Tag Archive: renewable energy

Huhne in 'The Observer': "We cannot afford to go on relying on such a volatile source of energy when we can have clean, green and secure energy from low-carbon sources"

It is reassuring to see in today’s Observer, on the front page no less, that the UK government is treating the unrest in the Middle East as a reason to get serious about sustainable sources of energy. It is, and they should, but the devil will be in the detail of the plans outlined this coming week. It may be that the protests throughout the arab world will achieve what the most hardened environmentalist protester may struggle with: whipping up political will and public support for renewable energy.

With the very real impact of the recession on things governments and the population generally have prioritised for 30 years – growth, employment and now inflation – it is understandable that environmentalism has been pushed onto the backburner. Annoying, yes, unhelpful, definitely, badly timed from an ecological perspective, absolutely. But understandable, nevertheless. What rising oil prices bring with them is a sense of reality to them that, despite the overwhelming evidence and genuine world-wide impacts, discussion of climate change cannot seem to manage.

As primarily a Financial Times reader, I am always struck by that paper’s unwillingness to talk about climate change, preferring to frame such issues as clean technologies in ways that quietly sidestep mentioning it. This is probably not a bad thing – ill-informed but vocal critics highjack almost any discussion of climate change, especially on online article comment boards. The Financial Times is, however, always happy to write about oil prices. During the uprising in Egypt the tabloids reported on the experiences of British tourists (presumably because Johnny Foreigner is not real a real person who experiences real things, and even if they do, who cares?), The Independent and The Guardian got excited about the winds of change sweeping the world (as only the liberal left can) and The Financial Times reported “Oil Surges as Egypt Protests Grow”. Because we wouldn’t want to get too excited by this politics nonsense when oil prices are rising, now would we? The Telegraph appeared not to notice Egypt for most of the period.

Oil: As we approach the 100th anniversary of the break-up of Standard Oil on the 15th May this year (buy your balloons now before they sell out) it's making the world go around as much as ever

The truth is that it is neither obvious nor straightforward that oil prices damage the well being of the man on the street. You have to understand that oil prices drive inflation, and particularly food inflation, which makes life more expensive. You also have to know that electricity and gas prices tend to rise in line with oil prices, even though neither comes from oil. On the face of it this is like saying “of course the price of tables will rise – the price of plant pots has risen”: on the surface at least it’s a little weird. These facts have, however, filtered down into the decision-making end of the public as received wisdom, and enough that the whole political spectrum is rattled. In economic good times, seriously rising oil prices are only inflationary. In bad times we’re talking about the dreaded stagflation, where the two horsemen of economic apocalypse, inflation and unemployment, ride out together.

(I would also like add, in passing, that this resolution seems to me further evidence of the value of having Lib Dems in the current government. Accusations of impotence and of “selling out” run rife in newspaper comment pages – and in most episodes of The News Quiz on a Friday night – but this may be one of many occasions when a Lib Dem minister or a Lib Dem presence has huge impact on the detail of policies that fly beneath the radar of many such critics. Nor is it an isolated case – I count two or three news stories a week highlighting compromise decisions or finely balanced Conservative-Lib Dem influences.)

With the future of the Middle East as uncertain as ever, future oil shocks may hit the world economy hard. The political unrest of Egypt and Libya may have pushed prices up, but they only produce 0.74 and 0.6 million barrels of oil per day. Iran produces 3.66 million, and Saudi Arabia more than 9 million barrels (source: FT). Even if these shocks don’t materialise, there is a simpler truth here – that the world supply of oil is finite, so in the long-term the price is only going to go one way: up.

In the news today was a proposal to make companies operating nuclear energy in the UK liable for clean-up costs of up to £1.01 billon in the event of a accident, up from only £140 million at the moment. Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne also proposes to allow more types of claim to be made in such circumstances. It is absolutely right for the government to make this change and stop distorting the market as it does now.

Huhne: In favour of building more nuclear plants, but raising the insurance costs

I will come clean here: I am a fence-sitter on the issue of nuclear power. The more I look into it the more complicated and unclear it becomes. I tend to conclude that it is not a power source to be dismissed completely, but mostly is not worth the cost. This may, however, change with technological improvements.

It is, however, unhelpful for nuclear power to be given an unfair market advantage. When its maximum liability level is low it has a huge implicit subsidy: government is then effectively agreeing to clear up the mess from any nuclear disaster. If nuclear energy becomes a bigger part of the UK’s (or the world’s) energy supply because its real costs are being covered by the government, then that is due to a misjudgement on the part of policymakers.

This is not to say all energy subsidies should be opposed, quite the opposite. The cards should be stacked heavily in favour of giving renewable energy an advantage, so the technology is developed swiftly. Subsidies to renewable energy sources are essential to develop areas like wind and solar power to a competitive market position. At present they have an unfair disadvantage simply because however good the fundamental ideas are, they haven’t had the years of development that fossil fuel and nuclear industries have. Adopting the most effective and efficient renewable generation is key to developing a sustainable economy in the long-term.

There is another key way of making the energy market better reflect energy production costs, and that is smart grids. At present less predictable sources of energy like wind are effectively discriminated against by a grid that is designed to move energy in a fairly unsubtle way. High-quality smart grids can allow power companies to monitor the electricity going through all of its power lines in real-time and have much greater control of where the power goes. Electricity inefficiency costs the world dearly: according to IBM the world’s current grids “lose enough electricity annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year” This control makes the reliability challenges of renewable energy much easier to overcome: if there isn’t enough power generation in one area, it can be moved from elsewhere. Smart grids would still have benefits for other energy companies, but would level the playing field still further.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has suggested he might devote after the Governorship to climate change work. How? By focusing on the business end and never mentioning climate change by name. And presumably by being very, very quotable.

The Governator may yet lead the way in the business of climate

One of the most interesting analyses of climate change communications out there is buried in a recent Guardian article on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s future. “The Governator” has speculated he could spend his future after the governorship drumming up support and capital for climate-change friendly technology, a path not dissimilar to Tony Blair’s work on climate change since leaving office, including a recent Chinese low-carbon business initiative.

What’s interesting about this is the focus: future technology, business and big money. Hardly the hallmarks of traditional environmentalism, to be sure. What is even more interesting is that he consciously chooses his language to reflect this: he makes it clear that his strategy is to avoid referring to climate change or greenhouse gases, presumably to sidestep the entire climate change debates going on in the US. He also speaks of avoiding the polarised US politics in this issue, so perhaps by talking about “clean tech” and “future energy sources” he can avoid spooking the businessmen out there who shudder at environmentalism but smile on visions of future technology.

He’s certainly crystal clear when he says on climate change groups: “People get stuck and fall in love with their slogans and with their little agendas”. His pragmatic approach may prove just the ticket. It also chimes perfectly with the recommendations of the Hartwell Paper last May, which argues for “an indirect approach, which pulls on the twin levers of reducing the energy intensity of economies and the carbon intensity of energy” to avoid the “hyper-politicised” environment surrounding arguments over the science.

Those who have seen the film “Amazing Grace” about the life of William Wilberforce will know that the British slave trade industry was broken down through the back door by focusing on the trade with Britain’s enemies, reframing it as a patriotic issue and by the usual anti-slave-trade lobbyists keeping their head down so the bill passed unnoticed. The same slight-of-hand could come in useful here if those like Schwarzenegger are able to avoid the overblown battleground of climate science and get on with advancing the technology, in line with the Hartwell Paper’s “indirect approach” thesis.

Schwarzenegger is not the only one choosing his words carefully on this. Reading a typical article on “Renewable Energy News”, like a typically business oriented one on GE’s investment in “clean technology”, there’s a sense of a business community avoiding a guilty secret that renewable energy is associated with this hippie-Guardian-reader-sandal-wearer-tree-hugger stuff. Even after The Stern Review, a UK government cross-bench consensus, campaigning by both presidential candidates from 2008 and big reports by the likes of Deutsche Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, climate change is something some of those business feel a little self-conscious about discussing too openly.

Schwarzenegger also sees himself as a communicator who communicates clearly by simplifying: “I think that I have the talent of speaking the language in such a way so that the world understands it rather than making it complicated,” he said. This was a trait notoriously ridiculed in George W. Bush, but there is little doubt his plain-speaking style won him elections (as well as praise from former sultan of spin Alastair Campbell), and Schwarzenegger shows signs of some of the same talent.

It is well worth browsing Schwarzenegger quotes online. Among my favourites are “Gray Davis can run a dirty campaign better than anyone, but he can’t run a state”  and “One of my movies was called ‘True Lies.’ It’s what the Democrats should have called their convention”. Oh, and the famous “To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: ‘Don’t be economic girlie men'”.

I’m looking forward to more of the same on renewable energy.

Somewhere, a little swamped by the coverage of the (finally) capped oil leak, have been two other environmental stories in the last couple of days, one dry but important, one inspirational.

On the one hand, a UN-backed report tells us that renewable energy has grown steadily. To lift directly from the BBC:

The authors said the year was “unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices and slow progress with climate policy”.

One of the forces propelling the sector’s strong showing, they added, was the “potential to create new industries and millions of new jobs”. (BBC Website)

A different, Swiss-made manned solar-powered plane. Ok, the aesthetics could use a bit of work...

Good to know, and good context to the second story, that a small, solar-powered sports plane has completed a 7-day flight. Now perhaps I’m getting too excited about this, but, a solar-powered plane! I’m not normally one to get excited about technology or new machines, but this one I can get on the wavelength of. At this point we’re just talking about a tiny, unmanned plane (although there have also been short, manned flights) and no doubt we have years, probably decades, to wait before this becomes a commercial technology carrying the masses through the skies, but its potential as a symbol seems to me to be huge. Wind farms carry a lot of baggage with them, solar panels on the ground are very rarely glamorous or beautiful, but the idea of a solar has a kind of excitement factor to it. It’s easy to imagine fleets of beautiful, silent solar planes with huge wings flying through the sky. It’s futuristic, and not in a kitsch way. I highly recommend a google image search for solar-powered planes: this latest story is, of course just one of many developments of this kind, and the machines are mostly a good-looking bunch.

Somewhere in the last fifty years flying has turned from a glamorous pursuit, a symbol of the future and living at a fast pace, to something morally dubious and done by the packed-in masses with Ryanair or EasyJet. Surely there is something left in that original fantasy of taking to the skies to give this idea the kind of thrill that most renewable energy innovations or energy efficiency drives just don’t have. I would be sorry if this happened in a vacuum, but coupled with the UN report which places this story in an optimistic big picture, this feels like a good omen. I hope there are artists, writers, songwriters out there taking note.

For many of us, flying less is one of the most difficult behaviour changes to envision in a world with, say, high carbon taxes. Some of those most concerned about global warming also believe strongly in the value of a smaller world, myself included. This theme is excellently covered in the song ‘Flying’ by highly political folk-pop group Seize The Day, who I think it’s fair to say are slightly to the left of Gandhi reading the communist manifesto while on crack. This was written by a member of the group to show that she, while having stopped flying herself, understands the positions of their friends who still do. Climate change is not an easy subject to write songs about, but they manage it by making it highly personal (and, indeed, slipping in some fantastic vocal harmonies).

“I discovered so much of who I am

Sitting in deserts in the sand

Nothing and no-one to get in the way

No bills to pay

I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea

I don’t want to think about all the places I may never see

Living is hard but flying is easy…”

(from “Flying” by Seize the Day)

Your blogger aged 19, taking advantage of a smaller world by learning the facts of Mongolian nomadic life in the Gobi desert

And this from climate change activists! For anyone who has gained a lot from international travel, (or, indeed, from high quality international imports), the appeal is obvious. For now, many of us are ready and willing to push for local products and cut down our travelling. But hope is a powerful thing.

The PR angle seems to me to be this. “While personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint are still essential, and the questions posed about our society by the environmental issues it causes remain, it’s looking like technology could make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier. We’re seeing more innovation, more jobs, and some outright excitement, including the possibility of flying up towards the sun, powered by the sun.”

With my dissertation due to be finished in a month on Monday I promised myself less blogging. But some blogs just write themselves…

The Isle of Eigg - left to fry without fossil fuels?

The Isle of Eigg off the west coast of Scotland got into trouble recently when its renewable energy failed to come through at once, reported the BBC and The Telegraph.

There are two ways green groups should respond to this:

1. Point out that the project has had many benefits in both reducing CO2 emissions and achieving energy independence. Both of these achievements provide valuable lessons for the rest of the world. This is the pitch for those interested in the relevant issues to be impressed. It could even be an opportunity to highlight the good work of Eigg (a chance for renewables campaigners to, dare I say it, bring home the bacon. To make toast of their enemies. For renewables campaigning to mushroom…   ok, I’ll stop now)

2. Stress that renewable energy country-wide would accompany development of the national grid to avoid localised power failures. The wind/sun/rain may stop in one area, but is unlikely to grind to a halt country-wide. This is more true in, say, the US and Europe than in the UK, but still has some relevance. It’s not the sexiest message in the world, but someone needs to reassure everyone who is afraid their lights will go out and their TV and laptop will stop working when there’s a drop in the wind.

In both cases some facts and figures would be a valuable way to reinforce the point.