Jumping off Mount Gideon

[Friends, I have suffered a little writer’s block, so I resolved to spark some creativity in myself by joining a little local writers group. The leader of the group suggested a title, I Googled the allegedly fictional location and found it existed, and that it was near a wind farm; and Google Maps led me to the rest of my research and inspiration for this piece. Caveat Lector : it’s fictional, even though a lot of it is factual. Also, it’s only a draft, but it needs to settle for a while before I can refine/sift it. ]

Jumping Off Mount Gideon [1]
by Jo Abbess
DRAFT

In the blue-green sun-kissed uplands, west of the sediment-spewing Chocolate River sprung at Petitcodiac village, and north of the shrunken Shepody Lake, its feeder tributaries re-engineered hundreds of years ago; north still of the shale flats jutting out into the Bay of Fundy, rises Mount Gideon, shrouded in managed native Canadian spruce, pine and fir. Part of the ranging, half-a-billion-year-old craton of the Caledonian Highlands of New Brunswick, it is solid ground, and its first European inhabitants must have been hardy. Looking up, the early settlers must have seen the once-bare hinterland looming over the mudstone and sandstone shoreline, with its steep gullied waterways carved by the receding pre-historic icesheets, and it must have been redolent of the mountainous “encampments of the just” [2] where the Biblical Gideon of the Book of Judges [3] trained his elite crack troops and plotted his revenge against the hordes of ravaging Midianites. The fur-trappers and gravel miners on the eve of the 18th Century built a community by the bay, and drove a winding road up through Mount Gideon’s ravines and over its heights, a byway long since eroded and erased and replaced by a functional forestry access track. Ethnic cleansing of the first-come Acadians in the summer of 1755 destroyed much of the larger settlements in the region of Chipoudy, henceforth anglicised to Shepody. Two groups of deportation vigilantes, originally tasked with taking prisoners, burned down the infrastructure and put to death those who hadn’t fled to the woods, and since that day, nobody really lives up on the mount, aside from the occasional lumberjack in his trailer home cached off New Ireland Road, and the odd temporary bivouac of touring hippy couples, en route from Hopewell Rocks to Laverty Falls on the Moosehorn Trail in the national park, via the Caledonia Gorge and Black Hole on the Upper Salmon River. These days there is no risk of social crisis, but an insidious slow-moving environmental crisis is underway. Streams falling from Mount Gideon, spider lines scratched on early parish maps, the West River and Beaver Brook, no longer flow year-round, and there’s very little freshwater locally, apart from a few scattered tarns, cradled in the impervious igneous, plutonic rock of the hinterland. Rainwater does support the timber plantations, for now, but drought and beetle are a rising threat, brought on by creeping climate change. Humans may no longer be setting fires, but Nature is, because human beings have interfered with the order of things.

Mount Gideon isn’t really a proper peak : from its summit it’s clear it’s only a local undulation like other protruding spine bones in the broad back of the hills. Its cap sprouts industrial woodland, planted in regular patterns visible from space, reached by gravel-bordered runnelled dirt track. The former ancient water courses that fall away sharply from the highest point on the weald are filled with perilously-rooted trees, leaning haphazardly out from the precipitous banks of the ravines. The plantations and roadside thickets obscure the view of Chignecto Bay and the strong-tided Minas Passage, where the tidal turbine energy project is still being developed. With no coastal horizon, this could be hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, in the centre of an endless Avalonian Terrane. A silvicultural and latterly agroforestry economy that grew from the wealth of wood eventually developed a dependence on fossil fuels, but what thin coal seams locally have long been exhausted, and the metamorphic mass underfoot salts no petroleum oil or gas beneath. Tanker ship and truck brought energy for tractor and homestead for decades, but seeing little future in the black stuff, local sparsely-populated Crown Land was designated for renewable energy. Just to the north of Mount Gideon lie the Kent Hills, a scene of contention and social protest when the wind farm was originally proposed. For some, wind turbines would mechanise the landscape, cause frequency vibration sickness, spark forest fires from glinting blades, induce mass migraine from flickering sweeps of metal. Windmills were seen as monsters, but sense prevailed, through the normal processes of local democracy and municipal authority, and even a wind farm expansion came about. It is true that engineering giants have cornered the market in the first development sweep of wind power – those hoping for small-scale, locally-owned new energy solutions to the carbon crisis have had to relent and accept that only big players have the economic power to kickstart new technologies at scale. There are some who suspect that the anti-turbine groups were sponsored secretly by the very firms who wanted to capitalise on the ensuing vacuum in local energy supply; and that this revolt went too far. There was speculation about sabotage when one of the wind turbine nacelles caught fire a while back and became a sneering viral internet sensation. When the shale gas 1970s extraction technology revival circus came to Nova Scotia, the wind power companies were thought to have been involved in the large protest campaign that resulted in a New Brunswick moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the coastal lowlands. The geology was anyways largely against an expansion in meaningful fossil fuel mining in the area, and the central Precarboniferous massif would have held no gas of any kind, so this was an easily-won regulation, especially considering the risks to the Chignecto Bay fisheries from mining pollution.

TransAlta, they of “Clean Power, Today and Tomorrow”, sensed an prime moment for expansion. They had already forged useful alliances with the local logging companies during the development of Kent Hills Wind Farm, and so they knew that planning issues could be overcome. However, they wanted to appease the remnant of anti-technologists, so they devised a creative social engagement plan. They invited energy and climate change activists from all over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the rest of Quebec to organise a pro-wind power camp and festival on the top of Mount Gideon. The idea was to celebrate wind power in a creative and co-operative way. The Crown Land was clearcut of trees as the first stage of the wind farm expansion, so the location was ideal. To enable the festival to function, water was piped to the summit, teepees and yurts were erected, and a local food delivery firm was hired to supply. The ambition of the cultural committee was to create an open, welcoming space with plenty of local colour and entertainment, inviting visitors and the media to review plans for the new wind farm. The festival was an international Twitter success, and attracted many North American, European and even Australasian revellers, although a small anarchist group from the French national territory in St Pierre et Miquelon created a bit of a diplomatic incident by accidentally setting fire to some overhanging trees in a ravine during a hash-smoking party.

Unbeknownst to the festival committee, a small and dedicated group of activists used the cover of the camp to plan a Gideon-style resistance to the Energy East pipeline plan. TransCanada wanted to bring heavy tar sands oil, blended with American light petroleum condensate, east from Alberta. The recent history of onshore oil pipelines and rail consignments was not encouraging – major spills had already taken place – and several disastrous accidents, such as the derailment and fireball at Plaster Rock, where the freight was routed by track to Irving Refinery. The original Energy East plan was to bring oil to the Irving Oil Canaport facility at Saint John, but a proposal had been made to extend the pipeline to the Atlantic coast. The new route would have to either make its circuitous way through Moncton, or cross under the Bay of Fundy, in order to be routed to Canso on the eastern side of Nova Scotia. The Energy East pipeline was already being criticised because of its planned route near important waterways and sensitive ecological sites. And the activist group had discovered that TransCanada had contracted a site evaluation at Cape Enrage on the western shore of the bay. Land jutted out into the water from here, making it the shortest crossing point to Nova Scotia. To route a pipeline here would mean it would have to cross Fundy National Park, sensitive fish and bird wading areas on the marshes and mudflats of the Waterside and Little Ridge, and cross over into the Raven Head Wilderness Area.

Gideon’s campaign had succeeded because of three things. His army had been whittled down to a compact, focused, elite force; they had used the element of surprise, and they had used the power of the enemy against itself. The activist group decided on a high level of secrecy about their alliance, but part of their plan was very public. They were divided into three groups : the Wasps, the Eagles and the Hawks. The Wasps would be the hidden force. They would construct and test drones, jumping off Mount Gideon, and flown out at night down the old river gullies, their route hidden by the topography, to spy on the TransCanada surface works. The plan was that when they had had enough practice the team would be ready to do this on a regular basis in future. If TransCanada did start building a pipeline here, the Wasps would be able to come back periodically and transport mudballs by drone to drop in the area. These squidgy payloads of dirt would contain special cultures of bacteria, including methanogens, that produce methane and other volatile chemicals. The environmental monitoring teams at the site would pick up spikes in hydrocarbon emissions, and this would inevitably bring into question the integrity of the pipeline. The Eagles would start a nationwide campaign for legal assistance, asking for lawyers to work pro bono to countermand the Energy East pipeline route, deploying the most recent scientific research on the fossil fuel industry, and all the factors that compromise oil and gas infrastructure. The Hawks would develop relationships with major energy investors, such as pension funds and insurance firms, and use public relations to highlight the risks of fossil fuel energy development, given the risks of climate change and the geological depletion of high quality resources. Nobody should be mining tar sands – the dirtiest form of energy ever devised. If TransCanada wanted to pipeline poisonous, toxic, air-damaging, climate-changing gloop all across the pristine biomes of precious Canada, the Mount Gideon teams were going to resist it in every way possible.

What the Mount Gideon teams did not know, but we know now, was that some of the activists at the camp were actually employees of the New Brunswick dynasties Irving and McCain. These families and their firms had saved the post-Confederation economy of the Maritime Provinces in the 20th Century, through vertical integration. Internally, within the Irving conglomerate, many recognised that fossil fuels had a limited future, even though some of the firms were part of the tar sands oil pipeline project. They were intending to take full advantage of the suspension of the light oil export ban from the United States for the purpose of liquefying Canadian heavy oils to make a more acceptable consumer product, as well as being something that could actually flow through pipes. They had held secret negotiations between their forestry units and the McCain family farming businesses. Research done for the companies had revealed that synthetic, carbon-neutral gas could be made from wood, grains and grasses, and that this would appeal to potential investors more than tar sands projects. They realised that if the Energy East project failed, they could step in to fill the gap in the energy market with their own brand of biomass-sourced renewables. They calculated that the potential for Renewable Gas was an order of magnitude larger than that of wind power, so they stood to profit as low carbon energy gained in popularity. Once again, in energy, big business intended to succeed, but they needed to do so in a way that was not confrontational. What better than to have a bunch of activists direct attention away from carbon-heavy environmentally-damaging energy to allow your clean, green, lean solutions to emerge victorious and virtuous ?

Notes

[1] This is a fictional, marginally futuristic account, but contains a number of factual, current accuracies.
[2] Bible, Psalm 34
[3] Bible, Judges 6-8

The Delta, The Ramp, The Stretch and The Duck #1

I gave a guest lecture at Birkbeck College, of the University of London on the evening of 22nd February 2017 in the evening, as part of the Energy and Climate Change module. I titled it, “Renewable Gas for Energy Storage : Scaling up the ‘Gas Battery’ to balance Wind and Solar Power and provide Low Carbon Heat and Transport”.

The basic concept is that since wind and solar power are variable in output, there has to be some support from other energy technologies. Some talk of batteries to store electrical energy as a chemical potential, and when they talk of batteries they think of large Lithium ion piles, or flow batteries, or other forms of liquid electrolyte with cathodes and anodes. When I talk about batteries, I think of electrical energy stored in the form of a gas. This gas battery doesn’t need expensive metal cathodes or anodes, and it doesn’t need an acid liquid electrolyte to operate. Gas that is synthesised from excess solar or wind power can be a fuel that can be used in chemical reactions, such as combustion, or burning, to generate electricity and heat when desired at some point in the future. It could be burned in a gas turbine, a gas boiler or a fuel cell, or in a vehicle engine. Or instead, a chemically inert gas can be stored under pressure, and this compressed gas can also be used to generate power on demand at a later date by harnessing energy from decompression. Another option would be holding a chemically reactive gas under pressure, allowing two stages of energy recovery.

As expected, the Birkbeck audience was very diverse, and had different social and educational backgrounds, and so there was little that could be assumed as common knowledge, especially since the topic was energy, which is normally only an interest for engineers, or at a stretch, economists.

I decided when preparing that I would attempt to use symbolism as a tool to build a narrative in the presentation. A bold move, perhaps, but I found it created an emblematic thread that ran through the slides quite nicely, and helped me tell the story. I used Mathematical and Physical notation, but I didn’t do any Mathematics or Physics.

I introduced the first concept : the Delta, or change. I explained this delta was not the same as a river delta, which gave me the excuse to show a fabulous night sky image of the Nile Delta taken from the International Space Station. I demonstrated the triangle shape that emerges from charting data that changes over time, and calculating its gradient, such as the temperature of the Earth’s surface.

I explained that the change in temperature of the Earth’s surface over the recent decades is an important metric to consider, not just in terms of scale, but in terms of speed. I showed that this rate of change appears in all the independent data sets.

I then went on to explain that the overall trend in the change in the temperature of the Earth’s surface is not the only phenomenon. Within regions, and within years and seasons, even between months and days, there are smaller scale changes that may not look like the overall delta. A lot of these changes give the appearance of cyclic phenomena, and they can have a periodicity of up to several decades, for example, “oscillations” in the oceans.

These discrete deltas and cycles could, to a casual observer, mask underlying trends, especially as the deltas can be larger than the trends; so climatologists look at a large set of measurements of all kinds, and have shown that some deltas are one way only, and are not cycling.

Teasing out the trends in all of the observations is a major enterprise that has been accomplished by thousands of scientists who have reported to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Fifth Assessment Report is the most comprehensive yet, and shows that global warming is almost certainly ramping up – in other words, global warming is getting faster, or accelerating.

Many projections for the future of temperature changes at the Earth’s surface have been done, with the overall view that temperatures are likely to carry on rising for hundreds of years without an aggressive approach to curtail net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere – principally carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

From observations, it is clear that global warming causes climate change, and that the rate of temperature change is linked to the rate of climate change. In symbols, this reads : delta T for temperature over t for time leads to, or implies, a delta C for climate over t for time. The fact that global warming and its consequential climate change are able to continue worsening under the current emissions profile means that climate change is going to affect humanity for a long stretch. It also means that efforts to rein in emissions will also need to extend over time.

I finished this first section of my presentation by showing a list of what I call “Solution Principles” :-

1. Delays embed and extend the problem, making it harder to solve. So don’t delay.

2. Solve the problem at least as fast as creating it.

3. For maximum efficiency, minimum cost, and maximum speed, re-deploy agents of the problem in its solution.

In other words, make use of the existing energy, transport, agriculture, construction and chemical industries in approaching answers to the imperative to address global warming and climate change.

JODI Oil and BP #4

In my seemingly futile and interminable quest to reconcile the differences between the data provided by the JODI Oil organisation and BP as revealed in part by the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy, I have moved on to looking at production (primary supply), found a problem as regards Africa, and had some confirmation that a major adjustment in how the data is collected happened in 2009.

First – the problem with Africa. The basket “Other Africa” for oil production is far less in the BP data than it is in the JODI Oil data – shown by negative figures in the comparison. For 2015, this is approximately 65% in scale (-3800 KBD) of the summed positive difference between the BP and JODI figures for the named countries (5884 KBD). This reminds me that there was a problem with the refined oil product consumption figures for “Other Africa” as well. Without a detailed breakdown of individual country accounts from BP it is almost impossible to know where these differences arise, it seems to me, or begin to understand why these differences are so large. Maybe I should just ask BP for a full country breakdown – if they’d ever deign to communicate this kind of information with me. Standing by my email Inbox right now… Could be here some time…

It is fairly clear from the comparison for North America that a major shift in understanding by either BP or JODI Oil took place in 2009, as the oil production data converge significantly for that year onwards. There was similar evidence of this in the refined oil products consumption data.

As with the consumption data, the production data for the Middle East region is strongly divergent between BP and JODI. I did read something potentially useful in the JODI Oil Manual, which I would recommend everyone interested in energy data to read. In the notes for Crude Oil, I read : “One critical issue is whether the volumes of NGL, lease or field condensates and oils extracted from bituminous minerals are included. All organisations exclude NGL from crude oil. If condensates are able to be excluded, it should be noted to the JODI organisation(s) of which the country/economy is a member. Most OPEC member countries exclude condensates.” Now, I guess, the struggle will be to find some data on condensates. Of which there are a variety of sources and nomenclature, be they light liquid hydrocarbons from oil and gas production or oil and gas refining/processing/cryoprocessing. There may be faultlines of comprehension and categorisation, such as about who considers NGPL or Natural Gas Plant Liquids from Natural Gas processing plants to be in the category of NGLs – Natural Gas Liquids, and therefore effectively in the bucket of Crude Oil.

I’m no closer to any answers on why BP oil data doesn’t align with JODI Oil data. And it looks like I’ve just opened a whole can of condensate wormy questions.

Peak Oil Redux

Peak conventional crude petroleum oil production is apparently here already – the only thing that’s been growing global total liquids is North American unconventional oils : tight oil – which includes shale oil in the United States of America – and tar sands oil from bitumen in Canada – either refined into synthetic crude, or blended with other oils – both heavy and light.

But there’s a problem with unconventional oils – or rather several – but the key one is the commodity price of oil, which has been low for many months, and has caused unconventional oil producers to rein in their operations. It’s hitting conventional producers too. A quick check of Section 3 “Oil data : upstream” in OPEC’s 2016 Annual Statistical Bulletin shows a worrying number of negative 2014 to 2015 change values – for example “Active rigs by country”, “Wells completed in OPEC Members”, and “Producing wells in OPEC Members”.

But in the short term, it’s the loss of uneconomic unconventional oil production that will hit hardest. Besides problems with operational margins for all forms of unconventionals, exceptional air temperatures (should we mention global warming yet ?) in the northern part of North America have contributed to a seizure in Canadian tar sands oil production – because of extensive wildfires.

Here’s two charted summaries of the most recent data from the EIA on tight oil (which includes shale oil) and dry shale gas production in the United States – which is also suffering.

Once the drop in North American unconventionals begins to register in statistics for global total liquids production, some concern will probably be expressed. Peak Oil just might be sharper and harder and sooner than some people think.

New Hands on DECC

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lies That You Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cumbria Floods : Climate Defenceless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Policy Reset

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.

A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

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.

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DECC Dungeons and Dragnets

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.

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Nuclear Power Is Not An Energy Policy

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.

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Shell and BP : from “Delay and Deny” to “Delay and Distract”

Shell, BP and some of their confederates in the European oil and gas industry have inched, or perhaps “centimetred”, forward in their narrative on climate change. Previously, the major oil and gas companies were regularly outed as deniers of climate change science; either because of their own public statements, or because of secretive support of organisations active in denying climate change science. It does seem, finally, that Shell in particular has decided to drop this counter-productive “playing of both sides”. Not that there are any “sides” to climate change science. The science on climate change is unequivocal : changes are taking place across the world, and recent global warming is unprecedented, and has almost definitely been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change.

So Shell and BP have finally realised that they need to shed the mantle of subtle or not-so-subtle denial, although they cling to the shreds of dispute when they utter doubts about the actual numbers or impacts of global warming (for example : http://www.joabbess.com/2015/06/01/shells-public-relations-offensive/). However, we have to grant them a little leeway on that, because although petrogeologists need to understand the science of global warming in order to know where to prospect for oil and gas, their corporate superiors in the organisation may not be scientists at all, and have no understanding of the global carbon cycle and why it’s so disruptive to dig up all that oil and gas hydrocarbon and burn it into the sky. So we should cut the CEOs of Shell and BP a little slack on where they plump for in the spectrum of climate change narrative – from “utter outright doom” to “trifling perturbation”. The central point is that they have stopped denying climate change. In fact, they’re being open that climate change is happening. It’s a miracle ! They have seen the light !

But not that much light, though. Shell and BP’s former position of “scepticism” of the gravity and actuality of global warming and climate change was deployed to great effect in delaying any major change in their business strategies. Obviously, it would have been unseemly to attempt to transmogrify into renewable energy businesses, which is why anybody in the executive branches who showed signs of becoming pro-green has been shunted. There are a number of fairly decent scalps on the fortress pikes, much to their shame. Shell and BP have a continuing duty to their shareholders – to make a profit from selling dirt – and this has shelved any intention to transition to lower carbon energy producers. Granted, both Shell and BP have attempted to reform their internal businesses by applying an actual or virtual price on carbon dioxide emissions, and in some aspects have cleaned up and tidied up their mining and chemical processing. The worsening chemistry of the cheaper fossil fuel resources they have started to use has had implications on their own internal emissions control, but you have to give them credit for trying to do better than they used to do. However, despite their internal adjustments, their external-facing position of denial of the seriousness of climate change has supported them in delaying major change.

With these recent public admissions of accepting climate change as a fact (although CEOs without appropriate science degrees irritatingly disagree with some of the numbers on global warming), it seems possible that Shell and BP have moved from an outright “delay and deny” position, which is to be applauded.

However, they might have moved from “delay and deny” to “delay and distract”. Since the commencement of the global climate talks, from about the 1980s, Shell and BP have said the equivalent of “if the world is serious about acting on global warming (if global warming exists, and global warming is caused by fossil fuels), then the world should agree policy for a framework, and then we will work within that framework.” This is in effect nothing more than the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has put forward, so nobody has noticed that Shell and BP are avoiding taking any action themselves here, by making action somebody else’s responsibility.

Shell and BP have known that it would take some considerable time to get unanimity between governments on the reality and severity of climate change. Shell and BP knew that it would take even longer to set up a market in carbon, or a system of carbon dioxide emissions taxation. Shell and BP knew right from the outset that if they kept pushing the ball back to the United Nations, nothing would transpire. The proof of the success of this strategy was the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The next proof of the durability of this delaying tactic will be the outcomes of the Paris 2015 conference. The most that can come out of Paris is another set of slightly improved targets from governments, but no mechanism for translating these into real change.

Shell and BP and the other oil and gas companies have pushed the argument towards a price on carbon, and a market in carbon, and expensive Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Not that a price on carbon is likely to be anywhere near high enough to pay for Carbon Capture and Storage. But anyway, the point is that these are all distractions. What really needs to happen is that Shell and BP and the rest need to change their products from high carbon to low carbon. They’ve delayed long enough. Now is the time for the United Nations to demand that the fossil fuel companies change their products.

This demand is not just about protecting the survival of the human race, or indeed, the whole biome. Everybody is basically on the same page on this : the Earth should remain liveable-inable. This demand for change is about the survival of Shell and BP as energy companies. They have already started to talk about moving their businesses away from oil to gas. There are high profile companies developing gas-powered cars, trains, ships and possibly even planes. But this will only be a first step. Natural Gas needs to be a bridge to a fully zero carbon world. The oil and gas companies need to transition from oil to gas, and then they need to transition to low carbon gas.

Renewable Gas is not merely “vapourware” – the techniques and technologies for making low carbon gas are available, and have been for decades, or in some cases, centuries. Shell and BP know they can manufacture gas instead of digging it up. They know they can do the chemistry because they already have to do much of the same chemistry in processing fossil hydrocarbons now to meet environmental and performance criteria. BP has known since the 1970s or before that it can recycle carbon in energy systems. Shell is currently producing hydrogen from biomass, and they could do more. A price on carbon is not going to make this transition to low carbon gas. While Shell and BP are delaying the low carbon transition by placing focus on the price of carbon, they could lose a lot of shareholders who shy away from the “carbon bubble” risk of hydrocarbon investment. Shell and BP need to decide for themselves that they want to survive as energy companies, and go public with their plans to transition to low carbon gas, instead of continuing to distract attention away from themselves.

Why Shell is Wrong

So, some people do not understand why I am opposed to the proposal for a price on carbon put forward by Royal Dutch Shell and their oil and gas company confederates.

Those who have been following developments in climate change policy and the energy sector know that the oil and gas companies have been proposing a price on carbon for decades; and yet little has been achieved in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, even though carbon markets and taxes have been instituted in several regions.

Supporters of pricing carbon dioxide emissions urge the “give it time” approach, believing that continuing down the road of tweaking the price of energy in the global economy will cause a significant change in the types of resources being extracted.

My view is that economic policy and the strengthening of carbon markets and cross-border carbon taxes cannot provide a framework for timely and major shifts in the carbon intensity of energy resources, and here’s a brief analysis of why.

1.   A price on carbon shifts the locus of action on to the energy consumer and investor

A price on carbon could be expected to alter the profitability of certain fossil fuel mining, drilling and processing operations. For example, the carbon dioxide emissions of a “tank of gas” from a well-to-wheel or mine-to-wheel perspective, could be made to show up in the price on the fuel station forecourt pump. Leaving aside the question of how the carbon tax or unit price would be applied and redistributed for the moment, a price on carbon dioxide emissions could result in fuel A being more expensive than fuel B at the point of sale. Fuel A could expect to fall in popularity, and its sales could falter, and this could filter its effect back up the chain of production, and have implications on the capital expenditure on the production of Fuel A, and the confidence of the investors in investing in Fuel A, and so the oil and gas company would pull out of Fuel A.

However, the business decisions of the oil and gas company are assumed to be dependent on the consumer and the investor. By bowing to the might god of unit price, Shell and its confederates are essentially arguing that they will act only when the energy consumers and energy investors act. There are problems with this declaration of “we only do what we are told by the market” position. What if the unit price of Fuel A is only marginally affected by the price on carbon ? What if Fuel A is regarded as a superior product because of its premium price or other marketing factors ? This situation actually exists – the sales of petroleum oil-based gasoline and diesel are very healthy, despite the fact that running a car on Natural Gas, biogas or electricity could be far cheaper. Apart from the fact that so many motor cars in the global fleet have liquid fuel-oriented engines, what else is keeping people purchasing oil-based fuels when they are frequently more costly than the alternative options ?

And what about investment ? Fuel A might become more costly to produce with a price on carbon, but it will also be more expensive when it is sold, and this could create an extra margin of profit for the producers of Fuel A, and they could then return higher dividends to their shareholders. Why should investors stop holding stocks in Fuel A when their rates of return are higher ?

If neither consumers nor investors are going to change their practice because Fuel A becomes more costly than Fuel B because of a price on carbon, then the oil and gas company are not going to transition out of Fuel A resources.

For Shell to urge a price on carbon therefore, is a delegation of responsibility for change to other actors. This is irresponsible. Shell needs to lead on emissions reduction, not insist that other people change.

2.   A price on carbon will not change overall prices or purchasing decsions

In economic theory, choices about products, goods and services are based on key factors such as trust in the supplier, confidence in the product, availability and sustainability of the service, and, of course, the price. Price is a major determinant in most markets, and artificially altering the price of a vital commodity will certainly alter purchasing decisions – unless, that is, the price of the commodity in question increases across the board. If all the players in the field start offering a more expensive product, for example, because of supply chain issues felt across the market, then consumers will not change their choices.

Now consider the global markets in energy. Upwards of 80% of all energy consumed in the global economy is fossil fuel-based. Putting a price on carbon will raise the prices of energy pretty much universally. There will not be enough cleaner, greener product to purchase, so most purchasing decisions will remain the same. Price differentiation in the energy market will not be established by asserting a price on carbon.

A key part of Shell’s argument is that price differentiation will occur because of a price on carbon, and that this will drive behaviour change, and yet there is nothing to suggest it could do that effectively.

3.   A price on carbon will not enable Carbon Capture and Storage

Athough a key part of Shell’s argument about a price on carbon is the rationale that it would stimulate the growth in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), it seems unlikely that the world will ever agree to a price on carbon that would be sufficient to stimulate significant levels of CCS. A price on carbon will be deemed to be high enough when it creates a difference in the marginal extra production cost of a unit of one energy resource compared to another. A carbon price can only be argued for on the basis of this optimisation process – after all – a carbon price will be expected to be cost-efficient, and not punitive to markets. In other words, carbon prices will be tolerated if they tickle the final cost of energy, but not if they mangle with it. However, CCS could imply the use of 20% to 45% extra energy consumption at a facility or plant. In other words, CCS would create a parasitic load on energy resources that is not slim enough to be supported by a cost-optimal carbon price.

Some argue that the technology for CCS is improving, and that the parasitic load of CCS at installations could be reduced to around 10% to 15% extra energy consumption. However, it is hard to imagine a price on carbon that would pay even for this. And additionally, CCS will continue to require higher levels of energy consumption which is highly inefficient in the use of resources.

Shell’s argument that CCS is vital, and that a price on carbon can support CCS, is invalidated by this simple analysis.

4.   Shell needs to be fully engaged in energy transition

Calling for a price on carbon diverts attention from the fact that Shell itself needs to transition out of fossil fuels in order for the world to decarbonise its energy.

Shell rightly says that they should stick to their “core capabilities” – in other words geology and chemistry, instead of wind power and solar power. However, they need to demonstrate that they are willing to act within their central business activities.

Prior to the explosion in the exploitation of deep geological hydrocarbon resources for liquid and gas fuels, there was an energy economy that used coal and chemistry to manufacture gas and liquid fuels. Manufactured gas could still replace Natural Gas, if there are climate, economic or technological limits to how much Natural Gas can be resourced or safely deployed. Of course, to meet climate policy goals, coal chemistry would need to be replaced by biomass chemistry, and significant development of Renewable Hydrogen technologies.

Within its own production facilities, Shell has the answers to meet this challenge. Instead of telling the rest of the world to change its economy and its behaviour, Shell should take up the baton of transition, and perfect its production of low carbon manufactured gas.

Shell’s Public Relations Offensive #2

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.

Zero Careers In Plainspeaking

There are many ways to make a living, but there appear to be zero careers in plainspeaking.

I mean, who could I justify working with, or for ? And would any of them be prepared to accept me speaking my mind ?

Much of what I’ve been saying over the last ten years has been along the lines of “that will never work”, but people generally don’t get consulted or hired for picking holes in an organisation’s pet projects or business models.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role in the British Government ? Short answer : no.

The slightly longer answer : The British Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ? No, they’re still hooked on the failed technology of nuclear power, the stupendously expensive and out-of-reach Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and the mythical beast of shale gas. OK, so they have a regular “coffee club” about Green Hydrogen (whatever that turns out to be according to their collective ruminations), and they’ve commissioned reports on synthetic methane, but I just couldn’t imagine they’re ever going to work up a serious plan on Renewable Gas. The British Government Department for Transport ? No, they still haven’t adopted a clear vision of the transition of the transport sector to low carbon energy. They’re still chipping away at things instead of coming up with a strategy.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a British oil and gas multinational ? Short and very terse and emphatic answer : no.

The extended answer : The oil and gas companies have had generous support and understanding from the world’s governments, and are respected and acclaimed. Yet they are in denial about “unburnable carbon” assets, and have dismissed the need for Energy Change that is the outcome of Peak Oil (whether on the supply or the demand side). Sneakily, they have also played both sides on Climate Change. Several major oil and gas companies have funded or in other ways supported Climate Change science denial. Additionally, the policy recommendations coming from the oil and gas companies are what I call a “delayer’s game”. For example, BP continues to recommend the adoption of a strong price on carbon, yet they know this would be politically unpalatable and take decades (if ever) to bring into effect. Shell continues to argue for extensive public subsidy support for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), knowing this would involve such huge sums of money, so it’s never going to happen, at least not for several decades. How on Earth could I work on any project with these corporations unless they adopt, from the centre, a genuine plan for transition out of fossil fuels ? I’m willing to accept that transition necessitates the continued use of Natural Gas and some petroleum for some decades, but BP and Royal Dutch Shell do need to have an actual plan for a transition to Renewable Gas and renewable power, otherwise I would be compromising everything I know by working with them.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a large engineering firm, such as Siemens, GE, or Alstom, taking part in a project on manufactured low carbon gas ? I suppose so. I mean, I’ve done an IT project with Siemens before. However, they would need to demonstrate that they are driving for a Renewable Gas transition before I could join a gas project with them. They might not want to be so bold and up-front about it, because they could risk the wrath of the oil and gas companies, whose business model would be destroyed by engineered gas and fuel solutions.

Could I imagine myself building fuel cells, or designing methanation catalysts, or improving hydrogen production, biocoke/biocoal manufacture or carbon dioxide capture from the oceans… with a university project ? Yes, but the research would need to be funded by companies (because all applied academic research is funded by companies) with a clear picture on Energy Change and their own published strategy on transition out of fossil fuels.

Could I imagine myself working on rolling out gas cars, buses and trucks ? Yes. The transition of the transport sector is the most difficult problem in Energy Change. However, apart from projects that are jumping straight to new vehicles running entirely on Hydrogen or Natural Gas, the good options for transition involve converting existing diesel engine vehicles to running mostly on Natural Gas, such as “dual fuel”, still needing roughly 20% of liquid diesel fuel for ignition purposes. So I would need to be involved with a project that aims to supply biodiesel, and have a plan to transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas.

Could I imagine myself working with a team that has extensive computing capabilities to model carbon dioxide recycling in power generation plant ? Yes.

Could I imagine myself modelling the use of hydrogen in petroleum refinery, and making technological recommendations for the oil and gas industry to manufacture Renewable Hydrogen ? Possibly. But I would need to be clear that I’m doing it to enable Energy Change, and not to prop up the fossil fuel paradigm – a game that is actually already bust and needs helping towards transition.

Could I imagine myself continuing to research the growth in Renewable Gas – both Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane – in various countries and sectors ? Possibly. It’s my kind of fun, talking to engineers.

But whatever future work I consider myself doing, repeatedly I come up against this problem – whoever asked me to work with them would need to be aware that I do not tolerate non-solutions. I will continue to say what doesn’t work, and what cannot work.

If people want to pay me to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work, then fine, I’ll take the role.

I’d much rather stay positive, though, and forge a role where I can promote the things that do work, can work and will work.

The project that I’m suitable for doesn’t exist yet, I feel. I’m probably going to continue in one way or another in research, and after that, since I cannot see a role that I could fit easily or ethically, I can see I’m going to have to write my own job description.

Renewable Gas : A Presentation #1

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

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.

European Referendum : Corpse Factory

So I was in a meeting on a dateless date, at an organisation with a nameless name, with some other unidentifiable people in the room with me. For some reason I had been invited, I cannot think why. Ah, yes, I can. I was invited to attend because, apparently, I am a “campaigner”. I am, allegedly, somebody who buys into the notion that communications should serve the purpose of directing public attention and support towards a particular outcome, decided in advance by a political elite. And it seems, if I believe something is right, and that a message needs communicating, I will take action, but never invoice, because I am a believer. Well let me tell you right here and now, I am not that person. I may have that reputation, but really, I despise propaganda : the deliberate formation of a murmur of Tweet starlings, or the collective wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of the same story, the scandal story hauled out to scare the horses and herd them to the salt water shore, the faux narrative of collective political or social will for change.

I want to believe that even though I am occasionally paid to communicate a story (but most often not), that my narrative, and importantly my agenda, is my own. I will not be co-opted. I shall not be defined by storytelling, I shall not be paid for spreading information – for if I were to be telling money-backed tales, I may end up peddling lies. And I do not want lies to be spoken. I am an ontologist. My ontology is :-

SO
IT IS
AS
IT IS.

and not

IT IS
AS
IT IS,
SO…

There is no “therefore” in what I write. When I say “should”, like, “we should adopt renewable energy”, it’s your choice as to whether you agree with me. You shouldn’t read anything and be swayed or directed, except by the force of reason based on evidence. I am the photographer, the recorder, but not the public relations consultant. And I am especially not an unsalaried volunteer. I paint the future using my own perspective, my own understanding, my own research, my own best judgement, but I am not telling people what to think. Although I go slightly beyond merely noting and analysing what is happening, to articulate possible futures, I am not a persuader.

I do not want to write the script for the actions of the readers or listeners. I do not want to precipitate a revolution, or dehydrate the horses before leading them to the river bank. I want to describe rather than proscribe or prescribe. I want to scribe the way I see things, I do not do it in order to create waves or push buttons or light beacons. The facts should speak for themselves, and if anybody consumes my communication, they should be free to act as they feel fit, or suits. I am not a paid-for, paid-up, in-the-pocket campaigner. I am not spun round other peoples’ fingers like a talking puppet. I am a free person.

So, there I was in this meeting, and the people in the room were discussing an event that is likely to take place. It appears from some analysis that the next British Government could well be another Coalition Government, with the Conservative Party having only a shaving of a majority for rule. And when they have crossed the i’s and dotted the t’s and formed a currently impossible political marriage, which I’m guessing will involve the Green Party as well as the Liberal Democrats, then they will need to live up to their promise to hold a referendum on British participation in the Grand European Experiment – economic union with other European countries.

But nobody talks about Europe. Except to complain. In the meeting I attended, the hosts of the meeting were consulting for ways to highlight the Europe Question, and to give it a pro-Union light.

For me, it’s facile. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is just a bunch of mediocre-sized islands off the coast of the European continent. Something like 80% of UK trade is with European countries, because Europe is our gateway to the rest of the global market, and you always do the most trade with your neighbours. It’s natural. Can anybody seriously suggest we ditch the Common Market – the agreements that European countries have come to to ensure common standards of goods and services, common terms and conditions of trade and common legal processes regulating trade ? So we want to reserve some kind of sovereignty over some kinds of decisions ? Why ? The UK is heavily involved in the central European institutions and governance bodies. We have massive input. We vote for MEPs. Why should things not go our way ? And even if things don’t go perfectly our way, will the negotiated compromises be so bad ? Subsidiarity – making decisions at the lowest/best/most appropriate level of administration – that’s still going to keep a lot of British control over British affairs. Surely the UK suffers a greater risk of interference from any pan-Atlantic trade deal that it does from Europe ?

The UK have made commitments. Our Parliament has agreed that we need to work on climate change, social justice and economic stability. We have implicitly agreed that to address climate change we need Energy Change and environmental regulation; to achieve social justice we need human rights, justice, health, education and a benefits system; and for economic stability we need economic stimuli – for example, in national infrastructure projects. In terms of climate change and Energy Change there is so much we need to do. If we stay in Europe, all of this will be so much easier. Within the European project for energy market harmonisation is the work on standards to achieve gas and electricity grid harmonisation. The improvement and augmenting of interconnections between countries, and the provision of wider energy storage, will enable the balanced use of renewable energy. Governments need to create incentives for deploying renewable energy. Governments need to create mechanisms to leverage and facilitate renewable energy deployment. Without Europe, outwith Europe, it will cost us more, and be more complex. Within Europe, it will be easier.

So, in the meeting I attended, I put forward my vision : if the UK stays in Europe, it will be easier to handle problems of energy – improving and replacing infrastructure and plant, co-ordinating the uptake of new renewable energy technologies and dealing with emerging energy security issues. Why, the North Sea, as everybody knows, is draining dry, and we can only build certain levels of relationship with countries outside the European Union, such as Russia. If the UK left the EU, the EU would be competitors with the UK for Russian Natural Gas, for example. I said I thought that energy security was a good thing to explain to people and a good reason to raise support for UK’s continued participation in Europe.

So, somebody else in the meeting, who shall remain faceless and nameless, poured very cold water on this idea. They seemed to disbelieve that the UK faces risks to energy security. Instead, they suggested that the pro-Europe argument should be based on how the UK can “keep our place at the table”. How out of touch can one get, I thought to myself ? This kind of patrician argument is not going to wash. Appealing to some non-existent pride in the UK’s continued role as stakeholder in the European project is going to go down like a lead balloon. It’s a vote loser, for sure.

What most people care about first is money. Their money. Any appeal to their pockets is going to help. We live in tough times – thanks to Government austerity policy – and we still cannot get a handle on public borrowing and spending. Because of the Government’s austerity policy.

So how about we cast it like this : your energy is going to get much more expensive if the UK abandons the European community of nations. Plus, your lights could genuinely go out, unless you, the people, either as taxpayers or billpayers, fork out for new energy investments that the energy companies haven’t made for 20 years. Because of privatisation. Without taking part in the European energy market harmonisation, and the European development of new and renewable energy infrastructure, plant and networks, your bills could significantly rise/spiral out of control. If European companies were required to sell energy assets back to the UK, because the UK pulled out of Europe, we would be in a very fine mess indeed. Do you really want this kind of chaos ? Energy policy in the UK is already bad enough.

The facts are available to those who search : British production of oil and gas from the North Sea is declining at something like 6% a year. The UK became a net energy importer between 2004 and 2006 (depending on how you define it). The Netherlands will become a net Natural Gas importer in the 2020s. Norway’s Natural Gas will reach a peak some time in the 2020s. It’s no good thinking that because the UK is a “gas hub”, and that British finance can currently spin up gas imports to the UK, that this situation is going to remain true. Within 10 to 15 years, I think that the UK will face significant competition for Natural Gas supplies with other European countries. Better to be in the debating chamber, surely, rather than scratching at the wind-and-rain-splattered window from outside ? So can the UK forge a gas alliance with countries outside the European Union, and apart from Norway ? A gas import alliance that sticks ? And that isn’t demolished by competition from the rest of the European Union for gas supplies that come through pipes sitting in European Union territory ? OK, the UK might want to leave full European Union membership, and join Norway in the European Economic Area, but will this guarantee beneficial import status for Natural Gas from countries that supply the full members of the European Community ?

I said, instead of trying to talk about direct opposites – either Inside Europe or Outside Europe – let’s talk about how things can be helped by wider co-operation. The European Union was founded on energy treaties – coal and nuclear energy (and steel), and now Europe needs to move to a union forged on renewable power and Natural Gas – and later Renewable Gas – and it’s going to be so much easier to do if the UK stays at the party.

The North Sea needs re-developing. Not for oil, but for wind power. This is going to happen best with full cross-border co-operation. Already, the UK has agreed to play a large part in the “North Sea Offshore Grid” wind power project in league with Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. And Luxembourg, strangely, although it doesn’t have a coast. Unlike new nuclear power, which could be decades in construction, offshore and onshore wind in Europe can be quick-build. If you want new power, you pick wind and solar. And, despite policy fumbles, this is happening. Actually, in the end, who really cares about subsidies for renewable energy, when the most capital-heavy organisations in the world start backing renewable power ? In some ways, I don’t care who brings me low carbon energy, and I don’t care if I have to pay for it through my tax or my bills, I just want it to happen. OK, offshore wind power is for the big boys, and you’re never going to get a diversity of suppliers with this project, and the dreams of decentralised energy are vapours, whisked away by giant engineering firms, but at least renewable energy is going to happen. One day people will realise that for the newspapers to rehearse the arguments of High Net Worth Individuals, and for sheep-like energy ministers to complain about onshore wind power and solar farms, is just a way to keep small electricity generators out of the energy markets, and allow the incumbent energy players to keep making profits. But when the need for a multiplicity of small energy installations becomes critical, I think this tune will change.

I can see all this. But, because I am not a spin meister, or spin meistress, or a campaigner, I’m not going to be crafting fine messages to share with my networks on this particular subject. I did start (see below), but then I thought better of it. I dislike the use of social media, web logging and journalism to push an agenda. The trouble is, I know that the people who are vehemently against the European endeavour have so many trigger arguments tested and ready to deploy, such as : immigration, regulations, budgetary demands. None of these stand up to scutiny, but they are very easy props on which to deploy Corpse Factory scares and scandals, up there with the War on Terror. The pro-European segment of the population always stays so silent. If there were to be a Referendum on Europe today, I can pretty much guarantee a kneejerk exit. The British public act collectively by reflex. They never re-analyse their position. They mob, gang and plunder.

I don’t think pro-Europe organisations know how to sell Europe. But they shouldn’t need to “sell” Europe. European membership should be an obvious best choice. So why should I try to talk up Europe ? I couldn’t have any influence, as one lone voice, against the Daily Mails, Daily Expresses and Daily Telegraphs of this world. And anyway, it’s not really my fight to fight. I don’t have a job title that reads “arch propagandist”. I am not that person. It does not become me. I prefer straight-talking, not mind-bending.

I won’t get invited back. That’s just fine. I am not a volunteer campaigner. I’m not a political pusher. I’ve only played the role of “evangelist” on climate change, renewable energy and good policy because sometimes there is little else I can think of that might help or make a difference. But I don’t have any influence. And I don’t want any. I am just going to continue telling it the way I see it. Giving my perspective. I cannot guarantee any outcomes. And anyway, I prefer democratic engagement over salesmanship. Don’t ask me to sell your ideas, your policies, your projections. I don’t want to.

Full membership of the European Union is the logical option for the United Kingdom, no matter how many tired dead donkey corpses the rabid tabloid media keep digging up to appall us all. Sooner or later, we also need to consider joining the Euro currency, and I predict we will, but I’m not your convincer on that argument, either.




“What has Europe ever done for us ?”

Common Climate : Common Cause : Common Market

On climate change, the United Kingdom has secured the Climate Change Act, legislation with broad-based support across all political parties. The UK shares the concerns of other European countries about the potential risks and impacts from climate change in our geographical region. Society-level change in response to climate change includes energy change – changing the sources and use of energy – and changing policies for land use to include planting forests and energy crops. Within the European Community, the UK has worked to secure region-wide legislation on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste control and air quality. All of these contribute to the response to climate change, and have developed action on climate change into a common cause. In addition to regulatory change, the European Community is seeking to develop trading mechanisms to enable carbon dioxide emissions control, and it working to develop a common market in carbon.

Common Future : Common Purpose : Common Interest

Common Values : Common Opportunities : Common Voice

Common Security : Common Goals : Common Networks

Common Infrastructure : Common Society : Common Protection

Common Standards : Common Framework : Common Development

Climbing the Concern Ladder

How do we get things changed in a democracy ? The model of political campaigning that has been established over the last century is failing us. In the past, if there was a problem, a small group of people could create a fuss about it, march some placards to somewhere relevant, write some letters, talk to some dignitaries, chain themselves to some railings, occupy a lobby, get some press, and after some years, maybe, get something done.

These days there are just too many complaints for them all to be heard. Philanthropic, charitable and political messages crowd the stage. In this age of social media, the campaign metaphor has been replaced by a ladder of concern. Concern is expressed. Hopefully others will find that they too are sufficiently concerned, and reflect that concern through some medium. And slowly, it is hoped, this concern climbs the ladder of attention, until it is visible, audible. The entitled and endowed middle classes catch the concern, and repeat it. Lots of emails fly. George Monbiot writes about it in The Guardian. Some speeches are made at serious meetings. Angelina Jolie is invited to grace a conference. And then, hopefully, this concern hits the people who have some kind of leverage over the problem, and they act.

Action is almost guaranteed if the concern is the result of a specific outrage, committed by a specific person or group, and has a specific solution. But otherwise, who knows ? How universal and impactful does a concern need to be before it gets acted upon ? And surely some things don’t need campaigns, because the governments already know enough about problems such as people trafficking, slavery, animal welfare, crime and torture ? After all, things such as prostitution and illegal drug trade are included in national economic statistics.

I took public transport today in London and I was doused in outrage pouring from advertisements asking for charitable giving to prevent the inhuman practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As I read these appeals, I felt two overwhelming sensations – one of intense anger that children are being permanently injured because of insane and unjustifiable, hateful beliefs about female sexuality. And a second feeling of dragging despair that giving a small donation every month to this organisation would have very little impact on abusive culture, which leads to many forms of violation, not just the unimaginably painful and destructive incision and even resection of a child’s clitoris and the sewing together of her labia, leading to permanent nerve damage, lasting wounds, loss of sexual function, complications from incontinence, ruined relationships, injuries from sexual intercourse, and serious medical risks during childbirth, and possibly the need for reconstructive surgery.

This is a problem which cannot be fixed by expressing normal murmurs of concern, building a wave of concern that climbs a ladder of concern, or making monthly token charitable payments. This concern is not susceptible to a campaign. What this problem needs is regulation, legislation, policing. This concern shouldn’t have to compete with all the other concerns out there, like distressed retired donkeys, threatened butterflies, meltdown polar bears, de-forested orangutans and by-catch dolphins. Some things just shouldn’t happen. They just shouldn’t be tolerated. And they shouldn’t be lost amongst an avalanche of other concerns. This problem is so serious that it should be an automatic priority for all the authorities, co-ordinating to detect and prevent it. This concern shouldn’t have to campaign for funds. Or attention.

Switch to BBC News. Roger Harrabin reports that “The UK’s chief scientist says the oceans face a serious and growing risk from man-made carbon emissions. […] Sir Mark Walport warns that the acidity of the oceans has increased by about 25% since the industrial revolution, mainly thanks to manmade emissions. […] He told BBC News: “If we carry on emitting CO2 [carbon dioxide] at the same rate, ocean acidification will create substantial risks to complex marine food webs and ecosystems.” […] The consequences of acidification are likely to be made worse by the warming of the ocean expected with climate change, a process which is also driven by CO2.”

Media Lens Editors reported this piece. My reaction was – who would be paying attention to this ? This is not the “dangerous climate change comes from global warming” story, this is the “other” carbon problem, the decimation of marine productivity and the whole pyramid of life, resulting from increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater because of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air. The overwhelmingly major causes of this problem are irrefutably and definitely fossil fuel combustion, and its seriousness is hard to deny, even though Roger Harrabin attempts to make light of it by devoting column inches to a laboratory crab who isn’t getting with the programme.

Ocean acidification is a concern that shouldn’t get lost in amongst other concerns. It should be paid serious levels of attention. And not just by middle class philanthropists who work for non-governmental organisations and charities. And yet, cursory analysis of the segmentation of the population who treat BBC News as a main and trusted information source may suggest that the only readers who would act on this piece are exactly these middle class charity staff, or at a push, retired middle class charity staff.

My Media Lens comment was, “Right expert. Right message. Wrong audience. Wrong medium. The UK Government’s chief scientist. OK. Good. Ocean acidification. OK. Good. No quibbles about whether or not extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a real problem or not (as known as “climate change” or “global warming”, which is real by the way). The BBC News. Wrong medium. Wrong audience. The only people going to listen to this are those who already know about the problem but are still as powerless to act as they were yesterday. The UK Government should present this information to the oil, gas and coal companies with a polite request for them to unveil their plan of action in the face of this undeniable problem.”

There is no reason why this story should be covered in BBC News by Roger Harrabin. What can anybody reading it do about the problem ? There is no purpose for this article. It is a pointless statement of concern, or rather, a belittling rehearsal of the concern. Unless this article, and the thousands like it, lead to the Government demanding answers on Energy Change from the fossil fuel companies, there is no point in reporting it, or in this case, disparaging it with faint humour.

The only time that ocean acidification should appear in a media piece is to report that the problem has been presented to the architects of increased ocean carbon dioxide, and answers have been requested.

And who are the architects of increased atmospheric and ocean carbon dioxide ? Those who mine fossil fuels. Those companies like BP and Shell, ExxonMobil, and all the coal extraction companies should act. They should offer us alternative non-fossil fuel energy. And the news should be about how these companies are taking action to offer us Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane, solar power, wind power and Zero Carbon transport fuels.

Answers from the past will simply not do. Trying to assert that somebody needs to pay for pollution won’t prevent pollution occurring. Carbon taxes or carbon pricing won’t work – since they won’t prevent the mining of fossil fuels – and if fossil fuels are mined, of course they will be burned. Carbon combustion quotas won’t work – since economic wealth is based on burning carbon, so many forces will conspire to maintain levels of fossil fuel combustion. Carbon mining quotas won’t work, since the forces for increasing mining quotas are strong. Carbon trading won’t work, since it won’t reduce the amount of fossil fuels mined – because, obviously, if fossil fuels are mined, they will be burned.

I am tired of reading about climate change, global warming, freshwater stress and ocean acidification in the news. It seems there is nothing I can do that I have not already done that can provide a solution to these problems. Enough with communicating the disaster. I want to read about engineering and energy companies who have switched business models to producing Zero Carbon energy. I want to hear how energy security concern is taking oil, gas and coal companies towards Renewable Everything.

This Too Will Fail

I will probably fail to make myself understood, yet again, but here goes…

The reasons the United Nations Climate Change process is failing are :-

1.   The wrong people are being asked to shoulder responsibility

It is a well-rumoured possibility that the fossil fuel industry makes sure it has sympathisers and lobbyists at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences. It is only natural that they should want to monitor proceedings, and influence outcomes. But interventions by the energy sector has a much wider scope. Delegates from the countries with national oil and gas companies are key actors at UNFCCC conferences. Their national interests are closely bound to their fossil fuel exports. Many other countries understand their national interest is bound to the success of energy sector companies operating within their borders. Still others have governments with energy policy virtually dictated by international energy corporations. Yet when the UNFCCC discusses climate change, the only obligations discussed are those of nations – the parties to any treaty are the governments and regimes of the world. The UNFCCC does not hold oil and gas (and coal) companies to account. BP and Shell (and Exxon and Chevron and Total and GDF Suez and Eni and so on) are not asked to make undertakings at the annual climate talks. Governments are hoped to forge a treaty, but this treaty will create no leverage for change; no framework of accountability amongst those who produce oil, gas and coal.

2.   The right people are not in the room

It’s all very well for Governments to commit to a treaty, but they cannot implement it. Yes, their citizens can make a certain amount of changes, and reduce their carbon emissions through controlling their energy consumption and their material acquisitions. But that’s not the whole story. Energy has to be decarbonised at source. There are technological solutions to climate change, and they require the deployment of renewable energy systems. The people who can implement renewable energy schemes should be part of the UNFCCC process; the engineering companies who make wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, the people who can build Renewable Gas systems. Companies such as Siemens, GE, Alstom. Energy engineering project companies. Chemical engineering companies.

3.   The economists are still in the building

In the United Kingdom (what will we call it if Scotland becomes independent ? And what will the word “British” then mean ?) the Parliament passed the Climate Change Act. But this legislation is meaningless without a means to implement the Carbon Budgets it institutes. The British example is just a minor parallel to the UNFCCC situation – how can a global climate treaty be made to work ? Most of the notions the economists have put forward so far to incentivise energy demand reduction and stimulate low carbon energy production have failed to achieve much. Carbon trading ! Carbon pricing ! All rather ineffective. Plus, there’s the residual notion of different treatment for developed and developing nations, which is a road to nowhere.

4.   Unilateral action is frowned upon

Apparently, since Climate Change is a global problem, we all have to act in a united fashion to solve it. But that’s too hard to ask, at least to start with. When countries or regions take it upon themselves to act independently, the policy community seem to counsel against it. There are a few exceptions, such as the C40 process, where individual cities are praised for independent action, but as soon as the European Community sets up something that looks like a border tax on carbon, that’s a no-no. Everybody is asked to be part of a global process, but it’s almost too hard to get anything done within this framework.

5.   Civil Society is hamstrung and tongue-tied

There is very little that people groups can achieve within the UNFCCC process, because there is a disconnect between the negotiations and practical action. The framework of the treaty discussions does not encompass the real change makers. The UNFCCC does not build the foundation for the architecture of a new green economy, because it only addresses itself to garnering commitments from parties that cannot fulfill them. Civil Society ask for an egg sandwich and they are given a sandy eggshell. If Civil Society groups call for technology, they are given a carbon credit framework. If they call for differential investment strategies that can discredit carbon dependency, they are given an opportunity to put money into the global adaptation fund.

Positively Against Negative Campaigning

How to organise a political campaign around Climate Change : ask a group of well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading, philanthropic do-gooders into the room to adopt the lowest common denominator action plan. Now, as a well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading (well, sometimes), philanthropic do-gooder myself, I can expect to be invited to attend such meetings on a regular basis. And always, I find myself frustrated by the outcomes : the same insipid (but with well-designed artwork) calls to our publics and networks to support something with an email registration, a signed postcard, a fistful of dollars, a visit to a public meeting of no consequence, or a letter to our democratic representative. No output except maybe some numbers. Numbers to support a government decision, perhaps, or numbers to indicate what kind of messaging people need in future.

I mean, with the Fair Trade campaign, at least there was some kind of real outcome. Trade Justice advocates manned stall tables at churches, local venues, public events, and got money flowing to the international co-operatives, building up the trade, making the projects happen, providing schooling and health and aspirations in the target countries. But compare that to the Make Poverty History campaign which was largely run to support a vain top-level political attempt to garner international funding promises for social, health and economic development. Too big to succeed. No direct line between supporting the campaign and actually supporting the targets. Passing round the hat to developed, industrialised countries for a fund to support change in developing, over-exploited countries just isn’t going to work. Lord Nicholas Stern tried to ask for $100 billion a year by 2020 for Climate Change adaptation. This has skidded to a halt, as far as I know. The economic upheavals, don’t you know ?

And here we are again. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change, oh, so, long, ago, through the person of its most charismatic and approachable Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, is calling for support for a global Climate Change treaty in 2015. Elements of this treaty, being drafted this year, will, no doubt, use the policy memes of the past – passing round the titfer begging for a couple of billion squid for poor, hungry people suffering from floods and droughts; proposing some kind of carbon pricing/taxing/trading scheme to conjure accounting bean solutions; trying to implement an agreement around parts per million by volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide; trying to divide the carbon cake between the rich and the poor.

Somehow, we believe, that being united around this proposed treaty, few of which have any control over the contents of, will bring us progress.

What can any of us do to really have input into the building of a viable future ? Christiana – for she is now known frequently only by her first name – has called for numbers – a measure of support for the United Nations process. She has also let it be known that if there is a substantial number of people who, with their organisations, take their investments out of fossil fuels, then this could contribute to the mood of the moment. Those who are advocating divestment are yet small in number, and I fear that they will continue to be marginal, partly because of the language that is being used.

First of all, there are the Carbon Disclosers. Their approach is to conjure a spectre of the “Carbon Bubble” – making a case that investments in carbon dioxide-rich enterprises could well end up being stranded by their assets, either because of wrong assumptions about viable remaining resources of fossil fuels, or because of wrong assumptions about the inability of governments to institute carbon pricing. Well, obviously, governments will find it hard to implement effective carbon pricing, because governments are in bed with the energy industry. Politically, governments need to keep big industry sweet. No surprise there. And it’s in everybody’s interests if Emperor Oil and Prince Regent Natural Gas are still wearing clothes. In the minds of the energy industry, we still have a good four decades of healthy fossil fuel assets. Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO can therefore confidently say at a public AGM that There Is No Carbon Bubble. The Carbon Discloser language is not working, it seems, as any kind of convincer, except to a small core of the concerned.

And then there are the Carbon Voices. These are the people reached by email campaigns who have no real idea how to do anything practical to affect change on carbon dioxide emissions, but they have been touched by the message of the risks of climate change and they want to be seen to be supporting action, although it’s not clear what action will, or indeed can, be taken. Well-designed brochures printed on stiff recycled paper with non-toxic inks will pour through their doors and Inboxes. Tick it. Send it back. Sign it. Send it on. Maybe even send some cash to support the campaign. This language is not achieving anything except guilt.

And then there are the Carbon Divestors. These are extremely small marginal voices who are taking a firm stand on where their organisations invest their capital. The language is utterly dated. The fossil fuel industry are evil, apparently, and investing in fossil fuels is immoral. It is negative campaigning, and I don’t think it stands a chance of making real change. It will not achieve its goal of being prophetic in nature – bearing witness to the future – because of the non-inclusive language. Carbon Voices reached by Carbon Divestor messages will in the main refuse to respond, I feel.

Political action on Climate Change, and by that I mean real action based on solid decisions, often taken by individuals or small groups, has so far been under-the-radar, under-the-counter, much like the Fair Trade campaign was until it burst forth into the glorious day of social acceptability and supermarket supply chains. You have the cyclists, the Transition Towners, the solar power enthusiasts. Yet to get real, significant, economic-scale transition, you need Energy Change – that is, a total transformation of the energy supply and use systems. It’s all very well for a small group of Methodist churches to pull their pension funds from investments in BP and Shell, but it’s another thing entirely to engage BP and Shell in an action plan to diversify out of petroleum oil and Natural Gas.

Here below are my email words in my feeble attempt to challenge the brain of Britain’s charitable campaigns on what exactly is intended for the rallying cry leading up to Paris 2015. I can pretty much guarantee you won’t like it – but you have to remember – I’m not breaking ranks, I’m trying to get beyond the Climate Change campaigning and lobbying that is currently in play, which I regard as ineffective. I don’t expect a miraculous breakthrough in communication, the least I can do is sow the seed of an alternative. I expect I could be dis-invited from the NGO party, but it doesn’t appear to be a really open forum, merely a token consultation to build up energy for a plan already decided. If so, there are probably more important things I could be doing with my time than wasting hours and hours and so much effort on somebody else’s insipid and vapid agenda.

I expect people might find that attitude upsetting. If so, you know, I still love you all, but you need to do better.


[…]

A lot of campaigning over the last 30 years has been very negative and divisive, and frequently ends in psychological stalemate. Those who are cast as the Bad Guys cannot respond to the campaigning because they cannot admit to their supporters/employees/shareholders that the campaigners are “right”. Joe Average cannot support a negative campaign as there is no apparent way to make change happen by being so oppositional, and because the ask is too difficult, impractical, insupportable. [Or there is simply too much confusion or cognitive dissonance.]

One of the things that was brought back from the […] working group breakout on […] to the plenary feedback session was that there should be some positive things about this campaign on future-appropriate investment. I think […] mentioned the obvious one of saying effectively “we are backing out of these investments in order to invest in things that are more in line with our values” – with the implicit encouragement for fossil fuel companies to demonstrate that they can be in line with our values and that they are moving towards that. There was some discussion that there are no bulk Good Guy investment funds, that people couldn’t move investments in bulk, although some said there are. […] mentioned Ethex.

Clearly fossil fuel production companies are going to find it hard to switch from oil and gas to renewable electricity, so that’s not a doable we can ask them for. Several large fossil fuel companies, such as BP, have tried doing wind and solar power, but they have either shuttered those business units, or not let them replace their fossil fuel activities.

[…] asked if the [divestment] campaign included a call for CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage – and […] referred to […] which showed where CCS is listed in a box on indicators of a “good” fossil fuel energy company.

I questioned whether the fossil fuel companies really want to do CCS – and that they have simply been waiting for government subsidies or demonstration funds to do it. (And anyway, you can’t do CCS on a car.)

I think I said in the meeting that fossil fuel producer companies can save themselves and save the planet by adopting Renewable Gas – so methods for Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) or “carbon recycling”. Plus, they could be making low carbon gas by using biomass inputs. Most of the kit they need is already widely installed at petrorefineries. So – they get to keep producing gas and oil, but it’s renewably and sustainably sourced with low net carbon dioxide emissions. That could be turned into a positive, collaborative ask, I reckon, because we could all invest in that, the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders.

Anyway, I hope you did record something urging a call to positive action and positive engagement, because we need the co-operation of the fossil fuel companies to make appropriate levels of change to the energy system. Either that, or they go out of business and we face social turmoil.

If you don’t understand why this is relevant, that’s OK. If you don’t understand why a straight negative campaign is a turn-off to many people (including those in the fossil fuel industry), well, I could role play that with you. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about when I talk about Renewable Gas, come and talk to me about it again in 5 years, when it should be common knowledge. If you don’t understand why I am encouraging positive collaboration, when negative campaigning is so popular and marketable to your core segments, then I will resort to the definition of insanity – which is to keep doing the same things, expecting a different result.

I’m sick and tired of negative campaigning. Isn’t there a more productive thing to be doing ?

There are no enemies. There are no enemies. There are no enemies.

——-

As far as I understand the situation, both the […] and […] campaigns are negative. They don’t appear to offer any positive routes out of the problem that could engage the fossil fuel companies in taking up the baton of Energy Change. If that is indeed the main focus of […] and […] efforts, then I fear they will fail. Their work will simply be a repeat of the negative campaigning of the last 30 years – a small niche group will take up now-digital placards and deploy righteous, holy social media anger, and that will be all.

Since you understand this problem, then I would suggest you could spend more time and trouble helping them to see a new way. You are, after all, a communications expert. And so you know that even Adolf Hitler used positive, convening, gathering techniques of propaganda to create power – and reserved the negative campaigning for easily-marginalised vulnerable groups to pile the bile and blame on.

Have a nicer day,

—–

The important thing as far as I understand it is that the “campaigning” organisations need to offer well-researched alternatives, instead of just complaining about the way things are. And these well-researched alternatives should not just be the token sops flung at the NGOs and UN by the fossil fuel companies. What do I mean ?

Well, let’s take Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The injection of carbon dioxide into old oil and gas caverns was originally proposed for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – that is – getting more oil and gas out the ground by pumping gas down there – a bit like fracking, but with gas instead of liquid. The idea was that the expense of CCS would be compensated for by the new production of oil and gas – however, the CCS EOR effect has shown to be only temporary. So now the major oil and gas companies say they support carbon pricing (either by taxation or trading), to make CCS move forward. States and federations have given them money to do it. I think the evidence shows that carbon pricing cannot be implemented at a sufficiently high level to incentivise CCS, therefore CCS is a non-answer. Why has […] not investigated this ? CCS is a meme, but not necessarily part of the carbon dioxide solution. Not even the UNFCCC IPCC reports reckon that much CCS can be done before 2040. So, why does CCS appear in the […] criteria for a “good” fossil fuel company ? Because it’s sufficiently weak as a proposal, and sufficiently far enough ahead that the fossil fuel companies can claim they are “capture ready”, and in the Good Book, but in reality are doing nothing.

Non-starters don’t just appear from fossil fuel companies. From my point of view, another example of running at and latching on to things that cannot help was the support of the GDR – Greenhouse Development Rights, of which there has been severe critique in policy circles, but the NGOs just wrote it into their policy proposals without thinking about it. There is no way that the emissions budgets set out in the GDR policy could ever get put into practice. For a start, there is no real economic reason to divide the world into developing and developed nations (Kyoto [Protocol]’s Annex I and Annex II).

If you give me some links, I’m going to look over your […] and think about it.

I think that if a campaign really wants to get anywhere with fossil fuel companies, instead of being shunted into a siding, it needs to know properly what the zero carbon transition pathways really are. Unequal partners do not make for a productive engagement, I reckon.

—–

I’m sorry to say that this still appears to be negative campaigning – fossil fuel companies are “bad”; and we need to pull our money out of fossil fuel companies and put it in other “good” companies. Where’s the collective, co-operative effort undertaken with the fossil fuel companies ? What’s your proposal for helping to support them in evolving ? Do you know how they can technologically transition from using fossil fuels to non-fossil fuels ? And how are you communicating that with them ?

——

They call me the “Paradigm Buster”. I’m not sure if “the group” is open to even just peeking into that kind of approach, let alone “exploring” it. The action points on the corporate agenda could so easily slip back into the methods and styles of the past. Identify a suffering group. Build a theory of justice. Demand reparation. Make Poverty History clearly had its victims and its saviours. Climate change, in my view, requires a far different treatment. Polar bears cannot substitute for starving African children. And not even when climate change makes African children starve, can they inspire the kind of action that climate change demands. A boycott campaign without a genuine alternative will only touch a small demographic. Whatever “the group” agrees to do, I want it to succeed, but by rehashing the campaigning strategies and psychology of the past, I fear it will fail. Even by adopting the most recent thinking on change, such as Common Cause, [it] is not going to surmount the difficulties of trying to base calls to action on the basis of us-and-them thinking – polar thinking – the good guys versus the bad guys – the body politic David versus the fossil fuel company Goliath. By challenging this, I risk alienation, but I am bound to adhere to what I see as the truth. Climate change is not like any other disaster, aid or emergency campaign. You can’t just put your money in the [collecting tin] and pray the problem will go away with the help of the right agencies. Complaining about the “Carbon Bubble” and pulling your savings from fossil fuels is not going to re-orient the oil and gas companies. The routes to effective change require a much more comprehensive structure of actions. And far more engagement that agreeing to be a flag waver for whichever Government policy is on the table. I suppose it’s too much to ask to see some representation from the energy industry in “the group”, or at least […] leaders who still believe in the fossil fuel narratives, to take into account their agenda and their perspective, and a readiness to try positive collaborative change with all the relevant stakeholders ?


All Kinds of Gas

Amongst the chink-clink of wine glasses at yesterday evening’s Open Cities Green Sky Thinking Max Fordham event, I find myself supping a high ball orange juice with an engineer who does energy retrofits – more precisely – heat retrofits. “Yeah. Drilling holes in Grade I Listed walls for the District Heating pipework is quite nervewracking, as you can imagine. When they said they wanted to put an energy centre deep underneath the building, I asked them, “Where are you going to put the flue ?””

Our attention turns to heat metering. We discuss cases we know of where people have installed metering underground on new developments and fitted them with Internet gateways and then found that as the rest of the buildings get completed, the meter can no longer speak to the world. The problems of radio-meets-thick-concrete and radio-in-a-steel-cage. We agree that anybody installing a remote wifi type communications system on metering should be obliged in the contract to re-commission it every year.

And then we move on to shale gas. “The United States of America could become fuel-independent within ten years”, says my correspondent. I fake yawn. It really is tragic how some people believe lies that big. “There’s no way that’s going to happen !”, I assert.

“Look,” I say, (jumping over the thorny question of Albertan syncrude, which is technically Canadian, not American), “The only reason there’s been strong growth in shale gas production is because there was a huge burst in shale gas drilling, and now it’s been shown to be uneconomic, the boom has busted. Even the Energy Information Administration is not predicting strong growth in shale gas. They’re looking at growth in coalbed methane, after some years. And the Arctic.” “The Arctic ?”, chimes in Party Number 3. “Yes,” I clarify, “Brought to you in association with Canada. Shale gas is a non-starter in Europe. I always think back to the USGS. They estimate that the total resource in the whole of Europe is a whole order of magnitude, that is, ten times smaller than it is in Northern America.” “And I should have thought you couldn’t have the same kind of drilling in Europe because of the population density ?”, chips in Party Number 3. “They’re going to be drilling a lot of empty holes,” I add, “the “sweet spot” problem means they’re only likely to have good production in a few areas. And I’m not a geologist, but there’s the stratigraphy and the kind of shale we have here – it’s just not the same as in the USA.” Parties Number 2 and 3 look vaguely amenable to this line of argument. “And the problems that we think we know about are not the real problems,” I out-on-a-limbed. “The shale gas drillers will probably give up on hydraulic fracturing of low density shale formations, which will appease the environmentalists, but then they will go for drilling coal lenses and seams inside and alongside the shales, where there’s potential for high volumes of free gas just waiting to pop out. And that could cause serious problems if the pressures are high – subsidence, and so on. Even then, I cannot see how production could be very high, and it’s going to take some time for it to come on-stream…” “…about 10 years,” says Party Number 2.

“Just think about who is going for shale gas in the UK,” I ventured, “Not the big boys. They’ve stood back and let the little guys come in to drill for shale gas. I mean, BP did a bunch of onshore seismic surveys in the 1950s, after which they went drilling offshore in the North Sea, so I think that says it all, really. They know there’s not much gas on land.” There were some raised eyebrows, as if to say, well, perhaps seismic surveys are better these days, but there was agreement that shale gas will come on slowly.

“I don’t think shale gas can contribute to energy security for at least a decade,” I claimed, “even if there’s anything really there. Shale gas is not going to answer the problems of the loss of nuclear generation, or the problems of gas-fired generation becoming uneconomic because of the strong growth in renewables.” There was a nodding of heads.

“I think,” I said, “We should forget subsidies. UK plc ought to purchase a couple of CCGTS [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine electricity generation units]. That will guarantee they stay running to load balance the power grid when we need them to. Although the UK’s Capacity Mechanism plan is in line with the European Union’s plans for supporting gas-fired generation, it’s not achieving anything yet.” I added that we needed to continue building as much wind power as possible, as it’s quick to put in place. I quite liked my radical little proposal for energy security, and the people I was talking with did not object.

There was some discussion about Green Party policy on the ownership of energy utilities, and how energy and transport networks are basically in the hands of the State, but then Party Number 2 said, “What we really need is consistency of policy. We need an Energy Bill that doesn’t get gutted by a change of administration. I might need to vote Conservative, because Labour would mess around with policy.” “I don’t know,” I said, “it’s going to get messed with whoever is in power. All those people at DECC working on the Electricity Market Reform – they all disappeared. Says something, doesn’t it ?”

I spoke to Parties Number 2 and 3 about my research into the potential for low carbon gas. “Basically, making gas as a kind of energy storage ?”, queried Party Number 2. I agreed, but omitted to tell him about Germany’s Power-to-Gas Strategy. We agreed that it would be at least a decade before much could come of these technologies, so it wouldn’t contribute immediately to energy security. “But then,” I said, “We have to look at the other end of this transition, and how the big gas producers are going to move towards Renewable Gas. They could be making decisions now that make more of the gas they get out of the ground. They have all the know-how to build kit to make use of the carbon dioxide that is often present in sour conventional reserves, and turn it into fuel, by reacting it with Renewable Hydrogen. If they did that, they could be building sustainability into their business models, as they could transition to making Renewable Gas as the Natural Gas runs down.”

I asked Parties Number 2 and 3 who they thought would be the first movers on Renewable Gas. We agreed that companies such as GE, Siemens, Alstom, the big engineering groups, who are building gas turbines that are tolerant to a mix of gases, are in prime position to develop closed-loop Renewable Gas systems for power generation – recycling the carbon dioxide. But it will probably take the influence of the shareholders of companies like BP, who will be arguing for evidence that BP are not going to go out of business owing to fossil fuel depletion, to roll out Renewable Gas widely. “We’ve all got our pensions invested in them”, admitted Party Number 2, arguing for BP to gain the ability to sustain itself as well as the planet.

Fiefdom of Information

Sigh. I think I’m going to need to start sending out Freedom of Information requests… Several cups of tea later…


To: Information Rights Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 5th Floor, Victoria 3, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H OET

28th April 2014

Request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change

Re: Policy and Strategy for North Sea Natural Gas Fields Depletion

Dear Madam / Sir,

I researching the history of the development of the gas industry in the United Kingdom, and some of the parallel evolution of the industry in the United States of America and mainland Europe.

In looking at the period of the mid- to late- 1960s, and the British decision to transition from manufactured gas to Natural Gas supplies, I have been able to answer some of my questions, but not all of them, so far.

From a variety of sources, I have been able to determine that there were contingency plans to provide substitutes for Natural Gas, either to solve technical problems in the grid conversion away from town gas, or to compensate should North Sea Natural Gas production growth be sluggish, or demand growth higher than anticipated.

Technologies included the enriching of “lean” hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (reformed from a range of light hydrocarbons, by-products of the petroleum refining industry); Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) and methane-“rich” gas making processes; and simple mixtures of light hydrocarbons with air.

In the National Archives Cmd/Cmnd/Command document 3438 “Fuel Policy. Presented to Parliament by the Minister of Power Nov 1967”, I found discussion on how North Sea gas fields could best be exploited, and about expected depletion rates, and that this could promote further exploration and discovery.

In a range of books and papers of the time, I have found some discussion about options to increase imports of Natural Gas, either by the shipping of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) or by pipeline from The Netherlands.

Current British policy in respect of Natural Gas supplies appears to rest on “pipeline diplomacy”, ensuring imports through continued co-operation with partner supplier countries and international organisations.

I remain unclear about what official technological or structural strategy may exist to bridge the gap between depleting North Sea Natural Gas supplies and continued strong demand, in the event of failure of this policy.

It is clear from my research into early gas field development that depletion is inevitable, and that although some production can be restored with various techniques, that eventually wells become uneconomic, no matter what the size of the original gas field.

To my mind, it seems unthinkable that the depletion of the North Sea gas fields was unanticipated, and yet I have yet to find comprehensive policy statements that cover this eventuality and answer its needs.

Under the Freedom of Information Act (2000), I am requesting information to answer the following questions :-

1.   At the time of European exploration for Natural Gas in the period 1948 to 1965, and the British conversion from manufactured gas to Natural Gas, in the period 1966 to 1977, what was HM Government’s policy to compensate for the eventual depletion of the North Sea gas fields ?

2.   What negotiations and agreements were made between HM Government and the nationalised gas industry between 1948 and 1986; and between HM Government and the privatised gas industry between 1986 and today regarding the projections of decline in gas production from the UK Continental Shelf, and any compensating strategy, such as the development of unconventional gas resources, such as shale gas ?

3.   Is there any policy or strategy to restore the SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) production capacity of the UK in the event of a longstanding crisis emerging, for example from a sharp rise in imported Natural Gas costs or geopolitical upheaval ?

4.   Has HM Government any plan to acquire the Intellectual Property rights to SNG production technology, whether from British Gas/Centrica or any other private enterprise, especially for the slagging version of the Lurgi gasifier technology ?

5.   Has HM Government any stated policy intention to launch new research and development into, or pilot demonstrations of, SNG ?

6.   Does HM Government have any clearly-defined policy on the production and use of manufactured gas of any type ? If so, please can I know references for the documents ?

7.   Does HM Government anticipate that manufactured gas production could need to increase in order to support the production of synthetic liquid vehicle fuels; and if so, which technologies are to be considered ?

Thank you for your attention to my request for information.

Regards,

jo.

Peak Oil : Kitchen Burlesque

An engineering buddy and I find ourselves in my kitchen, reading out loud from Jeremy Leggett’s 2013 book “The Energy of Nations : Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance”. The main topic of the work, I feel, is the failure of the energy sector and the political elites to develop a realistic plan for the future, and their blinkered adherence to clever arguments taken from failing and cracked narratives – such as the belief that unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, can make up for declining conventional oil and gas production. It’s also about compromise of the highest order in the most influential ranks. The vignettes recalling conversations with the high and mighty are pure comedy.

“It’s very dramatic…”

“You can imagine it being taken to the West End theatres…”

“We should ask Ben Elton to take a look – adapt it for the stage…”

“It should really have costumes. Period costumes…Racy costumes…”

“Vaudeville ?”

“No…burlesque ! Imagine the ex-CEO of BP, John Browne, in a frou-frou tutu, slipping a lacy silk strap from his shoulder…What a Lord !”

“Do you think Jeremy Leggett would look good in a bodice ?”

Failing Narratives : Carbon Culprits

In the last few weeks I have attended a number of well-intentioned meetings on advances in the field of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation. My overall impression is that there are several failing narratives to be encountered if you make even the shallowest foray into the murky mix of politics and energy engineering.

As somebody rightly pointed out, no capitalist worth their share price is going to spend real money in the current economic environment on new kit, even if they have asset class status – so all advances will necessarily be driven by public subsidies – in fact, significant technological advance has only ever been accomplished by state support.

Disturbingly, free money is also being demanded to roll out decades-old low carbon energy technology – nuclear power, wind power, green gas, solar photovoltaics – so it seems to me the only way we will ever get appropriate levels of renewable energy deployment is by directed, positive public investment.

More to the point, we are now in an era where nobody at all is prepared to spend any serious money without a lucrative slap on the back, and reasons beyond reasons are being deployed to justify this position. For example, the gas-fired power plant operators make claims that the increase in wind power is threatening their profitability, so they are refusing to built new electricity generation capacity without generous handouts. This will be the Capacity Mechanism, and will keep gas power plants from being mothballed. Yes, there is data to support their complaint, but it does still seem like whinging and special pleading.

And the UK Government’s drooling and desperate fixation with new nuclear power has thrown the European Commission into a tizzy about the fizzy promises of “strike price” guaranteed sales returns for the future atomic electricity generation.

But here, I want to contrast two other energy-polity dialogues – one for developing an invaluable energy resource, and the other about throwing money down a hole.

First, let’s take the white elephant. Royal Dutch Shell has for many years been lobbying for state financial support to pump carbon dioxide down holes in the ground. Various oil and gas industry engineers have been selling this idea to governments, federal and sub-federal for decades, and even acted as consultants to the Civil Society process on emissions control – you just need to read the United Nations’ IPCC Climate Change Assessment Report and Special Report output to detect the filigree of a trace of geoengineering fingers scratching their meaning into global intention. Let us take your nasty, noxious carbon dioxide, they whisper suggestively, and push it down a hole, out of sight and out of accounting mind, but don’t forget to slip us a huge cheque for doing so. You know, they add, we could even do it cost-effectively, by producing more oil and gas from emptying wells, resulting from pumping the carbon dioxide into them. Enhanced Oil Recovery – or EOR – would of course mean that some of the carbon dioxide pumped underground would in effect come out again in the form of the flue gas from the combustion of new fossil fuels, but anyway…

And governments love being seen to be doing something, anything, really, about climate change, as long as it’s not too complicated, and involves big players who should be trustworthy. So, you get the Peterhead project picking up a fat cheque for a trial of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Scotland, and the sidestep hint that if Scotland decides to become independent, this project money could be lost…But this project doesn’t involve much of anything that is really new. The power station that will be used is a liability that ought to be closing now, really, according to some. And the trial will only last for ten years. There will be no EOR – at least – not in the public statements, but this plan could lead the way.

All of this is like pushing a fat kid up a shiny slide. Once Government take their greasy Treasury hands off the project, the whole narrative will fail, falling to an ignominious muddy end. This perhaps explains the underlying desperation of many – CCS is the only major engineering response to emissions that many people can think of – because they cannot imagine burning less fossil fuels. So this wobbling effigy has to be kept on the top of the pedestal. And so I have enjoyed two identical Shell presentations on the theme of the Peterhead project in as many weeks. CCS must be obeyed.

But, all the same, it’s big money. And glaring yellow and red photo opps. You can’t miss it. And then, at the other end of the scale of subsidies, is biogas. With currently low production volumes, and complexities attached to its utilisation, anaerobically digesting wastes of all kinds and capturing the gas for use as a fuel, is a kind of token technology to many, only justified because methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it needs to be burned.

The subsidy arrangements for many renewable energy technologies are in flux. Subsidies for green gas will be reconsidered and reformulated in April, and will probably experience a degression – a hand taken off the tiller of driving energy change.

At an evening biogas briefing given by Rushlight this week, I could almost smell a whiff of despair and disappointment in the levels of official support for green gas. It was freely admitted that not all the planned projects around the country will see completion, not only because of the prevailing economic climate, but because of the vagaries of feedstock availability, and the complexity of gas cleaning regulations.

There was light in the tunnel, though, even if the end had not been reached – a new Quality Protocol for upgrading biogas to biomethane, for injection into the gas grid, has been established. You won’t find it on the official UK Goverment website, apparently, as it has fallen through the cracks of the rebranding to gov.uk, but here it is, and it’s from the Environment Agency, so it’s official :-

http://www.greengas.org.uk/pdf/biomethane-qp.pdf

http://www.r-e-a.net/news/rea-welcomes-environment-agencys-updated-anaerobic-digestion-quality-protocol

http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-qp-could-boost-renewable-gas-to-grid-market/
http://adbiogas.co.uk/2014/01/30/biomethane-quality-protocol-published/

Here’s some background :-

http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/aboutus/wfo/epow/124111.aspx

To get some picture of the mess that British green energy policy is in, all you need do is take a glance at Germany and Denmark, where green gas is considered the “third leg of the stool”, stabilising renewable energy supply with easily-stored low carbon gas, to balance out the peaks and troughs in wind power and solar power provision.

Green gas should not be considered a nice-to-have minor addition to the solutions portfolio in my view. The potential to de-carbonise the energy gas supply is huge, and the UK are missing a trick here – the big money is being ladled onto the “incumbents” – the big energy companies who want to carry on burning fossil fuels but sweep their emissions under the North Sea salt cavern carpet with CCS, whilst the beer change is being reluctantly handed out as a guilt offering to people seeking genuinely low carbon energy production.

Seriously – where the exoplanet are we at ?