Friday, 30 April 2010

What the hell is this?

Seriously – I was in the Co-Op in Edinburgh and I bought some bananas. Look at them! When did it become necessary to wrap small numbers of bananas in plastic. Are they not well enough wrapped? Okay, so this is not the first time I have seen it, but it really hit me as I was standing at the checkout. Ridiculous, as if there wasn’t enough f**king plastic in the world. Aren’t Co-Op supposed to be good when it comes to this sort of thing? If I had any self-respect I would have torn the plastic off and thrown in the managers face. But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I have however sent Co-Op a strongly worded letter (that’s right readers!). I’ll let you know how I get on……

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Peak nuclear?

I am not a supporter of nuclear, but neither am I implacably opposed. I do have serious concerns over cost, safety and the disposal of waste. I am also concerned that nuclear will be a distraction from getting on with the job of building a renewable economy. Then again it is relatively low carbon, and we might need it.

One thing though which I had not given too much thought to though was availability of nuclear fuel – uranium and thorium. I had heard a few rumours that uranium might run out, but hadn’t really looked into.

Well in the last couple of days I have been doing a little research, and I have been surprised. According to some estimates, at current rates of usage uranium (including reprocessing and using what is in our nuclear weapons) could run out by 2035.1 The situation with thorium is little better. Not will this uranium be cheap. The 2035 figure assumes we use uranium up to a cost of $130 / kg, far more than the current price of $50 / kg.

These figures are on the ‘pessimistic’ side, but even according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (whose role is to increase and accelerate the role of civilian nuclear power) supplies will last for just 85 years at current usage. This caveat is crucial, since many of the supporters of nuclear advocate it as a substitute for coal and oil. Given that nuclear supplies only a small percentage of global power the level of expansion necessary would appear inconsistent with the available fuel.

Now as with oil and gas there are ‘unconventional’ sources of uranium fuel. It can be extracted from seawater for $300 / kg. Given the already high price of nuclear this seems to make it an even worse deal. Fast breeder reactors are an option as these create their own fuel, but so far there is little indication that these are being widely adopted.

The bottom line is that it seems nuclear fuel will be nowhere near as cheap and available in the future as many would have us believe. Coupled with the predicted peaking of cheap oil in 2020–2030 (IEA), the need for an energy revolution is more urgent that ever.

1. Schindler and Zittel (2007): Alternative world energy outlook 2006: a possible path towards a sustainable future published in Advances in Solar Energy, Vol. 17, 2007 (Earthscan Publishing.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

UK offshore wind passes 1 GW mark

The UK has now installed more than 1 GW of offshore wind power, more than any other country, following the completion of the Robin Rigg and Gunfleet Sands wind farms. This is good news, and means that offshore wind is finally on its way to making a serious contribution to UK energy needs. Currently there are more than 40 GW of offshore wind in the pipeline, which if completed, would generate around 40% of the country's electricity.

Also, according to RenewablesUK, it was revealed that the load factor (the amount of time the turbines are running at full capacity) for offshore wind averaged 35% in 2009. This is broadly equivalent to hydropower in the UK, and only 5%-10% less than standard thermal power. In coming years this seems likely to increase, making offshore wind a generally exciting prospect..

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Cartoon fun

Hey, check out this cartoon by the fantastic Marc Roberts on the same World Bank issue I wrote about below.... and read more about the adventures of Frank on his website...

Monday, 12 April 2010

World Bank blues

Several years ago I edited an article by a guy from the World Bank saying how it was essential to shift investment towards renewable energy. Well I have just come back from a consultation meeting called by the Bank to help them decide their new energy strategy. The same guy was there, heading up the consultation. He spoke of the need to shift investment into renewables, and the difficulties they face. His slide show had plenty of pictures of turbines and solar panels. So far so banal.

The interesting point came when the floor was opened up and questions were asked about the World Bank’s recent investment of $3.75 billion in a massive new coal power station in South Africa (see here). This will produce millions of tonnes of CO2, increase demand for coal (which brings with it mining) and, according to many NGOs and energy companies, do little to alleviate inequality, since the electricity is to be provided cheap to large industrial interests.

The guy from the WB was fairly defensive, but after rattling on about how little power there is in Africa (true, but South Africa is the exception) and saying they took many things into account it came down to this (I am paraphrasing): We looked at how many megawatts we could get for our dollars and coal came out cheapest. Well, if that is the sole criteria for World Bank decisions, why bother with the consultation?

So we now have the ludicrous situation where the donor countries for the Bank are accepting that they will need to provide money for climate change adaptation to the poorest countries, as well as technology and money for mitigation. At the same time, the Bank is providing cheap loans to build hugely destructive infrastructure. So the western taxpayer is being asked to fund the coal power station, and fund the mitigation measures to deal with it. Somewhere in the middle big business makes money. The World Bank says it is powerless to intervene or put green qualifiers on its loans.

The UK is currently the single biggest contributor to the World Bank. While it is admirable the country puts so much money into a development institution, one can’t help but feel that the WB is not fit for purpose. I would propose that the UK, and any other country which was unhappy with the South Africa decision, should consider withdrawing their money from the WB, and using it to form the nucleus of a Green Infrastructure Development Bank.

As an aside, I never fail to be amused by the cheek of some in this business. There was a guy from an oil major who stood up and said that the primary function of the WB in energy should be ensure the functioning of the market. He then went on to say that his company (one of the biggest) needed money to help it develop its carbon capture and storage. Now, you will never hear me say that the job of anyone is to defend the market, but you can’t have it all ways.

Friday, 2 April 2010

UK sets up world’s largest marine reserve

Good news. The UK government has set up the world’s largest marine reserve around the British Indian Ocean Territory. I know that some of the Chagossians who are looking to return to their home in the territory are upset about this, but from everything I have heard the two things are not really connected. If the Chagossians do return to the archipelago then at least the seas should still be in good condition. If it is still ruled by the UK, a deal can be worked out to allow the islanders fishing rights in the reserve. If not they can do what they like. The Mauritians are also upset, because the UK has agreed to give them the islands when they don’t want them any more. Again though, I don’t see the problem. If they get them, they can change their status, but in the meantime anything which can protect the region from commercial fishing, deep sea mining and illegal exploitation can only be a good thing.
Now, let’s see what we can do to speed up the creation of National Marine Reserves around the British Isles.