The other week the news was full of how bad diesel cars were for the environment, diesel cars being one the latest green magic bullets. Apparently particulates from diesel engines not only harm our immediate environment but also add to climate change by ending up on glaciers in India. As you might remember dark materials absorb infra-red radiation and light coloured materials reflect radiation. Thus the argument goes we are adding to global warming. In addition diesel engines put out more nitrogen oxides. These cause acid rain and are bad for our health. A few years ago governments were encouraging diesel car purchase. Not so much in the UK, but in Europe the duty on the fuel is lower and thus the cost per litre is cheaper than petrol. Wood-burners are also I think are wrongly blamed for the same problems. This got me thinking about some other green “magic bullets”.
One of the biggest ones. I fell for this one. For a short while it looked like guilt free driving. Even some green groups as well as governments encouraged its use. (For a climate sceptic potted history see here). We worked out that with current technology there were several problems to do with food competition and energy returns, these are outlined in much more detail in our book.
The next of the magic bullets that I want to cover is nuclear power. I’ve never fallen for this one, but governments have. Again we outline the drawbacks in our book. As an example of the problems with nuclear as solutions to energy security and climate change, Tony Blair said the UK should build new nukes in 2005. In 2014 nothing has happened except some site preparation has taken place one one site. There is still no certainty anything will ever get built. In the US the situation is much the same. In countries that are building reactors such as France and Finland huge delays and cost overruns have occurred.
Clean coal is the next of our magic bullets. Again governments were very keen on this pre economic slump. I remember going to meetings on this exciting technology and how it was the answer to our problems. There are some small pilot scale projects in place but nothing on a major scale anywhere in the world. Cost has been the main problem. The electricity will be very expensive and governments at the moment don’t want to subsidise it.
Wind power (onshore)
Governments at one time were very keen on this one of our magic bullets. Then local opposition wore their support down (and the cost of subsidy). It should be added that polling suggests wind is a very popular source of power, opposition is very vocal and localised and effective. Some parts of the UK government and climate sceptics have wrongly blamed them for the high cost of electricity (the real culprit is natural gas). I like wind turbines but even I don’t want to see them everywhere. They are also not a total solution since the wind does not always blow.
Offshore wind is definitely one of the UK’s magic bullets (we have more capacity than the rest of the world put together). It has the advantages that potentially the turbines are out of sight (although some offshore farms have been opposed in the UK and US since people will see them) and the turbines are much more productive than on shore turbines. The main problems are peoples opposition to the grid connections where they come ashore and the high cost. Unless this high cost can be lowered then magic bullet status is assured (plus the wind does not always blow).
I have a suspicion these could be the next of our magic bullets. Again in our book we have outlined some of the potential problems. The biggest ones are cost, range and where the electricity is coming from. Again the danger signs are there, that is governments are very keen. The problem is that if costs fall some of the other disadvantages may come to be major problems.
Current biggest of our magic bullets is fracking, if only people in Europe would put up with the noise, traffic, contaminated water etc. then the gas prices would plunge. The only problem is this makes windpower NIMBYism look like a kids teaparty. Also even the ex CEO of BP has said it won’t lower gas prices in the UK. Wells deplete very quickly and only a tiny % of the gas is extractable. Don’t hold your breath on this one.
This technology has some of the unfortunate signs of being one of the magic bullets. Its a technology I love and have fitted to my house. Governments also love it, or loved it, again its blamed for inflating electricity costs (perhaps unfairly). The problem is that it works too darned well. Yesterday Germany produced most of its electricity from renewables (mostly solar). The drawback is what to do with all that surplus power (something we have covered here before). The Germans are starting to find ways round it including energy storage and other countries with high penetration of solar PV need to do the same fast, especially as falling costs mean no subsidy will be needed in less than 10 years pretty much anywhere.
Energy conservation and lifestyle change is not seen as one of the above magic bullets by governments. Yet funnily enough this is where some of the most effective action has been. In the EU white good/cars/lightbulbs/houses have been energy rated A-G. The EU and Australia phased out incandescent bulbs. These less publicised changes have had real effect on energy demand in my country. In the UK 17:00 hours is seen as peak demand, this peak demand according to national grid is now falling. The private sector has innovated massively, white goods are much more energy efficient and LED’s have a fantastic quality of light at a much lower cost.
Many of the problems with the magic bullets above can be solved. Diesel cars can be fitted with particulate filters (although these bring their own problems) and catalytic converters to deal with nitrogen oxides (as long as platinum supplies hold up). Renewables output can be stored (technologies exist). I’m just not sure that peak oil and climate change have any single magic bullets.