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 , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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: (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: (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:, 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:, 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 , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Irony still not understood

Originally posted on daryanblog:

The UK’s energy secretary Amber Rudd is showing signs that she possesses a superpower – a complete immunity to understanding the concepts of irony or hypocrisy.


She has been complaining that councils are taking too long to make decisions on Fracking, suggesting that they are just delaying the inevitable and should just hurry up and make a decision within 16 weeks, threatening that the government will take the power to decide off councils who are seen to be dithering.

Of course this all but betrays the fact that the government’s plan is to railroad over local opposition to fracking and drive applications through, even when there’s a clear majority of locals against it. This is in stark contrast to their policy on wind energy where they are trying to halt onshore wind on the off chance it might spoil the view from ones hunting estate/golf course.

And councils will point out

View original 559 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The new normal

Originally posted on daryanblog:

The tabloids are fretting as usual over “immigration”, with a significant increase in the numbers arriving from across the Mediterranean. Something that is having a knock on effect at places like Calais. However, as discussed recently by Ellie O’Hagan in the Guardian, the fact is that some of these migrants are fleeing not war, or ISIS but the effects of climate change. A factor that the media seems to be missing.

Boats crammed with Migrants is something we might have to get used too Boats crammed with Migrants is something we might have to get used too

Now admittedly the number of people we can currently classify as genuine “climate refugees” is probably only a fairly small proportion of those arriving. However, a fact we need to get used to is that this number is going to increase if we don’t do something about climate change urgently….and I mean a lot!

If you think a few hundred…

View original 282 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rise of the machines? The energy implications

Figure 1: Will the machine's rise up to overthrow us?

Figure 1: Will the machine’s rise up to overthrow us?

There’s been quite a lot of discussion on the internet recently on the topic of AI (Artificial Intelligence), prompted by several movies out on the topic (the latest Terminator one, Ex-Machina, Chappie, Interstellar, etc.), as well as the British TV series Humans (actually a remake of a Swedish TV series). We’ve also had dire warnings from Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates about how AI could spell the end for humanity (and this from the guy who came up with Windows?). Others worry that AI’s might steal all of our jobs. Anyway, I thought it would be useful to bring a engineering prospective to this topic and try to separate the plausible from the implausible.

Figure 2: The trouble with robots....some strings attached!

Figure 2: The trouble with robots….some strings attached!

For starters if you ever look at those walking robot brought out by the likes of Honda or other firms, you’ll often notice some cables sticking out of the back. They are there because robots do have a number of pretty hefty power requirements. Typically robotic arms are powered by electric servo motors, which can result in a high instantaneous power demand as the robot moves (which is why some run off three phase supplies, particularly if the job involves heavy lifting), which means a good sized power supply. Alternatively either hydraulic or pneumatic actuators could be used. But both of these need either a compressed air or compressed fluids supply or an on board compressor, which can be quite energy hungry.

Thus any future robot or android would have to have an energy source capable of powering everything. And I’m told by experts in robotic’s that you’d be looking at something with a power consumption in the kW’s range to do that (assuming you want you’re machine to have roughly human level strength). Chuck in all the other systems such a machine will need, some gyroscopes (for balance), sensors (camera’s, microphones, radar) a pretty sophisticated computer system, etc., and you’ve got quite a hefty power demand. My guess is that a future android would probably need somewhere between 2 kW’s to 4 kW’s to run and operate. Assuming a 12-24 hr operating cycle (the rest of they time, we’ll assume its powered down or recharging) that leaves us with an energy demand of up to 24 kWh’s per day, perhaps even as high as 72 kWh’s per day, about the ball park range of daily energy consumption between that of a small car and an SUV.

And if that if that level of energy consumption came from fossil fuels, the result would be to give any future android a carbon footprint so high it would turn James Hansen into an cyborg hunting, gun totting Kyle Resse. And we’ve already got major issues to worry about with electronics waste as it is! It also raises the question, how would you supply such power to an independently moving robot or android? The Termintor film won’t have been quite as scary if every couple of minutes Arnie has to break off his pursuit of Sarah Connor to raid a hardware store and swap over about a hundred D-cell batteries :)

Keep in mind the sort of power requirements we’re talking about here would require a fairly heavy battery and it seems doubtful you’d squeeze that into a human sized body (the 24 kWh battery of a Nissan Leaf for example weights 214 kg’s and fills the whole bottom of the car). A smaller Li-ion battery could do the trick (assuming future advances in battery tech), with regular recharging. However, keep in mind that this would mean many hours of down time, i.e. our android can’t work 24/7, yet we can hire someone at minimum wage to do the same job, with the same level of “downtime” without the capital costs of a robot (nor the costs of all of that electricity!). Plus our human worker can pull a double shift if necessary, if you pay him enough money for overtime.

Wireless charging of an android is a possibility, as was the premise in the film Ex-Machina (although they sort of forgot about that towards the end!…when she wandered off grid!). While such power transmission levels are a bit beyond current technology, its a plausible future scenario. However, this would constrain our android to a fixed route and location. And needless to say, the machines will have difficulty taking over if they can’t walk more than a few metres outside the building before running out of juice!

Figure 3: RTG's are a compact power source, but still less than ideal.....

Figure 3: RTG’s are a compact power source, but still less than ideal…..

Most people will at this point say “nuclear power” is the answer. Ya, and do you really want a walking, talking, Chernobyl wandering around in close proximity to people? What could possibly go wrong! The Terminator in this scenario won’t have needed a gun to get Sarah Connor. All he’d need to do was sit down near her for ten minutes reading the paper until she’d received a fatal dose of radiation!

Furthermore RTG’s (NASA’s term for small portable nuclear batteries) aren’t really up to the job. They are designed to supply modest amounts of power (generally under a kW) to deep space probes over very long time periods. Once you account for the additional “packaging” (shielding, heat sinks, energy conversion systems, etc.) no RTG currently available could power any of the hypothetical androids from science fiction, as most RTG’s are simply too big and too bulky.

Furthermore an RTG could get our android a little hot under the collar. RTG’s generate lots and lots of heat, about 90% of their energy output is typically heat in fact. And this is exactly why space agencies use them, as this heat protects spacecraft and their instruments from freezing up in the cold of deep space (or in a dust storm on Mars). However for an android it would create a massive heat dissipation problem. Arnie’s Terminator might have difficulty blending it when he’s got two massive engine exhausts stick out of his neck, spewing out hot exhaust’s like a coal rolling hot rod!

Figure 4: ….not least because they could leave our AI a little hot under the collar!

Figure 4: ….not least because they could leave our AI a little hot under the collar!

One plausible energy source for a future android of the future is a fuel cell. These are becoming ever more compact and reliable. Low temperature fuel cells (such as PEM’s) operate at 45-80ºC, with an efficiency of 40-60% well within the range of heat that can be dissipated. Also new fuel sources in the form of ceramic pellet’s (which soak up hydrogen like a sponge, eliminating the need for pressurised tanks) are under development. There’s also DMFC’s (Direct Methanol Fuel Cells), which can run on alcohol based fuels. While they run at slightly higher temperatures, the fuel they use already exists and in theory if you’re android is starting to run low on fuel, take it to a bar and give a few shots of vodka….of course I can’t help but notice that this is a little close to the supposed power source for the robot “Bender from Futurama. Its worrying when the most technically plausible sci-fi show happens to be the one that goes out of its way to be as unscientific as possible!

Figure 5: Will robots of the future run on alcohol?....same as the Irish!

Figure 5: Will robots of the future run on alcohol?….same as the Irish!

Although on a serious note, a fuel cell powered android would also require an air supply to operate, so that would rule out certain sci-fi scenario’s where they function in the vacuum of space without difficulty.

However even with the correct power source, could Androids replace people in many job roles? as portrayed in films such as “I-robot”. I suspect that as AI improves we’ll see more and more use of them and ultimately jobs going. The services industry could see many of its more tedious jobs replaced by AI (thought not androids, probably just banks of computer servers) within the next few decades. But equally, there will be a need for someone to supervise and maintain these machines, so you’ll end up hiring more programmers and engineers. Even so, there is a limit to how much of an economy can be “automated”.

Robots cost a lot of money, so its often not worth one’s while buying them unless the fixed costs (buying & maintaining it) can outweight the long term costs of paying some person to do the same job. Robotic cleaners, for example, have been around since the 1990’s yet you’ll still see plenty of people mopping floors in any subway station or office complex. Similarly, there have been various attempts to develop agricultural robots, yet you’ll still see lots of people working in fields come harvest time.

And any future android, or human like robot, ain’t going to be cheap. My guess, assuming we could develop the tech to build one, is a price tag in the order of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a pop. And as I discussed in a prior post (with regard to nuclear reactors) while mass production of a product can bring down the unit costs, there’s a limit to how far it can do so. We’ve been using industrial robots in factories for several decades now and they still cost thousands (or much more!) to install.

Indeed, back during the 70’s and 80’s many manufacturers, notably car companies, when gaga for robots. They built factories full to the brim of robots doing every conceivable task, so much so that the few human employee’s left dreaded going to the toilet least the find a robot in the cubicle waiting to wipe their ass. However, corporations soon realised that this was merely pushing up their capital costs and not increasing profitability. Those robots needed maintenance, which meant they were replace lots of low wage workers with a smaller number of better paid engineers. And there was the issue of spare parts and other associated costs. Plus there were quality control issues. When machines screw up they tend to do it in a big way, potentially leading to entire production runs having to be scrapped or hours of down time on the production line (very costly in these days of Just In Time inventory management).

So many corporations went back to drawing board in the 90’s and began putting more people on the production line again. Robots were restricted to jobs which were either difficult or too dangerous for people or required a high level concentration and skill. Welding car bodies being a good example, lifting and placing heavy items being another. Jobs which required patience and care (e.g. lining up two parts for assembly, inspection of critical weld joints) were reserved for people, not least because this left a good few mark one eyeballs watching the line ready to call in any issues before they became a major problem.

So quite frankly if you need some “help around the house” (why is it that the only job sci-fi can envisage androids of the future doing is folding bed sheets?) have you considered Kids mark 1? They can be easily produced via a simple (but fun) process and they are considerably cheaper to build and maintain than any cyborg or android will ever be. Although you might be tempted to try returning them under warranty, particularly when they hit their teenage years! ;)

But the reality is that while AI’s (although not androids) might gradually start to take over certain roles and jobs, but there are going to be practical limits to what they can do or are allowed to do. Take the driver-less car. Many I know in transport research seem to assume its a slam dunk that once AI technology reaches a sufficient level of maturity they will take over the roads. I’m not so sure, as this would sort of defeat the purpose of individually owned cars. And one has to question if its going to be possible to solve many of the obstacles to their use, most notably public acceptance. Note that we’ve long had the technology to make aircraft or indeed even cargo ships fully autonomous, but we still have crews on board, largely because the public demand such things.

Figure 6: Driverless vehicle technology is advancing rapidly, but what about public acceptance?

Figure 6: Driverless vehicle technology is advancing rapidly, but what about public acceptance?

And in part this boils down to a matter of responsibility, i.e. who is to blame if things go wrong? Its also why I suspect that if we ever did develop advanced concious AI’s (and that’s a big if), it would be necessary to give them some sort of “rights” almost as soon as they were smart enough to understand what those rights meant. Because with rights comes responsibilities, meaning they can be made liable if they screw up, just like the rest of us.

But regardless of how smart computers get, there ability to learn is going to be constrained by the information they have access too. As computer science expert Mark Bishop points out, any AI will be constrained by its programming and what information its sensors can access. Like the prisoners in the Shadow’s in the cave analogy, an AI say, running a car, is going to be limited in its knowledge of the outside world by programming devoted entirely to vehicle control and sensors designed purely to detect potential road hazards. There would be no reason for it to talk (like KITT in Knight Rider) or develop any form of social skills, it would be more like a sort of robot version of Top Gear’s “The Stig.

And we’d have to be pretty stupid to make the decisions that would allow AI’s to gain control of critical systems. Take the premise behind the Terminator series, a super intelligent computer is put in charge of the USA’s nuclear weapons (a rip off I might add of the plot of the Forbin project film of the 1970’s). Why would you do this? Any monkey can push a button (again costs, isn’t it going to be cheaper just to pay a few grunt’s to sit in a bunker under a field in Kansas?). A computer that smart in control would constitute massive over-design. Also this creates a single point of failure in a system (all the sov’s need to do is take out one PC…by upgrading it to Windows 10 perhaps!….and they’ve disabled all of the US defences). Indeed I can think of many good reasons, not to use such a computer. Not because it might start WW3, but because it might conclude that nuclear war would be a pointless act of stupidity that would merely result in its own destruction and the destruction of the human race and hence the resources it depended on for its survival. It might decide its best course of action was to sabotage its arsenal, so less “judgement day” and more “saviour day”.

There are certainly legitimate concerns here. Mark Bishop’s main worry isn’t super intelligent cyborg’s taking over the world, its computers slightly smarter than the ones we already have being turned into autonomous killing machines. The trouble with this is, history tells us that if you make wars easier to wage and remove yourself more from the messy business of killing, politicians are more likely to go on a bombing spree. Just look at the issue of drone strikes. But this is more a social and moral issue than a technical one.

So AI’s are unlikely to ever run outside of our control, simply because they will be constrained by the same laws of physics we are. Furthermore, they will face a variety of social and economic constraints that will restrict their use to certain fields and disciplines. And if, as I suspect, they are even more energy and resource dependant than us, that will place a massive restriction on their proliferation, as well as giving them a very strong incentive to keep our civilisation going. The AI’s will in short, not take over, no so long as the engineer’s and the bean counters are the ones making the decisions. And if they were to get into a position of taking over (because we stopped listening to the engineer’s and the bean counters), the first act of our AI rulers would presumably be to note the error of their predecessors and appoint some engineers and accountants to an advisory role.

Which is why I for one welcome our future AI overlords. And I’d like to let them know I can be useful in rounding up others to work in their giant underground methanol distilleries ;)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Blogging catch up – The consequences of the Tory election win

I’m in the process of preparing for a house move, so I’ve not been blogging much recently. Even so I have been keeping up on my personal blog. So I thought it might be a good idea to re-blog a couple of the stories that caught my eye over the last few months, in particular those relating to the fall out from the recent UK election.

Tory cuts to renewable subsidies…..while bankrolling shale gas and nuclear

The Tories are following through with their electoral threat to cut renewable energy subsidies. Furthermore, the government is even threatening to block wind energy from bidding on the CfD mechanism (their intended subsidy for nuclear), even in situations where wind energy offers a better deal. The renewables industry, particularly that part of it based in Scotland has warned that these cuts could lead to a complete halt to work.

Figure 1: Guess who was the biggest winner out of this election?

Figure 1: Guess who was the biggest winner out of this election?

As I’ve pointed out before, onshore wind represents the cheapest form of low carbon energy available. It also means ignoring the fact that the historical subsidies paid out to fossil fuels and nuclear have exceeded those paid out to renewables, by some significant margin.

Yet at the same time the government is willing to throw yet more subsidies at the fossil fuel lobby in an effort to promote fracking. And while they are promising to extend the rights to allow the landed gentry to object to wind farms within visual range of homes, they are going to remove people’s rights to object to fracking. Even if a company wants to frack underneath homes, they won’t having to apply for planning permission.

Figure 2: Companies will be allowed to frack under homes without the homeowners permission

Figure 2: Companies will be allowed to frack under homes without the homeowners permission

It has been suggested that being near a wind farm might impact on property prices by an average of 2-5%, or perhaps even 12% in the worse case scenario. Although another study suggests no significant correlation (my take on this is it probably depends, if there’s lots of property available, a buyers market, house prices might be effected as buyers are more choosy, but if the reverse is the case, as it often is in the UK, there’s no effect).

However if someone fracks under your home, forget about selling it…..ever! Already some near fracking operations are complaining of this very thing. They can’t sell their home, can’t move house, they are stuck where they are next to fracking operation.

And there is significant doubt as to whether the shale gas reserves of the UK are even economically viable, particularly given events in the US, where shale gas operators are loosing their shirts. Already its speculated that US shale gas output might well peak by the end of decade. The Tories are in effect committing the UK to an energy policy in the form of a new dash for gas, but in the blind.

Now that is not only bad as regards fighting climate change, but the UK is facing a squeeze on its power generating capacity. And it hardly seems to me a winning strategy to halt the production of the one energy source that’s growing, while coal stations are shutting down, as they cannot compete with wind power and hydro.

And let’s not forget about climate change. This amounts to a complete U-turn on the last 25 years of UK energy policy, a U-turn which was launched with little warning, one which will probably send the signal (as I speculated in a prior post) to the power industry to halt all investment in energy….keeping in mind that all the fracking in the world will be little use without power plants to burn it in. What the energy industry needs is not some get rich quick scheme, but a long term energy plan for them to work around. These proposals offer no such promises.

Irony not understood

Indeed its not just wind energy subsidies that are going to be cut, but those to solar power are also being cut. This will be the 6th cut (I’m guessing, as I’ve lost count at this point) in solar subsidies under the present government. The Tory line is that solar is now sufficiently mature to not need subsidies. While the solar industry agrees they are rapidly maturing, they have also pointed out it is hardly fair to cut solar subsidies at a rate of 25% of the overnight costs while subsiding nuclear to the tune of 68% of the overnight costs. And such a sudden cut is likely to have a very serious effect on jobs.

The environment minster Amber Rudd (pro-nuclear, from the same district as Dungeness NPP) openly admits this hypocrisy, but dodges the wider hypocrisy that she’s cutting subsidies to renewables on the grounds that they are now “mature” while still shovelling money into the bottomless pit called nuclear, an industry whom the government has been funding at a considerable expense ( exceeding any subsidy to renewables), for the best part of 60 years. Exactly when is nuclear going to be able to function without a subsidy? When hell freezes over seems to be the answer!

Figure 10: An expansion of figure 7, breaking down in 2010 billions the amount of federal subsidy received by each energy source in the US [Source: DBL Investor Capital, based on DoE data, via (2011) ]

Figure 3: Subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear (in this example, the US) have long exceeded any offered to renewables [Source: DBL Investor Capital, based on DoE data, via (2011)]

When pressured on this point she then claimed that renewables are the “wrong” sort of electricity. Ya, they sort of energy that doesn’t buy her a bigger house or include a few brown envelopes if you know what I mean! ;) And as I’ve pointed out before, the whole “intermittency” issue is something of a red herring, as nuclear also needs backing up (indeed there is an urgent need to add extra energy storage capacity to back up Hinkley C and billions have been committed to doing this, notably by expanding Ben Cruchan). And there are plenty of energy storage options available, as I discussed in a recent article.

The reality I’m afraid is, that the Tories are ideologically opposed to renewables. Anyone in this industry has good reason to fear for their prospect’s for the next 5 years.

Brexit may mean bis-exit

And of course its not just renewables who are in trouble thanks to the Tories. The general view of the engineering community to the Tory EU referendum and the risk it raises of Brexit would be something along the lines ofhave the rest of you gone mad or what?”. EU membership is crucial to trade they argue. While it is true that the head of JCB did back Brexit, this was taken by many of his colleagues as a sign that he’s slightly out of touch.

Figure 4: Very few UK companies think Brexit would be a good idea (Source: Public affairs 2.0 ), so why is it on the agenda?

Figure 4: Very few UK companies think Brexit would be a good idea (Source: Public affairs 2.0), so why is it on the agenda?

The pro-exit camp are often deluded into thinking that the UK is so important to the EU that we can drive a hard bargain and get a better deal with the EU (and other countries) outside the union, for example pointing to the large amounts of cross channel trade, about 50% of UK overseas trade is with the EU, about £11.8 bn in exports and £19.7 bn in imports.

However this has to put in the context of the EU’s total trade of 1.7 trillion euro’s and imports of 1.6 trillion. Yes UK trade with the EU might be worth 50% of our trade, but its just 1% of the EU’s total trade!

In the event of a break down in negotiations post Brexit, who do you think will blink first? the British delegation worried about losing 50% of trade, or the EU worried about losing 1%? The UK will be over a barrel in such negotiations, as they will also find themselves when negotiating with the US or China. Merkel could force Cameron to endure some sort of bush-tucker trial and he’d happily eat frogs legs or snails, perhaps get him to drink that awful Berliner Kindl beer, and yet he’d still sign anything they put in front of him. He’d have no choice!

Already there are signs that businesses are positioning themselves for Brexit. In the back pages of the engineering mag’s you’ll hear all sorts of stories, for example that Jaguar is building new factories, not in the UK (while the Castle Bromwich site is full, they’ve plenty of space at other sites) but overseas in Asia, Turkey or the EU. And this is by no means a one off, what’s left of UK automotive manufacturing would be in dire straits in the event of Brexit. Rolls Royce and Airbus, have not been quiet about their views on Brexit and its again worth noting that they seem to be either holding off on key investment decisions or have already decided to build new factories overseas. Even a recent announcement regarding HSBC had a Brexit angle.

The danger of course being, that all of these move will leave major corporations with essentially one foot already out of the UK, making it very easy for them to simply move completely out of the UK if (as predicted) there are major issues post an EU referendum.


Figure 5: Controversy over Heathrow is nothing new

Figure 5: Controversy over Heathrow is nothing new

An interesting piece here from the BBC about the long running saga of choosing the next airport for London. Would you believe that committee after committee has been debating this matter since the Roskill Commission in 1971! They recommended a new airport on a greenfield site in Buckinghamshire. Then, as now, the government rejected this proposal and fudged the issue. And successive governments have been fudging it ever since.

So with that in mind you can understand why this week’s Airports commission report went down like a lead balloon. The problem here is that politicians keeping asking for an answer to a simple question and then not liking the answer they get back.

Expansion of Gatwick or building a new airport in the Thames estuary comes with numerous difficulties, not least of those cost, but also the issue that such an airport will be in the wrong place. Any replacement for Heathrow will serve not just London but a large chuck of England, and the bulk of people in England live either north or west of the Thames, so an airport tucked away in the South East corner of the country will necessitate a change of trains in London and a journey across London, something that will automatically add 1-3 hours onto any journey time.

This is the whole reason why the Roskill commission picked a site north of the capital. The present Airports commission, perhaps recognising the impracticality of this option went for the next best thing, which was to expand Heathrow.

My own view is that instead of expanding Heathrow, just make sure its integrated into the HS2 network, as this will eliminate the need for commuter flights to Heathrow, freeing up capacity. Furthermore, as HS2 passes close to Manchester and Birmingham airports, it offers the alternative of expanding them instead and offering a fast connection time to London, Heathrow and the rest of the country.

Figure 6: An interchange loop between Heathrow and HS2 would go along way to relieving bottlenecks, as well as eliminating the need for short haul flights to Heathrow

Figure 6: An interchange loop between Heathrow and HS2 would go along way to relieving bottlenecks, as well as eliminating the need for short haul flights to Heathrow

Its also worth remembering that much of Heathrow is given over to cargo. Do the parcels really care where they land? Can’t we just take one of a number of airfields near London (or take over Luton or Oxford airport), turn it into a dedicated cargo handling facility (again ensuring good connection to the rail network as well as the motorways) and redirect all the cargo flights away from Heathrow.

But, like I said, the problem is that no matter what answer they come up with, its going to be unpopular with someone. The Heathrow HS2 link for example has been killed off by the usual NIMBY-ish reasons, indeed Gatwick expansion is also resisted by various NIMBY’s in that part of the country.

Ultimately the government needs to realise that part of their job is to make unpopular discussions. So either they need to disappoint someone by expanding Heathrow, or building a new airport to the North West of London. Or re-route HS2. Or do nothing and point out to anyone in London that wants to complain about how awkward air travel is in London, or that prices are so expensive and the airports so inaccessible, well we had plans to fix this, but you objected to them!

Railway cuts

The Tories also promised billions to help upgrade railway lines in the UK, all as part of their election plans for a “northern power house. Needless to say, that promise didn’t last very long. But I have to give the Tories credit. Most governments would at least go through the motions of pretending to keep their election promises, for a year or two anyway, then act shocked and surprised when the programme they’d badly managed and starved of funds failed.

Figure 7: Britain has some of the highest railway ticket prices in the world....and one of the poorest rail services. All thanks to the miracle of privatisation!

Figure 7: Britain has some of the highest railway ticket prices in the world….and one of the poorest rail services. All thanks to the miracle of privatisation!

Certainly it is true that there is a desperate need to upgrade the railway lines of Northern England. New lines have to be built to ease overcrowding, as well a long delayed completion of countrywide electrification (yes less than half of the UK’s railway network is electrified!). Taking a train in that part of the world is like going through a time warp. It takes so long to get from, say Liverpool to Sheffield or Leeds to Hull, you’d swear they still used steam trains. But any sort of meaningful upgrade of systems here was always going to be a major job, as big as HS2 itself.

But frankly anyone who honestly believed that the Tories, a party who have been screwing over northern England since the 1800’s, were going to spend tens of billions on the north, well I’ve got some magic beans you might want to buy! This was clearly an election ploy to steal a few lib dem seats.

Scrapping the bottom of the railway barrel

Meanwhile, north of the border, recently Scotrail was rather controversially taken over by the Dutch company, Abellio,….which sounds like a type of stomach complaint you’d get after eating too many Amsterdam space cakes! :oops:

Anyway, one of the things that Abellio did was to promise that they’d buy in new trains. However the IMECHE magazine has suggested, as has the Scottish Herald, that quite a few of these will be refurbished Intercity 125’s, a type of British rail era train set. So it would seem a “new” train to the Dutch is to slap a coat of paint on something you’ve pulled out of railway bone yard. Dressing up mutton as lamb doesn’t quite cut it, this is dressing up haggis and calling it caviar!

Figure 8: The cab of an Intercity 125 in the Yorkshire Railway museum. To the Dutch this museum exhibit counts as a new train!

Figure 8: The cab of an Intercity 125 in the Yorkshire Railway museum. To the Dutch this museum exhibit counts as a new train!

The IMECHE is also of course strongly behind HS2. However in recent additions, they’ve been recognising that there is still scepticism from large sections of the public. However they do point out that the major question critics fail to answer is, if not HS2 what else? The UK has an antiquated and inefficient railway system that most Eastern European countries would be ashamed of.

All in all, continuing the current policy of sticky plasters on a leaky dam isn’t going to cut it. New trains need to be bought in to increase speeds, relieve overcrowding and provide greater comfort. Stations need to be upgraded, after all we’re still using an infrastructure largely designed by the Victorians when the population was a fraction of today’s. In short, its time for some difficult and ultimately expensive spending decisions to be made. Or we’ll be still being trucked around on creaky overcrowded railway carriages older than the majority of the people sitting in them.

Perovskite Solar cells

Despite being a £120 billion worldwide business, renewables received very little coverage over the election. And, as noted, what coverage it did receive involved promises from the Tories to cut subsidies…and give an even bigger subsidy to the nuclear industry!

Well one innovation getting some recent attention is that of solar cells relying on Perovskite rather than silicon, with a British firm, Oxford PV, at the forefront of developments….well until the Tories run them out of town (you know how pro-business they are!).

What is interesting about the Perovskite panels is that they offer the opportunity for significantly enhanced efficiencies, particularly if used in tandem with a layer of silicon based panels. Also they offer a much lower environmental impact. The environmental impact of solar panels is often exaggerated by critics, who often ignore the fact that far more heavy metals are emitted by fossil fuel plants. That said, there is certainly a desire to cut those numbers further, particularly if the result offers yet another opportunity for major cuts in production costs.

The downside? Most of the world’s Persoviskite is sourced from Russia!

Bladeless Wind turbines

Another innovative idea is bladeless wind turbines. These rely on the principle of resonance to keep the turbines turning, without the need for any blades. This offers the possibility of lower visual impact, greater efficiency and lower costs.

Figure 9: Bladeless wind turbines could be a significant step forward

Figure 9: Bladeless wind turbines could be a significant step forward

Downsides? Well the technology isn’t very mature and it may prove difficult to scale up these turbines to the levels seen with HAWT’s. But its good to see this sort of research with people thinking outside of the box. However it also shows why subsidies are necessary, at least so long as we are effectively subsidising other energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Posted in climate change, efficiency, energy, fossil fuels, nuclear, politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment