Thursday, November 06, 2008

Plus ça change...

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Yes indeed. The more things change, the more they stay the same... at least so far as 'the economy' is concerned. I don't often listen to the news, preferring to read about it later. But yesterday, American election day, I listened. I listened to President-Elect Obama's speech and - first time for ages - felt there was real hope. Then today, I made the mistake of listening to the news again. It was back to the usual tedium of how to 'grow' the economy using the same old clichés. No mention of climate change, the environment, sutainability or even the Green New Deal. No, it was back to car production, getting the consumer back into the high street, interest rates and blah blah; back to trying to get back to business as usual.

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!John Maynard Keynes, economist (L), President-Elect Obama and Franklin D Roosevelt (R), New Deal architect. Images from Wikipedia 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

To hell with it!

Image by Midas We're doomed! This is the half-joking message which I'm getting from friends and colleagues. The climate change scenario is so big and so scary that we might as well eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we die.

No future so why bother? Why bother indeed! There really is a deal of depressing news out there of indications that the climate models are - if anything - unrealistically modest. Six degrees does seem a likely figure for global temperature rises by 2100 given the increase in greenhouse gas emissions (chiefly CO2 and methane) which exceed worst-case IPCC forecasts.

So if we're all going to hell in a handcart, why bother about emissions? Cut the guilt and get flying to exotic tropical locations for cheap holidays while it's still possible. Or buy a patio heater. Or turn up the heating in winter. Let's enjoy ourselves while we still can and oxidise some more carbon.

And the answer? Three of my grandchildrenThe answers for me are Amy, Thomas, Tom, Rosa, Alex and Isabella. Who are they? My grandchildren. They didn't ask to be launched into this troubled world. But they're here; they're alive... and I, for one, want to keep them that way. So I'm not turning up the heating, buying a patio heater or flying off for a holiday. If you're a parent or grandparent, I'm sure you'd want to do the best for your descendants. Adopting and maintaining a low-carbon lifestyle is the very best thing you or anyone can do (given current scientific assessment of the fix we're in) to at least give Amy & Co. a fighting chance of having a half-decent future. And I'd mean the '& Co.' to include not just my grandkids but yours and everyones. Oh, and the biosphere with its wonderful life-supporting ecosystems upon which we rapacious humans depend.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Out of sight but not out of mind: coal v. nuclear

House on fire: If your house was alight, beginning to burn up all your treasured possessions and imperil the lives of your family inside, you wouldn't attempt to douse it in gasoline, would you? Of course not. You'd use water in an attempt to quell the flames. Yet the gasoline approach seems to be government orthodoxy at present so far as the climate is concerned.

World on fire: Imagine you were an energy minister and you had been warned repeatedly by thorough science that adding James Hansenmore 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 climateKingsnorth power station protests. Image by fotdmike 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:

  1. 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
  2. no need ever to remove irradiated fuel assemblies.
  3. 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
  4. 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

Great Expectations: Perspectives on Memories

Redcar sea front, nice enough on a warm summer day but freezing in the winter. By MattSearle A Yorkshire childhood: When I was a boy of 10, I lived for a while with my granny in a house with no heating save one small intermittent coal fire and no inside toilet. Wearing the regulation school uniform shorts, I walked to school a mile or so away winter or summer. This was just 50 years ago. I survived what would now be regarded as an ordeal without any particular recollection of severe hardship. My granny would give me a porcelain hot water bottle on nights when the icy frost flowers formed inside the windows of my bedroom. I recall crunching through fresh snow in the outside back passageway en route for the toilet, known to me to this day as 'the bog'. (No prissy 'loos' in my house!) At school, it was quite normal for us boys to be out playing compulsory football or rugby, clad in thin cotton shirt and shorts, in rain, sleet and snow. Being bitterly cold was, I suppose, supposed to encourage you to run around if only to generate heat. I have an enduring hatred of organised sports to this day!

Monday's washing day: My granny had no washing machine. All washing was by hand in the kitchen sink, aided by a wooden-handled copper plunger. She then put the washing through the The TV was much less fancy than this one! By gunnyrathand mangle which I helped crank. Then it went on the clothes line outside and she hoped it wouldn't rain. The damp laundry she would later festoon on a clothes horse around the small fire, usually lit in the late afternoon. In the evening, she and my grandfather would barricade themselves in the room, drawing draught-proof curtains across doors and windows and watch the TV. And what a TV! A massive wooden box with a tiny rounded black and white screen. There was only one channel: the BBC. And there were numerous 'technical faults', both with the transmission and on the set itelf which frequently went into uncontrollable rolling picture spins. But to me, it was luxury... until I was told to go to bed.

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,Yurt and satellite TV dish. By Fighting Tiger 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.

Communicating: A mobile phone is indispensible if you're a teen or young adult. I have one Old bakelite rotary dial phone. By storm_galmyself. Yet a short fifty years ago, a fixed phone in a house was a luxury and not people many had them. Life went on. Today, people are in touch with friends all the time. Step back 30 years. I was working in the high Peruvian Andes for weeks at a time. I could only send a brief telegram to my wife in Lima if I happened to pass through some small town. Most of the time, she didn't know if I was alive or dead and the odd telegram she did receive a day or so after sending was often hopelessly garbled. Now jump back to the time of World War 2. I once met a former soldier who had been unable to contact his wife for over 3 years and, I gather, that wasn't unusual. Suddenly, sending a telegram every week or so seemed like regular chat!

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?

Can poverty teach us something? It could in the sense that the poorest people have to learn to be survivors or they die. They have to be able to make do for food, clothing, shelter and medicine or they die. The poorest peoples have no Western-style safety net to keep them alive. But in the event of the collapse of civilisation, it will be those who know how to make do with next to nothing who will be amongst the survivors. They will have the key skills. Keyboard skills will count for nought.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

Here's a clue. I took it on 11th February (last week).
Here's another clue: It's the middle of winter.
And another: This mountain - Yr Wyddfa or Snowdon - is the highest in England and Wales.
But where's its winter snow covering? Predictions made a year ago suggested no snow for Snowdon in 13 years. There has been a little snow from time to time this winter but not, as I write, for weeks. Need I say more?
If you click the picture, you get a large version.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Energising renewable energy

Proven turbine chugging quietly away at the back of the community co-op shop, island of Eriskay, ScotlandGoing slow: Why is renewable energy becoming energised so slowly in 'backward' countries like the Great Britain which is where I live? Why has it taken off in Germany? Both countries have similar climates: lots of grey skies and wind. In fact, Britain has more wind and a vast resource, as yet untouched, of wave and tide power which Germany with its limited coastline does not possess. And yet Germany is streets ahead on producing energy from renewables, principally photovoltaics. Renewable energy made up more than 14 percent of Germany's power consumption in 2007, up from almost 12 percent in 2006, with wind as the main contributor (source: The Guardian). Why Germany?

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...