Archive for the ‘renewable energy’ Category
29 March 2016
The Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
Dear Prime Minister,
Whatever happened to the greenest government ever?
Given my experience of working in environmental consultancy or regulation, I understand the importance of making pragmatic, risk-based decisions (as opposed to dogmatic, opinion-based ones). I therefore believe that government policy should be formulated this way. Unfortunately, however, this does not always seem to be the case.
As a pragmatic scientist, I am not ideologically opposed to nuclear power. However, I do question the logic of pursuing ‘Hinkley Point C’ when equivalent investment in distributed renewable technologies – from domestic solar PV to submarine tidal stream – could probably generate more electricity faster. Indeed, as Greenpeace has recently pointed out, the UK could meet nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030.
With regard to risk, the scientific consensus is that, in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the World must now embark upon the fastest-possible transition to a zero carbon economy. Therefore, I also question the logic of simultaneously promoting investment in shale gas; discouraging investment in renewables; and cancelling investment in Carbon Capture and Storage research.
It is now over 50 years since scientists started warning of the climatic implications of continuing to burn fossil fuels; and 50 years since fossil fuel company executives started spending huge sums of money on being “Merchants of Doubt”. As such, along with their counterparts in the tobacco industry, they have clearly not acted in the long-term interest of humanity as a whole.
However, as with the individual health benefit of ceasing to smoke tobacco, the sooner we stop burning fossil fuels the greater the collective environmental benefit will be. Therefore, I am pragmatically opposed to shale gas exploration because burning it is not consistent with the need to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible.
I am certain that you would like to secure an enduring political legacy; and would therefore like to ask just one question:
What could be better than being remembered as the Prime Minister that committed the UK to meeting nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030?
Martin C. Lack
 Nuccitelli, D. (2015), ‘Scientists warned the US president about global warming 50 years ago today’, Guardian newspaper, 5 November 2015: London.
After all, it is almost 4 months since Mark Carney said as much at the Bank of England: http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/09/30/bank-england-head-warns-potentially-huge-risks-literally-unburnable-fossil-fuel
It is also 20 months since Lloyds of London urged financial investors to consider the risks of continuing to back fossil fuels: http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2014/05/09/insurers-should-consider-climate-risks-says-lloyds-of-london/
No wonder academics that have watched 50% of the Great Barrier Reef disappear in the last 30 years – and say it will all be gone in another 20 years – are almost reduced to tears:
‘Does Australia Care About Saving The Great Barrier Reef?’ (Andrew McMillen, in GQ Australia, 18 January 2016)
The Guardian may be five years late with it’s warning that humanity has now delayed the onset of the next Ice Age by 100 thousand years – a prospect first highlighted by the Geological Society of London in 2010 – but this is no excuse for the oil industry to continue to deny the nature of reality.
The game is up. Now is the time to invest in non-fossil alternatives that could even make Forumla1 carbon neutral. Alternatives like the mixed alcohol fuels being produced by Bioroot Energy: Fuels that can be created from any waste product containing carbon.
This is the hydrocarbon equivalent of the nuclear industry’s Fast Breeder Reactor, which could burn all the world’s nuclear waste and the 99% of the Earth’s uranium that a conventional reactor cannot burn and, when we’re through with all of that, we could extract uranium from seawater…
I know this is very late but, it is such significant moment, I feel I must comment on the recent decision of Lancashire County Council to refuse to allow fracking to proceed in their county.
Never mind that their decision was primarily the result of NIMBYism… spurious worries about earth tremors; slightly-less spurious worries about groundwater contamination; and probably-valid worries about methane escaping into overlying aquifers (rather than being sucked out of the ground)… this was a great result for anti-fracking campaigners all around the world.
This decision sets an important precedent that I hope will not be overturned by the inevitable appeal by Cuadrilla; and/or over-ruled by the same national government that has promoted the cause of NIMBYism when it comes to opposing onshore wind turbines and solar farms.
Our supposedly “greenest government ever” could and should therefore be decried as hypocritical if they try and go against the wishes of local people in Lancashire.
Long-standing readers of this blog, written as it is by someone with a geological and hydrogeological background, may recall some of my previous posts on the subject of fracking. However, in a nutshell (or perhaps I should say “in a drill casing”), my opposition to fracking has hardened over time. Initially, my opposition was based on the same logical grounds as that against drilling for oil in the Arctic: Having established that burning fossil fuels is changing our climate, humans should now be trying to stop burning them as soon as possible. Now, however, I am also against it because it has been proven to give rise to methane contamination of groundwater; and because as little as 3% of the gas will actually be recoverable.
Given that China has now announced that it intends to make its carbon emissions peak within 15 years, can the G7 now be shamed into doing the same? We can but hope.
However, I digress from fracking (and Lancashire): In May this year, I was delighted by the appointment of Amber Rudd, as the new Climate Change Minister. This was partly because she is a woman. However, I was mainly pleased because, unlike so many totally ill-qualified, ‘sceptical’ non-experts — with Degrees in subjects like economics (Lord Lawson), Sociology (Benny Peiser), English (James Delingpole) or Classics (Christopher Monckton) — Amber Rudd accepts that the IPCC is not part of a global conspiracy to foist environmental alarmism upon a credulous world.
Amber Rudd, in common with the vast majority of relevant experts with a history of producing peer-reviewed scientific research, has concluded that the growing disruption to the Earth’s climate is being predominantly caused by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 200 years.
The only people now disputing this (as-near-as-science-ever-gets-to) certain fact are those with a vested interest in the perpetuation of the oil industry… and a handful of credulous (or wilfully blind) economists and journalists who perpetuate the myth that the science is uncertain.
Sadly, whether deliberately or otherwise, these very same people have, just as they did for the tobacco industry, succeeded in delaying for decades the effective regulation of an environmentally-damaging product.
That being the case, investment in fossil fuel companies should not only be seen as financially unwise; it should be seen as corporately irresponsible and socially unacceptable. We can but hope.
However, in the UK at least, there is of course the problem of the Energy Gap: The UK is being forced to close down it’s ‘dirty’ (i.e. high carbon intensity) coal-fired power stations. Unfortunately, the mix of low-carbon and renewable sources (i.e. wind, solar, tidal, and nuclear) — which even the fossil fuel executives of 50 years ago thought would have become dominant in the power-generation sector by now — is nowhere near to being in a position to replace coal. This leaves the UK importing huge amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
As a quick aside, I would like to encourage all non-scientific types not to be intimidated by jargon. Take “carbon intensity” as an example. This is merely a reference to the number of carbon atoms in the product being burnt. As such, mining tar sands is ‘highest’ and burning methane is ‘lowest’.
Sadly, however, none of this changes the fact that burning any fossilised carbon increases the total amount of CO2 circulating within the biosphere, which is warming the planet as a result of the basic Laws of Physics. To make matters even worse extra atmospheric CO2 is slowly reducing the pH of seawater, which is making it harder for shellfish of all kinds to live and grow. This is a much more serious problem because they are the only means Nature has for removing excess carbon from the biosphere (by the processes that created the fossil fuels in the first place)…
Getting back to LNG: Clearly, it would be much better if the UK did not have to do this. However, if we accept the science, we do not have the luxury of taking decades to phase-out fossil fuel use.
China is right and the G7 should follow their lead.
As many economists have now pointed out, humanity needs to treat climate change as an existential threat — far more potent than any Earthbound terrorist group — that requires mobilisation of the military-industrial complex to minimise and/or adapt to it. Sadly, far too much of the military-industrial complex is still fighting a rear-guard action to perpetuate its own existence — rather than on trying to safeguard the habitability of planet Earth for future generations.
World-famous film director, James Cameron, might well have cited the ill-fated MS Titanic as an analogy for humanity today. However, I am sure we would all rather that money would be invested in minimising climate change; rather than on constructing Elysium.
We can but hope.
In my original email to LEGO (via the Greenpeace website), I tried to be as brief as I could. Sadly, all I got was a generic reply that did not address the issues I was raising. Here is the correspondence to-date (any further responses from Lego will be appended as comments by me):
From: Martin Lack
Sent: 04 July 2014 19:48
Subject: Invest in the future not the past – stop sponsoring Shell
Fossil fuels are a 19th century technology and a finite resource. A post-carbon era is inevitable, the only question that remains is whether 10 billion humans will be able to share in it.
I’m really disappointed to learn that you have agreed to help Shell clean up its image, while it helps to endanger the environmental biodiversity of the Arctic.
You claim that it is your ambition to protect children’s right to live in a healthy environment, both now and in the future. If that is true, please cut your ties with Shell now.
On 17 July 2014 10:08, CustomerResponseTeam@LEGO.com <CustomerResponseTeam@lego.com> wrote:
Dear Martin Lack,
Thanks for getting in touch with us.
I’m sorry to hear you feel so strongly about our co-promotion with Shell. We really appreciate you taking the time to write and share your concern with us, and I’ve passed your thoughts and opinions to our promotions team.
We’re determined to help make the world that children will inherit a better place. Our unique contribution is to inspire and develop children through creative play. By entering a co-promotion like the one with Shell, we can put LEGO® bricks into the hands of even more children around the world. This allows more children to develop their imagination and creative skills through building and creating models with LEGO bricks.
The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in one specific part of the world. We expect that Shell lives up to their responsibilities wherever they operate and that they take appropriate action to any potential claims should this not be the case. We’re sad to see the LEGO brand used as a tool in any dispute. We believe this is a matter where Greenpeace and Shell must work out their differences between themselves.
For more information, you’re welcome to read our CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp’s comment on this Greenpeace campaign. There’s also more information about our responsibility agenda in this area of LEGO.com. More information on the environmental targets that we have set for ourselves can be found here.
Please let us know if you need anything else.
Thank you for taking the time to personalise your response to me; and for explaining LEGO’s thinking in working with Shell. I understand and accept that, since Lego is itself a product of the petrochemical industry, such a “co-promotion” makes good business sense. However, the Arctic is not just a “specific part of the world” in which Shell is operating. In order to preserve a habitable planet for future generations, the Arctic is somewhere that Shell should not be operating! Even if it were good, therefore, this makes Shell’s operational safety record (etc) irrelevant.
The only reason it is now possible to operate in the Arctic is because the ice is melting; and most of the ice is melting because of the exponential growth of fossil fuel use since the Industrial Revolution. Humans may well use fossil fuels to make all sorts of things (including Lego) but this does not make it right for us all to disregard the long-term consequences of continuing to pump geospheric carbon (i.e. that derived from fossil fuels) – in the form of CO2 – into the biosphere (i.e. the atmosphere and the oceans). In combination with deforestation and the exponential growth of livestock farming, global warming and ocean acidification were therefore an inevitable result of the exponential growth of the human population on this planet since the Industrial Revolution. However, now we know we are in a hole, is it not time we stopped digging? See my blog post regarding the Rio+20 Summit: ‘When in hole keep digging?’ (21 June 2012).
If LEGO truly wants to preserve a habitable environment and planet, it should place conditions upon its support for Shell. Given that the vast majority of relevant scientists agree that there are now 5 times more fossil fuels left on this planet than it would ever be safe for us to burn – something the IEA, IMF, OECD and Pentagon all acknowledge – LEGO needs to encourage Shell to find alternative means to meet (or reduce) global demand for fossil fuels. As such, although “turkeys will never vote for Christmas”, the petrochemical industry needs to invest in finding non-fossil alternatives for its current products. Such things definitely exist (e.g. biosythetic fuels and energy from waste products). What is lacking is the corporate will or political incentive to pursue them. Things that are worth doing are rarely the easy option. Shell’s exploration in the Arctic is both the wrong option and the lazy option; one that is collectively endangering the future habitability of this planet.
Therefore, I hope I may look forward to LEGO placing conditions upon its future support for Shell, which needs to adopt a long-term business strategy that does not contradict the science and economics underlying the call for humans to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. For more information, please see this recent blog post: ‘Geoscientists get all ethical about climate change’ (2 May 2014).
Yours very sincerely,
Latest email from Greenpeace:
Five months ago, they tried to silence us. They arrested our activists, and threw them in jail for peacefully protesting oil drilling in the Russian Arctic. The oil giants thought they could scare us away with intimidation. But as long as the Arctic is in danger, we’ll take action to protect it. We’re ready to do whatever it takes to prevent an oil spill in the home of the polar bears. This morning, 80 activists confronted a tanker carrying the same oil the Arctic 30 protested against to a refinery in Rotterdam. Seven of the original Arctic 30 joined them.
Join the action, tell Shell and Gazprom that Arctic drilling is a losing battle.
As dawn broke, a dramatic chase unfolded with the Rainbow Warrior chasing the Russian tanker into Rotterdam harbor and the Esperanza speeding in to support the Warrior. As the tanker slowed down to turn, the more nimble Rainbow Warrior slipped in front and put itself between the tanker and the dock where it was to unload the oil. Dutch police then quickly stormed the Warrior taking control of the ship and arresting the crew. They are safe and are currently in contact with colleagues on the ground. This isn’t just any oil. It’s the first ever Arctic oil extracted from ice-covered waters by Shell’s partner, Gazprom. It comes from the Prirazlomnaya platform, where the Arctic 30 were violently arrested following a peaceful protest last year.
These aren’t just any activists. Despite spending two months in jail for their last protest, seven of the Arctic 30 are back, defiantly fighting for the Arctic. Their fellow brave activists witnessed their unjust detention, but refuse to be silenced.They know the Arctic is too valuable to lose. They aren’t alone. You, me, and over 5 million people are standing with them.
Plagued by our daring actions and relentless pressure, oil giants and investors are finally waking up to the risks of drilling in the frozen north. Just last month, Shell backed out of their Arctic drilling plans. If we keep up this momentum, we know we can win.
As a citizen and consumer, you have the power to resist the destruction of the Arctic. We engage in peaceful civil disobedience because public confrontation is often the only way to get results from billion dollar companies.
But only you, and our millions of dedicated supporters, can amplify our voice.
Wherever they go, we’ll follow. For every plundered drop of Arctic oil, we’ll make sure the other oil giants pay the price of humiliation and infamy. However they try to destroy the Arctic, we’ll be there to stop them. Thank you for standing with us.
The BBC have very helpfully posted the recent Panorama programme ‘Energy Bills: Power Failure’ on YouTube (as embedded below). Presented by Tom Heap (who regularly does spots on CountryFile), it is very fair-minded and includes contributions from a wide range of people. Therefore, even if you do not live in the UK, I would recommend watching the programme because: it is very good at describing the problems that we all face; and makes it crystal clear that we must find a solution (but does so in a way that somehow avoids being dogmatic).
Some questions I would like help in answering are as follows:
1. What is the instrumental music used in the opening night-time sequence in Blackpool?
2. Why do so many poor people use the most expensive (pay-as-you-go) way to heat their homes?
3. Can we give Angel Gurria (Secretary-General of OECD) a Nobel Prize for plain-speaking?
4. How can anyone avoid concluding that Ed Milliband is an opportunist and a con-man?
5. Why did the CEO of RWE nPower not admit profit margin on generation (as opposed to sales)?
6. Is the need for decarbonisation actually incompatible with power generation being privatised?
7. Why has carbon capture and storage not been made a priority in order to continue burning coal?
8. Is it realistic to think that (in a post-carbon era) energy will ever be cheaper than it is now?
9. When will the UK government admit that fracking is not actually low-carbon and (thus) not the answer?
10. Has Michael Fallon not read the BGS report that says only 10% of shale gas is probably recoverable?
UPDATE (23/12/2013): I think the answer to Q1 is “Burn” by Ellie Goulding (see comments below).
Although much delayed and interrupted by other stuff, this is now the third part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006. The first and second parts were published on this blog last month (i.e. here and here).
Once again, I will assume the reader is familiar with the concept of Gaia (as described in part one of my review and on Wikipedia). Also, as discussed in part two of my review, I will also assume the reader is aware of Lovelock’s subsequent attempts to repudiate his ‘alarmism’ (April 2010) and, even more astonishingly, disavow his faith in the objectivity of climate scientists (June 2012). However, in all of this, I hope readers will recognise that I am trying to be pragmatic and objective; as opposed to dogmatic and prejudiced.
Previously, I had got as far as Lovelock’s assertion (circa 2006) that humanity needs to get off its addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Therefore, I now continue by looking at the ways in which he suggests we might (or indeed might not) do that. However, it must be stressed that Lovelock accepts (or at least accepted) that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will not prevent excessive climate disruption unless we decide to leave most fossil fuels in the ground (or radically reduce the rate at which we are burning them).
Lovelock’s first non-fossil fuel option is hydrogen; and his first point is that, as with electricity, hydrogen has to be manufactured. In addition to pointing out that it can be manufactured from fossil fuels and in nuclear reactors, Lovelock explains how hydrogen can be produced from water by hydrolysis. However, the problems inherent in transportation and distribution of hydrogen (e.g. very low atomic mass and high explosive potential) and the low amount of energy return on energy input (EROEI) mean that this is unlikely ever to be commercially viable.
In contrast to this, hydrogen could be widely used in fuel cells (i.e. as used to generate electricity on the command module in the Apollo missions), although this is not without its own problems and dangers. Wikipedia has a good summary of methods of hydrogen production, from which the important takeaways appear to be that hydrogen is:
(1) mostly produced from hydrocarbons (steam reforming); and
(2) mostly used in oil refineries to derive lighter products from heavy ones (hydrocracking); or
(3) used in other chemical processes to produce other things (e.g. ammonia and methanol).
Both Lovelock and the above Wikipedia article refer to the potential of a hydrogen economy. Indeed, Lovelock refers specifically refers to the work of Geoffrey Ballard – who pioneered the concept of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. like rechargeable batteries), which would consume hydrogen in use (by driving an electric motor) and generate it when not in use (by being recharged).
Expressing his hope that this technology will become widespread, Lovelock moves on to explain why he hopes that renewable technology will not: In essence, his objections are based on:
(1) low EROEI (i.e. in manufacture of hardware with a low energy conversion efficiency); and
(2) low energy density (i.e. need for large areas of land to be given over to electricity production).
Lovelock suggests that the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by those who promote renewable energy as a means of avoiding dealing with the impossibility of perpetual economic development on a finite planet with finite resources. This is a point on which I would agree – and have agreed (as published here by the Geological Society of London). However, even so, I find his complaints about the industrialisation of the countryside somewhat tiresome. The bottom line is this: anything that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels must be a good thing; as must be the use of any fossil fuels consumed in working towards that goal.
Lovelock does himself no credit whatsoever by suggesting that pursuit of wind power is short-sighted because climate change will alter planetary atmospheric circulation. Such an assertion is almost (but not quite) as stupid as suggesting that harnessing the Earth’s tidal energy is likely to slow the Earth’s speed of rotation (to any significant extent). Similarly, his suggesting that the UK would need 276 thousand wind turbines (each 100m high) to meet national demand for electricity is nothing more than a straw man argument (because no-one is suggesting that this can or should be the aim and it ignores the agreed need for overall consumption to be reduced).
Lovelock’s comments about tidal energy, pre-date the development and testing of numerous technologies (e.g. around the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland), but he does make the valid point that, as with CCS, it will take decades for any technology to become widely available and implemented. However, this does not change the fact that it would be almost insane for an island nation such as the UK not to pursue these technologies. The down-side to all this is that it will require additional power distribution infrastructure to be built. However, so will micro-generation (as opposed to centralised generation), unless everyone is to become self-sufficient and not feed-in unused power to the national network (the income from which is the main reason most people install the systems).
Lovelock then moves on to consider hydro-electric power (HEP). He makes the point that HEP is not without environmental cost (loss of farmland, enforced displacement of populations, and interference with fluvial deposition patterns including the benefits of regular flooding of farmland). However, he also seems to ignore the fact that HEP can be of considerable benefit to communities in areas where population density, competition for land and ecological carrying capacity are all low.
On the subject of biofuels, Lovelock merely re-states his objections to the diversion of agricultural land away from producing food (and takes another swipe at those who favour the inherently inefficient use of land for organic farming). It is on this subject that the intellectual incoherence of Lovelock’s position is most clearly displayed: being simultaneously pessimistic (about the prospects for so many people living on such a small planet) and optimistic (about the potential for technology to solve all our problems) – especially if we embrace GM crops.
However, given that he could not possibly have heard of it in 2006, Lovelock may be forgiven for not mentioning a new avenue for sustainable biofuel production that emerged in 2010 – namely GM algae that photosynthesise ethanol (instead of glucose). However, even this may now be eclipsed by the potential of the latest idea – higher mixed alcohol fuels. These can be produced form any solid, liquid or gaseous waste product and, therefore, could solve all our energy problems (but only if fossil fuel companies don’t buy up the patents to such ideas and then make them disappear).
Finally, in his long preamble to consideration of the future potential of civil nuclear power, Lovelock turns his attention to solar energy: Here, once again, his argument is primarily based on low EROEI and on the cost of manufacturing the hardware (not to mention all the other finite metallic resources required).
On this front, I must confess I have some sympathy: Harnessing the energy the Earth receives from the Sun (especially in mid-to low latitude countries where population densities are and probably will remain low) would seem like an obvious choice. However, pursuing solar power generation on a large scale simultaneously in a large number of countries would have a serious impact on the demand for – and cost of – copper (and other even rarer metals), which is already high as a consequence of the success of hand-held electronic devices such as mobile phones.
As for Lovelock’s justification for his pro-nuclear stance, that will be the subject of the next post in this series (although I am not promising when that will be).