Category Archives: energy
The news is full of outrage about rising domestic energy bills. So by way of contrast, I thought I should mention this morning’s letter from my electricity supplier, EDF. From next month they’re making a 32% reduction in my monthly direct debit payments. From above to below what they were last time I blogged on a related subject.
My usage hasn’t changed significantly in all that time.
FWIW, UK energy charges have been kept artificially low for many years, as policy (and regulators) put cheap supply now ahead of essential investment in future supply, energy security, and cleanup – all areas where we significantly lag much of Europe. All part of The Liar’s feelgood bubble. In general terms, I expect prices should be rising.
I got an unsolicited package through the post: four “low-energy” light bulbs. They’re from British Gas (a domestic energy supplier), and no doubt part of an effort to play “green”. I guess they can join the spare bulbs I already have sitting in a drawer.
As feelgreen efforts go, it seems mostly harmless: a low-cost effort that could have a very marginal positive outcome. But as ever, there’s a downside: these are old-fashioned, ugly bulbs, and could reinforce prejudices about “energy-saving” bulbs being horrible in people like my mother.
More problematic is the government’s latest: free or subsidised improvements to the insulation of some peoples homes. Again, on a narrow view there should be a positive outcome, but this time it’s not cheap&easy: the energy companies could more usefully direct their resources to clean energy. Rising energy costs are the right stimulus to home insulation. And, unlike the light bulbs, free home insulation is limited to homeowners, and so completely excludes the poor.
Having said that, there is at least an argument that the government is doing the right thing. Namely, political expedience. The fact that energy companies will be paying helps defuse the pressure for a so-called windfall tax: something that would damage their ability to invest in the future, not so much in direct costs, but in scaring investors away. It could even do collateral damage in other industries.
Alas, none of this does anything for clean energy. The Alice-in-Wonderland windfall handed to energy generators in free CO2 allowances is genuine and very wrong. If we accept the carbon market, it should be operated by auction to the highest bidders. If relief to polluters is considered necessary, give them some measure of corporation tax relief tied to the energy they produce, so clean energy gets the benefits.
 who are not the same as domestic providers – something the commentators seem to overlook.
Today’s junkmail: someone providing solar energy for the home. Oh, and the private swimming pool. With big subsidies: up to 100% on selected promotional properties, and government subsidies on others. Great! Clean energy on the very-cheap.
Unless of course you’re stuck with renting your home, and any such investment would be in the hands of your landlord. Yep, like so many benefits, this one excludes the poorest 30% (or whatever) of the population, who just get the privilege of subsidising richer folks. OTOH, rather pay for their solar power than their excessive consumption of dirty energy. Except – we get to do that too, through a range of payments, as well as tax-breaks like low-rate VAT.
How’s this for a radical suggestion. Increase solar-energy microgeneration while at the same time benefitting poorer folks by legislating for its installation in rented property. Add ever-tougher energy standards as mandatory requirements when letting a property. To include basic solar panels for any property with a south-facing area of roof. In the case of flats, these should feed communal (but metered) hot water supplies. Nah, dream on …
I just looked at my latest electricity bill. EDF (the supplier) appears to have introduced a usage measure, showing my comparative consumption now vs the last quarter and a year ago:
That’s a small reduction, which is entirely explained by the fact that I was away from home for 3 of the 14 weeks covered, as against 1 of (probably) 13 last year. No surprise there: I haven’t changed my lifestyle, and much of my usage is dictated by the fact that I work full-time from home (which means 100+ hours/week of computer time, and corresponding kitchen usage). In other words, no real change.
I don’t know what their units are, but good on EDF for including this information. If it helps some users to “slim”, then it can’t be a bad thing! At least, until it induces complacency. Have other suppliers introduced anything like that?
In a comment on my recent blog entry, Mads points to water-cooled systems from Sun. In another comment, John mentions a project he’s involved in that may or may not get the goahead to harness heat from a data centre.
Following Mads’s link, I see Sun claims its watercooled systems to 40% more efficient than some alternative – presumably one that would be equivalent in functional terms. Whilst 40% may be better than nothing, it’s still a helluva lot of waste. You could say you waste 50% more than you save. What is missing from Sun’s pages is any suggestion of harnessing that energy and putting it to good use.
What Sun should produce, and what could make the decision much easier for John’s project, is systems in which capturing and re-using waste heat is integral. A plumber should be able to able to plug them in to a normal heating system, just as they would another heat source like a boiler or immersion heater. That is a paradigm shift in computer design, and it is indeed manufacturers such as Sun who are best-placed to take the lead in it.
On a smaller scale, manufacturers of desktop and home computers could perhaps do something similar. A computer with builtin water cooling, that could be plugged in to the cold water supply feeding a domestic water tank. So the computer’s waste heat goes into the household or office heating/hot water, and less energy is required from conventional sources. The cooling system is plumbed in, but the computer’s innards need to be accessible so components can be changed whenever necessary.
In the case of desktop-replacements, that’ll work best where the water tank is within bluetooth range of the desk for connecting peripherals. But if the idea takes off, we’ll soon see it incorporating longer-range options, such as a terminal that just plugs straight in to a wireless router (whose heat should really also be captured), or wired mini-boosters. The principle is simple: concentrate energy use in the plumbed-in components, and minimise it elsewhere.
Just mentioned this on IRC … and it occurs to me that it’s something the chattering classes don’t seem to have noticed. Perhaps if I blog about it, someone might.
Heat exchange is a lot more efficient than generating heat. So we should be using heat exchangers to harness far more of the heat that we generate. Some slight efforts have been made in this direction with combined heat and power, and with harnessing industrial heat for heating living or working space.
On the other hand, all the heat from my computer goes to waste. That on its own is fairly negligible, but in a big data centre that’s a lot of heat. Surely it’s time for server, rack, and other infrastructure-manufacturers to incorporate water-cooling pipes, so that their waste heat can be pumped into an exchange? The industry should adopt a standard size and placement for cooling pipes, so that components can slot together and just work.
With Nature’s heat, it’s the same story. Geothermal heat is popular in some of the most obvious places, like volcanic Iceland where it’s abundant and cheap. But heat exchange works even where there isn’t that extra natural heat: for example, in the UK, it can drastically reduce the energy required to heat a building. Not something you can easily retrofit, but it’s a shame to see it being ignored in new buildings.
One thing I would like to retrofit, if I had a garden, is a heat-exchange with a compost heap. That should be relatively easy, and compost generates lots of heat. Should work well for heating water, or feeding into a heating system.
Sounds like a great class of technology project for sixth-formers or college students with practical abilities. Any students or teachers listening? What are you doing?
That the UK constitution is horribly broken is no news. The Liar spent his first few years in office playing with it like a twelve-year-old with his toys. His own party (among others) told him it was broken, and Tam Dalyell famously posed the Westlothian Question.
Now it appears to be leading towards a crisis. First, the Brown government makes some serious-sounding announcements about long-overdue improvements to a horribly-broken energy policy. The EU backs it up by imposing legally-binding targets on us.
Then the Scottish parliament refuses both nuclear and wind power developments. While as a matter of geography, Scotland is much better-suited than other UK countries for clean energy generation.
So, what does that mean? The EU’s target for the entire UK falls by default entirely on England? Or England-and-Wales, if the Welsh assembly graciously accepts inclusion.
In a sense, that’s no bad thing: it imposes much tougher targets on England than the EU negotiators intended when they gave the UK such unambitious targets. But as a matter of principle, it’s clearly wrong, and it will certainly fuel justified resentment.
Perhaps that’s the Scottish Parliament’s game plan. Where they’ve been given power without responsibility, they’re going to exercise it to raise resentment, and with it support for proper independence. Once they have independence, it all becomes clear again. In this instance, if the EU had set England and Scotland each its own target instead of a collective UK one, we wouldn’t have this problem.
Sunday Evening. Time to be the barroom bore.
Leading scientists have proposed that we should put giant tubes in the ocean. The idea is that nutrients will rise up the tubes from the ocean depth, giving rise to algal blooms at the surface. The nutrients are moved by wave power, and the algal blooms will grow on solar energy, absorbing substantial amounts of CO2. If the plan goes ahead and is successful, it will no doubt only be a matter of time before someone proposes a method to harvest the algal bloom for biomass energy.
This plan, like any other, has a downside: algal blooms are hugely damaging to existing marine ecosystems. It could also precipitate large-scale climate events of its own if, for example, ocean currents are affected. But it appears nevertheless likely to be of net benefit on balance, just as, for example, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy are. Since there’s vastly more ocean than land (let alone land under a benign climate), it looks much better than current biomass schemes which involve similar damage to large areas of land. Another factor in its favour is that the existing ecosystem it displaces is not as dense or as productive as areas of rainforest being cleared for biomass.
So here’s another proposal. Let’s requisition some of the Earth’s poorest ecosystems for production of algal bloom and biomass. Specifically, the deserts. Where there’s very high sunlight for energy, and ample minerals to nourish the bloom. All it needs is water.
This is not about irrigating the desert. That’s a tradition that goes right back to the cradle of civilisation, for example along the Nile. Neither is it relevant that many such schemes have proved unsustainable, leaving ghost towns (or cities) where an irrigated area has deteriorated over time. In any case, freshwater sources that could be harnessed for irrigation are already under huge stress.
The only water source sufficient to pour onto the desert on any scale is the sea itself. That’s going to require a lot of energy to move vast quantities of water, maybe with something like an array of giant archimedean screws. My suggestion is that *potentially* we get back a lot more than we put in. That’s on the premise that it enables growth of rich biomass, maybe indeed huge algal blooms (though not of course existing land-based vegetation) if we create saltwater lakes. Thus the Earth’s most barren and unproductive lands become a carbon sink powered by the immensely fierce desert sun, and a biomass source.
This is of course thoroughly experimental, and I’m neither a biologist nor a civil engineer. Assuming the engineers can solve the logistics, the most obvious risk is that the areas used experience such huge buildups of salt that they become like the dead sea (or even like conventional irrigation that turns bad). To avoid that implies ongoing management of the chemical balance of the desert schemes.
Or a biological alternative. Can genetic engineering help evolution on a little by combining fast-growing algae with extremophiles that thrive in a challenging environment?
Here in Europe, we’re a major energy consuming area. We have the research capabilities and the money. And just to the south, we have the world’s biggest desert! The EU, or indeed individual countries within it, should get together with an appropriate North African country and embark on a major research programme. That needs to be managed in a politically sensitive manner, so that it’s clear that the African country (or countries) will (also) see substantial benefits if the experiment is successful.
The government appears to be finally approving a new generation of nuclear power generation, albeit only (at most) to update our existing power stations, within the existing sites. I’m sure that story isn’t over, but at least it seems to have moved on from Blair waffle-but-build-more-pollution hypocrisy. Taken together with plans for serious investment in wind power, it could be the beginnings of political will to start to fix our badly-broken energy policy.
This is beginning to look like a huge “told you so” moment, as topics that got you labelled a nutcase just a few years ago (and in my case for over twenty years) become popular:
- The naive “green” view we need to focus on energy conservation, not [foo] power generation. Wrong: we need to focus on both energy conservation and better generation.
- The naive “green” view we don’t need nuclear, we need renewables. Wrong, we need both nuclear and renewables, at least for the short to medium term.
- The knee-jerk view, nuclear energy is armageddon. Yes, it presents problems, but the reason they seem so big (and even more so why the cost is relatively high) is because we (rightly) insist on solving those problems. Trouble is, burning fossil fuels is massively worse than anything nuclear energy presents, and its problems are quite simply unsolvable.
- The “biofuels can save us” fallacy is finally being exposed as a fraud, as production and use of biofuels has become a reality.
It’s anti-nuclear idiocy that has prevented me joining any of the mainstream “green” organisations all my adult life. I’ll take up the anti-nuclear cause when and only when we’ve stopped all carbon-burning in both power generation and transport, and have viable alternatives. Unfortunately that won’t happen in my lifetime, as it implies a massive population decline, and I can’t expect to survive the kind of catastrophic circumstances that will lead – sometime – to that decline.
Even more unfortunately, we continue to subsidise energy in many ways, thus killing off economic incentives to be more efficient in the marketplace – both R&D in technology, and sustainable lifestyles. That, and overpopulation, are the hardest political nettles to grasp.
The government has announced a serious programme of building offshore wind farms to supply a significant proportion of our energy needs. For the first time in a political generation, this is not obviously-empty bullshit, but looks like a real announcement. So let me join with everyone else in welcoming it.
However, I must express some reservations about the plan. Apart from practical problems like engineering and maintenance (which I’m sure can be solved – eventually), there are a couple of serious problems.
The lesser of these is the inevitable law of unintended consequences. Some idiot has already described the plan as powering all the UK’s households energy by wind. So householders, anxious to massage their consciences, will tell themselves “my energy use is now sustainable”, and cease to think about constraining it. But that only really affects those few households that are doing anything more than empty tokenism in the first place.
The more serious problem is that it has no economic basis. For the time being, and perhaps throughout the construction, the immediate cost of providing this wind power exceeds that of burning hydrocarbons. So the work will be driven by government rules and incentives. History has demonstrated clearly that free markets are altogether better than command economies for efficiency and innovation. Yet here is the government, commanding let it be so.
The government understands about markets They will create a competitive market, as they have done in other areas of public expenditure, from construction projects, to weapons procurement, to schools and hospitals. So where’s the problem?
The problem is that it’s a narrow micro-market. Sure, it’ll drive efficiency and innovation in the business of building and operating offshore wind turbines. But it will do nothing for out-of-the-box “big picture” ideas: in fact, it will actively lock them out, if they don’t happen to fit neatly in the defined micro-market. That’s the same underlying straitjacket that afflicts the command-and-control economy.
I refer the reader to my sketch Alice in Business for a story of how a marketplace in a narrow sector stimulates incremental optimisations at the expense of a radical order-of-magnitude improvement.
It’s not possible at any price to clean up fossil fuels to the standards we rightly impose on the nuclear industry (one could say, the true cost would be infinite if we did). The proper way to bring in large-scale development of renewable energy is to make fossil fuels pay a more realistic cost for the damage they do.
Governments can do that through taxation: indeed, I have argued for a major reduction in taxes on individuals and companies, with the shortfall being made up by taxing destruction and use of non-replaceable resources. Adjust taxation every year, and make it clear to everyone that this will continue for as long as we are burning any fossil fuels, and suddenly the free market will drive huge investment in renewable energy, including offshore wind.
That’s the real market, where Big Ideas can compete on their merits, and not be squeezed out by narrow constraints.
A political generation ago, John Major’s government did that, albeit just in one market sector. But instead of broadening it to encompass power generation, the present government killed off his good work. While the wind power programme is welcome, it’s no substitute for stimulating the market.