Reopening railway lines

800px-Beeching2.svgOne of the most exciting developments in transport is reopening railway lines.  The Beeching cuts that I have blogged on before were planned to cut most of the UK’s rail capacity.  Beeching (an engineer) in the end managed to close about a third of our capacity.  This map shows what the route network would have looked like (black).  Pretty much nothing in Wales, not much in Scotland and England only main trunk routes.

Beeching envisaged buses taking over from the rural bus lines and main lines being used for fast freight trains.  We know what happened there.  Rural buses are almost non-existent and freight has never achieved its full potential (although he was right on the importance of rail freight).  In the 1980’s Thatcher proposed closing all but about 1800 miles and turning the routes into roads.  Question would you rather have an extra road running by your house or a railway with a few trains an hour?  This plan was dropped after huge protest as was the worst of the Beeching cuts.  The pullback from both has left our railways viable for for future expansion which either of the above would not have done.  Almost ever since the closures campaigners have been trying to reinstate lines.  The rise in passenger traffic, climate change, transport chaos on the roads and yes the high oil price has made reopening railway lines viable again.  It even now government policy.  I was asked to sign a petition this week on this.  Which I did.

In recent years we have seen our biggest reopening yet the Borders railway.  Others such as to Portishead are under way.  Reopening these lines is expensive and we should aim for the low hanging fruit.  Examples of this fall into 3 categories.

The first is where the lines are poen and currently used for freight only.  An example is Ashington – Blyth – Newcastle.

The second is where the line is only recently been closed so the line has not been built on.  An example here is Thornton – Leven in Fife.  The track is still down (although needs renewal).

The last is where much of the existing route is still there and only short stretches need putting back.  Many examples here.  Bathgate to Glasgow (which I use) was reopened recently all the way allowing Glasgow – Edinburgh travel.  The Great central line and Worcester to Derby via Dudley are other ones.  Opening the railways lines closed is vital so support your local groups.

A full list can be seen here.


Posted in Rail, Transport, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – fast charging

250px-Parallel_plate_capacitor.svgCould fast charging electric cars be on the way?  I have written about this before but this week I learnt of another report on a new fast charging technology.   There are a number of problems with electric car adaption (apart from the one that it does not solve the general problems caused by cars).

  • The first is cost.
  • The second is range.
  • The third s charging point numbers.
  • The fourth is charging time.
  • The fifth is number of models.
  • The last is grid capacity.

Car costs are falling as battery production capacity builds so this becoming less of an issue.  The fact that all manufacturers have pledged to make majority electric vehicles will help this and this does not like being a limiting factor at the moment.  Ranges have increased dramatically over the last 5 years and are said to be increasing at around 6-8% a year.  There are said to be enough charging points at the moment but due to the number of street parked cars this could be an issue in the future.  You can see where the idea of people not owning a car in the future but using autonomous vehicles comes in.  My view is the idea of car ownership will be much harder to shift than people think and this issue could act as a brake (sic) on electric cars.

One limit is said to be a narrow range of models but the answer to point one applies here as well.  The grid capacity issue is a major one if electric cars really take off and will be very expensive to solve.  We are not just talking about generating capacity but the grid itself will need upgrading.  Certainly in the UK the grid needs renewing anyway.  So this may be a beneficial happen-stance.  For electric cars to succeed they need to be cheap to buy, cheap to run (undoubtedly true now), you need good range, you need reliable charging, find a charging point easily and last you car needs to charge fast.

At the moment charging is too slow.  It needs to be as quick as filling a tank.  A variety of solutions have been proposed to this problem.  This includes battery swapping, new battery technology and the use of capacitors.  The first two have not really happened leaving an entry point for the last idea.  Capacitors are not a battery but hold the opposite charge on two plates separated by an insulator.  When connected to a power supply electrons are removed from one plate and supplied to the other.  When you connect to a power demand the reverse occurs.  Charging and discharging is very quick and they have a long life.  Up and till now they do not have capacity to run a car for more than a few miles.  Bu various groups are working on new super capacitors using nano materials such as graphene.  The advantage of nano materials is they can build up enormous surface areas for tiny amounts of material.  In the short term these researchers and companies say that they see capacitors as an addition to batteries handling braking and acceleration which put strains on the car battery.  Its is easy to see this fast charging method is the way to go though and will mitigate many of the problems alluded to above.


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Transport, travel, UK electricity use | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – kinder country

cartoon on snowDoes snow make for a kinder country?  It was noticeable how life changed when a fair amount of snow created complete disruption.  (We can argue about whether we need to spend a lot of money to make our infrastructure snow proof – this might be necessary with climate change.)  But for 48 hours the whole of the UK ground to a complete standstill.  The sense of change and community and a kinder country was very noticeable.  Churches threw open their doors to the homeless.  Businesses and people donated food and clothes (a person in my homegroup saw this in action as a volunteer).  Hotels through open their doors to stranded travellers and again supermarkets donated food.  Neighbours rallied around one another.

The biggest change was on the roads and streets.  The streets were reclaimed by children and pedestrians.  A video on line showed a man snow boarding down a street in Glasgow.  The reason for all this was a complete absence of traffic.  And how refreshing it was.  I saw lots of people walking back from the shops with their shopping.  It even took a few days here for the traffic to get back to normal.

The question is could we replicate this in the future?  Even electric cars do not totally solve the problems of pollution and excessive traffic.  Of course there were drawbacks, the shops were almost all closed apart from the supermarkets that were fast running out of food.  The snow made us see the precariousnesses of life.  Our dependency on supply lines at the moment dominated by fossil fuels was plain to see.  It would be good if we could reduce our dependence on the motor car.  Life would be so much better.


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Practical low carbon living, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Reaction against the age of machines

By Ms. President (Flickr User) -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

I read an interesting and worrying article looking at the beginnings of a backlash against the age of machines by new “luddites” in the paper yesterday.  It looked at a range of reactions against social media and automation. The luddites were a social movement that attacked spinning machines in the early 1800’s.  Up until then weaving machinery was looms and was hand operated.  A series of entrepreneurs in the UK came up with the idea of using first water power then the new technology of steam to power huge looms in factories.  The industrial revolution was born the age of machines started and the rest is history as they say.  The luddites had their jobs threatened and attacked the new factories.

There have been some arson attacks on tech targets worldwide and a surprisingly large number of organised group attacks on Uber cars (also worldwide).  The article went beyond that and looked at the general backlash against social media.  Apparently there are also a record number of new communes starting up.  This was seen as a reaction against technology but could also be a more general concern about the global political solution.

There are parallels with the 1800’s but there are also differences.  The similarities are that jobs are threatened by new technology.  The advocates of the new technology make some good and bad arguments in favour of it.  They rightly point out that in the past new technology has created more new jobs than it destroyed (and we cannot know what these jobs are in advance).  The article then quoted some crass extensions to this argument stating that lorry drivers should retrain as programmers.  This raises the issue that is also raised by globalisation separately from the age of machines.  That is those who gain or not always (at least in the short term) not the same as those who lose.  There are other big concerns here.  Firstly the automation is not confined to one sector (say manufacturing).  There are people loosing their jobs in insurance not to robots but algorithms.  Robots are starting to appear in shops along with self serve tills.  In other words the age of machines is working at multiple levels threatening both working and middle class jobs all the same time.

Another difference is there is also a backlash against the fringes of this technology i.e. social media.  This is an important difference with the early 1800’s (although newspapers were just getting going).  The complaints against the big giants of social media are many.  However as the article pointed out that does not stop us using them.

There are a number of concerns about new technology from social to energy use but in democracies there is no excuse for violence.  The whole automation era does need to handled well though otherwise they could be real trouble.


Posted in Practical low carbon living, society, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – new types of solar cells

I read a very interesting article in the Guardian this week that got me thinking about  types of solar cells.  The main article was that silicon solar cost reductions were falling away and this opened the door for new types of solar namely Perovskite types.

Reviewing the different types and how they work before we get to this new potential type.

How do they work.  A very simple explanation which applies to all types, the materials maybe the different but the underlying physics is the same.  Taking silicon types.  Edmund Bequerel discovered the photo electric effect in 1839 and Einstein got a Nobel prize for his explanation of it.  Certain materials (and there are quite a range of them) when exposed to light the photons cause electrons to be freed from the material (e.g. silicon).  In a pure material this is useless since the electron is recaptured easily.  However you can change the behaviour by doping the silicon.  Silicon has 4 electrons in outer orbital by adding small amounts of phosphorous with 5 electrons in its outer shell you give it one electron with nothing to do which can be liberated by light and move around.  This is known as N-type.  By doping with boron you do the opposite there is a shortage of electrons and a positive charge can move (P-type).  Both can be liberated by light and are laid on top of one another (a semiconductor).   The charges liberated by light have desire to move from one side to the other to equalise charges.  This is a current which can be used.  All types work in the same way.  The light has to be pretty specific wavelengths (just the right energy) do this for specific materials.  These main types are.  (Note many have been combined which raises efficiency).

Silicon.  The most common type in the world today.  The graph below shows this success.  In 2004 when we got our first system we were thought of as eccentric and there was barely 4GWp worldwide now the total is over 300GWp (source various) and you cannot go anywhere without seeing a roof covered in modules.

Graph of solar capacity 2018The a number of disadvantages to this technology.  The first is it takes a lot of energy to make the cells.  The raw silicon must be purified by heating to a molten state.  This has led to the incorrect rumour that these cells never return the energy used to make them.  This is not true.  In actual fact the energy return has improved and the efficiency of energy conversion has increased (see next graph below).  The theoretical maximum is about 29%.

1024px-PVeff(rev171030)One major disadvantage is that convert at the red end of the spectrum and so require bright sunlight.  Another is the cells have to be cut very thin which is not easy.   There are two types monocrystalline and polycrystalline.  Mono are more efficient and more expensive and work slightly more cross spectrum.   One major advantage is their longevity.  Both have 25 year guarantees.  Also they can be recycled into new cells.

Thin film.  This includes a raft of technologies including one silicon and the phrase relates to the fact that the layers are far thinner.   Lots of these are transition metal based such as copper indium gallium diselenide.  They have a number of advantages in that they use less material and energy to make.  They can also be rolled out into thin layers so could be used on walls windows etc.  They have never really caught on and make up about 15% of the market.

Amorphous silicon.  This is a silicon based technology that is thin film with lower purity silicon.  The advantages are it uses recycled materials from the electronics industry.  They also work far more cross spectrum.  This means that they work as well on a cloudy day as a sunny day.  The disadvantages are they are less efficient with shorter guarantees.  They have been failure issues particularly in hot countries.

Organic.  Organic molecules can absorb photons and liberate them as a semiconductor.  Lots of different types are under development.  The advantages are those of thin film.  The disadvantage is that the efficiencies and life are lower.

Perovskite types.  Technically a thin film (as you see there is overlap between the different types).  Perovskite is a mineral but this is not used to make the cells.  The word relates to the 3D arrangement of atoms not the materials used.  The advantages are as thin film.  The disadvantages are that getting large sheets of this material are challenging.

New types of solar cells are being worked on all the time but silicon is very dominant that its difficult for new technologies to break through.  Are argument in the article was that new types of solar cells are required since the cost reductions in silicon are slowing down.  Is this really true?

Price_history_of_silicon_PV_cells_since_1977.svgThe pace is lower but looking at the graph these reductions are still huge in % terms and certainly many believe these reductions will continue (such as the Fraunhofer institute).  New types of solar cells will still find it difficult to break through.  In addition many new types of solar cells are best combined with silicon anyway.


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Renewables, solar | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Is peak oil dead? BP energy outlook 2018.

Is peak oil dead?  This is the intriguing question raised by BP’s 2018 energy outlook.  Since the collapse in the oil price in 2018 the conventional wisdom has been that peak oil is dead.  The arguments do not for once come from the supply side but from the demand side.  A number of things reinforce this argument, which was one we did not cover in our book.  These are basically that renewables have really taken off with huge drops in costs.  Also electric car sales are growing exponentially albeit from a very low base.  Again costs and more significantly ranges are moving in the right direction.  Very importantly on this one governments all over the world have made commitments to ban conventional vehicles at some point in the future (usually 2030-40).

However balanced against the above are 3 factors that BP must be relying on for their arguments. These are that oil, gas and coal are used not just for generating electricity but also for transport, plastics and space heating.  On transport BP reckon that oil demand for transport was 18.7Mbd in 2016 and will be 18.6Mbd in 2040.  Look at the graph below I have drawn below using BP’s data.  Whilst the internal combustion engine data includes hybrids BP clearly see most cars on the road in 2040 relying at least in part on oil.

BP car data energy outlook 2018Looking at oil demand BP see this growing.  Look at the next graph I’ve drawn from their data of % share of total energy production by source.

BP data energy outlook 2018It appears to show oil use has peaked.  Indeed as a % share of world energy it did in about 1975.  However since global energy demand is still rising the global oil demand is still rising.  This means from 2016 production levels (about 97Mbd) we need an increase to 116Mbd.

Can this be done?  Its a big increase.  BP see US shale oil in the early years and OPEC in the last 10 years of their scenario as critical.   However they say;

For there to be sufficient oil supplies to be able to meet demand in any of the
scenarios considered requires significant levels of new investment in oil production.
If there were no new investment in oil production from today, and existing
production declined at 3% p.a., global oil supplies would be around 45 Mb/d in 2040.”

Is peak oil dead?  Not sure.  It depends on so many factors that run against on another.  If electric car use and renewables growth is faster than people think (and renewables growth is always faster than predicted) then demand will peak.  If production slows or cannot be maintained then we are back to peal oil.  Currently electric car sales are still low…


Posted in oil prices, Peak oil | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – solar power in Nepal

himalayas-407_1920I heard a very interesting report on solar power in Nepal this week on the radio.  Solar power is not the first thing that you think of when you think of Nepal.  The first thing you think of is hydropower.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Its electricity consumption was only 70kW per person per year.  To put this in perspective there are plenty of people who manage to use this much in one day in the West.  Nepal uses the following energy sources;

Biomass. 85% of the population is rural and uses precious trees for cooking, lighting and heating.  This leads to considerable respiratory disease problems.

Carbon fuels.  Nepalese also rely on imported oil and kerosene leading to the same problems as above, plus the requirement for foreign exchange.

Hydropower.  The theoretical capacity of Nepal is huge over 40,000MWp of practical resources.  Its actual installed capacity is a mere 576MWp (grid connected).  There are lot of micro and pico hydro plants not connected to the grid.  Over a 1000 have been funded by the world bank.

Wind.  The wind resource is apparently quite poor but some non grid connected wind is installed.

Solar.  The solar resource is very good.  Its this that was covered in the programme slot.  Previous attempts have suffered from the usual problem, developed world comes in funds high tech solution in village – goes away – system falls to bits.  However what has changed is that the Nepalese government in 2002 with the support of the Danish government set up a subsidy scheme for very small systems (10-40 watts).  This enough for phone charging and most importantly lighting when combined with some batteries.  This has led to the creation of a local installer base which can also troubleshoot and maintain systems.

Solar power in Nepal is not the first thing you would think of but such systems are vital in bringing power to over 80% of those who live without it in a sustainable way.


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Renewables | Leave a comment

Offshore wind

2013-07-13 19.28.08Did you know the UK built over half of Europe’s offshore wind capacity in 2017?  Nor was it a trivial amount of offshore wind capacity either, at over 3GWp.  This as the USA has yet to install one offshore wind turbine.  The total increase in European offshore wind capacity was 25% year on year.  This only looks to increase in the future.  This is for two reasons.

New players are entering the game.  The French are starting to crank up their offshore wind capacity.  They wish to reduce their dependence on nuclear as they have a huge problem with most of their capacity coming to the end of its life.

The second reason is costs are plunging.  This is partly about numbers and partly about cost.  Obviously as more and more turbines are put out at sea the leraning costs fall.  The main reason however is the turbines are getting bigger and bigger with higher capacity.  Only a few years ago a large turbine was 5MWp.  Now its 8-9MWp and soon it will by 13-15MWp.  Whilst these are larger they are not twice the size.  In addition floating turbines are being tried.  These save on the cost of being fixed to the seabed.  Cost wise it looks like rivalling solar for undercutting all other power generation costs over the next 5-10 years.


Posted in offshore wind, Renewables, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

One thing we have learnt this week – plastic Lent

lent word cloud 2018Its not that its plastic lent or lent is plastic!  Lent has arrived again this year.  This I’m going to major on plastic.  Over the last year plastic waste has moved up most peoples agendas with particular concerns over plastic ending up in the oceans.  For lent this year I’ve decided to reduce my plastic use (as has my daughter who far more bravely than me is going to post what she does use on the internet).

I have decided to start small and make one change every month for the next year (or I should say we as a household).  I will be updating this as we go along.  Lent just brings an extra focus handily close to the start of the effort and hopefully by making a small sacrifice then will remember Christ’s bigger one – which is the point.

January.  We bought (plastic) containers but use these to put food in that might dry out like cheese when stored in the fridge.  The saving is huge on plastic bags (and in the long term will save money).

February. We stopped buying fizzy drinks in large 2L plastic bottles (buy cans).  Note we never buy water in plastic bottles.  Started taking paper bags to the shops to put fruit/veg in instead of plastic bags that shops insist you use.  This morning bough loose potatoes and refused plastic bag to put them and put them straight in my bag.

Yes these changes are small on an individual basis but if all started making them…

Here are some more ideas from Bettina interviewed on yesterdays Radio 4 PM (log in required unfortunately).

Loose Tea.  Teabags contain plastic – yes I could not believe it either.  The COOP is going to stop using it in its everyday teabags and whilst this is my first company endorsement ever, I don’t care.  We will be buying these in future particularly when they are still fair trade when other companies are doing away with it.

Make you own soap/deodorant etc.

Go for refills.

Make a less plastic lent!


Full “No oil in the lamp” Lent guide here.


Posted in Intentional living, One thing we have learnt this week, plastic waste, Practical low carbon living | Leave a comment

Tree planting

B and W birch trunkThere was an interesting, encouraging but realistic article in the Guardian today on tree planting.  The easiest way to cut carbon emissions is not to produce the carbon in the first place.  One if not the easiest way to do this is in the area of agriculture and one of these areas is forestry.  It seems as part of the Paris climate agreement countries have pledged to plant trees and lots of them.  China has pledged to plant a forest the size of Ireland.  Countries in latin America have pledged to restore 20M Ha of damaged forset and in Africa pleageds have been made to restore 100M Ha.   India has said they will plant 13M Ha hectares.  Last year volunteers made a start on this planting over 66 million trees in one day A whole heap of other countries in Europe have also made pledges.  Worldwide its now 120 countries.

There are many good reasons for planting trees.  These include wellbeing (mental health benefits, physical health benefits (from natural products), but also other tangible physical benefits.  These include creating or increasing rainfall and holding soil together.  Trees also act as windbreaks and can be used for fuel.  Chopping forests down risk creating desert.  I saw this first hand over 20 years ago in Sumatra.

So why the enthusiasm?  Its easy to see governments see this as an easy win.  In principle planting trees is not unpopular.  We need some caution though.  Mistakes have been made in the past.  In the UK monocultural plantations of non native species were planted by government.  These proved unpopular.  In addition private forests in the UK have been badly managed.  This is an issue with new planting it needs looking after.  I have written before about a carbon offsetting tree scheme by a rock star in a very remote part of Scotland,  the very young trees had all died.  In the developed world the best way is to involve local populations.  This has been done successfully in Mali and Pakistan using a system agriculture called agroforestry.  In this crops and trees are interspersed.

Another note of caution.  Whilst deforestation has slowed in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia a good deal of logging (illegal or legal) is still taking place, mainly to plant monoculture such as palm oil.   The easiest forest is the one still standing not the one to be planted from scratch.




Posted in forest | Tagged , | Leave a comment