Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Going Underground

Published as a podcast at on Friday 27th November 2015
Although recent episodes of the sustainable futures show might lead you to think that it's all about energy, that's certainly not the case. This week I do talk about energy, potential energy under our feet, and also about water, groundwater. Desalination, solar energy, failing monsoons, Moroccan salt and Californian almonds are also on the agenda. And the UK has abandoned plans for carbon capture and storage.

Hello. This is Anthony Day, and this is the Sustainable Futures Show for Friday, 27 November 2015. And from next month it's going to be called the Sustainable Futures Report.

Running Out
According to a report in Nature Geoscience we are running out of groundwater. Groundwater is the one third of the world’s freshwater which is below the surface of the earth. We are using it up more rapidly that it is being replaced. And less than 6% of the water in the top 2 km of the earth’s surface  is renewed in a human lifetime. Some groundwater is rapidly renewed by rainfall and is only a few months old. Other reserves of groundwater can be millions of years old.
In California groundwater from boreholes is used for agriculture. A farmer interviewed by Capital Public Radio reported that the water level in his well was falling by 800 mm each year. Not surprising when you consider that California is in its fourth year of drought. This farmer had decided to do what he could to replenish the groundwater by flooding his crops whenever there was heavy rainfall and surplus water. He was prepared to invest millions of dollars to divert floodwaters to irrigate his crops with far more than they needed so that the water would percolate away through the sandy soil and down into the aquifers. 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in California and the Almond Board is looking at flooding the plantations in order to restore the groundwater there. The problem is that not all agricultural soils are permeable and it is not clear whether all crops will accept excess water. There will also need to be canals and pipes installed to divert the floodwaters. The original farmer was growing grapevines and the excess water did not damage the crop and might even have slightly improved it. Elsewhere in California there is growing tension between farmers as they drill deeper wells in order to secure their own supplies.

The University of the United Arab Emirates reports that Abu Dhabi is likely to exhaust its groundwater completely within 15 years. At the moment 98% of drinking water in the emirates comes from desalination plants. The problem with this is that the process uses substantial amounts of energy, usually natural gas, and the hot liquid which is pumped back into the sea as a byproduct damages the marine ecosystem. Citizens of the emirates use on average 500 L per day each, which is one of the highest rates of consumption in the world. The government admits that the price of water is too low which leads people to have no concern about wasting it and they don’t bother about leaks. Raising prices could go part way to solving this problem and the Emirates are also introducing solar powered desalination plants which will not use gas and presumably will not produce CO2 emissions either.
According to the Times of India, Pune, south-east of Mumbai, is also suffering from falling groundwater levels. The 2015 monsoon was weaker than usual and some areas received as little as 50% of normal rainfall. In 2014 some 6,000 villages saw water in their wells fall by a metre or more. In 2015 this had more than doubled to 13,500 villages. Of these, nearly 3,000 saw the level fall between 2m and 3m and over 4,000 saw the level fall by more than 3m. These villages are on the brink of severe drinking water shortages. The authorities have banned deep wells in 80 locations and say they will have to recharge the aquifers, although it is not clear how they will actually do it.

All these places may be far from home, but that doesn't mean that we won't suffer water shortages in Europe. All too often our problem is too much water, rather than drought but how far do you and your business rely on water? Do you actually know where your water supply comes from? Probably yes, if you’re a farmer. Otherwise it might be worth finding out. In a future episode I plan to review the book “Let there be water” by Seth M Siegel. You can find it at .

Unconventional Energy
Paul Younger is Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at School of Engineering, at the University of Glasgow. He was interviewed by Jim Al Khalili at the recent freethinking festival. He said his main concerns were keeping the lights on and keeping carbon emissions down. We urgently need to find new sources of energy. We need to find the lowest carbon alternatives and it is urgent because of continuing and increasing fuel poverty and the risk of winter blackouts. He was scathing about an energy policy which has left us with a very narrow safety margin in the event of a severe winter. Have I mentioned that before? What alternative energy sources do we have? As a geologist, Professor Younger has investigated geothermal energy and drilled boreholes deep into the earth. Anyone who has been down a coal mine knows that the deeper you go the warmer it gets. Deeper still and the rocks get extremely hot. It is possible to harness this heat to raise steam and generate electricity, but in many cases it is more efficient to use the heat as heat. Looking at the U.K.'s energy consumption, only one fifth of energy is used as electricity, 2/5 are used as heat and the remainder is used for transport. While it might be possible to use geothermal energy for combined heat and power, the main potential is for running district heating systems. This means that alongside the gas pipes, the water pipes and the electricity cables we would have a hot water main feeding the central heating of each property. It's a system which works well in other countries and if we have a source of free, zero carbon heat it's an opportunity to be seriously considered. Although test drillings have proved that the heat is there, the projects have run out of money.
In Africa, however, notably in Ethiopia, geothermal energy is providing clean, cheap electricity to communities that had little or none before.

Another potential source of energy is underground coal gasification (UCG). This involves drilling into very deep coal seams, way beyond the reach of conventional mining, oxidising the coal and extracting the gas. In fact, this gas would be more important as a source of chemical feedstocks than as a fuel. Many fertilisers, pharmaceuticals and fabrics that we all take for granted are manufactured from hydrocarbons: oil or gas. If we do use gas from this source for energy, the carbon dioxide could be re-injected into the exhausted coal seams. If everything could be done on-site then this would remove the need for long pipelines which seem to be part of the current carbon capture and storage initiatives. Current CCS plans involve piping the CO2 across the country and injecting it into caverns under the North Sea.

At least that was the plan. 
At the same time as the Chancellor, George Osborne, was delivering his Autumn Statement to Parliament this week, the Department of Energy and Climate Change was making an announcement to the London Stock Exchange. It said that the £1bn prize fund for the first company to develop commercial-scale carbon capture and storage was withdrawn with immediate effect. The pilot projects at Drax and Peterhead will not now go ahead, putting an end to four years of research and preparation. The schemes would have generated 2,000 construction jobs at Drax and 100 permanent positions, and a further 600 jobs at Peterhead. You could argue that with last week’s re-announcement of the closure of coal-fired power stations, carbon capture and storage is no longer needed. However the 25 gas fired power stations which they are planning to build will all emit greenhouse gases. Clearly they will now be emitted into the atmosphere without any form of abatement.

Going back to UCG.
Underground Coal Gasification is not the same as fracking, says Prof Younger although he believes that fracking is not as dangerous as some would claim. In his view, fracking in the United States has been carried out by unqualified cowboys, so no wonder there have been spills, escapes and pollution. If underground gasification is carried out by people with mining skills or people skilled in exploiting the oil and gas in the North Sea it can be carried out safely. After all, coal mines stretched miles out underneath the North Sea with never a leak. UGC and geothermal developments need to be done while these skills are still around, before these experts retire. Does he think it will happen? Sadly not. There will be no incentive until the population at large realises that energy and food and medicines and plastics are getting more expensive and demands that engineers find a solution. By then the only alternative will probably be to buy the technology and skills - technology invented in the UK – from the Chinese.

 The problem with unconventional energy, as with all other forms of renewable energy, is that oil is currently so cheap that it is difficult to be cost competitive, although on-shore wind is pretty close. For the moment. 

A Ray of Sunshine (lots, actually)
Meanwhile, the BBC, Daily Mail and many others report on the new solar plant about to open in Morocco. When it is complete it will provide enough power for a million people, 20 hours a day. Yes, even at night. The difference is that this is not a solar PV array. There are no panels which produce electricity when the sun shines on them. Instead there are banks of computer-controlled mirrors which track the sun and focus its rays on a heat exchanger. This transfers heat to molten salt, which in turn is hot enough to produce steam to drive a conventional steam-turbine generating set. The salt holds its heat well after dark. 
It is part of Morocco's pledge to get 42% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The UN has praised Morocco for the level of its ambition. The UK on the other hand, a much richer country, is aiming for 30% by the same date. Of course the Moroccans don’t have George Osborne.

The Guardian explains how the whole of Europe could run on renewables, given the right distribution infrastructure. We could share geothermal power from Iceland, hydropower from Sweden, wind power from the UK and solar power from Spain. Where there’s a will there’s a way! No will, not enough vision, at the moment, unfortunately.

More Oil
If you were listening to the sustainable futures show in January you may remember that I asked you to predict the price of oil in January 2016. The oil price fell dramatically from over $100 a barrel in mid 2014 to only $47 by the start of this year. My prediction for January 2016 was $65. Today, 25th November, it’s $42, which doesn’t look good for me, or for renewables. OPEC warned this week that the price could spike. They said that they were not prepared to limit production raise prices unless other producers did the same. Their object was to maintain their market share. However the Saudi Oil minister warned that reduced investment as a result of the low price could lead to a supply shortfall which could drive up prices very quickly. According to the International Energy Agency the world currently holds stocks of oil equivalent to nearly 300 days’ net imports. This will be a buffer, but how effective it is depends on how quickly the industry can bring new supplies on stream, or - and this is surely preferable - how quickly we can we can find substitutes.

I’ve not mentioned COP21. It starts next week. Ban Ki Moon says that in the nine years that he has been Secretary-General of the United Nations he has seen first hand the consequences of climate change. He has seen the effects on the developing world and the likely effects on his grandchildren and future generations. 
“As the head of the United Nations,” he says, “I have prioritised climate change because no country can meet this challenge alone. Climate change carries no passport; emissions released anywhere contribute to the problem everywhere. Economic stability and the security of nations are under threat. Only through the UN can we respond collectively to this global issue.”

Mass demonstrations urging world leaders to come up with binding and effective solutions have been planned for months. Unsurprisingly, the French authorities have said that they cannot guarantee the safety of marchers after this month’s attacks. Indoor meetings can go ahead, but the march in Paris planned for this Sunday 29th November cannot. There will be marches in other capitals and major cities all round the world. A march is planned in Paris on 12 December to mark the end of the conference. We'll have to see whether that goes ahead or not. Apart from the marches, the world is on the threshold of something very big.

This is Anthony Day and that was another episode of the sustainable futures show. Thanks for listening. There is so much going on that again I have had to hold things over. Next time of course we will be in the middle of COP 21 the Paris climate conference and I shall certainly be monitoring that as it unfolds. That will dominate future episodes. It's all about sustainability. It’s about climate change, and energy and food and population and as you have seen in this episode, it’s about water and other scarce resources as well. The world is changing and change is affecting business as never before. It means you need to plan. You need to plan more than ever. If you're not sure how these things will affect your business, if you'd like to have a general chat on what's happening and how it may change your world, your market, your supply chain, give me a call. I’m Anthony Day and my number is 07803 616877 in the UK. Give me a call and let's talk. In any case I hope you'll be listening to next week’s Sustainable Futures Report.

 I'm Anthony Day and that's it for another week.