Energy use – Some resolutions for the new year

This is the last time I shall write on this log in 2007. I started writing at the end of October and this makes the sixtieth post. The eve of the New Year is a time when resolutions to change for the better are traditionally made I shall offer you four New Year’s resolutions to add to your list, in the hope that whatever other resolutions that you will make and break, these environmental resolutions will last. 

  1. If you can, get your energy from a benign source, rather than a carbon dioxide producing source. Look at solar thermal, wind turbines, and PV first and in that order.
  2. Try to conserve as much fossil fuel energy as you can. Perhaps turning the thermostat down by one or two degrees in winter would be a good start, and buying a smaller engined car when it’s time to change it.
  3. Make sure that those who pollute pay for cleaning up their act. If you yourself pollute clean it up yourself. Do not be responsible for indirect pollution; buying cheap sweatshop produced goods will also almost invariably have a hidden carbon price tag.
  4. Don’t waste fossil fuel energy; the typical scenario of heating on with windows open still happens too often; over packaging is a waste of energy so avoid buying goods that are unnecessarily over packaged.

 I wish you all a very happy and safe new year.

Passing the hat round for the Co-Op

Unfortunately in their search for the Holy Grail politicians have in turn adopted various environmentally produced energy technologies. The first to be adopted and then discarded were photovoltaic cells.

It is hard to explain photovoltaics in layman’s terms and can be quite hard to understand so if you don’t want to read the technical stuff, skip the next two paragraphs.

PV started with Becquerel in 1839 and then Willoughby Smith, Hertz, Max Planck and even Einstein found that light shining on a metal can create energy proportional to the frequency of the light. When the light strikes the metal, the energy from the photons is transferred to electrons in the metal. If that energy is greater than what is required to overcome the forces which keep the electron in the metal, the energy will be released. The result is that light with a high enough frequency can knock electrons out of a metal surface.

The displaced electrons are freed to move about, forming a “conduction band”, and a hole is left behind where the freed electrons used to be. They are “harnessed” by the use of semiconductors with different electrical characteristics so that an electric field is generated. This field causes positive and negative charges to move in opposite directions, thus creating electric current. I hope that I have explained this reasonably accurately and if I have not no doubt someone out there will let me know.

Anyway when you understand that you use light to generate electricity you will understand how attractive this must seem to politicians looking for the Holy Grail; they thought they had found it, with these photovoltaic cells, which have been confusing called solar panels but now are know as “PV”.

PV superficially sounds much more impressive than using light to generate heat (which is what real solar panels do), because electricity is often associated in people’s mind with energy and they tend to ignore heat. That is a shame because you can live without electricity – it will be hard but people have done it for tens of thousands of years, but people have lived with heat and in most places would die in winter without heat.  

In Manchester, Europe’s largest vertical photovoltaic project was installed at the Co-operative Insurance Society Tower. This project was subsided by the state (that is you and me, folks) to the tune of just over £1 million, although what business the government has in subsiding a commercial organisation like the Co-op (turnover £9.4 billion) is entirely beyond me. Interestingly enough the amount given by the taxpayer to the Co-Op was virtually the maximum that is permitted to be given for a project of this nature under the European Community’s State Aid rules.

PV re-cladding was predicted to result in a rated power output of between 250 and 350 kWp and was expected to meet only 10% of the building electricity requirements by generating it is hoped 180MWh electricity per year. I have not been able to find out any data yet as to whether the project met its expectations. 

Governments all over the world provided subsidies for PV because the environmental cost of electricity generated is very high, although if you look at the carbon cost in making the PV and spread that over the life time of the PV it is much more carbon productive than first thought. They hope to attract investment in building PV cell manufacturing plants to create jobs (although when they do they frequently have to subsidise the establishment of a factory).

Governments have listened to multi national companies that have invested in PV technology. Mr Blair took advice from Lord Browne who ran BP, one of the most carbon producing businesses on earth. BP invested in PV, and claimed a “green” sustainable image as a result. Mr Blair bought the sales pitch and set up a very generous PV grants system.

The Co-op was not the only company or person that was able to access these large grants. At one time PV attracted a grant of 50% of the cost, which meant that if you were building your own house, provided you could access the grant, and you wanted to have a PV roof, the taxpayer would pay half of the cost up to £15,000.  This struck me as wrong; someone with the cash to build their own home should not get half a PV roof paid for by the state.

This has now been changed; the PV grants are still very generous compared with other technologies – around £2,500 – but the drop in grants has affected the PV market, causing it to decline. Of course the smaller businesses that sell and install PV are worse affected; somehow the multi-nationals will survive a down turn in a business that does not even represent 1% of their portfolio.

The problem with efficient photovoltaics is that they use broad spectrum light whereas they would operate more efficiently at only at specific narrow part of the light spectrum. Anything outside this narrow part of the spectrum cannot be converted to electricity. Also their efficiency drops as they become older, and in very hot weather. At freezing point silicon has a maximum theoretical efficiency of 24%; at room temperature this drops to 12%. The laws of physics mean that photovoltaic cells decrease in efficiency as the temperature of the cell increases. 

The best and most efficient use of PV is when it eliminates the need for batteries in many calculators. Many places have now installed photovoltaic cells to operate parking meters and some street lighting, but this really makes no sense environmentally.

Photovoltaics really become effective in “off-grid” situations. In places where the cost of bringing power lines or building generating plants is expensive, the PV offers a good solution which is both environmentally friendly and cost effective. It makes no sense to me to install PV in Manchester at public expense. If the Co-op wants to make an environmental statement for reasons of good corporate governance then I applaud them, but let them do that with their own money.

In the real world £1 million would provide free solar water heating systems for three hundred poor people and that would save more energy and more carbon dioxide emissions and save the poor some money.

The future of natural gas

Most people in Britain use natural gas to heat their homes and their water space heating, although I think that most people should be using solar panels instead of carbon dioxide producing fossil fuel. However, for the time being at least the vast majority of people do use fossil fuel for these tasks and the fuel of choice is natural gas.

Although using any fossil fuel damages the planet, using natural gas with a condensing boiler which uses almost all of the energy in gas to deliver heat, provides a smaller carbon footprint that using oil or coal or liquid petroleum gas. Because so many people use gas, people are affected by the price of natural gas.

For many years when gas was taken from the North Sea and sold into a newly denationalized competitive British market gas prices fell, so the consumer got cheap heat energy and as a result wasted much of it. The price of energy governs how much of it is wasted and when energy prices were at historical lows in the late eighties and nineties people were not fussed about leaving the heating on full blast while they opened the windows to cool down their homes.

Up until very recently the price of natural gas was linked to the price of oil, so as oil prices rose and fell gas prices mirrored them. Today natural gas prices for short term supplies are not tied to oil prices, but there is still a tie when prices are quoted for supplies in the future.During 2008 it is expected that natural gas prices will rise. Production is not rising significantly but demand is increasing. World natural gas prices partially depend on the weather.

The very cold weather that North America has been experiencing (snow blizzards were reported in Texas) will cause consumption to increase and there will be a price hike to accompany increased demand. In North America where there is plenty of natural gas storage facility (compared to Britain) the amount of natural gas stored affects the price. In Britain with little natural gas storage we tend to find out prices at the mercy of the weather and the demand not only in our own country but also in other countries. It is worth taking account of the fact that the massive North American market is indicating that we are likely to experience much higher natural gas prices.

font face=”Arial”>Natural gas demand in North America is increasing at about 3 % per year whereas supply is increasing at about 1%. Also, as the price of oil increases more consumers and businesses switch to gas. Industries depend on natural gas for their production processes; industries consumed around 44% of the natural gas used in 2004 and most analysts expect this to continue,

font face=”Arial”>Because they expect the oil price to remain high and natural gas to displace oil fuels increasingly In future, gas will become more popular. The world will get three-quarters of its natural gas from Middle East and Eurasia Russia, Iran, and Qatar combined hold about 58 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves. Reserves in the rest of the world are fairly evenly distributed on a regional basis. British supplies of natural gas which are mostly located in the North Sea are running out.

If you estimate the reserves of natural gas of the world, and look at present rates of extraction and use, then the world has enough natural gas to last 65 years. On a regional basis Central and South America has enough for 52 years, Russia 80 years and Africa 88 years. The Middle East has enough gas for 100 years. 

font>In the European Community we have begun to realise that we will rapidly become dependent upon natural gas from non European suppliers; we could be getting as much as two thirds of it from outside the Europe by 2020 and it is never healthy for a group of nations to have energy supplies which are not secure.  Already, nine out of 33 European countries are more than 95% dependent on imports; only five are self-sufficient or net exporters.

The gas exporting countries have a formed an organisation called “the Gas Exporting Countries Forum”. It has expressed that it has no intention to form a cartel to exert control over European gas supplies and prices, which makes one wonder why it was formed; there are real fears that this organisation is OPEC in embryo. 

Britain has had, as I mentioned earlier, a liberalised energy market for some decades; if a major gas receiving terminal failed, or if a long term contract were dishonoured it would affect our energy supplies. The effect could be extremely severe if we have no significant storage capacity.  

In the European Union we import 40% of our natural gas, which will rise to 70% by 2020. The more the European Union liberalises energy markets the greater the need to ensure security of supply. In the long term liberalised competitive energy markets are probably inconsistent with secure energy supplies. In future the modern thing may be to renationalize energy to bring it under government control.

A Multi national company has no loyalty, whereas governments do try to look after the people who hold them to account at elections.  

A good example of just how insecure our energy supplies are arose in August 2007 when Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly, warned Belarus that it would turn off the gas tap if a $456 million bill was not paid.  Poland, Lithuania, parts of Germany and the Ukraine are supplied through the pipeline that crosses Belarus, so cutting it off or reducing supplies would affect those nations. Even Italy was affected although happily the dispute seems to be resolved for the time being. 

If a state is in control of the means of energy it gives that state not only potentially huge wealth but also enormous power. This is because energy is so important. If we want to avoid being subject to nations wealthy in fossil fuel energy for the next seventy or so years we shall have to generate a significant share of our energy from benign sources. It is not only the environmentalist’s desire to save the planet, but it is also good old fashioned national self interest. At the moment we are not saving the planet and not even acting in our own self interest.<

Hard decisions

I remember Tony Blair frequently telling the nation that from time to time leaders have to make hard decisions and that he was the person responsible for making them. That was his job. He had to make hard decisions. 

Gordon Brown also thinks it is necessary to convince the nation that he is no softie and is also capable of making the hard decisions that the country expects him to make. In the United States George Bush also talks about how he can and does make hard decisions.   Continue reading

A wonderful quiet December day

 I am writing this on the shortest day of the year, and will upload it later, in case the festivities overcome my task of commenting on something almost every day. 

I have written so much about the weather, and always, I see, in the gloomiest terms. Well today has been a wonderful quiet December day. The sky has been cloudless and I am enjoying the still peace that late December does so well, as I work in my office, glancing out of the window at the Westminster skies. 

In the next few days I shall be indulging in a little frenetic purchasing, some immodest over eating and some sentimental memories of December days that have vanished, along with some of the people with whom I spent them.

Changing construction rules for a new climate – Building for the future weather

We are now close to the end of December. The weather has been cold, but very cold. I think that there have only been a few days when you have had to scrape frost off the windscreen of your car. In this cold weather most of us have forgotten about the floods that affect so many people in England in the summer, which happened after the wettest three months from May to July that the country has ever recorded.

Our infrastructure – the drains, sewers, roads and buildings, were not designed to cope with this level of water. Thirteen people died, 48,000 homes were damaged and 7,000 businesses were damaged. The emergencies services were stretched beyond their limits and how well they managed to alleviate suffering was remarkable because without their dedication death and destruction would have been much greater. 

The official interim report by Sir Michael Pitt for the Cabinet Office states that the floods cannot be directly attributed to climate change. I cannot see how this claim can be made. I suspect that this wet weather is directly attributable to climate change. The scale of the floods was well outside the normal range of weather events that we experience. 

That said, the Pitt Review does say that the floods are indicative of what we can expect as a result of climate change in the future and that we need to act now to prevent such events from affecting us so badly in future. We can expect not only more flooding but also rising sea levels, more coastal erosion, stronger storm surges, higher winds and greater weather variation at the extremes than we have been used to, as the planet gets warmer.  

Sir Michael Pitt makes around 87 recommendations but central to all of them is the need to improve infrastructure to make it fit for what will happen over the next hundred years. We need to build roads, railways, buildings, drains sewers and flood defences not for our traditional temperate climate but for what will be a harsher climate where extremes will feature much more than they do now. 

In Victorian times London built huge sewers to cope with the removal of waste from millions of Londoners. They were “over engineered” and as such still work well today.  They were copied in most British conurbations and not only did the building of them bring relief from disease and smells, but it brought relief that with little maintenance still lasts today. 

We need to over engineer our infrastructure and our buildings today. Cheap and nasty will not be able to withstand what our future weather will throw at it.   

Imprisoned without trial but recalled to life

Mr Jamil El-Banna is supposed to live in London. He came from Jordan and the Home Office granted him refugee status in 2000. In 2002 he planned to set up a peanut oil processing plant in the Gambia. In November 2002 he was first arrested in the United Kingdom under anti terrorist legislation when he tried to fly to the Gambia. He had a battery charger in his luggage and that was ostensibly why he was stopped..

He was soon released and allowed to fly. As soon as he got to the Gambia he was immediately arrested held until March 2003 when he was sent to and interned in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Bush has described all Guantanamo Bay prisoners as “bad men” and that was his justification for keeping them imprisoned without trial.

Normally, people are only deemed “bad” by civilised societies if they break the law and are convicted of an offence. In olden days kings and princes would designate someone bad, and that took them outside the protection of the law; without trial and without justice they were fair game for anything.  

Mr El-Banna only deserved to be locked if it is first proven that he has committed a criminal offence. Heaven knows, there are enough offences that people can commit in relation to terrorism; there is no shortage of things that constitute offences. But Mr El-Banna has not been charged with anything, even though he has been in custody for five years. 

On 19th December this year Mr El-Banna was released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Britain. By the time he got here Spain had issued an arrest warrant for him, and so Mr El-Banna was immediately re-arrested when he landed in the United Kingdom. It was reported that he apeared before the English Court looking dishevelled and bewildered; I am not surprised. At a hearing in court he was granted bail subject to conditions which included wearing an electronic tag.

The United States had held Mr El-Banna in custody for nearly four and three quarter years without charging him. His imprisonment for such a lengthy period without trial is now impossible to justify. If as soon as Mr El-Banna is released from custody (having been in custody for a total of 5 years including the time spent in the Gambia) he is charged with an offence it makes us all wonder why it was necessary to hold him without trial for five years. I am sure that Spain has not just come into possession of evidence; the United States should have released Me El-Banna to Spain years ago. 

Lots of things are done in the name of preventing terrorism; we have people demanding to see and take copies of your passport if you want to open a bank account, rent a mobile phone, and in some countries even book a hotel room. These things mostly do nothing to prevent or deter terrorism. 

Terrorism is a crime, it is not above or beyond crime, but its activity is pure criminality. To deter terrorism, like deterring crime, we need swift justice. Some people will carry out terrorism regardless of any deterrents, rather like a physcopath commits murder. They will not be deterred so they need to be caught tried and locked up.

Justice requires trying people accused of crime and if they are found guilty by a judicial process, punishing them. Imprisoning someone for five years without charge and no prospect of a trial is simply unjust.  

Every country enacts unjust legislation from time to time, even democratic countries. In the United States until only 147 years ago there was slavery in many parts of it – a wholly unjust law. In addition to it a Fugitive Slave Law required slaves who escaped from a slave state to a non slave state to be returned into slavery, another wholly unjust law. 

Henry Thoreau, an American philosopher, said in connection with slavery and the slave laws “The only government I recognize… is that that power that establishes justice in the land …never that which established injustice.”  Thoreau pointed out that non slave states were effectively enforcing slavery by returning slaves.

Massachusetts was a state where slavery was illegal. It was legal in South Carolina. If a slave escaped from South Carolina into Massachusetts Thoreau said that Massachusetts was enforcing slavery when it returned the slave and that was unconscionable.    

It took our U K government quite a few years to condemn the holding of people without trial at Guantanamo Bay; from Mr El-Banna’s story it seems that our government may have had some complicity in Mr El-Banna’s arrest and his ultimate detention for five years. In 2005 Mr Blair said, talking about the process of taking people from places like the Gambia to Guantanamo Bay, that he wanted to send out “a clear signal that the rules of the game had changed.” Vacuous nonsense, of course.

This is not a game and the principles of human behaviour are not such that they are capable of change like the rules of a game. Fundamental principles should govern our lives. These are unchanging.  What had changed were not the principles; the thing that had changed was that democratic countries are now assuming that they are entitled to deny people due process of law in order to protect those whom they govern.

This is the same justification that every tyrant and tyrannical government through history has used to justify harsh oppressive and unprincipled behaviour. Mr Bush and Mr Blair stand shoulder to shoulder with some very undesirable types in this respect. It is to the dishonour of Spain that they never requested Mr El-Banna’s extradiction while he was in Gauntanamo, and only asked for it when Mr El-Banna was on the flight back to Luton Airport.

The abuse of humanity by imprisoning people at Guantanamo Bay for five years without legal justification is something that the United Kingdom was complicit in. We stood guard for the imprisoners, the kidnappers, and any torturers and abusers, and it looks as though we still stand on guard for them. So the shame of the United States is also our shame and their crimes are our crimes and the crimes of all civilised nations. 

Microgeneration and Northern Rock? Darling, it’s between a northern rock and a hard place

Gordon Brown has finally admitted it. He has not ruled out nationalising the Northern Rock. When you walk down a path putting one foot in front of another you should know where the path leads. When he and his chum Alistair Darling decided to rescue the bank, rather than the money of depositors of the bank, he started on the road that inevitably leads to nationalisation, whether he admits it or not. 

The bank is as good as nationalised now. Lots of people and institutions would like to get their hands on (sorry, buy) some of the bank’s good assets, especially if they are going for a song. No-one wants to underwrite the bank’s bad assets at any price, except Mr Darling and Mr Brown. We taxpayers have now pumped £57 billion into the bank, (£57,000,000,000) by way of guarantees and real cash and the only benefit has been to help confidence in the banking system, (although that is debatable), save a few jobs in the North East, and protect Nortehrn Rock shareholders and speculators.  He could have done all of that spending a lot less money by simply underwriting the ordinary depositors’ money and letting the rest take their chances.

If Mr Darling has a spare £57 billion pounds it would come in mighty handy in restructuring our country’s energy system so that we used less fossil fuel and had a great deal more microgeneration. We could have also cleaned up the coal burning power stations with smoke washing facilities, sequestrated carbon, insulated every home to high standards, and still had plenty of change. 

We could have also taken a few million and restructured the Low Carbon Building Programme. Under it today no one is bothering to apply for the £400 grant that you can get towards thermal solar panels because the grant is pitched too low and there is a rather tortuous set of conditions you have to adhere to before you get the money; none of these conditions relate in any way to solar water heating.

You can only get the grant if your home is “holistic” whatever that means. 

The money assigned for helping householders with all microgeneration technologies for the three years ended June 2008 was only £18.7 million – less than one third of one percent of the money used to bail out the Northern Rock. Expressed as a figure it is less than 0.33% of £57,000,000,000.  It is interesting to remember that the grants for microgeneration were conceived by Mr Darling when he was at the Department of Trade and Industry under a scheme called the Low Carbon Buildings Programme. All the failings of this scheme became well known before Mr Darling was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer, but despite my efforts and those of many others in the microgeneration industry, Mr Darling would not change the defects, denying, through his junior Minister, Lord Truscott (who?) that any defects existed. 

Mr Darling clearly has a talent for this kind of mess, as he showed with the Low Carbon Building Programme and now that he has been promoted he has made another mess on a much grander scale. 

While all the money used for the Northern Rock is being committed and more will no doubt have to be spent, so far less than a third of the microgeneration grants have been spent – a paltry £5.3 million. If the present rate of take up continues when the scheme ends in seven months time the government will have about £12 million spare unspent microgeneration money, which they could inject into the Northern Rock. That should be of immense comfort to the Bank’s shareholders and commercial depositors, but cold comfort to the planet.

Let’s restrain detention without trial

If you are in the United Kingdom and are suspected of being involved in terrorism you can be arrested and detained by the police for up to twenty eight days without be charged with any criminal offence. The Government plans to increase this 28 day period to 42 days, citing the great threat and complexity of investigating terrorist crime, where the police may have to examine huge quantities of computer and mobile telephone records. The police need the time and have recommended that it be increased. The Government wants to protect us all, and believe that this is a way of doing that.  Continue reading

Dirty coal

Iowa is right in the middle of the mid west, of America, and is the home state of about three million Americans. You might not have heard of one of the most renowned Iowans but he was born in 1941 and has probably done more than any American to raise awareness about global warming. I write about James E Hansen, a climatologist and scientist. Continue reading