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

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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…

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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 ;)

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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.

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Loch Ness monsters of energy storage

I came across one or two proposals over the last few weeks for mega sized pumped storage facilities in Scotland to back up intermittent renewables (such as wind), which I thought it would be worth commenting on.

Figure 1: Further energy storage will be needed to backup renewables in future, although how much storage is a matter of some debate

Figure 1: Further energy storage will be needed to backup renewables in future, although how much storage is a matter of some debate

The first proposal involves taking Loch Morar, a freshwater loch 300m deep, but one just a few hundred metres from the shores of Loch Nevis (salt water). The plan would be to build a dam 280m high across a narrow pass to the North, which would allow an upper reservoir to be created 300m high. Water could then be pumped in either direction to create 600m of head and provide up to 1800 GWh’s of energy storage. Further options to build another dam to the south and pump water in and out of Loch Nevis would also exist.

Figure 2: The Loch Morar proposal [Credit: Julian-Hunt, 2013 ]

Figure 2: The Loch Morar proposal [Souce: Julian-Hunt, 2013]

By comparison, the UK’s current storage capacity is about 30 GWh’s. The UK’s dams produce a further 5,700 GWh’s annually, so if we assume say 45 days of storage on average that implies a further 700 GWh’s of unreplenishible storage.

And if this proposal seems a little oversized, there’s what is appropriately billed as “the loch Ness monster of energy storage”. This proposal is to build a dam 300m high to impound Strath Dearn, a glen in the Monadhliath mountains in the North Highlands, about 400m above sea level. Water would then be pumped along a canal from the Firth of Forth (given the obvious complications with pumping so much seawater such a long distance, I’d argue it would be easier to pump water up from nearby Loch Ness instead).

Figure 3: The Monster of Monadhlaith Mountain [Source: Scottish Scientist, 2014 ]

Figure 3: The Monster of Monadhlaith Mountain [Source: Scottish Scientist, 2014]

Either way the resulting reservoir would be capable of holding 4.4 billion m3 of water at a height of as much as 650m above sea level, representing a pumped storage capacity of 6,800 GWh’s. Enough to not only back up the whole of the UK’s renewables, but most of Europe’s!

Certainly there are some obvious criticisms of these projects. For example, at peak output the Strath Dearn facility would be capable of delivering +255 GW’s to the grid (the UK currently averages about 30 GW’s with a peak of perhaps 50 GW’s in winter), which raises the small issue of how to transport that much power South or North (when sending it for storage). You’d be covering most of the Grampian’s in powerlines!

Figure 4: Sea water pumped storage is not a new idea, this facility in Japan has been operating since 1999 [Agency of Natural Resources and Energy Japan]

Figure 4: Sea water pumped storage is not a new idea, this facility in Japan has been operating since 1999 [Source: Agency of Natural Resources and Energy Japan]

There’s also the matter of pumping large amounts of sea water inland and the environmental effects of any leaks and spills. I would note that Sea water pumped storage is not a new idea, the Japanese have just such a plant operating on Okinawa, one they hoped eventually to become a string of such facilities to help their nuclear industry expand (nuclear reactors have essentially the oppose problem of renewables, they want to be on all the time, but grid demand fluctuates, meaning they need something to provide peaking power or some form of energy storage). While only 30 MW’s this facility has successfully operated for several years and many of the technical issues relating to leaks of sea water have been addressed.

I would also chuck in the need for another reservoir at the base of the dam, as a sudden swap from pump to power out (or visa versa) could cause problems, hence why relying on water pumped in from Loch Ness rather than sea water would probably be a better idea.

Certainly these proposals do get around one of the major myths you’ll hear put out about renewables – that we can’t store the energy and thus renewables can’t be relied upon. Of course this was always a myth put forward by those who don’t understand how renewables worked, nor indeed that all energy sources need some level of “backup”, nor that a number of renewable sources (Tidal, biomas, hydro, geothermal, solar CSP) aren’t intermittent and others such as solar and wind power tend to be complementary (i.e. if its not windy, its usually sunny, if its cloudy, its usually blowing a gale). In short, such issues are simply not going to be a problem for a future low carbon grid, assuming it has a good mix of different renewables, suitably spread out across the continent with good interconnection and use of “smart grid” technology.

Indeed my main criticism is just that these proposals are too darn big, we’ll simply never need that much storage capacity. And it won’t seem sensible to me to put all our energy eggs in one or two baskets. I suspect a series of storage facilities spread out across the UK and the rest of Europe would be a better idea. Indeed there are a number of proposals floating around for new energy storage facilities across Europe (although none on this scale admittedly).

For example a proposed 6.8 GWh sea water pumped storage facility on Glinsk mountain in Mayo, Ireland. There’s also proposals to identify a number of coastal valleys around the Irish coast and flood them in a similar manner to the above Loch Morar scheme, gaining 100-200 GWh’s of storage at a time. And this report from the European commission indicates how the EU’s PHS capacity could be increased significantly. In Turkey alone (hardly a country known for its heavy rain!) 3,800 GWh’s could be added.

Figure 5: Two potential pumped storage facilities with a capacity in excess of 1.8 GW's are evident in this picture, with another few potential sites the other side of the valley []

Figure 5: Two potential pumped storage facilities with a capacity in excess of 1.8 GW’s are evident in this picture, with another few potential sites the other side of the valley

While it is often said that there are no suitable sites for new hydroelectric plants in the highlands, this is not true of pumped storage or micro-hydro. Take a look at any map of Scotland and you’ll quickly identify several obvious sites in a matter of minutes. And some of these sites are being seriously investigated. SSE is for example pursuing a planned facility in Coire Glas (just over the hill from an existing pumped storage facility at Ben Cruachan), with consent for the facility granted in 2013. In Wales a proposed facility Glyn Rhonwy is also being taken forward.

So my suspicion is that lots of little facilities tucked away here and there, along with the conversion of existing hydro dams to pumped storage (such as Ben Lawers and Loch Sloy as both have quite a large head of water), would probably be a better idea than one mega storage facility. This study by Strathclydes ESRU suggests that 514 GWh’s could be added by converting existing high head reservoirs to pumped storage.

But how much pumped storage would be needed? Well keep in mind that electricity is only a small fraction of overall energy consumption (about 20%). A future energy grid will be devoting quite a sizeable proportion of its output towards things like heating (36%) and transport fuels (at least 30%). The heat load in particular will likely be obtained from a combination of boilers and CHP plants of various sizes, initially running on a combination of biofuels and natural gas (with presumably CCS) and later on hydrogen. This means that there will be a sizeable capacity of generating plant still available to back up wind or solar, at least over the winter months.

Storage of hydrogen underground is not a new idea, a facility in the US has stored large quantities of it underground in a salt cavern since the 80’s without any particular difficulties. Technical reviews by Bossell (2006, Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense?), Eric Wolf (2015, Large-Scale Hydrogen Energy Storage) and Camparani et al (2009, Journal of Power Sources Vol. 186, focuses mainly on cars, but it considers the full life cycle of H2 production, transport and storage) suggest hydrogen could be sourced via renewables, stored and transported to end users with an overall efficiency of 55-70%. Okay, not as good as pumped storage (64-74% once we account for an average UK grid efficiency of 92%), but when you consider that H2 would directly integrate with much of the existing gas network, it makes it a better choice of storage for winter heating fuel. Either way, this cuts down the proportion of winter backup needed by a considerable margin.

Figure 6: Underground Storage of Hydrogen is one future energy option [KBB]

Figure 6: Underground Storage of Hydrogen is one future energy option [Credit: KBB]

Let’s suppose that with the upgrading of existing hydro-electric facilities and the addition of some extra capacity, including one or two new reservoirs, give us 1.5 times the level of that 514 GWh’s figure mentioned before, that’s 514 x 1.5 = 771 GWh’s, plus existing capacity of 30 GWh’s gives about 800 GWh’s without breaking too much sweat.

Tidal lagoons (such as the scheme proposed in Wales) can also provide energy storage, Mc Kay (not one of my favourite people, he has a habit of getting his sums wrong), proposes arrays of these around the UK coast which could provide 20 GWh’s of storage a go, along with 400-650 MW of installed capacity. So 10 such facilities would provide 200 GWh’s of storage.

Figure 7: Energy storage technologies compared [Source: Sandia National Laboratories, 2013]

Figure 7: Energy storage technologies compared [Source: Sandia National Laboratories, 2013]

Its safe to assume that more cars in the future will be electric, keeping in mind that even hybrid cars will have a battery with at least 10-20 kWh’s each of capacity and +40 kWh’s each for fully electric cars. This means that a modest fleet of say 6 million such vehicles (out of an existing UK fleet of 29 million cars), assuming we only use the first 10-20 kWh’s of the battery capacity, would be able to supply between 60 – 120 GWh’s of storage.

Figure 8: Energy storage options by density [Credit: IIG Freiburg, 2008 via Siemens ]

Figure 8: Energy storage options by density [Source: IIG Freiburg, 2008 via Siemens]

There are several new energy storage technologies in development. Large battery arrays to back up renewables is one option. Elon Musk, amongst others, is seriously investigating these as a viable energy option, although it is early days. Another is the idea of CAES (compressed air energy storage) or the recent innovation of LAES (liquid air energy storage). LAES is an interesting idea, because it can be easily added to existing thermal power infrastructure, something as noted we’ll have no shortage of, without too much additional cost. Its storage energy density of 100-200 kWh’s per m3 makes for pretty compact storage.

Figure 9: LAES is a new yet “low tech” energy storage option [Credit: The, 2011]

Figure 9: LAES is a new yet “low tech” energy storage option [Credit: The, 2011]

Of course these are all emerging technologies, some won’t work out and its hard to tell which will succeed (another days article). But let’s suppose we can get the same output from them as we can from the cars. So all together that gives us at least 1,000 – 1,200 GWh’s worth of storage across the UK, without trying very hard. We also have the capacity of existing hydroelectric reservoirs of approximately 200 GWh’s (once we account for those reservoirs converted to PHS), although remember this is a one shot source than will take weeks to replenish. So all in we’ve got up to 1,400 GWh’s of storage to play with.

Would this be enough? Another study by the ESRU  suggests that even with a grid drawing on 60% of its power from variable renewables, 550 GWh’s would provide adequate backup for at least seven days. This would seem to imply that the level of storage I’m proposing would provide at least twice the amount actually needed. Although I would note that this study probably doesn’t account for GW’s needed (i.e. sudden draws on the grid at inconvenient times) or extended periods of low renewable output.

As a result some would say no, the UK’s average daily draw of electricity is about 900 GWh’s, so this would seem to imply the above would provide just a day and a half worth of storage (a bit more than half a day if we believe Strathclyde Uni!). However, its worth remembering that this implies an “all stop” scenario with no power being generated and everything turned on. i.e. No sunshine, no wind, no waves, no tides (which is going to be difficult without the moon disappearing!), all the thermal plants down, whatever is left of the UK’s nuclear fleet out to lunch (then again, they have been knocked offline by storms or heatwaves). And of course we’re looking at the UK in isolation. One assumes a future grid will be connected, to the continent, Ireland and possibly even to Norway (and its dams). So we’re imagining a scenario where all of these sources are also unavailable. And we’re ignoring existing policies which calls for “load shedding”, whereby major industrial users of power de-rate or go offline to help ease the pressure on the grid at certain times. Also there are other means of energy storage in the UK we’re not accounting for above. For example, a report by the ERP mentions the nation’s hot water tanks hold at least 65 GWh’s.

Figure 9: Given that the bulk of energy demand is for heat, largely in homes, perhaps that's the source of energy we should be storing? [Source: Underground Energy Storage, 2009]

Figure 9: Given that the bulk of energy demand is for heat, largely in homes, perhaps that’s the source of energy we should be storing? [Source: Underground Energy Storage, 2009]

The idea that all of these sources could all go down at the same time as all of the loads are on is a pretty unlikely scenario and it’s highly improbable to last any more than 24 hrs. Keep in mind that if the existing grid faced the sort of scenario listed above, we’d be in trouble pretty quickly. Much of the UK’s electricity and heat energy is drawn from the gas reserves of the North Sea. An interruption to pipelines coming off the North sea, given that the UK has very little gas stored onshore, would leave the country with just a few days supply at winter withdrawal rates. If France developed some issue with its nuclear reactors (a safety scare of some sort) and was forced to shut many of them down, they would have problems straight away. As would parts of southern England who depend on French nuclear for electricity.

In short, we’re placing design requirements on a future grid that exceed those of our existing grid. And indeed one could argue the existing UK grid is itself overdesigned. As someone from the national grid once put it to me, how much it would cost to adequately back up the grid for intermittent renewables to become the majority source of electricity is like asking how long is a piece of string. It boils down to the question, how reliable do you want the grid to be? 100% reliable all of the time? or 95% reliable most of the time, but for half the price?

Keep in mind that in other parts of the world brown outs or blackouts are far more common. In the US for example, while its not often the power goes off, it does happen from time to time (heatwaves, forest fires, ice storms, tornadoes, price gouging utilities, etc.). Sufficiently often that anyone who needs power 24/7 generally has a standby generator on-site. Now the Americans could easily add enough spare capacity into their grid, put the cables underground, etc. and have a grid that works all of the time. But would people be willing to pay for that? Probably not.

Consequently about the only situation where I could see such mega storage systems being built is part of some sort of strategic energy reserve (at which point any sensible analysis based on economics and actual requirements goes out the window as we’re talking in terms of national security). Or if there was a failure to deliver on hydrogen as a substitute for natural gas and instead rely on electricity. This would then require a large reserve of electricity to meet winter heating needs. In this scenario the withdrawal rates would of course be much lower, probably in the order of ten’s of GW’s (i.e. capacity of the Three Gorges Dam), well within the limits of a few HVDC lines to support.

Either way, what these proposals do show is that necessity is likely to be the mother of invention. Even if we did need the sort of vast storage levels the naysayers suggest (and we won’t) it would still be technically possible to provide such levels of storage with existing technology, nevermind the potential storage capacity provided by future advances in technology.

That said, any level of storage, regardless of the technology used, is going to take time to develop plan and build. The major problem with that is, if you listen to the IPCC, time isn’t exactly an asset we’re in an abundant supply of.

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Energy Report card – An update

About a year ago I wrote an article about the current state of play as to the performance of renewables. How they were doing in real terms, compared to what levels of growth are needed to offset dangerous climate change and peak oil. Well as we’ve just finished teaching for the year and marking season starts again for lecturers I thought it would be useful to repeat the exercise.

Figure 1: Renewables now accounts for 22% of global electricity use and 19% of TFC [Source: IEA, 2014]

Figure 1: Renewables now accounts for 22% of global electricity use and 19% of TFC [Source: IEA, 2014]

Old Renewables v’s New Renewables

I’ve used the same methodology as last time. I’ve included the figures for both GW’s installed, separating electrical, thermal and fuels out (where possible) and then including the resulting TWh’s that such growth in capacity would yield. If I managed to get a reliable TWh, PJ or mtoe figure then its included (centre justified to make it clear that its an actual not an estimated figure). Any figure in the TWh rows that is in italics and right justified represents an estimate based on known capacity factors. The bulk of the data presented comes from the most recent, or past, REN 21 reports. Where information is lacking, I’ve used figures provided by the IEA reports.

Table 1: Renewable energy performance since 2008

Table 1: Renewable energy performance since 2008 [Sources: IEA KWES (2009-2014) & REN (2010-2014)] Note the issues relating to Geothermal are discussed within the text

I’ve included several calculations in table 1. The amount of growth in the last reported year (2013), the five year average growth and the percentage growth for each type of renewable. Also I’ve included what amount of last years growth relates to each renewable. In all cases I’ve focused on the TWh/yr figure as this is a fairer way of comparing different renewable types to one another, or indeed different sources of energy. Finally we come up with the two figures for the total overall growth in TWh/yr capacity added, both in 2013 year and the five year average.

Look at the figures, in particular comparing the five year average to the performance last year, several trends are evident. Most notably there has been a distinct slow down in hydroelectricity. Only 10 GW’s of hydro was added last year against a five year average of 17 GW’s. While Hydro has previously been one of the largest sources of renewables growth, it was only 11% of 2013 growth. In 2013 it was outperformed by wind power, solar PV and solar thermal. Similarly biomass growth has been strong in some areas, but sluggish in others.

This of course suggests a trend, whereby the older renewables sources are starting to top out, but the gap is being filled by strong growth in the newer renewables. This incidentally solves a question I’ve heard asked for sometime. The logic was that as hydroelectricity was “all used up” once it stopped growing, renewables output would cool. However this isn’t what’s happened. In fact 2013 was a better than average year with just under 500 TWh/yr added.

Figure 2: While Hydro appears to be topping out, who would have known that we could get 1,000 GW's from a few rivers! [Source: BBC, 2012]

Figure 2: While Hydro appears to be topping out, who would have known that we could get 1,000 GW’s from a few rivers! [Source: BBC, 2012]

Furthermore, this “all used up” argument regarding hydroelectricity. Its something I’ve been hearing for over ten years, yet the hydro figure still keeps on creeping up. At least as far as large scale hydro I reckon we’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel, with 1,000 GW’s of install capacity. However there is still quite a lot of potential when it comes to pumped storage and micro-hydro schemes. So don’t be surprised if this number continues to creep up. Although its less of a concern if it doesn’t as the output from the newer renewables is eliminating its importance.

Of the new renewables, solar is growing particularly strongly. PV grew by 39%, CSP by 36% and solar thermal by a little shy of 28%. Much of this growth, in particular solar thermal, occurred in developing nations. So again another important development is that developing countries are avoiding some of the lockin that has plagued efforts to get the West off its fossil fuel addiction. The growth in solar thermal is quite important in this regard, as the primary means of energy consumption in most homes is heating. And on a TWh basis solar thermal is now becoming the most important of the solar energy sources.

Figure 3: Are Solar and wind power competitors or do they compliment one another? [Source: Cleantechnica, 2013 ]

Figure 3: Are Solar and wind power competitors or do they compliment one another? [Source: Cleantechnica, 2013]

Wind power grew by 35 GW’s, slightly down on 2012, which was closer to 45 GW’s. Also the dominance of wind is being threatened by the strong growth in solar, in particular PV. As PV matures it could well be the main source of future growth in renewables. Even so wind power still represented the largest source of growth, some 17.7% of all growth in renewables. So any thought of wind energy slowing down are probably premature.

A hot topic

You may notice that my figures for geothermal energy are a little muddled. This is because the REN 21 report seems to be accepting the issues regarding Heat pumps. That is to say that unless you can guarantee a COP of greater than 3 (ideally in excess of 4) from these, then operating them on a fossil fuel heavy grid makes it somewhat dubious to call them a form of renewable energy (the latest report even has a side bar explaining this), something I’ve discussed myself in a prior post. So for this reason I’ve separated out the direct geothermal heat use and heat pumps. Due to this statistical change we can’t get a reliable figure for the GW’s installed in 2013, but we can easily estimate the TWh‘s.

Figure 4: Ground, air and more recently water source heat pumps (such as this scheme in Norway) have their uses, but its important to differentiate them from Geothermal energy [BBC, 2015 ]

Figure 4: Ground, air and more recently water source heat pumps (such as this scheme in Norway) have their uses, but its important to differentiate them from Geothermal energy [Source: BBC, 2015]

Doing better, but must try harder

Of course, before we start pulling out the victory cigars, I recall estimating that in order to phase out fossil fuels at a reasonable rate we’d need to add close to 1,000 – 1,500 TWh/yr. Exactly how much depends on the amount of growth in energy demand year on year and the fact that only about 18% of TFC (Total Final energy Consumption) is electricity, the rest being heat, transportation fuels and feedstock to industry. Cycle efficiencies and the need to bunker fuel will require further capacity added to counter the inherent inefficiencies in such processes. Needless to say, all the PV panels and wind farms in the world aren’t going to do much good without the right infrastructure to plug into, as I discussed in a more recent post.

Figure 5: Renewables as a share of overall total final energy consumption, 2012 [REN21, 2014 report]

Figure 5: Renewables as a share of overall total final energy consumption, 2012 [Source: REN21, 2014]

So the message would seem to be that while renewables are doing well and the industry is maturing, we’re still only adding about half to a third the capacity needed. So its still a case of doing well, but could do better. This is why I’m particularly worried by suggestions that subsidies to renewables will be cut, as I don’t think we’re at the stage yet where that can be done. Certainly not when fossil fuel prices are low and we have the defacto subsidy of them in the form of no carbon tax.

Part of the solution or part of the problem?

Of course the response of some when faced with the fact that renewables aren’t performing strongly enough, is to say that this is why we need nuclear power. However that’s part of the issue here. Nuclear is increasingly becoming less a part of the solution and more part of the problem.

Table 2: Nuclear power Indicators 2008 to 2014

Table 2: Nuclear power Indicators 2008 to 2014

The data in table 2 come mostly from the IEA KWES reports, But as far as the 2013 and 2014 GW‘s figures, as well as the 2014 TWh figure (2013 TWh‘s coming from the IEA), I’ve used the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Part of the problem in recent years has been its become increasingly difficult to get reliable data about nuclear energy, as this article discusses. For example, the IAEA still records the presence of the Japanese reactors shut down since Fukushima in terms of total installed capacity, even though most haven’t generated any electricity for several years now. In the fantasy limbo world of the IAEA Japan’s reactors are still all up and running! For this reason I’ve included a line above where I’ve added back in the 274 TWh‘s we’d expect to get from Japan’s nuclear reactors (for the benefit of those who’ve drunk their share of the Nuclear kool aid!).

Figure 6: Nuclear energy, total TWh's and share of global electricity production [Source: WNISR, 2014]

Figure 6: Nuclear energy, total TWh’s and share of global electricity production [Source: WNISR, 2014]

Even so, which ever way you look at it, nuclear is now on something of a downward trend, losing an average of 3% of installed GW’s per year, with an overall drop of 16% in TWh‘s since 2010, which might well represent the point of “peak nuclear”. Overall nuclear is producing only 28% of the TFC energy we’re harvesting from renewables (8,474 TWh‘s from renewables v’s 2,359 TWh‘s from nuclear) and this is a gap that’s very likely to grow rather than shrink.

I would expect this current downward trend to reverse itself in the next year or two, as I’m aware that there are many large scale nuclear building projects that are due to be completed in the next few years, notably in China and India. So expect the IAEA to make a big deal about this in a few years time, conveniently ignoring the current downward trend. However it will probably be only a temporary reprieve as any growth in developing nations is likely to be outweighted by nuclear shutdowns in the West.

Are you suggesting that reactors migrate?

In the UK for example by 2026, the earliest possible date at which Hinkley C could start operating (and even that’s looking increasingly unlikely), 19 of the UK’s 20 reactors will have shut down and suffice to say 2 reactors to replace 19 isn’t favourable odds. In the US just 5 reactors are under active construction against a total of 100 reactors of an average age of 30 years (28.5 years average age worldwide) that need to be replaced. Assuming a maximum 45-50 year operating live (there are no reactors greater than 46 years of age still operating) this means that unless there is a dramatic change in US national energy policy in the next decade or so then its very likely that nuclear power use will undergo a dramatic decline in America.

Figure 7: Average of world nuclear reactors [Source: WNISR, 2014]

Figure 7: Average of world nuclear reactors [Source: WNISR, 2014]

And even in France there is bad news. As WNISR 2014 points out all French reactors are only licensed to operate for 30 years. In theory if they don’t get a life extension (and its likely a number of those built in the same era as TMI and Fukushima won’t) then its possible that some (perhaps a large number of them) will shut down over the next couple of years. Currently France has but 1 reactor under construction…very slow construction!

Meanwhile the Finish Olkiluoto 3 project has gone from the bad to the farcical. The current estimate is that Olkiluoto 3 will commence operations in 2018-2020, nine years late and at an estimated cost of 8.5 Billion euro’s (original budget was 2.7 billion euro’s!). So frustrated are the Finn’s that they’ve basically kicked out all the Western contractors from bidding for any other nuclear projects. They seem to plan on giving the contract to the Russians (you know you’re desperate when you rely on Russians to build anything with the “nuclear” word in it!).

Figure 8: A sobering vision of the future for nuclear, a long slow slide to ruin [Source: WNISR, 2014]

Figure 8: A sobering vision of the future for nuclear, a long slow slide to ruin [Source: WNISR, 2014]

So in essence what’s happening is that we’re seeing the world’s nuclear capacity migrate from Western countries to developing nations. However its very probable that we’ll still end up with an overall decline and a generally downward trend in global nuclear energy output. Keep in mind that to reverse the current trend would require adding 6-15 GW/yr of nuclear just to stand still. Any sort of growth, such as the IAEA’s target of 6.65 GW/yr. I pointed to in a prior article, would thus require a build rate of closer to 12-20 GW/yr, which is well above current built rates of closer to 4 GW/yr (or roughly 27 TWh/yr, about 5% of the construction rate of renewables!).

And keep in mind that the historical maximum build rate for nuclear of 30 GW/yr back in the 1970’s (assuming a capacity factor of 90%) amounts to about 225 TWh/yr, roughly half the rate at which renewables are currently being installed. The fact is that no matter what way’s you twist the figures there is no way nuclear is going to make any kind of a dent in the sort of energy needs we’ll need to add over the coming decades. Even the most demented tinfoil hat wearing LFTR cheerleader has to accept this fact.

In short the report card for nuclear, if it were a student of mine, would be instructions to come and talk to me as we need to have a long hard chat about whether the student wants to remain on the course or not. As current performance, a lack of engagement nor can-do attitude, and a failure to set realistic targets (and then meet them) is likely to lead to them being thrown out of uni.

And there will be great rejoicing?

However the death of the nuclear renaissance creates a problem for renewables. For it would suggest I should take the 494.6 TWh/yr figure above and deduct 99.3 TWh/yr away from it. Quite a lot of the renewables we’ve been installing recently, particularly in the west, has been replacing nuclear capacity and not fossil fuel capacity. Or indeed increased electricity demand from growing economies. So in reality low carbon energy installation needs to increase by a factor of between three and five.

I’m not trying to construct a pro-nuclear or an anti-nuclear argument by pointing this out. I’m merely pointing out that we are where we are. And as a result, replacing nuclear at the same time as phasing out fossil fuels does make that slope of the mountain that little bit steeper.

This is of course why I’ve long banged the drum about energy conservation. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to give up their car or become a vegan (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt if people did!) or run off and join a hippy commune. But clearly if there’s going to be gap between what can be added by renewables and the amounts of energy the world demands, then this means we have to cut consumption to compensate. Certainly the idea that we should effectively subsidise fossil fuel consumption or wasteful habits is something that needs to change.

Posted in Biomass, CHP, clean energy, climate change, energy, Fukushima, nuclear, peak oil, renewables, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reserves v’s Resources

In amongst the election news there’s been a lot of news on the oil and gas front that’s had my spider senses tingling….as in I sense the distinct consistency of grade A Bull$hit!

Consider the story of what was described as the world’s largest oil field” under Gatwick in South Eastern England, with talk of “up to 100 billion barrels of oil”. This comes on the back of media reports over the last few years highlighting the scale of the UK’s shale gas and shale oil resources. Consider for example this typically Cornocopian piece from a libertarian.


Figure 1: The UK’s shale Gas reserves have been the source of much recent speculation [Credit: BGS, 2011]

A clue to the truth behind all this can be gained by actually bothering to read the report from the BGS that sparked all of this speculation. And in particular skipping to the bottom and checking out the references. You will immediately note how quite a few of them are not new, some go back many years to as early as the 1960’s. This is not really surprising because its long been known by geologists that this formation of shale existed for quite some time. What the BGS has been attempting to clarify recently is how big this hunk of rock is and what level of gas and oil is concentrated within in it, i.e. how big are the resources of gas and oil within the formation.

There is a world of a difference between saying there’s 100 billion in resources (i.e. gas/oil that is we know is located in a certain area, but may not be economic or technically possible to extract) under our feet and 100 billion in reserves (oil and gas which we know can be accessed and drilled economically).

Incidentally, anyone who wants to know more about the process of oil discovery and drilling, I’d advise taking a look at this webseries of video’s  by an Oil and Gas professor (Dr Lau), who does a good overview of the topic.

Figure 2: Global Energy Reserves, Production and Resources [Credit: BGR, 2011]

Figure 2: Global Energy Reserves, Production and Resources [Credit: BGR, 2011]

A quick look at figure 2 above will help illustrate the point I’m making. As you can see only about 7% of the world’s fossil fuel resources are classified as reserves. The rest is certainly there, it exists, but the problem is that much if it isn’t necessarily in a form that’s easily extractable. It could be too deep to drill into, it could be under a mile of ocean, the rock between us and it may present problems, there could be a large underground aquifer between us and the oil (a significant problem for much of the UK’s shale resources in fact), the oil/gas might be in lots of little fields that are too far apart to be economic to drill, or it might be in waters claimed by another country. Or more often than not, a combination of factors may apply.

And a big part of the problem here is that its often far from clear, when a company starts drilling, what the situation is. Many people have this image of an oil well as being like a tank of oil under the ground. Actually a more accurate view is that of a lair of sand, soil, gravel or “source rock” trapped between two impermeable barriers. So less a tank and more a sponge….but a sponge buried under several miles of earth and rock! While the oil immediately close to our drill might well flow up naturally under pressure, or it can be pumped out, stuff further way is harder to access. We have to drill more holes…at a couple of million a pop. Or even start pumping stuff down there to force the oil out. Fracking may be called for to stimulate flow.

Figure 3: Oil and Gas reserve types

Figure 3: Oil and Gas reserve types

At some point, and we won’t necessarily know when, we’ll no longer be getting enough oil or gas out of our well to make it economically sensible to keep production going. So the well is capped. And keep in mind the industry average for oil well recovery ratios (what comes out v’s what stay’s in the ground) is about 40%, with a range of about 10-55% for conventional production. That is to say that on average 60% of the oil in a typical field is left in the ground. And recovery ratio’s tend to be poorer in new oil fields (particularly with unconventional oil and gas), largely because the drillers are still feeling they’re way around the underground elephant.

So if for example in this Gatwick field we were to identify a reservoir of oil with say 1 million barrels in place and let’s assume we can recover that for a cost of $10 million, would it be worth our while to drill? The media or the cornucopian’s types will probably say, well of course, but let’s think about that.

At current oil prices (let’s assume $60/bbl) and assuming average rates of recovery (so 400,000 bbl actually recovered), we’ll make $24 million, which doesn’t sound bad. But what if we end up only getting 10% out? Or because of unexpected complications (e.g. a load of FoE protesters occupies the rig for several months, we hit several gas pockets, we end up drilling a dry hole and need to start again, etc.) our costs jump to £30 million. Or perhaps several of these things happen, what then? Well, in this case we’re loosing our shirts is what happens, even if the oil price goes up to $120!

And this is the reason why a lot of oil finds worldwide will turn out to be minnow’s that the oil majors simply chuck back in the sea and ignore, hence the massive difference between global reserves and resources.

To draw an analogy, if we were to assume you could book all resources and treat them as reserves, then nobody by the sea, such as a ship wreck survivor, could ever die of thirst, as after all he’s surrounded by water. However if we consider the amount of trouble its going to be to separate out the water from its salt content, we realise he’s going to be struggling to extract enough to survive. And only then if he can build some sort of solar still. Listen to the cornucopian’s and they’ll have you believe he’ll have a swimming pool with a jacuzzi up and running by his first week! By contrast, someone by a small mountain pond, is in a substantially better position. While his water resource is smaller, its in an easily accessible form. So long as he doesn’t over-produce and drain the pond dry, he’s always going to have at least some water available.

Figure 4: Onshore oil is nothing new in the UK [Credit:

Figure 4: Onshore oil is nothing new in the UK [Credit: Stainton Oil Pumping Station – by Kate Jewell]

Hence why talk in the UK  comparing the Gatwick find to Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia is laughable. Is it being seriously suggested that the UK holds more oil than the rest of Europe (including Russia and central Asia) combined? Ghawar field, represents a proven reserve of oil that has been producing for 50 years, while only relatively small quantities of oil have been produced in Southern England. Again to give you a comparison, Ghawar’s peak production is in the order of 5 million barrels a day (out of a Saudi total close to 10 million bbl/day), oil fields in Southern England output about 20,000 bbl/day.

Similarly any suggestion that the US holds “100 years of shale gas” is simply not accurate. This analysis assumes that 100% of Shale resources could be recovered (they can’t!), with a recovery factor of 100% (shale formations tend to have recovery factors well below the 40% mention earlier). A more reasoned analysis suggests 11 to 21 years of supply. The EIA estimates that Shale Gas has increased US resources by 27% and worldwide by 32%. A lot of gas yes, but not quite the massive game changer that is often suggested.

This brings us to the final point in figure 2, production v’s reserves. Again you will notice that annually only about 1.2% of world energy reserves are produced per year, or if we focus on oil alone, about 8% comes out per year. The fact is we can’t simply extract oil or gas at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. A higher production rate often means more drilling, more pumps, more costs and again beyond a certain tipping point, its not going to be economic nor technically feasible to up production. Too high a rate of production also risks causing technical problems, which will in the long term limit the amount of oil we ultimately extract from our reservoir. So large reserves, nevermind large resources don’t automatically mean a high rate of production.

And of the world’s oil resources (conventional and unconventional) annual oil production is but 0.8% of these resources. So you understand how laughable stupid the ravings of some cornocupians, like our libertarian fantasist earlier, sound when they imagine being able to drain the UK’s shale resources away (with a recovery ratio of 100%!) in just 50 years! To draw another analogy if we we’re to send a load of cornocupians to the sides of a large lake and get them to extract water using just spoons and sponges, while I took a small pond and a foot pump, who do you think would achieve a higher rate of production?

So you may enquire given everything I’ve said why are the companies behind these finds spreading such falsehoods. Well for the very same reason why the oil and gas companies are laying off staff. With the recent drops in oil price, nobody wants to invest in finding more oil, which is really bad news if your head of a oil exploration firm. Of course the best way to attract some suckers investors to fill the company coffers is some good oil fashioned snake oil salesmanship, which the media have been more than happy to promote free of charge. Keep in mind that one of the key promoters of this story also just happens to be a city firm who specialises in oil and gas investment.

Similarly the shale gas promoters have been selling the myth that shale is some new magically energy source developed by professor Dumbledore at Hogwarts. In truth, the first fracking of oil wells dates back to 1949. Certainly the fracking technology used today is very different, the scale is larger, the depth and pressures are different. But the basic idea that we could use it to extract the oil and gas from the shale resources we’ve long known existed is not a new idea.

Anyone who doubts me, go to your universities library some evening and go through the oil and gas journals of a few decades back (say 60’s to 80’s, whatever’s on microfilm was my rationale) and you will see the odd paper or journal pop up relating to “hydraulic fracturing”. I found several going all the way back to the 1960’s….including one crazy one which thought of using fracking to dispose of nuclear waste! (they went a bit nuts in the 60’s, all those drugs!).

Figure 5: Unconventional Fossil fuels have a much heavier carbon footprint [Credit: Pershing & Kelly, University of Utah (2011)]

Figure 5: Unconventional Fossil fuels have a much heavier carbon footprint [Credit: Pershing & Kelly, University of Utah (2011)]

Again, the oil and gas industry has been attempting to suggest otherwise, as they have a very specific agenda. Which is basically that the existing reserves of oil they hold are rapidly depleting. There reserves are also uncompetitive compared to those held by Middle East producers. And the “let’s steal the Arab’s oil” gambit appears to have failed rather dramatically. So plan B is to con the rest of us into paying over the odds for domestic oil and gas, while ignoring the urgent matter of climate change and the fact that unconventional oil and gas production often comes with a much higher rate of pollution and a higher carbon footprint.

So given these factors, yes you can go with the dodgy “cowboy” fracker, whose offering a “too good too be true” deal. Or do you go with the science, which says we need to engage in a long term strategy to get off oil. Nothing spectacular, but a long term commitment towards energy conservation, renewables and generally living within our means.

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