to do in Germany (even on a micro household scale)*.  The problem is that the current technology (special lead acid batteries) are bulky, expensive and heavy and in any case don’t last more than about 5 years even if they are very well maintained (although they are almost completely recyclable).

What may cause the current generation model to break is not just solar power but cars, or more precisely electric cars.  For the reasons outlined above no one is going to use lead acid technology to power a car.  The only game in town is lithium batteries (although other battery technologies are frequently mentioned).  Up until now the cost of this technology has been prohibitive which is one reason electric cars have not sold well (the other being range).  However, the manufacturers are starting to ramp up production and with this the cost of this type of battery is set to plummet.  If there is enough lithium for cars and other energy storage uses then once the cost is competitive (estimate 2020), then demand for centrally generated electricity will fall drastically as millions of people generate their own power during the day and use it at night.  The current energy generation model will break.  We have seen the early signs of this in Germany.  At peak times when the utilities make most of their profits they cannot give the power away.  Large plant such as coal fired power stations are being shut and at least one of the big utilities (RWE) has made huge losses.

Like any market disruption such as mobile phones this will have its plus and minus points.  On the plus side electricity should be more affordable for millions as well as being green.  On the minus side we still need large scale generation and only the utilities have the financial clout to build offshore wind farms and the up and coming technologies such as wave and tidal power.  If they are struggling who is going to invest in these and the grid which we will still need?  Small scale storage is never going to make us totally autonomous especially in winter when PV output is low, but the signs are it will break the current energy generation model.


* not only in Germany my solar installer offered me this, but for the reasons outlined above I turned him down.

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One thing we have learnt this week- Community energy comes of age?

wind and solar in GermanyThis week community energy has been in the news.  My attention was drawn to the opening of a small hydro scheme in the north of England.  In of itself its of interest since it uses an existing dam which has been converted to allow electricity production (43kWp).  But as it happens this week the UK government has been emphasising its support for community energy.

By community energy we mean energy production in the hands of predominantly (but not exclusively) the local community.  This is very common in Denmark and Germany where most solar and wind schemes are owned by local or regional groups.  In the UK and the US wind and solar schemes (along with fracking) are carried out by large companies coming in.  There is little community involvement or benefit so its hardly surprising that that there is a lot of resistance.  There are a growing number of exceptions.  In Fintry, Scotland the community accepted a wind farm but only if they owned one turbine.  The income from this is spent on energy efficiency and micro-generation in a community off the natural gas grid.  In Gigha after a community buy out the community put up three large turbines (the money is used in the same way as Fintry).  Bay wind bought out a small wind farm in Cumbria and through a company they set up “energy4all” help others to do the same.  The transition movement has also been involved in solar schemes in urban areas in such places as Lewes and Cheltenham.  Nevertheless community energy currently makes up a tiny minority of energy production.

Its still far too complex to set these community energy schemes up.  You can see the evidence for this in the above hydro scheme.  The community had been thinking about since 2008.  Funnily enough I have heard money is not the issue.  After the financial crash with bank interest rates being so low renewable energy has offered a far better rate of return.  The complexities are legal and grid related as well as to do with changes in renewable policy.  DECC want to see 3GWp of community energy projects over the next 6 years partly so that there is more competition for the big six energy suppliers and help to bring down energy costs.  Whether this will be possible without a lot of help and simplification of the rules remains to be seen.


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LED street lights

2014-09-21 09.05.05I’ve just returned from a short visit to Birmingham and discovered the city council are replacing all their old street lights with LED street lights.  And not only Birmingham, Liverpool and Warrington are doing the same.  The carbon savings are said to be at least 60% but the cost savings despite the high start up expense  are enormous as we have covered previously on this blog for domestic situations.  Street lighting is on so much all the year round (but particularly in winter), despite the cheaper electricity that councils will buy the savings will be very fast.

The articles linked to above said that LED street lights produce brighter light than the old lighting and are therefore safer.  The picture shown at night suggests that.  My experience was that it was slightly worse or about the same.  It depends on the spacing of the lamp posts and obstacles like trees.

The light produced by the LED street lights I saw was not warm white but that produced by cycle lights.  However, this is perfectly adequate for the purpose and looks to all intents and purposes like moonlight.  If more councils decide to install LED street lights  then not only will we see carbon savings but also a continuing fall in the peak electricity demand.


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One thing we have learnt this week- population increase

stork babyAmid all the news about a certain event today the Guardian had one article that stood out on population increase.  The consensus up until now has been that population will peak sometime this century, probably about 2050.  The team behind this research break this consensus saying that population increase will continue.  For the first time?! this team have used statistics to arrive at confidence bands on the future path of any population increase.  (By the way it is my view that in the Guardian link above these confidence bands are mislabelled the 95% bands should be nearest the regression line.)

If the fertility rate can be reduced to 2.1 live births worldwide then in time the population would stabilise, then decline as the existing elderly population died.  The good news is that in most parts of the world its already doing so with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa.  However, a certain degree the effects of population depends on where you are born.  The ecological effects of being born in the rich west are far greater than someone born into poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.  Nevertheless increased population in this part of the world will still make demands on the food system and ecology.  There is also the issue of rising incomes in developing countries leading to changes in diet, particularly higher meat intake.  This has also had huge health implications.  Of course population increase also has energy security and material shortage implications.

The problem with population increase is that there are in many ways little we can do about it.  Lowering the growth rate depends on the actions and the economies in high population growth countries.  Experience has shown again and again that as countries get richer, women get better educated and access to contraception increases, the birth rate falls.  The problem is as countries get richer they want to eat more, particularly meat.  This might undo the previous actions.  This is where we come in.  In the words of Gandhi we need to “‘Live simply, that others may simply live”.


Includes adapted excerpts from our new book.  Image from

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Energy conservation

DSC_1734As Autumn comes around again I start to think about energy conservation.  There is talk about power cuts in the UK being more likely this winter.  Two nuclear power stations have had to be shut down for repairs and a coal fired power station is off line due a major fire. All this raises the threat of power cuts as capacity is tight.

Of course the best form of power is “negawatts”, i.e. not using energy in the first place and this is where energy conservation comes in.  Our energy consumption (or at least electricity consumption) hit an all time low about 8 years ago.  Since then its been on an upward trend although with ups and downs.  The reasons for this are simple.  The children were growing up, staying up later and using more energy. Even when one left home our electricity consumption carried on going up.

Installing second PV system a few years ago didn’t stop this relentless rise in electricity consumption.  I was disappointed but not surprised by this.  My explanation was that at the time we had nailed down our electricity consumption as far as we were able.  But as a Christian who was concerned about climate change and the global energy crisis, I started to look for solutions.  We had swapped our normal incandescent bulbs for GLS ones that used 35% less electricity, put in CF bulbs in many places and bought some LED’s.  None of this made a difference in that electricity consumption was still rising, although it will have stopped it rising still further.

It was a delightful surprise then when my electricity consumption has started falling this year and my energy conservation efforts are starting to bear fruit.  Its not that there has been more sun this year and more homemade electricity, this year is going to be worse than last year.  The only explanation I can up with is that the number of LED’s as I keep gradually adding them has reached a critical level which shows. The economics stack up as well.  Why not thinking about buying a few?  Energy conservation could well be the future.

PS.  don’t be put off by the slightly weird colour of the picture of a bulb above its just the contrast in the shot, the light is identical to an incandescent bulb.


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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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