Energy Change for Climate Control
RSS icon Home icon
  • New Hands on DECC

    Posted on May 11th, 2016 Jo No comments

    So, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have a new top dog – Alex Chisholm – formerly the attack beast in charge of putting pressure on the electricity utility companies over their pricing rip-offs when at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

    There’s a huge and dirty intray awaiting this poor fellow, including the demonstrable failings of the Energy Act that’s just been signed into law. I’d recommend that he call for the immediate separation of the department into two distinct and individually funded business units : Nuclear and The Rest. Why ? Because nuclear power in the UK has nothing to do with answering the risk of climate change, despite some public relations type people trying to assert its “low carbon” status. Plus, the financial liabilities of the nuclear section of DECC mean it’s just going to bring the rest of the department down unless there’s a divorce.

    The UK Government have been pursuing new fission nuclear power with reams of policy manoeuvres. The call for new nuclear power is basically a tautological argument centring on a proposal to transition to meet all energy demand by power generation resources, and the presumption of vastly increasing energy independence. If you want to convert all heating and cooling and transport to electricity, and you want to have few energy imports, then you will need to have a high level of new nuclear power. If new nuclear power can be built, it will generate on a consistent basis, and so, to gain the benefit of self-sufficiency, you will want to transfer all energy demand to electricity. Because you assume that you will have lots of new nuclear power, you need to have new nuclear power. It’s a tautology. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sensible or even practical way to proceed.

    DECC evolved mostly from the need to have a government department exclusively involved in the decommissioning of old nuclear power plants and the disposal of radioactive nuclear power plant waste and waste nuclear fuel. The still existing fleet of nuclear power plants is set to diminish as leaking, creaking, cracking and barely secure reactors and their unreliable steam generation equipment need to be shut down. At which point, this department will lose its cachet of being an energy provider and start to be merely an energy user and cash consumer – since there’s not enough money in the pot for essential decommissioning and disposal and DECC will need to go cap in hand to the UK Treasury for the next few decades to complete its core mission of nuclear decommissioning. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out why this department will remain committed to the concept of new nuclear power. It would certainly justify the continuing existence of the department.

    The flagship DECC-driven nuclear power project for Hinkley Point C has run aground on a number of sharp issues – including the apparent financial suicide of the companies set to build it, the probably illegal restructuring loans and subsidy arrangements that various governments have made, what appears to be the outright engineering incompetency of the main construction firm, and the sheer waste of money involved. It would be cheaper by around 50% to 70% to construct lots of new wind power and some backup gas-fired power generation plant – and could potentially be lower carbon in total – especially if the gas is manufactured low carbon gas.

    In order to stand a chance of making any new low carbon energy investment in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change needs to split – much like the banks have. The risky, nuclear stuff in one team, and the securely certainly advantageous renewable energy stuff in the other team. We will have more wind power, more solar power and more of lots of other renewables in the next 10 years. We are unlikely to see an increase in nuclear power generation in the UK for the next 15. It’s time to split these business units to protect our chances of successful energy investment.

  • Sour Push

    Posted on March 3rd, 2016 Jo No comments

    The exact chemistry of Natural Gas as it comes out of the ground is data that is not always easily available – and industry watchers always seem to charge a lot just to access rudimentary information that was hastily published in trade journals.

    But the exact chemistry of Natural Gas as it comes out of the ground is very important to know, especially as, over time, naturally-occurring gases collected from the sub-surface of the Earth are expected to change in their composition. This is due to a number of factors, including the depletion of major oil fields – where much Natural Gas comes from.

    Changing Natural Gas chemistry will also arise because of changes in the choice of resources. Here’s a note from Lallemand et al. from PTQ magazine for Q4 2013, starting at page 81, “For decades to come, gas will be an energy source of choice to meet increasing energy demands. Oil and gas operators have always preferentially produced the gas from those reservoirs that are technically the easiest and the cheapest to develop, but they will have to develop fields with a higher acid gas content in the future. Effectively, over 40% of the world’s conventional gas resources currently identified as remaining reserves to be produced, representing over 2600 trillion cubic feet (tcf), are sour, with both [hydrogen sulfide] H2S and [carbon dioxide] CO2 present most of the time. Among these sour reserves, more than 350 tcf contain H2S in excess of 10%, and almost 700 tcf contain over 10% CO2. The Middle East, the Caspian Sea area and China have gas reserves with a high H2S content, while large amounts of gases with a high CO2 content are encountered in South East Asia and, to some extent, in South America and North Africa.”

    Another Natural Gas contaminant to look out for is nitrogen, which can be present in very high percentages.

    What’s astonishing to me is that there is not more discussion of the issues surrounding the attentuation or lessening of value of Natural Gas owing to this chemistry.

    Not that I’m going to attend, but there is a conference up soon on this matter, “Sour Oil & Gas Advanced Technology 2016”, or SOGAT, being held in Abu Dhabi, and the blurb makes for interesting reading : “…The technologies involved in sour field management and production are always progressing and the latest developments across the whole management spectrum including observations on capturing CO2 from sour gas processing facilities for use in [Enhanced Oil Recovery] EOR will be included in the SOGAT Conference Programme…”

    Now, admittedly, Enhanced Oil Recovery is a valid use for unwanted carbon dioxide in Natural Gas, and is widely in use to achieve this aim. Carbon dioxide and other inert gases are pumped into an oil field to create extra “lift” pressure, to increase the production of crude petroleum oil liquids. It’s a technique that can be fairly effective over some length of time.

    It’s not always certain if the re-injected carbon dioxide stays put – so it’s not necessarily a recipe for permanent “sequestration” of that CO2 back underground. However, this was the original CCS – Carbon Capture and Sequestration, or Carbon Capture and Storage, method proposed by the oil and gas companies when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) wanted to hear on carbon mitigation technologies.

    But is there another way to deal with the carbon dioxide emerging in Natural Gas, rather than using it to pump up more oil ? After all, even if the re-injected CO2 stays re-buried, it assists in the liberation of more carbon dioxide overall, when the oil gets burned.

    The answer is “yes”. The carbon dioxide that emerges with Natural Gas could be used to increase the overall volume of sweetened gas supplied to market. How is that possible ? Well, if the sour gas countries of the Middle East took to deploying desert plains full of solar panels, and then made Renewable Hydrogen from seawater using this solar electricity, then they could methanate the carbon dioxide from Natural Gas into high-methane gas that could be added back to the Natural Gas, increasing its volume.

    This would make a better asset out of the carbon dioxide than using it for EOR.

    None of this technology or chemistry is new. It just needs applying. And it’s important because a lot of the world’s remaining Natural Gas has a high level of carbon dioxide in it – and that can’t all be used for Enhanced Oil Recovery.

  • Forty Years of Silence

    Posted on March 2nd, 2016 Jo No comments

    I thought I’d dip into an energy textbook today, not realising that I would encounter a new angle on a story of forty years of silence and denial that’s been shocking climate change commentators.

    Ever since Inside Climate News published a report on the company Exxon and the history of its global warming research (“Exxon : The Road Not Taken”), strong reaction has continued to accumulate, on a spectrum from disbelief, to disappointment to deep cynicism.

    In the United States, almost predictably in that uniquely litigious culture, various lawsuits are accumulating with the large oil and gas companies as their targets, and Exxon is the latest defendant. It is a matter of political, social and environmental import to have the facts where there is suspected misleading of the public on matters of science. In this case, if proved, those misled would include shareholders in the company.

    And it’s not just a question of global warming science here – Exxon’s alleged readiness to obscure basic physics and the implications of carbon loading of the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning may have also resulted in an obscuring of the scientific realities underlying their own corporate viability.

    You see, Exxon’s business interests rely on their continued ability to find and dig up oil and gas. Now last year was a difficult one, as depressed crude oil and Natural Gas commodity prices put some of Exxon’s resources “off-books”, so their reserves replacement – topping up their bankable assets – was only 67% of their previous end-of-year. It could be easy to connect the dots on this one – some of the gas they could pump is just too costly right now to get to. But what if Exxon are finally meeting another kind of Nemesis – of their own making – because they’re working on faulty geophysical data, which they produced themselves ?

    So, let’s start where I did, with Chapter Eight “Basin stratigraphy” of the reference book “Basin Analysis” by Philip A. Allen and John R. Allen, 3rd edition, published by Wiley Blackwell, ISBN 978-0470673768.

    The chapter introduces many important concepts regarding how sedimentary basins formed in deep Earth time – sediments of organic matter that have in some cases become reservoirs of fossil fuels. It talks about how strata get laid down – the science of “process stratigraphy”. Much of the logic relies on the phenomenon of the rising and falling of sea level relative to land masses over geological cycles, correlating with significant swings in climate. The book mentions early work by Exxon scientists : “Using seismic reflection results, a team of geologists and biostratigraphers from Exxon constructed a chart of relative sea level through time (Vail et al., (1997b), updated and improved by Haq et al. (1987, 1988)).” The chapter goes on to critique one important working assumption of that original work – that all sedimentary similarities must be an indicator of synchronicity – that is, that they happened at the same time. The text goes on to read, “In summary, we follow Carter (1998) in believing that the Haq et al. (1997) curve is a ‘noisy’ amalgam of a wide range of local sea-level signals, and should not be used as a global benchmark…its use as a chronostratigraphic tool by assuming a priori that a certain stratigraphic boundary has a globally synchronous and precise age, which it is therefore safe to extrapolate into a basin with poor age control, is hazardous.”

    Why is this important ? Because all of the understanding of petroleum geophysics relies on the stratigraphic charts drawn up by these scientists. And yet, even at their inception, there was corporate “confidentiality” invoked. According to a paper from Anthony Hallam, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 1984, 12: 205-243 : “Most important, details of the evidence supporting the eustatic claims of the Exxon group (Vail et al 1977) are not published, and hence their claims cannot be checked directly”. What ? A data set relied on not only by everybody in the fossil fuel energy industry, but also all geologists and even climate change scientists, has a fault line in the evidence ? Why would Exxon want to obscure the origin of this data ? Did they need to keep quiet about their stratigraphy science because it revealed too much about climate change ? Are there problems with the science, but that even they didn’t find out ? And is there then the possibility that they have relied too much on faulty 40 year old research in fossil fuel exploration and discovery ?

    Exxon might be starting to be more transparent – as this set of charts from 2010 reveals, “A Compilation of Phanerozoic Sea-Level Change, Coastal Onlaps and Recommended Sequence Designations”, Snedden and Liu, 2010, AAPG Search and Discovery, in which the text includes, “The magnitudes of sea-level change in this chart follow the estimation of Haq and Schutter (2008) and Hardenbol et al. (1998). However, there is little consensus on the range of sea-level changes, though most believe that the sea-level position during most of the Phanerozoic was within +/- 100 meters of the present-day level.”

    To me, it remains an intriguing possibility that the whole oil and gas industry has been working with incomplete or misaligned data, in which case, can we really believe that there are another four or five good decades of good quality fossil fuels to exploit ?

    Other PDFs of interest :-
    https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bilal_Haq2/publication/23297207_A_Chronology_of_Paleozoic_Sea-Level_Changes/links/55daff3708aeb38e8a8a3702.pdf?inViewer=0&pdfJsDownload=0&origin=publication_detail
    http://curry.eas.gatech.edu/Courses/6140/ency/Chapter10/Ency_Oceans/Sea_Level_Variations.pdf
    http://www.mantleplumes.org/WebDocuments/Haq1987.pdf
    http://article.sciencepublishinggroup.com/pdf/10.11648.j.earth.20130201.11.pdf

  • The Appliance of Trust

    Posted on March 1st, 2016 Jo No comments

    Although I don’t recommend it, considering things in the fevered daze of influenza is a great counterweight to thinking things through in my normal state of mind, a little bit like Herodutus’ “Persian Strategy”, but with the only alcohol involved being in the cough medicine.

    I had the overpowering insight that I can get my mind inside anything I wanted, but the realisation that I don’t have the interest to get into that much, actually. What really interests me, apart from having my basic nutritional, shelter and socialisation needs met, is energy – more to the point – energy transition, from the fossil fuel-dominated energy systems of today, to the 100% renewable energy systems of tomorrow.

    I’m less of a shaper in this Energy Change, more of a watcher and commentator. I don’t really know what I could do to effect or affect any significant part of Energy Change. I wouldn’t know where to try to place myself. I despair of the British Government’s lack of sanity in energy policy, and yet the UK are considered a major contributor to the process of Energy Change. Maybe the incestuous relationship between the academic community and the energy industry has a stronger influence on the government narrative than it should. I’m fairly scornful about the lack of attention the major energy companies are giving to the imperative of Energy Change, or at least in their public-facing personae, because they’ve got market share and shareholders to think about.

    As for something more practical, it’s been a while since I did any proper hands-on engineering, so I’m not sure if I could play that role anywhere. The flow of money dictates most change, but I’m not sure if I could help people move money – it would involve a lot of public relations, which I hate.

    When I raise questions of Energy Change – mostly centred on Renewable Gas – some people in government and industry can be very dismissive. Sometimes I wonder why I bother trying to make any contribution at all. I’m just observing – not dictating or showing anything revolutionary. It almost doesn’t matter if I do nothing – because Energy Change is inevitable.

    My argument in a very condensed form :-

    1. There are problems with continued fossil fuel production growth.

    2. There are problems arising from the continued use of fossil fuels.

    3. There must be a transition to renewable energy.

    4. The timeframe for some of the major elements of the new configuration is around 25 years or less.

    5. Major elements of Energy Change must be started now.

    6. All expenditure in the economy must be a “carrier wave” enabling investment in and consumption of renewable energy. All economic decisions need to be guided towards placing trust in companies and organisations that have Energy Change as part of their business strategy.

    It doesn’t need to be me who says these things.

    On the other hand, it interests me.

    So I have to apply trust – if it interests me, since my judgement is fairly sound, it must be interesting. And since I trust myself to my interests in Energy Change, I need to continue working in this area, although I’m not sure precisely where.

  • Fields of Diesel Generators

    Posted on February 19th, 2016 Jo No comments

    Recently, I had a very helpful telephone conversation with somebody I shall call Ben – because that’s his name, obviously, so there’s no point in trying to camoflage that fact. It was a very positive conversation, with lots of personal energy from both parties – just the sort of constructive engagement I like.

    Amongst a range of other things, we were batting about ideas for what could constitute a business model or economic case for the development of Renewable Gas production – whether Renewable Hydrogen or Renewable Methane. Our wander through the highways and byways of energy markets and energy policy led us to this sore point – that the National Grid is likely to resort to “fields of diesel generators” for some of its emergency backup for the power grid in the next few years – if new gas-fired power plants don’t get built. Various acronyms you might find in this space include STOR and BM.

    Now, diesel is a very dirty fuel – so dirty that it appears to be impossible to build catalytic exhaust filters for diesel road vehicles that meet any of the air pollution standards and keep up fuel consumption performance. It’s not just VW that have had trouble meeting intention with faction – all vehicle manufacturers have difficulties balancing all the requirements demanded of them. Perhaps it’s time to admit that we need to ditch the diesel fuel itself, rather than vainly try to square the circle.

    The last thing we really need is diesel being used as the fuel to prop up the thin margins in the power generation network – burned in essentially open cycle plant – incurring dirty emissions and a massive waste of heat energy. Maybe this is where the petrorefiners of Great Britain could provide a Renewable Gas alternative. Building new plant or reconfiguring existing plant for Renewable Gas production would obviously entail capital investment, which would create a premium price on initial operations. However, in the event of the National Grid requiring emergency electricity generation backup, the traded prices for that power would be high – which means that slightly more expensive Renewable Gas could find a niche use which didn’t undermine the normal economics of the market.

    If there could be a policy mandate – a requirement that Renewable Gas is used in open cycle grid-balancing generation – for example when the wind dies down and the sun sets – then we could have fields of Renewable Gas generators and keep the overall grid carbon emissions lower than they would otherwise have been.

    Both Ben and I enjoyed this concept and shared a cackle or two – a simple narrative that could be adopted very easily if the right people got it.

    Renewable Gas – that’s the craic.

  • Renewable Gas : Book Launch

    Posted on February 18th, 2016 Jo No comments

    So I’m in the wonderfully atmospheric wood-panelled Room 102 at 30 Russell Square in Bloomsbury trying to talk engineering to mostly business and communications students. Which is a challenge in itself. Yet I’m also trying not to do too much talking, but encourage the other people in the room to play with the information I’m presenting and do their own thinking.

    It’s all about energy transition – or “Energy Change” – as I term it – that I argue is an essential response to Climate Change. I also argue that Energy Change is an essential response to discontinuities and emerging fractures in the current fossil fuel-dominated global energy system and the global economy.

    But mostly I argue with a fair amount of positive personal energy that we already have all the technologies we need to move towards a very low carbon and 100% renewable energy system, where low carbon gas backs up variable renewable electricity generation.

    During the discussion after my presentation, where the room became full of buzzing brain power, I ask people to break out into small groups to answer these not-too-simple policy questions :-

    Q1. Can you design a policy support mechanism
    for Renewable Gas that doesn’t involve subsidies
    in any area of : electricity generation, heating &
    cooling, transportation or energy storage ?

    Q2. In whose short-term and long-term
    interests would it be to begin to provide
    Renewable Gas ? What should their strategy be ?

    Q3. What barriers to the growth of Renewable
    Gas production do you think there will be ?

    There were some very interesting answers given to the room at the end before we had to open celebration bottles to complete the positive cheer. And then, of course, after all that jollity, I had to take in a pint of dry cider and some hot potato chips at the pub with my colleague Dr Paul Elsner and engage in a conversation, the upshot of which is that I now have a massive “to do” list.

  • The Lies That You Choose

    Posted on January 31st, 2016 Jo No comments

    I have had the great fortune to meet another student of the Non-Science of Economics who believes most strongly that Energy is only a sub-sector of the Holy Economy, instead of one of its foundations, and doesn’t understand why issues with the flow of commodities (which include energy resources) into the system is critical to the survival of the global economy, and that the growth in the Services Industries and Knowledge Economy cannot compensate for the depletion of freshwater, fossil fuels and other raw resources.

    This person believes in Technology, as if it can fly by itself, without seeming to understand how Technological Innovation is really advanced by state investment – a democracy of focus. This otherwise intelligent learner has also failed to grasp, apparently, that the only way that the Economy can grow in future is through investment in things with real value, such as Energy, especially where this investment is essential owing to decades of under-investment precipitated by privatisation – such as in Energy – investment in both networks of grids or pipes, and raw resources. And this from somebody who understands that developing countries are being held back by land grab and natural resource privatisation – for example ground water; and that there is no more money to be made from property investment, as the market has boomed and blown.

    How to burst these over-expanded false value bubbles in the mind ? When I try to talk about the depletion of natural resources, and planetary boundaries, people often break eye contact and stare vacantly out of the nearest window, or accept the facts, but don’t see the significance of them. Now this may be because I’m not the best of communicators, or it may be due to the heavy weight of propaganda leading to belief in the Magical Unrealism always taught in Economics and at Business Schools.

    Whatever. This is where I’m stuck in trying to design a way to talk about the necessity of energy transition – the move from digging up minerals to catching the wind, sunlight and recycling gases. If I say, “Look, ladies and laddies, fossil fuels are depleting”, the audience will respond with “where there’s a drill, there’s a way”. As if somehow the free market (not that a free market actually exists), will somehow step up and provide new production and new resources, conjuring them from somewhere.

    What are arguments that connect the dots for people ? How to demonstrate the potential for a real peak in oil, gas, coal and uranium production ? I think I need to start with a basic flow analysis. On the one side of the commodity delivery pipeline, major discoveries have decreased, and the costs of discovery have increased. The hidden underbelly of this is that tapping into reservoirs and seams has a timeline to depletion – the point at which the richness of the seam is degraded significantly, and the initial pressure in the well or reservoir is reduced to unexploitable levels – regardless of the technology deployed. On the other end of the commodities pipeline is the measure of consumption – and most authorities agree that the demand for energy will remain strong. All these factors add up to a time-limited game.

    Oh, you can choose to believe that everything will continue as it always seems to have. But the Golden Age of Plenty is drawing to a close, my friend.

  • Born of Collision

    Posted on January 31st, 2016 Jo No comments

    As we pay increasing attention to the Earth, humanity discovers deeper and deeper resonance.

    For example, it appears that the Earth and the Moon are more intimately of one kind than previously imagined, which has implications for our picture of the origins of life.

    It also has consequences for our narrative of climate change throughout the aeons, as it could alter our framework of understanding about the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere, and consequently the circling waves of global warming and global cooling that have taken place since then.

    Life may well have not been possible without the interference with the planet’s development from this violent impact that mixed the stuff of early Earth with Moon. And the interaction of life with the planet has always had an impact on the temperature on the surface of the Earth, which has been following a cooling trend overall, right up until the last 350 years, when we started pulling old life carbon out of the Earth and burning it into the sky.

    What we learn should shake us to the core, and what we take to be true could always be subject to a jolt. Life has been born of violent collision, and as long as we still have hearing, we must listen to the deepest of bass.

  • Happy New Renewable Gas Year

    Posted on January 1st, 2016 Jo No comments

    A new year, and a renewed mission of investigation into and communication about the need for and potential of Renewable Gas.

    I need to prepare a presentation for discussion in February, so I started writing notes in December, and now I’m thinking about the images I would like to use for overhead slides and the things I’d like the audience to read before the event.

    Proceedings will best be split into two parts, I think : the first part covering energy systems and energy technologies; and the second part opening up the issues in energy policy and energy investment.

    As usual, I don’t like to do all the talking, so I hope to keep the presentation as short as possible to allow the maximum time for group conversation. With enough of the right kind of preparation, I feel, most groups of intelligent people can collectively approach the core of a problem and suggest ways out, and how to stimulate and monitor progress.

    My point of entry, I think, should be considering the logic that Climate Change implies Energy Change – in other words, that global warming-induced climate alteration will both impact the way that energy systems operate, and will also require new energy technologies to be deployed, to prevent climate change becoming seriously dangerous.

    Climate Change also means Economy Change – as the current high flow rates of raw resources and energy in trading and commerce contribute significantly to climate change, and trade and commerce are also being adversely affected by climate change.

  • Cumbria Floods : Climate Defenceless

    Posted on December 7th, 2015 Jo No comments

    I fully expect the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be more than modicum concerned about public opinion as the full toll of damage to property, businesses, farmland and the loss of life in Cumbria of the December 2015 floods becomes clear. The flooding in the Somerset Levels in the winter of 2013/2014 led to strong public criticism of the government’s management of and investment in flood defences.

    The flood defences that were improved in Cumbria after the rainstorm disaster of 2009 were in some cases completely ineffective against the 2015 deluge. It appears that the high water mark at some places in Cumbria was higher in the 2015 floods than ever recorded previously, but that cannot be used as David Cameron’s get-out-of-jail-free clause. These higher flood levels should have been anticipated as a possibility.

    However, the real problem is not the height of flooding, but the short recurrence time. Flood defences are designed in a way that admits to a sort of compromise calculus. Measurements from previous floods are used to calculate the likelihood of water levels breaching a particular height within a number of years – for example, a 1-in-20 year flood, or a 1-in-200 year flood. The reinforced flood defences in Cumbria were designed to hold back what was calculated to be something like a 1-in-100 year flood. It could be expected that if within that 100 years, other serious but not overwhelming flooding took place, there would be time for adaptation and restructuring of the defences. However, it has taken less than 10 years for a 1-in-100 year event to recur, and so no adaptation has been possible.

    This should suggest to us two possibilities : either the Environment Agency is going about flood defences the wrong way; or the odds for the 1-in-100 year flood should be reset at 1-in-10-or-so years – in other words, the severity profile of flooding is becoming worse – stronger flooding is more frequent – which implies acceptance of climate change.

    The anti-science wing of the Conservative Party were quick to construct a campaign against the Environment Agency in the South West of England in early 2014 – distracting people from asking the climate change question. But this time, I think people might be persuaded that they need to consider climate change as being a factor.

    Placing the blame for mismanagement of the Somerset Levels at the door of the Environment Agency saved David Cameron’s skin in 2014, but I don’t think he can use that device a second time. People in Cockermouth are apparently in disbelief about the 2015 flooding. They have barely had time to re-establish their homes and lives before Christmas has been cancelled again for another year.

    Will the Prime Minister admit to the nation that climate change is potentially a factor in this 2015 waterborne disaster ?

    I remember watching in in credulity as the BBC showed the restoration of Cockermouth back in 2010 – it was either Songs of Praise or Countryfile – I forget which. The BBC were trying to portray a town getting back to normal. I remember asking myself – but what if climate change makes this happen again ? What then ? Will the BBC still be mollifying its viewers, lulling them back into a false sense of security about the risks of severe climate change ? What if there is no “normal” to get back to any more ? Is this partly why the Meteorological Office has decided to name winter storms ?

    Can future climate-altered floods be escaped – or are the people of Britain to remain defenceless ?

  • National Insurance : National Insulation

    Posted on December 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    If I were consulted for policy ideas by the Labour Party, or any other political party in the United Kingdom for that matter, I would certainly ask the policymakers and policy drafters to consider the appalling toll that poorly insulated buildings has on both the health and pockets of the British people.

    I would ask the people consulting my opinion if they considered insulation as a form of health and wealth insurance, and then ask them to consider that a national insulation programme was as significant as the National Health Service, which is paid for by National Insurance contributions. I would suggest to my dialogue partners that NI could stand for both National Insurance and National Insulation, and that it might be a valid policy objective to raise funds for a national insulation programme as part of the National Insurance system.

    In the past, Government policy included the use of the instruments known as the Community Energy Saving Programme (2009 – 2012 : CESP) and the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (2008 – 2012 : CERT). Although the total cost of the CESP does not appear to be accurately determined, the initial Impact Assessment put it at £365 million, and the CERT total cost between 2008 and 2011 as £5.3 billion.

    This has to be compared to the National Insurance revenue take, which in 2014/2015 was £109 billion. Reinstating the CERT/CESP would add roughly £1.1 billion per year to the National Insurance bill, requiring an increase in take by 1%. Surely this would be relatively straightforward to argue for, I would ask.

    The problem, of course, is that as there have already been so many insulation projects and minor insulation building retrofits, all the cheap and easy things have mostly already been done – and the cost of the next insulation programme has to become more expensive, as the level of intervention required rises.

    There are 26.7 million households in the UK, and without reducing this number for those households which share property, as roughly 90% of the housing stock needs a significant insulation retrofit, this amounts to roughly 24 million buildings.

    If the average cost of an “insule” (an insulation installation) comes in at £7,500, then £180 billion would need to be raised to complete the programme.

    If that programme were to be undertaken over 10 years, that would mean raising £18 billion a year, an increase in the National Insurance bill of 16.5%. However, the Government has within its powers to create Energy Bonds, which could have a value for 50 years instead of 10. If this mechanism were used to underwrite the National Retrofit, this would then mean an extra 3.3% added to the annual National Insurance revenue take.

    I think people would vote for this.

  • Energy Security : National Security #4

    Posted on November 29th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Previously, I summarised and sketched the situation regarding Europe’s policy of developing the “Southern Gas Corridor”, to provide Natural Gas supplies from resources that are not the Russian Federation and its satellite countries. My conclusion from a British perspective was that the United Kingdom should be very cautious in widening its military engagement in the region to include a proposed bombing campaign against Syria. Increasing violence in the region will harm energy transport projects and damage existing infrastructure. By way of example, renewed conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party or PKK has been suggested as the incentive behind recent destruction of gas pipelines, events that have suspected of being assisted by Russian “forces”, an alliance that appears to have a history.

    The British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently made his case for an air campaign in Syria, and it is to this that I turn. It is a political document, and so naturally enough contains language that is contestable. For example, in the first paragraph, the Prime Minister writes, “Whether or not to use military force is one of the most significant decisions that any government takes. The need to do so most often arises because of a government’s first duty: the responsibility to protect its citizens.” The UK is already using military force across the border from Syria, in Iraq, as the document outlines later on, so it is curious that David Cameron feels he has to appeal to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee regarding very similar action in Syria. There is a significant level of evidence to reasonably argue that attacking Islamic State with an air campaign will lead to reprisal attacks in the UK from Islamic State sympathisers, so air strikes against Syria might damage national security in Britain.

    To understand this, you would need to understand the appeal that Islamic State philosophy has to a small group of deluded, desperate, brainwashed activists. For those who aren’t Islamic State adherents, it would be hard to understand the “death cult” fundamentalism enshrined in its philosophy, so it would be impossible to understand why there would be anyone prepared to sympathise with Islamic State and wish to support it by the use of massacre and suicide. But if you want to understand how provocation of Islamic State by aerial bombardment could precipitate violent responses on the streets of Europe, all you need to do is look at the evidence from Paris and Brussels coming in the last few weeks. When all the talk was about young people being seduced by the insane rhetoric of Islamic State and running away to fight in Syria, it all seemed harmless enough – although tragic and bewildering for their families. But now European nationals have returned home as secret trained suicide bombers, and recruited their peers and sometimes siblings and other relatives to the Islamic State cause, it’s no longer a sad tale of teenage and twenty-something obsession. To extend the British air campaign into Syria won’t fix this problem, neither will closing borders.

    When David Cameron says, “it is … vital that the Government can act to keep this country safe”, he says it in defence of the use of violent attack or “force”, but there are obviously more human, humane, cheaper, cyber, public relations, political ways to keep the UK safe. He writes, “Throughout Britain’s history, we have been called on time and again to make the hardest of decisions in defence of our citizens and our country”, but it appears that he hasn’t learned any lessons from the last century, especially the last 21 years. Every time that the UK has been involved in a major aerial bombardment campaign, things have gone badly, either for British armed forces, or British nationals – not to mention the citizens of other countries, who in some cases, if they’ve survived being carpet bombed, have been documented as starting to hate Britain because of British warfare. It’s a short step from hating Britain to sympathising with a rhetoric of anti-British violence, so it could be relatively rationally explained that British air campaigns of the last few decades have weakened our defences.

    David Cameron writes, “Today one of the greatest threats we face to our security is the threat from ISIL. We need a comprehensive response which seeks to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to us directly, not just through the measures we are taking at home, but by dealing with ISIL on the ground in the territory that it controls. It is in Raqqa, Syria, that ISIL has its headquarters, and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated.” However, bombing Islamic State on the ground in the territory it controls won’t diminish the threats to the United Kingdom from Islamic State trained or inspired “operatives” and disciples who have never even travelled to the Middle East, and in fact, it is unlikely that any of the people living in the territory that Islamic State inhabits would have anything to do with violent attacks against the United Kingdom, inside the United Kingdom. The suicide bombers in Paris were not Syrian or Iraqi. And although Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, it is unclear how Syrian and Iraqi leaders in Islamic State could have orchestrated them. What good would bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq do in making Britain safer ?

    David Cameron writes, “We must tackle ISIL in Syria, as we are doing in neighbouring Iraq, in order to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to our security here at home”, but you can’t fight an ideology with guns or silence their extremism with bombs. He also writes, “We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria. The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose”, but the question is, a threat to whom and what ?

    This is beginning to sound like the propaganda that was once designed to oppose the man who is still the official leader in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. And in fact, David Cameron’s appeal includes him later, when he says British aims should be to “secure a transition to an inclusive Government in Syria that responds to the needs of all the Syrian people and with which the international community could co-operate fully to help restore peace and stability to the whole country. It means continuing to support the moderate opposition in Syria, so that there is a credible alternative to ISIL and Assad.”

    Later again, he writes, “Some have argued that we should ally ourselves with Assad and his regime against the greater threat posed by ISIL, as the ‘lesser of two evils’. But this misunderstands the causes of the problem; and would make matters worse. By inflicting brutal attacks against his own people, Assad has in fact acted as one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants. We therefore need a political transition in Syria to a government that the international community can work with against ISIL, as we already do with the Government of Iraq.” There is also the comment, “Assad regime’s mass murder of its own people”.

    So it seems there has not been a reversal : Assad is still not in favour, despite Assad’s military campaign against Islamic State. Let’s just recap here on the “killing his own people” concept, an accusation levelled at the leaders of both Iraq and Libya before the UK bombed them. In Syria’s case, Assad’s repression of anti-government elements was accepted by the “international community” for some time, until the crackdown on the “Arab Spring” protests which lead to a civil war – during which, arguably, Assad’s forces committed crimes against humanity.

    But if you think about it, since the “Arab Spring” was possibly largely a result of the exercise of Internet-fed “soft power” by American intelligence agencies and their allies, it would be logical and reasonable for Assad to attempt to quell it, and to attempt to keep social stability. So how does that make Assad a bad person ? And what justifies the international community demanding that he be removed from power ? And why were no representatives of the Syrian government or any of the Syrian opposition parties – “anti-Assad forces” – invited to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna at the end of October 2015 ? David Cameron should not include the removal of Assad from leadership in his appeal to bomb Islamic State in Syria. The parties in the Syrian civil war need to come to a negotiated settlement, but this is a separate issue to the question of the UK fighting the influence of Islamic State by bombing in Syria.

    If Assad is not good enough for Syrian leadership, and the anti-Assad forces are not good enough for Syrian leadership, and Islamic State is not good enough for playing any part in Syrian governance, then what is David Cameron really arguing for ? The clue may lie in this, “putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight, as a full member of an international coalition, behind the new political talks – the Vienna process. It means working through these talks to secure a transition to an inclusive Government in Syria that responds to the needs of all the Syrian people and with which the international community could co-operate fully to help restore peace and stability to the whole country. It means continuing to support the moderate opposition in Syria, so that there is a credible alternative to ISIL and Assad. It means using our aid budget to alleviate the immediate humanitarian suffering. It means insisting, with other countries, on the preparation of a proper stabilisation and reconstruction effort in Syria once the conflict has been brought to an end. And it means continuing, and stepping up, our effort here at home to counter radicalisation.”

    Aside from the humour in trying to identify who is “moderate” in the Syrian conflict, since all the opposition groups appear to be belligerent and divisive, there is a commitment within a commitment here. What David Cameron is apparently arguing for is not only the involvement of British forces in an air campaign – but also an occupied Syria – occupied by the armed forces of the economically and politically powerful nations of the world. It’s worked so well in Iraq, of course (not), that it deserves to be replicated (not).

    But hang on – this is not Britain’s agenda – this is an American agenda – and it should be resisted.

    It would be very costly, not only economically, but also in terms of Britain’s reputation abroad. It could spark further hatred of the United Kingdom, and could lead to further acts of terror and sabotage in Europe. Do we really want to risk that ?

    How about a genuinely non-violent response to Islamic State ? Instead of interference with the state of Syria – which could well become destabilising – just look at Iraq and Libya.

    A common factor with Iraq and Libya is that energy production, storage, transmission, distribution and supply has obviously been affected by the warfare and uprisings in Syria – and it seems that Islamic State have been selling Syrian oil to finance their resistance to all the other militaries in the region. Some of that money could have been used to finance terrorism in other countries, as well.

    An American-led occupation of Syria would obviously assist in stabilising the energy sector, and ensuring safe passage for gas and oil, for example in pipelines and power grids. But Europe’s desire for Natural Gas from non-Russian sources should not be any kind of reason for the UK to bomb and occupy Syria.

  • Energy Security : National Security #3

    Posted on November 26th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Although the Autumn Statement and the Spending Review are attracting all the media and political attention, I have been more interested by the UK Government’s Security Review – or to give it is full title : the “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015”, or (SDSR), document number Cm 9161.

    Its aim is stated in its sub-heading “A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom”, but on matters of energy, I would suggest it fails to nail down security at all.

    In my analysis, having dealt with what appears to be a misunderstanding about the nature of hydrocarbon markets, I then started to address the prospect of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imports from the United States.

    My next probe is into the global gas pipeline networks indicated by this mention of the “Southern Gas Corridor” in Section 3.40 : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

    First of all, and perhaps of secondmost importance, the “Southern Gas Corridor” is more of a European Union policy suite than an individual pipeline. In fact, it’s not just one pipeline – several pipelines are involved, some actual, some under construction, some cancelled, some renamed, some re-routed, and some whose development is threatened by geopolitical struggle and even warfare.

    It is this matter of warfare that is the most important in considering the future of Natural Gas being supplied to the European Union from the Caspian Sea region : Turkmenistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbijan. Oh, and we should mention Uzbekistan, and its human rights abuses, before moving on. And Iraq and Syria – where Islamic State sits, brooding.

    Natural Gas is probably why we are all friends with Iran again. Our long-lasting dispute with Iran was ostensibly about nuclear power, but actually, it was all about Natural Gas. When Russia were our New Best Friend, Iran had to be isolated. But now Russia is being a tricky trading partner, and being beastly to Ukraine, Iran is who we’ve turned to, to cry on their shoulder, and beg for an alternative source of gas.

    So we’ve back-pedalled on the concept of waging economic or military conflict against Iran, so now we have a more southerly option for our massive East-to-West gas delivery pipeline project – a route that takes in Iran, and avoids passing through Georgia and Azerbaijan – where Russia could interfere.

    The problem with this plan is that the pipeline would need to pass through Syria and/or southern Turkey at some point. Syria is the country where Islamic State is currently being bombed by the United States and some European countries. And Turkey is the country where there has been a revival of what amounts pretty much to civil war with the Kurdish population – who also live in Iraq (and the edges of Syria and Iran).

    Russia is envious of the southerly Southern Gas Corridor plan, and jealous of its own version(s) of the gas-to-Europe project, and influence in Georgia and Azerbaijan. So perhaps we should not be surprised that Russia and Turkey have had several military and political stand-offs in the last few months.

    We in the United Kingdom should also be cautious about getting dragged into military action in Syria – if we’re thinking seriously about future energy security. Further destabilisation of the region through military upheaval would make it difficult to complete the Southern Gas Corridor, and make the European Union increasingly dependent on Russia for energy.

    In the UK, although we claim to use no Russian gas at all, we do get gas through the interconnectors from The Netherlands and Belgium, and they get gas from Russia, so actually, the UK is using Russian gas. The UK gets over half its Natural Gas from Norway, and Norway has been a strong producer of Natural Gas, so why should we be worried ? Well, it appears that Norwegian Natural Gas production may have peaked. Let’s re-visit Section 3.40 one more time : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

    The problem is that nobody can fight geology. If Norway has peaked in Natural Gas production, there is little that anyone can do to increase it, and even if production could be raised in Norway through one technique or another (such as carbon dioxide injection into gas wells), it wouldn’t last long, and wouldn’t be very significant. Norway is going to continue to supply gas to its other trading partners besides the UK, so how could the UK commandeer more of the Norwegian supply ? It seems likely that “increased supply from Norway” is just not possible.

    But back to the Southern Gas Corridor. It is in the United Kingdom’s security interests to support fresh gas supplies to the European Union. Because we may not be able to depend on Russia, we need the Southern Gas Corridor. Which is why we should think very, very carefully before getting involved in increased military attacks on Syria.

  • I Agree With George

    Posted on November 26th, 2015 Jo No comments

    For once, I agree with George Osborne.

    Well, for twice, actually.

    In his Autumn Statement of the state budget, he reversed a painful austerity measure aimed at the lowest paid workers, by performing a U-turn on removing tax credits.

    And, perhaps more importantly, not in the Autumn Statement, he cancelled the Carbon Capture and Storage demonstration subsidy. I completely applaud this decision. Apart from the speed at which it was enacted.

    George Osborne did a number of other things in his Autumn Statement that I definitely do not agree with – such as converting student nurse grants into loans – which shows the most appalling lack of judgement, as it will deter just the trainees the National Health Service really needs.

    Without more nursing staff on the front line of hospital health care, nothing will improve, no matter how many middle managers you employ. But anyway, back to energy…

    For some reason, the news that the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) “competition” money, formerly ringfenced, had been axed, was not included in the Autumn Statement. It was “snuck out” on the London Stock Exchange website, and I cannot find a mention of it yet on the Department of Energy and Climate Change website. Curious.

    What’s not curious in the slightest is the racket of the complaints against this decision. Which is to be expected, as a great many engineers and researchers have been relying on this very cash injection for their careers in carbon capture.

    Many politicos have been “captured” by CCS along the way, and their resentment is shrill today. Caroline Flint, in particular, should know better than to support CCS – she should look at the numbers, the history, and follow the money…

    There is an almost desperate misunderstanding about exactly how poor “value for money” the current CCS technologies are. This is because they are being applied to power generation plant, where the thermodynamics are against the efficient capture of carbon dioxide, because capture would need to be done behind combustion in most configurations.

    What is really needed is to go back to basics – chemistry and physics basics – and go back in time to the research done by earlier industrial gas engineers, terminated in the 1980s because of the discoveries of abundant (but not infinite) Natural Gas.

    Carbon capture in industrial gas processing has options that are relatively efficient compared to capturing carbon dioxide at low temperatures and low pressures in a venting stack on the back of a power plant.

    As one colleague of mine said (to paraphrase slightly), “The government have been pushing carbon capture in the power sector – but this is exactly the wrong place for it to be done. We in the gas industry, we want carbon capture back, please.”

    However, carbon capture in gas-related industries, in order to make it truly efficient, both energy-efficient and resource-efficient, and also carbon-efficient too, it needs to be CCU, not CCS, in other words Carbon Capture and Utilisation.

    Carbon recycling in integrated gas systems will allow us to manufacture very low carbon and sustainable Renewable Gas, even as fossil fuels deplete or become too chemically complex to permit us to burn them.

  • Energy Security, National Security #2

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The UK Government’s Security Review (SDSR), published 23rd November 2015, regrettably shows traces of propaganda not supported by current data.

    For example, the report states in Section 3.40 that : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

    I have already addressed my recommendation that the writers of this report should be more careful to distinguish between Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which is a methane-rich product that can substitute for Natural Gas; and Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) which is a methane-poor product that cannot substitute for Natural Gas.

    However, assuming that the writers of the report are talking about cryogenically stored and transported Natural Gas-sourced energy gases, there is a problem in assuming that the United States will be exporting any large amounts of LNG to Europe any time soon. In fact, there are several problems.

    Just because the business and political press have been touting the exciting prospect of US LNG exports, doesn’t mean that the data backs up this meme.

    First of all, although American Natural Gas production (gross withdrawals from oil and gas wells) continues to grow at a rate that appears unaffected by low Natural Gas prices, the production of shale gas appears to have plateau’d, which might well be related to Natural Gas prices.

    Secondly, although exports of Natural Gas as a whole and exports of Natural Gas by pipeline remain healthy, LNG exports have fallen since the heady days of 2010-2011.

    Next, although the oil and gas industry proposed lots of LNG export terminals, only a handful are being constructed, and there are already predictions that they will run under-capacity, or won’t get completed.

    And further, as regards potential future LNG customers, although China is rejecting LNG imports for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with falling economic growth rates, none of that LNG currently comes from the United States. And China is planning to develop its own onshore Natural Gas and will take LNG from the Australia/Indonesia region.

    The bulk of US LNG exports go to Taiwan and Japan, and Japan is unlikely to restart many nuclear power plants, so Japan will continue to need this gas.

    On top of all this, the United States is a very minor LNG exporter, so major change should be considered unlikely in the near term.

    And it any LNG is heading for Europe, it will probably end up in France, perhaps because they need a better backup plan for their turbulent nuclear power plants.

    All of which adds up to a puzzled look on my face. How can the British Government reasonably expect the commencement of significant quantities of American LNG exports to arrive in the UK ? The only reason they believe this is because there has been American propaganda, promulgated through media of all kinds, for the last five or so years, to convince the world that the USA can achieve greater energy independence through the “explosion” in shale gas production.

    It’s a story told by many successive US Governments – that the US can achieve greater energy independence, but the reality is very, very different.

    The UK Government should not believe any narrative of this nature, in my view, nor include it in national security analyses.

    …to be continued…

  • Energy Security, National Security #1

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments


    Our assiduous government in the United Kingdom has conducted a national security review, as they should, but it appears the collective intelligence on energy of the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Commonwealth Office is on a scale of poor to dangerously out of date.

    No, LNG doesn’t stand for “liquid natural gas”. LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. I think this report has confused LNG with NGLs.

    Natural Gas Liquids, or NGLs, are condensable constituents of gas-prone hydrocarbon wells. In other words, the well in question produces a lot of gas, but at the temperatures and pressures in the well underground, hydrocarbons that would normally be liquid on the surface are in the gas phase, underground. But when they are pumped/drilled out, they are condensed to liquids. So, what are these chemicals ? Well, here are the approximate Boiling Points of various typical fossil hydrocarbons, approximate because some of these molecules have different shapes and arrangements which influences their physical properties :-

    Boiling Points of Short-Chain Hydrocarbons
    Methane : approximately -161.5 degrees Celsius
    Ethane : approximately -89.0 degrees Celsius
    Propane : approximattely -42.0 degrees Celsius
    Butane : approximately -1.0 degrees Celsius
    Pentane : approximately 36.1 degrees Celsius
    Heptane : approximately 98.42 degrees Celsius

    You would expect NGLs, liquids condensed out of Natural Gas, to be mostly butane and heavier molecules, but depending on the techniques used – which are often cryogenic – some propane and ethane can turn up in NGLs, especially if they are kept cold. The remaining methane together with small amounts of ethane and propane and a trace of higher hydrocarbons is considered “dry” Natural Gas.

    By contrast, LNG is produced by a process that chills Natural Gas without separating the methane, until it is liquid, and takes up a much smaller volume, making it practical for transportation. OK, you can see why mistakes are possible. Both processes operate at sub-zero temperatures and result in liquid hydrocarbons. But it is really important to keep these concepts separate – especially as methane-free liquid forms of short-chain hydrocarbons are often used for non-energy purposes.

    Amongst other criticisms I have of this report, it is important to note that the UK’s production of crude oil and Natural Gas is not “gradually” declining. It is declining at quite a pace, and so imports are “certain” to grow, not merely “likely”. I note that Natural Gas production decline is not mentioned, only oil.

    …to be continued…


  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #3

    Posted on November 11th, 2015 Jo No comments

    When answering questions at last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), openly declared her belief that nuclear power is “very, very cheap electricity; with a marginal cost of generation”, completely ignoring the two white elephants in the room : the UK’s continued public finance obligation to dispose of radioactive and toxic waste from the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme; and the immensely subsidised framework for developing new nuclear power that the UK Government has had to underwrite.

    But there is also a third elephant walking into the room : the increasing unreliability of ageing nuclear power plants, not only in Britain, but also in France, and all across Europe, and anywhere, in fact, where the nuclear building boom took place 30 or so years ago. And one unplanned downed nuclear power plant requires an awful lot of backup to keep power grids from collapsing. And in a very short space of time.

    So the question has to be asked – even if I am the only person in the room asking the question (and I’m not) – why does the UK Government continue to insist that a new nuclear power programme is vital ?

    Government officials claim that new nuclear power plants will be more secure – which is a claim that deserves in-depth scrutiny; and that the cost of decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive and toxic waste has to be provided for in the financing of the project. Except it is highly likely to be undervalued. Because the UK Government is planning to build one (or more) Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs), perhaps under a National Park near you. Furnished from the public purse. And when they have finally done so, they will buy back the obligation to dispose of nuclear waste from the private nuclear power plant companies. One can easily predict that the public will have to pay more to dispose of the waste than those contracts of waste disposal obligation transfer will be worth.

    The companies that want to build new nuclear power plants know that the UK Government will buy back their duty to decommission and their duty to safely dispose of nuclear waste. So they have a free hand to undercost these obligations in their own accounts. If you don’t have an idea of what I’m talking about, Google “European Commission nuclear waste transfer contracts”, and you will find this from 9th October 2015.

    Just another nuclear subsidy, you might think. We have to pay a bit up-front to get lovely, juicy, reliable, always on “baseload” nuclear electricity, you might think. Well think this : the UK could get an equivalent, reliable supply of power from a carefully balanced combination of wind power, solar power and low carbon gas-fired power, at a third of the cost. Or less. Without subsidies or sweeteners, or long lead times to new project power.

    Andrea Leadsom was also off the money when she responded to questions about the economic value of new nuclear power (and Carbon Capture and Storage), “[In nuclear] there are new opportunities in low carbon energy – and sequestering – huge opportunities for growth and jobs. We’re doing a lot on building solutions – [for example] new nuclear colleges…” She ignored the fact that nuclear power and other large construction schemes such as Carbon Capture and Storage facilities will inevitably be “front-heavy” or frontloaded – all the capital and labour will be needed at the start of the projects, but employment will tail off rapidly after main construction ceases. How pitiful a promise is that ? Not a permanent strengthening of the UK economy, but a temporary glitch. By contrast, investment in renewable electricity and various forms of Renewable Gas could really bolster the economy – for decades or longer – enabling a phased transition to a fully low carbon economy – without massive engineering projects – the very thing we cannot currently afford.

    More questions came from the floor. “[Question from Bloomberg] : Is the Government planning to phase out coal by 2023 ? [Answer] : As the Prime Minister has said, we don’t want to rely on unabated coal. [But] all fossil fuels will remain part of the mix, particularly Natural Gas – the cleanest and greenest fossil fuel.” What the Minister did not admit was that Natural Gas had saved the day only the day before, when several coal-fired power plants were unavailable, and one appeared to break down (by analysis of the data), and National Grid put out a call for extra generation. Natural Gas was responsible for generating upwards of 40% of power during the peak on that calm Wednesday evening (according to some figures I’ve seen). It’s time the UK Government admitted that we are dependent on Natural Gas and the flexibility it provides – it offers both energy security and de-carbonisation.

    “[Question from E1] : [Is the Government] considering an equivalent of Silicon Valley in the UK ? What is our core competency ? [Answer] : Our creative and engineering [competencies] are second to none… The National Nuclear Laboratory… Thorium reactors…”.

    It was at this point that I had my second urge to leave the hall. Thorium ? Have you any idea how much time it will take to make and perfect higher generation nuclear reactor designs ? We just don’t have that time. We have about ten years to firm up energy security – not just of electricity, but heating and transport too. We don’t have time for fancy nuclear gizmo research to come to fruition – if it ever does.

    Andrea Leadsom continued, “…new blade factory at Hull…”

    I’m always amazed when a Minister cannot bring themselves to actually say the words WIND TURBINE.

    “…We’ve got the shale…”

    No, actually, you don’t have any shale gas yet.

    “… onshore oil and gas college. The UK will lead the world on small scale… small [profile] pumps… Different initiatives in different areas. In DECC we keep a close eye on these technologies. When you want a mix, you don’t want to pick winners…”

    But you already have picked winners : shale, coal-to-biomass conversion and nuclear.

    “…see which become most useful to our consumers.”

    “[Question from David Porter] In the power industry, decisions appear to be micro-managed by Government. […] like decisions to do with de-carbonisation. Wouldn’t it be better to have a European Union carbon price and leave things alone after that and let industry decide what to put in place ? [Answer] : We are committed to reform of the ETS [European Trading Scheme]. It hasn’t worked so far. […] make a level playing field… You’re obviously right : the ETS is a large part of that. Ofgem and National Grid are making decisions – not DECC – to power up and down plant. We’re not micro-managing daily electricity supply.”

    So, it’s National Grid’s fault there have been few new Natural Gas-fired power plants and no new nuclear power plants to call on in the last five years ?

    “You won’t see DECC saying ‘outsource it’. [Key direction] always stays with Government. [Question from Chartered Builders] : [Will there be] a coherent plan on energy efficiency ? [Answer] : Well, certainly, energy efficiency [is important to] the DECC and governemnt… DCLG [Department of Communities and Local Government]… hospitals and schools… Will there be a national efficiency framework ? [We] always keep [that option] under consideration.”

    So there you have it. DECC are not in control of which electricity generation plant gets built, are only willing to push nuclear power and shale gas, and not pay the relatively much smaller costs of a national building insulation programme, and will blame National Grid if they don’t choose the correct low carbon mix of electricity generation – which won’t be available because DECC can’t bring themselves to properly support renewable energy.

    Is the Government actually in charge of the direction of energy ? Well, they don’t appear to have a functioning energy policy, and they’ve “devolved” a lot of decision-making and responsibilities.

    The new Infrastructure Commission will find it easier to build roads and airport runways than new power generation plant.

    Now they’re committed to avoid spending any money on energy, I don’t have much hope that DECC can achieve much in terms of influencing decarbonisation, because persuasion is the tool they have left in the box, and they aren’t convincing me.

  • DECCimation

    Posted on November 11th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Into the valley of career death rode the junior 200… As Adam Vaughan reported on 10th November 2015, the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to shed 200 of its 1,600 staff as a result of the Spending Review, ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury. I wonder just where the jobs will be disappearing from.

    Obviously, the work on nuclear power plant decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive nuclear fuel needs to continue, and it needs to be government-led, as the experiment in privatisation of these functions went spectactularly over-budget, so it had to be brought back into public hands. But would all this work be best handled by a government agency, rather than DECC ? We already have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – should all work on decommissioning and waste disposal be delegated to them ? Shouldn’t DECC be concentrating on energy technologies of the future, instead of trying to fix problems from our nuclear past ? Should not the “policy reset” that many are hinting at address the advancement of renewable energies ? That, surely, should be DECC’s core activity.

    There are many items of work that DECC could undertake, that don’t cost a penny in subsidy, that would advance the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Developing a model of energy transition that people believe in would be a good first move. Instead of depending heavily on new nuclear power, with its huge price tag, complex support arrangements, heavy public subsidy and long and ill-determined lead times for construction, DECC modelling could show the present reality, and the gradual dropping off of coal-fired power generation and nuclear power plants – revealing an integrated balance of variable renewable energy and flexible Natural Gas for both heating and backup/stopgap/topup electricity generation. New DECC modelling could show what a progressive transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas would look like, and how it would meet the climate change carbon emissions reductions budgets. DECC models of the future of UK energy could include the appearance of integrated gas systems – recycling carbon dioxide emissions into new gas fuels. When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and not all renewable power is consumed, the UK could then be making gas to store for when the sun sets and the sky is becalmed.

    It may take a few years before DECC finally realises that there is no future for coal and nuclear power. Massive projects will fail, or go slow. Financing will be uncertain and backers will run away screaming. Coal-fired power plants are already being left aside in National Grid planning for electricity markets. It will not be long before coal goes the way of the dinosaurs. What we will be left with, if we are clever, is a massive improved network of solar and wind power assets, and Natural Gas-fired power generation to back them up – even if these need to be renationalised because they are required to run flexibly – so shareholders cannot be sure of their dividends. The loan guarantees that DECC tried to throw at new nuclear power will be diverted to Natural Gas power plant investment, possibly; but even then, building and operating a gas-fired power plant could not make an economic case.

    It is time to recognise that “baseload” always-on power generation is dead, just as the departing chief of National Grid, Steve Holliday, has indicated. Hopefully, he’s not departing National Grid because he doesn’t believe in the future of coal or nuclear. The plain facts, as the data shows, existing coal and nuclear power plants are unreliable and insecure. Investment into new coal and nuclear plants is at best, uncertain, and for many, dubious. It is possible that gas assets will need to be renationalised. We must resort to a gas-and-power future, for transport as well as heating and power generation. And within 20 years, we must transition to low carbon gas. If only DECC could admit this.

  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #2

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Last week’s Energy Live News conference on 5th November 2015 was an opportunity to hear Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) speak without notes, and she did a fine job of it. She must really believe what she said, or have been well-conditioned to rehearse what I considered to be a mix of practical reality and nonsense. The nonsense ? Well, for one thing, it appears that the UK Government still adheres to the crazy notion that nuclear power can rescue the country from blackouts.

    After commenting on the previous day’s events in connection with the power grid, Andrea Leadom went on to discuss electricity transmission and demand side reduction measures. “Our policy mix is diversity.”, she said, “There is also the issue of transmission networks.” She didn’t say the word “electricity” before the word “transmission”, but that’s what she meant. She is clearly infected with the “energy is electricity” virus – a disease that makes most civil servants and government officials believe that the only energy worth talking about is electricity. Whereas, primary electricity providing energy for the UK amounts to less than 9% of the total. Compare this to the contribution of petroleum oil to the UK economy – at over 36% of primary input energy, and Natural Gas at 33%, and coal at just over 15.5%.

    Andrea Leadsom admitted that – as regards electricity transmission networks went – “it was built for two generations ago, when you had a few [centralised] generators. Today, this has massively changed and [the grid] needs to continue to change, to enable local[ised] electricity generation. The other bit that’s vital is to look at our demand side. We’re not going to solve the energy problem by generating more power. Measures that the Government put in place very early to meet needs – demand reduction as well as energy efficiency…” I don’t know which government she was talking about, because the current Conservative Government have promised to support large industrial users of electricity with generous special assistance and the current organogram of DECC doesn’t even mention efficiency. The previous Coalition Government axed very successful home insulation schemes, and adopted the badly-formulated Green Deal, probably the worst policy for energy efficiency. Perhaps the Minister is referring to the efficiency of energy in use, rather than the reduction of energy use by efficiency ? There, I’d have to say that the government has done little to impact energy efficiency, as most of the initiatives that have been taken have been industry-led – commercial companies taking on projects like converting all their lighting. It is true however, that some public sector organisations have pursued energy efficiency, as, for example, the Government departments themselves have to show they are acting on energy use.

    Andrea Leadsom continued, “The potential for domestic battery systems, and smart [meters], where it will be changes for you [the consumer]. We want technologies to be able to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible. Development policy needs to make sure that renewable energies succeed but at the lowest cost to consumers.” And here’s where the quadrilemma comes into focus : you need to spend capital, in other words, invest, in order to deploy new technologies. You can’t expect anything new to take off without support – whether that support comes from government subsidies or private or sovereign wealth funds or large independent investor funds. People talk about choice : if people want green energy, then green energy will be supplied. Most end users of energy say they want renewable energy, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the choice has been makde, and that renewable energy technologies will roll out without any market intervention. The problem is that if you keep thinking that the “consumer” in the new energies market is the end user of power, heat and fuel, you’re missing the investment point. The “consumers” of new energies in the economy are the energy distributors. And they won’t buy new technologies with their own capital if they can avoid it. The reason is they need to keep their bargain with their shareholders and provide the highest returns in the form of dividends as possible. Capital investment is set at a low priority. And with any capital invested, there is the downside that, for a while at least, that capital is locked up in development of new energy plant, so almost inevitably, energy prices for consumers will rise to compensate the shareholders. You don’t get something for nothing. The enabler of last resort in energy has been assumed to be the government – who have offered a range of subsidies for renewable energy technologies. This has essentially been a bailout of the energy companies, but it seems clear that, apart from the new nuclear power programme, subsidies are now to be terminated. What, one might be tempted to ask, will precipitate new renewable energy investment, now that the subsidy programme for green power is being abandoned (and the potential for a green gas programme has been contracted) ?

    Andrea Leadsom answered critics next, “There hasn’t been a U-turn on onshore wind [power development]. There was a level of concern regarding onshore development – we want[ed] to let local communities decide.”, although they didn’t like it when people in communities protested shale gas development, “We can’t simply say that onshore wind is the lowest cost – or put the cost onto consumers.” Leadsom clearly hasn’t understood the lack of capital investment from the privatised energy industry. Any correction to unpick that lack of investment will inevitably raise energy prices for British consumers – and Brits already pay the highest amount for electricity in Europe. She continued, “The trilemma poses huge issues, but offers huge opportunities.”

    Then it was time for questions from the floor : “[Question] : Do you get the impression that some feel let down – [by your government] cutting green energy support ? [Answer] : We’ve been completely clear about de-carbonisation at the lowest cost. In May 2015 there was the decision about the Levy Control Framework,” [the instrument that caps the total amount added to consumer bills arising from the impact of government policy in any one year – expected to be held to ransom by new nuclear power subsidies over the next decade or so], “Those policy costs must paid by consumers, and they were expected to significantly exceed the limits by 2020,” [due to new nuclear power development, rather than new renewable energy projects], “We had to act. We remain committed to de-carbonisation – but it must be at the lowest cost.”

    “[Question] : Your government was part of putting in place sweeteners to the energy industry for the purpose of incentivising investment for the last four years. The evidence is this [has worked] to stimulate investment, and they are now being withdrawn from renewable energy. Do you understand the frustration ? [Answer] : You can’t simply take the view that because industry says ‘we’re almost there’ that you need to unfairly burden the consumer. Deployment has exceeded projections…” and this is where Andrea Leadsom demonstrated that she had failed to understand. The projections of renewable energy development required to meet decarbonisation targets were partly based on projections of new nuclear power development. Assumption were made about the growth of new nuclear, within the context of the Levy Control Framework, and so the projections for renewable energies were made to be dependent on that, and consequently, the ambitions for renewable energy deployment were arbitrarily low. There was no “Path B” calculated, which would have taken into account the failure, or problems with the new nuclear power programme and given another level of projection for renewable energy.

    Andrea Leadsom continued answering, “We’ve had lots of constructive discussion with industry,” but one wonders which parts of the renewable energy industry she means, and whether that only includes the very large players – as she certainly hasn’t consulted voters or consumers, “looking at other ways rather than throwing money at it [renewable energy]. [Question] : At the start your government colleagues said ‘there will be no subsidies for nuclear’. Now, clearly, there are [loan guarantee payments, Contracts for Difference and so on]. [Answer] : No, there’s been no U-turn on that. Hinkley Point C is a private investment, being funded by partners,” [ignoring the financial ill-health of EdF and Areva], “There will be no cost to the British billpayer until it generates”, [which is not quite accurate, because if the project fails, the government will reimburse the financiers], “You don’t want project risk.” And it is here that I nearly left the room. The design of Hinkley Point C is inherently risky, from safety and construction points of view. And the permission for the project to go ahead should never have been given, as the design is unproven. For the project to never even get built, or if it does get built, never be able to generator power, is the ultimate in project risk ! We need to increase British energy security, not risk it with big new nuclear power plant projects !

    Questionners in the room continued, “[Question] : Does Her Majesty’s Treasury now control DECC ? [Answer] : No. It’s fantastic to have a Conservative-led DECC…[for policy direction] I would say demand-led subsidies without cost to the consumer.” Well ? Wouldn’t a “demand-led subsidy without cost to the consumer” amount to a return to the original Renewables Obligation ? Where electricity suppliers had to guarantee that a certain proportion of their supply was green power, and provide the certificates to prove it ? And there was no subsidy support to get this done ?

    “[Questionner hammering the point] : Are you [in DECC] saying this is what we want, and George [Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury] says no ? [Answer] : All departments have to take cuts in public spending in order to get the economy back on track. We’re working constructively with the Treasury. [As far as past policies go it was a case of] if you throw money at it it will solve it – [but this is] not necessarily [so].” One of the reasons that subsidies for energy companies is a failed policy is because the situation has become one where the energy companies compete not to spend capital by blackmailing the government for subsidies. Nothing changes without subsidy, because the government has not stood firm and ordered mandated regulatory compliance with decarbonisation. In addition, it would need an agreement throughout the European Union to get change on this front – because energy companies would refuse to invest in the UK if the UK stop handing out subsidy candy for renewables.

    “[Question from LSE] : Our students are considering careers in renewable energy. [Your government is] handing out £26 billion of fossil fuel subsidies. How will government develop at transition to renewables ? [Answer] : I disagree with you that the renewable energy section of the energy industry is cutting back. There is a massive pipeline of projects including offshore projects [in wind power”, [but smaller scale community and onshore projects have been rejected, which amounts to big energy companies winning all the rights to develop renewables], “What I would really like to see is [the development of] people moving between sectors. [The oil and gas industry has majored in] Aberdeen, [where there is also a] burgeoning offshore wind sector [so people could retrain].”

    Then, Andrea Leadsom took a question about the costs of nuclear power, “[Question] : Hinkley Point C – when it finally operates – will be getting £92.50 per MWh [indexed with inflation]. Is this too much ? [Answer] : No. [Nuclear power is] absolutely reliable”, [not it isn’t – I’d recommend a look at performance of the current fleet of nuclear power plants in the UK], “It’s vital to the economy to have reliable sources of baseload power. It’s cheaper than offshore wind. Nuclear is absolutely key to it. France and our old fleets are now producing very, very cheap electricity…” Andrea Leadsom was clearly in a state of spiritual trance, because these are highly contestable factoids. The French government has just had to bail out their nuclear electricity industry, and their policy has turned away from nuclear for future power needs. Andrea Leadsom obviously doesn’t include the costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants and the disposal of the last 60 years of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive waste nuclear fuel when she talks about the costs of nuclear power. This is a public subsidy that will need to be continued, because nobody else will handle this as there is no profit to be made from it. Well, some companies have tried to make a profit from nuclear waste and waste nuclear fuel in the UK, but it has always ended badly. We cannot just leave radioactive waste on the beach to burn away. We need to actively manage it. And that costs money that isn’t even an investment.

  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #1

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The energy “trilemma” is the dilemma of three dimensions : how to decarbonise the energy system, whilst continuing to provide affordable energy to consumers, at a high security of supply. The unspoken fourth dimension is that of investment : just who is going to invest in British energy, particularly if green energy booster subsidies and regulatory measures are binned ? The UK Government have in the past few years believed that they need to support new investment in new technologies, but it looks likely that this drive is about to lose all its incentives.

    Today, Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, faces an inquiry into Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) accounts and budgetary spending, and some say this could be a prelude for the closure or severe contraction of the whole department. If all Climate Change measures were put into abeyance, or passed over to the new Infrastructure Commission, the only remaining function of DECC could be nuclear power plant and nuclear waste decommissioning. It might have to change its name, even.

    At last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), headed up the morning, with a bit of a lead in from ELN Editor Sumit Bose. He said that continuing challenges arose from the optimisation of balancing reserves and demand side management in electricity generation. He said that policy had perhaps swung away from the projection of 100% electrification of British energy, as this would require at least 15% more committed capital expenditure – although there would be savings to be had in operational expenditure. He also said that there is an ongoing budgetary conflict going on in government departments about the public money available to spend on investment in infrastructure (including that for energy). Obviously, the announcement of the Infrastructure Commission is going to help in a number of areas – including reaching for full electrification of the railways – a vital project. Then he introduced the Minister.

    Andrea Leadsom said, “This government is determined to resolve the energy trilemma, decarbonising at the lowest cost to the consumer whilst keeping the lights on. In the past we did tend to have crazes on different technologies….”. At this point I wondered if she included nuclear power in that set of crazes, but her later remarks confirmed she is still entrenched in that fad.

    Leadsom said, “There’s been a big move to renewable energy technologies, and quite rightly too. We need a wide diversity of electricity sources. We need to try and improve the new nuclear programme…”, at which point I thought to myself, “Good luck with that !”. She said, “Renewable energy has trebled. We need [to fund] that transition from unabated coal, [turn on to] gas and renewables. [But] as we saw yesterday – there is an intermittency of renewables.”

    Andrea Leadsom was referring to the previous day, when National Grid has issued their first call for surplus top-up power generation since 2012. Owing to a confluence of weather systems over the UK, the atmosphere was becalmed, and wind power output was close to zero. However, this had already been predicted to happen. The lack of wind power was not the problem.

    The problem lay in two other areas. Of the completely inflexible nuclear power plants, three generators were out of action for scheduled maintenance (Hunterston B, Reactor 3; Heysham 1, Reactor 1 and Hartlepool Reactor 1). And so when two coal-fired power plants which normally would have been operational were out of action, and one failed apparently between 12:45pm and 12:51pm (Eggborough, Fiddlers and Rugeley according to various sources) dropping approximately 640 megawatts (MW) out of the system (according to BM Reports data), National Grid had to resort to elements of their balancing “toolkit” that they would not normally use.

    The operators generating for the National Grid were able to ramp up Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT), and various large electricity users with special arrangements with National Grid were stopped using power. By around 18:00 6pm the emergency was over, with peak demand for the evening levelling off at around 48 gigawatts (GW).

    Although National Grid handled the problem well, there was a serious risk of blackouts, but again, not because of wind power.

    If during the period of supply stress, one of the nuclear power plants had suddered an outage, that would have created the “nightmare scenario”, according to Peter Atherton, from Jefferies, quoted in The Guardian newspaper. The reason for this is that the nuclear power plants are large generators, or “baseload” generators. They have suffered from problems of unreliability over the recent years, and whenever they shutdown, either in a planned or an unplanned manner, they cause the power grid a massive headache. The amount of power lost is large, and there’s sometimes no guarantee of when the nuclear generation can be restored. In addition, it takes several hours to ramp up replacement gas-fired power plants to compensate for the power lost from nuclear.

    Yes, Andrea Leadsom, more renewable energy is essential to meet decarbonisation goals. Yes, Andrea Leadsom, renewable energy technologies have an inherent intermittency or variability in their output. No, Andrea Leadsom, National Grid’s problems with power generation during the winter months is not caused by wind power on the system – wind power is providing some of the cheapest resources of electricity. No, Andrea Leadsom, insecurity in Britain’s power supply is being caused by ageing nuclear and coal power plants, and the only way to fix that is to create incentives to develop a plethora of differently-scaled generation facilities, including many more decentralised renewable energy utilities, flexible top-up backup gas-fired power plants, including Combined Heat and Power town-scale plants, and Renewable Gas production and storage facilities.

  • The Great Policy Reset

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Everything in the UK world of energy hit a kind of slow-moving nightmare when the Department of Energy and Climate Change stopped replying to emails a few months ago, claiming they were officially ordered to focus on the “Spending Review” – as known as “The Cuts” – as ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

    We now know that this purdah will be terminated on 25th November 2015, when various public announcements will be made, and whatever surprises are in store, one thing is now for certain : all grapevines have been repeating this one word regarding British energy policy : “reset”.

    Some are calling it a “soft reset”. Some are predicting the demise of the entire Electricity Market Reform, and all its instruments – which would include the Capacity Auction and the Contracts for Difference – which would almost inevitably throw the new nuclear power ambition into a deep dark forgettery hole.

    A report back from a whispering colleague regarding the Energy Utilities Forum at the House of Lords on 4th November 2015 included these items of interest :-

    “…the cost of battery power has dropped to 10% of its value of a few years ago. National Grid has a tender out for micro-second response back up products – everyone assumes this is aimed at batteries but they are agnostic … There will be what is called a “soft reset” in the energy markets announced by the government in the next few weeks – no one knows what this means but obviously yet more tinkering with regulations … On the basis that diesel fuel to Afghanistan is the most expensive in the world (true), it has to be flown in, it has been seriously proposed to fly in Small Modular Nuclear reactors to generate power. What planet are these people living on I wonder ? … A lot more inter connectors are being planned to UK from Germany, Belgium Holland and Norway I think taking it up to 12 GWe … ”

    Alistair Phillips-Davies, the CEO of SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy), took part in a panel discussion at Energy Live News on 5th November 2015, in which he said that he was expecing a “reset” on the Electricity Market Reform (EMR), and that the UK Government were apparently focussing on consumers and robust carbon pricing. One view expressed was that the EMR could be moved away from market mechanisms. In other discussions, it was mentioned that the EMR Capacity Market Auction had focussed too much on energy supply, and that the second round would see a wider range of participants – including those offering demand side solutions.

    Energy efficiency, and electricity demand profile flattening, were still vital to get progress on, as the power grid is going to be more efficient if it can operate within a narrower band of demand – say 30 to 40 GW daily, rather than the currently daily swing of 20 to 50 GW. There was talk of offering changing flexible, personal tariffs to smooth out the 5pm 17:00 power demand peak, as price signalling is likely to be the only way to make this happen, and comments were made about how many computer geeks would be needed to analyse all the power consumption data.

    The question was asked whether the smart meter rollout could have the same demand smoothing effect as the Economy 7 tariff had in the past.

    The view was expressed that the capacity market had not provided enough by way of long-term price signals – particularly for investment in low carbon energy. One question raised during the day was whether it wouldn’t be better just to set a Europe-wide price on carbon and then let markets and the energy industry decide what to put in place ?

    So, in what ways could the British Government “reset” the Electricity Market Reform instruments in order to get improved results – better for pocket, planet and energy provision ? This is what I think :-

    1. Keep the Capacity Mechanism for gas

    The Capacity Mechanism was originally designed to keep efficient gas-fired power plants (combined cycle gas turbine, or CCGT) from closing, and to make sure that new ones were built. In the current power generation portfolio, more renewable energy, and the drive to push coal-fired power plants to their limits before they need to be closed, has meant that gas-fired generation has been sidelined, kept for infrequent use. This has damaged the economics of CCGT, both to build and to operate. This phenomenon has been seen all across Europe, and the Capacity Market was supposed to fix this. However, the auction was opened to all current power generators as well as investors in new plant, so inevitably some of the cash that was meant for gas has been snaffled up by coal and nuclear.

    2. Deflate strike prices after maximum lead time to generation

    No Contracts for Difference should be agreed without specifying a maximum lead time to initial generation. There is no good reason why nuclear power plants, for example, that are anticipated to take longer than 5 years to build and start generating should be promised fixed power prices – indexed to inflation. If they take longer than that to build, the power prices should be degressed for every year they are late, which should provide an incentive to complete the projects on time. These projects with their long lead times and uncertain completion dates are hogging all the potential funds for investment, and this is leading to inflexibility in planning.

    3. Offer Negative Contracts for Difference

    To try to re-establish a proper buildings insulation programme of works, projects should be offered an incentive in the form of contracts-for-energy-savings – in other words, aggregated heat savings from any insulation project should be offered an investment reward related to the size of the savings. This will not be rewarding energy production, but energy use reduction. Any tempering of gas demand will improve the UK’s balance of payments and lead to a healthier economy.

    4. Abandon all ambition for carbon pricing

    Trends in energy prices are likely to hold surprises for some decades to come. To attempt to set a price on carbon, as an aid to incentivising low carbon energy investment is likely to fail to set an appropriate investment differential in this environment of general energy pricing volatility. That is : the carbon price would be a market signal lost in a sea of other effects. Added to which, carbon costs are likely to be passed on to energy consumers before they would affect the investment decisions of energy companies.

  • Averil Macdonald : Shale Scold

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    “So, Professor Macdonald”, I hazarded, as the good woman, sporting an alarmingly bright red frock, was fiddling with her bags on her way out of the Energy Live 2015 conference event on 5th November 2015 in the arty Barbican, “I understand that some remarks that you made about women and shale gas have been misrepresented.”

    Averil Macdonald politely stopped what she was doing and engaged with me about this issue, which had thrust her abruptly into the limelight, accused of being sexist. She said that she had been misquoted, and her real meaning twisted by the absence of five words from what she’d actually said. I asked her where I could check what she had actually said, and she pointed me at a Guardian newspaper piece, which I think is this one.

    I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as I had sat in her earlier stage presentation urging women and girls into STEM careers, amongst other things, and she’d been quite upbeat about energy transition. She said it was going to be a long road to an ultra-low carbon system, and require lots of investment. Although she spoiled this by adding that the investment would need to be in extraction – for fossil fuels, obviously – as well as infrastructure. Her assumption that continued fossil fuel mining is essential, particularly in light of the need to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions, was, I felt, quite alarming.

    Anyway, back to the evening one-to-one chat. I asked her a little more about how she viewed shale gas exploration, because I said I couldn’t see a good reason for it – especially as industrially manufactured low carbon gas held out more potential. Her argument was a little more detailed than she had made from the platform earlier. She said that “this country” can’t afford new energy investment. I didn’t stop her right there, but I should have. I should have countered with asking about the eye-watering sums of foreign sovereign wealth, taxpayers’ money, billpayers’ money and tax breaks being thrown at supporting new and existing fossil fuel production in the North Sea, and loan guarantees and other subsidies for new nuclear power, besides the huge public budgets for cleaning up decades of nuclear power plant waste and spent nuclear fuel. And then I should have challenged her about privatisation in the energy industry, which has led to companies being hamstrung by their need to provide higher returns to shareholders at the expense of capital investment, a situation that has only been turned around by government promises of public money and guaranteed high power prices to justify boardroom spending on new and renovated assets. The money to invest is there, I should have countered. It’s in the system. It’s just being frittered away on dividends, Contracts for Difference, capacity auctions, and insane projects like new nuclear power. And anyway, if banks are confident of technologies, they can always create debt to finance projects.

    Anyway, back to Averil’s take on things. She said that indigenous UK energy resources should be exploited in order to finance the low carbon transition. Again, I should have interjected and prevented her from continuing. When does Her Majesty’s Treasury actually hypothecate revenue, I should have asked her. How would tax take from shale gas production ever be converted into money for renewable energy or building insulation ? She should look at the example of fuel duty, or several other allegedly “green” taxes and see for herself where the pennies have accumulated into budgetary expenditure pounds. Not in Feed-in Tariffs, that’s for sure. I tried to question the potential volumes of shale gas production, and how it would only contribute small revenue streams for the Treasury. I tried to ask her about other indigenous British energy resources, such as the wind and sunshine, and how they are free, compared to the costs of digging up shale gas, but she breezed on.

    She said that there was a lot of capital being attracted to the exploitation of shale gas in the UK. She implied that private capital was heavily invested. I should have asked her in-depth questions about this. Intelligent oil and gas companies have steered well clear of the UK Shale Gas project. Large companies like Shell and Total are promising their shareholders that dividends will remain healthy, despite the downturn in the oil commodity price which impacts their profits. Shell won’t be involved in British shale gas, even though Total will, apparently, but evidence suggests that any failure in exploration will mean that Total pulls right out again. So far, UK shale gas experience has been empty holes, and companies withdrawing. What kind of companies apart from those in the existing energy sector would have enough confidence of their knowledge about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, sufficient to invest on the kind of scale required ? I said that the real investment money for energy in future wasn’t going to come from the government, or from speculators, but from large investment funds. She said that capital was already committed to shale gas. I should have asked more, because I can’t imagine that the very cautious major investors would risk their reputations and credit ratings on shale gas.

    I said that I doubted there would be much in terms of shale gas production for the first 20 years. I also said that there are some very good reasons to oppose the development of a shale gas industry in the UK. I said the only reason that the general voting democratic public permit the ongoing extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea is because the ocean disperses most spills. If this drilling were to come onshore, people would see the environmental pollution that fossil fuel production always entails. Averil Macdonald insisted that the UK has one of the best industrial regulatory regimes, and that shale gas production can be done safely and securely. I said that I had been looking at some of the research on gas and oil well integrity, and spills, and about long term monitoring. I should have challenged her by asking her whether she realised that without decades of close monitoring and potentially emergency intervention, shale gas wells could constitute a major environmental risk for a very long time to come.

    I should have reminded her of the basic problems with UK shale gas development proposals : that in comparison to the United States, where the federal government sold off massive blocks of open public land for shale development, the UK is densely populated, and that vital environmental resources are packed close together. I should have reminded her that the best estimates are that the potential shale gas resource in the whole of Europe is only ten times or less what it is in northern America. I should have said that the statistical rates of compromised oil and gas wells mean that surface pollution from shale production is inevitable. I should have reminded her that although what’s happening in Gasland USA could be considered “scare stories”, as she clearly thinks, these are real events, and real lives being affected. Whatever she might think about the poor standards in the oil and gas industry in the USA, they too have a regulatory regime for the energy sector, and yet environmental and social abuses are rife. Perhaps it is simply the nature of shale gas and shale oil development that causes problems, regardless of legislation and industry monitoring ? I should have reminded her that the geology of UK shale sediments are different to those in northern America; that it took well over 40 years to develop shale extraction there, and that there are real problems resulting from new underground extraction technologies, including seismic events, water, soil and air pollution and land collapse.

    I should have stated the obvious about women in particular, who she accused of taking a position against shale gas without knowing the facts, without understanding the science. First of all, shale gas exploitation is not science : it’s an engineering technology, and technologies fail, and women know this. And secondly, oil and gas production is dirty, and women know this, too. Women get sick and tired of men treading all over the clean kitchen floor in their muddy boots, leaving toxic damp towels on the bed, and not wiping up spills. Women know that onshore oil and gas production will be another bunch of big, strong boys, muscling into your house, promising to do a good job and then behaving like dodgy builders, regardless of the regulations in the construction industry. We don’t want these profiteers tearing up our beautiful countryside to dig leaky, unhealthy holes, and bomb the underside of the Earth just to make a few homes warmer.

    Oh, Averil Macdonald knows how to peddle political tales – she posed the usual narrative that it’s fine buying Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, but all the Qataris do with the money is buy Ferraris. I said I’d heard that story before, and I said I found it irrelevant. I should have challenged her about the serious prospects of LNG expansion in Australia and south east Asia. After the Middle East gas is finished, there are more places to get gas from, for at least another 30 years, without blowing up the subsoil for shale gas.

    Professor Macdonald, chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, tried to sell me the idea that communities who would be prepared to accept the wonderfully small profile shale gas wells would receive generous funds. I suppose she was suggesting that these bribes could then pay for solar and wind power development. But I didn’t get to ask this, as our conversation was terminated by our being shushed by an irritated young privileged white male who wanted to hear the Ed Davey Unplugged interview without interruption, who began impolitely with an angry “excuse me”. Being women, naturally, Professor Averil Macdonald and I both immediately apologised as our gender are culturally trained to do, and continued arguing for only a minute more sotto voce before giving up in the face of amplified male competition. Ed Davey was most entertaining, after all. It almost made up for being scolded about my resistance to and scorn for shale gas development.

  • Ed Davey : Lounge Lizard

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Nothing can really top an Energy Live News day of energy debates rounded off by a beer and the spectacle of a respectable ex-Energy Minister lounging in playboy fashion on a bar stool nursing a glass of red wine (or two) and being nigh on scathing about UK energy policy – or the total lack thereof.

    As I recall it, but I didn’t take notes or a voice recording, Ed Davey, now an energy consultant as “Energy Destinations”, had the temerity to call out the current UK Government as “liars” about the Levy Control Framework being overspent, and quoted others as saying that the current Tory energy strategy is “stupid” and “barmy”.

    He said, as I remember it, that the Tories have never offered viable alternatives to things that are failing, and that he personally wouldn’t bet his house on the claims of large volumes of shale gas production. I believe he said that the Tories pushing through shale gas development was bound to create strong resistance – although he didn’t stoop so low as to suggest that the main resistance to shale gas was coming from… Tory ruralshire voters.

    Conservative voters in every town and village seem to be the key deniers of climate change science, and appear to me to be generally against any form of energy investment – wind, solar and shale, and any new cables and pipes. Deranged or rabid that may seem, at first glance. And possibly the second glance, too. But there you are. A Party can’t choose the sanity of its voters. Although if I were in the Tory Government, I’d be highly embarrassed by some of these people. There are plenty of “ouch” moments to deal with – such as the entire cancellation of a perfectly viable wind power project offshore in southern England, just because of the contributors to the Letters Page in the Bournemouth Echo newspaper and the local yachtsmen. The whole fate of human civilisation could rest in the hands of uneducated yokels dismissing renewable energy because they listened to James Delingpole’s gut instinct about the reliability of global warming science. But I digress.

    It is the height of Conservative Government cowardice and illogic to permit local groups to fight political battles against new energy investment, instead of making the strategic case for new energy, particularly renewables. Also, it is ridiculous to use subsidy or “golden egg” community bribes to roll out infrastructure development. Sorry. They’re not “bribes”. Not even if money is being handed out by the shedload to communities volunteering to host industrially landscape-disfiguring and toxic shale gas developments or nuclear waste disposal facilities that need monitoring for decades or even centuries to guarantee their environmental security.

    Ed Davey wanted to remind his audience that he had been the longest serving Energy Minister since 1997 (did I get that right ?) – which is about right, as many others have been pushed out of office on one pretext or another – faux scandal after faux scandal. Nobody would want that job.

    Ed Davey said that trade with other countries was the way to build global security and address things such as human rights issues, so he has no problem in energy trade and investment with China – and that he has his own project there.

    After the “Ed Davey, Unplugged” interview with Energy Live News, I hung about earwigging to Ed talk to his encircling fandom. I think the first question he got was about thorium nuclear power, small modular reactors or nuclear fusion or something, because he was talking about how advanced designs could not be said to be feasible, even though people claim they are feasible.

    He made the very good point that a lot of things in energy are uncertain, and that in the energy sector, if anybody claims that something is absolutely certain, they’re lying. I tried to get across the general conclusion of my research into low carbon gas – that there are much better, and more certain, prospects of industrially manufactured low carbon gas than anything that shale gas could ever deliver. He admitted that the range of projections for shale gas production are very wide. I said that many players were working on green gas projects, including the National Grid. He said that National Grid had a vested interest. I agreed.

    Because everybody has a vested interest in their own pet favourite energy. There are a number of people in the Conservative Party, for example, who stand to gain significantly from investment in shale gas development. If confidence can be raised in the technology, then investment can be gathered, and distributed, even if there is no commodity of any size to draw on. Shale gas development sounds to me like the plot of The Producers – the aim is to raise a lot of investment capital for a flop, and scarper with the proceeds. A little like the loan guarantee offered for the Hinkley Point C financiers. Another fine British energy subsidy. But again, I digress.

    Ed Davey said that a leftwing Labour Party bothered him, and that they had been bandying about a wild high figure for green gas production potential. I said it all depends on energy efficiency measures, and also, that the original research had been done by National Grid and other researchers. Half of residential gas demand being supplied by green gas is not unimaginable or unfeasible if you consider this as an industrial proposition, and not just farm-based tank digestion for biogas and biomethane.

    Ed Davey said that he wanted to see shale gas developed, as he didn’t really trust Vladimir Putin. He was keen to point out that the UK Government should work with uncertainty, and build a framework for energy policy that can cope with uncertainty. I tried to make the point that it would take at least 20 years before shale gas production could produce significant volumes, if it could at all. We don’t have time for this highly uncertain strategy. I also tried to say that nobody knows if the EPR nuclear reactor design destined to be built at Hinkley Point C actually works. That’s quite an uncertainty to base core energy policy on, if you ask me.

    Since the potential resources of shale gas in the whole of Europe are ten times smaller, or less, than in North America, why would shale gas be expected to be productive in the UK ? The deal that BP has just done with China to develop shale gas in its desertified hinterland is probably a useful project compared to the idiocy of trying to develop shale gas in Britain. The BP-China deal, by the way, was signed in under cover of the news of the Chinese investment in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, but I think the BP-China-shale-gas story is far more important. I think Hinkley Point C is a project that stands a chance of falling flat on its face – either because the EPR doesn’t work – something the Chinese should soon be able to tell us because they’re building a pair in Taishan – or because it cannot get built in a useful timeframe.

    Ed Davey’s position, as a Liberal, of course, is that he wants to let all the possible energy technologies come on, and see which succeed. He gave no recognition of the support needed to bring on some new or currently niche technologies. Or the subsidies still being received by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industry.

    Ed’s view is that David Cameron will not want to break up or disband the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but that when George Osborne becomes Leader of the Conservative Party, and becomes Prime Minister in the next General Election, he will definitely want to get rid of DECC. Ed Davey didn’t mention that over half of DECC’s budget is committed to nuclear decommissioning, and that this will still need to get paid for, even if DECC dies a departmental death.

    Although Ed Davey admitted that the strike price for power arising from the Contract for Difference agreed for the Hinkley Point C was high, he said that this was to pay for the eventual decommissioning of the plant and the disposal of the fuel waste. However, he didn’t seem to realise that this is likely to be under-costed, as the final disposal of nuclear waste and nuclear fuel will still paid for by the British taxpayer, as it will be sold back from the private energy companies when the Geological Disposal Facility will be built. So, in addition to the 60 years or more of radioactive waste and radioactive spent nuclear fuel that the British people have yet to pay to dispose of, we will be lumped with paying the spiralling costs of disposing of all the waste from the new nuclear projects as well. No lessons learned there, then.

  • Clueless in Whitehall

    Posted on November 5th, 2015 Jo No comments

    On 3rd November 2015, I had the disconcerting experience of wandering up and down Whitehall in London looking vainly for a venue : the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) and Energy Networks Association (ENA) event entitled “Gas – Delivering for Customers and Supporting the Low Carbon Economy“.

    The central street of government officialdom has become almost unrecognisable in parts, owing to a fad for boarding up offices under renovation in boxed section – London’s joinery community must be waxing rich. I wondered inconclusively if this trend was spurred by attention to security questions ahead of the round-Cenotaph open-air wreath-laying coming up on 11th November.

    I very politely asked several security guards in high visibility jerkins and a policeman outside Downing Street with an outrageously full hipster beard where I could find Number 61, and nobody seemed to know where it was.

    I even went into the front door of Number 74 Parliament Street to check I wasn’t looking in the wrong place. The reception guard said that I wasn’t the first person who’d come asking.

    I dropped in at the Cabinet Office, and asked if perhaps the invitation meant Whitehall Place instead of Whitehall. I even phoned the mobile phone number and desk number of the event organiser – who didn’t pick up. Obviously. Because he was hard at work at the venue itself already.

    Eventually, I encountered a face I recognised striding along Whitehall, or at least I thought I recognised : Nick Molho, now working with the Aldersgate Group, and I asked him if he was also going to the PRASEG/ENA meeting. He was not.

    And then I found Dr Alan Whitehead MP also wandering down the street, similarly lost. He too had stopped Nick Molho to ask about Number 61. Clueless in Whitehall.

    Comrades in lostness, together we walked into the scaffolded, but not boxed-in, Banqueting House, and helpfully, a woman on the welcome team knew that Number 61 was next door. Of course, Number 61 is the home of RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. And of course, we’d both been there before. Maybe I ought to carry around a proper smartphone for situations such as these.

    Once successfully in the round room with the tasteful purple velvet curtain backdrop, I found a contact from the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who was also sporting very large amounts of sprouty chin hair. The beard’s coming on well, I commented. Yes, I grew it all myself, he answered proudly. So, I asked, could I ask you anything about the Spending Review ? Well, he said, you could ask me, but I can’t guarantee if I can answer you, and if I do answer you, I might not be able to give the full answer. OK then, I conceded, I won’t ask.

    The 25th November, he said, is when the announcements will be made.

    My view is though that this particular person will get to keep his job. If he were about to leave the government, he would have shaved his beard off by now. Presentableness for interviews, you see. A clean chin denotes a clean mind, or at least, a refreshed one, looking more youthful, and ready for something new. A kind of face “reset”.

    There were a number of very interesting presentations at the PRASEG/ENA do, but the ones that really stood out for me were a presentation on Renewable Gas from National Grid and the one from CNG Services about compressed Natural Gas being used to fuel Heavy Goods Vehicles.

    I spoke to the speaker from National Grid after their presentation. I told them I had called my book on low carbon gas system options “Renewable Gas”, as I had been impressed by the National Grid publication of the same name that I read back in 2009.

    I said it was a shame that the UK Capacity Mechanism had not worked as it should have done to support new investment in high performance combined cycle gas turbine power generation plant (CCGTs), which are an ideal way of increasing flexibility in balancing the UK power supply to demand, especially as more intermittent/variable renewable power becomes available.

    CCGTs have faced issues of economic viability because they are not always in use, and this would only be exacerbated by increasing levels of wind and solar power feeding the grid.

    I said it seemed obvious to me that it would be more economically efficient if CCGTs were extended to become fully integrated gas production and recycling systems. I said this meant capturing carbon dioxide and re-processing it into new methane-rich gas fuel, methanating with Renewable Hydrogen produced from biomass and steam, or renewable electricity when available, and storing the methane-rich fuel for use when renewable electricity was not available.

    I congratulated the speaker on having the word “Methanation” on one of their slides.

    They intimated that in a very short timeframe they expected their first BioSNG (biomass-derived substitute Natural Gas) project to be announced – gasifying black bag waste in Swindon, and making methane-rich gas for grid injection.

    I said I would be interested in visiting the site, and was invited to email in a request to be included on the notification list.

    The presentation from CNG Services showed us the new Scania gas truck – fuelled entirely by compressed natural gas – and the location of the filling station – on the high pressure gas transmission line. What will be happening is that John Lewis – will be anaerobically digesting all their food waste, and converting the biogas to biomethane, and injecting it into the gas grid, receiving Green Gas Certificates. They will then run a fleet of Scania gas trucks, and fill up at CNG Services, and will be able to claim that their entire transport fleet will be running on Renewable Gas.

    To me, it was notable that there was not much discussion of shale gas throughout much of the event, despite this being one of the key planks of the Conservative Government energy narrative of late, regardless of how vain and meaningless it is. The PRASEG/ENA event showed that they may be clueless in Whitehall, but there are some parliamentarians and their friends in the gas industry who recognise the huge opportunities for manufactured low carbon gas.

  • What To Do Next

    Posted on October 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Status-checking questions. I’m sure we all have them. I certainly do. Several times a week, or even day, I ask myself two little questions of portent : “What am I doing ?” and “Why am I here ?”. I ask myself these questions usually because my mind’s wandered off again, just out of reach, and I need to call myself to attention, and focus. I ask these little questions of myself when I do that thing we all do – I’ve set off with great purpose into another room, and then completely forgotten why I went there, or what I came to find or get. I also use these forms of enquiry when I’m at The Crossroads of Purpose – to determine what exactly it is I’m deciding to aim for. What are my goals this day, week, month, age ? Can I espy my aims, somewhere on the horizon ? Can I paddle labouriously towards them – against the tide – dodge/defeat the sharks ? Can I muster the will to carry this out – “longhauling it” ?

    I’ve spent a long time writing a book, which I’m sure to bore everybody about for the next aeon. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate debate about what I consider to be the best direction for balanced energy systems – a combination of renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. I wanted to foster debate amongst the academics and engineers who may be my peers, certainly, hopefully providing a little seed for further research. Hopefully also having a small influence on energy policy, perhaps, or at least, getting myself and my ideas asked to various policy meetings for a little airing. But, if I could in some way, I also wanted to offer a bit of fizz to the internal conversations of companies in the energy sector. You see, it may be obvious, or it may not be, but action on climate change, which principally involves the reduction in the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels, principally also involves the co-operation of the fossil fuel extraction companies. Their products are nearly history, and so it must be that inside the headquarters of every transnational energy giant, corporate heads are churning through their options with a very large what-if spoon.

    Click to continue reading