Thursday, November 06, 2008
Green opportunity or TNT? Dammit, when will these people ever get it? They are totally stuck in the cramped vertical thinking of what they like to call the 'real world economy'. They're not fools, they're not stupid; just stuck. They can't see any alternative to laissez faire capitalism which has spectacularly failed. Right now, we really have the chance to dump 'business as usual', aka 'Trashing the planet with No Thought of tomorrow' or TNT, an ulimately explosive notion. Yet here, now, we have a global recession and a new American president who takes climate change and renewables seriously. Here, now, we have a chance to restructure, to dump the loony concept of eternal growth and start to build a steady-state sustainable economy which accepted that people and their business depend utterly on the biosphere. It IS the planet, stupid! And the planet is very sick. It needs a big dose of Franklin D Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes' medicine to make a change actually happen. So will people who are in a position to do something open their minds to the realities of impending biosphere collapse and the notion that there could be viable alternatives to rampant consumerist capitalism? President-Elect Barack Obama could be the catalyst but the pessimist in me says that inertia, denial, greed and fear of change will ensure the TNT approach will win out. I earnestly hope I'm wrong.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
World on fire: Imagine you were an energy minister and you had been warned repeatedly by thorough science that adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere was like chucking fuel on the fire of global warming. You can see that authorising more emissions would be guaranteeing life-threatening problems for next generation; our children. So you wouldn't then go ahead and approve a whole new set of electricity-generating plants based on burning that most polluting of fuels, coal, would you? Well actually, yes you would. For that is what many governments are either doing or are about to do. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has done his utmost to carry his no-more-coal-plants message to many governments, only to be ignored. The climate campers in Britain have done their best to publicise the stupidity of approving new coal-fired power stations, only to be throttled by heavyweight police action clearly authorised directly by a government set on the blinkered short-term view despite all their rhetoric about the need to get out of fossil fuels. It seems to be a case of "Lord make me chaste but not yet". Depressing, isn't it?
Energy for the future - renewables: Everyone knows what these are by now and campaigning NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have rightly put a lot into getting them adopted into energy plans (whilst vehemently rejecting nuclear). The difficulty with renewables is that they are unreliable. Wind turbines notoriously generate electricity not when we need it but when the wind blows. This means that, overall, they are only generating anything like their rated output for around 25-30% of the time. What happens for the other 70-75%? The hope is that, eventually, all the different forms of renewables (wind, solar, wave, PV, tides) will be linked together via a continent-wide supergrid and employ new means of energy storage. This may work but it is still decades down the line. So we're exhorted to reduce out carbon footprints... and a few of us make valiant attempts to do this. But it's not enough; nowhere near enough. The demand for electricity is bound to increase rapidly as more people travel by the electrically-powered vehicles -trains, buses, cars - which will be replacing hydrocarbon power: petrol/gasoline, diesel and LNG.
Energy for the future - nuclear: Environmentalists Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have both crossed the rubicon and, albeit reluctantly, adopted James Lovelock's position, rejected by most Greens and set out clearly in The Revenge of Gaia: we have to embrace nuclear power if we are to survive.
"I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen - as long as its total emissions are taken into account..." George Monbiot in The Guardian
"Increased use of nuclear (an outright competitor to coal as a deliverer of baseload power) is essential to combat climate change..." Mark Lynas in New Statesman.
Why nuclear? It's that continuity problem; baseload. All grids, to be stable, need to have a good percentage of reliable, continuous generation to which other generating capacity, like pumped storage, can be added at peak times. Coal and nuclear stations are rather well suited to long periods of steady generation, just what renewables can't deliver.
Nuclear, the lesser of two evils? I know about the dangers of nuclear power. I've had a tour around the UK's Sellafield reprocessing facilities and seen the troubled vitrification plant where the most virulent highly active radioactive waste is made into glass blocks for storage. It's not nice stuff. But it's better than coal as Lovelock has made very clear. Going nuclear, which seems to be about to happen anyway, is the lesser of the two energy-producing evils.
No time to waste but let's put safety first: Governments need to get on with nuclear build now, not in 5 or 10 years time. 'Fourth generation' inherently safe reactors are not yet beyond prototypes. Even 'off-the-shelf' nuclear plants take some years to build so to make an impact on Big Coal, they have to be built right away instead of coal plants using existing designs. But no-one wants another Chernobyl. Oddly, there is one sure way of making nuclear safe that never seems to get a mention: build the plants - or at least the reactor and primary coolant circuits - underground. The advantages of doing this are pretty obvious when you think about it:
- immune to military attack from the air containment unbreachable (given proper choice of ground conditions, hydrogeology and rock types) and so immune to attack from, say, a suicide bomber. Even major accidents would be better contained than anything above ground
- no need ever to remove irradiated fuel assemblies.
- when the reactor reaches the end of its operating lifetime, the whole facility could be sealed, complete with its spent fuel. Monitoring would be needed but because nothing is above ground, access would only be minimal
- planning consent more likely to be straightforward since there wouldn't be much surface infrastructure to object to. Most of the usual public fears and objections wouldn't be serious issues
You can judge for yourself here.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Life 100 years ago: But what about a century or more ago? My grandfather, who lived to be 101, as a boy travelled about in horse-drawn omnibuses and carts, on a bicycle but mostly on foot. There were, of course, no cars and the Wright brothers hadn't yet invented powered flight. Most houses had no running water or toilets. My granny's small 1930s semi-detached house, which I remember from the late 1950s, would have seemed luxurious to people at the turn of the 19th century. And their accommodation and means of transport would have seemed likewise to people living a century earlier... and so on back to the simple huts, yurts, tepees and caves of our more distant ancestors, not forgetting that there are still plenty of people around the world who still live in that simple fashion.
Jump to 2008: Oh my, how things have changed! Today, people expect to live in permanently warm houses as a sort of obvious right. And most expect a home with 2 or more toilets, shower rooms, bathrooms and constant hot water. Then there's the phone, a basic necessity now - if only for broadband access - but my granny didn't have one. Making a phone call from the phone box round the corner was a rare and expensive event. So we wrote letters then; a dead art today. Most rich world homes today have several TVs, often with giant screens and, via satellite (yes, I remember Sputnik 1, the first Earth satellite, back in 1957), hundreds of channels to choose from. Everyone now has some means of recording TV so you could spend your whole life watching something.
And my point is? This whole flimsy house of cards depends utterly on cheap fossil fuel (see my earlier post). These Great Expectations can't go on. Obviously if you're born to all this 'stuff' -- be it cars, supermarket food, warm homes, automatic washers, DVDs, iPods, Facebook and numerous etceteras -- you're not really able to appreciate the comfort and luxury all this affords because you've never known life without. Most would say these things were basic necessities; a right; essentials.
A scary dependency: So imagine the chaos if some of these 'essentials' that every younger person takes for granted today ceased to work or be available! There'd be riots in the streets; anarchy. Doomsayers like James Lovelock predict that civil consumerist societies will disintegrate when planetary heating really kicks in. How many people know basic skills like cooking or how to grow their own food? Is life possible without the Internet and mobile phones? Without cars and the fuel they need to move? Without holidays abroad? Without supermarkets and shopping?
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Becoming energised: It seems it's all down the German government's intelligent foresight. The government guarantees a market for solar power by operating a system of feed-in tariffs. There, as explained in a New Scientist article (Solar power: The future's bright, 8 December 2007), anyone who produces electricity from solar power can sell it to the national grid for between Euros 0.45 and Euros 0.57 per kilowatt-hour, which is almost three times what consumers pay for their electricity, roughly Euros 0.19 per kilowatt-hour.
And the result? Today there are over 300,000 photovoltaic (PV) systems in Germany, mostly on the rooftops of homes and small businesses, and Germany is the world's fastest-growing PV market. It has 55 per cent of the world's installed base of PV panels and can generate around 3 gigawatts of electricity from solar energy, equivalent to between three and five conventional power stations (ibid, New Scientist). All from a country which passes much of its time under grey cloud like Britain.
The windiest European country lags badly: Great Britain could have done this for wind energy -- PV too since the amounts of solar energy received by Britain and Germany are fairly similar. It could have done it for waves and tide power but instead, it relied of cheap oil and gas from the North Sea, coal and the massively-subsidised nuclear industry.
It needn't be like this: A smart British government would follow Germany's lead -- now actively being pursued by Italy and Spain for PV -- and California is, as usual, leading the way in the USA with major subsidies for new PV installations. Britain is well placed to energise its wind power generation together with developing emerging technologies for storing the energy produced by using compressed air energy storage (CAES), perhaps utilising the vast underground caverns left by salt-mining in central-west parts of England. At present, the British government offers a derisory grant and rumour has it that even this is to be axed. So there is little incentive for someone like me to invest in a wind turbine on my windy north-west Wales farm.
NIMBY and turbulence: Quite apart from the requirement for planning consent for stand-alone turbines, there is the problem of those people who object to 'spoilt views' (it seems the numerous power pylons are okay bringing energy from a far-off polluting coal power station which is not, of course, in their back yard!) and who complain of 'possible noise' (aircraft? helicopter? cars? lorries? All okay, it seems). That is quite sufficient for a local council to reject an application for a turbine.
Turbulence is another issue and can be a serious problem around buildings and in urban areas -- which makes the new 'bolt on your wall'-type turbines a bad buy. But what about farms? Fields are open; turbines are free-standing: it's not difficult to find space on any farm of my size (5 hectares) or bigger. Farms are already host to eyesores like huge barns, stacks of silage, slurry tanks and grain silos, all acceptable to the planners. The view is already compromised.
Decentralised power stations: So imagine if every farm had a turbine or two? There are several first class turbines (like the range offered by Proven, as featured in my picture) which are tailor-made for farm use. In fact, Proven are attempting to start a new way of producing wind energy called wind crofting. There are tens of thousands of farms in windy Britain. Every farm, linked into the grid, could be electric energy-independent as well as feeding surplus power into the national grid. The wind is almost always blowing somewhere. (As I write, it's blowing a severe gale here!)
Could be? Should be and would be if there was a scheme for feed-in tariffs like Germany's. I'd be one of the first to join! Come on, British government: get your act together and stop approving coal-fired power stations on the flimsiest of pretexts (Carbon Capture and Storage -- CCS -- might perhaps someday become a reality) and tap into this massive resource of power available now, pollution-free with no decommissioning costs...
If the practical side of renewable energy interests you, keep an (RSS feed) eye on my Mur Crusto eco-farm blog because my wife and I are agreed that, notwithstanding all the difficulties and lack of assistance available, we shall try and install a 6kW Proven turbine this year. As the project proceeds, I'll be posting...