The BBC Bias on Climate Change

Figure 1: BBC Bias?

Figure 1: BBC Bias?

This is a reprint of an article from my personal blog.

One line you will regularly hear from the likes of UKIP or the Tea party types is that the major news channels, in particular the BBC can’t be trusted, as the media are “biased against them. That for example on the topic of climate change, the BBC is biased towards “the warmist agenda”…which seems to mean they believe the nice guy with the PhD in climate studies and the hundred or so published papers to his name, over screaming lord piss-pop with a degree in Reiki medicine from Hollywood upstairs medical school.

Anyway, a recent report from the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology committee has criticised the BBC for its coverage on the climate change issue…for being if anything too biased against the mainstream scientific position.

In essence they’re criticism of the BBC is that the beeb will often report on the science of climate change, interviewing for example some respected scientist, or a government minster, or some green campaigner. Who will back up his/her position by pointing to peer reviewed studies by a host of sources or organisations (many of which have nothing to do with the IPCC and no reason to be biased either way). And then in the interest of journalistic “balance” the BBC will pull out some climate contrarian such as Bjorn Lomborg or Delingpole (recently fired from the Telegraph), who’ll counter said peer review studies typically with “opinion”, technobabble or half-baked myths.

Obviously, there is a world of a difference between someone’s opinion and a peer reviewed study backed up by actual data. It’s the equivalent of a doctor showing you an X-ray and suggesting they need to operate straight away, but you applying equal weight to the fact that the bloke down the pub the other night says you look fine, or something you saw in the Daily Mail Health section.

Figure 2: Comforting lies v's an inconvenient truth [CSM, 2007]

Figure 2: Comforting lies v’s an inconvenient truth [CSM, 2007]

Indeed this problem isn’t just an issue for the BBC on its climate coverage, but an issue with all media on many issues relating to science. Where again the often feel the need for “balance” by bringing on some loony toon homeopathic quack and giving equal weighting to his opinions as they give to many decades worth of scientific research. Even the comedian Dara O’Brian picks up on it in one of his sketches.

While people are entitled to their opinions, its important to apply appropriate weighting, particularly given that many on the right have strong ideological reasons to adopt a climate denial position.

Posted in climate change, Global warming denial, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Putin a sock in it – the consequences of Crimea on European energy

Putin’s hasty actions in Crimea have had all sorts of consequences. Ranging from geopolitical to economic. However in this post we will address one of the questions raised regarding energy, what if as revenge for sanctions Putin decides to turn off the gas?

Figure 1: Gas workers in Russia

Figure 1: Gas workers in Russia

Russia is Europe’s largest gas import partners, providing some 140 billion m2 of natural gas per year, about 100 mtoe or 5 trillon cfg. This represents roughly 39% of total European gas imports. And this is just the overall picture, some European countries get 100% of their gas via Russia.

 Figure 2: Europe’s sources of natural gas [Credit: BBC and BP, 2006 ]

Figure 2: Europe’s sources of natural gas [Credit: BBC and BP, 2006]

It should be noted, that contrary to what the tabloids would have you believe, the UK receives only limited amounts of its gas directly from Russia (at the moment anyway, but that could change radically in future, given recent government policy). The bulk of UK gas supply comes from the North Sea or is imported in via Norway. So in theory the UK would not see many gas shortages. Of course, given that the other EU states would start buying up any gas they could, this would send prices in the UK soaring. So rather than the lights going out or the gas going off, one can see Brit’s being forced to turn them off themselves to save money!

Figure 3: Dependence of Russian Gas by European country [Credit:, 2011 ]

Figure 3: Dependence of Russian Gas by European country [Credit:, 2011]

American Shale gas as a solution?
Inevitably the propagandists for Shale gas have proposed exports from the US as a solution. However, the problem with this proposal, is that much of these plans are based on hype rather than facts. For example, as I discussed in a prior post, the US is not a net natural gas exporter, shale gas accounts for only about 35% of American gas production and they still need to import substantial quantities of gas from Mexico and Canada (Americans often forget that these are independent countries!).

Shale gas production might also be on the verge of peaking (certainly some individual fields are in decline, but others are still expanding in output). Although the EIA still seems to believe there is some growth potential in US gas production before any peak (although that just means a steeper decline rate afterwards!), as figure 4 demonstrates.

Figure 4: Shale Gas production in the US past and possible future [Source:, 2012]

Figure 4: Shale Gas production in the US past and possible future [Source:, 2012]

Certainly, North America as a region could become a potential exporter of gas (both shale gas and conventional gas). The large historical difference in price between gas in the US and the EU means the idea of exporting gas across the Atlantic isn’t anything new, but one has to highlight the logistics involved here.

Consider that the largest class of LNG transporters has a capacity of about 160 million m2 of natural gas (at atmospheric before/after liquidation). You would therefore need 875 such deliveries a year to replace Russian gas imports (about 100-120 such ships arriving per month during peak demand times such as winter). This is well beyond the limits of what any existing or planned LNG facilities could support either side of the Atlantic (and that ignores where the gas is going to come from!).

Figure 5: LNG Tanker, Japan. Is swapping a pipeline for this really a proposition? [Source: Sustainable John]

Figure 5: LNG Tanker, Japan. Is swapping a pipeline for this really a proposition? [Source: Sustainable John]

So this isn’t really a solution that one can string together in the short term. It would require long term planning both sides of the Atlantic (and a substantial order for a large fleet of LNG tankers!), and obviously that would mean an assurance of where the gas to fill these ships was going to come from. Otherwise this proposal is little more than a giant Ponzi scheme.

Indeed, just before Christmas, Shell pulled out of their plans for an LNG export terminal in the US, which could be interpreted as a signal that they doubt the long term viability of any such projects.

And of course, we need to consider what the effect of these exports will be within the US. Gas prices are low in the US, as I discussed in a prior post, due to the fact that producers are often left with no choice but to effectively dump their product and sell it off cheap. Inevitably once we start connecting up the European and American gas markets, prices in the US will rise significantly. One has to wonder who long before the novelty factor of being a gas exporter will wear off for American voters after they see those utility bills rocket.

British Shale gas?
Inevitably the supporters of fracking in the UK have also taken the opportunity to rally around support for shale gas as a possible solution. However, as I discussed before, the likely output of fracking within the UK is not likely to be very large, certainly not enough to even meet domestic supply, nevermind the demands from the rest of Europe. And consider the timing here, it took the US 25 years to get where they are with Shale gas. All in all, it will be case with British or European Shale gas of too little too late.

Also one has to not forget about climate change. Shale gas isn’t the greenest of energy sources. There is still a big question mark over the life cycle carbon emissions from it and getting addicted to shale gas could be creating problems for ourselves, come the next round of climate talks. As any long term climate change mitigation policy will almost certainly require a rapid curbing of the dirtier unconventional fossil fuels alongside coal.

Alternative sources of natural gas

Figure 5: An alternative pipeline route into Europe travels via Turkey [Credit: BBC News, 2008][Credit: BBC News, 2008]

Figure 6: An alternative pipeline route into Europe travels via Turkey [Credit: BBC News, 2008]

It’s worth remembering that Russia isn’t the only source of European gas imports. There are large quantities of gas that could be imported from Africa, the Middle East or the Caspian Sea region, if only the pipeline network existed to allow such imports. Indeed much of what we call “Russian gas” is actually merely Uzbek, Kazak or Turkmen gas that is passing through Russia.

An alternative to the pipeline routes via Russia, or LNG shipments from the Persian Gulf is to pipe gas across Turkey and Eastern Europe directly from these regions. This would greatly increase the available quantities of gas to Europe. Similarly an expansion of pipelines across the Mediterranean, would allow greater quantities of gas imports, from producers in Algeria and Libya, to reach the European market.

However, one has to consider whether regimes such as those in Uzbekistan, Turkminstan or Algeria are any more reliable partners than Putin’s Russia. And again, these are long term projects, not something that could be knocked up overnight.

And inevitably the propagandists for nuclear, always looking for an excuse, have waded in suggesting nuclear power as a solution. Again, as I discussed in a prior post, nuclear power in the UK (and many other EU countries) is going to struggle to replace its existing nuclear capacity before the present generation of reactors are decommissioned, nevermind expanding it.

Figure 6: Nuclear and Fossil fuels both do very different things on the Grid, as in this example for Japan [Source: WSJ, 2011 based on EIA data]

Figure 7: Nuclear and Fossil fuels both do very different things on the Grid, as in this example for Japan [Source: WSJ, 2011 based on EIA data]

Also it’s worth remembering what it is that nuclear does for the UK energy grid and what we use natural gas for are very different things. Nuclear power is generally used for baseload electricity. Natural gas is used for peaking power and winter heating loads. Its simply not practical nor economic to try and meet these energy demands with nuclear energy. Not least when you consider the practical implications of trying to do that.

Renewables can certainly help. Unlike nuclear, the installation rate of these is rapidly expanding and prices are falling. Certain types of renewable energy, notably biofuels, hydroelectricity or solar thermal are an ideal replacement for natural gas.

However, other forms of renewables, such as PV and wind power come with the same problems of nuclear (although cheaper), they are not an ideal match replacement for natural gas and switching to them as an alternative would require some major infrastructure projects, notably to increase the country’s ability to store energy. We could also look at converting the UK’s natural gas grid to run on hydrogen, however that would be a long term project, so as with the other options not a short term solution.

Figure 6: Biogas production from renewable energy [Credit: Sterner, 2009 ]

Figure 8: Biogas production from renewable energy [Credit: Sterner, 2009]

Energy Conservation
Certainly in the short term, energy conservation should be the priority. A substantial cut in European energy consumption, for a continent dependent on natural gas, could reduce or eliminate the need for imports altogether.

Figure 2: A breakdown of UK final energy consumption based on DECC figures: [Sources, DECC 2010 & DUKES 2011]

Figure 9: A breakdown of UK final energy consumption based on DECC figures, a sizable portion of the UK’s energy consumption is winter heating of (badly insulated) homes, often using natural gas [Sources, DECC 2010 & DUKES 2011]

Probably the key area is housing. As I mentioned in a prior post, building related heating is a larger contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions than practically anything else. And much of that is fuelled by natural gas. So simply lagging lofts, insulating homes better, passing legislation to ensure new homes are zero carbon or passivhaus standard would greatly reduce the UK’s gas demand. Possibly to the point where they could easily be met, firstly by domestic gas supplies and later by expanding renewable energy capacity. And that capacity could be increased by copying some of the ideas from Germany for mandatory building integrated renewables in all new homes.

I told you so
Regular readers to this blog might be keen to point out, hang on, hasn’t the government committed to cutting the money it spends on energy conservation? Or, aren’t they cutting the subsidies for renewables? And unfortunately, you’d be right…..

….As I mentioned many times before, the Tory government have effectively painted themselves into a corner by committing to a policy that amounts to a new dash for gas, without clarifying exactly where the gas was going to come from. I questioned at the time of the latest “energy bill”the sensibility of this strategy. As Damian Carrington of the Guardian put it at the time, what the Tories were doing was effectively making a £200 billion bet that what happened in Crimea the other month won’t happen….well it did!


Figure 10: Spot the Donkey!

So unfortunately, there are no short term solutions here, no quick fixes. As always when it comes to energy, it amounts to a need for a long term energy strategy. This should look at diversification of energy resources. Certainly a Europe dependant on gas coming from Russia alone is just asking for trouble. But equally a Europe dependant on shale gas from the US or anywhere else for that matter, doesn’t sound any better. More renewable energy, greater energy conservation and a long term plan to get off fossil fuels is the only answer.

Posted in climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, nuclear, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

Time for a Fracking reality check

Figure 1: Anti-fracking protests in Romania [Credit: Al-Jazeera, 2014]

Figure 1: Anti-fracking protests in Romania [Credit: Al-Jazeera, 2014]

One story that the major news media seems to have missed was that of a recent set of shale gas protests in rural Romania against the actions of the US owned firm Chevron. It would seem Chevron decided to start fracking on people’s land (or even back gardens!) without making any effort to consult with them first nor offer any sort of compensation.

Naturally this made them none too popular with the locals who proceeded to make a bit of a fuss, blocking roads and occupying sites. With the international media starting to sniff around and realising they were sitting on a bit of a PR disaster, Chevron responded by going around handing out flyers explaining why having a shale gas well in your back yard is kind of swell.

It would seem to be yet another example of an all too typical tale. Representatives of a corporation show up with a truck load of money outside the door step of some impoverished government. In return for which they get Carte Blanche to do whatever they want in said country. Inevitably this leads to exploitation and repression of local communities and destruction of the environment. A good example is the actions of Chevron’s in Ecuador and the toxic legacy they’ve left behind. Here they began using drilling practices and waste disposal techniques that were illegal in the US causing enormous harm to the Jungle environment.

The new Grapes of Wrath

Now some readers might well say, oh isn’t this terrible, but that’s some rural Eastern European backwater, why this sort of thing could never happen in a Western Country like the US. Couldn’t it?

Figure 2: The mess left behind post-fracking

Figure 2: The mess left behind post-fracking

Well look no further that the Fracking boom in the North Eastern USA for proof. Here we hear tales of worker exploitation, where many who flocked to the jobs on offer, like some modern day Grapes of Wrath. Now they have to work long tiring shifts for limited pay, often living in their cars or in trailer parks without access to running water. Indeed running water is now so scarce local businesses in the area have to lock their toilets to stop them being turned into impromptu shower cubicles by oil workers!

Figure 3: Trailer parks have exploded in Fracking areas, where many workers live in conditions not far removed from those in the Great Depression [Credit: Business Insider, 2014]

Figure 3: Trailer parks have exploded in Fracking areas, where many workers live in conditions not far removed from the Okies in the Great Depression
[Credit: Business Insider, 2014]

Those lucky enough to secure a roof over their heads have seen rents sky rocket. A beat up motel room in Hicksville North Dakota will now set you back more per month than an apartment on Manhattan. And given the nature of fracking, whereby wells tend to have a very short active life span, there is a constant need for such operations to move, uprooting workers and all the associated hardware and leaving an awful mess in their wake.

And if a shale gas well blows up in your back yard, what can you expect from Chevron? A free pizza! So okay, not quite as bad as Romania!

Figure 4: Shale Gas well blow outs are not also a problem for locals [Credit:, 2014]

Figure 4: Shale Gas well blow outs are not also a problem for locals…now with free pizza!
[Credit:, 2014]

In short the Shale oil and gas fields of the US are starting to resemble something of the wild west. Now while some Americans, who have learnt their history via Hollywood movies, have various romantic notions about the cowboy era, in truth it was an era when crime, violence, prostitution and debauchery were rampant (and indeed there has been a jump in crime in some areas where fracking is taking place). An era where the only real winners from oil booms of the past were the “robber baron” billionaires (such as Rockerfeller) of the time who’d make the Koch Brothers look like Gandhi.

Another factor related to shale gas fracking has been the level of methane leakage from such wells. Given that methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas any significant leakage of methane would represent a significant level of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed some worry that shale gas might be worse than coal as far as overall greenhouse gas emissions. Recent evidence now points to the possibility that the leakage levels have been significantly underestimated…by as much as 50%!

There are in short, many reasons for opposing shale gas drilling and pursuing alternatives to fossil fuels. Climate change is one, the destruction of the environment another. But the corrupt dirty politics of these industries is clearly one of them. Ultimately we have to ask aloud the question, do we really want to see this played out in the UK?

Posted in climate change, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, history, peak oil, politics, power, Shale Gas, Shale oil, sustainability, sustainable, Tar Sands | Leave a comment

Climate Change Hypocrisies

This is a reprint of something I put up on my personal blog last week:

Figure 1: Oh, the joy's of being a politician! [Credit: BBC, 2014]

Figure 1: Oh, the joy’s of being a politician! [Credit: BBC, 2014]

One is often confronted by the ineptitude of politicians and their habit of putting presentation and vote winning ahead of doing the job we voted them to do and indeed the job our taxes pay them to do. This can range from the usual banning conkers and cheese races nonsense, to an inability to sort out the most basic local problems (getting the roads fixed, etc). However nowhere is this more evident than the politics of climate change.

In general terms all the major political parties except the general idea that climate change is real, its happening and we need to do something about it. With the exception of the US Republicans (notably the Tea party types) and certain other lunatic’s on the extremes (UKIP seem to think flooding is the fault of gays!) this is not a controversial issue. However when the thorny issue of actually doing something about climate change rolls around, there is often a strong reluctance of any politicians to doing anything concrete. In part this is because they worry that action against climate change might be unpopular in the short term and that might cost them votes.

Of course I would counter the claim that action against climate change is not necessarily going to be unpopular. The lowest hanging fruit is energy conservation, which means measures such as lagging lofts, more fuel efficient cars, better public transport, changing planning laws to make new buildings more energy efficient, encouraging the use of CHP by industry and large energy users, subsidizing domestic use of renewables, etc. I fail to see how any of this is likely to be unpopular with anyone…other than “Lord” Monckton (note he’s not actually a lord, just likes to pretend to be one!)….or the Shale Gas industries newest lobbiest, David Cameron.

Furthermore if, for example, the government was to bring in a carbon tax to discourage fossil fuel use and level the playing field for renewables (.e.g to encourage electric cars over petrol powered ones). I’d argue that this new tax should be brought in at the same time as VAT, Petrol duty and Vehicle Excess Duty and other related taxes are gradually reduced and ultimately withdrawn, with the carbon tax essentially taking their place. Hence the tax burden on the public should remain more or less the same and for those who make the right choices get to see a cut in their taxes.

And since we’re talking about, the insurance industry would argue we’re already paying a defacto carbon tax as a result of the increased costs to insurance premium’s worldwide, or the fact more and more are forced into government guaranteed insurance schemes all as a result of climate change.

But yes, okay, there is certainly a “perception” that measures to tackle climate change will be unpopular with voters used to their two SUV’s in the garage, 3,000 mile Caesar salads and two foreign holidays a year lifestyle.

However, I put it to any politician standing in the murky flood waters of Somerset that if there’s anything less popular than getting people to pay a little bit more in tax (for certain things) and conserving energy, its explaining to thousands of angry flood victims why there house has been under water for 3 weeks and there’s sod all we can do about it.

The flooding in the Somerset levels has seen the finger of blame go in all directions, from penny pinching tories cutting back on flood defences, conservationists opposed to dredging, the actions of the farmers themselves, etc. But certainly, while we can’t tie climate change to any one specific weather event, this is the sort of stuff its predicted we’ll see more of in future as a consequence of climate change.

Figure 3: I've heard of floating voters but this is ridiculous! [Credit: the Guardian, 2014]

Figure 2: I’ve heard of floating voters but this is ridiculous!
[Credit: the Guardian, 2014]

Now the problem for politicians with that is, it means in future more standing in muddy fields and floods, more angry locals shouting at them. I mean would you want to be the local Tory MP in Somerset come next election time? Would you want to be a Tory major of London or PM in charge after London floods? And London and the south east is one of the very locations climate scientists fear will become more vulnerable to flooding, unless a lot of money is spent on new flood defences.

And extreme weather events, whatever the reasons, can swing an election. As I pointed out before, its possible that storms and floods in the US on the eve of the vote 2012 election, coupled with Romney’s climate skepticism, probably swung the votes in several key states Romney had to win (such as Florida) Obama’s way. And the reason why Merkel’s conservatives in Germany are such enthusiastic supporters of the “Energiewende is in part because the CSU’s lack of empathy with flood victims and unwillingness to take action on climate change, cost them the 2002 election, a fact they are very slow to forget.

Figure 3: UK train battles the elements in Devon [Credit: The Independent, 2014]

Figure 3: UK train battles the elements in Devon [Credit: The Independent, 2014]

The Katrina effect
Furthermore there is also the expense of it all to consider. After Owen Patterson got run out of Somerset with his tail between his legs, the government realising how inept this made them look pushed the panic button. They immediately signed up to a whole host of expensive measures (such as dredging and new flood defences), that may or may not actually have any effect. The army was even deployed to help out. Although it’s turned out that they aren’t really needed. But it does show how the government is running scared on this issue all of a sudden.

This is a phenomenon I refer to as the Katrina effect. Where like George W. Bush, a politician is partially responsible for the severity of a flood (e.g. by cutting back spending on flood defences to save a few pennies) and then when the media go and make a big deal out of it, he’s forced on this massive guilt trip to make a lot panicky and often expensive promises to atone for his previous sins…at the expense of the tax payers, some of which may not actually be terribly effective.

As the 2006 Stern report made clear, even in the worst case scenario the costs of mitigating climate change will be vastly lower than the costs for fire fighting the consequences, quite apart from the loss of life and loss of political face, and the financial costs of panicky Katrina like responses to said disasters.

Consequently I put it to politicians, not only do they have a professional and moral obligation to do something about climate change while we still can, but it’s in their own long term interest to do so.

Posted in climate change, economics, fossil fuels, future, Global warming denial, Passivhaus, politics, renewables, Shale Gas, sustainability | Leave a comment

The fracking snake oil cult

Recently David Cameron has been letting slip many signs that he, like many Tories, has fallen for the fable of Shale Gas as the snake oil cure for all ills, hook line and sinker. He absurdly suggested that shale gas had driven down energy prices in the US so much, that factories were moving back from China to America and the same thing could happen in Britain.


Figure 1: Cameron, a nodding donkey and some angry protestors, what could possibly go wrong!
[Credit: Guardian, 2013]

Before going any further it would be useful to set the facts straight:

•    There are many reasons for a company to move a factory, energy costs are just one of those, and given that energy costs in China are still lower than in the US, it would be bizarre for a company to move out of China to the US only to pay more for energy if this was the sole deciding factor.

•    The supposed link between Shale Gas and the 2007 drop in US wholesale gas prices is dubious at best. As I discuss (here) and Gail Tverberg also discusses, shale gas is relatively expensive (compared to conventional gas) and the bulk of the ramp up in Shale gas production occurred well after the price drop occurred (as in at least a year or two). So the only way Shale gas could have had an influence on price is if there was mass manipulation and price fixing of the energy markets (which would have been illegal), as speculated on here.

•   While certainly fracking has become a major source of energy in the US, as I discuss here it represents about 35% of US gas production, but that’s only about 8% of US overall energy consumption. Hardly a cure to all of America’s long term energy problems.

•   Shale gas has NOT made the US a net gas exporter, contrary to what certain right wing think tanks would have you believe. As EIA statistics show, while the US exported some 1,619 billion Cubic ft of gas, America also imported some 3,135 billion Cubic ft of gas.

•   There are indications that the shale gas boom is starting to run out of steam. Reports by authors such as David Hughes, as well as official data from the EIA, suggest that shale gas is approaching peak production. There is a big question as to whether production will stabilise (i.e. all this trouble for just 8% of US energy production) or decline rapidly, as individual shale gas wells tend to have very rapid decline rates. All in all however, its likely that the benefits of shale gas will be short lived.

•   As I also discuss in more detail in a prior post, there is a huge question mark as to how much of the UK’s shale gas is viable. Reports suggest it might be only able to meet a tiny fraction of the UK’s energy consumption. While its supporters often point to the very large quantities of shale gas trapped underground, this ignores the fact that there is a world of a difference between “proven reserves” and “reserves in place”. i.e. we’re still sitting on a several hundred years worth of coal supply, but I don’t see anyone arguing for us to bring back coal mining.

In short like so many on the right, David Cameron has fallen for this outrageous myth. And rather than do some basic fact checking he’s instead embellishing on that myth with yet more absurdities of his own. He reminds me of those celebrities who end up part of some crazy cult. And the problem is that he is now writing the UK’s future energy policy on the basis of a fantasy divorced from reality.

He’s dismissed renewables as “green crap and cut back on policies aimed at energy conservation, both of which were crucial to the UK’s long term energy policy. as well as allying himself and the UK with arch-denier Canadian president Stephen Harper against the rest of Europe. An important point given the much higher carbon emissions from shale gas compared to conventional oil and gas, as I discuss here. And ironically his obsession with Shale gas is likely to be to the detriment of the nuclear industry he has also favoured with lavish subsidies.

Hence we must confront this snake oil salesmanship tactics for shale gas, now before it leads to a mess that it will take decades to undo.

Posted in climate change, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, peak oil, politics, power, Shale Gas, Shale oil, Tar Sands, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Formula Student and Electric Vehicles

Figure 1: The IMECHE’s 2013 Formula Student competition [Credit: or

Figure 1: The IMECHE’s 2013 Formula Student competition [Credit: Telegraph (2013)]

I forgot over the summer to put up a post commenting on the formula student competition held in July this year at Silverstone in England. So I thought, as I’ve the time over Christmas, to correct that omission.

Formula student, for those who don’t know about it, is a competition, organised by the IMECHE, open to all 3rd level institutions in which the student’s design and build their own race car. The rules are a good deal broader than those for the various professional racing events. Aside from some rules regarding the vehicles dimensions, suspension, health and safety and the requirement of student involvement at all levels of the project, it’s really a case of anything goes.

Hence the Formula student competition can have an element of the “whacky racers” with teams from all over the world coming to Silverstone with a wide variety of car designs. Some will have been built by a massive team of near full time designers (some universities let their students take their year’s industrial placement on the FS team, whereas most teams fit in the work on the car as part of a full academic year of studies) and a budget of 100,000’s of euros. One team this year showed up with a milling machine and lathe in the back of their support truck! While others will show up with a car built on a shoe string by a handful of students which either works spectacularly well….or blows up in the middle of the endurance event!

Figure 2: ETH Zurich’s Formula Student Car 2013, winner in Class 1 for that year [Credit: ]

Figure 2: ETH Zurich’s Formula Student Car 2013, winner in Class 1 for that year [Credit: Race car, 2013]

Now you may enquire what this has got to do with energy and the environment? After all isn’t this supposed to be the theme of this blog? Well a quick look at the results of the 2013 Formula Student will show you that the 1st and 2nd placed cars in the results were battery electric powered (ETH Zurich and West Saxony respectively). Furthermore 3 of the top 5 were EV’s and 5 of the top ten, despite the fact that EV’s were a minority among the cars at the event.

And indeed in certain events, notably the Acceleration, Fuel economy and Sprint events the EV’s dominated. I was on trackside for the Acceleration event and I recall that 8 of the final 10 were EV’s. About the only events that the EV’s didn’t dominate was the Endurance event, although Zurich’s EV still managed to win and only 2 of the EV’s failed to finish (consider however that the majority of cars don’t finish the endurance race, so that’s not a huge surprise).

Consequently I’m aware that many teams are secretly working on EV formula student cars for either next year’s race or for future years. Its entirely possible that within a few years the majority of cars at the Formula Student competition will be EV’s, at least those that do well that is!

Figure 3: Battery Electric Vehicle powertrain schematic [Credit: University of Pennsylvania, 2013]

Figure 3: Battery Electric Vehicle powertrain schematic
[Credit: University of Pennsylvania, 2013]

Of course these results aren’t that difficult to explain. A BEV power train has certain natural advantages over a petrol engine system. Electric motors are vastly more energy efficient (80-95% efficiency v’s 10-30% for IC engines), have better power to weight ratio’s (up to 2-5 times better) and a wider torque range.

The latter point is significant because while an IC engine delivers optimum torque only within a relatively narrow range of speeds, an electric engine delivers its maximum torque over a wider range of speeds, which means potentially you don’t need a gearbox, clutch or much else, greatly simplifying the drivetrain and producing a car that’s easier to drive, has faster acceleration rates, better braking (thanks to regenerative braking), with less need for gear changing, etc.

Figure 4: Torque v’s rpm for a range of different powertrain options [Credit: 2009 ]

Figure 4: Torque v’s rpm for a range of different powertrain options
[Credit: 2009]

Of course the big disadvantage is that of range. While the FS cars did manage to complete the events without running out of juice, I’m not sure that same would apply if you put a BEV on a formula one track (EV’s limping off the track to the pits, the tires get changed within ten seconds, but it takes 5 hours to recharge the batteries!). Indeed, the EV teams got quite cosy with one another due to their frequency of visiting the charging area between events, while the other teams it was usually few drops of petrol or E85 just prior to racing.

Formula EV

Indeed in the world of professional motor racing there are plans to introduce a new category of “Formula EV” in which full sized formula one scale vehicles running on an BEV powertrain will compete in a series of street races in several cities worldwide. The event, which it is planned will start next year, has attracted sponsorship from several major companies.

Figure 5: Renault's Formula EV vehicle [Credit: XXXX]

Figure 5: Renault’s Formula EV vehicle
[Credit:, 2013]

Real world issues

And of course we can point to activity in the real world for what is driving things on the formula student track. Universities are being asked to participate in research projects, both by governments, research councils and car companies into BEV’s, hybrids and alternative fuelled vehicles. It’s been all too easy thus for some of them to then simply use their experiences in such projects to develop a BEV powertrain for their Formula student car.

Similarly with many car companies now building both hybrids and BEV’s (indeed I would struggle to identify any major car company that doesn’t have a hybrid, EV or alternative fuelled vehicle as part of its range) there is an increasing demand for graduate engineers who have experience at working on such vehicles, which the universities are attempting to meet by getting the students involved in projects that involve EV powertrains (my renewable energy projects and low-carbon vehicle projects tend to be oversubscribed these days!).

Certainly there are limitations to what we can do with EV’s. Range and the long time it takes to recharge batteries is part of that problem as well as other issues relating to the full life cycle of BEV’s. Indeed personally I’ve long argued the problem with EV’s isn’t so much anything to do with the technology but our system of individual vehicle ownership, as I discuss on this post on “Greenblog”.

However any Jeremy Clarkson type who tells you that the reason for rejecting EV’s is a lack of performance clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As the Formula Student competition shows, put an BEV and an ICEV on a level playing field and the BEV will win hands down.

Figure 5: Them was the days! [Credit: Lucy Harding ]

Figure 6: Them was the days!
[Credit: Lucy Harding]

Suffice to say that we’re well past the milk float era. Indeed I have joked that perhaps the teams with EV’s should get the Milk Board to sponsor them and have the drivers dress up as milkmen ;0

Posted in efficiency, energy, future, power, transport | 1 Comment

Energy and Green Tariffs

I had a go at Ed Miliband and labour’s proposed policies on energy a few weeks back. While I understand the populist frustration regarding energy bills I would question whether a freeze on energy prices will have the desired result or will just lead to more of what we’ve seen over the last few years, i.e. dithering by the utilities a failure to invest in major new infrastructure projects, potentially leading to blackouts due to a shortage of generating capacity in the future.

However it would seem that the Tories have succeeded in coming up with something even worse. Worried about how they’d look in a general election again someone promising to freeze energy prices, they’ve been trying to find a way to cut energy bills by getting rid of the green tariffs that are crucial to the reform of the UK’s energy sector.

Figure 1: Breakdown of an average Bill [Source: BBC (2012) based on Ofgem data]

Figure 1: Breakdown of an average Bill
[Source: BBC (2012) based on Ofgem data]

The power companies claim that it is these green tariffs that are why bills are so high. This seems odd given that Green tariffs represent just 8% of an average bill according to Ofgem and they cannot possibly account for price rises in the order of 40-175% in 5 years.

And as I’ve discussed before  the bulk of recent bill increases are due to rises in wholesale energy costs (and the energy firms being very rapid to pass on increases to customer but being very slow to reduce bills when the wholesale price falls)… as well as outright price gouging by the big six energy firms. And as I’ve also discussed before, the vast bulk of energy subsidies go towards subsidising fossil fuel consumption, not renewables.

Figure 2: Energy subsidies worldwide (excluding nuclear) [Source: The Guardian (2012) based on IEA data]

Figure 2: Energy subsidies worldwide (excluding nuclear)
[Source: The Guardian (2012) based on IEA data]

Hence why many energy advisers have condemned these proposals, as they recognise that any reduction in bills it produces are tiny compared to the long term costs it will impose on the economy.

For example one of the measure the Tories have been most keen to attack is a levy that provides funds to improve the insulation and air tightness of the UK’s leaky drafty homes. As I mentioned in a prior post heating and cooling buildings in the UK represents 36-42% of the UK’s energy consumption (depending on how you do you’re sums) when road transport represents 25% and electricity production (some of which is then used to heat and cool homes) represents 20%. Thus, making the UK’s buildings, on average, say twice as energy efficient, would produce an equivalent cut in energy consumption as taking all of the UK’s coal and at least half of the gas fired stations offline or taking ¾’s of the UK’s cars off the roads.

In short, reducing the heat loss of buildings is the lowest of low hanging fruit we should be going after. The cost benefits of doing this (remembering that a good deal of the housing that such schemes apply to are social housing or retirees with a winter heating allowance where the state is often the one paying the gas bill) show it is easily worth every penny. This explains opposition to this policy from councils, who don’t want grannies freezing to death in leaking poorly insulated homes.

Figure 3: The relative cost benefits of different options [Source: Total (2011) ]

Figure 3: The relative cost benefits of different options
[Source: Total (2011)]

In short, one can accuse the Tories of a cynical ploy to try and get their allies in the Energy Industries off the hook. However the long term damage that this will do has to be considered. Just a few weeks ago plans for a large offshore wind energy project in the UK were shelved. Now while officially the backers of this project mumbled various excuses about soil conditions on the seabed, my suspicion is it was more the fact that this cancellation was more down to the dithering evident on both sides of Parliament.

Indeed the Tories have been trying to reclassify what constitutes “fuel poverty. As its becoming somewhat embarrassing for them, and the utilities, to have so many in the UK calculated as suffering fuel poverty. This is the fudgiest of politic fudges.

Figure 4: The impact of renewable feed-in-tariffs in Germany is the thin violet wedge at the top of this graph [Source: Cleantechnica (2013) and the German Renewables Agency (AEE)]

Figure 4: The impact of renewable feed-in-tariffs in Germany is the thin violet wedge at the top of this graph
[Source: Cleantechnica (2013) and the German Renewables Agency (AEE)]

And incidentally its worth reflecting on the long term impact of the renewables installation programme in Germany. While it did result in some steep rises in energy costs in the early days of this policy, recently bills have been stabilising or even falling, despite increases in wholesale gas prices as the large level of renewable energy production has served to stabilise energy prices.

Similarly, while I’m not a fan of France’s energy policy, notably as regards nuclear, credit has to be given where it is due, they have also succeeded in stabilising their energy costs long term, with this policy, although I would wonder if they’ve factored in the full life cycle costs to the tax payer of nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning (as I discuss here).

And this also incidentally, is why I would question this idea of moving such tariffs (as the Tories propose) into general taxation. The danger is that this lumps an ever larger bill onto the back of the tax payer, when it should be the utilities who pay, as after all they are the ones who profit from the UK’s energy production so it’s only fair they pay the costs, not least because it now gives them no financial incentive to change policy nor build any new major infrastructure.

And Cameron’s cynical dismissal of Green tarrif’s as “green crap” hardly fills one with confidence on how well the Tories will manage such funds if its dependant on funding from government.

Time for a reality check
What we all need to realise is that there is a real reason why you’re energy bills are so high. Its because the system of privatisation set up by the Thatcher government was one designed by yuppies for yuppies. It turned the UK energy market into a casino where traders could buy and sell energy. It also led to the consolidation of the UK’s energy supply into a handful of large firms. And as I’ve pointed out before for capitalism to work, there has to be competition, else it can end up less efficient and more costly than the public sector.

Figure 5: The real cause of high energy bills, 80’s Yuppies!

Figure 5: The real cause of high energy bills, 80’s Yuppies!

However the Thatcher era energy policy had no mechanism to ensure that utilities would actually build the infrastructure needed to keep the lights on. Indeed the only thing in that policy that forced the utilities to invest in new infrastructure the NFFO is the very thing the Tories are now scrapping.

A lack of a credible UK energy policy since then has led to many short term decisions which have had long term consequences. And this has ultimately led to the UK being hugely dependant on gas, much of which is now imported and the price of those imports is extremely volatile and can only go one way (that being up!).

In short only a radical change to this energy policy, which means actually more green tariffs, or perhaps better yet a carbon tax, or nationalisation of much of the energy sector is what’s needed to get things back on track. And anyone delighted with the £50 “saved” wait a few months or a year for those “savings” to be wiped out while the utilities report yet more bumper profits and large bonuses to bosses.

Posted in climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, politics, power, renewables, subsidy, sustainability | 6 Comments