Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Rambling thoughts on wind and power generation, part 4

There was never going to be a fourth part to this rambling, but comments on- and off-line have rather forced my hand. This section will go into what I believe environmentalists should do.

Firstly, let me say that most environmentalists I have met have had their hearts in the right place. They care deeply about the environment, and many are guided by their own personal morals. I may disagree with some of what they say, but much of it makes sense. (And let's face it: there is no one environmental movement, and there are many disagreements between environmentalists about the way forward).

Having got that unheralded unanimity out of the way, this is what I think they should do.

All interested parties (i.e. the government, environmentalists and even armchair commenters such as myself) should sit down and produce detailed figures of where they foresee our power coming from by 2021 and 2031. In doing so, they are only allowed to reduce the maximum power used by the country by 10% (history has shown that efficiency savings are swamped by new uses for power). Their figures should include costs and risks.

Again, I would recommend David MacKay's book, 'Sustainable energy without the hot air' for anyone wanting to start on this process. At the very least you will learn a great deal about the issues. Knowledge is key - I have certainly learnt a great deal as I have written these posts. Try to throw your preconceptions into the long grass as you do the work, and try out various scenarios. Of course this is exceptionally hard to do in practice.

If anyone wants to decrease the available power by more than 10% then they need to explain:
  • What the coping strategies will be (i.e. how to ensure that our economic and social life can continue with that reduced power).
  • What the effect of that change will be with respect to the world's total energy consumption.
I read with interest the Green Party's manifesto at the last election. Amongst more sensible proposals (e.g. introducing smart meters), the 'energy' section contains the following:
Prioritise the new 3 Rs: Remove, Reduce, Replace. First remove demand altogether where possible (e.g. by stopping the carbonintensive activity altogether, or by true zerocarbon technology); then reduce demand (e.g. by energy-efficiency measures); then switch to renewables for whatever energy need is left.
I would like to know what 'true zerocarbon technology' is, as it does not currently exist in any form for many industries. Just look at the problem with electric cars: the range of such cars are far too low to be usable for most people, and the charging time is prohibitive. There is currently no acceptable replacement for the petrol and diesel engine. This is called betting the future on the unknown ('oh, something will come along...'). It may, but it may not, and possibly not in the required timescale. Even if we all moved to electric cars tomorrow, we will need a way to generate the power for them. The only solution is for us to all travel less, and it will be a brave politician to demand this of his or her electorate.

Stopping carbonintensive activity is also immensely difficult. Fort instance, do they want to ban the use of cement (responsible for about 5% of man-made CO2 emissions)? If so, how does that conflict with their other manifesto commitments, for instance to build new houses? Can we build high-speed rail without cement?

Reducing demand is economically dangerous. How do you reduce demand? Agriculture is a major source of CO2 emissions, yet how do we reduce demand and still feed the world's population? Oh, and the environmentalists will not let us use genetic modification to increase yields either.

Additionally, they say:
Aim to obtain about half our energy from renewable sources by 2020 and ensure that emissions from power generation are zero by 2030.
Yet they do not give details of how we will meet these targets without risking massive social upheaval (remember, there is only nine years before 2020). Saying 'build more windfarms!' is not a solution.

It seems to me that few in the environmental movement are being honest about their plans. Frankly, their sums do not appear to add up.

The energy section of the Green Party manifesto details their obsession with carbon, and nothing about how to mitigate the effect that their policies will have on the population. Whilst depressingly vague on the form these amazing zerocarbon technologies will take, it contains an entire section detailing their reasoning against nuclear power. This includes the staggering claim that, as doubling nuclear power would only reduce carbon emissions by 8%, it is not worth doing. They also say that consumers would have to pay for nuclear reactors, yet they conveniently forget that consumers are already paying excesses for renewable power (indeed, they want to increase such payments by increasing the feed-in tariffs).

It was not an energy policy; it was a series of wishes wrapped up in an unsustainable package.

The environmentalists need to come up with full solutions, including figures, risks and costs, rather than just sniping from the sidelines. Only then can there be true debate. MacKay has made a good stab at some of this (see chapter 27 of his book, where he details five possible low-carbon plans - page 212 shows these in comparison). None of these plans are perfect. I have yet to see similar breakdowns from the Green Party, Greenpeace or any of the other campaigners. (*)

If they cannot come up with the figures then their comments should be treated as a small part of a much larger whole.

(*) It would be interesting to see a website that takes MacKay's work and allows the user to build his or her personal energy policy for the country. Each decision could come with estimated costs and risks. At the very least it would give people an indication of the awful complexity of the issues. It could also give you CO2 emission totals and the geopolitical problems (e.g. of getting oil from the Middle East, or solar power from northern Africa). There is something similar to this that can be downloaded from the website, although based on Excel (**). Unfortunately it does require more than a little knowledge to use. A little extra work should get it there.

(**) This is a freakilly powerful Excel spreadsheet, and shows the power of this brilliant package. As a further aside, I once worked with a project manager who had written a comprehensive project management system in Excel. It was amazing, but I could never quite get my head around it.

1 comment:

Alan Sloman said...

Another First Class post David - Many thanks,