Thursday, 30 April 2009

Coal Fired Power Stations

Last week, Ed Milliband stood up in parliament and gave the go-ahead for a new generation of coal fired power stations.

These coal fired power stations are to be fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to capture a percentage of emitted greenhouse gases and transport them to empty gas wells in the North Sea where they will be stored. However those emissions which are not captured by the CCS system will be free to enter the atmosphere.

100% CCS is supposed to be (retro)fitted to all coal-fired power stations within five years of 2020. I remain dubious. CCS is as yet unproven in full. Parts of the process have been proven to work, but as yet no full scale plant is operational. It is possible - though not guaranteed, especially with the present economic climate - that the technology will be workable eventually. But what if it is not? Will the government then shut down existing power plants, knowing that the result will be a poor electricity supply? This would surely be a very unpopular decision, so we have to assume that coal fired power stations would continue to emit massive amounts of carbon.

Should CCS technology prove viable, there remains the issue of the long-term security of the carbon storage. We would need to be very certain that the carbon dioxide will remain trapped and not escape, perhaps adding significantly to ocean acidification.

The Guardian revealed recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/apr/20/police-intelligence-e-on-berr) that secret intelligence on climate protesters was passed to E.ON ahead of the demonstrations at Kingsnorth last year. Given that E.ON is likely to be one of the companies involved in the construction of new coal-fired power stations, one might be forgiven for asking the Gramscian question "Who benefits?"

Surely we should be investing in efficient green energy technologies to generate our electricity. There are several tried and tested technologies we might promote:
• Biomass: Locally sourced biomass (e.g. used vegetable oil, vegetable waste or short rotation coppice) could be burned to provide electricity.
• CHiP: In CHiP, biomass is burned to produce electricity. The output heat is also captured and then used to heat the existing gas stream, then used to produce more electricity. The proposed Combined Heat "intelligent" Power (CHiP) plant at Becton in London is a very good example.
• There is also the possibility of generating electricity and heat (CHP) through incineration or gasification of rubbish. As with any heat producing plant, the waste heat can be utilised to provide heating and hot water for local residents via "district heating." Schemes.
• Biochar: Biochar kilns such as those provided by the Biochar Fund in Cameroon use pyrolysis to produce biochar and heat and electricity (CHPC). The Biochar Fund's stoves can also be used for cooking while the char is being made.
• In the UK, we have potential for good tidal current, wave and wind generation.

An important point to consider in the discussion of energy security is the role of decentralised energy: the use of local resources for local people. For example some areas are ideal for wind or tidal generation where others might be better burning rubbish or biomass: it makes sense to use the technology best suited for the area. This would result in a greater number of small-scale power stations or clusters of off-grid microgeneration, opening opportunities for community "ownership" schemes and local jobs building and maintaining the technology. These local schemes would be accountable to and would benefit local people, rather than corporations accountable to distant shareholders. Energy security should also be enhanced, where cables travel only short distances instead of across the whole country: energy outages in one area would not have a knock-on effect on another.

At the end of the day coal is a fossil fuel and has all the drawbacks associated with any fossil fuel – including the fact that, one day, we will run out.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Climate Change Now

The climate change we are currently experiencing is a direct result of the way people have lived, especially in the last 200 years, and people are just one of its many victims.
• In November 2005 the Papua New Guinean government decided to abandon their 30 year battle to stop the Pacific destroying homes on the Cataret Atolls. In the following 2 years, the Cataret people officially became the first to be evacuated because of climate change.
• According to the International Red Cross report Preparedness for Climate Change (2003), over the decade prior to their report (1993-2003) weather-related disasters accounted for 90% of all reported natural disasters and 86% of all deaths from natural disasters. Subsequent to the publication of this report, we experienced hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Ike (2008), the Boxing Day Tsunami (2004) and the Pakistan earthquake (2005), which would have pushed the percentages even higher.
• In June last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned that climate change was forcing growing numbers of people in the developing world to flee their homes.
• The UNHCR 2007 Global Trends Report (http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/STATISTICS/4852366f2.pdf) states that the number of people under the UNHCR's responsibility had risen steeply for the second year running, from 9.9 to 11.4 million.
• According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre the number of people displaced internally by conflict increased from 24.4 to 26 million people. As climate change degrades already stressed environments, conflict for resources, which is at the root of the conflict in Darfur among others, (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200704/darfur-climate/2) are likely to increase.

In a Guardian poll (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/apr/14/global-warming-target-2c) sent to climate scientists who met in Copenhagen ahead of the G20 summit (see previous post, Saturday 21 March 2009) 86% of respondents said that they do not believe that we will be able to keep mean global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade; the most likely outcome is a temperature rise of 5-6 degrees centigrade. We are likely to see this rise by 2100, and some delegates believe it will happen by 2050. But what does this mean in real terms? Climate modelling predicts dire consequences if the global mean temperature rises by 4 degrees centigrade: a world where much presently inhabited land becomes uninhabitable due to extreme weather conditions, including most of the USA and all of Africa and India. At the same time, the habitable areas will be struggling to cope with local crises caused by far more severe weather events than they have previously experienced. A very good map from New Scientist illustrating this can be seen here (http://www.newscientist.com/articleimages/mg20126971.700/1-how-to-survive-the-coming-century.html).

If this model is accurate, then over the next few decades we can expect to see a massive increase in the number of refugees and displaced people, some as a direct result of global warming and others as a result of conflict for increasingly scarce resources.

We face the dual crises of peak oil and climate change at the same time as a global economic crisis. As we struggle to deal with food and water shortages, flooding, cyclones and refugees fleeing uninhabitable areas, how will our modern "liberal" societies deal with the challenge?

People facing adverse conditions tend to become more rigid in their views, in a bid to conserve increasingly scarce resources for their own community of like-minded individuals. In times when people feel their very survival is at stake, there is a stronger reaction against minor crime, against foreigners, and against anyone who challenges the status quo. It’s difficult to imagine people welcoming an influx of refugees into already over-burdened communities. We may see the rise of fascism and nationalism, martial law or entrenched gang rule/warlordism, depending on the extent of collapse in the individual area, with competition and perhaps war for increasingly scarce resources.

How will states deal with the refugee crisis? A state facing severe shortages of basic necessities and with a populace fearful of increased demands on local resources is likely to refuse entry to refugees. Vast amounts of precious and increasingly scarce resources may go into maintaining a standing army to protect the nation’s food security.

How will a starving nation act to secure food, water and energy? One absolutely terrifying possibility is the use of WMD in this scenario. Will the knowledge that their weapons may pollute the very resources they are trying to secure prevent them using those weapons? Probably not if they have the technology to clean the area afterwards, or if there’s the slightest hope that even polluted resources will keep them alive for just a little while longer. Truly desperate people have nothing to lose.

Human history holds many unpleasant examples of atrocities resulting from competition for even non-essential resources, and we must make sure that they are not repeated.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Thoughts from The Age of Stupid

I attended a public screening of the excellent film Age of Stupid last night. Between the film and the discussion that followed, two things really struck me.

1) The impact of globalisation
2) Our sense of "entitlement" in the developed world coupled with the aspirations of those in developing nations.

In the film, the Nigerian woman living in the polluted Niger delta, dealing daily with the consequences of our unquenchable thirst for oil and Shell's unquenchable thirst for profit, wanted to live in an American house like an American. The Indian low-cost airline entrepreneur was inspired by EasyJet. Our culture, which rides on the back of multinational corporations like Shell and McDonalds, is exported around the globe as "the good life," to the point that impoverished women all over the world buy manufactured baby milk – despite the fact that they cannot afford it – because it is more “civilised” than breast-feeding. Views of the world which differ from the current western norm are deemed “primitive,” "unrealistic" or "radical" and are marginalised or demonised. People who live in self-build houses made from natural materials in the developing nations are objects of appalled pity and often even scorn: those who live in similar houses by choice in the developed world are generally regarded as certifiable extremists.

We in the developed world are living at an unsustainable level. Our consumption of resources is vast and we seem to take it for granted. For example in my local Tesco there are organic strawberries from Spain, blackberries from Mexico, organic apples from the USA and organic bananas from the Caribbean. My organic sea-salt is from South Africa and my organic, fairtrade coffee is "produce of more than one country". We take all this and more (our bread, chocolate, cars, toilet paper, washing machines, gravel drives, computers, cotton clothing and mobile phones...) for granted. At a more basic level, our "right" to constantly available hot water and clean drinking water and 24-hour heating for our homes in winter goes unquestioned and we barely consider the impact that this has on the planet. Even "green" consumption still uses resources. Wind-farms still need concrete, steel and the energy to manufacture them, and organic veg box schemes still deliver bananas and oranges shipped from across the world.

We need to examine the fundamentals of our society and, as individuals, to examine our way of life. To reconsider the values and ethics which are the foundations of our lives both individually and communally.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cold Rush

As Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev meet in London, further north relations are not so warm.

According to the Guardian newspaper, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/28/russia-gas-oil-arctic-nato) Russia has announced plans for a dedicated military force to patrol the Arctic.

As the Arctic warms and its ice melts, facilitating access for ships and offshore drilling rigs, northern countries (including the EU) are lining up to exploit the oil and gas reserves in the polar region. In 2007 Russia planted a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole, laying claim to the area, and last September Mr Medvedev said that the region must become Russia's strategic resource base for the 21st century. This attitude has heightened international tensions, and the suggestion by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in January that NATO should have a presence in the region was not well received in Russia.

The jockeying for position to exploit remaining fossil fuel reserves is short-sighted and runs directly counter to our imperative need to combat climate change. We need to stop burning fossil fuels and investigate other, cleaner forms of energy. The Arctic contains an estimated quarter of the world's unexplored oil and gas reserves and its exploitation will have a huge effect on the climate.

The benefits of a few more years of cheap "business as usual" cannot outweigh the costs. This short-term bonanza will have severe consequences for us all.