Tuesday, November 22, 2022

“The Oil Machine” and the Changing Climate.

Released smartly in time for the COP27 climate change conference, the film “The Oil Machine", presents a stark picture of the imperative to cut our use of fossil fuels, in particular crude oil, but moreover of our utter dependency on the “black gold” for practically all aspects of modern civilization. While it is clear that further licenses should not be permitted for new oil exploration and production, in line with the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap, it is likely that oil companies would need to be accordingly compensated for their losses. However, although the UK government appears set to grant another 100 licenses in the North Sea, this would not necessarily guarantee energy security for the UK, since much of the production there is in the hands of foreign agencies

A tricky dilemma is nonetheless presented, as European nations scramble to get hold of hydrocarbons from alternative sources, in part to avoid supporting Putin’s war machine, but also now that there is no Russian gas coming to Europe down the Nord Stream 1 pipelines, which have suffered damage from deliberate sabotage, although it is not yet clear exactly who put the explosives there for the job. While the finger of blame seems to oscillate in its direction, depending on exactly who is pointing it, efforts to maintain current levels of oil and gas through this winter and beyond, strengthen their grip, while renewable energy is pushed onto the proverbial back burner.

The film admirably emphasises the extent and complexity of the oil and gas pipeline network under the North Sea, and on land too, which is conveniently but deceptively out of sight and hence out of mind; yet it is this sprawling and fragile infrastructure whose bounty underpins the mechanics of our daily lives. We are indeed living within “the oil machine”, not only through our use of oil and gas for fuels, but our increasing reliance on oil-based products, such as plastics (think phones, computers, clothes, vehicles, packaging, toys and utensils), pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture. While almost no one can be unaware of the fact of plastic pollution, its close connection to the oil industry is less well known, even though making plastics consumes 6% of the global oil supply (including natural gas liquids). 

Here the film scores highly, in its expression of the interconnected nature of energy, jobs, finance, geopolitics and climate change, and that while we need to stop burning oil and gas to curb CO2 emissions, we can’t “just stop oil” overnight, or the system of civilization would collapse.

Nonetheless, we have precious little time left to substantially curb our use of fossil fuels – when I began writing on these subjects back in 2005, 2030 seemed almost comfortingly distant, but is now only 7 years away. However, this alone is not the whole story, since even if greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly and dramatically cut, the vast polar ice-bodies will continue to melt, thus raising sea levels in a relentless process, lasting over centuries

Further melting of the Arctic ice could provide a catastrophic feedback, if methane, with a heating potential one hundred times that of CO2, is released into the atmosphere from decomposing methane hydrate deposits, increasing global temperatures by 5 - 8 degrees, and rendering large regions of the Earth effectively uninhabitable. Following such a course, mass migrations of millions would be almost inevitable.

Since 81% of global production is currently in decline, to reduce the use of oil is not entirely our choice, as IEA Executive director, Fatih Birol, has noted, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.” 

Thus, to replace this loss, and maintain the overall flow of “oil” into industrialised civilization is an increasingly difficult, energy intensive and expensive process. Indeed, the loss of investment capital into the oil industry may well secure its demise, if it is no longer seen as a viable commodity. Hence, for this reason too, we need to look to alternative energy sources and, more generally, ways of actuating our lives that do not depend on oil.

While “The Oil Machine” delivers a hard punch over the status quo, it also makes clear that our present reliance on oil is an aberration, since for most of human history we managed without it perfectly well. However, in the last hundred years or so that we have based our societies on oil, and the fossil fuels more generally,  growth in human numbers and consumption of natural resources have followed similar exponential trajectories, practically doubling the size of the human enterprise in just over 40 years. Clearly this cannot continue, and the only real choice is between making an alternative design or continuing on the present pathway of systemic collapse.

Toward the end of the film, an allusion is made to the need for living more simply, which reminded me of Part One of “The Transition Handbook: from oil dependence to local resilience”, entitled, “The Head: Why peak oil and climate change mean that small is inevitable,” and substantially involves relocalisation (deglobalisation) as part of an Energy Descent Action Plan. Indeed, much of the content of this and related “Transition” books, and beginning earlier, the work of Ted Trainer, “The Simpler Way”, offer guidance as to how we might redesign our society in order to live well while using less oil, and overall resources, ultimately getting the human species out of ecological overshoot and back in balance with the carrying capacity of the Earth

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Architects of Our Future: Energy and the Changing Climate.

By Professor Chris Rhodes, DPhil, DSc, FRSC, FRSA, FLS.

Published in The Linnean, Vol. 38, October 2022, pp14-20. It is also the write-up of a lecture 
that I gave to the Linnean Society in February 2022.


82% of the total primary energy (BP 2022) used by humans on Earth is derived from the fossil fuels, whose combustion is causing global heating (from energy restrained from radiating into outer space by greenhouse gases) which impels climate change.

Although our overall use of energy has increased by about 13% during the past 10 years, the relative proportions of oil, gas, nuclear, and hydro in the energy-mix have changed very little. Coal use has fallen from 30% to 27%, but despite double-digit growth rates for renewables, total wind plus solar combined still account for less than 5% of global primary energy.

The lion’s share (31%) of our energy is furnished by crude oil, which is the lifeblood of industrial civilization; however, oil is becoming more difficult and consequently more expensive to produce. Before about 1930, for each barrel of oil’s worth of energy expended, in excess of 50 barrels of oil were recovered (Figure 1). Now, globally, this Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is less than 20, and for the heaviest oils, probably below 5, meaning that relentlessly larger amounts of energy must be consumed to maintain the flow of this critical resource (Rhodes 2014).

Figure 1. The Lucas Gusher oil well, at Spindletop Hill, Texas in 1901. [This was the first gusher of the Texas oil boom]. Before about 1930, more than 50 barrels of oil could be recovered for one barrel of oil’s worth of energy expended. Now, the return is nearer 10 for US oil. [Credit: original photo by John Trost. w:en:Image:Lucas_gusher.jpg by Nv8200p, 4/12/2006 16:29 (UTC)]

Oil Production and Use.

Annually, the human enterprise devours a massive 30 billion barrels of crude oil (BP 2022): 83 million barrels a day, or almost 1,000 barrels a second. Snap your fingers, and another 1,000 barrels of oil are gone. Until about 10 years ago, the world’s main oil producers were Saudi Arabia and Russia, but the United States has now joined this exclusive club as a result of its success in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), which allows large volumes of light tight oil to be recovered, mainly from low-permeable shale, and now accounts for almost two-thirds of US oil production (EIA 2022a).

Much of the oil remaining in the world is high-sulphur (sour) and heavy (e.g. from the Orinoco belt in Venezuela), needing more costly processing, and most of it is unrecoverable. “Extra-heavy” oil is not a freely flowing liquid but is bituminous, and resembles the black tar used for road surfacing. Sometimes, “statistics” are released, mainly to encourage investors, such as there is more oil (in the form of “oil shale”) under America than there is under Saudi Arabia (Rapier 2012), but this refers to an ancient solid material called kerogen, which needs to be heated to 400—500 deg C to turn it into a liquid that we recognise as oil; since this takes a lot of energy, the EROI is typically very low (Rhodes 2014).

Oil not only fuels transportation, but (including natural gas liquids) is the raw “carbon” chemical feedstock for plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and most modern devices, e.g. computers, cell phones etc. Without oil and natural gas (for fertilizers) modern agriculture could not exist, and it takes up to10 calories of fossil fuels to deliver each calorie of food onto the plate (Lott 2011). Some of the impacts of “industrialised” agriculture on the biosphere are illustrated in (Figure 2), which shows a field of soya being harvested in Brazil: the land itself was formerly rainforest, which has been cleared for crops, and the plumes of dust following the combine harvesters are topsoil, broken up by these heavy machines as they pass over it. Since the fields are left bare until the next crop is planted, erosion occurs, as the soil is blown or washed away. In a few years, the land loses its productivity, whereupon more rainforest is cleared: a relentless process of degradation. Even larger regions of the Brazilian Amazon are cleared to provide land on which to graze cattle for the meat industry (Butler 2021).

Figure 2. Field of soya being harvested in Brazil. Formerly this land was rainforest, and the plumes of dust following the combine harvesters are topsoil, broken up as they pass over it. Once the land becomes unproductive due to soil erosion, yet more forest is cleared. [Credit: Lou Gold (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

Alternatives to Oil.

Although there will always be hydrocarbons in the ground, supplies of cheaply and easily procured oil are diminishing, and so we need to find alternative fuels, and carbon feedstocks for industry. Burning oil also contributes 12.4 billion tonnes (The World Counts 2022) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year (a third of all CO2 emissions), which is driving catastrophic global climate change. Obviously, as oil-production wanes, we will emit far less carbon, but struggle to maintain the dynamics of a complex oil-dependent globalised civilization. Potential uncertainties in the geopolitical landscape, for example Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also urge actions toward reducing national dependencies on imported oil and gas (Rhodes 2022).


Biofuels are often touted as a “low-carbon” solution to a declining oil supply, and yet in the UK, even if we converted all arable land over to making bioethanol, and grew no food, we could only match less than half (45%) of the liquid fuel demand currently met from petroleum. Similar yields of celluosic ethanol are expected from Miscanthus x giganteus (“Elephant Grass”), and although this can be grown on marginal land, large areas are still required. For biodiesel, made from rapeseed, the situation is even worse, and we could only produce one seventh (14%) of our liquid fuel requirements in this way (Rhodes 2015a), even allowing for the better “miles per gallon” obtained if all vehicles were fitted with diesel engines. Additionally, diesel fuel is needed to run tractors and combine harvesters to grow and harvest the biofuel crops, leading to a very low EROI, along with the consumption of large quantities of freshwater. Hence, it is unlikely that the currently less than 1% (BP 2022) of our total energy provided by biofuels will increase significantly.

What about fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as “fracking”, involves creating cracks in a shale layer by pumping a fluid into it under high pressure, so that the oil or gas trapped within can flow out (Figure 3). The procedure has sparked controversy, particularly in regard to potential environmental contamination and adverse health effects (Michaux 2019). Leakage of methane, not only from fracking operations (Vaughan 2020) but across the whole of the global oil and gas industry (IEA 2020), is a matter of great concern, given the very high global heating potential of the gas, as compared with carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, some 65% of US oil (EIA 2022a) and 79% of US natural gas are currently produced by fracking (EIA 2022b).

Figure 3. Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, showing main possible environmental effects.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HydroFrac.png [Credit Mikenorton]

In 2005, global output of conventional crude oil reached a plateau, and since then 71% of all growth in oil supply is from fracking, with much of the rest provided by extra-heavy oil (Michaux 2019). Outside of the US, the technology has proved far less successful, and given a persistently negative cash flow, the future viability of the shale industry is debatable. Should this falter, the global oil supply would struggle to meet demand, leading to soaring oil prices.

Decline in “cheap to produce” oil.

• 81% of global liquids production in decline by 5—7% = a loss of 3—4.5 mbd/year (Michaux 2019).

• Hence, just to maintain existing output, a new Saudi Arabia’s worth of production must be found every 3 years: 3 new Saudis by 2030!

• This new production will come mainly from “unconventional” oil (such as oil sands, light tight oil, coal and gas to liquids conversion) plus (ultra)deepwater drilling.

• Such unconventional oil is more difficult, energy intensive and expensive to produce.

• Highly uncertain how much light tight oil (from fracking shale) can be recovered; what the production rates might be; if it can take up slack from global existing field decline?

• Oil (= “all liquids”) demand back above 100 mbd, as global economies rebound post-Covid (Blas and Hurst 2021).

• From end-2014 to mid-2020, the market was oversupplied, forcing the oil price down (Figure 4): smaller investment at low oil prices, means less “new oil” coming online in the next few years:

• Supply “crunch” predicted: 2025-2030 (Michaux 2019).

Figure 4. Comparison of benchmark oil prices: low from end-2014 with price crash in April 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Basket#/media/File:Indian_Basket.png [Credit AKS.9955]

The Changing Climate and Overshoot.

The term “Changing Climate” has been used (Rhodes 2015b) to emphasise a set of world-scale problems, each often regarded in isolation, but which are actually mutually entangled threads of a complex system that is failing. Although “climate change” per se, is a major factor among them (driven by global heating from energy reined in by greenhouse gases), remedying this alone, e.g. through net-zero emissions strategies, will not resolve the overall problem, which is that the human species is in a condition of ecological overshoot:

[Overshoot = the hyperconsumption of natural resources, at rates much faster than they can be replenished, and in excess of the biosphere’s capacity to absorb and process the waste discharged through their use.]

However, to shrink the human enterprise so that it operates within the carrying capacity of the Earth demands very large reductions in our consumption. To arrive at an estimate of just how much, we can appeal to the Ecological Footprint Analysis (Global Footprint Network 2022), which suggests around 40% as a global average, but closer to 70% in the richer, industrialised nations (Figure 5). Such “one planet living” (Figure 6) requires a fundamental recasting of our goals and lifestyles, with far more substantive changes than essentially trying to preserve business as usual, merely with low-carbon energy in place of fossil fuels.

Figure 5. Ecological footprints of nations. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/How_many_earths_2018_English.jpg [Credit Footprint123]

Even if we chose to continue burning fossil fuels, depletion would substantially reduce their availability within the next few decades (Mohr et al. 2015). Hence, for this reason too, it is essential to find alternative energy sources. While it is debatable how much renewable energy might actually be installed (Seibert and Rees 2021), it is likely that matching the energy derived from all the coal, oil and gas currently burned will prove extremely difficult.

Figure 6. Alternative pathways: overshoot to collapse (red lines); or, controlled contraction to “one planet living”, well within Earth’s human carrying capacity (green line). [Credit Prof. W.E.Rees].

Clearly, by reducing our energy demand, the amount of low-carbon energy that must be installed is brought down to more “manageable” levels. Significant energy savings are possible through relocalisation (so curbing unnecessary transportation and its fuel requirements), by properly insulating buildings and growing food locally. Such a strategy also helps to build resilience at the community level, and provides a buffer against global supply chain failures, e.g. resulting from freak weather events, vagaries such as Covid and Brexit, and geopolitical factors, including outbreaks of war.

Some symptoms of ecological overshoot.

• Increasing atmospheric CO2/global heating.

• Ocean acidification and ocean temperatures both rising.

• Melting ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice.

• Rising sea-levels.

• Loss of corals.

• Decimated fisheries.

• Deforestation and habitat loss.

• Draining of fossil aquifers, rivers and lakes.

• Erosion, nutrient depletion and loss of carbon from soils, desertification.

• Massive species displacement and extermination, insect die-off.

• Pollution of air, land, waterways, oceans – including by microplastics, and “forever chemicals”.

• Unsustainable consumption: 100 billion tonnes of (mostly non-renewable) “natural resources” each year - predicted to reach184 billion tonnes in 2050.

Even if we could switch our energy entirely to “net-zero” emissions, current consumption and waste discharge by the human “system” would continue to exceed and degrade the Earth’s biocapacity. This has been expressed succinctly (Seibert and Rees 2022) by the following analogy:

“What the passengers on the [MTI] Titanic need for survival is a dramatic course change, but what many of the ship’s engineers are proposing is to replace its FF engines with electric motors.”

Scientists’ Warnings.

The first Scientists Warning paper (Kendal 1992), stressed mainly the ecological damage then inflicted by humans, while a later study (Ripple et al 2017) demonstrated that the intervening twenty-five years had only witnessed further destruction of the ecosphere. The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency report, published in 2019 (Ripple et al 2019) which has now been endorsed by a total of 14,594 scientists from 158 countries, emphasised a set of collective actions, aimed toward restoring and protecting natural ecosystems, conserving energy, reducing food waste, the adoption of a more plant-based diet, population control and economic reforms. However, two subsequent papers (Ripple et al, 2020a) and (Ripple at al. 2020b) merely confirmed a further, dramatic deterioration of all climate markers.

The “WORLD SCIENTISTS’ WARNINGS INTO ACTION” (SWIA) paper (Barnard et al. 2021) was published on Friday, November 12th (2021), formally the concluding day of the COP26 climate change conference, although a final agreement was not actually reached until late on the Saturday (13th). It is the “Into Action” qualifier that sets this publication apart from the previous warnings, since it offers practical means for steering away from the abyss, and toward a new territory where human needs are met, harmoniously, within the biocapacity of the Earth. SWIA summons all levels of leadership, from local to global, as are required to make real the proposed changes. Only immediate, rapid and far reaching action has a serious chance of keeping the Earth’s mean global temperature below the 1.5 degree limit.

Massive though this challenge is, it is really a single identifier of a whole system that is out of balance: a mechanism of resource hyperconsumption which transgresses several vital, but interwoven, planetary boundaries, powered by burning 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels per year (Rhodes 2019). Since it is the system of civilization that must be fixed, any means to accomplish this must, of necessity, also be systemic in nature, and bring about a consolidated amelioration of climate change, biodiversity loss, and relentless degradation of the ecosphere.

The SWIA paper underlines six principal areas where effort must be focussed: Energy, Atmospheric Pollutants, Nature, Food Systems, Population Stabilisation, and Economic Reforms, of which the following is a highlighted summary:

• Energy. Implement massive conservation practices: retrofitting buildings, relocalisation, buying less “stuff”, could halve UK energy demand. Transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon sources including solar and wind.

• Atmospheric Pollutants. Rapidly cut emissions of methane, soot, HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants. This could reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades.

• Nature. Conserve, restore, rewild ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands and mangroves, and allow a greater share of them to reach their ecological potential for sequestering atmospheric CO2.

• Food. Shift to a more plant-based diet. Adopt more regenerative and local production methods: significantly reduce emissions of methane and other GHGs, reduce deforestation, build soil. Curb food waste: globally, at least one-third of all food produced is discarded. Place-based food systems.

• Economic Reforms. Convert the economy from max GDP growth to one that operates within limits of the biosphere. Work towards regional self-reliance, and focus on restoring efficient levels of local production of food and consumer goods. Impose high taxes on high-carbon luxury goods/activities.

• Population Stabilisation. Stabilize a global population that is increasing by 220,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice, such as guaranteeing education for young men and women and the availability of voluntary family planning services.

We urge all scientists to sign this paper, and act in a united effort to avoid a catastrophic collapse of civilisation. https://www.scientistswarningeurope.org.uk/signature

The time is now or never. Cooperation is fundamental to our success, and only by uniting as a human family, on all levels from local to global, can we hope to achieve an equitable and concordant future on our Mother Planet.

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” 

– R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983).


Michaux 2019. “Oil from a critical raw material perspective,” https://tupa.gtk.fi/raportti/arkisto/70_2019.pdf

Mohr et al. 2015 (Mohr, S.H., Wang, J., Ellem, G., Ward, J., Giuro, D.) Fuel, 141, 120-135.

Rhodes 2014. “Peak oil is not a myth,” Chemistry World. https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/peak-oil-is-not-a-myth/7102.article

Ripple et al, 2017. "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice" , BioScience67 (12): 1026–1028.

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 Lock (Reading, UK).

As the culmination of many years of hard work, persistence and dedication, the “Reading Hydro” microhydropower system has been generating electricity on the weir at Caversham Lock (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.