One thing we have learnt this week – electric dreams again

charging point for electric carsElectric dreams again.  The grid is changing and our means of transport is also changing (or at least what powers it).  The problem is a fully electric road system will lead to a big increase in electricity demand.  Possibly as high as 88TWh a year or 8GW at peak demand times.  That’s a lot of electricity, about 25% of what we use now.  Charging all the possible cars will be an issue since the rapid  chargers use a lot of electricity so require a 3 phase supply.  Even if they don’t use rapid charging then demands will be high as in theory everyone comes home in their car and puts it on to trickle charge overnight.  A 50Kw battery is some night-time/evening demand compared with now spread over 8 hours (do the math!).  The easiest way would be to reduce our driving as George Monbiot suggested this week and we wrote about in our book.  Electric cars are not a solution to many of the problems caused by driving.  However as I wrote last week at the moment this seems unlikely.  At the moment as few as 7 cars charging in a neighbourhood could cause a brownout according to the green alliance.

A number of solutions have been proposed.  One obvious one is to combine home battery storage with charging your car.  So during the day when you are out at work your battery system is charged from the solar panels on your roof.  When you get home and plug the car in then this is used to charge your car.  Advantages; less strain on the grid.  Problem you need a pretty big battery system to fill a car and there will be other calls on the batteries as well such as lights/cooking/heating etc.  A major problem of this type of system is winter.  Electricity demand is at its highest when solar production is at its highest.  Nevertheless such an idea will mitigate the grid strain issue to an extent.

The second solution is smart charging and involves the heavy use of smart meters.  When your electricity is cheap then your car would charge.  The problem is many people would overrule this since they would want their car charged this relies on a lower more laid back approach to car use.

The third solution is using the car as grid storage.  The opposite of above.  Your car would be called upon to power the grid when power is short.  The government have see-sawed on their approach to this one.   Ten years ago they were keen on it, then they went off the idea, now they are keen on it.  The advantages are twofold.  With millions of electric cars there will be storage available on a vast scale.  All funded by the consumer.  Second if you could persuade lots of people to forego their cars at any one time then congestion would be less.  The problems are also twofold.  You have to persuade people to do this and to do so will take large amounts of money, pushing up power prices at peak demand times.

In practical terms though grid reinforcement is going to be required on a mammoth scale.  If electric heating takes off and we go totally electric we will need enough generating capacity for about another 800TWh of power a year, an even bigger challenge.

Neil

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UK electricity prices are on the march (again)

DSC_2159UK electricity prices are on the march (again).  A storm of protest has broken forth today as one of the UK big six British Gas is raising electricity but not gas prices by up to 12.5%.   All the other energy companies (almost) have stuck up prices over the last year and there are concerns they may follow again.  Everyone is blaming everyone else.   British Gas blames network upgrades, smartmeters and renewables for increase.  The government say its not their imposed programmes but the companies fault.

As per usual its very hard for us customers to disentangle what is going on with UK electricity prices.  We can draw a number of general points though.

  • British gas has to be fair to them not put prices up for 4 years.
  • The eco stuff is onerous particularly the energy efficiency programmes.  The small providers are exempted below a certain number of customers.  These companies try to stay below this limit (something like 120,000) for this reason.  The British Gas boss wanted a level playing field this morning on the radio with his competitors not being exempted*.  However the big six make big profits and the limit is still fairly low.  Its there for a reason to encourage competition by not loading too much stuff on new market entrants.  The eco effeciency stuff is really important and is the only way of limiting prices in the future.
  • This brings us to competition.  Privatisation has not worked out in keeping prices low as was promised.  It did at first with the companies getting the benefits of the “dash to gas”.  Yes you can blame external factors such as the run down of UK gas supplies and a switch to renewables and huge increase in the oil price in 2008. (Its still surprising how much this last factor has affected electricity prices.)  Nevertheless we were told competition would work and its not working very well (although the small suppliers are somewhat cheaper).  The different tariffs and ranges thereof are labyrinthine.
  • One thing British Gas are not blaming increased UK electricity prices is the wholesale price of electricity.  This has fallen by their own admission.  With 25% of power coming from renewable sources it would seem unfair not to give renewables credit in helping to hold prices down.  Once a renewable asset is in then the output is pretty much fixed and predictable going forward.  Gas prices meander about all over the place.

The government were promising some kind of cap in their manifesto.  The small majority means this like so may other promises has been trashed.  It looks like this problem is here to stay.  The only mitigating factors are British Gas are going to subsidise their poorest customers a bit to protect them from the increase.   Buy our book which has energy efficiency tips in it.

Neil

* he also said he wanted the government to legislate to get rid of standard variable tariffs although this begs the question as to why British Gas don’t voluntarily get rid of them themselves.

P.S. I must be on of the few people in the UK whose gas and electricity prices will have fallen.  However this until December and is to keep me with my energy company after they have switched back office suppliers.  I’m expecting a big increase then.

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One thing we have learnt this week- Electric dreams

Electric dreams!  Over the last week or so there have been some big energy announcements on storage, solar, electric cars and energy demand. These all fit together into one seamless whole – electric dreams.

First the electric cars. The UK government announced that all conventional cars will be outlawed by 2040. Or will they? Hybrids will be allowed and these use diesel or petrol. 2040 is a long way off as well. This announcement was making people think they are doing something about particulates. Nevertheless with other governments around the world making the same kind of moves the direction of travel is clear (pun intended). The end of oil for road transport is in sight.

Electric cars and energy demand are clearly linked though. If all road transport goes electric then electricity demand will rise. The question is by how much? As it happens both the Green Alliance and National grid have been having a think about this very recently. Wood Mckenzie think it could be about 3%, National grid come up with a confusing range of figures but think the figure could be up to 88TWh by 2050. Where is this power going to come from?

First we need to remember there is beginning to be at least some slack in the system. Electricity demand is falling at the moment due to LED’s and more efficient white goods. Our household is typical of this trend at the moment our energy use is falling fast (see graph below). This will buffer some of the demand, although against this there is a huge program of power station closures.

long term importIn addition we don’t know how much people will use their cars, or whether we will even own cars in the future (with autonomous vehicles).  There has to be a suspicion though that without some kind of road charging or some other big change in society the high ownership of cars will continue.  For the last 60-70 years car ownership has become embedded in the culture and will be harder to shift than some proponents of autonomous vehicles think.

Another unknown is how the electric car technology will improve.  National grid assume it will but don’t really talk about their methodology (they do talk a lot about rapid charging technology).  Obviously as range improves so will need for charging them.

Next week I will look at the implications of all this.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – nuclear waste and brexit

Is nuclear waste about to become a bargaining chip in brexit?   The UK government this has threatened to send a load of nuclear waste back to various EU countries if the UK is not allowed to “have its cake and eat it” over Euroatom.

Some background, although its very very complicated and I’m not going to go into any detail.  Over the years at least three different re-processing plants have been built at Sellafield.  All of them have tried to pick up foreign business which means nuclear waste being shipped to the UK from other countries.  All have ended in absolute or relative failure.  The Thorp re-processing plant opened in 1994 after taking almost 20 years to build.  In 2005 there was a disastrous leak of radioactive material (internally luckily) which had been going on for months but was not detected.  This plant seems to be operational again.

In 2001 another plant the MOX (mixed oxide plant) opened.  This was to re-process uranium and plutonium from light water reactors.  Again it was a failure only processing a tiny amount of its capacity.  It closed after the Japanese disaster in 2011 but has reopened again taking Japanese waste.  The pilot plant for this facility was involved in controversy when records were falsified.    This meant that Japanese waste had to be returned from Japan to the UK.

Nuclear expert David Lowry says we are still acquiring nuclear waste from other European countries.  Much of the waste comes from Japan.  That which is sitting here from Europe is doing so due to British failure.  We took it as a commercial venture. Waste is expensive, dangerous and a security risk to shift.  Are we going to carry out our threat?  Very unlikely and to do so means total failure of the entire brexit negotiations.

Neil

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Travel by train

20170530_140510A few years ago Neil asked me to guest write a blog post about my wife and I’s decision to travel by train on holiday to Belgium after reading “No Oil in the Lamp” (original post here: http://www.theoillamp.co.uk/?p=4007). So when my wife and I made plans recently to go on holiday to Paris, we recalled our trip to Belgium and decided to go by Eurostar again. The difference being that now we would have an 18 month old accompanying us! How would we get on travelling with a toddler while still trying to be environmentally conscious on holiday?

First a bit of background: I grew up in the US where train travel was not (and still is not) a commonly used mode of transportation for longer journeys or holidays. Car or airplane travel are often assumed to be the only two reliable modes of transportation in many parts of the country. So our initial Eurostar trip to Belgium came out of a desire to take holiday in a different way, one which consumed less oil and would cost our world less. This time around, we were still motivated to make choices that were kind to our planet, and we also felt that the train travel would be easier on our daughter and on us as parents. Having flown with her previously, we had already experienced that airplane travel was something to be survived with a young child, rather than enjoyed!

Our experience travelling by train was highly positive and enjoyable for myself, my wife, and our daughter (and also therefore, I imagine, those sitting around us!). In addition to the environmental benefits of our journey, our comfort level as a family was far greater than it would have been on an airplane. Having more room at our seats and the ability to move around our car and between cars helped everyone feel a bit more comfortable and at ease. On our Eurostar journey in particular, it was easy to get up and walk around with our little one, despite travelling at high speeds. Our daughter enjoyed seeing (and calling to) the many sheep, cows, and horses we could see outside the train on journeys to and from London. On our return journey we were able to ride in a newer Eurostar train, which has a redesigned cabin (shown in picture) and can travel up to 10% faster than their older trains.

20170606_104343During our holiday in Paris, we found it quite easy to continue making eco-friendly decisions for our daily wants and needs. There are many opportunities to buy local and organic foods at supermarkets and pop-up markets around town. Our location in the city allowed us to either walk to most places or make use of Paris’s excellent metro system. And while we did have to forego our cloth nappies for disposables for the week, we were able to easily find nappies and wipes that were produced with minimal chemicals or additives. I had assumed that being out of our normal everyday life would mean that our eco-options would be reduced or diminished, and I was pleasantly surprised for that not to be the case!

One sobering moment while visiting Paris is that the same week we were there on holiday, my home country the USA withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015. It was heart-breaking to hear the news, and being in Paris that same week gave the announcement a greater sense of gravity and depth. I am very grateful that no one we encountered in our time there openly criticised us for our home country’s decision! While we wait and hope for the USA to reconsider its position on fighting climate change, we are glad that we were able to fight future climate change through the small choices we made over the week.

Overall we loved our holiday to Paris, and particularly enjoyed making use of train travel to get to and from our destination in Paris. I would highly recommend train travel with little ones and would especially prefer it over airplane travel. While we have done our best as new parents to maintain daily life practices that involve cleaner, less wasteful living, it is still a learning process with plenty of missteps and the need for grace for ourselves. I hope that someday we are able to effectively share with our daughter our beliefs and values about God’s call to us to care for creation. Perhaps by then she will be able to read Andy and Neil’s next book, “No Oil in the Lamp – For Kids”! But I am grateful that we will have great memories as a family together on holiday from this trip, and I hope that we can continue to learn how to enjoy time away together while also caring for our world.

Tim

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One thing we have learnt this week – Hinkley Point C

Hinkley Point C is bad value for money say the National audit office (NAO).  Everyone part from the nuclear industry and possibly the government know this is true but its nice to have it confirmed.

Its criticisms fall into a number of areas.  First the government has only considered the electricity costs up till 2030 when the strike price (guaranteed price for the electricity) is being paid long after.  Second, the strike price is too high.  With improved renewable costs which are constantly falling means power from Hinkley Point C will be too expensive.  Third, they are rightly worried that costs will increase and eventually the taxpayer will have to step in to rescue the project.  Somewhat at odds with this argument they say that the government should have taken a stake in Hinkley Point C as this would have reduced the costs by borrowing costs being lower.  I disagree with this last point.   Whilst they could be right on costs in some ways, the project is so likely to require a bailout that the taxpayer could have been left with a very difficult decision (and may still be).

The Nuclear Industries Association were interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 today this morning.  The head of this organisation said that when the decision was made the costs of renewables and other sources were more expensive.  Possibly true.  This however takes no account of Hinkley Point C cost overruns and the direction of travel with renewables and battery costs falling.  National Grid say they have the largest battery program in the world.  What was most interesting was that the head of this organisation said that all future reactors should be considered on their cost merits.  On this basis its bye bye nuclear.

Neil

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Food waste feast

Food waste feast is a TEARFUND event thFood waste feastat I attended at our church last Friday evening.  Over 30% of global food production is wasted.  Where this proportion of food is wasted depends on where it is produced.  In the developing world it is wasted at the production end.  I saw examples of this myself in SE Asia some years ago.  To remove the husk from rice, women (and it was always women), would stand by the side of the road and sweep rice so that passing traffic ran it over.  Its self evident whilst this method was easy it was also wasteful with much rice going missing.  (As an aside the rice I eat there was of very high quality with no grit in it.)  In the developed world the waste is almost all post production, i.e. shop onwards.

Both types of waste have proved stubbornly resistant to reduction.  TEARFUND’S food waste feast is one recent attempt and is part of TEARFUND’S post Paris campaigns to use the church (as one of the last community organisations left) to tackle this problem.  As this site has blogged previously food production particularly in the developed world is very oil intensive and uses a lot of energy.  Therefore food is a direct cause of greenhouse emissions.  Food is also an indirect cause of carbon emissions since waste food ends up in landfill where it produces methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.  This problem is reducing though as more waste food is collected by councils.  If we could cut this 30% waste it would give us a supply ceiling going forward into the future to cope with population increase.  The last reason not to waste food is its an immoral waste.

The food waste feast involved eating waste food (safely in date) which would have been otherwise threatened with being chucked out.  We started off with knibbles and dips with old stale bread crisped by heating in the oven (above) which was much better than it sounds.

2017-06-16 19.34.28After sitting at the tables we had a short introduction based around the theology of food and in particular the feeding of the 5000.  Food (especially bread) is seen as a mark of God’s salvation and it was pointed out that Jesus commanded that the leftovers should be picked and not wasted (Jn 6v12).  Something I had not noticed before, but it is the case in every one of these stories that the leftovers were collected.

We then got down to eating.  Leftover pasta bake along with courgette and sweet potato loaf (particularly yummy) followed by banana ice cream and bread and butter pudding.  As we were doing this we were given a number of questions to answer.

2017-06-16 19.44.47We finished the food waste feast with teas and coffees with TEARFUND emphasising some of the points I made earlier made through the example of a woman farmer in Malawi.   All in all a good evening with excellent food.  As a final point I would point out that food is one of the easiest ways to cut your carbon emissions especially by cutting down meat consumption as well as waste.  For further details about getting your church involved see this link.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week- Happy birthday bicycle

bikes parked in Amsterdam

bikes parked in Amsterdam

Happy birthday bicycle.  Cycling is 200 years old this week and some celebration is taking place.  One Karl Drais invented the forerunner of the bicycle due to a rise in horse feed.  You sat on it and pushed it along with your feet.  It was known as the “dandy horse” and was made of wood.  The bicycle was later helped by the Scotsman John Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tyre, which despite attempts has never been bettered.  Also the idea of pedals made it more practical as did brakes!  No more pushing with feet which must have been tiring.

When the programme “History of the World in 100 objects”came out on BBC Radio 4 the programme makers ran a survey of what the listeners thought was the top invention of all time.  The engineering profession were said to be almighty displeased with the choice – the bike. (Number 2 could not have pleased them much more – the solar photovoltaic panel, they were said to have wanted nuclear power as number 1).

However the bicycle was a worthy choice.  Its quiet, eco friendly, requires little space and keeps one fit.  In addition most people can in theory manage to cycle.  Its highly likely to be a significant part of the answer to the current problems of obesity, particulates, pollution and congestion.  I have seen this for myself in the cycling capital of the world – Holland.  Young, old and even disabled cycle there.  Millions cycle worldwide and it has to be one of the most successful inventions ever.  Cycling has been growing in popularity for many years in part due to the rise of modern day horse feed (car costs).  Happy birthday bicycle and here’s to another 200 years of your success and may many more cycle.

Neil

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Big oil is it losing out?

oil wind solar growthBig oil is it losing out on our renewables future?  This is the question that Oil and Gas experts Wood McKenzie are asking in a new report.  Demand for wind and solar are rising much faster than oil demand (see graph).  Several people at my church worked for Wood McKenzie and one of these thought that all the oil majors interest in renewables was greenwash.  Its hard to argue with him since soon after he made that argument BP and Shell to name but two withdrew almost totally from their renewables businesses.  Now really on Statoil and Total are investing in renewables.  Statoil in the new offshore floating wind turbine technology in Scotland and Total in solar.

Wood McKenzie’s argument is that big oil is it losing out financially since oil growth is so low compared to renewables.  Wood McKenzie reckon the oil companies need to spend $350bn by 2035 to get the spending share to that of their oil and gas assets.  They also said that the companies would need to spend 20% of all capital expenditure on renewables beyond this date.  At the moment its hard to see this.   The companies talk a great game on tackling climate change but it still in most cases seems like hot air.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – solar social model

DSCN1669This week I learnt of a solar social model for PV.  One of the problems with PV has been its perceived cost.  The installed cost and hence generation costs have fallen drastically over the last 5 years or so until its becoming cheaper than nuclear and will be cheaper than most other if not all other forms of generation in another 5 years or so.  Despite this for those on low incomes the up front cost the kit is still high.  The problem is of course more acute if you do not own your own roof.  Yet those on low incomes are the most hit by the steep rise in energy costs over the last 10 years and need the most help.

One company thinks its found a solar social model that will allow it to fit housing association properties with solar PV at no cost to the residents.  I do wonder whether it will end being controversial though.  The model involves the company fitting out the property and then selling all the electricity to the tenants at a discount rate.  There is some contradiction here though, their solar social model involves the householder using 80% of the electricity they use but at the same time fitting the properties with LED bulbs to reduce energy use.  They become the general energy supplier saving the tenants about £100/year.

There are two problems with this approach.  First as I know its very difficult to self consume more than about 50% especially with bigger systems.  Second the tenants are locked into a deal which may in time not be the best one.

I’m all for putting PV on social housing but not sure this  solar social model is the best one.

Neil

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