Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Energy War, and Climate Breakdown.

I was one of the speakers at the @Scientists Warning Europe event - Road to COP27: The Energy War and Climate Breakdown, held online on Monday 22nd August at 6pm BST.

Cost of living crisis, global conflict, and climate breakdown - is a shift in our energy systems the solution to all of this?

About this event

What does the recent Russia/Ukraine conflict tell us about our energy security? Is renewable energy the answer, or is there more to the equation? What should our energy systems look like in these times of unprecedented global change?

Join Scientists Warning Europe for the second event in our Road to COP27 series: Energy and the Climate Crisis.

In this discussion, energy experts from both science and industry will delve into the changes that are rapidly required to secure humanity's safety on a local, national, and international level.

The panel will also offer suggestions of what we can each do, as individuals, to protect our access to energy.

Panellists include:

  • Ed Gemmell - Managing Director of Scientists Warning Europe, Climate Politician
  • Professor Chris Rhodes - Director of Fresh-lands Environmental Actions
  • Keila Abreu - Development Director of Electric Land
  • Andy Caulton - Founder and CEO of Hope Energy

This session includes a 45 minute panel discussion, followed by a 30 minute Q&A session where attendees are invited to share ideas and explore topics further.

At COP26 Scientists Warning Europe launched a new paper, the 'Scientists Warnings into Action'. It expanded on the six stressors identified in the previous three warnings of Nature, Population, Economy, Food and Pollutants and - the focus of this discussion - Energy. This fourth great scientists Warning has already been signed by over 3,000 scientists and is currently collecting more signatures by graduates in any science on the way to COP27.

All proceeds go towards Scientists Warning Europe's charitable work and climate campaigning activities.

Scientists Warning Europe is a registered charity in England and Wales with charity number 1194090.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

“Reading Hydro” – Microhydropower on the River Thames at Caversham Weir (Reading, UK).

As the culmination of many years of hard work, persistence and dedication, the “Reading Hydro” microhydropower system has been generating electricity on Caversham Weir (Reading, UK) since 13 August 2021. With a drop (“Head”) of about 1.4 metres and an average river water flow of 3 cubic metres per second ("cumecs") passing through each one, its twin turbines (weighing in at almost 6 tonnes apiece, and named “Tony” and “Sophie”, after the project leaders, Dr Tony Cowling and Sophie London) generate a combined output of 46 kW, and are expected to deliver 320,000 kWh (320 MWh) over a year, which is equivalent to the typical electricity consumption of 90 homes. [The turbines could produce 65 kW, but the generators are set at 46 kW, which is the limit above which feed-in tariffs would not be obtained].

The turbines are of an Archimedes Screw Design, which converts the energy from flowing river water into rotational energy, since the weight of water entering the screw presses down onto its blades, and forces it to turn. The upper end of the turbine is connected via a gearbox to an electrical generator, and the water, having passed through its length, flows freely on into the river. The scheme is owned and operated by a community benefit society (Reading Hydro CBS), which was founded in 2017, and the required funding (£1.2 million) was raised through offering shares to the local community.

The turbine house has been decorated on two sides with a mural by a group of young artists, Commando Jugendstil, entitled Community Energym, which represents the sustainable power that Reading Hydro will generate for the local community, with the slogan: “This Energy is By the people, for the people.” On a third side of the building is a depiction of Warming Stripesa visual representation of the change in average global temperature that has occurred since 1850, and devised by Professor Ed Hawkins of Reading University. Thus, emphasis is given to the importance of renewable energy – such as hydropower – in displacing fossil fuels and their emissions.

Clearly, a substantial upfront investment in fossil fuel energy is required, to make the steel and concrete, transport the turbines etc., and to construct the entire facility. Nonetheless, the technology appears to offer a very good longer term energy investment, given that the EROI (energy return on investment) for microhydro power schemes has been reckoned at 41-78, as integrated over a 50 year period [and perhaps three times as much over 100 years and with reduced transportation energy costs, although there would most likely be energy needed for maintenance and repairs over such a long time]. Moreover, the harvested energy is “clean”, i.e. carbon-free, and also contributes toward local community resilience.

There are often concerns raised about the environmental impacts of renewable energy sources, and Reading Hydro is no exception. However, the Archimedes Screw design is “fish friendly”, meaning that fish can pass, unharmed, down the turbine and into the river, although they can’t swim back to the top again. Thus, to allow them a safe return passage, a new fish pass was sculpted-out on the immediately adjacent View Island, as an essential part of the overall approval process for building the facility. The fish pass crosses this tranquil and leafy island as a sinuously flowing stream, and both fish and eels can be seen swimming along its length, resting as necessary among the artificial reeds. It is, therefore, a very pleasant place to visit, along with the excellent educational aspects, and "feel" for what energy really means, offered by the microhydropower installation itself.

Both the Turbine House and View Island are accessible via a public footpath (known to locals as The Clappers) that crosses over the lock and the weir. More information about Reading Hydro can be found here.  There is also a Facebook page.

Carbon Savings.

It is instructive to reckon the power output of the Reading Hydro facility, in terms of the amount of coal, say, that it effectively displaces from electricity production. There are different types of coal, and which differ in the amount of energy they deliver on combustion, but let’s assume 30 GJ/tonne (i.e. high quality anthracitic coal):

46 kW output = 46,000 J/s. (x 3600 s/hr) = 165.6 MJ. (x 8760 hr/yr) = 1.45 x 10^12 J/yr. Since this amounts to 403 MWh/yr (i.e. as running throughout the year, second by second, with no interruption), the expected output of 320 MWh/year corresponds to an efficiency (“capacity factor”) of about 80%.

By direct energy-for-energy reckoning, 320 MWh is equivalent to 38.4 tonnes of coal (30 GJ/tonne), but to allow for Carnot Cycle losses in the coal-fired power plant, we need to multiply by 2.47 = 95 tonnes per year, or a quarter of a tonne of coal saved per day.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

“Four Meals From Anarchy” – We Must Grow More Food Locally.

A friend sent me a link to this video interview of Michael Raw, an agricultural consultant, about the fragility of Britain’s food supply, which frankly shocked me. The “four meals from anarchy” is a quote to MI5, meaning that Britain could descend very rapidly indeed to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting in the event of a catastrophe that stops the supply of food.

The UK’s food policy substantially presumes that foreign countries will continue to send us shiploads of food, and currently over half of what is consumed here is imported. This is perilous indeed, especially at a time when many nations are adopting their own protectionist policies, restricting food exports so to feed their own people. Should supply shortages occur, currently high food prices will escalate further still. For example, at an undersupply of 3% a 12% food price increase is expected, at 5% this rises to 20%, while at 10%, food prices would probably double.

The implementation of rationing cannot be ruled out, as happened during WWII, although this actually continued until 1954, when the “housewife” had to spend 30-50% of her budget on food. [Now, the food shopping costs more like 8-10% of a household’s total income, whoever actually goes out to buy it, the difference being used in other areas for discretionary spending and overall growth of the economy]. Despite the immense debt borne from the war, the UK government subsidised the nation's farmers, which guaranteed oversupply, and meant that although prices did increase, the gradient remained within manageable limits, unlike the 21% increase that has occurred in only the past 12 months.

Even though farmers have been calling for food security for a number of years, this has had little effect. Raw avers that a time is very likely at hand when supermarkets will experience massive queues, but merely to get inside the buildings, since with their shelves empty there will be no one waiting in line at the cash tills. 

Soaring costs of fertilizers might be taken as an indicator of what is likely to happen to food prices. Thus, a tonne of what is essentially ammonium nitrate, sold at £180 in the autumn (£220 in the spring) of 2020, then increased to £350 in spring 2021, and is now trading at £650, with quotes for spring 2023, i.e. for next year’s harvest, at £1,000 a tonne. So, a farmer who was paying £20,000 for his/her fertilizer in 2020, can expect to shell out £100,000 next year. This is a disastrous situation for many farmers, who could not even borrow this much from the bank, given the huge overall financial loss that this represents.

As a way around the fertilizer problem, some farmers in the South/East of the UK, whose land is intrinsically well supplied with phosphate and potash, have switched to growing leguminous crops, such as red clover and field beans as animal fodder, which naturally fix nitrogen, and so do not need the application of increasingly unaffordable artificial nitrogen fertilizers. Not all farmers are so fortunate, and need to buy and apply phosphate and potash; however, since 33% of the world’s potash comes from Russia-Ukraine, a serious supply shortage seems likely for the foreseeable future.

Hence the availability and price of fertilizers will determine the crops that farmers are able to grow over, say, the next five years. There is much more in this interview, which is excellent, and the interviewer remarks appositely that “we should be making a documentary talk show, but this is actually a horror film...” Raw makes the point that rather than rewilding, more of the available land should be used for food production, although this would cost money, which we don’t have. However, this was exactly the situation during 1945-1954 when the government supported its agriculture, obviously finding the money from somewhere. Controlling exports and securing imports, with farmers producing more food are identified as critical factors, but what can people do individually to make sure they have enough food?

Raw agrees that having a chest freezer is not a bad idea, but stresses the importance of growing your own food, and says that 50% of his family’s food comes from an allotment and some raised beds in the back garden, which they use to stock their freezer. He says that having an allotment ought to be a public right, and we could see legislation go through parliament, which would enact upon parish, district and county councils, so that anyone wanting an allotment can get one in three months, rather than going onto a six year waiting list. This would necessitate a compulsory leasing (not compulsory purchasing), and it should be a public right to be given access to a piece of land to feed your family.

Elsewhere, it has been estimated that 40% of the UK’s fruit and veg (most of which is imported) could be grown in gardens, along with some of the “spare” land in parks, playing fields, watersides and other urban green spaces that are currently overlooked. At a time when allotment provision across the country is vastly oversubscribed, taking a broader view of such neglected sites could rapidly increase the possibilities for local food production. Some changes in our diet would be necessary, to substitute fruits and vegetables that grow well over here, for those currently imported that are not suited to the British climate.

The pandemic and Brexit have provided a taster of how vulnerable our food system is to import supply shocks. Farmland in the UK is already under pressure, not only for agriculture, but from urbanisation and demand for new homes; however, a two year pilot study indicates that urban plots can be as productive as conventional farms. Brownfield sites should not be overlooked either for food growing, by using raised beds to get around problems of soil contamination.

Providing sufficient access to affordable food for its population is an underpinning prerequisite for any properly functioning society, and given the clear risks posed by the UK’s current heavy reliance on imports, far more domestic – particularly locally based – food production must be established as a matter of urgency, i.e. before people begin to go hungry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Russia-Ukraine War and the Changing Energy Landscape.

The can of worms that is our global use of energy, has been levered open yet further by the escalating war in Ukraine. Prices of all types of energy had already been hiked dramatically as a result of a strong economic rebound post-covid, but with limited capacity to meet additional demand. As a result of a potential embargo on Russian fuels, the UK price of natural gas briefly hit 800p per therm, or sixteen times that of March 2021. Oil prices too, are at a high not seen since just before the Great Recession of 2008, with Brent crude spiking at $128 a barrel, and driving record prices for petrol and diesel. Since energy underpins everything we do, its cost sets the baseline for all other commodities, including food, whose prices are also surging globally.

Europe is dependent on Russia for around 40% of its gas, thus making any supply restrictions extremely problematic, to put it mildly: for example, if Russia were to carry out its threat to cut off the gas. Similarly, refusals by the West to buy Russian oil beg the question of whether matching quantities can be secured from elsewhere. Given that oil is the lifeblood of industrial civilization, and we run the risk of a demand/supply gap, leading to soaring prices – $200 a barrel has been suggested – the economic consequences would almost certainly be catastrophic.

The European Commission has now pledged to curb massively its purchase of Russian gas: by some two thirds by the end of this year. The proposed mechanism for this includes establishing a greater diversity of suppliers, biomethane production, and energy efficiency strategies for buildings, including behavioural changes such as turning down thermostats to curb energy demand. Indeed, demand reduction must be a salient part of any viable future energy blueprint.

Although the UK is far less dependent on Russian oil and gas, the government has taken a cue to build energy security, to which end it intends to roll out more nuclear power, renewable energy and domestic production of fossil fuels. Now this is where a number of forces converge, namely, domestic energy production, final energy use, and climate change.

Thus, to maintain our reliance on oil and gas – whether imported (from wherever) or home grown – clearly flies in the face of intentions to cut current emissions levels practically in half by 2030: just 7 years and 9 months away. However, an according expansion of energy production from nuclear or renewables necessitates that it be used in final form as electricity, and so those aspects of transportation, running buildings and industry, currently directly reliant on oil and gas, would need to become increasingly electrified.

In this same spirit of energy security, the huge amount of energy wasted must also be reduced, especially by retrofitting buildings with thermal and draught insulation, and reconfiguring towns and cities so that more can be done at the local level (including growing food), thus eliminating unnecessary transportation and its fuel requirements. Such actions would help to curb carbon emissions, and reduce demand for additional “low-carbon” energy, noting that the most reliable form of renewable energy is energy not used at all. Through a combination of such measures, overall energy demand in the UK could be more than halved.

It has been proposed that an army of volunteers should be mobilised to install small-scale renewable energy across the UK, thus furthering national energy independence. Moreover, some degree of decentralisation of our energy system would contribute to local and regional energy resilience, thus providing a necessary buffer against the many storms of a changing global climate that are likely to prevail upon us.