Friday, May 26, 2017

Remember Manchester

I'm not going to do a report this week. I’m going to talk about Manchester.

In the short time that I’ve been doing the Sustainable Futures Report on a regular basis we’ve had attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Berlin. This time last year Member of Parliament Jo Cox was murdered in the street. And now 22 people are dead in Manchester and 59 have life-threatening or life-changing injuries. Of course we need to step up security, but we need to do more to understand why people think it is acceptable to kill other people. We need to understand how those who organise, help and assist the attackers can live with the consequences of such attacks. 

We must not forget that there are wars going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria. In some of these our forces are involved. In many of them our weapons are used. Almost every day civilians - women and children - die in these conflicts. Our governments must protect us not just by dealing with the consequences of terror but, and this is far more difficult, by dealing with the cause.

Next week things will be back to normal for the Sustainable Futures Report. The people of Manchester are defiant and Manchester will soon be back to normal. But things will never be back to normal for the families, friends and victims of the Manchester attack, and of all the rest. We must never forget them.

I’m Anthony Day.

That’s all.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sustainable Ideas

Find the podcast version for Friday 19th May on iTunes, Stitcher or via

Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report  for Friday, 19 May. I'm Anthony Day.

First of all a very special welcome to Eric de Kemp from Canada, our latest Silver Supporter and a big welcome to Tomas Sherwen of York, who joins the ranks of Gold Patrons. Your badges are in the post. They have both passed on ideas which I'll be sharing with you later in this episode.

This Week
This week we're talking about clean energy, about rubbish and about pollution, both in the sea and in the air. If you think politicians are rubbish you’ll hear of a politician who really is rubbish and proud of it. Should you have your coffee in a china cup or a paper cup or a styrofoam cup? We find the answer in Switzerland. We follow up on tellurium, look at a novel use for hydrogen, gaze through wooden windows and pass on an important message from France.

Links on the blog as usual.

Protecting that Glacier
I reported last week about attempts to restore the  Morteratsch Glacier by using 400 snow machines to cover it with snow. I was wrong. If you read the article which I cited you'll see it was 4,000 snow machines. How much energy will that take?
According to Snowmakers International:

“A snowmaking machine (and this is one that makes real snow, not one used for stage effects)
  1. breaks the water into small particles, 
  2. cools the water to 0°C,  
  3. removes the heat of fusion, and  
  4. nucleates (which apparently means adding something for crystals to form around)
“Snowmaking,” they say, “requires relatively large quantities of water. For example, to cover an area of 60m by 60m with 15 centimetres of snow, one would need 540m3 of snow. This would require approximately 300m3 of water. Many ski areas can convert some 20,000 litres per minute of water into snow. This is 20 tons per minute or 1,200 tons per hour.”

Each machine has a compressor and a fan, with a typical load of 30kW. Multiply that by 4,000 units and you have to question whether this environmental protection project is particularly environmentally friendly. Covering the glacier with something white - like snow - reflects the sunlight and stops it melting. But wouldn’t it be simpler just to paint it white?

In the article I originally quoted it said, “One trick that has worked in the past is to cover glaciers with highly reflective material (like white fleece). This does the job just like artificial snow would, but it is likely too expensive to do on a large scale.” 

Clean Energy
If they are using all this energy to protect a glacier let's hope it's clean energy. A recent article in covered a presentation by founder and chair Michael Liebreich at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit. There’s a video of the speech on the website.

It’s called “Everything you know about clean energy is outdated.” 
Among other things he said that this is a different world from the world of only three years ago. Renewables are no longer “alternative energy”. He showed how the amount invested in solar and other renewables continues to be twice that invested in fossil fuels. At the same time the price per kW/hr from unsubsidised solar has fallen by 25% over the past 12 months. It’s way below the current domestic price of electricity. To be fair, that domestic figure of 12¢ has to include the cost of all the distribution infrastructure but at a cost of 2.7¢ per kWh solar has to be competitive. And remember, that’s unsubsidised solar.

The Litter Police
There’s still a lot in the media about litter. There is a lot of litter about. The BBC Panorama programme had an episode this week on the litter police. Who are they? Well, since local government is chronically short of cash many authorities are subcontracting the enforcement of penalties for littering. The contractors carry out the service at no cost to the councils and therefore must issue as many penalty notices as possible in order to make their operations profitable. Although they deny it, secret filming revealed that enforcement officers are financially rewarded for the number of tickets that they issue. A typical spot fine is £75 and if people demur the officer may pretend to call the police and warn the target that if they don't pay up but prefer to go to court they could be fined up to £2,500 plus court costs and will have a criminal record. A number of cases were shown. For example, a dog walker accused of allowing her dog to foul the park although the officer couldn't actually find the evidence and the lady knew that her dog was not guilty anyway. The lady who was penalised for pouring coffee into a roadside drain on the grounds that it would pollute the watercourse, and the lady who put extra recycling bags beside her bin at Christmas and was penalised for fly tipping. These three cases were overturned after intervention by the press and the local MPs, but there were undoubtedly countless others fined for equally trivial reasons. Some people will pay up even if they know they are not guilty because they cannot possibly risk a £2,500 fine.
There's no doubt that litter is a problem and fly-tipping is a scourge but hard-line penalisation of even the most trivial or accidental infringements like this will bring the whole of law enforcement into disrepute. One contributor to the programme said that in past centuries there were thief takers who would denounce people, guilty or not, for the sake of the reward money. This was one reason for establishing a police force paid a regular salary. It’s far too dangerous to incentivise people to put other people in the wrong.
If we are going to stop litter we should consider that penalising the person who actually drops it could be an action taken too far down the line. We need to eliminate things that can be thrown away by incentivising reusable coffee cups, by using those drinks where you can eat the container as I reported a few weeks ago and by reusing containers rather than recycling them. The Marine Conservation Society’s campaign against single use plastic runs for the whole of June as I mentioned before. As I go through my daily life I'm beginning to look at the amount of single use plastic I come across. It’s quite amazing and it's so difficult to avoid. I may keep a diary.

Bin it!
If you’ve got some litter, well throw it in the bin. Have you come across those bins with solar panels on the top? That's to power a compactor, which means that the bin can hold five times as much rubbish than if it was all loosely packed in. The bins I'm talking about are even smarter than that. You can see them all over the UK and you can find them all over the world. They are networked and part of the internet of things. That means that in some council cleansing department someone is looking at a screen which shows which bins are empty, which bins are full and exactly where they are. And the system can help them optimise the route of the vehicles which will empty them. Depending on the bin, they can even classify the different components of the waste stream that are collected; for example: glass, cans, plastic or card. 
It's the future, and it's sustainable.

Big belly bins

How do you take your coffee?
Are ceramic cups more environmentally friendly than paper cups? They are re-usable almost indefinitely, as long as you don’t drop them. But the clay has to be mined, refined and moulded, then fired at a high temperature for a considerable period. Ceramic cups are much heavier than paper cups so it will take more energy to distribute them. Then they have to be washed, and that requires detergent, water and energy to heat it. It may also need energy to run a dishwasher.

The answer comes via Catherine Early of the Environmentalist who asked the question and David Symons of WSP who quotes a study undertaken at the University of Basle in Switzerland. They compared ceramic cups and the reusable plastic KeepCup with paper cups and styrofoam cups.

In comparison with disposable paper cups, ceramic mugs emit 28 times less CO2-eq. emissions and require 10 times less non- renewable energy.

However, in comparison with styrofoam cups, ceramic mugs emit 57 times less CO2-eq. emissions and require 24 times less non- renewable energy.

KeepCups are even better. They emit 70 times less CO2-eq. emissions than styrofoam cups and require 29 times less non-renewable energy than styrofoam cups. You can find the full report and conclusions at 

Common Salt
Tomas Sherwen, our latest Gold Patron, draws my attention to an article in Nature about salt. This is the salt we add to food, and since it comes from salt water it’s unsurprising that researchers have found that it contains plastic microparticles. They found polypropylene (40.0%) and polyethylene (33.3%). These particles can be hazardous to health since they are commonly contaminated with hazardous chemicals and micro-organisms. However, they calculated that the risk would be negligible, since the average consumer could be expected to ingest only 37 particles per annum. This compares with top European shellfish consumers who are expected to swallow up to 11,000 plastic particles per annum. Only particles greater than 149 microns were considered in the study, and the scientists therefore recommended further research into the effect of smaller particles.

No Votes in Rubbish 
Did somebody say there were no votes in rubbish? Not true in Scotland! In the recent local elections the Rubbish Party won more seats than Ukip. True, that only amounts to one seat, but Sally Cogley was duly elected for Galston, Newmilns and Darvel in East Ayrshire. Her manifesto was quite simply, “Getting rid of all types of rubbish from our community; wasted resources, litter, dog fouling, fly tipping and pollution. Vote for Sally for a better Valley!” Well done, Sally. It’s a start!


Clearing the Air - Eventually
This week, after losing consecutive court battles, the UK government finally published its consultation on an air quality strategy. The title, “Improving air quality: national plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities”, shows a fairly narrow focus. Nothing about CO2 or about the particulates which lodge in the lungs and cause damage, particularly to young children. Reactions to the 
Government’s clean air measures were mixed. The motor industry was glad that the latest cleanest diesels would not be penalised. Predictably the politicians, apart from the Tories of course, were scathing. “Cop-out” - LibDems. “Feeble plan” - Greens. “Woefully inadequate” - Mayor of London.

Client Earth is the legal group that has been pursuing the government through the courts. James Thornton, ClientEarth chief executive said: “We are continuing to study the government's latest air quality plan, but on the face of it it looks much weaker than we had hoped for. The court ordered the government to take this public health issue seriously and while the government says that pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health, we will still be faced with illegal air quality for years to come under these proposals.

“There needs to be a national network of clean air zones which prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most illegally polluted streets in our towns and cities. We fail to see how the non-charging clean air zones, proposed by the government, will be effective if they don't persuade motorists to stay out of those areas. The government seems to be passing the buck to local authorities rather than taking responsibility for this public health emergency.”

The consultation is open until 15th June. Add your opinion to the debate.

More about Tellurium
I told you recently about tellurium, an important raw material for solar panels. Press reports suggested that there was a mountain of it under the sea off the Canaries and Prof Jon Major of Liverpool University was quoted as saying that we should mine it regardless of environmental consequences. I found an article in Forbes magazine saying exactly the opposite, so I sent the link to the professor and asked for his comments. This is what he said:

“I hadnt seen the Forbes piece but I honestly dont disagree with much of it. The intention of the piece I wrote was to have a bit of fun playing devil’s advocate with PV using the tellurium discovery as a jumping off point. Some of the sub-editing has slightly robbed the piece of that feel as theyve focussed more on the underwater discovery aspect, the initial draft was more wide ranging.
So I can clarify a couple of things that I dont think really came out in piece in the end. Do I think we should go dig up the ocean? No. Do I think we even need to? Also No. I was trying to speak more from the standpoint of, if thats what it took to push solar past fossil fuels should we do it? Then yes.
Let me expand on this slightly. Ive worked on Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) solar for over a decade now and solar cell research has a weird tribal culture where everyone has the material they work on and therefore enjoy bashing everything else. The stick with which to beat CdTe as a technology has long been the tellurium rarity but coming from inside the research field, it’s not liable to be a problem anytime soon. Yes it’s rare, but about the same as gold and platinum and theyre widely used. People you talk to who work with materials acquisition will also tell you that no-one is actively looking for tellurium and it could be found if needed, as the new discovery sort of demonstrates. Why the discovery caught my eye and prompted me to write the article was I often feel people have a rather idealised view of solar in that although its night and day compared to fossil fuels its not risk free. The concept of mining for materials, even if not on the sea bed, is required and has its impacts but it’s never really considered. I thought this was an interesting thought to engage people on the subject, what level of risk would we tolerate, do the ends justify the means etc?
Its not limited to the mining aspect either. Some chemicals used in processing of solar cells are particularly nasty. We did some work a few years back on trying to remove cadmium chloride from CdTe cell production;
Now cadmium chloride is horrible stuff. Water soluble source of cadmium, potentially carcinogenic, environmentally damaging but still being used in mass processing of solar cells around the globe. Again if we can mass roll-out solar but every once in a while theres some serious incident with that stuff is it worth it to reduce carbon emissions? You have to go with yes it probably is on balance, but youd obviously like it not to happen. But nothing is truly risk free even in lovely green polar bear hugging solar.
Apologies I know Ive gone off on a slight tangent here but this was the kind of more generalised point I was trying to get across. Unfortunately I suspect it didnt really come out in the snappy opinion piece format.
To flash back to the tellurium and summarise though, I have no real current concerns about tellurium supplies and cant see the underwater mining being necessary. The caveat being though that if you gave me the stark choice of that plus solar power or not that plus fossil fuels Id grab my swimming shorts and a shovel.”

What a great response! Many thanks to Professor Jon Major of Liverpool Uni. He said he'd be happy to talk to the Sustainable Futures Report, and I'll follow him up in the weeks to come.

Symbolic Flame
Silver Supporter Eric de Kemp from Ottawa in Canada has written to me about hydrogen. In fact he’s written to the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Here’s part of what he says: 

“Dear Mr. Trudeau,

“I would like to take this opportunity to make an interesting proposal to you, and your entire leadership team, on behalf of current concerned Canadians about climate change. With a small investment, we can send a symbolic gesture to our nation, and the world, that climate change is real, and that we can influence this change either negatively or positively with our carbon-based energy choices.

“I suggest, because its 2017, our 150 birthday, that we convert our wonderful 1967 Centennial flame, in front of Canadas' parliament, to be powered with green energy sourced hydrogen gas, instead of the current hydro-carbon based natural gas system. This would go along way to communicate to all those concerned that we are all serious about transitioning our economy to clean energy production, storage and transport. Hydrogen based technologies currently exist to power the flame safely and sustainably. Green sources of energy can produce the needed hydrogen for combustion as well as many other applications via hydrogen fuel cells. Many economies, Sweden for example, are committing aggressively to this green economy transition.

“I think, and I suspect many others will welcome this opportunity to help create a symbol of change in front of our House of Commons representing all Canadians. Everyone can agree that we want a clean and sustainable energy future. This is one small, easily achievable gesture with many long-term benefits”

The Prime Minister’s office responded: 

“I have taken the liberty of forwarding your message to the office of the Honourable Judy M. Foote, Minister of Public Services and Procurement.”

Let us know what happens, Eric. Oh, and before anyone points out that hydrogen burns with an invisible flame, Eric has thought of that. Apparently there are ways of colouring the flame.

Seeing the wood through the trees
(Or should that be “seeing the trees through the wood”?)
Eric also passed on an article about wooden windows. Wooden windows?

Researchers in Sweden at Stockholm's KTH Royal Institute of Technology have developed a new transparent wood material that's suitable for mass production. They strip out the lignin and impregnate the veneer with a polymer. The resulting sheet is optically transparent and could be used for solar panels and a number of building applications. Cost and how easily the material can be recycled at the end of its life are key issues. At least Sweden has lots of trees!

A message from France
Finally, Manda Scott, a long time supporter of the Sustainable Futures Report, passed on this message. It's quite a startling message. It's addressed to American engineers and researchers and it comes from Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France.

So President Macron is openly inviting immigrants to his country. You wouldn’t get Theresa May doing that. Well, they’re experts, aren’t they?
You can find a link to a subtitled version here.

And finally…
And that brings another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report to a close. The UK political parties have published their manifestos this week for the forthcoming election. I will examine their sustainability credentials and report back to you next week. The week after that I shall publish my conversation with Professor Andy Heyes on sustainable energy.

Thanks again to the growing number of supporters on If you like what I do on the Sustainable Futures Report and you'd like to add your ideas I hope you’ll sign up as a supporter.

I ended the last report saying I was off to see if I could find where my bees had swarmed to. Well I didn't find them, but I’ve still got some left so as it’s stopped raining I'm going off to look at them now. Weekly inspections are vital at this time of year. To stop them swarming.

This is Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There will be another one next week.

Bye for now.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Not Much News

Published as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and at for Friday 12th May.

Yes, here we are again! It's Friday, I'm Anthony Day and it's the Sustainable Futures Report. And for the record it's Friday, 12 May.

Maybe it’s because our election is dominating the news, but there’s not a lot to talk about, so I won’t detain you long. 
In this report we see that Trump is procrastinating, the US judiciary is standing firm, and the Morteratsch Glacier is snowed up. Germany is using less coal, DEFRA is trembling at the prospect of Brexit and there’s a new circular economy standard. More about cricket, but the insect this time, not the game, and is the UK facing a drought? 

Nothing about the UK election. Guaranteed.

Apparently in the very early days of BBC Radio the announcer once said, “This is the BBC. There is no news.”

I feel in a very similar situation. It's not that there is no news at all but I don’t want to bore you by revisiting topics where nothing much has happened. Having said that, there are a few items worthy of note.

Paris Disagreement
The big non-news of the week is the decision of the Trump Administration to postpone a decision on whether or not to ratify the Paris Climate Change Agreement. With other American news hogging the headlines this issue has faded from view and it's not clear when or if the decision-making meeting will be reconvened. An interesting point is that Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State and former Chief Executive of Exxon has said that the United States should observe the agreement.

Warm Outlook for Winter Sports
Do you ever go skiing? It's getting more difficult.
A study published last September found that Switzerland has 40 fewer snow days a season compared to the 1970s. Ski resorts at both low and high altitudes saw snow arrive, on average, 12 days later and disappear 25 days earlier in 2015 than in 1970.
The Morteratsch Glacier is a huge tourist attraction and something of a national treasure because it is the only glacier with a “snout” that is easily accessible. “Locals claim it’s the only place you can reach a glacier from a wheelchair.” 

That’s because it’s shrinking. It has retreated in length from 8.5 kilometres in 1860 to 6 kilometres today, and is losing 30 to 40 metres per year. The locals can't afford to lose it so they are taking action.

The idea is to create artificial snow and blow it over the glacier each summer, hoping it will protect the ice and eventually cause the glacier to regrow.

“The major effect of the snow is reflection of sunlight,” says Johannes Oerlemans of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who came up with the plan. Without this covering, the sunlight would begin to melt the ice, but “as long as there’s snow on top, the ice beneath is unaffected,” he told the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, on 27 April. This would be the first large-scale attempt to do this anywhere in the world. It will involve 400 snow machines - and that’s just for the glacier. No plans for artificial snow on the slopes so far.

It never rains…
We are no longer surprised at reports of record-breaking weather events. It's quite some time since last year wasn't the hottest year on record. We now have reports in the UK of how dry last winter was, with the lowest rainfall for 20 years. According to the Met Office instead of April Showers, on average the UK saw less than half the rain expected for last month. Talk of hosepipe bans and water shortages, particularly in the south, is popping up in the press again. We still use high-quality drinking water to wash clothes and flush toilets. Time for a re-think?

Six Legs on the Menu
Entomophagy. Now there’s a word for crossword setters! It means eating insects. Over 2 billion people regularly eat insects already. Apparently crickets taste rather like popcorn and wax worms taste of pine nuts and butter. We spoke about wax worms last time. They are the larvae of the wax moth which attacks honeycombs and, we've recently learnt, will eat plastic. Not clear what effect this will have on the flavour. I understand that a dung beetle has twice the protein of beef. So far I’ve found no reports on what that tastes like.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have found that replacing half of the world’s meat with the likes of crickets and mealworms could cut farmland currently used for livestock by a third. In turn, that would considerably reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Even a small increase in eating insects could also be massively beneficial to the planet, the researchers added.

It’s another story that we've had before. The tabloids publish pictures of people eating things which we’re supposed to find repulsive. Can you buy edible insects in the UK? A quick search throws up (no, I didn’t mean to say that) reveals Edible Forest Scorpion, Edible Roasted Crickets, Cricket Powder, Crunchy Critters and grubs. It's a very sustainable future. Go on. You try them first.
As it says on one supplier’s website: “Face the Fear, Forge the Fashion, Feed the Future”. No, after you.

Independent Germany
Sustainable energy is one of the most important aspects of our sustainable future. I recently went to a lecture by Prof Andy Heyes of the University of Strathclyde who looked at our options in some detail. I thought this would be of interest to you, listeners or readers of the Sustainable Futures Report and I was fortunate enough to meet him recently and record an interview. I'll publish that just as soon as I have the transcription which is currently in process.

Meanwhile, Germany has broken a new record for renewable energy, with low-carbon sources nearly obliterating coal and nuclear power recently. At one point on a sunny and breezy Sunday, sustainable energy from wind, solar, biomass and hydro power provided a record 85 per cent of the country’s total energy. Electricity prices fell to negative figures for several hours, as renewable sources fed so much power into the grid that supply exceeded demand

Germany has been investing heavily in renewables, as part of the government's Energiewende initiative to transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear power to a low carbon, environmentally sound, reliable, and affordable energy supply by 2050.

The country's ambitious energy transition aims for at least 80 per cent of all power to come from renewables by 2050, with intermediate targets of 35 to 40 percent share by 2025 and 55 to 60 percent by 2035.

Juliana Still Complaining
Amid all the noise about the Paris climate change agreements and the director of the FBI you probably missed the news that the US government is still being pursued through the courts for threatening children's health by doing nothing to prevent emissions and climate change. This action has been going on for some two years, since before Trump was elected. The government and the fossil fuel industry, who are joint defendants, first argued that the case should go to appeal even though it has not get been decided in lower courts. Alternatively they argued that the case should be put on hold. Judge Thomas Coffin denied both requests. The children in whose name this action is brought - it’s called the Juliana Complaint - are supported by  Our Children’s Trust, which advocates for legally-binding, science-based climate recovery policies on behalf of youth and future generations.

Bumps on the Road to Brexit
In Civil Service World, Mark Rowe reports that untangling the UK’s complicated relationship with European environmental policies and subsidies could be the hardest part of leaving the EU. Despite being one of the smallest government departments, DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has one of the biggest Brexit to-do-lists.

Defra’s brief includes EU laws that set standards relating to conservation for birds and habitats, pesticides, drinking water and bathing water quality. Defra handles arguably the two most fiendishly complicated links between the UK and the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy

The farming sector as a whole uses 700,000 migrants and maintains it cannot gather crops or sell at competitive prices without this labour. However,  secretary of state Andrea Leadsom – a prominent Brexiteer – has declined to offer reassurance about a revival of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme for both EU and non-EU workers, which granted temporary visas until it ended in 2013. She further warned at a National Farmers Union conference in February that “we mustn’t forget that a key factor behind the vote to leave the EU was to control immigration”.

Defra’s budget is 17% smaller now than in 2010, according to the Institute for Government, and will be almost 35% smaller by March 2019. In addition to all this DEFRA is responsible for the implementation of the government’s 25-year plan for the natural environment, - you remember, the one we’re still waiting for. “Defra has been told that nothing stops,” the Institute for Government’s spokesperson says. “Brexit has just been layered on top of those projects. That is a significant challenge.” Amongst all the many issues which DEFRA must consider is the availability of neonicotinoids, the systemic insecticide which threatens honeybees and the pollinators. Will they support the farmers or the bees (and the rest of us who rely on pollinated food crops)?

Circular Standard
And finally, there is a new standard for the circular economy.
BS 8001. Framework for implementing the principles of the circular economy in organisations. It's shown as a draft for discussion, although the deadline for comments passed in January. There is a big feature on it in the Ethical Corporation’s monthly magazine. Case studies show how industry is taking the concept seriously even though it is still generally well below the public’s radar. Like all the other issues that I report on in the Sustainable Futures Report  I just hope that constant repetition will eventually raise awareness.

And that's it for another week.
You see? Still nothing at all about the British parliamentary election. However, next week the parties should be publishing their election manifestos so I shall leaf through those (the authorised ones) and let you know what they are promising on sustainability.

I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Just a closing word about . Next week I'm setting up an online discussion for gold supporters and above. Sign up now if you want to take part.

And that's all for this week. Have a good one and there will be another Sustainable Futures Report next Friday. In the meantime I’ve got to go and look at my bees They were giving every sign of swarming this morning. I hope I can find where they’ve gone and get them back!

Bye for now!

Thursday, May 04, 2017

How Smart is your Meter?

Find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or at

This is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 5 May. The badges have arrived and will be in the post to all my patrons this week. In fact, you should have received them by the time you hear this. Since they have only just arrived I’ve extended the special offer until the end of May. That means that Foundation Supporters signing up this month will also get a badge. Go to

Welcome to Imogen Littlejohns, my first Gold Patron. 

In addition to this shout-out and the sustainable futures badge, I'll give priority to Imogen's suggestions for topics to cover in future reports. We’ll also be setting up an online discussion with me, Imogen and other Gold Patrons. That will be on Skype or similar, and will take place every month with the first in the second half of May.

Thanks, Imogen, for your support. And thanks, too, to all my other patrons, especially those in Denmark.

In this week's report: 
Can you get a discount if you take your own cup to a coffeeshop? Are batteries the investment of the future? I'll tell you about my smart meter, about electric cars in India and about the implications of tellurium supplies for solar panels. The RHS comments on the effect of climate change on gardens. Will we soon been drinking GM tea? The court has ruled against the government once more on air pollution, the Marine Conservation Society issues a plastic challenge and plastic waste could be coming to a road near you. President Trump will shortly set out his climate policy. 

All this and not a word about the British parliamentary election.

Links on the blog at

Starships go!
First, Prof Stephen Hawking challenges the world to colonise distant planets within the next hundred years if it wants to survive. He foresees threats from nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses and global warming as well as from asteroid strikes and overpopulation. It’s easy to dismiss this as hype for his new television series with the BBC, but I for one will be watching to see the case that he makes for all this. Of course if we’re leaving this planet because we’ve trashed it, what guarantee is there that we’ll take care of a new one? And who will be allowed to go? No doubt the meek will inherit the Earth while the wealthy jet off to another world. I’m afraid I can see people even now saying, “Oh well, we’ve got 100 years. What’s the problem?” The problem is that humanity normally only reacts to immediate threats, and by the time the threat of planetary disaster becomes immediate it will be far too late to do anything.

And now, having cheered you all up, let’s come back to Earth. Have a cup of coffee. 

Coffee Cups 
Oh dear. An estimated 2.5 billion paper coffee cups are thrown away in Britain each year, most of which are not recycled. Now Pret-a-Manger and Paul are offering discounts to customers who bring their own cups, although a Virgin Trains passenger was recently banned from using his own mug when he ordered a coffee. A steward told him that using his own reusable cup was a health and safety issue. Starbucks and Costa give a cash discount, and Caffe Nero gives customers double reward card stamps. Starbucks started with a 50p discount last year but have pulled it back to 25p, although they also sell a re-usable cup for £1. Still only about one in 400 cups is recycled, partly because these cups include a plastic membrane which makes them difficult to process. Nescafe has had bad press for its Azera ‘coffee to go’ range. It’s come under fire from customers and been dropped by the supermarket chain Morrisons. It uses the same cups as the major coffee shop chains, which include a plastic coating that means they cannot be recycled along with paper waste. Company insiders have now revealed that Nestle plans trials on cups that can be recycled, either as paper or as plastic. Nescafe said it was ‘determined to find a solution’ to the cup recycling problem. What about a container that you can re-use?

Road to Recycling
Still on plastic, tennis star Sir Andy Murray has recently invested in MacRebur, Virgin Media Business Voom Start-up Award Winner 2016. Their product is MR6. It uses waste plastic for surfacing roads. According to their website, “MR6 is a conglomeration of carefully selected polymers, specifically designed to improve the strength and durability of asphalt whilst reducing the quantity of bitumen required in the mix. It is made from 100% waste materials and can be used in the making of hot and warm mix asphalts. MR6 is a truly unique way of enhancing asphalt to give a cost effective and longer lasting asphalt solution.”

If waste plastic can be used in this way it reduces the need for other raw materials and reduces what is sent to landfill. That’s a win-win.

The Plastic Challenge
The Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Plastic Challenge runs for the whole of June. Individuals and school groups and probably businesses as well are challenged to avoid single-use plastics throughout the month. That means no plastic cups, plastic bags, bubble-packed goods like batteries or chocolates in plastic trays. How will we bring home fruit and veg from the supermarket - pre-packaged meat or ready meals? My copy of Private Eye magazine comes in a plastic wrapper and so does The Environmentalist magazine. I get three or four other publications like that each month as well, and have you noticed how much junk mail comes in plastic now? It’s going to be a hard challenge. Are you up for it? 

If you join the MCS today your welcome pack includes a reusable KeepCup for your coffee ( ) and a Fill&Go Active water bottle from Brita which incorporates a filter. 

How Smart is your Meter?
Have you seen those television commercials urging you to get a smart meter so that you can get your electricity and gas consumption under control? We thought we ought to do this so we asked our energy company to send someone round. I'll tell you what happened in a minute.

The UK government’s plan, now looking increasingly ambitious, is that by the end of 2020 around 53m smart meters will be fitted in more than 30m homes and businesses. The predicted cost is around £200 for each meter replaced – ie, more than £400 for many households – a sum borne by consumers through increased bills. Total cost £11bn. 

Once installed, an energy supplier can read a meter remotely via the mobile phone network. Householders also receive a digital display that shows exactly how much power they are consuming – and its cost – in real time. The idea is that, when faced with their consumption, consumers will be more likely to switch off lights or electrical items that are on standby, or to adopt energy-saving measures. As a result they will be nudged into cutting their overall consumption – though early figures show cuts are surprisingly low. Reductions are as little as 3%, a figure similar to the experience in the US.

Some doubts have been raised about the smart meter programme. For example, since the whole thing operates on a wireless network there could be a risk that they could be hacked. Some people are worried that the meters will not be accurate and in fact false readings may have affected 750,000 + households in the Netherlands. In the UK there is a problem with switching suppliers or just with switching tariffs. This is beyond the capability of first generation - SMET1 - meters. If the user changes suppliers the smart function is lost and the meter has to be read manually as before. Second generation SMET2 meters will handle this, and are beginning to be rolled out. Will the 3m SMET1s already installed have to be replaced? SMET2 meters allow consumers to change tariff hour by hour, so at times of peak demand and high cost they can turn off the oven and the tumble drier and so on. When there’s a surplus of energy, when it’s very windy or sunny for example, they can choose cheap energy for their major usage. All this depends of course on the consumer being present, reading the meter and making a decision to switch on or off. The next stage must surely be to integrate the smart meter with smart appliances. Freezers can be turned off for several hours without a problem, but if they could be turned off for only five or 10 minutes at times of peak demand the effect of this on a national scale would smooth consumption making the grid easier to manage and minimising the use of standby power stations. An interactive smart meter which could communicate with freezers, ovens, washing machines and other heavy users of electricity could achieve this demand management automatically. As far as I know this is beyond the capability of SMET2. Is there a SMET3 on the horizon? Will all the other meters have to be replaced? And will this cost another £11 billion or significantly more?

Oh, and what happened to our smart meter? Well, a very nice man came and took out the electricity meter and put in a smart electricity meter. This communicates with a smart gas meter wirelessly and the data is sent back to the energy company for billing. When our installer got to the gas meter, and fortunately before he'd actually plumbed it in, he pressed the button on it to communicate with the electricity meter and communication failed. He was surprised because he said he had completed successful installations where the two meters were much further apart than ours but he just couldn't make it work. He took the new smart meter out and put back a traditional mater. When I read it today I found that it is counting up from zero so I hope he took a note of the reading of the one that he took out! He said that some research was going on into improving the HAN, the home area network, and there might be something which would work in our house later in the year. We should ring again in September. For the moment our meters are as dumb as anybody else's.

Man the Batteries!
Batteries continue to make news. Electricity storage, whether in batteries or by other means is crucial to the success of renewables by smoothing out the intermittent supply. Investment advisors are recommending that clients should put their money in batteries as demand is bound to increase. For example, India announced this week that it was moving to electric cars with the objective of banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles altogether by 2030. This will lower the cost of importing fuel and lower costs for running vehicles, as well as addressing the 2.3m annual fatalities caused by bad air quality. Given that some 50% of a Tesla car is accounted for by the cost of the batteries, the value of the market will be enormous. Of course it’s a global market; India is by no means alone in planning an electric future. 

Investing in batteries is a gamble, nevertheless. The imperative is to balance cost against bulk and power capacity. Researchers are examining a range of different materials to improve on the batteries we already have. The winners will be those that back the right technology.

Remember, energy storage is not just about batteries. Pump storage schemes and flywheels can be used to store surplus electricity and regenerate it when required. The gravity train which I mentioned a while ago does much the same thing by powering up a gradient and generating electricity as it coasts down. The Drake Landing Solar Community which I’ve also reported on doesn’t involve electricity at all. Its solar panels heat water which transfers the heat to an underground store, through pipes in boreholes into the earth. The core temperature is currently 52℃, and the store typically provides some 98% of the space heating required by the community’s 52 homes throughout the Canadian winter. 

Philosopher’s Stone?
Electricity is everywhere and needed by everyone. If we’re not going to generate it with fossil fuels the main alternatives are wind and solar power. Cadmium-telluride is one of the second generation thin-film solar cell technologies. It’s far better at absorbing light than silicon, so its absorbing layer can be thinner. Like many materials needed for renewable energy and electric technologies, tellurium is a rare mineral according to the BBC. Now the BBC reports there's an undersea mountain 300 miles off the Canaries in the Atlantic  that contains prodigious amounts of tellurium. The dilemma therefore, is whether to leave it there or to risk serious environmental damage from undersea mining. Jon Major of Liverpool University, writing in Eco Business, comes to the conclusion that we have no choice but to mine. 

However, Tim Worstall writing in Forbes Magazine, claims that the significance of the find is exaggerated. He says there’s no current shortage of tellurium, it’s a common by-product of refining copper and at around $30 - $50 per kilo it’s not really expensive. He says it’s not a rare earth metal as the BBC suggests, nor is it used in wind turbines as it reports. I recommend you read Worstall’s article because he appears to demolish the argument and takes apart the economic analysis most skilfully. Read them both and make up your own mind. Links at

Gardening in a Changing Climate 
…is the title of a new report from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)

Since the 2002 publication of the RHS report looking at the impact of climate change on gardening, Gardening in a Global Greenhouse, the global climate has undergone dramatic change, with 2016 proving to be the warmest year on record. 

Today, confidence in global climate models has increased and we now know that extreme weather events are the most likely conditions to be experienced by the UK. The impact of these events, such as flash flooding and periods of drought, is likely to be compounded by increased housing pressure, meaning that gardens will become more critical in providing services formerly delivered by the natural environment – services such as flood alleviation, carbon sequestration and the provision of habitats for wildlife – that will be lost to development.

The report describes how each region of the UK will be affected by the changing climate. Read it at: 

Moving from gardens to horticulture, the production of the world’s favourite drink, yes that’s tea, is under pressure. In China there’s a shortage of labour to pick the tea. In Sri Lanka bad weather has seriously affected the crop and lack of investment has not helped. Many of the bushes are over 80 years old, but small farmers don’t want to replace them because it takes four years for a new bush to start producing harvestable leaves. Another problem is the lack of an acceptable herbicide to keep the tea plants free of weeds. Chemicals used in some parts of China mean that tea from those tea gardens is banned from export to the EU and other countries. 
Scientists are already sequencing the genome of tea, so GM tea - and coffee - could be not far off. That’s a debate for another day.

And across the pond…
Climate Change is of course something that doesn’t happen in the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that 
“Climate Change” has been removed from the menu of “Environmental Topics” accessible from the EPA’s home page. The website page for “climate change impacts” now displays a message stating the page is “being updated,” as does a link to the “main EPA climate change website.” “Thank you for your interest in this topic,” it says. “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” 

…reports that “climate action also deserves attention from those evaluating the administration’s nascent foreign policy. On April 29 — the 100th day of the administration — approximately 200,000 people in Washington, D.C. (and tens of thousands more in other cities) marched to put pressure on the Trump White House to get serious about climate change. But they were also marching, in part, about foreign policy.”

It goes on, “The Trump administration’s approach to science generally and to climate change in particular has the makings of a foreign-policy disaster. Environmental policy is one of the areas where domestic and foreign policy converge — not just because the policies we institute at home have direct impact on citizens of other countries, in addition to our own present and future economy and health. And not just because the Pentagon — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis — regards climate change as a security threat. It’s also because climate change is an example, par excellence, of an international collective-action problem that can only be effectively addressed through multinational and, likely, multilateral cooperation. And when U.S. credibility to lead the world in solving problems that demand cooperation — and cannot be solved by the kind of episodic transactions (or deal-making) that Trump fancies himself good at — is damaged, America loses.”

According to the Washington Post, “Foes of the Paris climate agreement have gained the upper hand in the ongoing White House debate over whether the U.S. should pull out of the historic pact, according to participants in the discussions and those briefed on the deliberations, although President Trump has yet to make a final decision.”

But, “President Donald Trump may pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change as early as next week, sources with knowledge of the plans told HuffPost on Tuesday.”

Watch this space!

And finally…

You’ll remember that just after last week's report the High Court was due to rule on whether the government had to publish its clean air strategy or whether it could hold it back until after the election. We now know that the court ruled that it should be published immediately, or at least immediately after the local elections taking place in the UK on Thursday, 3 May. So in next Friday's report we may learn what measures the government intends to take. Diesel scrappage to encourage consumers to give up old and dirty diesel cars? More toxicity charges to penalise cars driving into urban centres? We'll just have to wait and see.

That's it for another week. 
I'm Anthony Day.  That was the Sustainable Futures Report and thank you for listening, wherever in the world you are. 

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And that really is it. Enjoy your weekend.
Bye for now.