Monday, April 25, 2016

Renewables - clearing the air

Published as a podcast at on Friday 22nd April

The Sustainable Best Practice Exchange took place last week. To keep exchanging best practice I'm setting up the Sustainable Best Practice mastermind group and a number of conference delegates have already expressed interest. There’s a couple of places left, so if you want to join a select group of business leaders and public officials, call me today on 07803 616877 or send a mail to for an invitation to the Orientation and Selection Day. It’s on 7th July.


The oil price is up - and down. What of the future? Bernie Sanders wants to phase out most fossil fuels by 2050 but his opposition to nuclear power is causing debate. Elsewhere in the US children are taking the Federal Government to court over climate change. A meeting of the European Geosciences Union counted the cost of natural disasters and the Pakistan government was criticised for not doing more. 

Did green taxes drive Tata Steel out of the UK? Surprisingly, the opposite seems to be true.

 In Washington, scientists are conjuring electricity out of the air, but here in the UK you may soon be able generate electricity by spending a £1 and then spending a penny.

And why is Lord Nelson wearing a face mask?

Oil Price

First the oil price. It rose this week in advance of an OPEC meeting when everyone hoped that production would be cut. Then it fell when there was no agreement. Given that Iran doesn’t talk to Saudi Arabia it’s surprising that anyone expected success. The price is now somewhere between $40 and $43 per barrel. Well below the $140 peak, but significantly better than January’s $29. Predictions of $80 by June now seem unlikely. Every day a million or so barrels are put into stock unsold, so there’s a considerable and growing buffer which will surely dampen any sudden price movements.

Across the Pond

Manda Scott, yes you know, the famous one, draws my attention to an article in “Bernie Sanders wants to phase out nuclear power plants. Is that a good idea?”

Bernie, still in the race for the Democratic nomination but unlikely to win, makes his support for clean energy clear on his website.

“Right now, we have an energy policy that is rigged to boost the profits of big oil companies like Exxon, BP, and Shell at the expense of average Americans. CEO’s are raking in record profits while climate change ravages our planet and our people — all because the wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into complacency in the face of climate change. Enough is enough. It’s time for a political revolution that takes on the fossil fuel billionaires, accelerates our transition to clean energy, and finally puts people before the profits of polluters.”

He goes on: “Climate change is the single greatest threat facing our planet. The debate is over, and the scientific jury is in: global climate change is real, it is caused mainly by emissions released from burning fossil fuels and it poses a catastrophic threat to the long-term longevity of our planet.”

He doesn’t pull any punches: “97 percent of scientists agree about the urgent need to act and the vocal minority who don’t are bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.”

“In the 60’s, President Kennedy set a goal that many said was impossible – but by the end of that decade, Neil Armstrong had successfully taken his giant leap for humanity. Our government needs to think that big today and commit to prioritizing the transition to an economy powered by more than 80 percent clean energy sources by 2050.”

Clean energy for Bernie includes phasing out nuclear power as well as fossil fuels. “But nuclear is clean,” cry his critics. True, it’s clean in operation providing you ignore thermal pollution at some sites. Cooling water can be returned to rivers or the sea at up to 18 degrees warmer than when it was extracted, which is not without environmental consequences. Of course, constructing a new nuclear plant has a massive carbon footprint. “But if you close down nuclear power stations generators will just burn more coal and gas. They’re doing that already in Japan and Germany.” But Bernie’s going to tax oil and gas and he’s going to phase out nuclear by tightening the requirements for re-licensing existing plants. Nuclear power stations in the US must be re-licensed every 20 years and some will need extensive investment if they are to be brought up modern standards. Including the one in northern California which is sited on a seismic fault which was not known at the time it was built.

Even as president, Sanders would have a hard time turning his policies into law. But at least he’s ignited a fierce debate. His spokesman commented:

“Sen. Sanders knows there are lots of reasons why nuclear power is a bad idea. Whether it’s the exceptional destructiveness of uranium mining, the fact that there’s no good way to store nuclear waste or the lingering risk of a tragedy like Fukushima or Chernobyl in the U.S., the truth is: nuclear power is a cure worse than the disease. Safer, cleaner energy sources like wind and solar will help us meet America’s energy needs while protecting the health of our people and combatting the threat of climate change.”

Kids take the US to court

Bernie’s not alone.  Imran Jiwa spotted an article in Forbes Energy ( ) by James Conca

He reports that in the first lawsuit to involve a planet, Judge Thomas Coffin of the United States Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon, ruled in favor of twenty-one plaintiffs, ages 8 to 19, on behalf of future generations of Americans in a landmark constitutional climate change case brought against the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry.
The lawsuit alleges that the Federal Government is violating the Plaintiffs’ constitutional and public trust rights by promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The judge recognised a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. 

Or as Conca put it: “This is legalese for “global warming may eventually hurt all of us, but it will hurt our children and grandchildren the most, so they have the right to sue.”

Most importantly, the judge unequivocally rejected all arguments raised by the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry in their Motions to Dismiss.

The next step in this case is a review of Judge Coffin’s decision by Judge Ann Aiken, another judge in the same Federal Court.

Dr. James Hansen, famed climatologist and also a plaintiff in this case, said, “Judge Coffin in effect declares that the voice of children and future generations, supported by the relevant science, must be heard.” 

 Unsurprisingly, the three fossil fuel industry trade associations, representing nearly all of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, called the case “a direct, substantial threat to our businesses.”

16-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett said, “The future of our generation is at stake. People label our generation as dreamers, but hope is not the only tool we have. I am a teenager. I want to do what I love and live a life full of opportunities. I want the generation that follows to have the same chance.”

Unfortunately she’s not old enough to vote for Bernie Sanders, but look out for her in 2020.

Natural disasters

In a paper presented to the recent European Geosciences Union meeting it was reported that losses due to natural disasters since 2000 amounted to around $200 billion, equating to around 0.25% of Global GDP.

Over 40% of this was due to flood and rainfall, 26% to earthquakes - which we can’t do a lot about, 19% due to storm effects and 12% due to drought. A case in point is Pakistan’s Thar Desert, southeast of the port city of Karachi.  Pakistan Press TV reports that some 2 million people have been affected by drought for the last three years. They have no water, they have no food; they rely on handouts. Since March alone at least 130 children have died due to famine. Now a report by a fact finding mission says the tragedy could have been prevented had authorities acted in a timely manner. Authorities across the world need to wake up to new responsibilities as the climate changes. Even in York in prosperous England, where the floods back in December were trivial by comparison with most national disasters, the authorities admitted that they had no contingency plans for the events that occurred.

As I said, there’s not much we can do about earthquakes. Our thoughts are with the people in Japan and Ecuador, whose communities were ripped apart by earthquakes last week.

Eco-tax and TATA Steel

Did green taxes drive TATA Steel out of the UK? No, in fact, they made them money - an estimated £700m according to the Guardian. The tax involved is EU ETS, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.  The way it works is that businesses that emit greenhouse gases have to pay a tax on every tonne, by buying credits. This helps to make it more economically attractive to build a newer, cleaner plant than continuing to run an old and dirty plant with a high level of expensive emissions. It is recognised that this surcharge on emissions can make some heavy users of energy uncompetitive, even if they are efficient. They are therefore awarded a number of credits free of charge to offset this. What happened was that TATA Steel were awarded far more credits than they needed. They were entitled to sell them on to other, dirtier, businesses which were short of credits. And they did. And they made £700 million. Unintended consequences?

Wireless power

Wireless power makes me think of Tesla. Tesla probably makes you think of Elon Musk, electric cars and super batteries. The link is Nikola Tesla, a Serbian-American electrical engineer, physicist and inventor from the late 19th century. Among other things he built a transmission tower designed to send messages to ships at sea long before Marconi started his work. There were also plans to distribute electricity wirelessly. At this point his financial backers withdrew and the tower was demolished. Conspiracy theorists say that his backers had interests in cables and withdrew because wireless transmission would have destroyed their market. Who knows?

This week however, comes news that scientists at the University of Washington have developed a wireless electricity transmission system. Well, more of a harvesting system. This doesn’t involve building any big towers and it won’t power your washing machine or electric car. It comes out of the development of the internet of things. The internet of things, or IOT, is the move towards putting a chip in almost everything and connecting it to the internet. Smoke alarms, security cameras and all sorts of sensors are gradually building our connected world. The problem is that every one of these units needs a battery and every battery needs to be recharged or replaced. Researchers have come up with a battery that can be recharged from energy in the signals from mobile phone masts, wifi routers and TV transmitters that are all around us all the time. This energy is minute, but the requirements of these sensors is minute as well. Presumably, since these batteries will effectively be on charge all the time, they only need to be small. Costs as low as $1 have been quoted.

In for a penny in for 1p.

Meanwhile, at the University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Bioenergy Centre in the UK, research continues into a unique form of renewable energy. Scientists have developed a microbial fuel cell which generates electricity from urine. This latest version is smaller and more powerful than previous units - and it’s cheaper.  The Engineer magazine reports that the universities are working with Oxfam to put arrays of these cells to light up toilet cubicles in refugee camps in developing nations. Of course they can be used to light anywhere where there is no power supply and could probably charge up phones and small electronic devices. And they don’t need sunshine. At a cost per cell estimated at around £1 they are a realistic solution for poorer countries, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used everywhere else. However, comments on the Engineer article do say that solar panels are a much cheaper solution, and they criticise research into a problem which they say has already been solved. However, if there's a source of energy that we normally just flush away, surely we shouldn't just write off methods of making use of it.

And finally, why is Lord Nelson  wearing a face mask? 

Here is a message from Greenpeace:

“Lord Nelson famously said that desperate affairs require desperate measures. 40,000 lives are cut short by air pollution every year. This is a national health emergency and people need to know about it. That’s why activists scaled Nelson’s column and 14 other iconic statues.”

There’s a petition to the prime minister about air quality on the Greenpeace website. And Queen Victoria’s wearing a face mask as well.

That’s it for another week. I’m off to check my beehives to see if they’ve started making any honey yet. Before I go…

SBPMg, that’s the Sustainable Best Practice Mastermind group, holds its inaugural Orientation and Selection Day on 7th July. If you want to be part of a small and select group focussing on business and organisational excellence contact me now by phone or email and I’ll tell you more. Once we’ve established the group I won’t tell you anything about it, because Chatham House rules - what’s discussed in the group will stay in the group. Of course, if you become a member, you’ll know.

Well that is it. Thanks to all who have written in with comments and ideas. Please keep them coming. It’s really useful to know what you’d like to hear about and the stories that you’ve found.

Until next week, this is Anthony Day! 

And that was the Sustainable Futures Report.