Australian power cuts

HOLLOW2Australian power cuts have led the Australian government to reach completely the wrong conclusions about the Australian energy system.  I would hazard a guess that they are deliberately misleading conclusions based on ideology rather than fact.

The Australian electricity system developed on an autonomous state by state basis.  After a series of power cuts in the 1980’s most states except the Northern Territories and Western Australia were interconnected and in 1998 the National Electricity Market regulator was established which controls trading between them.  The great majority of Australia’s electricity comes from coal.  Exact up to date figures seem hard to find but its about 75% with about 13% from natural gas and about 14% renewables.  The biggest contribution to renewables was hydro very closely followed by wind.  The renewables is spread far and wide although some states have a lot more capacity than others.  For example Tasmania gets 99% of electricity from renewables.  Most of this is hydro, but the systems have always been very controversial with huge anti-logging battles in the 1980’s.  Australia’s electricity usage is disproportionately high, in 2015 253TWhs compared to the UK’s 337TWhs.  In addition Australia’s coal use has got to make it one of the most coal dependent countries on earth.

The problems started in September when a violent thunderstorm in South Australia led to a power transmission line tripping followed by some wind farms, then the Victoria interconnector.  Unfortunately the state was importing a large amount of electricity at the time (air con use was very high).  Some people say there were software glitches as well.  In any case there were large scale blackouts.  Subsequently there have been more problems (in other places as well) due extremely high temperatures in the Australian summer.  This has led to more power blackouts.  The political right in Australia are extraordinarily reluctant to admit to the merest existence of man made climate, much less do anything about it.  Irony counter overload, this is despite Australia being one of the few developed countries that is really being affected by climate change.  Such is the state of denial that one MP waved a bit of coal around in the Federal Parliament and said there was nothing to be afraid of.  The liberals obviously believe that wind power brought South Australia down.

What you cannot say is that this is the case.  The strongest thing you can say is that wind power was not meeting all the states needs.   A whole series of events brought the system down in a “50 year event”.  The problem is that 50 year events are getting more common.  The solution to part of the problem is more solar.  In Northern Europe we have increasing problems in summer with our excess solar electricity.  This is because we use little air con (although its use is increasing).  However solar output meshes perfectly with demand in Oz.  In addition you are using by it and large where its generated putting less demand on the system transmission.  Another thing that may make the current government think is that a lot of the coal powered power stations are coming to the end of their lifetimes.  These will be difficult and expensive to replace.


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One thing we have learnt this week – too well insulated?

0008Are homes getting too well insulated?  I’ve just heard an interesting report on the radio about this.  There has been a step change in energy efficiency regulations in the UK over the last 10 years or so*.  This is good and it could be argued that they don’t go far enough.  There are problems though which has been flagged by research at Loughborough University in their model house.  This house is not passive but has lots of roof insulation and very efficient double glazing.  The researchers think this house is too well insulated and is too hot for any inhabitants, especially an ageing population.  There are also air quality issues in well insulated houses.  Heat generated in kitchens and bathrooms is in theory dissipated by extractor fans but in practice these are very noisy and the inhabitants are reluctant to use them.  (This is true we recently had a new fan put in the bathroom its extremely noisy and does not seem to do anything.)  In cities people are also reluctant to use and open windows.  One person contacted the programme to say that they lived in a flat with a huge wall of glass on the southside.  This reached temperatures of 38 degrees and made them ill.  In response to all this a representative from the building trade stated that they were aware of the problem and that they had spent £100,000 trying to sort out overheating due to a north facing glass wall and failing.

One thing I would say about the research is that they used fans in the house to move the heat around to even out the temperatures (and bulbs to mimic body heat).  This former point seems a bit unrealistic at the moment different parts of my house are at very different temperatures (without the heat on).  Whilst the Zeroth law of thermodynamics says that heat should flow from a high to low temperature zone until it evens out in my experience this does not seem to happen.  We just have to live with this.   Thus some areas might be cooler than others.

The solutions are, dare I say it, technological.  In principle a well insulated house should be warm in winter and cool in summer.  The way to achieve this is by the right choice of building materials and energy efficiency measures.  Glass areas like above should be formed of glass that absorbs minimal amounts of radiation in summer and maximum amounts in winter. Another solution that someone who contacted the programme said had worked for them was the use of heat recovery ventilation systems.  These exchange stale air in the house with the outside. In summer these would act as a very low energy aircon.

Overheating buildings that are too well insulated is a problem that is only going to get worse with climate change and builders need to think very carefully about the design of newbuild.


*Apparently local authorities in England also have the powers to increase energy efficiency by 20% for a development.

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lent wordleLent has crept up on us all this year perhaps since it is so early (can we please have a fixed date for Easter).  My lent guide book started talking about food.  Its a little known fact that the medieval church tried to limit meat consumption, not just in lent but all the year round.  In feudal Europe the church attempted to direct both when and what people could eat.  Consumption of meat was forbidden for about at least a third of the year for one reason or another.  Meat free days were to remember various saints or the virgin Mary (all Saturdays).  There were also periods of fasting throughout the year, 4 days at the start of each season than advent and lent.   Some people say a particularly devout person would have spent 8 months of the year being vegetarian.  Fish was not completely banned and this led to those with money fish farming.  Fish farming perhaps is not the right word but the local lords of the manor in the town where my parents lived got permission from the King to dam streams in the royal hunting ground and they stocked these pools with fish.  These rules also seemed not apply to the monastic system at one monastery near London in the late middle ages historians have worked out the calorie intake was 5000kcal/day (recommended intake 2000kcal/day).  Much of this was meat.

What does this teach us?  It easy to sacrifice something or give something up for the wrong reasons.  You do wonder whether the church did ban meat entirely due to religion.  Providing enough meat for everyone would have been a challenge for medieval farming.  However the medieval peasant diet was very low in protein (the rich probably ignored the rules).  For us giving up something for lent can have mixed motives but still can be useful.  What is more useful is if that change carries on beyond lent.   To help you this blog has a No oil in the lamp lent guide.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Saudi renewables programme

Rub_al_Khali_002Saudi Arabia is relaunching its Saudi renewables programme.  An announcement was made last year but but nothing much has happened since then.  The programme is still relatively small with bids being invited for 400MWp of wind and 300MWp of solar.  The Saudis include nuclear as renewables (which I don’t).  The thought of providing enough cooling water for this in such a hot part of the world as well as one that is so politically unstable makes this seem a nightmare to me.  A nuclear programme is also pressing ahead though.

So what is going on?  Has Saudi Arabia decided the oil age is over?  Are they running out of oil?  As this blog has covered before the country is uniquely dependent on oil and gas for its electricity consumption (especially gas which overlies their oil).  Electricity is really cheap being at a very maximum 6.9cents a kWh.  This makes it difficult for renewables to compete, but the costs are heavily subsidised.  The low price has led to electricity demand soaring by up to 8% a year.  One possible reason for the Saudis continuing to pump oil at low prices is they need the electricity.  By 2030 unless something gives they will use almost all their oil domestically for electricity production.  Hence their  Saudi renewables programme and our interest in it, since without Saudi oil peak oil will be back.




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District heating

Our cat loves the wood-burner!

Our cat loves the wood-burner!

District heating is a good thing right?  In the UK its still relatively uncommon but in Scandinavian countries very common and in some such as Sweden the most common form of heating.  (By district heating I mean a heating system common to a building, a street or even a district or entire city.)

Heating is a real problem as far low carbon energy is concerned.  By contrast de-carbonising electricity or even transport is actually easy (believe it or not).  This is because renewable heating systems are low temperature systems.  Such systems are disruptive to fit and also require very well insulated buildings.  For more details see our book.  This helps to explain why in the UK the renewable heat incentive has been low on the uptake and not cut by the government.

District heating systems are very expensive and disruptive to build (with lots of digging up roads and burying pipes).  However as far as the householder is concerned district heating systems have one huge advantage, they work with existing heating technology.

So what’s the problem?  There have been increasing numbers of complaints on consumer programmes and advice columns about them.  These fall into three areas.  First, the energy costs for the householder are not cheap.  Second, the householder is not allowed to fit any micro-generation such as solar hot water.  Lastly they seem to unreliable and repairs are not being done in anything like the guaranteed timescale.

These problems need sorting out fast.  I doubt if the second issue would stand up in court and its only a matter of time before someone takes legal action over the last problem.  One drawback is that these systems are exempt from the energy regulation system.  However with all new developments in London requiring such systems to get planning permission the above complaints look set to grow until something is done.


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Ink from air

2015-09-22 14.12.40Ink from air?  Particulate pollution produced by cars and power stations is one of the biggest problems in the world today.  This blog has covered this issue many times.  What if you could capture the microscopic particles and turn them into something useful?  Say ink?  This is what a company has done in the far east.  Singapore?

They fit a kind of particulate filter to vehicles capture the soot.  Remove the heavy metals and make ink from air.  Presumably black ink.  This ink seems to be more for art use rather than  printers.

Is this a solution to the problem of particulates?  Possibly.  The first thing to say is that fitting some kind of capture filter to the vehicle will lower its efficiency so fuel economy will be hit especially when it fills up.  The second drawback is that unless every car is fitted with such devices the impact will be minor.  The third drawback is you have to collect the collecting containers.  The secret would be to make the collectors easy to swap so that you could do it at filling stations.  To make this a practical solution to the particulates problem then other uses have to be found for soot particles since there is only so much ink we need.  Any ideas?


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One thing we have learnt this week – greens shortage

DSC_2305The UK is suffering a greens shortage.  This has been so far a bit of a middle class crisis and no more.  First the news was full of a shortage of courgettes (zucchini) but since has expanded to lettuce.  The reasons for this are simple.  Most of the UK’s winter veg comes from southern Spain.  There have been years of drought but suddenly this winter there has been both snow and rain with floods.

There are several points to make here.  First farming in the UK is in a state of uncertainty due to brexit.  Will subsidies continue?  The idea of food security has long been laughed at in this country.  This greens shortage “crisis” should give us pause for thought.  Will we always be able to buy the food we want?  Especially with the other problem, climate change.  This will lead to increasingly problematic growing conditions and associated crop failure.  This greens shortage could be symptomatic of other crops and food stuffs.  Long supply lines could be increasingly unstable and we have to be able to pay for this stuff anyway.

The solutions are not simple and straightforward but we have got used to eating almost anything all the year round (I saw blackberries from central America in the supermarket last week).  This surely has to change as does the lack of growing stuff at home.


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Flying cars and other stuff

Moller_Skycar_M400I heard an article on flying cars on the news yesterday morning.  It started off with a news report from 1949 so the concept has been around since at least then.  I’m not an engineer or physicist but they spoke to someone who was.  There are a number of problems with this concept I’m glad to say.

The first is that flying cars would have to take off vertically to be practical (otherwise they will be confined to airports which limits their usefulness).  This take-off would be extremely noisy so our expert said, somewhere between the noise levels of a harrier jump jet and a helicopter.  Unacceptable in urban areas.  The second problem is that this vertical take would take a lot of fuel.  Then there are safety concerns although the expert thought they would not have to learn to fly, I do due to emergencies (this also raises issues with driverless cars in the long term)

This got me thinking about delivery drones.  These will obviously have to take off and land vertically.  One of the questions I have raised about delivery drones is will vans worth of drones delivering individual items be more energy efficient than a van going around with the same number of items?  I am more confident it would not be and that is one more reason to oppose this stupidity.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Fukushima radiation levels hit new high

Fukushima radiation levels have hit a new high this week and boy is it a new high.  The problem with radiation level measurements are there are so many different units.  Some measure the physical dose of radiation an others the effective biological dose.  To make it more confusing units have changed over the years to SI (systeme internationale) units.  As someone who has done radiation training even I find it confusing.

The usual accepted dose unit is the sievert.  This is a measure of the effective biological dose.  Usually its expressed in millisieverts (mSv) since the sievert is regarded as too large.  1 mSv is an energy dose delivered to 1 gramme of living tissue.  The annual average dose is 2.4mSv from natural sources but over 6 from one computed tomography (CT) scan.  In the US workers are allowed a dose of 50mSv a year, conveniently measured using badges with film inside (I’ve worn one of these).  At Fukushima the limit was raised to 250mSv for workers.  To put this in perspective 1sievert (1000mSv) is enough to cause sickness 5 and 10sieverts are enough to kill you although over different time periods (months and weeks respectively).  

The measured dose at the plant this week was 530sieverts.  I’ll leave it to readers imagination about the speed that these radiation levels will kill you but suffice to say it does a robot in within 2 hours.  This week there was also some “good news” from the plant in that melted fuel had been located.  This is good news since they know where it is.  The problem is with such high levels of radiation cleanup is going to be much much harder.  Costs of cleanup are running at £150 billion pounds but looks like a considerable underestimate.


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Does peak oil mean peak supply or demand?

BP overview 2017Does peak oil mean peak supply or demand?  This is the question raised by the latest BP energy outlook.  BP see oil demand still growing in 2035 despite an enormous increase in the numbers of electric cars.  BP have a reputation for being pessimistic and have consistently understated the rise of renewables.  Other predictions they make are that the rise in energy demand and demand for oil will rise more slowly than historically (although looking at the graphs above this requires a little imagination).  Gas demand will grow faster than oil and coal demand will collapse.  Carbon emissions will slow but still grow.  This is different to what has happened over the last two or three years where despite growth in the world economy emissions have flatlined.  Renewables installation will grow rapidly far faster than all the above.  Other companies involved in the oil and gas industry see peak demand within 5 years (Shell) or “well before 2035″ (Wood Mckenzie).

The question is does peak oil mean peak supply or demand?  If BP are right then Peak oil as a concept in the traditional sense has not gone away but is just sleeping.  BP state that supply will grow by 13Mbd by 2035 most of which comes from OPEC.   They seem to see supply as abundant.  The question is is all this supply all economic and can OPEC really supply all this extra oil making up for reserves which must start declining over the next decade or so?  If the others are right peak oil means peak demand falling before we get to running out of oil and gas.

Of course one big elephant in the room is Trump.  If his mixture of protectionism, relaxation of fuel standards on US built cars and all out support for oil/gas/coal goes full ahead then fossil fuel demand will soar along with prices and we could be back to 2008.


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