Monday, June 13, 2016

Blowing in the Wind

Published as a podcast at on Friday 10th June

Hello this is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 10th June, and I’m delighted to say that it could almost be summer. Gone is last week’s cold spell, plants are bursting out all over, especially weeds in our allotment garden, and my bees gave me 20kg of honey last week. Amazing when you think that I got less than that for the whole of last season and didn’t get any at all until September.

In the news this week - words about wind power, news from Norway and a White Elephant galloping north.

This week we heard from RenewableUK Chief Executive Hugh McNeal about limits to onshore wind.  RenewableUK is the trade body for the UK wind industry. In an interview with the Telegraph he said, “We are almost certainly not talking about the possibility of new plants in England. The project economics wouldn’t work; the wind speeds don’t allow for it.” However, although the Government has implemented its manifesto pledge to end subsidies for new onshore wind farms, the industry believes it should be able to deploy more turbines onshore if it can show that this is the cheapest form of new power generation capacity. In some cases that may mean replacing existing turbines with larger units. The sums may not add up in England, but there’s a lot of wind in Scotland and maybe in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. Current wholesale electricity prices are too low to spur investment in any new form of power generation, so the Government has already had to make subsidies available to new gas plants. If financial support required by onshore wind is less than that required by gas, the industry argues it should receive such support which should no longer be regarded as “subsidy”. This is of course a political hot potato as the government had a manifesto commitment to cut back onshore wind power and set about achieving this as one of its first actions in this parliament.

John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), said claims that wind power was the cheapest failed to take into account the wider cost impacts on the system.
“There has to be grid expansion to remove bottlenecks and short term response plant to cope with errors in the wind forecast, and the cost of operating a conventional fleet of [power stations] of almost unchanged size to guarantee security of supply,” he said.

Wikipedia reveals that The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) was founded in 2004 by UK TV personality Noel Edmonds. It’s a United Kingdom-based registered charity with a stated aim of promoting the development of sustainable energy technologies. Its funders include Barclays Capital and Calor Gas. In 2011 it was revealed in a Guardian article that it had been in discussion with the Charities Commission about its possibly overly political nature. In the UK political organisations are not allowed charitable status.

Despite its name the Renewable Energy Foundation seems to be diametrically opposed to the objectives of RenewableUK. Indeed, a previous CEO of RenewableUK is on record as saying “They don't foster or promote or develop, they just try to undermine the case for wind energy all the time.”

But the REF’s point about backup has always been an issue with renewables. There are times, sometimes days or even weeks, when there’s no sunshine and no wind. Electricity demand remains the same, so logically we need a fleet of conventional power stations capable of meeting maximum demand always on standby. For nuclear power stations standby is not really an option. They are either running or not and cannot be easily or quickly switched on and off. For this reason they are used to meet base load. Coal stations are more flexible. Standby still means that they are running, although at a low level which can be fairly rapidly increased. Gas stations are the most flexible, but if you have a conventional generating fleet which can meet total demand, why invest in renewables which can only satisfy part of demand part of the time? Leaving aside the low carbon aspects, that logic is based on the assumption that electricity cannot easily be stored. Elon Musk of Tesla with his Powerwall domestic battery is starting to challenge that belief. Now news from Norway takes it to another level.
According to Spectrum, the magazine of i-triple-e the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Norway is setting itself up to be Europe’s energy warehouse. Norway’s hydropower reservoirs make up nearly half of Europe’s energy storage capacity. And European grid operators need energy storage to cope with constant variations in the output of wind power. In December, engineers will energize a new subsea power cable. The 240-kilometer cable across the Skagerrak Strait separating southern Norway and northern Denmark is Norway’s first new power link to Denmark since 1993. Called Skagerrak 4, its high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converters—the electronic units at either end of the line that transform AC into high-voltage DC and vice versa—are also the building blocks for more ambitious cables from Norway to wind-power heavyweights Germany and the United Kingdom. Construction on those is expected to commence during the coming year.

The existing Skagerrak interconnection, three HVDC cables with a combined 1,000 megawatts of capacity, is already showing the world just how well wind and hydropower complement each other. According to the Danish Energy Agency, such interconnectors are why Denmark can accommodate the world’s highest levels of wind power, which met 41.2 percent of Danish demand in the first half of this year. At times wind power production even exceeds the country’s domestic power demand.
“We store their surplus in the hydro reservoirs and then feed it back on a seasonal basis or a daily basis. This is a very strong business case,” says HÃ¥kon Borgen, executive vice president at Statnett, Norway’s state grid operator.
Norwegian hydropower turbines throttle down as Norway consumes Danish wind energy instead, leaving an equivalent amount of energy parked behind dams. And when the weather shifts and becalms the North Sea winds, the reservoirs and Skagerrak’s cables feed that stored energy back to Denmark. 
A pair of Norway–U.K. cables, a joint effort of Statnett and London-based National Grid, is slated to start by 2020.
There should be many more cables to come if European countries make good on official goals to eliminate carbon emissions from power generation by 2050. The German government’s Advisory Council on the Environment, for example, concluded in its influential 2011 report that an optimal zero-carbon power system for Germany would need more than 40 gigawatts of interconnection to Norway. That system, the council projected, would deliver power at a very affordable 6 to 7 euro cents per kilowatt-hour. Without Norwegian storage, power costs would rise to 9 to 12 euro cents per kilowatt-hour.

You can find more, and a lot of technical details, at

Norway made the headlines again this week with press reports that it would ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2025. Already nearly one in four cars on Norwegian roads is electric, partly because they are heavily subsidised. Norway has vast electricity supplies, 99% of which come from hydropower. And it also has a small population of only 5.2 million citizens, which is a lot less than London. An article in Huffington Post expresses sour grapes. This is only possible, it tells us, because Norway is a significant producer of oil and gas. It’s using oil revenues to finance its escape from oil. True, Norway has used oil revenues to build a substantial sovereign wealth fund. I think that’s called “saving up for a rainy day”, or “fixing the roof while the sun shines.” Sounds like a good plan to me, although I think it’s a bit late for some other North Sea oil producers.

An extensive post on Facebook from Robert Goldman includes this prediction: “In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You don't want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver's license and will never own a car. It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks. 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident every 100,000 km, with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.”

Somebody once said, and research indicates he may have been Danish although that’s probably not important, “Prediction is hazardous, especially about the future.” Self-driving cars do look to be an ideal solution, especially as we’ll be able to get rid of all those parked vehicles that are idle 95% of the time. But cars are much more than a means of transport for many people. They are an expression of individuality and independence. Even if the cost and safety arguments are compelling I’m sure there will be a backlash. After all, my car is nearly 11 years old and I don’t want to get rid of it. It runs as well as it ever did and was paid for long ago. It’s a hybrid so it’s relatively clean and the manufacture of any replacement, even an electric car, will have a substantial carbon footprint. 

But perhaps we’ll all be travelling by train. Will we? I wanted to share an article about HS2 that I read in Tuesday’s Guardian. HS2 is the high speed train planned to run from London to Birmingham, and to be extended in Phase Two with separate lines to Manchester and Leeds. I’ve been mildly in favour of it, to release capacity on existing lines so that more freight can be sent by train rather than by road. If we build a completely new line to achieve this, the argument goes, we might as well make it high speed because the incremental cost will be very small.

However, in his article dated 7th June Simon Jenkins demolishes every argument in favour of the line. Read the whole thing at, but here are some highlights. While Jenkins doesn’t mention freight capacity, he does point out that London to Birmingham trains have typical occupancy levels of around 60%, while commuter lines around major UK cities are straining at 100%. Is a high speed line only marginally more expensive than a normal line? The project has been estimated to cost £42billion, but others suggest £70billion and the Institute of Economic Affairs predicts £80billion. All that has to come back over time from train fares, because there’s no suggestion that this will be funded with public money. Travellers who are not in a tearing hurry will doubtless find highly competitive rates on existing routes. Regardless of who pays for the project - expected to be the biggest civil engineering project in Europe by far - it will account for a significant proportion of GDP. It will create jobs, but it’s not clear whether the UK has sufficient skilled people to fill those jobs or what they will do once the construction is finished. The skilled people absorbed by HS2 will not be available to work on other parts of the UK infrastructure, so we need to be absolutely sure that HS2 is more important than new hospitals, new roads, a new power generation and distribution system or even a new airport runway in the southeast.

Going back to the question of high speed. The latest plan is to future-proof the line by building it to carry trains at up to 400kph. That’s 250mph and no trains capable of that speed currently exist, not even Flying Scotsman. High speed has two consequences. At least. First, air resistance is proportional to the square of the speed of the airflow, or of the vehicle through the air. This means that there is four times as much drag acting on a vehicle travelling at 150mph as when it travels at 75mph. At 200mph it’s seven times as much and at 250mph 11 times as much. It will take 11 times as much energy to drive the vehicle at that speed, with energy costs increased in direct proportion. And carbon footprint as well, unless we have eliminated fossil fuels from electricity production by the time the train sets off. The second consequence of ultra high speed trains is that the lines have to be as straight as possible. It’s difficult to choose a route and it’s much easier to build out-of-town parkway stations than to actually serve stations in city centres. As a result, door-to-door journey times can be as long or even longer than before. It reminds me of a quip by the comedy duo The Two Ronnies. “The Department of Transport has just announced,” they said, “that the Littleplace bypass was completed today. This was the final stage in a project bringing bypasses to every community in Britain. This means that you can now drive all day without going anywhere at all.”

I was at a presentation to a group of businessmen in Leeds, West Yorkshire, this week and they made it clear that improved transport links were urgently needed. George Northern Powerhouse Osborne has muttered something about HS3, a high speed line from Liverpool in the west via Manchester and Leeds to Hull in the east. It’s probably as likely as any other part of the Northern Powerhouse show. We don’t need a high speed train from east to west in the north, we just need an upgrade to the standard of the existing north-south main lines. The route needs to be put back to four tracks so that fast trains are not stuck behind locals. Most of the route originally had four tracks, and when it comes to getting through the Pennines there are still two unused tunnels alongside the existing line.

Mind you, the future may yet be the car. Not a diesel car. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, (Finance Minister) Gordon Brown lowered the tax rates on diesel cars because of their lower carbon emissions. The proportion of diesel cars on British roads rose from 13% then to 28% now. But it’s now been shown that their emissions of particulates and nitrous oxides are many times higher than suspected (although I thought we always knew about particulates.) Current Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said this week that consideration would have to be given to taxing diesel cars off the roads, which has caused a storm. Drivers have pointed out that they were guided by the government in choosing diesel, and rather than being penalised they should be subsidised with a scrappage allowance or some other sort of compensation. They also say that when it was proved that VW had fiddled their emissions figures that company was instructed by the US government to compensate owners for the fall in the value of their cars. No such compensation is available in Europe. Is this because the Europeans want to protect their car industry? George Osborne has frozen fuel duty and reduced the tax on running high carbon, high consumption vehicles so on past performance he may be unlikely to take action. Of course the difference is that CO2 is about climate change and the Chancellor is a known sceptic. Particulates and nitrous oxides are about air pollution and respiratory health, so with 50,000 UK deaths from poor air quality each year, this one could be more difficult to dodge.

When I say that cars could be the future, I mean of course electric self-driving cars. The capacity of roads is much greater than the capacity of railways, mainly because of braking distances. According to the driving test a car takes 96m to stop from 70mph in ideal conditions. That includes 21m while the driver is thinking about it. Because of the much lower adhesion between wheel and track, a train will need nearly two kilometres. This means that trains must be spaced for safety. Trials of self-driving cars are planned for British motorways next year, and in time they could travel at 150kph only two metres apart. If they are all controlled by the same system they will all slow down together, with negligible thinking time. Given the right control systems and the right vehicles, a  three-lane motorway will have a vastly greater capacity than a railway. Maybe that’s where we should be investing £80bn. In fact we could probably achieve a lot more for a lot less.

I still like trains, though. You can have a coffee, walk around and use wifi. I don’t mind travelling backwards in a train. You can sit round a table and talk to your friends. I don’t fancy travelling backwards in the front seat of a car. 

And that’s the Sustainable Futures Report for this week. I’m Anthony Day and in just a few weeks I’ll be hosting the first meeting of the Sustainable Best Practice Mastermind group. Details here: . I’m always grateful for feedback and I’d particularly like to thank Eric in Canada for an extensive range of links which look like a good source for future episodes. He’s particularly interested in rare earth metals and critical resources, so if you have any information or ideas, particularly if you're doing research in this area, please get in touch. Thanks for letting me know that I got the chemistry wrong in a previous episode, Tom. I hope I got the physics right this time. Manda, you suggested we should look at ethical and green investing. I’ve sent my financial advisor off to look into this for us - and if there’s anyone out there who has a view or specialist knowledge in the field please get in touch. 

The Sustainable Futures Report normally goes out as a podcast at 1am on a Friday morning, UK time. Last week I finished at five minutes to one. This week I’m pleased to say I had five hours in hand!

That’s all folks. 

This is Anthony Day

Bye for now!

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