Environmental news roundup

UK blackout

The UK recently suffered a series of sporadic blackouts across the country. Its being blamed on the fact a wind farm and a gas fired power station both suddenly went off line at more or less the same time, likely due to the high levels of rainfall and thunder storms we’d had that day. However it was not a lack of power, nor a lack of wind since we’re talking about it, that caused this blackout. I happened to have Grid Templar open at the same time as this blackout and it showed no major spike in demand, plenty of power available (including over 8GW’s of wind up and running), all the inter-connectors running (some of them even exporting power) and a grid frequency just a touch over 50 Hz, all of which pointed to no shortages of available electricity.


The UK’s been subjected to a number of unseasonably large lightening storms recently…no doubt related to climate change

The thing is, you can have all the power in the world being generated, but if you can’t get it to where its needed, the lights go out. In other words if you don’t have enough capacity on your powerlines to cope if some part of that grid goes down, then you are kind of stuffed. And as I’ve mentioned several times on my energy blog, the Tories have badly mismanaged the UK’s electricity grid, investment has been cut to the bone to such an extent that the UK grid has transcended lean and mean, its now skinny and pissed.

So this failure was very much a fire drill for an even larger future crisis, which brexit btw makes more likely. Imagine for example the same thing happening again, but this time in darkest winter in the middle of a snow storm at a time of peak demand with no spare capacity and where it might take several days before weather conditions allow repairs to be made. That’s the kind of energy crisis that worries me. And the blame game going on with power companies and the national grid all pointing the finger at one another over the recent outage, is hardly encouraging.

Now while its true some other parts of the world do have to cope with less reliable power, but they are used to that. Locals will often have a generator or solar panels on the roof tied to a battery. The UK is not used to this. If anything this crisis shows that the UK’s motto these days isn’t so much “keep calm and carry on” but “now panic and freak out”. So such a crisis will not end well.

Crimes against the planet

We were warned that the Brazil’s neo-fascist president would be bad, but we were never told just how bad. He’s begun a massive programme that involves the systematic destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a vital part of the global carbon cycle. And those public officials who tried to do their job and document what’s going on have been fired as his regime attempts to suppress information. And in related news, there’s been a spike in the numbers of environmental activists murdered notably in Brazil.


Why is he doing this? Well because like most populist he’s as corrupt as they come, in the pocket of wealthy landowners. The irony being he’s only in power because a massive corruption scandal took down the other two major parties….so the Brazilians responded to that by electing someone even more corrupt (like that makes sense, conservative logic, don’t even try to understand it). And as is often the case if there’s anything sensible liberals are in favour of, conservatives are against…..on which point I’d like to note liberals are also opposed to conservatives walking off of cliffs (I mean who would clean up the mess!), so we’d be really upset if conservatives started doing that 😉

But this has major implications for everyone on the planet. Many of the climate models the IPCC rely on assume that the natural carbon cycle will continue to absorb carbon dioxide, limiting the impact of climate change. At least for some period of time (after that the trees themselves start to die and release yet more carbon dioxide). In short he’s supercharging climate change, which will cause the more dangerous impacts of it to appear much earlier than currently predicted. It also makes a runaway greenhouse effect more likely.

What we are seeing here in action is a crime against nature. One that will directly lead to millions being driven from their homes and many more deaths do to extreme weather. Yet the world does nothing. Nobody is issuing arrest warrants for him. There’s no talk of sanctions or military intervention. There needs to be a new convention added to international law that prohibits such activity.

Crazy Ivans

When Putin announced that he was going to try to develop a nuclear powered cruise missile, among other weapons, I assumed it was just bravado. The Americans investigated such weapon systems in the 60’s as part of project Rover and project Pluto, where the goal was to create what would have essentially been an unmanned flying nuclear submarine.


America tried to develop a flying nuclear missile launcher back in the 60’s….before coming to their senses!

Fortunately Congress came to its senses and realised that they’d have to be stark raving bonkers to continue this project and pulled funding. Well a recent accident at a Russian nuclear testing facility does raise the possibly that they are in fact trying to develop such a weapon. Yes Putin’s Russia of today is trying to outdo the Americans of the 1960’s on the crazy scale, on a project which you’ll often see listed as “world top five craziest ideas”.


Project Pluto engine undergoing testing

What’s wrong with a nuclear cruise missile? Well needless to say flying around a nuclear reactor carries some pretty serious risks. You could end up with a mini Chernobyl (which is pretty much what happened the other day), or possibly even worse. The bulk of the radioactive material from Chernobyl is still within the containment building (melted or otherwise), only a small fraction of the fallout got into the atmosphere. If such a weapon was to malfunction at altitude and the plane/missile were to break up, you’d be scattering all of the reactor’s contents over a very wide area. To make matters worse while nuclear power plants use lightly enriched uranium, such a flying nuke would likely require highly enriched fuel, making the fallout much more severe.

This is largely why the Americans abandoned project Pluto back in the 60’s. The Pentagon decided that such a weapon system would be far too risky to have flying around and building one would just compel the other powers to do the same. Also in order to complete sufficient ground testing to qualify the hardware up to a point where they’d be prepared to try and let one take off, would have been enormously expensive, requiring massive testing facilities. It is pretty clear that Russia plans to complete development of a similar system on a shoestring budget using some quite amateurish methods. Which doesn’t inspire confidence that any hardware will be suitably certified prior to flight testing.


In order to ground test their engine the Americans had to preheat the air flowing through it to produce realistic flow conditions, requiring a massive tank farm….which only gave them a few minutes testing time!

And contrary to Putin’s boasts, such a missile will not be stealthy. Its massive superheated (and mildly radioactive) exhaust plume will be impossible to hide, making it a sitting duck for  anti-aircraft missiles. And given the necessity to shoot it down well before it reaches your territory (given the aforementioned fallout, you’d want to knock it down as early as possible), the end result of Russia creating such a weapon would likely be to find themselves ringed by long range anti-aircraft batteries.

So what are the Russians playing at? Well as this former adviser to the Kremlin reports, Putin is engaged in a childish game of one upmanship with the west. They bomb Iraq, he helps out his allies in Syria. They rig elections in 3rd world countries, he interferes in elections in the west. Trump withdraws from a nuclear weapons treaty to test a new weapon system, well two can play that game. And given he has leverage over Trump (thanks to a certain pee tape) he knows he can get away with pretty much anything now and hence does not feel constrained by international law. Which is kind of scary when we are talking about nuclear weapons.

Day zeroes

As if to emphasise a point I made in a prior post, the world resources council has released a report highlighting that a quarter of the world’s population are effected by extreme water stress. In the 17 countries that were the focus of the report, agriculture, industry, and municipalities were found to be using up to 80% of available surface and groundwater in an average year. And recall, ground water is a finite resource. Once its gone its gone. And of course climate change can lead to more droughts and thus cut off the supply of surface water.


This is leading to more and more “Day zeroes” where a community’s local source of water runs out completely. And while this has been happening for some time to farmers and villages, now its starting to effect cities, most notably Cape Town (which nearly ran out last year) and Chennai in India.

The consequences of such water crises can be severe. And I mean famines, wars and mass migrations severe. But also while there are solutions, they require long term planning. Waiting until the local reservoir is empty or your well runs dry is waiting until its too late to do anything about it.

Straw arguments

Speaking of crimes against the environment, although this is more a crime against logic, McDonald’s has been forced to admit that their new paper straws aren’t recyclable, whereas the plastic ones they previously used were (although straw recycling isn’t straight forward, there are methods if they are collected separately). So they are protecting the environment by switching to straws with a higher carbon footprint (generally any paper based product tends to lose out v’s plastic in terms of carbon footprint, the main advantage of paper is they bio-degrade more quickly) and which are harder to recycle. Clownish behaviour (didn’t know Ronald McDonald was the actual CEO of the company!).

Of course this highlights a point that was made by many experts about the big post-blue planet backlash against plastics – its complicated. People tend to see things in terms of black and white while or good v’s bad but in reality its much more complex issue. Swap from plastic to paper, where does paper come from? Trees….you know like the ones the Brazilians are tearing down….damn! Going to do away with plastic packaging (as some supermarkets have suggested), well if it means your food spoils more quickly any carbon savings will be cancelled out straight away.

A more realistic strategy for how to deal with plastic wastes would be to return to the waste pyramid, with a little carbon footprint calculator in our back pocket. And the first step of that pyramid is refuse, i.e. how about McDonald’s supplies cups (you know like the glasses and ceramic mugs we’ve been using for several thousand years!) that are reusable and can be drunk from without a straw.


Second step, if you have to use a straw, use a reusable one. And yes you can get washable steel ones. In fact some of the plastic ones can be reused, this is what I do at home (rinse them after use in warm water, or if they get mangy leave them to steep in warm water with a drop of disinfectant and then rinse out), although there’s a limit to the number of times you can wash those (even so, cuts down consumption of them massively). And if and when they have to be thrown out, use a material that easily recycled. And if, like McDonald’s you are generating a large volume of them, surely you can afford to develop a method of recycling them. But the problem is that we have the waste pyramid in this country upside down and are doing things in reverse.

And for those who say its all just too complicated, well I was recently in Germany and their levels of recycling are massively higher. Things we say are impossible to do, the Germans say hold our beer bottle….then take it back to the store and get a refund! There’s a lot of reversible logistics, in which you buy your drinks (and inevitably in Germany a lot of that will be beer) by the crate and then when you are done, you return the empties and the crate to the supermarket and pick up a new one. And you see a lot less plastic packing in German supermarkets. And what you do see tends to be the types that are more easily recycled. Its like being a North Korean who wandered into a tech fair in Seoul.

That said, the Germans have been doing this for much longer than us. Successive German governments have passed legislation promoting recycling and reuse of packaging, largely by making manufacturers and retailers responsible for final disposal of their products. And also it does mean that the garage/basement/spare room of many German homes is full of empty crates and they have about 6 different bins in their kitchen. But certainly it shows that there are workable alternatives. We have no excuses.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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