Friday, August 31, 2012

UK coal generation, emissions, up due to low carbon price

Burning coal to generate electricity in the UK increased by over a third in the first half of 2012, compared with a year earlier, as it became more profitable.

This has caused analysts at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon to forecast that the country's greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector will hit 158.7 million tonnes in 2012, up 14% on the previous year.

Figures released yesterday by the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that coal-fired generation increased by over a third in the first half of 2012, compared with a year earlier. Coal-fired plants produced 67.2 terawatt-hours (TWh), compared to 49.56 TWh the year before.

This trend was helped by a drop of 50% in the price of carbon permits over the year, which meant that it became, and continues to be, at times, almost cheaper to burn coal than gas.

At the same time, the output of nuclear power fell by 5%, or 2.6TWh, due partly to the retirement of plants at Oldbury and Wylfa, Anglesey.

But output from renewable sources increased over this period, with wind power rising 28.3% to 7.17TWh.

The whole of the UK's energy sector emitted 139.8 million tonnes of CO2 in 2011, according to EU data, cuasing it to leap 28 million tonnes above its permitted cap in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, meaning it will have to purchase emission credits.

The high profitability of coal means the UK is becoming more reliant on the dirtiest form of energy production, a trend that has been ongoing for the last few years.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Greenpeace heroes thrown into Arctic Sea by Gazprom oil workers

Greenpeace activists protesting at Arctic oil drilling thrown into the freezing Pechora Sea this morning by Russian sailors working for oil giant Gazprom

Activists protesting at Arctic oil drilling were thrown into the freezing Pechora Sea this morning by Russian sailors working for oil giant Gazprom.

The action is occurring as Arctic sea ice cover reaches its lowest ever extent four weeks earlier than the previous record five years ago, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The ice extent was 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) on August 26; 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) below the previous record low extent of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles), recorded on September 18 2007.
graph showing how unprecedented the drop in Arctic ice cover is in historical terms

The graph above shows how unprecedented this drop in ice cover is in historical terms.

NSIDC scientist Walt Meier called it "an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing", and its Director Mark Serreze, commented that: "The previous record, set in 2007, occurred because of near perfect summer weather for melting ice. Apart from one big storm in early August, weather patterns this year were unremarkable. The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow."

There is little doubt now that this pattern of ice loss is due to the unexpectedly fast increase in the rate of global warming. And yet the reaction of countries bordering the Arctic Ocean has been to see it as an opportunity to access the resources that lie on its seabed.

On Sunday, Royal Dutch Shell asked the U.S. Interior Department to extend a September deadline to complete planned drilling in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northern coast, because it realised that its Arctic Challenger ship would become icebound later in the season than it had previously estimated. Shell also plans to drill in the Beaufort Sea.

Greenpeace is mounting a global challenge, which it claims is supported by almost two million people, to stop the drilling for oil and gas in the region. It argues that firstly any spillage or accident would have disastrous consequences and be almost impossible to clean up, and secondly that it is madness to continue to use fossil fuels when the climate of the planet is so obviously radically changing.

Its activists have been in the Arctic for five days. For the first three days they occupied the first permanent oil rig in the offshore Russian Arctic.

Then, Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo and six other Greenpeace activists in the Pechora Sea headed in two high-speed boats to intercept the Anna Akhmatova, a passenger vessel carrying workers to the rig, and were soon supported by two other boats carrying seven more.

14 activists from 10 countries attached themselves and their boats to the anchor chain of the Anna Akhmatova in order to prevent it from sailing out to the Prirazlomnaya oil platform.

When the first officer sought orders from management in Moscow he was told to “use any means at your disposal to continue operations," according to Greenpeace. At 5am this morning, he ordered two Gazprom ships to train high-pressure water cannons onto the Greenpeace inflatable boats.

Their occupants were washed out of the boats, and thrown into icy water some distance away. They were rescued and are safe, and not long afterwards the action was called off.

The Prirazlomnaya is the first permanent oil platform in the offshore Arctic and marks what Greenpeace calls “the creeping industrialization” of the Arctic. The construction phase on the platform is nearly complete, and Gazprom is eager to begin drilling and become the first oil company to commercially produce oil from the offshore Arctic.

However, Greenpeace has warned that Gazprom has no strategy to prevent oil spills or clean them up if they occur. “Despite extreme operating conditions, Gazprom has only released a summary of its oil spill response plan to the public. Yet even this document shows that the company would be completely unprepared to deal with an accident in the Far North, and would rely on substandard clean-up methods, such as shovels and buckets," it said in a statement.

All countries that border the Arctic Ocean are lining up to exploit its riches. This includes Britain, which, under David Cameron's leadership, signed an agreement with Norway in June that commits it to tapping gas and oil reserves in the Arctic.

While campaigners reissued their call at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June for the Arctic to be made a scientific reserve along the lines of the Antarctic, the World Ocean Council has convened a meeting of the “Arctic Business Leadership Council” which is the start of a forum for representatives of shipping, oil and gas, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, marine science/technology and other industries with interests in the Arctic to see how they can “responsibly" exploit the new opportunities presented by the melting ice.

They will meet on 17 September in Reykjavik. The draft agenda calls for the setting up of a roadmap to show how it can be exploited. It also asks for opinions from industry on how the guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Business could be applied in the region.

Greenpeace said in a statement: “We're determined to save the Arctic. We know this is a different fight, at a different time; not least because the Arctic is home to millions of people who have a critical say in the future of their region; and because the threat is not just from industrial development, but from the global crisis of climate change."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Green Deal Providers' registry goes live Oct 1st

The Green Deal registry of providers, installers and assessors will not be available to the public until October 1. This means that the scheme will be off to a slow start as it will be several months before the first work under the scheme can begin.

The industry is also still awating details of the financial arrangement for the scheme.

The registration and authorisation processes for want-to-be Green Deal assessors, installers and certification bodies began on August 8.

Registration is achieved via the Green Deal ORB website. This website will be the source of official information for potential Providers, Certification Bodies, Installers and Assessors interested in participating in the Green Deal, as well as the public.

Attaining the Green Deal Participant Register gives the seal of approval to Providers, Certification Bodies, Installers and Assessors. In order to provide confidence to customers and investors, the Energy Act 2011 only permits a Green Deal Plan to be supplied by an authorised Green Deal Provider.

The registers will go public on the same day as the launch of the Green Deal, 1st October, from which point the details of those on the register will be publicly available online, and they may use the Green Deal logo in their publicity.

Members of the public will then be able to scrutinise the registry, in order to obtain competing quotes from potential suppliers. It is recommended that they obtain at least three.

Given the complexity of providing an audit, negotiating the work to be done, of obtaining financing and securing contractors, it will be some time before the first installations are begun, let alone completed.

Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said: “The opening of the Green Deal register will enable businesses to start becoming Green Deal authorised”.

The GD ORB is now accepting applications for Green Deal Provider authorisation. The pre-assessment application form and accompanying guidance notes are available to download from the ‘Become a Green Deal Provider’ page of the website.

Information on assessors and installers will be supplied by Certification Bodies and register data will be maintained and updated regularly by the GD ORB.

For any queries regarding the Green Deal Provider authorisation process please contact GD ORB Helpdesk by emailing or call 020 7090 1031.

Further information regarding the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) can be found here:

I am a convert to hydrogen fuel cell electric cars

Hyundai prototype ix35 SUV hydrogen fuel cell car
The car I drove: the Hyundai prototype ix35 hydrogen fuel cell SUV

Yesterday at the Investing in Future Transport event in London I was able for the first time to drive a hydrogen-fuelled fuel cell car, and it has seduced me.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am no petrolhead. I don't particularly like driving, although I did when I was young, and I would much rather be on my bike. My last car was a Ford Focus, which I chose because, although a diesel, it did excellent mileage and was easy to handle. It was scrapped at its last MOT and now I share my wife's Micra; we downsized.

But this car felt like a dream. It is a Hyundai prototype ix35 SUV, which has been selected by the European Commission-backed ‘Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking’ (FCH JU) to be used as a demonstration vehicle to test and promote hydrogen fuel cell technology in a real-world environment. That's why it was there at City Hall and I was allowed to drive it.

It is an automatic, so there are only two pedals. In addition, it has no handbrake, so there are disconcertingly few controls. It is also a left-hand drive as, so far, there is not a right-hand drive model available. There are only 20 in the whole of Europe.

Acceleration is very fast and immediately responsive. I was told by the public relations lady sitting anxiously next to me (the car is probably worth a hundred thousand pounds) that it does 0 to 60 mph in 11 seconds, and that you can drive for 300 miles without needing to fill the tank.

That means you could reach most of the United Kingdom from almost anywhere else in the country.

The only slight reservation I had, was that if the lever was not positioned in neutral the car tended to move forwards slowly, so, pulling up at traffic lights, you have to keep your foot on the brake. You could put it into neutral, but then it would take longer to start up.

Of course, it makes absolutely no noise, so there is an artificial purring sound added in the design so that, reassuringly, you know that the engine is running. The display tells you how many miles worth of hydrogen is left in the tank. By the way, the tank itself is under the boot, and leaves plenty of storage space.

Speaking at the event, Hyundai's Dr Ing. Sae Hoon Kim told delegates that he thought ultimately hydrogen vehicles will play a strong role in what will inevitably be a mixed picture for personal transport. “Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are perfect for long-range, but smaller electric vehicles are suitable for urban driving, because they hold less charge – a maximum of 80 miles – and take longer to charge," he said.

It takes about as long to refuel an FCEV as it does a conventional petrol car.

Since 2000, Hyundai has produced 200 FCEV SUVs. The current model, that is about to go into production, will use an induction motor, not a permanent magnet motor, and have a 525km range. It can do 1-100kmph in 12.5 seconds, with a 160km/hr maximum speed.

The main drawback right now, he said, is durability; the fuel cell stacks can only last for about 100,000 km. Previously, there were issues with a danger of the water that is output from the car (its only output) freezing inside under certain conditions, but this danger has been eliminated and tested in Arctic conditions.

As far as production is concerned, they are produced on the same line as conventional vehicles. The fuel cell is installed in the same place as the engine. “Hyundai is intending to go into mass production with the cars in 2015," Hoon Kim said. Production of the first thousand will begin next year and be part of test fleets around the globe.

Currently, prices are an eye-watering five times greater than the conventional car, but, Hoon Kim said, this will come down.

They may be 60% efficient compared to an internal combustion engine's efficiency of about 30%, but the real test is well-to-wheel comparison of carbon emissions which, of course, depends on how the hydrogen is generated.

The dream of the hydrogen economy is that all hydrogen will be developed from renewable sources. At present, much of it is reformed from fossil methane. This methane could come from the sustainable anaerobic digestion of organic waste. Otherwise, it can come from the electrolysis of water using renewably-generated electricity.

What is the global warming effect of driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, if the hydrogen is electrolysed using mains electricity in the UK today?

Assuming 56kWh of electricity produces 1kg of hydrogen, which is the claim of ITM, then, if we take the latest figures from Dukes, which say that 443 tonnes of carbon dioxide were produced for every gigawatt-hour (GWh) of mains electricity (in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available), that is 24.8kg CO2 sent into the sky.

This compares to 10.472kg of carbon dioxide emitted on average for every gallon of petrol burnt in a car. Accounting for the fact that the hydrogen vehicle is around twice as efficient as a petrol-driven car, this means that there is little difference between their emissions overall.

Interesting as it is, this is academic, not least because we are decarbonising the grid. Besides, there are several prototype facilities in the UK already producing hydrogen for vehicles from renewable sources. Any small-scale renewable electricity generator can be set up right next to a refuelling station, producing hydrogen 24/7. The great thing about hydrogen is that it is an energy storage medium. The wind blows at night and you can’t use the electricity? Save it in hydrogen.

Marks & Spencer's, Walmart and FedEx are already using fuel cells in forklift trucks in their warehouses because they keep going for many times longer than battery-powered forklift trucks. This is a niche application, of course, but it will accelerate the development of fuel cell vehicles generally.

There are several drivers for this development: much less oil is being found by prospectors than previously and there is an imperative to decarbonise transport.

This is a huge opportunity for the UK and we should be prioritising it. Transport Secretary Norman Baker sent a video message to yesterday's conference in which he touted the Government's UKH2 Mobility project, launched at the beginning of this year, under which 13 industrial partners are evaluating potential rollout scenarios for hydrogen for transport in the UK.

More recently, five projects have been announced that will demonstrate the use of fuel cells and hydrogen and show how they can be integrated with other energy and transport components, such as renewable energy generation, refuelling infrastructure and vehicles, to develop whole systems and show them working together.

There is fierce competition from America. Last month, the US Department of Energy (DOE) released its final report for a technology validation project that collected data from more than 180 fuel cell electric vehicles over six years. It shows that development of fuel cell systems exceeded expectations, which will spur a new round of research and development.

The main problem in the UK is not a shortage of inventors, researchers and developers, it is a shortage of partners at the industrial level who can take our inventions up to mass production and capitalise on them to the fullest extent. We don't have our own auto manufacturing company. This, despite the fact that we manufacture 1.4 million cars a year, most of which are exported.

This is where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should step in. When the results of UKH2 Mobility are known, the full weight of Government backing should be put behind the chosen strategy.

Of course, we need inward investment to help to make this happen, but for once we should retain ownership. This is a win win proposal.

Our personal transport future will, in a couple of decades, comprise a complex picture with a mix of electric vehicles of different sizes, powered by both batteries and fuel cells, plus biofuel powered vehicles. We will also see much more electric-powered mass urban transport systems.

In this picture, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will play a big part, and I, for one, want to own such a vehicle, that has been manufactured in Britain by a British company.

So get on with it!

British company claims it is making petrol from air

Air Fuel Synthesis
A British company has announced that it is making zero carbon gasoline from air and water using renewable energy.

The announcement was made at the Investing in Future Transport event held on Thursday at City Hall, London, at which a speaker representing the Chinese government also expressed surprise at the lack of British companies seeking Chinese partners.

He said China is offering partnerships and over £1 billion of funding to start-ups in the electric vehicle sector who are researching and developing new batteries and charging technology.

Air Fuel Synthesis was awarded a hypothetical £10.1 million in the Cleantech Investor Future Transport Challenge for a 'Dragon's Den' style pitch by the company's CEO, Peter Harrison. The company, which creates carbon-neutral liquid fuels from renewable energy sources, was one of six participants in the Future Transport Challenge, which took place during the Investing in Future Transport conference, supported by the Mayor of London, in City Hall on 16 August.

The achievements of Air Fuel Synthesis - and the two Future Transport Challenge runners-up, Aeristech (designer of the Full Electric Turbocharger Technology) and EV Innovations (which is building the Bluebird City electric truck) - were acknowledged at an evening reception after the conference, hosted by Norton Rose.

The prizes were presented by Patrick Head, co-founder of Williams Formula 1, who had earlier delivered a keynote address at the conference, focusing on the innovative flywheel automotive energy storage technology developed by Williams Hybrid Systems, which is 78% owned by Williams F1.

The conference, which was organised by Cleantech Investor and Revolve Global and chaired by journalist and television presenter Quentin Willson, combined the Cleantech Investor Future Transport Challenge with sessions on investment opportunities in the transport solutions of the future.

Petrol from air

Peter Harrison, of Teesside-based Air Fuel Synthesis, said that it is now producing carbon-neutral petrol (gasoline) as a practical drop-in synthetic alternative to fossil fuels.

The development is part of the company’s continuing £1.1 million development programme at its demonstrator facility in the North of England where a gasoline fuel reactor is now producing petrol from a methanol base, as a stage towards a commercial fuel production unit, which will be powered by renewable electricity.

The whole process consists of a wind turbine powering an electrolyser that splits water to make hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is combined with carbon dioxide captured from the air to make a hydrocarbon mixture, that can then be developed to make any type of gasoline product.

The company initially proved its fuel reactor technology in April 2012 by producing methanol fuel from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Harrison said that the technology “has the potential to become a great British success story, which opens up a crucial opportunity to reduce carbon emissions. It also has the potential to reduce our exposure to an increasingly volatile global energy market. The potential to provide a variety of sustainable fuels for today’s vehicles and infrastructure is especially exciting.

“Further investors and partners will enable us to rapidly commercialise our technologies and help customers address fossil oil price volatility and supply constraints as well as the implications of carbon-driven climate change,“ he said.

The event, which was hosted by ex-Top Gear presenter Quentin Willson, showcased many new types of green transport technology, and included an electric vehicle investor contest which was won by ABB.

This contest recognised the best investor deal in the last 12 months in the sector. Large multinational ABB has acquired start-up company Epyon, which has developed a network of fast-charging direct current electric vehicle charge points and software. It reduces the time taken to charge an electric vehicle to 15 minutes, and enables the charging to be tailored to different starting conditions, power requirements and charge times.

It is significant because ABB offers power and automation services to utility and industry clients that help them improve performance and lower their environmental impact. This represents a fast mainstreaming of the technology in a business context, which will help bring prices down later for consumers.

On display outside City Hall was a mobile hydrogen generation facility. ITM's electrolyser uses about 56kWh of electricity to produce 1kg of hydrogen, which, in a fuel cell driven car, represents the equivalent of around one gallon, or five litres of petrol.

Their unit is mobile and modular, so any number that might be required can be transported to a location where the hydrogen is needed, to produce it on site. The fuel cell vehicles are then filled at the most convenient place for the client, without the need to transport hydrogen around the country.

Several electric vehicles were also available to test drive.

Quentin Willson, who owns two electric cars for his and his wife's everyday use, spoke passionately about electric vehicles. He said that in driving 100,000 miles he has never once run out of power, and reckons that even now there are sufficient charging points around the country to make them viable, in addition to being able to recharge at home.

His Citroën C-Zero costs just £1 to travel 100 miles. “From 2005's Gee Whizz we have come a long way. Electric vehicles can now travel 80 miles on a single charge," he said.

He admitted that at present it does not make financials sense for everybody, and so he has been campaigning for the Government to lift the 20% VAT added to the price of these vehicles for early adopters. “What we do now, determines the final outcome," he said.

ITM's Graham Cooley was in no doubt that hydrogen cars are this future. “With an energy efficiency of 60 to 70% when made from renewable energy, they are a triple zero fuel," he said. "Hydrogen is the answer to storage of intermittent renewable energy," he added.

The biofuels demand

For Dominic Emery, speaking on behalf of BP, it was biofuels that represent the future. BP is investing heavily in traditional corn-ethanol production from sugar cane.

He said that BP's 2030 Outlook shows their view of trends: that from a total global present-day requirement of 85 million barrels of crude oil per day, by 2030, we will need 102-105 million per day. "But oil finds are decreasing," he said.

"From 5% of volume of total fuel used now, biofuels will therefore need to rise to 10% by 2030," he said. “BP has invested several billion in this to date and it will be even more significant in the future. To be successful we need materiality and scalability, which means large continuous tracts of land."

It must be cost-competitive, he said, and the only source that meets this criterion now is Brazilian cane ethanol. It is produced without subsidies at around $60 per barrel, which compares very favourably with oil. The only problem is, it requires industrial scale production across hundreds of thousands of hectares of land.

However, he talked up the need for production to be sustainable not just environmentally but from a social perspective, with a trained and well-supported workforce. “It can do a lot to support rural populations not just in Brazil, but in America as well," he said.

The last word must be left to Ke Gang Wu, of the British China Chamber of Commerce, who made several open calls for British partners to work in China.

He said that China is prioritising electric vehicles over the next decade with central government funding of £1 billion a year. This figure can often be matched by a similar amount from the province where a facility might be located. For example, he said, the second largest manufacturer in Guondong Provice is seeking a partner to develop new batteries.

Several are also looking for partnerships with British start-up companies in electric vehicles and their components.

“I am mystified why more British companies are not coming forward when we will pay the research and development," he said. So were many of those present in the audience.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

E-waste law upgrade will change the way designers think

At least 85% of electrical and electronic waste generated in the European Union must be recycled by 2020, under updated legislation that comes into effect this week. But will it succeed?

The scope of the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which was adopted in 2002 and became law in the UK in 2007, is being extended to capture a wider variety of waste, including different technologies and other waste which currently escapes recycling by being shipped outside of Europe for disposal.

The revised measures should help to recapture and reuse more valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper and rare earth metals that are used in mobile phones, computers and televisions, according to Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik. "In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together,” Potočnik said.

EU member states will have to recover 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes of e-goods sold by 2016, rising to 65% of sales by 2019, or 85% of all e-waste generated. Newer member countries get an extension until 2021.

The legislation was adopted by the European Parliament in January, when it was backed by national leaders, and the European Council expanded the scope of the directive in June to include solar panels, fluorescent lighting containing mercury and equipment containing ozone-depleting substances.

Member states have until 14 February 2014 to adopt the directive into their national laws.

Currently, less than one third of waste electrical and electronic equipment is recycled. Much of that which is returned for recycling is exported illegally. In the UK, the Environment Agency prosecuted the 11 people for illegally shipping electrical waste to West Africa in November 2010.

Such activities undermine law-abiding recycling businesses and risk harm to human health and the environment in the recipient country. All shipments of any waste are subject to regulatory controls.

The new Directive requires national governments to provide information on where goods can be recycled, and calls on national governments to do more to prevent illegal exports of e-waste.

The existing EU collection target is 4 kg of WEEE per person, which equates throughout Europe to about 2 million tons per year, out of around 10 million tonnes. By 2020, it is estimated that this total volume will increase to 12 million tons.

The final target of the new Directive will ensure that in 2020 around 10 million tons, or roughly 20kg per capita, will be separately collected.

Retailers have complained that the burden of the cost of collection, transport and arranging for the recycling of waste would be unfairly borne by them.

Product redesign

According to Gerrard Fisher, the special adviser on WEEE at WRAP, the legislation is forcing designers to think about ways of designing products so that they can be “easily serviced and upgraded and reduce the cost of repairing" as well as making them easy to be recycled at the end of their life.

He says that “companies can do this by considering higher specification components, designing parts for equal lifetime, designing for disassembly and ensuring replaceable and upgradable components have easy access ability. All of these things can help future proof designs and enhance brand value," he says.

For example, Hewlett-Packard has come up with a more modular design approach to extend the life expectancy of some of its products. Its Z1 PC has been designed so that everything from the hard drive to the graphics can be replaced or upgraded without any need for tools. This has earned the product the gold rating from global green electronics organisation EPEAT.

EPEAT is a comprehensive environmental rating that helps identify greener computers and other electronic equipment.

Another company taking a similar approach is Plextech, a design consultancy which services the communications, aerospace, defence and medical sectors. Its vice president of marketing and sales, Henk Koopmans, says that they like the modular approach because “it makes it easier and cheaper disassemble products. This means modules, such as power supplies and timer units, can be reused in their entirety because of their generic functionality."

This trend is driven by the Ecodesign Directive, which, in the UK, is supported by Defra's Market Transformation Programme.

The European Commission is carrying out an internal consultation on the draft Ecodesign Regulation for computers and computer servers.

Improving the quality of refurbished goods

The WEEE Directive is also giving rise to a new market in refurbished electrical or electronic products. A quality label has been developed to give consumers confidence that such products are “safe, functional, free of protected data and backed by warranty," says Gerrard Fisher.

The PAS 141 label, he says, “can also help regulatory bodies differentiate between ‘bona fide’ and illegal exports of waste".

Earlier this year, Defra launched an action plan to promote reuse of unwanted electrical equipment, or the extraction of valuable metals therefrom. They offered financial support of £200,000 for businesses to come up with new ways of reusing goods or recycling precious metals. They also set up, with the Business, Innovation and Skills Department, a new industry-led consortium to spearhead efforts to find opportunities in this sector in the global market.

The cost imperative

The trade view is expressed by Richard Waterhouse of the trade association Intellect.

He says that although companies will adhere to legislation, cost is the main driving factor. “With the very often small margins in electronics, manufacturers can't be expected to produce a product that is more eco-friendly to the detriment of cost and form factor. Extending the product's life cycle is an option, but again it's about cost, time and convenience. We live in a consumer driven society and the reality is that most consumers would rather buy a new phone than sending their old one for repair".

Fisher's response is that companies “should focus their efforts on producing high-quality goods, designing sustainability and increasing their brand reputation, while then going down the path of a price war".

He continues: “since the electronics market isn't actually growing, companies need to ask themselves how they will expand their market share. If they try to compete on price, they are probably going to produce lower quality products, which isn't a long-term survival strategy".

There are three types of electrical and electronic equipment: fashionable items that are perceived to be cool, investment products such as televisions and sound systems, and what Defra refers to as ‘workhorse’ electrical goods, like washing machines that have to last a long time.

Fisher argues that consumers are more likely to value longevity in the latter category.

He is optimistic: “Bigger brands are now looking at how they can design in a more environmentally friendly way and are focusing on long term sustainability plans. At WRAP, we are currently looking at ways in which we can help such companies do their business differently so that it is not based on a sales/volume/profit model. What we want is for companies to go beyond compliance and improve practices.”

He also says that “more promotion and awareness is needed if the problem of e-waste is ever going to get better."

This is partly what the new Directive aims to support.

Pension funds - and Lego owners - go safely offshore – into wind farms

Carsten Krogsgaard Thomsen, Acting CEO of DONG Energy
Carsten Krogsgaard Thomsen, Acting CEO of DONG Energy

Pension companies and industrial investors are increasingly finding that investment in renewable energy, particularly wind power, is providing a better rate of return, one guaranteed over a longer period, than elsewhere.

DONG Energy, which is a co-builder of several offshore UK wind farms including the London Array, has secured investment from Danish pension providers PensionDanmark and PKA, Dutch pension group PGGM, the owners of Lego, and Japanese trading house Marubeni, amongst others.

Leaving aside the intriguing idea of Lego building wind farms, Torben Möger Pedersen, managing director of PensionDanmark, which has £13.4 billion in assets, said "I think this will...develop into a standard investment case for many pension funds because the alternative of investing in government bonds provides such bad returns that you are obliged to identify alternative investments".

The company's total investment in DONG's wind projects is £475 million, and Pedersen plans to invest more in the future, as PensionDanmark increases the proportion of its portfolio allocated to energy and infrastructure from 6% to 10%.

"In five years we will have £19 billion under management. So our total budget for these kind of investments will be £1-1.5 billion over the next 10 years," he said.

Yesterday, DONG announced that it is using some of this finance to acquire 100% ownership of three offshore wind development projects in Germany in the North Sea.

These are Gode Wind 1, 2, and 3, previously owned by PNE Wind AG, with a total capacity of up to 900 MW. The first two projects already have permission to construct and operate while the third is still in the application stage, although this is expected to be granted in 2013.

Carsten Krogsgaard Thomsen, Acting CEO of DONG Energy, which is owned by the Danish state, said: “The Gode Wind projects in Germany are very interesting for us. If a positive investment decision is taken, we expect that construction of parts of the projects could begin by 2015, subject to the available grid connection confirmations."

Denmark is a pioneer in wind energy, and is now reaping the dividend of its experience. 25% of Danish electricity comes from wind power, contradicting claims by sceptics in the UK that a national grid cannot handle that proportion of wind power.

Some investors see wind power as an uncertain bet because they are expensive to build and maintain, regulation is uncertain, and the plants can face logistical and technological problems. However, other pension funds and investors clearly think differently; taking a longer view, they realise that such investments will provide a steady cash flow over 20 to 30 years, once the projects are up and running.

Last year, the OECD encouraged institutional investors such as pension funds to take more interest in financing the low carbon revolution. There are plenty of benefits, which offset the risks. Compared to unstable financial markets, the OECD points out that there is a clear advantage for those who team up with reliable partners like DONG.

Amongst the early movers in this field, with over £1 billion of investment in renewable energy, predominantly new wind farms in Germany and France, is Allianz of Germany. David Jones, CEO of Allianz Specialized Investment, observes that returns on wind and solar projects are now around 7%.

“This is much higher than many other asset classes,” he says. Moreover, the returns are "totally decoupled from the ups and downs of the financial markets", and far better than government bonds. 10 year UK government bonds are currently yielding a mere 1.5%, almost half the rate of inflation.

Pedersen says that PensionDanmark expects "a return with a spread of between 300 and 500 basis points above a government bond," that is “very much less risky than listed equities".

Walney wind farm in the Irish Sea near Cumbria, is co-funded with direct investment by Dutch pension group PGGM, which has allocated 15-20% of its infrastructure portfolio to renewable energy. Henk Huizing, its head of infrastructure investment, agreed with the OECD assessment: "If you have a good partner, then the risk for joining in the development phase can be acceptable, and you get a premium for going in earlier".

"I hope this will be a model that catches on," says Morten Buchgreitz, DONG Energy's acting deputy CEO for wind power, "because, just looking at the northern European offshore market, we expect that the capacity will have to go from 4 gigawatts now to 37 by 2020".

That is a factor of 10 increase, which will require about £80 billion. Although this sounds a lot, it is less than 1000th (0.08%) of the £18 trillion assets held by pension funds worldwide.

Some of the funding may come from the consortium of 80 of the world’s largest pension funds, that has signalled its readiness to provide funding for infrastructure projects under the Government’s £40 billion infrastructure guarantee initiative. More will come from the Green Investment Bank, when it is finally allowed to borrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Green Deal loans to be underwritten by Government

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Danny Alexander said said that there are over 30 expressions of interest so far in Green Deal infrastructure loans.
The Green Deal is to be an early candidate for UK Infrastructure Guarantees scheme, said Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, last week.

In other Green Deal news:
  • the register for Green Deal providers, assessors and installers has been opened
  • a £7 million loan has been advanced to the Green Deal Finance Company (GDFC)
  • and social landlords are being encouraged to take up the millions of pounds still on offer for Renewable Heat Premium Payment Scheme.

Infrastructure Guarantees

The Infrastructure Guarantees scheme is a new credit enhancement scheme set up to kick-start critical infrastructure projects by stimulating the injection of private finance with loans underwritten by the Government.

Mr. Alexander said that there are over 30 expressions of interest so far.

"The Green Deal is the largest ever programme for investing in the energy efficiency of our housing stock," Mr. Alexander told the Global Business Summit on infrastructure in London, “And we are looking at whether and how a guarantee could ensure that the finances are in place to get the programme off to a very strong start."

A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said that it "is currently undertaking discussions with interested parties, such as the banks and investors on whether and how a guarantee could support the provision of low cost finance for Green Deal."

Attracting loan financing has been one of the stumbling blocks inhibiting the full launch of the scheme this October. The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)'s Director General, Nick Baveystock, expressed relief at the news: “When this scheme was announced, we and others across industry voiced concerns around whether the criteria for accessing guarantees were too high to attract applicants," he said.

"The news that there are over 30 expressions of interest so far is positive and we look forward to further updates from Government on which [other] projects it will be providing guarantees for.

“Reducing demand by making existing older homes more energy efficient is a vital if we are to have a resilient, affordable and low carbon energy system in future years," he added. But he cautioned that the government must make public "figures on exactly how many projects are actually moving forward as part of the scheme”.

DECC also announced yesterday that it has advanced a £7 million loan to the Green Deal Finance Company (GDFC), the not-for-profit company that will provide low-cost Green Deal finance to homeowners and businesses. Longer term, it expects to secure finance from the bond markets to ensure residents taking the Green Deal will be offered sufficiently low rates to attract their interest.

The GDFC is also in discussions to secure financing from the new Green Investment Bank (GIB). The GDFC's members include British Gas, Carillion, Clifford Chance, E.ON, EDF Energy, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Insta Group, Kingfisher, Linklaters, Lloyds Bank Corporate Markets, Mark Group, npower, PwC, RBC Capital Markets and SSE.

It was forced to suspend operations earlier in the summer because it had not been able to secure the funding it needed through UK Green Investments, which had been set up to provide funding ahead of the GIB receiving State Aid approval.

State Aid approval has still not been given but is expected by the end of the year.

Green Deal register

DECC also announced that it has opened the register for Green Deal providers, assessors and installers. This register will give the 'seal of approval' to businesses that successfully go through the Green Deal authorisation process.

A Green Deal Quality Mark will show who is authorised and protect consumers.

"The opening of the Green Deal register will enable businesses to start becoming Green Deal authorised and the Green Deal Quality Mark will show they have met our standards. Crucially, this will protect consumers, who will know that anyone displaying the Quality Mark has been through the required process to become authorized," said Energy Minister Greg Barker.

Anyone with questions about the guidance should contact the Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body on 020 7090 1031 or visit their website at

Businesses wishing to become Green Deal Providers can apply directly online, while accredited certification bodies will be able to submit the details of Assessors and Installers to be authorised.

Many housing associations are hoping to become Green Deal providers and include: Gentoo, Affinity Sutton, Places for People, Alliance Homes and the Aster Group.

Social landlords

These and other social landlords have also been encouraged to take up the millions of pounds still on offer for renewable heat.

This is under the Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) scheme, which had failed earlier in the year to disburse all of the funds at his disposal.

The competition is being reopened, with a millions of pounds available for social landlords to get kit such as biomass boilers, solar hot water panels and heat pumps into social tenants’ homes.

Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said: “I would urge social landlords across the nation to apply and take advantage of all this scheme has to offer.”

Registered providers for social housing, such as local authorities and social housing associations, can bid for funds up to the Sterling equivalent of €200,000, which currently amounts to around £156,000 each. Up to £2.5 million of additional funding will be allocated under this element of the competition.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

This drought should make Americans wake up to climate adaptation

drought-stricken corn
The parched conditions are sowing thoughts of drought-resistant crops - but also forcing recognition of the reality of climate change in American minds.

The exceptional weather throughout North America in the last few months has been blamed on the jetstream being pushed northwards by an increasing area of high pressure. This is the same jetstream that has been pushed southwards on our side of the Atlantic, bringing an end to our declared drought and a thoroughly wet, so-called summer.

Behind this immediate cause, is the trend of global warming.

Last Wednesday, the US Department of Agriculture announced that 98 of the 102 counties that comprise the state of Illinois are a disaster area.

Across the country, a total of 218 counties were added to the disaster area designation, meaning that over half of all American counties are now officially disaster areas, most of them suffering from drought. 64% of the lower 48 states are affected.

The unprecedented progress of the drought can be seen in animated maps on this official US government drought monitoring website. They show 'exceptional drought conditions' moving in the last 12 weeks from southern states right up to the Great Lakes.

The effect on American crop yields is yet to be known, but food inflation and record high prices for grain have already been seen.

This is the second drought to hit North America in a decade. A dry spell which lasted for years between 2000 and 2004 was already the worst in 800 years. This one is the worst ever.

An analysis of climate data published this month in the journal Nature Geoscience establishes this, but, looking ahead, the ten researchers claim that by the end of this century those four years will seem wet compared to what is to come.

They say that North America is on the verge of a large hydro climate shift and invoke the word “mega-drought". This peer-reviewed article is supported by NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other institutions, and it adds that the four-year drought was exacerbated by global warming, which is causing the climate shift.

Is this having an effect on public opinion in America about climate change? After all, it's not hard to argue that it is American politicians that have been holding back global agreements on limiting greenhouse gas emissions for the last 10 years or more because, they have felt they don't have the mandate to do anything else.

According to a survey conducted in July by the University of Texas (link is to Bloomberg - I couldn't find the original statistics), 70% of Americans believe the climate is changing, compared to 65% in March, and only 15% say it isn’t. Party affiliation continues to divide public opinion, but today most Republicans, 53%, believe in climate change, as do 72% of independents and 87% of Democrats.

Mitt Romney’s states of swing

Where does Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, stand on climate change? It seems to depend on whom he's talking to. He doesn't like subsidies for wind farms and he doesn't believe in the United States taking unilateral action against climate change. (No one is asking it to, just sign up to Kyoto II.) He said last October: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.”

But earlier, Romney has said he believes that human activity is a contributing factor. It seems that, like many of his other opinions, it changes with the wind.

The New York Times wrote in an article recently: “The Midwest is becoming a Dust Bowl, the Southwest and Rocky Mountains a tinder box. Lakes and rivers across the South are drying up. And a series of brutal heat waves, severe storms and prolonged power failures has punished residents of the Northeast, generating widespread concern that the region’s infrastructure is woefully unprepared for the strange weather that’s become our new norm."

Add to this the media interest in Prof Richard Muller, a former climate change sceptic who announced last week that he has been converted, not just to believing that climate change is happening but that human activity is responsible. He bases his change of heart on research conducted by a team of ten scientists, including Saul Perlmutter who won this year's Nobel Prize for physics for his research which showed that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing.

Ironically, the funding for the research came from the Koch brothers, those infamous billionaire industrialists exposed as major donors to lobbying organisations espousing climate change denial.

Prof Muller says in an opinion piece, called The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic, published at the end of last month, also in the New York Times, “Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."

These findings are stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There is nothing new here, but what is new is the context. In an interview for national public radio, Muller advocates as a solution: greater energy efficiency such as insulation, a switch from coal to natural gas including fracking, and persuading China to make the same switch.

The weirdest anomaly

I'm no meteorologist, but the weirdest anomaly that sticks out to me is visible in the three month official National Weather Service prediction for December-January-February 2012-13, which shows a temperature of 50oF in the northernmost part of the USA (Northern Alaska), while down in its opposite extreme, (southern Texas) it will be below freezing. Incidentally, this website predicts the hot spell will continue for a while yet, although the centre of the high pressure area is moving west.

Climate change increases the risk of anomalies, as this post on the Skeptical Science website explains. We have been seeing our share of extreme weather events in the UK too.

The extremes should be a wake-up call to American politicians. Whatever they may think about the cause, the conclusion must be that they need to think much more seriously about adaptation, whether it is through more drought-resistant strains of crops, or planting more vegetation in cities to reduce the 'heat island' effect.

And, over here, let me add my voice to the many others calling for Defra to reverse the cutbacks on flood defences. From here on, it can only get more extreme, not less.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Scandal of the unclaimed renewable heat grants

solar water heating
Only one solar thermal installation has so far been completed under the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Only half of the grants offered by Government to businesses and councils to install renewable heating schemes are being claimed.

One of the main reasons appears to be lack of publicity, but the grant conditions also are claimed to be too tight.

Under the Renewable Heat Incentive, businesses and public sector bodies can claim a subsidy for every unit of power generated from technologies such as solar water heating panels, biomass boilers and heat pumps, in the same way as can be claimed for renewable electricity under the feed-in tariff scheme.

The first tranche of the scheme, launched last year by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), was underspent by 50%: £5.5 million of the £10.8 million budget was unclaimed. According to Ofgem, just 176 schemes are receiving payment, a pitifully small number.

The second stage, worth £7 million was launched in March, and the latest figures show a total of only £817,250 claimed. The vast majority of these are for solid biomass boilers.

If this rate of uptake continues until the scheme closes in March 2013, just £3.9 million will be spent.

New figures, released yesterday, show that DECC's current estimated expenditure for 2012/13, based on the total number of RHI applications received to date, is £18 million. The cap on spending is £70 million. At this rate DECC estimates only £42 million will be spent.

As the figure is based on applications rather than fully accredited installations, the eventual figure is likely to be lower.

The Renewable Energy Association's head of policy, Paul Thompson, said the difficulty in giving away the grants is due to three factors, all decided by DECC: the time-limit, the lack of publicity, and the small amount of support on offer, which, he said was “not enough money to influence people's decisions".

He said: "You've got to have a bright idea that's pretty much developed to be in a position to be able to meet the deadlines".

He called upon DECC to use unspent funds to run a publicity campaign. The Department is currently deciding what to do with unspent funds from the social landlord's scheme.

DECC also launched an £8 million competition for community groups on 24 July, to install renewable heating. Grants up to £160,000 are available but applications must be in by 7 September, which is too early for some groups to manage. In addition, the completion schedule is tight: projects have to be completed by the end of the financial year.

EU targets dictate that 12% of the nation's heating needs to come from renewable sources by 2020, an increase of 2.2% on 2011 levels.

What is mystifying is the lack of installation of solar thermal. In the previous support system run by DECC, solar water heating was by far the most popular technology. It has proved to be very successful in this country, much more so than solar PV in terms of value for money.

In fact, renewable heat in general it is more cost-effective than renewable electricity, at a small scale.

Yet the Ofgem figures show that there has been just one solar thermal scheme supported under the RHI. The full figures are:

Technology TypeNo of accredited installations / Registered biomethane producersInstalled Capacity (MW)
Solid Biomass Boiler1626.02
Deep Geothermal00.000
Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP)110.378
Municipal Solid Waste00.000Solar Thermal10.008
Water Source Heat Pump (WSHP)10.024

At the end of July DECC also published new regulations that introduce the stand-by mechanism for budget management to the RHI Scheme, part of the impact of which is to introduce an immediate change for biomethane producers who wish to register for the Scheme.

DECC's current consultation on the Renewable Heat Incentive long-term budget management has, as its preferred option, gradually reducing the tariff levels for new installations if deployment levels exceed forecasts.

On current trends, that is not likely to happen, and there could well be a third renewable heat underspend by the Department.

One would be forgiven for wondering if this is part of a deliberate pattern.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Doc Chaos - "a comedy of terrors" - lives again

David Thorpe Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect & The Last Laugh coverCambria Books and Hooligan Press have published a new ebook version of my 1988 novella, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect. 

I love the tag line:

Inside a nuclear reactor, no one can hear you scream - with pleasure.

"DOC CHAOS is one of the most exciting and refreshing pieces of graphic literature I've seen in a long time." said Alan Moore very kindly in his introduction to the original comic series.

As a love story, it makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like kindergarten games...

Doc Chaos, the scientific prodigy who sold the promise of nuclear power to the most gullible, power-mad people in the world - politicians - did so not just because he likes seeing humanity "trip on its own banana skins" (as Graeme Basset put it), but for a much darker, more erotic reason... to reach the ultimate climax.

David Thorpe Doc Chaos: The nuclear jokerThis new edition, (available here),  contains 12 illustrations that were specially created by prominent stars of the comics art world:

Simon Bisley (who did the cover, which has been coloured for this edition) ~ Brian Bolland ~ Brett Ewins ~ Duncan Fegredo ~ Rian Hughes ~ Lin Jammett ~ Pete Mastin ~ Dave McKean (who did the illustration on the right) ~ Savage Pencil ~ Ed Pinsent ~ Bryan Talbot.

It also contains a new short story, The Last Laugh, completing the Doc Chaos narrative at the coming apocalypse, and a new Afterword by me, which sets the two pieces in their creative context.

Doc Chaos by Dave McKean
I believe DOC CHAOS takes the literary genealogy of doctors Frankenstein, Faustroll and Benway into the nuclear age and beyond.

The tragic Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the world’s worst, happened in 1987, and, having campaigned against nuclear power for twelve years, while living under the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War, the absurdity of civilisation’s perverted fixation on this doubled-edged technology seemed to me to be a good fit for the story of the Bad Doctor.

Written in a post-modern frenzy, it provided me with a lot of fun, especially when I mixed in elements of my own personal narrative, which those who know me recognise without necessarily knowing where truth ends and fiction begins.  It seems obvious to me that there is a macho, psycho-sexual element in mankind’s love affair with nuclear power.

A special word of thanks to the artists who contributed original illustrations to this edition. Each of them was given a copy of the manuscript and invited to draw anything they liked based on a particular episode or scene. Every single one of them responded marvelously, getting totally under the skin of the project. Brian Bolland even contributed two pictures, in the style of the Mr Mammoulian strip he was sporadically producing at the time.

What amazes me is how each artist has their unique vision for Doc Chaos, but all of them encapsulate its spirit. I like every one of them. They really make this book come alive.

The virus that began in a 1981 journal, mutating to continue its survival, is still on the loose.

As the bad doctor says: “You can’t keep a good disease down.”