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Posted by admin on

Food prices: biofuels to blame?

I’ve seen a lot of references to the impact of increased biofuel production on the price of food recently. It seems to be accepted that they are one of the major causes of the incredible rises we have recently seen; rises that have almost doubled the price of bread in the supermarkets. But I question whether it really has been the growing of biofuels behind this increase.

For all the references to biofuels in articles about rising food prices, I have been able to find no data on how much farmland has already been turned over to their production. Given their lack of commercial availability, I struggle to believe they are yet being produced in any great quantity. My understanding is that they are largely still at the trial stage, except in countries like Brazil where Ethanol-based fuels have long been on the market. In most ofther countries they are at best a small-percentage additive to existing fuels.

It would be incredible if a few trials are having anything like the effect on prices that has been caused by increased demand from India and China, droughts in Ukraine and poor harvests elsewhere. Perhaps the incredible lobbying power of the oil companies is at work again…

Posted by admin on

Nuclear Gets Glowing Endorsement

The government has backed plans to develop 10 new nuclear power stations. According to Greenpeace these will only cut carbon emissions by 4% by 2025 — too little, too late. Though Greenpeace may not be the most independent source of statistics, I remain hugely sceptical about the wisdom of investing in nuclear fission.

Historically it has been a hugely inefficient source of power, requiring huge financial support from the government to maintain its viability. Though the government claims the costs will not be met by the tax payer, the fact is that we all have to pay for electricity. If nuclear comes to represent 20% of our generating capacity as the government forecasts, that could mean a serious increase in electricity prices. Though the industry claims the new generation of reactors are more efficient, the nuclear industry is already pushing for a government set minimum price for carbon emissions — only when this rises above a certain level does nuclear power become profitable. The higher the price of carbon, the higher the price of power.

They say ‘better the devil you know’, but history shows only failure for nuclear power. The government has invested only miserable sums in alternative energy research — certainly relative to the massive subsidies received by the nuclear industry. Perhaps they might want to consider throwing some big money at alternatives before jumping back in to bed with a very dirty devil.

Posted by laura on

Switch: What If?

Time for another Wired-magazine inspired entry. This month’s issue looks at the possibility of a breakthrough in cracking ethanol from cellulose. Current biofuel technologies are inefficient and don’t present a real alternative to oil. But if this breakthrough comes — and billions of dollars of venture capital investment suggests it will — the world is going to be a radically different place…

Imagine if the US no longer relied on oil for fuel, but instead could grow its own ethanol without a dramatic impact on food production. The effect would be far reaching. For a start us Europeans could stop being so uppity about their 83-litre V8 SUVs spitting out tons of carbon dioxide. Without the demand for oil, US interest in the Middle East would likely fall sharply. Would having so many troops stationed in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait seem like such a good investment (political, financial, and most of all human)?

With the demand for fuel oil slashed, surely the economics of other oil products would change. The price of plastics and other by-products might rise to make currently disposable products rather more expensive. Clothes, white goods, cars, gadgets, Swedish furniture, CDs and DVDs — many of the trappings of consumerist life might become economically unviable.

Combined with the current trend towards ecological thinking and organic food, there might be a wider trend towards quality. A return to objects designed to last a lifetime. Obviously the price would be higher, but it is a much more sustainable model. It could trigger a switch to materials that are currently considered too expensive for everyday objects — lightweight ceramics and composites for example. Traditional industries like tailors and carpenters might see business boom….

Of course this is all a bit utopian, but there’s no harm in being optimistic when all the world seems to think only in terms of doom and gloom.

Posted by laura on

The Green Problem

So I did my little slot on the Beeb last week, and it went pretty well. My Luddite counterpart was a very nice woman. But I think if we had spent much more time in each other’s company, things might have got a little heated.

Comments like:”I hate car drivers, they are just selfish and pay no attention to cyclists,” and “all that stuff about dishwashers being more eco-friendly than washing up is just propaganda,” were really starting to get under my skin.

Why? Because I consider myself basically a greeny. I may not live in a yurt, survive on a diet of home grown bean-sprouts, and knit my own sandals out of yoghurt, but the majority of people never will. Instead I try to make the best choices I can to minimise the environmental impact of the life that I lead.

For example, I spend a bit extra on longer-lasting, higher-quality, energy-efficient appliances. I buy my electricity from a 100% renewable source. I choose to drive a car that has reasonable performance but is also extremely low on carbon emissions and high on economy (and I am very careful around cyclists). Would I rather walk, cycle, or use public transport? Absolutely. But even if it were possible, it would take me three times as long to get anywhere (I could be working at either end of the country on a given day) and cost many times more. In short, I couldn’t do my job without a car.

So to hear sweeping statements being made about me and the other two thirds of British households with a car is quite frustrating. It is possible to own a car and NOT be a cyclist-murdering, oil-loving, climate change-denier. But as long as either side portrays the choices as black and white, the greenies will never carry the argument.

That is why, despite the scientific consensus, so many people still (want to) believe that it isn’t yet certain that climate change is caused by humans and that there is anything we can do about it. Getting people to live in a yurt and give up modern comforts is simply not an option. But ask them nicely and they are more than likely to meet you half way.

Posted by laura on

Weathering the Storm

This weekend I got well and truly stuck. Snowed-in to be specific. Not something that happens often in the UK. Even more freakishly it only took around ten minutes of snow to make three different routes out of the valley I was in unpassable, at least as far as my car was concerned (low-profile tyres and a torque-y diesel engine do not make a happy combination for driving on snow).

It got me thinking about climate change — most immediately how that is a much better name for what is happening than Global Warming. Kudos to the PR team who engineered that one.

Looking at the fairly basic, but very informative BBC Online pages about climate change, you can see that it will probably mean three things for the UK. More flooding, higher average temperatures, and more wind and rain. Given that our architecture isn’t designed for these conditions — as demonstrated by the casualties of last week’s winds — and that there simply isn’t enough space in the UK to move everyone to higher ground, we’re going to need some pretty innovative solutions.

House design could change in some fairly interesting ways. For example, roof structures will need to be redesigned and refurbished so that they are less susceptible to winds and torrential downpours. Thousands of houses in the UK have ageing roofs that wind can easily get under, and water can easily get through. Perhaps the roofing business is a good place to be right now? Especially if you can combine roof reinforcement with photovoltaic panels, which are slowly falling in price.

Flood plains are fairly common in the UK — too common for everyone to just move out of them. So will we see areas of land artificially raised? Or perhaps streets and houses built on stilts/piles that take them above water? If not, it might be time to start shopping for a houseboat, if you live near a river.

Heavy rains are bizarrely difficult for the water companies to capture. The fact that parts of the UK have only just come out of a hosepipe ban, tells us something is going to need to be done about the water infrastructure. Not only must we waste less, we must become more efficient at capturing what does fall in heavy rains.

Power infrastructure too will need to be reinforced. Given the relatively light lashing (by future standards) the UK received, it was disturbing how many people were without power, and for how long.

Posted by laura on

Back to the BOTF: Energy

Right, back on my favourite hobby horse for another ride: energy.

The BOTF looked at four energy sources: wind, water, solar…and fusion.

The last one still seems very much science fiction rather than fact. For all the successes of the JET programme, and forthcoming ITER, you still have to put in a lot more energy than you get out for fusion to occur. More energy sink than energy source then. (I also seem to remember a problem with the toroidal magnetic fields twisting and lifting tons of equipment off the ground, but I can’t find any evidence of this on the web. Any clues greatly appreciated).

It is the other three sources, and their lack of employment that vexes me.

For example, in the UK we are currently considering a massive building programme for new nuclear power stations to meet our growing energy needs as we try and ween ourselves off coal and shut down the ageing Magnox reactors. Yet we find ourselves falling out (pun intended) with Iran over its desire to build nuclear reactors because of the potential side effects that it supports the creation of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if all the money the British government had poured in to supporting a loss-making nuclear industry had instead been poured in to research into renewable energy. Today instead of negotiating a fine line with Iran over whether they really need nuclear power, and why we are allowed to have it but they aren’t, we could demonstrate that no-one needs it. If Iran really wanted nuclear weapons rather than energy, its government would have to say so explicitly.

Simplistic? Maybe, but given the amount of progress the renewable energy industry has made with just tiny levels of investment, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect much greater advances with significantly more investment.

Wind power particularly has made great strides. Small turbines are now available in B+Q (although not with my suggested packaging of the government grant), which brings us back to the theme of my last post: self-sufficiency. If householders all start putting up wind turbines of our own accord we will reduce our reliance on the energy companies. They might take notice and finally start to invest a bit more heavily in technologies that will reduce our reliance on oil and dirty, expensive, nuclear fission.

Then we might be on a slightly better footing when we start telling other countries that they’re not allowed nuclear power because it’s dangerous.

Posted by admin on

A Turbine On Every Roof

Scenario A
Imagine a salesman came to your door and offered you a wind turbine. It would bolt on to your house, generate part of the electricity you use and reduce your bills accordingly. And, of course, it would be good for the environment. All he wants for it is £2,500.

Ignoring the fact that few people trust door-to-door salesmen, whatever they are selling, the answer would probably be ‘no’. It’s a lot of money, the return on investment would take years, and it wouldn’t be worth the planning hassle with the neighbours.

Scenario B
Imagine a salesman came to your door and offered you a wind turbine for £500. It would normally cost five times that but there is a government grant that will cover the rest. It will pay for itself in just three years. And, of course, it would be good for the environment.

More people would probably say yes at this point. I certainly plan to get a wind turbine for the house when some of the other more urgent things that require my £500 have been done. But still it is a lot of money and a lot of hassle. This is (roughly) the reality of the situation at the moment, and looking out the window will tell you not a lot of people have a wind
turbine on their houses. Yet.

Scenario C
Imagine someone came to you from your existing eco-friendly electricity company. (Because of course you have switched to a green electricity company. Haven’t you?)

Said eco-friendly salesman calls and says he wants to put a turbine on top of your house. It makes no noise, will cut 20% off your electricity bills and he will sort out all the paperwork and have it fitted. Oh, and of course you will be helping to save the world.

Some NIMBYs and refuseniks are still going to say no, but for a lot of people the financial argument here would be compelling. Especially if the tax on non-green sources of electricity were bumped up to make the financial argument even stronger.

These figures are pretty rough (I invite people to send me more accurate ones if they have them) but a wind turbine costs around £2500, and there are government grants available for around £2000 of that. In Scenario C that makes the cost of the turbine around £500 to the electricity company. About the same as a new mobile phone.

Mobile phone companies subsidise the cost of phones to such a great extent that even very sophisticated smartphones are now free if you spend £25 a month or more. Average electricity bills for a family of four are more like £50 per month. So why can’t the electricity companies afford to stump up to subsidise a wind turbine on, if not every roof, then certainly the roofs of those that want them? If the capital outlay is a problem, then there are certainly venture capitalists out there interested in innovative green ideas (Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management for one).

So if you’re reading this, as the business development manager of Scottish Power, Green Energy, or someone else with the power to make it happen, drop me a line. The idea is yours for free. All I ask is that I can be your first customer.

OK and maybe I might ask you to throw some money in to a few other ideas of mine. Did I tell you the one about the biodiesel…

Tom Cheesewright