Nature is good for environmental awareness

walled gardenNature is good for environmental awareness.  That’s the conclusion from an academic study published today.  In one sense tell me something I wasn’t expecting.  The study suggests that access to any greenery makes people live differently.

Its certainly true in my own life.  I’d been interested and concerned with the environment before I had a garden but become much more interested afterwards.  The reason being you notice stuff.  I noticed a dramatic increase in Autumn particularly in the late 90’s.  Instead of the leaves on the trees being gone by the end of September they were still there in October and November.  Then when I started growing things I noticed the weird weather, particularly springs – which are now very cold or hot or wet.  More recently I’ve seen a dramatic drop in bird numbers over the last few years.  Extinction rebellion have a very apt name.

Would I have noticed this if I’d carried on living in a flat?  Maybe, but to the same extent?  I’m not sure.  The government make this harder.  Gardens can be built on, parks are subject to cuts which at the very least makes them less pleasant to visit and now in England making it more difficult to roam on land.  Yes, nature is good for environmental awareness.  But lots of things seem to be working against it.

Neil

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Ethical cobalt

 

One of the big problems with the electric car revolution is the problem over sourcing cobalt.  (The other increasing one is people tripping over battery charging leads on the pavement which seems to be in the news at the moment.)  The problem is at the moment cobalt is required in all lithium batteries.  It makes up part of the cathode and stabilises it during recharging.

The problem is most of the worlds cobalt is not ethical cobalt. Its mined mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an oxymoron of a title if ever there was one and much of it is mined by greater than 150,000 artisanal miners.  This quaint term means to you and me people mining informally (many of them children) who disappear down shafts dug in the ground.  These are very unsafe and the miners are paid very little money.  Before anyone decides this is just a problem with electric car batteries – its not cobalt is in all lithion batteries (so phones laptops etc).

So what to do? There a number of solutions.  The first is tighten the law in the DRC.  The government is doing so but the country is large chaotic and corrupt.

The second is ethical sourcing, this is also happening.  There are some large mines there run by multinationals and you hope the conditions there are better at least.

The next solution is to use less. Here Mr Musk weighs in saying he will eliminate the metal in the next generation of his cars.  This is said to be a tall order but he has reduced the quantities to 4.5kg car from 11Kg/car (these figures are extraordinary).  A whole heap of companies are working or have reduced lithion battery technologies or different chemistries all together.

The final solution is recycle as much as possible which is always going to be better than ripping new stuff out of the ground.  But we have a long way to go until ethical cobalt.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – smart meter saga

metersThe smart meter saga continues.  I had a series of emails over the last few weeks from my energy supplier offering me a smart meter.  They had an attempt at this early this year I think it was, but the whole thing fell through since the smart meter was incompatible with my PV systems.  I believe then I was being offered a first generation smart meter.  This time I was being offered a second generation meter.  So I hoped things had changed.

The installation partner made several attempts at phoning me but did not leave a message. This in of itself made me suspicious of a scam.  I was I’m afraid a bit short with him on the phone at first when he phoned last night.  It seems however he was genuine.  The conversation was brief.  Basically as I understand it the second generation smart meters that my (small supplier) will provide are not compatible with PV systems although there are other suppliers who will offer compatible ones.  (The people on the sustainability forum I signed up say that one or two of them have compatible smart meters.)  Since I don’t want to switch suppliers for social reasons, this leaves me stuck.

The UK government were said to be prioritising PV systems to get fitted with smart meters.  They have taken away our export tariff so any of our power that goes to the grid is free for the energy companies (again some suppliers do give you money – shop around) and all along very few meters work with PV systems.  You really couldn’t make this up.  The idea is such a great one and necessary to know what’s going on the grid in real time.  But the whole thing seems an increasing mess.  The smart meter saga continues.

Neil

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Thermodynamic panels

https://www.smartclima.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/thermodynamic-panel-working2.jpg

Every so often you hear of a new intriguing energy technology and a few weeks ago this happened to me with thermodynamic panels.  I saw an advert in the paper.  So what are thermodynamic panels?  I’ll start describing what they look like.  They are jet black and covered in slightly raised pipes running across their surface.  They look a little like thin film PV modules except they are bigger.  The name I think comes from the scientific fact that for any matter above absolute zero (0°K or -273.16°C) you can extract heat according to the laws of thermodynamics.   Obviously the higher the temperature the more heat energy there is available and the easy it is to extract.

So how do these things work?  Well they extract heat from the air very efficiently by pumping a very cold liquid around (as low as -20°C to -30°C.  The heat from the air is transferred to this liquid and then via a compressor to your hot water tank.  They work exactly like a fridge or freezer, trying to cool the air.

The systems have a number of stated advantages;

1)  the first is that they will operate and extract heat from the air in very low temperatures, including at night.  Vacuum tube solar hot water will heat water well below zero, so this sounds plausible, although not at night.

2) the second is that unlike solar hot water they don’t need to even be on a roof, much less a south facing roof, although would definitely help.

3) the third advantage is that they will work with an existing hot water tank, so you don’t need to fit a new one with a built in heat exchanger, saving costs and making them easier to install.

4) Very little if any maintenance is required.

The disadvantages are;

1) whilst you don’t have to put them on a roof, it clearly helps.  It raises efficiency and makes the compressor last longer.

2) They use quite a lot of electricity.  Again when the panel is working and how hot it is outside seems to make a difference here.  I have been unable to determine whether you have a pump and a compressor, or the compressor acts as both.

3) One of the big selling points of Thermodynamic panels are that they work at night.  However since they operate less efficiently then its not thought to be good idea to run them at night due to strain on the compressor.  A control system can be programmed with times/temperatures when the system should operate.

4) They don’t look very attractive.

5)  Tests have shown they are not as efficient as made out to be.

6)  They are very costly and are not eligible for Renewable Heat Incentive in the UK (0nly those with standard anti-freeze are?!?).  A table of costs suggests they are very competitive if you use immersion heating to heat your water and also very competitive with LPG.  But they take quite a long time to pay back if replacing an electric boiler and mains gas over 16 years.  (I would question the figures slightly since it suggests a boiler is replaced every 16 years and the mains gas prices quoted seem low.)  Also the running costs due to electricity can be semi-negated if you generate your own electricity.  In fact this would be economically beneficial rather than sending it to the grid.

Watch this space.  A lot depends on making compressors more efficient to extract the maximum amount of heat and this technology does appear to be improving.  I’m wondering if you could string loads of them together and heat your house.  Given a lack of great alternatives this might make sense.

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – wind speeds are increasing

00018Wind speeds are increasing.  In the past I have blogged that wind speeds were generally falling (although not everywhere).  No one seemed to know absolutely why this was, but one theory was that increased urbanisation and construction was taking the energy out of the wind.  Now a group of scientists has analysed the weather data from over a 9000 weather stations worldwide going back to 1970.  This suggests that wind speeds are rising after a slowdown.  The increase is thought to be due to climate change and is set to keep going for another decade.  This is exactly what you would expect from climate change putting more energy into the atmosphere.  Its not stated what will happen then but I personally cannot see wind speeds falling.  Although global heating makes all this very uncertain.  It thought that large-scale ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns like the gulf stream and the jet stream are altering and increasing wind speeds.

There is of course good news and bad news here.   The big news in the story is that wind turbines are going to generate a lot more energy.  And that those who have invested in them are going to make a lot more money.  A windfall if you like.  But the fact that wind speeds are increasing is not wholly good news.  There will be increased damage to trees, buildings, tidal surges and course loss of life.  There is of course probably nothing we can do about the the fact that wind speeds are increasing.  But will have to learn to adapt to the more malign effects and look forward to more wind generated electricity on the grid.

Neil

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Carbon dioxide levels are at a new record

Carbon dioxide levels are at a new record.  That is the news from the World Metrological service over the last few days.  The bad news is there does not seem to be any type of slowdown.  Concentrations of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide also surged as well in 2018.  Emissions have to peak soon or we will not hit the 1.5°C limit agreed at Paris.  All the green house gas levels are way above pre-industrial levels (how do we know that – from a variety of methods including gases trapped in the polar ice cores).   Its worth pointing out that the last time CO2 levels were this high the temperature was 2-3C warmer and the see levels were 10-20m higher.

There is some good news, coal use has been plunging in some of the big emitters such as America and India and of course renewable energy is becoming cheaper than conventional energy sources.   We do seem thanks to the school climate strikes and extinction rebellion to have reached an important tipping point in Western public opinion.  In the UK general election climate change is a now major issue with all the main parties making big policy announcements (Tories less than the others).  This is all helped by crazy weather with heatwaves in summer and floods in winter and huge forest fires in Australia and California.    Me being cynical have always thought that the fact that carbon dioxide levels are at a new record would not be enough to shift public opinion and the West would only move when the effects of climate change struck close to home.  This does seem to be happening, so overall I’m still hopeful, although far from complacent.

Carbon dioxide_2019

 

Neil

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One thing we have learnt this week – mini virtual power plant

DSC_4304A 1oo homes and 150 businesses have been linked together in Cornwall as a mini virtual power plant.  On first reading about this I couldn’t see anything new.  After all nearly a million people throughout the UK act as a mini virtual power plant, including us.   This excludes those with hydro systems or small wind systems etc.  This is a lot of  mini virtual power plant nationwide.

However on further reading this is new.  National grid are modelling the output of the 250 participants as though they were a larger power plant.  The 250 taking part are not linked in any formal sense either physically or financially.  National grid are studying how they use their energy and in particular demand management.  So for example an ice cream manufacturer would switch its freezers off for a short while at peak periods.  It can do so without affecting the safety of the product.  In the houses some that are fitted with batteries, how the people who live in them use energy can be assessed.  For example do people use their washing machines at midday, or when the sun is at its brightest?

National grid are now catching up with the way things are going.  In the future whilst the grid will still have very large power plants (e.g. offshore wind) it will be made up of millions of tiny generators with electricity flying around in all directions.  Understanding who these mesh together is a vital task.

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scientific sustainability

00003I work in a lab and labs are not very sustainable.  The problem areas in scientific research fall into three main areas.  Travel, plastics and energy.

For me apart from how I get to and from work (mainly by train and cycling), this is not an issue.  For many academics and to a certain extent the private sector this is more of an problem. I have read and heard a variety of views from academics recently from the total non-flying angle to the I have to go and its not the conference speeches I would miss but the networking.  When I did my PhD I was allowed a trip to one conference.  I went to Barcelona by sleeper.  (The group that flew from my University were stuck on the ground for 12 hours due to a technical problem, at least on the way out.  But to be fair they probably still got there quicker.)  Most people recognise they at least need to cut down on the flying.

The second big problem is plastics.  Our lab gets through enormous quantities of these. These fall into two main areas.  Cell culture and pipettes.  Cell culture flasks are plastic and both the plastic and the cells that are grown in them are optimised to grow on this material.  The plastic is wetable.  That is, its modified so than it being made of a simple repeating uncharged polymer there are charged groups on it.  This means it is water loving and the liquid water does not form raised bubbles on it but spreads out. It also means cells potentially attach.  The lab I work in reuses one type of cell culture flask entirely for cost reasons.  Even then they do not last forever.

The other use of plastics is pipetting.  Pipettes are simply a means of transferring a known volume of liquid.  They range in volume from 50ml to less than a µL (millionth of a litre).  They are all plastic.  Here there have been modest changes.  We now recycle the boxes the pipettes come in. But not the pipette tips themselves. One possibility is to go back to glass.  When I was a student, many of the larger volume pipettes were glass.  The small tips I’m not sure could work as glass, there is also a living organism health and safety issue.  Cell culture flasks would be much more tricky since as I stated above the the entire process is optimised for plastics.  Another problem is that for safety reasons that everything is autoclaved.  To be fair you are not allowed to just chuck stuff out with living things on.  Edinburgh University was fined an enormous amount when I worked there for release of GM organisms.  Of course autoclaves use an enormous amount of energy.

This brings neatly me to the last area – energy. Apart from autoclaves, scientists love freezing things.  Usually at -20ºC but also at -80ºC.  These very low temperature freezers use enormous quantities of electricity.  Where I worked at Edinburgh University they put them all in one room (-20ºC and -80ºC).  The noise was deafening and of course the room needed cooling (which didn’t work well enough, since the building was built under PFI).

Things are changing, slowly.  In the three years I have working in the lab more stuff can now be recycled.  For instance all the plastic containers that the cell culture medium is delivered in can now be recycled (and more surprisingly their lids) and this is a lot of plastic.  Pipette boxes ditto.  We have been told to cut down the autoclave use as far as possible and fill it up.  Since we are now charged per session.

I personally reuse pipette tips as far as possible.  There is research underway on living organism disposal and even storing samples at -70ºC which uses a lot less energy than -80ºC. Some universities have pledged to go plastic free and to do so truly do will involve their labs.  The dichotomy of us who strain to use less plastic and energy at home but chuck stuff away willy nilly at work is not lost on me.

We have a long way to go to reach true scientific sustainability.

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Could wind power the world?

walney 1 and 2Could wind power the world?  That’s the claim made in a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).  The IEA got Imperial College London to do the analysis.  They reckon that that offshore wind could meet more than 18 times our current electricity demand worldwide, that is 420, 000 TWh per year.  The IEA also claim that offshore wind matches the capacity factor of gas fired plant for electricity generation, is less variable than solar PV and therefore is suitable for baseload generation.

There does seen to be something in this.  Offshore wind even a couple of years ago was regarded as extremely expensive.  Costs have plunged and the generation levels have proved better than thought.  In our book we were relatively cautious about the technology, largely due to the costs at that time.  These have fallen.  David MacKay was very cautious in his book “Sustainable Energy — without the hot air”.  He lowered the resource to a third of the area available.  The Centre For Alternative Energy have given offshore wind a higher total than us or David MacKay.  It does seem that we may have underestimated the potential.  The IEA have ignored places with windspeeds of less than 5m/s and large chunks of offshore capacity where there are other uses such as marine parks.  There is one however one change that might explain some of the increase the capacity.  That is floating turbines.  These are tethered to the seabed and not fixed.  This increases the potential ocean areas massively where turbines can be sited into deep water.

A few caveats.  No one least of all the IEA is suggesting we just use windpower to electrify our world.  There are times when the wind drops and the resource may not always be in the right places.  Nevertheless this does show that even if only a half or a quarter of the potential capacity could be utilised the resource is huge.

Neil

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Save the Whale, save the planet?

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Save the Whale, save the planet?  This is the bizarre claim that I read the other day.  For many people saving the Whale was the first environmental campaign they came across (Yes “Don’t kill the Whale” and all that).  Could they have been onto something more important?  It might be so.  Scientists have worked out that Whales really could mop up enormous quantities of carbon.  So the claim goes from the IMF.

The reason is prosaic.  Whales poo.  Clearly quite a lot.  This poo is used by plankton.  Lots of Whales eat plankton, but they cannot eat the lot.  This plankton is either eaten by other creatures, or escapes predation and sinks to the ocean floor.  Anyway either whale poo, or creatures that have eaten the poo or the whales themselves, after they died end up on the ocean floor.  Since all living things are carbon based then the carbon is locked up basically for all eternity.  The IMF reckons the effect of letting the phytoplankton numbers increase by 1% numbers would be the same as 2 billion trees.  There’s something almost too good to be true about all this.  All we have to do is pretty much do nothing (although other man made activities at sea do inadvertently kill whales).

There is a strange link between Whale hunting and oil.  Originally Whales were hunted for their oil (amongst other things) that was used to power lamps.  The coming of the oil industry largely put a stop to that.  Oil has produced climate change, would it not be ironic if the poor whale was part of the solution?

The IMF article can be seen here.

Neil

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