D A. Ryan

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About D A. Ryan

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  1. Never gamble with George Monbiot

    George Monbiot was celebrating "victory" the other week in a bet he alleges to have made with Jeremy Leggett of SolarCentury. Jeremy Leggett had claimed, that solar power would achieve grid parity by 2013. George Monbiot managed to get him to turn that into a bet though inevitably when George started getting all legal and turning it into some sort of personal vendetta Jeremy seems to have backed away. Anyway, Monbiot claims he won the bet by virtue of the fact that Solar PV hasn't achieved "grid parity". Of course that depends how you define "grid parity". Monbiot uses a straw man argument to suggest that "grid parity" means ""¦the point at which government support for a technology is no longer required". He claims this was the definition he was given by the DECC, although I've yet to see anything on the DECC website to substantiate this claim. My guess is he interviewed some press advisor for the DECC and asked him a loaded question which got the guy to say what Monbiot wanted to hear. Of course Monbiot perhaps missed the point that if we apply his definition for grid parity to other energy sources, very few if any energy sources are capable of achieving it. For example Monbiot has never been shy of his enthusiasm for Nuclear power, which he describes glowing terms as "UK's most viable sources of low-carbon electricity""¦.is it? Well not according to the BBC's business editor Robert Peston. As I pointed out on my blog sometime ago EDF energy have admitted that the subsidy they would need to make any new nuclear plants in the UK viable would require a strike price of at least £100 per MWh for 40 years, v's a price for onshore wind of £80 per MWh for 15 years (although its claimed as low as £65 or $98/MWh according to the EIA and £40 or $69/MWh according to the NREL) with offshore wind projected at a cost of £100/MWh by the 2020's (the earliest date any new reactor could be operational is 2022). So by Monbiot's own definition nuclear has failed to achieve "grid parity", indeed it falls below the overnight prices for wind energy, which makes his "UK's most viable source of low-carbon electricity" claim very hard to justify. But what about other energy sources? Have they achieved "grid parity"? Well not according to Monbiot's definition. I've just put up a post describing the tales of woe afflicting the UK coal industry. While foreign imported coal is certainly competitive (if we ignore the cost of all that pollution of course!), but UK mined coal is anything but. Government support is needed to keep the UK's coal mines working (the point of my article was to question why we'd want to spend public money a carbon intensive energy source), indeed its likely coal mining in the UK could be all but over within the next decade without significant state sponsored support. So certainly as far as UK coal is concerned, that isn't at a level of "grid parity" either. Indeed when we talk of fossil fuels one often forgets how much is spent, both directly or indirectly, subsidising them. As I've previously pointed out on my blog, of the energy subsidies worldwide much more is spent shoring up fossil fuel consumption, than on renewables. The whole idea of subsidising renewables (or nuclear) was always part of a messy compromise to get governments from having to enact unpopular policies that would have forced people to pay the true costs of our fossil fuel addiction. So Monbiot has managed to reveal the shadowy murkiness of the global energy industry, well no s%it Sherlock is all I can say! (how long have you been a environmental correspondent?) But going back to Jeremy Leggett grid parity comment. I suspect he was referring to solar PV achieving grid parity with other renewable resources by 2013. Indeed as Leggett himself points out in his response "...the cost of solar power has fallen by 60% in the last 3 years while nuclear's costs have gone up by 70%". While PV isn't quite there yet, at least as far as the UK is concerned, it's certainly achieved grid parity in other sunnier climates (....could someone let Monbiot know he owes Jeremy Leggett £100 ;o ) and its expected to achieve as much in the US within a window of 2014-2017. So while perhaps one accuse Jeremy Leggett in letting his enthusiasm for solar PV getting the better of him, but one can certainly understand where that enthusiasm is coming from. If you'd asked me ten years ago how much electricity we could get from solar PV, I'd have thought getting 34 GW's installed capacity from a less than sunny country like Germany was wishful thinking. Any hope for bulk electricity generation from solar I would have argued would only be achieved using solar CSP (Concentrating Solar Power), a technology neither the UK nor Germany has an ideal climate for. Now I would have covered myself by throwing in the caveat that it's always difficult to judge the pace at which any technology will mature (I'd have probably also laughed at the suggestion you could cram 1Terrabyte into a laptop hard drive) and I'd have pointed to theoretical studies which suggested solar panels could be made much more efficient and produced more cheaply"¦.at least "in theory". However, even I have to admit that the performance and growth of solar PV has exceeded all expectations. According to the latest REN global status report 29 GW's of solar PV was added in 2011-2012 for a total installed capacity of 100 GW's of PV (around 103 GW's of renewables was installed worldwide in the same period according to the REN 21 report, for a total capacity of not far off half a terrawatt). Meanwhile nuclear power (which Monbiot favours), according to the IAEA grew by just 4 GW's, although this figure has to be put in the context of a significant decline in nuclear power output over the last few decades. And the fact that many of the world's nuclear plants are ageing and likely in need of replacement (average age of reactors worldwide is about 28 years) and its questionable if global capacity can increase significantly while such "turn over" is being undertaken. Indeed the IAEA report I've cited above, suggests a rate of installation per year of just 6.65 GW/yr between 2010 and 2030, less than a quarter the current installation rate for solar PV and just 1/15th the current installation rate of renewables as a whole. As far as the UK is concerned, despite the Tories attempts to derail the solar industry with cuts to the subsidies, approximately 8 MW's worth of PV is being installed in the UK every week, or about 400-450 MW per year. In March the total installed capacity of PV in the UK stood at 2.5 GW's in March 2013. By contrast the UK's nuclear fleet is in a state of terminal decline and even those who are pro-nuclear seem to accept the fact that new facilities cannot be built before all but one (or possibly two) of the UK's current fleet is shut down. Of course everything is far from rosy in the renewables garden. Personally, while I reckon PV has a role to play in the UK's grid (if the Germans can get 34 GW's from a few roof tops, we'd be fools not to try and do the same), I would still prioritise technologies such as wind and biomass, as well as offshore energy (notably tidal power), as they are better suited to our climate. Also as I've pointed out in prior posts, only about 20% of the UK's energy demand is electricity. The rest is a mixture of heat demand (which tends to hit for a few months in winter) and transportation fuel (cars, buses, trains, planes, etc.). Given the large daily and seasonal fluctuations in demand from these two, energy storage facilities are a key priority (and of course nuclear hits the some problem here as renewables, the need to "bunker" energy to deal with such fluctuations in demand). Indeed PV is now at the centre of a trade dispute between the EU and China over subsidies to their respective solar industries. Of course, I'd argue that clearly the EU and China would only be taking this matter up at the WTO if they thought PV has a future, i.e. that if it hasn't achieved grid parity yet its going to do so at some point. So again, while I tend to agree there are limits to what can be achieved with PV, credit has to be given where it is due. Monbiot can nitpick all he likes but far more low carbon capacity has been added to the UK energy grid from PV than the nuclear energy he favours. Indeed with a £70 billion clean up bill for existing waste stockpile and at least £7 billion a pop for new reactors, its questionable how much, if any of the UK's future energy capacity can be sourced from nuclear.
  2. As US Nuclear Reactors decay

    I came across an article in the NY times a few days ago that makes for an interesting read. It relates to the slow gradual decline of the US nuclear power sector. I've never been in a US nuclear plant, but people whom I know who have (pro-nuclear mind) paint a bleak picture. We're talking scenes that would resemble the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Old antiquated machinery in dusty old buildings. Control rooms with clunky, ridiculously ancient control systems. Here and there they will see company name plates on machinery from a manufacturing company that they know had ceased to exist decades ago, kind of like the head stones in an industrial graveyard. And many of the staff in these plants, who work in offices and lunch rooms decorated in styles last popular back in the 60's, are ageing as rapidly as the plant they work in. Many are not far from the day they collect their bus pass and retire. Now my (again pro-nuclear) colleagues are keen to stress that they see no safety issue here as despite the age of machinery in such plants, though old (like those in the UK) these plants are maintained in implacable condition, floors often swept spotless sort of thing. Kind of like how the UK army still maintains a fleet of 1950's era "Green Goddess" fire engines in perfect working order, to be brought in if the firemen go on strike or in case there's a war. That said, other sources, such as the Associated Press point to situations where, for example a pump is leaking more than it should, so the safety standards are rewritten to put the pump (and thus the plant) back within spec. Suffice to say, many of America's nuclear plants are as it were "getting on a bit". Half are 30 years or more into a 40 original design life. As anyone who works in engineering will know there tends to be a critical point with any system as it ages, beyond which the maintenance costs and failure probabilities rapidly spikes, as many individual parts start hitting their natural service limit. Which given the fact they may have been made by a manufacturer who no longer has them in stock (or no longer exists!), makes replacing parts and keeping the plant going increasingly expensive. Sooner or later it becomes no longer economic to operate it. Many US nuclear plants may not be far off from this date. And the problem with that is that because the US essentially stopped building reactors for 30 years post TMI and Chernobyl, there is something of a "baby boom" time bomb ticking away, in which we could see many US nuclear plants closing down in the next decade or two, far quicker than replacement plants could ever be built. I've discussed for some time the problems faced by the UK nuclear sector and the near certainty that there will be a substantial "nuclear gap" during the next decade, given that all but a handful of UK nuclear reactors will be shutdown (potentially as low as a single LWR in Sizewell before any replacements are built (if indeed any new reactors are ever built in the UK). This is inevitable given the long lead times involved in the construction of nuclear reactors. Consider that the world's most modern in Olkiluoto in Finland has been under construction for 8 years and counting. Even if the US began building multiple plants now, it would be many decades before they could replace the present 100 odd US nuclear reactors, during the time before this existing nuclear fleet closes down. Currently there are just 5 nuclear construction projects active in the US, and one of those is a project mothballed a number of decades ago. Even if we could increase the build rate of nuclear reactors significantly, which would be difficult given the various bottlenecks in the nuclear supply chain and regulatory hurdles, who is going to operate these reactors? Like I said many of the US/UK's nuclear energy workers are as aging as rapidly as the plants they operate. We're talking about a need to train up a couple of tens of thousand people in the space of a decade or two both sides of the Atlantic. Consider that as far as I'm aware only a handful of UK universities actually offer a degree in nuclear engineering, and in many cases this is a sort of "top up" course to an existing physics or engineering course, which only a handful of students take. Who too is going to finance these reactors? The massive capital costs now associated with nuclear power, along with the fact that the nuclear industry has been "found out" by investment firms, means financial institutions have very little (if any) interest in funding such projects, unless the government is willing to advance a substantial subsidy (exceeding anything paid out to renewables, as current discussions surrounding Hinkley Point C in the UK make clear) to cover any potential losses. And in this "government sponsored" scenario, there's only so much cash a government can advance in these austere times. Nevermind the fact that many members of the public are opposed to nuclear power and certainly won't be happy with their taxes going to pay for it. Of course I'd counter by pointing to the £100 billion bill to clean up the UK's existing nuclear legacy, so you're sort of paying for it already! Mind the Gap Of course one has to query, given that "something else" will have to be build to fill the likely "nuclear gap" how economically sensible it would be to do that, operate said replacement (e.g. a IGCC unit) for a few years or decades and then decommission it (after only a fraction of its service life), while simultaneously paying the enormous costs that new nuclear build comes with on top of all of that. Inevitably one's suspicion is that while some new nuclear reactor construction is perhaps inevitable in the US (or UK) given the ideologically commitments to nuclear from those on the right (I'm convinced many on the right are merely in favour because many on the left are against it... maybe we should try reverse psychology!). But the chances are that only a small fraction of these reactors will actually be replaced (my guess? 2-4 reactors in the UK, probably a one to two dozen reactors in the US). Consequently there will be a substantial downsizing of the US and UK nuclear sector over the next few decades, to the point where it will become a minor contributor to both nation's grids. In short, to advocate even a like for like replacement of the world's existing nuclear capacity, nevermind the sort of megalomaniac scale expansion in global nuclear energy use its cheerleaders call for, is to advocate the logistically impossible. The fact is the vast bulk of the nuclear reactors in many countries will be shut down long before any replacement could conceivably be built. Assuming public opposition doesn't kill the industry like it has in Germany and Japan. Of course the fear for environmentalists is that this "something else" will be more coal or gas fired power stations. A very serious risk given the dangerous uncertainty and renewables bashing policies advanced by pro-nuclear advocates within the Republican or the Tory party. This is despite the fact that these days wind power is increasingly seen as an economically viable alternative. Worldwide there's now about 282 GW's of wind power installed and 100 GW's of solar power, which combined exceeds the scale of the global nuclear fleet (at 366 GW's and falling) nevermind the much larger contribution from hydroelectric and biomass (REN Status reports are always a good source of stat's in this regard). And before anyone starts giving out about "subsidies to renewables", the IEA recently reported that all subsidies to renewables are but a sixth of what we pay subsidizing the fossil fuel industry! The only sensible course of action for pro-nuclear types (such as Monbiot) but supposed environmentalists to do is accept this reality and advocate policies that ensure as much as possible of this looming "nuclear gap" is met by low carbon energy sources and not fossil fuels and quit flogging the already dead nuclear horse.
  3. Debunking the myth of shale gas

    I've recently discussed a report by David Hughes of the Post Carbon institute on my energy blog (see here). The report is called "Drill Baby Drill" and it serves to debunk many of the myths regarding shale gas and tight oil (often referred to as "shale oil"). If you believe the propaganda shale gas / oil "solves" all of the west's energy problems for "a hundred years" (or a thousand years or some other large made up number!)"¦.not so! As this report illustrates shale gas is currently plateauing at an output level of 26 billion cfg/day (about 189 mtoe). Sounds like a lot"¦until you realise that current US gas demand is about 25.4 trillion cfg/yr (or about 60-80 billion cfg/day once you account for seasonal variations). This means that shale gas output within the US can only meet about 37 - 32% of current US gas demand. Total US energy consumption is currently hovering around about 2,200 mtoe. So, neglecting conversion losses and cycle efficiencies (which for certain energy pathways from natural gas to vehicles for example would be significant) you would need to increase shale gas production about 12 fold, just to meet current US domestic energy demand. Now there may be room for more growth, but it's limited. As I've pointed out in a prior post (see "is shale gas a fracking Ponzi scheme?"), many shale gas "plays" are not economic, often being driven more by market speculation than real world gas demand (a number of the same people behind the sub prime crisis have been getting involved in trading in shale gas "plays"). David Hughes suggests that there may be some room for growth in the form of joint gas and oil fracking operations. Even so, it's worth considering that he also notes how the EIA has been gradually downgrading its forecasts for proven reserves of shale gas. The present reserves estimate of 579 trillion cfg would only sustain current production for about two and a bit more decades. Again in reality it's more likely there there might be some further growth in output, before shale gas peaks and enters into a rapid decline. Shale/Tight oil isn't much better. They are a little behind shale gas operations, so further growth is likely. David Hughes estimates, based on DoE and EIA figures, that production will ramp up from a current output of 1.2 milion bbl/day to a maximum of around 2.2 million bbl/day in 2017, before declining sharply (of course I'm for hoping it stops altogether!). As with Shale gas, the oil industry has some wriggle room. They may not reach this high point and sustain less output for longer, or they might overshoot (as with shale gas) and sustain a higher output for less time, but that's about it. Again, 2.2 million bbl/day probably sounds like a lot, until you realise that current US oil demand hovers around 20 million bbl/day (i.e. if Hughes is to be believed the US can only get 11% of its oil needs from tight oil) and global demand is about 80 million bbl/day. It is literally a drop in the ocean, much like the Tar sands I reported on before. And also like those tar sands Shale gas and tight oil both come with a very heavy carbon footprint, many times greater than that associated with conventional fossil fuels extraction. Shale gas, as I discussed in a prior post may be worse than coal. In fact a recent joint study by the LSE and the Grantham Research Institute has pointed out that the bulk of the world's existing fossil fuel reserves are essentially "unburnable" if we want to keep global warming to be below the 2 degrees recommended by scientists. Many billions (about $674 billion last year) are being wasted every year on finding or adding additional fossil fuel reserves which we'll likely never use and thus the companies doing so will never recoup revenue from these operations (again it pretty much meets the definition of a Ponzi scheme). And it's not just the carbon dioxide being released as a result of shale gas production that's the problem. There's also all those nasty chemicals involved in the fracking process and the gas leaking into people's water supply (such that they can actually set their tap water on fire! Watch this video if you don't believe me). In short the advice of the fossil fuel industry to switch from conventional to unconventional fossil fuels is not that far removed from that of a drug dealer telling an addict that the solution to his cocaine addiction is to switch to crack. It is important as green campaigners we challenge this notion of "shale gas will solve all our problems" mantra, for it is tempting certain individuals (particularly those on the political right) to believe that if we just ignore climate change (which we can't) they can still have their SUV in the drive way and air-con on all night and basically maintain business as usual. By way of example, I highlighted a while back how the present UK energy policy is founded on the principle that nuclear power will be cheaply available (actually EDF are looking for a subsidy level that exceeds wind power!) and that natural gas from the UK's shale deposits will be cheap and plentiful. Neither of these conditions are likely to apply. Yet even so several major green energy projects, despite making more economic sense than the Tories obsessions with nuclear and shale gas, have been shelved. The reality is, unconventional fossil fuels are simply not up to the task. While I would accept the argument that the more "pessimistic" peak oil analysts have perhaps underestimated the potential output from these sources, the numbers still do not add up. At best shale gas has bought America maybe a decade or two more of cheap energy addiction. But the come down from the other side of this shale fueled binge is just going to be all that more severe. My advice would therefore be to curtail the use of these sources (if not an outright ban on them) and begin the transition to renewables. Indeed by contrast to America's shale gas splurge Portugal has succeeded in going to 70% on its renewables consistently over the last winter (briefly 100% at times). Another way is possible!
  4. George Monbiot and the enviro-neocons

    I’m getting a bit worried about George Monbiot. At one time he was one of the sharpest orators within the left/green environmental movement. But I’ve noticed a distinct change in tone and I fear he might be doing a bit of “a Bellamy” (ironically enough for those who don’t understand that last one, check out Monbiot’s own post on the downward spiral of Bellamy). Last month he produced a post labelled “We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all”. All this demonstrates is that George Monbiot never understood the crisis of peak oil to begin with (see Jeremy Leggett of Solar Century’s rebuttal here also in the Guardian). Peak oil was never about some sort of scenario where it and global warming would sort of cancel each other out. While a small number of Malthusians (often referred to as “doomers” on the internet) do hold this view (they also tend to be skeptical of renewable energy I would note), they were always going to be disappointed. Even in an extreme post-peak oil scenario, cuts in fossil fuel consumption, notably coal (the most abundant and carbon intensive fuel) would still be required, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change. If Monbiot fell for such propaganda(and we can assume from his statements that he did), then he was always going to be proved wrong. Peak oil is not about us running out of oil, but about us running out of the cheap easily produced oil. It’s not so much an energy crisis, but a liquid fuels crisis (or more to the point a cheap liquid fuels crisis, as discussed in the Hirsch Report). There is indeed plenty of oil left, as anyone who has ever read the reports of experts in the topic (such as Hirsch, Deffeyes or Campbell) would realise. But the bulk of oil that remains is concentrated in unconventional reserves that are difficult to extract. A good analogy is to think of a fruit tree. Over the last century or so, we’ve plucked almost all of the bigger juicer fruits from the base of the tree. While at least half the fruit is still left, it consists of smaller fruit up towards the top of the tree (so we have to get a ladder to go fetch it down) some of which has gone rotten in the sun, so we have to work much harder to maintain output at the level we are used to. Indeed beyond a certain tipping point it will become physically impossible to maintain our current level of productivity, no matter how much time and effort we invest into the enterprise. Plus we’ll need to eat while plucking the apples, and soon we’ll be eating as many apples (or an equivalent food source) as we harvest. Monbiot falls into the same trap as many neo-liberal economists fall for (so called “Cornucopian’s"), that of being mesmerised by the vast reserve figures for unconventional oil and gas. However, we cannot simply extract such vast reserves at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. As I’ve previously pointed out as regards Tar sands the output of oil from these is ultimately constrained by a host of factors, such as water and energy needs (there’s only so much of either we can provide in one isolated location at the one time) as well as a host of practical factors. In a more recent article I’ve discussed the issues relating to Shale Gas production, and how it’s unlikely the US can supply any more than a 1/6th of its domestic gas needs or 5.6% of its entire energy needs from shale gas (my analysis being based on EIA and DoE data). Great news if you happen to have shares in the right company (or you’re a lawyer who specialises in pollution cases), but not much else. Indeed, shale gas drilling has recently been described as “a ponzi scheme” by leaked e-mails from within the shale gas industry itself. Monbiot specifically brings up “tight oil” (which he refers to as “shale oil”). While there are indeed significant reserves of this within the Brakken Shale , however production of these is similarly constrained by various factors, as discussed by James Hamilton on the Energy Bulletin website and Robert Rapier of the OilDrum.com recently. One issue for example is (again) water availability, both for production purposes and to “flush” away the waste generated. Now while I’m quite sure you’ll find a few oil company executives who’ll see no reason why they can’t draw large quantities of the stuff from the Missouri river system and then use the latter as an open sewer (as the Tar sands drillers seem intent on doing to the Athabasca river in Northern Canada). But the many US cattle ranchers downstream, not to mention the tens of millions of US voters who depend on the river for drinking water will probably be none too happy with such a plan. So again, great news for shareholders....or lawyers!...but not much else. Again, to draw an analogy, if we give Monbiot a teaspoon and send him to the shores of a large lake, while I take a kid’s paddling pool and a foot pump. Monbiot would have us believe that he can extract water quicker from the lake using the teaspoon, that I can achieve with the foot pump, just because the lake is so much bigger than the paddling pool. Now granted, if he and a couple of his friends bring enough spoons along and put in enough effort, they might be able to match a fraction of the water withdrawal rate I can achieve, but they’d probably get so thirsty doing it that they’d drink most of that water in the process! Large reserves do not automatically imply large rates of production. Ultimately, the problem with peak oil is that everyone’s going to be disappointed. The “doomers” will find that decades (if not centuries) from now there’s still oil coming out of the ground somewhere (that is unless fossil fuels are legislated out of existence)...and probably a few rich fat cats still driving around in gas guzzling SUV's! The “cornucopian’s” will be disappointed to find that unconventional oil production is woefully in adequate (and simply too expensive) to match the demand and maintain business as usual, or indeed a growing world economy, particularly once peak gas also begins to bite. And environmentalists will be horrified to learn that even though “involuntary” reductions in fossil fuel consumption are finally being enforced, the much higher carbon and environmental footprint of unconventional oil and gas, means that carbon emissions might well continue to rise, as does the environmental effects of fossil fuel extraction. Consequently peak oil is a crisis we ignore at our peril. Nuclear Conversions Similarly, George Monbiot did a bit of an about face as regards nuclear power, just a few days after the Fukushima disaster, as discussed before on Greenblog here. As anyone who is remotely familiar with the issue of nuclear safety would realise, declaring things “mission accomplished” just a few days after the accident is jumping the gun somewhat. Only someone who believed in a cartoon version of a nuclear accident (that the reactor would explode in a giant green fireball, sink into the sea and Godzilla would emerge from the ruins!) would reach such a conclusion so quickly (and again, one is forced to draw the conclusion that this is what Monbiot did believe!). It will take years or decades after Fukushima for a true picture of the environmental impact to be established, much as is the case with Chernobyl. Indeed Monbiot tried to justify his position by using much propaganda from the nuclear industry regarding Chernobyl. He for example refers too figures that discuss the number of cancer cases from the accident, casually mentioning how many thousands got cancer as a result (many of them children), but dismissing their suffering, only focusing on the “body count ”. Personally its the living victims I worry about, not the dead. I hate to burst his bubble, but cancer, even for a survivor, particularly childhood ones are no walk in the park. Many millions of Chernobyl’s victims, either those displaced by the accident or the liquidators (or their offspring) now suffer from long term health problems and live in poverty in various parts of the former soviet union. I know this for a fact as we used to have a local charity in Ireland that would bring the victims of Chernobyl over to the country to give them some respite. I remember meeting some of them and almost all seemed to have sort of serious health problem or deformity. The economic effects of nuclear accidents have also been severe. That Monbiot can so casually dismiss such a mass of human suffering speaks volumes about both his compassion – and his sanity! However, I for one would argue that the most compelling arguments against nuclear power are the economics of it....or the lack there of! Quite simply put the numbers don't add up. I give a range of figures from different sources here, but sources I would directly cite are Citigroup Bank (hardly fluffy tree huggers!) and Dr Stephen Thomas of Greenwich university (his analysis of nuclear energy costs can be found here). In short, all these sources seem to conclude that it is doubtful that nuclear energy can compete with either future fossil fuel prices (even with added cost of CCS or the hikes in prices I mention above) nor with future renewable energy prices. Furthermore there are practical issues that need to be considered. The build rate of nuclear reactors is currently too slow and it is doubtful whether many Western countries will be able to build reactors quickly enough to replace ageing plants (globally the average age is 25 years) as they go offline. Indeed, as I discuss here, even the historical maximum build rate of 30 GW/yr (in the late 70's or about 234 Billion kWh/yr of generation capacity if we assume a 90% capacity factor) would struggle to cope with the demands put on it by peak oil (i.e. it can only supply a fraction of the generating capacity we would loose each year in such a scenario). Indeed as I also calculated here, nuclear power can only supply 11% of the generating capacity needed to cut carbon emissions by the 3% per year campaigners often call for (of course most now believe we need to cut emissions by 5-8% per year, which undermines the case for nuclear only further). So nuclear represents a drop in the ocean....or is that a teaspoon in a lake! And if anything I’m being extremely charitable to nuclear above, as it is doubtful we can build anything like that number of reactors these days anyway! Modern reactor are much larger and more complex beasts. There are also a number of serious bottlenecks in the industry, notably that 70-80% of all reactor pressure vessels come from the JSW forge in Japan. So to be realistic, as things stand nuclear energy will struggle to stand still in the next few decades. Incidentally, the installation rate of renewable energy was a combined 97 GW/yr in 2011 (I calculate that this represents about 566 Billion kWh/yr worth of new generating capacity, accounting for average intermittency rates, you will note that this is more than double the historical maximum for nuclear), with some forms of renewable energy growing in output rates by 50% a year. Also while nuclear energy supporters tend to make hay out of the “intermittency” issues surrounding certain types of renewables, they exhibit “selective deafness” towards nuclear power's own issues with intermittency. Most nuclear reactors are designed to only perform baseload electricity. Although a few can do load following supply, a host of technical and economic reasons prevent them from being used for the all important peaking power demand. Furthermore, electricity is only about 40-15% of any nation's energy demand (its about 20% of the UK's final energy consumption, about 17% globally according to IEA stats). The remaining energy use is met by “everything else”, mostly heating and transport fuels, with significant variation in demand for the latter on a daily and seasonal basis. Supplying either with nuclear power, in the absence of energy storage options, would be very technically challenging and make for even worse economic performance (as you'd have some reactors that only get turned on for a few hours each day a few months each year, again remember my assessment of nuclear above assumed a 90% capacity factor that you would now by sacrificing)....of course its the cost of all this energy storage and slack capacity factors that is typically cited by nuclear energy supporters as the reason that renewables don't work! Finally there is the issue of long term supplies of nuclear fuels. Nuclear energy supporters will typically counter, by citing Thorium or small modular reactors. The NNL (UK's National Nuclear laboratory, again hardly guilty of “anti-nuclear bias”) have a pair of position papers out that largely pour cold water on such notions. While they do note one or two niche roles for Thorium or SMR's, but they make clear that neither can compete with the current regime of Uranium fuelled LWR's (so if the nuclear energy supporters are conceding that LWR's are not up to the task, then neither are these alternatives!). Pro-nuke supporters (including Monbiot) will also cite the new Generation IV designs. I under took a critical analysis of these last year, a summary article of which you'll find on Greenblog (full article here). Ultimately my conclusions were that while these designs do offer some improvement on issues such as safety and reduced nuclear waste levels, this level of improvement is not nearly as much as the supporters of nuclear energy frequently claim. More importantly on the crucial headlines of cost and installation rates they are unlikely to offer any improvement at all - indeed its very likely they'll be more expensive and take longer to build! The whole reason why the nuclear industry went for water cooled reactors made of steel and concrete & fuelled by once-thro uranium back in the 60's is that's the simplest and cheapest way of producing nuclear power! The enviro neocons In short, Monbiot, along with Baroness Worthington, Mark Lynas, David Bellamy and Lovelock (who recently rowed back from his past statements on global warming), represent a group I refer to as “the neo-environmental conservatives”, or enviro neocons for short.  For those unfamiliar with the term “neocon” they were a group of left leaning political thinkers of the 70's who, largely are a result of the perceived failure of Kennedy and Johnson liberal reforms, became disillusioned and ultimately switched their allegiances to the political right wing. Many gradually went from being in the anti-Vietnam/Cold War built up camp. Too advocating an even more aggressive Cold War stance, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan (in they're war with the soviets), the Star Wars system and ultimately the invasion of Iraq under Bush. They also made alliances with many ultra-conservative groups, notably the religious right, something which has largely led to the current state of US politics too this day (with elections fought on whether you “believe” in global warming or evolution (or one assumes gravity!), stem cells, gun control and abortion). Now I would argue the problem with the neocons is that they never understood the purpose of Kennedy and Johnson's (or indeed Carter and Clinton's) liberal reforms to begin with. Indeed given that we've currently got a African-American president in the White House I would argue it’s a little unfair to call these policies a failure (quite the opposite!). I would argue that perhaps the problem was the neocons were conservatives all along, they just didn't realise it. Similarly the enviro neo-cons have lurched to the right, now advocating polices that they would have previously laid down in front of bulldozers to stop (exhibit A, Monbiot’s own comments on nuclear from 2005). They've also formed alliances with many uncomfortable bed fellows, ranging from oil industry executives, neo-liberal cheerleaders, nuclear energy lobbyists and even a few global warming deniers. As with the neocons I would argue they've got into this position due to a failure to understand the issues and thus a failure to understand why the left/green movement is failing to make the impact we would all like it to have (for those of you who haven't guessed, its due to the effects of a 5 letter word starts with “G” and rimes with “seed”). Like the neo-cons, the policies the enviro neocons advocate (notably nuclear) will in all likelihood have completely the opposite effect of what they hope to achieve. For example ,I’ve described in a recent article one of the biggest obstacles for Japan, over the last few years, has been how its single minded “obsession” with nuclear has distorted the energy market and effectively killed off any attempt to build a low carbon economy. And as I describe in relation to the UK, a policy of prioritising nuclear over renewable will inevitably fail to deliver the required capacity (why? read the links above), as we simply won’t be able to build reactors quickly enough....with the resulting gap being then filled likely filled with another generation of coal and gas fired power stations! Indeed I would hope that Monbiot and his cohorts snap out of it soon....or, like the neocons, he may wake up one morning to find himself an adviser to an ultra-conservative government lobbying in favour of the mass exploitation of fossil fuels and the invasion of developing nations for their natural resources, all while humming along to Boney M!
  5. If there’s one thing that makes any environmentalists blood boil, its got to be the practice of “greenwashing” where companies try to sell themselves as “green” when they are anything but. Then there's "astroturfing" where a PR firm in the pay of a conglomerate creates a fake grass roots movement to further their own agenda (Countryside guardian an anti-wind farm group with links to the UK Nuclear industry is a classic example). But the promoters of the Canadian Tar Sands project have seriously pushed the boat out by attempting to label Tar sands oil as “ethical oil”. I realise that this is a bit of an old story, but I bring it up because it has got to count as the most cynical example of “greenwashing” I’ve every seen. I mean seriously their website should come with a health warning, as it has to be seen to be believed. They make “newspeak” in 1984 look like an episode of spin city! They have chosen to label the Tar sands as “ethical oil” on the basis that it is not “conflict oil” as well Canadians, aren’t they all friendly and green and everything? Well actually no! Much of the fossil fuels consumed in America (oil, gas and coal) comes from North of the border, as Canada compete with Venezuela for the title of America’s leading source of energy imports (and thus the primary source of America’s carbon addiction). In addition much of the Uranium that powers America (and Canada’s) nuclear reactors comes from Canadian mines. Northern Canada is also home to many large open cast mines for various minerals. I would also note that energy consumption of the average Canadian is actually higher than that of the average American (7.4 toe for Canada against 7 for the US). Finally I would note that like any country Canada is made up of different provinces with very different regimes in each state. Alberta province, where the Tar sands are based, happens to be the most right wing state in the Union with the worst environmental record. Indeed they are often described as the “Canadian Texas”. Should anyone reading this be unfamiliar with the whole tar sands controversy, tar sands are basically a mixture of moisture, soil, sand, clay and heavy oil. They are usually the consequence of oil escaping at some point in the past from its underground source rock and migrated up to the surface. Here it became mixed with the soil and also came under attack from the biosphere. Given a few more hundreds of thousands of years it would all get broken down into an unusable form (this is the same mechanism that has over the last 250 million years destroyed much of the oil that ever formed on this world, only a tiny fraction survived to the present day). Extracting oil from Tar sands, the world largest and most accessible deposits are in the Athabasca region of Northern Canada, is more of an open cast mining operation. This would involve tearing down large quantities of pristine old growth boreal forests, possibly an area the size of the England and Wales may ultimately be destroyed. The major problem with the Tar sands is thus, the enormous environmental pollution caused by this mining and processing, see here for a summary of the problems it creates and see pictures of the destruction here. Or actually just go to Google Earth and pop in “Fort McMurray”. I don’t need to be any more specific than that, as they are literally creating a mess big enough to see from space! Also this processing consumes large quantities of energy, meaning you’re energy payback from oil sands (EROEI) isn’t nearly as good than you get with conventional oil (indeed it may prove to be an order of magnitude less). This also means you need a substantial source of energy to power you’re oil sands extraction process, and the carbon emissions resulting from this process are increased (some figures say Tars sands produces 20% to four times the greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional oil, depending on who you ask). It also requires substantial quantities of water, both to aid in oil processing, but also to “flush” away the many chemicals contained within the associated tailings (which can include a toxic mix of known or suspected carcinogens, heavy metals, POP’s, arsenic, etc.)....this “flush” often seeing large amounts of sediment laden with toxins finding its way into mountain rivers and streams. In short if you think the conventional oil production is bad, Tar sands are much worse. An order of magnitude increase in Tar sands production will produce a significant spike in pollution (again in the middle of an boreal wilderness) and carbon dioxide levels (Guardian article on the Canadian governments to hide these facts here). It is no wonder that environmentalist recoil in horror. So I think we can safely say that from an environmental prospective this “ethical oil” claim is completely unjustified, unless you consider destroying one of the world’s last great wildernesses while clubbing baby seals to death (another Canadian “pastime”) as “ethical”! But what about this claim that Canadian Tar Sands isn’t “conflict” oil? They put a picture of Hugo Chavez on one poster under the term “conflict oil” then imply that Canadian oil is conflict free. Let’s pick that one apart. Who exactly is Venezuela at war with? While they are having a few border disputes with Colombia, as far as I’m aware the country is not engaged in any formal conflict, nor significant informal conflict with any of his neighbours. Ironically of course Canada has troops serving in Afghanistan, whose presence there is ultimately funded in part by revenue raised by the Tar sands. So actually if you want to buy “non-conflict oil” my advice would be to give Hugo a call and the Canadians a miss. The also accuse Hugo Chavez, in the poster, of promoting “forced labour”. While I’m not necessarily a fan of old Hugo, I think that is a gross misrepresentation of his regime, which has sought to redistribute the country’s oil wealth to the poor. By contrast a bunch of labour union supporters showed up at the Occupy Calgary camp recently to highlight the problems they face with Alberta’s lax protections of employee rights. I also recall meeting during my travels a year or so ago in Canada, a local farmer who was ultimately in danger of loosing his land to the tar sands through a compulsory purchase order they we’re likely to hit him with. Pushing farmers and locals off their land so multinationals can exploit oil reserves (under the farmer's feet mind!) doesn’t quite fit in with the “ethical oil” image I think. In short you could easily reverse many of these posters and accuse Canada of being the warmongering nation with a dreadful environmental record who tramples on human rights and pushes people off their land. Indeed reading through this “ethical oil” propaganda there seems to me to be a dangerous and bigoted undercurrent. They tar (oh! the irony!) all the OPEC countries with the same Saudi brush (awful of course tho the Saudi's human rights record is), ignoring the diverse nature of the many Middle East nations (and their attiudes to Islam or womens rights). And of course not all OPEC states are in the Middle East nor are they Muslim! And the world's largest oil producer? Russia! So what these "Ethical oil" lot seem to be saying is that oil pumped by white anglo-saxons is ethically and morally superior to that pumped by those nasty evil foreigners with their dark skin, strange religions and funny languages. I've not come across such fascist crap and misinformed bigotry since I last saw a Mel Gibson film. And again ironically, if this is the intended point our “ethical oil” spinster’s are making, then even this is factually inaccurate. The bulk of the finance behind the Tar sands is coming not from Canada, but from abroad (economist article mentions that here). Chinese, Russian, Indian and American firms are indeed all major investors in the tar sands (see wiki page here for info and links on this). Indeed I would argue that the problem for the Canadians here is they are loosing control of the situation. Ultimately decisions on the Tar sands (how much will be produced and how bad the environmental mess which the Canadians will have to clean up afterwards) will be made in foreign countries by foreign multinationals. In fact can I play this game too? I could for example come up with a poster labelling Canada brutal treatment of native Americans in past centuries, or indeed the present day (one tribe down river from the Tar sands (Fort Mckay) have had their water source polluted by Tar sands runoff with a growing cancer cell springing up) with Saudi Arabia who are so multicultural they actually prefer to hire workers from India or Pakistan Or how about their positive attitude towards women, while Canadian women are forced to drive their own cars, the Saudi’s provide their women with chauffeurs and male chaperons instead Yes buy Saudi oil, the “ethical” oil! Jokes aside, the fact is there is no such thing as “ethical oil”. The stuff that comes out of a hole in the ground in Canada is as dirty as the stuff that comes out of a hole in the ground in the Middle East, possibly dirtier in fact. But we need those jobs here in Canada, the Tar sands supporters will say, if the tar sands aren’t promoted all those jobs will go abroad along with North America’s energy security. And how many jobs could be created if Canada exploited instead its vast renewable energy potential? North America has some of the best and most varied renewable resources on the planet, if only our American cousins would only get over their whole “real men don’t use solar panels” attitude. And if the point of tar sands oil is to improve north American energy security then why are they building pipelines to Texas and West Coast ports from the tar sands? That sort of implies that the bulk of the oil will ulitmately be exported, or at the very least if America wants the oil it will have to pay the market price (which could be high in the future). But we need the Tar sands to rescue the world from peak oil, is the other argument. Again, as will all tar sands propaganda this one too falls flat. I’ve seen estimates for the maximum tar sands ranging from 1 million bbl/day to 8 million bbl/day with 5m bbl/day often been quoted as a “best guess”. However this is but 6% of the current global demand of around 80million bbl/day and even that 8m bbl/day figure (wildly optimistic thought it is) is but 8% of the projected 2030 demand figure for oil of 100million bbl/day. Were does the other 94-96% of the world’s oil come from? Furthermore, again we have to consider the issue of EROEI. I’ve seen EROEI estimates for the tar sands ranging from 9 to 0.7 (with a ratio in the range of 3-7 being probably a more credible range of values), substantially worse than any existing oil fields (EROEI ranging from 10 - 100). Remember that because an IC engine is typically just 20-30% efficient (and the primary consumption path of oil is ultimately transport fuels) we need to achieve an EROEI of at least 5-3.3 just to break even energy wise (else our tar sands count as a net energy sink rather than a source). Inevitably the above means we’ll need to divert huge quantities of natural gas to power the whole operation. Indeed its questionably if there is sufficient quantities of gas (or coal) to spare within the whole of North America - a fear that seems justified given recent talk about bringing in nuclear reactors to meet demand. When I first heard about this plan to use nukes to extract tar sands I assumed it was a hoax perpetrated by Republicans trying to yank Greenpeace’s chain, but unfortunately no its for real. Of course even a number of pro-nuclear campaigners aren’t entirely happy about this one, describing it to me as “perverse” and “an abuse of nuclear technology”. After all, it involves (as they see it) taking high grade zero-carbon nuclear energy and using it to produce a load of low grade carbon intensive energy! Would you not be better just building reactors closer to cities and generating electricity and heat they argue? When the nuclear lobby calls you environmental terrorists you know you’re goose is cooked! And of course I would point out, ridiculous as this idea is, it can only be sustained as long as we can keep feeding Uranium into the nuclear reactors. And who is going to pay the decommissioning costs of those reactors and what happens if one of them pops its cork in the middle of the Canadian Boreal forests? While nuclear power would reduce the net carbon output from the Tar sands we are still looking at a situation where the tar sands will still produce much more greenhouse gases, both from disturbance to the eco system as well as from the oil itself and the refining and processing of it, compared to existing oilfields. A global policy of climate change mitigation and tar sands (or shale gas) extraction are simply not compatible. The Tar sands are thus in summary not ethical, not eco friendly, not a solution to peak oil and arguably not even Canadian anymore! The only people who will ultimately gain from tar sands extraction are the shareholders of a small number of foreign multinational oil companies...or certainty greedy PR types happy to sell their souls and they're nation's credibility for a few (tar splattered) bucks.
  6. One initiative that was recently taken up in Paris is something I will be following with great interest. Building on the success of bike sharing schemes near public transport hubs, they are copying the same idea, but this time with electric car rental being offered instead. The system will allow the hiring of electric cars by simply using a special subscription card in a booth (rather than the normal laborious pre-booking and paper work needed in standard car hire situations) which releases and unlocks an electric car for use for 30 minutes or so at a cost in the order of a few euros (video on that here). What interests me about this scheme is that it hints at a possible solution to the problems currently associated with the electric car. The mass roll out of the electric car is dogged by several persistent problems. There’s the limited battery life, high maintenance costs for the battery, as well as charge times in the order of hours (by contrast one can refuel a petrol powered car in minutes and a LPG tank in under an hour). The idea of using electric cars plugged into the grid to even out the peaks and troughs in a renewables dominated electric grids is often touted, and this article here from the IMECHE suggests the basic concept is sound (given a few changes to how the grid is managed and power distributed of course!). However, the effect that such a proposal would have on the battery life of cars (given that they’ll be being charged and discharged much more frequently this leads to a slight increase in the wear out rate of batteries) has not been adequately addressed. But to me the “problems” with the electric car, or indeed hydrogen fuel cell powered cars for that matter, is only a problem so long as we remain wedded to the idea that the global car fleet need to be privately owned by individuals. That is to say that we are expected to purchase and maintain a car for ones own personal use, even though it spends 80-90% of its life parked up by the side of the road gathering rust. By contrast if we all share our cars via some sort of city wide rental system (not unlike the proposed Paris system except potentially for longer periods), or rent them of off a private company, then many of the above problems simply disappear. The maintenance and replacement issues with batteries become an issue for the car leasing organisation not the user. While they will ultimately need to pass on such costs to the end user, such costs will be greatly reduced due to the benefits of improved economies of scale. In essence it becomes more of a long term business decision, and assuming that they keep the car in more regular use and hired out (than a privately owned car that again spends 80-90% of its working life idle) , that should reduce those costs to a reasonable level. The problem often highlighted regarding the lengthy charge times for electric cars (in this article a BBC reporter takes 4 days to drive a electric car from London to Edinburgh, largely due to the amount of time the car had to spend charging up the battery) also becomes less of a problem if they’re merely being rented temporarily than it being one's own personal vehicle, as presumably there will always be charged up cars available on every street corner (might get a bit harder at peak times, but you’d be a fool to assume you can get a car at such times if not booked in advance, much like you’d a fool to think you’ll get a taxi just by putting you’re hand up at peak rush hour). You simply pick the one nearest to you, tap your fob from the leasing company on special panel (which unlocks the car and charges you’re account) and hop in, and plug it back it when you’re done. The issue mentioned above with regard to an increased wear in batteries due to using the batteries to balance out the gird is also resolved. The leasing company hires out the car’s and their batteries to the power utilities, who would presumably compensate them for the increased battery wear in return, as well as this providing a useful revenue stream for the leasing company to further reduce the hiring costs to the customers. Similarly the customer is rewarded if he keeps the car he’s hired plugged in while its parked up with say a discount in the rental costs, or maybe free parking spaces. Suddenly the electric car sound like a much more viable idea when you look at it like this. Also the other problem with electric cars, that being the current limited range of such vehicles, becomes less of an issue. The vast majority of journeys undertaken by people today are less than 25 miles (at least in Europe anyway, America’s a slightly different kettle of fish) easily within the range of an electric vehicle. But its this “threat” of the occasional long journey that enforces the purchase of petrol powered cars instead. Currently with electric vehicles via the private motoring option you would be required to own two cars, one electric and one IC engined, which isn’t really convenient for someone with limited funds (i.e. can barely afford one car!) or parking facilities. Now, with shared ownership, if you suddenly find yourself needing to go on a long journey one that cannot be performed either by public transport or an electric car, you simply opt instead to hire one of a small fleet of IC or hybrid engined cars instead. Such a scheme of collective car ownership would also solve a number of other problems. For example, I highlighted in a prior post the issue of “planned obsolescence” where products, notably cars, are often specifically designed with short operating lives. This is done both in order to increase sales (shorter operating life means demand for more cars), but also because consumers by and large demand products that are cheap and which they don’t actually intend hanging onto for very long. Obviously for a car leasing firm the purchase cost of a car matters little, it’s the overall lifetime cost of ownership that’s important. They will thus purchase cars with longer operating lives, more fuel efficient engines, lower maintenance costs and ultimately lower disposal costs, in preference to cars with a lower initial purchase costs but shorter lives (and thus higher life time costs). Now if a large portion of the motor cars worldwide are being bought by such organisations, then obviously the manufacturers will quickly change they’re tune and start building cars with longer operating lives, that are easier to maintain and more fuel efficient. This will greatly reduce the amount of resources that needs to get put into building cars in the first place and the pollution this causes, nevermind the benefits of reduced air pollution and elimination of tailpipe emissions that electric cars already provide. Also given that leasing companies will be trying to keep their cars constantly in use (or parked up and charging), the end result is you will need substantially less cars to support a nation’s motorists, which brings all sorts of benefits (less parking space required, less road building, less accidents, less thefts, etc.) Also there’s been much talk recently about redressing the imbalance that is the absurd subsidy society gives to private motoring (in terms of the government paying for building the roads, maintaining and policing them, providing fire and emergency services cover, paying for the costs of climate change, and securing oil resources, but getting only a fraction of all of this back in road and petrol taxes). Congestion charges or a system of road pricing is often raised as fair and egalitarian way of resolving this issue. However, the problem with both is always implementing it (who in their right mind is going to fit a government GPS tracker to their car just so “big brother” can track and tax you!). Obviously, if the majority of cars on the roads are leased from companies (or local councils) it’s a simple matter of fitting them all with GPS units from day one. Perhaps more critically this idea of “national car sharing” also helps to square the circle as far as public transport. Let be realistic for a minute. Public transport is a very efficient way of moving lots of people from A to B, but what if you want to go to C and live at D? Consider, its possible to go from London (Kings Cross) to say, Achnasheen (a small rural railway station in the middle of the Scottish highlands) in 10 hrs and 15 minutes, including stops (according to national rail enquires). Driving that same distance (596 miles) is doable in 10 hrs 25 minutes, according to Google maps, excluding stops (and to be realistic driving that far in one day, nevermind non-stop wouldn’t be a good idea, not unless you want to risk falling asleep at the wheel!). However, the problem is what do you do when you get to Achnasheen? Suppose you’re ultimate destination is down some remote highland glen or say, Torridon, a small village about 15 miles away down a very scenic valley surrounded by mountains (some of the oldest exposed rocks in the British isles in fact). There is no direct bus from there to Torridon. And in any event the timetable says you’d be arriving at 19:15 at night. If you’re a keen cyclist (like me) you could try biking it (but its fairly hilly!) but that’s not much good if you’re 60 years old or with kids and have lots of luggage. Furthermore getting bikes on trains these days isn’t easy. A taxi would be difficult to arrange and likely expensive. And of course you need get back to the station for the return journey to London! And what happens if you get back to the station and find the train has been delayed or cancelled or you simply missed it? And suppose that rather than living in central London, you live in a small Cothswold’s village and you thus have the same sort of problems at the other end! Consequently it’s no surprise why so many people choose to get in their cars and drive the entire length of such a journey, even though strictly speaking a car is only necessary for the first and last 5-10% of the journey distance. This is why even in situations where it’s cheaper to use the train than drive, many people still opt to drive. Indeed on that point I would note that the cheapest single ticket for that case study journey I mentioned above was £173.50 while Google quotes an estimated driving cost of £114.40! The reason why the car triumphs over public transport every time has nothing to do with anything you’ll hear Jeremy Clarkson fluster about (or faking on Top Gear), it has everything to do with convenience and the assurance that you have a car sitting there ready to take you wherever you want to go at the drop of a hat. But car sharing would allow us to square this circle. Now when I get off the train at 19:15, I simply hop in a car, drive onwards to my final destination, and plug it back into the nearest charge point. When I’m done, I hop in a car drive back to the station, plug it back in, fall asleep on the train, and hop in another car the other side which takes me home. Now nevermind cost, that’s the sort of system with a level of convince that stands some chance of temping people into travelling more by public transport. And if the usage of public transport goes up, then ticket prices begin to fall substantially (look at Ryanair, ever wonder why they can offer flights for a euro? Its because they make sure their planes are constantly in the air and as fully loaded as possible...oh! and btw I'm not related to these guys, "Ryan" is a very common Irish name so don't e-mail me complaining about the time they lost you're bags!). Now some people will inevitably say, wait give up my own personal car for some sort of “collectivised” car ownership system…sounds a bit commie! Nobody’s suggesting we ban private cars or anything like that (well, not immediately anyway!). Inevitably the above system will not suit everyone’s needs or tastes. A travelling salesman (in say solar panels) or a farmer in a remote rural area, or a doctor or a plumber (plus all his tools!) will all probably find that they need they’re own personal and privately owned vehicle. And indeed while we’re at it, building electric vehicles capable of meeting these people’s needs would be technically challenging, nevermind electrifying long distance trucks, aircraft or cargo ships. Inevitably quite a bit of our transport network will still have to remain fuelled by oil in the short term, then probably biofuels taking over later, possibility eventually being superseded by hydrogen vehicles longer term. No doubt some petrol heads with more money than sense will still want they’re boys toys and I’m quite sure Ferrari and Porsche will still be around to satisfy their needs (i.e. sell them over-priced "anatomical extensions"). Although they may find, given that the welfare rug of public subsidy has been pulled from underneath them, such private car ownership will now be somewhat more expensive. But for the vast majority of us such a car sharing system would offer numerous benefits and advantages. I would finally point out that robotic car technology, that being cars that can drive themselves, is progressing at quite a pace. One could see a convergence in the future between improving electric car technology and artificial intelligence, which could ultimately us all permanently relegated to the passenger seats. Indeed the BBC has another video here about a scheme using driverless pods in Heathrow airport, although these run on dedicated tracks. I’ve been hearing about such PRT systems for quite sometime, and while I’m not entirely convinced about them yet, certainly they could figure quite significantly in the future. If the price could be reduced and these pods developed such that they could run on the road network (even if only for short distances) this would truly close the loop between public transport and personal automotive transport. Robotic cars offer numerous advantages, notably the fact that they don’t get drunk or distracted by the kids fighting in the back and run over granny's, they provide better fuel economy and increased engine life (robots aren’t constantly sitting on the brakes and then speeding up or forgetting to change gear, etc.), they don’t get lost and refuse to look at a map, plus you can run robotic cars in bumper to bumper traffic at 70 mph! Obviously if machines are going to start driving cars it makes little sense for us as individuals to own them anymore, far better to delegate such responsibilities and the maintenance of such vehicles (to avoid some very literal blue screen of death moments!) to a suitable authority (private company or government backed leasing scheme). Bottom line, if the automobile is to survive the end of the age of oil, we have to adapt our car ownership system to suit the needs of the technologies that replaces oil, not try to adapt the technology to our peculiar and outdated traditions.
  7. The Patriot Tax

    I read an article last week, which suggested that Warren Buffett, America’s richest man WANTS the IRS to charge him more tax. I initially decided that either the summer heat must be getting to me and I'm seeing things or that Mr Buffett had just visited Amsterdam or something! Billionaires arguing about paying more tax! aren’t you guys supposed to complain about the “insidious tax burden” they face having to pay 2-5% of annual earnings in tax, against the 30-50% the rest of us pay (once you factor in VAT, rates, income tax, National Insurance, etc). Then I hear about several French Billionaires wanting to do the same thing! What is our crazy world coming too! I think I see a potential policy here for Obama. He introduces some form of one off super tax on the wealthy, or a new top rate of tax for multi-millionaires. But as with everything in America we need to market it properly. I suggest the name Providing Appropriate Tax Requirements In Our Time or Patriot Tax for short. This would put the cat among the pigeons. Those right wingers who love to drape themselves in the US flag would suddenly face the accusation of being unpatriotic by dodging tax (either through legal loopholes or by using more illicit techniques). “Why does Bachmann hate America so much?” or “why are the Koch brothers so un-patriotic?” would be comments the left wingers could say and still keep a straight face. Fox News won’t know what to do! More importantly it would combat what to me is a serious problem with many of the world’s super-rich who seem to think that its okay to cheat on you’re taxes if you’re rich enough or you’re crazy right wing politics disagree with said taxes (even in situations where you’re job or business is dependant on high levels of government spending). This policy would hammer home the point that there is never any excuse for such behaviour. Take my example. I oppose council tax. For those not from UK shores this is a tax that is calculated based on the value of the house you live in (whether renting or the owner). The bands are very wide and thus someone living in a 1 bedroom apartment in Camden Town can wind up paying the same tax as his super rich neighbour in a 5 bed penthouse in Notting Hill. Meanwhile, Billionaire Phil “Tax-less” Green pays no council tax (nor income tax), as he flies in every week from Monty Carlo and stays in a plush London hotel. Or how about if you bought a house many years ago in a working class suburb and retired? Now just because you’re neighbours are all yuppies and the house price has gone up since then you’re living on cat food just to pay off the council tax. It’s basically a horribly unfair tax, the tax equivalent of driving down the street randomly shooting up the place with a scatter gun. A local income tax to me would seem much fairer as this would link ones ability to pay to the amount one pays in tax. But do I pay council tax, despite my objections to it? Yes, I do, reluctantly, so reluctantly in fact that I just realised forgot to pay it yesterday so will have to run down to the post office! Either way, objecting to a tax is no excuse for not paying it (unless you genuinely can’t afford to pay it or they’ve overcharged you, which is a common occurrence with the council tax!) as you merely shift the tax burden onto your fellow citizens. If you disagree with a tax, vote for parties who pledge to change it...of course I did that, they got into power and are still squabbling, go figure! And of course the rich frequently do this, buying up politicians get them to repeal taxes but not the services of the state that it supplies to them. Of course as I pointed out in a prior post, we cannot simply tax the rich and that will solve everything. But certainly it will go along way to solving the financial problems of several states. An increase in general taxation in many countries (the US particularly) is inevitable as are some spending cuts. In the US the military budget and excessive farm subsidies plus the various corporate welfare and other elements of political pork would be my first targets for the axe. But certainly the rich need to realise that the gravy train they are rolling along in is about to reach the end of the line, and they are going to have to pay their own way from now on. And the rich have every incentive to support these policies. As I also pointed out in a prior post the rich have the most to loose if major trading nations start filing for bankruptcy. Some of those debts that will be defaulted on are owed to them, or owed to the bank or hedge fund which all their money/gold/shares are tied up in. So supporting higher taxes, as Buffett and Bettencourt propose, isn’t entirely an altruistic move. Also, by agreeing to a modest tax hike now they are heading off the possiblity of a much more severe one in the future. Either way we all need to accept, that none of us like paying taxes, but it’s a necessity, as its sort of nice to have police, firemen, emergency services (like those all important hurricane warnings going out now stateside), roads, libraries, schools, parks, sports grounds, art galleries, hospitals and public transport - amongst many other things! We have to pay for those services some way, and if we don’t pay for them via taxes then we pay for private companies to supply the same service. And the experience here in Britain is that those private services usually cost more and supply a poorer quality of service (see my comments on British Railway privatisation). There are but two certainties in life - Death and Taxes. And scientists are working on the first of these!
  8. Once upon a time I used to be a fan of nuclear energy. As far as I saw it, nuclear energy was the silver bullet solution to all of our energy problems and more. However, the more I’ve learned about the industry the more critical I’ve become. Notably the fact that most of the economic figures in support of nuclear power (a couple of typical delusions you’ll find here and here) come straight out of Hogwarts school of magic, wizardry….and economics (more realistic appraisals of nuclear economics can be found here and here). There is the question about the world’s limited stockpiles of fissile material, not helped by the fact that the LWR reactors that make up the bulk of our present capacity are ridiculously fuel inefficient, as in they only actually burn 2-3% of the fissile material present. And what are we planning to do with all this waste? Various proposals have been made, but no nation on earth has yet to comprehensively solve this problem. Then there’s the glacially slow build rate of reactors, and of course, the nagging issue of nuclear safety. But is there a better way? Of course some supporters of nuclear energy would say that all of the problems I’ve just listed off relate to our choice of large light water reactors (as Richard Black at the BBC recently discussed). They claim that alternative designs would result in much safer reactors that are cheaper to build, easier to build and ultimately produce less nuclear waste. Various alternatives to the LWR have been proposed, these include: High temperature gas Reactors , “modular” Pebble bed Reactors , the advanced CANDU reactor, so-called “fast” reactors and the Molten Salt reactor (MSR). But could these reactors actually supply us with something better? In the following series of article below, I explored this question by subjecting these designs to a critical review. The Mega LWR “death spiral” But first of all what’s wrong with these large LWR’s? I explore some of these issues in part 4 of my little appraisal. Basically it all boils down to a fateful decision taken back in the 1950’s. The US government was in a race to get nuclear reactors up and running for military use, notably for the submarine fleet. A light water reactor was an obvious choice for a compact power source and one that could be developed reasonably quickly. When the civil nuclear industry in the US got going the corporations took these naval reactors, which in many cases they had themselves designed for the military, and simply scaled them up. There are a multitude of reasons why this decision to use mega-LWR’s in preference to anything else was taken (again I review them in part 4), but cost and ease of development were certainly key. But regardless of the “why’s?” the fact is that the nuclear industry did embarked on this plan and in the process of doing this the nuclear industry essentially laid a trap for themselves. While the submarine reactors had outputs of between 15-60 MWe the civil nuclear industry began building 500-1,600 MWe behemoths. These large “megatron” LWR’s were scaled up to the point where they became inherently unsafe – if the cooling system for any reason failed, the reactor would go into meltdown. This meant the cooling systems and all backups related to it (including its backup power generators) HAD to work perfectly i.e. critical system components. Unfortunately several accidents since then, notably TMI and Chernobyl, revealed flaws in the original design. The only way to correct these flaws was to include further safety systems, as well as by building a large concrete containment dome over the reactors to contain any radiation releases. The end result has been the size and scale of nuclear projects has ballooned in size, as has the costs of new nuclear build (the following video offers a humorous if foul mouthed appraisal of the situation regarding the Olkiluoto reactor in Finland, first of the new (don’t laugh) nuclear renaissance). All these safety critical components also need careful testing prior to commercial operation, meaning the pace of new nuclear construction has slowed to a crawl. Fukushima will now likely lead to another round of recriminations, further expensive upgrades, redesigns and a further round of reactor shutdowns. Inevitably I therefore see the civil nuclear industry, so long as LWR are favoured as being caught in a never ending death spiral of further mishaps leading to redesigns and costs rises, which leads to reduced orders, which spreads the fixed cost of nuclear over a smaller number of reactors, which raises the cost yet further. All the while these design changes are slowing the pace of build down (leading to yet more cancelled plants), undermining the entire case for nuclear. Indeed its inevitable now that both the US and Britain will now see a major reduction in nuclear energy use in the next few decades (a recent Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s article http://bos.sagepub.com/content/67/4/30.full discusses this), simply because there is no way they could now build reactors fast enough to cope with the rate they are about to go offline, nor indeed train the staff to run them (many in the nuke industry are getting old and will be looking for their bus passes pretty soon!) Inevitably, as has already happened in Germany, Italy and Canada recently, beyond a certain point cash strapped governments will just run out of patience, pull the plug and turn off the life support. Criterion of Success…or failure! In my analysis I established the following criteria with which to judge the relevant “fit for purpose” strengths of these reactor designs. Cost, Any alternative to the LWR must be cheaper. Nuclear energy is already more expensive than renewables at current prices, nevermind future prices. So if nuclear has a future its overall costs must be lower. Safety, As I said before, the LWR has numerous inherent safety flaws. The number one barrier to public acceptance of nuclear energy is safety. Argue all you want about it, but the LWR design amounts to an elaborate attempt at trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Our preference would therefore be for a reactor that is not just safer, but inherently safer. Fuel efficiency, the global stockpiles of fissile material are limited. We could probably maintain the existing stock of reactors going for 50-80 years or so, but given that they only represent 5% of global energy output, that leaves us with the question of where does the other 95% of our energy come from and the obvious question as to whether nuclear energy is just more trouble than its worth. Better fuel economy would mean more reactors and greater market penetration. Reduced nuclear waste, the elephant in the room for nuclear energy is the ever growing waste mountain. We’ve yet to come up with a comprehensive solution to nuclear waste and until we do the argument of environmentalists is “if you’re in a hole, stop digging!”. So needless to say if the reactors we now review can generate a lot less waste that would make them a much more attractive proposition to the LWR. Obviously, if the opposite proves to be true, that’s a potential black mark against them. In addition I also looked at the ability to use the Thorium cycle (given the limits of Uranium supplies), scalability of reactors (these “mega” LWR’s are just too big and unwieldy and can play havoc with the gird of many smaller nations) as smaller reactors might be more flexible, as well as the idea of modular design and mass production of reactors. This latter 2 points being discussed in part 10 of my little series. If we can prove that any of the reactors we examine can tick all (or most) of these boxes then maybe the nuclear industry has some future, beyond its current Zombie walk to the grave routine with LWR’s. The Verdicts All in all my conclusion is that the case for future Generation IV nuclear reactors is much narrower than the supporters of nuclear energy would have you believe. While they do offer some advantages over LWR’s, notably in the area of safety, his comes with strings attached, notably higher capital costs. This is largely a result of the fact that many of these would need to be built from much more exotic materials, such as high temperature stainless steel alloys, Nickel alloys or Refractory materials, while the predominant material of choice in current reactors is steel (stainless and forged ferritic) and concrete. This materials requirement is itself an issue related to the high temperatures these alternative reactors would be required to operate at, not to mention the more aggressive and corrosive environment in some of them, notably the MSR proposals. Of course one to question whether these higher construction costs (and in some cases higher decommissioning costs) are justified. But overall it is my conclusions that: The CANDU does close off some of the safety loop holes associated with LWR’s, but it opens up a whole slew of new ones too and generally means higher rates of fuel consumption, lower thermal efficiency and increased amounts of nuclear waste being generated. Indeed, the Canadian government may well have exhausted its patience on this one, as they recently sold the CANDU reactor business for the bargain basement price of $15 million, as well as writing off several billion in outstanding debts. Not exactly a vote of confidence! To me it seems to be a case of the Fed’s picking up the CANDU and throwing it in at the deep end of the pool to see if it will sink or swim. I’ll leave you to guess what’s most likely to happen! The High Temperature Gas Reactor (HTGR) offers an order of magnitude improvement in safety as well as potentially better fuel economy and high thermal efficiency. However, it will likely come at the expense of much higher construction costs (and probably a slower construction rate depending on material choices, which again depends on operating temperature), higher decommissioning costs and possibly higher volumes of nuclear waste (that last point I’ll admit is debatable, see the my post for more on that one). While the HTGR is fairly safe from meltdown scenarios, one would have likely weathered the Fukushima tsunami with minor damage, it also opens up a host of other safety issues, notably the potential fire risk associated with that graphite core (again a debateable point, see my full article here on this for more info). The Gas cooled Fast Reactor (GcFR) offers the intriguing possibility of being able to transmute stockpiles of nuclear waste into less dangerous forms. However, it comes with a rather hefty price tag with a lot of R&D work still outstanding as the design is only in the early concept stage of development (read we don’t know if it even works yet!). In any event it will not eliminate the need for some geological storage facilities given the length of time it would take to develop and then build a sizeable number of said reactors, not to mention store the waste after its passed through the reactor. This, plus the hefty price tag associated with GcFR’s, could well make the whole idea uneconomic. Also the GcFR comes with some safety issues (it is not nearly as safe as the HTGR) and a severe proliferation risk. The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR or LFTR) does offer a number of unique options in terms of safety improvements and improved fuel economy, plus reduced waste streams. However, its ability to achieve these goals is often heavily overstated by its supporters. Much like the GcFR above the design is at a very early stage in development, with much research into it abandoned back in the 1970’s. Any MSR reactor and its associated Chemical Processing Plant (CPP) would likely be expensive to build and slow to construct (again given the narrow and exotic nature of the materials choice the design enforces on us). Getting a decent thermal efficiency out of the plant might be problematic, which worsens the economic case for them. Also while certainly safer than a LWR in terms LOCA scenarios, the MSR comes with its own particular safety problems, notably that graphite core (fire!), the risks of a leak of radioactive material out of the CPP, or arguably worse a release of potential toxic and highly lethal fluorine gas. So all in all there may be a case for MSR’s, but its unproven at the moment and likely a much narrower case that its supporters would have you believe. Indeed probably the biggest enemy of the MSR design is its own nutty cheerleaders who badly need to stay off the Kool-Aid. Casing point, without hours of my analysis article going online they were already running up vast blog strings of flaming trolls galore (see comments section of my page) or starting e-mailing me anonymously with various badly typed swear-word filled comments. I even picked up one or two stalkers trying to find out who I was and where I lived (yes really)! You also see the odd comment involving half baked megloamanic schemes (such as burning off the biosphere for uranium). While the best I can tell, the advocates of the other reactor designs I reviewed seem to have taken their punishment “like men”, the MSR fans reached for the tinfoil hat and the two-litre bottle of kool-aid. I shall leave it to the reader to decide who should be taken seriously! Small to medium sized modular reactors do offer a good deal more flexibility in terms of how nuclear power could be used and yet a further improvement in safety. However, they also comes with lower economies of scale and thus higher construction costs and worse a slower rate of reactor roll out (at least in the early days). We could claw back on these two issues by mass producing said reactors in large volumes but as I point out (again see the full article), it is far from proven whether that would be economically viable and whether there is in fact a market for large numbers of small reactors. Also as I outline, the case for small reactors would also require a major shift in public opinion, which post-Fukushima is unlikely to be forthcoming. Most of the reactor designs I’ve mentioned above would be wholly unsuitable for “mass” production, only a handful of PWR, BWR and HTGR designs would be feasible options. Worse still, by and large mass production means “dumbing down” our design, and that means accepting a reactor that’s much cheaper and easier to build but has a lower thermal efficiency, a higher rate of fuel consumption and ultimately produces larger volumes of nuclear waste compared to our “mega” reactors. With the exception of a small number of narrow cases, it’s difficult to envisage how this would offer an improvement on the current status quo. Decommissioning costs, the Elephant’s still in the room! Not only are the construction costs of many of these proposed reactors higher, but for some (but not all) the decommissioning costs would actually be higher and worse they will generate more nuclear waste from this process. This being a particular problem for graphite cored reactors such as the HTGR and the MSR. Other Graphite cored reactors are proving to be something of a nightmare to decommission, as I discuss in the section on HTGR’s. As far as the spent fuel waste is concerned, some of these proposed reactors will indeed produce less, but others will actually produce more of it, thought it’s probably important to clarify what we mean by “more” or “less”. For example, CANDU as I point out, produces about 7 times (by mass) the amount of nuclear waste than a LWR. However, I’m quite sure the CANDU supporters will point out that because the waste from a CANDU is less radioactive it can be packed up much more tightly, reducing the size of any waste storage pen (but can it be packed sufficiently tightly to overcome that 7 times greater output?). At the other end of the scale the HTGR’s have a very high rate of fuel burn up, and so would produce a lot less nuclear waste (pound for pound) than a LWR. However, the waste from a HTGR is contained within a graphite matrix which increases its volume to a much larger size than LWR waste. Hence one has to question which reactor we can claim “produces less waste”. In a similar vein some of the waste output from a MSR will be mixed up with fluoride salts, from which it will have to be separated before going into long term storage. Disposal of said wastes have been described as “technically challenging”  although certainly doable. It’s estimated that it’s going to cost some $130 million to process the waste from one tiny 8 MWth test reactor which ran for just over 5 years. Again it begs the question which reactor can truly claim to have the “smaller” waste footprint and the “cheaper” clean up bill. Thorium….only for comic book heroes? The Thorium cycle, as covered throughout my little study, does offer the option of solving some of the long term fuel supply issues surrounding nuclear energy. But the level to which it will do this is fairly narrow, as Thorium fuelled reactors still need fissile isotopes, drawn ultimately from Uranium, for startup purposes. Failing this they require the use of expensive (and generally uneconomic) fast reactors and reprocessing of spent fuel. So yes, while Thorium could help stretch things out, it can only help a little bit, but not nearly as much as the supporters of Thorium reactors would have you believe. Thorium fuelled reactors would still generate substantial quantities of nuclear waste and come with a number of potential proliferation risks attached. Even the UK National Nuclear Laboratories (NNL) pours cold water over the idea. Brayton Cycle and Hydrogen Production….rumours of Rankine’s death have been greatly exaggerated A proposal common to all Generation IV reactors, and some renewable power plant proposals (notably geothermal), is to use Brayton cycle instead of the Rankine cycle for power generation. This would offer a substantial improvement in terms of energy efficiency, and furthermore could bring down the costs of installation. However, there is still some work to do on this issue, so I won’t write off the Rankine cycle just yet! Similarly, the higher material limits required to raise reactor operating temperatures up to the level necessary to utilize the Sulfur-iodine process and make hydrogen directly (using the reactors heat) could well render the whole idea uneconomic. If we want hydrogen (from nuclear) that badly, build a reactor with a lower operating temperature out of cheaper materials, generate electricity and hook it up to an electrolyser! Less efficient yes, but likely cheaper. And if we really want hydrogen on the cheap, ditch the reactor and use CSP or wind energy! Fusion? Finally, I also had a look at Fusion power . This is the great white hope of nuclear energy and it has to be said we are making progress, but it’s a case of slow and steady progress. Indeed I would question whether we are in a position yet to even estimate how long it will take for fusion power to become commercial available…if indeed ever! Recent news from ITER is not positive, its now not due to go online till 2026, which would imply a completion of experiments in 2046. And it will take sometime beyond that before we wind up with a viable working commercial fusion reactor. As I speculate (here), it would likely be the latter half of this century (or the beginning of the next one) before we start to see Fusion play any sort of major role in mass global power generation. Also the first generation of Fusion reactors will be dependant on supplies of Lithium for fuel, of which there is only a limited global supply available, something that limits the amount of energy which can ultimately be generated from Fusion reactors, probably to between 8-20% of global energy use depending on whose figures you believe. Where does the other 92-80% come from? And of course we have to contemplate the possibility that commercial Fusion energy never arrives. While speaking personally, I still have confidence that the necessary breakthroughs will be achieved according to a reasonable timetable, it would be foolish to blindly assume that they will. To build any nations energy strategy on the forlorn hope that fusion power will arrive on the scene by a certain date, makes about as much sense as selling your house and all your worldly goods because some preacher told you the world was going to end on a particular date. Curb your enthusiasm! All in all, my conclusions are that the case for future Generation IV nuclear reactors is much narrower than the supporters of nuclear energy would have you believe - even the case for Fusion doesn’t look that clear cut! And again I would note that this last point about Fusion is important, the way the nuclear energy supporters (and indeed many politicians and members of the public) go on you’d swear Fusion was already a slam dunk. Nothing could be further from the truth! Nuclear energy supporters need to curb they’re enthusiasm for nuclear energy and accept that due to the high capital costs of reactor construction and the limited fuel supplies it will always only ever be a small bit player in a big energy market, at least as far as the current century is concerned. It currently generates about 1.9 – 5.1% of global energy (depending on how you do your maths) and I don’t see how it can be expanded beyond that level, indeed if they manage to maintain this level I suspect they’ll be doing well. Even the most optimistic nuclear energy program we can draw up still has a substantial energy gap and something else will have to fill it. This of course means we’ll need to rely on renewables for substantially more energy than we currently get from it. Which means many nuclear energy supporters need to overcome their pathological hatred of renewables and if they are truly serious about combating climate change (as many claim to be) then they need to quit trying to throw the baby out with the bath water.
  9. The lightbulb conspiracy

    An interesting wee film to watch online (a Norwegian TV documentary) “The lightbulb conspiracy” details a process that few people outside of manufacturing industry's are even aware exists. So-called “planned obsolescence” or to put it in less PC terms, manufacturers designing stuff deliberately to fail after a certain period of time. In the case of the electronics industry this can involve literally putting a counter in, say a printer, and telling the printer to stop working after a certain period of time. Ever had a digital camera suddenly stop working after several thousand shots for no obvious reason? Again planned obsolescence. Why is it that every version of Windows seems to take up more disk space than the last version and require a higher spec PC? - possibly because MS have a cosy little deal going with the PC makers to up the spec for windows so that they can sell new PC’s....least you wonder why so many leading PC makers are so resistant to the use of Linux and other open-source software (which comes in a range of different flavours for machines of different operating requirements, one of my decade old laptops at home runs on X-ubuntu quite happily). Had a DVD or CD in your collection recently fail to play...ever heard of disk rot? This whole concept dates back to the days of the Phoebus light bulb cartel ( the aforementioned light bulb conspiracy of the title) which conspired to not only fix the price of light bulbs but make them with deliberately shorter working life’s so that the companies involved could sell more of them. This of course explains how a pre-cartel light bulb in Livermore Firehouse, California, is still working after a good century of near continuous use. Should anyone think I’m some deranged conspiracy theorist (and that next I’m going to start going on about Roswell, the Grassy knoll or Black helicopters), no I’m not - but yes everything they said in this film is more or less true. I once worked in the electronics industry, for indeed a leading manufacturer of printers and I know that they are designed with a limited service life in mind. I would point out thought, that this is in part motivated by H&S and quality control reasons. So not so much a dark machiavellian conspiracy, more “that which we do not speak of”. When you start considering issues such as fatigue, and age related deterioration (and creep) in plastics you need to come up with a round number of the final end life of your product so that you can be sure that all the critical parts will work safely within said lifetime “envelope”. This inevitably means picking a number; say 30,000 pages of printing and/or 5 years of service, and designing the printer to do just that. Also beyond a certain point there is the risk of the printer failing catastrophically, leaking ink all over your table and carpet (good luck trying to wash that out!), or even catching fire (a rare but potential risk in the event of a serious paper jam and an overheated defective printer head). While such failures are unlikely for an individual printer, when you’re making them by the tens of millions and shipping them worldwide, you have consider such issues. So obviously to get the legal department off our backs the printer is designed to bring itself to an end long before there is any danger of failure. But equally yes, part of the motivation behind planned obsolescence is to get the public to buy more printers...and inkjet cartridges (most printers are sold at a loss these days, the real money is made selling the cartridges). In another job, I worked for a leading European steel maker. At one point the Suits upstairs got spooked by all this talk of aluminium cars, particularly in high end vehicles (i.e. luxury car models). At the time car makers were our biggest customers, so any switch by them to aluminium would have been catastrophic. So an extensive R&D program began to redesign our stainless steel products to be better at resisting corrosion, which would give a longer service life (we were prepared to offer a money back guarantee on no significant rust for twenty-five years!). Ways of making cars out of thinner sections of material were also investigated, as this would reduce the vehicle’s weight, producing better power to weight ratio’s, less fuel consumption and of course lower material costs for the manufacturer. While some of these ideas were indeed taken on board by the car industry, by and large much of it was ignored, especially by the high end car makers. It took awhile but the penny soon dropped, the car companies didn’t want cars that lasted longer, and they certainly didn’t want car bodies that lasted 25 years without a speck of rust! If we built cars to last like that then the public would buy less cars! We also soon learnt (from marketing) that the diversion into aluminium bodied cars for certain high end vehicles were more driven by the “gimmick” factor than any technical reasons. The “...overpaid more-money-than-sense...” types who bought such vehicles (read here about SUV drivers) just liked to be able to brag about how they’re car was made out of aluminium....even though most would probably struggle to tell the difference between the two types of metal even if you wacked them over the head with a aluminium pole! At around the same time I had a colleague who was working on a academic design project that was looked at using new materials, in particular titanium alloys and ceramics to produce an ultra-durable next generation IC car engines (the petrol heads were apparently getting worried about fuel cells putting them in the poor house in future). Aided by a computerised engine management system (years before the Prius came along, this would come with automatic engine idling reduction as standard), such an engine would have an endurance of the order of several hundred thousand miles (without any serious failures), lower maintenance costs, and best of all much lower fuel consumption. I’ve not heard anything about this project since. I’m assuming it came to an abrupt end after they went and give their presentation to a major car maker and were promptly burnt as witches by the head of marketing and sales. Now you might say, well so what, this policy is bringing in lots of jobs, and it means people get to upgrade and change their stuff regularly. But you have to consider the environmental costs of such policies. We are seeing literally mountains of E-waste building up in many poorer parts of the world, leaving an awful toxic legacy behind. You also have to consider the embodied energy contained within products, which can often represent half (or more) of the overall lifetime carbon footprint of any product (such as a car). So improving the service life of products would do alot in terms of reducing carbon emissions, as well as reducing the need for new raw material (thus less mining, etc. read about coltan mining here) and less stuff going into landfills. It would also free up factory capacity worldwide to make other stuff, like solar ovens, wind turbines, energy storage systems, etc. So yes I’m saying it’s possible for us to build cars or electronic goods that last 2 to 4 times longer than the currently do. Thought I would note that such products would also cost more to produce. Certainly not twice as much or four times more, probably more like 30% more or 50% more.  But the cost of such products would inevitably rise and I’m talking here in terms of materials and embodied energy, not just money. However, this presents a problem, most of us as consumers go for the cheapest product available, and we rarely factor in service life as a deciding issue when buying stuff. Indeed this is the usual excuse you’ll hear from manufacturers when you enquire why they don’t make products with a longer service life. Too many of us buy cheap “crap” like pans and pots or battery’s from cheap discount stores that inevitably break within a few weeks (or hours). So we can hardly blame the corporations for giving us what we want. For example, you would think the rechargeable battery would be a no-brainer. You buy a pack of them plus a charger for say £15 and it lasts as long as 100 sets of non-rechargeable ones. But unfortunately, the majority of people still plump for the Alkalines - or go and buy the cheapest TV with the widest screen - or the cheap fridge regardless of its energy rating (forgetting how they’ll be paying several times over for one with poorer efficiency once you realise how much electricity a fridge uses over its lifetime). The consumer is often as much at fault here as the manufacturer's. One solution to this problem would be legislation. We could mandate a fixed life-time guarantee on all products sold, with this life time limit set by governments, not manufacturers. Or we could fiddle with the VAT rate. Products with a long life time warranty would pay less VAT than items that came with a shorter one (or none!). We could also extend this to include the energy efficiency rating of products, with VAT charged at a rate based on a products energy efficiency rating also. Of course let’s not kid ourselves, getting such legislation passed would be difficult, especially in our globalised economy. Needless to say, the manufacturing industry would be highly resistant to such polices. They will no doubt argue that less products coming out of factories means less people working in manufacturing, and thus massive layoffs. Those on lower incomes won’t be able to afford such goods anymore. Obviously this would not be to the liking of manufacturing nations such as China or India, who would kick up a right old stink at the WTO if any government tried to implement such a policy. And there’s also the general public. Many of us, like i said earlier, want products which are cheap and have short operating lives. The current resistance to the phase out of incandescent bulbs should show you what you’re up against (see here and here)....although I would note that some of this might be motivated by the fact that some people (see Bachmann here) will oppose anything “environmental” regardless of whether such opposition makes any logically sense or not. The Yes men (see here) once succeeded in getting a load of republicans to sign a petition calling on George Bush to bring about more global warming and more pollution....scary! I would correct the point made about job losses thought. Obviously products with a longer service life need to be more carefully designed, this means more engineering applied upstream and thus more engineering jobs. Also, the days when thousands of people toiled in the factory and made things with their bare hands are thankfully rare, at least for the sorts of high end products we’re talking about such electronics, electrical goods or cars (its still an issue for products like clothes thought). Even in China, most of these products would be made by robots, not people, so we’re mostly talking about robots being made redundant not people (poor R2-D2). Yes, there would be some layoffs, but it certainly won’t be a case of half the global work force going or anything like that. And on that point, I would also note a slightly “anti-capitalist” streak you often see in captains of industry when ideas like this come up, or for example suggesting increasing environmental standards or increased regulations on the financial services industry. The “capitalists” will always trot out the argument that business leaders, rather than try and adapt to these changes will be so incensed by such a move that they’ll fire half the work force and then go off in a huff and have a good sulk. That doesn’t sound very “capitalistic” type of behaviour to me. If I were head of, say a TV manufacturer, and I heard that new government reg’s were going to effectively halve TV sales in future, I’d either A) make sure it was my rivals who bore the brunt of such sale reductions (by making sure my product stayed ahead of the curve and outsold everyone else) or  I’d decide that if half my factory wasn’t going to be making TV’s any more it might be time to re-tool and commence production of a new product that there was higher demand for, such as solar panels for example. Another interesting film on a similar theme to the above is the man in the white suit, and 1950’s classic, staring Alex Guinness, it seems to be available on-line here. Worth a watch! The synopsis is that a stereotypical “mad” scientist (Guinness) invents a new type of fiber that never wears out and even repels dirt. Great news....until the textile industry bosses and worker’s Unions both realise the implications of this discovery! An interesting parable that shows the conflict that often occurs when well meaning scientists come up against the realities of politics, economics and vested interests. This whole issue should also show you how advocating policies such as renewable over fossil fuels (or nuclear) means you coming up against a mass of opposition from vested interest with everything (as they see it) to lose.  This “lightbulb conspiracy” also demonstrates just how wasteful a society we are and how much room for improvement there is. But I’ll have to leave you now.....I think I hear black helicopters approaching!
  10. The stress free nuclear stress test

    In the wake of Fukushima a “stress test” of European nuclear reactors was proposed, in line with the “stress tests” applied to banks during the financial crisis. That “stress test” of banks being important in that it firstly reassured the markets and the public that most were still solvent. It also had a secondary role though – to scare the Beja$us out of the bankers and get them to be more careful in future. One would be forgiven for thinking that this would be the goal of the European Nuclear stress test...right?....no! Firstly, the UK government has announced that it will be excluding terrorism as among the things to consider in the stress test. They’ve also excluded Sellafield, much to the annoyance of the Irish government, using the lame excuse that it doesn’t generate any power (but does contain the bulk of the country's dangerous nuclear waste!).....of course the fact that “suspected” terrorists have already been caught creeping around Sellafield, suggests that terrorism at Sellafield is a major risk and concern. Granted anyone who looks foreign and has a foreign accent is probably a suspected terrorist to these xenophobes who guard the place, but they won’t be that jumpy if the place was making ice-cream cones now would they! For those in the UK who don’t know, contrary to what his Gerriness the Baron of Northstead would have you believe, Sellafield is probably the major bone of contention in Anglo-Irish relations. The view from Dublin is that, London took its “ultra safe” nuclear rubbish bin and because it was so safe they pushed it as far away from London as they could…..right opposite our coastline! Hence Irish annoyance over this exclusion of Sellafield from this stress test. The stress test will also apparently not include such factors as mega-Tsunami (potentially generated by the Cumbre Vieja) or future sea level rise due to climate change. While one can say that the risks from either of these two, the former in particular, are indeed a very low risk in any one given year, but you have to remember that most of the UK nuclear sites are coastal, most have had an active plant on site for 50 years, and that the decommissioning will lead to waste still being on site in a 100 years time. And of course the industry plans to add further reactors to said sites. Thus given the long period of time in which radioactive material will be on site (centuries), this sort of raises the probably of such a calamity affecting these sites at some point in the future from “unlikely” to “not that unlikely”. Now I’m not suggesting there’s any need to panic, these are long term problems, which needs long term solutions. A simple committent to moving the waste from existing reactors off site as soon as that’s possible (preferably into deep storage) post-decomissioning, and building future reactors a little further inland (10-20 km’s should do it) would solve both of these problems. But the industry seems aghast at even these measures. Indeed it’s unclear to what degree the issue of flooding will even be considered in the stress tests. This is particularly significant when you bear in mind the 1999 La Blayais flooding incident which almost led to a loss of diesel generators (much like at Fukushima) at a French nuclear plant. At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious here, but isn’t the whole point of a stress test that it be stressful? If we exclude such factors as I’ve mentioned the end result will be a stress test that all plants will pass with flying colours. Greenpeace will naturally scream “STITCH UP!”, the public will not be assured, nor will the financial institutions (whom nuclear industry will be seeking loans off, if new reactors are to go ahead) and the nuclear industry will go back to puttering in its sandbox with its EPR and MOX toys….until the next accident or financial crisis! Nothing worthwhile will be achieved, and no doubt the nuclear cheerleaders will lap it up with glee and appear on this blog to remind us how only 2 men & a dog were killed at Chernobyl or how great the LFTR (Kool-aid fuelled reactor) is. The thing that puts me off nuclear power is the constant “helicopter parenting” we see from governments on the topic. If any other industry had made the same litany of monumental (and costly) screw-ups they’ve made it would have been killed off through government regulations ages ago. Fifty years after the first “commercial” reactors went online the nuclear industry is still living with its parents who have to sub it a few bob now and then. Isn’t it about time for nuclear power to flee the government nest and go get a proper job? The nuclear industry, like the banks, is in desperate need of some “tough love” from regulators. This means a stressful stress test, that will see the shutdown of a few of our older power stations (which truth be told probably never should have been built in the first place) as well as getting the industry to ditch silly boondoggle ideas like MOX, Fast Reactors and fuel reprocessing, while forcing them to start cleaning up the waste issue and get things like deep geological storage moving a pace (with the exception of Sweden and Finland there has been practically no movement on this issue!). This would of course mean lay-offs in some sectors of the nuclear industry, some big contractors being stung badly, but of course it would also mean more jobs in other areas. In essence it might serve to scare the industry straight. Even thought the “stress test” results haven’t been published yet, the fallout is already underway. My suspicion is that the German government’s decision to announce its phase out of nuclear power plants (again!) is probably an attempt by Merkel (in an election year) to head off the inevitable wave of bad publicity that the stress test will generate (some German plants will fail, but not enough to stop the Greens yelling FIX!, and the result will be to cause more public unease than reassurance). Indeed Germany is perhaps a warning to the rest of the world nuclear industry of what’s in the future if they don’t mend their ways and start washing the dirty linen in public. While I reckon some countries (notably the UK, see my thoughts on UK energy here) can probably get by without nuclear, I’m not convinced this applies to all nations, and Germany is top of my list. I’m not sure Germany can meet its energy needs without being heavily dependant on imports of some sort (some of which will inevitably be Shale gas from Poland and French nuclear power) or fossil fuels (coal) without resorting to nuclear power. However, the nuclear industry in German has now made itself such a pariah that this is simply not an option any more. Regardless of the technical arguments, the German public simply will not support new nuclear construction – period! And in fairness to the German nuclear industry, they aren’t that bad, indeed it’s often been the foul ups of Germany’s neighbours (the French and British) or those further afield (Japan and Russia) who’ve gotten them a bad name. But the point that Germany proves is that there is a tipping point to public patience on the nuclear issue. Push any public beyond that tipping point and that public support will just collapse. And at that point it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, or what industry says or promises, the public response will be a firm No Nukes! You can go on Newsnight, put on you’re best Boris Karloff voice and tell everyone that without nuclear “the lights will go out”, follow it up with an evil laugh, and the public still won’t care. You can give out about windfarms all you like and claim that coal kills a Gazillion people a year and it won’t matter, the point where such scare tactics, never mind logical debate, would have worked will be in the distant past. All in all its possible that these “stress tests” will be about as useful as the ones offered by the Church of Scientology! And the only people who benefit from a tame nuclear stress test are a pile of vested interests and Kool-aid drunk nuclear cheerleaders. In the longer term even the nuclear industry itself will lose out.
  11. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in documentary film making, quite a number of them on environmental issues. Of course for a fan of such things the difficulty is getting to see them. Fortunately, The UK Green Film festival is on right now in Glasgow's GFT, and other cities UK wide. I’ve tried to catch a few of these films and thought I’d give a run down on some of the ones I’ve seen, and my thoughts on the many issues they've raised. Firstly, I’ve noted that the GFT is unusually busy this week. This is good as it shows there is clearly an appetite for these sorts of documentary films. But, as came up in a Q & A session with one of the directors of Planet Eat Or Shlomi, there is a bit of a dilemma here. The directors of these films want to promote the message in the movie as much as possible, and get as many people to watch it as they can. Probably the easiest way of doing that is to stream it online. But equally they also want to raise revenue. Not that any of them are in it for profit (breaking even would be nice!) but there is a danger with the streaming of documentaries on the internet, thro websites such as Top Documentaries , will kill the golden goose. Of course, if we all stopped watching these films online, then given that so few cinemas show these sorts of documentary films, much less of us would get to see them, other than hoping and waiting for them to be broadcast in a local art house cinema, or possibly on TV (and you can forget about the major networks in the US ever broadcasting one of these films) . I don’t know the answer to that one, DVD sales are one idea, thought not ideal (can end up costing the producers more to make and distribute the DVD’s than they make back…and don’t get me started on carbon footprints here!) but like I said, it’s a dilemma. Another point Or Shlomi made was the issue that in the UK, an independent film maker has great difficulty approaching scientists and getting interviews. They want to speak to the BBC or ITV, etc. In the US, it’s the opposite, tell a scientists you’re an independent film maker they’ll happily give you a couple of hours of they’re time, say you’re from CNN…..and they’ll suddenly remember they’ve got a load of papers that need marking. I’m wondering if this has something to do with the state of journalism in the US, i.e the scientists know that anything they say to CNN (or Fox) will be heavily edited and watered down (or inflated into some scare story). It’s possible that the recent explosion in documentary film making might be linked to the abandonment by the news media, particularly in the US, of serious investigative journalism. [caption id="attachment_2811" align="alignnone" width="550" caption="Harry Shearer, director of “The Big Uneasy”, in New Orleans on the bank of the Mississippi River with the Pontchartrain Expressway in the background."][/caption] The Big Uneasy In 2005 the New Orleans was hit by an unprecedented natural disaster, in the form of hurricane Katrina. It was a rare one off storm that nobody could have foreseen….or at least that’s what Fox News would have you believe! As this film shows the true story is one of inadequate flood defences and many other issues that had been building for years. Contrary to popular opinion it’s likely the walls of the levees were not overtopped, several may well have structurally failed, indicating that New Orleans flood defences were inadequately designed. The film documents the accounts of whistle blowers who claimed critical equipment failed in tests years earlier, and that scientist warned of the dangers to New Orleans but were ignored, see National Geographic in Oct 2004 (a year before Katrina, and this was a followup story to another one about the issue published years earlier). The decline and loss of the wetlands around the city in pursuit of shipping channels (to support the oil industry, notably the so called MR GO) as well as climate change, also played its role. But in the aftermath there is the question of what next for the Big Easy? Some sceptics would say, well you build a city below sea level and it will flood come a storm (like dah!). However, it’s not as simple as that. Indeed large parts of New Orleans, including the historic French quarter, are actually above sea level. The city is built where it is because it is one of America’s most strategic ports – the point of entry for much of its oil (from the Gulf of Mexico as well as Venezuela) and the exit point for much agricultural produce. That said, the film raised questions about the competency of the US Army Corps of Engineers and given the mess they made last time, whether the current flood defences will work next time (and there will be a next time!). Indeed a good deal of the film was about showing the systematic failures of the US ACE, not just at New Orleans but countrywide. The ACE is one of Congresses principle delivery tools for Federal pork barrel funds, so on the one hand congress wants an ineffective, slightly dotty ACE that will provide more jobs and employment, but then of course they don’t want to pay the high costs of build New Orleans flood defences up to say category 5 level. Not helped by the fact they are now having to spend money correcting past mistakes of the ACE, such as the aforementioned Mr GO shipping channel. Indeed we have to ask, as the film does, whether building big concrete walls is the best way to protect a city from hurricanes. Other alternatives include reclaiming the wetlands around the city or a “Dutch” approach with lots of open canals and water basins in the city to take away and store the water, plus keeping the ground wet (so it will absorb more come a storm). I would note, that there’s probably health reasons to limit the last of these options, given that New Orleans is in the Tropic (mosquito breeding country), but even so concrete walls aren’t necessarily the only solution to the problem. And for the other great cities of the world, New Orleans is a warning of what’s to come. Today New Orleans…tomorrow...London? As sea levels rise, many of the world's great cities such as London, New York, Tokyo and Mumbai, will find themselves under increasing pressure from the sea and will be forced to spend increasing amounts trying to defend the city from flooding. Eventually, it may reach the point where we have to just give up, move the critical functions of said city further inland and abandon the place to its fate. Such could well be the price we pay for climate change. With New Orleans this will be painful, the whole city won’t need to be abandoned (like I said parts of it are on a hill), but we’re talking bout having to relocate maybe 500,000+ people and the docks and other critical infrastructure. That’s going to be a pretty big job, whose going to pay for it? And relocating the city of London to higher ground, or all the financial services companies on Manhattan Island, whose going to pay for that? These are the sort “prices of climate change” that those who oppose action, because its too costly, don’t take into account. Planeat This film explores that most crucial of human relationship, between us and our food. Our largely meat based diet is the source of considerable environmental damage, from the increased global warming that it produces (a combination of embodied energy in feeding animals plus the CO2 and methane they produce, a cow for example produces about 90 kg’s of methane per year) and the vast “dead zones” in oceans caused by agricultural run off. Of course one of the arguments against a Vegan diet is that it’s less healthy. Probably, true up to a point, in that it’s harder to eat a balanced diet if you completely give up meat. However, as the film spends a good deal of time pointing out there are health implications to a meat based diet, such as a greatly increased risk of heart disease and that one is more at risk of certain types of cancers (neither I nor the film are saying that meat causes cancer, not true, but it does increase the risk, nature creates the risk and diet can help pull the trigger). This is largely based upon a major study by Dr T. Campbell focusing on the link between diet and disease in rural China, which showed extremely low risks of heart disease (and certain cancer types) among populations who largely eat a plant based diet, compared with other populations in other parts of the country who were more at risk, due to a more animals products based diet. Of course one of the other obstacles to going Vegan is cost. Its much more expensive to by Hummus in a Organic food shop, than meat based stuff at the supper market (casing point, last jar of Hummus I bought…think it was 3 quid, last burger I bought at a super market…think they were about 70-80p each…and I went for the gourmet expensive ones!). Of course this price differential is only there because we massively subsidise the meat and dairy industry, both in the Europe (according to Wikipedia its about €57 Billion euro and 40% of the EU budget) and the US. Clearly not a sustainable practice. Removing these subsidies would level the playing field, make meat more expensive and thus Vegan alternatives much more competitive. Of course for me, an expert in energy, the real worry here is the energy one. Food contains rather a lot of embodied energy. That is the energy used by agricultural machinery preparing the land, the energy used in making fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The energy invested harvesting and processing food and of course packaging and shipping it (i.e. food miles). Much of this energy comes from Fossil fuels. Opinions differ as to how these things pan out, I’ve heard some people suggest that for every calorie of food energy we eat approximately 10 calories of (largely hydrocarbon) energy are consumed in producing that food. Even putting aside this figure, one fact that is beyond dispute, is that a meat based diet consumes much more food than a plant based one. And given that I suspect we’ll have a lot less energy available in future to invest in food production, plus we’ll likely be forced to give over some of our land to energy production (biofuels, etc.) this creates a big dilemma, can we feed the planet in a post peak oil world? I’ve seen estimates before suggesting that on an energy basis, a sustainable global population would be around 25 Billion with a plant based diet and 8 Billion with a mixed meat and plant diet, of course these figures only account for energy inputs into the system at the exclusion of everything else and we assume 100% conversion efficiency at various steps (when 20-33% is more likely, i.e a pop. of 5-7.5 Billion with plants and 2-2.66 Billion with meat). The energy efficiency of say a cow is probably only about 5-10% (that is we feed a cow food, food = energy from the sun/fossil fuels, kill cow & eat cow but will only receive 5-10% of the originally invested energy back) although again we’re thinking purely in energy terms here. On a food basis Planeat suggests we can get 3 times more food from the same land with plants than with animals. And as also pointed out in the film, about 40% of our grain supply gets fed to cattle. So, cutting down on meat production is something of a priority. Of course, as I would counter, we can’t eat grass, while cows can! Furthermore, organic farms tend to be much less efficient producers of food than industrial agriculture . And before we go all Vegan mad here, what’s good for the goose ain’t good for the gander. Some parts of the planet are not really geared towards plant based agriculture. In much of the Middle East, the steppes of Asia, Pacific Island communities, or the Northern areas of North America and Europe (or indeed the highlands of Scotland), a meat or fish based diet is actually the most energy efficient and carbon neutral option. The amount of trouble and energy you’d have to invest trying to grow crops in such a harsh climate, against raising animals or fishing, negates any benefits. But of course feeding much of our grain to cattle isn’t a great idea, nor is it sustainable or ethical in an overpopulated world. So in my opinion, while we need to take the message of this film on board (course you’ll have to see it first ), we also need to put everything in context. For example, just to correct one point made in the Q&A afterwards, someone (a Vegan I presume) made some comment about the “ethics” of using wool. The problem at the moment in the UK is getting farmers to shear their sheep, as its better for the sheep on an animal welfare point of view. Unfortunately, it now costs farmers more money to sheer a sheep than they get back from selling the wool, as they have to compete against artificial fibres (produced from oil) and some aren’t bothering to do so any more. Wool is a good natural product, excellent insulation properties, good U-value, bio-degradable, a low carbon footprint (compared to artificial fibres) and most important of all its sustainable - we’ve had sheep in the UK for thousands of year and likely still have them thousands of years after the last petrol powered car has rusted back to iron oxide. So wool hardly counts as unethical, quite the opposite! Of course, I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here, given that I just walked past a fridge full of meat and dairy products (indeed the primary “plant derived” food in my fridge is probably beer!) although my dinner tonight was salad and lunch was spicy potatoes & tomatoes (check out the planeat website for some nice recipes!). Having seen this film, I’ll probably decrease my meat intake in future, but I don’t think I’ll be turning Vegan…sort of hard think to do in Glasgow! Casing point, on the train home after the film many people (drunks…sorry! I mean locals!) were tucking into their deep fried…..something or other (probably best not to know what it was originally!) or kebab and chips. I start preaching about Veganism there I’d have probably got Chibbed with a plastic fork fairly quickly! If Glaswegians went Vegan, we’d start deep frying tofu and lettuce! This is the home of the deep fired mars bar! So we’ve along way to go in terms of solving our food problems. Gasland Narrowly beaten to the Oscar for best documentary this year (by Inside Job), Gasland is probably one of the most controversial films in years. If you’ve not heard about (have you been living under a rock?) it traces the story of one young filmmaker who was asked by a drilling company for permission to drill in his land for “Shale Gas” using a technique called Hydraulic Fracturing, often referred to as simply Fracking . He embarks on a journey across the US uncovering a trail of people claiming Fracking nearby their homes has contaminated their water supplies….to the point that some of them can actually set fire to their tap water! Then there are strange mysterious vapours coming of the condensation tanks at Shale gas wells (given that they are only visible in IR camera, here a still, its probably some greenhouse gas likely methane…plus a carcinogen or two!) The film comes on the back of a Cornell university study (summary of the study here, news article here, key graph here) suggesting that Shale gas drilling, once you account for these methane leaks, comes out with a carbon footprint worse than coal! And worse still, as most of this carbon is released downstream, i.e at the wellhead, we can’t mitigate the problem with CCS. Indeed, reading through the Cornell study paper I note that it doesn’t seem to adequately consider the issue of underground leaks (i.e the gas that’s winding up in peoples drinking water, at one point in the film you see gas apparently seeping up from the ground). If so, then this could mean that Shale gas has a much larger carbon footprint than even this Cornell study suggests. Given how the US and certain other countries now seem determined to get the bulk of their energy from Shale gas in the future, this could mean that if the US starts ditching oil and coal for Shale gas, far from its greenhouse gas emissions falling, they might actually increase dramatically, never mind the enormous damage to public health and drinking water that this film highlights. Of course the gas industry has been very quick to react to both this film and the Cornell study. In the situations in the film where people light their drinking water, they point out that investigators (hired by the gas industry) concluded that the gas in the water is biogenic in origin (i.e from natural decay not natural gas). The make similar claims as to there being no direct link between Shale gas drilling and water source pollution. This may be true, but as Gasland shows, there’s a growing causal link between Shale gas drillers moving into an area and then people reporting water problems….I wonder if there’s a relationship between the two! As a scientist, I should note that a causal relationship doesn’t prove anything by itself. But it’s certainly reason for further study and maybe easing off on Shale Gas projects until these studies are completed. I would also note that proving a definitive link between two things, say the deaths of thousands of people at Chernobyl due to radiation, or smoking and lung cancer is difficult. In both the two examples above our evidence is mostly causal (lots of people smoked, lots got cancer). Of course the very fact the Gas industry swiftly deployed their PR attack dogs against Josh Fox, suggests he's hit on a raw nerve. You don’t call out the big gun PR firms unless you have a good reason to be worried. The first I heard of this film was from one of these PR agencies attacking it…which given that I know how these guys operate (see PR watch or Toxic sludge is good for you! here), suggested to me that the film must be on to something…indeed it sort of suggests that the fossil fuel industry have probably known about these problems for years and are now really upset that someone's finally blown the whistle. Why for example, back in 2001, before the Shale gas drilling boom even started did the Bush adm. exempt Shale Gas drillers from the Clean Water Act? That sort of suggests that they knew something was dodgy from day one. But I see a simple solution to this whole mess, we make a deal with the Shale gas industry that they can drill wherever they like - but the executives and shareholders, plus their families and children, have to exclusively drink the drinking water from wells harvested around shale gas facilities. How many shale gas wells do you think we’d drill? But Jokes aside, Gasland is a film that anyone who is even vaguely aware of this thing called “the environment” needs to go see….somehow! The Pipe In 1996 natural gas was found off the North West coast of Mayo by Shell. So began Ireland’s most controversial energy project to date . Since then various local opposition groups have sought to derail and prevent this Corrib gas project, under the umbrella group “Shell 2 Sea” . This film details the struggle of members of a small local community against the combined forces of a major energy corporation and the Irish State to push through Corrib regardless. Having said that, I would note that at the time Shell originally proposed the gas field and pipeline route, their preferred pipeline route (which is the crux of all the controversy) struck me as the least worst option from an environmental point of view. Shell 2 Sea’s proposal, while moving the pipe out of certain people’s back yards, would be worse for the environment. So it’s not really appropriate to consider this as an “environmentalists” against multinational situation, more NIMBY’s against a multinational. Indeed it was sort ironic at times seeing some of them driving around in SUV’s or using cars (or fishing boats!) to block construction never once thinking, well without fossil fuels how would I be able to live? As someone supportive of renewables, I’d rather see more offshore wind, tidal and wave energy installed off the west coast instead of gas. But the fact is that 90% of Ireland’s energy comes from fossil fuels (see the graph here), 37% of it from natural gas. Climbing that mountain is going to take decades. In the interim, we are going to need to use some source of fossil fuels and I’d rather see us use the Irish stuff than importing it from Russia (and if Corrib doesn’t goes ahead this will be the end result). Of course mention the word “environment” in Russia and the FSB will spirit you away to the nearest Sushi bar, so like I said its about least worse options. Yes, of all the energy companies picked to exploit Irelands natural resources, I can think of none worse than Shell – who in their right mind pick them…oh! wait, it was Ray Burke, one of the dodgiest, brown envelope stuffing politicians of recent Irish political history. And I mean we used to call him Ray Burka for his habit of hiding stuff! Anyway, Shell for those who don’t know (again, which rock have you been living under?) have a bit of a “reputation” to say the least! The strong arm tactics of the police were brutal, and the way the Irish government just rolled over to corporate power, is controversial. But there is a need to be pragmatic about these things. So altogether both compelling and at the same time slightly humorous viewing. Of course you’ll notice I said, most controversial to date project. They reckon that there’s Shale gas up in Fermanagh, and given what happened over Corrib, and all that I said earlier about Shale gas above, I suspect sparks will soon be flying over this soon. If there’s one positive outcome from Corrib it will be that the Fermanagh proposal gets quietly dropped as the companies will be too afraid of local opposition. Winds of Change A short film that showed an alternative approach to the above. Rather than big business coming into a rural community and imposing an energy project (be it a wind farm, gasfield or nuclear plant) for the benefit of people hundreds of miles away and profit of faceless investors, the community of Fintry bought a share in a local renewable energy project. The profits of which are now being ploughed into local community energy projects (loft insulation, renewable heating systems, etc). http://www.transitionscotland.org/~transiti/uk-green-film-festival-20-22-may I would note that this is nothing new; they’ve been following this approach in Denmark and Germany for many years now. This may explain the relatively limited opposition to renewables in these countries compared to the rampant NIMBYism in the UK (and Ireland). So definitely a way forward, and a stark contrast to the business model of Shell above or the Shale gas drilling industry. That said of course, there’s a limit to how far we can push this paradigm. The majority of us live in large cities which will require some large energy projects if we're going to solve our energy needs. While I would favour as much local involvement as possible, inevitably you’re going to need major corporations involved, at some level, in both for the installation of renewable systems but also the financing of these projects.