Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Going Underground

Published as a podcast at on Friday 27th November 2015
Although recent episodes of the sustainable futures show might lead you to think that it's all about energy, that's certainly not the case. This week I do talk about energy, potential energy under our feet, and also about water, groundwater. Desalination, solar energy, failing monsoons, Moroccan salt and Californian almonds are also on the agenda. And the UK has abandoned plans for carbon capture and storage.

Hello. This is Anthony Day, and this is the Sustainable Futures Show for Friday, 27 November 2015. And from next month it's going to be called the Sustainable Futures Report.

Running Out
According to a report in Nature Geoscience we are running out of groundwater. Groundwater is the one third of the world’s freshwater which is below the surface of the earth. We are using it up more rapidly that it is being replaced. And less than 6% of the water in the top 2 km of the earth’s surface  is renewed in a human lifetime. Some groundwater is rapidly renewed by rainfall and is only a few months old. Other reserves of groundwater can be millions of years old.
In California groundwater from boreholes is used for agriculture. A farmer interviewed by Capital Public Radio reported that the water level in his well was falling by 800 mm each year. Not surprising when you consider that California is in its fourth year of drought. This farmer had decided to do what he could to replenish the groundwater by flooding his crops whenever there was heavy rainfall and surplus water. He was prepared to invest millions of dollars to divert floodwaters to irrigate his crops with far more than they needed so that the water would percolate away through the sandy soil and down into the aquifers. 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in California and the Almond Board is looking at flooding the plantations in order to restore the groundwater there. The problem is that not all agricultural soils are permeable and it is not clear whether all crops will accept excess water. There will also need to be canals and pipes installed to divert the floodwaters. The original farmer was growing grapevines and the excess water did not damage the crop and might even have slightly improved it. Elsewhere in California there is growing tension between farmers as they drill deeper wells in order to secure their own supplies.

The University of the United Arab Emirates reports that Abu Dhabi is likely to exhaust its groundwater completely within 15 years. At the moment 98% of drinking water in the emirates comes from desalination plants. The problem with this is that the process uses substantial amounts of energy, usually natural gas, and the hot liquid which is pumped back into the sea as a byproduct damages the marine ecosystem. Citizens of the emirates use on average 500 L per day each, which is one of the highest rates of consumption in the world. The government admits that the price of water is too low which leads people to have no concern about wasting it and they don’t bother about leaks. Raising prices could go part way to solving this problem and the Emirates are also introducing solar powered desalination plants which will not use gas and presumably will not produce CO2 emissions either.
According to the Times of India, Pune, south-east of Mumbai, is also suffering from falling groundwater levels. The 2015 monsoon was weaker than usual and some areas received as little as 50% of normal rainfall. In 2014 some 6,000 villages saw water in their wells fall by a metre or more. In 2015 this had more than doubled to 13,500 villages. Of these, nearly 3,000 saw the level fall between 2m and 3m and over 4,000 saw the level fall by more than 3m. These villages are on the brink of severe drinking water shortages. The authorities have banned deep wells in 80 locations and say they will have to recharge the aquifers, although it is not clear how they will actually do it.

All these places may be far from home, but that doesn't mean that we won't suffer water shortages in Europe. All too often our problem is too much water, rather than drought but how far do you and your business rely on water? Do you actually know where your water supply comes from? Probably yes, if you’re a farmer. Otherwise it might be worth finding out. In a future episode I plan to review the book “Let there be water” by Seth M Siegel. You can find it at .

Unconventional Energy
Paul Younger is Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at School of Engineering, at the University of Glasgow. He was interviewed by Jim Al Khalili at the recent freethinking festival. He said his main concerns were keeping the lights on and keeping carbon emissions down. We urgently need to find new sources of energy. We need to find the lowest carbon alternatives and it is urgent because of continuing and increasing fuel poverty and the risk of winter blackouts. He was scathing about an energy policy which has left us with a very narrow safety margin in the event of a severe winter. Have I mentioned that before? What alternative energy sources do we have? As a geologist, Professor Younger has investigated geothermal energy and drilled boreholes deep into the earth. Anyone who has been down a coal mine knows that the deeper you go the warmer it gets. Deeper still and the rocks get extremely hot. It is possible to harness this heat to raise steam and generate electricity, but in many cases it is more efficient to use the heat as heat. Looking at the U.K.'s energy consumption, only one fifth of energy is used as electricity, 2/5 are used as heat and the remainder is used for transport. While it might be possible to use geothermal energy for combined heat and power, the main potential is for running district heating systems. This means that alongside the gas pipes, the water pipes and the electricity cables we would have a hot water main feeding the central heating of each property. It's a system which works well in other countries and if we have a source of free, zero carbon heat it's an opportunity to be seriously considered. Although test drillings have proved that the heat is there, the projects have run out of money.
In Africa, however, notably in Ethiopia, geothermal energy is providing clean, cheap electricity to communities that had little or none before.

Another potential source of energy is underground coal gasification (UCG). This involves drilling into very deep coal seams, way beyond the reach of conventional mining, oxidising the coal and extracting the gas. In fact, this gas would be more important as a source of chemical feedstocks than as a fuel. Many fertilisers, pharmaceuticals and fabrics that we all take for granted are manufactured from hydrocarbons: oil or gas. If we do use gas from this source for energy, the carbon dioxide could be re-injected into the exhausted coal seams. If everything could be done on-site then this would remove the need for long pipelines which seem to be part of the current carbon capture and storage initiatives. Current CCS plans involve piping the CO2 across the country and injecting it into caverns under the North Sea.

At least that was the plan. 
At the same time as the Chancellor, George Osborne, was delivering his Autumn Statement to Parliament this week, the Department of Energy and Climate Change was making an announcement to the London Stock Exchange. It said that the £1bn prize fund for the first company to develop commercial-scale carbon capture and storage was withdrawn with immediate effect. The pilot projects at Drax and Peterhead will not now go ahead, putting an end to four years of research and preparation. The schemes would have generated 2,000 construction jobs at Drax and 100 permanent positions, and a further 600 jobs at Peterhead. You could argue that with last week’s re-announcement of the closure of coal-fired power stations, carbon capture and storage is no longer needed. However the 25 gas fired power stations which they are planning to build will all emit greenhouse gases. Clearly they will now be emitted into the atmosphere without any form of abatement.

Going back to UCG.
Underground Coal Gasification is not the same as fracking, says Prof Younger although he believes that fracking is not as dangerous as some would claim. In his view, fracking in the United States has been carried out by unqualified cowboys, so no wonder there have been spills, escapes and pollution. If underground gasification is carried out by people with mining skills or people skilled in exploiting the oil and gas in the North Sea it can be carried out safely. After all, coal mines stretched miles out underneath the North Sea with never a leak. UGC and geothermal developments need to be done while these skills are still around, before these experts retire. Does he think it will happen? Sadly not. There will be no incentive until the population at large realises that energy and food and medicines and plastics are getting more expensive and demands that engineers find a solution. By then the only alternative will probably be to buy the technology and skills - technology invented in the UK – from the Chinese.

 The problem with unconventional energy, as with all other forms of renewable energy, is that oil is currently so cheap that it is difficult to be cost competitive, although on-shore wind is pretty close. For the moment. 

A Ray of Sunshine (lots, actually)
Meanwhile, the BBC, Daily Mail and many others report on the new solar plant about to open in Morocco. When it is complete it will provide enough power for a million people, 20 hours a day. Yes, even at night. The difference is that this is not a solar PV array. There are no panels which produce electricity when the sun shines on them. Instead there are banks of computer-controlled mirrors which track the sun and focus its rays on a heat exchanger. This transfers heat to molten salt, which in turn is hot enough to produce steam to drive a conventional steam-turbine generating set. The salt holds its heat well after dark. 
It is part of Morocco's pledge to get 42% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The UN has praised Morocco for the level of its ambition. The UK on the other hand, a much richer country, is aiming for 30% by the same date. Of course the Moroccans don’t have George Osborne.

The Guardian explains how the whole of Europe could run on renewables, given the right distribution infrastructure. We could share geothermal power from Iceland, hydropower from Sweden, wind power from the UK and solar power from Spain. Where there’s a will there’s a way! No will, not enough vision, at the moment, unfortunately.

More Oil
If you were listening to the sustainable futures show in January you may remember that I asked you to predict the price of oil in January 2016. The oil price fell dramatically from over $100 a barrel in mid 2014 to only $47 by the start of this year. My prediction for January 2016 was $65. Today, 25th November, it’s $42, which doesn’t look good for me, or for renewables. OPEC warned this week that the price could spike. They said that they were not prepared to limit production raise prices unless other producers did the same. Their object was to maintain their market share. However the Saudi Oil minister warned that reduced investment as a result of the low price could lead to a supply shortfall which could drive up prices very quickly. According to the International Energy Agency the world currently holds stocks of oil equivalent to nearly 300 days’ net imports. This will be a buffer, but how effective it is depends on how quickly the industry can bring new supplies on stream, or - and this is surely preferable - how quickly we can we can find substitutes.

I’ve not mentioned COP21. It starts next week. Ban Ki Moon says that in the nine years that he has been Secretary-General of the United Nations he has seen first hand the consequences of climate change. He has seen the effects on the developing world and the likely effects on his grandchildren and future generations. 
“As the head of the United Nations,” he says, “I have prioritised climate change because no country can meet this challenge alone. Climate change carries no passport; emissions released anywhere contribute to the problem everywhere. Economic stability and the security of nations are under threat. Only through the UN can we respond collectively to this global issue.”

Mass demonstrations urging world leaders to come up with binding and effective solutions have been planned for months. Unsurprisingly, the French authorities have said that they cannot guarantee the safety of marchers after this month’s attacks. Indoor meetings can go ahead, but the march in Paris planned for this Sunday 29th November cannot. There will be marches in other capitals and major cities all round the world. A march is planned in Paris on 12 December to mark the end of the conference. We'll have to see whether that goes ahead or not. Apart from the marches, the world is on the threshold of something very big.

This is Anthony Day and that was another episode of the sustainable futures show. Thanks for listening. There is so much going on that again I have had to hold things over. Next time of course we will be in the middle of COP 21 the Paris climate conference and I shall certainly be monitoring that as it unfolds. That will dominate future episodes. It's all about sustainability. It’s about climate change, and energy and food and population and as you have seen in this episode, it’s about water and other scarce resources as well. The world is changing and change is affecting business as never before. It means you need to plan. You need to plan more than ever. If you're not sure how these things will affect your business, if you'd like to have a general chat on what's happening and how it may change your world, your market, your supply chain, give me a call. I’m Anthony Day and my number is 07803 616877 in the UK. Give me a call and let's talk. In any case I hope you'll be listening to next week’s Sustainable Futures Report.

 I'm Anthony Day and that's it for another week.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ever Closer to Paris

Hear the podcast at

This week, the heat is on for Exxon but may be off for the Swiss. When is a keystone not a Keystone? I look in detail at why climate change is important and what countries are likely to do about it at the Paris conference. And what citizens at large will do about it if they don’t. Why has a minister got a ruddy complexion? What’s a trilemma? And what’s Jeremy Leggett doing in that locked room?

Hello. This is Anthony Day and this is the sustainable futures show. It's exactly a year since I started publishing the sustainable futures show regularly every week. There are now some 50 episodes in the archive going back over the last 12 months and about the same number which were issued irregularly going right back to 2007. The Christmas edition on 25 December will review some of the highlights of previous episodes. If you want to find any of them now, just go to and do a keyword search.

Sustainable Futures. I’ve said before that in my book a sustainable business is a business that will be here this year, next year and in 10, 20 or more years from now. It needs to manage change. Change in its environment. Change in its stakeholder expectations. Change in the market. Change in the supply chain. Change in the world.

To manage change successfully you first have to see it coming. Every week, the sustainable futures show brings you news, facts and opinions about changes in the sustainable world. My aim is to bring you everything that's important and interesting to help you manage change.

Investigating Exxon

The heat is on for Exxon. According to the New York Times, The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.

Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal producer, has also been under investigation over whether it properly disclosed financial risks related to climate change. That investigation has not so far resulted in any charges or other legal action. Investigations, which could theoretically lead to charges of fraud, are based on asset valuations. If reserves of oil and gas and coal cannot be extracted and used, then they have no value. They are stranded assets. The fossil fuel companies refuse to accept that any of their assets are stranded and therefore stand by their asset valuation. It's quite possible that all this will lead to litigation, but the likely outcome will be fat fees for lawyers and years and years of legal disputes. It's extremely unlikely to have any short-term effect on reducing greenhouse gases or climate change.

Keystone XL

A keystone is literally the last piece of stone to be slotted into a masonry arch. It locks all the other pieces firmly together. It's key, because without a keystone the arch collapses. Maybe it's by reason of its importance that the planned pipeline from Canada to Texas was named Keystone XL. The plan was to pipe crude oil from the Canadian tar sands across the United States to be refined in Texas, but this week president Obama announced that it was not viable, did not create jobs, was not vital for US energy and national security, and was too dangerous for our environment. It would not be built. Cue joyful demonstrations from environmentalists. Actually it's not as simple as that. Keystone XL is phase IV of a pipeline system which has already been in operation since January 2014, and does indeed transport oil from Canada to Texas. Phase IV, a 1200-mile pipeline which will not now be built, would have taken a more direct route and had a much larger capacity. Oil, probably less of it, will now be sent by rail instead. The oil industry is not happy, but it's probably glad to avoid such an enormous investment in this time of very low oil prices. Oil from tar sands is some of the dirtiest oil and most difficult and expensive to produce, so anything which depresses demand and keeps it in the ground is to be welcomed. 

Closing in on Paris

The big change on the horizon is of course COP21, the United Nations climate change conference taking place in Paris in December. But why is climate change important to you, your business, your family, your future? Because if climate change is allowed to continue it’s going to damage the world we live in and make life difficult; ultimately impossible. And if governments take firm action to tackle climate change it’s going to change our world and, in the short term, may also make life difficult. But at least we’ll have a sustainable future.

What if we don’t tackle climate change? 

The predictions are for more unusual weather. 

This November in the UK we are experiencing the warmest November days ever, and what’s wrong with that? Well this week the Met Office announced that 2015 would be the first year when average global temperatures reached 1℃ higher than the average before the start of the Industrial Revolution. Doesn’t sound a lot, but a rise of 2℃ is generally believed to be the threshold of catastrophic climate change. So we're halfway there.
In Europe rainfall has been unusually low. This has caused a shortage of heating oil in Switzerland. How can that possibly be connected? Well, heating oil is delivered to Switzerland by barges sailing along the River Rhine. Lack of rainfall means that the river level is the lowest it has been for four years. Some barges can no longer sail the river, and those that can are half empty so that they do not ride too low in the water. As a result there’s a shortage of heating oil and the Swiss may freeze this winter - if it ever gets cold! The trouble is that it isn't getting as cold as it used to, and that has serious consequences for the skiing industry. 
The popular wisdom is that climate change will have its earliest and most serious effects in the developing nations. Not exclusively, it seems.

The predictions are for more extreme weather. 

This is certainly affecting the developing world. In 1984 the world was horrified by scenes of starvation from Ethiopia. In 2015 the same thing seems to be happening again. The rains have failed. They planted sorghum. It failed. They planted peas. They failed. The population now relies on emergency handouts from reserves. The United Nations has warned that more than 15 million people in Ethiopia will be in need of food aid by the beginning of 2016. 

The predictions are for sea-level rise. 

As the ice-caps melt and the oceans warm up, the volume of water increases and sea-levels rise. They rise by only millimetres per year so the rise alone will take years to have an effect. Except that every millimetre rise represents millions of tonnes of extra water, and driven by the more violent storms that we see and expect, this water could  overwhelm flood defences and cause widespread damage. There are very few major cities in the world which are not on the coast or on tidal rivers.

These are reasons why climate change is important to us all, and why the nations are coming together in Paris to do something about it. 

What exactly are they trying to do at COP21? 

At the end of last month the parties issued an agreed draft document, following the meeting in Bonn. This is so far only  a framework for negotiation. It’s to provide a context for the implementation of each country’s commitments. Each country has issued  an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC). The EU has made a combined commitment and the document says: “The EU and its Member States are committed to a binding target of an at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990”

“Legislative proposals to implement the 2030 climate and energy framework, are to be submitted by the European Commission to the Council and European Parliament in 2015-2016.

"This is in line with the EU objective to reduce its emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990. Furthermore, it is consistent with the need for at least halving global emissions by 2050 compared to 1990."

I then went on to look at the submission by the United States.

“The United States intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level in 2025 and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%.

“This target is consistent with a straight line emission reduction pathway from 2020 to deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80% or more by 2050.”

So the EU is cutting by 40% over 1990 levels by 2030, but the US is cutting by up to 28% of 2005 levels by 2025. Difficult to compare. I looked into the basic figures. The US emissions in millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent were 6,250 in 2005 and a reduction of 28% brings that down to 4,500 in 2025. Emissions in 1990 were 5,400 hence the 2025 target is 17% below the 1990 level. Sorry about all these figures. To summarise, the EU is aiming for a 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2030, the US is aiming for a 17% reduction on 1990 levels by 2025.

As far as actual performance is concerned, the INDC - Intended Nationally Determined Contribution - of the US indicates that they are well on their way to their 2020 target of a 17% reduction (That’s 17% of their 2005 level). That does mean of course that after reducing by that 17% in the 15 years between 2005 and 2020 they are going to have to reduce by a further 11% in only 5 years between 2020 and 2025. And the last few are always the most difficult.

Turning to the EU, I’ve been reading “Trends and projections in Europe 2015 — Tracking progress towards Europe's climate and energy targets”, a report produced by the European Environment Agency. How likely is it that Europe will achieve their targets in their INDC? According to the report, not very likely. With existing measures a reduction of 27% is likely by 2030. To achieve 40% by then needs a reduction of 1.4% every year from now on. To achieve 80% by 2050, which the EU, US and everyone else claim is the aim, an annual reduction of 4.6% will be needed each year from 2030 to 2050. This in a world committed to economic growth and facing an explosive growth in global middle classes, with all the consumption that that implies.

Britain in the (bad) News

It’s not clear how the emissions reductions targets will be shared out between the member states of the EU. Britain has certainly not had a good press on emissions targets this week. The BBC compiled a report which listed the changes that the government has made to environmental legislation since it took sole power after the election last May. The government’s stated aim was to cut costs for Britain’s hard-working families. Of the 16 measures analysed, 6 were expected to reduce bills, three to have no impact and seven to increase bills. All of them except one would lead to increased GHG emissions.

This is Anthony Day with the sustainable futures show.
Still to come. The red-faced Minister. Local climate activists, from AAA to AAB and screaming from a locked room.

Minister Embarrassed 

Amber Rudd, minister of energy and climate change, was accused this week of misleading parliament about the nation’s emissions levels. "The Government does not have the “right policies” to meet its renewable energy target," she admitted. Speaking before a Parliamentary Committee, she confirmed that the Government was set to miss the EU requirement of 15 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption coming from renewables by 2020. A letter leaked to The Ecologist shows that she misled Parliament by promising the UK was 'on course' to deliver on its renewable energy targets - when in fact there is a delivery shortfall in 2020 of almost 25%.

This stands in stark contrast to her public position. On 17th September she told the House of Commons: "When it became apparent that we were way in excess of [spending limits on renewables], but were still meeting our renewables targets, it was right to limit the amount of money we were spending.” That was her justification for the dramatic cuts - up to 87% - to the subsidies for wind and solar. Her plan to fill the gap which she now recognises, relies on more biofuels, buying in green power and 'credits' from abroad - everything but wind and solar. But she now warns, that this impending failure to meet EU renewables targets puts the UK at a double risk - of legal action taken in the UK, which the government would probably lose; and of enormous fines imposed by the European Court of Justice:
"The absence of a credible plan to meet the target carries the risk of successful judicial review, and failing to meet the overall target in 2020 could lead to on-going fines imposed by the EU Court of Justice until the UK reaches the target level.”

But by misleading the House of Commons in her earlier statement, she is now certain to face demands for her resignation. And she’s the person we’ll be sending to represent the United Kingdom at the Paris conference. 

Climate Action

I went to a meeting last night of my local climate action group. There is a lot of energy, enthusiasm and some anger about the climate talks in Paris. There’s determination to make sure that something is done, but there’s fear that everything will be stitched up into business as usual by the big corporates using their influence. The meeting was rather unfocused; an overly-complex explanation of climate change, an academic with far, far more information than she could possibly get into 10 minutes and a speaker who said “UM” 135 times in his 10 minutes slot - I counted them - who failed to hold my attention. There were strong and effective presentations about the mass demonstration in London on 29th November to urge the politicians to take effective action. Many local people will be going. This could be bigger than the anti-war march in February 2003. It will be interesting to see how the police handle it and whether people will be “kettled”, penned up and prevented from leaving as has happened with more recent demonstrations. There will be another demonstration in Paris at the end of the conference, on 12th December. Many people will be going from the UK. Again, it will be interesting to see how it’s handled. And whether it makes any difference!

World Energy Council

News just in from the World Energy Council. The UK's AAA rating was cut to AAB by the World Energy Council in its annual "trilemma index", which measures countries' ability to offer secure, affordable and sustainable energy supplies. The UK fell down on the accessibility and affordability of energy supply across the population. The index also stated that current government policies may "hinder investments" in wind and solar power.  This follows criticism from the UN's chief environment scientist that I reported last month. Professor Jacquie McGlade said the UK was turning away from renewables, just as they were being embraced by the rest of the world.

That soundproof room...

I mentioned Jeremy Leggett. I’m sure you’ve been downloading his “The Winning of the Carbon War” from It's free. In the latest chapter he says that sometimes he’s “feeling like finding a soundproofed room and having a good scream.” I think we know how you feel, Jeremy.

And finally...

Well, that’s it, that’s another week. Apologies for the bits I’ve missed, the stories I’ve left out. As always, your comments, ideas and suggestions are invaluable. Get in touch and tell me what you want to hear at

I’m off to a conference now.

And it’s got nothing whatever to do with energy, climate change or sustainability.

I'm Anthony Day and there will be another sustainable futures show next week. Find it at