Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Getting the message across

Last night I gave a presentation on energy and climate change to a group of 50 actuaries here in York. It went well, and there were several questions afterwards.

The problem is that it's a very serious subject, and also quite complex. Actuaries are used to difficult concepts of course - they spend their time deriving mathematical models of insurance risks. I think I kept their attention, because no-one walked out before the end!

Still, it would be good to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings. How can I make climate change amusing without making it trivial?

Any ideas? Any climate change jokes?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Some light on the problem.

Australia, along with the United States, gets a lot of criticism for not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. While the US has the highest level of emissions in the world, Australia, at over 500m tonnes of CO2 per annum, has the highest level of emissions per head of population. Surprising, then, that their prime minister has just announced that incandescent light bulbs are to be phased out by 2010, in favour of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL).

Incandescent light bulbs, the normal filament bulbs, produce their light from a white-hot wire. The problem is that 90% of the energy used is lost in heat. CFLs use energy much more efficiently – and they last a lot longer: 8000 hours rather than 1000 hours. They are more expensive to buy, but prices are coming down and the last lot I bought on the internet came to well under £2 each (including postage).

Australia is not the first to introduce a CFL policy. Cuba started to change over to CFLs two years ago, and when I was there in January 2007 I didn’t see a single traditional filament bulb.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Underground Coal Gasification - (Press Release)

Last week, London hosted the most significant and extensive conference on Underground Coal Gasification ever held. Over 100 delegates from 19 countries heard speakers from around the globe updating on projects and Technology in China, India, Australia, USA and Europe.

The conference was held at the London headquarters of ABN AMRO and organised by the UCG Partnership, and included major industry players, government and academia.
Underground Coal Gasification is a method of converting un-worked coal into a combustible gas, which can be used for industrial heating, power generation or the manufacture of hydrogen, synthetic natural gas or diesel fuel. The gas can be processed to remove its CO2 content, thereby providing a source of clean energy with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

World Energy Consumption in 2004* breaks down into 41% from oil, 23% from natural gas, 23% from coal,6% from nuclear, 4% from hydro and 3% from renewables.

However, world proven reserves 2005** has oil accounting for 19%, gas with 17% and coal with a massive 64%. Add total reserves to total resources and coal accounts for 95% of the fossil fuel energy content of the planet*** – hundreds of years of energy.

Delegates heard that UCG represents a real answer to the energy gap issue since UCG provides security of supply and a low cost clean energy with substantial volume. Russia, Australia, USA, India, China, South Africa and the UK all have projects developed or being developed with plans being made for further studies in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Ireland and Pakistan.

The technology of UCG is now ready for scale-up to large projects to produce syngas for power generation and coal to liquids. Security of supply, the potential for CO2 capture and storage, the lower costs of gas production and its rapid development to fill the energy gap are the principal motivators for the vast increase in activity in UCG.

The conference urged the UCG Partnership, which represents the industry and provides public information on UCG, to continue to urge Governments to provide a workable framework in which UCG projects can flourish and develop quickly. This includes an easier licensing, a simpler environmental and planning framework, risk management and the removal of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. Encouragement from the very top of Government is needed urgently.

*USEIA, 2005
**BP, 2006
***AAPG and BP

Monday, February 12, 2007


Here's a brief summary of my views on energy and climate change. Download the MP3 file here.

FAR more

Correcting my earlier post…
The Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) published last week by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was in fact only the preliminary summary. The full report will be published later in the year. The document we have so far is the summary and guide for policy-makers.

As the New Scientist points out, this is a rather special type of document. It is not a peer-reviewed paper. It has been subjected to political scrutiny and editing, to provide a text acceptable to all governments. Apparently the attitude of the US was remarkably different this time, reflecting a power-shift following the success of the Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Some people (not me, unfortunately) have already seen the full report. From this they conclude that much has been left out of the summary. For example, scientists are beginning to think that ice sheets could melt much more rapidly than previously thought. Research is not yet conclusive, and for this reason the theory was excluded from the study. You can argue if nothing is yet proven on this it would be scare-mongering to include it. On the other hand, if we have identified a potential problem, should we not flag it up as a potential risk?

Sea levels may rise faster than expected; there is observable evidence to show that this is the case. This is not in the summary report as it is inconsistent with the models currently used. The full report, due in July I think, will make interesting reading.

There’s no point in waiting; we must take action now. But we must act with care, and be ready to modify our actions as our knowledge grows and our understanding of the climate system develops.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Trapped Wind

The problem with wind power is matching supply with demand. High winds at night can produce more power than needed while on cold, still days the turbines produce nothing at all. Storing electricity has always been difficult and most systems, like flywheels, capacitors or lead-acid batteries are either too expensive or too small. Pump storage is a large-capacity solution. It uses surplus power to pump water up to a reservoir. This water is released to turn hydro-electric turbines at times of high demand. Pump storage is expensive, and needs the right kind of geography with mountains and lakes.

Research in Australia (New Scientist 13th January 2007) has developed the flow battery. This uses electrolytes consisting of chemical solutions based on the element vanadium. The electrolytes are pumped into the flow cell where they are charged by the wind turbines and then pumped out to storage tanks. The size of the battery is therefore only limited by the size of the tanks. When the wind drops the electrolytes are pumped back into the flow cell where they release their electricity. Systems have already been successfully installed and improved the productivity of wind farms by buffering the differences between supply and demand. So far the flow battery is too large to fit in a vehicle, but research continues with alternative chemical compounds for the electrolyte.

At this stage the system is expensive and the future success of flow storage batteries must depend on the cost and availability of vanadium.

Monday, February 05, 2007


The Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) has just been released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC) No real surprises. We expected the news to be bad and the report says things are getting worse and urges governments again to take action to avoid total catastrophe.

How likely is it that governments will respond? The United States and Australia refused to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases, and the process of designing a new protocol, to apply after 2012, is stalled. While Britain will reach its Kyoto target, this is mainly due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in the late 90s. Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are once again rising. Britain is still building roads and expanding airports. Germany has just buckled under to the automotive lobby and relaxed emission standards for new cars. China, which as a developing country was not required to make emission reductions under Kyoto, continues to expand, to use increasing quantities of coal and to produce 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Cutting emissions means cutting the use of fossil fuels or installing equipment to trap the CO2. In both cases this means extra costs: in both cases this will depress the economy. The US economy is already in bad shape so industrialists resist anything that might make it worse. Their tactic is to attack the science and suppress the evidence. The New Scientist (3rd February 2007) claims this is happening with the support of the US government, and that lobbyists who used to deny the danger of smoking are now attacking the climate scientists.

Not a reassuring prospect.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Book

My book, "Will climate change your life? How to drive a 4x4 and still save the planet" will be published on 26th February.

Click here to find out more and to receive a free copy of my e-book "Europe's Energy Conundrum - the next 10 years."

Peak Oil - a Cuban case study

In January I spent two weeks in Cuba, and before I went I saw the video “The Power of Community – how Cuba survived Peak Oil” ( )

Cuba suffered an economic shock when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. For the previous 30 years it had been receiving substantial support, including technical assistance and cheap oil in exchange for sugar. All this stopped almost overnight. For the same 30 years the United States has operated a trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, and this continues to the present day.

Cuba has some oil of its own, though not nearly enough for transport, electricity generation and – crucially – fertiliser and pesticide production. At the time of the Soviet collapse Cuba was using more fertiliser per acre than the US; agricultural production fell dramatically. Food rationing was introduced but the population began to suffer from malnutrition. The film shows how large state farms were broken up into individual co-operatives and how every spare piece of land in the cities was turned over to growing vegetables. With no fertiliser, agriculture had to be organic, and with no fuel for tractors, oxen and horses returned to the land. Farming became labour-intensive; more and more people became farmers.

In the early 90s power cuts were common - lasting up to 24 hours. If people could get to work (and transport was severely disrupted) they often had nothing to do because there was no power. It's only in the last few years that electricity cuts have largely disappeared. The solution has come in three ways. First, the ageing national grid has been superseded to a large extent by building a lot of neighbourhood generators to replace the few large power stations and the nuclear station that the soviets never finished. (Not CHP - in that climate you just don't need the heat!) Secondly the government has managed demand, and you don't see filament bulbs anywhere - they're all CFLs. There is also a programme to replace domestic appliances with more efficient ones. (But Cuba is a poor country, and the volume of domestic appliances must be small.) Thirdly, Fidel - or Raoul - is now big chums with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela which has lots of oil. (This is fortunate, as all generating plants, large and small, seem to be oil -fuelled.) Cuba has sent 20,000 doctors to Venezuela and receives oil in return. I've not been able to determine whether this is as much as Russia used to provide.

There is still a transport problem exacerbated both by oil shortages and by the lack of spare parts for vehicles. Mass transit is just that: people packed into goods lorries. Government vehicles of all kinds are expected to take hitch-hikers, and yellow-uniformed hitchhike co-ordinators are stationed at the side of the road to ensure that they do. Cuba was one of the first Latin-American countries to have railways. They are still there, but like the roads they are long overdue for repairs and maintenance.

So has Cuba successfully survived Peak Oil? The country certainly suffered an oil shock with far-reaching consequences, and while things are better than they were in the early 90s people say that things are still not what they were before the Soviet Union collapsed. The on-going US embargo has continued to make things difficult, though ironically Cuba still buys millions of dollars of food from the US, and Cuban expats in the States also send about $1billion back home each year. With only 11m people in 111,000 km2, [UK 60m – 242,000km2] the country has the potential to be self-sufficient in agriculture, but the command economy has been unable to achieve this. The 2006 Annual Economic Review notes that MPs at the Economic Committee complain of labour discipline problems which lead to low productivity, corruption and squandering.

Do we have a lesson for the rest of the world? The world will suffer similar problems from Peak Oil, but it is unlikely that they will arise quite as suddenly as they did in Cuba. The most important difference is that Cuba has replaced its Russian oil, at least to some extent, with Venezuelan oil. The world doesn't have such an option.

On a global scale, when the oil's gone, it's gone!