Sunday, January 29, 2012

Global Warming is No Threat?

In a letter to The Wall Street Journal (opinions),, a group of 16 eminent scientists, including former professors and chiefs of world leading atmospheric research institutes, has stated boldly that Global warming is no cause for panic, since the mean temperature of the Earth has not changed for more than a decade.

In 1896 the Swedish professor and founder of modern physical chemistry, Svante Arrhenius, completed a complex number-crunching exercise, according to which if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere were reduced by a half, the temperature in Europe might decline by 4-5°C, in correspondence with an ice age. As an explanation for the conundrum of the ice ages, this notion could only hold water if a mechanism for such large changes in atmospheric composition might be found in the real world. A colleague of Arrenhius, Arvid Högbom, had investigated the cycling of carbon dioxide in nature, through geochemical processes, including emissions from volcanoes and uptake by the oceans, but in his reckoning he also included the emissions of CO2 from factories and other industrial processes, such as cement manufacture. Stacking up the numbers, he realised that human activities were adding CO2 to the atmosphere in a quantity and rate equivalent to all natural processes of absorption or emission of the gas. As it was put, a decade later, we were "'evaporating' our coal mines into the air'.

This succinctly expresses my understanding of the situation: that human (anthropogenic) emissions of CO2 are causing the global temperature to rise, and the consequences of this are likely to be catastrophic. There are complexities, however, and for example, some parts of the world appear to be warming and others cooling. Some regions are getting wetter and others drier. Substantial parts of the Antarctic (peninsular and western sheet) are melting, as has been the case for 7,000 years, but other parts in the East are actually getting thicker. I would suggest that these phenomena may be explained in part by changes in the way the heat energy from the sun is being redistributed around the globe. Undoubtedly, there are complex and holistic phenomena at work.

In some parts of the world sea-level is rising in others it seems to be falling. This could be partly due to faulty measurements. There was a play "The Heretic", which challenged the politics of climate change, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and which I wrote about on Forbes:

Within the plot of the play at least, in one case, the land appeared to be falling rather than the sea-level rising, and in another, both land and sea were rising together, thus disguising the reality of sea-level rise, but within the plot, a university department would lose a lucrative grant if they told the truth.

I have no doubt that an elevated level of CO2 should increase the temperature of a solid massive object such as the Earth, with an atmospheric mix of gases including CO2, in accord with some calculations I have made made in collaboration with a German Engineer, Alexander Koewius:

However, the Earth system is complex, and for example, rather than the planet "frying", another scenario is that the melting of ice in the Arctic will switch-off the Atlantic Conveyor (of which the Gulf Stream is a part) so that Northern Europe experiences an effective ice-age.

Irrespective of the reality of anthropogenic global warming is the far more immediately pressing issue of a imminently failing supply of cheap liquid fuels for transportation. If it is true that we may expect a decline in the availability of cheap crude oil, and hence diesel and petrol fuels, upon which essentially all world transportation, manufacture and the production and transportation of food, and thus global growth depend, the news on the CO2 emission front must be good. If we have less cheap oil and fuel to burn, our carbon emissions will necessarily fall. This however is the least of our worries. If we can't find alternative fuels or the means to live at a lower energy consuming lifestyle then our civilization is condemned. We will have no choice but to curb our carbon emissions, and to do so by design rather than by default is the most pressing issue for humanity.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

“Clean Tech Clean Profits."

The twin spectres of peak oil and climate change loom large, urging humanity toward a low-carbon future. Burning oil at the rate of 30 billion barrels a year contributes around 12 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, or roughly 40% of the total quantity blamed upon humans for their extravagant use of fossil-fuel. Once world oil production peaks, the provision of cheap crude-oil on which the whole of modern civilization is based, will begin to shelve. Fuel-supplies will become increasingly expensive and unreliable and a state of instability will derail the world economy.

Since the other fossil fuels, gas and coal are also expected to peak within a few decades, it would appear a simple and dually beneficial strategy to stop burning all of them at the present excessive rate, and move to a low-carbon economy, thus reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and slowing climate change, while prolonging vital energy supplies while alternative “green” energy sources might be found and implemented. It is important to stress that not only does crude-oil fuel almost all of the world’s transportation, but is also the raw feedstock for virtually all chemical manufacturing, providing products ranging from plastics to pharmaceuticals. It is an instructive challenge to look around a room and find something whose production did not involve crude oil at some stage as a raw chemical feedstock.

Even the production of food, now undertaken mostly in modern industrialized farms, relies almost entirely on crude oil to fuel tractors and combine-harvesters, and natural gas as a source of artificial fertilizers to bring forth life from soil that would otherwise be barren, having lost much of its organic element. Finding a material with the same ease of handling, energy density and chemical processing power as petroleum, is an impossible task, and our clear and inexorable dependence on carbon overall to power the world is so innate to our identity and actions, that delivering a low-carbon future might appear an insurmountable obstacle. Nonetheless, either by design or default, we will end up using less carbon, as there will simply be less available fossil fuels. If we continue along the business-as-usual route, the default outcome will be anarchy and chaos. Hence we must design and plan.

There are possibilities for decomposing the global to the local, thus providing energy, food and economic and social currency at the level of small communities. Thus, not only would local farms become key agents of change and sustainability, but farming methods per se, moving away from high input methods that rely heavily on oil, gas and freshwater, toward regenerative agriculture and permaculture which follow more natural patterns and use less in the way of resources to yield their bounty. Perhaps sustainable business practices will encourage the next leg on the journey to this brave new low-carbon world."

“Clean Tech Clean Profits: Using Effective Innovation and Sustainable Business Practices to Win in the New Low-carbon Economy,” By Adam Jolly. ISBN-10: 0749461179 ISBN-13: 978-0749461171

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Death of Grass.

"The Death of Grass" is a novel written by Sam Youd in 1956 under the pseudonym of John Christopher. It is an apocalyptic tale in which a new virus (Chung-Li) wipes-out all forms of grass including rice, leading to mass starvation in China along with complete social disintegration and all manner of atrocities, which the West blame on a lack of "civilization" among the Asiatics, smug in the belief that "it couldn't happen here. We're English, after all!"

The virus mutates and infects the staple crops of West Asia and Europe such as wheat, barley, oats and rye, while Australasia and the Americas attempt to impose rigorous quarantine to keep the virus out.In order to reduce the British population (then around 54 million) to a level that might survive, the government determines to drop atom-bombs on smaller cities and hydrogen-bombs on the larger ones, like London, Birmingham and Liverpool, having first been barricaded and road-blocked to hold the populace in place so they can be annihilated.

Architect John Custance and his friend, civil servant Roger Buckley, manage to escape London and make their way, along with their families and a loyal gunman and his wife, across an England which is rapidly descending into anarchy and mayhem, hoping to reach the safety of John's brother David's potato farm in an isolated Westmoreland valley in Yorkshire, which he has offered them as a safe-haven in his prescience that society would disintegrate into barbarism as food supplies fell-short. They find themselves in a lawless land and routinely kill for food and self-protection. John's wife, Anne, is a middle class lady who believes that ultimately the civilized nature of humans will prevail, but later both she and young daughter are raped, and she executes one of the perpetrators in cold-blood with a rifle-bullet to the head. She becomes psychologically changed and falls into a depression, and John concludes that more than the horror of the violence done to her and particularly to her teenage daughter, the cause is the awareness that she has lost the bedrock of her own identity.

By the time they reach the valley, they have accumulated a group of 34 men, women and children, and John is effectively a tribal chieftain. John's brother David is unable to allow them all refuge in the heavily defended valley, in which he already has his own entourage, on the grounds there is not enough land to feed so many people. John and his band take the valley by force and in a Cain and Abel type twist, John kills his own brother, since his loyalty to his tribe as their leader is stronger than the familial ties to David. The further cut of irony is that, as boys, their Grandfather promised the land to David realising this was where his heart was and to be a farmer, while John was more inclined to be a city-boy and intent on becoming an engineer. The fragile veneer of civilisation torn from them, it is John who ends-up as master of the estate, having usurped David, the cities now fallen, along with the civilised and symbiotic role of the hinterlands that fed them.

The plummet from an ordered and well-provided-for 1950s to feral existence occurs over a very short time period - not more than a couple of years. Science proves unable to conquer the virus despite an almost religious faith that ultimately human technology would triumph over nature and bring salvation. By knocking-out some viral strains, stronger versions evolved. The only animals that were kept were pigs which can be fed on potatoes, while cattle had to be slaughtered since they need grass to sustain them, supplies of which were dying under the march of the virus. Blame for the emergence of Chung-Li is blamed on the effect on the soil of years over overproduction, the rise of monoculture farming and the excessive use of pesticides to maximise crop yields after the privations of WWII.

It is a coincidence that the publication date of 1956 is the same year that M. King Hubbert first gave his prediction of peak oil, and there is the line, "We found out how to use coal and oil, and when they showed the first signs of running out we got ready to hop on the nuclear energy wagon." Only partly true, as a principal reason for developing "atomic power" was to produce plutonium for atom bombs and nuclear warheads. It has been suggested this is partly why a nuclear fuel cycle based on uranium has been pursued to the exclusion of an alternative fuel cycle based on the far more abundant thorium.

This dialogue is salient too:

"Even if you look at it from the worst point of view," John said, "we probably could all live on fish and vegetables. It wouldn't be the end of the world."

"Could we?" Roger asked. "All of us? Not on our present amount of food intake."

"One picks up some useful information from having a farmer in the family," John said. "An acre of land yields between one and two hundredweight of meat, or thirty hundredweight of bread. But it will yield ten tons of potatoes."

Roger said, "This is a country of fifty million people that imports nearly half its food requirements."

"We might have to tighten our belts."

"A tight belt," said Roger, "looks silly on a skeleton."

"I've told you," John said, "- if you plant potatoes instead of grain crops you get a bulk yield that's more than six times heavier."

Perhaps in past presents, we glimpse our future.

Related Reading.

"The Death of Grass," by John Christopher.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Green and Pleasant Land.

I spent a thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking evening on Wednesday, with members of the fanSHEN theatre company ( who are making a play entitled "Green and Pleasant Land". As they describe it: "this is the story of a search for a happier, more environmentally sustainable future. Audience members will pedal bicycle-powered generators to play pre-recorded sound, all set and props will be recycled and it will tour entirely by bike and train. Subject to confirmation, it will be on as part of Water Fest in Reading this June. This is interactive, physical theatre, aimed toward audiences aged 11 and upwards."

When they approached me to ask for a meeting they said: "We're making the piece in a series of residencies in different parts of England and we really want to meet local people and find out about your vision of a more sustainable future. How do you perceive the present situation, how do you see things changing and how does living in Reading affect your relationship with sustainability?"

It is very difficult to provide a snappy response to "what is sustainability?" because it is not a single question and to try and answer it exposes different layers of cloth. One of the key points that I suppose I had known, but not previously found myself espousing explicitly, is that devising an energy descent plan, which is the vital and underpinning action in the transition to a post peak-oil world, necessarily means "ruining the economy" in the global sense that growth, far from being subsumed in our thoughts and plans as limitless, must run in reverse and recession is inevitable.

Now, having said this, my own instinct is panic! However, if we can't access plentiful cheap oil, the effect will be to put a huge and relentless brake on transport at all local, regional, national and global scales. Put simply, if the price of fuel becomes £5/litre, the majority will no longer be able to put petrol in their car, and will necessarily look for work closer to home. The moment of economic necessity will be the critical fulcrum point when people change their behaviour. Moreover, jobs that people currently commute to may suddenly cease to exist.There will be a massive draw-down on the kind of industrialised farming that uses diesel fuels to run tractors, combine harvesters etc. and synthetic nitrogen fertilisers derived from natural gas, pesticides that are made from crude oil, and mined rock phosphate. There is the broader issue of commodities, all of which depend on oil either as a manufacturing raw carbon source or to provide energy at some stage in one of their processes of fabrication.

Having admitted and identified the source of my fear, I have to confess that, rather like the way the different spices come through one after the other in a good curry, I also feel a definite sense of excitement. I suppose the unknown is always rather like this, a mixture of fear and an underlying tingle in the senses that one is also being presented with a blank sheet, and that there are new prospects to be had. So, rather than an inexorable decline into doom, as the resources for global growth fall insufficient to maintain it, I begin to glimpse the prospects of a new growth at the local and community level. Clearly we cannot switch overnight to an energy-free world, but a realistic energy descent that uses less oil by say 5%/year is an identifiable and direct first step to address the most pressing issue that confronts us. If choice is not persuadable then economics will be the driver of change in this direction, in the fist of rising fuel prices as noted earlier.

The skills of the "old" should be recorded while they can still teach them to us. There will be plenty to do in the future, much of it manual and local, and these new occupations will come to replace the employment that currently is provided by global growth and actions, but which are not sustainable. In this transition there will almost certainly be tremendous hardship and the world population of humans will very likely decline. Whether the brave new world that is indicated will be better than the one we have now, filled with more fulfilled and happier people, is debatable since the nature of humans will likely remain what it has ever been. That said, it is the only world there will be. We should not fear our current economic plight nor be fooled that things will spring back up again to where they were in the good times. They won't, and our only salvation is to grow at the local level.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Real Algal Fuel Production: 2011 Highlights.

Though there is much fanfare of the promise of algal biofuels and word of their commercial development, it seems timely to view what precisely has been achieved in terms of significant algal biofuel production and actual deployment. The vast majority of algal production and processing has been done merely in research laboratories, and has been ongoing for about 50 years, though clearly fundamental knowledge so garnered must underpin technical innovation. Scale-up can be considered as more of an engineering feat, mindful that handling and processing algae on the very large scale will turn-up particular and unheld challenges.

I have suggested previously that if Transition Towns arise, or some form of small communities that we must devolve to, algae could serve well grown on a scale to meet the needs of that community. I likened this kind of production to a "village pond", and indeed green algae are sometimes disparagingly referred to as "pond scum". However, there are efforts afoot to try and meet some of the needs for shipping and aviation, to break (particularly U.S.) dependency on imported crude oil and its products.

Thus, pride of place goes to the U.S. Navy, which has fuelled a destroyer ship using 20,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel for a 20-hour trip, and is its largest alternative fuel experiment to date. Thus a decommissioned destroyer made a successful journey from San Diego to Port Hueneme, in California. In terms of air-transport, United/Continental Airlines have made a second successful test flight powered by algal fuel, flying from Houston to Chicago. In 2011, over 100,000 gallons of algae-based biofuel was purchased to fuel the Navy's "Great Green Fleet" in addition to a number of separate tests of algae-derived fuels on various aircraft and boats. It is thought that by the end of 2012, the fleet will be fully operational, making the Navy an algal biofuel leader.

Privately funded efforts have been made to inaugurate commercial-scale algae farms on open-land, inside commercial buildings and in shipping containers, all of which has aided the National Algae Association to enhance its base of knowledge, research, collaboration and deployment opportunities. Clearly, there is a pivotal role for collaboration between universities, colleges, community colleges and the algae production companies to provide algal fuel on a significant scale.

Economically this year is unlikely to be any better than 2011, and so issues of expense, practical difficulty and that far more research is necessary before any serious production can be accomplished might act to militate against a significant development of algal biofuel. In view of the likely imminent arrival time of the supply-demand gap for conventional crude oil, it would make sense to spend more money on grand-scale algae production than on basic research alone.

Related Reading.

Home of the Algaepreneur
Year in Review
Algae: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Reality? December 30, 2011

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Transition Town Reading and London Commuting.

The town of Reading lies some 40 miles to the west of London. Each day around 70,000 people commute from Reading into London, from a population of around 230,000, and surprisingly, almost exactly that same number commute from London into Reading. I say surprisingly because although the link between Reading and London is such that it is often referred to as a commuter town, it is generally thought that the jobs are all in the Capital, but this is no longer so. For one thing, some businesses have found it cheaper to set-up in Reading and have moved from London, and also there are new high-tech industries e.g. "silicon valley" that have brought wealth to the town, bypassing London to take-root independently in the computer sector.

From a Transition Town perspective, it seems absurd that such a large and equal number of commuters should effectively change places on a daily basis. In part this represents a disparity in the skills-base of the mobile workforces and those working in Reading tend to be of the more technically trained, while many who commute into London are office-workers. Thus, it might be concluded that Reading is not the ideal to become a Transition Town, but surely this situation is both unsustainable and temporary.

No one should underestimate the challenges that will confront us as we backcast from Transition Utopia - or as near to it as we can get - many of which are only now becoming apparent. Progress is somewhat slow, but time is not a resource we have in abundance, since the shortage of cheap oil will begin to urge itself upon our daily actions within the next five years. Thus, the daily commute will become inexorably expensive and indeed as the price of oil rises it is debatable whether those jobs in either London or Reading will still exist and certainly many of them are unlikely to survive the next couple of decades until 2030, by when local authorities and nations are planning to have active low-carbon or ideally zero-carbon initiatives in place as an integrated whole.

Transportation is a key issue but perhaps it is a close second to food production, which is intricately and inextricably enmeshed with the use and cost of crude oil, much of which we now import into the UK. All identifiable arrows point increasingly in the same direction, that of localisation, which curbs our dependence on oil by reducing the need for extensive and cheap transport, and from which is beginning to emerge the green shoots of the new brand of growth - not at the global level, but that which must rise at the level of localised communities. Community partnerships with local companies and local authorities will be a practical driver in this ultimate direction.

For now, the companies that are staffed by the daily force of commuters are generating useful income, and it would make sense to divert some of this bounty toward establishing local resilience, not as some form of charity but within business models that generate profit by building local and regional strength. By 2030, Reading will no longer be a commuter town nor a commuter importer, but there will be plenty of work closer to home in establishing a brave new deglobalised world. How exactly we accomplish this is an open and unfolding question, and while I doubt it will be easy it must be done, for by then there will be no other choice.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shaky Foundations for Offshore Wind Farms

Britain is the pioneer in offshore wind energy, with more turbines placed out at sea than by any other nation. However, constructing such offshore wind farms is far tougher and more expensive than land based wind energy. In the dockyards at Belfast in Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was built, are blades longer than the entire wingspan of a Jumbo jet at 61.5 metres and weighing 22 tonnes. The blades are made of fibreglass and become thicker toward their point of attachment where they are fixed by 128 massive bolts in a ring to the rotor hub of the machine. Once the three blades are fitted, an extraordinarily delicate crane operation ensues with cutting-edge technology to raise the turbine and ferry it onto the barge which takes it out to sea. But how reliable is the technology? The turbines are intended to run for 20 years but in some cases they have had to be pulled-in after only 8 years. It remains to be seen whether this is a particular feature of the North Sea conditions or a more general aspect and if the latter, it must seriously jeopardise the future of offshore wind energy.

One wind farm subsided on its foundations which have to be sunk 14 metres into the ocean floor. Transportation costs are high both for taking the turbine out to sea in the first place and for subsequent maintenance operations. Curbing carbon emissions using wind-power is an expensive option and one such farm in the Irish Sea is costed at £500 million ($774 million). The sea-jack is raised on four legs, looking rather like an oil platform and the tower is assembled. The lower section is first attached and the giant tube is rotated into section and finally guided by hand into place, being monitored from the deck by remote control.

Next the nacelle is raised into place which contains the gearbox, the generator and control systems that will be located at the top of the turbine tower. The final stage of the work is lifting the giant set of blades up to the top of the tower. Again guided by hand to prevent damage to the tip of a blade, the hub is finally put into place, and fixed there. The barge then returns to Belfast for another load of components. Each turbine has a rated capacity of 5 MW and it is claimed that 200 of them are needed to match the output of a conventional power station. However, the capacity factor (efficiency) is probably only 20 -30%, and so a mean output from 200 turbines will be nearer 300 MW, far short of the 1,000 MW power output of a typical fossil-fuel fired or nuclear power station.

It is claimed that the wind-farm in the Irish Sea will supply enough electricity for 100,000 homes when the wind spins all of its 30 turbines. Of course, this is not a consistent situation, due to the variable nature of wind-force. The UK plans to get one quarter of its electricity from offshore wind by 2020. However, to place this in perspective, at around 11 GW of generating power, at least 7,000 turbines will need to be installed (ignoring for a moment the inconsistency of supply) and it being the start of 2012, this must be done at a rate of 2-3 per day which is an acutely challenging undertaking. Germany, Denmark and Holland also have serious plans for wind farms at sea.

At present there is no real indication for a global offshore wind farm effort. While good locations exist across the globe where wind-farms might be placed offshore, prevailing weather conditions must also be taken into consideration. In Asia, storms and typhoons can cause severe damage and there is the issue of cost. In Europe, such projects are supported by generous subsidies. In principle, wind farms produce electricity without generating greenhouse gases and the level of imported energy is reduced. Oil and gas prices are expected to increase over next decade which makes a case to pursue home-grown electricity. However, is this a halcyon vision of green energy in a zero-carbon world or a gamble with uncertain technology in an already overstretched economy?

Indeed, there are plans for wind farms on a scale far greater than anything existing now, and it has been mooted that these along with solar energy might best feed into a European super-grid, including the import of electricity from North Africa into Southern Europe. In the UK, my fear is we are placing all our energy eggs in one basket and should the technology not prove as robust as has been thought, or be far more lengthy and expensive to implement, we will be in serious trouble both economically and in meeting our green energy targets as promised to the European Commission.