We Got Two (aircraft carriers) With Nothing to Do

The United Kingdom’s ability to waste public money seems to no know bounds. Several years ago Gordon Brown decided that the Clyde shipyards should build two air craft carriers just before he left office and as a result the government is spending (I should say wasting) £10 billion on building two aircraft carriers in Scotland which will never be in service by the United Kingdom because it cannot afford to put aircraft on them. The government that succeeded that of Mr Brown is too lacking in courage to cancel the building of the carriers (and presumably if it did cancel the job it would have to pay high penalty charges to the shipyards) and so the waste goes on. Continue reading

Getting Used to Things

You can get used to almost anything and you usually do. We can slowly descend into poverty step by step, and almost not notice except with a fondest that a review of times long past through rose coloured spectacles brings. We can get used to immense quick ill merited wealth so easily. Continue reading

Gordon Brown calls for global institutions to do his job

Gordon Brown has been arguing the case for reform at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He says we need greater globalisation and new global institutions to cope with global capital movement. He says that the present economic problems of credit stem from “under pricing of risk” which no one spotted due to lack of transparency. As usual he sees a big picture with distorted vision. The credit problems did not happen because of lack of transparency. I cannot believe that any bank bought bonds derived from junk mortgages without having the small print in front of them. It was nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with laziness and inadequate local regulation.   Continue reading

New nuclear power stations and Gordon Brown making tough decisions

There has been a lot of news in the past day. The race for presidential candidates in the United States has got very interesting, particularly with Mrs Clinton making a strong showing to win New Hampshire. In the United Kingdom there are new measures that will be introduced in an effort to halt or slow down the worrying amount of people infected in hospital where they go to get better.

Somehow, amidst all this news the announcement that the Cabinet had unanimously agreed to approve new nuclear power generators has gone relatively unnoticed, although in the longer term it is probably the most important piece of news this week. 

Gordon Brown claims that this decision is a “fundamental precondition of preparing Britain for the new world”, but has refused to answer questions about the detail of what will happen. It is nice to see Mr Brown is concerned about preparing Britain for the new world, but his rhetoric is empty. I have news for him; the “new world” that he seeks to prepare us for already exists. His party has been in office for ten years and have in that time neglected the issue of energy and in particularly neglected to secure any long term energy independence for us in a world where nations are competing for limited supplies of fuel. 

Apparently this decision will be announced not by the Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks but by the Business Minister, John Hutton tomorrow; odd, that, to announce the decision twice – once to the media and once to Parliament. They can save a lot of time by only announcing it once; I am sure that Parliament follows what is in the media and that the media follows what is said in Parliament. This double announcing seems a gross waste of energy. 

The decision to build new nuclear power stations is incompetent, dishonest and dangerous. It is incompetent because nuclear fuel is a finite resource which will probably last no more than seventy years, and possibly less as China and India build new nuclear power stations that will draw on the world’s supply of uranium. In these circumstances by the time the power stations are built we will have only secured some electricity for a limited period. Nuclear power will only secure electrical energy supplies, and although electricity can be used to create heat that is a very expensive way to use it. 

It is dishonest because the decision will be dressed up as an environmental decision, and all kinds of claims will be made that nuclear energy (when they mean nuclear electricity) does not emit carbon dioxide. The process itself does not; the nuclear fission provides heat which drives turbines which generate electricity but mining the uranium is a carbon intensive process, particularly in places like India where when they mine uranium and then process it the overall carbon foot print is as big as an oil burning power station. It is also dishonest because decommissioning will involve building huge underground concrete bunkers to store the waste fuel which in itself is a very carbon intensive programme. 

It is dangerous because the new generation of nuclear power stations will be over twice the size of existing power stations and will contain a great deal of dangerous material. It is also dangerous that we are going to build more nuclear power stations without having invented a process for disposing of the waste safely, other than by burying it for tens of thousands of years. 

This decision is being dressed up as the government making a tough long term decision. Balderdash. It is an easy option – the only tough part about the decision is the need to explain it to a sceptical public and trying to figure out how we can pretend that the decommissioning costs will actually be paid by the plant operating companies when in reality they will be paid by the public purse. 

A tough long term decision would be to require every home to have some form of microgeneration from a non carbon or a low carbon source, now. A tough long term decision would be to build a tidal power station in the Severn Estuary. A tough decision would be to require all new homes built to have solar water heating. A tough decision would be to tax the people that use the most energy by having progressive energy price bands. A tough decision would be to ban car engines above a certain size. Gordon Brown is not making any tough decisions about these and a host of other measures relating to energy. 

So when you hear the spin that the government will put on this decision ask them why they are making easy short decisions not tough long term ones. And also ask them why, if the nuclear power stations that they will be building will be so safe why they won’t site them next to the Houses of Parliament, so that they may deliver the electricity that they produce quickly to high population centres without suffering the low transmission losses, and use the surplus heat generated to provide people nearby with a district heating scheme.

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

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.

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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