Who is Britain’s energy minister?


I’ve been spending the last few months warning of the fact that the energy policy of the new Tory government was completely unworkable and at odds with proposed action on climate change. It would almost certainly lead to the UK missing its green energy targets and create a strong chilling effect that would imperil investment in the UK’s ageing electricity network. The Energy minister assured anyone who dared to ask, that this wasn’t the case, that she was confident that the UK would meet its commitments.

Well a recently leaked letter reveals a very different story. It suggests that while Amber Rudd been presenting a brave face in public, letters have been exchanged between ministers all but admitting that the UK will now miss its green targets. Worse still, this will trigger billions of pounds in fines from the EU (as these targets are part of legally binding cuts the EU agreed to as a successor to the Kyoto protocol). She suggests host of fairly desperate measures to resolve this, ranging from a massively expensive interconnector with Norway or even the government financing the installation of renewable energy in other countries (imagine what the tabloids will make of that, us paying not for wind farms in the UK, but in Romania or Poland!).

Obviously this is a telling insight into how the Tory government functions. Lies and spin in public and desperate running around with their hair on fire in private. A fire they are forced to put out with large amounts of public money.

Take this idea of an inter-connector to Norway. While this is actually something I’d favour, as it would offset the need for more energy storage in the UK to even out the peaks and troughs in renewable generation (particularly if the Norwegians convert their large hydro capacity to include more pumped storage).

However I would envisage this as part of a long term plan, with as much power flowing from Britain to Norway (or the other nations its connected too), than we buy back off them. The Tory plan proposed  by Amber Rudd would be very expensive to implement in the short term. And at times of peak winter demand, the power being sold by such interconnectors will be very expensive. And to be blunt other EU states are more used to higher energy prices and will likely win the bidding war over the UK.

And in further developments, the energy industry seems to be loosing confidence in the UK government. The world energy council has cut their rating for the reliability of the UK’s grid. Until recently, the UK has been considered a fairly safe bet, given its access to North sea gas, good interconnection with European neighbours and any gaps in UK generation being filled by a rapidly expanding renewables sector.

However the cuts to subsidies and the single minded obsession with Hinkley C seems to have shattered market confidence. Recently EDF was advised by its own employee shareholders that the companies future would be at risk if they press ahead with Hinkley C. Both Standards & Poor and Moody’s have threatened to downgrade the companies credit rating if the project goes ahead. And market traders have been advising clients to dump EDF stock.

Weighting all this up one is forced to one of two rather worrying conclusions. The first is that Amber Rudd and her advisers (in the pay of certain pro-fracking lobbyists I might add) are actually more clueless and incompetent than we thought. That the penny only dropped for them recently. Her letter reminds me of the sort of e-mail I’d get from a student whose not attended lectures (or texted on her phone through them) just prior to an exam along the lines of “I don’t understand any of this” and they basically wants someone to dig them out of a hole of their own creation.

The other conclusion is slightly more worrying. That the energy minister of the UK is not in fact Amber Rudd, but in fact is Osborne. In essence Rudd’s job involves turning on and off the lights in her office and upping the gender balance in Cameron’s cabinet. In truth she has no real authority to implement policy. The letter might have been forwarded on to several minsters, but the tone of it was clearly directed at Osborne. Obviously, given the chancellors single minded obsession with austerity, its doubtful any sort of meaningful policy will emerge….until the lights go out …but then its going to be too late!

In essence, much like the rest of the economy, Osborne has created a regime of energy haves and have nots. Massively expensive and lavishly funded fracking and nuclear operations (who may generate some power at some distant future date), with renewables and old coal fired stations (both vital to keeping the lights on today) who are now living hand to mouth.

As with other recent revelations (which I take as a sign that civil servants are becoming increasingly disgruntled…and where not even a year into the present government!) this shows the level of bungling incompetence at the heart of the UK government. And why the country is well on the way to becoming a basket case as regards long term energy policy.

Posted in budget deficit, clean energy, climate change, economics, energy, fossil fuels, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology | 4 Comments

What Exxon knew…..

Figure 1: Evidence is emerging that Exxon, and perhaps other oil companies, knew about climate change since the 70's [Credit: Inside climate news (2015)]

Figure 1: Evidence is emerging that Exxon, and perhaps other oil companies, knew about climate change since the 70’s [Credit: Inside climate news (2015)]

A story that’s been brewing for the last few months has been the extend to which Exxon Mobil’s position on climate change may not be entirely honest. Evidence is surfacing that Exxon funded its own private research into climate change starting in the late 70’s (i.e. before climate change even became a public issue). The research revealed much of what we now know regarding climate change. However rather than take action, the company instead buried the data and threw millions the way of the climate change deniers.

Figure 2: An example of some of Exxon research, predating official research on climate by many years [Credit: Cleantechnica.org (2015) http://cleantechnica.com/2015/09/22/exxonmobil-boasts-climate-science-obscures-masquerade/ ]

Figure 2: An example of some of Exxon research, predating official research on climate by many years [Credit: Cleantechnica.org (2015)]

The story has been circulating on the blogs for several weeks now, but as more and more evidence emerges, its starting to break through to the mainstream media. Suffice to say this is pretty serious stuff. To be clear we are not talking about some minor paper study, we are talking about a major survey involving a large number of scientists, a budget in the millions (back when that was a lot of money) going out in the field and taking measurements. They even modified an oil tanker and rigged it with instrumentation because the scientists wanted to get an accurate measurement of carbon dioxide levels over the oceans.

And this program of research lasted for several years, perhaps until the 1980’s. Obviously there’s no way that level of funding could not have been allocated without some sort of nod from the very top. Which means this scandal likely goes all the way to the top.

Figure 3: The Exxon Atlantic, one of the tankers fitted with carbon dioxide levels over the world's oceans [Credit: Inside climate news (2015)]

Figure 3: The Exxon Atlantic, one of the tankers fitted with carbon dioxide levels over the world’s oceans [Credit: Inside climate news (2015)]

It should be remembered that Exxon, like many oil companies, has lot’s of the world’s top geologists on the pay roll. These geologists often have to walk the tightrope of getting the goods for their employer (i.e. go out and find oil) and remaining true to the science (some of the best evidence for global warming comes from geology). So it has always been a bit difficult to believe that the oil companies didn’t know about climate change, that this was something that popped out of the blue. Its a bit like a firearms salesman not being aware that guns shoot out dangerous chucks of hot lead.

Crucially, this scandal is reminiscent of a similar controversy regarding cigarettes. The tobacco companies had conducted much research into cigarettes, their health effects, their addictive nature, the link between cancer and second hand smoking. Yet rather than try and use this information to reduce the harm their products caused (e.g. those smokeless cigarettes we see going around), instead they did the opposite (as this piece from the 60 minutes archive reveals). They actually went out of their way to make smoking more addictive, fully aware of the consequences to their loyal customers. And they responded to increasingly government scrutiny by funding bogus research to cast doubt on research that showed the harm smoking could do, even thought they knew the government backed research to be true and they knew their products were killing their customers.

You literally cannot get any worse than what we are seeing. For of all the oil companies Exxon stands out for its single minded opposition to any sort of action on climate change. They have consistently been one of the most prominent funders of climate change deniers and of lobbyists in the US congress to block any action. Exxon could have easily started research into alternative energy sources, or carbon capture and storage, which given that renewables is now a $300 billion a year industry won’t have been a bad investment. But instead, they took the same route as the tobacco lobby, to lie, mislead and deceive the public.

Figure 4: Some quotes from Exxon officials [Credit: Climatecrocks http://climatecrocks.com/2015/10/23/newest-entry-in-inside-climate-news-exxonknew-story-is-a-doozy/ & Inside climate news (2015)]

Figure 4: Some quotes from Exxon officials [Credit: Climatecrocks & Inside climate news (2015)]

And of course we all remember how it worked out for the tobacco companies. Once word leaked out the extend to which they knew about the dangers of cigarette smoke was exposed, they were promptly rendered liable for the damages and sued for it…..$368 billion worth of damages! Unfortunately, the tobacco lobby were let off lightly, after they agreed to pay a fine and never do it again….when we ignore the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them…..

An urgent investigation is needed to get to the bottom of these allegations. And I don’t mean a couple of lawyers in suits. I mean FBI agents with a badge and a gun. If these rumours are true, then I say that the oil companies should be made financially liable (and hint, even a fraction of the costs of climate change are enough to bankrupt the oil companies several times over!).

And given that the fate of the tobacco lobby didn’t seem to scare them, I say no out of court settlement, no going easy on them, take them for every penny, then go after the major shareholders one by one. Furthermore, any executives found responsible for it should be made criminally liable for the death and serious injury climate change has and will be responsible for. After a couple of retired oil chief’s get prep walked into court in handcuff’s that should serve to scare the rest straight pretty quickly.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Vorsprung durch cheatnik

I’ve avoided commenting on the whole VW scandal because A) I was busy and B) I was waiting for the other car makers to get caught out, as it would be unfair for us to focus on the one who got caught.

Figure 1, There's trouble in Wolfsburg

Figure 1, There’s trouble in Wolfsburg

Was I surprised by this story? No! Its been long established in the scientific literature that there is a large gap between how vehicles perform in lab tests on a rolling road and how they perform on the actual road in real world conditions. There’s a whole section of research into reconciling the differences between these two.

In part this gap is because real world driving conditions are quite variable. There’s a big difference between how a car performs in say stop go city traffic or on a motorway, or on a rural country road. Particularly when we throw in issues such as the weather conditions and driver behaviour (some people accelerate more aggressively and use the brakes more, others are more gentle, some break the speed limit, others don’t) and vehicle condition (e.g. the air pressure in the tire’s, oil, air filter, battery condition, loading, etc.).

Certainly, it has been long assumed that the car makers were optimising their vehicles to pass emissions tests and carbon dioxide limits. Which is a problem because beyond a certain tipping point reducing pollutants (Nox, CO, particulates, etc.) can conflict with reducing carbon emissions. Much like students swot up to pass an exam, the assumption was that the carmakers did likewise. However its all too likely that some crossed the line into outright cheating. The allegation is that the VW diesel’s could detect when they were being tested and set themselves up to reduce pollutants.

I would be very surprised as noted if VW was alone in this, while its not entirely my field, I have seen enough test data to guess that other manufacturers are pulling similar tricks. The BBC has an interesting bit of analysis they have performed on this and it does seem likely that this goes beyond a few diesel cars in the US.

But before we start ripping into the carmakers it is worth recognising that even when we factor in this “cheating”, cars have got a lot cleaner and a lot more fuel efficient over the last few decades. There is ample data to support that fact. However they are bound by legislation on the one hand and customer demand on the other. Inevitably they have to design on that basis.

Figure 2, Air pollution levels are generally falling in many cases, in this graph LA one of the America's most polluted cities [Source: Grantz and Shrestha (2005), http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org/landingpage.cfm?article=ca.v059n02p137&fulltext=yes]

Figure 2, Air pollution levels are generally falling in many cases, in this graph LA one of the America’s most polluted cities [Source: Grantz and Shrestha (2005)]

Is this crisis likely the work of a handful of rough employee’s, as VW claim? I doubt it. In a modern car company no design changes get implemented without a nod from someone in management and some sort of paper trail. Certainly not a German company. If this is true, it imply’s that VW have very sloppy procedures and I sure as hell won’t be buying one of their cars, when I can get one from a better organised company in, say Italy or France.

Does this crisis mean its unethical to buy a diesel? I would argue no, it depends on what you do with the car. If you spend most of your time in stop go traffic in town, a petrol powered car will have lower pollution levels (although higher carbon emissions). However if you do a lot of country driving the situation is very different and you are probably justified in getting a car with lower carbon emissions and greater fuel economy. And of course arguing against someone buying a small diesel car is being “unethical” when you drive a massive petrol powered 4×4 is just plain silly.

Climate deniers would of course now claim that this push towards lowering carbon emissions has “cost lives”. Well not really. The problem has been that improving the fuel economy of vehicles is a bit like trying to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear. All forms of fossil fuels are dirty, they will generate pollutants, they will produce greenhouse gases. I’m all for trying to improve vehicle fuel economy, but these are measures that merely buy time. Ultimately we need to radically change how cars operate.

Switching to electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles will help. However, that only works if the electricity grid is cleaned up and a carbon free source of hydrogen can be developed. Otherwise the gains are marginal. And I would argue for this reason, we need to think beyond simply changing what’s under the bonnet.

We need to make cars smaller too, as a small car will automatically use less fuel, regardless of how you choose to power it. Part of the problem is that many “size” their car on the basis of that once a year trip to France or the odd time they move a sofa, then spend the rest of the time driving around alone in a massive estate, complaining about petrol prices and how difficult it is to find a parking space. If instead they bought a smaller car, then hired a larger car (or a van) for that one time they need a larger vehicle, they’d be much better off.

This also leads to the concept of ditching the individually owned automobile altogether, which are then hired on a basis of need would mean less vehicles and allow the fixed costs of them to be spread amoung more people. An important consideration when you realise that the issue with alternatively fuelled vehicles is that they cost more to buy and maintain, although the running costs per mile (e.g. electricity or hydrogen) are much cheaper than with conventional vehicles.

Figure 3, Certainly it is strange the Americans making a big deal about “dangerous” European diesels, when guns are just fine!

Figure 3, Certainly it is strange the Americans making a big deal about “dangerous” European diesels, when guns are just fine!

So let’s not turn this crisis into an excuse for American car makers to bash a German one for the “crime” of stealing some market share from its Mexican built vehicles. Of course my fear is that this is exactly what will happen and the real issues will be ignored.

Posted in cars, climate change, fossil fuels, politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Don’t mention the climate deficit

Figure 1, There's something ironic about a Tory energy secretary who has committed to a policy that is unworkable and all but guarantees future power cuts standing under a banner labelled “stability”.

Figure 1, There’s something ironic about a Tory energy secretary who has committed to a policy that is unworkable and all but guarantees future power cuts standing under a banner labelled “stability

At the Tory conference there was an awkward moment when Amber Rudd was required to speak of the Tories recent “achievements” in her field. Of course, she had very little that one could put a positive spin on, given that the Tory party has in the space of a few months reneged on everyone of its commencements on environmental issues. Even some of the few positives from the Thatcher era, the NFFO (non-fossil fuel obligation) has essentially gone.

So she spent most of the time pointing out that the Tories weren’t as bad as UKIP (who are at least honest enough to confirm their climate denial credentials, unlike the Tories who like to pretend otherwise). Commentators noted that the speech was not well attended and that crucially Amber Rudd did not mention once the upcoming Paris climate summit, nor the Pope’s recent message on the need for climate action. This is akin to Miliband’s now infamous conference speech, where he neglected to mention the deficit. Similarly the Tories don’t dare mention the climate deficit they’ve now committed the country too.

Amber Rudd followed the Republican line of trying to make a half baked claim’s about “value for money“. However, this assumes that allowing climate change to happen is a risk and cost free option, which it isn’t. Earlier this month the Bank of England boss made clear the risks to financial stability brought on by climate change. And it was no surprise his audience that night was the insurance industry, as they have long worried about the financial destabilising effects climate change could have.

And it is deeply ironic her moaning about the tiny subsidies renewables receive compared to the massive historical subsidies given to nuclear or fossil fuels. Or indeed the vast sums they have committed to paying for Hinkley C. All of which will not deliver value for money and will certainly push up bills for “working families”. By contrast falling costs for renewables would mean that they should help to stabilise prices in the long term.

In short the Tories now have a climate policy that, in practice, is little different from that of the Republican party. A party who has a policy essentially at odds with all but a handful of the world’s more nutty and extremist regimes.

To the right of Reagan

And speaking of the GOP, there was a few awkward moments for them in a recent debate in Califorina  when climate change came up (hardly a surprise in a state suffering a massive drought) . One question in particular was from Ronald Reagan’s foreign secretary George Shultz who asked if the GOP is at odd’s with Reagan on climate. When his administration heard from scientists about the risks relating to the ozone hole, Reagan moved to take action on it, while the present GOP instead howls in protest and tosses their toy’s out of the pram.

I would ideally note that Shultz’s question was a slightly loaded one, the bulk of the discussions and ultimately action on CFC’s occurred under the term of Reagan’s successor, G. H. Bush. But certainly his point is that there is a marked contrast to how the present GOP is handling the situation. I might further throw in the point that the Clean Air Act and the founding of the EPA occurred under the tenure of Nixon.

Of course, the result was the Republicans candidate’s squirmed along, with the same lines as Amber Rudd, what about the costs to “working families”. Ignoring the costs to those same “working families” when rising sea levels wipe out much of Florida, or drought wipes out much of the country’s farms. Nor indeed the massive amounts the US government spends on climate change mitigation.

Figure 2, The US Republican party has now moved so far to the right Bush Snr. and Reagan come across as practically liberal

Figure 2, The US Republican party has now moved so far to the right Bush Snr. and Reagan come across as practically liberal

The reality is that the Republicans have moved so far to the right on certain issues, be it gay marriage, climate change, or gun control, that some former Republican Presidents now come across as bed wetting liberals by comparison. I’m not sure that if Nixon, Reagan, Eisenhower or either of the Bush’s were to stand in the current GOP they could get the nomination. They would be seen as “too left wing”. And of course what’s driven this craziness in the GOP is the Tea Party wing. And where has pandering to the mob got them? The very strong chance of Donald Trump as their nominee, all but guaranteeing another democratic win in 2016.

And in the UK too, the Tories are following the same script. On welfare, healthcare, immigration, Europe and climate change, they have allowed themselves to drift so far to the right, I suspect Thatcher or Churchill would probably feel more at home in the lib dem’s or labour.

Posted in climate change, Global warming denial, politics | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Beware of the Elephants

Figure 1: There's a reason why the domes of Hinkley C are white.......

Figure 1: There’s a reason why the domes of Hinkley C are white…….

The term “White Elephant” is often used to refer to a project that is drawing in far more money and political capital than its worth. Yet such a project is often difficult if not impossible to simply cancel, usually because there’s so much riding on it, or the cost of cancellation would exceed the cost of completing it. It refers to the practice in Asia in which vast amounts of money would be spend buying and maintaining a white elephant, that in of itself, has no real value.

It is therefore quite an appropriate term used to describe the government’s troubled Hinkley C project. As the Guardian’s Damian Caraington points out, you can tell how badly things are likely to go by the long list of enemies the project is gathering. And this is before they’ve even started building it!

While inevitably, the Green groups are against it, but there are a lot of opponents who are anything but fluffy tree huggers. Energy analyst Peter Atherton for example describes it as “one of the worst ever deals signed by a British government”. A view shared by HSBC analysts, their colleagues at Citigroup and the Financial Times. Even fellow big six boss Paul Massara of Npower seems to see Hinkley C as a bit of a shit sandwich, which he has no intention of biting into.

All point out that there are far cheaper ways of providing low carbon energy and that the price of Hinkley C has already crept up from £17 billion to nearly £25 billion and the date of completion has slipped further. This trend of spiralling costs and a pushing back of dates mirrors other recent nuclear energy projects. Olkiluoto in Finland is now likely to be 13 years late and 4 times more expensive than its original estimate. And the lawsuits are likely to be flying for much longer after that. Flamanville in Normandy is facing similar delays and a three fold increase in costs.

Indeed, one of the other issues is the fact that, perhaps somewhat ironically, the UK is having to increase its pump storage capacity to cope with a sudden power loss from a future Hinkley C. Of course, supporters of Hinkley C will often try to claim that wind energy isn’t a viable alternative “because wind is intermittent” (nuclear has its own issues in this regard of course) and that storing it all is somehow impossible (really?), which merely serves to demonstrate how naive and ill-informed they are about how electricity grids function (i.e. the difference between available power (Watts) and stored energy (kWh’s), the grid’s reserve power availability has to be sized according to the largest domino, which will be Hinkley C).

Enter the Three Stooges

Indeed speaking of tree huggers, three pro-nuclear, green turncoats, Paul Goodall, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have now published an open letter reversing their prior support for Hinkley C and calling for it to be scrapped. No doubt alarmed at the recent cuts to UK renewable subsidies, and perhaps it dawning on them that such cuts were inevitable (as I’ve long feared) in order to make sure renewables are not in a position to compete against Hinkley C.

They also point to the fact that this slipping of the schedule pushes the date at which the plant can start up is now past the crucial threshold of 2023 – the date at which all but one of the UK’s existing nuclear plant’s will have had to shut for safety reasons. As I’ve long pointed out, once we slip past that date either lots and lots of renewables will be needed to fill the resulting energy gap, or (given recent subsidy cuts) more likely all efforts to curb carbon emissions will be abandoned with a mad dash for gas and coal. Already, one could argue much of the renewable capacity added worldwide has not been replacing fossil fuels, but replacing ageing nuclear capacity instead.

While our three stooges mumble something about still being pro-nuclear and propose modular nuclear reactors as an alternative, this merely demonstrates their lack of knowledge regarding nuclear energy (its kind of the equivalent of them saying Amen or Hallelujah!). As I have pointed out on this blog, modular nuclear reactors would in all probability be more expensive per kWh than large single reactors like Hinkley C (haven’t they ever heard of economies of scale? I mean if small reactors are cheaper, don’t you think we’d be building them?). This is a view shared by the NNL (the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratories).

The fact is, there are good reasons why the nuclear industry is pushing for large LWR’s – its the only viable option they have that’s currently even vaguely market ready. Alternative’s to the LWR paradigm do hold certain advantages, notably in the matter of safety and reduced nuclear waste. But all the evidence points to them being more expensive again, both to build and decommission and crucially these alternatives will likely have even slower build rates.

Put rather bluntly, Hinkley C is shaping up to be the hill on which the UK nuclear industry may well chose to die on. The trouble is, they may take down the whole of the UK energy industry with them…..anyone got an elephant rifle handy?…..

Posted in climate change, economics, energy, nuclear, politics, power, renewables | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A brief history of Drax and UK energy policy

Figure 1: The present government has destroyed what little energy policy the UK had [Credit: The Guardian, 2013]

Figure 1: The present government has destroyed what little energy policy the UK had [Credit: The Guardian, 2013]

A key feature of any nation’s energy policy is to play the long game, with long term planning, based on sound scientific advice. However this has been precisely what has been lacking in the UK, which has gone through six energy ministers in a decade. When Amber Rudd took over as energy minster she likely inherited a well thumbed copy of a book on her desk from her predecessors labelled “the half-arsed approach to energy policy”.

Figure 2: Drax under construction in the 1970's [Credit: Atkins Global]

Figure 2: Drax under construction in the 1970’s [Credit: Atkins Global]

And Drax, the UK’s largest power station is a prime example of everything that is wrong with the UK’s energy policy. The plant was built in the 1970’s as part of a centrally planned energy policy centred on large coal fired stations using UK produced coal. However, this policy ignored the issue of climate change, which even in the 70’s was something that scientists were expressing concerns about.

Consequently one could argue Drax was obsolete before it even generated its first ever megawatt. The so-called “dash for gas” and a decision to move away from coal mining (not for climate change reasons, but entirely ideological reasons as the then Tory government sought to destroy the powerful mining unions) left the plant out of sync with the times.

As concerns related to climate change grew, Drax and its vast cooling towers became a totem for the urgent need for action. The plant would therefore find itself repeatedly besieged by climate protestors and environmental action camps. Meanwhile the government came under increasing pressure to legislate against plants like Drax.

Figure 3: Drax Climate Action camp in the 2000's

Figure 3: Drax Climate Action camp in the 2000’s

Eventually, seeing the writing on the wall the owners of the now privatised Drax decided to do something. They announced that they planned to turn over at least half the plant to be co-fired on biomass. Most observers, myself included, chuckled at this, assuming it to be a ploy merely intended to get the Greenpeace brigade off their backs. However, the company is now following through on this and conversion of 3 of Drax’s 6 generators to biomass is more or less complete.

Figure 3: The construction of the infrastructure to support biomass at Drax, in this case these large storage silo's for wood pellets, is now more or less complete [Credit: Drax, 2014]

Figure 4: The construction of the infrastructure to support biomass at Drax, in this case these large storage silo’s for wood pellets, is now more or less complete [Credit: Drax, 2014]

When the previous new-labour government published its strategy to promote greater use of renewables, including biomass, they probably envisaged a few small plants operating in the tens of megawatts. They certainly did not imagine someone trying to generate electricity using biomass on the scale of several GW’s! This conversion of Drax has drastically altered the energy landscape of the UK. So large is its demand for biomass fuel, the UK now imports large quantities of wood and wood wastes from the US. 82% of the UK’s imports and 60% of all of America’s wood fuel exports now goes to powering Drax.

Figure 4: US wood exports are now dominated by the demands of a single power station in the UK – Drax [Credit: EIA, 2014]

Figure 5: US wood exports are now dominated by the demands of a single power station in the UK – Drax [Credit: EIA, 2014]

Given this dependence on imports some have questioned how “carbon neutral” Drax can claim to be. I would note that while yes, importing wood from such a distance will almost certainly produce some substantial carbon emissions, however we have to compare that to the alternatives, such as importing coal from the US or Australia or Shale gas from the US. Its quite probable that the UK could source substantially more biomass from within the country, possibly enough to meet much of the plant’s requirements. But this would require a very different energy policy to what we’ve got.

Figure 5: Estimates for the carbon footprint of Drax biomass compared to other sources [Credit: Carbonbrief.org (2015) for last three, based on BEaC scenario's, the rest from the noted sources]

Figure 6: Estimates for the carbon footprint of Drax biomass compared to other sources [Credit: Carbonbrief.org (2015) for last three, based on BEaC scenario’s, the rest from the noted sources]

The problem with the Thatcher era policy of privatisation is that it placed the decisions as to what to do in the hands of private industry. This produced two problems. Firstly private industry has no need to invest in surplus. Hence why the UK’s spare capacity in power generating capacity is down to just 1.2% this winter. Secondly, inevitably a free-market based solution will produce some strange results. Initially at the start of privatisation there was a dash for gas. And plants like Drax stopped burning British coal and instead using imported stuff. There was a strong push for wind energy on the renewables front (as wind has a more consistent cost and is a useful hedge against high gas prices), while both labour and Tories little sweetheart nuclear, was left to wither and die. Energy prices have also soared.

Of course a more centrally planned energy policy, such as that operated by France, does offer greater government control. Although this comes at the expense that the state must also put up all the cash. Such a policy can also become somewhat bloated and unwieldy over time. Many in France now acknowledge that the country is overly dependant on nuclear and that more renewables should be added. But few politicians will say that in public for fear of the reaction from the union’s representing powerplant workers.

So in short its hardly fair to blame the management of Drax for pursuing the course that they have, as this was the inevitable consequences of a privatised energy policy. Free markets are always going to produce strange results when left to their own devices, just look at the build up to the recent financial crisis.

However the government’s reaction has been to essentially punish Drax (and the wind and solar industry) for their successes by withdrawing all subsidies to renewables and throwing money at Fracking and nuclear energy (to the tune of 68% of the cost per MWh of electricity generated). They’ve also rather alarmingly cut back on energy efficiency programs. All as part of an effort to prod and poke the energy industry to get the result they want.

Figure 6: Opinion polls show that there is overwhelming support within the UK for taking action on climate change, something at odds with current government policy [Credit: Carbonbrief.org, 2014]

Figure 7: Opinion polls show that there is overwhelming support within the UK for taking action on climate change, something at odds with current government policy [Credit: Carbonbrief.org, 2014]

Of course, the likely consequences of this are that while a couple of pet projects of the government (Hinkley C for example) will probably go ahead, this has had a chilling effect on both renewables and the wider energy industry. The normally Tory friendly CBI has now warned that this reneging of past promises will likely lead to a slow down in future investment in the energy industry (if not a full stop). After all, is it really sensible to halt construction of renewables at a time when they are the only source of energy capacity that is growing in the country? The UK has now fallen into the bottom ten of countries in which to invest in green energy, which is at odds with the chancellor’s “open for business” mantra.

When confronted by this, supporters of the government will mumble something about how they want a balanced energy mix, a bit of this, a bit of that. However that, as noted, isn’t possible with a free market energy policy. If the government truly wants what it claims, then they need to adopt a more centrally planned and financed approach. This would of course mean abandoning much of the Chancellors tight spending limits. And for what should be obvious ideologically reasons that is extremely unlikely to happen….except of course for nuclear, where a blank check is essentially being written.

There are solutions, Germany and some of the Scandinavian and Baltic nations have shown how a hybrid of well informed energy policy from the state can be coupled with private industry to produce a workable, low carbon energy policy. However, the key inherent feature in these nation’s energy policies has been long term planning that has carried over between changes in government.

For example, the conservative government in Germany has not undone or reneged on the commitments made by the previous Green-left administration (they’ve obviously tweaked the policy here and there, but its not been fundamentally altered). Why? Because Merkel knows that this would be the political equivalent of vandalism. She’d be as well off going around Berlin with a baseball bat smashing street lights, as it would send investors and industry scrambling for the hills.

Figure 7: Strong growth in renewables has occurred across several EU states...Britain sits 2nd from bottom! [Credit: Eurostat, 2015]

Figure 8: Strong growth in renewables has occurred across several EU states…Britain sits 2nd from bottom! [Credit: Eurostat, 2015]

By contrast in the space of just a few months the Tories have undone nearly three decades worth of UK energy policy, purely for idealogical reasons, most of which are driven by short term concerns and ill-informed NIMBYism. I mean the changes in vehicle excise duty brought in by Osborne means that a Porsche can be taxed for the same amount as a Prius! And this is despite a UK supreme court ruling ordering the government to do something about vehicle tailpipe emissions. And if cutting wind energy subsidies wasn’t bad enough, there’s talk of a carbon tax on green energy…..which is carbon neutral! Its no wonder Al Gore is getting worried.

Inevitably, the UK now has an energy policy that is doomed to failure. It is now likely that the UK will fudge the issue at the climate talks in Paris, and will fight tooth and nail to avoid getting tied into any binding carbon cuts. Investors have taken fright and while I suspect there will be some investment (in as noted a few pet projects), its going to be nothing close to the expected demand of £110 billion in new infrastructure needed by 2020 just to keep the lights on. And of course, the problem is that if and when the inevitable happens (i.e. rolling black outs), there are no quick fixes, no easy answers.

I’ve heard some socialist compare the Tories to leeches or cockroaches. This is grossly unfair, cockroaches have strong survival instincts. They also have a hive mind and get smarter the more of them there are in the group. Tories seem to have a hive stupidity, they get dumber the more of them there are in a group!

Posted in Biomass, CHP, clean energy, climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, Global warming denial, nuclear, renewables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

California drought – A cautionary tale

I wrote this a while ago and forgot to put it up! I’m in the process of moving house.

Figure 1: California and the Western US has been plagued by recent droughts

Figure 1: California and the Western US has been plagued by recent droughts

A cautionary parable told by environmentalists is that of the lily pond. It goes as follows. We have a pond with lilies growing in it (or in some versions pond scum) and gradually spreading. If the lilies cover the entire pond, they will cut off the sunlight and oxygen and kill all life in the pond. The lilies double in area each day and will take 30 days to cover the entire pond. Assuming we wait until half the pond is covered before taking any action, at what point do we act? Well day 29, one day prior to the pond being covered! Of course by then it will likely be a case of acting too late to do anything meaningful.

Figure 2: The lily pond problem

Figure 2: The lily pond problem

California is in the grip of one of the worse droughts in its history. The media describe it as “unprecedentedbut its not. The risks posed to California, and for that matter the whole of the Western US, and its misuse of the regions water resources is well known and environmentalists have been raising the matter for decades. Indeed this problem extends well beyond California, or the US, but into other parts of South America.

So we end up with the cautionary tale whereby environmentalist raise concerns about an issue, upon which they are either ignored or laughed at. People peered into the vast reservoirs of water behind dams in California or the Mid West and questioned how anyone can worry about “running out” of water. Of course by doing so they failed to understand that the water in the reservoir is merely the floating stock of water. If the supply upstream drys up, or the lake is drained at a rate faster than it can naturally refill, then obviously sooner or later even the largest lake can be emptied.

In the next phase environmentalists are accused of being anti-progress, and part of some sort of thinly disguised Luddite plot. Environmentalists countered by pointing out they weren’t calling for everyone to stop using water, no more than anyone is calling for us to stop using energy. In fact in as much as a good part of the solution to climate change has always been about energy conservation (given how excessive we waste energy), greater conservation of water would mean existing resources would go a lot further.

For the reality is there is much water wastage in California, whereby householders are provided with water in a semi-desert at prices so cheap many wash their cars or keep manicured green lawns. Or where farmers grow water intensive crops that could easily be grown in less water scare parts of the country. And keep in mind that in the US farming is heavily subsidized, yes the government is paying people to waste water! So with good water management, there’s no reason why consumption in states like California could have been dropped down to some sustainable level.

Figure 3: Water wastage on agriculture and households has been a big part of the problem (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Figure 3: Water wastage by agriculture and households has been a big part of the problem (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Of course I’m talking in the past tense because we are well beyond the point where such sensible long term measures will do any good. Given the implications of climate change, the only options left on the table are the drastic and heavy handed types, e.g. water rationing, cutting off supplies to farmers, forcing residents in Californian cities to rely on water from stand pipes or bowsers. While the Republicans are trying to delude themselves that they can magically whisk water out of thin air, the reality is that the window of opportunity where “capitalist” free market friendly solutions could work has now passed. We are left with only the heavy handed big government options.

And given this tale, let us consider issues such as peak oil and climate change. Again, the environmentalists raise concerns. And as noted, we’re not suggesting a complete halt to fossil fuel consumption. An emphasis on energy conservation (better insulation of homes, use of energy efficient appliances, more fuel efficient vehicles, increased use of CHP, etc.) in the short term, would go along way. After all is it really sensible to be rolling coal in an SUV’s at the same time as being concerned about the rise of ISIS within spitting distance of three quarters of the world’s oil reserves? Longer term, a commitment towards renewables and the gradual phase out of fossil fuels would resolve many of our problems (noting that the greater the level of energy conservation in the early days the more time is bought to complete any phase out and develop the necessary technologies).

Figure 4: Why is it rednecks & terrorists have the same choice of vehicles? When you roll coal you roll with ISIS....

Figure 4: Why is it rednecks & terrorists have the same choice of vehicles? When you roll coal you roll with ISIS….

However, we are woefully behind when it comes to meeting any meaningful targets on climate change. Its likely that, like the infamous lily pond, we’ll waiting until the problem is obvious before acting, which will probably mean waiting until its too late to do anything. And again that means waiting until the window of opportunity when more democratic and capitalist friendly solutions have passed…if that window hasn’t already passed. Leaving us with only the drastic and the authoritarian options left (rationing of not just energy supplies but everything that comes from fossil fuels!).

Posted in climate change, efficiency, energy, Global warming denial, peak oil | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments