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

The Environmental Law Foundation

If you have an environment problem and are struggling with it you may need some legal advice. Both communities and individuals can get some advice for free through the Environmental Law Foundation. Continue reading

Carbon emissions will grow with the world

Climate change cannot be curbed by cutting emissions in developed countries without at the same time cutting emissions in the developing world. Indeed, over the next ten years I expect the developed countries to cut emissions on a per capita basis as more countries require the take up of carbon free microgeneration and as appliances and vehicles and transport become more efficient and as waste in energy is reduced.  

The largest single reason for developed countries cutting emission will be the increasing cost of fuel, rather than any real action to reduce climate change. Already the scientists are talking about keeping temperature rises low, rather than stable.  The developing countries have more people than the developed countries and all of those people will aspire to the comfort and luxury enjoyed by people who live in the developed world.

As a result even with some degree of carbon prudence the developing countries, particularly China, India and Brazil will produce emissions over the next ten years that will vastly out weigh the emissions reductions that might happen, even with the strictest of politically possible targets imposed by the United States, Australia and the European Union.  

The developing countries say that emission targets should not apply to them until they have had a chance to chance up with the developed world. That is the essence of the problem to which no one can yet offer a solution.  We should nevertheless still work to reduce the emissions of the developed nations, because every emission saved will give us more time to work out a solution. In the short term it will be the only hope for the undevloped world.

Climate Change Conference -Statements of the obvious at Bali

It seems that the delegates at Bali’s Climate Change Conference have agreed that they will not set firm emission targets at this stage but will negotiate them over a two year period and that the new targets agreed in 2009 will replace those set down in Kyoto.

The developing countries, in particular China, thought that their own economic development would be slowed down if they agreed to reduce emissions, so they did not want to use language that was too indicative of what must be done. When the delegates finally reached their “deal” or “roadmap” it was reported that there were hugs and tears. Before then there were boos for the United States. T

he leadership of our own Hilary Benn, Environment Minister, on climate change with his marvellous Climate Change Bill was simply ignored. In any event the United Nations had already earlier called it a blueprint for the way for developed nations to increase their carbon emissions, so this is not surprising. 

I have not yet been able to read the actual text of what was agreed but reports are that the text indicates that the world will (1) acknowledges the need to have emission cuts, (2) help developing countries with transferring “clean technology”, (3) reward countries that stop deforestation and (4) help the very poor countries that will be worse affected by climate change. I have never been convinced that targets for emission reductions are the best way to reduce emissions; I think that you need policies, not targets – things like mandatory use of renewable energy, taxing heavily polluting things and banning some really heavy pollutants.  

Today these ideas are too radical to be adopted because although we are in reality fighting a war against climate change, it is a war where the enemy is not “in your face” and the effects that we feel are remote and can still be dealt with on a superficial level.  The general agreement on the need for emission cuts is hailed as an achievement. I cannot see why; the need for emission cuts is obvious, even to a blind man in the Blackwall Tunnel in a pea souper fog.   

The need to transfer “clean technology” to developing countries is also obvious; the trouble is that there is not a lot of clean technology around and the existing clean technology is barely used by governments of the developed world. Less than 2% of the United Kingdom’s energy comes from clean technology, and most of that figure is made up from electricity generated by hydro schemes in Scotland, which are not entirely clean in their initial creation. Other countries may do a lot better than us but in relation to their overall dirty energy use but the proportion of clean energy used is still tiny, even in places like Germany. So in this respect the agreement is virtually worthless. 

The most important thing that might come out of Bali is the preservation of forests and the re-establishment of them These carbon sinks are the best way we have of storing carbon and a massive forest protection and planting program will help keep the carbon dioxide levels rising more slowly than otherwise. 

As far as the part of the text that says that we will help the very poorest countries cope with the floods famine, and destruction that climate change will wreak on them by giving them aid – well, I would have thought we would have done that anyway, without having to travel to Bali to say so. 

Gordon Brown’s solar panels and David Cameron’s turbine

Hilary Benn has been quiet this week because he has been very busy saving us all from global warming in Bali, although I do not think he has any takers for his Climate Change Bill, except of course the lemmings who always vote for their party, right or wrong, at Westminster.    

It looks like Bali will end up with non- binding targets as a compromise. Binding targets are not being adhered to in any event so I don’t see that non binding targets will make any difference. Compromises are all very fine in some fields but unfortunately the laws of physics do not compromise.  

Meanwhile our leader, Gordon Brown, has solar thermal panels up on his house in Fife while David Cameron has a small wind turbine on his house in London. Some people have been trying to assess which is the greenest in the press.

It has been reported that Cameron’s wind turbine has a pay back of 60 years and Brown’s has a pay back of 100 years.  Both figures are complete nonsense and seemed to be based on a simpleton’s view of physics and a pre-school child’s view of economics.

Savings have to depend on the energy use by the household where the renewable technology is installed. Actual payback has to take account of all the financial benefits; these long wrong payback figures are based on energy prices several years ago and assume that energy prices will remain constant forever. 

If payback is important (and why do journalists imply that renewable energy installations should have payback when fossil fuel installations have none?) you have to do the figures properly. If you believe that no fossil fuel prices will increase during the next 100 years, you cannot be living in this world. 

Of course, it should be apparent even to the most ignorant that payback is nothing to do with being green. Payback is an economic concept under which you can calculate how long it takes to get your money back on an investment from savings that the investment generates. 

I will deal with Mr Cameron’s wind turbine first. It is located in a city, where there is doubtless a great deal of wind shelter and it is small; the smaller the turbine the less efficient it is. It probably produces around 20% of its rating but calculating wind energy savings is a complex and difficult task; I would expect Mr Cameron to get a payback in less than 25 years although I am not sure. 

Of course Mr Cameron will never get his money back from the utility company that will continue to supply most of his electricity, despite his wind turbine, so offering a payback is a bonus to be green, not the rationale for being green.  The real payback for Mr Cameron and for the planet will be the carbon dioxide reduction, which will last as long as the turbine lasts – probably around 15 years. 

Mr Brown seems to be unfairly dealt with; I have not visited his home but from the photographs that appeared in the newspapers some time ago I gather that he had solar thermal panels installed; the 100 year payback was probably calculated on the basis of the much more expensive photovoltaic electricity producing panels, and even then 100 years is a gross exaggeration. 

A typical householder installing a solar thermal system will usually get his or her money back in eight to twelve years, when you take into account future fuel costs, lower boiler servicing, and longer boiler life and allow for inflation and loss of use of capital. Much depends on which fossil fuel is being displaced. 

Much longer payback figures apply if you are unfortunate enough to be sold a system by a “cowboy” operator that charges double or treble the normal price, but there are very few of them around these days and Mr Brown does not seem to be the kind of chap to buy from one of these companies. 

His personal payback will be lower than that of a typical family because he rarely lives in his house in Fife, for obvious reasons. The solar system will be generating free energy that no one will use. Again the real savings will be the carbon savings – at least half a tonne a year of carbon dioxide if the system displaces gas, nearly a tonne if it displaces oil and one and a quarter tonnes if it displaces electricity. The savings will last (if Mr Brown has high quality panels) for somewhere between 20 and 40 years.

Everyone who reads my writings knows that I am not reluctant to criticise politicians, to designate them and scoundrels, rogues and incompetents when it comes to their shabby governance of the environment; but when they do something right then it is equally important to point it out in the hope that they will do the right thing more often. 

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