Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why is it always alpha males that like nuclear power?

I have been against nuclear power since the 1970s, when I was living near Heysham power station.

One thing has always struck me about advocates of nuclear power, and by and large I have kept this thought to myself, and intended to do so, until for the first time recently someone else mentioned the same thought quite spontaneously to me.

A colleague said, “Haven't you noticed that advocates of nuclear power tend to be middle-class, alpha males?"

Absolutely. I have. Haven't you?

For example, you will find very few women in favour of nuclear power.

This is not to say that all middle-class - or upper-class - alpha males are supporters of the technology. But by and large, all supporters tend to be alpha males.

What's wrong with this? Er, well...

In my 1987 novel about nuclear-power, I satirised this tendency: I characterised the workers inside the control room of Chernobyl number four reactor 25 years ago as being sexually turned on by their activities....

...pulling those control rods out, pushing them in, into the core, perpetuating the climax, keeping this huge energy force purring away...

There is no more potent form of energy exploited by human beings.

How powerful you must feel manipulating this!

It is the same force as that powering the sun - how symbolic is that?

The very building blocks of the universe under the control of - men.

In the Greek story of Prometheus, this mortal - the original alpha male - dared to ascend to the Olympian home of the gods in order to steal fire, until then only enjoyed by deities.

Prometheus returned to Earth and was heralded as a hero for bringing warmth and energy to humanity.

He had dared go where no human had dared to go before, and taken - without permission - what was not rightfully his.

When the gods found out, they punished the whole of humanity for this mortal sin.

They sent down a box, filled with worries and cares, for until then humanity had also lived an innocent, carefree life.

The box was Pandora's, and, as the story goes, she couldn't resist opening it, letting loose all of these worries over the whole of the world, from which we have been suffering ever since.

What better metaphor for the concept of radioactive fallout from a nuclear explosion?

Over the last week, as we have marked the anniversary of the tragic Chernobyl accident, we have learnt that there is still suffering, fallout and repercussions from this incident.

We've seen pictures in the newspapers of deformed children, despite official reports from alpha males that in fact hardly anybody died or was badly affected, statistically speaking, by the disaster.

There have been debates and polls held by alpha male-dominated organisations like the Economist magazine, which have come out in favour of nuclear power.

We've been assured by the Government's chief scientist that nuclear power is the safest of all sources of power. Here is an alpha male if there ever was one.

I don't trust alpha males. They get carried away. Alpha males take us to war. Alpha males are reckless and aggressive.

The fact is, most sources of energy from renewable sources are far safer than nuclear power.

I would rather listen to ordinary people, the vast majority of whom know in their hearts that nuclear power is not safe, that there are safer alternatives, that we can solve our energy problems without it by using energy efficiency and renewable energy...

...And if we don't listen to the reckless, aggressive alpha males.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Perhaps only self-interest can save us from catastrophic climate change

The failure of international negotiations on climate change has left the field open for those countries and even companies which take action now to dominate the emerging economic markets in the future.

Next December, UN negotiators will meet in Durban, South Africa, for the next attempt at the top level to secure international agreement on limiting climate change.

On the basis of current legislation and action, the world as a whole is now headed towards unavoidable global warming of between 2.6 and 4°C Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is well ahead of the maximum permissible amount of between 2 and 1.5°.

It will result in large tracts of the planet becoming uninhabitable.

To keep warming limited to the 1.5° target, global total emissions need to drop below 44 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent per year (CO2e/yr) by 2020. Currently, there is a gap of 12 billion tonnes of CO2e/yr.

At the climate change conference in Cancun at the end of 2010, countries discussed a wide range of options. If they implemented the most stringent reductions they proposed then, together with the most stringent accounting, the remaining “reduction gap" would shrink to 8 billion tonnes of CO2e/yr.

Failure to secure binding, legal agreements at the last two sessions in Copenhagen and Cancun has resulted in many countries instituting their own domestic climate change legislation.

A new survey of such legislation, as enacted in 16 countries, shows the extent to which this is happening.

It concludes that, although current legislation does not add up to what is required to avoid dangerous climate change, much greater attention should be paid to national level policy and legislative development, as building blocks towards a global deal.

The countries who have steamed ahead include large developing ones such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Together, they amount to a formidable economic growth engine and are demonstrating their determination to forge ahead and dominate future markets in low carbon technologies and energy efficiency.

The report's author is GLOBE, (‘Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment’), founded in 1989, based at the London School of Economics, which is trying to create a critical mass of legislators that can agree common legislative responses to the major global environmental challenges.

Its president, John Gummer (a former Conservative environment minister), said: “The study illustrates that the shape of the debate on climate change is shifting from being about sharing a global burden – with governments naturally trying to minimise their share – to a realisation that acting on climate change is in the national interest.”

National interest is surely a much more powerful motivator than external pressure. For example, the Chinese and Brazilian governments see it in their national interest to create conditions for their countries to be world leaders in renewable energy.

International agreement will only reflect domestic political conditions, not the other way round. This is why the American government finds it so hard to commit to international climate change agreements - its long history of world dominance based on oil still provides its political direction with huge momentum.

On the other hand, Brazil, which has been a pioneer in bioethanol from sugar cane since the 1970s is now exporting its expertise and products.

The legislators who craft these laws meet periodically - the last time was barely a month and a half ago, in Brazil. There will be another, much more significant, meeting just ahead of the United Nations Rio +20 Summit on 4th - 6th June 2012.

This Earth Summit, otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, will assess progress, and absolutely must recharge international and national political commitment to sustainable development in the face of many new and emerging challenges.

The climate legislation being enacted in many countries is also putting in place the legal and policy frameworks to monitor, report, verify and manage carbon. Monitoring was a key stumbling block in previous negotiations. For example, it was the subject of a huge disagreement between the United States and China which stalled the 2009 negotiations.

National experience in instituting monitoring and verification systems could help inform and support an international MRV mechanism to prevent this being a barrier again in Durban.

As of April 2011, the UK had the most climate change related laws, with 22, and South Africa had the fewest with just 3. However, this is a poor indicator of effectiveness since some laws are comprehensive and others narrow in scope. But Britain is the only one to have a climate change act with binding reduction levels.

In addition, there is much legislation in preparation: the Chinese government is drafting a comprehensive climate change law to support the goals in its new 12th Five Year Plan; Mexico’s General Law on Adaptation and Mitigation and General Law on Climate Change are being debated; and the South African government is expected to publish a White Paper ahead of hosting the UN climate change negotiations in Durban in December.

Finally, much is happening at a regional level - California has amongst the most ambitious renewable energy targets in the world, and Wales almost uniquely has sustainable development enshrined in its constitution. Such regions are positioning themselves to be better protected in the emerging low carbon economy.

Clearly, a greater sense of urgency is required and the negotiations at Durban must be a success if disaster is not to be avoided.

But if it is not altruism that will save us. Human beings are not renowned for their altruism in the face of vague and distant threats.

It is instead in countries' selfish national interests that they pioneer and implement radical climate change legislation. As the UK is now a global leader in this respect (despite its limitations and domestic criticism of it), it has much to teach the world and much to be proud of.

As UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne said on Tuesday, ″The race is on, and the pioneers are the most likely winners.″

Perhaps no amount of legislation can save us from catastrophic change. Perhaps the logic of capitalism - seeking permanent growth and ever-expanding markets - is incompatible with sustainability and living on a finite planet.

I guess we'll find out some day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Forget the voting system, let's have a new seat of Parliament

If the Coalition were to commission the greenest government building in the world, it would inspire a new spirit of governance.

If the last election demonstrated anything, it was the suspicion and alienation felt by the British people towards their parliamentary representatives.

Now we are about to decide on which of two imperfect systems we should adopt for the next election, and polls demonstrate ambivalence and confusion.

The Coalition government itself is a new experiment in British politics - an attempt to forge alliances where they have not previously existed.

Right from the start, it proclaimed that it would be "the greenest government ever", in an attempt to win back public trust and rebuild the battered economy.

There is one thing that it could do, right now, to tackle all of these problems at once - and that is to commission a new seat of Parliament, and perhaps even move in by the next election.

The new building would make a bold and courageous statement. It would be built to the highest standards of sustainability, demonstrating in practice what the government is preaching.

The standard could be Passivhaus or close. It could generate its own power and perhaps export the surplus. It would be constructed with a very low ecological footprint. Above all, it would be a democratic and accessible structure.

The building itself would inspire and be fit for the twenty-first century and beyond.

Like the Reichstag dome, designed for the German government by the British architectural practice of Norman Foster; the Welsh Assembly Government building by the British Richard Rogers; and the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood by Enric Miralles, it would let the public see the activities of their representatives from above and in the round, and thereby engender the sense of a new kind of relationship.

The feeling you get when visiting these places to watch the practice of government is one of greater proximity and access - the politicians feel more approachable and accountable, the decision making process more transparent. Greater trust will result.

Moreover, the effect of architectural space on the psychology and behaviour of its inhabitants is profound.

The current Palace of Westminster was designed for a different age. Its maze of dark, narrow corridors and stairs, lobby rooms in the Perpendicular Gothic style, and the very antagonistic arrangement of the government and opposition benches in the main hall lend themselves to the creation of conflict, the gathering of cabals in dark corners, and whispering campaigns, where whips can lie in wait for unsuspecting MPs to ambush and drag them into whatever conspiracy they have in mind.

By contrast, the light, circular and open styles, and the human scale of the above three buildings, are much more likely to encourage cooperation and partnership - the very requirements for a coalition. The propensity for animosity and retrenchment is reduced. Just ask anyone who works in the Welsh or Scottish national seats.

Moreover, Westminster Palace is impossible to make energy efficient. It is draughty and dark - and of course a listed building. To replace the windows with energy efficient ones is impossible!

Miralles' plans for Holyrood made sustainability a central element of the design. An independent environmental audit of the entire building was conducted by the Building Research Establishment. It was rated as "Excellent" for environmental performance in the areas of health & well being, energy, transport, material selection and water usage.

The National Assembly for Wales' oversailing timber-clad roof is beautifully striated with wood boarding. It swells into steep forms which allow the spaces below to be viewed and provide welcoming drama. At the corners of the cantilevered roof the canopy flips up at the corners in a delicate and sensual way.

These and the Reichstag Dome attract thousands of visitors a year and are popular icons.

The idea of a new, inspirational Parliament building has been mooted several times. Richard Rogers and Norman Foster have both tendered designs.

In 2009 the Royal Institute of British Architects(RIBA) invited 175 schools to design a 'Parliament for the future'. The winning design, by Eastbourne College, was commended for its consideration of sustainability issues, including the use of local building materials, energy efficiency (through techniques such as the use of natural light and water collection, ease of access and for its potential to regenerate and bring new potential to a previously abandoned area.)

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg are truly serious about their green credentials, about encouraging MPs of different ideologies to cooperate, and about recreating a bond of trust between the public and Parliament, what better symbolic and practical legacy could they give to the future than a new Parliament House that is truly sustainable, democratic and inspiring?

Britain has some of the best architects in the world - several practices are, for example, even now helping China construct sustainable, awe-inspiring cities. There is no shortage of skills, experience and imagination raring to go. We are good at large projects, like the Olympic village, Crossrail or the London Array.

Innovation happens in a recession, not a time of plenty when business rests on its laurels. This project would stimulate the most cost-effective inventiveness, the best of British design - and the economy.

Let the Coalition begin now by announcing a competition, open to everyone, for both the most appropriate site and the best design, and create the greenest government building in the world.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Can biofuels fuel our transport needs?

the carbon impact of different biofuels
By 2050, biofuels could provide 27% of total transport fuel, supplementing diesel, kerosene and jet fuel while avoiding emissions of around 2.1 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions per year - but only if produced sustainably, according to a new International Energy Agency (IEA) roadmap published today.

But biofuels aren't the only fuel - electric vehicles are taking to the road too, and yesterday saw the publication of a new UK Low Carbon Automotive Directory to promote UK expertise in the area for export.

What we do about transport to make it sustainable is the thorniest question facing us as we try to steer our high-energy way of life towards a more climate-friendly future.

The kind of answer arrived at affects the degree to which lifestyles, accustomed or aspiring to the freedom of movement that cars, planes, buses and trains currently offer, can continue into the future.

The IEA technology roadmap, Biofuels for Transport is positive, and provides an excellent overview of many of the fuelstocks and conversion technologies, from those in full commercial production now, to those which are just in R&D.

It also examines their carbon balance and overall sustainability, which is crucial to minimising the impact of travel.

However, it does not cover everything - it is relatively quiet on aviation fuel and in particular on jatropha. This is a plant which grows on land otherwise unusable for farming, makes biodiesel, and was recently tested by Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand, Continental, Brazil's TAM Airlines and Mexican carrier Interjet with Airbus.
jatropha grown as a biofuel in India
A peer-reviewed Yale University study says it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from flying by up to 60%.

140,000 formerly impoverished farmers in India are now earning a living cultivating the crop without compromising food supply or food pricing - which makes it highly sustainable. India aims to meet 20% of its diesel demand with fuel derived from plants rather than fossils by 2017.

The IEA report is also weak on the multiple benefits of algae-farming. Algae produces biodiesel while absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processing sewage, and proposals have been made to grow it alongside industrial plants which emit the greenhouse gas. The process also produces a fertiliser and clean water.

A recent report in the New Scientist on the subject does highlight physical limits to how much we could make, but of course the fuel-source is only one amongst many.

Can we produce enough sustainable biofuels?

Different biofuels and their stages of development
The IEA study says most conventional biofuel technologies need to improve conversion efficiency, cost and overall sustainability, and that current advanced, second-generation biofuels need to be commercially deployed.

We must be fully confident that the life-cycle impacts of these products do not compromise food security and biodiversity, and yield positive social impacts. This includes sustainable land-use management and certification schemes, as well as support measures that promote 斗ow-riskfeedstocks and efficient processing technologies.

The report calculates the land area requirements for biofuel feedstock, at around 100 million hectares (Mha) in 2050 - a considerable challenge given competition for land and feedstocks from rapidly-growing demand for food and fibre.

But it concludes this should be possible, and provide the required 145 EJ of total biomass for biofuels, heat and electricity from crop residues and wastes, along with sustainably grown energy crops.

Will it be expensive?

The IEA roadmap says that scale and efficiency improvements will reduce costs to make most biofuels competitive with fossil fuels by 2030.

The investment costs seem high - production costs from 2010 to 2050 in this roadmap are $11 trillion to $13 trillion, but the marginal savings or additional costs compared to use of gasoline/diesel are in the range of only +/-1% of total costs for all transport fuels - and this is without factoring in the externalities of environmental damage avoided from not using fossil fuels.

UK leadership

The UK is a pioneer in many aspects of low carbon vehicles, well-placed to profit from the global shift to sustainable transport. The updated UK Low Carbon Automotive Directory has been produced to help boost the export market for this emerging sector.

It lists suppliers, partners and new solutions from the UK's businesses and research institutions in areas such as manufacturing, components, transmissions & drive trains, energy recovery & storage (batteries and flywheels), electrical recharging infrastructure, fuels & infrastructure and hydrogen and fuel cells.

The sector is supported by the BIS Automotive Unit with the DfT's Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and LowCVP.

Crucial to fostering UK success is Cenex - the UK's first Centre of Excellence for low carbon and fuel cell technologies.

Cenex has just launched its website allowing registration for the key trade show for the sector, LCV2011, the 4th annual Low Carbon Vehicle event which will take place on 7th and Thursday 8th September 2011.

Navigating the route to a low-carbon travel is tricky, but the encouraging message is that it is potentially achievable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nuclear power is in decline while renewables rise

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the nuclear industry is declining and in the worst state that it has been for a long time, despite its PR attempts to claim the contrary.

A new independent study, the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-11, launched today in Brussels, illustrates that not enough new units are coming online to replace those being retired, costs are rising prohibitively, the world's reactor fleet is ageing quickly and the problem of storing radioactive waste is unsolved.

Nuclear power development is also not keeping up with the pace of its renewable energy competitors: annual renewables capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for 15 years.

As of April 1, 2011, there were 437 nuclear reactors operating in the world seven fewer than in 2002. In 2009, nuclear power plants generated 2,558 TWh of electricity, about 2% less than the previous year, the fourth year in a row that output has dropped. It now accounts for about 13% of the world's electricity generation and 5.5% of the commercial primary energy.

In the United States, the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2% in 2004 to 55% in 2009, with no new nuclear coming on line.

In 2010, for the first time, worldwide cumulated installed capacity of wind turbines (193 gigawatts), biomass and waste-to-energy plants (65 GW), and solar power (43 GW) reached 381 GW, outpacing the installed nuclear capacity of 375 GW prior to the Fukushima disaster.

Total investment in renewable energy technologies has been estimated at $243 billion in 2010.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) currently lists 64 reactors as 'under construction' in 14 countries. By comparison, at the peak of the industry's growth phase in 1979, there were 233 reactors being built concurrently.

In 2008, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, no new unit was started up, while two were added in 2009, five in 2010, and two in the first three months of 2011, but during the same time period, 11 reactors were shut down.

In the European Union, as of April 1, 2011, there were 143 reactors officially operational, down from a historical maximum of 177 units in 1989.

Can we maintain the current level of nuclear power?

Quite simply, no, unless plant lifetimes are drastically increased beyond 40 years.

The average age of the world's operating nuclear power plants is 26 years. Some nuclear utilities envisage reactor lifetimes of 40 years or more, but considering that the average age of the 130 units that already have been closed is about 22 years, this appears rather optimistic, especially in the light of the Fukushima disaster and the German government's decision to suspend operation of all reactors over 30 years old.

The report contains a number of scenarios. One assumes an average lifetime of 40 years for all reactors in order to estimate how many plants would be shut down year by year.

In this scenario, in addition to the plants under construction, leading to a capacity increase of 5 GW (less than the seven German units currently off line), 18 additional reactors would have to be finished and started up prior to 2015 - that is, one new grid connection every three months, with an additional 191 units (175 GW) over the following decade one every 19 days.

This is simply impossible. Therefore, even if the installed capacity level could be maintained, the number of operating reactors will decline over the coming years, unless lifetime extensions beyond 40 years become the widespread standard.

New reactors have extremely long lead times of 10 years and more. Therefore it will be practically impossible to maintain, let alone increase, the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years.

Are new plants more cost-effective?

Not on current evidence.

The flagship EPR project at Olkiluoto in Finland, managed by the largest nuclear builder in the world, AREVA NP, has turned into a financial fiasco.

The project is four years behind schedule and at least 90% over budget, reaching a total cost estimate of \5.7 billion ($8.2 billion) or close to \3,500 ($5,000) per kilowatt.

The dramatic post-Fukushima situation adds to the international economic crisis and is exacerbating many of the problems that proponents of nuclear energy are facing.

As the UK pledges 」28.5m for the safety of the Chernobyl sarcophagus, still costing money after a quarter of a century and likely to do so for a long time to come, the downward trend of the industry is empirically evident.

The Fukushima disaster is likely to accelerate the decline, concludes the report.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The government puts all of the UK's environmental legislation under threat

Environmental groups are horrified by the coalition government's inclusion of every single one of the UK's 278 environmental laws in a list of legislation that it is offering for the axe, under its new, populist "Red Tape Challenge".

The list includes the Climate Change Act, laws protecting air and water quality, rights of way, national parks, animal safety and promoting energy efficiency, rules against flytipping, litter and environmental pollution.

The above website states that "Good regulation... protects consumers, employees and the environment, it helps build a more fair society and can even save lives."

It goes on then to add "But over the years, regulations – and the inspections and bureaucracy that go with them – have piled up and up. This has hurt business, doing real damage to our economy. And it’s done harm to our society too".

The crowdsourcing exercise is designed purely to make businesses think that the Governmnet is on their side. In reality, much of this legislation cannot be repealed - especially those of European origin like the EcoDesign Directive or the Waste Directive - without encountering severe penalties. The rationale for including them is to look at instances of ‘gold-plating’ – where the UK has gone beyond the minimum required by the EU legislation.

But even Lord Davidson himself stated in his report on the topic of gold-plating two years ago: “it is sometimes beneficial for the UK economy to set or maintain regulatory standards which exceed the minimum requirements of European legislation. The EU may not always set the most appropriate level of regulation. The decision to introduce or maintain higher standards or stricter regulatory regimes than is required by EU directives could bring benefits as well as costs”.

The Climate Change Act is a flagship piece of recent legislation - the first in the world to commit a government to emission reduction, and something which business has been calling for to provide the certainty necessary to inspire investment.

Last month, a campaign was launched by climate change sceptics to repeal the law - but it is not coming from business and is not popular - the only news on its website has been Tweeted just four times.

So why is the act also included? Margaret Ounsley, Head of Public Affairs at WWF-UK said: "Allowing precious and hard-won environmental laws to be repealed in this manner would be ridiculous. Frankly we credit the Government with more sense than to tear up incredibly important legislation such as the Climate Change Act in an attempt to appear consultative or dynamic."

And John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, added: "We don't yet know if this is cock-up or conspiracy. If it's a cock-up, David Cameron needs to come out and say the Climate Change Act, central to the push for a clean technology revolution, is safe from the axe. But if ministers are serious about scrapping it and other vital environmental regulations then we'll be looking at something akin to the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney White House. When did clean air and green jobs become a burden?"

Adrian Wilkes, Executive Chairman, The Environmental Industries Commission, said, "BIS’ latest deregulatory threat is dangerously misguided and poses a potentially major threat to the UK’s environmental industry – bizarrely at a time when the Chancellor is promoting green job creation in his Plan for Growth".

The Red Tape Challenge website says that ministers and government officials will use the feedback they get "to help them cut the right regulations in the right way".

Every few weeks the laws relevant to different topics are up for feedback. Environmental laws affect multiple and various categories such as transport, waterways, energy, manufacturing and quarrying.

The Government has already axed the Eco-Driver Training bill, which would have trained drivers of large goods vehicles and passenger carrying vehicles to drive more cost-effectively, that was consulted upon by the previous administration.

An end to 'gold-plating'

The Department for Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) has also already begun (last December) an initiative to end the practice of going beyond the requirements of European Directives so that they "are not unfairly restricting British companies".

This initiative, however, is far from new - it was begun under the previous administration, in a review by Lord Neil Davidson QC who published his final report on 28 November 2006.

BIS has now adopted Guiding Principles for EU legislation to tackle what it calls 'regulatory creep'.

In the past, in the environmental arena, this exercise has been largely about avoiding duplication. For example, in the Waste Framework Directive it's possible for there to be exemptions made from the standard requirement to obtain a waste permit. Defra is consulting with the Environment Agency to update guidance on waste to make more effective use of the permit exemption provision. Inert waste was being controlled twice and this has been amended. The Environmental Permit Programme (EPP) has merged and streamlined the regulatory regimes for Waste Management Licensing (WML) and Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC), which means that a site now only needs to have a single environmental permit for these activities.

Sometimes, however, it is necessary to increase environmental protection.

Business leaders in Scotland agreed with Davidson's view that sometimes gold-plating is necessary. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce response said: "the gold plating of EU directives will not necessarily lead to increased business compliance costs; there is a need to simplify and streamline the nature of regulation; ensure implementation in the clearest and most efficient way".

Friends of the Earth has argued that the charge of gold-plating Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) was misplaced and believes the term itself is "unhelpful and inaccurate".

CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) goes further, calling it "a pejorative term" which "implies that any environmental regulation that goes beyond the absolute minimum is an unnecessary burden and to be accepted only under extreme circumstances".

Instead CIWEM believes that the UK should be seeking to have "the best environmental regulation in Europe rather than the weakest, where this can be achieved at reasonable cost and particularly in cases where there is clear benefit-cost advantage."

The new red tape challenge exercise seems to be designed as an exercise in pandering to prejudices - it is hopefully not serious, since in practice not a huge amount can be changed.

Nevertheless it is clearly important for every business in the green sectors to tell the government that they need the laws to protect them as well as us and our environment.

What lunacy, and what a waste of time from the so-called "greenest government ever".

The conflict between European Directorates that's sabotaging UK climate hopes

Researchers for two British green campaign groups have discovered figures in European Commission documents which establish that it is possible for Europe to make 30% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, as called for by the UK and six other European states.

The discovery exposes a conflict at the heart of European climate change policy between the Climate and Energy Directorates-General (DGs), led by Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger respectively. It reveals why the policy has not yet been adopted while showing that there is no statistical basis for not doing so.

A month ago, Chris Huhne, the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, called for the EU emissions cut target to be raised from 20% to 30% by 2020. In a letter also signed by Environment Ministers from Denmark, Germany, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, he wrote, "Now is the right time to discuss the most cost-effective route to achieving our 2050 goals, maximising growth, jobs and prosperity throughout Europe. We are not starting from scratch; the EU has already cut emissions by 17% from 1990 levels by 2009."

At the time, EC ministers were about to discuss the EC's Roadmap for a low carbon economy. WWF said the letter was "a step in the right direction" but added that "Europe's fair share of emissions reductions to address climate change lies even higher - at the end of 2009, forty of the world's leading climate scientists joined a WWF statement calling for a 40% cut by 2020."

It is WWF's researcher Arianna Vitali, together with Brook Riley of Friends of the Earth, who discovered the statistical evidence, calling it a "breakthrough".

The evidence is identified as follows: the Climate DG's official position is that a 25% reduction in GHGs by 2020 is possible if the EU's goal of a 20% improvement on energy efficiency is also met.

Its basis for the the claim is found on page 55 of its Low Carbon Roadmap for 2050 impact assessment which projects an energy consumption rate in Europe of 1,740 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) by 2020.

This contrasts with a projection for the same rate of just 1,600 Mtoe in the DG Energy's Energy Efficiency Plan communication (page 2).

EurActiv, the European Union affairs portal, quotes unnamed Commission officials as saying that the discrepancy of 140 Mtoe is because the scenarios used in the Low Carbon Roadmap do not assume an achievement of the 20% energy efficiency target, as it is not legally binding.

Yet the DG Energy document clearly assumes that it is achieved. And if it was achieved, then DG Climate's modelling shows that a 30% reduction in GHG emissions would result. So why, then, is DG Energy blocking the raising of the target?

This is all the more puzzling because both departments use the same modelling system - called PRIMES.

The unnamed source quoted by EurActiv states that the reason is due to "long-standing tensions" between the two departments . They are, it says, "very reluctant" to work together "on any statistics that could be used to link energy efficiency with emissions reductions, including the energy consumption figures used in the Roadmap's Impact Assessment".

Energy Commissioner Gnther Oettinger, whose department is more subject to lobbying from energy-intensive industries, maintains that the EU's current 20% emissions reduction target for 2020 is the maximum that can be achieved without harming Europe's industries.

Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard wants a 30% target to help the EU's longer-term goal of 80-95% cuts by 2050.

The existence of the tensions perhaps explains why the energy efficiency goal of the European Union remains only voluntary, while the other two climate-related goals (on GHG reduction and renewable energy) are mandatory - industry perceives the short term capital costs of having to adopt the target as too onerous.

WWF and FOE are now hopeful that the exposure of the discrepancy will add fuel for the UK's demand that the target be increased, and that a strong energy efficiency directive due to be agreed in June to recommend that the EU's efficiency targets be made binding.

Anti-nuclear, anti-EDF protest near Buckingham Palace

Last week activists blockaded the road outside EDF HQ to brand energy giant’s nuclear power bid a ‘right royal rip-off’. A nice video.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thousands of potential hydropower sites blocked by red tape

The number of new licences issued for hydropower schemes in England and Wales has increased six-fold since 2000, surging on the back of the Feed-in Tariff incentives, according to the Environment Agency. But it could be much higher - why is the Government making it so hard for producers who want to install this technology?

Recent figures released by the Environment Agency reveal that 31 hydro power licences were granted in 2009, compared to just five in 2000. In 2010, that figure is went up to more than 100.

“Hydro power is a great example of a natural resource, which produces few wastes. It’s a reliable and proven technology and increasingly attractive to local communities,” Environment Agency chairman Lord Chris Smith said.

Around 400 hydro power schemes are currently licensed in England and Wales and the Environment Agency estimates this could rise to around 1,200 by 2020.

But this is still a fraction of the potential. Although the surge of interest is due in particular to the Feed-in Tariffs, which pay businesses, communities and individuals to produce their own renewable electricity, researcher Miguel Mendonça has found no less than eight hurdles that potential producers would have to surmount if they wanted to install a hydroelectric scheme.

Damming the hydro potential

In his report, The UK Feed-In Tariff: A User Survey, Mendonça says “the message from producers is that they find themselves in the middle of different policies which are pulling in opposite directions. Harmonising policy so that it creates the outcome of maximising renewable energy generation at the lowest cost is the desired outcome."

He says those wanting to install hydro scheme must deal with the following issues:

1. Obtain permission from the Environment Agency for extracting the water. Although recently streamlined, the process is still complex.

2. Get approval from the local planning authority for the permitted development rights - the delay and up-front cost of this is a strong disincentive to small projects.

3. Obtain certification under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), if the installation is below 50kW.

4. Obtain approval from Ofgem, if the installation is above 50kW.

5. Secure documentation for electrical safety, although this is true for all forms of electrical generation.

6. Suffer delays due to problems with the MCS - because experienced installers who previously did the work are now having to apply, at expense for accreditation.

7. Obtain financing: upfront costs of equipment can range from several thousands to several hundreds of thousands of pounds, for systems between 2kW and 500kW.

8. Perhaps pay unreasonable business rates: although this applies to all renewables, it has greater impact on hydro because mills that are homes very often can generate much more electricity than the home can consume. The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) determines that any hydro site doing this is a business, and must pay business rates. As these are based upon rental values, the VOA is obliged to invent a landlord/tenant scenario; so a hydroplant with heavy investment in automated controls, feedback systems and 24-hour trash rack sweeping – which all help to greatly improve energy capture – will be taxed at a higher rate than inefficient plants, creating a disincentive for maximising energy production.

9. Finally, producers must deal with an incentive that perversely rewards smaller schemes more than larger ones. Tiered tariffs are in place under FITs that reduce in order to incentivise maximum production while controlling costs. But Mendonça says this creates a disincentive to maximise production. He quotes various installers as saying that by fixing the rates so that the larger the system the lower the tariff, producers are encouraged to install a smaller system to obtain a higher tariff rate.

The Government argues that the tariff calculation is based on the economic cost of the installation and the technology, so the relative cost per kW generated for a larger systems works out less than a smaller system which is more expensive per kW.

But Anthony Battersby, of the Mendip Power Group, says that as a larger scheme still requires a higher upfront cost, it should be supported accordingly.

Additionally, the British Hydropower Association, the trade body, says schemes under 100kW have the worst rate of return under FITs - which cannot be right.

What is the full potential for hydropower?

This is the potential which is being held back: there are still thousands of sites yet to be exploited around the UK. The quality of the electricity is excellent in terms of being predictable, reliable and deliverable to the grid.

The technology is mature and extremely well understood, it is robust and installations are able to keep operational for decades. With efficiencies greater than 60% it certainly beats solar, with a maximum of 12%, and wind, with a maximum of 20%.

Two recent studies indicate that the maximum untapped potential of hydroelectric generation extends to nearly 1.2GW across 12,040 sites in England and Wales, according to a 2010 study by the Environment Agency - Mapping Hydropower Opportunities and Sensitivities in England and Wales”. Scotland, Wales and the North of England have the highest potential for hydropower.

In addition there is a further 1.2GW across 7,043 sites in Scotland (Forrest & Wallace, 2010).

The realistic potential will be significantly lower than this 2.4GW total - the English and Welsh study indicated that 4,190 sites, representing around 580MW of power, just under half the full potential, could provide environmental “win-win” situations.

Including Scotland, this could provide nationally up to 3660GWh/yr, or 1% of 2009 electricity production, saving 1.5Mtonnes of CO2 emissions (at 0.43kgCO2/kWh of UK electricity) and making a significant contribution to meeting our climate protection goals while providing income for small businesses.

As McGrigors, a legal firm operating on behalf of producers, has put it, "If renewable development is not approached in a positive and pragmatic manner, the regulatory regime may continue to act as a disincentive and preclude the small-scale schemes which FITs are designed to encourage."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Proposed EU carbon tax to be blocked by Britain

A draft directive obliging European member states to set minimum rates of CO2 taxes at Euros 20 per tonne for diesel and coal used for transport and heating from 2013 is likely to be blocked by Britain, where fuel prices are already high.

The draft revision of the Energy Tax Directive, which includes a carbon tax and is to be presented today, proposes separate carbon dioxide and consumption taxes on the fuels, linked to inflation which would be adjusted every three years.

It would compel EU states by 2020 to institute taxation of fuels based on their energy content and CO2 emissions, rather than the volume-based system currently used.

This would create higher taxes for energy-intensive fuel such as coal and diesel, adding around 8% to a litre of diesel and encouraging a switch to diesel.

But "the aim is not to increase rates for diesel," Commission spokesman David Boublil told journalists on Monday. "The plan is that we should put all fuels on the same footing ... It will mean an adjustment to make sure they are taxed in the same way."

The Commission argues that big prices hikes are not likely as many national governments like the UK already set diesel taxes above the EU minimum of Euros 330 per 1000 litres, and therefore they do not have to pass the tax on to consumers.

Diesel currently attracts lower taxation rates than petrol. Consequently, much of Europe's commercial fleets use the cheaper fuel, including most hauliers. A switch to petrol would not only improve CO2 emissions but local air quality as well, improving people's health.

The aims of the tax

According to Algirdas Šemeta, the EU Commissioner for Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud, the proposals are not so much to do with creating a new tax as about restructuring existing taxation (with a CO2-tax element) to meet the EU痴 climate change, energy efficiency and fair competition goals, shifting taxation from labour. They have three objectives:
  1. to introduce two elements in the rate structure: one based on CO2 emissions and another based on the energy contents of each product. These objective criteria for taxation will provide for a consistent treatment of the energy sources and energy consumers

  2. the CO2 element will provide a framework for Member States to apply CO2 taxation in areas currently missed by the EU Emission Trading System

  3. it will create an appropriate framework for taxing renewable energies, in particular biofuels, reflecting their lower CO2 emissions and energy content.

British opposition

But British MEPs are known to be sympathetic to the motor lobby in the UK, which is strongly opposed to the proposed tax. The Automobile Association has said it would be "madness" to introduce it at the current time of high fuel prices - even though it would not take affect for a few years.

Under European Commission voting rules, opposition from any single state can kill the move.

"We're not going to support new measures in this area," a British EU diplomat said. "Taking into account the opposition of other states as well, it is certainly one we would oppose and that therefore points you towards what we might do in the Council."

The UK motor lobby's position is contradicted by the facts. The UK has always had the highest diesel taxes in Europe - the same level as petrol. But, largely due to the fall of the pound against the euro, UK fuel taxes have dropped by a 32% since their high point in 2000.

But UK MEP Jacqueline Foster, the Conservative transport spokesperson in the European Parliament, still disagrees with the move: "We all want to reduce CO2 emissions from vehicles but it should be done by placing incentives on people, not by clobbering them," she said. "With so many goods transported by road, further increases in fuel costs will send inflation soaring."

Geoff Dunning, chief executive of Britain's Road Haulage Association, agreed: "the price of fuel has already gone through the roof. To add to that would be madness. It would cripple the British economy."

The draft law also calls for the abolition of special low rate for 'red' diesel, used by the farming and fishery industries. This has brought howls of outrage from the National Farmers Union.

Supporters of the move argue that since any price increases would not enter into force until 2018, by which time it should have encouraged the shift to less polluting petrol, it will not affect the current economic situation.

Taxes are lower now

A new report from the think-tank Transport and Environment (T&E) adds weight to those who see a need for change. It claims that "the average fuel tax levied on road fuels in the old EU15 is in real terms 10 Euro cents per litre lower today than it was in 1999".

This means that "had governments not let fuel taxes slip but kept them constant, CO2 emissions of EU27 road transport would have been some 6%, or 60 Mtonnes, lower, and today's oil imports would have been Euro 11bn lower. If the additional Euro 32bn revenues had been spent on lowering labour taxes, roughly 350,000 jobs could have been created."

The report adds, "Compared with other regions in the world like the US, China or Japan, the EU has relatively high fuel taxes. In many ways this is a major strength for the EU's economic and environmental performance as (among other things) it lowers CO2 emissions and oil demand because, contrary to popular belief, taxing fuel brings down consumption. In the long run, 10% higher fuel prices reduce the overall fuel consumption of cars by 6 to 8%, and of lorries by 2 to 6%."

T&E's director, Jos Dings, does think the Directive is wrong on biofuels, which it wants to exempt completely from taxation. "Biofuels are not zero carbon. Their performance varies widely and we would like to see their taxes reflect their actual performance and not by default a zero rating."

Also, "on the air and maritime transport side, it is very disappointing that the Commission has not had the guts to end the prohibition on fuel taxation in those sectors."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Nuclear power is not the only energy fruit

As the level of the Fukushima accident is raised to the most severe (the "experts" said this would not happen at the start of the crisis), the truth begins to emerge about the radiation danger & awful treatment of workers at the nuclear plant in this excellent investigative piece in the New York Times.

Take this for example:

"Current and former workers said, radiation levels would be so high that workers would take turns approaching a valve just to open it, turning it for a few seconds before a supervisor with a stopwatch ordered the job to be handed off to the next person. Similar work would be required at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now, where the three reactors in operation at the time of the earthquake shut down automatically, workers say."

If radiation exposure was safe, as some are even now trying to claim, would this be happening?

The recent spat between George Monbiot and Helen Caldicott about the dangers of radiation is at a relatively trivial level: just because nuclear power has yielded fewer deaths than coal it does not follow that we should support nuclear.

If we burned live human bodies in incinerators as a biomass fuel - for the sake of argument - we could claim that coal was safer than this. It wouldn't entitle us to say that we should burn coal for power if there are safer alternatives!

The real question is: if a Fukushima or Chernobyl incident - however awful - is a local one, compared to global warming, which is by definition global in its effects, does this justify using nuclear power?

In other words is it right to accept a smaller harm to stave off a larger one?

The reason why this seems difficult to evaluate is the relative maturity of other, renewable, technologies, and the mental roadblock the political majority seems to accept over the true potential of energy efficiency.

I've tried to use my blog to illustrate some examples of these recently - there are many more.

At a climate change networking event last night I talked to Peter Davies, head of the Climate Change Commission for Wales. He pointed out that in 1992 the first wind farms appeared on Welsh hills. Now, twenty years later, the Chinese are churning out hundreds of turbines a week ten times their size.

It's taken 20 years for the technology to reach mass, mainstream, application. If there had been a real sense (wartime) of urgency, this time could have been halved.

Marine current turbines and other marine technologies, anaerobic digestion, short-rotation coppice biomass, algal biofuel production, dye-sensitised PV, solar thermal electric plants, mass rollout of energy efficient cars and products, hydrogen storage, phase change materials, smart meters and the smart grid, eco-retrofitting buildings, solar water heating, heat pumps, offshore wind and so on - the list is developing all the time - collectively can produce/save all the energy we need. Several studies have illustrated the appropriate scenarios.

Currently, official thinking says this can't happen till around 2060 - too late to save us from a minimum 3 degree rise without nuclear power and carbon capture and storage.

My belief - and I am far from being alone - is that both the new generation of nuclear power stations and CCS are currently technically and economically unproven at a mass scale - they're about at the same level of development as solar thermal electric plants and marine current turbines respectively.

If the R&D money that is/would be going into these technologies instead were to be channeled into the safer renewable technologies and into energy efficiency, we could accelerate development and bring forward the 2060 date by twenty years.

This world would be far safer - no oil and gas disasters, no coal and uranium mines, no more Fukushimas - and create far more employment - not to mention it could begin to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Germany, Europe's most successful economy, has just announced it is going to do just this. Why can't every other nation on earth?

Wales' new solar, heat pump, building tech centre

The Sustainable Building Envelope Centre (SBEC) at Shotton, Deeside
A £6.5 million project to investigate and produce the next generation of low carbon whole building solutions has been opened in north Wales.

The Sustainable Building Envelope Centre (SBEC) at Shotton, Deeside, is a partnership between the Low Carbon Research Institute (LCRI), Tata Steel and the Welsh Assembly Government which over three years will research and monitor solar thermal and photovoltaic technologies and their use together.

Various combinations of technologies will be evaluated, and the solutions arrived at will be relevant not only for new-build, but also for retrofit of large public, industrial or office structures.

Daniel Pillai at the launch last week
The SBEC's director, structural engineer Daniel Pillai, says that the focus on the building envelope (external and internal roofs and walls) is important because it has the potential to play a far more proactive role during a building's life, and provide sources of renewable energy.

"Naturally," he says, "since one partner is Tata Steel, the solution will involve this material, but this focus is far from exclusive. We are looking at a variety of ways in which the envelope can capture, store and release energy."

Transpired solar collectors

Tata bought Corus Steel in 2010. One of the products Corus had developed and which the SBEC is researching is a transpired solar collector (TSC). This involves an equator-facing wall clad with steel that is coated with special solar absorbing paint. The cladding, mounted a few inches from the wall, is perforated with thousands of tiny holes.

The sun heats up the metal, and fans at the top of the gap draw up the heated air into a Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system with heat recovery. Ducting transmits the heated air around the building.

"The building has four environmental chambers," Pillai explains, "with which we can experiment with different combinations using the TSCs. One is a workshop, where the system includes fan driven air heaters, and we expect the TSCs to contribute about half of the heating requirement, supplementing gas blowers.

"The upper floors and ceilings are made of concrete mixed with a powder called Micronal. Made by BASF, these are tiny capsules containing wax, a phase change material, which melts at 23o, absorbing surplus heat from the room," Pillai continues. "At night when the room cools, the wax solidifies and releases the heat, stabilising the internal temperature."

A new take on air source heat pumps

"The other three chambers are office areas, with variations on a theme," he adds. "Air source heat pumps will boost the pre-heated air from the TSCs and send it to underfloor heating. They can also work backwards in the summer to cool the building."

Air source heat pumps have come under some criticism lately for not being sufficiently efficient to warrant use. But the SBEC hopes that using solar pre-heated air will improve their performance, and will be checking this.

Later in the project they will be investigating other means of cooling buildings, perhaps using solar thermal heat engines to drive adsorption chillers.

Pillai says that the building will undergo blower tests in a couple of weeks to test their airtightness, which he hopes will be under 3m2/hr, but they are not aiming for the Passivhaus standard, which is one third of that level.

Embodied carbon

The insulation around the building includes polystyrene and mineral wool, the former of which has high embodied energy. I asked him whether the project will examine the embodied carbon in the materials and products used. Pillai responded positively.

"Absolutely. This is one of the unknowns in the field at the moment, and can be quite controversial. So we hope to work with as many people as possible to get reliable figures on how much energy is used to make the products, so we can choose the most efficient."

Steel is usually associated with high embodied energy, but Pillai counters that because much steel is recycled this need not be so.

Pillai said the collaborative approach extends to all the SBEC's work and invites potential partners. "We want to work with industry and customers to find the best solutions that are easy to install," he said.

SBEC has been designed by the Design Research Unit of the Welsh School of Architecture (WSA).

The Low Carbon Research Institute, housed in the building, is a team of 18 people drawn from Tata Steel, LCRI, Welsh School of Architecture and other industry specialists, partly funded by the Higher Education Funding Council For Wales (HEFCW) and £34m from the Welsh European Funding Office (WEFO).

Their work includes developing pre-finished steel products that deliver efficient energy functionality, and turning them into roof and wall components that will work on all building types. They're also R&D-ing PV, marine, hydrogen and other low carbon technologies.

Dye-sensitised PV facadeDye-sensitised PV

An additional and connected centre, the PV Accelerator Centre is developing a photovoltaic pre-finished steel product and its manufacturing process. It is using the next generation of dye-sensitised PV technology, which works on a principle similar to photosynthesis in plants.

This product performs well in all light conditions and will hopefully make solar electricity much cheaper and easier to use. This £11m project has operated jointly with Australian company Dyesol, funded by £5m from the Welsh Assembly Government.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Marine power receives another consent - as funding is cut

The second innovative marine current turbine installation in a month has been given approval by Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne, on the same day - 31 March - that government support - the £42m Marine Renewable Deployment Fund (MRDF) - ended for this most promising renewable energy sector.

The project, in Ramsey Sound off Pembrokeshire, is a 1.2MW Deltastream device that will provide green electricity to the local distribution network during its 12 month test period. Managed by Tidal Energy Limited it has the potential to power up to 1,000 homes.

The project is backed by renewable energy investment firm Eco2. The pilot project involves installing three separate turbines connected and mounted on a 30m triangular frame for stability.

If the project successfully passes tests, a full array may follow in 2014.

"This is the first consented tidal stream project in Welsh waters and we are honoured to be at the forefront of the tidal energy industry in Wales," said Martin Murphy, managing director of Tidal Energy Ltd.

Wales hopes to deploy 4GW of wave and tidal devices by 2025. However, it will face constraints from existing stakeholders, according to the final report of the Marine Renewable Energy Strategic Framework (MRESF), launched by Welsh environment minister Jane Davidson last month. A target of 1.5GW of marine energy would mean fewer conflicts of interests with other claims on the seabed.

Davidson recently announced an agreement between the Welsh Assembly Government and The Crown Estate to work together to support marine energy manufacturing in Wales and to ensure the deployment of marine energy devices will not be delayed by infrastructure requirements.

The Carbon Trust estimates that we could meet up to 15% of our electricity needs from marine sources; trade body RenewableUK estimates this could potentially be up to 20%, and that we could install 2-3 GW of generation capacity by 2020, and up to 30 GW by 2050.

The DECC website observes that the UK currently leads the world in marine energy technologies. "Around our coastlines, we have the richest marine energy resource in Europe," it says.

Celebrating the announcement of the consent, energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne said, "We must make the most of our natural marine resource, not just to cut our emissions, but to boost energy security and create jobs. This is exactly the kind of innovative and exciting project I want to see more of."

More than 100 firms are now operating in this emerging industry. Leading companies include Ocean Power Technologies, Marine Current Turbines, Aquamarine Power and Pelamis.

At last month's wave and tidal energy industry trade conference in Edinburgh, members called for a better policy framework and more government support, under which the sector could create 20,000 direct jobs by 2020 and bring in annual revenues of 」3.7bn.

The industry also pointed to the benefits of reduced grid-balancing costs resulting from this type of reliable renewable energy, the 42m tonnes of CO2 equivalent avoided each year by 2050, the potential to provide 20% of the UK's electricity from a secure domestic source, and the multi-billion-dollar export opportunities.

In this context RenewableUK's chief executive, Maria McCaffrey, wondered why the coalition ended the MRDF last month, while providing no indication on how it plans to support this promising emerging technology.

To campaign for more support amongst MPs the industry has launched the Seapower Campaign together with Greenpeace, WWF, the Green Alliance and Unite the Union.

I urge you to sign up to it.