I told you so

According to a new study published by Chatham House burning wood pellets is not carbon neutral and creates more emissions than burning coal. I told you so and have been telling you so on these pages for many years.
Governments do not listen. I told them so too, but they obviously thought they knew better. The UK government created a Renewable Heat Incentive based around burning wood pellets under which they subsidised the fuel and the subsidies, paid out of our taxes were very high indeed. In fact in Northern Ireland the RHI became a source of income as the subsidy was greater than the cost of the fuel.  Continue reading

Bio Madness

Some years ago I reported on a study by the University of Berkeley which found that ethanol from corn created more environmental damage in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than excavating for oil. The study was largely ignored as the power of the vested interests lobbied for ethanol from corn and matters have reached a stage where more than half of American corn is grown for biofuel production, damaging the environment and sending the prices of the staple higher than they should be. Continue reading

A Bear of Very Little Brain

I wonder why in the United Kingdom the intellectual capacity of ministers and civil servants who deal with energy issues is so low. I know that I am being unusually rude, but energy and the environment are too important issues to have bears of very little brain in charge of policy.

Avid readers of these essays will know that I have always been opposed to wood burning power stations and will know the reason is that they cause terrible environmental damage. Continue reading

The RHI Consultation – General Principles

I have participated in a number of government consultations over the past ten years. Usually the government have predetermined policy in detail and then issue a consultation document as a matter of form, rather than substance. The key decisions are usually pre-determined. However, the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s consultation on the Renewable Heat Incentive for Domestic property is refreshing in that this does appear to genuinely seek views and I think that the views given may well be able to influence policy for the RHI. I therefore spent a considerable amount of time directing my mind to the consultation questions and my answers, and I set out my complete position here, so that if anyone is thinking of helping mould this important part of environmental policy they can have my views and perhaps support my views. Continue reading

Certification of biofuels and biomass

I have written a number of times about the problems with biofuels and biomass. Most governments seem to accept that these are “renewable” fuels and because of that associate them with low carbon fuels. They fail to understand that not all the carbon dioxide is taken up with new growth and in some cases, like ethanol made from corn, the net carbon dioxide emissions are higher than those created by burning oil. For that reason I have classified biofuels and biomass as “dirty” renewables.

The message is beginning to sink in. The European Union is now encouraging (but not mandating) member states to set up certification programs for biofuels, including wood and wood chip. I do not know yet how the certification system would work – no one does – but we can only hope that the standards would be stringent and genuinely address the problems that certain biofuels create, by banning them, or at least withdrawing all energy subsidies for them. Continue reading

Dangers in biomass burning

I started these posts in October 2007 and this is the 536th post. Many of these posts have been about the need to stop burning biomass. I have found some who have shared my views and also others whose blind faith in the benefits of biomass closed their eyes to the fact that burning biomass creates emissions which are significant and unnecessary.

Now it seems that the Environment Agency is coming round to my way of thinking. In theory biomass is supposed to be carbon neutral because new growth sequesters the carbon emitted and left to its own devices the dead biomass would rot, emitting carbon as it does so. There are, however, several “buts” to this simplistic and almost universally adopted view of biomass:-

1.       The well known “but” is the carbon cost of transporting biomass. There are plans to build a biomass power station in Port Talbot, and we can confidently expect that the biomass will be imported from Russia and Canada. There are many London Local Authorities whose view of complying with their own sustainability and low carbon rules is to permit biomass boilers (with a back up from natural gas boilers) ignoring the problems and carbon cost of delivering constant volumes of low mass bulky biomass pellets to be burnt in the middle of the United Kingdom’s largest city.

2.       If you leave wood to decay only a proportion of the carbon dioxide is emitted into the air; some of it is sequestrated in the soil; burning it prevents soil sequestration and commits all the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it does the most harm.

3.       People burning biomass have no control over the people who farm and crop the biomass. To overcome the transport emissions and lack of soil sequestration that burning creates, it is certainly necessary to plant enough biomass to cover these losses, not just to replace the biomass. Merely planting enough biomass to recreate what you have burnt ignores the losses.

4.       Burning biomass harms air quality; this is a health issue. We may, if we are not careful, lose all the benefits of the Smoke Control Legislation enacted in the 1950s.

The Environment Agency has now realised that burning biomass can be more polluting than burning fossil fuel. Their studies show that while burning waste wood and MDF produce the lowest emissions burning willow, poplar, and rape seed oil creates the highest emissions. They have also studied the effect of farming grasslands to produce biomass crops – something that I reported over a year ago. Like me, they have found that the carbon dioxide spikes created when ploughing virgin land outweigh the benefits that the crop grown for burning brings.

The Environment Agency has suggested that we need to report biomass burning emissions; this is a very important suggestion, and one that we should act upon immediately.

We must stop looking on biomass burning as a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of energy. It has a role to play, but like fossil fuels, biomass burning must be carefully regulated and controlled. It should be used as a last resort, rather than as an alternative to the genuinely renewable and relatively harmless technologies of solar and wind.

Its most important role will probably be in combined heat and power operations of a certain scale. Provided these are close to the source of the fuel, carefully regulated and properly maintained and their emissions counted biomass has a future in the mixed energy requirements of the future. If we rush into large scale biomass burning we shall find that we have simply replaced one source of emissions with another.


A very short guide to home renewable energy


Are you thinking of installing some kind of renewable energy for your home? If so, I offer this guide. 

These are the main ways of generating energy from renewable sources. All of them have their pluses and minuses. None of these forms of energy supply 100% of the energy that you need at all times, and they do need back up. All forms suffer from some kind of intermittency. That should not stop you considering one of these which will give you clean energy some of the time. Continue reading

Unintended environmental consequences

The law of unintended consequences provides that if you fix one thing you sometimes in fixing it break something else that wasn’t broken. Sometimes it works the other way around – you do something wrong – like Alexander Fleming keeping a dirty laboratory and you end up with penicillin.  Nowhere is this law more inevitably applied but studiously ignored than in environmental matters.

Not everything we do to mitigate climate change has a good effect, not everything that is supposed to be harmful is without a good by product. Take flying – virtually everyone takes flying as a harmful source of carbon emissions high in the atmosphere where they do the most damage. Correct. However flying creates vapour trails which diffuse light, cooling the effect of global warming and probably shielding us from the worse global warming scenarios, for a bit anyway.  Continue reading

Coal power stations in Kent – two steps back

Well, it is one step forward and two steps back. Medway Council have, despite over 9000 written objections, voted approval for Eon UK, one of Europe’s largest energy utility companies, to build two coal fired stations at Kingsnorth, which is near Rochester in Kent. They do not have the power to fully approve the application, but was asked by the Government on their views.  

Medway have reacted like Port Talbot Council, who recently approved a biomass power station. They have bought the environmental pitch (no doubt supported by the applicant’s consultants), and accordingly made their decision on grounds that do not include environmental ones. 

I think that all Councils are out of their depth with these decisions, as the Government seems to be. There is no policy – large multi national utilities with the ear of the government do what is in their shareholder’s interests, not what is in the public interest and the Government, ignorant and bothered by issues they regard more pressing, accept the advice given by the beneficiary of the advice. 

It is astonishing that the Government would even contemplate permitting the building of a coal fired power station without there existing coal carbon capture technology. It does not yet exist, of course.  Eon “hopes” that the carbon will be captured from the plant and stored in the oilfields under the North Sea. Greenpeace thinks that the technology to do this will not be around until the second half of this century. 

The idea for a coal power station must be virtually already accepted by the Government if they have asked the local Council for their views; Medway Planning Committee are not experts (as far as I know) on the technical side of coal fired power stations, so they are presumably being consulted on the planning issues. The final decision on the building of these plants will be made by the Government. 

For matters to have got to this stage I would suspect that Eon has convinced the government that the coal fired station is desirable. I remember hearing Malcolm Wicks (then and now) Energy Minister speak about two years ago. He asked that there be some carbon capture demonstration project (presumably he was then unaware on what happens with Norway’s oil).

I guess that Eon has sold this project to the government on the basis of its carbon capture potential.  Unfortunately, you do not need a coal fired power station to demonstrate carbon capture from coal. You have to invent the techniques first and then apply it; you do not need to apply it to a new plant – adapt an old one. If the techniques work, they should be tested on what exists, not on a new specially polluting plant that you have created so see it it works. 

The reason for eschewing coal powered electricity generating stations is that a coal fired power station usually emits three times the carbon per unit of electricity generated compared with gas and around twice the carbon compared with oil.

This plant may be a lot cleaner than the plants that they will replace (and that won’t take much).  Eon expect a 20% reduction in carbon emissions from this coal burning plant, compared with the old coal burning plant that it will replace, but they would produce far less carbon if they burnt natural gas.

Eon has opted for a coal fired power station, the first to be built in the United Kingdom for 24 years, because they presumably find it in their interests. They have done their sums and figured out the future of oil, natural gas and coal and want to cover the risk of gas and oil becoming prohibitively expensive, and so opt for coal. 

James Hansen wrote to Gordon Brown before Christmas urging him to block this proposal. When a man of Hansen’s qualifications and stature makes a suggestion on an issue like this, it is foolish to ignore him. 

I am sure that we need to plan our energy policy more carefully than we do. Energy is treated as an afterthought by the government – Malcolm Wicks’ job is not considered important enough to warrant a place in the Cabinet. We do not have an energy policy – the various white papers are a mix of pious hopes, politically correct statements and unformed ideas. Only by centrally planning our future energy, and making renewables and particularly microgeneration (solar panels, PV and wind turbines) central to it, will we ever have a chance of bring down our massive carbon emissions.

Biomass in Lambeth – It ain’t necessarily green

I was at a short meeting organised by a leading firm of estate agents last week. I discussed the issue of renewables with some of the professionals concerned in developing new blocks of flats throughout the south east of England. I asked them what their developer clients were doing about renewables. Continue reading