Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The petrol pump's running dry

Whilst Peak Oil is rapidly becoming mainstream with Joe public, amazingly the government seems to still be in denial. Malcolm Wicks, in response to questions put in the House of Commons Debate on Oil Prices, stated that "the huge increase in the price of a barrel of oil has caught the whole world by surprise and we are in, frankly, difficult and uncharted waters."

Whilst it is true we are in unchartered waters, the rise in price has been anticipated ever since Hubbert first came out with his theory on Peak Oil back in the 1950's. Unfortunately, our government has been basing their policies on forecasting of increase of oil prices to $70 - in 2020! So, no suggestion of reduced supplies there then. How is this possible? Oil is a finite resource, we are now in a position that what little remains out there is more difficult to get at and thus extraction will prove ever more expensive, not only in financial terms but also environmental costs. Thing is, Peak Oil is not a difficult concept to grasp. The tank is running dry, and as one clever bod put it, we are now trying to suck out the remaining dregs that have soaked into the pub carpet (a rather disgusting analogy, but oh so graphically pertinent). Market economics dictate that as a finite source dries up, so it's price will escalate. Mr Wicks and Mr Brown seem to be under the impression that "the solution is increased production". But of what? Certainly not oil.

Mr Wicks, have a look at peak, although you may experience delays. Spotted on their website by my mate Marm, is their new posting:

Welcome new visitors!

The site is responding slowly due to an influx of thousands of new visitors, so expect delays until our upgrades are in place.

Thanks for your patience.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Becoming a low Carbon Society

Another slightly belated blog - but it's an important one. This time I have been to the All Party Parliamentary working Group on Peak Oil and Gas (appgopo for short - an unusual acronym for sure) meeting on Becoming a Low Carbon Society, with Rob Hopkins speaking on Transition Initiatives, Simon Snowden from Liverpool University on Oil Vulnerability Auditing and Shaun Chamberlin on Tradeable Energy Quotas. Very usefully, you can view all three powerpoints and listen to the sessions online at the appgopo website. They are all worth listening to.

I'm wanting to write about TEQ's - Tradeable Energy Quotas (also known as Personal Carbon Allowances). I've written about them before, and here they are again, because like a lot of successful concepts, in essence it is simplicity itself.

TEQ's are like the toy money we played with when I was a child; there were three of us, and each was given the same allocation. We could spend it as we liked in our pretend market but with certain limitations (no sweets!). Once it was spent it was gone, but if we liked we could trade it in between each other in return for real money. How much it cost to buy in more depended on the generosity of my sister, or the meanness of my brother. An early lesson in the volatility of market conditions.

So, with TEQ's you receive your allocation to spend on energy. The allocation is preset annually, reducing each year in accordance with the requirement to reduce our carbon emissions. When you buy energy, such as petrol for your car or electricity for your household, units corresponding to the amount of energy you have bought are deducted from your TEQs account, in addition to your money payment.

Are you 'energy lean", cycle everywhere and have some whizzy microgeneration at home to cut your energy bills, and so do not use up your allocation? Then you can make some (real) money out of this. Just trade in your TEQ's and sell them to the more energy profligate. Need more than your allocation? You can buy from those who are selling their surplus.

It's a great system. It will reduce our use of fossil fuel; promote understanding of the true cost of our use of fossil fuel and it's creation of CO2 emissions;encourage behavioural change and use of clean energy alternatives. It is an equitable system (everyone treated the same); it guarantees national carbon reduction commitments in line with international targets (an independent committee would set the level allowable for the market each year in accordance with reduction national targets), it allows for a phased energy descent.

TEQs provides an effective and fair response to both climate change and resource depletion and enables a nation to ensure fair access to energy for all. It supplies the incentive for citizens, organisations and Government to work now on achieving the necessary rapid transformation in the way we use fuel into the future, and it provides time to plan ahead. It empowers localities and individuals to be able to make a tangible difference. It is fair, simple and practical, and it gets results by uniting the nation in a common purpose.

So why is this not being implemented? Last week DEFRA undertook a pre-feasibility study on the implementation of TEQ's and confirmed that there were no technical barriers to it's implementation. But that's as far as it got. No movement there - for the time being. But with escalating energy prices ( Goldman Sachs recent report claims oil price could increase to $200 per Barrel within 6 months, others believe it shan't stop there), the increased awarenesss that oil companies are consolidating (have you noticed how fast petrol stations are rapidly disappearing?), and the energy crisis becoming more painful by the day, our government might wake up soon. Indeed, BERR have just welcomed an investigatory report into future oil availablity - but this will take a year before completion. Regardless of exactly how much more (or more to the point - how little remains - even Bush thinks we're running out) exists, we know we need to wean ourselves off our oil dependency as soon as possible.

TEQ's are a simple system, one that would not take much to implement, and I'll wager will be with us sooner rather than later. The Draft Climate Change Bill allows for it's implementation without additional primary legislation, which is good news. A case of watch this space.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

When will our Government wake up to the Energy Crisis?

This is belated blogging. But I suppose that is the beauty of blogging - you can get back to it when you have time. The last month or so I have been pretty much out of the loop of things, but I'm now back on full(ish) form, with news to tell of what I've been getting to here in London that's worth noting.

So, last week I attended the Praseg Annual Conference with my TREC hat on to get all and sundry up to speed on Concentrating Solar Power. The added bonus is of course the chance to sit in on various MP's waxing lyrical on their (sometimes not so) green credentials. One MP did stand out however: Phil Woolas MP.

This is a man who really seems to get it. In fact it is the first time I have heard a mainstream-ish Labour MP (outside the lone voices of climate change reason; Colin Challen and Michael Meacher) voluntarily raise his own views on Peak Oil. It is after all part of his remit as DEFRA Minister for the Environment; he has responsibility for climate change, energy and the environment. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear his take. 12 months ago, he admitted, he would pay lip service to Climate Change. Now, he says, anyone who does not get it is in denial. "Well, it’s just happening, you can feel it - and see it all around the world." Yes, you do, I thought - you've grasped the urgency of the situation.

"UK economic activity accounts for 15% emissions worldwide", he went on to say (note: this is a rarely alluded to fact by our government, so well done in not sidestepping this unattractive but vitally important fact), "2% of which comes directly from within our shores. Technology transfer and a global carbon market is required – and we must include rainforests. It is wrong to assume it’s all China – my experience is that China gets the point and is addressing it."

On the Kyoto Protocol: "What concerns me is if there is not an international agreement at Copenhagen (Dec. 2009 is the date for the UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen and projected completion of UN post-Kyoto deal). I fear they will say - forget it, we will do what we have to do. But not many people are looking at the big picture. When canvassing last week, not many asked me to increase our Kyoto commitments."

On Peak Oil: "Peak Oil is a symbol of all our other rapidly depleting resources. We are running out, we can’t keep on living as if we have three planets. This is a profound challenge to us."

So, a man who talks the talk - but do we have a government who will walk the walk? The other morning when interviewed about escalating energy prices, our Prime Minister Gordon Brown on radio 4's Today programme claimed the solution was that we just need to get out there and "find more oil". Does he not know that we are, if not yet at Peak Oil pretty much on our way? The problem is, if the current escalation of energy prices to $126 a barrel are not attributable to peak oil, what will it be like when we are on the rapid downhill slalome race of declining output? This time last year oil was $75 per barrel and the lone voices predicting a hit of $100 per barrel by 2010 were viewed as extremists. Recent history demonstrates that even those with a bit of foresight were being too conservative in their estimates. As David Strahan said the other week at our WISE Women Speaker Event - we ain't seen nothing yet.

But there is a further layer of complication to add to the decline in global energy resources. We have our own homegrown decline in energy resources to contend with here in the UK. We have a swathe of opted-out old coal stations that must, as directed under EU legislation, be closed by the end of 2016. Some are already working on limited capacity. Add to this the end-of-life of most of our nuclear stations (some of which are now working at very limited capacity, and when working at full capacity only accounts for at best 3.8% of our energy requirements. A dip in the ocean, you might say, in terms of what is required post 2016), and a picture emerges of a rather rapidly growing energy gap here in the UK which we have not been preparing for. By my simple calculations, if we say energy descent kicks in by 2010 at a conservative 3% per annum (peak oil puts additional strain on other finite resources), that makes an energy deficit of 18% by the end of 2016, before taking into account the UK energy gap dip of roughly 32% of our own capacity. That makes a remarkable 50% energy deficit within 8 years.

So my calculations may be very simplistic (and possibly wrong - I am no expert forecaster). The slide above interestingly demonstrates the UK energy gap as approximately 32% reduction of capacity, with oil being completely factored out by end of 2016. Either way - there is a substantial UK energy gap that does not seem be addressed. Bill McKibben famously said in his book The End of Nature; until we feel the fear in our bellys, we will fail to act. How may more MP's need to feel that fear before they act?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

London Aware Sustainability Fair at the Barbican, London

This weekend (10 & 11 May 2008) at the Barbican you will find the London Aware Fair - Green Ideas for Everyday Living. I shall be there, manning a stand for TREC-UK, and speaking today (Saturday) on Eco-living, then giving a talk on Sunday on my ever favourite subject, Concentrating Solar Power. The guys that run it have given me a 2 for the price of one offer - just go to the UK Aware website and enter the code SP241.

Hope to see you there!


Friday, May 02, 2008

Munching Watercress with the new Chief Scientific Minister

Some time ago I had been invited to hear Professor John Beddington, the new Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science, speak and then to join him with some select guests for dinner. Of course to meet the man who has now stepped into the shoes of Sir David King - well, that was an invite I could not refuse. So off I headed last night to hear him, 4 months into the job, give his talk on Climate Change. Prof Beddington comes from Imperial College, where his area of expertise lies with his extensive research into fisheries as well as population biology, crop and human diseases. So no wedges here a la King. Instead, a fascinating trot through the issues of population growth(which currently stands at the jaw dropping 6 million per month), poverty analysis, agriculture and food security.

Some more salient facts: 1.1bn survive on less than 50p per day (10% of China, 41% Bangladeshi's - this is big time malnutrition level), 2.7 billion survive on less than £1 per day (80% in India, 92% in Nigeria). The problem with bringing more out of the poverty gap is that more money is then spent on meat and dairy, which in turn creates rapid growth in raw agricultural commodities. As one of my charming dinner guests pointed out to me, even more grain is then required to feed to the animals that are then fed to us (and they use 10 times as much water too), rather than just using the grain direct. And this at a time when grain prices as well as oil prices are escalating (for instance, bread wheat has has boomeranged from £72 to £193 per tonne in just two years. Add onto that additional delivery costs, and that loaf becomes far more expensive). Having just had an energy-giving heart-pounding cancer-preventing lip-smacking shot of watercress juice (the event was sponsored by the Vitacress Conservation Trust), that seemed to me to be a pretty strong argument to become a fully signed-up wheat-free veggie-loving watercress muncher.

Beddington is an extremely affable man getting to grips with all the recent media coverage, who admitted that 4 months into the job he would no longer use the word 'insane' where 'unwise' may be a more moderate turn of phrase for those who doubt the science of climate change. With his soft west country accent, and honesty in answering questions (two received "I do not know the answer to that", before attempting to address the issues presented as best he could), the enormous extent of the remit of his role was apparent. How does a man in his position get his head around not only all of the above, but also Energy and Infrastructure issues as well as Technology and Peak Oil, never mind the Honeybee crisis (could this be the gaia-canary in the coal mine)? It's a strange position to hold. Whilst it's one of independence, most government departments hold their own two scientific advisers who report to him, and he in turn reports to the PM then the cabinet secretary. I wish him well.