Man Who Eats Data

A key thing to know about Professor David MacKay is that he likes data. Lots of data. He said so in a public meeting last week, and I watched him draw a careful draft diagram on paper, specifying for a project engineer the kind of data he would like to see on Combined Heat and Power (CHP) with District Heating (DH). There have been a number of complaints about communal heating projects in the UK, but accurate information is often commercially sensitive, so urging the collection and publication of data is the way forward.

MacKay has been working on very large data indeed – with his 2050 Pathways Calculator. Although people may complain, in fact, they do complain, that the baseline assumptions about nuclear power seem designed to give the recommended outcome of more nuclear power, other parts of The Calculator are more realistic, showing that a high level of new, quick-to-build largescale wind power is practically non-negotiable for guaranteeing energy security.

Last year, there were some rumours circulating that MacKay’s work on biomass for The Calculator showed that biomass combustion for electricity generation was a non-starter for lowering net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. We were told to wait for these results. And wait again. And now it appears (according to Private Eye, see below), that these were suppressed by DECC, engaged as they were with rubberstamping biomass conversions of coal-fired power plants – including Drax.

“Old Sparky” at Private Eye thinks that Professor MacKay will not be permitted to publish this biomass data – but as MacKay said last week, The Calculator is open source, and all volunteers are welcome to take part in its design and development…


Private Eye, Number 1365, 2 May 2014 – 15 May 2014

Keeping the Lights On
by “Old Sparky”

The company that owns the gigantic Drax power station in Yorkshire is cheekily suing the government for not giving it quite as much subsidy as it would like. But it should be careful : the government is suppressing a publication that would question its right to any subsidy at all.

Drax, built as a coalf-fired plant, is converting its six generating units to burn 15m tonnes of wood a year (see Eye 1325). Amazingly, electricity generated from “biomass” like this qualifies as “renewable energy”. It is thus in line for hefty subsidies and Treasury guarantees – several hundred million pounds a year of electricit billpayers’ money once all six units have been converted.

Having seen the even greater bungs proposed for EDF’s two new nuclear power plants, however, Drax thinks it deserves a similar deal and is suing for precisely that (which is what happens when firms subsidy-farming as their main line of business).

Drax’s greed is unlikely to be rewarded. In the Energy Act passed last year, ministers gave themselves remarkable powers to intervene in the electricity industry, project by project, and to do pretty much whatever takes their fancy.

Meanwhile, the chief scientific adviser [sic] at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the upright Professor David MacKay, is coming to the end of his five-year term. For more than a year he has been agitating for DECC to publish his “biomass calculator” which proves it is (in his words) “fantastically easy” to show that burning trees on the scale planned by Drax and other converted coal plants is likely to INCREASE CO2 emissions in the timeframe that matters.

Knowing the rumpus this will cause, DECC suppressed it last summer (Eye, 1348) and continues to do so while several large biomass projects get off the ground. Will the scrupulous professor simply return to academia and publish it anyway ? Perhaps : but don’t bank on it : it is usual for employment contracts to stipulate that the EMPLOYER retains intellectual property rights in ideas developed while “on the job”. Although MacKay did some work on the impact of biomass-burning before becoming chief adviser [sic], the “calculator” dates from his time at DECC.

This is just as well for Drax. But perhaps its owners should take the hint and wind in their necks.

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