Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Reading Means Business on Climate Change."

I did put some thoughts together prompted in part by a chat I had with Tony Pettit, a consultant for Reading Council, and whom I met at the above entitled event on January 12th (2012) at Reading University, "Transition Town Reading and London Commuting",, in reference to the daily commute. In part the article is a simplification of the truth but it does stress the point that similar numbers of workers commute both from the town of Reading to jobs in other locations (mostly London) and into Reading from its environs (again that is mostly London).

As a follow-up, I have been asked by the Transition Town Reading group, to write something about the meeting per se, and as the title might suggest, its intention was to aim toward Reading becoming a low-carbon town (if not zero) by actions involving local businesses, the local authority, and other major local employers, not least its university. Indeed, the University of Reading has, as its new Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell stressed, signed-up to cut its carbon emissions to the tune of 35% by 2015/2015. This reinforces a statement made by the previous VC, Professor Gordon Marshall: "As leaders in climate science research and mitigation and with responsibilities to show educational leadership, we want to be seen to be acting responsibly to mitigate our own environmental impact. The benefits of this programme will be felt not just in terms of global CO2 emissions impact but on reduced energy costs - a direct and significant benefit to the University."

 Peter Harper, from the Centre for Alternative Technology: spoke next under the title 'Taking Decarbonisation Seriously: What Would it be Like?' (summarised below); followed by Dennis Moynihan of the Institute for Sustainability: 'Towards Low-Carbon Communities: Making the Magic Happen'. Sally Coble from the Environment Agency and Ben Burfoot from RBC both reported on the Reading Climate Change Partnership and the progress made by the Council to date, with the aim to reduce the Town's carbon emissions by 50% by 2020. Quite a tall order, to be sure!

That said, significant progress has been made, e.g.almost 2000 homes have been insulated through the Heatseekers initiative, 24 businesses have committed to 10:10 (a carbon emission reduction scheme, and there are 24% fewer car trips to the centre of town compared with 2006 (possibly rising fuel prices may have contributed to this). The Council's current energy generation is over target, mainly from landfill gas, supplies of which will soon be exhausted. There is also a photovoltaic (PV) initiative to be implemented, with a budget of £5 million. The Town's total carbon emissions were given at almost 1 million tonnes in 2005, but by 2009, this had fallen to just over 800,000 tonnes. This accords to a reduction by 22% which is the best for any unitary borough in the south east. It is often unclear whether such figures refer to elemental carbon or carbon dioxide, and if the latter, should be multiplied by a factor of almost 4.

For me, the set of workshops were the most useful. That said, I am amazed by the lack of awareness of peak oil and its implications. One man said that he couldn't understand why there was such emphasis on installing trams. As he put it: "A tram is just a bus that only goes one way!" I disabused this line of thinking, informing him that the reason for favouring trams is that they are powered by electricity which can be generated from various different sources (e.g. coal, gas, nuclear, renewables) whereas a conventional bus needs liquid fuels derived from crude oil. There was some fiasco a while back over the claim that some of the Reading bus-fleet ran on ethanol fermented from sugar grown in the UK, whereas in fact it was produced from wood-pulp shipped over from Sweden, rather defeating the object!

The following is a fine distillation of Peter Harper's talk, "Taking Decarbonisation Seriously", sent to me from GREN news:
By international standards the UK is doing well and it is important to recognise that small entities, be that the UK or Reading, are significant as exemplars. However, it is deeply worrying that it is thought possible that with concerted international action we could keep warming below 2C which is estimated to give a 75% chance of avoiding the risk of 'dangerous climate change' - not very good odds. The UK is currently spending above its fair share of the affordable world carbon budget, especially when emissions elsewhere on our behalf are considered. The CAT emphasise that 'physics trumps politics' ('the Cnut principle'). We must start with physics and adjust the politics and economics to fit. Given the UK's history of emissions they need to be not just zero carbon but negative carbon to clear a fair space in the budget for developing countries. CAT have drawn up a scheme to achieve this involving alternative technologies but the necessary negative carbon cannot be achieved without lifestyle changes too eg although most people would still travel in cars there would be lower individual ownership. More drastically air miles would need to be cut by 60% - to the level of the 1970s. The large amount of biomass required would change the appearance of the countryside and require a reduction in grazing livestock with knock on effects for diet. The net result would be a shift in the livestock/crop protein ratio from 55:45 to 33:67. It would also mean a better and more secure diet (with fewer imports) and more people in land-based jobs.

Insisting on maintaing the status quo will eventually destroy it. Applying the necessary adjustments will keep as much as possible of the status quo.
The consequences of their scheme are:
Greater energy security as more is produced in the UK
Deal with Peak Oil/Gas
Decarbonising the economy sorts out most other environmental problems as well
High employment
A positive balance of payments
Greater food security (but fewer cows)
Improved diet
Better prospects for our children
This is our chance to make the inevitable transition from seeking 'more' to seeking 'better'. Like our children, there comes a time when the economy has to stop growing bigger and get nicer!

In my conversation with  Tony Pettit, it became clear that Reading depends both on its workforce travelling out of the town (principally to London) to their jobs and workers mainly from London travelling into Reading to do jobs here. The vast majority of these daily journeys are made by car, and so in the face of Peak Oil it does seem like a kind of madness to waste fuel both ways round, rather than reskilling the citizens of Reading to do the jobs here, and the same for London. This may be the principal change that will be made in the future, driven most likely by rising fuel prices, and the major means of reducing carbon emissions in Reading. I do wonder, however, once the provision of oil becomes compromised, whether these jobs - particularly of the high-tech variety, in Reading - will exist in ten or twenty years time, and the necessary reskilling should more effectively be made in terms of sustainable employment, such as empowers the building of a strong local economy for Reading.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Solar Fuels Cannot Avert an Imminent Petroluem Fuels Crisis.

Since the article (immediately previous posting) to which this refers is rather long, I am extracting its concluding section here, rather than leaving the reader to wade through all of it. It will also be published in full in the next issue of the journal Science Progress.

In a nutshell, since the expected rate of depletion of conventional crude oil (petroleum) is around 3.4%/year, another 2.9 million barrels a day will need to be "found" year on year. Thus, by 2020, we will be short on conventional crude by about 23 mbd or just over one quarter of current production. Filling this hole by solar fuels is practically impossible, and so another techno-fix appears to bite the dust. If we are unable to solve the problem from the supply side, we need to look to the demand side. Since the main and most immediate effect will be on transportation, all arrows point to a relocalisation of civilization and its societies. This means a complete rethink of how we live, and though the foreseeable transition to a lower energy and more localised way of life is unequivocally daunting, there are reasons for optimism.

Overall Summary and Outlook.

In conclusion, we are faced with an overall serious energy problem, and most pressingly the challenge of how to fill the enlarging hole created by a declining production of conventional crude oil. It appears almost certain that there will be profound efforts made in obtaining “unconventional oil” from shale and in liberating gas from various geological formations by “fracking”; the production of “synthetic crude” from tar-sands will doubtless increase too. Noting that world light crude oil production peaked in 2005, it is increasingly the heavy oils, e.g. from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela, that will need to be recovered and processed, requiring the building of a new swathe of oil refineries that can handle this kind of material. Thus, not only are supplies of conventional crude oil going to fall, but what is recovered will be increasingly difficult to process. How difficult it is to produce an energy resource is usually expressed by the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). Thus in the halcyon days of the Texan “giant gushers”, 100 barrels of crude oil could be recovered using the energy equivalent to that contained in one barrel of crude oil, which gives an EROEI = 100. The figure has fallen since then, and presently EROEIs in the range 11 -18 are obtained for North Sea (Brent Crude) oil, and as low as 3 – 5 for heavy oil and tar sands “oil”.

Although shale-oil production and use is hardly environmentally “clean”, taking account of its carbon emissions (both in the retorting of shale and in burning the final fuel) and large water demand (3 – 10 barrels of water to produce each barrel of oil), it is trumpeted in some quarters that the US will become self-sufficient in “oil” by 2020. Current US production of shale-oil is around 0.5 mbd, and is predicted to rise to 3 mbd by 2020, but this must be gauged against a loss of conventional oil by 23 mbd across the world. We will have lost 52 mbd by 2030, leaving us with merely 38% of current supply. Can solar fuels fill the gap? As we have seen, much of the solar fuel technology is very much at the research stage. Most of what is ongoing aims to produce H2, but even if half the “new” platinum recovered annually were used to fabricate fuel cells, only something like 1% of the billion road vehicles currently in existence could be so substituted by “hydrogen cars” over the next 10 years. Hence, a global transportation network based on hydrogen/fuel cells, let alone a full-scale solar hydrogen economy, is a pipe-dream. If hydrogen can be made renewably on the grand scale, as an energy carrier (it is not really a fuel, since it must be created from primary energy sources), it will probably need to be used by combustion.

The fabrication of electric cars runs into similar resource difficulties, especially in terms of rare earth metals, and so a strategy based on liquid fuels would seem most sensible. Liquid fuels are furthermore entirely compatible with the prevailing transportation infrastructure, in regard to the distribution of fuels and their deployment in internal combustion engines. The Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process is a well-established technology for converting syngas to liquid hydrocarbons, but the means to obtain H2 + CO on a large scale without using fossil fuels is not. Even when (or if) those clean technologies based on artificial photosynthesis are developed, a whole new generation and scale of FT plants will need to be installed, which at the level envisaged would take decades. Any such timescale must be judged against that for the depletion of conventional crude oil. Of those approaches considered here for the production of liquid fuels, the use of genetically engineered cyanobacteria looks the most promising, but even so, meeting the global demand for them seems to be a bridge too far. Producing millions of electric cars is just not a practical proposition, and the only realistic means to move people around in number using electrical power is with light railway and tram systems. The notion of personalised transport will be relegated to history by massive fuel prices, and an absence of any cheaper “car ownership” option. Our global civilization is underpinned almost entirely by crude oil – as refined into liquid fuels for transporting people and consumer goods around nations; for growing and distributing food; for mining coal, shale and all kinds of minerals, including metallic ores and rock phosphate for agriculture; and as a raw feedstock for the chemical industry, to make pharmaceuticals and to support healthcare. If our stalwart “black gold” is set to abandon us over the next few decades, and it is not possible on that same timescale to produce alternative liquid fuels – “the supply side” – we can only address the problem from the demand side.

This means a substantial curbing of transportation and a relocalisation of society, to become more locally sufficient, e.g. in food production, at the community level.
Such are the aims of the “Transition Town” movement. It is likely that energy production will become increasingly decentralized, and done at the smaller scale, to power such communities. Fuel too, e.g. for local agriculture, might be produced from algae at least on a regional scale, as integrated with water treatment schemes to conserve the resource of phosphate, and to avert algal blooms. Methods of regenerative agriculture, including permaculture, provide means to food production that demand far less in their input of fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, and actually rebuild the carbon content of soil. It is thought that 40% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions might be sequestered in soil using no-till practices. Solar energy may also be harvested usefully and directly in the form of heat (rather than converting it to a fuel), at greater efficiency than through PV, using concentrating solar thermal power plants, roof-based water heating systems, solar cookers, solar stills and water sterilization units, and homes especially designed to absorb and retain thermal energy. Though the foreseeable transition to a lower energy and more localised way of life is unequivocally daunting, we should maintain hope and embrace the inevitable change with enthusiasm rather than fall to fear and unrest.

“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” – Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875)