Energy Change for Climate Control
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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Trouble with Electrificandum #2

    Posted on August 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    During my meeting with boffins last week, when I raised the thorny problem of how many new power generation plants the UK would need to build if all home heating and personal transport were shifted to electricity – and then how they would be left idle for most of the year – my conversational correspondent said it really wasn’t a problem – gas-fired power plants are cheap to build, and they wouldn’t be consuming gas when they’re resting. I found this position untenable – as it could well mean gross inefficiencies in the use of energy, besides locking capital up in unused and unsuable plant. The person asked whether I was after optimising cost or efficiency in energy systems, and my reply was “both”.

    After putting together a basic power consumption profile, I realised I needed to build a basic heat model as well, in order to test various simple options of how to meet demand. This proved even harder than the electricity model, as I couldn’t find representative heat demand data of any quality – or at least, I haven’t found any yet. I had to invent a seasonal/weekly half-hourly heat demand profile in order to be able to compare gas demand data to electricity demand data. I must admit, it was extremely basic. I then calculated half-hourly non-industrial heating demand and half-hourly industrial gas demand for 2014. The industrial gas demand would partly be used for generating electricity, as can be seen in the rise and fall in demand maxima when charted alongside power consumption – however this chart is poor, as it slips into the negative, showing that I don’t have any data for half-hourly gross gas demand in the UK, and I’m just using a daily figure divided equally into 48 segments, which is clearly not good enough.

    I need to improve this model and then test various options for supplying heat demand.

    Some examples of efficiency issues :-

    1. Converting primary energy to energy as supplied to consumers
    Much centralised power generation in future will be gas-fired, and this is something like 60% efficient – 40% of the energy in the gas is lost as heat.

    2. Delivering supplied energy to consumers
    I don’t know good figures, but is likely that transmission losses for electricity are much higher than for gas.

    3. Gas-fired central heating compared to heat pump heating
    Heat pumps that take their input energy from supplied electricity may be on average far more efficient than gas-fired central heating, but heat pumps that rely on gas as the input energy might be a better option.

    4. Centralised gas-fired power generation compared to localised Combined Heat and Power (CHP)
    By far the most important source of potential future energy efficiency is the relocation of centralised power generation to the local area where the heat may be used for District Heating (DH). Heat demand is currently roughly an order of magnitude larger than power demand. There are many options for developing the use of CHP/DH, in combination with other heating options, such as heat pumps, thermal stores and manufactured Renewable Gas (as an energy store). It remains to be seen if it would be more efficient to run CHP plant to cater for most of the large heat demand and supply the byproduct electricity to manufacture gas, or heat pumps for the rest of the heat; or run the CHP plant only for small local electrical power needs (where there are not many heat pumps), and use the byproduct heat for storage in thermal stores (the DH pipeline network, for example).

    The reason why efficiency is absolutely crucial is that within 30 years’ time there could well be problems with guaranteeing reliable and ample supplies of Natural Gas. If gas options for energy are generally more efficient than power options – and especially if gas will be the source of much electricity – we will need to have gas-heavy technology choices, and develop indigenous supplies of manufactured and biological Renewable Gas.


  • A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo No comments

    So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

    I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

    I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

    Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

    Click to Read More !

  • DECC Dungeons and Dragnets

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Out of the blue, I got an invitation to a meeting in Whitehall.

    I was to join industrial developers and academic researchers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a meeting of the “Green Hydrogen Standard Working Group”.

    The date was 12th June 2015. The weather was sunny and hot and merited a fine Italian lemonade, fizzing with carbon dioxide. The venue was an air-conditioned grey bunker, but it wasn’t an unfriendly dungeon, particularly as I already knew about half the people in the room.

    The subject of the get-together was Green Hydrogen, and the work of the group is to formulate a policy for a Green Hydrogen standard, navigating a number of issues, including the intersection with other policy, and drawing in a very wide range of chemical engineers in the private sector.

    My reputation for not putting up with any piffle clearly preceded me, as somebody at the meeting said he expected I would be quite critical. I said that I would not be saying anything, but that I would be listening carefully. Having said I wouldn’t speak, I must admit I laughed at all the right places in the discussion, and wrote copious notes, and participated frequently in the way of non-verbal communication, so as usual, I was very present. At the end I was asked for my opinion about the group’s work and I was politely congratulational on progress.

    So, good. I behaved myself. And I got invited back for the next meeting. But what was it all about ?

    Most of what it is necessary to communicate is that at the current time, most hydrogen production is either accidental output from the chemical industry, or made from fossil fuels – the main two being coal and Natural Gas.

    Hydrogen is used extensively in the petroleum refinery industry, but there are bold plans to bring hydrogen to transport mobility through a variety of applications, for example, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

    Clearly, the Green Hydrogen standard has to be such that it lowers the bar on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and it could turn out that the consensus converges on any technologies that have a net CO2 emissions profile lower than steam methane reforming (SMR), or the steam reforming of methane (SRM), of Natural Gas.

    [ It’s at this very moment that I need to point out the “acronym conflict” in the use of “SMR” – which is confusingly being also used for “Small Modular Reactors” of the nuclear fission kind. In the context of what I am writing here, though, it is used in the context of turning methane into syngas – a product high in hydrogen content. ]

    Some numbers about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) used in the manufacture of hydrogen were presented in the meeting, including the impact this would have on CO2 emissions, and these were very intriguing.

    I had some good and useful conversations with people before and after the meeting, and left thinking that this process is going to be very useful to engage with – a kind of dragnet pulling key players into low carbon gas production.

    Here follow my notes from the meeting. They are, of course, not to be taken verbatim. I have permission to recount aspects of the discussion, in gist, as it was an industrial liaison group, not an internal DECC meeting. However, I should not say who said what, or which companies or organisations they are working with or for.

    Click to Read More !

  • Nuclear Power Is Not An Energy Policy

    Posted on June 23rd, 2015 Jo No comments

    The British Government do not have an energy policy. They may think they have one, and they may regularly tell us that they have one, but in reality, they don’t. There are a number of elements of regulatory work and market intervention that they are engaged with, but none of these by itself is significant enough to count as a policy for energy. Moreover, all of these elements taken together do not add up to energy security, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and affordable energy.

    What it takes to have an energy policy is a clear understanding of what is a realistic strategy for reinvestment in energy after the dry years of privatisation, and a focus on energy efficiency, and getting sufficient low carbon energy built to meet the Carbon Budget on time. Current British Government ambitions on energy are not realistic, will not attract sufficient investment, will not promote increased energy efficiency and will not achieve the right scale and speed of decarbonisation.

    I’m going to break down my critique into a series of small chunks. The first one is a quick look at the numbers and outcomes arising from the British Government’s obsessive promotion of nuclear power, a fantasy science fiction that is out of reach, not least because the industry is dog-tired and motheaten.

    Click to Read More !

  • Shell’s Public Relations Offensive #2

    Posted on June 1st, 2015 Jo No comments

    And so it has begun – Shell’s public relations offensive ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks. The substance of their “advocacy” – and for a heavyweight corporation, it’s less lobbying than badgering – is that the rest of the world should adapt. Policymakers should set a price on carbon, according to Shell. A price on carbon might make some dirty, polluting energy projects unprofitable, and there’s some value in that. A price on carbon might also stimulate a certain amount of Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, the capturing and permanent underground sequestration of carbon dioxide at large mines, industrial plant and power stations. But how much CCS could be incentivised by pricing carbon is still unclear. Egging on the rest of the world to price carbon would give Shell the room to carry on digging up carbon and burning it and then capturing it and burying it – because energy prices would inevitably rise to cover this cost. Shell continues with the line that they started in the 1990s – that they should continue to dig up carbon and burn it, or sell it to other people to burn, and that the rest of the world should continue to pay for the carbon to be captured and buried – but Shell has not answered a basic problem. As any physicist could tell you, CCS is incredibly energy-inefficient, which makes it cost-inefficient. A price on carbon wouldn’t solve that. It would be far more energy-efficient, and therefore cost-efficient, to either not dig up the carbon in the first place, or, failing that, recycle carbon dioxide into new energy. Shell have the chemical prowess to recycle carbon dioxide into Renewable Gas, but they are still not planning to do it. They are continuing to offer us the worst of all possible worlds. They are absolutely right to stick to their “core capabilities” – other corporations can ramp up renewable electricity such as wind and solar farms – but Shell does chemistry, so it is appropriate for them to manufacture Renewable Gas. They are already using most of the basic process steps in their production of synthetic crude in Canada, and their processing of coal and biomass in The Netherlands. They need to join the dots and aim for Renewable Gas. This will be far less expensive, and much more efficient, than Carbon Capture and Storage. The world does not need to shoulder the expense and effort of setting a price on carbon. Shell and its fellow fossil fuel companies need to transition out to Renewable Gas.

  • Renewable Gas : A Presentation #1

    Posted on March 2nd, 2015 Jo No comments

    Last week, on the invitation of Dr Paul Elsner at Birkbeck, University of London, I gave a brief address of my research so far into Renewable Gas to this year’s Energy and Climate Change class, and asked and answered lots of questions before demolishing the mythical expert/student hierarchy paradigm – another incarnation of the “information deficit model”, perhaps – and proposed everyone work in breakout groups on how a transition from fossil fuel gas to Renewable Gas could be done.

    A presentation of information was important before discussing strategies, as we had to cover ground from very disparate disciplines such as chemical process engineering, the petroleum industry, energy statistics, and energy technologies, to make sure everybody had a foundational framework. I tried to condense the engineering into just a few slides, following the general concept of UML – Unified Modelling Language – keeping everything really simple – especially as processing, or work flow (workflow) concepts can be hard to describe in words, so diagrams can really help get round the inevitable terminology confusions.

    But before I dropped the class right into chemical engineering, I thought a good place to start would be in numbers, and in particular the relative contributions to energy in the United Kingdom from gas and electricity. Hence the first slide.

    The first key point to notice is that most heat demand in the UK in winter is still provided by Natural Gas, whether Natural Gas in home boilers, or electricity generated using Natural Gas.

    The second is that heat demand in energy terms is much larger than power demand in the cold months, and much larger than both power and heat demand in the warm months.

    The third is that power demand when viewed on annual basis seems pretty regular (despite the finer grain view having issues with twice-daily peaks and weekday demand being much higher than weekends).

    The reflection I gave was that it would make no sense to attempt to provide all that deep winter heat demand with electricity, as the UK would need an enormous amount of extra power generation, and in addition, much of this capacity would do nothing for most of the rest of the year.

    The point I didn’t make was that nuclear power currently provides – according to official figures – less than 20% of UK electricity, however, this works out as only 7.48% of total UK primary energy demand (DUKES, 2014, Table 1.1.1, Mtoe basis). The contribution to total national primary energy demand from Natural Gas by contrast is 35.31%. The generation from nuclear power plants has been falling unevenly, and the plan to replace nuclear reactors that have reached their end of life is not going smoothly. The UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change have been pushing for new nuclear power, and project that all heating will convert to electricity, and that nuclear power will provide for much of this (75 GW by 2050). But if their plan relies on nuclear power, and nuclear power development is unreliable, it is hard to imagine that it will succeed.

  • Only Just Getting Started

    Posted on February 8th, 2015 Jo No comments

    In the last couple of years I have researched and written a book about the technologies and systems of Renewable Gas – gas energy fuels that are low in net carbon dioxide emissions. From what I have learned so far, it seems that another energy world is possible, and that the transition is already happening. The forces that are shaping this change are not just climate or environmental policy, or concerns about energy security. Renewable Gas is inevitable because of a range of geological, economic and industrial reasons.

    I didn’t train as a chemist or chemical process engineer, and I haven’t had a background in the fossil fuel energy industry, so I’ve had to look at a number of very basic areas of engineering, for example, the distillation and fractionation of crude petroleum oil, petroleum refinery, gas processing, and the thermodynamics of gas chemistry in industrial-scale reactors. Why did I need to look at the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry when I was researching Renewable Gas ? Because that’s where a lot of the change can come from. Renewable Gas is partly about biogas, but it’s also about industrial gas processes, and a lot of them are used in the petrorefinery and chemicals sectors.

    In addition, I researched energy system technologies. Whilst assessing the potential for efficiency gains in energy systems through the use of Renewable Electricity and Renewable Gas, I rekindled an interest in fuel cells. For the first time in a long time, I began to want to build something – a solid oxide fuel cell which switches mode to an electrolysis unit that produces hydrogen from water. Whether I ever get to do that is still a question, but it shows how involved I’m feeling that I want to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

    Even though I have covered a lot of ground, I feel I’m only just getting started, as there is a lot more that I need to research and document. At the same time, I feel that I don’t have enough data, and that it will be hard to get the data I need, partly because of proprietary issues, where energy and engineering companies are protective of developments, particularly as regards actual numbers. Merely being a university researcher is probably not going to be sufficient. I would probably need to be an official within a government agency, or an industry institute, in order to be permitted to reach in to more detail about the potential for Renewable Gas. But there are problems with these possible avenues.

    You see, having done the research I have conducted so far, I am even more scornful of government energy policy than I was previously, especially because of industrial tampering. In addition, I am even more scathing about the energy industry “playing both sides” on climate change. Even though there are some smart and competent people in them, the governments do not appear to be intelligent enough to see through expensive diversions in technology or unworkable proposals for economic tweaking. These non-solutions are embraced and promoted by the energy industry, and make progress difficult. No, carbon dioxide emissions taxation or pricing, or a market in carbon, are not going to make the kind of changes we need on climate change; and in addition they are going to be extremely difficult and slow to implement. No, Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is never going to become relatively affordable in any economic scenario. No, nuclear power is too cumbersome, slow and dodgy – a technical term – to ever make a genuine impact on the total of carbon emissons. No, it’s not energy users who need to reduce their consumption of energy, it’s the energy companies who need to reduce the levels of fossil fuels they utilise in the energy they sell. No, unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, are not the answer to high emissions from coal. No, biofuels added to petrofuels for vehicles won’t stem total vehicle emissions without reducing fuel consumption and limiting the number of vehicles in use.

    I think that the fossil fuel companies know these proposals cannot bring about significant change, which is precisely why they lobby for them. They used to deny climate change outright, because it spelled the end of their industry. Now they promote scepticism about the risks of climate change, whilst at the same time putting their name to things that can’t work to suppress major amounts of emissions. This is a delayer’s game.

    Because I find the UK Government energy and climate policy ridiculous on many counts, I doubt they will ever want me to lead with Renewable Gas on one of their projects. And because I think the energy industry needs to accept and admit that they need to undergo a major change, and yet they spend most of their public relations euros telling the world they don’t need to, and that other people need to make change instead, I doubt the energy industry will ever invite me to consult with them on how to make the Energy Transition.

    I suppose there is an outside chance that the major engineering firms might work with me, after all, I have been an engineer, and many of these companies are already working in the Renewable Gas field, although they’re normally “third party” players for the most part – providing engineering solutions to energy companies.

    Because I’ve had to drag myself through the equivalent of a “petro degree”, learning about the geology and chemistry of oil and gas, I can see more clearly than before that the fossil fuel industry contains within it the seeds of positive change, with its use of technologies appropriate for manufacturing low carbon “surface gas”. I have learned that Renewable Gas would be a logical progression for the oil and gas industry, and also essential to rein in their own carbon emissions from processing cheaper crude oils. If they weren’t so busy telling governments how to tamper with energy markets, pushing the blame for emissions on others, and begging for subsidies for CCS projects, they could instead be planning for a future where they get to stay in business.

    The oil and gas companies, especially the vertically integrated tranche, could become producers and retailers of low carbon gas, and take part in a programme for decentralised and efficient energy provision, and maintain their valued contribution to society. At the moment, however, they’re still stuck in the 20th Century.

    I’m a positive person, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how stuck-in-the-fossilised-mud the governments and petroindustry are. What I’m aiming to do is start the conversation on how the development of Renewable Gas could displace dirty fossil fuels, and eventually replace the cleaner-but-still-fossil Natural Gas as well.

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  • Shell Shirks Carbon Responsibility

    Posted on November 19th, 2014 Jo No comments

    I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.

    During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.

    Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.

    [Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…

    [At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]

    [Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…

    [A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]

    [Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]

    1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…

    2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…

    [An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]

    [Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…

    [The climate change impact of burning (or gasifying) petroleum coke for power generation is possibly worse than burning (or gasifying) hard coal (anthracite), especially if the pet coke is sourced from tar sands, as emissions are made in the production of the pet coke before it even gets combusted.]

    [Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…

    3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…

    [Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]

    [Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…

    …On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China responded in 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…

    […]

    [Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?

    [Stephen Tindale] Yes.

    [Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.

    [Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.

    […]

    [Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…

    [My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.

    “Germany coal power generation at 10-year low in August”, 9th September 2014

    And the only new coal-fired plants being built are those that were planned up to five years ago. No new coal-fired capacity is now being agreed.

    [Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?

    [Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.

    [Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…

    [My internal response] NO IT WOULDN’T. A LOT OF NUCLEAR CONSTRUCTION AND DECOMMISSIONING AND SPENT FUEL PROCESSING REQUIRES CARBON-BASED ENERGY.

    [Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.

    […]
    […]

    [Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?

    [Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?

    [Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.

    After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.

    [Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]

    I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.

    Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?

    [Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”

    [My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.

    However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.

    a. Downstream profit warning

    Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.

    b. Carbon disposal problem

    The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?

  • Contracts for Difference Risks

    Posted on November 10th, 2014 Jo No comments

    The UK Government’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR) is a moving feast, or “trough”, if you are of the opinion that any state subsidy is a subsidy too far. My, how people complained and complained about the Renewables Obligation (RO), perhaps one of the world’s best stimuli for pushing forward wind power development. Yes, some rich engineering firms and rich landowners got richer on the back of the RO. What do you expect ? The wealthy always leverage their capital. But at least the RO has produced some exceptional wind power generation numbers. In the period 2017 to 2018 however, the RO is set to be staged down and replaced by several elements in the EMR, most notably, the CfD or Contracts for Difference, otherwise affectionately and quite inaccurately described as the FiT CfD – Feed-in Tariff Contracts for Difference.

    The basic plan for the CfD is to guarantee to new electricity generators, or old generators building new plant, a definite price on power sold, in order to ensure they can get debt and equity invested in their projects. However, this is a huge state intervention and potentially entirely scuppers the efforts to create a market in electricity. More dangerously, although the CfD is supposed to encourage the freeing up of capital to support new energy investment, it might fail in that, at least in the short-term, and it may even fail to make capital cheaper. This is due to the new kinds of risk associated with the CfD – particularly because of the long lead time from auction to allocation, and the cap on allocations. The CfD is designed to create project failures, it seems.

    I recently attended an event hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster in London, called Energy4PowerLive 2014 and managed by GMP. The first session I attended was in the RenewablesLive 2014 stream, and featured a panel discussion between Andrew Buglass from Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Philip Bazin of Triodos and Steve Hunter, Investment Director of Low Carbon.

    What follows is not verbatim, and is based on my handwritten notes, and my handwriting is appalling, so that sometimes, even I cannot read it.

    [ Andrew Buglass, Managing Director and Head of Energy, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) : “Financing CfD projects – initial impressions from a lender” ]

    [You may have an interest in the actions of] RBS [heckle from the audience, “We own it !”]. We built our first renewable energy project in 1991 – an onshore wind turbine. Now we [have helped] finance 9 gigawatts of renewable energy. I have 15 minutes – only possible to scratch the surface of CfDs [Contracts for Difference – a subsidy under the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Electricity Market Reform (EMR))]. The EMR journey has been a very long one – four years. We have offered advice to the government – about the bankability of the policy. DECC have a different policy perspective – they are going over here [in this direction] whether or not… [Their aim was to] encourage new sources of investment debt and equity, [currently] not here in the UK. […] Matt Hancock, new [energy] minister […] £115 [billion ?] […]. Half of £100 billion needed by end of decade. The EMR framework is [intended] to bring in new sources of debt and equity – its ability to track that into the market. I’m not going to review whether the EMR will be successful. It’s a “Nought to Sixty” question [reference to how quickly it takes for cars to accelerate], how quickly is capital going to be delivered [getting up and running]. There will be a big step up in terms of work […] how are different counterparties [countersigning parties in the CfD contracts] responding ? Now is the time to deliver on the [practical economics] for those to decide whether to invest or not. Need to engage the ratings agencies – getting debt from bond markets – to convince Standard and Poor etc to convince […] The first projects are going to take a long time – cutting their teeth. Cost, availability, terms of debt. The risks that will [come into play] :

    A. OFFTAKE RISK – BASIS RISK
    [At the start of the EMR discussions] we highlighted that small generators found it hard to get PPAS [Power Purchase Agreements]. With the CfDs “lender of last resort” “offtaker of last resort” […] may support less strong balance sheets for PPAs. Great – because we need a lot more liquidity in PPAs. [However] the basis risks on the strike price compared to the reference price – if this is [changed, different] – a concern about whether they might be matching in the middle [and so conferring no benefit to having arranged the CfD]].

    B. WHOLESALE PRICE RISK
    In offshore wind – wild – the economics of generating. In onshore wind power, the wholesale price has less of a way to fall [because of many years of learning and maturing of supply chains etc].

    C. INDEX INFLATION RISK
    The CfDs are to be linked to CPI [Consumer Price Index] rather than the RPI [Retail Price Index]. This may seem like a not very important difference – but at the moment you cannot hedge against the CPI. […] we recommend RPI – linked to lock in. Can’t do that with CPI.

    D. FORCE MAJEURE RISK
    [Risk] especially during construction. The CfD does not pick up during construction – need to see [how this pans out].

    E. CHANGE IN LAW (CIL) RISK
    Twenty pages of the CIL clause – doesn’t seem to give you much protection – what is a “foreseeable change in law” ? Unless you’re a big utility you will not have been tracking [policy and legislation] for the last ten years. Big risk ? In the RO [Renewables Obligation], CIL risk was set to the offtaker. Law firms are going to really agonise [over this in the CfD].

    F. LIFETIME MANAGEMENT RISK
    Risk relating to managing CfD contract during its lifetime. There is a risk from the termination of a CfD – more than in the RO. May need to do more work to keep lender involved to manage termination risk.

    Leads to a gloomy approach – in banking paying back on time is good – anything else is bad.

    The EMR has cross-party support, but this is the most interventionist approach since the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board market). The politicians are saying “no, no, we’d never change anything” – from three parties. It would help if there were a public statement on that (I get calls about “too many turbines”). Initial projects will probably take longer to start than [under] RO. Collectively fund pragmatic solutions.

    [ Philip Bazin, Head Project Finance Team, Triodos Bank : “Financing CfD projects – initial impressions from a different bank” ]

    Triodos was established in 1980, and started in the UK in 1995 with the acquisition of Mercury […] Our portfolio in the UK is still relatively small. Over a third of the £500 million is in renewable energy. Our investment […] basis of positive social and environmental outcomes. […] Core lending of £1 to £15 million finance […] construction […] and up to 15 years [on loan repayment]. Smaller developers – best fit. The bank is almost becoming part of the supply chain in the bidding process. Give a forward fixed rate of interest. We’ve had to think about how we provide this derivative. Discussions with PPA providers. Feeling that most a lot of new players. The whole rush around CfD was quite unhelpful. We haven’t been engaging with any bidders for this round [of CfDs]. Our customers are small generators or community groups. Smaller projects are risk-averse and would [probably] use the RO instead of the CfD [for now]. These markets are going to find this new structure [offputting]. Not ideal if you’re a professional investor. [Andrew has explained the risks well] The biggest one for me is the risk of failing to achieve your LONGSTOP DATE [failure to start electricity generation by an agreed date], which would risk a termination [of the CfD subsidy agreement. This would destroy the economics of the whole project and therefore the investment]. What protections do you have as a sub-contractor ? Another point is about wayleaves. [If you can’t get your wayleaves in time…] Fundamentally, the [CfD] mechanism is bankable. [However] in trying to fix a problem it [may] have created a total mess. Don’t know if more capital will be going into projects.

    [ Steve Hunter, Investment Director, Low Carbon : “CfDs from an equity perspective” ]

    [Our business is in] Solar PV, Onshore wind, CSP in the Mediterranean area. We get there when project developer is doing land deals. We have a cradle-to-grave perspective. Land planning and grid access are major risks [and the guarantee of biomass feedstock for a biomass project]. The WHOLESALE POWER PRICE RISK – someone needs to take it. Your view depends on your equity horizon. For us, the two big changes [from the RO] are the introduction of the ALLOCATION RISK and the removal of the power price risk. Don’t know the budget for allocation. Only know one month before the [CfD] auction ! The government has not released [a budget] for “emerging technology”. Timing : doesn’t really work for solar. The idea of CfD versus RO for solar will not work. [It’s all down to the project lifecycle] – you could be waiting 14 or 15 months for a CfD allocation after making a bid, but grid connection deals are now closing in [at around 12 months – if you do not take up your grid connection permission, you will lose it]. At the moment there is no competition between technologies. Is there enough CfD set aside for offshore wind projects ? Yes. If CfDs are intended to deliver technology-neutral [energy mix] – it doesn’t yet. The REFERENCE PRICES for me are the significant risk. This is entirely new for CfDs. Because the CfD intended to bring lower cost of capital – there is an implication for return [on investment] to the investor. Government will set [the reference prices]. Government just released [for some technologies] – decreased [in a forward period]. The Government may have a very different view on forward power prices… These reference prices come out of the air [there seems to be no basis for them]. When is final not final ? When it comes from DECC. If consider 2018/2019 September, the tightest budget, you could afford 1,000 MW of offshore, [if there is a change in the reference price] you could only afford 700 MW. In the TEC Register from National Grid – download this – there is 1,000 to 1,200 MG in the pipeline onshore. If I was a wind developer with [grid] connection dates after the end of the RO, you can bet I’ve already bid [for a CfD allocation] already. The political risk of changing the RO. May be a small amount of solar – but anyway it’s too expensive. If the CfD is only to support onshore wind power – is it achieving its goals ? There will almost certainly be some modification [to the CfD or the reference prices ?]. Transparency ? Oversupply ? [Oversight ?] of setting reference prices. Increase in frequency of the CfD auction would be helpful. Would give developers more time to bid. Technologies like solar PV that could deliver large savings… If no large solar is built… They could put a minimum in [for the subsidy allocated to each technology] – more positive. CfD represents long-term support. If the industry drives down the cost of renewable energy, CfD gives us an infill fix on revenue. It will give that certainty to get debt [and equity] in. It may be the support mechanism we need in the long-term. It could be the support mechanism we need for renewable energy…

  • Christiana Figueres : Love Bug

    Posted on May 7th, 2014 Jo No comments

    It was probably a side-effect of the flu’, but as I was listening to Christiana Figueres speaking at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, this evening, I started to have tunnel vision, and the rest of the “hallowed halls” just melted away, and I felt she was speaking to me individually, woman to woman.

    She talked a lot about investments, injustices and inertia, but I felt like she was personally calling me, nagging me, bugging me to show more love. She said she didn’t want us to leave thinking “That was interesting”, or even “That was inspiring”, but that we would leave resolved to do one more concrete thing to show our love for our world, and our fellow human beings.

    I was a little defensive inside – I’m already trying to get some big stuff done – how could I do anything else that could be effective ? She said that we couldn’t ask people to do more if we weren’t prepared to do more ourselves. I wasn’t sure that any of the things she suggested I could try would have any impact, but I suppose I could try again to write to my MP Iain Duncan Smith – after all, Private Eye tells me he’s just hired a communications consultant, so he might be willing to communicate with me about climate change, perhaps.

    Of her other suggestions, I have already selected investments that are low carbon, so there would be little point in writing to them about carbon-based “stranded assets”. My diet is very largely vegetarian; I buy food and provisions from co-operatives where I can; I don’t own a car; I’ve given up flying; I’ve installed solar electricity; my energy consumption is much lower than average; I buy secondhand; I reuse, repair, reclaim, recycle.

    I don’t want to “campaign” on climate change – I don’t think that would be very loving. This should not be a public relations mission, it needs to be authentic and inclusive, so I don’t know what the best way is to engage more people in “the struggle”. I’ve sent enough email in my life. People already know about climate change, I don’t need to evangelise them. They already know some of the things they could do to mitigate their fossil fuel energy consumption, I don’t need to educate them. The organisations that are still pushing fossil fuels to society have more to do to get with the transition than everyday energy consumers, surely ?

    So, how is it that this “love bug” bites me ? What do I feel bugged to be getting on with ? Researching low carbon gas energy systems is my main action at the moment, but what could I do that would be an answer to Christiana’s call for me to do something extra ? Join in the monthly fast and prayer that’s due to start on 1st November ? Well, sure I will, as part of my work duties. Network for Our Voices that will funnel the energy of the monthly call to prayer into a Civil Society “tornado” in support of the UNFCCC Paris Treaty ? Yes, of course. Comes with the territory. But more… ?

    I noticed that Christiana Figueres had collegiate competition from the bells of St Paul’s, and it sounded like the whole cathedral was ringing. Then my cough started getting bad and I started to feel quite unwell, so I had to leave before the main debate took place, to medicate myself with some fresh orange juice from a company I chose because it tracks its carbon, and has a proper plan for climate sustainability, so I never answered my question – what do I need to do, to do more about climate change ?

  • David MacKay : Heating London

    Posted on May 2nd, 2014 Jo No comments

    I took some notes from remarks made by Professor David MacKay, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, yesterday, 1st May 2014, at an event entitled “How Will We Heat London ?”, held by Max Fordhams as part of the Green Sky Thinking, Open City week. I don’t claim to have recorded his words perfectly, but I hope I’ve captured the gist.


    [David MacKay] : [Agreeing with others on the panel – energy] demand reduction is really important. [We have to compensate for the] “rebound effect”, though [where people start spending money on new energy services if they reduce their demand for their current energy services].

    SAP is an inaccurate tool and not suitable for the uses we put it too :-
    http://www.eden.gov.uk/planning-and-development/building-control/building-control-guidance-notes/sap-calculations-explained/
    http://www.dimplex.co.uk/products/renewable_solutions/building_regulations_part_l.htm

    Things seem to be under-performing [for example, Combined Heat and Power and District Heating schemes]. It would be great to have data. A need for engineering expertise to get in.

    I’m not a Chartered Engineer, but I’m able to talk to engineers. I know a kilowatt from a kilowatt hour [ (Laughter from the room) ]. We’ve [squeezed] a number of engineers into DECC [the Department of Energy and Climate Change].

    I’m an advocate of Heat Pumps, but the data [we have received from demonstration projects] didn’t look very good. We hired two engineers and asked them to do the forensic analysis. The heat pumps were fine, but the systems were being wrongly installed or used.

    Now we have a Heat Network team in DECC – led by an engineer. We’ve published a Heat Strategy. I got to write the first three pages and included an exergy graph.

    [I say to colleagues] please don’t confuse electricity with energy – heat is different. We need not just a green fluffy solution, not just roll out CHP [Combined Heat and Power] [without guidance on design and operation].

    Sources of optimism ? Hopefully some of the examples will be available – but they’re not in the shop at the moment.

    For example, the SunUp Heat Battery – works by having a series of chambers of Phase Change Materials, about the size of a fridge that you would use to store heat, made by electricity during the day, for use at night, and meet the demand of one home. [Comment from Paul Clegg, Senior Partner at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios : I first heard about Phase Change Materials back in the 1940s ? 1950s ? And nothing’s come of it yet. ] Why is that a good idea ? Well, if you have a heat pump and a good control system, you can use electricity when it’s cheapest… This is being trialled in 10 homes.

    Micro-CHP – [of those already trialled] definitely some are hopeless, with low temperature and low electricity production they are just glorified boilers with a figleaf of power.

    Maybe Fuel Cells are going to deliver – power at 50% efficiency [of conversion] – maybe we’ll see a Fuel Cell Micro-Combined Heat and Power unit ?

    Maybe there will be hybrid systems – like the combination of a heat pump and a gas boiler – with suitable controls could lop off peaks of demand (both in power and gas).

    We have designed the 2050 Pathways Calculator as a tool in DECC. It was to see how to meet the Carbon Budget. You can use it as an energy security calculator if you want. We have helped China, Korea and others to write their own calculators.

    A lot of people think CHP is green and fluffy as it is decentralised, but if you’re using Natural Gas, that’s still a Fossil Fuel. If you want to run CHP on biomass, you will need laaaaaarge amounts of land. You can’t make it all add up with CHP. You would need many Wales’-worth of bioenergy or similar ways to make it work.

    Maybe we should carry on using boilers and power with low carbon gas – perhaps with electrolysis [A “yay !” from the audience. Well, me, actually]. Hydrogen – the the 2050 Calculator there is no way to put it back into the beginning of the diagram – but it could provide low carbon heat, industry and transport. At the moment we can only put Hydrogen into Transport [in the 2050 Calculator. If we had staff in DECC to do that… It’s Open Source, so if any of you would like to volunteer…

    Plan A of DECC was to convert the UK to using lots of electricity [from nuclear power and other low carbon technologies, to move to a low carbon economy], using heat pumps at the consumer end, but there’s a problem in winter [Bill Watts of Max Fordham had already shown a National Grid or Ofgem chart of electricity demand and gas demand over the year, day by day. Electricity demand (in blue) fluctuates a little, but it pretty regular over the year. Gas demand (in red) however, fluctuates a lot, and is perhaps 6 to 10 times larger in winter than in summer.]

    If [you abandon Plan A – “electrification of everything”] and do it the other way, you will need a large amount of Hydrogen, and a large Hydrogen store. Electrolysers are expensive, but we are doing/have done a feasibility study with ITM Power – to show the cost of electrolysers versus the cost of your wind turbines [My comment : but you’re going to need your wind turbines to run your electrolysers with their “spare” or “curtailed” kilowatt hours.]

    [David Mackay, in questions from the floor] We can glue together [some elements]. Maybe the coming smart controls will help…can help save a load of energy. PassivSystems – control such things as your return temperature [in your Communal or District Heating]…instead of suing your heat provider [a reference to James Gallagher who has problems with his communal heating system at Parkside SE10], maybe you could use smart controls…

    [Question] Isn’t using smart controls like putting a Pirelli tyre on a Ford Cortina ? Legacy of poor CHP/DH systems…

    [David MacKay in response to the question of insulation] If insulation were enormously expensve, we wouldn’t have to be so enthusastic about it…We need a well-targeted research programme looking at deep retrofitting, instead of letting it all [heat] out.

    [Adrian Gault, Committee on Climate Change] We need an effective Government programme to deliver that. Don’t have it in the Green Deal. We did have it [in the previous programmes of CERT and CESP], but since they were cancelled in favour of the Green Deal, it’s gone off a cliff [levels of insulation installations]. We would like to see an initiative on low cost insulation expanded. The Green Deal is not producing a response.

    [Bill Watts, Max Fordham] Agree that energy efficiency won’t run on its own. But it’s difficult to do. Not talking about automatons/automation. Need a lot of pressure on this.

    [Adrian Gault] Maybe a street-by-street approach…

    [Michael Trousdell, Arup] Maybe a rule like you can’t sell a house unless you’ve had the insulation done…

    [Peter Clegg] … We can do heat recovery – scavenging the heat from power stations, but we must also de-carbonise the energy supply – this is a key part of the jigsaw.

  • On Having to Start Somewhere

    Posted on March 15th, 2014 Jo No comments

    In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of noble but futile hopes on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions control.

    People always seem to want to project too far into the future and lay out their wonder solution – something that is just too advanced enough to be attainable through any of the means we currently have at our disposal. It is impossible to imagine how the gulf can be bridged between the configuration of things today and their chosen future solutions.

    Naive civil servants strongly believe in a massive programme of new nuclear power. Head-in-the-clouds climate change consultants and engineers who should know otherwise believe in widespread Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. MBA students believe in carbon pricing, with carbon trading, or a flat carbon tax. Social engineers believe in significant reductions in energy intensity and energy consumer behaviour change, and economists believe in huge cost reductions for all forms of renewable electricity generation.

    To make any progress at all, we need to start where we are. Our economic system has strong emissions-dependent components that can easily be projected to fight off contenders. The thing is, you can’t take a whole layer of bricks out of a Jenga stack without severe degradation of its stability. You need to work with the stack as it is, with all the balances and stresses that already exist. It is too hard to attempt to change everything at once, and the glowing ethereal light of the future is just too ghostly to snatch a hold of without a firm grasp on an appropriate practical rather than spiritual guide.

    Here’s part of an email exchange in which I strive for pragmatism in the face of what I perceive as a lack of realism.


    To: Jo

    I read your article with interest. You have focused on energy, whereas I
    tend to focus on total resource. CCS does make sense and should be pushed
    forward with real drive as existing power stations can be cleaned up with it
    and enjoy a much longer life. Establishing CCS is cheaper than building new
    nuclear and uses far less resources. Furthermore, CCS should be used on new
    gas and biomass plants in the future.

    What we are lacking at the moment is any politician with vision in this
    space. Through a combination of boiler upgrades, insulation, appliance
    upgrades and behaviour change, it is straight forward to halve domestic
    energy use. Businesses are starting to make real headway with energy
    savings. We can therefore maintain a current total energy demand for the
    foreseeable future.

    To service this demand, we should continue to eke out every last effective
    joule from the current generating stock by adding cleansing kit to the dirty
    performers. While this is being done, we can continue to develop renewable
    energy and localised systems which can help to reduce the base load
    requirement even further.

    From an operational perspective, CCS has stagnated over the last 8 years, so
    a test plant needs to be put in place as soon as possible.

    The biggest issue for me is that, through political meddling and the
    unintended consequences of ill-thought out subsidies, the market has been
    skewed in such a way that the probability of a black-out next year is very
    high indeed.

    Green gas is invisible in many people’s thinking, but the latest House of
    Lords Report highlighted its potential.

    Vested interests are winning hands down in the stand-off with the big
    picture!


    From: Jo

    What is the title of the House of Lords report to which you refer ?

    Sadly, I am old enough to remember Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
    the first time the notion went around the block, so I’d say that
    progress has been thin for 30 years rather than 8.

    Original proposals for CCS included sequestration at the bottom of the
    ocean, which have only recently been ruled out as the study of global
    ocean circulation has discovered more complex looping of deep and
    shallower waters that originally modelled – the carbon dioxide would
    come back up to the surface waters eventually…

    The only way, I believe, that CCS can be made to work is by creating a
    value stream from the actual carbon dioxide, and I don’t mean Enhanced
    Oil Recovery (EOR).

    And I also definitely do not mean carbon dioxide emissions pricing,
    taxation or credit trading. The forces against an
    investment-influencing carbon price are strong, if you analyse the
    games going on in the various economic system components. I do not
    believe that a strong carbon price can be asserted when major economic
    components are locked into carbon – such as the major energy producers
    and suppliers, and some parts of industry, and transport.

    Also, carbon pricing is designed to be cost-efficient, as markets will
    always find the lowest marginal pricing for any externality in fines
    or charges – which is essentially what carbon dioxide emissions are.
    The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was bound to deliver a low carbon
    price – that’s exactly what the economists predicted in modelling
    carbon pricing.

    I cannot see that a carbon price could be imposed that was more than
    5% of the base commodity trade price. At those levels, the carbon
    price is just an irritation to pass on to end consumers.

    The main problem is that charging for emissions does not alter
    investment decisions. Just like fines for pollution do not change the
    risks for future pollution. I think that we should stop believing in
    negative charging and start backing positive investment in the energy
    transition.

    You write “You have focused on energy, whereas I tend to focus on
    total resource.” I assume you mean the infrastructure and trading
    systems. My understanding leads me to expect that in the current
    continuing economic stress, solutions to the energy crisis will indeed
    need to re-use existing plant and infrastructure, which is why I
    think that Renewable Gas is a viable option for decarbonising total
    energy supply – it slots right in to substitute for Natural Gas.

    My way to “eke out every last effective joule from the current
    generating stock” is to clean up the fuel, rather than battle
    thermodynamics and capture the carbon dioxide that comes out the back
    end. Although I also recommend carbon recycling to reduce the need for
    input feedstock.

    I completely agree that energy efficiency – cutting energy demand
    through insulation and so on – is essential. But there needs to be a
    fundamental change in the way that profits are made in the energy
    sector before this will happen in a significant way. Currently it
    remains in the best interests of energy production and supply
    companies to produce and supply as much energy as they can, as they
    have a duty to their shareholders to return a profit through high
    sales of their primary products.

    “Vested interests” have every right under legally-binding trade
    agreements to maximise their profits through the highest possible
    sales in a market that is virtually a monopoly. I don’t think this can
    be challenged, not even by climate change science. I think the way
    forward is to change the commodities upon which the energy sector
    thrives. If products from the energy sector include insulation and
    other kinds of efficiency, and if the energy sector companies can
    continue to make sales of these products, then they can reasonably be
    expected to sell less energy. I’m suggesting that energy reduction
    services need to have a lease component.

    Although Alistair Buchanan formerly of Ofgem is right about the
    electricity generation margins slipping really low in the next few
    winters, there are STOR contracts that National Grid have been working
    on, which should keep the lights on, unless Russia turn off the gas
    taps, which is something nobody can do anything much about – not BP,
    nor our diplomatic corps, the GECF (the gas OPEC), nor the WTO.


  • The General Lightness of Carbon Pricing

    Posted on February 27th, 2014 Jo 1 comment

    I was at a very interesting meeting this morning, entitled “Next Steps for Carbon Capture and Storage in the UK”, hosted by the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum :-

    http://www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk/forums/event.php?eid=713
    http://www.westminsterforumprojects.co.uk/forums/agenda/CCS-2014-agenda.pdf

    During the proceedings, there were liberal doses of hints at that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is about to freeze the Carbon Price Floor – the central functioning carbon pricing policy in the UK (since the EU Emissions Trading Scheme “isn’t working”).

    All of the more expensive low carbon energy technologies rely on a progressively heavier price for carbon emissions to make their solutions more attractive.

    Where does this leave the prospects for Carbon Capture and Storage in the 2030s ? Initial technology-launching subsidies will have been dropped, and the Contracts for Difference will have been ground down into obscurity. So how will CCS keep afloat ? It’s always going to remain more expensive than other technology options to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, so it needs some prop.

    What CCS needs is some Added Value. It will come partly from EOR – Enhanced Oil Recovery, as pumping carbon dioxide down depleting oil and gas fields will help stimulate a few percent of extra production.

    But what will really make the difference is using carbon dioxide to make new fuel. That’s the wonder of Renewable Gas – it will be able to provide a valued product for capturing carbon dioxide.

    This wasn’t talked about this morning. The paradigm is still “filter out the CO2 and flush it down a hole”. But it won’t stay that way forever. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to start mining carbon dioxide from CCS projects to make new chemicals and gas fuels. Then, who cares if there’s negative charging for emissions ? Or at what price ? The return on investment in carbon capture will simply bypass assumptions about needing to create a carbon market or set a carbon tax.

  • But Uh-Oh – Those Summer Nights

    Posted on January 20th, 2014 Jo No comments

    A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.

    Nuclear Flower Power

    This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !

    Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…

    Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.

    There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?

    If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.

    The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.

    The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.

    As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.

    Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes

    The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]

    Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.

    The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.

    Politics Is Living In The Past

    What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.

    I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.

    Together in Electric Dreams

    Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?

    1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
    2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
    3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
    4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.

    What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.

    Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium

    A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?

    My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.

    Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights

    With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.

    With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.

    It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]

    Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.

    District Heat Fields

    The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.

    Gas Is The Logical Answer

    But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )

    The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.

    The Age of Your Carbon

    It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.

    […] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.

    Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.

    Young Carbon from Seawater

    If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.

    Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.

    It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?

    But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]

    Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.

    How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?

    If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.

    You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.

    In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.

    We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !

    Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?

    The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.

    But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.

    Choices, choices, choices

    There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.

    Capacity Payments

    But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.

    Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.

    If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.

    Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget

    Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?

  • Curmudgeons Happen

    Posted on January 5th, 2014 Jo 1 comment

    I was talking with people at my friend’s big birthday bash yesterday. I mentioned I’m writing about Renewable Gas, and this led to a variety of conversations. Here is a kind of summary of one of the threads, involving several people.

    Why do people continue to insist that the wind turbine at Reading uses more energy than it generates ?

    Would it still be there if it wasn’t producing power ? Does David Cameron still have a wind turbine on his roof ? No. It wasn’t working, so it was taken down. I would ask – what are their sources of information ? What newspapers and websites do they read ?

    They say that the wind turbine at Reading is just there for show.

    Ah. The “Potemkin Village” meme – an idyllic-looking setting, but everything’s faked. The Chinese painting the desert green, etc.

    And then there are people that say that the only reason wind farms continue to make money is because they run the turbines inefficiently to get the subsidies.

    Ah. The “De-rating Machine” meme. You want to compare and contrast. Look at the amount of money, resources, time and tax breaks being poured into the UK Continental Shelf, and Shale Gas, by the current Government.

    Every new technology needs a kick start, a leg up. You need to read some of the reports on wind power as an asset – for example, the Offshore Valuation – showing a Net Present Value. After it’s all deployed, even with the costs of re-powering at the end of turbine life, offshore North Sea wind power will be a genuine asset.

    What I don’t understand is, why do people continue to complain that wind turbines spoil the view ? Look at the arguments about the Jurassic Coast in Dorset.

    I have contacts there who forward me emails about the disputes. The yachtsmen of Poole are in open rebellion because the wind turbines will be set in in their channels ! The tourists will still come though, and that’s what really counts. People in Dorset just appear to love arguing, and you’ve got some people doing good impressions of curmudgeons at the head of the branches of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and English Heritage.

    There are so many people who resist renewable energy, and refuse to accept we need to act on climate change. Why do they need to be so contrarian ? I meet them all the time.

    People don’t like change, but change happens. The majority of people accept that climate change is significant enough to act on, and the majority of people want renewable energy. It may not seem like that though. It depends on who you talk with. There’s a small number of people who vocalise scepticism and who have a disproportionate effect. I expect you are talking about people who are aged 55 and above ?

    Example : “Climate Change ? Haw haw haw !” and “Wind turbines ? They don’t work !” This is a cohort problem. All the nasty white racists are dying and being buried with respect by black undertakers. All the rabid xenophobes are in nursing homes being cared for in dignity by “foreigners”. Pretty soon Nigel Lawson could suffer from vascular dementia and be unable to appear on television.

    The media have been insisting that they need a balance of views, but ignoring the fact that the climate change “sceptics” are very small in number and not backed up by the science.

    Why does Nigel Lawson, with all his access and privilege, continue to insist that global warming is not a problem ?

    Fortunately, even though he’s “establishment” and has more influence than he really should have, the people that are really in charge know better. He should talk to the climate change scientists – the Met Office continue to invite sceptics to come and talk with them. He should talk to people in the energy sector – engineers and project managers. He should talk to people in the cross-party Parliamentary groups who have access to the information from the expert Select Committees.

    And what about Owen Paterson ? I cannot understand why they put a climate change sceptic in charge of the Department of the Environment.

    Well, we’ve always done that, haven’t we ? Put Ministers in Departments they know nothing about, so that they can learn their briefs. We keep putting smokers in charge of health policy. Why do you think he was put in there ?

    To pacify the Conservative Party.

    But I know Conservative Party activists who are very much in favour of renewable energy and understand the problems of climate change. It’s not the whole Party.

    We need to convince so many people.

    We only need to convince the people who matter. And anyway, we don’t need to do any convincing. Leaders in the energy industry, in engineering, in science, in Government (the real government is the Civil Service), the Parliament, they already understand the risks of climate change and the need for a major energy transition.

    People should continue to express their views, but people only vote on economic values. That’s why Ed Miliband has pushed the issue of the cost of energy – to try to bring energy to the forefront of political debate.

    What about nuclear fusion ?

    Nuclear fusion has been 35 years away for the last 35 years. It would be nice to have, because it could really solve the problem. Plus, it keeps smart people busy.

    What about conventional nuclear fission power ?

    I say, “Let them try !” The Hinkley Point C deal has so many holes in it, it’s nearly collapsed several times. I’m sure they will continue to try to build it, but I’m not confident they will finish it. Nuclear power as an industry is basically washed up in my view, despite the lengths that it goes to to influence society and lobby the Government.

    It’s going to be too late to answer serious and urgent problems – there is an energy crunch approaching fast, and the only things that can answer it are quick-to-build options such as new gas-fired power plants, wind farms, solar farms, demand reduction systems such as shutting down industry and smart fridges.

    How can the energy companies turn your fridge off ?

    If the appliances have the right software, simple frequency modulation of the power supply should be sufficient to trip fridges and freezers off. Or you could connect them to the Internet via a gateway. The problem is peak power demand periods, twice a day, the evening peak worse than the morning. There has been some progress in managing this due to switching light bulbs and efficient appliances, but it’s still critical. Alistair Buchanan, ex of Ofgem, went out on a limb to say that we could lose all our power production margins within a couple of years, in winter.

    But the refrigerators are being opened and closed in the early evening, so it would be the wrong time of day to switch them off. And anyway, don’t the fridges stop using power when they’re down to temperature ?

    Some of these things will need to be imposed regardless of concerns, because control of peak power demand is critical. Smart fridges may be some years away, but the National Grid already have contracts with major energy users to shed their load under certain circumstances. Certain key elements of the energy infrastructure will be pushed through. They will need to be pushed through, because the energy crunch is imminent.

    The time for democracy was ten years ago. To get better democracy you need much more education. Fortunately, young people (which includes young journalists) are getting that education. If you don’t want to be irritated by the views of climate change and energy sceptics, don’t bother to read the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the online Register or the Spectator. The old school journalists love to keep scandal alive, even though any reason to doubt climate change science and renewable energy died in the 1980s.

    Although I’ve long since stopped trusting what a journalist writes, I’m one of those people who think that you should read those sources.

    I must admit I do myself from time to time, but just for entertainment.

  • Economic Ecology

    Posted on October 25th, 2013 Jo No comments

    Managing the balance between, on the one hand, extraction of natural resources from the environment, and on the other hand, economic production, shouldn’t have to be either, or. We shouldn’t value higher throughput and consumption at the expense of exhausting what the Earth can supply. We shouldn’t be “economic” in our ecology, we shouldn’t be penny-pinching and miserly and short-change the Earth. The Earth, after all, is the biosystem that nourishes us. What we should be aiming for is an ecology of economy – a balance in the systems of manufacture, agriculture, industry, mining and trade that doesn’t empty the Earth’s store cupboard. This, at its root, is a conservation strategy, maintaining humanity through a conservative economy. Political conservatives have lost their way. These days they espouse the profligate use of the Earth’s resources by preaching the pursuit of “economic growth”, by sponsoring and promoting free trade, and reversing environmental protection. Some in a neoliberal or capitalist economy may get rich, but they do so at the expense of everybody and everything else. It is time for an ecology in economics.

    Over the course of the next couple of years, in between doing other things, I shall be taking part in a new project called “Joy in Enough”, which seeks to promote economic ecology. One of the key texts of this multi-workstream group is “Enough is Enough”, a book written by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill. In their Preface they write :-

    “But how do we share this one planet and provide a high quality of life for all ? The economic orthodoxy in use around the world is not up to the challenge. […] That strategy, the pursuit of never-ending economic growth has become dysfunctional. With each passing day, we are witnessing more and more uneconomic growth – growth that costs more than it is worth. An economy that chases perpetually increasing production and consumption, always in search of more, stands no chance of achieving a lasting prosperity. […] Now is the time to change the goal from the madness of more to the ethic of enough, to accept the limits to growth and build an economy that meets our needs without undermining the life-support systems of the planet.”

    One of the outcomes of global capitalism is huge disparities, inequalities between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots. Concern about this is not just esoteric morality – it has consequences on the whole system. Take, for example, a field of grass. No pastoral herder with a flock of goats is going to permit the animals to graze in just one corner of this field, for if they do, part of the grassland will over-grow, and part will become dust or mud, and this will destroy the value of the field for the purposes of grazing. And take another example – wealth distribution in the United Kingdom. Since most people do not have enough capital to live on the proceeds of investment, most people need to earn money for their wealth through working. The recent economic contraction has persuaded companies and the public sector to squeeze more productivity out of a smaller number of employees, or abandon services along with their employees. A simple map of unemployment shows how parts of the British population have been over-grazed to prop up the economic order. This is already having impacts – increasing levels of poverty, and the consequent social breakdown that accompanies it. Poverty and the consequent worsening social environment make people less able to look after themselves, their families, and their communities, and this has a direct impact on the national economy. We are all poorer because some of our fellow citizens need to use food banks, or have to make the choice in winter to Heat or Eat.

    And let’s look more closely at energy. Whilst the large energy producers and energy suppliers continue to make significant profits – or put their prices up to make sure they do so – families in the lower income brackets are experiencing unffordability issues with energy. Yes, of course, the energy companies would fail if they cannot keep their shareholders and investors happy. Private concerns need to make a profit to survive. But in the grand scheme of things, the economic temperature is low, so they should not expect major returns. The energy companies are complaining that they fear for their abilities to invest in new resources and infrastructure, but many of their customers cannot afford their products. What have we come to, when a “trophy project” such as the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station gets signed off, with billions in concomitant subsidy support, and yet people in Scotland and the North East and North West of England are failing to keep their homes at a comfortable temperature ?

    There is a basic conflict at the centre of all of this – energy companies make money by selling energy. Their strategy for survival is to make profit. This means they either have to sell more energy, or they have to charge more for the same amount of energy. Purchasing energy for most people is not a choice – it is a mandatory part of their spending. You could say that charging people for energy is akin to charging people for air to breathe. Energy is a essential utility, not an option. Some of the energy services we all need could be provided without purchasing the products of the energy companies. From the point of view of government budgets, it would be better to insulate the homes of lower income families than to offer them social benefit payments to pay their energy bills, but this would reduce the profits to the energy companies. Insulation is not a priority activity, because it lowers economic production – unless insulation itself is counted somehow as productivity. The ECO, the Energy Company Obligation – an obligation on energy companies to provide insulation for lower income family homes, could well become part of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Bonfire of the Green Tax Vanities”. The ECO was set up as a subsidy payment, since energy companies will not provide energy services without charging somebody for them. The model of an ESCO – an Energy Services Company – an energy company that sells both energy and energy efficiency services is what is needed – but this means that energy companies need to diversify. They need to sell energy, and also sell people the means to avoid having to buy energy.

    Selling energy demand reduction services alongside energy is the only way that privatised energy companies can evolve – or the energy sector could have to be taken back into public ownership because the energy companies are not being socially responsible. A combination of economic adjustment measures, essential climate change policy and wholesale price rises for fossil fuel energy mean that energy demand reduction is essential to keep the economy stable. This cannot be achieved by merely increasing end consumer bills, in an effort to change behaviour. There is only so much reduction in energy use that a family can make, and it is a one-time change, it cannot be repeated. You can nudge people to turn their lights off and their thermostats down by one degree, but they won’t do it again. The people need to be provided with energy control. Smart meters may or may not provide an extra tranche of energy demand reduction. Smart fridges and freezers will almost certainly offer the potential for further domestic energy reduction. Mandatory energy efficiency in all electrical appliances sold is essential. But so is insulation. If we don’t get higher rates of insulation in buildings, we cannot win the energy challenge. In the UK, one style of Government policies for insulation were dropped – and their replacements are simply not working. The mistake was to assume that the energy companies would play the energy conservation game without proper incentives – and by incentive, I don’t mean subsidy.

    An obligation on energy companies to deploy insulation as well as other energy control measures shouldn’t need to be subsidised. What ? An obligation without a subsidy ? How refreshing ! If it is made the responsibility of the energy companies to provide energy services, and they are rated, and major energy procurement contracts are based on how well the energy companies perform on providing energy reduction services, then this could have an influence. If shareholders begin to understand the value of energy conservation and energy efficiency and begin to value their energy company holdings by their energy services portfolio, this could have an influence. If an energy utility’s licence to operate is based on their ESCO performance, this could have an influence : an energy utility could face being disbarred through the National Grid’s management of the electricity and gas networks – if an energy company does not provide policy-compliant levels of insulation and other demand control measures, it will not get preferential access for its products to supply the grids. If this sounds like the socialising of free trade, that’s not the case. Responsible companies are already beginning to respond to the unfolding crisis in energy. Companies that use large amounts of energy are seeking ways to cut their consumption – for reasons related to economic contraction, carbon emissions control and energy price rises – their bottom line – their profits – rely on energy management.

    It’s flawed reasoning to claim that taxing bad behaviour promotes good behaviour. It’s unlikely that the UK’s Carbon Floor Price will do much apart from making energy more unaffordable for consumers – it’s not going to make energy companies change the resources that they use. To really beat carbon emissions, low carbon energy needs to be mandated. Mandated, but not subsidised. The only reason subsidies are required for renewable electricity is because the initial investment is entirely new development – the subsidies don’t need to remain in place forever. Insulation is another one-off cost, so short-term subsidies should be in place to promote it. As Nick Clegg MP proposes, subsidies for energy conservation should come from the Treasury, through a progressive tax, not via energy companies, who will pass costs on to energy consumers, where it stands a chance of penalising lower-income households. Wind power and solar power, after their initial investment costs, provide almost free electricity – wind turbines and solar panels are in effect providing energy services. Energy companies should be mandated to provide more renewable electricity as part of their commitment to energy services.

    In a carbon-constrained world, we must use less carbon dioxide emitting fossil fuel energy. Since the industrialised economies use fossil fuels for more than abut 80% of their energy, lowering carbon emissions means using less energy, and having less building comfort, unless renewables and insulation can be rapidly increased. This is one part of the economy that should be growing, even as the rest is shrinking.

    Energy companies can claim that they don’t want to provide insulation as an energy service, because insulation is a one-off cost, it’s not a continuing source of profit. Well, when the Big Six have finished insulating all the roofs, walls and windows, they can move on to building all the wind turbines and solar farms we need. They’ll make a margin on that.

  • The Economist : Annoying Power

    Posted on October 20th, 2013 Jo No comments





    I generally avoid reading The Economist magazine – apart from the Science and Technology section – as it tends to make my blood boil. The writing style frequently includes such things that I would describe as casual generalisation, unquestioned third party claims, suppositions used in place of factual account, and the selective use of statistics to construct meaning – all of which have the power to annoy. Sometimes an article has so many trigger points, that I simply cannot finish reading it.

    This week I risked reading an article recommended to me about power generation in Europe, and I was pretty soon gnashing my teeth and wailing. I was indignant because the arguments being used ignored vital parts of European energy policy, and just parroted the complaints of utility companies, without challenging them, whilst at the same time ignoring the energy sector blackmail and brinkmanship. The article contradicted itself about energy investment and energy prices, and failed to make the case for utilities to diversify in order to survive.

    First of all – the contradictions. In The Economist magazine of 12th October 2013, the article entitled “How to lose half a trillion euros”, contains these two sections :-

    “[…] During the 2000s, European utilities overinvested in generating capacity from fossil fuels, boosting it by 16% in Europe as a whole and by more in some countries […] The market for electricity did not grow by nearly that amount, even in good times; then the financial crisis hit demand. According to the International Energy Agency, total energy demand in Europe will decline by 2% between 2010 and 2015.”

    “[…] the old-fashioned utilities […] So far, it is true, they have managed to provide backup capacity and the grid has not failed, even in solar- and wind-mad Germany. […] But […] it is getting harder to maintain grid stability. […] The role of utilities as investors is […] being threatened. […]”

    How can the privatised power utilities on the one hand have “overinvested”, and at the same time not invested enough to protect the grid in future ?

    The article writer misses several key points. The underlying reasons for investment in Europe in fossil fuel-fired generation during the 2000s was not in anticipation of higher power demand. The vast majority of new investment in the period 2000 to 2010 in the European Union was in Natural Gas-fired power plants, in anticipation of carbon emissions control and other environmental policy, and in anticipation of the retirement of a number of power plants reaching the ends of their lives. It was also viewed as a no-regrets option given there were plans to diversify the unified European power market to increase competitiveness – incorporating new, smaller players, and new, variable renewable power resources. Flexible gas generation would therefore always be in demand – the ability to turn off and on as required. Requiring gas plants to operate flexibly divorces generation capacity from generation demand, and so invalidates The Economist writer’s statement.

    And on to the problem of a contradiction over prices :-

    “[…] Renewable, low-carbon energy accounts for an ever-greater share of production. It is helping push wholesale electricity prices down, and could one day lead to big reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. For established utilities, though, this is a disaster. […] In short, they argue, the growth of renewable energy is undermining established utilities and replacing them with something less reliable and much more expensive. […]”

    How can renewable electricity be lowering the prices of wholesale power, and yet also be replacing established utilities with something “much more expensive” ?

    I think the clue for this poor reasoning lies with a faulty interpretation of Germany’s Renewable Energy Surcharge – the EEG-Umlage, which is held up as the proof that green power costs more than fossil fuel power. The article says :-

    “[…] Electricity prices have fallen from over €80 per MWh at peak hours in Germany in 2008 to just €38 per MWh now […] These are wholesale prices; residential prices are €285 per MWh, some of the highest in the world, partly because they include subsidies for renewables that are one-and-a-half times, per unit of energy, the power price itself). […]”


    The Economist’s calculation of the green power subsidies at “one-and-a-half times” the wholesale power price is €57/MWh, so that’s only 20% of the total price of power to the consumer. Other costs besides the actual wholesale cost of the electricity, add up to €190, 67% of the cost of power to the household – far more of an impact than the renewable energy subsidies. I found the data from the BDEW to confirm these figures – from the “Power prices for households” presentation for May 2013, the price of electricity for consumers (for a standard three person house) is at €287.3/MWh, and the combination of Renewable Energy surcharges – including the VAT and the Offshore Wind surcharge – come to €59.82/MWh. So the numbers aren’t wrong, but the way The Economist article paragraph is written it gives the impression that asking end consumers to pay the costs of transitioning to green power is a huge burden. It’s not.

    These charges to households would be less if all energy users were to participate in paying for the renewable energy subsidies – but some companies do not, using the argument of anti-competitiveness. If they have to pay the surcharge, they reason, they will lose business to other countries. Quite effective blackmail, burdening the end consumer with higher power bills. In addition the electricity supply companies are trying to maintain their profit margins so may not be passing all the reductions in power costs to their consumers. One calculation suggests the total cost of Germany’s power will reduce by over €5.5 billion in 2014, and yet household electricity costs are expected to rise. The heightening effect of the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) surcharge on power prices is not going to last forever, however, as it’s promoting cheaper wholesale prices, and building in protection from the risks of sharply-rising prices for fossil fuels. Electricity supply companies are going to be able to sell progressively cheaper energy, and this differential will eventually reach the consumers, even if that needs to be legislatively enforced.

    Next, on to the assertion that increasing renewable electricity is pushing flexible gas-fired power generation out of the frame :-

    “[…] Renewables have “grid priority”, meaning the grid must take their electricity first. This is a legal requirement, to encourage renewable energy in Europe. But it is also logical: since the marginal cost of wind and solar power is zero, grids would take their power first anyway. […] But unlike the baseload providers already in place (nuclear and coal), solar and wind power are intermittent, surging with the weather. […] Now, when demand fluctuates, it may not be enough just to lower the output of gas-fired generators. Some plants may have to be switched off altogether and some coal-fired ones turned down. […] It is costly because scaling back coal-fired plants is hard. It makes electricity prices more volatile. And it is having a devastating effect on profits. […] Gérard Mestrallet, chief executive of GDF Suez, the world’s largest electricity producer, says 30GW of gas-fired capacity has been mothballed in Europe since the peak, including brand-new plants. The increase in coal-burning pushed German carbon emissions up in 2012-13, the opposite of what was supposed to happen.”

    The real core of this issue is that baseload is history – or it should be – and it will be for Germany in the near future – as some coal-fired power plants will need to close or be transitioned under the Large Combustion Plants Directive, and it’s successor, the Industrial Emissions Directive (9,000 coal-fired installations will be affected by the IED); and the nuclear power plants are all scheduled to close. It is very unlikely that much in the way of new European nuclear power will come on-stream within the next 15 years. The price of coal fuel might stay reasonable, due to a number of factors, but the cost of burning it is likely to become higher, so the baseload paradigm should be well and truly broken.

    That gas-fired power plants would be finding profit margins slim is something that has been anticipated widely, so it’s not exactly a shock, although it’s being used as a bargaining chip by utilities in ongoing negotations to launch an EU-wide “Capacity Market” for flexible power generation (principally gas, of course, since neither nuclear nor coal are flexible, and coal is practically on the edge of extinction in policy terms).

    CapGemini has recently published a scaremongering projection :-

    “[…] Gas plant closures : One of the biggest impacts of the disturbed gas and electricity markets is the rapid closure of numerous gas plants in the region. A recent study by IHS estimates that about 130,000 MW (130 GW) of gas plants across Europe (around 60% of the total installed gas fired generation in the Region) are currently not recovering their fixed costs and are at a risk of closure by 2016. These plants – essential to safeguarding security of supply during peak hours – are being replaced by volatile and unforecastable renewable energy installations that are heavily subsidised. […]”

    And other sources are also pushing the doom and gloom :-

    “[…] The pain being suffered by owners of European gas-fired power plant has escalated over the last 12 months. Weak power demand, subsidised renewable build and relatively high gas prices have conspired to crush gas fired generation margins […] It is difficult to imagine how market sentiment around gas-fired plant could get much worse. About a year ago we questioned the prospect of a European gas plant bust in the form of plant mothballing, closures and the distressed sale of assets. There is clear evidence of a bust gathering steam in 2013, with a number of utilities pursuing exactly these actions. […]”

    Instead of complaining and game-playing, electricity utilities should accept the need to adapt. In line with EU Directives, they can expect to be able to make a good profit by diversifying into energy services – so they end up not simply selling energy, but selling energy demand control. They would move from being E. Co.’s to ESCOs. If they accept the challenge to diversify, they can keep their shareholders happy, and they will be able to survive the slim margins they can make from gas-fired electricity generation during periods of peak demand, or to load balance grids increasingly dependent on renewable electricity generation.

    If the power utilities fail to adapt, they’re not too big to fail. I would suggest that European Governments renationalise them, as we’re going to have to fork out gazillions of euros to keep the Capacity Market running the way the utilities would like, so we might as well own the assets, too.

  • Mind the Gap : BBC Costing the Earth

    Posted on October 16th, 2013 Jo No comments

    I listened to an interesting mix of myth, mystery and magic on BBC Radio 4.

    Myths included the notion that long-term, nuclear power would be cheap; that “alternative” energy technologies are expensive (well, nuclear power is, but true renewables are most certainly not); and the idea that burning biomass to create heat to create steam to turn turbines to generate electricity is an acceptably efficient use of biomass (it is not).

    Biofuelwatch are hosting a public meeting on this very subject :-
    http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/burning_issue_public_event/
    “A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities”
    Tuesday, 29th October 2013, 7-9pm
    Lumen Centre, London (close to St Pancras train station)
    http://www.lumenurc.org.uk/lumencontact.htm
    Lumen Centre, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RS

    Interesting hints in the interviews I thought pointed to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some electricity generation capacity should be wholly owned by the Government – since the country is paying for it one way or another. A socialist model for gas-fired generation capacity that’s used as backup to wind and solar power ? Now there’s an interesting idea…




    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03cn0rb

    “Mind the Gap”
    Channel: BBC Radio 4
    Series: Costing the Earth
    Presenter: Tom Heap
    First broadcast: Tuesday 15th October 2013

    Programme Notes :

    “Our energy needs are growing as our energy supply dwindles.
    Renewables have not come online quickly enough and we are increasingly
    reliant on expensive imported gas or cheap but dirty coal. Last year
    the UK burnt 50% more coal than in previous years but this helped
    reverse years of steadily declining carbon dioxide emissions. By 2015
    6 coal fired power stations will close and the cost of burning coal
    will increase hugely due to the introduction of the carbon price
    floor. Shale gas and biomass have been suggested as quick and easy
    solutions but are they really sustainable, or cheap?”

    “Carbon Capture and Storage could make coal or gas cleaner and a new
    study suggests that with CCS bio energy could even decrease global
    warming. Yet CCS has stalled in the UK and the rest of Europe and the
    debate about the green credentials of biomass is intensifying. So what
    is really the best answer to Britain’s energy needs? Tom Heap
    investigates.”

    00:44 – 00:48
    [ Channel anchor ]
    Britain’s energy needs are top of the agenda in “Costing the Earth”…

    01:17
    [ Channel anchor ]
    …this week on “Costing the Earth”, Tom Heap is asking if our
    ambitions to go green are being lost to the more immediate fear of
    blackouts and brownouts.

    01:27
    [ Music : Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out)” ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Energy is suddenly big news – central to politics and the economy. The
    countdown has started towards the imminent shutdown of many coal-fired
    power stations, but the timetable to build their replacements has
    barely begun.

    It’ll cost a lot, we’ll have to pay, and the politicians are reluctant
    to lay out the bill. But both the official regulator and industry are
    warning that a crunch is coming.

    So in this week’s “Costing the Earth”, we ask if the goal of clean,
    green and affordable energy is being lost to a much darker reality.

    02:14
    [ Historical recordings ]

    “The lights have started going out in the West Country : Bristol,
    Exeter and Plymouth have all had their first power cuts this
    afternoon.”

    “One of the biggest effects of the cuts was on traffic, because with
    the traffic lights out of commission, major jams have built up,
    particularly in the town centres. One of the oddest sights I saw is a
    couple of ladies coming out of a hairdressers with towels around their
    heads because the dryers weren’t working.”

    “Television closes down at 10.30 [ pm ], and although the cinemas are
    carrying on more or less normally, some London theatres have had to
    close.”

    “The various [ gas ] boards on both sides of the Pennines admit to
    being taken by surprise with today’s cold spell which brought about
    the cuts.”

    “And now the major scandal sweeping the front pages of the papers this
    morning, the advertisement by the South Eastern Gas Board recommending
    that to save fuel, couples should share their bath.”

    [ Caller ]
    “I shall write to my local gas board and say don’t do it in
    Birmingham. It might be alright for the trendy South, but we don’t
    want it in Birmingham.”

    03:13
    [ Tom Heap ]

    That was 1974.

    Some things have changed today – maybe a more liberal attitude to
    sharing the tub. But some things remain the same – an absence of
    coal-fired electricity – threatening a blackout.

    Back then it was strikes by miners. Now it’s old age of the power
    plants, combined with an EU Directive obliging them to cut their
    sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2016, or close.

    Some coal burners are avoiding the switch off by substituting wood;
    and mothballed gas stations are also on standby.

    But Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of
    Oxford, now believes power cuts are likely.

    03:57
    [ Dieter Helm ]

    Well, if we take the numbers produced by the key responsible bodies,
    they predict that there’s a chance that by the winter of 2-15 [sic,
    meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], the gap between the demand for
    electricity and the supply could be as low as 2%.

    And it turns out that those forecasts are based on extremely
    optimistic assumptions about how far demand will fall in that period
    (that the “Green Deal” will work, and so on) and that we won’t have
    much economic growth.

    So basically we are on course for a very serious energy crunch by the
    winter of 2-15 [sic, meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], almost
    regardless of what happens now, because nobody can build any power
    stations between now and then.

    It’s sort of one of those slow motion car crashes – you see the whole
    symptoms of it, and people have been messing around reforming markets
    and so on, without addressing what’s immediately in front of them.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And that’s where you think we are now ?

    [ Dieter Helm ]

    I think there’s every risk of doing so.

    Fortunately, the [ General ] Election is a year and a half away, and
    there’s many opportunities for all the political parties to get real
    about two things : get real about the energy crunch in 2-15 [sic,
    meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016] and how they’re going to handle
    it; and get real about creating the incentives to decarbonise our
    electricity system, and deal with the serious environmental and
    security and competitive issues which our electricity system faces.

    And this is a massive investment requirement [ in ] electricity : all
    those old stations retiring [ originally built ] back from the 1970s –
    they’re all going to be gone.

    Most of the nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives.

    We need a really big investment programme. And if you really want an
    investment programme, you have to sit down and work out how you’re
    going to incentivise people to do that building.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    If we want a new energy infrastructure based on renewables and
    carbon-free alternatives, then now is the time to put those incentives
    on the table.

    The problem is that no-one seems to want to make the necessary
    investment, least of all the “Big Six” energy companies, who are
    already under pressure about high bills.

    [ “Big Six” are : British Gas / Centrica, EdF Energy (Electricite
    de France), E.On UK, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE ]

    Sam Peacock of the energy company SSE [ Scottish and Southern Energy ]
    gives the commercial proof of Dieter’s prediction.

    If energy generators can’t make money out of generating energy,
    they’ll be reluctant to do it.

    [ Sam Peacock ]

    Ofgem, the energy regulator, has looked at this in a lot of detail,
    and said that around 2015, 2016, things start to get tighter. The
    reason for this is European Directives, [ is [ a ] ] closing down some
    of the old coal plants. And also the current poor economics around [
    or surround [ -ing ] ] both existing plant and potential new plant.

    So, at the moment it’s very, very difficult to make money out of a gas
    plant, or invest in a new one. So this leads to there being, you know,
    something of a crunch point around 2015, 2016, and Ofgem’s analysis
    looks pretty sensible to us.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And Sam Peacock lays the blame for this crisis firmly at the Government’s door.

    [ Sam Peacock ]

    The trilemma, as they call it – of decarbonisation, security of supply
    and affordability – is being stretched, because the Government’s
    moving us more towards cleaner technologies, which…which are more
    expensive.

    However, if you were to take the costs of, you know, the extra costs
    of developing these technologies off government [ sic, meaning
    customer ] bills and into general taxation, you could knock about over
    £100 off customer bills today, it’ll be bigger in the future, and you
    can still get that much-needed investment going.

    So, we think you can square the circle, but it’s going to take a
    little bit of policy movement [ and ] it’s going to take shifting some
    of those costs off customers and actually back where the policymakers
    should be controlling them.

    [ KLAXON ! Does he mean controlled energy prices ? That sounds a bit
    centrally managed economy to me… ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    No surprise that a power company would want to shift the pain of
    rising energy costs from their bills to the tax bill.

    But neither the Government nor the Opposition are actually proposing this.

    Who pays the premium for expensve new energy sources is becoming like
    a game of pass the toxic parcel.

    [ Reference : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_potato_%28game%29 ]

    I asked the [ UK Government Department of ] Energy and Climate Change
    Secretary, Ed Davey, how much new money is required between now and
    2020.

    08:06

    [ Ed Davey ]

    About £110 billion – er, that’s critical to replace a lot of the coal
    power stations that are closing, the nuclear power stations that are [
    at the ] end of their lives, and replace a lot of the network which
    has come to the end of its life, too.

    So it’s a huge, massive investment task.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    So in the end we’re going to have to foot the bill for the £110 billion ?

    [ Ed Davey ]

    Yeah. Of course. That’s what happens now. People, in their bills that
    they pay now, are paying for the network costs of investments made
    several years, even several decades ago.

    [ Yes – we’re still paying through our national nose to dispose of
    radioactive waste and decommission old nuclear reactors. The liability
    of it all weighs heavily on the country’s neck… ]

    And there’s no escaping that – we’ve got to keep the lights on – we’ve
    got to keep the country powered.

    You have to look at both sides of the equation. If we’re helping
    people make their homes more inefficient [ sic, meaning energy
    efficient ], their product appliances more efficient, we’re doing
    everything we possibly can to try to help the bills be kept down,

    while we’re having to make these big investments to keep the lights
    on, and to make sure that we don’t cook the planet, as you say.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    You mention the lights going out. There are predictions that we’re
    headed towards just 2% of spare capacity in the system in a few years’
    time.

    Are you worried about the dangers of, I don’t know, maybe not lights
    going out for some people, but perhaps big energy users being told
    when and when [ sic, meaning where ] they can’t use power in the
    winter ?

    [ Ed Davey ]

    Well, there’s no doubt that as the coal power stations come offline,
    and the nuclear power plants, er, close, we’re going to have make sure
    that new power plants are coming on to replace them.

    And if we don’t, there will be a problem with energy security.

    Now we’ve been working very hard over a long time now to make sure we
    attract that investment. We’ve been working with Ofgem, the regulator;
    with National Grid, and we’re…

    [ Tom Heap ]

    …Being [ or it’s being ] tough. I don’t see companies racing to come
    and fill in the gap here and those coal power plants are going off
    soon.

    [ Ed Davey ]

    …we’re actually having record levels of energy investment in the country.

    The problem was for 13 years under the last Government
    [ same old, same old Coalition argument ] we saw low levels of investment
    in energy, and we’re having to race to catch up, but fortunately we’re
    winning that race. And we’re seeing, you know, billions of pounds
    invested but we’ve still got to do more. We’re not there. I’m not
    pretending we’re there yet. [ Are we there, yet ? ] But we do have the
    policies in place.

    So, Ofgem is currently consulting on a set of proposals which will
    enable it to have reserve power to switch on at the peak if it’s
    needed.

    We’re, we’ve, bringing forward proposals in the Energy Bill for what’s
    called a Capacity Market, so we can auction to get that extra capacity
    we need.

    So we’ve got the policies in place.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Some of Ed Davey’s policies, not least the LibDem [ Liberal Democrat
    Party ] U-turn on nuclear, have been guided by DECC [ Department of
    Energy and Climate Change ] Chief Scientist David MacKay, author of
    the influential book “Renewable Energy without the Hot Air” [ sic,
    actually “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” ].

    Does he think the lights will dim in the second half of this decade ?

    [ David MacKay ]

    I don’t think there’s going to be any problem maintaining the capacity
    that we need. We just need to make clear where Electricity Market
    Reform [ EMR, part of the Energy Bill ] is going, and the way in which
    we will be maintaining capacity.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    But I don’t quite understand that, because it seems to me, you know,
    some of those big coal-fired power stations are going to be going off.
    What’s going to be coming in their place ?

    [ David MacKay ]

    Well, the biggest number of power stations that’s been built in the
    last few years are gas power stations, and we just need a few more gas
    power stations like that, to replace the coal
    , and hopefully some
    nuclear power stations will be coming on the bars, as well as the wind
    farms that are being built at the moment.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And you’re happy with that increase in gas-fired power stations, are
    you ? I mean, you do care deeply, personally, about reducing our
    greenhouse gases, and yet you’re saying we’re going to have to build
    more gas-fired power stations.

    [ David MacKay ]

    I do. Even in many of the pathways that reach the 2050 target, there’s
    still a role for gas in the long-term, because some power sources like
    wind and solar power are intermittent, so if you want to be keeping
    the lights on in 2050 when there’s no wind and there’s no sun, you’re
    going to need some gas power stations there
    . Maybe not operating so
    much of the time as they do today, but there’ll still be a role in
    keeping the lights on.

    [ KLAXON ! If gas plants are used only for peak periods or for backup to
    renewables, then the carbon emissions will be much less than if they are
    running all the time. ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Many energy experts though doubt that enough new wind power or nuclear
    capacity could be built fast enough to affect the sums in a big way by
    2020.

    But that isn’t the only critical date looming over our energy system.
    Even more challenging, though more distant, is the legally binding
    objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

    David MacKay wants that certainty to provide the foundation for energy
    decisions, and he showed me the effect of different choices with the
    “Ultimate Future Energy App”. I was in his office, but anyone can try it online.

    [ David MacKay ]

    It’s a 2050 calculator. It computes energy demand and supply in
    response to your choices, and it computes multiple consequences of
    your choices. It computes carbon consequences. It also computes for
    you estimates of air quality, consequences of different choices;
    security of supply, consequences; and the costs of your choices.

    So with this 2050 calculator, it’s an open source tool, and anyone can
    go on the web and use the levers to imagine different futures in 2050
    of how much action we’ve taken in different demand sectors and in
    different supply sectors.

    The calculator has many visualisations of the pathway that you’re choosing
    and helps people understand all the trade-offs… There’s no silver
    bullet for any of this. If I dial up a pathway someone made earlier,
    we can visualise the implications in terms of the area occupied for
    the onshore wind farms, and the area in the sea for the offshore wind
    farms, and the length of the wave farms that you’ve built, and the
    land area required for energy crops.

    And many organisations have used this tool and some of them have given
    us their preferred pathway. So you can see here the Friends of the
    Earth have got their chosen pathway, the Campaign to Protect Rural
    England, and various engineers like National Grid and Atkins have got
    their pathways.

    So you can see alternative ways of achieving our targets, of keeping
    the lights on and taking climate change action. All of those pathways
    all meet the 2050 target, but they do so with different mixes.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And your view of this is you sort of can’t escape from the scientific
    logic and rigour of it. You might wish things were different or you
    could do it differently, but you’re sort of saying “Look, it’s either
    one thing or the other”. That’s the point of this.

    [ David MacKay ]

    That’s true. You can’t be anti-everything. You can’t be anti-wind and
    anti-nuclear and anti-home insulation. You won’t end up with a plan
    that adds up.

    [ KLAXON ! But you can be rationally against one or two things, like
    expensive new nuclear power, and carbon and particulate emissions-heavy
    biomass for the generation of electricity. ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    But isn’t that exactly kind of the problem that we’ve had, without
    pointing political fingers, that people rather have been
    anti-everything, and that’s why we’re sort of not producing enough new
    energy sources ?

    [ David MacKay ]

    Yeah. The majority of the British public I think are in favour of many
    of these sources, but there are strong minorities who are vocally
    opposed to every one of the major levers in this calculator. So one
    aspiration I have for this tool is it may help those people come to a
    position where they have a view that’s actually consistent with the
    goal of keeping the lights on.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Professor MacKay’s calculator also computes pounds and pence,
    suggesting that both high and low carbon electricity work out pricey
    in the end.

    [ David MacKay ]

    The total costs of all the pathways are pretty much the same.
    “Business as Usual” is cheaper in the early years, and then pays more,
    because on the “Business as Usual”, you carry on using fossil fuels,
    and the prices of those fossil fuels are probably going to go up.

    All of the pathways that take climate change action have a similar
    total cost, but they pay more in the early years, ’cause you have to
    pay for things like building insulation and power stations, like
    nuclear power stations, or wind power, which cost up-front, but then
    they’re very cheap to run in the future.

    [ KLAXON ! Will the cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors and the
    costs of the waste disposal be cheap ? I think not… ]

    So the totals over the 40 or 50 year period here, are much the same for these.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    The cheapest immediate option of all is to keep shovelling the coal.
    And last year coal overtook gas to be our biggest electricity
    generation source, pushing up overall carbon emissions along the way
    by 4.5%

    [ KLAXON ! This is not very good for energy security – look where the
    coal comes from… ]

    As we heard earlier, most coal-fired power stations are scheduled for
    termination, but some have won a reprieve, and trees are their
    unlikely saviour.

    Burning plenty of wood chip [ actually, Tom, it’s not wood “chip”, it’s
    wood “pellets” – which often have other things mixed in with the wood,
    like coal… ] allows coal furnaces to cut the sulphur dioxide and nitrous
    oxide belching from their chimneys to below the level that requires their
    closure under European law.

    But some enthusiasts see wood being good for even more.

    16:19

    [ Outside ]

    It’s one of those Autumn days that promises to be warm, but currently
    is rather moist. I’m in a field surrounded by those dew-laden cobwebs
    you get at this time of year.

    But in the middle of this field is a plantation of willow. And I’m at
    Rothamsted Research with Angela Karp who’s one of the directors here.

    Angela, tell me about this willow I’m standing in front of here. I
    mean, it’s about ten foot high or so, but what are you seeing ?

    [ Angela Karp ]

    Well, I’m seeing one of our better varieties that’s on display here.
    We have a demonstration trial of about ten different varieties. This
    is a good one, because it produces a lot of biomass, quite easily,
    without a lot of additional fertilisers or anything. And as you can
    see it’s got lovely straight stems. It’s got many stems, and at the
    end of three years, we would harvest all those stems to get the
    biomass from it. It’s nice and straight – it’s a lovely-looking, it’s
    got no disease, no insects on it, very nice, clean willow.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    So, what you’ve been working on here as I understand it is trying to
    create is the perfect willow – the most fuel for the least input – and
    the easiest to harvest.

    [ Angela Karp ]

    That’s absolutely correct, because the whole reason for growing these
    crops is to get the carbon from the atmosphere into the wood, and to
    use that wood as a replacement for fossil fuels. Without putting a lot
    of inputs in, because as soon as you add fertilisers you’re using
    energy and carbon to make them, and that kind of defeats the whole
    purpose of doing this.

    [ KLAXON ! You don’t need to use fossil fuel energy or petrochemicals or
    anything with carbon emissions to make fertiliser ! … Hang on, these
    are GM trees, right ? So they will need inputs… ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And how much better do you think your new super-variety is, than say,
    what was around, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. ‘Cause willow as an
    idea for burning has been around for a bit. How much of an improvement
    is this one here ?

    [ Angela Karp ]

    Quite a bit. So, these are actually are some of the, if you like,
    middle-term varieties. So we started off yielding about 8 oven-dry
    tonnes per hectare, and now we’ve almost doubled that.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    How big a place do you think biomass can have in the UK’s energy
    picture in the future ?

    [ Angela Karp ]

    I think that it could contribute between 10% and 15% of our energy. If
    we were to cultivate willows on 1 million hectares, we would probably
    provide about 3% to 4% of energy in terms of electricity, and I think
    that’s kind of a baseline figure. We could cultivate them on up to 3
    million hectares, so you can multiply things up, and we could use them
    in a much more energy-efficient way.

    [ KLAXON ! Is that 4% of total energy or 4% of total electricity ?
    Confused. ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Do we really have 3 million hectares going a-begging for planting willow in ?

    [ Angela Karp ]

    Actually, surprisingly we do. So, people have this kind of myth
    there’s not enough land, but just look around you and you will find
    there’s lots of land that’s not used for cultivating food crops.

    We don’t see them taking over the whole country. We see them being
    grown synergistically with food crops.

    [ KLAXON ! This is a bit different than the statement made in 2009. ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    But I’d just like to dig down a little bit more into the carbon cycle
    of the combustion of these things, because that’s been the recent
    criticism of burning a lot of biomass, is that you put an early spike
    in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, if you start burning a lot
    of biomass, because this [ sounds of rustling ], this plant is going
    to be turned into, well, partly, CO2 in the atmosphere.

    [ Angela Karp ]

    Yes, I think that’s probably a simple and not totally correct way of
    looking at it. ‘Cause a lot depends on the actual conversion process
    you are using.

    So some conversion processes are much more efficient at taking
    everything and converting it into what you want.

    Heat for example is in excess of 80%, 90% conversion efficiency.

    Electricity is a little bit more of the problem. And there, what
    they’re looking at is capturing some of the carbon that you lose, and
    converting that back in, in carbon storage processes, and that’s why
    there’s a lot of talk now about carbon storage from these power
    stations.

    That I think is the future. It’s a question of connecting up all parts
    of the process, and making sure that’s nothing wasted.

    20:02

    [ Tom Heap ]

    So, is wood a desirable greener fuel ?

    Not according to Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch, who objects to the
    current plans for large-scale wood burning, its use to prop up coal,
    and even its low carbon claims.

    [ Almuth Ernsting ]

    The currently-announced industry plans, and by that I mean existing
    power stations, but far more so, power stations which are in the
    planning process [ and ] many of which have already been consented –
    those [ biomass ] power stations, would, if they all go ahead,
    require to burn around 82 million tonnes of biomass, primarily wood,
    every year. Now by comparison, the UK in total only produces around
    10 million tonnes, so one eighth of that amount, in wood, for all
    industries and purposes, every year.

    We are looking on the one hand at a significant number of proposed,
    and in some cases, under-construction or operating new-build biomass
    power stations, but the largest single investment so far going into
    the conversion of coal power station units to biomass, the largest and
    most advanced one of which at the moment is Drax, who are, have
    started to move towards converting half their capacity to burning wood
    pellets.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Drax is that huge former, or still currently, coal-fired power station
    in Yorkshire, isn’t it ?

    [ Almuth Ernsting ]

    Right, and they still want to keep burning coal as well. I mean, their
    long-term vision, as they’ve announced, would be for 50:50 coal and
    biomass.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    What do you think about that potential growth ?

    [ Almuth Ernsting ]

    Well, we’re seriously concerned. We believe it’s seriously bad news
    for climate change, it’s seriously bad news for forests, and it’s
    really bad news for communities, especially in the Global South, who
    are at risk of losing their land for further expansion of monoculture
    tree plantations, to in future supply new power stations in the UK.

    A really large amount, increasingly so, of the wood being burned,
    comes from slow-growing, whole trees that are cut down for that
    purpose, especially at the moment in temperate forests in North
    America. Now those trees will take many, many decades to grow back
    and potentially re-absorb that carbon dioxide, that’s if they’re
    allowed and able to ever grow back.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    There’s another technology desperate for investment, which is critical
    to avoiding power failure, whilst still hitting our mid-century carbon
    reduction goals – CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, the ability to
    take the greenhouse gases from the chimney and bury them underground.

    It’s especially useful for biomass and coal, with their relatively
    high carbon emissions, but would also help gas be greener.

    The Chancellor has approved 30 new gas-fired power stations, so long
    as they are CCS-ready [ sic, should be “capture ready”, or
    “carbon capture ready” ].

    Jon Gibbons is the boss of the UK CCS Research Centre, based in an
    industrial estate in Sheffield.

    [ Noise of processing plant ]

    Jon’s just brought me up a sort of 3D maze of galvanized steel and
    shiny metal pipes to the top of a tower that must be 20 or so metres
    high.

    Jon, what is this ?

    [ Jon Gibbons ]

    OK, so this is our capture unit, to take the CO2 out of the combustion
    products from gas or coal. In the building behind us, in the test rigs
    we’ve got, the gas turbine or the combustor rig, we’re burning coal or
    gas, or oil, but mainly coal or gas.

    We’re taking the combustion products through the green pipe over
    there, bringing it into the bottom of the unit, and then you can see
    these big tall columns we’ve got, about 18 inches diameter, half a
    metre diameter, coming all the way up from the ground up to the level
    we’re at.

    It goes into one of those, it gets washed clean with water, and it
    goes into this unit over here, and there it meets an amine solvent, a
    chemical that will react reversibly with CO2, coming in the opposite
    direction, over packing. So, it’s like sort of pebbles, if you can
    imagine it, there’s a lot of surface area. The gas flows up, the
    liquid flows down, and it picks up the CO2, just mainly the CO2.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    And that amine, that chemical as you call it, is stripping the CO2 out
    of that exhaust gas. This will link to a storage facility.

    What would then happen to the CO2 ?

    [ Jon Gibbons ]

    What would then happen is that the CO2 would be compressed up to
    somewhere in excess of about 100 atmospheres. And it would turn from
    being a gas into something that looks like a liquid, like water, about
    the same density as water. And then it would be taken offshore in the
    UK, probably tens or hundreds of kilometres offshore, and it would go
    deep, deep down, over a kilometre down into the ground, and basically
    get squeezed into stuff that looks like solid rock. If you go and look
    at a sandstone building – looks solid, but actually, maybe a third of
    it is little holes. And underground, where you’ve got cubic kilometres
    of space, those little holes add up to an awful lot of free space. And
    the CO2 gets squeezed into those, over time, and it spreads out, and
    it just basically sits there forever, dissolves in the water, reacts
    with the rocks, and will stay there for millions of years.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Back in his office, I asked Jon why CCS seemed to be stuck in the lab.

    [ Jon Gibbons ]

    We’re doing enough I think on the research side, but what we really
    need to do, is to do work on a full-scale deployment. Because you
    can’t work on research in a vacuum. You need to get feedback –
    learning by doing – from actual real projects.

    And a lot of the problems we’ve got on delivering CCS, are to do with
    how you handle the regulation for injecting CO2, and again, you can
    only do that in real life.

    So what we need to do is to see the commercialisation projects that
    are being run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change actually
    going through to real projects that can be delivered.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Hmm. When I talk to engineers, they’re always very passionate and
    actually quite optimistic about Carbon Capture and Storage. And when
    I talk to people in industry, or indeed read the headlines, not least
    a recent cancellation in Norway, it always seems like a very bleak picture.

    [ Jon Gibbons ]

    I think people are recognising that it’s getting quite hard to get
    money for low carbon technologies.

    So – recent presentation we had at one of our centre meetings, was
    actually a professor from the United States, Howard Herzog. And he
    said “You think you’re seeing a crisis in Carbon Capture and Storage.
    But what you’re actually seeing is a crisis in climate change
    mitigation.”

    [ KLAXON ! Priming us for a scaling back of commitment to the
    Climate Change Act ? I do hope not. ]

    Now, Carbon Capture and Storage, you do for no other purpose than
    cutting CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, and it does that extremely
    effectively. It’s an essential technology for cutting emissions. But
    until you’ve got a global process that says – actually we’re going to
    get on top of this problem; we’re going to cut emissions – get them to
    safe level before we actually see people dying in large numbers from
    climate change effects – ’cause, certainly, if people start dying,
    then we will see a response – but ideally, you’d like to do it before
    then. But until you get that going, then actually persuading people to
    spend money for no other benefit than sorting out the climate is
    difficult.

    There’s just no point, you know, no country can go it alone, so you
    have to get accommodation. And there, we’re going through various
    processes to debate that. Maybe people will come to an accommodation.
    Maybe the USA and China will agree to tackle climate change. Maybe
    they won’t.

    What I am fairly confident is that you won’t see huge, you know,
    really big cuts in CO2 emissions without that global agreement. But
    I’m also confident that you won’t see big cuts in CO2 emissions
    without CCS deployment.

    And my guess is there’s about a 50:50 chance that we do CCS before we
    need to, and about a 50:50 chance we do it after we have to. But I’m
    pretty damn certain we’re going to do it.

    [ Tom Heap ]

    But we can’t wait for a global agreement that’s already been decades
    in the making, with still no end in sight.

    We need decisions now to provide more power with less pollution.

    [ Music lyrics : “What’s the plan ? What’s the plan ?” ]

    [ Tom Heap ]

    Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford
    believes we can only deliver our plentiful green energy future if we
    abandon our attitude of buy-now pay-later.

    [ KLAXON ! Does he mean a kind of hire purchase energy economy ?
    I mean, we’re still paying for nuclear electricity from decades ago,
    in our bills, and through our taxes to the Department of Energy and
    Climate Change. ]

    [ Dieter Helm ]

    There’s a short-term requirement and a long-term requirement. The
    short-term requirement is that we’re now in a real pickle. We face
    this energy crunch. We’ve got to try to make the best of what we’ve
    got. And I think it’s really like, you know, trying to get the
    Spitfires back up again during the Battle of Britain. You know, you
    patch and mend. You need somebody in command. You need someone
    in control. And you do the best with what you’ve got.

    In that context, we then have to really stand back and say, “And this
    is what we have to do to get a serious, long-term, continuous, stable
    investment environment, going forward.” In which, you know, we pay the
    costs, but of course, not any monopoly profits, not any excess
    profits, but we have a world in which the price of electricity is
    related to the cost.”

    [ KLAXON ! Is Dieter Helm proposing state ownership of energy plant ? ]

    29:04

    [ Programme anchor ]

    “Costing the Earth” was presented by Tom Heap, and made in Bristol by
    Helen Lennard.

    [ Next broadcast : 16th October 2013, 21:00, BBC Radio 4 ]

  • Battle of the Lords

    Posted on July 12th, 2013 Jo 1 comment

    I don’t quite know what powers Lord Deben, John Gummer, but he looks remarkably wired on it. At this week’s PRASEG Annual Conference, he positively glowed with fervour and gumption. He regaled us with tales of debate in the House of Lords, the UK’s parliamentary “senior” chamber. He is a known climate change science adherent, and in speaking to PRASEG, he was preaching to the choir, but boy, did he give a bone-rattling homily !

    As Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, he is fighting the good fight for carbon targets to be established in all areas of legislation, especially the in-progress Energy Bill. He makes the case that emissions restraint and constraint is now an international business value, and of importance to infrastructure investment :-

    “The trouble with energy efficiency is that it’s not “boys’ toys” – there’s no “sex” in it. It is many small things put together to make a big thing. We won’t get to a point of decarbonisation unless we [continuously] make [the case for] [continuous] investment. […] GLOBE [of which I am a member] in a report – 33 major countries – doing so much. […] Look at what China is doing. Now a competitive world. If we want people to come here and invest, we need to have a carbon intensity target in 2030 [which will impact] [manufacturing] and the supply chain. [With the current strategy, the carbon targets are] put down in 2020 and picked up again in 2050. Too long a gap for business. They don’t know what happens in between. This is not all about climate change. It is about UK plc.”

    To supplement this diet of upbeat encouragement, he added a good dose of scorn for fellow Lords of the House, the Lords Lawson (Nigel Lawson) and Lord Ridley (Matt Ridley) who, he seemed to be suggesting, clearly have not mastered the science of climate change, and who, I believe he imputed, have lost their marbles :-

    “Apart from one or two necessary sideswipes, I agree with the previous speaker. There is no need for disagreement except for those who dismiss climate change. [I call them “dismissers” as we should not] dignify their position by calling them “sceptics”. We are the sceptics. We come to a conclusion based on science and we revisit it every time new science comes our way. They rifle through every [paper] to find every little bit that suppports their argument. I’ve listened to the interventions [in the House of Lords reading of and debate on the Energy Bill] of that group. Their line is the Earth is not [really] warming, so, it’s too expensive to do anything. This conflicts with today’s World Meteorological Organization measurements – that the last decade has been the warmest ever. I bet you that none of them [Lords] will stand up [in the House of Lords] and say “Sorry. We got it wrong.” They pick one set of statistics and ignore the rest. It is a concentrated effort to undermine by creating doubt. Our job is constantly to make it clear they we don’t need to argue the case – the very best science makes it certain [but never absolute]. You would be very foolish to ignore the consensus of view. […] In a serious grown-up world, we accept the best advice – always keeping an eye out for new information. Otherwise, [you would] make decisions on worst information – no sane person does that.”

    He encouraged us to encourage the dissenters on climate change science to view the green economy as an insurance policy :-

    “Is there a householder here who does not insure their houses against fire ? You have a 98% change of not having a fire. Yet you spend on average £140 a year on insurance. Because of the size of the disaster – the enormity of the [potential] loss. Basic life-supporting insurance. I’m asking for half of that. If only Lord Lawson would listen to the facts instead of that Doctor of Sports Science, Benny Peiser. Or Matt Ridley – an expert in the sexual habits of pheasants. If I want to know about pheasants, I will first ask Lord Ridley. Can he understand why I go to a climatologist first ? [To accept his view of the] risks effects of climate change means relying on the infallibility of Lord Lawson […]”

    He spoke of cross-party unity over the signing into law of the Climate Change Act, and the strength of purpose within Parliament to do the right thing on carbon. He admitted that there were elements of the media and establishment who were belligerently or obfuscatingly opposing the right thing to do :-

    “[We] can only win if the world outside has certainty about institutional government. This is a battle we have taken on and won’t stop till we win it. [The Lord Lawson and Lord Ridley and their position is] contrary to science, contrary to sense and contrary to the principle of insurance. They will not be listened to, not now, until UK has reduced level of carbon emissions, and we have [promised] our grandchildren they they are safe from climate change.”

    Phew ! That was a war cry, if ever there was one ! We are clearly in the Salvation Army ! I noted the attendance list, that showed several Gentlemen and Ladies of the Press should have been present, and hope to read good reports, but know that in some parts of the Gutter, anti-science faecal detritus still swirls. We in One Birdcage Walk were the assembly of believers, but the general public conversation on carbon is poisoned with sulphurous intent.

  • Birdcage Walk : Cheesestick Rationing

    Posted on July 12th, 2013 Jo 1 comment


    Yesterday…no, it’s later than I think…two days ago, I attended the 2013 Conference of PRASEG, the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group, at the invitation of Rhys Williams, the long-suffering Coordinator. “…Sorry…Are you upset ?” “No, look at my face. Is there any emotion displayed there ?” “No, you look rather dead fish, actually”, etc.

    At the prestigious seat of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), One Birdcage Walk, we were invited down into the basement for a “drinks reception”, after hearing some stirring speeches and intriguing panel discussions. Despite being promised “refreshments” on the invitation, there had only been beverages and a couple of bikkies up until now, and I think several of the people in the room were starting to get quite hypoglycemic, so were grateful to see actual food being offered.

    A market economy immediately sprang up, as there was a definite scarcity in the resources of cheesesticks, and people jostled amiably, but intentionally, so they could cluster closest to the long, crispy cow-based snacks. The trading medium of exchange was conversation. “Jo, meet Mat Hope from Carbon Brief, no Maf Smith from Renewable UK. You’ve both been eviscerated by Delingpole online”, and so on.

    “Welcome to our own private pedestal”, I said to somebody, who it turned out had built, probably in the capacity of developer, a sugarcane bagasse Combined Heat and Power plant. The little table in the corner had only got room around it for three or at most four people, and yet had a full complement of snack bowls. Bonus. I didn’t insist on memorising what this fellow told me his name was. OK, I didn’t actually hear it above the hubbub. And he was wearing no discernible badge, apart from what appeared to be the tinge of wealth. He had what looked like a trailing truculent teenager with him, but that could have been a figment of my imagination, because the dark ghost child spoke not one word. But that sullenness, and general anonymity, and the talkative gentleman’s lack of a necktie, and his slightly artificial, orange skin tone, didn’t prevent us from engaging wholeheartedly in a discussion about energy futures – in particular the default options for the UK, since there is a capacity crunch coming very soon in electricity generation, and new nuclear power reactors won’t be ready in time, and neither will Carbon Capture and Storage-fitted coal-fired power plants.

    Of course, the default options are basically Natural Gas and wind power, because large amounts can be made functional within a five year timeframe. My correspondent moaned that gas plants are closing down in the UK. We agreed that we thought that new Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plant urgently needs to be built as soon as possible – but he despaired of seeing it happen. He seemed to think it was essential that the Energy Bill should be completed as soon as possible, with built-in incentives to make Gas Futures a reality.

    I said, “Don’t wait for the Energy Bill”. I said, “Intelligent people have forecast what could happen to Natural Gas prices within a few years from high European demand and UK dependence, and are going to build gas plant for themselves. We simply cannot have extensions on coal-fired power plants…” He agreed that the Large Combustion Plant Directive would be closing the coal. I said that there was still something like 20 gigawatts of permissioned gas plant ready to build – and with conditions shaping up like they are, they could easily get financed.

    Earlier, Nigel Cornwall, of Cornwall Energy had put it like this :-

    “Deliverability and the trilemma [meeting all three of climate change, energy security and end-consumer affordability concerns] [are key]. Needs to be some joined-up thinking. […] There is clearly a deteriorating capacity in output – 2% to 5% reduction. As long as I’ve worked in the sector it’s been five minutes to midnight, [only assuaged by] creative thinking from National Grid.”

    However, the current situation is far from bog standard. As Paul Dickson of Glennmont Partners said :-

    “£110 billion [is needed] to meet the [electricity generation] gap. We are looking for new sources of capital. Some of the strategic institutional capital – pension funds [for example] – that’s who policy needs to be directed towards. We need to look at sources of capital.”

    Alistair Buchanan, formerly of Ofgem, the power sector regulator, and now going to KPMG, spent the last year or so of his Ofgem tenure presenting the “Crunch Winter” problem to as many people as he could find. His projections were based on a number of factors, including Natural Gas supply questions, and his conclusion was that in the winter of 2015/2016 (or 2016/2017) power supply could get thin in terms of expansion capacity – for moments of peak demand. Could spell crisis.

    The Government might be cutting it all a bit fine. As Jenny Holland of the Association for the Conservation of Energy said :-

    “[Having Demand Reduction in the Capacity Mechanism] Not our tip-top favourite policy outcome […] No point to wait for “capacity crunch” to start [Energy Demand Reduction] market.”

    It does seem that people are bypassing the policy waiting queue and getting on with drawing capital into the frame. And it is becoming more and more clear the scale of what is required. Earlier in the afternoon, Caroline Flint MP had said :-

    “In around ten years time, a quarter of our power supply will be shut down. Decisions made in the next few years. Consequences will last for decades. Keeping the lights on, and [ensuring reasonably priced] energy bills, and preventing dangerous climate change.”

    It could come to pass that scarcity, not only in cheesesticks, but in electricity generation capacity, becomes a reality. What would policy achieve then ? And how should Government react ? Even though Lord Deben (John Gummer) decried in the early afternoon a suggestion implying carbon rationing, proposed to him by Professor Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute, it could yet turn out that electricity demand reduction becomes a measure that is imposed in a crisis of scarcity.

    As I put it to my sugarcane fellow discussionee, people could get their gas for heating cut off at home in order to guarantee the lights and banks and industry stay on, because UK generation is so dependent on Natural Gas-fired power.

    Think about it – the uptake of hyper-efficient home appliances has turned down owing to the contracting economy, and people are continuing to buy and use electronics, computers, TVs and other power-sucking gadgets. Despite all sizes of business having made inroads into energy management, electricity consumption is not shifting downwards significantly overall.

    We could beef up the interconnectors between the UK and mainland Europe, but who can say that in a Crunch Winter, the French and Germans will have any spare juice for us ?

    If new, efficient gas-fired power plants are not built starting now, and wind farms roll out is not accelerated, the Generation Gap could mean top-down Energy Demand Reduction measures.

    It would certainly be a great social equaliser – Fuel Poverty for all !

  • Carbon Bubble : Unburnable Assets

    Posted on June 3rd, 2013 Jo No comments



    [ Image Credit : anonymous ]


    Yet again, the fossil fuel companies think they can get away with uncommented public relations in my London neighbourhood. Previously, it was BP, touting its green credentials in selling biofuels, at the train station, ahead of the Olympic Games. For some reason, after I made some scathing remarks about it, the advertisement disappeared, and there was a white blank board there for weeks.

    This time, it’s Esso, and they probably think they have more spine, as they’ve taken multiple billboard spots. In fact, the place is saturated with this advertisement. And my answer is – yes, fuel economy is important to me – that’s why I don’t have a car.

    And if this district is anything to go by, Esso must be pouring money into this advertising campaign, and so my question is : why ? Why aren’t they pouring this money into biofuels research ? Answer : because that’s not working. So, why aren’t they putting this public relations money into renewable gas fuels instead, sustainable above-surface gas fuels that can be used in compressed gas cars or fuel cell vehicles ?

    Are Esso retreating into their “core business” like BP, and Shell, concentrating on petroleum oil and Natural Gas, and thereby exposing all their shareholders to the risk of an implosion of the Carbon Bubble ? Or another Deepwater Horizon, Macondo-style blowout ?

    Meanwhile, the movement for portfolio investors to divest from fossil fuel assets continues apace…

  • Natural Gas in the UK

    Posted on February 27th, 2013 Jo No comments

    The contribution of coal-fired power generation to the UK’s domestic electrical energy supply appears to have increased recently, according to the December 2012 “Energy Trends” released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. This is most likely due to coal plants using up their remaining allotted operational hours until they need to retire.
    It could also be due to a quirk of the international markets – coal availability has increased because of gas glut conditions in the USA leading to higher coal exports. Combatting the use of coal in power generation is a global struggle that still needs to be won, but in the UK, it is planned that low carbon generation will begin to gain ascendance.

    The transition to lower carbon energy in Britain relies on getting the Natural Gas strategy right. With the imminent closure of coal-fired power plant, the probable decommissioning of several nuclear reactors, and the small tranche of overall supply coming from renewable resources, Natural Gas needs to be providing a greater overall percentage of electricity in the grid. But an increasing amount of this will be imported, since indigenous production is dropping, and this is putting the UK’s economy at risk of high prices and gas scarcity.

    Demand for electricity for the most part changes by a few percentage points a year, but the overall trend is to creep upwards (see Chart 4, here). People have made changes to their lighting power consumption, but this has been compensated for by an increase in power used by “gadgets” (see Chart 4, here). There is not much that can be done to suppress power consumption. Since power generation must increasingly coming from renewable resources and Natural Gas combustion, this implies strong competition between the demand for gas for heating and the demand gas for electricity. Electricity generation is key to the economy, so the power sector will win any competition for gas supplies. If competition for Natural Gas is strong, and since we don’t have much national gas storage, we can expect higher seasonal imports and therefore, higher prices.

    It is clear that improving building insulation across the board is critical in avoiding energy insecurity. I shall be checking the winter heat demand figures assiduously from now on, to determine if the Green Deal and related measures are working. If they don’t, the UK is in for heightened energy security risks, higher carbon emissions, and possibly much higher energy prices. The Green Deal simply has to work.

  • Gas Strategy “Dangerous Gamble”

    Posted on February 11th, 2013 Jo No comments

    I had a most refreshing evening at Portcullis House in Westminster this evening – apart from the fact that the Macmillan Room was overheated, so you couldn’t possibly deduce that energy conservation is intended to be part of the UK Government’s strategy, making an example with the public sector.

    Tonight was the launch of the Greenpeace and WWF-UK report “A Study into the Economics of Gas and Offshore Wind“, which was commissioned from Cambridge Econometrics.

    Professor Paul Ekins got up to speak and actually had the gall to declare the Government’s “Gas Strategy” to be a “dangerous gamble”. It was at this point that I took heart again – there are still some sane, rational people in the “national energy conversation”, even though Ekins did admit that he wasn’t sure that the “Gas Strategy” was an actual thing. Oh, but it is. All eighty pages of it.

    Today was not the first time Professor Paul Ekins called out the Government on this, apparently, although I didn’t have a recollection of seeing the the mention in New Scientist before today.

    Other highlights of the evening were provided by Laura Sandys MP naming her political opposition Alan Whitehead MP as the leader of a “parliamentary roadshow” on Energy and Climate Change, and questioning the use of the term “energy efficiency”. “It’s energy waste, guys”, she corrected and said we should be using that term instead of the “effete word efficiency”, and encouraged the energy waste prevention industry to get the rest of us engaged with their products.

    A chap from Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) – I think it might have been Kevin MacLean – got up during questions from the floor, and almost begged for a long-term framework – a plan for renewable energy – a “binding framework” to encourage investment and “get costs down”.

    It was pointed out during the evening, that, logically enough, that policy is important to energy futures, “if you have more certainty, you get more investment”. And there was encouragement to get Government Departments to think about this more. Yes, some subsidies and other forms of support are going to be needed to get the renewable energy revolution kickstarted, but “if [we] get benefits – isn’t that a price worth paying ?” The benefits outlined included potential for some small growth in the economy, around about 0.8% GDP, but good prospects for high value employment in depressed coastal towns where much of the offshore wind industry will host engineers, both for construction and ongoing operations and maintenance.

    Laura Sandys MP was ashamed to say that she may no longer be able to claim she has the two largest offshore wind farms in her constituency – as progress is being made elsewhere.

    Sarah Merrick from Vestas, the wind power engineering firm, emphasised that the economics of wind power stacks up and that it’s important to communicate this – despite the current dismissive media agenda – where she said it is important to defend the industry against certain media claims.

    Lord Alan Haworth brought up the inevitable question of renewable energy intermittency – “days of dead calm and dark nights”. He raised the statistic that weather systems in Europe can cover 1,500 kilometres, so if wind power is down in the UK, it’s going to be down elsewhere in the EU electricity networks – the countries we have interconnectors with. What he didn’t elaborate on was this – just as the UK is beefing (and I don’t mean “up to 100% horsing about”) up its connections with the European electricity networks, so too, Europe as a whole is beginning to reach out with its networks to satellite countries. What that could mean is that even if wind-powered electrons in the UK take a dive, electrons could still appear in the power network from very far afield, and shunt power to the UK.

    The speaker from the Crown Estate said that it was “sensible” to push for a good quantity of wind power – and that the report was a compelling argument. He regretted that it could not be guaranteed that the wind power-ed economy would necessarily have more of its supply chain in the UK – as various bodies have to comply with EU trade rules – but that there was a commitment in one part of the industry to 50% indigenous resourcing and employment (if I noted that down correctly).

    Long-term policy clarity was espoused. Disappointment was expressed in the Coalition Government’s flip-flop about gas – emphasising the development of gas-powered electricity generation at the expense of projecting high levels of renewables (65%, says the report, is perfectly feasible) – and that it gave mixed messages – which weren’t helping investment decisions. Sarah Merrick repeated the E.On line that UK electricity should be “balanced by gas, not based on gas”, although she didn’t explain that they weren’t necessarily talking about wind power being the mainstay of new generation capacity.

    It was generally agreed that David Cameron should lead and adopt the EU 2030 renewable energy targets – to enable billions of new confidence in the UK energy sector.

    Not having a strong lead on renewable energy and energy waste reduction would be an “abdication of responsibility on the part of the policy-creating machine”. And, “even if shale gas does materialise”, it would not provide much stimulus.