Thursday, May 31, 2007

Good Housekeeping

More and more organisations are adopting environmental policies and taking specific actions to implement them.

Eclipse Internet, the ISP within Kingston Communications, has recently announced that it is carbon-neutral. The main input to an IT company is power and in calculating the organisation’s footprint Eclipse also included the emissions due to the daily commute of the workforce. This proved to be a not insignificant 23% of the total. Beyond making sure that heating and lighting in the offices is as efficient as possible there is only so far that such a company can go to reduce its carbon footprint without offsetting.

Carbon neutrality has been achieved in collaboration with the CarbonNeutral Company, by investing in projects which will either produce power without CO2 emissions or positively reduce CO2. Eclipse has invested in wind-farm technologies in India, a methane capture project in Pennsylvania and a Ugandan forestry project. All of these are designed not only to reduce carbon dioxide but also to support the local economies.

Carbon neutrality has a money cost – the cost of investing in the offsetting projects. The return is more difficult to quantify, but consumers are becoming more insistent that everything they buy should be “ethical”, “green” and “eco-friendly”. In response many big names on the High Street are making the investment. In time carbon neutrality may become the norm - or at least the aim - for every company (though not every company will be able to achieve it). Some progress towards carbon neutrality is likely to be expected of any organisation seeking public contracts.

Those who are first into this area will probably find their goals easier to reach through a wide range of offsetting projects. Later converts will have a smaller choice, but hopefully will sign up anyway.

Hopefully too, the market will be regulated so that the marginal operators who have been giving offsetting a bad name will be squeezed out.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Expanding Stansted

The British government is supporting the building of a £2.7bn second runway at Stansted airport. Already the atmosphere in the area is polluted to twice the level known to cause environmental damage. Increased airport use is expected to cause more pollution which will seriously damage Hatfield Forest, one of the oldest in Europe.

Quite apart from this, it is difficult to understand how the government balances this expansion with its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. UK carbon emissions fell at the end of the 90s but they are on the rise again, and the 64,000 additional flights each year will mean that deeper cuts must be made elsewhere.
And then there’s the issue of resources.

Peak Oil means that fuel for all sorts of transport is starting to run out. There is no substitute for oil for aviation fuel, and even the oil industry itself is beginning to admit that future supplies will be more difficult to get and much more expensive. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) believes that energy shortages are much closer and much more serious than the effects of climate change. (Read their newsletter.)

Nevertheless, the government continues to act as though economic growth can last for ever. When resources become scarce will we come to resent the resources wasted on airports we can no longer use?

Friday, May 25, 2007

It's a washout!

Do you have a washing machine? If it's British model, chances are that it's connected up to the hot and cold water systems. I've heard a rumour that new washing machines will be cold-fill only, as is standard practice in Europe. On the face of it, that's a good thing. Only one water valve, less wiring, simpler plumbing in the kitchen. But what if you have a lot of hot water, from your solar panel or from an older boiler with a hot-water cylinder? You can't use that. Your machine will fill up from the cold supply - and then use electricity to heat the water.

If you're buying a new washing machine this weekend check how green it really is. And if you're planning to install a solar panel to heat your water, make sure you can use all the hot water you generate!

Have we got the energy?

I received a post today asking why I thought that renewable energy could only ever account for about 20% of our total requirements. Surely if we cut our total energy use that proportion could be greater? I also said that microgeneration could actually increae co2 emissions. Why?

Here's my answer:

"I suggest you read "Energy beyond oil" by Paul Mobbs which is an excellent review of our energy options - and challenges. It explains all the technical issues in detail but in a very readable form.

Yes, I agree we can go a long way towards reducing our energy demand, but in spite of those people who are already cutting down, UK energy demand continues to grow. We will have to make life-changing decisions to really have an effect. The problem with renewables - wind, wave, tide and solar - is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled to match the fluctuating demand from the grid. Indeed, if they account for a major proportion of electricity production they provide great difficulties for the grid controllers who have to deal not only with fluctuating demand but fluctuating supply as well. If they can't balance supply and demand the risk is that the grid becomes unstable with cascading failures and power cuts. Biomass and biogas are renewables which can provide power 24/7 and are controllable, but the problem here is that growing biofuel crops competes for land where food is grown (or in some cases where rain forest grows) and the planting, harvesting, processing and transporting of biofuel all takes energy so biofuel is not carbon neutral and some studies have suggested that the process absorbs more energy than it yields.

Microgeneration? Microgeneration of electricity comes from wind or solar. Micro-hydro is possible, but very, very few people will have a suitable water source. In all cases we must look at the total life cycle, which includes the energy used and CO2 emitted in the manufacture, installation and disposal of the turbine or solar panel. Unless the unit saves more CO2 during its useful life than is emitted at these stages, it is actually contributing to CO2, not saving it. A wind turbine needs a steady flow at about 10-12 metres per second. If you go to the DTI wind speed database you will find the average speed for your postcode. The average is only about 6mps. A turbine running at 6mps produces a lot less than half the electricity of a unit at 12mps - it is not a simple straight-line relationship. The other problem - which rules turbines out for most urban locations - is turbulence. Trees, roofs, chimneys and lamposts all cause turbulence which means the airflow - and direction - is constantly changing. The turbine may overspeed, which will damage it, or run too slowly to produce any power. If it is swinging backwards and forwards in the gusts it will not produce a useful output. Once you have the electricity you either have to convert it to ac and transform it to mains voltage (a process absorbing energy) or use it to charge a battery. In the second case you have the additional cost of the battery and of your low-voltage dc lighting circuit or whatever you are using, together with the CO2 emissions involved in manufacturing this kit. In the first case you can sell electricity back to the grid if you aren't using it, but the bit left after transformation and rectification will be subject to further losses in the grid and you will be paid only 4p per unit compared with the 10 or 15p it will cost you to buy it back.

Solar panels have the same problems of rectification and transformation if you go for mains voltage and the same extra costs of batteries etc if you go for low voltage dc. I believe the disposal of solar panels is problematical because of the heavy metals and rare elements they contain. In fact the increasing scarcity of such substances will probably severely limit the availability of solar panels.

Sorry this is such a long answer. Hope it makes sense!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Energy White Paper

Today the government publishes its energy white paper. Already there is speculation and comment in the press, but there seems to be a danger that the whole debate is going to be taken over by an argument over nuclear power. Nuclear power accounts for about 20% of electricity generated, and therefore less than 8% of the energy used in the UK. People claim that renewables will take care of the other 92% in time, but the fact is that they are deluding themselves. Wind farms, tidal schemes, biomass and solar can all make a contribution, but they can never replace more than about 20% of our energy needs.

At least people are beginning to realise that we use more gas than anything else and in the very near future most of it will be coming from Russia, not the North Sea. Even if we can maintain gas supplies and develop our renewables sector, neither of these will replace oil as a transport fuel. Biofuel and hydrogen are not an option (see elsewhere in this blog). Even if electric cars were viable there is no incentive to build 30 million of them to replace our existing fleet.

A columnist in the Independent complains that nuclear power is only viable because it receives government subsidies. On the letters page someone complains that there are not enough subsidies for domestic micro-generation. At least nuclear power produces electricity, but in the majority of UK locations micro-generation will never pay for itself even after subsidies, and actually causes more CO2 pollution than it saves.

The truth is that we are approaching the point where we will be unable to obtain enough energy even to satisfy current levels of demand. We are approaching the point where available energy will decline each year to levels which will demand radically changed lifestyles – no big cars, no commuting, no foreign holidays, colder houses and so on. Of course, this is far too horrible to contemplate.

Let’s just argue about side issues like nuclear power and rooftop windmills instead!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fred Flintstone didn't drive a gas guzzler...

This is the title of an article by Ruth Lea in the latest New Statesman. You can find it here. Here's my reply:

"Yes, I agree, we can’t control climate change, and natural cycles and solar activity are probably part of the problem. But we can’t ignore that mankind has increased the amount of atmospheric CO2 dramatically in the last two centuries. We know that the greenhouse effect is real – it keeps the surface of the planet at a temperature that supports life – so upsetting the balance of greenhouse gases must be a risk.

Yes, the UK emits only 2% of the world’s greenhouse gases so we cannot change the world on our own. It’s a truism to say that if no-one does anything then nothing gets done, Yes, China is opening new power stations, but it’s trying to bring its population – 30 million of whom still have no electricity – up to a standard that’s still far lower than our own. China will generate carbon-free electricity from the Three Gorges Dam and is very advanced in the use of solar power. We must support them by our example.

We can cut our carbon footprint by cutting fossil fuel use. This will help us to adapt to the coming global energy crisis as fuels, led by oil, begin to run out. (And we’re talking within the next five years!) There is no alternative fuel with the capacity to replace oil and no technological solution to the shortages. It is just too horrific for most people to consider that the energy that drives our cars, heats our homes and produces everything we eat, use or wear is coming to an end. Read what the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas has to say. Check on the statements of Dr Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, formerly of the National Iranian Oil Company; the presentations of international energy banker Matthew R Simmons and the books of Richard Heinberg and many others.

Changing to low-energy light bulbs is a step forward, but nothing to the changes that global energy shortages will impose on us in the next few years. We need to adapt to this now. Doing nothing is just not an option. Recognising the true problem would be a start."

Catch 22

I was with a group of businessmen last week discussing climate change. Chatham House rules so I can’t be more specific, but the conclusions will reach Whitehall in due course.

One of the more obvious conclusions we came to was that encouraging more people to work at home would benefit the environment. Less commuting means less travel and less pollution. If people do not travel in every day the head office can be smaller, with lower energy bills, lower water usage and a lower carbon footprint. The company saves money and so do employees. Unfortunately there’s a catch.
Employers have a statutory duty to provide employees with a safe working environment. They are responsible for proper lighting levels, an adequate temperature and for ensuring that the employee has a work station with a chair that will provide proper support. The employer must ensure that all equipment is safe and that electrical equipment has been PAT tested.

To do all this in the employee’s home would infringe the employee’s rights. Not to do it lays the employer open to a claim if the home worker has a problem, like breaking a leg by tripping over the cat or getting a shock off a faulty fax.
For the employer it’s therefore safer to make everyone work in the office. Generally employees commute in their own time and at their own expense, so there’s no problem to the organisation there.

Saving the planet? Sorry, it just doesn’t make business sense.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dialogue of the Deaf

Tony Blair made his farewells to George Bush this week and the President confirmed that climate change "is a serious issue and the United States takes it seriously." Meanwhile the US, represented by its chief climate negotiator Harlan Watson, was rejecting caps on US emissions and refusing to consider participating in carbon trading. The position of the US delegation was that targets and timetables were unimportant - the priority was not to jeopardise economic growth.

Although the US is about to be overtaken by China (a country with five times the population) as the biggest polluter in the world, the actions of the US are crucial to controlling carbon emissions on a global scale. Global warming is , after all, global. The Americans may believe that the economy is more important than the climate, but there are thousands of scientists who believe that to carry on as we are will damage the planet irreparably and destroy the economy at the same time. In some parts of the US government these scientists are loudly quoted, but when it gets down to business they go unheeded.

And what of Gordon Brown? Will Britain take a more robust position with the US on green issues in future? Sadly no. Gordon does not see the environment as an important priority!

Friday, May 18, 2007

They win some, we lose a lot more!

The government has announced a plan to shut 2500 POst Offices in order to save money.

Closing Post Offices may save the government £4m per week (very tiny in total expenditure terms) but it puts the cost of travelling to more distant central offices on to the consumer - many of whom are elderly or poor, or both. If people have to travel into town then maybe they will do their shopping there and the local shops near the closed post offices will lose business until they too close. Then everyone has to travel into town.

I thought the government was committed to lower carbon emissions, but these extra journeys will do the opposite. They may save £4m per week, but the hidden costs will be far, far more!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Billion Climate Refugees

One of the consequences of climate change that the IPCC report has noted since the beginning is the problem of refugees.

We generally live in a stable climate and although there's a wide range of difference between the equator and the poles, we usually find people who think the place where they live is "not too hot - not too cold." As climate change destabilises weather patterns there are places which will become uninhabitable. Places like Egypt and Bagladesh will suffer from floods as sea levels rise. Other places will suffer from drought and desertification as the rains fail. Either way, these places will no longer support crops, livestock or people. People must move to find somewhere to survive.

Even in prosperous Australia the drought has gone on so long that the government is seriously considering evacuating whole communities.

The IPCC has estimated the number of refugees at 3m per year. That's 150m by 2050. Just yesterday Christian Aid published its report "Human Tide". It predicts 1,000,000,000 refugees by 2050; that's 1,000m

The message is clear - we must do what we can about climate change. This means cutting our CO2 emissions, but let's be in no doubt - that may stop things getting worse, but it will take a time for it to have an effect. In the meantime we need to be ready for the floods and forest fires with defences and rescue plans. We need to stop people being displaced, but if they do become refugees we need plans and locations for resettlement.

There's no doubt that there's a climate crisis - and no end to the different problems it throws up!