In the long view, some things are inevitable, and I don’t just mean death and taxes. Within the lifetime of children born today, there must be a complete transformation in energy. The future is renewable, and carefully deployed renewable energy systems can be reliable, sustainable and low cost, besides being low in carbon dioxide emissions to air. This climate safety response is also the answer to a degradation and decline in high quality mineral hydrocarbons – the so-called “fossil” fuels. Over the course of 2014 I shall be writing about Renewable Gas – sustainable, low emissions gas fuels made on the surface of the earth without recourse to mining for energy. Renewable Gas can store the energy from currently underused Renewable Electricity from major producers such as wind and solar farms, and help to balance out power we capture from the variable wind and sun. Key chemical players in these fuels : hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Key chemistry : how to use hydrogen to recycle the carbon oxides to methane. How we get from here to there is incredibly important, and interestingly, methods and techniques for increasing the production volumes of Renewable Gas will be useful for the gradually fading fossil fuel industry. Much of the world’s remaining easily accessible Natural Gas is “sour” – laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen sulfide needs to be removed from the gas, but carbon dioxide can be recycled into methane, raising the quality of the gas. We can preserve the Arctic from fossil gas exploitation, and save ourselves from this economic burden and ecological risk, by employing relatively cheap ways to upgrade sour Natural Gas, from Iran, for example, while we are on the decades-long road of transitioning to Renewable Gas. The new burn is coming.
This evening I was at a very interesting meeting hosted by BiofuelWatch in the fabulous Lumen Centre near King’s Cross, London.
The new report “Biomass : Chain of Destruction” was launched with public Skype interviews with colleagues in Brazil and the United States. All very 2013, but the biomass combustion technologies of concern are mostly all so last century.
Ordinary combustion of any biological material, whether ancient trees, such as coal, or modern trees, in the form of compressed wood pellets, is generally inefficient. But to burn biomass to create heat to vapourise water to make steam to turn electrical turbines to make power is scandalously wasteful.
“1. Largescale industrial bioenergy to be removed
from definitions of “renewable energy”. The term
“renewable” must be formalized to reflect the real
costs to the environment and public health.”
“2. An end to subsidies, including targets and other
state incentives, for industrial bioenergy.”
“3. A major policy shift away from largescale energy
generation through combustion, towards our energy
needs being satisfied through a combination of
genuinely climatefriendly renewable energy and a
substantial reduction in both energy generation and
A discussion arose in my corner of the room about where we should draw the line between “good” biomass applications, and “bad” biomass applications. It was generally agreed that burning local biomass for local heat in an efficient machine, would limit particulate emissions and be very energy efficient and sustainable.
And at the other end of the scale, I am looking at the potential for the highly-efficient gasification of biomass to make Renewable Gas – the higher temperatures mean that less carbon particulates, tars and poisons remain. For centralised Renewable Gas plants, air quality management would be necessary, through the capture and filtering of particulates and other unwanted by-products, but the cost of this is manageable at this scale.
If ordinary incineration or combustion is being done at the medium to large scale, this is likely to be the cause of major problems, in the event of sharply rising levels of biomass burning for electricity production. The inefficiency of the energy conversion will mean that full air quality protection may be too expensive to apply to the exhaust, and it will be simply vented to air.
I listened to an interesting mix of myth, mystery and magic on BBC Radio 4.
Myths included the notion that long-term, nuclear power would be cheap; that “alternative” energy technologies are expensive (well, nuclear power is, but true renewables are most certainly not); and the idea that burning biomass to create heat to create steam to turn turbines to generate electricity is an acceptably efficient use of biomass (it is not).
Biofuelwatch are hosting a public meeting on this very subject :-
“A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities”
Tuesday, 29th October 2013, 7-9pm
Lumen Centre, London (close to St Pancras train station)
Lumen Centre, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RS
Interesting hints in the interviews I thought pointed to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some electricity generation capacity should be wholly owned by the Government – since the country is paying for it one way or another. A socialist model for gas-fired generation capacity that’s used as backup to wind and solar power ? Now there’s an interesting idea…
“Mind the Gap”
Channel: BBC Radio 4
Series: Costing the Earth
Presenter: Tom Heap
First broadcast: Tuesday 15th October 2013
Programme Notes :
“Our energy needs are growing as our energy supply dwindles.
Renewables have not come online quickly enough and we are increasingly
reliant on expensive imported gas or cheap but dirty coal. Last year
the UK burnt 50% more coal than in previous years but this helped
reverse years of steadily declining carbon dioxide emissions. By 2015
6 coal fired power stations will close and the cost of burning coal
will increase hugely due to the introduction of the carbon price
floor. Shale gas and biomass have been suggested as quick and easy
solutions but are they really sustainable, or cheap?”
“Carbon Capture and Storage could make coal or gas cleaner and a new
study suggests that with CCS bio energy could even decrease global
warming. Yet CCS has stalled in the UK and the rest of Europe and the
debate about the green credentials of biomass is intensifying. So what
is really the best answer to Britain’s energy needs? Tom Heap
00:44 – 00:48
[ Channel anchor ]
Britain’s energy needs are top of the agenda in “Costing the Earth”…
[ Channel anchor ]
…this week on “Costing the Earth”, Tom Heap is asking if our
ambitions to go green are being lost to the more immediate fear of
blackouts and brownouts.
[ Music : Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out)” ]
[ Tom Heap ]
Energy is suddenly big news – central to politics and the economy. The
countdown has started towards the imminent shutdown of many coal-fired
power stations, but the timetable to build their replacements has
It’ll cost a lot, we’ll have to pay, and the politicians are reluctant
to lay out the bill. But both the official regulator and industry are
warning that a crunch is coming.
So in this week’s “Costing the Earth”, we ask if the goal of clean,
green and affordable energy is being lost to a much darker reality.
[ Historical recordings ]
“The lights have started going out in the West Country : Bristol,
Exeter and Plymouth have all had their first power cuts this
“One of the biggest effects of the cuts was on traffic, because with
the traffic lights out of commission, major jams have built up,
particularly in the town centres. One of the oddest sights I saw is a
couple of ladies coming out of a hairdressers with towels around their
heads because the dryers weren’t working.”
“Television closes down at 10.30 [ pm ], and although the cinemas are
carrying on more or less normally, some London theatres have had to
“The various [ gas ] boards on both sides of the Pennines admit to
being taken by surprise with today’s cold spell which brought about
“And now the major scandal sweeping the front pages of the papers this
morning, the advertisement by the South Eastern Gas Board recommending
that to save fuel, couples should share their bath.”
[ Caller ]
“I shall write to my local gas board and say don’t do it in
Birmingham. It might be alright for the trendy South, but we don’t
want it in Birmingham.”
[ Tom Heap ]
That was 1974.
Some things have changed today – maybe a more liberal attitude to
sharing the tub. But some things remain the same – an absence of
coal-fired electricity – threatening a blackout.
Back then it was strikes by miners. Now it’s old age of the power
plants, combined with an EU Directive obliging them to cut their
sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2016, or close.
Some coal burners are avoiding the switch off by substituting wood;
and mothballed gas stations are also on standby.
But Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of
Oxford, now believes power cuts are likely.
[ Dieter Helm ]
Well, if we take the numbers produced by the key responsible bodies,
they predict that there’s a chance that by the winter of 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], the gap between the demand for
electricity and the supply could be as low as 2%.
And it turns out that those forecasts are based on extremely
optimistic assumptions about how far demand will fall in that period
(that the “Green Deal” will work, and so on) and that we won’t have
much economic growth.
So basically we are on course for a very serious energy crunch by the
winter of 2-15 [sic, meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], almost
regardless of what happens now, because nobody can build any power
stations between now and then.
It’s sort of one of those slow motion car crashes – you see the whole
symptoms of it, and people have been messing around reforming markets
and so on, without addressing what’s immediately in front of them.
[ Tom Heap ]
And that’s where you think we are now ?
[ Dieter Helm ]
I think there’s every risk of doing so.
Fortunately, the [ General ] Election is a year and a half away, and
there’s many opportunities for all the political parties to get real
about two things : get real about the energy crunch in 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016] and how they’re going to handle
it; and get real about creating the incentives to decarbonise our
electricity system, and deal with the serious environmental and
security and competitive issues which our electricity system faces.
And this is a massive investment requirement [ in ] electricity : all
those old stations retiring [ originally built ] back from the 1970s –
they’re all going to be gone.
Most of the nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives.
We need a really big investment programme. And if you really want an
investment programme, you have to sit down and work out how you’re
going to incentivise people to do that building.
[ Tom Heap ]
If we want a new energy infrastructure based on renewables and
carbon-free alternatives, then now is the time to put those incentives
on the table.
The problem is that no-one seems to want to make the necessary
investment, least of all the “Big Six” energy companies, who are
already under pressure about high bills.
[ “Big Six” are : British Gas / Centrica, EdF Energy (Electricite
de France), E.On UK, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE ]
Sam Peacock of the energy company SSE [ Scottish and Southern Energy ]
gives the commercial proof of Dieter’s prediction.
If energy generators can’t make money out of generating energy,
they’ll be reluctant to do it.
[ Sam Peacock ]
Ofgem, the energy regulator, has looked at this in a lot of detail,
and said that around 2015, 2016, things start to get tighter. The
reason for this is European Directives, [ is [ a ] ] closing down some
of the old coal plants. And also the current poor economics around [
or surround [ -ing ] ] both existing plant and potential new plant.
So, at the moment it’s very, very difficult to make money out of a gas
plant, or invest in a new one. So this leads to there being, you know,
something of a crunch point around 2015, 2016, and Ofgem’s analysis
looks pretty sensible to us.
[ Tom Heap ]
And Sam Peacock lays the blame for this crisis firmly at the Government’s door.
[ Sam Peacock ]
The trilemma, as they call it – of decarbonisation, security of supply
and affordability – is being stretched, because the Government’s
moving us more towards cleaner technologies, which…which are more
However, if you were to take the costs of, you know, the extra costs
of developing these technologies off government [ sic, meaning
customer ] bills and into general taxation, you could knock about over
£100 off customer bills today, it’ll be bigger in the future, and you
can still get that much-needed investment going.
So, we think you can square the circle, but it’s going to take a
little bit of policy movement [ and ] it’s going to take shifting some
of those costs off customers and actually back where the policymakers
should be controlling them.
[ KLAXON ! Does he mean controlled energy prices ? That sounds a bit
centrally managed economy to me… ]
[ Tom Heap ]
No surprise that a power company would want to shift the pain of
rising energy costs from their bills to the tax bill.
But neither the Government nor the Opposition are actually proposing this.
Who pays the premium for expensve new energy sources is becoming like
a game of pass the toxic parcel.
[ Reference : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_potato_%28game%29 ]
I asked the [ UK Government Department of ] Energy and Climate Change
Secretary, Ed Davey, how much new money is required between now and
[ Ed Davey ]
About £110 billion – er, that’s critical to replace a lot of the coal
power stations that are closing, the nuclear power stations that are [
at the ] end of their lives, and replace a lot of the network which
has come to the end of its life, too.
So it’s a huge, massive investment task.
[ Tom Heap ]
So in the end we’re going to have to foot the bill for the £110 billion ?
[ Ed Davey ]
Yeah. Of course. That’s what happens now. People, in their bills that
they pay now, are paying for the network costs of investments made
several years, even several decades ago.
[ Yes – we’re still paying through our national nose to dispose of
radioactive waste and decommission old nuclear reactors. The liability
of it all weighs heavily on the country’s neck… ]
And there’s no escaping that – we’ve got to keep the lights on – we’ve
got to keep the country powered.
You have to look at both sides of the equation. If we’re helping
people make their homes more inefficient [ sic, meaning energy
efficient ], their product appliances more efficient, we’re doing
everything we possibly can to try to help the bills be kept down,
while we’re having to make these big investments to keep the lights
on, and to make sure that we don’t cook the planet, as you say.
[ Tom Heap ]
You mention the lights going out. There are predictions that we’re
headed towards just 2% of spare capacity in the system in a few years’
Are you worried about the dangers of, I don’t know, maybe not lights
going out for some people, but perhaps big energy users being told
when and when [ sic, meaning where ] they can’t use power in the
[ Ed Davey ]
Well, there’s no doubt that as the coal power stations come offline,
and the nuclear power plants, er, close, we’re going to have make sure
that new power plants are coming on to replace them.
And if we don’t, there will be a problem with energy security.
Now we’ve been working very hard over a long time now to make sure we
attract that investment. We’ve been working with Ofgem, the regulator;
with National Grid, and we’re…
[ Tom Heap ]
…Being [ or it’s being ] tough. I don’t see companies racing to come
and fill in the gap here and those coal power plants are going off
[ Ed Davey ]
…we’re actually having record levels of energy investment in the country.
The problem was for 13 years under the last Government
[ same old, same old Coalition argument ] we saw low levels of investment
in energy, and we’re having to race to catch up, but fortunately we’re
winning that race. And we’re seeing, you know, billions of pounds
invested but we’ve still got to do more. We’re not there. I’m not
pretending we’re there yet. [ Are we there, yet ? ] But we do have the
policies in place.
So, Ofgem is currently consulting on a set of proposals which will
enable it to have reserve power to switch on at the peak if it’s
We’re, we’ve, bringing forward proposals in the Energy Bill for what’s
called a Capacity Market, so we can auction to get that extra capacity
So we’ve got the policies in place.
[ Tom Heap ]
Some of Ed Davey’s policies, not least the LibDem [ Liberal Democrat
Party ] U-turn on nuclear, have been guided by DECC [ Department of
Energy and Climate Change ] Chief Scientist David MacKay, author of
the influential book “Renewable Energy without the Hot Air” [ sic,
actually “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” ].
Does he think the lights will dim in the second half of this decade ?
[ David MacKay ]
I don’t think there’s going to be any problem maintaining the capacity
that we need. We just need to make clear where Electricity Market
Reform [ EMR, part of the Energy Bill ] is going, and the way in which
we will be maintaining capacity.
[ Tom Heap ]
But I don’t quite understand that, because it seems to me, you know,
some of those big coal-fired power stations are going to be going off.
What’s going to be coming in their place ?
[ David MacKay ]
Well, the biggest number of power stations that’s been built in the
last few years are gas power stations, and we just need a few more gas
power stations like that, to replace the coal, and hopefully some
nuclear power stations will be coming on the bars, as well as the wind
farms that are being built at the moment.
[ Tom Heap ]
And you’re happy with that increase in gas-fired power stations, are
you ? I mean, you do care deeply, personally, about reducing our
greenhouse gases, and yet you’re saying we’re going to have to build
more gas-fired power stations.
[ David MacKay ]
I do. Even in many of the pathways that reach the 2050 target, there’s
still a role for gas in the long-term, because some power sources like
wind and solar power are intermittent, so if you want to be keeping
the lights on in 2050 when there’s no wind and there’s no sun, you’re
going to need some gas power stations there. Maybe not operating so
much of the time as they do today, but there’ll still be a role in
keeping the lights on.
[ KLAXON ! If gas plants are used only for peak periods or for backup to
renewables, then the carbon emissions will be much less than if they are
running all the time. ]
[ Tom Heap ]
Many energy experts though doubt that enough new wind power or nuclear
capacity could be built fast enough to affect the sums in a big way by
But that isn’t the only critical date looming over our energy system.
Even more challenging, though more distant, is the legally binding
objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.
David MacKay wants that certainty to provide the foundation for energy
decisions, and he showed me the effect of different choices with the
“Ultimate Future Energy App”. I was in his office, but anyone can try it online.
[ David MacKay ]
It’s a 2050 calculator. It computes energy demand and supply in
response to your choices, and it computes multiple consequences of
your choices. It computes carbon consequences. It also computes for
you estimates of air quality, consequences of different choices;
security of supply, consequences; and the costs of your choices.
So with this 2050 calculator, it’s an open source tool, and anyone can
go on the web and use the levers to imagine different futures in 2050
of how much action we’ve taken in different demand sectors and in
different supply sectors.
The calculator has many visualisations of the pathway that you’re choosing
and helps people understand all the trade-offs… There’s no silver
bullet for any of this. If I dial up a pathway someone made earlier,
we can visualise the implications in terms of the area occupied for
the onshore wind farms, and the area in the sea for the offshore wind
farms, and the length of the wave farms that you’ve built, and the
land area required for energy crops.
And many organisations have used this tool and some of them have given
us their preferred pathway. So you can see here the Friends of the
Earth have got their chosen pathway, the Campaign to Protect Rural
England, and various engineers like National Grid and Atkins have got
So you can see alternative ways of achieving our targets, of keeping
the lights on and taking climate change action. All of those pathways
all meet the 2050 target, but they do so with different mixes.
[ Tom Heap ]
And your view of this is you sort of can’t escape from the scientific
logic and rigour of it. You might wish things were different or you
could do it differently, but you’re sort of saying “Look, it’s either
one thing or the other”. That’s the point of this.
[ David MacKay ]
That’s true. You can’t be anti-everything. You can’t be anti-wind and
anti-nuclear and anti-home insulation. You won’t end up with a plan
that adds up.
[ KLAXON ! But you can be rationally against one or two things, like
expensive new nuclear power, and carbon and particulate emissions-heavy
biomass for the generation of electricity. ]
[ Tom Heap ]
But isn’t that exactly kind of the problem that we’ve had, without
pointing political fingers, that people rather have been
anti-everything, and that’s why we’re sort of not producing enough new
energy sources ?
[ David MacKay ]
Yeah. The majority of the British public I think are in favour of many
of these sources, but there are strong minorities who are vocally
opposed to every one of the major levers in this calculator. So one
aspiration I have for this tool is it may help those people come to a
position where they have a view that’s actually consistent with the
goal of keeping the lights on.
[ Tom Heap ]
Professor MacKay’s calculator also computes pounds and pence,
suggesting that both high and low carbon electricity work out pricey
in the end.
[ David MacKay ]
The total costs of all the pathways are pretty much the same.
“Business as Usual” is cheaper in the early years, and then pays more,
because on the “Business as Usual”, you carry on using fossil fuels,
and the prices of those fossil fuels are probably going to go up.
All of the pathways that take climate change action have a similar
total cost, but they pay more in the early years, ’cause you have to
pay for things like building insulation and power stations, like
nuclear power stations, or wind power, which cost up-front, but then
they’re very cheap to run in the future.
[ KLAXON ! Will the cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors and the
costs of the waste disposal be cheap ? I think not… ]
So the totals over the 40 or 50 year period here, are much the same for these.
[ Tom Heap ]
The cheapest immediate option of all is to keep shovelling the coal.
And last year coal overtook gas to be our biggest electricity
generation source, pushing up overall carbon emissions along the way
[ KLAXON ! This is not very good for energy security – look where the
coal comes from… ]
As we heard earlier, most coal-fired power stations are scheduled for
termination, but some have won a reprieve, and trees are their
Burning plenty of wood chip [ actually, Tom, it’s not wood “chip”, it’s
wood “pellets” – which often have other things mixed in with the wood,
like coal… ] allows coal furnaces to cut the sulphur dioxide and nitrous
oxide belching from their chimneys to below the level that requires their
closure under European law.
But some enthusiasts see wood being good for even more.
[ Outside ]
It’s one of those Autumn days that promises to be warm, but currently
is rather moist. I’m in a field surrounded by those dew-laden cobwebs
you get at this time of year.
But in the middle of this field is a plantation of willow. And I’m at
Rothamsted Research with Angela Karp who’s one of the directors here.
Angela, tell me about this willow I’m standing in front of here. I
mean, it’s about ten foot high or so, but what are you seeing ?
[ Angela Karp ]
Well, I’m seeing one of our better varieties that’s on display here.
We have a demonstration trial of about ten different varieties. This
is a good one, because it produces a lot of biomass, quite easily,
without a lot of additional fertilisers or anything. And as you can
see it’s got lovely straight stems. It’s got many stems, and at the
end of three years, we would harvest all those stems to get the
biomass from it. It’s nice and straight – it’s a lovely-looking, it’s
got no disease, no insects on it, very nice, clean willow.
[ Tom Heap ]
So, what you’ve been working on here as I understand it is trying to
create is the perfect willow – the most fuel for the least input – and
the easiest to harvest.
[ Angela Karp ]
That’s absolutely correct, because the whole reason for growing these
crops is to get the carbon from the atmosphere into the wood, and to
use that wood as a replacement for fossil fuels. Without putting a lot
of inputs in, because as soon as you add fertilisers you’re using
energy and carbon to make them, and that kind of defeats the whole
purpose of doing this.
[ KLAXON ! You don’t need to use fossil fuel energy or petrochemicals or
anything with carbon emissions to make fertiliser ! … Hang on, these
are GM trees, right ? So they will need inputs… ]
[ Tom Heap ]
And how much better do you think your new super-variety is, than say,
what was around, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. ‘Cause willow as an
idea for burning has been around for a bit. How much of an improvement
is this one here ?
[ Angela Karp ]
Quite a bit. So, these are actually are some of the, if you like,
middle-term varieties. So we started off yielding about 8 oven-dry
tonnes per hectare, and now we’ve almost doubled that.
[ Tom Heap ]
How big a place do you think biomass can have in the UK’s energy
picture in the future ?
[ Angela Karp ]
I think that it could contribute between 10% and 15% of our energy. If
we were to cultivate willows on 1 million hectares, we would probably
provide about 3% to 4% of energy in terms of electricity, and I think
that’s kind of a baseline figure. We could cultivate them on up to 3
million hectares, so you can multiply things up, and we could use them
in a much more energy-efficient way.
[ KLAXON ! Is that 4% of total energy or 4% of total electricity ?
[ Tom Heap ]
Do we really have 3 million hectares going a-begging for planting willow in ?
[ Angela Karp ]
Actually, surprisingly we do. So, people have this kind of myth
there’s not enough land, but just look around you and you will find
there’s lots of land that’s not used for cultivating food crops.
We don’t see them taking over the whole country. We see them being
grown synergistically with food crops.
[ KLAXON ! This is a bit different than the statement made in 2009. ]
[ Tom Heap ]
But I’d just like to dig down a little bit more into the carbon cycle
of the combustion of these things, because that’s been the recent
criticism of burning a lot of biomass, is that you put an early spike
in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, if you start burning a lot
of biomass, because this [ sounds of rustling ], this plant is going
to be turned into, well, partly, CO2 in the atmosphere.
[ Angela Karp ]
Yes, I think that’s probably a simple and not totally correct way of
looking at it. ‘Cause a lot depends on the actual conversion process
you are using.
So some conversion processes are much more efficient at taking
everything and converting it into what you want.
Heat for example is in excess of 80%, 90% conversion efficiency.
Electricity is a little bit more of the problem. And there, what
they’re looking at is capturing some of the carbon that you lose, and
converting that back in, in carbon storage processes, and that’s why
there’s a lot of talk now about carbon storage from these power
That I think is the future. It’s a question of connecting up all parts
of the process, and making sure that’s nothing wasted.
[ Tom Heap ]
So, is wood a desirable greener fuel ?
Not according to Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch, who objects to the
current plans for large-scale wood burning, its use to prop up coal,
and even its low carbon claims.
[ Almuth Ernsting ]
The currently-announced industry plans, and by that I mean existing
power stations, but far more so, power stations which are in the
planning process [ and ] many of which have already been consented –
those [ biomass ] power stations, would, if they all go ahead,
require to burn around 82 million tonnes of biomass, primarily wood,
every year. Now by comparison, the UK in total only produces around
10 million tonnes, so one eighth of that amount, in wood, for all
industries and purposes, every year.
We are looking on the one hand at a significant number of proposed,
and in some cases, under-construction or operating new-build biomass
power stations, but the largest single investment so far going into
the conversion of coal power station units to biomass, the largest and
most advanced one of which at the moment is Drax, who are, have
started to move towards converting half their capacity to burning wood
[ Tom Heap ]
Drax is that huge former, or still currently, coal-fired power station
in Yorkshire, isn’t it ?
[ Almuth Ernsting ]
Right, and they still want to keep burning coal as well. I mean, their
long-term vision, as they’ve announced, would be for 50:50 coal and
[ Tom Heap ]
What do you think about that potential growth ?
[ Almuth Ernsting ]
Well, we’re seriously concerned. We believe it’s seriously bad news
for climate change, it’s seriously bad news for forests, and it’s
really bad news for communities, especially in the Global South, who
are at risk of losing their land for further expansion of monoculture
tree plantations, to in future supply new power stations in the UK.
A really large amount, increasingly so, of the wood being burned,
comes from slow-growing, whole trees that are cut down for that
purpose, especially at the moment in temperate forests in North
America. Now those trees will take many, many decades to grow back
and potentially re-absorb that carbon dioxide, that’s if they’re
allowed and able to ever grow back.
[ Tom Heap ]
There’s another technology desperate for investment, which is critical
to avoiding power failure, whilst still hitting our mid-century carbon
reduction goals – CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, the ability to
take the greenhouse gases from the chimney and bury them underground.
It’s especially useful for biomass and coal, with their relatively
high carbon emissions, but would also help gas be greener.
The Chancellor has approved 30 new gas-fired power stations, so long
as they are CCS-ready [ sic, should be “capture ready”, or
“carbon capture ready” ].
Jon Gibbons is the boss of the UK CCS Research Centre, based in an
industrial estate in Sheffield.
[ Noise of processing plant ]
Jon’s just brought me up a sort of 3D maze of galvanized steel and
shiny metal pipes to the top of a tower that must be 20 or so metres
Jon, what is this ?
[ Jon Gibbons ]
OK, so this is our capture unit, to take the CO2 out of the combustion
products from gas or coal. In the building behind us, in the test rigs
we’ve got, the gas turbine or the combustor rig, we’re burning coal or
gas, or oil, but mainly coal or gas.
We’re taking the combustion products through the green pipe over
there, bringing it into the bottom of the unit, and then you can see
these big tall columns we’ve got, about 18 inches diameter, half a
metre diameter, coming all the way up from the ground up to the level
It goes into one of those, it gets washed clean with water, and it
goes into this unit over here, and there it meets an amine solvent, a
chemical that will react reversibly with CO2, coming in the opposite
direction, over packing. So, it’s like sort of pebbles, if you can
imagine it, there’s a lot of surface area. The gas flows up, the
liquid flows down, and it picks up the CO2, just mainly the CO2.
[ Tom Heap ]
And that amine, that chemical as you call it, is stripping the CO2 out
of that exhaust gas. This will link to a storage facility.
What would then happen to the CO2 ?
[ Jon Gibbons ]
What would then happen is that the CO2 would be compressed up to
somewhere in excess of about 100 atmospheres. And it would turn from
being a gas into something that looks like a liquid, like water, about
the same density as water. And then it would be taken offshore in the
UK, probably tens or hundreds of kilometres offshore, and it would go
deep, deep down, over a kilometre down into the ground, and basically
get squeezed into stuff that looks like solid rock. If you go and look
at a sandstone building – looks solid, but actually, maybe a third of
it is little holes. And underground, where you’ve got cubic kilometres
of space, those little holes add up to an awful lot of free space. And
the CO2 gets squeezed into those, over time, and it spreads out, and
it just basically sits there forever, dissolves in the water, reacts
with the rocks, and will stay there for millions of years.
[ Tom Heap ]
Back in his office, I asked Jon why CCS seemed to be stuck in the lab.
[ Jon Gibbons ]
We’re doing enough I think on the research side, but what we really
need to do, is to do work on a full-scale deployment. Because you
can’t work on research in a vacuum. You need to get feedback –
learning by doing – from actual real projects.
And a lot of the problems we’ve got on delivering CCS, are to do with
how you handle the regulation for injecting CO2, and again, you can
only do that in real life.
So what we need to do is to see the commercialisation projects that
are being run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change actually
going through to real projects that can be delivered.
[ Tom Heap ]
Hmm. When I talk to engineers, they’re always very passionate and
actually quite optimistic about Carbon Capture and Storage. And when
I talk to people in industry, or indeed read the headlines, not least
a recent cancellation in Norway, it always seems like a very bleak picture.
[ Jon Gibbons ]
I think people are recognising that it’s getting quite hard to get
money for low carbon technologies.
So – recent presentation we had at one of our centre meetings, was
actually a professor from the United States, Howard Herzog. And he
said “You think you’re seeing a crisis in Carbon Capture and Storage.
But what you’re actually seeing is a crisis in climate change
[ KLAXON ! Priming us for a scaling back of commitment to the
Climate Change Act ? I do hope not. ]
Now, Carbon Capture and Storage, you do for no other purpose than
cutting CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, and it does that extremely
effectively. It’s an essential technology for cutting emissions. But
until you’ve got a global process that says – actually we’re going to
get on top of this problem; we’re going to cut emissions – get them to
safe level before we actually see people dying in large numbers from
climate change effects – ’cause, certainly, if people start dying,
then we will see a response – but ideally, you’d like to do it before
then. But until you get that going, then actually persuading people to
spend money for no other benefit than sorting out the climate is
There’s just no point, you know, no country can go it alone, so you
have to get accommodation. And there, we’re going through various
processes to debate that. Maybe people will come to an accommodation.
Maybe the USA and China will agree to tackle climate change. Maybe
What I am fairly confident is that you won’t see huge, you know,
really big cuts in CO2 emissions without that global agreement. But
I’m also confident that you won’t see big cuts in CO2 emissions
without CCS deployment.
And my guess is there’s about a 50:50 chance that we do CCS before we
need to, and about a 50:50 chance we do it after we have to. But I’m
pretty damn certain we’re going to do it.
[ Tom Heap ]
But we can’t wait for a global agreement that’s already been decades
in the making, with still no end in sight.
We need decisions now to provide more power with less pollution.
[ Music lyrics : “What’s the plan ? What’s the plan ?” ]
[ Tom Heap ]
Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford
believes we can only deliver our plentiful green energy future if we
abandon our attitude of buy-now pay-later.
[ KLAXON ! Does he mean a kind of hire purchase energy economy ?
I mean, we’re still paying for nuclear electricity from decades ago,
in our bills, and through our taxes to the Department of Energy and
Climate Change. ]
[ Dieter Helm ]
There’s a short-term requirement and a long-term requirement. The
short-term requirement is that we’re now in a real pickle. We face
this energy crunch. We’ve got to try to make the best of what we’ve
got. And I think it’s really like, you know, trying to get the
Spitfires back up again during the Battle of Britain. You know, you
patch and mend. You need somebody in command. You need someone
in control. And you do the best with what you’ve got.
In that context, we then have to really stand back and say, “And this
is what we have to do to get a serious, long-term, continuous, stable
investment environment, going forward.” In which, you know, we pay the
costs, but of course, not any monopoly profits, not any excess
profits, but we have a world in which the price of electricity is
related to the cost.”
[ KLAXON ! Is Dieter Helm proposing state ownership of energy plant ? ]
[ Programme anchor ]
“Costing the Earth” was presented by Tom Heap, and made in Bristol by
[ Next broadcast : 16th October 2013, 21:00, BBC Radio 4 ]
Have the anti-wind power lobby struck again ? A seemingly turbulent researcher from Private Eye magazine rang me on Thursday evening to ask me to revise my interpretation of his “Keeping The Lights On” piece of a few weeks previously. His article seemed at first glance to be quite derogatory regarding the contribution of wind power to the UK’s electricity supply. If I were to look again, I would find out, he was sure, that I was wrong, and he was right.
So I have been re-reviewing the annual 2013 “Electricity Capacity Assessment Report” prepared by Ofgem, the UK Government’s Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, an independent National Regulatory Authority. I have tried to be as fair-minded and generous as possible to “Old Sparky” at Private Eye magazine, but a close re-reading of the Ofgem report suggests he is apparently mistaken – wind power is a boon, not a burden (as he seems to claim).
In the overview to the Ofgem report, they state, “our assessment suggests that the risks to electricity security of supply over the next six winters have increased since our last report in October 2012. This is due in particular to deterioration in the supply-side outlook. There is also uncertainty over projected reductions in demand.” Neither of these issues can be associated with wind power, which is being deployed at an accelerating rate and so is providing increasing amounts of electricity.
The report considers risks to security of the electricity supply, not an evaluation of the actual amounts of power that will be supplied. How are these risks to the security of supply quantified ? There are several metrics provided from Ofgem’s modelling, including :-
a. LOLE – Loss of Load Expectation – the average number of hours per year in which electricity supply does not meet electricity demand (if the grid System Operator does not take steps to balance it out).
(Note that Ofgem’s definition of LOLE is difference from other people’s “LOLE is often interpreted in the academic literature as representing the probability of disconnections after all mitigation actions available to the System Operator have been exhausted. We consider that a well functioning market should avoid using mitigation actions in [sic] regular basis and as such we interpret LOLE as the probability of having to implement mitigation actions.”)
b. EEU – Expected Energy Unserved (or “Un-served”) – the average amount of electricity demand that is not met in a year – a metric that combines both the likelihood and the size of any shortfall.
c. Frequency and Duration of Expected Outages – a measure of the risk that an electricity consumer faces of controlled disconnection because supply does not meet demand.
The first important thing to note is that the lights are very unlikely to go out. The highest value of LOLE, measured in hours per year is under 20. That’s 20 hours each year. Not 20 days. And this is not anticipated to be 20 days in a row, either. Section 1.11 says “LOLE, as interpreted in this report, is not a measure of the expected number of hours per year in which customers may be disconnected. For a given level of LOLE and EEU, results may come from a large number of small events where demand exceeds supply in principle but that can be managed by National Grid through a set of mitigation actions available to them as System Operator. […] Given the characteristics of the GB system, any shortfall is more likely to take the form of a large number of small events that would not have a direct impact on customers.”
Section 2.19 states, “The probabilistic measures of security of supply presented in this report are often misinterpreted. LOLE is the expected number of hours per year in which supply does not meet demand. This does not however mean that customers will be disconnected or that there will be blackouts for that number of hours a year. Most of the time, when available supply is not high enough to meet demand, National Grid may implement mitigation actions to solve the problem without disconnecting any customers. However, the system should be planned to avoid the use of mitigation actions and that is why we measure LOLE ahead of any mitigation actions being used”. And Section 2.20, “LOLE does not necessarily mean disconnections but they do remain a possibility. If the difference between available supply and demand is so large that the mitigation actions are not enough to meet demand then some customers have to be disconnected – this is the controlled disconnections step in Figure 14 above. In this case the [System Operator] SO will disconnect industrial demand before household demand.”
And in Section 2.21. “The model output numbers presented here refer to a loss of load of any kind. This could be the sum of several small events (controlled through mitigation actions) or a single large event. As a consequence of the mitigation actions available, the total period of disconnections for a customer will be lower than the value of LOLE.”
The report does anticipate that there are risks of large events where the lights could go out, even if only very briefly, for non-emergency customers : “The results may also come from a small number of large events (eg the supply deficit is more than 2 – 3 gigawatts (GW)) where controlled disconnections cannot be avoided.” But in this kind of scenario two very important things would happen. Those with electricity contracts with a clause permitting forced disconnection would lose power. And immediate backup power generation would be called upon to bridge the gap. There are many kinds of electricity generation that can be called on to start up in a supply crisis – some of them becoming operational in minutes, and others in hours.
As the report says in Section 2.24 “Each [Distribution Network Operator] DNO ensures it can provide a 20% reduction of its total system demand in four incremental stages (between 4% and 6%), which can be achieved at all times, with or without prior warning, and within 5 minutes of receipt of an instruction from the System Operator. The reduction of a further 20% (40% in total) can be achieved following issue of the appropriate GB System Warning by National Grid within agreed timescales”.
It’s all about the need for National Grid to balance the system. Section 2.9 says, “LOLE is not a measure of the expected number of hours per year in which customers may be disconnected. We define LOLE to indicate the number of hours in which the system may need to respond to tight conditions.”
The report also rules some potential sources of disruption of supply outside the remit of this particular analysis – see Section 3.17 “There are other reasons why electricity consumers might experience disruptions to supply, which are out of the scope of this assessment and thus not captured by this model, such as: Flexibility : The ability of generators to ramp up in response to rapid increases in demand or decreases in the output of other generators; Insufficient reserve : Unexpected increases in demand or decreases in available capacity in real time which must be managed by the System Operator through procurement and use of reserve capacity; Network outages : Failures on the electricity transmission or distribution networks; Fuel availability : The availability of the fuel used by generators. In particular the security of supplies of natural gas at times of peak electricity demand.”
Crucially, the report says there is much uncertainty in their modelling of LOLE and EEU. In Section 2.26, “The LOLE and EEU estimates are just an indication of risk. There is considerable uncertainty around the main variables in the calculation (eg demand, the behaviour of interconnectors etc.)”
(Note : interconnectors are electricity supply cables that join the UK to other countries such as Ireland and Holland).
Part of the reason for Ofgem’s caveat of uncertainty is the lack of appropriate data. Although they believe they have better modelling of wind power since their 2012 report (see Sections 3.39 to 3.50), there are data sets they believe should be improved. For example, data on Demand Side Response (DSR) – the ability of the National Grid and its larger or aggregated consumers to alter levels of demand on cue (see Sections 4.7 to 4.10 of the document detailing decisions about the methodology). A lack of data has led to certain assumptions being retained, for example, the assumption that there is no relationship between available wind power and periods of high demand – in the winter season (see Section 2.5 and Sections 4.11 to 4.17 of the methodology decisions document).
In addition to these uncertainties, the sensitivity cases used in the modelling are known to not accurately reflect the capability of management of the power grid. In the Executive Summary on page 4, the report says, “These sensitivities only illustrate changes in one variable at a time and so do not capture potential mitigating effects, for example of the supply side reacting to higher demand projections.” And in Section 2.16 it says, “Each sensitivity assumes a change in one variable from the Reference Scenario, with all other assumptions being held constant. The purpose of this is to assess the impact of the uncertainty related to each variable in isolation, on the risk measures. Our report is not using scenarios (ie a combination of changes in several variables to reflect alternative worlds or different futures), as this would not allow us to isolate the impact of each variable on the risk measures.”
Thus, the numbers that are output by the modelling are perforce illustrative, not definitive.
What “Old Sparky” at Private Eye was rattled by in his recent piece was the calculation of Equivalent Firm Capacity (EFC) in the Ofgem report.
On page 87, Section 3.55, the Ofgem report defines the “standard measure” EFC as “the amount of capacity that is required to replace the wind capacity to achieve the same level of LOLE”, meaning the amount of always-on generation capacity required to replace the wind capacity to achieve the same level of LOLE. Putting it another way on page 33, in the footnotes for Section 3.29, the report states, “The EFC is the quantity of firm capacity (ie always available) that can be replaced by a certain volume of wind generation to give the same level of security of supply, as measured by LOLE.”
Wind power is different from fossil fuel-powered generation as there is a lot of variability in output. Section 1.48 of the report says, “Wind generation capacity is analysed separately given that its outcome in terms of generation availability is much more variable and difficult to predict.” Several of the indicators calculated for the report are connected with the impact of wind on security of the power supply. However, variation in wind power is not the underlying reason for the necessity of this report. Other electricity generation plant has variation in output leading to questions of security of supply. In addition, besides planned plant closures and openings, there are as-yet-unknown factors that could impact overall generation capacity. Section 2.2 reads, “We use a probabilistic approach to assess the uncertainty related to short-term variations in demand and available conventional generation due to outages and wind generation. This is combined with sensitivity analysis to assess the uncertainty related to the evolution of electricity demand and supply due to investment and retirement decisions (ie mothballing, closures) and interconnector flows, among others.”
The report examines the possibility that wind power availability could be correlated to winter season peak demand, based on limited available data, and models a “Wind Generation Availability” sensitivity (see Section 3.94 to Section 3.98, especially Figure 64). In Section 3.42 the report says, “For the wind generation availability sensitivity we assume that wind availability decreases at time of high demand. In particular this sensitivity assumes a reduction in the available wind resource for demand levels higher than 92% of the ACS peak demand. The maximum reduction is assumed to be 50% for demand levels higher than 102% of ACS peak demand.” Bear in mind that this is only an assumption.
In Appendix 5 “Detailed results tables”, Table 34, Table 35 and Table 37 show how this modelling impacts the calculation of the indicative Equivalent Firm Capacity (EFC) of wind power.
In the 2018/2019 timeframe, when there is expected to be a combined wind power capacity of 8405 megawatts (MW) onshore plus 11705 MW offshore = 20110 MW, the EFC for wind power is calculated to be 2546 MW in the “Wind Generation Availability” sensitivity line, which works out at 12.66% of the nameplate capacity of the wind power. Note : 100 divided by 12.66 is 7.88, or a factor of roughly 8.
At the earlier 2013/2014 timeframe, when combined wind power capacity is expected to be 3970 + 6235 MW = 10205 MW, and the EFC is at 1624 MW or 15.91% for the “Wind Generation Sensitivity” line. Note : 100 divided by 15.91 = 6.285, or a factor of roughly 6.
“Old Sparky” is referring to these factor figures when he says in his piece (see below) :-
“[…] For every one megawatt of reliable capacity (eg a coal-fired power
Yet he has ignored several caveats given in the report that place these factors in doubt. For example, the sensitivity analysis only varies one factor at a time and does not attempt to model correlated changes in other variables. He has also omitted to consider the relative impacts of change.
If he were to contrast his statement with the “Conventional Low Generation Availability” sensitivity line, where wind power EFC in the 2013/2014 timeframe is calculated as a healthy 26.59% or a factor of roughly 4; or 2018/2019 when wind EFC is 19.80% or a factor of roughly 5.
Note : The “Conventional Low Generation Availability” sensitivity is drawn from historical conventional generation operating data, as outlined in Sections 3.31 to 3.38. Section 3.36 states, “The Reference Scenario availability is defined as the mean availability of the seven winter estimates. The availability values used for the low (high) availability sensitivities are defined as the mean minus (plus) one standard deviation of the seven winter estimates.”
Table 30 and Table 31 show that low conventional generation availability will probably be the largest contribution to energy security uncertainty in the critical 2015/2016 timeframe.
The upshot of all of this modelling is that wind power is actually off the hook. Unforeseen alterations in conventional generation capacity are likely to have the largest impact. As the report says in Section 4.21 “The figures indicate that reasonably small changes in conventional generation availability have a material impact on the risk of supply shortfalls. This is most notable in 2015/16, where the estimated LOLE ranges from 0.2 hours per year in the high availability sensitivity to 16 hours per year in the low availability sensitivity, for the Reference Scenario is 2.9 hours per year.”
However, Section 1.19 is careful to remind us, “Wind generation, onshore and offshore, is expected to grow rapidly in the period of analysis and especially after 2015/16, rising from around 9GW of installed capacity now to more than 20GW by 2018/19. Given the variability of wind speeds, we estimate that only 17% of this capacity can be counted as firm (ie always available) for security of supply purposes by 2018/19.” This is in the Reference Scenario.
The sensitivities modelled in the report are a measure of risk, and do not provide absolute values for any of the output metrics, especially since the calculations are dependent on so many factors, including economic stimulus for the building of new generation plant.
Importantly, recent decisions by gas-fired power plant operators to “mothball”, or close down their generation capacity, are inevitably going to matter more than how much exactly we can rely on wind power.
Many commentators neglect to make the obvious point that wind power is not being used to replace conventional generation entirely, but to save fossil fuel by reducing the number of hours conventional generators have to run. This is contributing to energy security, by reducing the cost of fossil fuel that needs to be imported. However, the knock-on effect is this is having an impact on the economic viability of these plant because they are not always in use, and so the UK Government is putting in place the “Capacity Mechanism” to make sure that mothballed plant can be put back into use when required, during those becalmed, winter afternoons when power demand is at its peak.
“Keeping the Lights On”
The report from energy regulator Ofgem that sparked headlines on
As coal power stations shut down, windfarms are notionally replacing
For every one megawatt of reliable capacity (eg a coal-fired power
In consequence windfarms are being featherbedded – not only with
As pandemonium breaks out in newspapers at the prospect of electricity
Three years ago incoming coalition ministers were briefed that when
Civil servants then devised complex “energy market reforms” (EMR) to make
Practical people in the National Grid are now hatching emergency Plan C.
Some of these steps are based on techniques previously used in extreme
|This week, both Caroline Flint MP and Ed Balls MP have publicly repeated the commitment by the UK’s Labour Party to a total decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030, should they become the governing political party. At PRASEG’s Annual Conference, Caroline Flint said “In around ten years time, a quarter of our power supply will be shut down. Decisions made in the next few years […] consequences will last for decades […] keeping the lights on, and [ensuring reasonably priced] energy bills, and preventing dangerous climate change. […] Labour will have as an election [promise] a legally binding target for 2030. […] This Government has no vision.”|
And when I was in an informal conversation group with Ed Davey MP and Professor Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute at a drinks reception after the event hosted by PRASEG, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change seemed to me to also be clear on his personal position backing the 2030 “decarb” target.
Ed Davey showed concern about the work necessary to get a Europe-wide commitment on Energy and Climate Change. He took Professor Hillman’s point that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are already causing dangerous climate change, and that the risks are increasing. However, he doubted that immediate responses can be made. He gave the impression that he singled out Poland of all the countries in the European Union to be an annoyance, standing in the way of success. He suggested that if Professor Hillman wanted to do something helpful, he could fly to Poland…at this point Professor Hillman interjected to say he hasn’t taken a flight in 70 years and doesn’t intend to now…and Ed Davey continued that if the Professor wanted to make a valuable contribution, he could travel to Poland, taking a train, or…”I don’t care how you get there”, but go to Poland and persuade the Poles to sign up to the 2030 ambition.
Clearly, machinations are already afoot. At the PRASEG Annual Conference were a number of communications professionals, tightly linked to the debate on the progress of national energy policy. Plus, one rather exceedingly highly-networked individual, David Andrews, the key driver behind the Claverton Energy Research Group forum, of which I am an occasional participant. He had ditched the normal navy blue polyester necktie and sombre suit for a shiveringly sharp and open-necked striped shirt, and was doing his best to look dapper, yet zoned. I found him talking to a communications professional, which didn’t surprise me. He asked how I was.
JA : “I think I need to find a new job.”
What I really should have said was :-
JA : “Absolutely and seriously not ! Who’d want to keep State Secrets ? Too much travel and being nice to people who are nasty. And making unbelievable compromises. The excitement of privilege and access would wear off after about six minutes. Plus there’s the risk of ending up decomposing in something like a locked sports holdall in some strange bathroom in the semblance of a hostelry in a godforsaken infested hellhole in a desolate backwater like Cheltenham or Gloucester. Plus, I’d never keep track of all the narratives. Or the sliding door parallel lives. Besides, I’m a bit of a Marmite personality – you either like me or you really don’t : I respond poorly to orders, I’m not an arch-persuader and I’m not very diplomatic or patient (except with the genuinely unfortunate), and I’m well-known for leaping into spats. Call me awkward (and some do), but I think national security and genuine Zero Carbon prosperity can be assured by other means than dark arts and high stakes threats. I like the responsibility of deciding for myself what information should be broadcast in the better interests of the common good, and which held back for some time (for the truth will invariably out). And over and above all that, I’m a technologist, which means I prefer details over giving vague impressions. And I like genuine democratic processes, and am averse to social engineering. I am entirely unsuited to the work of a secret propaganda and diplomatic unit.”
I would be prepared to work for a UK or EU Parliamentary delegation to Poland, I guess, if I could be useful in assisting with dialogue, perhaps in the technical area. I do after all have several academic degrees pertinent to the questions of Energy and Climate Change.
But in a room full of politicians and communications experts, I felt a little like a fished fish. Here, then, is a demonstration. I was talking with Rhys Williams, the Coordinator of PRASEG, and telling him I’d met the wonderful Professor Geoff Williams, of Durham Univeristy, who has put together a system of organic light emitting diode (LED) lighting and a 3-D printed control unit, and, and, and Rhys actually yawned. He couldn’t contain it, it just kind of spilled out. I told myself : “It’s not me. It’s the subject matter”, and I promptly forgave him. Proof, though, of the threshold for things technical amongst Westminster fixers and shakers.
Poland. I mean, I know James Delingpole has been to Poland, and I thought at the time he was possibly going to interfere with the political process on climate change, or drum up support for shale gas. But I’m a Zero Carbon kind of actor. I don’t need to go far to start a dialogue with Poland by going to Poland – I have Poles living in my street, and I’m invited to all their barbecues. Maybe I should invite Professor Mayer Hillman to cycle over to Waltham Forest and address my near neighbours and their extended friendship circle on the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, and ask them to communicate with the folks back home with any form of influence.
“So what do you do ?” is a question I quite frequently have to answer, as I meet a lot of new people, in a lot of new audiences and settings, on a regular basis, as an integral part of my personal process of discovery.
My internal autocue answer has modified, evolved, over the years, but currently sounds a lot like this, “I have a couple of part-time jobs, office administration, really. I do a spot of weblogging in my spare time. But I’m also doing some research into the potential for Renewable Gas.” I then pause for roughly two seconds. “Renewable Gas ?” comes back the question.
“Yes,” I affirm in the positive, “Industrial-scale chemistry to produce gas fuels not dug up out of the ground. It is useful to plug the gaps in Renewable Electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”
It’s not exactly an elevator pitch – I’m not really selling anything except a slight shift in the paradigm here. Renewable Energy. Renewable Electricity. Renewable Gas. Power and gas. Gas and power. It’s logical to want both to be as renewable and sustainable and as low carbon as possible.
Wait another two seconds. “…What, you mean, like Biogas ?” comes the question. “Well, yes, and also high volumes of non-biological gas that’s produced above the ground instead of from fossil fuels.”
The introductory chat normally fades after this exchange, as my respondent usually doesn’t have the necessary knowledge architecture to be able to make any sense of what my words represent. I think it’s fair to say I don’t win many chummy friends paradigm-bumping in this way, and some probably think I’m off the deep end psychologically, but hey, evolutionaries don’t ever have it easy.
And I also find that it’s not easy to find a place in the hierarchy of established learning for my particular “research problem”. Which school could I possibly join ? Which research council would adopt me ?
The first barrier to academic inclusion is that my research interest is clearly motivated by my concern about the risks of Climate Change – the degradation in the Earth’s life support systems from pumping unnaturally high volumes of carbon dioxide into the air – and Peak Fossil Fuels – the risks to humanity from a failure to grow subsurface energy production.
My research is therefore “applied” research, according to the OECD definition (OECD, 2002). It’s not motivated simply by the desire to know new things – it is not “pure” research – it has an end game in mind. My research is being done in order to answer a practical problem – how to decarbonise gaseous, gas phase, energy fuel production.
The second barrier to the ivory tower world that I have is that I do not have a technological contribution to make with this research. I am not inventing a chemical process that can “revolutionise” low carbon energy production. (I don’t believe in “revolutions” anyway. Nothing good ever happens by violent overthrow.) My research is not at the workbench end of engineering, so I am not going to work amongst a team of industrial technicians, so I am not going to produce a patent for clean energy that could save the world (or the economy).
My research is more about observing and reporting the advances of others, and how these pieces add up to a journey of significant change in the energy sector. I want to join the dots from studies at the leading edge of research, showing how this demonstrates widespread aspiration for clean energy, and document instances of new energy technology, systems and infrastructure. I want to witness to the internal motivation of thousands of people working with the goal of clean energy across a very wide range of disciplines.
This is positively positive; positivity, but it’s not positivism – it’s not pure, basic research. This piece of research could well influence people and events – it’s certainly already influencing me. It’s not hands-off neutral science. It interacts with its subjects. It intentionally intervenes.
Since I don’t have an actual physical contribution or product to offer, and since I fully expect it to “interfere” with current dogma and political realities, what I am doing will be hard to acknowledge.
This is not a PhD. But it is still a piece of philosophy, the love of wisdom that comes from the acquisition of knowledge.
I have been clear for some time about what I should be studying. Call it “internal drive” if you like. The aim is to support the development of universal renewable energy as a response to the risks of climate change and peak fossil fuel energy production. That makes me automatically biased. I view my research subject through the prism of hope. But I would contend that this is a perfectly valid belief, as I already know some of what is possible. I’m not starting from a foundational blank slate – many Renewable Gas processes are already in use throughout industry and the energy sector. The fascinating part is watching these functions coalesce into a coherent alternative to the mining of fossil fuels. For the internal industry energy production conversation is changing its track, its tune.
For a while now, “alternative” energy has been a minor vibration, a harmonic, accentuating the fossil fuel melody. As soon as the mid-noughties economic difficulties began to bite, greenwash activities were ditched, as oil and gas companies resorted to their core business. But the “green shoots” of green energy are still there, and every now and then, it is possible to see them poking up above the oilspill-desecrated soil. My role is to count blades and project bushes. Therefore my research is interpretivist or constructivist, although it is documenting positivist engineering progress. That’s quite hard for me to agree with, even though I reasoned it myself. I can still resist being labelled “post-positivist”, though, because I’m still interpreting reality not relativisms.
So now, on from research paradigm to research methodologies. I was trained to be an experimentalist scientist, so this is a departure for me. In this case, I am not going to seek to make a physical contribution to the field by being actively involved as an engineer in a research programme, partly because from what I’ve read so far, most of the potential is already documented and scoped.
I am going to use sociological methods, combining observation and rapportage, to and from various organisations through various media. Since I am involved in the narrative through my interactions with others, and I influence the outcomes of my research, this is partly auto-narrative, autoethnographic, ethnographic. An apt form for the research documentation is a weblog, as it is a longitudinal study, so discrete reports at time intervals are appropriate. Social media will be useful for joining the research to a potential audience, and Twitter has the kind of immediacy I prefer.
My observation will therefore be akin to journalism – engineering journalism, where the term “engineering” covers both technological and sociological aspects of change. A kind of energy futures “travelogue”, an observer of an emerging reality.
My research methods will include reading the science and interacting with engineers. I hope to do a study trip (or two) as a way of embedding myself into the new energy sector, with the explicit intention of ensuring I am not purely a commentator-observer. My research documentation will include a slow collation of my sources and references – a literature review that evolves over time.
My personal contribution will be slight, but hopefully set archaic and inefficient proposals for energy development based on “traditional” answers (such as nuclear power, “unconventional” fossil fuel production and Carbon Capture and Storage for coal) in high relief.
My research choices as they currently stand :-
1. I do not think I want to join an academic group.
2. I do not think I want to work for an energy engineering company.
3. I do not want to claim a discovery in an experimental sense. Indeed, I do not need to, as I am documenting discoveries and experiments.
4. I want to be clear about my bias towards promoting 100% renewable energy, as a desirable ambition, in response to the risks posed by climate change and peak fossil fuel production.
5. I need to admit that my research may influence outcomes, and so is applied rather than basic (Roll-Hansen, 2009).
OECD, 2002. “Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development”, Frascati Manual :-
Roll-Hansen, 2009. “Why the distinction between basic (theoretical) and applied (practical) research is important in the politics of science”, Nils Roll-Hansen, Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science Contingency and Dissent in Science, Technical Report 04/09 :-
|The contribution of coal-fired power generation to the UK’s domestic electrical energy supply appears to have increased recently, according to the December 2012 “Energy Trends” released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. This is most likely due to coal plants using up their remaining allotted operational hours until they need to retire.|
|It could also be due to a quirk of the international markets – coal availability has increased because of gas glut conditions in the USA leading to higher coal exports. Combatting the use of coal in power generation is a global struggle that still needs to be won, but in the UK, it is planned that low carbon generation will begin to gain ascendance.
The transition to lower carbon energy in Britain relies on getting the Natural Gas strategy right. With the imminent closure of coal-fired power plant, the probable decommissioning of several nuclear reactors, and the small tranche of overall supply coming from renewable resources, Natural Gas needs to be providing a greater overall percentage of electricity in the grid. But an increasing amount of this will be imported, since indigenous production is dropping, and this is putting the UK’s economy at risk of high prices and gas scarcity.
Demand for electricity for the most part changes by a few percentage points a year, but the overall trend is to creep upwards (see Chart 4, here). People have made changes to their lighting power consumption, but this has been compensated for by an increase in power used by “gadgets” (see Chart 4, here). There is not much that can be done to suppress power consumption. Since power generation must increasingly coming from renewable resources and Natural Gas combustion, this implies strong competition between the demand for gas for heating and the demand gas for electricity. Electricity generation is key to the economy, so the power sector will win any competition for gas supplies. If competition for Natural Gas is strong, and since we don’t have much national gas storage, we can expect higher seasonal imports and therefore, higher prices.
It is clear that improving building insulation across the board is critical in avoiding energy insecurity. I shall be checking the winter heat demand figures assiduously from now on, to determine if the Green Deal and related measures are working. If they don’t, the UK is in for heightened energy security risks, higher carbon emissions, and possibly much higher energy prices. The Green Deal simply has to work.
|As rumours and genuine information leak from central sources about the policy instruments and fiscal measures that will be signed into the United Kingdom’s Energy Bill, the subsidy support likely to be made available to new nuclear power is really straining credibility from my point of view. I am even more on the “incredulous” end of the spectrum of faith in the UK Government’s Energy Policy than I ever was before.|
The national demand for electrical power is pretty constant, with annual variations of only a few percent. It was therefore easy to project that there could be a “power cliff” when supply would be curtailed from coal-fired generation under European legislation :-
The pat answer to how we should “Keep the Lights On” has been to wave the new nuclear fission reactor card. Look ! Shiny new toys. Keep us in power for yonks ! And hidden a little behind this fan of aces and jokers, a get-out-of-jail free card from the Coal monopoly – Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Buy into this, and we could have hundreds more years of clean power from coal, by pumping nasty carbon dioxide under the sea bed.
Now, here’s where the answers are just plain wrong : new nuclear power cannot be brought into the National Grid before the early 2020s at the very earliest. And options for CCS are still in the balance, being weighed and vetted, and very unlikely to clean up much of the black stuff until well past 2025.
When put through my best onboard guesstimiser, I came up with the above little graph in answer to the question : how soon can the UK build new power generation ? Since our “energy cliff” is likely to be in one of the winters of 2015 or 2016, and we’re not sure other countries we import from will have spare capacity, we have little option but to increase Natural Gas-fired power generation and go hell-for-leather with the wind and solar power deployment.
So no – it’s of no use promising to pay the new nuclear reactor bearer the sum of 40 or more years of subsidy in the form of guaranteed price for power under the scheme known as Contracts for Difference – they still won’t be delivering anything to cope with the “power drain” of the next few years. If this is written into the Electricity Market Reform, we could justifiably say this would destroy competition, and destroy any market, too, and be “central planning” by any other name – this level of subsidy is not exactly “technology-neutral” !
And offering the so-called Capacity Mechanism – a kind of top-up payment to keep old nuclear reactors running, warts and all – when really they should be decommissioned as they are reaching the end of their safe lives, is not a good option, in my book.
Offering the Capacity Mechanism to those who build new gas-fired power plant does make sense, however. If offshore wind power continues with its current trajectory and hits the big time in the next few years, and people want the cheap wind power instead of the gas, and the gas stations will be feeling they can’t run all the time, then the Capacity Mechanism will be vital to make sure the gas plant does get built to back up the wind power, and stays available to use on cold, still nights in February.
Oh, people may complain about the idea of new “unabated” gas power plants, and insist they should be fitted with carbon capture, but new gas plants won’t run all the time in future, because renewable electricity generation will be cheaper, so forcing gas plant owners to pay for CCS seems like overkill to me. And, anyway, we will be decarbonising the gas supply, as we develop supplies of Renewable Gas.
I say forget the nuclear option – build the gas !
As I dodged the perfunctory little spots of snow yesterday, on my way down to Highbury and Islington underground train station, I passed a man who appeared to have jerky muscle control attempting to punch numbers on the keypad of a cash machine in the wall. He was missing, but he was grinning. A personal joke, perhaps. The only way he could get his money out of the bank to buy a pint of milk and a sliced loaf for his tea was to accurately tap his PIN number. But he wasn’t certain his body would let him. I threw him an enquiring glance, but he seemed too involved in trying to get control of his arms and legs to think of accepting help.
This, I felt, was a metaphor for the state of energy policy and planning in the United Kingdom – everybody in the industry and public sector has focus, but nobody appears to have much in the way of overall control – or even, sometimes, direction. I attended two meetings today setting out to address very different parts of the energy agenda : the social provision of energy services to the fuel-poor, and the impact that administrative devolution may have on reaching Britain’s Renewable Energy targets.
At St Luke’s Centre in Central Street in Islington, I heard from the SHINE team on the progress they are making in providing integrated social interventions to improve the quality of life for those who suffer fuel poverty in winter, where they need to spend more than 10% of their income on energy, and are vulnerable to extreme temperatures in both summer heatwaves and winter cold snaps. The Seasonal Health Interventions Network was winning a Community Footprint award from the National Energy Action charity for success in their ability to reach at-risk people through referrals for a basket of social needs, including fuel poverty. It was pointed out that people who struggle to pay energy bills are more likely to suffer a range of poverty problems, and that by linking up the social services and other agencies, one referral could lead to multiple problem-solving.
In an economy that is suffering signs of contraction, and with austerity measures being imposed, and increasing unemployment, it is clear that social services are being stretched, and yet need is still great, and statutory responsibility for handling poverty is still mostly a publicly-funded matter. By offering a “one-stop shop”, SHINE is able to offer people a range of energy conservation and efficiency services alongside fire safety and benefits checks and other help to make sure those in need are protected at home and get what they are entitled to. With 1 in 5 households meeting the fuel poverty criteria, there is clearly a lot of work to do. Hackney and Islington feel that the SHINE model could be useful to other London Boroughs, particularly as the Local Authority borders are porous.
We had a presentation on the Cold Weather Plan from Carl Petrokovsky working for the Department of Health, explaining how national action on cold weather planning is being organised, using Met Office weather forecasts to generate appropriate alert levels, in a similar way to heatwave alerts in summer – warnings that I understand could become much more important in future owing to the possible range of outcomes from climate change.
By way of some explanation – more global warming could mean significant warming for the UK. More UK warming could mean longer and, or, more frequent heated periods in summer weather, perhaps with higher temperatures. More UK warming could also mean more disturbances in an effect known as “blocking” where weather systems lock into place, in any season, potentially pinning the UK under a very hot or very cold mass of air for weeks on end. In addition, more UK warming could mean more precipitation – which would mean more rain in summer and more snow in winter.
Essentially, extremes in weather are public health issues, and particularly in winter, more people are likely to suffer hospitalisation from the extreme cold, or falls, or poor air quality from boiler fumes – and maybe end up in residential care. Much of this expensive change of life is preventable, as are many of the excess winter deaths due to cold. The risks of increasing severity in adverse conditions due to climate change are appropriately dealt with by addressing the waste of energy at home – targeting social goals can in effect contribute to meeting wider adaptational goals in overall energy consumption.
If the UK were to be treated as a single system, and the exports and imports of the most significant value analysed, the increasing net import of energy – the yawning gap in the balance of trade – would be seen in its true light – the country is becoming impoverished. Domestic, indigenously produced sources of energy urgently need to be developed. Policy instruments and measured designed to reinvigorate oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and over the whole UKCS – UK Continental Shelf – are not showing signs of improving production significantly. European-level policy on biofuels did not revolutionise European agriculture as regards energy cropping – although it did contribute to decimating Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest. The obvious logical end point of this kind of thought process is that we need vast amounts of new Renewable Energy to retain a functioning economy, given global financial, and therefore, trade capacity, weakness.
Many groups, both with the remit for public service and private enterprise oppose the deployment of wind and solar power, and even energy conservation measures such as building wall cladding. Commentators with access to major media platforms spread disinformation about the ability of Renewable Energy technologies to add value. In England, in particular, debates rage, and many hurdles are encountered. Yet within the United Kingdom as a whole, there are real indicators of progressive change, particularly in Scotland and Wales.
I picked up the threads of some of these advances by attending a PRASEG meeting on “Delivering Renewable Energy Under Devolution”, held at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Westminster, London; a tour to back up the launch of a new academic report that analyses performance of the devolved administrations and their counterpart in the English Government in Westminster. The conclusions pointed to something that I think could be very useful – if Scotland takes the referendum decision for independence, and continues to show strong leadership and business and community engagement in Renewable Energy deployment, the original UK Renewable Energy targets could be surpassed.
I ended the afternoon exchanging some perceptions with an academic from Northern Ireland. We shared that Eire and Northern Ireland could become virtually energy-independent – what with the Renewable Electricity it is possible to generate on the West Coast, and the Renewable Gas it is possible to produce from the island’s grass (amongst other things). We also discussed the tendency of England to suck energy out of its neighbour territories. I suggested that England had appropriated Scottish hydrocarbon resources, literally draining the Scottish North Sea dry of fossil fuels in exchange for token payments to the Western Isles, and suchlike. If Scotland leads on Renewable Energy and becomes independent, I suggested, the country could finally make back the wealth it lost to England. We also shared our views about the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland being asked to wire all their new Renewable Electricity to England, an announcement that has been waiting to happen for some time. England could also bleed Wales of green power with the same lines being installed to import green juice from across the Irish Sea.
I doubt that politics will completely nix progress on Renewable Energy deployment – the economics are rapidly becoming clear that clean, green power and gas are essential for the future. However, I would suggest we could expect some turbulence in the political sphere, as the English have to learn the hard way that they have a responsibility to rapidly increase their production of low carbon energy.
Asking the English if they want to break ties with the European Union, as David Cameron has suggested with this week’s news on a Referendum, is the most unworkable idea, I think. England, and in fact, all the individual countries of the United Kingdom, need close participation in Europe, to join in with the development of new European energy networks, in order to overcome the risks of economic collapse. It may happen that Scotland, and perhaps Wales, even, separate themselves from any increasing English isolation and join the great pan-Europe energy projects in their own right. Their economies may stabilise and improve, while the fortunes of England may tumble, as those with decision-making powers, crony influence and web logs in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, resist the net benefits of the low carbon energy revolution.
[ Many thanks to Simon and all at the Unity Kitchen at St Luke’s Centre, and the handsomely reviving Unity Latte, and a big hi to all the lunching ladies and gents with whom I shared opinions on the chunkiness of the soup of the day and the correct identification of the vegetables in it. ]
Other Snapshots of Yesterday #1 : Approached by short woman with a notebook in Parliament Square, pointing out to me a handwritten list that included the line “Big Ben”. I pointed at the clock tower and started to explain. The titchy tourist apologised for non-comprehension by saying, “French”, so then I explained the feature attraction to her in French, which I think quite surprised her. We are all European.
Other Snapshots of Yesterday #2 : Spoke with an Austrian academic by the fire for coffee at IMechE, One Birdcage Walk, about the odd attitudes as regards gun ownership in the United States, and the American tendency to collective, cohort behaviour. I suggested that this tendency could be useful, as the levels of progressive political thinking, for instance about drone warfare, could put an end to the practice. When aerial bombardment was first conducted, it should have been challenged in law at that point. We are all Europeans.
Other Snapshots of Yesterday #3 : Met a very creative Belgian from Gent, living in London. We are all European.
Other Snapshots of Yesterday #4 : We Europeans, we are all so civilised. We think that we need to heat venues for meetings, so that people feel comfortable. Levels of comfort are different for different people, but the lack of informed agreement means that the default setting for temperature always ends up being too high. The St Luke’s Centre meeting room was at roughly 23.5 degrees C when I arrived, and roughly 25 degrees C with all the visitors in the room. I shared with a co-attendee that my personal maximum operating temperature is around 19 degrees C. She thought that was fine for night-time. The IMechE venue on the 2nd floor was roughly 19 – 20 degrees C, but the basement was roughly 24 degrees C. Since one degree Celsius of temperature reduction can knock about 10% of the winter heating bill, why are public meetings about energy not more conscious of adjusting their surroundings ?
|The human race – we have to solve energy together. And to do that, we need to harness all our personal, purposeful, positive energies, and let me tell you, personally, I feel electric – and I’m only just getting warmed up.
So let’s hear less of the nonsense from authoritatively-accredited people who want to put a dampener on green energy, who say that saving energy cannot, simply cannot be done, sigh, sigh, sigh, collective groan. We have so much energy together, we can do this.
We have the will power, the staying power, the investment power, and we will navigate the obstacles in our path.
Let’s not waste any more time on expensive trinkets, and iddy-biddy fancies with high unit costs and low compatibility to the future. Yes, I’m talking nuclear power. I’m talking the nobody-really-wants-to-do-it-and-nobody-thinks-it-can-be-cheap-enough-to-work-at-scale Carbon Capture and Storage. And yes, I’m talking carbon markets – tell me again, where are they now ? Oh yes, still in the starting blocks.
And don’t even start to talk about pricing carbon to me – in this world of rollercoaster, highly volatile energy prices, what on Earth could costing or taxing carbon actually achieve ? And fusion power ? Nah, mate, forget it. It’s been 50 years away for the last 50 years.
Shale gas, oil from shales, tar sands, coal bed methane collection and underground coal gasification are once-abandoned messy ideas from way back. They’re still messy, and they’re still retro, and they’re not going to get us anywhere. If the United States of America want to completely ruin their lithosphere, well, that’s up to them, but don’t come around here toxifying our aquifers and poisoning our European trees !
What we need is marine energy, geothermal energy, hydropower, solar power, wind power, and Renewable Gas, because gaseous fuels are so flexible and store-able and can come from many, many processes. And we need the next optimistic generation of leaders to push through the administration ceiling and get green energy policy really rolling, attracting all the green investment will.
If I were a power plant, I would be cranking out the current and making everything shine very, very brightly just now.
Whatever it is, it starts with attention, paying attention.
Attention to numbers, faces, needs, consideration of the rights and wrongs and probables.
Thinking things through, looking vulnerable children and aggressive control freaks directly in the eye, being truly brave enough to face both radiant beauty and unbelievable evil with equanimity.
|To study. To look, and then look again.
To adopt a manner of seeing, and if you cannot see, to learn to truly absorb the soundscape of your world – to pick up the detail, to fully engage.
It is a way of filling up your soul with the new, the good, the amazing; and also the way to empty worthless vanity from your life.
Simone Weil expressed this truth in these words : “Toutes les fois qu’on fait vraiment attention, on détruit du mal en soi.” If you pay close attention, you learn what is truly of value, and you jettison incongruities and waywardness. She also pronounced that “L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.” And she is right. People feel truly valued if you gaze at them, and properly listen to them.
Those of us who have researched climate change and the limits to natural resources, those of us who have looked beyond the public relations of energy companies whose shares are traded on the stock markets – we are paying attention. We have been working hard to raise the issues for the attention of others, and sometimes this has depleted our personal energies, caused us sleepless nights, given us depression, fatalism, made us listless, aimless, frustrated.
Some of us turn to prayer or other forms of meditation. We are enabled to listen, to learn, to try again to communicate, to bridge divides, to empathise.
A transformation can take place. The person who pays close attention to others becomes trusted, attractive in a pure, transparent way. People know our hearts, they have confidence in us, when we give them our time and an open door.
Disobedience only gets you so far. Resistance can be fertile, but intellectual ghettos can be futile. The human tendency to generalise creates too much negativity and prevents us from being constructive. We complain about the “evil” oil and gas companies; the “greedy” coal merchants and their “lying” bankster financiers; but refuse to see the diamonds in the mud.
We should obey the future. In the future, all people will respect each other. There will no longer be war propaganda carried by the media, demonising leaders of foreign countries, or scorn for opposing political parties. In the future, human beings will respect and have regard for other human beings. So we should live that future, live that value, have care for one another. I don’t mean we are obliged to give money to charity to help needy people in poor countries. I don’t mean we should campaign for our government to commit funds to the Climate Finance initiatives, whose aim is to support adaptation to climate chaos in developing countries. No, charity is not enough, and never matches the need. Philanthropy will not answer climate change, and so solutions need to be built into the infrastructure of the global economy, sewn into the design, woven into the fabric. There should be no manufacture, no trade, no form of consumption that does not take account of the climate change impacts on the poor, and on the rich, on ecosystems, on ourselves.
Yes, it’s true that corporations are destroying the biosphere, but we cannot take a step back, grimace and point fingers of blame, for we are all involved in the eco-destructive economy. We are all hooked on dirty energy and polluting trade, and it’s hard to change this. It’s especially hard for oil, gas and coal companies to change track – they have investors and shareholders, and they are obliged to maintain the value in their business, and keep making profits. Yes, they should stop avoiding their responsibilities to the future. Yes, they should stop telling the rest of us to implement carbon taxation or carbon trading. They know that a comprehensive carbon price can never be established, that’s why they tell us to do it. It’s a technique of avoidance. But gathering climate storms, and accumulating unsolved climate damages, are leading the world’s energy corporations to think carefully of the risks of business as usual. How can the governments and society of the world help the energy companies to evolve ? Is more regulation needed ? And if so, what kind of political energy would be required to bring this about ? The United Nations climate change process is broken, there is no framework or treaty at hand, and the climate change social movement has stopped growing, so there is no longer any democratic pressure on the energy production companies and countries to change.
Many climate change activists talk of fear and frustration – the futility of their efforts. They are trapped into the analysis that teaches that greed and deceit are all around them. Yet change is inevitable, and the future is coming to us today, and all is quite possibly full of light. Where is this river of hope, this conduit of shining progress ? Where, this organised intention of good ?
We have to celebrate the dull. Change is frequently not very exciting. Behind the scenes, policy people, democratic leaders, social engineers, corporate managers, are pushing towards the Zero Carbon future reality. They push and pull in the areas open to them, appropriate to their roles, their paid functions. Whole rafts of national and regional policy is wedded to making better use of energy, using less energy overall, displacing carbon energy from all economic sectors.
And then there’s the progressive politics. Every leader who knows the shape of the future should strive to be a Van Jones, or a Jenny Jones, any green-tinged Jones you can think of. We should enquire of our political leaders and our public activists what flavour of environmental ecology they espouse. We should demand green policies in every party, expect clean energy support from every faction. We should not only vote progressive, we should promote future-thinking authority in all spheres of social management – a future of deeper mutual respect, of leaner economy, of cleaner energy.
The future will be tough. In fact, the future is flowing to us faster than ever, and we need resilience in the face of assured destructive change – in environment and in economy. To develop resilience we need to forgo negativity and embrace positivity. So I ask you – don’t just be anti-coal, be pro-wind, pro-solar and pro-energy conservation. Where leaders emerge from the companies and organisations that do so much harm, celebrate them and their vision of a brighter, better, lower carbon future. Where administrations take the trouble to manage their energy use, and improve their efficiency in the use of resources, applaud them, and load them with accolades. Awards may be trite, but praise can encourage better behaviour, create exemplars, inspire goodly competition. Let us encourage the people with good influence in every organisation, institution and corporation. Change is afoot, and people with genuine power are walking confidently to a more wholesome future.
Protect your soul. Don’t get locked into the rejection of evil, but hold fast to what is good. Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Be strong for goodness, even as you turn your back on a life of grime.
Live the Zero Carbon future, and make it come as soon as it can.
|Wind power is magic. Wind power is almost infinitely scalable. Wind power is for everyone. Wind power is incredibly successful and growing almost exponentially. Yet some recalcitrant intransigents, such as Christopher Booker, persist, like sea hawks, in clinging onto the fossil fuel guano in their ossified little niche perches, high above the wind-power blown cliffs of reality. Wind power is here, and it’s working, and it’s displacing carbon emissions, but to read Christopher Booker you’d think it were the height of folly to deploy it.|
He cannot purvey his argument on the basis of the facts, and so he resorts to repeating outdated and confused information, thinking that mere repetition of erroneous statistics counts for the truth.
His position has been trounced, locked in the floodlight beam and stamped on by several intelligent parties, but meanwhile, people are arguing about his weekend article. They’re not arguing about whether he’s right (he clearly isn’t) or wrong, but about excactly how wrong he is. All I know without doing in-depth calculations is that he’s at least 30% way out – although others argue he’s up to around 70% out. And what are the numbers he’s so misguided about ? The number of wind turbines UK policy dictates should be installed.
Here’s Booker :-
“…Booker is taking figures from DECC’s 2011 Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) report, which provides UK energy statistics for 2010. But although he says these are the most recent figures available, the new edition of DUKES was published last week, providing information on what happened in 2011. These new figures show the year saw fairly significant growth in the amount of electricity coming from renewable sources. The amount of electricity generated by wind power rose from 10.2 terawatt hours in 2010 to 15.75 TWh in 2011 – a rise of 5.53 TWh. This made up much of a wider growth in renewable power – renewables generated 34.4 TWh of electricity in 2011, a rise of about 8.6 TWh compared to 2010…”
And here is what he summarises about how to count wind turbines :-
“…According to Renewable UK, the generating capacity of wind turbines currently being installed is about 2 MW for onshore and 3.6 MW for offshore. Plugging those numbers in, an extra 73.6 TWh would take either another 15,600 onshore turbines, or 6,300 offshore. In practice, the numbers are likely to be smaller. Offshore turbines will continue to increase in size, meaning it will take less to produce more power. Turbines will probably become more effective – increasing their load factor. And other sources of renewables will produce more power, reducing the amount of wind turbines needed to hit a particular amount of renewably-generated power. So the 32,000 figure looks pretty overinflated…”
And here’s the online Claverton Energy Research Group forum picking their way through various alternative answers :-
From: Eric Payne
As experts in this area, I would be very interested to hear people’s views on this piece in The Daily Telegraph.
How accurate is the information quoted and what is its significance for Britain’s energy policy?
From: David Hirst
A fraudulent article. It does not mention that the change was forced by Osborne and the Treasury, who insisted that gas should continue to receive the subsidies it already gets. But likely true in the sense that UK energy policy is now undeniably incompatible with climate change objectives, and the legal carbon budget.
The nuclear industry is undoubtedly looking on with glee, and doing some of the stirring and distortion. But they cannot deny climate change, as it is the only shred of opaque clothing on that emperor.
What I find even more shocking through, is the huge barrage of comments, most of which seem to deny any role for wind, and deny the science of climate change. Although always deeply biased towards the middle class and the rich, the Telegraph has become a mouthpiece of denial, and this is very dangerous.
I suppose we ought to form all sorts of aliases, and spend our days balancing the lunatic comments with occasional sensible ones. Who knows, Osborne might take notice.
From: Herbert Eppel
Mr Booker who, according to Wikipedia, “has taken a stance which runs counter to the scientific consensus on a number of issues, including global warming”, would be well advised to have a look at this:
I’m sure Britain’s energy policy would be in a better shape if it didn’t keep getting side-tracked by such maverick interventions.
From: Eric Payne
So, is the need to ‘keep the lights on’ compatible with present renewable electricity and carbon emissions targets?
Is a large build out of new wind turbines the best way to address those needs? Is it preferable to preserve the wind turbine subsidy at its present level in order to achieve the same?
What other options/policies (if any) might be more effective?
From: Herbert Eppel
As I keep saying, we need to fire on all renewables cylinders.
Wind should, without a doubt, play a key part.
Check out the numerous pertinent links I sent over the last few months (not sure whether you read the Claverton messages regularly) – see
From: Jo Abbess
Christopher Booker uses emotive language. Before reading his article
“The Government plans to break its own climate change law” – the use
“Politicians are finally admitting that our ‘carbon’ targets and our
Other examples “serious breach of the law”, “opaque”, “catastrophic
Strip these things out of the opinion piece and then you have some
Note : this is an opinion piece, and is not expected to be taken as a
See “Views on science” here :
Note how Christopher Booker puts a halo round the head of shale gas
And don’t forget – American academics that have vindicated shale gas
Two useful links :-
Christopher Booker shows himself to be a “wind-up merchant” with this :-
Again he uses emotive language and he should not be relied upon in my
I’m sorry I don’t have time to debunk this piece more thoroughly. It
I don’t trust his output. End of.
From: Frank Holland
Follow the money, who, apart from the Torygraph, is paying Booker?
From: Dave Andrews
My take on one of his points:
“Hidden in the small print of Davey’s statement are two passages of particular significance. One, so obscurely phrased that it seems to have passed everyone by, is that by 2017 we hope to be generating “79 terawatt hours” (TWh) of electricity a year from renewables, rising by 2020 to the “108 TWh needed to meet the UK’s 2020 renewable energy target”. To make sense of this, one must look at the section of DECC’s website showing that, in 2010, the last year for which we have figures, we used 378 TWh of electricity, of which only 10 TWh, or 2.6 per cent, came from wind. Slightly more than this came from other renewables, such as hydro. But to meet that 32 per cent target within eight years, almost all the increase would have to come from new wind turbines.
If 3,000-odd turbines produced 2.6 per cent in 2010, then to meet the EU target would require something like the “32,000 turbines” mentioned by Davey’s predecessor Chris Huhne just before he resigned. This would require us to build about 10 giant turbines every day for the next eight years. Regardless of how many billions of pounds of subsidy might be thrown at this, in practical terms it is quite out of the question.”……..
My calculation based on the latest turbines being installed off shore are 6.15, and onshore 7.5 MW. Going with the lower figures and using a 40% load factor, then this needs for 108 TWh only 5011 such turbines. Over 8 years, this is a rate of installation of 1.7 per day, so he out by a factor of 5.8 or 580% a figure relatively as large as his ego and the fee paid by the lobbyists who wrote this crap for him.
1.7 per day would be easily achievable with the appropriate incentives. The Allies built 600,000 aircraft in ww2 with an average engine power of around 1 MW and 225,000 armoured vehicles – add those together 2:1 to get roughly one turbine and that is say 500,000 equivalent turbines units over 5 years or 273 per day, plus a lot of airfields, ships etc.
The advantage this time round is that this hardware has an NPV which is positive.
The subsidies he talks about are far less than paid to the fossil industry…didn’t Osborne just give a £100m tax break to the offshore gas industry to cite one?
From: John Baldwin
Your figures don’t seem right!! You may be right and Booker wrong but I’m not sure, needs a comment from an offshore wind bod.
From: Dave Andrews
John, which figures, the size, or the load factor?
Or the sum?
From: Jo Abbess
I think part of the problem with Christopher Booker’s figures are that
For example, in the Renewable Energy Roadmap :-
Energy demand is forecast to be 1557 TWh in 2020 in the Government’s
15% of this is 233.55 TWh – expected to be from renewable resources.
The Renewable Energy Roadmap expects that wind power will generate :-
Christopher Booker is saying that generation from wind power is 10 TWh
Renewable UK have an up-to-date counter :-
Currently there are 3,868 turbines generating 16 TWh
Onshore = ~ 5,000 MW installed capacity
These figures are roughly 20% higher than 2010 counts for onshore and
So we have a classic Christopher Booker fudge.
1. He’s not comparing apples with apples, but 2010 data with 2012 data.
2. He’s mistaken “energy” for “electricity”.
I rest my case.
From: Jo Abbess
I forgot to add :-
3. Wind turbines are increasing in their capacity ratings as time
Even if the average capacity moved up by 10% (and admitting that not
So Christopher Booker is out by a whopping great 30% or so.
From: Steve Browning
Hi All, I must admit you get too much emotive language and bad numbers, with politics in the current energy debate…
From a PRASEG meeting with Charles Hendry last month, it does look as if we are going for ‘Gas and Air’.
When I first looked at the issues with 32GW of wind in our 60GWMax/24GWmin system two years ago, I think the figure quoted for 2020 was @6400 turbines. That would be an average of 5MW/turbine
I believe the the largest wind machine available currently is the Enercon E-126 (DC Generator) at 6MW
We still have to get a handle on ‘value’ for each future scenario, including all the internal and external costs and drivers.
From: Frank Holland
Booker is a history graduate, he claims that asbestos is the same as
He is best ignored.
From: Dave Andrews
John, my wind turbine size and the load factor are correct. They are supplied by a wind energy expert, pphd, ex utility, hired to study these things by a governmental scientific organization.
So are you saying my calculation is wrong?
From: Eric Payne
What body would be responsible for commissioning a ‘walk-through’ study calculating the practicability of different future energy scenarios and their affect on the grid?
Have any full or partial studies been carried out? If not, why not?
From: Fred Starr
When I saw the figure for wind energy I ceased to read any more because the figures are well out of date. There was a big expansion after 2009, but more recently this has slowed. The capacity on the Grid is still 4686 MW
You would do be writing to him.
From: Neil Crumpton
Regarding the number of UK turbines by 2020 if producing 90 TWh – I make it around 11,000 not 20,000 to 30,000 !
PS my view of journalists (and politicians) confusing energy with electricity have been well aired over the years on Claverton
PPS 15 % of 2020 final energy demand will be around 230 TWh/y – so more than 100 TWh/y of wind by 2020 would give UK a better chance of reaching the target (and biomass CHP – with CCS)
i) offshore turbine capacity (assuming 58 TWh/y at 38 %) = 17.4 GW ( offC x 8.76 x 0.38 = 58 )
So assuming average offshore turbine capacity is 5 MW (ie mostly 5-6 GW from now) = 3,480 turbines – say 3,500 turbines
ii) onshore turbine capacity (assuming 32 TWh/y at 28 %) = 13 GW ( onC x 8.76 x 0.28 = 32 )
So assuming average onshore turbine capacity is 2 MW (ie mostly 2+ GW from now) = 6,500 turbines
Hence total number of turbines to generate 90 TWh/y in 2020 would be around 10,000, say 11,000 or 12,000 if average capacity and capacity factors are a bit less than I estimated above
From: Dave Andrews
The correct figure to generate the electricity he is talking about, irrespective of if it is the right amount is 1.7 turbines per day, whereas he gets 10 per day. (John you still havent told me what is wrong with this figure – the capacity is right and the load factor is right)
This would be easy to produce given the right industrial and supportive environment. The peak capacity of vehicle engines in the UK is about 2,500 GW and this is replaced every 10 years, so we make 684 MW per day of mobile chp plant (cars).
This is the equivalent in power terms of ~114 6 MW wind turbine per day.
From: Jo Abbess
Are you aware of the Offshore Valuation that looked at scenarios for
This was a joint UK Government and industry first pass assessment on
Note the strong emphasis on NPV – building a net present value or
My electronic mail inbox and Twitter “social media” timeline are full of people sparking and foaming about George Monbiot’s latest kow-tow to American academia. Apparently, he has discarded the evidence of many, many researchers, energy engineers and market players and poured luke-warm, regurgitated scorn on the evidence and inevitability of “Peak Oil”.
The level of agitation contradicting his stance has reached a new peak – in fact, I think I might claim this as “Peak Agitation”.
Here is just one example from Paul Mobbs, author of “Energy Beyond Oil”, and a multi-talented, multi-sectoral educator and researcher.
I initially read it in my inbox and nearly fell of my chair gobsmacked. When I had recovered from being astonished, and asked Mobbsey if I could quote him, perhaps anonymously, he wrote back :-
“No, you can quite clearly and boldly attach my name and email address to it ! And perhaps ask George for a response ?”
Sadly, George Monbiot appears to have jammed his thumbs in his ears as regards my commentary, so he is very unlikely to read this or become aware of the strength of opposition to his new positioning. But anyway – here’s for what’s it’s worth (and when it comes from Paul Mobbs, it’s worth a great deal) :-
Re: Peak oil – we were wrong. When the facts change we must change.
I’ve sat patiently through the various emails between you all — mainly to
take soundings of where you’re all at on this matter. In addition, over the
last few days I’ve separately received four dozen or so emails all asking
to “take on” Monbiot. I wasn’t going to reply because I’ve so many more
pressing matters to take care of, but given the weight of demands I can’t
I don’t see any point in “taking on” Monbiot; the points he raises, and the
debate that he has initiated, are so off beam compared to the basis of the
issues involved that it there’s no point proceeding along that line of
thought. You can’t answer a question if the question itself is not
Let’s get one thing straight — present economic difficulties are not simply
to do with “oil”, but with the more general issue of “limits to growth”.
That’s a complex interaction of resource production, thermodynamics,
technology, and relating all of these together, economic theory. Reducing
this just to an issue of oil or carbon will fail to answer why the trends
we see emerging today are taking place. Instead we have to look towards a
process which sees energy, resources, technology and human economics as a
The problem with this whole debate is that those involved — Monbiot
included — only have the vaguest understanding of how resource depletion
interacts with the human economy. And in a similar way, the wider
environment movement has been wholly compromised by its failure to engage
with the debate over ecological limits as part of their promotion of
alternative lifestyles. Unless you are prepared to adapt to the reality of
what the “limits” issues portends for the human economy, you’re not going
to make any progress on this matter.
Monbiot’s greatest mistake is to try and associate peak oil and climate
change. They are wholly different issues. In fact, over the last few years,
one of the greatest mistakes by the environment movement generally (and
Monbiot is an exemplar of this) has been to reduce all issues to one
metric/indicator — carbon. This “carbonism” has distorted the nature of
the debate over human development/progress, and in the process the
“business as usual” fossil-fuelled supertanker has been allowed to thunder
on regardless because solving carbon emissions is a fundamentally different
type of problem to solving the issue of resource/energy depletion.
Carbon emissions are a secondary effect of economic activity. It is
incidental to the economic process, even when measures such as carbon
markets are applied. Provided we’re not worried about the cost, we can use
technological measures to abate emissions — and government/industry have
used this as a filibuster to market a technological agenda in response and
thus ignore the basic incompatibility of economic growth with the
ecological limits of the Earth’s biosphere. As far as I am concerned, many
in mainstream environmentalism have been complicit in that process; and
have failed to provide the example and leadership necessary to initiate a
debate on the true alternatives to yet more intense/complex
industrialisation and globalisation.
In contrast, physical energy supply is different because it’s a prerequisite
of economic growth — you can’t have economic activity without a
qualitatively sufficient energy supply (yes, the “quality” of the energy is
just as important as the physical scale of supply). About half of all
growth is the value of new energy supply added to the economy, and another
fifth is the result of energy efficiency — the traditional measures of
capital and labour respectively make up a tenth and fifth of growth. As yet
mainstream economic theory refuses to internalise the issue of energy
quality, and the effect of falling energy/resource returns, even though this
is demonstrably one of the failing aspects of our current economic model
(debt is the other, and that’s an even more complex matter to explore if
we’re looking at inter-generational effects).
The fact that all commodity prices have been rising along with growth for
the past decade — a phenomena directly related to the human system hitting
the “limits to growth” — is one of the major factors driving current
economic difficulties. Arguably we’ve been hitting the “limits” since the
late 70s. The difficulty in explaining that on a political stage is that
we’re talking about processes which operate over decades and centuries, not
over campaign cycles or political terms of office. As a result, due to the
impatience of the modern political/media agenda, the political debate over
limits has suffered because commentators always take too short-term a
viewpoint. Monbiot’s recent conversion on nuclear and peak oil is such an
example, and is at the heart of the report Monbiot cites in justification of
his views — a report, not coincidentally, written by a long-term opponent
of peak oil theory, working for lobby groups who promote business-as-usual
solutions to ecological issues.
Likewise, because the neo-classical economists who advise governments and
corporations don’t believe in the concept of “limits”, the measures they’ve
adopted to try and solve the problem (e.g. quantitative easing) are not
helping the problem, but merely forestall the inevitable collapse. For
example, we can’t borrow money today to spur a recovery if there will be
insufficient growth in the future to pay for that debt. Basically, whilst you
may theoretically borrow money from your grandchildren, you can’t borrow
the energy that future economic growth requires to generate that money if
it doesn’t exist to be used at that future date. Perhaps more perversely, a
large proportion of the economic actors who have expressed support for
limits are not advocating ecological solutions to the problem, they’re
cashing-in by trying to advise people how to make money out of economic
Carbon emissions and resource depletion are a function of economic growth.
There is an absolute correlation between growth and carbon emissions. I
don’t just mean that emissions and the rate of depletion fall during
recessions — and thus “recessions are good for the environment”. If you
look at the rate of growth in emissions over the last 50 years, the change
in energy prices has a correlation to changes in carbon emissions as the
price of fuel influences economic activity. That’s why carbon emissions
broke with their historic trend, halving their previous growth rate, after
the oil crisis of the 1970s; and why they then rebounded as energy prices
fell during the 90s.
The idea that we can “decarbonise” the economy and continue just as before
is fundamentally flawed. I know some of you will scream and howl at this
idea, but if you look at the research on the interaction between energy and
economic productivity there is no other conclusion. Due to their high
energy density and relative ease of use, all fossil fuels have an economic
advantage over all the alternatives. That said, as conventional oil and gas
deplete, and “unconventional” sources with far lower energy returns are
brought into the market, that differential is decreasing — but we won’t
reach general parity with renewables for another decade or two.
Note also this has nothing to do with subsidies, or industrial power —
it’s a basic physical fact that the energy density of renewables is lower
than the historic value of fossil fuels. On a level playing field, renewable
energy costs more and has a lower return on investment than fossil fuels.
We do have the technology to develop a predominantly renewable human
economy, but the economic basis of such a system will be wholly different to
that we live within today. Unless you are prepared to reform the economic
process alongside changing the resource base of society, we’ll never
see any realistic change because all such “ecological” viewpoints are
inconsistent with the values at the heart of modern capitalism (that’s not
a political point either, it’s just a fact based upon how these systems
must operate). E.g., when the Mail/Telegraph trumpet that more wind power
will cost more and lower growth/competitiveness, they’re right — but the
issue here is not the facts about wind, it’s that the theory/expectation of
continued growth, which they are measuring the performance of wind against,
is itself no longer supported by the physical fundamentals of the human
The present problem is not simply “peak oil”. Even if volumetric production
remained constant, due to the falling level of energy return on investment
of all fossil fuels the effects of rising prices and falling systemic
efficiency will still disrupt the economic cycle (albeit at a slower rate
than when it is tied to a simultaneous volumetric reduction). Allied to the
problems with the supply of many industrial minerals, especially the
minerals which are key to the latest energy and industrial process/energy
technologies (e.g. rare earths, indium, gallium, etc.), what we have is a
recipe for a general systems failure in the operation of the human system.
And again, that’s not related to climate change, or simple lack of energy,
but because of the systemic complexity of modern human society, and what
happens to any complex system when it is perturbed by external factors.
The worst thing which can happen right now — even if it were possible,
which is entirely doubtful — would be a “return to growth”. The idea of
“green growth”, within the norms of neo-classical economics, is even more
fallacious due to the differing thermodynamic factors driving that system.
Instead what we have to concentrate upon is changing the political economy
of the human system to internalise the issue of limits. At present, apart
from a few scientists and green economists on the sidelines, no one is
seriously putting that point of view — not even the Green Party. And as I
perceive it from talking to people about this for the last 12 years, that’s
for a very simple reason… it’s not what people, especially the political
establishment, want to hear.
Rio+20 was an absolute failure. In fact what annoyed me the most was that
the media kept talking about the “second” Rio conference, when in fact it
was the third UNCED conference in the Stockholm conference in ’72. If you
contrast 1972 with 2012, the results of this years deliberations were worse
than the policies sketched out in the 70s ! Seriously, the environment
movement is being trounced, and as I see it that’s because they have lost
the intellectual and theoretical rigour that it possessed in the 70s and
80s. Rather than having a clear alternative vision, what they promote is
“the same but different”. Once environmentalism became a media campaign
about differing consumption options, rather than an absolute framework for
evaluating the effects of consumption, it lost its ability to dictate the
agenda — because its the ability to look forward and observe/anticipate
trends unfolding, however unwelcome those truths might be, which gives
groups political power.
Politicians have lost control of the economy because their materialist
ambitions no longer fit to the extant reality of the economic process. This
outcome was foreseen over 40 years ago by economists like Georgescu-Roegen
and Boulding but ignored, even amongst many liberals and especially the
left, for political reasons. These same principles, based around the issue
of limits, were also the founding reality of the modern environment
movement — but over the last 20 years the movement has lost this basic
grounding in physics and economics as it has moved towards an
aspirationally materialist agenda (green consumerism/sustainable
Unless you’re prepared to talk about limits to growth, and the fact that
the economic theories developed over two centuries of unconstrained
expansion now have no relevance to a system constrained by physical limits,
then you will not solve this problem. Just as with Monbiot’s “change” on
the issue of nuclear, his failure is a matter of basic theory and
methodological frameworks, not of facts or data. Unfortunately people keep
throwing data at each other without considering that the framework within
which those facts are considered and understood has changed, and that
consequently their conclusions may not be correct; and until the movement
accepts that the rules governing the system have changed we’ll not make
progress in advancing viable solutions.
To conclude then, Monbiot’s mistake isn’t about peak oil, or climate
change, it’s a failure to internalise the physical realities of the
“limits” now driving the human system. Unless you consider the interaction
of energy, economics and pollution, any abstractions you draw about each of
those factors individually will fail to tell you how the system as a whole
is functioning. Those limits might dictate the end of “growth economics”,
but they DO NOT dictate the end of “human development”. There are many ways
we can address our present economic and environmental difficulties, but that
cannot take place unless we accept that changing our material ambitions is
a prerequisite of that process.
Let’s be clear here. The principles which drive the economy today would be
wholly alien to Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others who first laid down
the rules of the system two centuries ago. Likewise Marxism and similarly
derived ideas have no validity either because they were generated during an
era when there were no constraining limits. There is no “going back” to
previous theories/ideologies on this issue because we face a scenario today
which humans society — with the exception of those ancient societies who
experienced ecological overshoot (Rome, Mayans, Easter Islanders, etc.) —
have never had to face before.
We have to move forward, to evaluate and understand is the role of
ecological limits within the future human economic process and how this
changes our advocacy of “solutions”. That debate should be at the heart of
the environment movement, and the issue of limits should lead all
discussions about all environmental issues — not green/sustainable
consumerism and other measures which seek to reassure and pacify affluent
consumers. That said, especially given the demographic skew within
membership of the environment movement, we have to begin by being honest
with ourselves in accepting the “limits agenda” and what it means for the
make-up of our own lives.
In the final analysis, you cannot be an environmentalist unless you accept
and promote the idea of limits. That was at the heart of the movement from
the early 70s, and if we want to present a viable alternative to disaster
capitalism then that is once again what we must develop and promote as an
Peace ‘n love ‘n’ home made hummus,
“We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound.”
(Edward Burrough, 1659 – from ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’)
Paul’s book, “Energy Beyond Oil”, is out now!
For details see https://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ebo/
Read my ‘essay’ weblog, “Ecolonomics”, at:
Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
email – firstname.lastname@example.org
website – https://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/index.shtml
|Bursting the Nuclear Bubble
The UK Government appear to have seen the light about their, frankly, rubbish plan to covertly invest in (by hidden subsidies) a spanking new fleet of nuclear power reactors.
Dogged by Electricite de France (EdF) as they have been, with Vincent de Rivaz continuing to proffer his begging bowl with outstretched pleading arms, it just might be that before the Energy Bill is finally announced –
|when the Electricity Market Reform (EMR) dust has settled – that this new thinking will have become core solidity.
After all, there are plenty of reasons not to support new nuclear power – apart from the immense costs, the unclear costs, the lack of immediate power generation until at least a decade of concrete has been poured, and so on (and so forth).
Gas is Laughing
It appears that reality has bitten – and that the UK Government are pursuing gas. And they have decided not to hatch their eggs all in one basket. First of all, there’s a love-in with Statoil of Norway :-
Then, there’s the new “South Stream” commitment – the new Azerbaijan-European Union agreement, spelled out in a meeting of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS) on 12th June at King’s College, London :-
Meanwhile, the “North Stream” gas pipeline is going to feed new Russian gas to Europe, too (since the old Siberian gas fields have become exhausted) :-
And then there’s the amazing new truth – Natural Gas is a “green” energy, according to the European Union :-
The UK will still be importing Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from our good old friends in Qatar. Never mind the political interference in the nearby region and the human rights abuses, although NATO could be asked to put a stop to that if Europe needed to bust the regime in order for their energy companies to take ownership of the lovely, lovely gas. I mean, that’s what happened in Iraq and Libya, didn’t it ?
A Fossilised Future
So, despite all the green noises from the UK Government, the underlying strategy for the future (having batted away the nuclear buzzing insects around the corpse of British energy policy), is as Steve Browning, formerly of National Grid says – “gas and air” – with Big Wind power being the commercialisable renewable technology of choice. But not too much wind power – after all, the grid could become unstable, couldn’t it, with too much wind ?
There are several problems with this. First, the commitment to fossil fuels – even Natural Gas with its half the emissions profile of coal – is a risky strategy, despite making sure that supplies are secure in the near term. The reasons for this are geological as well as geopolitical. Natural Gas will peak, and even the UK Government accepts that unconventional gas will not keep fossil gas going forever – even with the “18 years” ultimate recoverable from under Lancashire of shale gas (that’s “18 years” of current gas annual demand – but not all drilled at once – perhaps amounting to about 1.5% of current UK gas supply needs per year, stretched out over 40 years) , and the billion tonnes of coal that can be gasified from under the sea off the east coast of England. As long as Carbon Capture and Storage can work.
Not only will Natural Gas peak and start to decline in the UK, it will also peak and decline in the various other foreign resources the UK is promising to buy. By simple logic – if the North Sea gas began depletion after only 30 years – and this was a top quality concentrated resource – how soon will poorer quality gas fields start depleting ?
Whilst I recognise the sense in making Natural Gas the core strategy of UK energy provision over the next few decades, it can never be a final policy. First off, we need rather more in terms of realistic support for the deployment of renewable electricity. People complained about onshore wind turbines, so the UK Government got into offshore wind turbines, and now they’re complaining at how expensive they are. Then they botched solar photovoltaics policy. What a palaver !
Besides a much stronger direction for increasing renewable electricity, we need to recognise that renewable resources of gas need to be developed, starting now. We need to be ready to displace fossil gas as the fossil gas fields show signs of depletion and yet global demand and growth still show strength. We need to recognise that renewable gas development initiatives need consistent central government financial and enabling policy support. We need to recognise that even with the development of renewable gas, supplies of gas as a whole may yet peak – and so we need to acknowledge that we can never fully decarbonise the energy networks unless we find ways to apply energy conservation and energy efficiency into all energy use – and that this currently conflicts with the business model for most energy companies – to sell as much energy as possible. We need mandates for insulation, efficient fossil fuel use – such as Combined Heat and Power (CHP) and efficient grids, appliances and energy distribution. Since energy is mostly privately owned and privately administered, energy conservation is the hardest task of all, and this will take heroic efforts at all levels of society to implement.
“The role of gas in the UK’s energy mix” 12 June 2012 17:30 – 18:30, Committee Room 5, House of Commons with speakers Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, Charles Hendry; David Cox, Managing Director of The Gas Forum and Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist of Greenpeace UK. Chaired by Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Chairman of PRASEG, the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group, who called the seminar : https://www.praseg.org.uk/the-role-of-gas-in-the-uk-energy-mix/
UNVERIFIED COMMENTS : Please check with the speakers to confirm their statements and do not take this account as verbatim.
[Alan Whitehead MP] Questions about gas. Will it be business as usual ? If not – too “much” gas ? What does that mean for Climate Change targets ? New gas generation – about 11 gigawatts coming on-stream in the next 5 years – “grandfathered” (no obligations to control emissions with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)) throughout the life of the power plant – does produce questions about Climate Change targets – CCS may change that landscape in the medium-term future. Question about emergence of biogas into system [which would bring] a down-trend in emissions.
[David Cox] The wonderful future that gas offers us. Have to look at whole low carbon [framework] – gas has a place. Not a war [between gas and renewable energy technologies]. Both needed [in the advance towards carbon-free] energy. Without gas, not going to make it. Make sure we can afford it. Gas has a role. The recent [International Energy Agency] IEA report on the “Golden Age of Gas” – tight gas, shale gas – has doubled reserves. Nobody knows for sure – there’s so much there. Perhaps 250 years of gas – no shortage of gas [although some of it is in] sensitive areas. Getting it from those areas with political problems. [There are uncertainties about] unconventional gas. There is plenty around the world – “pretty good”. Gas is not at war with renewables. Gas isn’t just a transition fuel – it’s a destination fuel. Got to prove CCS technically. If we can do that gas becomes a destination fuel. Can decarbonise not only electricity. Heat. Heat pumps won’t do it on their own. Sorry. [Gas can help decarbonise] transport – electrify the transport system – that’s what we believe is possible. Hope the Government will support CCS.
[Doug Parr] First and foremost – we are not going to eliminate gas from energy systems any time soon – don’t think of gas as a destination – I would warn against policy that gas is allowed to become the default and become too dependent on gas. A lot of policy on gas – but only over part of the energy system [electricity]. Heat is going to rely on gas fo a long time. If follow the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) logic – [heat is a] strategic sector – to getting away from carbon emissions. If gas is going to be what gets us out of energy problems – the so-called “trilemma” of decarbonisation, security [of supply] and cost. [New gas power plants amount to] 11 gigawatts [GW] over the next 5 years – 120 TWh – a quarter of current gas [still in service] out to 2030. If one take CCC target of 50 gC / KWh (grammes of carbon per kilowatt hour). Look at CCGT [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine gas generation power plant in operation] – that target is a fraction of [current] unabated [CCGT] – not that great. Any substantial role of gas has to make some pretty strong assumptions about CCS. Remember, this is not yet working – let us not have a decarbonisation policy relying heavily on CCS when not at the first stage. The CCC have warned that grandfathering of the 11 GW new generation – emit without restrictions – and issue until 2045. Can’t say gas is somehow the answer to decarbonisation issues. In media – don’t [swallow] the media froth. [As for] security of supply – already going to be quite reliant on gas for heating for quite some time – hard to see [otherwise]. Heavily reliant on imports – around 80%. Where do we import our gas from ? Qatar and Norway mostly. The former head of the Navy argued [recently] changing gas prices is the single most significant factor. DECC [UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change] recent report on price shock. REA [Renewable Energy Association] said that just by hitting renewables targets would displace £60 billion of imports. [As for] shale gas : both Ofgem research and Deutsche Bank reports that shale gas is very unlikely to help on security [of supply] issue. Citing American example [of shale gas exploitation] is just irrelevant. [So the UK Government must be] supporting gas because of costs ? The biggest rise in consumer bills is from fossil fuel [price increases]. Not renewable energy, not green energy [measures] – it’s the rise in the wholesale gas price. Is that going to stabilise and go down ? Not according to Merrill Lynch and DECC – [strong] prices for Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) and therefore for gas [as a whole, will stay]. Clearly we will be using gas – as [electricity grid load] balancing. What I’m railing about is that gas doesn’t get us out of our energy trilemma. Gas will not [save us]. We know we can deliver through renewable energy, wind – acceleration of new technologies [such as tidal] – perhaps CCS will work, who knows ? and efficient use for example Combined Heat and Power (CHP) on industrial scale. If we are using gas we are using at it’s most efficient.
[Alan Whitehead MP] [recounts tale of how he got into trouble with Twitter commentators when he insisted the recent rise in consumer energy bills was due to the rise in the cost of wholesale gas, not green energy measures] [To Charles Hendry] I’m sure you don’t Tweet.
[Charles Hendry MP] No. absolutely not. I have enough people telling me I’m wrong without… We have to look at the role of gas. It would a dereliction of Government not to look at the role of gas going forward. […mentions developments in gas production…] seismic profiling [enabling better understanding of gas fields] horizontal drilling [improving access to complex fields]. [As for] unconventional gas – the IEA “Golden Age of Gas” – but don’t assume [it’s that simple – supply may go up but] demand for gas is going to go up dramatically. Japan – major user of LNG and diesel. Consequence of Germany’s decision to close nuclear power plants – will use much more gas. China…India…growth rate – massive growth of demand. Anticipate new resources to be found – Iraq for example – but cannot assume [what has happened in the United States of America with the development of shale gas where gas prices are now] a quarter [of what they were] – a massive boost to America – will they allow this to be exported to Asia – or use cheap gas to [relocating] industry back to the USA ? Have to look at implications for us. Reasons why shale gas is different in Europe – legal [situation] – the mineral rights [in the US, these can be acquired from underneath a landowner]. Don’t have the same commercial drives as farmers in the US. The reason why gas prices collapsed in the US and not here – if we saw a price benefit here, it would go out through the [gas] interconnectors [to neighbouring countries]. For real practical reasons won’t see shal gas develop [significantly] here. [It is a] global gamechanger – but… The US is fundamentally shifting from coal to gas – with the implications for emissions. The change from coal to gas was a major driver in European control of emissions [in the 1990s] […] Investment…technology…practical constraints. EdF [Electricite de France] will go ahead with new nuclear [by the end of the year ?] but the plant will not come online until the end of the decade. Major renewable energy resources also in 2020s [not immediate] – the cost of offshore wind power is two times that of onshore. We’re saying to industry to reduce by 40% by the end of the decade – otherwise simply not affordable. Contributions from tidal, CCS ahead. It’s going to be very end of this decade to see if CCS can work. Worrying gap [in power generation between now and next decade]. Megawatts (MW) of coal being turned off in 2015. [Coal plants are] getting through their [legally permitted] generating hours too quickly. By 2023, the only nuclear plant still operational will be Sizewell B. We have to have more gas in the mix. As we look towards more intermittent resources (renewables), gas is an important source of backup. [Will have/need] a capacity mechanism to ensure [optimisation when] mismatch between supply and demand – auction to include gas – could be [North Sea] gas, gas from the interconnectors [from abroad] or demand side response [demand reduction] – a more sophisticated capacity mechanism than historical. I’m more optimistic about CCS [than Doug Parr]. CCS is a requirement. It is something we have to deliver – no scenario I’ve seen where we’re going [to be] using less coal, oil and gas than today. [Out to 2035] our basic needs [will still rely for a good percentage on] fossil fuels. Broadening CCS [demonstration competition] out to pre- and post-combustion on coal – [expand] to gas. Can be applied to gas as well as coal. I think CCS is a fundamentally critical part of this equation. If so, can see gas as a destination fuel. The GW of gas being built in the next few years [some questions] – currently gas is being mothballed [some plants being shut down effectively putting them into disuse] because of [fuel] prices. I consented more in gas and also wind on- and offshore last year. But that gas is not being built. If we want that gas built we need a more coherent strategy. Look at what is necessary to encourage that gas – and carbon emissions [reduction] alongside. EPS [Emissions Performance Standard] […] to stop unabated coal – limit 450 gC / kWh – significant proportion of plant would need CCS. But ddin’t want to disincentivise gas. Have also said a point where CCS on gas will be necessary. But if we had people building gas now and then 15, 20 years later they would have to fit very expensive [CCS] equipment… Volume of gas coming forward meets our supply issues. Over the next few years, grandfathering. If see enough gas coming through can change the mechanism in due course. [We will be] responding officially to the CCC in Autumn. Need to [fully] decarbonise electricity in the course of the 2030s if we want to meet out climate change objectives. I think that [the] reality [is that] gas and important element. Nuclear is important. Want to see significant amount of renewable energy and what Doug is calling for – significant commitment to [energy use] efficiency in the country. [We should concentrate particularly on] energy efficiency.
The meeting then opened up to questions from the floor… To Be Continued
Public Enemy Number One in energy terms has got to be burning coal to generate electricity. Although the use of some coal for domestic heating to supplement varying supplies of biomass in home stoves is going to continue to be very useful, using coal for power production is wasteful, toxic and high carbon.
Public Enemy Number Two in energy terms is nuclear power – a weight round our collective neck. Costly to build, costly to underwrite, costly to decommission: although its proponents claim it as a low carbon solution, even they admit the management of nuclear power can be polluting, risky and wasteful.
Public Energy Number Three in energy terms has to be the incredible amount of water required to keep the first two enemies in operation. Climate change is already altering the patterns of rainfall, both in geographical areas and in seasons. Any energy solutions that don’t require water supplies will be preferable.
Many environmental researchers oppose a growing dependence on Natural Gas for power generation in industrialised countries – they claim it will lock in carbon emissions production without Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Carbon Capture and Storage is way off in the never-never land at present, so it should not be factored in to analyses of carbon management. Ignoring CCS, it can be seen that substituting in Natural Gas power generation where coal has been the principal fuel is in fact a very good way to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the near term.
Natural Gas is not forever, not even with environmentally-ensured unconventional production, such as shale gas. Yet the Natural Gas infrastructure is highly important for developed and some parts of developing countries too. If we can re-imagine the future of gas, making gas fuels renewable, the already existing distribution of gas and appliances and equipment that use it, become a valuable asset.
The climate change crisis is an energy crisis. My position is that we need three vital things to solve this energy crisis : rationalised energy, renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. My key projection is that a 100% renewable energy world is possible, and in fact, inevitable, and to get from here to there we need to use gas fuels, but they need to become progressively renewable in order to meet the climate change crisis.
Natural Gas can not only be a “bridge fuel”. Supporting its use now, on the understanding that it will be replaced by Renewable Gas in the medium term, will enable links to be made between society and the energy industry, and break down the barricades between those who are against high carbon energy and those who sell high carbon energy.
What annoys me most about the Solar Power Feed-in Tariff saga is not that the UK Government suddenly pulled the plug on the full rate for household-sized systems, or that they set the cut-off date before they finished their consultation, or even that that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) dragged out a legal appeal process.
Despite the truly pitiful sight of a Minister of State being sent out to bat with a miniaturised teaspoon to defend the indefensible decision, and despite the energy industry stooges that have placements inside DECC and are clearly affecting policy, no, the thing that really gets me is the focus on budgets instead of targets.
Here’s a summary from the Government’s own “long term trend” figures for energy consumption in Great Britain :-
Nobody can swear to me that the last few years are not just a glitch caused by economic instabilities, and that the re-localisation of manufacture in future in a recovering economy will not push this demand continually higher according to the trendline.
What are we using to supply this energy ? Here’s a summary :-
Despite the near exponential rise in renewable energy, it’s starting from a small base. The increase in energy consumption is being satisfied by a sharp rise in the supply of Natural Gas – something which the UK is producing increasingly less of these days. And for those who think that shale gas production would help, no, only a few percent of demand could be satisfied. This is an import-led energy supply, and the trend should ring alarm bells, but clearly doesn’t even tickle the ears of the average person in the street.
Electricity demand growth remains healthy, despite problems with unreliable supply from nuclear electricity (refered to as “outages” in the DECC Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES) reports) :-
Now, in the future, with an envisioned massive rise in renewable energy, higher electricity use would be reasonable, as long as other energy consumption reduced. But the growth in electricity consumption charted here is not people driving more electric cars or using electric heating instead of Natural Gas-fired comfort. This is higher consumption, pure and simple, not “energy switching” over to electricity.
As an aside – the sum total of these figures indicates that the nation as a whole is not engaged in significant energy conservation, despite decades of campaigning.
All these trends add up to a very slight loss in dependency on fossil fuels for the UK’s energy :-
This is the critical trend. North Sea oil and Natural Gas production is falling like a large rock, and no amount of technological advancement and re-stimulating the drilling sector is turning this around. This means that without a rapid decrease in fossil fuel dependency, the United Kingdom is going to start haemorrhaging wealth.
Goodbye, First World.
This is why is it essential to ramp up renewable energy deployment by whatever means at our disposal.
Greg Barker MP bleating about keeping to budgets is not helping.
To all Renewable Energy Deniers,
Things are getting so much better with renewable energy engineering and deployment – why do you continue to think it’s useless ?
We admit that, at the start, energy conversion efficiencies were low, wind turbine noise was significant, kit was expensive. Not now. Wind and solar farms have been built, data collected and research published. Design modifications have improved performance.
Modelling has helped integrate renewable energy into the grids. As renewable energy technologies have been deployed at scale, and improvements and adjustments have been made, and electricity grid networks have adapted to respond to the variable nature of the wind and the sunshine, we know, and we can show you, that renewable energy is working.
It’s not really clear what motivates you to dismiss renewable energy. Maybe it’s because you’re instinctively opposed to anything that looks like it comes from an “envionmentalist” perspective.
Maybe because renewable energy is mandated to mitigate against climate change, and you have a persistent view that climate change is a hoax. Why you mistrust the science on global warming when you accept the science on everything else is a continuing mystery to me.
But if that’s where you’re coming from when you scorn developments in renewable energy, you’re making a vital mistake. You see, renewable energy is sustainable energy. Despite any collapse in the globalised economy, or disruption to fossil fuel production, wind turbines will keep spinning, and solar panels will keep glowing.
Climate change has been hard to communicate effectively – it’s a huge volume of research, it frequently appears esoteric, or vague, or written by boffins with their heads in the clouds. Some very intelligent people are still not sure about the finer points of the effects of global warming, and so you’re keeping good company if you reserve judgement on some of the more fringe research.
But attacking renewable energy is your final stand. With evidence from the engineering, it is rapidly becoming clear that renewable energy works. The facts are proving you wrong.
And when people realise you’re wrong about renewable energy, they’ll never believe you again. They won’t listen to you when you express doubts about climate change, because you deny the facts of renewable energy.
Those poor fools who have been duped into thinking they are acting on behalf of the environment to campaign against wind farms ! Wind energy will be part of the backbone of the energy grids of the future.
We don’t want and we can’t afford the concrete bunkers of deadly radioactive kettles and their nasty waste. We don’t want and we can’t afford the slag heaps, dirty air and melting Arctic that comes from burning coal for power. We don’t want and we can’t afford to keep oil and Natural Gas producing countries sweet – or wage war against them to keep the taps open.
Instead we want tall and graceful spinners, their gentle arms waving electricity from the breeze. We want silent and dark photovoltaic cladding on every roof.
Burning things should only be done to cover for intermittency in wind and sunshine. Combustion is very inefficient, yet you support combustion when you oppose renewable energy.
We must fight waste in energy, and the rising cost of energy, and yet you don’t support the energy resources where there is no charge for fuel. Some would say that’s curmudgeonly.
When you oppose renewable energy, what is it you’re fighting for ? The old, inefficient and poisonous behemoths of coal hell ? We who support renewable, sustainable energy, we exchange clunky for sleek, toxic for clean. We provide light and comfort to all, rich and poor.
When you oppose renewable energy, you are being unbelievably gullible – you have swallowed an argument that can ruin our economy, by locking us into dependency on energy imports. You are passing up the chance to break our political obedience to other countries, all because wind turbines clutter up your panoramic view when you’re on holiday.
You can question the net energy gain from wind power, but the evidence shows you to be incorrect.
If you criticise the amount of investment and subsidy going into renewable energy, you clearly haven’t understood the net effect of incentivisation in new technology deployment.
Renewable energy has a positive Net Present Value. Wind turbines and solar panels are genuine assets, unlike the liabilities that are coal-fired power stations and nuclear reactors.
Renewable energy deployment will create meaningful, sustainable employment and is already creating wealth, not only in financial terms, but in social welfare terms too.
Renewable energy will save this country, so why do you knock it ?