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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 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)
- breaks the water into small particles,
- cools the water to 0°C,
- removes the heat of fusion, and
- 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.”
If they are using all this energy to protect a glacier let's hope it's clean energy. A recent article in thinkprogress.org 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.
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.
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
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 hadn’t seen the Forbes piece but I honestly don’t 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 they’ve focussed more on the underwater discovery aspect, the initial draft was more wide ranging.
So I can clarify a couple of things that I don’t 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 that’s what it took to push solar past fossil fuels should we do it? Then yes.
Let me expand on this slightly. I’ve 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 they’re 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 it’s night and day compared to fossil fuels it’s 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?
It’s 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 there’s 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 you’d obviously like it not to happen. But nothing is truly risk free even in lovely green polar bear hugging solar.
Apologies I know I’ve 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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 I’d 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.
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 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 Patreon.com/sfr. 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.