One thing we have learnt this week – Olympic cycling

DSC_2418Can team GB’s Olympic cycling success change the UK’s cycling culture and raise its pitifully low rates of cycling?  Team GB has had a huge degree of Olympic cycling success which makes me proud, but can this success lead to more important change?

As the government goes back (in England) on its previous pledges on tackling obesity this question is being asked about most sports at the grass routes level.  However cycling is not most sports.  Its like walking, an alternative means of getting around (so is running but most people don’t run to work).  Cycling is both a means of cutting fossil fuel dependency and increasing fitness whilst building exercise naturally into your day, if you commute by bike.  I would argue a high level of cycling makes for a more civilized society.  There is also some evidence that cycle use cuts obesity rates (see the graph on page 805 in this paper) and driving raises them (also in the paper’s text looking at Chinese data)*.  Currently only 4% of UK journeys are by bike, its 43% in the Netherlands.  Whilst cycle use  in the UK is rising fast it is from a very low level.  The London Olympics raised sports participation before 2012 in anticipation but since 2012 the level has fallen although its higher overall than before 2012.  It definitely difficult to get people to take part in sports particularly cycling where there is perceived to be danger aspect (the irony is the more people who cycle the safer it is).  It requires joined up thinking with better cycle facilities as well as encouragement not just just Olympic super heroes, although this is a start.  The question is with austerity cutting sport facilities and groups and no joined up thinking on cycling in the UK will we get a cycling boost?


* most people think that exercise only helps to keep weight off not loose it.  If you do the maths on what you eat and what it takes to burn it off, this is logical.

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One thing we have learnt this week – OFGEM and energy prices

metersWith a big fanfare OFGEM announced its support for the Competition and Market Authorities changes to reduce energy prices.  The stand out headline was that the poorest were going to be protected.  This sounded great until you listened a bit longer.  Then you realised the those with pre-payment meters, generally those on low incomes were going to have a partial cap.  Whilst this is better than nothing it does not go far enough.

One of the most unfair aspects of the UK energy market is that those on pre-payment meters pay more for the privilege per unit in almost every case.  The one exception that I know is the not for profit social enterprise energy company I use.  We all pay the same.  That’s why the company was created since the person who did so could see direct debit customers would pay less. Whilst I appreciate pre-payment meters stop people getting into debt and can be useful for some groups (I had one when I was a student), this differential payment is outrageous.  As an aside a blind woman in church homegroup went into a housing association flat.  They gave her pre-payment meters which of course she could not use.  I helped get them removed with some difficulty.

It seems to me there are three ways to help people cope with high energy prices and cope with peak oil.

The first is a carbon ration.  We outline what these are in our book.  Although this would in many ways be redistributive there are some low income groups that would need protecting from its effects.  Namely those in very energy inefficient properties.  This is elegant for the most part but whilst simple in outline would be difficult to introduce and a hard sell, although its my personal preference.

The second is a straight tax on energy (carbon fuels).  This is advocated by James Hansen to combat climate change.  He proposes tax cuts on everything else.  I think this is a crude way of doing things, will affect many people on poor incomes and would be a hard sell, but if it could be made to work I would support it.

The third method is what is sort of happening now.  That is the rich subsidise the poor.  I think that this is a good solution to high energy prices but needs to be less piecemeal and done properly.  Two last points its said smart meters could do away with the above problem (don’t know why) and I heard this week that food banks are handing out energy vouchers so people don’t have to choose between heat and food.  This cannot be right and we really need to come up with a solution that is fair and protects the poorest against high energy prices.  OFGEM has not gone far enough.


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Netherlands -what is the mark of a civilised nation? Part 2

DSC_2425What is the mark of a civilised nation? And is cycling a factor? I was asking myself these questions as we did a holiday tour of the Netherlands. The positives are; the Netherlands is obviously a very cohesive society. I saw no homeless people and there were no obvious signs of a big gap between rich and poor. We passed what was clearly social housing but the estates and buildings looked in good order. People were amazingly polite, helpful and friendly. There was a very relaxed atmosphere which is very hard to put into words, but is plain when you see it in front of you. On the camp-sites we stayed at it was “lights out” at 11pm and people did indeed shut up. There was no heavy drinking or drunkenness. We saw almost no obese people and those we did see were mainly not Dutch.

Life is not perfect. There is a lot of graffiti in cities (more than here) and driving on motorways leaves a lot to be desired. There Is also the drug culture. Whilst I think there are worst crimes than smoking a bit of weed, its not ideal.

The question I was does this relaxed polite culture have anything to do with the cycle being king? And what does it say about how Christian a nation is? At the time of the second world war the Netherlands was very Christian and Christians played a leading role in the resistance. The Dutch church was a confessing church that refused allegiance to the Nazis. Since then levels of Christian belief have plunged (as they have in all Western countries).

When I was the CU our missioner was asked a question about this kind of issue by a green minded non-Christian friend of mine. The missioner responded by saying that when everyone became Christians society would be fine. This didn’t satisfy him and it certainly didn’t satisfy me. None of us are perfect least of all Christians. On this holiday I was reading “What’s so amazing about Grace” by Philip Yancy. This book covers amongst other things the culture wars in the US and what does it mean to be a Christian nation. The Netherlands is the antithesis of everything right wing American evangelicals want and yet it works as a society and works well. Is it at least partly due to the strong cycling culture which in principle should make people more respectful and polite to those around them. Or is some of God’s original grace still visible tacked onto the countries past protestant history in which to kick the Spanish out there had to be cooperation between different protestant groups and even some Catholics? Or is it a bit of both? I don’t know but whatever the reason, it makes Holland a great place to live.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Hinkley C

The whole Hinkley C saga continues to roll on and on and on.  This morning its taken another extraordinary twist.  Yesterday the French decided to go ahead with the scheme after years of prevarication (so many I’ve lost count).  Overnight the UK government has made what could be an extraordinary volte face.  They want to consider the whole thing and delay actually signing the contract.

At this point I am beginning to feel sorry for EDF, something I had thought was not possible.  The previous government had been on and on at EDF over Hinkley C.  EDF agree to go ahead and then our government seems to have cold feet.  You could not make it up.

This is without a shadow of a doubt a terrible deal.  There are clear indications that both sides are trying to find a way out without losing face.  The power is two expensive and some other technology will be needed to fill the gap.  One extraordinary fact is that the reactor was supposed to open next year, which makes it 9 years late before construction has even started.  The French unions oppose it, several members of the EDF board have resigned and the French government has had to recapitalise EDF.

Whilst it seems more likely that this is going to go ahead or at least start, we cannot be sure it will finish.  There is talk of abandoning construction of the same reactor at Flaminville.  I assume my government is trying to get a better deal particularly on the power price.  How successful this will be we can only guess.

The problem for the nuclear lobby is that almost all competing technologies are now cheaper (only wave and tidal are definitely more expensive) at the suggested strike price.  By the time these Hinkley C reactors open all these technologies and energy storage will be cheaper (given this thing may have a 60-100 year life).  This also assume construction goes smoothly.  Nuclear will not be able to compete with renewables and how will they be able to sell the power?


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Does cycling make a civilized nation part 1? Cycling in Holland.

Does cycling in Holland make it a civilized nation?  I have just returned from a family holiday in Holland.  We had been once before but only to Amsterdam.  We knew Amsterdam was cycling crazy and I’ve put some pictures up on the books Facebook page if not the blog.  However this time we did a circular tour of Holland and saw more of the cycling culture at first hand and joined in by hiring bikes in two different places.

Here are some general observations on cycling in Holland.

  • First, its mainly off road in a series of tarmacked and well maintained cycle paths.  These make a very complete network, but are as we found are not everywhere.  Unlike Germany they are one side of the road, not both.  In most places you can cycle on the road though in some places its banned.  Since they are on one side of the road they often cross the road from one side to the other.  This has its cons obviously.  One big drawback that I can see is that in many places mopeds are allowed to use the same paths.
  • They are well signed with numbers, place names and distances.  Red signs mean mopeds can share the path, green signs are for cycles only.   There are series of national routes.
  • Its very very flat.  This makes it very easy.  We found that this makes a real difference when driving, the car was getting amazing fuel economy.
  • An astonishing range of people cycle and a lot of them.  We saw the very young, the very old and those getting on a bit.  Almost all children cycle to school, this was quite clear.  We saw a a scout group on the move, again about 50 kids all cycling.  People take their dogs on the front or the back, usually in a wooden box.  I saw one old bloke cycling with one hand and holding a crutch with the other hand.
  • The Dutch make it very easy to cycle.  Renting a bike is easy and cheap.  Here is the scene that greeted us on Schiermonnikoog.  After a few minutes we were off to explore the Island having paid, adjusted saddle height and pumped one tire up.  The rental company had our mobile contact details and promised to bring a replacement anywhere if we broke down

DSC_2418In a national park cycling was encouraged with free bikes.


  • Dutch bikes are fairly low spec, a bit basic and a bit boring frankly.  They all look the same come in a basic range of colours and have a maximum of 7 gears and usually a built in lock.
  • The whole country is set for cycling not driving at least in urban areas.  Road narrowing and lack of signs for cars make navigating difficult.  At least once we used the cycle signs at junctions.
  • Cycling in Holland is getting more not less popular.

DSC_2346In the next post I will have a look at some other sustainability issues as well as the central question I have raised.


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One thing we have learnt this week- low cost PV

954838_204501379701698_1765426126_nObama announces 1GWp of low cost PV on low income housing roofs. One of the big problems with solar PV is the up front cost. Whilst PV costs have fallen dramatically over the last -well since they were invented- the up front cost is still in the thousands of dollar/pounds/euros or whatever.  PV is almost competitive with wholesale electricity from conventional plant but it will always need to be paid for up front.  This is going to defeat many of those who would benefit from it and leads people to think its a rich persons toy.  Obama is expanding his low cost solar scheme and training tens of thousands of installers by executive order.  The same thing has happened here.  Councils in Wrexham and Birmingham have put solar systems on thousands of council houses before the FIT was cut and I have read about others going forward despite the cut to it.

The low cost PV plan (Clean Energy Savings For All Initiative) is a 10 fold increase on the previous plan which perhaps in part reflects the big drop in PV prices.  There will be those who complain about it such as Trump, but it seems an admirable plan to me.  Why shouldn’t everyone benefit from the solar revolution?


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One thing we have learnt this week- Helium its a gas!

Spaceflight (This site doesn’t just cover depletion of oil but also occasionally other materials such as helium.  There are several things I expect you did not know about helium since neither did I.  First its the second most abundant element in the universe behind hydrogen.  This means there cannot be a shortage of it right?  Wrong.  The price has increased dramatically in the last 15 years (500%) due to depletion.  This is because of the most surprising fact about Helium.  Its mined.  Yes that’s right you did read it right -mined.  Helium on Earth is the end product of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium.  I always assumed it was extracted from the air like other inert gases.  It builds up under the ground and gets trapped.  If it escapes being very light it disappears into space.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that has very important scientific uses from launching instruments into near space on high altitude balloons to use in medical scanners such as Nuclear magnetic resonance machines.  These use helium as the coolant.  Its also used in anaesthetic gases.   The supply problem has led to calls for a ban on its use in kiddies balloons.

The good news a huge new reserve of helium has been found in West Africa along with some in natural gas in Qatar.  This should keep us going for a while and technical innovations are meaning we may need less of it.  However, we still need to stop using it for children’s balloons.  It is non-renewable.


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What has the EU ever done the environment?

europe-flag-1What has the EU ever done the environment? I have been asking myself this over the last agonising few days.  Will we miss the EU in environmental terms?   The answer is yes but it has at least left a solid legacy that will be hard to undo.  During this whole nasty campaign I have been wracking my brains to see how the EU affected me.  There were three areas that came to mind, working rights, clean beaches and renewable energy.

The UK’s beaches used to be in a terrible state.  When I lived in Edinburgh over 20 years ago the cities sewage was dumped in the Forth.  I know this because the then wife of a friend of mine was a microbiologist.  Her job was to sample the water after the dumping.  This whole business was not only polluting but highly energy intensive.  Now thanks to the EU that no longer happens and the sewage plant even covers of its energy use by means of an anaerobic digester.  When I have been to the seaside the beeches I have visited have been all the top blue category.  Again thanks to the EU.  The UK had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do this, but having done life is much more pleasant.

The second area is renewable energy.  The EU has set climate and renewable energy targets.  These have not been high enough but have been better than nothing.  The UK has to get 20% of all its energy from renewables by 2020.  The government insisted we were on target to do this although many of us had our doubts.  Nevertheless it was up to the UK how it met this target.  One way was through the introduction of a feed in tariff which I have taken advantage of.  Our renewable electricity production has soared to 25% last year.

With brexit environmentalists are concerned about the future, I think with good reason, but some of this legacy is secure.  Bye bye EU, I like many of my compatriots think we will miss you more than we realised.


PS I voted and campaigned for remain.

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One thing we have learnt this week – plastic waste a solution

plastic bottle greenhouse at CATPlastic is one of the wonders and at the same time biggest problems of our age. Its quite ubiquitous, I am writing this on a plastic keyboard on a laptop made of plastic (in large part). One of greatest problems is one of its biggest advantages – its indestructibility. We have known about this indestructibility for decades but in recent years we have learnt of new problems due to this property. These are the huge volume of plastic in the worlds oceans and the shredding of the plastic down to a microscopic level and its effects on everything from wildlife to us.

A huge whirlpool of plastic drifts in the Pacific, the great Pacific garbage patch. One Dutchman thinks he has a solution to this. This is a rubber boom called Boomy McBoomface (UK readers may get this name more than others).

A 21 year student dropout had the idea and crowdfunded its development. Now the Dutch government is funding its sea trials. There are three huge problems.

1) the device has to be huge since the problem is huge and in order to make any impact on it. It needs to be 100km long, a lot bigger than the 100m trial. No such device has ever been built that size.
2) It needs tethering to the seabed which is 4.5Km deep at the point of the great Pacific garbage patch. No such tethering has been tried before.
3) It will need to be robust enough to survive Pacific typhoons.
4) Some means of collecting and disposing of the plastic will need to be found.

If this works it would be great but in the meanwhile we need to cut down our use of this material.


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Renewables had very good 2015

2013-07-13 19.28.08Renewables had very good 2015, that is the message from the REN21 global renewables status report.  The report has an extraordinary range of facts and I will attempt to pull out both the main ones and some surprising ones.

Unsurprising ones first.

  • Solar PV capacity soared by 50GWp or 25% in 2015.
  • Wind capacity grow by over 17%.  Very little of this was offshore.
  • Both are now competitive at least in part with new build gas/coal without subsidy.
  • For the first time renewables investment in developing countries exceeded non-renewable investment.
  • Renewables investment was twice the amount spent on gas and coal power together.

All other types of renewables investment were very low figures so these technologies dominate.

Did you know?

  • China has more Solar hot collector investment than the US and is first in the world for this technology.  Brazil is 5th.
  • That 110 countries have a feed in tariff.
  • That 21 countries have a renewable heat incentive.
  • 148 countries have some kind of energy efficiency target.
  • 22 countries had enough PV capacity to meet more than 1% of their electricity demand.
  • Costa Rica met 99% of its electricity demands via renewable energy.
  • In the developing world distributed renewable energy is continuing to flourish.  With both clean cooking stoves and small PV systems being rolled out with several thousand mini grids in operation in countries such as Bangladesh.
  • Battery costs (lithium EV) fell 35% between mid 2014 and 2015.

Challenges remain.  Renewable heat as we wrote in our book is a major challenge and a lot of the use of biomass in the developing world is non-sustainable biomass.  Renewable electricity is still dominated by hydropower and wind and solar have some way to go to catch up.  Ocean energy is still stalled as the renewable alternatives such as wind and solar are cheaper.  Nevertheless the renewable revolution is now unstoppable.


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