One thing we have learnt this week – power outage

DSC_4304A week ago today there was a major power outage.  Large scale power cuts are very rare.  There have only been three on the UK grid since 1990.  The 2003 power outage was confined to parts of London.  The cause was a transformer that had not been maintained properly.  The 2008 outage as I remember it was confined largely to SE England.  Sizewell B nuclear power station went down at almost the same time as Longannet coal fired power station in Fife, Scotland.  (This latter plant has since closed.)

In the most recent one a gas fired power station and an off shore wind farm went off line.  There was widespread disruption in England especially to the transport networks.  Of course once anyone hears that a wind farm is involved, you get the anti renewables mob coming out.  The Hornsea wind farm didn’t fail for lack of wind, there was some other reason.  I note however it still seems to be under construction.

This is a complicated area but I’ll attempt to explain it as far as I can.  The grids frequency is regarded as its heartbeat and has traditionally been set at the speed of rotation of generators.  In the UK this is 50HZ±1%.  When there is loads of power then the frequency rises as does the voltage (in crude terms this is the pressure).  If there is too little in the way of capacity then the opposite happens.  Too much capacity is slightly easier to deal with.  You simply switch stuff off.  (With the rider that if you shed too much you’ll cause the other problems.*)  With a lot of renewables on the grid taking stuff off line is an economic issue.  Also as far as I can gather high voltages less damaging.  This I assume is because the there is less current (P=IV).  The opposite seems to be true for low voltages.  Low frequency also apparently affects any motors since they run in synchronicity with the frequency.

So what can learn from the last two power outages?  One big challenge for the grid is that now there are millions of generation systems that are either not setting their frequency physically or are not in the same way as a gas or steam turbine.  These systems such as my PV installation mimic exactly what is on the grid, within set limits.  Outside these limits then then my inverter (DC to AC conversion device) shuts down.  In 2004 when my system was installed this happened quite a lot.  I complained and the installer made a special trip up to sort the problem out.  My system was set up under embedded generation connection standard G59/2.  (Embedded generation is small scale stuff that feeds in the low voltage distribution network. Not huge power stations that feed into the transmission network.)  This meant that at times of high demand/low capacity when there was a low voltage my inverter shut down.  The solution was simple, to set it to the new standard G83/1 using a powerline modem.  This newer standard has wider ± voltage limits.

In the 2008 power outage a lot of small generation systems tripped out because they had not yet been reprogrammed from an even older standard G59.  This of course made the problem worse.  They did this not because the voltage/frequency was low but because of the rate of drop of the frequency.

What exactly happened in the recent power outage is unclear, but lots of embedded generation did shut down which of course is a positive feed back loop.  This must again have been due to the rate of frequency drop, rather than the frequency itself which seems to be set at 47Hz.)  National grid carried out load shedding.  That is they cut power off to large users.  This included hospitals (where at least one emergency generation system failed to start) and traffic lights and railway signalling systems.  That’s why you had the slightly bizarre situation where traffic lights were working and other things around them weren’t.

So what is to be done?  The first thing to say is that managing the grid is more of a challenge with lots of renewables.  Apart from variability in output thermal plant has some inertia i.e. when it goes down the turbines spin to a halt slowly.  But clearly since the amount of renewable capacity has gone up about 3 fold since 2008 its far from impossible.  As I write this almost 40% of the UK’s electricity demand is coming from wind and everything is fine.

There are two solutions that immediately come to mind.  The first dynamic demand management.  Not everything needs to be on all the time.  One example has been in the news this week.  A supermarket chain will switch its fridges and freezers off at time of high demand.

The second obvious solution is to add more storage capacity.  Batteries yes, but other technologies such as air or flywheels.  In my opinion we need to revisit the Dartmoor pumped storage scheme as well and others.

The last thing to do is to work why so much embedded generation shut down and perhaps set the rate of frequency change settings differently.  There is so much embedded generation on the grid now that it shutting down in tandem makes things far worse.


* This is a problem with lots of embedded generation of one type.  The Germans have worried about this.  They have so much PV output in summer, that in principle if the voltage and frequency went above limits then the whole lot could shut down leading to a power outage.  Remember there is no central control over millions of domestic systems.  They came up with a neat idea from the control point of view, though less good for individual PV owners.  They decided to set voltage limits differently in different parts of the country.  So in sunny parts with higher insolation the limits would be narrower and visa versa.

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No beef with Goldsmiths

last subsistance lunchGoldsmith’s college part the University of London has decided there will be no beef with any of their meals served in the student refectory any more.  Of course the right wing press got hold of it and painted it as a bunch of liberal snowflakes banning stuff.

There are several important points to make about this story though.  The first is that its not just about banning some kinds of meat, or serving no beef with meals.  The change is one part of a number of eco measures.  These include switching to renewable electricity, installing onsite renewables, ditching as much plastic as is humanly possible and divesting from fossil fuel investments.

The second point to make is that it sends a signal that we have to cut our meat consumption and that beef does indeed have very high carbon emissions.  The last point to make is that lots of small changes can add up to whole lot.  This is something the environmental movement used to poo poo saying that government needed to take action.  I used to think so too.  The problem of climate change and resource depletion seems so large that small changes in and of themselves were pointless.  In actual fact they are not.   If millions of people do so they add up to a lot.  In addition they create markets for products and give permission for people to think in a certain way and lastly they drive governments to make changes.  So I say well done Goldsmiths for setting an example.



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abuse of land

wheatOne of the big environmental problems at the moment is abuse of land.  Climate change is making it harder to grow food.  (In a small amateur way, I experience this.)  But also abuse of land makes climate change worse.  Then you have got the problem of increasing population and how to feed them and the use of land for other stuff like biofuels.

Its a really major conundrum.  There isn’t much good news except perhaps on population.  There are increasing indications that birth rates are plunging globally.  There are some exceptions, like most of Africa, but in the last few week we’ve learnt that UK birth rates are way below replacement level.  Up until now migrant groups have had birth rates which has meant the UK population is set to increase, but now rates in this group have plunged as well.  The global population is set to increase until 2050 though, so its still a challenge.

On the land use problem there is not such good news.  UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been looking for some solutions.

They believe we need to:

  • Protect as much forest as we can, particularly tropical rainforest.
  • Eat less red meat and more vegetables.
  • Safeguard peatlands and restore them where possible.
  • Grow plants and trees to produce energy, but only on a small local scale.
  • Do more agro-forestry, where food crops are mixed in with trees.
  • Improve crop varieties to cope with climate change/increased diseases.

There is also a debate going on about whether its best to try and do the above on a large scale or grow food and other stuff in an intensive climate unfriendly manner on a smaller area but effectively rewild unused land to soak up CO2.  Neither option is an easy one.  Both will be challenging.  For example switching from one form of vegetable cultivation to another may make soil erosion worse.

As a general point I would say we need to eat more vegetables grown as closely as possible to our plate.  Plant as many trees as possible (whilst protecting those we have), after all there are a recent report stated many places where the land is is too poor for growing food and cut down on meat eating.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic

Image may contain: sky, ocean, boat, cloud, outdoor, water and nature

Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic to a UN climate conferences in the US and Chile.  The yacht is owned by a German property developer, Gerhard Senft and built for the Vendée Global race.  Greta will not be travelling in any kind of luxury.  The boat doesn’t even have a toilet.  There is some kind of bucket apparently.  There is no shower and the eight PV modules and turbine on the hull purely power the ship electronics, so no internet.  There is no fridge and a basic camping cooker.  Greta her father and the others going with her will have to crew.  Apparently they do not have much sailing experience.  The trip will take about 2 weeks.  She has still to work out how she will get to Chile.

I’m surprised the boat is quite so basic, the boat above which belongs to a friend has a shower and a toilet along with a fridge and built in cooker.  The small wind turbine keeps the batteries charged the great majority of the time although it does have a diesel engine.  I can only assume the Malizia is purely built for speed and all the above is purely regarded as something that slows it down.

News Corp’s Andrew Bolt in Australia has attacked both Greta and the decision to sail to America.  But hey if you cannot win the argument attack the messenger…

Of course all this does raise a big issue.  In a post oil world intercontinental travel is going to be very very difficult and time consuming.   Greta considered all sorts of other options but decided cruise ships had too higher emissions.  I assume she thought freighters which often do allow a limited number of passengers the same.  Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic to a heroines welcome from various campaigners and I’m really jealous I would love to sail across to America.


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New nuclear to be paid for up front?

New nuclear to be paid for up front by consumers?  The UK government’s determination to build new nuclear against all the facts never ceases to amaze me.  It seems implicitly that the government accepts that Hinkley Point C was a bad deal in which the consumer is going to pay dearly during its lifetime and I would argue footing the bill for the cleanup and waste.  But far from giving up the government is pressing on trying to get the rest of the so far failed schemes off the the ground.

The latest wheeze out for doing this is the so-called “regulated asset base”, or RAB model.  This model is being used to construct the super sewer under London and has been criticised for giving excessive money to shareholders whilst landing the consumer with higher water bills.

How does it work?  Well get your head around this.  The consumer pays in chunks for the construction up front.  Sounds alright doesn’t it?  But there’s more so read on.   The next question is what happens when as always does costs of nuclear construction soar?  No problem, at least not if your EDF!  The government i.e the taxpayer underwrites the extra costs!   OK so the next question that would be on most peoples minds is of course….  costs soar so much that the new plant becomes untenable.  What then?  That’s easy, you’ve guessed it.  We the taxpayer pay compensation to EDF or whoever it is to withdraw.  What could possibly go wrong?

The National Infrastructure Commission a quango set up by the government to advise on big infrastructure project think the whole idea is a disaster.  In fact they seem to have changed their tune on nuclear and think that renewables are so much cheaper we shouldn’t bother with it.  What’s in it for the developer?  We pay the construction costs, they make the profits.  We, or our great-grandchildren will have to sort out the waste issue and supposedly we get cheaper electricity than would otherwise be the case.

New nuclear to be paid for up front?  No thanks.  There is a consultation here if you are interested.


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One thing we have learnt this week – fuel poverty grows

DSC_1715Fuel poverty grows.  Actually this might be better news than it first sounds.  Unusually for a Tory government which normally massages figures so that there appears to be less poverty than it really is, this one has done the opposite.  Quite frankly its so surprising I wonder whether May did it to dump on Boris.

It might be good news since those in fuel poverty (now 3.66 million on the revised figures) get help.  The ideas is to move all homes for the fuel poor up band C energy efficiency by 2030.  The main problem is this is going to take a lot of money (£15.8 billion) and is going very very slowly.  At such a snail’s like pace that on current rates it will take 96 years.  Currently the government is spending £6 billion.  In the meanwhile energy prices are not exactly falling, fuel poverty grows and the problem is getting worse – not better.  In the meanwhile since subsidy cuts were made the rate of energy efficiency measures generally has fallen by 85% since 2014.

There clearly needs to be a step change in commitment to get this problem solved in less than a geological timescale and its hard to avoid the conclusion that the government doesn’t really care despite the climate emergency.


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Air passengers may have to a pay carbon offset tax.

1280px-heathrow_lon_04_07_77Air passengers may have to pay a carbon offset tax.  “Failing Grayling” the soon to be gone transport minister? is consulting on some kind of carbon offset tax on transport.  Although air travel is mentioned at the top of the newspaper article (since its the most controversial aspect of it) it might apply to all forms of transport.  Of course with a new Prime Minister taking over today everything might change and seems unlikely Grayling will keep his post.  Even if he does, he has an uncanny way of turning gold to base metal and screwing anything up he goes near.  In the process wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money.

In the admittedly unlikely event this goes ahead, would a carbon offset tax be a good idea?  I have my doubts.  At the moment very few people who fly offset.  The main danger is that it acts as a get out of jail free card.  I offset then I can fly.  There is actually a risk that people might fly more often therefore making things worse.  It also assumes offsetting schemes work.  Have come across one where all the trees had died of something (not sure what) and that was in the UK.  Many of these schemes are in the developing world.  Overcoming corruption and keeping an eye on what is happening to the money is going to be tricky and who would decide what the money would be invested in anyway.

On the plus side anything that raises the price of flying and driving and makes people think about what they are doing would be good.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Goldsmith Street is the future

Another week and another look at architecture.  This time its Goldsmith Street in Norwich.  Last time I had a quick look at refurbishment.  Refurbishment is clearly more eco friendly with the rider that it maybe very difficult to get to very high levels of energy efficiency.  There is no such excuse for new build, except there is.  The UK government cut the mandatory need for very highly efficient housing in England and there seems to be no particular laws in Scotland either.  So its impressive that Norwich council when they decided they had to build new council housing after many years of not doing so designed  Goldsmith Street to passive house standard.  But it goes beyond that with some very thoughtful design.  For starters the bins are hidden.  A nice touch.

Passive houses at least in this country have a reputation for being clunky looking.  Although personally I think they look OK.  They are usually on their own as solo ‘Grand Design’ projects.  This project is bigger.  There are three rows that back onto each other.  Space needed thinking about.  The architects packed them in tighter than they would normally do (14m apart).  There were two issues that immediately arose.  The first is privacy.  This was sorted by designing the placement of windows to minimise overlooking.  The second which is very important to passive design is the capture of natural light for solar gain.  The architects cleverly angled the roofs so that the terraces to the north or not blocked by the ones to the south in winter.  I know how much difference solar gain makes.  There is another advantage to this from the design point of view.  It gives some variety to the housing.

The houses were clearly demanding for the builders to construct.  The passive design calls for very level of air tightness.  But this attention to detail has paid off.  They look OK and the bills will be no more than £150.  The only question is why all houses are not being built to this standard.


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Granby St

Granby St is a street in Liverpool 8 postal district.  In fact when we talk about it we are talking about 4 streets.  Its near to Toxteth where there were riots in the 1980’s.  The area had been declining for years before that and this decline accelerated afterwards. Since then Liverpool has to a certain extent recovered although life for many of residents is still hard.  In this context the story of Granby St is both inspiring and instructive.   The residents decided they’d had enough of boarded up empty houses, demolition and the threat of demolition so they did two things.  They started guerrilla gardening in the street and fighting further demolition.  It took decades of struggle to start winning and in the meanwhile they set up a community land trust.   The definition comes from the Granby Four streets CLT website.

A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a not for profit community-based organisation run by volunteers that delivers housing and other community facilities at permanently affordable levels for local people.

Then in 2015 the design collective Assemble won the Turner prize for its work on Granby St.  Its just opened a winter garden in a house on the street.  This is like a greenhouse with trees inside it.  The Winter Garden as it is known was inspired by a house with a tree growing inside of it.  The CLT has done up 10 houses which are for sale at below the average Liverpool price or for rent at half the average rent (tied to local wages).

So why is all this on the blog?  There are a number of lessons here to do with sustainability.

First there is no reason to demolish the houses.  The houses are small but attractive and can be restored, which is more sustainable than building new ones.  The record on moving people out to new estates is not a happy one.

Second the area has been beautified with gardens and plants.

Third arts and crafts businesses have been started which are also based around recycling materials from the houses that cannot be saved.

There is clearly a long way to go and progress is slower than the local residents would like but this whole project is an inspiration.


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One thing we have learnt this week – how many trees does it take to save the planet

Beech trees on St Cuthberts wayHow many trees does it take to save the planet?  This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while as I have a developing interest in re-wilding.  I was going to try to find some data to do a rough calculation but fortunately a group of academics have beaten me to it.  The answer is its a lot of trees (a trillion) but a surprisingly small amount of land area (11%).  The land area is the equivalent to US and China combined.  Yes that’s a lot, but the researchers have not proposed any trees on agricultural land except where there are grazing animals.  They say trees can benefit such land use.  If you look at the maps then the tree cover looks sparce if everyone does a bit.  They have also not considered tree planting in urban areas where there is huge scope.   Another aspect of tree planting that could be considered is the use of trees for growing food, either directly or indirectly.  How much CO2 will it mop up?  A whopping 66% of what’s in the atmosphere that’s been put there by humans.  That’s a lot.

Will this happen.  I believe it will.  There is a growing realisation that trees are good for our health and wellbeing.  Planting trees is never going to be unpopular.  A couple of warnings though.  Trees need looking after and its no substitute for cutting emissions in other ways.  How many trees does it take to save the planet?  A lot, but its doable.  Lets get on with it.


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