Friday, March 03, 2017

The Burning Question

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Hello, this is Anthony Day with your Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 3rd March. Thank you for one of the best weeks for feedback. Your views - from all over the world - are much appreciated.

This week: is biomass energy really green energy? A new report throws doubts. The Lords Economic Affairs Committee has issued a report casting doubt on the government’s energy policy, but other organisations have cast severe doubt on the Lords’ report. Energy, shouldn’t we be saving it? Maybe by insulating one home a minute, every minute until 2050? That’s the message from the Green Building Council.

Meanwhile, they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions - or could it be paved with solar panels? Different experiences from France and from the USA. And then there’s Jeremy Leggett, author of The Winning of the Carbon War, who’s opened up a whole range of new fronts in the conflict.


Our first reports today come from Chatham House, the respected thinktank leading a project called The Environmental Impact of the Use of Biomass for Power and Heat. It’s fairly damning.

“The global demand for biomass power and heat is increasing rapidly,” it says, “primarily because of government support policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, achieving energy independence and supporting domestic industries. However, most current support policies for biomass for power and heat are based on the incorrect assumption that its use is immediately and completely carbon-neutral. This assumption underpins many public policies, with the result that biomass use is expanding, mostly to the detriment of attempts to limit climate change.”

As part of the project two papers have so far been published: 

In the first of these papers they say, “Although most renewable energy policy frameworks treat biomass as though it is carbon-neutral at the point of combustion, in reality this cannot be assumed, as biomass emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels. Only residues that would otherwise have been burnt as waste or would have been left in the forest and decayed rapidly can be considered to be carbon-neutral over the short to medium term.
“One reason for the perception of biomass as carbon-neutral is the fact that, under international greenhouse gas accounting rules, its associated emissions are recorded in the land use rather than the energy sector. However, the different ways in which land use emissions are accounted for means that a proportion of the emissions from biomass may never be accounted for.
“In principle, sustainability criteria can ensure that only biomass with the lowest impact on the climate are used; the current criteria in use in some EU member states and under development in the EU, however, do not achieve this as they do not account for changes in forest carbon stock.”

In answer to the question “is biomass carbon neutral?” the second paper states: “The impacts on the climate will … vary, however, with the type of woody biomass used, with what would have happened to it if it had not been burnt for energy and with what happens to the forest from which it was sourced.”

It goes on: “It is often argued that biomass emissions should be considered to be zero at the point of combustion because carbon has been absorbed during the growth of the trees, or because the timber is harvested from a sustainably managed forest, or because forest area as a whole is increasing (at least in Europe and North America). The methodology specified, for example, in the EU Renewable Energy Directive (and many national policy frameworks) for calculating emissions from biomass only considers supply-chain emissions, counting combustion emissions as zero. 

“These arguments are not credible. They ignore both what happens to the wood after it is harvested (emissions will be different if the wood is burnt or made into products) and the carbon sequestration forgone from harvesting the trees if left unharvested, they would have continued to grow and absorb carbon. The evidence suggests that this is true even for mature trees, which, as many studies have demonstrated, absorb carbon at a faster rate than young trees. Furthermore, even if the forest is replanted, emissions of soil carbon during harvesting may delay a forest’s return to its status as a carbon sink for 10–20 years.”

You can find the full text of these papers at

Serious doubts indeed, about the green credentials of energy from biomass. The UK’s biggest coal power station at Drax in North Yorkshire has already converted half of its generating capacity from coal to biomass, driven mainly by tax incentives. I have great respect for the engineers who have worked to maximise the viable life of this vast example of 1960s technology. Unfortunately, what may be good for shareholders and consumers looks to be a disaster for the climate. The majority of biomass burnt at Drax is imported from the United States. The company has had to build pelleting plants in the US, to remodel a port for the ships carrying the wood across the Atlantic, to build new trains to carry the wood from the UK port to the power station and to construct new storage facilities on site specifically for wood pellets. All of this construction and manufacture has involved large amounts of energy with its associated carbon footprint. If the process of generating energy from biomass had been  carbon negative, then this embodied carbon in this infrastructure would have been compensated for over time. The truth is that the process is very far from even being carbon neutral, and the sad fact is that the only mitigating carbon sequestration is taking place in the forests of the US, while the power station here in the UK is pumping out more CO2 and pollution than it would if it had continued to burn coal. Bad news for a country which is already and constantly in breach of EU air quality regulations. And don’t tell me that it doesn’t matter because EU regulations won’t apply after Brexit. Did we really vote for the freedom to suffocate ourselves?

The Lords Economic Affairs Committee

More on energy.  

In its report "The Price of Power: Reforming the Electricity Market" the House of Lords has stated that constant intervention by successive governments in the electricity sector has led to an opaque, complicated, and uncompetitive market that fails to deliver low cost and secure electricity.

Chairman Lord Hollick commented: “Poorly-designed government interventions, in pursuit of the decarbonisation, have put unnecessary pressure on the electricity supply and left consumers and industry paying too high a price.
“The Government must make sure that the security of the UK’s energy supply is the priority of its energy policy,” he added. “Affordability must not be neglected and decarbonisation targets should be managed flexibly.”

And the report goes on to say that, “The Government’s Climate Change Act 2050 target to reduce emissions by 80% should not be set on a ‘rigid path to be achieved at all costs.’”

Unsurprisingly, many organisations have been quick to denounce the findings of the report, with environmental law firm ClientEarth labelling the Lords’ take on the Climate Change Act as “confused” and “misconceived” and that it “seems to paint the law as part of the problem, rather than the best tool we have to get UK emissions under control”.
“The report even seems to hint that the Paris Agreement might somehow lead to weaker targets in the UK,” ClientEarth climate lawyer Jonathan Church said. “In fact, the question for the UK in the coming months is how do we improve our national targets to bring them in line with the increased ambition agreed in Paris? There is no room - or indeed rationale - for the kind of ‘flexibility’ that the report calls for.”

Despite the latest statistics showing that low-carbon technologies are now reaching cost-parity with fossil fuels, the report claims that “the generation of electricity from fossil fuels is cheaper than renewable sources…[It] has always been, and remains cheaper.”
This suggestion was strongly refuted by Paul Massara, chief executive of North Star Solar and former boss of RWE npower, who said the report was “backward-looking” and produced many “out-of-date” claims.
"The Committee is wrong in claiming that electricity from fossil fuels is always cheaper than that from renewable sources, or that low-carbon sources of power are ‘chronically unreliable'," Massara said. "In reality, renewables like solar or onshore wind are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world, as costs have plummeted with increasing deployment.
“What the Committee doesn’t seem to understand is the wholesale transition that our energy system, like those of other countries, is undergoing. We’re rapidly moving towards a smart, flexible grid dominated by clean sources of energy, and employing new technologies like storage and demand-side measures to boost security and cut energy waste.”

Find more at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit:

Keeping Warm at Home

I’ve complained on many occasions that the energy debate always seems to be about supply and never about demand. Of course, in a country where energy is privatised the energy companies’ objective is to sell more energy. They would hate a UK where every house was insulated the Passivhaus standard, where every home could be heated for as little £25 per year. Fortunately for them this is impossible, but I was encouraged by yet another report, this time produced by the Green Building Council. In it, Tony Cocker, CEO, E.ON UK said, “Our customers have a legitimate expectation of having secure, affordable energy when they need it. It is clear that providing the right level of comfort at home and at work but with less energy consumption is the best place to start in helping our customers get their energy bills down. 
“Through our track record of delivering energy efficiency measures in people’s homes over the last 25 years, we have seen how much of the housing stock remains poorly insulated, leading to energy bills that are far higher than they should be. 
Delivering the fifth Carbon Budget will require an even bigger focus on driving down energy use.”

Is this a turkey voting for Christmas? 

At the launch of the Green Building Council report, “Building Places that Work for Everyone”,, the authors stated that if we were to meet the 2050 target of an 80% carbon emissions reduction we would need to insulate 25 million homes between now and then. Apparently that means that more than one home every minute will need to be refurbished between now and 2050.

The government has said it will devise policies as soon as possible, but successive governments have been criticised for failing to tackle the UK's poor housing stock - some of the worst in Europe. A national programme of home renovation would save on bills and improve people's health, comfort and happiness. Of course the Green Deal was launched a few years ago but proved to be a failure. It was a scheme where householders could get a loan to improve their insulation or heating systems and pay it back over time through a surcharge on their energy bills. The idea was that the energy savings would cancel out the surcharge, but the high cost of loans meant that it didn’t work. Uptake was very low.

A proper solution would involve government spending money, which is highly unlikely in this austerity-obsessed environment. It would still be the right thing to do. Short-term investment by government would have short-term and long-term benefits. In the short term a national refurbishment programme would create thousands of jobs. In the long term, insulation goes on saving energy for years and years and doesn’t need any energy to make it work. Energy saved year by year means lower bills for consumers, fewer energy imports and hence better energy security. Almost all our coal for power stations is imported, as is much of our gas and even some of our electricity.

Solar Roadways

Ralph Waldo Emerson is reputed to have said: “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

Or maybe if he can just convince people that he can build a better mousetrap he’ll get them queueing up at the door.

Do you remember me telling you about Solar Freakin’ Roadways? You can find them on YouTube -  The video is certainly worth watching.
This is an idea from the United States to pave roads with solar panels. These panels would be embedded in hexagonal glass blocks which would also contain LED lights and heaters. Down the side of the road would be a conduit with cables connecting to the power grid. Electricity generated by the panels would be fed back into the grid and drawn back during the hours of darkness. The LED lights would be remotely configured and would form road markings, speed limits or warning messages. There would even be pressure sensors in the panels so that if there was a landslide a message would be triggered to turn all panels red to warn people. The purpose of the heating elements would be to keep the road ice and snow free in winter.

Sounds like a good idea? Quite a lot of people thought that it was. Crowdfunding aimed for $1 million but actually raised $2.2 million. In addition, the project received $750,000 from the US Department of Transport.
All this in spite of the fact that there was strong scepticism expressed about the project almost from the start. Again on Youtube you can find - Solar Roadways busted and many other videos like it. It’s also worth watching.

This was back in 2014 and it doesn't seem as though the project has lived up to its promise. There is very little information on the Solar Roadways website and nothing seems to have happened or to be going to happen.

I found an article on Daily Caller -  - which brings bad news.

“Roughly 25 out of 30 panels installed in a prototype solar road in Idaho broke within a week,” it says, “after the project received $3.9 million in funding and 6.5 years of development.
“Despite massive internet hype, the prototype of the solar “road” can’t be driven on, hasn’t generate any electricity and 75 percent of the panels were broken before they were even installed. Of the panels installed to make a “solar footpath,” 18 of the 30 were dead on arrival due to a manufacturing failure. A short rain shower caused another four panels to fail, and only five panels appear to be presently functional. The prototype appears to be plagued by drainage issues, poor manufacturing controls and fundamental design flaws.
“Every single promise made about the prototype seems to have fallen flat and the project appears to be a “total and epic failure,” according to an electrical engineer.
“If it had worked, the panels would have powered a single water fountain and the lights in a restroom.

“Scientists repeatedly criticized the scheme as panels on roads wouldn’t be tilted to follow the sun, which makes them incredibly inefficient, would often be covered by cars during periods when the sun is out and wouldn’t be capable of serving as a road for long."

Meanwhile in France…
In view of all this you would have thought that now was not the moment for solar roadways. However the Evening Standard reported, “French ministers have opened the world’s first solar panel road in a Normandy village.
Environment chief Ségolène Royal unveiled the 1km (0.6 mile) stretch covered with 2,880 solar panels in Tourouvre-au-Perche which is designed to power street lights for 3,400 villagers.
“It cost €5 million (£4.2 million) to construct with bosses claiming it will produce 280 megawatt hours of power annually. They described the new road as a “real opportunity for our innovation” but critics argued the Government has spent too much money on the project.”

This was a much simpler idea than the American Solar Freakin’ Roadways. No lights, no heaters, no sensors, just PV panels generating electricity. When they said it would power street lights they presumably meant that the system would feed as much power into the grid during the day as it would need to take out overnight to run the lights.

RTBF, the Belgian national broadcaster reported that the photovoltaic (PV) panels were very thin; as little as 7mm.

This meant that they could be glued directly to the road surface. They were then covered with a resin mixed with grains of glass to give a safe surface.

Here too, there have been problems. The first was noise. “It’s horrible,” said a local shopkeeper. “We can’t have this sort of thing all over the country.”

The other problem is that while the electricity is fed back into the grid, local people don’t see any direct benefit from it. On the other hand the mayor sees a bright future with the electricity being used to supply public buildings and saving dozens (sic) of euros each year. Not a great return for €5m euro. And some of the locals say that the road is frequently closed for repairs.

Maybe it’s not the road to the future.

And finally,

Jeremy Leggett, the solar energy guru and entrepreneur who wrote The Winning of the Carbon War has expanded his horizons and is now viewing the future of the world in relation to climate action, energy transition, technology, truth, equality, reform of capitalism and common security. He’s plotting the changes in each of these factors to determine whether the world is moving towards a better civilisation or a new despotism. Sounds a bit like the doomsday clock to me. You can read all about it on his website.

This is Anthony Day. That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

Next Week:

A very special Electric Vehicle, and the people who built a house of straw - did they do better than the three little pigs?
And for future episodes I’m planning to talk about ethical supply chains. Also about making your house more efficient and eco-friendly or about building an eco-house from scratch. And of course anything that you would like to hear about. Get in touch - 

That’s it for now. Once again, thanks for listening and thanks for all the feedback - and if you need a conference chair, a keynote speaker, a webinar facilitator or an awards ceremony host, you know where I am.

I’m Anthony Day.

Let me leave you with a final thought. When villains make off in their self-drive getaway car in future, will they be pursued by a self-drive police car?

Bye for now!

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