Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Concentrating Solar Power: how mirrors can light up the world

Yesterday the Guardian published an article on my favourite energy solution. It's called Concentrating Solar Power (CSP).

It's a simple, potentially wide ranging and hugely effective solution to our energy needs - not just for the UK, but for the whole of Europe and beyond. Just three vital components are needed - lots of sunshine, lots of space and lots of mirrors, which are arranged so that they focus the sunlight into a small area.

This is how it works: the sun hits the mirrors, which then concentrate the sunlight to create heat. Ever done that ladies survival trick of using a compact-mirror to light a fire? Well, it's a similar principle, except rather than lighting twigs the heat created can be used to generate electricity by raising steam and driving a Stirling turbine, just like a conventional power station.

The electricity can then be transmitted via very efficient high-voltage direct-current cables (‘HVDC’) throughout Europe, the Middle East, North Africa. Some of these HVDC transmission lines are in place already but more would be needed in the proposed new system. The heat from a CSP plant can be stored so that electricity generation may continue through the night and on cloudy days.

There are numerous advantages to this solution:
1. CSP works. There are CSP plants operating successfully in California, Arizona, Spain, the Nevada desert and Southern Australia.
2. It's a carbon-free, nuclear-free solution
3. CSP has huge potential in terms of scale. Every year it pours down the equivalent of 1.5m barrels of oil of energy for every square kilometre.
4. A Europe-wide grid of HVDC Transmission lines could be stored underground and even under the sea.
5. Although capital costs would be high, running costs and maintenance would be low. After all, no uranium or fuel needs to be found - it is merely dependent on the sun as it's constantly renewable source of energy.
6. Studies by the German Aerospace Centre demonstrate that by covering just 0.5% of the world's hot deserts with CSP would provide the world's entire electricity needs, with the technology also providing desalinated water to desert regions as a valuable byproduct, as well as air conditioning for nearby cities.

7. CSP is cheaper than oil (currently at $60 per barrel and increasing), calculated at around $50 per barrel of oil equivalent for the cost of building a plant, falling sharply to about $20, as the production of the mirrors reaches industrial levels. It is about half the equivalent cost of using the photovoltaic cells that people have on their roofs. The TRANS-CSP Report estimates that CSP electricity delivered to London would cost about 5.5 eurocents per kilowatt-hour, including the cost of transmission.
8. The electricity generated can be transmitted over very long distances with transmission losses of no more than about 3% per 1000 km. For the whole of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, it is estimated that average transmission losses would be about 10%. Considering that the ‘fuel’ is free, this compares well with the 70%+ losses that have been accepted for many years in conventional coal-fired power stations (where the fuel is far from being free).
9. Unlike nuclear with it's storage problems, unresolved sequestration issues, high cost of obtaining uranium and high risk of terrorist intervention, CSP has none of these disadvantages.
10. It's a brilliant solution.

The German scientist Dr Gerhard Knies states "Contrary to what is commonly supposed it is entirely feasible, and cost-effective, to transmit solar electricity over long distances. Solar electricity imported to Europe would be amongst the cheapest source of electricity and that includes transporting it," he says. "CSP imports would be much less vulnerable to interruption than are current imports of gas, oil and uranium." It's a realistic solution, and it's a solution we could implement now.

  • For further information, go to the comprehensive Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC-UK) website

  • pdf of Guardian article

  • Go to www.trecers.net/news.html for interview with Dr. Gerhard Knies at "BBC The World Tonight"
  • Sunday, November 26, 2006

    A few quick climate change facts

    I spoke at a conference yesterday and a salient thread of concern arose: that despite the evidence presented, there were still a few who were unsure as to whether climate change was taking place. So here are a few quick summary pointers to assist.

    The starting point is that there is now world-wide unanimous agreement within the scientific community that not only are greenhouse gases rising to unprecedented levels but also that they are happening at unprecedented speeds. There is a direct correlation between rise in temperature and rise in CO2 emissions (see CO2 emissions and temperature graph above). CO2 emissions have risen exponentially since the beginning of industrialisation in the 1850's. It was an era which saw (and continues apace) rapid expansion and use of fossil fuels and gas: man-made greenhouse gases. The scientific community, notoriously cautious in their findings, tell us for our CO2 emissions (and therefore the temperature) to rise much more would be catastrophic for our planet. We are already witnessing the destruction and loss of many natural habitats, and many millions of people will continue to be adversely affected.

    * A recently published book that effectively charts in words, graphs, maps and photography the impact of climate change globally is Paul Brown's Global Warning.
    * The global economic costs of addressing climate change have been examined at length in the Stern Review. He presents the economic argument to act now, not later.
    * George Monbiot's book Heat gives a brilliant analysis of the facts, figures and myths of climate change.

    Most governments are of the opinion that the debate is now over. They now recognise that the window of opportunity to put in place effective solutions is very small - between the next 4 and 10 years. Much action is already being explored and implemented from individual and local level to national and international, and so much more is yet to come. My blog touches upon some of the solutions and indicators of what is happening out there in a world that must and is moving rapidly towards a lower carbon economy.

    Friday, November 24, 2006

    Formula 1 goes green

    Quite remarkably Formula 1 are embracing environmental concerns and are remodelling themselves as leaner and greener. It seems the International Automobile Federation (FIA) have woken up to the fact that they need to change or die. President Max Mosley says saving money, energy and resources and reducing waste is now top of the agenda for a sport famed in the past for profligate spending and conspicuous consumption.

    "The tide of world opinion has just turned and you'll see this particularly with regard to global warming," Mosley declared last week. "There is a distinct movement of public opinion everywhere. I think with the changes we are making we have just caught that tide."

    And the changes proposed? The focus will be on energy recovery and retention. Engine development has been frozen from the end of this year. The FIA wants a new fuel efficiency engine for 2011 after the introduction in 2009 of a lightweight system harnessing wasted energy from the brakes to provide extra horsepower in short bursts. By 2010 the FIA hopes to draw up a regulation for the recovery and re-use of waste heat from the engines. In the longer term there is likely to be a completely new and smaller turbo-charged engine, in line with industry trends, and possible use of bio-fuels.

    Full article: Motor Racing - F1 Catches the Big Green Wave

    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    My farmer's market

    It used to be that I spent every sunday morning being dragged off to church. Those days are now long gone. Just as I have no inclination to embrace another sunday church service, neither do I adhere to the sterility of supermarkets. Not for me a trolley full of unseasonal food flown in from the other side of the world, sprayed and bathed in a toxic mix of pesticides then suffocated with plastic coverings. No, these sundays I merrily pedal off up to my local Farmer's market in Islington for fresh, seasonal and (mostly) organic fayre from local farmers who know their stuff. And so here they are....

    Let me introduce Dave who sells the most magnificent organic apples, juicy pears, sometimes melting medlars, succulent summer strawberries and ravishing raspberries. His Chegworth Valley juices are just utterly delicious and satisfyingly thirst quenching...

    This is David of Downland Produce and his delightful team - he sells award winning porkers and he clearly loves his piggies. His ham hocks and pork chops are mouthwateringly lipsmackingly yummy...

    Meet Sky; she and Kai have an obsession - it's their England Preserves, jams and chutneys made only with fresh organic fruits and vegetables, low sugar content and no added nasties...

    Vicky the Codfather (or should that be Codmother?) looks like some mafioso with her shades on to deflect the glare of the fish-scales. She knows a thing or two about sustainable fishing practices and brings along what has been freshly caught off the Sussex coast...

    If all this makes you achingly hungry, follow the scent to the Queen of Lamb from Hancox Farm for her magnificent burgers, bangers and fried onions...
    ..or have nibble on a freshly baked baguette...

    ..and last of all, sweet french onions. True, not strictly local, but after such a long cycle from Roscoff it seems only fair to lighten his load and buy a string of onions. Irresistible...

    Saturday, November 18, 2006

    Out for Lunch in Clerkenwell

    It was such a remarkably beautiful morning this morning - achingly crystal clear blue skies and autumn leaves finally showing -that the mad russian suggested we have a pad around before heading off for lunch.
    Like tourists in our own city, we wandered aimlessly rediscovering nooks and crannies while the city still slept until finally we ended up at Magma on Clerkenwell Road. A strange and unique bookshop that celebrates the best of here and now - the quirky, innovative, creative, bizarre and green.

    The Lawrieovski radar picked up on a copy of the off-green and stylish mag called Lunch which we hungrily devoured.
    And very tasty it was too.

    Friday, November 17, 2006

    Pronto Condoms

    Okay, slight deviation here, but what the hell, it's friday night and for those who are not out partying, go have a quick peek at what Jacob and Manto are up to. And no, it's nothing to do with organic veg....

    (To my mad inventor friend Andrew Tweedie down in Cornwall - thanks for keeping me chortling)

    Thursday, November 16, 2006

    Queen's Speech introduces Climate Change Bill

    "My government will publish a bill on climate change as part of its policy to protect the environment, consistent with the need to secure long-term energy supplies."

    So said the Queen at the state opening of parliament on 15th November 2006. The event marks the beginning of a new parliamentary session, and the time when the government sets out its legislative agenda for the coming months.

    The Queen's speech confirmed the detail, which includes a long-term goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 and the creation of a new independent carbon committee to help the government achieve this. It proposes new enabling ministers to put in place emissions reductions measures, and provides for better reporting of progress in that goal to parliament.

    Yes, the very fact that the Climate Change Bill has arrived is a huge step forward in the right direction. However, it fails to introduce binding annual targets of cutting emissions – something the Conservatives yesterday committed themselves to if they win the next election. Tony Blair is not keen to be bound by annual targets for reducing UK carbon dioxide emissions despite strong public demand - as demonstrated at the Climate Change March a few weekends ago. Nevertheless, this counts as a huge success for Friend's of the Earth's Big Ask campaign and rising public desire for governmental leadership on climate issues will make it increasingly difficult for the government to shy away from setting binding annual targets.

    [Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Richard Stone, 1992]

    Monday, November 13, 2006

    The green implications of the US mid-term elections

    Capitol Hill, Washington.
    The midterm elections not only shifted the balance of power to the Democrats in Congress they also shifted the political terrain in a number of state houses. And these changes might make America a little greener. No longer is it just about playing defense on environmental issues. For years environmental battles here in Congress had been about stopping things: stopping the oil exploration in the arctic refuge, stopping offshore drilling, stopping changes to major laws like the clean air act and the endangered species act. Now those who are interested in a more environmental agenda, instead of stopping things they have a chance to try to start something. They get a chance to play a little offense for a change. So, here is a short (and somewhat cribbed) breakdown on who to watch out for and what issues they will shout for.

    • Nancy Pelosi. Top of the agenda for California democrat and next speaker of the US House of Representatives is clean energy alternatives to oil imports.
    • The Senate Environment Committee. The chair will go from Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe to California Democrat Barbara Boxer. These two lawmakers are diametrically opposed when it comes to their view on the environment. Unlike Inhofe, Boxer views climate change as a real threat and is very outspoken on the need for the Bush administration to do more about it. Accountability of companies who contaminate land and water will be high on her agenda, and she has spoken up for the need to reinstate a tax on industry to pay for cleaning up toxic sites.
    • The House Resources Committee. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall is taking over from California Republican Richard Pombo. (scourge of environmentalists, Mr Pombo's history includes: attempts to weaken the endangered species act, supporter of drilling for oil in the Arctic, supporter of more drilling offshore, proposed the selling off parts of national parks) Now out of fashion and out of office after 7 terms in Congress. Not only did Pombo loose the chair, he lost his seat, and pretty much all those ideas go out the door with him.
    • Montana backed John Tester for the Senate; an organic farmer who also speaks very skeptically about free trade.
    • Southern Arizona chose 36 year old Gabrielle Giffords, who has a record in her state legislature on water and climate change issues. She wants to pay people to defray the cost of putting solar panels on homes and increase mile standards for cars.
    • Jerry McNerny. The first alternative energy expert in Congress; he's a wind energy engineer.
    • The House Energy Committee. Keep an eye on John Dingell, the veteran Congressman who is returning to that position and that chairmanship that he had 12 years ago. Back then he was very famous as a very tough investigator, digging into what the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency were up to.
    • The House Government Reform Committee. California Democrat Henry Waxman is taking over there, so expect more hearings and more investigations into things like climate change, were scientists censored when they tried to ring the alarm bells on climate change, how the rules were written on mercury emissions from power plants, how did the Bush Administration come up with its energy policy and who was holding the pen when these rules were written.

    It looks like it's going to be a very interesting time across the water....

  • With thanks to Living on Earth. The full written and audio transcript of LOE's 'The Election and the Environment' interview can be found on their website.
  • Eco-footprint: Nuclear Power Station v's Wind Farm

    A senior nuclear power exec claimed at a recent seminar in London that the environmental footprint of a US nuclear power station was 100 times smaller than an onshore windfarm. (no sizes given unfortunately).

    I decided to ask an expert: what are the comparable eco-footprints? This is the response I received:

    AWEA Director and wind expert Tom Gray says "my rule of thumb is 60 acres per megawatt (MW) for wind farms on land". According to the Energy Information Administration, The Fort Calhoun 476 MW nuclear power plant, operational since August 9, 1973, is located on 660 acres near Omaha, Nebraska and has an easement for another 580 acres, the acreage being maintained in a natural state. So on the face of it, on the same 1200+ acres, nuclear gets 480 MW versus 20 MWs for wind, or 40 times more. But the capacity factor for the nuclear plant hovers above 80% and wind is approximately 30%, so clearly the 100 times more claim seems to be 'on the mark' if you chose to forget the nuclear fuel cycle.

    We now have active farming on-sites of large wind farms, and there is no reason to believe we could not also harvest crops between the large wind generators for biomass electric power, which could increase electrical output of the same acreage substantially.

    But a nuclear power generation plant is not an independent entity like wind. A number of processes are needed to keep the generation plant operational, most of which take place elsewhere or at other times than the actual production of electricity. The total package is referred to as the 'process chain' which consists of the following steps:

    * mining, refining and transport of the raw materials and uranium fuels;
    * construction and maintenance of the power station;
    * conversion of fuel or uranium into electricity;
    * dismantlement of the power station at the end of its life span;
    * processing of the resulting waste during the life of the generation plant.

    Mining uranium takes lots of land. Uranium is widely distributed in the earth's crust but only in minute quantities, with the exception of a few places where it has accumulated in concentrations rich enough to be economically mined as an ore. The main deposits of ore, in order of size, are in Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, South Africa, Namibia, Brazil, the Russian Federation, the USA, and Uzbekistan.

    Storing nuclear wastes also takes lots of land. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2000, the USA had approximately 600,000 cubic meters of different types of radioactive waste which were generated, and approximately 700,000 cubic meters were in storage awaiting disposal. Radioactive wastes in the form of spent nuclear fuel (2,467 metric tons of heavy metal) and high-level waste "glass logs" (1,201 canisters of vitrified high-level waste) are in storage awaiting long-term disposal. In 2003, The Energy Department has asked permission to reserve use of 308,600 acres of public land across rural Nevada to develop a railroad corridor to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, located in Nye County, has a land area of 11,560,960 acres, Nye County is larger than the total acreage of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Delaware. Of this vast land area, only 822,711 acres (or just over seven percent of the total) is private land; the majority of the county's land is owned by the federal government. Add potential land loss to human and technical error, harsh weather and earthquakes, and potentially, to terrorism, the land issue becomes the least of the differentiations between the technologies.

  • Treehugger interview with Tom Gray
  • Friday, November 10, 2006

    What to do with old mobile phones

    I need to change my phone, but what to do with the old one? I now have three sitting in a kitchen drawer creating a time-line of bad design. Here's what a bit of research has thrown up:
      Mobi Facts
    • In the UK, the average consumer replaces his/her mobile phone every 18 months and it is estimated that over 15 million mobile phones are replaced each year in the UK.
    • There are an estimated 45 million mobile phones in circulation at present in the UK, 817 million globally.
    • Approximately 77% of the population have at least one mobile phone, yet only 15% are recycled in the UK.
    • That's a lot of phones going to landfill where they become an environmental hazard by leaching dangerous toxins.

    Time to embrace the feel-good factor and ease the burden on your local landfill. Give them instead to a charity to be recycled for use in developing nations or traded for food and survival for the future.
    • Some mobile phone suppliers will take your old one in part-exchange. If they don't, time to change your supplier.
    • Hand it in to your local oxfam shop or send it in a jiffy bag,
      FREEPOST to:
      Oxfam Bring Bring Scheme
      Freepost LON16281
      London WC1N 3BR
    • FREEPOST to:
      World Vision Phones for Food
      ShP Solutions
      Freepost NEA14439
      Lancaster LA1 1ZZ
      World Vision Phones for Food
    • Give it to your granny.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    No More Plastic Bags - Action in Japan and Zanzibar

    Lingerie maker Triumph International Japan's "No More Plastics Bags Bra", a bra which converts into a shopping bag, was displayed at the company showroom in Tokyo yesterday. The bra was created to raise awareness amongst customers to reduce the usage of plastics bags for the good of the environment.

    Having long been a supporter of the highly successful 'plas tax' in Ireland (which has reduced plastic bag consumption by over 95%), and having written elsewhere at length on this issue, I was delighted to read yesterday not only of action in Japan, which comes hot on the heels of Zanzibar's decision to ban the import and production of plastic bags to protect its environment and tourism industry.

    The big problem with plastic bags (a lucrative by-product of the oil industry) is of course their disposal. Plastic bags – unlike paper, cotton or jute bags - do not biodegrade. They photodegrade; breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits which in turn contaminate our soil and waterways. For each bag, this process continues for over 500 years until it has finally broken down, all the time releasing carbon dioxide emissions which in turn contributes to global warming.

    Just off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is on a major route for plastic bags heading for the east African mainland. It estimates more than 200 tonnes of bags pass through its port every month.

    "We have to put the environment above everything," Zanzibar's Director of Environment Ali Juma said. "Besides being an eyesore, plastic bags are very damaging to land and marine life."

    Tourism is the backbone of the island's economy. Zanzibar has major problems managing sewage and rubbish. Less than 10 percent of sewage is treated and it can get rid of only about a third of the 200 tonnes of rubbish produced daily.

    Now over 40 countries have ignored lobbying by the oil industry and supermarkets and simply banned the plastic bag - surely this is one positive solution that the UK should now embrace?

  • Great video: Plastic Planet: The Curse of the Plastic Bag
  • Everything you ever need know about plastic bags: Ban The Bag
  • Jessica Symond's bags: oneless.co.uk
  • Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    American mid-term results with consequences

    I awaken to the news that the Democratic party has won the american mid-term elections: the balance of power has changed for the first time in over a decade in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Senate sits in the balance with final votes yet to be counted.

    The wave of public discontent with the Iraq war, corruption and President George W. Bush's lack of environmental leadership has demonstrated a strong anti-incumbent mood in the US. Democratic Senator Hilary Clinton rolled in easily on a 2:1 re-election victory in New York and outspoken liberal Representative Nancy Pelosi steps forward to be the first female Speaker.

    One of the very few Republicans to sail safely home on a green vote was Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over the past few months Schwarzenegger selected top advisers from the environmental community, signed dozens of environmentally friendly bills and just four weeks ago signed up California for carbon emission trading between northeast states. His embrace of climate change has paid big dividends. He has demonstrated his willingness to break with the Bush administration and this has earned him worldwide coverage as the Green Governor of California.

    Monday, November 06, 2006

    Global Warming - conclusive evidence

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~1860's ~~~~~ 1960's ~~~~ 2006 ~~~~

    [with thanks to Andrew Stobart for the inspiration]

    The Sun - Britian's top tabloid has gone green

    The Sun's very own green glamour queen Keeley has given her top tips on how to make temperatures soar while keeping global warming down. Just in case you didn't pick up your copy last week, here are Keely's Top Tips:

    Blinding bedroom performance
    Turning off lights can be a big turn-on. Feel around in the dark in the bedroom, you’ll cut your bills and reduce CO2. Lighting can make a big impact on your electricity bill so swap harsh lightbulbs for romantic candles.
    Wheely Keeley
    Cycling instead of driving will tone you up, giving you a fantastic physique and making you irresistible to the opposite sex. And leaving the car at home cuts carbon emissions. Cycling shorts optional.
    Boost your sex drive
    Halve the number of cars on the road by offering that special someone a lift to work. If you can’t pluck up the courage to ask them on a date then it’s the perfect way to get to know them.
    Share a steamy bath
    Using water whacks up your energy bill. A shared dip in the tub will cut a couple’s costs.
    Get off your butt
    Lots of people have admired my butt. Collecting rain water for your garden in a water butt is a great way of preserving resources. They are easily plumbed into your existing guttering and downpipes.
    Chest is best
    Always my motto! Chest freezers have thicker insulation, meaning they use half as much energy for any given volume of food storage.
    Slip into something comfortable
    Take off your shoes when entering your home. Roadside soil can be poisoned with lead from car fumes. When dragged into the house, this contributes to the toxins which settle on the carpet.
    Don’t boil over
    Don’t waste energy by boiling too much water. Use the right sized pan when cooking. If boiling an egg, use an egg pan and the smallest hob. With vegetables, use just enough water to keep them covered. Use saucepans with lids to reduce cooking time.
    Go digital
    I insist my sexy pics are taken by digital camera, so invest in one. Film processing and developing uses toxic chemicals and paper.
    Show eco undie-standing
    Hand-washing underwear with a gentle, eco-friendly detergent will make your clothes last longer and save on electricity. And opt for undies made of organic cotton.

    Don't you just love her?

    Sunday, November 05, 2006

    And the sun shone on London's Climate March

    What a carnival atmosphere - music, mad hats and much laughter. 30,000 turned up yesterday to demand action on climate change - that's a substantial increase on the 4,000 of us last year. It was a beautifully clear chilly day, not a cloud in sight - just perfect.

    Bikes and banners pedalled off from Lincoln's Inn Fields at 10, arriving outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square (who'd turned off their lights this year - very prudent) for rousing speeches and general entertainment. George Monbiot urged positive action and, boyed up by his words, off we traipsed to Trafalgar Square.

    Fellow Scot K T Tunstall flew in (no - not true - she biked it the whole way), and Razorlight's Johnny Borrell strutted his stuff onstage. But the t-shirt sadly did not come off this time despite promises by the cheeky chappie Simon Amstell, our witty compere (and I suppose we only have climate change to blame for that too).

    And spotted in the crowds, sadly not up on stage, were the fabulous ex-Pink Floyd boys - Richard Wright and David Gilmour with his georgeous wife Polly (of course, with a name like that...). Not quite a Great Gig in The Sky, but definately a great gig in Trafalgar Square. Tony Blair, you should have been there.

    Want to have a quick gander at what was happening at the other side of the world? Even more turned out in Perth, Australia. Check out tmwilson.org/blog

    [C Gilmour photo credit: chris@conscience-uk.com]

    Saturday, November 04, 2006

    I Count

    Bike, boots and camera to the ready, I'm off to join I Count down at Trafalgar Square today. Hope to see you there....