Bill Gates recently visited a lab developing solar fuels at Caltech. Readers of this blog will know that I’m not a great fan of the so called hydrogen economy. The problem with hydrogen is that has a very low energy density compared to other fuels. Another drawback is that it will require a whole new infrastructure. Add some carbon atoms to the hydrogen and the energy density increases dramatically. There are long standing ways of doing this one way is to use the Fischer-Tropsch method. In this an alkane carbon chain of any length can be built from carbon and hydrogen by tweaking the reaction conditions. Whilst this method may have some applications in making chemical feedstocks in a post oil world the energy return is very poor since the reaction only occurs at very high temperatures (400-500°C).
What if you could make such fuels at low temperatures using light as the energy source to to split water to hydrogen and oxygen and then combine the hydrogen and carbon from carbon dioxide at low temperatures. Sort of like photosynthesis, in fact some groups are trying to use this as a basis for making solar fuels. Algae is one possibility people have been working on. If the problems with this could be cracked then many of the drawbacks of the renewable economy. There would be a source of renewable transport fuel, a way of tying up carbon from the atmosphere and even a means of storing renewable energy inter-seasonally. However as we outlined in our book there is one major problem with all this. That is land area. If you considered using every plant as fuel on the planet then its unlikely there would be enough for our energy needs. The land area to make even an appreciable dent in the liquid fuel replacement problem would be huge.
Nuclear decommissioning costs are rising exponentially. I heard Chris Huhne the disgraced former Energy secretary on the today programme this morning. The UK government has had to pay out £100 million in compensation over the way it awarded a clean up contract. However as Chris Huhne said this is not the real scandal. The real scandal is not how much money has been wasted here but how much nuclear decommissioning costs have risen and are rising. He helpfully gave some figures and those in the graph above come from him and I assume are correct I listened again and noted them down. I’ve taken the “present” to be 2016 rather than 2017 since he was not explicit about the year.
What is truly frightening is how much nuclear decommissioning costs have risen in the last 5 years. The current total is £171 billion or 8% of the national debt. Chris Huhne gave a number of reasons for the very high cost. Even reactors with the same design name i.e. “Magnox” were individual designs with major differences even the design of the fuel rods, such as shape. Chris Huhne thought this would be better in the US where large numbers of reactors were built with the same design. Another reason was of course that no thought was given to dismantling the stations. The last reason is simply Sellafield. Its a radioactive disaster area and tellingly records have been lost so people do not know precisely is stored there. Whilst this cost is small when looked at from the point of view of spreading it over generations the frightening thing is the way is going up. (It should be stated that the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy have graph on their website stating that costs other than Sellafield are falling).
This however all the above made me think. First I doubt if the situation is much better in the US. A large number of different designs were used there and the problem with nuclear power is that the individual plants take so long to build that design changes between plants are inevitable. I also doubt any thought was given of how to take them down. Secondly are we about to repeat the same mistakes? We could be. If EDF stagger through building Hinckley C its unlikely they will build any other reactors. (Notice how since the deal was signed last autumn nothing has happened). The Japanese have dropped out and there is talk of Chinese and Koreans coming in. Even if they do then they are going to build only the odd reactor or two. We will still end up with a number of completely different designs to cope with. As for planned dismantling which is supposed to be built in. First do not underestimate the difficulties of someone in 70 years time being to get hold of the instructions (how are they to be stored?) or understanding them especially with language difficulties.
The NHS is in fine solar health or at least growing solar health. My father is unwell and has been in and out of hospitals over the last month or so. It been noticeable that both hospitals that have given him treatment have solar panels on at least part of their roofs. The systems are large by domestic standards but smaller than one I saw nearby on a nearby supermarket (that it had to be said was a very big system).
Its always struck me that hospital roofs were a huge potential solar resource from when I worked in a hospital building. Hospitals are huge buildings and have vast amounts of roof space. They also use enormous amounts of electricity. At least in the UK they are not generally architectural masterpieces either so sticking PV modules on the roof is not going to ruin the building and may often improve its aesthetics.
One problem looming is that the government has made systems below 50kWp subject to business rates although discussions and lobbying are going on. There are lots of other sustainability issues the health service needs to sort out. Nevertheless well done NHS lets get every roof covered to solar PV.
Let there be light is not just Gods command in Genesis 1v3, but also a Tearfund campaign. A major problem in the developing world is a lack of light at night. This affects everyday life to a massive amount. On earth day (coming up soon) try switching everything off for a few hours and see how it feels trying to read by candle light*. This is a big problem for children doing their homework, safety for women etc. But even small amounts of power can benefit the community in other ways. For example pumping water, charging mobile phones, possibly even using computers and TV’s. Small battery powered fridges could be used to store medicines. Another advantage is it would replace dangerous and ineffective and particulate/CO2 emitting alternatives such as candles and paraffin lamps.
The technology for this is of course the rapidly becoming ubiquitous PV. The cost of these has plunged and the efficiency increased. The same thing is happening with batteries. Bring the two together and you have a major solution to a major problem of worlds poorest having no access to electricity. Both lithium batteries and PVs are very low maintenance and ideally suited to rural parts of the developing world. Their installation and maintenance will of course create jobs.
The “Let there be light” campaign is asking the UK government to fund solar panels and batteries through its overseas aid programme. We are not talking about covering mud huts in metres of PV on roofs in the same way as here, but giving an individual householder a panel and a battery. A number of years ago Channel 4 had a very left wing presenter (surprisingly) gave a climate sceptic documentary. Part of his argument was that renewable energy would never work and was incapable of powering so much as a fridge. We know it can because its already happening. The “Let there be light” campaign is asking us to widen access so that this is the first generation where everyone has access to bright light at night. Lets prove him wrong. Join in here.
* In the tropics it gets dark pretty much at 18:30 every night of the year and in my experience the daylight just vanishes.
Like the history of the first and second world wars in the Pacific, Pacific renewables and their energy story is somewhat obscure. However, the problems faced by these Islands due to climate change and the attempts they are making is somewhat inspiring. Most of these Islands with the exception of Hawaii are low lying (at least in part). Many are atolls which are barely above sea level. Like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean they are threatened by rising sea levels and like this Island nation but with less publicity some (like the Cook Islands) are going for a 100% renewable target. The second problem is one of energy costs. The Pacific islands have a reputation for being generally very expensive. This is because most products used are imported, the supply lines are long and the populations are relatively small. This includes energy. A friend of mine worked with OM in Hawaii. She said power prices were very high. Most electricity came from coal power and the coal was imported.
Not only do these Island states need to set an example due to climate change but the drop in wind and solar and the coming drop in energy storage gives them an economic opportunity as far as electricity prices are concerned. The solar resource is great in these Islands and the system requirements not huge. The Island of Yap (part of the Federated States of Micronesia) is aiming for an initial 25% renewables target to reduce dependency on expensive imported diesel using solar and wind. The Cook Islands are aiming for 100% renewable electricity by 2020 as was stated above, using solar and energy storage. The story of Pacific renewables is an inspiring but ongoing one, watch this space.
This week there has been a first, a government admits pollution affects economic growth. The Chinese government has stated that economic growth is going to be lower (only about 6%- although in reality its probably much lower than this). One reason they gave was the pollution crisis in China caused (mainly) by traffic and coal fired power generation.
The admission that pollution affects economic growth is a first by a government that I can think of and must mean the situation in parts of China really are serious.
Hardly a day goes by without new science on the particulate issue. Over the last week or so the news has covered the facts that particulates and NOX can give heart disease, can affect the foetuses in the womb, can penetrate the testes and possibly has affect on brain development (this is probably not all the news). We also learnt that omega-3 fatty acids might prevent the damage caused by this type of pollution. On the lunch time news they covered a scheme in London where monitors are fitted to prams to plot low pollution routes through neighbourhoods.
Therefore the Chinese governments stance is to be welcomed and supported. It is slightly depressing that it takes a non-democratic government to admit that pollution affects economic growth, this really rather obvious. This particulate problem is becoming as bigger one as the hole in the ozone layer or climate change. The solutions are not politically easy even in China but we need to grasp the metal and get on with it.
Australian 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.
Are 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.
Lent 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.
Saudi 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.