Friday, November 30, 2007

EUMENA-DESERTEC Concept takes root in Brussels

On Wednesday, in my capacity as a representative of TREC-UK, I attended the presentation of The White Book "Clean Power from Deserts - The DESERTEC Concept for Energy, Water and Climate Security" to the European Parliament by His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, former President of The Club of Rome.

The book is based on the studies by the German Aerospace Center on the potential of deserts to supply clean power to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA).
It proposes a solar co-operation between the technology belt and the sun-belt, between Europe and the MENA region, to fight climate change in an economical and technically feasible way. Key technologies in the DESERTEC Concept are concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) plants with solar heat storage for day/night operation, and low-loss high voltage direct current transmission lines to bring clean power to Europe from the deserts of MENA. A seven year action plan for kicking-off the DESERTEC Concept was announced, setting down the roots for the vision to become reality: CSP plants stretching across the deserts, connecting into a supergrid network bringing clean electricity to Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

The DESERTEC Concept has been developed by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) in collaboration with scientists at the German Aerospace Center. The presentation in the European Parliament was staged by four Members of the European Parliament - Matthias Groote, Vittorio Prodi, Rebecca Harms and Anders Wijkman - and by the Club of Rome initiative TREC.

“Every year, each square kilometre of desert receives solar energy equivalent to 1.5 million barrels of oil. Multiplying by the area of deserts world-wide, this is nearly a thousand times the entire current energy consumption of the world.” said Dr Franz Trieb, Project Manager for a set of reports on trans-European renewable energy networks. Not much desert would be required. As the map above demonstrates, the larger red square on the left shows an area of 254 km × 254 km of hot desert that, if covered with concentrating solar power plants, would provide electricity equivalent to the current electricity consumption of the whole world. The smaller square (110 km × 110 km) shows a corresponding area for the European Union (when it included 25 countries). Time now to translate vision into action.

The white book can be found at: DESERTEC


Monday, November 26, 2007

What will we eat when the oil runs out?

What will we eat when the oil runs out? That was the question posed by Richard Heinberg at the Soil Association Lady Eve Balfour Memorial lecture held at Westminster Central Hall on Thursday night. Marm' and I decided to chew it over.

Richard Heinberg set out 4 simultaneous dilemmas that we face:
1. higher oil prices with knock-on effect on input and output transport of foodstuffs;
2. increasing demand for bio-fuels thus replacing food for fuel production;
3. extreme climate change events;
4. degredation of natural resources, of top soil and water.

All the above exacerbated by increasing population.

Calculations demonstrate that more food will need to be produced in the next 50 years than in last 1000 years combined. Post WW2, the introduction of herbicides, petro-chemical pesticides brought better living conditions through chemistry - but at a high environmental cost that was only appparent later. Ironically, this era of food expansion was called the Green Revolution. But it was, as we now know a double edged sword. A tripling of food production increased the human carrying capacity, and so we go forth and multiply ever more.

Now we are facing increasing food prices and urban poor will be impacted the most by our modern day dilemmas. Modern agriculture is highly centralised and therefore more vulnerable to disruption. Quite literally, the seams are fit to burst.

Dramatic economic transformation is needed, so says Heinberg. Transition is needed at forced pace with a dramatic increase in local food sufficiency. The government must support return to agricultural life and land reform - look to Cuba: active lobbying of agronomist was crucial.
The primary solution Heinberg proposes is a planned rapid reduction of fossil fuel used for the production of food and the organic movement to provide the necessary framework to guide and lead.

We need to introduce draft animals, oxen are an ideal choice - they do not compete with humans. Not so far fetched: some french towns are introducing horsepower again for local deliveries

Richard Heinberg puts peak oil supply crunch at 2012, with global coal peaking at 2017 - 2020. David Rutledge of Caltech suggests a similar timescale. These two are the best of the American thinkers on the subject - what they say is worthwhile considering seriously. Heinberg is an optimist: we can do it if we start now and we have to start with the organic movement. Time to start growing our own veg.

Richard Heinberg
Podcast: Lady Eve Lecture
For Dave Rutledge's most recent talk on why energy efficiency is not the answer, but reduction of fossil fuels is see: Hubbert's Peak, The Coal Question and Climate Change

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Entrepreneurs with Conscience

Sometimes people enter into my life whom I recognise have the capacity to change not just my life but also the lives of so many others. There are thinkers, there are do-ers - and there are thinking do-ers. Mike Edge, Annette and Andrew Mercer fall squarely into the latter category. They are Entrepreneurs with Conscience - and are busy persuading others to do the same on the basis of three very simple principles:

1. to build ethical and environmental businesses to tackle climate change;
2. to support those working at the coal-face of climate change - the NGO's, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and The Climate Group;
3. to make a personal commitment to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Businesses can move, and with the assistance of these people are moving, far faster than politics (and certainly faster than our current government, who as Jonathan Porritt so succinctly stated, suffer from a chronic case of NIMTO'ism - Not In My Term of Office) to tackle climate change. They are the ones recognising that there needs to be rapid change, grasping the opportunities and are backing the big solutions.

Yesterday I joined Annette to hear Andrew speak at the Be The Change Conference about his experiences as a low carbon green entrepreneur. They have set up Footdown, a forum to foster like-minded entrepreneurs with kernals of business ideas that have the potential to make a big difference. One such kernal which took seed out of one of these meetings prompted the formation of the company 2OC. 2OC has taken to market a remarkable technological solution called geo-pressure energy. Their technology (a small turbine not much larger than the palm of your hand) enables the harvesting of clean electricity from waste energy produced from gas pressure reduction stations. Each turbine creates 2 Megawatts of clean energy - that's the equivalent capacity of the Reading 2MW Wind turbine. Their aim is by 2010 to have installed generating capacity in the UK equivalent to 1 Gigawatt (1GW). That's the equivalent of removing one million tonnes of carbon (1MtC) from the earth’s atmosphere; equivalent to the amount emitted annually by the whole of the UK’s National Health Service. No small achievement.

Andrew is an inspirational speaker - and what he, his wife and his rapidly expanding team are doing is in itself remarkable. This is just the beginning. There are other such businesses galloping over the horizon. These are the people who are raising the bar, setting the new standards, creating the new world around us and acting on the bold vision needed to ensure the right solutions are put in place. As Mike says, it's time to build a war-chest and fight for the planet. Be the Change - the sky's the limit.

Entrepreneurs with Conscience
Be The Change

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

CSP basks in the glow of a sunny future

So, I have seen the future. The future is bright, the future is CSP. Really, I did, and it was awe-inspiring.

After two days of intense industry and investment talk on CSP, Hywel and I determined we had to see a CSP plant for ourselves. An all-nighter with some newly found friends sampling the delights of Seville sealed our fate. Fortified with an indulgence of tapas and manzanilla, off we scooted without a map before sunrise on a rickety moped heading northwesterly to find our plant. And find it we did. Just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, shimmering in the chill morning air, there loomed a tower with beams of light shining up from the heliostats, looking for all the world as if it had been zanussied in from outer space. It stopped us in our tracks.

This is the Abengoa PS10 plant, the first commercial CSP plant in Spain, and the first solar thermal plant to use a tower commercially. It’s an 11 MW solar thermal plant that has been designed to produce 23 GWh of electricity a year, enough to supply a population of 10,000. It went online in March this year and saves about 16,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum.

Ach, it’s a baby plant you may scoff, this is nothing. But wait, this is just the beginning – and it does not feel so small when standing in front of one of the mirrors as it looms as high as a lamp-post, surrounded by an array of hundreds of these super-sized mirrors. Ahh, but they’re great for basking in the warmth, especially after our hair-raising-chilled-to-the-bone excursion. You can hear them humming happily, as they turn imperceptibly to track the sun: technology’s answer to the sunflower. Oh - and there on the other side of the dusty track is another one: a sister plant double the size which is due to commence operations within 6 months. It’s exciting spacey stuff.

So, the technical details: electricity is produced via 624 movable mirrors (heliostats) of 120 m2 surface each that concentrates solar radiation to the top of a 115 meter high tower where the solar receiver and the steam turbine are located. So, the sun heats the liquid up to 260 - 300*C, which in turn creates steam, which turns the turbine which creates clean green electricity. Simple really, and stunning to see.

But this is not all. Spain has big plans; a further 13 plants , each of 50MW, are due to begin construction (the great thing is these things can be built fast – just 2 – 3 years from planning licence application to laying of the mirrors) by 2010. If they could go bigger they would, but the legislative framework put in place by the Royal Decree 661/2007 ( which has created regulatory stability for access and connection rights to transmission and distribution networks of renewable electricity) currently places a cap on size and number. That will doubtless be increased in due course. There are favourable feed-in-tariffs and, by fostering such proactive policies and incentives, the Spanish government has demonstrated it’s strong commitment to back the renewable industry. They have boldly set their Mandatory Energy Objectives at 30% renewables by 2020, 80% by 2050. There is optimism that even more can be achieved, earlier and within an even tighter framework.

Globally, is estimated that up to 45 GW will be online within the next 15 years, but if those with grand vision are to be supported, the reality could be far larger than that. 500 GW would satisfy the total European electricity demand – that’s a bold vision, but not impossible (there’s a lot of desert and sun out there), and some clean tech investors across the world are beginning to think really big.

Australia is experimenting, China is looking, the Middle East and North Africa have the space and the sun to really roll this out and even America is now moving with remarkable speed in this arena. Switched on this summer was the 64MW Nevada Solar One, a 64 megawatt plant in Boulder City, Nevada. Now Acciona Energy has announced plans for their next project which will be more than three times its size. The 200 MW plant will be built by 2010. Due to the vast solar resource in the Southwest - New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, the US is now envisaging racking up new-build capacity to 1.5 GW per annum, rapidly increasing to 3 GW within 10 years. Even a year ago, such bold vision was not anticipated. What will this industry look like in a year’s time I wonder?

So, here I am back in sodden London, wondering how soon a Europe-wide and North African standardised electricity network could be put in place. It all seems like a dream, until I awoke this morning to hear Al Gore on Radio 4 saying that he has teamed up with venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins to to help finance entrepreneurs who are addressing climate change.

Having explained what the problems are with his film, he is now looking to the solutions. He’s out to prove that protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions is good for the economy as well as the environment. Not only that, he’s putting his money where his mouth is and matching the smart solutions, such as low carbon alternatives to generating electricity. As he put it, there are a lot of technologies that already exist that have never been given their due, and now it is time to do so. One example that they are supporting, he said, was “advanced solar thermal electricity generation based on the use of highly sophisticated computer driven mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy to simply boil water to generate electricity.” Now that is a smart idea!

Generation Investment Management

Gore joins Silicon Valley's Kleiner Perkins to push green business

Latest news article: All about CSP

If you would like to know more about CSP, or help support awareness raising, go to TREC-UK

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Film Preview of A Crude Awakening

Yesterday my mate Jeremy Smith (former editor of the Ecologist - so, a guy who knows his megawatts from his terrawatts) phoned on spec to see whether I'd be interested in joining him for a preview screening of a Peak Oil film and Q&A with the directors afterwards. Excellent, I said, I'm on my way. The film, A Crude Awakening, is to be released nationally on the 9th Nov.

So off I zooted to the Everyman cinema, fully expecting an audience of the great and good from Hampstead's energy royalty (David Strahan lives close by, as does Dr David Flemming, and the irascible Meyer Hillman - and given the size of some of the homes up on the hill, no doubt a whole clutch of oil magnates). Instead, it was a random audience made up of what seemed to be general passers by (that's how Jeremy happened to be invited - he was just walking along South Bank the previous evening). They were, we were promised, looking forward to a challenging debate in the Q &A session afterwards. Hmmm. If that was the case, where were the experts? This audience was largely comprised of concerned individuals picked randomly off the street.

Not wanting to spoil a good story, nevertheless let me tell you about my experience.
The first three quarters of the film has some stonking good footage of Baku oil fields and of a woman at her dressing table with all manner of things flying through the air (including her clothes!) to demonstrate what items are reliant on oil for their production. This and more is cut with various weighty talking heads from Colin Cambell to Matt Savinar (who seems to be in the process of future proofing himself with stacks of purified canned food boxed up behind him) to a range of retired oil experts, geologists, scientists and even some footage of Hubbert, the original whistleblower in the oil industry who predicted 50 years ago that oil would peak about now. The story of oil and our reliance on it is told - and told effectively.

But - it's a big but - the film then moves onto possible solutions, and wham! it seems to literally run out of energy. A slow trot through the (valid) problems with hydrogen, biomass, nuclear. Weirdly no mention of coal, and a petering out with a passing reference to solar. All a rather bleak picture which left most of the audience depressed and feeling rather hopeless.

So this was strange - a film made by a journalist who had clearly done his homework (after all that's what you do, isn't it, when you go off and make a film?) - to a certain extent, then stopped short of examining what possible solutions there out there. Well, if you have been following my blog, you know that one of my passions is Concentrating Solar Power, which to me seems to provide a huge solution. This wasn't touched on at all and I wanted to know why.

Before I even did so, it came up, and to my surprise a stock answer was given that I have often heard given before - one that often comes from oil men and nuclear supporters: that solar is the key, it's just too expensive and will take forty years of research and development. This is strange, simply because it is not correct.

Firstly, I pointed out, the technology is out there. It is mature, tried and tested technology that has been around for 30 years. Commercial-scale plants have been operating in California since the mid 1980s and are still supplying electricity to about 100,000 homes. (In fact, versions of CSP have been tried since the late 19th century, not counting Achimedes' attempts to set the Roman navy ablaze). There are also sites here in Europe (in Spain) and plants are due to be rolled out in various sunbelt countries. Electricity can be transmitted economically for three thousand kilometres or more via a Supergrid of HVDC of lines (on pylons or laid underground or under the sea). With this technology, transmission losses are no more than about 3% per 1000 km. Cost wise it is already looking to be cost-effective against the soaring oil prices (which as I write have now hit $96 per barrel - they say it will reach $100 by end of next year, but it looks set to be far sooner than that). It has been estimated that only 113 km x 113 km of desert covered in mirrors would supply all the electricity needs for the whole of Europe - that is, in desert terms, a tiny fraction of available space (and available sun). You can find out more at and on the TREC-UK website.

"Well, hey what do I know, I'm just a journalist" was the response I got. Someone made the point that if such momentous a message is to be told they have a duty to give a happy ending. Maybe a happy ending is asking too much, but he had a point. At the very least a responsible examination of possible solutions would have been welcome.

Well, if they aren't prepared to do something about it I am. I leave for Seville today and the reason I am going there is to attend a conference on CSP. I want to know just how viable CSP is, just how big it can go and how soon. We need big solutions as well as small, and CSP could be just that. Watch this space - I will be reporting back live from the conference.

  • A Crude Awakening

    [photo credits of Baku oil fields: State Archives of Azerbaijan Republic, Stanley Greene, Sezin Aytuna, Mark Lewandowski]