One thing we have learnt this week – High speed rail is controversial

File:Gt Missenden Rally (5743770203).jpg

High speed rail is controversial.  Yes we’re back to rail again, this time as fast as possible. At the moment in the UK HS2 is in the news – a lot.  The costs have escalated throughout the project and are now put at over £100 billion up from £33 billion.  The government is reviewing the whole project, since its coughing up the cash.  Like Hinkley C this is a project many would say as bigger white elephant that this site keeps coming back to…  Coming from the West Midlands I know a number of people who say they are affected by the route (phase 2).  However when I’ve asked how near they are to it, the answers a few miles away.  This to my mind is not the same as having your house knocked down or having it at the bottom of your garden, but anyway…

Reasons for first.

1) We undoubtedly need new rail capacity.  Numbers travelling by train have almost reached the 1913 record, although they’ve dropped a bit in the last few years.  With the climate emergency more people are going to travel by train.  the numbers will certainly increase.

2) This country is big enough to justify high speed rail.  Its crazy that it takes me 4 hours to get to London from Edinburgh.  Forward thinking suggests that trans European high speed rail will be needed to get around and why should this all start in the UK from London?

3) In building it we are building a new piece of infrastructure that will last hundreds of years.  This to me makes the cost overruns while disturbing – seem less important.  The last major line to be built in the UK before HS1 was Great Central, we are using Victorian infrastructure and we certainly need to do something.

4) The alternatives (see below) may not be cheaper and certainly won’t be easier.

5) Billions of pounds have already been spent.

6) There are claims it will regenerate the north.

7) Euston station needs a major revamp.

8) Radio 4 “Costing the Earth” did a programme on the effects of HS1 on the locals.  They had all seem to have learnt to live with it and preferred it to the M20.


1) There is undoubtedly been a loss of  biodiversity.  A number of ancient woodlands are going.  One reason the cost has risen is a lot of tunnelling to mitigate some of this.  I feel very sorry for anyone’s house that is being demolished.  Some of these are of historical significance.

2) The costs have risen dramatically.  There’s a surprise.

3) A lot of the planning of all this is quite frankly knaff.  The construction period is far too long.  I’ve heard experts say this adds to costs.  But some of the route decisions are crazy.  There is no connection to HS1 and the route is coming to Scotland at some unspecified point in the future.   Look at the route near Cannock.  The line splits in two.  One bit seems to be new, the other joins up with the West Coast mainline Birmingham bypass.  They run parallel to one another even cross one another and then join at Crewe.  Sorry can’t get my head around this bit of the route, there might be a good reason…

Between Birmingham and London there is nothing other than the Birmingham interchange.  HS1 stuck some stations in between.  This probably helped mitigate opposition to a certain extent to this project.  To tell people to go north to Birmingham, which I have heard people involved do on the Radio news is insulting.

4) There are always have been alternatives to this and still are.  One alternative is to re-open Great Central (see posts passim).  The other is to upgrade the East and West Coast main lines to true high speed running.

5) There are claims that it will not only not regenerate the north – but is a southern plot to allow people to buy cheap property in the north and commute to work in London.  If you speak to two economists…

What’s going to happen?  No idea, although I strongly suspect that either the whole project will be cut or only the truncated Birmingham section will open.  There are possibilities to cut costs but none of them really add up.  One is terminate at Old Oak Common rather than Euston.   This then means a Cross rail trip into central London which will take longer hence reducing the advantages of the high speed trip.  The other is to run the trains slower but what’s the point in that?

The whole thing is a huge mess.  It was arguably a huge Tory vanity project to appeal to potential voters in the North.  They cannot win, whatever they do they will now upset one lot of supporters -either their new ones in the north or the old ones in the Tory Shires.  I would not be unhappy to see the whole thing dropped, but doing nothing is not an option…

If you want to look the route this is the best map of the route I’ve found.  By doubling clicking you can zoom in.  If you zoom in far enough there is colour coding of the route.  Hold the mouse over the line and it tells you what it is i.e. tunnel.  There are one heck of a lot of these…


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Rail | Leave a comment

Slow travel by train – its back

201604 Interior of Sleeper Room of CRH2E-NG.JPG

Slow travel by train – its back.  A number of years ago I when I was doing my doctorate I was allowed go one foreign conference.  The one I wanted attend was in Barcelona and I decided to go by train, not wanting to fly.  In those days the high speed line from Paris was under construction.  In fact I was staying at a hotel above the station which was severely disrupted due to the work.  So I decided to go by sleeper.  (I had travelled a lot by sleeper in the past, both in the UK, trans-Siberian to China, in China and in Malaysia/Thailand amongst other places.)

In those days SNCF and Spanish Railways ran a joint sleeper service.  The trip was not without its problems due to a problem with excessive heating on the trains – both ways (I was in exactly the same compartment physically).  Nevertheless sleepers seemed to me to offer a good compromise method of long distance travel – after at night most people want to sleep most of the time –  so its effectively dead time.

However, even at the time it was clear that the European train companies were shutting down their sleeper services.  There have been some exceptions since then.  Honourable mention goes to Eurostar who do an overnight ski train to the French Alps.

With the rise of XR and Greta Thunberg its clear that slow travel by train is back.  Imagine my delight when I heard over the last few weeks that after DB closed their sleepers Austrian Railways have taken over some of their routes even buying some German stock and are starting to reopen a variety of routes around Europe.

It looks like slow travel by train is back see for details.


Posted in climate change, Trains, Transport, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in climate change, Lifestyle, Nature, Practical low carbon living, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in cars, Practical low carbon living, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Renewables, Smart meters | Tagged | Leave a comment

Thermodynamic panels

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.


Posted in Practical low carbon living, Renewables, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in climate change, One thing we have learnt this week, Renewables | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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



Posted in climate change, Renewables | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in One thing we have learnt this week, Practical low carbon living, Renewables | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in other, plastic waste, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment