Balancing it all

My attitude towards the environment and dealing with climate change is that of striking a balance between the understandable panic from climate scientists and the practicalities of what’s possible.

I would argue that the priority, for the time being, should be to go after the “low hanging fruit” and make the bigger and relatively painless cuts first, and in the UK that generally means improving the energy efficiency of buildings (approximately 42% of the UK’s energy consumption), better transport (39%) and to a lesser extent low-carbon electricity. There is little point proposing some of the more extreme measures that you here from some quarters (e.g. banning cars, short haul flying or even pets). For at the moment, such things aren’t going to be supported by the majority of people, which makes implementing them in any democratic society impossible.

Meat is murder….for the climate!

Figure 1: From the Horizon program “should we eat meat”

Figure 1: From the Horizon program “should we eat meat?

This delimma is perhaps best expressed by looking at the issue of meat and its climate impact.  I bring this up as a result of a recent BBC Horizon episode, “Should we eat Meat?”. This program discussed the environmental impact of food production and in particular meat production. Already between 30-40% of world food production is feed to animals and vast amounts of land have been turned over to support animals, which is believed to have almost doubled over the last few decades, often resulting in the clearing of forests and intrusion of grazing into wilderness areas. It is now estimated that 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are from meat production. Which isn’t difficult to believe when you realise that a cow belches out between 70-120 kg’s of methane per year  (I do wonder sometimes if we could rig cows up to the gas grid and harvest all that gas, but I’m sure there’s some practical obstacle…and the animal right people would probably complain!).

Figure 2: Carbon footprint of different animals and farming methods

Figure 2: Carbon footprint of different animals and farming methods

And more worryingly these trends are set to continue if not get worse, as affluence in Asia appears to be leading to ever higher consumption of meat. It’s been suggested that emissions related to meat production may increase by 80% or possibly even double between now and the 2050.

Figure 3: Food production, meat v’s crops [Credit: BBC ]

Figure 3: Food production, meat v’s crops [Credit: BBC]

However, it is important we keep our eye on the bigger picture. For example at one point in the aforementioned documentary the narrator, Dr Michael Mosley), suggested that meat produced at a feed lot has a lower carbon footprint than meat produced by grass fed cattle, as a consequence of the reduced amounts of methane produced. While this is technically true (at least in America, where there is a large debate regarding grass v’s feedlot), it’s a bit like arguing that a Hummer running on ethanol is better for the environment than one running on petrol.

Figure 4: Intensive farming of animals, in particular cows can be very energy intensive

Figure 4: Intensive farming of animals, in particular cows can be very energy intensive

Again we have to look at the bigger picture. A fairer comparison would mean accounting for the carbon footprint of all of that corn fed to cattle at a feedlot (which tends to be fairly carbon intensive) and the fertiliser they need to grow such crops and their disposal policies for many tons of cow “waste” a day, which in the absence of a natural means of disposal (the advantage of allowing cows to graze in a field). One also has to consider food miles, an important consideration when comparing local farmers markets to supermarket stocked food.

Also it should be remembered that a lot of the land we have traditionally used for grazing has often been unsuitable for growing crops. In the British Isles for example the bulk of the hill farming areas have traditionally been used to breed livestock because you can’t really grow anything on these hillsides, save the odd crop of root vegetables on the flatter parts of the valley floor. Aside from that all these places are good for is breeding sheep, cattle, deer, midges and suicidal poets!

Figure 5: The hills of boney Scotland, good for hairy Coo’s (these in Glencoe)…not for crops!

Figure 5: The hills of boney Scotland, good for hairy Coo’s (these in Glencoe)…not for crops!

Environmentalists will point to the high carbon footprint of such animals as sheep, cattle and deer. But we have to keep in mind that if, say, we were to abandon such farms as part of some climate change mitigation measure, given that the land would be taken over by nature, i.e. wild deer, sheep and goats populations….it would continue to produce greenhouse gases. So in essence we’d be merely pulling an Enron style accounting trick moving a chuck of carbon emissions from the “caused by humans” column to the “caused by nature” one.

Furthermore allowing animal populations to breed out of control isn’t good for the environment. Already there are problems in Scotland with the vast size of the country’s deer herds, both the wild ones and those managed by estates. These represent a serious threat to what’s left of the ancient Caledonian forests, as well as efforts to establish a viable timber industry in Scotland (again, useful in combating climate change). Go to any highland forest these days and you’ll find these 7 foot high deer fences around the trees to keep the deer out (Indeed when out for a cycle some months back I had to lift my bike over one of these fences, not fun!).

Figure 6: The Monarch of the Glen (taken in Glen Quoich), I enquired if he was aware of his carbon footprint but he didn’t say much!

Figure 6: The Monarch of the Glen (taken in Glen Quoich), I enquired if he was aware of his carbon footprint but he didn’t say much!

And also we are only considering the carbon production of such highland farms, what about the carbon absorption? One of the advantages of the British Isle’s bracing” climate is that plants grow like crazy, absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow.

Properly managed therefore I would argue that your average Scottish croft farm, while not perfect from an environmental point of view, are among some of the most sustainable food production methods available. And this is reflected in other traditional farming methods practiced worldwide. The Tsembaga tribe of New Guinea for example practice a form of sustainable slash and burn agriculture along with animal husbandry (specifically pigs). They produce a yield of 16.5 times the energy back from food that the put in. By contrast a US Corn farm has an energetic efficiency of just 2.4 and a US rice farm 1.37 (from a slightly dated source, “Energy” 2nd ed by G. J. Aubecht, 1989). And these figures don’t include food miles or post-harvest processing.

The problem as regards meat is that our demand for meat has exceeded that which can be produced by sustainable means. This has forced us to give over not just grazing land, but land which could otherwise be used to grow crops, to provide food for livestock. It has also led to the clear cutting of forests, particularly in South America, to increase land available for food production, much of which is fed to animals to support meat production. In essence we’ve exceeded the earth’s “carrying capacity” for meat production and in order to meet increasing demand we have to pay a higher and heavier price for each kilo of meat.

While there are many health benefits of becoming vegan (a similar program on BBC’s Horizon also addressed these), advocating it as a climate change prevention measure is probably unsellable politically (you’re not going to get the majority to support it just to shave a few grams of carbon emissions). A better strategy might be to argue about bringing meat production levels down to a level we can sustain long term. One recent study suggested that no more than 2 portions of red meat and 7 of white meat per week would seem a more reasonable target, at least within the UK. Again, it’s all about balance.

Figure 7: A graph by Simon Fairlie  from the recent BBC Horizon program showing the limits to sustainable meat production, via plant products (blue, 40MT/year), Food wastes (orange, 110 MT/year) & Grazing land (Green, 40 MT/year). Once we exceed these limits the resources needed increase exponentially [Source: BBC, 2014]

Figure 7: A graph by Simon Fairlie from the recent BBC Horizon program showing the limits to sustainable meat production, via plant products (blue, 40MT/yr), Food wastes (orange, 110MT/yr) & Grazing land (Green, 40 MT/yr). Once we exceed these limits the resources needed increase exponentially [Source: BBC, 2014]

 Travelling without moving

And we’ll likely face a similar dilemma with practically everything else in the next few decades.

For example, one of the key issues regarding peak oil isn’t that we’re “running out” of oil  or other fossil fuels (unfortunately there’s still plenty left, more than enough to cause dangerous climate change). It’s that the global demand for oil and gas has, since 2006, been exceeding the amount that can be extracted from conventional sources. This has forced the world to rely more and more on unconventional sources, which tend to be both more expensive and have a much heavier environmental footprint than conventional fossil fuels. In short, we have to run faster just to stand still.

Indeed one could argue that the entire debate about climate change is one of balance. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as noted, the natural world emits significant quantities (as do volcano’s and other geological processes) of the stuff, and the greenhouse effect is central to how the planet’s climate operates. However since the industrial revolution we’ve been emitting far more greenhouse gases than the atmosphere and the biosphere can cope with. A situation not helped by us tearing down rainforests, one of the very mechanisms the biosphere relies on to lock away excess carbon.

So again it’s a question of balance, we could probably maintain our current farming methods and a meat heavy diet. But, we’d need to find a non-fossil fuel means of meeting all of those energy inputs and eliminate other sources of emissions to compensate. Such as, for example, eliminating all non-zero emissions vehicles. Or alternatively, we keep the cars (although we’d still need to find an energy source to power them long term) but cut back on meat production substantially (i.e. Jeremy Clarkson needs to consider becoming a vegan!).

Water wars

And since we’re speaking of farming there’s also water resources to consider. Now it should come as little surprise living on a planet where two-thirds of the surface is covered in vast oceans and where we have thousands of tons of water floating over our heads (called “clouds”), that the earth is not short of water and there is little danger of “running out” of the stuff.

Figure 8: Water shortage’s in some parts of the world are starting to become one of the world’s most urgent and potentially destabilising issues [Credit:, 2012]

Figure 8: Water shortage’s in some parts of the world are starting to become one of the world’s most urgent and potentially destabilising issues [Credit:, 2012]

However the problem is that where we need water isn’t necessarily where most of the fresh water resources are located. For example farms in India or the Mid-western USA farmers are frequently forced to rely on ground water pumped up from underground aquifers. And the water levels in these have been dropping alarmingly recently. Again a switch to meat doesn’t help as animals tend to have much higher water demands than crops. All well and good in Scotland when over 4 metres worth of the stuff literally falls out of the sky each year, but not everyone is “blessed” with such rainfall.

Indeed even within the British Isles there can be water shortages, particularly in the South East, where most of the population live. You may enquire; why not just build a big aqueduct between Scotland and Southern England? Of course one has to consider the expense of that, not just to build it, but maintain all of that pumping equipment. And it’s not just a shortage of fresh water, but dealing with waste water that’s the problem. In many parts of the world there is in fact plenty of water, it’s just it’s been contaminated by pollution or sewage from some source or another.

So again it’s a question of balance, there is a certain level of water use that is sustainable. Exceed this and suddenly you’re being forced into making lots of very expensive decisions, as well as imposing a substantial strain on the environment (which long term may well result in less water being available). Thus better conservation of water resources is probably better than spending loads of money on massive civil infrastructure projects, but also better management of waste water.

And it’s probable we’ll have to make some tough choices about whether for example farming in certain arid areas of the world should be sustained long term. Particularly once climate change starts making for erratic rainfall patterns and droughts in certain vulnerable regions, notably the Mid-Western states of the USA.

This is why sometimes wonder if the symbol of the environmental movement, rather than a Panda, should instead be a set of weighting scales.

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Hoovering up some trouble

There was much talk this last week or so about new legislation from the EU to limit the power rating of vacuum cleaners. Inevitably, this got the wholly eared anti-EU brigade worked up into a right old frenzy . The EU wants to ban beloved Henry the vacuum cleaner the Daily Mail claims….actually we have a Henry at work and unlike the tabloids I actually checked its power rating and at 1,200 Watts it’s not effected by present limits, although it might fall foul of the reg’s in a few years time.

Figure 1: Is the EU really trying to ban Henry?

Figure 1: Is the EU really trying to ban Henry?

Indeed the swivel eye’d UKIP types failed to notice that the bulk of the vacuum cleaners that would be affected tended to be cheaper ones, often coming from Asia, while the more expensive and often more energy efficient ones, such as Britain’s Dyson for example, will scarcely be affected by these rules (although Dyson is worried about the future direction of this legislation). You’d have been forgiven for a moment into thinking UKIP were lobbying on behalf of Chinese manufacturers and against British jobs.

It is important to put this legislation in the proper context. In effect what the EU is doing, a measure approved by heads of government in 2010 and 2013 (including Cameron I might add), is building on efforts to limit the emissions from cars and road vehicles. Since the 90’s increasingly stringent measures being gradually applied to all new road vehicles, not only in the EU but also Japan and the US. This has seen dramatic reductions in emissions from vehicles, with the benefits of improved fuel economy and reduced air pollution.

Figure 2 - Falling vehicle emissions within the EU [Credit:, 2012 ]

Figure 2 – Falling vehicle emissions within the EU [Credit:, 2012]

Then as now, the naysayers argued that this legislation was impossible to implement, it won’t work, people want cars with big engines, they won’t buy ones with smaller engines, the car industry would collapse and Europe would become one giant Cuba where people would hang onto the old gas guzzler well past its use by date rather than swap it for some Trabant type EU approved cars. Needless to say the opposite proved to be true.

Most people (other than Jeremy Clarkson) don’t care what size engine their car has, so long as it delivers the level of performance they are looking for. So if by for example using better engine management, or fitting a turbocharger, a car manufacturer can get a 1L engine to do the same job as previously you’d have needed a 1.4L (a tactic called “engine downsizing”), most car buyers don’t really care. Indeed many will take the 1L option with its lower road tax, better fuel economy and lower running costs. As I described in a previous post, once forced to change by legislation, car makers quickly discovered all sorts of tricks they could pull to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy of cars.

My car (a Clio) for example gets about 48 mpg, while the latest version of the Clio (a hybrid) is about to be launched in France boasts a fuel economy of 141 mpg. While it will probably deliver closer to 70-80 mpg (by my reckoning) on non-BEV and comparable drive cycle to the older version, we’re still talking of a near halving of fuel consumption.

Figure 3: EU proposals on electrical goods builds on the success of legislation introduced to clean up cars, the XLR for example boasts a fuel economy of over 300 mpg! [Credit:, 2010]

Figure 3: EU proposals on electrical goods builds on the success of legislation introduced to clean up cars, the XLR for example boasts a fuel economy of over 300 mpg! [Credit:, 2010]

And sales of cars, in particular the more fuel efficient ones has soared while it is the gas guzzlers that are heading more and more for the scrap heap. Indeed while European and Japanese car makers have increased market share since this process started, US car makers (who managed to lobby Congress under G. W. Bush to scrap efficiency measures) went bankrupt as customers voted with their feet and choose more fuel efficient European and Japanese cars instead.

So in essence the plan is to do the same to electrical goods, not just vacuum cleaners but hair driers, fridges, toasters, washing machines, etc. And this is based on reports from within the scientific literature which detail how such reductions are possible, through better design of such products. And as Britain’s Dyson have long demonstrated, a more powerful motor doesn’t guarantee you a cleaner with good suction, no more than a car with a large engine guarantee’s anything other than a higher fuel bill

But does this legislation go too far? Well yes and no I’d say, the devil is in the detail. For example Dyson, while broadly in favour of this directive is attempting to have a judicial review of how the system rates different vacuum cleaners. Given that it tests them empty this puts his bag-less units at a disadvantage over its rivals.

It is also worth remembering that the point of legislation against vehicles wasn’t just about carbon emissions and energy efficiency, but about all the other nasties coming out of a vehicle’s tail pipe (NOx, SO2, COx, etc.). These emissions represent a major health hazard, which is hardly fair on the many people (particularly those with chronic lung conditions) who choose not to drive but still have to inhale the fumes every time they go outside. Similar smoking bans were justifiable given that not everyone chooses to smoke and the rest of us would rather not have come home smelling like an ashtray.

Of course, equally it’s important to remember where the electricity to run a hoover comes from i.e. likely a fossil fuel plant, including in the UK still some coal fired stations, with a massive level of emissions (and again its not just carbon dioxide we’re worried about). But that said, there is a bit of a difference between the indirect emissions from a hoover and the direct emissions from a car.

Also the success of previous legislation covering vehicle emissions, improved building standards or the phase out of the old incandescent bulbs, was a good rapport with the industry itself. Indeed incandescent bulbs were never actually banned, the manufacturers voluntarily withdrew them from sale (admittedly under the threat of an outright ban). This doesn’t seem be the situation in the case of vacuum cleaners.

It is also important to assure the public that the products on sale will be able to do the same job as previously; otherwise you’re going to get the sort of hysteria with people hoarding light bulbs due to the mistaken belief that they are cheaper (which is only true if the electricity was free!) or because they don’t produce the “correct” lighting (the consumer group Which? have a buyer’s guide that addresses a number of these issues).

Figure 4: Comparison chart of different light bulbs [Source: Which? 2010]

Figure 4: Comparison chart of different light bulbs [Source: Which?]

To me this highlights the need for a carbon tax in place of VAT. It would work like this, the VAT rate for any product would be calculated according to the product’s lifetime carbon footprint. Thus products with a relatively low carbon footprint and high efficiency will come with a very low rate of VAT (or possibly even zero), cheaper made but less efficient products would pay a higher rate of tax, probably to the point where it made no economic sense to buy them.

Furthermore this tax would apply to the full life cycle of the product. Therefore when the time came to get rid of the car/vacuum cleaner/fridge some of the tax (say 50% of it) would be repaid if it was disposed of sensibly (e.g. recycled), noting that an up-front surcharge would have already been applied at purchase for its disposal (a number of EU states already have this policy, where you pay for a product’s end of life disposal the day you buy it). This would of course solve a whole host of problems, notably fly tipping.

While one can accuse the EU commission of being a little heavy handed and somewhat undiplomatic, the fact is that the only limitations of consumer choice they are implementing is removing the option to choose to be screwed over by a manufacturer selling stuff which seems to be cheaper, but actually works out as having much higher running costs (and thus an higher overall cost of ownership).

But this legislation is no excuse for the Tabloids and their allies UKIP (who seem to have done very little over the last few years to stop this bill’s passage through the EU) to stir up panic buying just to suit their agenda by creating a false controversy. Indeed I might also note that the Daily Mail seemed to be trying to profit from this by offering to sell its deluded readers some cheap knock off stock. Either way it shouldn’t distract from the need to improve energy efficiency as a key part of our future energy strategy.

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Energy Monopolies

Figure 1: Community owned wind farms are a big part of any energy solution [Credit:, 2012]

Figure 1: Community owned wind farms are a big part of any energy solution [Credit:, 2012]

One of the things I’ve long liked about renewables is the fact that they are infinitely scalable. They can go from a GW scale array of wind turbines or a dam, right the way down to a solar panel or a water heater on the roof of a house. This smaller end of the scale is handy as it offers a way to get around the big six energy firms and effectively turn your house into its own power station.

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A key part of Germany’s renewable energy strategy has involved both individual ownership of renewables but also by community owned co-operatives. Where for example the residents of a village or a group of farmers come together to buy and build their own wind farm, using the electricity themselves or selling it back to the grid. It is this bottom up approach to energy that is the reason why the Germans have been able to install much renewables infrastructure without significant need to taxpayer support and without many objections from locals to wind farms (given that after all, its their wind farm!).

Figure 2: Break down of the ownership of renewables in Germany [Source: ]

Figure 2: Breakdown of ownership of renewables in Germany [Source: German Renewables agency, 2013]

However the big six, anxious to protect their monopoly and the Tories, anxious to encourage a dash for gas have been trying to stop such free market notions from spreading to the UK. The government has been blocking efforts to found such co-operatives, while the utilities have begun to charge excessive amounts of money for the all-important grid connection.

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And this is not just a UK phenomenon. In the US, noting that one or two of the UK’s big six operate over the pond, similar efforts to promote locally owned renewables have faced opposition from the energy firms and their political allies. This has led to the formation of the so-called “green tea party” who are committed to the normal tea party values of small government, but recognise that renewables can help them to live independent of government, and thus they are strong supporters of community ownership schemes and other pro-renewable incentives.

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For the last couple of months, and with those winter bills fast approaching, the energy companies have been pulling every excuse they can think of out of the book to explain high energy prices. Firstly they claimed it was high wholesale gas prices. Then it was pointed out that while they seem very fast to put prices up when the gas price goes up, they were very slow to put them down with the gas price fell.


And the obvious solution to this would be to build more wind farms, as this tends to insulate against sudden peaks in gas price.
Next, they claimed it was green energy tariffs, convincing the government to get rid of such charges, against the advice of many within the energy industry. Of course they make up about 6% of the average energy bill and cannot possibly explain a 40-175% rise in energy bills over 5 years.

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

Figure 3: Breakdown of an average Bill [Source: BBC & Ofgem (2012)]

Recently the energy industry suggested that the reason for high bills is not that they are a price gouging monopoly, but in fact due “over regulation” of the industry…which is a bit like the mafia claiming that the reason why there is so much crime is because there’s too many cops. I suspect next month they’ll be claiming bills are high because the dog ate their homework.


The real reason for bills being high however is that our present energy market is run by rules written by 80’s era yuppies for yuppies. The Thatcher government 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.


With no effective competition, the big six have no major incentive to build new power stations, even if this risks the lights going out…in fact given that this would push up energy prices and lead to higher profits the energy companies have if anything a perverse incentive NOT to invest in new infrastructure. Hence why recently the taxpayer was forced to step in to pay for the next generation of nuclear power stations…or more precisely we’ll be paying via our energy bills for the next 60 years!


Clearly one of two things needs to happen, re-nationalisation of large parts of the grid, or changes made to how these companies operate to ensure serious and effective competition between them. Or allowing new players into the market, such as these community led schemes.

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Shipping and Carbon emissions

Figure 1: Shipping needs to clean up its act [Source: Flickr/Tom Turner/SeaTeam Images, 2009]

Figure 1: Shipping needs to clean up its act [Source: Flickr/Tom Turner, 2009]

One of the problems with carbon emissions is that certain sources of said emissions are often invisible to us. There is as it were a herd of carbon elephants in the room which we tend to ignore because we can’t see them (out of sight, out of mind). And one of those elephants is international shipping. There are an estimated 90,000 commercial cargo ships worldwide, transporting countless millions of tons of cargo on a weekly basis. The ability to move such large quantities of material around the planet, cheaply and efficiently is critical to global trade. Indeed large quantities of the world’s fossil fuels are ultimately move by ship.

Figure 2: If the Global Shipping fleet was a country it would be the 6th largest source of emissions [Source: IMO (2009)]

Figure 2: If the Global Shipping fleet was a country it would be the 6th largest source of emissions [Source: IMO (2009)]

As figure 2 shows, the global shipping fleet does represent a substantial portion of carbon emissions, more than Germany in fact. A situation made worse by the fact that shipping has generally avoided the sort of legislation that has applied to vehicles, aircraft or power stations over the last few decades. As a consequence it’s not just the carbon emissions we’re worried about but everything else, notably the very high emission rates for sulphur and NOx from shipping (which until recently was hundreds of times higher than is legal for cars). About 10% of global sulphur and 30% of NOx emissions are believed to come from shipping. Already legislators in both the EU and the US are showing signs that they plan to take action and enact legislation to cut back the emissions from ships.

That said, we have to put the emissions from shipping in context. While the overall emissions from a ship can be high, relative to the cargo they carry (i.e. g CO2 per kg per km) shipping cargo results in much lower emissions than via planes or trucks. So eliminating shipping isn’t necessarily a good idea, if we assume said cargo will have to be transported one way or another. Cleaning up the shipping industry’s act is a more sensible option. For as we’ve seen with vehicles and other applications, there are a host of simple ways to cut emissions.

Figure 3: While shipping emissions are high, one has to put those emissions in context of alternative means of transport [Source:, 2012]

Figure 3: While shipping emissions are high, one has to put those emissions in context of alternative means of transport [Source:, 2012]

All too aware of the way things are heading the IMO has itself brought out a number of reports which suggest some practical steps to cutting the shipping fleet’s emissions. The DNV has also released a report entitled “shipping 2020“, which discusses the various options at the disposal of ship owners in order to curb emissions.

Figure 4: A summary of current and upcoming ship emissions legislation [Source: DNV, 2012]

Figure 4: A summary of current and upcoming ship emissions legislation [Source: DNV, 2012]

One of the first ideas is slow cruising. By just cutting the speed of ships, by 20% the emissions generated can go down by as much as 40%. Of course this is not just a straightforward case of the skipper pulling back on the engine telegraph. Slower speeds means longer transport times, which can be an issue for companies dependant on “Just In Time” manufacturing strategies. Also its not necessarily good for the engines, as some ships run on two-stroke engines that are designed to run at a particular speed for minimum wear and maximum efficiency. Hence you end up with more maintenance issues. And of course there are times a captain has to order full steam ahead (to get out of the path of a hurricane, escaping pirates off the Somali coast, etc.).

Also there is the option of changing the fuel used. Currently many ships still use bunker fuel, which is basically the lowest grade of fuel, typically one step up from the stuff that we tar roads with. As you can imagine the pollution generated by such fuels can be considerable. So simply swapping to diesel fuel can have significant benefits, not only lowering sulphur and NOx emissions but potentially greater efficiency and improved flexibility. While it’s difficult to be specific as to carbon emissions (again depends on a host of operating parameters, I nice paper about that here) you are talking about a drop of at least 5-10%.

Figure 5: Diesel v’s Bunker fuel (aka fuel oil) [Source: NOSCA, 2013]

Figure 5: Diesel v’s Bunker fuel (aka fuel oil) [Source: NOSCA, 2013]

However the major disadvantage is cost, diesel is generally a much more expensive a fuel, hence why some in the industry haven’t given up on fuel oil and are hoping new blends of the stuff will be sufficient to satisfy NOx and Sulphur abatements by the time they come into force.

Another fuel option is LNG. Already some LNG transporters have dual fuel engines that can consume the boil off gas and use it to power the ship. However the idea is being floated of running entire cargo ships on LNG. While its generally a more bulky fuel than diesel, given that cargo ships tend to have a certain level of free deck space, retrofitting containerised fuel tanks won’t be that problematic for many ships. It is suggested that emissions of sulphur could be cut by 90-95% and carbon emissions by 20-25% by this measure. LNG also happens to be generally cheaper as a fuel than many other alternatives, such as diesel.

Of course there are issues here. Some ship engines are not compatible with using LNG. The cost of retrofitting such ships to run on LNG would likely be prohibitively expensive. There are also safety issues to consider, as some ships carrying hazardous cargo have to be cautious of what they carry, and having a couple of containers of LNG on the deck just might not be a good idea from a health and safety point of view, although one assumes purpose build LNG ships would have adequate safeguards in place to avoid these issues.


Power plant changes

Figure 6: Marine engines tend to be on something of a different scale to any other vehicle! [Source: Wartsila ]

Figure 6: Marine engines tend to be on something of a different scale to any other vehicle! [Source: Wartsila]

Still another option would be to change the powerplant altogether. As noted, many ships still use two-stroke diesel engines. While it’s a bit of an unfair generalisation to say that four stroke diesel engines are better (this paper discusses the different performance of engines and fuel types in a little more detail), diesel engines do tend to last a bit longer, provide higher efficiency (thus better fuel economy) and lower emissions. Obviously this would have to be done at the construction stage for ships, although it should be noted that one of the disadvantages with four stroke engines is that then tend to be a good deal more expensive.

Marine Gas turbine engines are another option. This involves putting the same gas turbine engines used on planes or power stations and using it as the main powerplant as a ship or in combination with diesel engines. The benefits are greater power to weight ratio’s and higher fuel economy, but at the expensive of higher capital costs. While such engines have generally been used up until now  in relatively small and fast naval vessels, increasingly larger ships are being fitted with them. For example the new UK Aircraft carriers will be powered by Gas Turbine engines as were the previous Illustrious class helicopter carriers.

Civilian operators have been slow to adopt gas turbines, again largely due to cost. But its an idea that is catching on, particularly for cruise ship’s as they tend to have higher electrical demand (the new Queen Mary 2 will use a mix of GT and standard diesel engines). Gas turbines are well suited to this role, as well as supporting dual fuel operation.

This of course brings us to the idea of integrated electrical propulsion, effectively adopting the same idea as hybridisation in cars, where the ships engines are merely used to generate electricity, with electric motors, typically water jets or mounted in Azimuth pods, actually move the ship. It should be noted that the fuel economy benefits of hybridisation, aren’t quite as good as those for automotive…given that ships tend to plot along at 20 knots while cars have to deal with stop and go traffic.

Figure 7: Modern ships increasingly use Electric motors mounted in Azimuth pods to drive the ship [ABB Marine]

Figure 7: Modern ships increasingly use Electric motors mounted in Azimuth pods to drive the ship [ABB Marine]

However the technical benefits tend to include the simplification of the drive train (e.g. no need for a gear box), improved ship manoeuvrability (some modern ships can practically turn on a dime if needed!) and the fact that the power plant does not need to be located towards the bottom and rear of the ship (as it doesn’t need to be physically connected to the propellers anymore), which allows greater flexibility in terms of ship design.


Streamlining and aerodynamics

And more flexible ship design can have benefits, notably in much the same way the streamlining of trucks and cars has produced greater fuel economy, doing the same with ships can result in fuel savings. This is of course another way to shave a few kg’s off one carbon emissions, use a hull design that’s more streamlined, generating less drag and thus lower fuel consumption .

Figure 8: Ship designers are increasingly looking at more streamlined ship designs to improve fuel economy [Source: Nissan USA]

Figure 8: Ship designers are increasingly looking at more streamlined ship designs to improve fuel economy [Source: Nissan USA]


Renewable alternatives

Obviously a number of the benefits discussed could go a long way towards reducing carbon emissions from shipping, but most generally involve ships that still run on fossil fuels. Could it be possible to propel ships with renewables? After all, before steam power came along most of the world’s trade was carried on wind propelled ships.

Figure 9: Could we see a return of the wind jammers? [Source:, 2013 ]

Figure 9: Could we see a return of the wind jammers? [Source:, 2013]

Experiments have been carried out using wind power to propel ships. These include modern sails fitted to a cargo ship, using giant kites to catch higher altitude winds and so-called rotor sails (these rely on the Magnus effect, the same phenomenon that keeps a football spinning in flight).

Similarly solar powered ships have been tested, with and a number of boats of various sizes powered by PV arrays. The large surface area of many ships could well represent a perfect spot for lots of solar cells. In 2012, the Turanor PlanetSolar successfully circumnavigated the globe operating under solar power.

Figure 10: Recent advances in solar cell and litium-Ion battery technology has resulted in solar power ships [Source:]

Figure 10: Recent advances in solar cell and litium-Ion battery technology has resulted in solar power ships [Source:]

That said, to be realistic there are obvious practical problems with this, i.e. what does a ship do when there’s no wind, no sun and it needs to up the speed to get out of danger? One assumes ships will need some alternative form of propulsion as a back-up (the Turanor uses Li-ion batteries to store power overnight). It also seems probable that moving a ship at a decent cruising speed is going to be difficult under renewables power directly, particularly for cargo ships.

Even so renewables can clearly be used to supplement the propulsion of a ship, which helps to lower its overall carbon footprint, much as has been the case with building integrated renewables. Also there is the matter of powering the ship when it is in port. A ship at dock still needs to be powered up, often achieved by running its main engines, using a smaller APU system or connecting up to shorebased power  (so called “cold ironing”). Given the new and increasingly stringent legislation mentioned earlier, running the main engines in power is going to become an increasingly difficult (if not illegal) activity and renewables can help to meet these energy needs eliminating the need for APU’s.

Fuel cells, either running on fossil fuels or directly on hydrogen can also help out in this regard and may indeed provide a long term replacement as the primary energy source for ships.

In some respects building a fuel cell powered ship is somewhat easier than a fuel cell powered car. Ships tend to cruise along at a fixed speed for days, while a car has to perform stop go traffic. The issue of power to weight ratio’s tends to be less of an issue with ships. Both of these factors thus allows the use of more robust fuel cell technology such as Solid Oxide fuel cells instead of the super-expensive PEM types  favoured for cars. Experiments with fuel cell powered ships have been conducted by the Norwegians (a modestly sized cargo ship, pictured), Iceland (fishing boat sized craft) and various smaller inland craft  (such as barges and pleasure craft).

Figure 11: the Viking lady, the world’s first fuel cell powered capital ship ran on LNG [Source:, 2012 ]

Figure 11: the Viking lady, the world’s first fuel cell powered capital ship ran on LNG [Source:, 2012]

That said, a fuel cell powered boat will, if powered by hydrogen, come with many of the same issues mentioned with regard to LNG or CNG, as well as the higher capital costs associated with all electric propulsion. Also at present no fuel cell manufacturer makes fuel cells large enough to power a large ocean going cargo ship, although one assumes existing designs could be just scaled up. There’s also the issue of how a fuel cell will react towards long term exposure to a salty environment such as those at sea. Even so there is at least in the interim a role for fuel cells to play, for example as APU’s for ships in port.



On paper a ship would appear to be an ideal spot to install a small nuclear reactor. While only a handful of civilian ships have been powered by nuclear power  (mostly icebreakers) they have been used for many decades to power naval vessels of all sizes (submarines, carriers, cruisers), so this is proven technology.

However while I hear much enthusiasm for nuclear powered civilian ships from nuclear energy supporters, I rarely hear this from the shipping industry. Perhaps this is because they’ve spent the last 50 years trying to cut down capital costs, maximising cargo capacity of ships, minimise crew size (some are even discussing the possibility of fully automated cargo ships with no crew on board on certain routes) and avoiding getting tied up in pesky government regulations (hence why so many ships operate under flags of convenience).

Nuclear powered shipping involves breaking all of these rules. Nuclear reactors greatly increase the capital costs, reduce cargo capacity, increasing the size of the crew (notably with highly skilled nuclear engineers and the high salaries they command) and one assumes the public will demand that such ships are properly regulated (and one has to question whether flag of convenience nations can adequately do that).

Figure 12: The MV Sevmorput, a nuclear powered cargo ship proved to be a technical success but an economic failure (she is currently awaiting scrapping), the US have seen similar experiences with the NS Savanah [Source:]

Figure 12: The MV Sevmorput, a nuclear powered cargo ship proved to be a technical success but an economic failure (she is currently awaiting scrapping), the US have seen similar experiences with the NS Savanah [Source:]

And on that issue of public acceptance, its worth pointing out that during the cold war many towns and cities declared themselves “nuclear free zones”, meaning local ordinances forbid the operation or handling of nuclear materials within the city or region. My home town of Cork (a crucial port on the transatlantic route) happens to be one of those. Convincing locals to relax such rules would probably require high safety standards and strict regulations (both of which have largely rendered civilian nuclear power uneconomic). Else nuclear ships could well find a number of the world’s ports and waterways barred to them.

Consequently I don’t see nuclear powered cargo ships as a possibility unless there is a significant change in the way the shipping industry does business or without a major increase in fuel costs.


A Greener future?

There are as always solutions to the shipping industry’s problems. A host of modest measures taken in concert can produce a significant drop in the carbon emissions and pollution related to shipping. Some of these options can be easily retrofitted or applied to existing ships, others would require more fundamental changes.

Figure 13: A summary of the different options and the cost benefits, according to the DNV 2020 report [Source: DNV, 2012]

Figure 13: A summary of the different options and the cost benefits, according to the DNV 2020 report [Source: DNV, 2012]

The cargo ship of the future could look radically different from those today. Incorporating many new technologies and concepts, some of which have already been discussed here.

Figure 14: The container ship of the 2030’s as envisaged by NYK

Figure 14: The container ship of the 2030’s, as envisaged by NYK [marine, 2011]

On which point it’s worth noting that the average lifetime age of a cargo ship is only about 25 years, before its run into the sands off Alang.

Indeed this is perhaps a final consideration, what is the end of life plan for a ship? There is a need for tougher legislation both to control how ships are dismantled, but also how they are constructed with a view to reducing the environmental impact when they are broken up. One possibility is the idea of adopting similar rules as apply to the car industry, where the manufacturer is obliged to participate in the recycling of the very vehicles they built in the first place.

Figure 14: The end of life and final disposal of ships has to be considered [Ex-SS American Star wrecked, Source: Wollex (2004) via wikimages]

Figure 15: The end of life and final disposal of ships has to be considered, pictured is the SS American Star, wrecked off the Canary’s  [Source: Wollex (2004) via wikimages]

Also one has to consider the more fundamental question – do we really need all these cargo ships? Making products closer to home, buying locally manufactured goods does go along way to reducing carbon emissions. Thus the future of shipping could well be one with not just cleaner ships, but hopefully less of them.

Posted in climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, future, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Out UKIP’ing UKIP and Mr Blobby

On my personal blog I recently discussed the electioneering tactics of the Conservative party as they prepare for the next election. One recent ploy has been to recognise that a Tory party of grey haired old white guys wasn’t terribly appealing to voters, particularly women. This led to Cameron reshuffling his cabinet, appointing many more women (often middle aged) to the cabinet and the expense of more senior (often male) minsters.

Figure 1: Beware the Green Blob!

Figure 1: Beware the Green Blob!

Now while most of the men retired/fired as a result left gracefully, the arch conservative (and climate sceptic) former environment secretary Owen Paterson did not. Instead he had an angry confrontation with Cameron, in which he threatened “to out UKIP UKIP”, referring to the “swivel eyed” mad house of UKIP, otherwise known as the UK tea party.

Paterson then went off in a huff and had a good old rant in The Telegraph. In this article he affirmed his credentials as a climate change denier, while blaming his sacking not on Cameron, but on “the green blob”, whom he describes as ”a tangled triangle of unelected busybodies… who keep each other well supplied with lavish funds, scare stories and green tape”. Paterson then set himself up as the true blue champion of “the real countryside of farmers and workers

Now the sharper amongst us may recall Owen Paterson as the minster being howled at by just such “farmers and workers” during the winter floods, largely due to the inaction of his department in dealing with the problem. This, along with the fact that he is a wealthy landowner does somewhat contradict his attempt at adopting a “man of the people stance”.

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

Figure 2: Paterson, a man of the people?

 Also as I recall pointing out at the time one of the consequences of the climate change Paterson denies is that such extreme weather events will in future become more common, and thus minsters feeling the raw end of public anger is part of the price to be paid for inaction on climate change.

And of course we cannot blame climate change alone for these floods, Paterson’s rather naive view that rivers exist only to act as little more than gutters was among his greatest hits. And cutting the amount spent on flood defences (against the advice of the Environment Agency) prior to the floods hardly helped.

And not listening to the scientific experts is something of a trend for Paterson. He only met with the government’s chief scientific adviser twice in 15 months (his predecessor met once a month). Paterson also ignored scientific advice and instigated an expensive culling of badgers that ultimately failed in its objectives. He also blocked efforts to curb the use of pesticides that are suspected of being linked to the alarming decline of bees. And far from trying to prevent fracking, or at the very least see the sorts of issues with it we’ve observed in the US are avoided, instead he urged full steam ahead for fracking. The term putting the fox in charge of the hen house doesn’t quite cut it!

However, clearly rather than accepting he was the victim of his own demise, Paterson’s ego forces him into the ridiculous fantasy that it was those nasty evil greens that were to blame. He for example highlights the funding that the Green lobby receives from the EU, ignoring the vastly higher sums the fossil fuel industry or pharmaceutical lobbyists he pals around with spend annually.

Needless to say, there will be many in the “Green blob” who will be glad to see the back of him. What Paterson’s reign does perhaps demonstrate is the sort of mental gymnastics  those on the right will perform to maintain their fantasy. It also shows that Cameron is making a dangerous mistake by trying to appease the lunatic fringes of his own party. This was the mistake the Republicans made, and now they find themselves bracing closed the door to stop the Tea Party lunatics from taking over the asylum.

And it also shows that appointing a climate denier to the post of environment secretary makes about as much sense as making an avowed pacifist minster for defence!

Posted in budget deficit, climate change, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

I’ve been my usual busy self over the summer, both with holidays and of course work commitments so not been the most active blogger. One of those distractions over the summer included attending an event hosted by the UK nuclear industry (with some political brass added in, how I of all people ended up on the guest list?…long story!). It served to reinforce to me the fact that there is in effect two nuclear lobby’s.

The first I suppose we could refer to as “the old school” nuclear lobby. This tends to be made up of the mainstream nuclear energy supporters, many of whom work in the industry or are professionals, politicians and academics with a passing interest. While not adverse to research into new ideas, they tend to be fairly solidly behind the replacement of the existing nuclear capacity with LWR’s largely because they understand the enormous pressures the industry is under.

Figure 1: Hinkley Point C [Source:, 2014]

Figure 1: Hinkley Point C [Source:, 2014]

As the latest figures from the IEA and recent status reports both show, globally the world’s nuclear capacity, both in terms of installed GW’s, TWh’s generated and as a share of the global electricity mix, nuclear is now in decline. And as I’ve previously discussed the install rate of nuclear (again whether we choose to use the GW/yr or TWh capacity/yr) installation rate is well behind that of renewables (by a factor of 9) and barely 3% of what’s needed to offset dangerous climate change.

Figure 7: The bulk of the UK’s nuclear plants will be in they’re grave before Hinkley C comes online [Credit: Protons for breakfast, 2012]

Figure 2: The shutdown schedule for UK nuclear reactors [Source: (2012)]

Specifically within the UK by the time the much debated Hinkley Point C plant goes online the UK will be down to between 3 and 1 working reactors. It would take little short of a miracle to see the UK’s peak of nuclear installed capacity (about 14 GW’s in 1990 and 9.1 GW’s today) replaced before then, nevermind any significant expansion of the industry.

Figure 3: Changes in global electricity output (TWh/yr) by selected low carbon sources (2000-2011) [Source: World Nuclear Industry Status report (2012)]

Figure 3: A sobering vision of the future for nuclear energy – a slow slide to obscurity, if current trends continue [Source: World Nuclear Industry Status Report (2012) ]

Figure 4: A sobering vision of the future for nuclear energy – a slow slide to obscurity, if current trends continue [Source: WNISR (2012)]


Opening Pandora’s box

Meanwhile in the red corner is the “alt-nuke” lobby. These tend to involve mostly armchair supporters of nuclear power from the blogosphere. They instead tend to favour more advanced reactor technologies (Molten Salt Reactors, Thorium, reviving the Breeder Reactor programs of the past, etc.). Not only do they want to replace the existing nuclear capacity with these alternative (and largely untested) technologies, but envisage megalomaniac levels of expansion, well beyond anything that even the IAEA believes is possible.

These views are perhaps best represented by the recent film “Pandora’s Promise. While this film does make some valid points about the dangers of climate change, the movie ignores what I would regard as the core obstacles to nuclear energy. Namely the slow rate of reactor construction (as mentioned earlier), the high costs and the practical issues of managing an energy grid. Indeed the film preposterously suggests that all of these problems could be solved by swapping from the LWR’s favoured by the industry to Fast Breeder technology, which has generally been shown to be unreliable (the Monju Breeder Reactor, has famously produced only 1 hour’s electricity in 20 years) and an order of magnitude more expensive.

Of course, the obvious question would be that if all of these alternative reactor designs were the brilliant idea its supporters claim, why is the mainstream nuclear industry so fixated with sticking with what we know?

I mean one can vaguely assume that nuclear industry experts know something about “nuke stuff” and yet whenever they are asked their opinion on these alternatives (the NNL’s position papers are a good example, the former head of the NNL addressed LFTR technology itself here) the industry experts tend to pour cold water on such notions, pointing to them as long term research concepts that need to be fleshed out first. And that’s when they are being polite!

Indeed the only time I heard anyone mention the word “Thorium” at this nuclear event in question was when I brought the matter up in discussions afterwards (the response was much as above, nice idea yes, we are looking into it, but not a viable alternative at the moment).


The LWR conspiracy

Inevitably the alt-nuke types paper over these obvious cracks by either shouting down their opponents and going into massive trollish tirades (a few good examples of this can be found here and here) or resorting to conspiracy theories of the Alex Jones variety.

They will often claim for example, that main stream nuclear industry is “biased” against alternatives because they fear being “frozen out”. Indeed they will even claim that the failure of such experiments on these alternatives back in the past (e.g. the decision to shut down America’s MSRE program  in the 1960’s) was because LWR’s were favoured because they could be used to make Plutonium for nuclear bombs.

Figure 4: Is the truth is out there?

Figure 5: Is the truth is out there?

Unfortunately all such conspiracy theories betray is how little some in the Alt-nuke camp know about the very thing they are advocating. And of course expressing a belief in conspiracy theories is hardly a way to win over decision makers (who as a rule tend not to be in the business of entrusting billions to tinfoil hat wearing cranks!).

Let’s pick apart this idea that LWR’s were favoured because they can make Plutonium. And where is all this US Plutonium generated by LWR’s?….why its still locked up within the spent fuel rods!  The vast majority of America’s commercial nuclear plants have operated on a once thro fuel cycle and hence little if any effort has been made to reprocess any of this plutonium. The bulk of America’s Plutonium stockpiles actually came from purpose built military breeder reactors, which was always going to be the cheapest and easiest way of making Pu. It would seem odd that “they” would go to such extraordinary lengths to create all this Plutonium and then not try to extract any of it.

A more realistic appraisal of why breeder programs were shut down can be found by understanding the reasons why these projects were undertaken in the first place. From the earliest days of the nuclear age there was speculation that as Uranium is a finite resource (and a fairly scarce one at that), the world might one day run out of Uranium, possibly before the end of the 20th century. I have a book in my collection, Into the Atomic Age by Journalist Chapman Pincher (published in 1947) and even then, just a few years into the nuclear age, such concerns were being voiced. Naturally solutions were sought, which included using alternative fuels to Uranium (e.g. Thorium), breeding fuel (fast-breeder reactors) or simply finding more Uranium.

However by the 1960’s such fears had largely subsided as fears of a nuclear fuel shortage had transformed into a glut (figure 6). The install rate of nuclear plants had run well below expectations, which reduced demand for Uranium. Reserves of Uranium had also been bolstered by an aggressive campaign of geology which had found several large deposits in convenient locations such as Canada and Australia. In essence the case for the breeder reactor was at least temporarily at an end (of course as a finite resource Uranium would and indeed will run out some day, as I discuss in more detail here but such issues are less of a concern now as it used to be).

Figure 5: Supply and Demand worldwide of Uranium [Source: World Nuclear Association (2013)]

Figure 6: Supply and Demand worldwide of Uranium [Source: World Nuclear Association (2013)]

There was seen as still a case for some research into breeder reactors (such as the IFR), notably those that could produce Plutonium, not just for military reasons, but because it was still felt that a commercial market for Plutonium as a fuel for LWR’s might emerge in the future (as discussed in Chapter 11 of  W. Patterson book Going Critical (1985)). Although even these programs died a death as the technical obstacles  involved began to emerge, as well as the not inconsiderable economics hurdles. So in this context it’s easy to see why programs such as the EBR II or MSRE were cancelled. No big conspiracy, just politics as well as economic and technical factors at play.

As for this suggestion that the nuclear industry will not support alternative reactor designs because the “LWR builders fear being frozen out”, again this is an easily debunked conspiracy theory. I mean who are these mysterious “LWR builders?” They sound like the Kamino from Star Wars :)

The truth is that building a nuclear reactor is far too complex a job for any one company these days. Go through the attendee list of any nuclear energy conference and you’ll be confronted by a bewildering array of names representing the numerous companies and arms of government (research and political) involved in the complex business of planning and building such plants. And again this one of my criticisms of nuclear energy, it is not contusive to mass production in the same way renewables are (as discussed earlier).

But I digress, these firms including the likes of GE, Avera, Hitatchi, Toshiba or Westinghouse, who often do a lot more than simply build nuclear reactors. As much of a nuclear power plant for example uses much of the same steam plant and switching gear that a conventional power station uses, large parts of it will be built by firms such as Alstom (who will almost certainly build the steam turbines for Hinkley C) or Babcock (likely to feature in the revived Horizon deal), as well as firms such as Japanese Steel Works on Hokkaido Island (who will almost certainly get the reactor core forging contract).

Figure 6: JSW will almost certainly involved in any future UK nuclear building programme [Source: (2009)]

Figure 7: JSW will almost certainly involved in any future UK nuclear building programme [Source: (2009)]

The bottom line is that these companies have a fairly diverse portfolio of interests, often building far more than LWR’s. If we started using an alternative reactor design, far from being “frozen out” many of these same firms would almost certainly get the contracts to build them. After all they have the experience, the factories, the staff and perhaps more importantly, the financial and political connections in the corridors of power to push such projects through. They might have to do some re-tooling and play catch up, but such firms are used to reinventing themselves and they have the cash reserves to do it.

Now I’m not suggesting these companies are a bunch of angels. Clearly there is some resistance from within the nuclear industry towards alternatives (such as CHP, renewables or increasingly shale gas, which has largely killed off the nuclear industry in the US). And I do suspect that there is some engrained element of “not invented here” syndrome at play within the old school of nuclear energy with regard to alternative designs. Although it should be remembered within the UK, the bulk of our reactors are not LWR’s but gas cooled reactors (so some of that NIH is also directed at LWR’s!).

But this is perhaps countered by an unhealthy dose of “grass is always greener syndrome” on the part of the alt-nuke’s. We know everything that can go wrong with LWR’s as these are more mature technologies, so alternatives to this paradigm only look better because these concepts aren’t as technically mature, as we haven’t figured out what the real problems will be yet!

Clearly though any conspiracy theory that involves the world’s major engineering corporations conspiring NOT to make money is sort of a non-starter. Indeed given the grave danger the nuclear industry is under, the idea that they would try to block any alternative that might rescue the industry, is simply bonkers.


Reinventing the Industry

And even this is not to say that the nuclear industry opposes research into alternatives. Far from it, indeed there are long term research programs looking at alternatives to the LWR (with a deployment time scale in the order of 2030’s to 2040’s). Indeed with regard to Thorium fuel, there are several small research units worldwide investigating these ideas, notably in China and Norway. Indeed I noticed recently that quite a few good papers on the concept of Molten Salt reactors have begun to come out of the Chinese Thorium Research program, so while they are taking their time, they are getting somewhere.

Figure 7: Thorium research, here a water-cooled research reactor in Norway, is underway, although decidedly small scale [Source: Daily Telegraph (2014)]

Figure 8: Thorium research, here a water-cooled research reactor in Norway, is underway, although decidedly small scale [Source: Daily Telegraph (2014)]

So clearly there are good professional scientists working on radical new ideas in nuclear energy. And hence we need to draw a distinction between them and the bloggers. But equally it’s essential to appreciate the timelines involved here and the risks of such research not producing a commercially viable alternative (given that such programs have failed to deliver in the past). It’s also important to understand the concept of what we engineer’s call “technical readiness”.

Figure 8: Technology Readiness levels are important to understand and being realistic as to where you are as this influences where to go for funding….[Source:  ]

Figure 9: Technology Readiness levels are important to understand and being realistic as to where you are as this influences where to go for funding….[Source:]

And it’s also important to remember that this is hardly the first time someone has proposed a radical solution to our energy problems (anyone remember Cold fusion? or OTEC?) which hasn’t quite worked out as planned. It is a fact of technical history that the benefits of new technologies are often overestimated and the technical difficulty in implementing them is often underestimated in the early days.

Figure 10:…not least because TRL’s often links into experience curves, which helps to set the final price of a product (shown the EP curve for selected renewables) [Source: IPCC (2011)] A persistent problem for nuclear has been its tendency to produce negative learning curves!

Either way I think we can call off Mulder and Scully, land those black helicopters and debunk any suggestion of a conspiracy against alternatives to the LWR. Its just life is about priorities, and clearly the nuclear industry has other priorities right now (namely survival!). There is little point in them proposing something that they know is simply not at present a practical alternative.


From flower power to glower power

I would argue that part of the problem here is that quite a number (although not all) of the “alt-nuke” activists were originally anti-nuclear. Examples would include the likes of George Monbiot, James Hansen, Mark Lynas or Baroness Worthington. Unfortunately this means they’ve brought many of the same misconceptions and prejudices from their anti-nuclear activist days with them.

Hence they’ve blurred the lines between the civilian nuclear industry and the military nuclear program and assumed both have always been linked (and again Pandora’s Promise is a good example of this). They seem to think that the only reason for LWR’s was to produce Plutonium for bombs or to power nuclear submarines.

Figure 11: Many still seem to think that nuclear plants are run by the likes of Mr Burns and operated by Homer Simpson

They’re limited knowledge of nuclear power means that many of the alt-nuke cheerleaders often don’t actually understand how reactors work. e.g. Many advocates of thorium I find seem to unaware that you don’t need an MSR to utilise Thorium. Gas-cooled reactors and CANDU’s have successfully operated using Thorium in the past and would be the logical starting point today. Advocates of Breeders and reprocessing seem to be unaware of the fact that it amounts to a modest (thought expensive) reduction in HLW at the expense of a significant increase in the amounts of ILW and LLW.

Union of Concerned Scientists (USA) Estimate of wastes resulting from different disposal options

Figure 12: Union of Concerned Scientists (USA) Estimate of wastes resulting from different disposal options [Credit 2011, based on DOE data]

And as discussed, many in the alt-nuke camp don’t seem to trust the nuclear industry experts. Like the Tea Party they instead tend to rely on whatever they can dig up on the internet or on blogs, rather than what the scientific literature says. Now while a healthy dose of scepticism is perhaps a good idea in regard to the nuclear lobby (they certainly lied to us in the past), but clearly arguing that the industry would cut off its own nose to spite they’re face, particularly in such desperate times is just ludicrous.

Posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, energy, France, Fukushima, future, history, Japan, LFTR, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology, thorium | Leave a comment

Tories plan to decimate Green Energy

This is a reposting of something I put up on my personal blog recently.

Hidden away within the recent Queen’s speech was a series of commitments to dismantle many of the Green energy policies brought in under both the last government and indeed the previous Major government. Obviously fearful that labour might win the next election, the Tories are taking a leaf out of G.W. Bush’s play book and trying to hammer through as much legislation as possible favourable to their pay masters.

Figure 1: The 2014 Queen's speech might well represent a major roll back of Green Energy

Figure 1: The 2014 Queen’s speech might well represent a major roll back of Green Energy

The Tories, aided by their lib dem lackies, firstly plan to make it easier for shale gas drillers to frack under people’s homes (wonder what that will do to house prices?). And this comes on the back of news that the US shale gas boom is running out of steam (not that this should come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to the facts rather than the propaganda) and that even the US is now talking about the need to kerb emissions. Its as if the Tories were living in a cocoon through the winter storms (presumably in a coffin holding a handful of grave soil ;D).

And should protesters against fracking try to stop this drilling, the Tories are also seeking to tighten up trespass laws with another bill they’ve slipped into the queen’s speech.

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

Figure 2: Fracking wellhead fire, coming shortly to a field in England [Credit:, 2014]

Perhaps more serious is the threat to fiddle with building standards. The Tories are now proposing to relax current standards for new buildings intended to ensure that new build structures are more energy efficient.

This is a hugely significant move. As I’ve pointed out before, as much as 30-40% of the UK’s final energy consumption involves providing heat to buildings. By contrast electricity is just 20% of the UK’s final energy consumption (and quite a bit of that goes towards heating!). So any measure that can reduce the energy consumption of buildings would go along way to both reducing the UK’s carbon emissions and reducing the peak demand for energy in winter (thus improving energy security).

Figure 3: Commitments to low carbon homes within the UK are now under threat [Credit:, 2014]

Figure 3: Commitments to low carbon homes within the UK are now under threat [Credit:, 2014]

And it would also mean saving money for not just householders, but also the government (by reducing the scale of the winter heating allowance…of course the Tories want to get rid of that too!). Not to mention less cases of pensioners freezing to death in winter in leaky cold houses. Such measures are also intended to counter the mistakes of the past. The fact is that the UK has in past housing booms thrown up lots of cheaply built but expensive to maintain houses which were poorly insulated, leaky, damp and without putting much thought into support infrastructure (e.g. drainage to avoid flooding, public transport to reduce the dependency for cars, etc.).

Obviously one doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, so given these facts, the previous Labour government introduced strict limits and tough new building codes. These went so far as to suggest that all new homes should be zero carbon by 2016. These rules were no bolt from the blue, but built on measures previously introduced by the Major government and indeed measures the current coalition originally supported.

The justification for the changes the Tories now propose (in what is another U-turn on the environment…anyone still remember that “greenest government ever” pledge!), is that these tough building standards are curbing house building (by making the costs of building homes more expensive). So given that the Troy plan for the next election is to trigger a housing bubble (and thus an artificial spur of growth), these building standards are proving more than a little inconvenient.

However its worth reflecting on the consequences of such a policy. It was all well and good throwing up cheap leaky homes in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when the world was awash with cheap fossil fuels, but that is not the case anymore. Anyone buying these homes will essentially be locking themselves into a future of many decades of ever higher gas bills (while the zero carbon homes come with much lower running costs).

And of course, where is all the gas to run these homes going to come from? As I’ve previously discussed it is highly implausible to suggest the UK can rely on Shale gas and with events in Ukraine the security of supply of the UK’s gas supplies is under greater threat than it ever has been before. Obviously in such circumstance’s creating a whole new generation of natural gas users is hardly a sensible strategy, no more than previous Tory policy to get rid of energy efficiency grants intended to allow existing households to refurbish homes (make them more air tight, better insulation, etc.).

Wind-bagging hypocrisy

Figure 4: The Wind Turbine (badly positioned, not really much good other than publicity) on Cameroon's london home comes down

Figure 4: The Wind Turbine (badly positioned, not really much good other than publicity) on Cameroon’s london home comes down

Of course this comes on the back of the Tories letting slip that indeed they will oppose onshore wind farms after the next election, cutting subsidies and encouraging councils to block such developments. Cameron claims that this decision on the basis that after a decade or two of subsidy, surely wind power should be able to get by without subsidy?

A fair point I’ll agree, but equally he is proposing to provide a massive subsidy to nuclear power…an industry that has been dependant on massive government subsidy for the best part of 50 years (not just to building nuclear plants, but also costs such as the £73 billion and counting to dispose of nuclear waste). If subsidies to renewables are to be cut, then surely we should cut all nuclear subsidies too? Won’t that be the free market response?

Also its worth remembering that part of the point of subsidies to renewables (or nuclear for that matter) is to get around the fact that fossil fuel use is also in receipt of significant subsidies.

As a token gesture, the Tories do include a measure to introduce a 5p charge on plastic bags. A good idea, as I’ve discussed before, but clearly a classic example of bait and switch, as can be observed from the fact that the Daily Mail, which is usually allergic to anything environmental, actually praised this measure.

Figure 5: A plastic bag tax was included as a token gesture  [Credit: The Scotsman, 2014]

Figure 5: A plastic bag tax was included as a token gesture
[Credit: The Scotsman, 2014]

In short the Tory plan is to gut the environmental budget, repeat all of the mistakes of the past, leading to a Britain in future with yet more leaky, badly built, flood prone homes. The unfortunate owners of these new homes will find themselves trapped with the millstone of negative equity around their neck in a home they cannot sell and cannot afford to heat (once the shale gas fantasy runs its course).

Posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, nuclear, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, sustainability, sustainable, technology | 3 Comments