The renewables and intermittency issue. Heard on the radio this morning that a report comissioned by the National Grid had said a decent amount of wind is perfectly feasible. Annoyingly, the BBC website article doesn't link to the report itself (though I suppose it might not actually be online? Though that sounds unlikely these days).
Pleased to hear, in the radio item, a big side-mention of "dynamic demand" (things like fridges micro-responding to fluctuationas in the grid) - when I was volunteering in the media team at FoE, I interviewed Joe Short, the director of the public interest company dynamic demand company of that name. He reckoned that much of the objection to wind on the ground of unpredictability was "totally disingenuous". I doubt if I'd be able to have much of an opinion on the details of this latest report - the minutiae of the operation of the grid are mind-boggling - but I do know that there's a real argument to be had. Not that you'd realise this from the snorty, sniffy, rubbish that comes from the anti-wind lobby (James Lovelock should know better - though he is a least quite honest and upfront about the emotional and aesthetic basis of his objections).
The dynamic demand website has a nifty little applet that shows the fluctation of the grid frequency in real time. I also notice (haven't been paying very much attention to these things recently), from the news section of the site, that the idea is catching on as a Good Thing.
Report from the Royal Society saying, that current UK policy as regards alternatives to fossil fuel generation is "half-hearted". Bit of a mot juste.
Catherine Mitchell - Garrad Hassan Lecture at Bristol University. Interesting to note that: she is very in favour of decentralising, she's on the IPCC, she stressed the urgency of things. She commented that there is considerable 'churn' of civil servants in energy department so no one ever stays long enough to understand things in any depth. This would explain the crapulous lack of coherence of announcements on energy: eg gung-ho for 'zero carbon homes' with integrated renewables, but silent on the possible rethinking of the grid and feed-in-tariff that need to go along with this. Or, woo-hoo yes we want modal shift but we still want a third Heathrow runway. Et cetera et cetera.
Here's a disturbing article about a group of papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society. To put it crudely and journalistically, things are so bad that sensible people are considering geoengineering solutions.
Monbiot being interesting (as usual) about CCS. Note the comment on nuclear power(!).
How much fossil fuel is there left? Interesting letter in New Scientist which says 'twice as much as we thought'. Which sounds big - but is less so than it appears because of the rate at which fossil fuel use is growing. Exponential 'innit.
Comments on the RE Strategy: letter in the Guardian this morning from Prof David Elliott of the OU spelling out the incompatibility of having both "big nuclear" and "big renewables" - they are competing for the same job.
The government's renewable energy strategy was officially unveiled today. There's an awful lot of it and there is a "consultation period". There is so much of it that I'm not sure how much is worth reading. I've taken a quick look and was somewhat put off by the contradiction between the rhetoric about 'commitment to the 2020 target' and the reality of the government's recent behaviour in trying to wriggle out of it.
Mind you, when other people say things like that I do tend to tag them as a bit naive. We have a habit of personifying everything. We imagine that "the government" can be "inconsistent" "hypocritical" "unimaginative" "untrustworthy" and so on. I don't think so - it only makes sense for individual people to be described in these ways. Government consists of competing departments. A particular subset of government employees can genuinely be committed to sustainability while another lot think it's a fad or delusion. We're misled by all this heroic language about 'vision' and 'leadership' and 'strategy' into thinking it's a clean process - it's not, it's a muddy and protracted scrum, with victory being only on aggregate.
(And, lest I be misunderstood, there is no other way it could be, while still servicing some form of democracy. I've got nothing against mud!)
I read on an e-newsletter today that Everest, the double glazing people, have started selling solar water heaters. Solar hot water is a nifty technology. None of that fancy quantum malarkey that makes photovoltaics work, this is so simple that there are DIY classes where you can make your own. The total contribution it could make would not solve all our woes but its so cheap that it's really worth encouraging. I liked this sentence on the Everest site:
"And, here's a surprise: solar water heating works using the sun's radiation, not sunshine."
Well, you can see what they're getting at. We tend to think of "sunshine" as being different from "daylight" (though pale folk like myself do sometimes get sunburned on an overcast day). It is therefore also surprising that the biggest fans of DIY solar heating systems are in Austria - where they've been making them since the mid-80's.
Besides the mild alarm about increasing oil prices, there is also a current worry about rising food prices. It's possible that the two are connected - increased use of biofuels leads to less available land to grow food. Theoretically this is certainly a possible problem. I don't have an opinion on whether this is actually the cause in this instance - I don't know enough and - leitmotif - it's all very complicated.
On an unrelated note, here's a link the The Bristol Council website, about a proposal to build 3 new wind turbines at Avonmouth. They had a public consultation a few months ago, to which I responded. Avonmouth, heavily industrial (and hence .. umm .. visually interesting rather than conventionally pretty), is just the place to put them - good wind (on the Mighty Bristol Channel) but close to a centre of population (relatively unusual combination, I'd have thought). There are a couple of turbines there already, (but owned by Ecotricity).
Just heard Malcolm Wicks on the Today programme, being grilled about renewables. Wicks always sounds so harassed when he's interviewed. It has the effect of making me think "ah! poor chap!" but he sounded just the same on one of the video segments of the T206 materials, so I think that's probably just the way he sounds and I should stop feeling sorry for him. Politicians like being politicians otherwise they'd do something more sensible. AHEM. This is NOT a blog!
Anyway, big lead in today's Guardian about renewables: UK's blueprint for a green revolution. It seems they've got a preview copy of the government's "long-awaited renewable energy strategy". John Vidal reports that it will say "Britain needs to make a 100bn pound dash ... if it is to reach its EU-imposed target of producing 15% of the country's energy from renewable sources by 2020". From the report it seems pretty good (though it doesn't seem to be very joined-up about the energy implications of transport policy - but then that's always been a sort of 'put your fingers in your ears and go 'dah-di-dah' subject). The strategy has its official debut on Thursday.
Lots of things of interest have been happening, of course. Such as the continued increase in the price of oil. The first stirrings of "interesting times?". Perhaps, but I don't really think so - more like we just turned a corner and got a glimpse of the far-distant gentle foothills of those Interesting Times. The road will bend again and we won't be able to see them for a while, but we'll still be heading there. Maybe!
As mentioned previously, there are many reasons why we don't really know what's happening. We don't really know what conventional oil resources are. The blockage could as well be a lack of refinery capacity as actual production. Awareness of the peak oil concept (even if vigorously denied) is now widespread so here's a perfect opportunity for some knowing speculation and maybe even a touch of sub-clinical panic. Probably all these things are going on and it'll all calm down again in a bit - for a good while. It'll give heart to the transition movement though, which is a good thing.
Public lecture at work on windpower. Andrew Garrad - rather jolly chap - of Garrad-Hassan. The maximum size of wind turbines is getting bigger - some up to 10MW are on the drawing board it seems.
Spent the bank hol weekend at a house with a number of low-energy features. More about this at some other point.
A few quick built environment links:
Low carbon building and its encouragement:www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk
The energy page of what used to be the "intermediate technology development group" but changed its name to practical action.
Short item in this weeks New scientist:'Flammable ice' could be mined for fuel. There's a huge amount of methane (natural gas) stored in the form of clathrates - trapped in ice basically - beneath the oceans. Along with non-conventional oil, this is what wild optimists have in mind when they go "Oh phoof, you are a silly! There's loads of fossil fuel left! We must just stop being so timid!".
The problem with using clathrates is that it takes a lot of energy to extract the gas. The NS article reports a claim from Canadian and Japanese researchers that they're on the way to developing a method which is relatively energy-cheap(seems there's lots of clathrates off Japan, which otherwise has no fossil fuel deposits).
Being essentially a gloomy sod, my first thought on reading this was alarm - this sounds like poking a very large monster with a very sharp stick. Methane is a greenhouse gas, many times more potent than CO2 (how many times? - I forget these things very quickly and I'll look it up later). The whole thing seems to have disaster written all over it. But, if it were possible to get the stuff out in a properly controlled manner without it leaking, that would be very useful. Far far better to use the least bad of the fossil fuels than scrabble around with coal.
It seems my employers, Bristol University, have won a sustainability award.
March 2008 - CCS, non-conventional oil, biofuels, housing
Article by John Vidal today. Britain seeks loophole in EU green energy targets
Not surprising - but what's interesting (see towards the end of the article) is that the conflict between nukes and renewables is now being explicitly made.
Slightly bemusing is the suggestion that the UK could offset Carbon Capture and Storage against renewables targets. Well perhaps if we looked like we were going to actually do any CCS projects - but like so many other good ideas, they seem to exist entirely in the realms of speechifying. Nice to be able to offset one's good intentions against anything. (Must stop now, am drifting off into psychology again ...)
Just read an article in this weeks New scientist on CCS. Written by Fred Pearce, so presumably reliable. Interesting because it seems I'm wrong on the timescales of CCS. I'd thought that because much of the technology is an adaptation of existing oil extraction technology, and because there are projects like the Norwegian Sleipner oil field, all we need is a bit of political will. Pearce quotes various people who suggest rather longer lead times: "25 years of R&D for commercial deployment" "Shell doesn't forsee widespread use until 2050" "EU hopes to have demonstration plants working by 2015".
The Sleipner* scheme has been going since 1996 and the idea is that CO2 is pumped into an oil deposit in order to extract more oil ('conventional' oil exisits in deposits under pressure - hence will gush out, but obviously the pressure falls as the oil leaves, so there's going to be useful oil left that requires a bit more help to extract). The CO2 remains trapped - just as any associated natural gas was trapped - for geological time periods. (We assume! Though it does seem a reasonable assumption and there seems to be other evidence that it's safe, according to Pearce).
*[Sleipner was Odin's eight-legged horse, if I recall my mythology correctly]
Something I didn't know last night on the world tonight. It said 95% of Estonia's electricity production is via shale oil. I think it then said 70% of the world's shale oil production is in Estonia.
Shale oil is a type of non-conventional oil - that's to say stuff that's harder to extract and/or process than the "conventional" stuff. The shale itself is a solid and has to be heated and then refined - the whole process is energy and resource intensive and basically not worth the trouble if you had any other choice. They used to extract it near Edinburgh, so I'd guess there's plenty of it around. The biggest reserve is in the US - I've just looked it up Energy systems and sustainability, which says "it has been estimated that the amount of oil ... in this one location exceeds by far all the world's conventional crude oil resources". Wow.
Also 'wow' is the amount of a better non-conventional oil, the tar sands. Again, there's loads of the stuff.
Front page in today's Guardian Top scientists warn against rush to biofuel
Several points to make about this. Yet again it illustrates a constant theme in environmental questions - "it's all very complicated. There are no simple answers". Why would anyone have thought biofuels were an "answer"? The idea is that they are, in principle, carbon neutral that's to say, yes they give off CO2 when you burn them, but you promptly soak up the same amount in growing the next crop.
In practice, all biofuels are not equal, and the word itself needs clarification. The all-inclusive term is biomass which means everything of recent biological origin from which we extract energy. The term 'biofuel' is a bit ambiguous as to whether or not it includes the use of wood in generating stations - after all we call coal a 'fuel'. Growing wood to burn in a power station actually might be a good idea (according to my T206 textbooks and depending on this and that).If you had a completely renewable generating mix it would provide the 'firm' (steady and predictable) generation that you'd need as well as the less predictable wind and wave (though these are more predictable than some people say).
However that's not the sort of biofuel meant in this news item - here we're talking about deriving a petrol substitute from crops. This sets up two problems. Some of the crops used might not be particularly carbon-neutral to grow - there are extra energy inputs in the form of fertilizer, farm machinery and so on, and if you plough up unused land to grow your fuel crops (let alone if you cut down forest) that in itself releases carbon. This extra CO2 doesn't get mopped up when the next crop grows so there's a very real risk that things might even be worse than just burning fossil oil. On the other hand, if you just switch production of existing agricultral land from food crops - well it seems that there is already an effect on the price of food.
Oh dear. It's possible that the move to biofuels might just be premature though, because there are different types of BF, different plants, different methods of processing and so on. There is also the possibility of growing a type of algae to produce biofuel - I've no idea how far in the future this is - it wasn't even mentioned in T206, so I suspect it's not quite just around the corner.
Read the following report today: New tricks with old bricks (main web page is here). It turns on two ideas. First, a surprising proportion of the UK's energy budget is taken up by domestic buildings. Second, the energy costs of a building are of two kinds: the energy needed to keep it running, and the easily overlooked embodied energy - the energy it took to build it to begin with.
(The report made the theoretical distinction between embodied energy and embodied carbon, pointing out that an artefact could have high embodied energy and low embodied carbon if it was manufactured with renewable energy and local materials or sustainable transport. As things stand at the moment though, high embodied energy = high embodied carbon).
The received wisdom at the moment seems to be that in terms of cutting carbon emissions you'd be better off building new energy-thrifty buildings, rather than refurbishing old ones. This reports details a study performed by researchers from the University of Bath comparing new and refurbished buildings and it seems that the received wisdom is untrue. The study was small, and of course, as with all energy sums, the calculations fiddly and open to quibbles. Anyway, some quotes:
"Many house builders claim that new homes are four times more efficient than older houses. This study shows that refurbished houses can be as just efficient as new homes"
"Over a 50-year period ... there almost no difference in the average emissions of new compared with refurbished housing."
"The cumulative CO2 emissions in this study show that it is not simply the total CO2 from housing that is significant; emissions from new homes create what we have called a "development peak", meaning that CO2 emissions are concentrated in the development or building stage. This effect is especially pronounced with new homes."
Important if true.
January 2008 - nukes and lightbulbs
Here's an item about the nuclear announcement. An amusing aspect (because it shows how we delude ourselves with ideology) is the insistence that it's all going to be done by sturdy private enterprise. Subsidise? Us? As if!
Not that the fact that it will have to be underwritten and helped by public money actually matters if nukes are the way to go (don't forget I'm agnostic on this subject) - it's just the sheer figleafyness of the statement that's laughable.
More Nukes on Today - this time John Sauven of Greenpeace. He claims that we cannot get replacement nukes by 2015. Hmmm - not so sure of that - if you really want to things can be built quickly (- though here we're back to Dieter Helms remark yesterday implying what a shower the UK government can be).
Mind you, he reminded us of the Finnish nuke - the only new nuclear station in europe for ages (see - I'd be a useless blogger - can't be bothered to look things up). And yes, it's two years behind schedule and over-budget.
Nuclear stuff on the Today programme - building up to Gordon Brown's announcement of the Nuclear review on Jan 10th (we all know what the result is anyway).
Interested to hear comment from Dieter Helm - very distinguished energy analyst. He said we don't actually need nuclear, but if we're going to do it we have to do it properly. Either we do renewables+carbon capture properly or we do nuclear properly (not possible to do both. He is afraid that even if we do go nuke, it'll be in a half-baked manner and we'll end up with "the worst of both worlds" (his words).
Item in the news this morning about CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs, aka 'low-energy bulbs') - heard it on the Today programme. Flap about health risks because incandescents are being gradually phased out.
CFLs versus Incandescents is quite an interesting issue because it can be used to illustrate both the complexity of environmental issues - how you have to take an overview of the whole chain of both antecedents and consequences - and the importance of being quantitative - do some sums and don't just wave your hands around like some smart-alec sixth form debater.
So here's the health story. Incandescent bulbs are filled with harmless nitrogen but CFLs contain mercury vapour (so do the ordinary, familiar fluorescent tubes - so why the sudden concern?). Surprisingly, CFLs still have the edge because - and I bet you didn't know this - burning coal (which produces 37% of the UK's electricity) releases mercury into the atmosphere. So, you use less electricity using a CFL than an incandescent for the same amount of lighting (and that is true - but I'll spell it out at some other time). It seems that the extra electricity you use with your incandescent causes more mercury to be produced than the stuff in the CFL used by your green-geek next door neighbour.
But yes of course, if you break a CFL (though you'd have a hard job - the glass is very chunky, as presumably the designers were well aware of safety issues) you should take a bit of extra care. And yes, recycle them - if the local council won't do this, then it seems that IKEA has collection points in their shops (smart retail move, that one).
Here's an accessible reference for the lifetime emissions comparison, but there's plenty of other stuff on the web. The question I asked (on one of the Open Universities student forums) was "how come there's mercury in coal?" and someone put me on to this explanation.
[there'll be more about the lightbulb question - there's more in it than one might think]
Got to talk about nukes at some point and this news item "Scientists take on Brown over nuclear plans. Academics say safety concerns of new generation of plants not yet addressed", seems as good a reason as any to start. I'm a nuclear agnostic - this is why I can't quite make up my mind.
There is a real tendency amongst enviros to soften their attitude when they learn a few figures. Goodness, you get a lot of juice out of nuclear fuel - it can store 4 orders of magnitude more energy than natural gas (the best of the fossil fuels) and about 20,000 more than coal. (All figures here are from Boyle's Energy Systems and Sustainability)
A 'typical' pressurised water reactor has a 1 GW capacity. The biggest offshore wind turbine (not sure if there are any this size actually operating just yet, but they're in the near pipeline) is 5MW. So you'd have to have 200 of them - except you'd have to have more than that because 'capacity' here means what they generate when everything is humming along at its optimum - and wind turbines have more time when they're not generating.
Nuclear generation produces one tenth the CO2 of the cleanest of the fossil-fuel based methods. This emissions figure is debateable - it includes the fossil fuel derived energy used in construction but there is a question about decommissioning - however it is agreed that nuclear is relatively 'green' in this sense, and the savings are big enough to be worth seriously considering.
But but but. It isn't just a question of silly greenies who shy away from simple maths and not-so-simple physics. My current work colleagues, a bunch of engineers, like maths 'n' fizz, and also like the idea of the Big, Difficult, and Powerful (I caricature, of course, but a good cartoon takes life as its model ...). So of course they tend to shake their heads and say with an air of authority "well - s'just gotta be nuclear, ha'nit?". I'm not quite sure what to say (if anything) in reply, and I reckon I give proper respect to people's knowledge but there are people with solid and relevant science training (such as Walt Patterson) who are nuclear sceptics. The history of smooth and successful nuclear generation which is often claimed is hotly disputed - a story of bungling and cover-up being offered as an all-too-plausible alternative interpretation.
I have become convinced of the importance of quantitative argument - in general we should do more of it! But it's important to realise that it can be used to obscure things. Are the figures about the nuclear generation being used to obscure as much as illuminate? Sums can be done to show we could make as much electricity as we need (careful choice of word there) without using nukes - but we'd have to be clever in different ways. George Monbiot, writing about the latest developments in nuclear waste storage commented that he was pretty impressed and that he'd trust the scientists to exercise appropriate care and caution but it isn't going to be entirely down to scientists (reference is here). Care and caution cost money and money is decided by politicians (and remember Richard Feymann's minority report on the investigation into the Challenger disaster?).
I once made some vaguely pro-nuclear remarks on the localsustuk e-list. I'd said that maybe the point we should be reinforcing was that nukes are "a bandage not a cure" - and this is pretty much what James Lovelock argues, that it's not a solution, it's just something that buys us time. The response to my comment gave me pause because it called on the realities of government spending. There's only one lot of money, nukes are expensive (and their costs are always underestimated) and in reality if we go down the nuclear route renewable development will not be funded properly. This sounds like psychological reality to me - the short timescale of politicians will inevitably make them think "solved!".