James Williams

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About James Williams

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  1. WANTED! Green policy clarity

    Earlier this month saw the publication of a damning report which highlighted the need for clearness and simplicity in UK government policy to give companies more confidence when investing in Green technologies, particularly in the electricity market. The report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a UK based think-tank, shows that a history of the UK government blowing ‘hot and cold’ on carbon reduction plans has reduced investment in the energy sector despite the prime minister David Cameron declaring that he passionately believes that renewable energy is vital to the UK’s future. The UK government has previously made radical claims about reducing the UK emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 as set out in The Climate Plan 2011 and this is backed by the recommendation of the official Climate Change Committee (CCC). The CCC recommended that for the UK to achieve these bold targets electricity has to be virtually decarbonised before the 2030’s, with a slender 50gCo2/kW cap being set. Indeed the CCC’s chairman Tim Yeo has previously stated, "It really is vital that the government gives clarity to investors soon because tens of billions are needed, and renewables investors are being deterred by the ongoing uncertainty." This ethos, of solid structuring of policy, looked as though it was taken to heart by the UK government when £3Bn of public money was put behind the Green Bank which will provide funding for Green projects in the UK. It is hoped that the bank will be established and ready to operate later in 2012. The five areas which this money will support are: offshore wind power; commercial and industrial waste recycling; energy from waste generation; non-domestic energy efficiency; and supporting the Green Deal. The Green Deal, set to be rolled out towards the end of 2012 in the UK, will provide support for businesses wanting to become more energy efficient and for householders to do the same with their properties. However, a reading of this policy shows that the £3Bn will create few new jobs, the majority of which, about 70, will be in London. It also shows that wave and tidal power will not be included in the priority list as they are both not considered commercially viable. So, there are some good noises coming from the government, but it seems to be backed by little substance. This is underlined by the recent news that Vestas, the Danish wind turbine company has shelved plans to create 2,000 jobs on the Isle of Sheppy due to a lack of orders. Oh, and the lost 6,000 jobs which would have been generated in the solar industry but have now evaporated after the poor handing of solar subsidies. When the ConDem government came to power they took the opportunity to claim that they would be the ‘Greenest government ever’ and David Cameron even remarked at the climate summit in London last week that, "When I became prime minister I said I would aim to have the greenest government ever and this is exactly what we have". But all that bravado is not translating into jobs and investment. This is not the greenest government ever and a similar future is being cast. If the government do not get a solid grip on the massive potential the UK has in renewable energy for creating energy sustainability and jobs by providing a clear voice to investors and businesses, a devastating blow will be made on this and future generations. The message that the UK is ready and able to accept investment into the Green energy sector needs to be heard far and wide. This needs to be a single message repeated many times rather differing messages told at select times.
  2. Last week the UK firmly threw its hat into the fusion ring with the UK Company AWE joining the National Ignition Facility (NIF) based in the US to push for energy’s Holy Grail: nuclear fusion. If fusion can be harnessed and surplus energy is harvested over and above the vast amounts of energy needed to stabilise and sustain the reaction then the long sought silver bullet, we are told, will be here. The promise of limitless clean fusion energy within fifty year, which has probably been around for fifty years is nearly here. But, and this is the largest ‘but’ I will ever type, the technology still has some immense hurdles to cross yet. Nuclear fusion, in layman’s terms, has all the benefits of nuclear fission, our current nuclear energy source, but with none of the radioactive material which will have an environmental impact lasting far past the life time of our children’s children. Nuclear fusion is the chemical process where two lighter nuclei are essentially slammed together with such force that they fuse into one heavier nucleus. As they fuse they emit large quantities of energy. Nuclear fusion is occurring in the Sun, a process called nucleosynthesis, the heat and light released in the reaction allowing life on Earth to flourish. Having a stable reaction here on Earth is incredibly difficult as there are no materials able to withstand temperatures in excess of 100 million Kelvin which nuclear fusion reactions can reach. This means that these plasmas need to be contained in an electric field with no part of the reactor in contact with the fusion reaction. The two nuclei that come together can be no heavier than iron, with hydrogen atoms, the lightest element the usual candidate making the potential source of fuel for a fusion reactor the most abundant element in the Universe. Nuclear energy sources will no longer be shackled to scarce uranium deposits and suddenly we can look to the oceans for our energy. The president of the Institute of Physics, Sir Peter Knight, claimed that a demonstration plant would be operational within the next 18 months, showing that in principle fusion can generate more energy than is required to start and maintain the fusion reaction. He hopes that by demonstrating that this is possible, the first step to scaling the process up will begin and then the enormous benefits of fusion can be realised. Of course however, it is not that straight forward. It never is. Even if it possible to utilise nuclear fusion to its full potential and generate massive quantities of accessible, clean, cheap electricity we do not have the ability to effectively utilise this electricity. Our cars and lorries currently require petrol or diesel, we have gas boilers to heat our water and warm our homes, our planes need aviation fuel to fly etc. One solution to this, as David MacKay writes in his beguiling and sometimes scary book, Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, is to electrify as many devices as possible. This means electric: cars; trams; boilers; machinery; ships; all lighting; heaters; you name it, everything. If fusion can provide clean, cheap, accessible electricity then everything that can use batteries, should. Job done you might think. But then there is the very obvious question: Is it possible to produce all the batteries needed? And the simple answer is, no. Not in the form that batteries are currently produced. There are just not enough of the rare earth metals, such as lithium, needed to produce the batteries to substitute all our energy sources. Some people highlight the fact that we will just shift our economy and lifestyle from one dependent on oil to one dependent on rare earth metals. So, to sum up this rather dispirited article, there have been some bold claims made recently that critical advances are occurring in our fifty year exploration for nuclear fusion. If the incredible is achieved however, there are enormous obstacles to overcome both technically and in our natural resources. It is my opinion that it is our lifestyle, which is currently so tightly bound to high energy consumption, which is our true Achilles Heel. By reducing our energy consumption we liberate ourselves from the need for complex, technical, and possibly impossible solutions to our energy problems. Fusion may solve some of our energy problems, but it won’t solve them all.
  3. The Chinese government recently declared that they are intending on placing a cap on their annual carbon emissions which will allow the individual provinces in China to regulate and plan their emissions more effectively. The hope is that this cap will provide a stable enough environment for the government to then introduce an inaugural carbon trading scheme which will further help push emissions down and generate capital to be invested in carbon mitigation schemes and renewable technologies. The introduction of a cap and trade scheme is hoped to reduce carbon emissions by between 40-45% below 2005 by 2020. The Chinese government announced this on the back of record investment in renewable technology in 2010 overtaking the U.S. for the first time in 2010 with an astounding $54.4Bn being invested in the renewable sector. This compares with the US at $34Bn and the UK about a tenth of that at $3.3Bn. $54.8Bn equates to about 56,000MW of installed hydro power, 44,000MW of installed wind capacity and 800MW of installed solar power. The BBC reported that a total of $211Bn was invested globally last year with a 32% growth rate in the renewable sector. Using my back of the envelope calculation, this equates to the renewable market doubling every two-and-a-bit years, a formidable growth. China, it would seem, is a good place to invest in renewable technology. So good in fact, that back in June of this year the World Bank awarded China and seven other countries grants to be used directly in organising, implementing and developing climate change mitigation technologies. This all sounds very promising but, as with nearly every bit of good news, there is an important addendum which highlights a more subdued reality. Last year China emitted 7.7Bn tonnes of carbon equivalent which is a 13.3% increase on last year’s total. Since 2000 China’s CO2 emissions have risen by 170.6% and have been closely related to the country’s Gross Domestic Product growth. This is why the huge investment in renewable technologies is so important, as it is the only way to break the link between carbon emissions and GDP growth. In a world where GDP growth is king, the Chinese government could be showing the way in sustainable energy production and low carbon emissions. The coming few years are going to be very interesting.
  4. It's time for a Green Revolution

    The recent people’s revolutions in the Middle East have been playing on all 24 hour rolling news for the entire world to see at the click of a button. There has been such an excess of reports from embedded journalists crouching behind burning tanks that these images have come to partly define my expectation of what today’s revolutions look like. If I was alive in the 1960’s I probably would have looked to the Chinese Cultural Revolution with their stoic faces and red flags. If I was alive during the revolutions in the 1970’s I might have imagined a revolution to look like the Iranian Ayatollah’s eyes staring me down. And until this past year, revolutions for me have been characterized by a man with plastic bags facing down armoured tanks in Tiananmen Square. But the revolution I want to talk about has been a silent, bloodless revolution, happening right on our doorstep and influencing all aspects of our everyday life. I am referring to the Green Revolution. So pervasive is our dependency on energy that a week without hot showers/laptops/cars/mobiles etc would feel like a week in the Middle Ages. This dependency combined with the triple threat of anthropogenic Climate Change, a massively expanding population and dwindling reserves of fossil fuels has meant that the Green Revolution has moved up our priority list. Businesses have been quick to capitalise on this fact and it seems that every third advert is lined with Green bells and whistles, designed to tempt us away from fossil fuel guilt and towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Products from Starbucks coffee all the way to EasyJet flights are vying for our attention and consumer pounds by proudly proclaiming their ‘Green’ credentials (can flights really be Green?). But have we not learnt that capitalist forces can subtly nudge us away from social benefits and instead have us chasing products and profits we simply don’t need? With the global nature of Climate Change and our global dependency on energy should we not be looking for global solutions? The Green Revolution has slowly been gathering pace and is almost at a critical mass point where being environmental is so prevalent in our everyday lives, that it’s considered the norm. But we are not there yet. I'm worried that many people will be turned-off energy efficient technologies by advertising campaigns that saturate our attention with ‘eco’ friendly products that are anything but (I don’t think we’re convinced that flying with EasyJet or drinking ‘eco’-friendly coffee will change the world). I’m also concerned that we will use our products more often as we believe that having saved some energy over here, we can use more energy over there, thus diminishing the original benefits (rebound effects). These rebound effects can be profound and government policy makers need to be aware of them, but I would argue governments also need to be aware that companies could stifle the Green Revolution before it reaches critical mass. We should want to encourage companies with an environmental record, not because it will make us feel better, but because it is the right thing to do. We are so close to damaging our world irrevocably (and thereby threatening our own existence) that we all need to change, and quickly. We have to start taking responsibility, individually and collectively for the way we live our lives. The longer we stare into the sustainable abyss without jumping in with both feet, the more difficult it will become to make the leap. I’m not saying that it will be a quick transition and it will mean making some tough decisions. But to continue the way we are is not sustainable and is now not an option. So this is a call to arms comrades. If we accept our responsibility for sustainable energy usage future generations will look to us as the revolutionary paradigm. The change needed is so great and pervasive that we all need to be committed and all pushing in the same direction. We cannot allow ourselves to ignore the problem any longer. Mother Nature will not allow us. But I believe we can do it. We have the knowhow, the resources and the manpower. All we need is the will. And that's where you come in.