The 100% club

Recently Portugal has managed to pass that key milestone of achieving 100% of its electricity from renewables over several days, an improvement on the 70% of a few years ago. Granted its more normally an average of 48% from renewables, through a combination of wind, hydro and solar. This is encouraging news, as it debunks the many myths regarding renewables (that you can’t get 100% of power from renewables, or that it will lead to an increase in emissions, etc.). And it also makes Portugal another (although only occasional for the moment) member of that exclusive club of countries (or regions) who are able to get 100% of their electricity from renewables.


Figure 1: Renewables growth in Portugal [Source: Renewables Int. (2016)]

Long term members of this club are of course Norway, Iceland, Uruguay and Paraquay. However several regions of other countries are also members. Quebec for example (population 8 million, 100% renewable electricity), the German states of Schleswig-Holstein (population 2.8 million) or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (1.65 million) or the Canary Island of El-Hierro all get 100% of their electricity from renewables.


Figure 2: The 100% club members [Source: GENI Report (2012)]

And temporary members of this club also include Denmark, who has been getting as much as 140% of its electricity demand from wind on occasions, although a more normal average figure is closer to 57%,with 44% of total output coming from wind energy alone. Much of any excess is shared with Norway and Germany, from whom Denmark generally buys back power during periods of low wind.


Figure 3: Renewables growth in Denmark

The end result has been that the carbon footprint of Danish electricity has fallen significantly over recent years. Assuming 4,000 kWh’s per average household, the carbon intensity of Danish electricity now averages 202 g/kWh (although it can go substantially lower at times). This represents a 33% fall in emissions intensity over one year and has to be compared to a UK figure of about 420 g CO2 per kWh (again yearly average, it generally floats between about 560 and 350 g’s). So clearly things are moving in the right direction in Denmark.


Figure 4; Infographic on Denmark’s electricity network [Source: & the Guardian (2016)]

And there are plenty of other countries doing well too. Scotland and Ireland now consistently get over 50% of their electricity from renewables (57% in the case of Scotland), Sweden 52% (which much of the rest coming from biomass fired CHP or nuclear), with Georgia its close to 85% (mostly from dams). Costa Rica drifts up to 100% renewables on occasions, as too does Austria (63% is more typical thought although some parts of the country are consistently above 100%). Many of the states mentioned are also occasional exporters of renewables, and are certainly more likely to be exporting renewable electricity than buying in fossil generated power.

As always, its important to point out that electricity is merely 20% of total final energy consumption (actually closer to 18% according to the latest IEA report), with much of the rest taken up by heating and cooling of buildings, transportation energy and material processing (rough break down here). Also agriculture related carbon emissions are growing strongly. But clearly a combination of energy conservation and mass roll out of renewables is starting to have an effect. And crucially it means we can debunk many of the myths about renewables.


Figure 5: World Total Final Energy Consumption [IEA (2015)]

One myth we can debunk is that you can’t operate a grid where a majority of the power comes from intermittent renewables. Actually the grid in countries like Germany or Denmark is more stable than in others with a fossil fuel/nuclear heavy commitment. Obviously a number of the “temporary” members of our 100% club will probably, in the longer term, have to invest more in energy storage to close the remaining gap. Fortunately the technology to do that is already available and the amount of storage needed is often overestimated.


Figure 6: Grid reliability around the world [Source: (2014)]

And are renewables a “job killer” like the Republicans claim? Actually, the opposite is true. The renewables industry in Europe employs over one million people with a turnover of £143.6 Billion. And most of those jobs didn’t exist a few years ago. So clearly its creating jobs not taking them away.

Another myth is that carbon emissions won’t fall, indeed they’ll go up with renewables (due to “back up”), is also debunked. In almost every case a rise in renewable installation, even if it comes from intermittent sources, means falling emissions and fossil fuel plants being shut down.

There will probably need to be some base load of thermal plants (likely CHP) maintained as a backup (presumably running on fossil fuels with CCS in the interim, then biomass or stored hydrogen later). Exactly how much is difficult to say. But certainly the end result is less fossil fuels burned and lower emissions. And if your concern is peak oil, those resources get stretched out for that bit longer into the future. Indeed, pull down fossil fuel consumption below a certain threshold and peak oil ceases to be a worry for much of this century (and by then at current rates, we could well have replaced it all).

Like I said, the situation isn’t perfect, but there is plenty of encouraging evidence. Unfortunately, we have to balance that with the situation in the UK as a whole, which isn’t encouraging. Here an outgoing Scottish energy minster recently compared being a renewables investor in the UK to being in a Soviet Gulag. The Queen’s speech did make some vague references to doing something about climate change, but no specifics.

Its therefore no wonder investor confidence in the UK energy sector is at an all time low. And keep in mind that the Green economy in the UK is a £46 billion industry. And many in the energy sector had been banking on the assumption that growth in renewables would represent the bulk of new jobs to replace those lost in the oil industry’s recent downturn. So the impasse in UK energy policy is having a very real impact that cannot be ignored. All to placate the swivel eyed loons of the UKIP wing of the tory party.

Meanwhile, the main reason for all of this hold up (Hinkley C) has been delayed….again! (I told you to get used to hearing that!) And of course the EU referendum threatens catastrophic consequences if it goes the wrong way.


Figure 7: LCoE costs for Hinkley C compared to German Renewables [Source: (2015)]

Oh, and Trump wants to renegotiate the Paris conference. Ya, America isn’t even the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide any more (that would be China), there are oil producing states whose economy will take a hit from events in Paris (some parts of the US will actually benefit, as noted earlier renewables tend to create jobs). Yet all of them signed up to the Paris deal. But because one ignorant egomanic, wasn’t in the room, we have to renegotiate it. Ya, and maybe we should renegotiate the Congress of Vienna or the Lateran treaty while we’re at it!

And speaking of Austria, it’s possible that the Austrian far right might win the Presidency in this country soon. No doubt, with a load of climate deniers and islamophobics in charge, they’ll probably do as the Tories did….all but guaranteeing that in future Austria will be beholden to Middle East oil producers (why is it that those on the right don’t understand the concept of irony!)

So suffice to say, the one unfortunate fact is that the major obstacle to getting anything done about climate change is not technical. Its ideological dogma.

Posted in energy, climate change, politics, economics, peak oil, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, fossil fuels, CHP, Biomass | 1 Comment

US election update


Out of Cruz control


Well the big news I suppose was Ted Cruz dropping out of the race. To be fair, he was something of a forlorn hope, as many argued Ted Cruz was as bad as, if not worse, than Trump. I mean let’s read of a few of his ringing endorsements:

Ted Cruz is Lucifer in the Flesh” John Boehner

If you shot Ted Cruz on the floor of the senate, and the trial was held in the Senate, nobody would convict you” Mitch McConnell

Voting for Cruz over Trump is like picking between being shot or poisoned, I choose to be poisoned, who know’s maybe they’ll find a cure” (ya its called Hilary Clinton!) Lindsey Graham.

And that’s his supporters talking!His policies were crazy, a little less fascist than Trump’s yes, but not by much. Needless to say…

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What I missed on my hols….


I’ve been away in Spain for a few days and thought a little catchup would be order….

Labour Anti-Semitism?

Labour is currently embroiled in an “anti-Semitism” row. It was all started by an aid to Corbyn ally John Mc Donnell, making a (bad) joke…..2 years ago! And the media took this quib on Twitter as if it was a serious political statement. Then Ken Livingstone put his foot in it, which the anti-Corbyn wing of the party exploited to get him “suspended” although exactly what he’s suspended from is unclear (he’s kind of semi-retired now, doesn’t hold any official posts).

And its stretching things to call this “anti-Semitism. A number of pro-Israeli cheerleaders have long tried to stick the “anti-semitic” label onto anyone who is even remotely critical of Israel. However, this means we would have to label many people, including several…

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Wooden skyscrapers


Figure 1: Are tall wooden buildings, such as this Stave Church in Norway in Heddal (13th century), about to make a comeback?

Traditionally a limiting factor with wood has been the building height. Historical buildings made of wood were up to 50m high, in the case of some Norwegian Stave churches, but more recently wood structures have been limited to only a few stories tall. But expanding cities need much taller buildings. Hence why this limiting of wood to low lying buildings might be about to change, as there are several proposals for skyscrapers made of wood.

hoho_vienna_ and CF_moller_stockholm

Figure 2: The Hoho Project in Vienna (left) and a roof detail of CF Moller’s 34 story proposed apartment block in Stockholm (right) [Source: Rüdiger Lainer and Partner (2015) and (2013)]

Vienna‘s proposed HoHo project will be 24 stories and 84 metre’s high. A 34 story structure is also proposed in Stockholm. In Chicago, the “Big Wood” concept is for a 30 stories high apartment complex. In Vancouver another 30 floor structure is proposed. This is based on research conducted by the Architect Michael Green (see his paper on wooden skyscrapers here (note this is a 31MB 240 page document)).


Figure 3: The “Big Wood” proposal [Source: Inhabitat (2013) and Michael Charters]

And there are proposals for buildings even tall still. A concept unveiled for London talks of a 300m and 80 floor tower to form part of the Barbican complex. And in Japan, a 339m, 72 story building made largely of wood is proposed. Note that these buildings would involve a mix of wood, steel and concrete, although wood will make up the bulk of the structure.


Figure 4: Internal floor structure of an ultra tall wooden building [Source: NYT & Owings and Merill LLP (2014)]

So, what are the advantages of wood? Well, assuming its sourced sustainably (not from an old growth rainforest!), its environment impact is significantly lower than concrete or steel. Indeed, potentially wood can have a negative carbon footprint (as it absorbs carbon when it grows and burning it as biomass when disposed of generates renewable energy). Many wooden buildings are these days made to order on an assembly line in flat pack form and there’s no reason why such policies couldn’t be extended to much taller buildings. Making the flat pack wooden skyscraper a realistic future vision.

Wood is also much lighter than steel or concrete, hence the value of its use in the two ultra tall structures mentioned above (while such ultra-tall buildings are beyond the structural strength of wood alone, making as much as possible from wood lowers the weight and thus mean the concrete/steel support pillars can be smaller).

Finally, wooden structures tend to be easier to insulate, as there’s often large voids in the wall (full height glassing is also easier to implement given the low weight of the structure). This is one of the reasons wooden buildings are so popular in Scandinavia, as they can be easily packed with large amounts of insulation (they are also easier to assemble in the short few months you have in summer to put up a building before the winter snows hit). This is important because historically it has been the heating and cooling of buildings that represents the bulk of a building’s lifetime environmental impact.

But what’s the downsides? Well for starters wood need to be protected from root. That means keeping the building water tight and well maintained. The use of preservers or varnish can help, but care must be taken as some of these can have a negative environmental impact when the material is disposed off (my dad once got a load of old railway sleepers and decided he’d use them for firewood….not a good idea given the preservers they’d been treated with!). Also varnish can make for tricky conditions if it gets wet (another anecdote, we varnished some decking and as a result it became an ice rink in wet weather. I once tried to take the dog out via said decking and he refused to go out that way, fearing he’d end up sliding on his bum again!).

Another issue is that of fire risk. Obviously wood is vulnerable to fire and any structure made of wood can be a bit of a tinderbox. Note that this already applies to a lot of historic buildings in Europe. The traditional Scottish tenement for example, while the walls are solid stone, often the floors and roof structure is all made of wood (this is why fire officers make a big deal about all the furniture in such buildings being flame retardant and having smoke detectors in multi occupancy dwellings, etc.). So this is a problem we know about already and with the proper building standards such issues can be dealt with.


Figure 5: A wooden multi-story building under construction in Zurich [Source: Blumer Lehmann.via Arup (2013)]

That said, with these ultra tall buildings, there is the issue of what to do if a fire occurs on the upper floors, beyond the reach of a fireman’s ladder. This could not only prevent rescue of people, but risk the building collapsing. My guess is some sort of system of automatic fire detection and suppression would solve the problem. But naturally, this pushes up the costs. Although as the Twin Towers collapse show, the issue of fire and collapse is not a problem limited to wooden structures.

However, the fire issue does hint at what’s the major stumbling block – a lack of standards. With existing buildings there are known building codes and standards which can be followed and designed too. However this isn’t really an option yet with wooden skyscrapers. Each one of these will have to be taken on a case by case basis, which will make for a slow (and expensive) planning process. Probably with lots of objections, some valid (which can be addressed through redesign), but also some objections consisting of the usual woolly eared anti-sustainable nonsense (which slows things down while the blindingly obvious is pointed out). The planning issues faced by the tiny house movement being a case in point. Insurance of the buildings might also be an issue until the insurance firms are confident that they can treat wooden buildings the same as any other type of building (i.e. quantify the risks).

But certainly it does show, as is so often the case when it comes to sustainable design, that there are solutions. Just because we’ve always built things this way doesn’t mean we can’t change.

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The Panama files



The revelations from the Panama files of the law firmMossack Fonseca have been on the one hand shocking, yet on the other oh so predictable. It is a well known fact that a large chunk of the world’s capital exists in a sort of “dark matter” like state. We know its there, we can see its effects when the rich flaunt their wealth, but nobody can pin down where it is, so its widely assumed to be tied up in tax havens.

gfi - us assets in tax havensNote the data above based on a 2008 estimate, actual numbers may be much higher now.

Details are sketchy, but the estimate is that between $11.5 trillion and $20 trillion dollars is squirrelled away in tax havens, about 15% to 25% of the entire net worth of the global economy. That equals (or exceeds) the annual economic output of China. Its estimated that…

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The iron and steal business



This week saw the Tories in trouble over the risk of a sudden collapse of the UK steel industry. UK steel companies have been under pressure for several years now. And with losses mounting it seems Tata plan to cut their losses and get out. Something which seems to have taken the government by surprise. Even though it was inevitable to anyone who had actually been paying attention.

Of course some tried to blame the EU. The trouble is, its since been revealed that the EU had a plan to save steelmakers in the EU from cheap steel imports, only it was the Tories who acted “as ringleader” in opposition to this plan, no doubt fearful of its impact on their buddies in Bejing. Indeed, its been pointed out that concerns about Brexit have probable worsened the situation surrounding the Port Talbot plant.


Somewhat ironically…

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Weekend News Roundup


A budget Enron would be proud of

Osborne has been accused of using accounting tricks to hide a £56 billion hole in his budget. Falling growth and the risk of Brexit over the referendum have all pushed down the economy and this will soon have a knock on effect on tax receipts. Yes, he brought in new taxes, but he’ll have to charge a heck of a lot for sugary drinks to fill a hole this big. Even the Office for Budget responsibility (which he set up) are sceptical, while the IFS has warned of a risk of wages falling and that Osborne is “running out of wriggle room” in terms of his ability to meet his own economic targets.

Cdvt28MWwAAoeDF As with previous budgets the poorest people in the UK are the worst affected

Furthermore, it is claimed that the numbers in this budget don’t add up and don’t…

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