Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mixed Bag

Find this as a podcast at from 14th October

Hello this is Anthony Day, it's Friday 14th October and this is the Sustainable Futures Report. It's a bit of a mixed bag this time. I started this week thinking there was no news and now it's a question of what to leave out. Anyway, this time we have blackouts in Australia, protests about fracking and other fossil fuels in Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and North Dakota, a report from the World Energy Council meeting in Istanbul, problems with incinerators in Cardiff and Derby and fog harvesting in Morocco. 

Up in Smoke?
In this week’s blog Jeremy Leggett  talks about recycling, renewables, (of course) and the circular economy. I was going to talk about recycling because there is a worrying article in the Private Eye magazine for 13th October. An organisation called Viridor operates an incinerator at Splott near Cardiff. Yes it really is called that. It's a combined heat and power plant designed to produce energy from waste - enough to provide hot water for 50,000 homes. Unfortunately, in its two years of operation it has failed to reach the target. Viridor secured a £110m loan from the EU to set up the plant and if it doesn't meet its target it will not be considered to be a low carbon solution but merely a waste disposal facility. As such it would breach the terms of the loan. To overcome this, the plan is to increase throughput by 20% but Wales has a high level of recycling so has no more spare waste. Rubbish will be trucked in from 100 miles away- ideally plenty of plastic and cardboard because these have the high calorific value needed to raise efficiency levels. Of course such materials are ideal for recycling, but needs must. Forget the consequences of the extra transport mileage and the loss of materials which could have been reused. 
Private Eye reports a similar sort of problem in Derby where the council has signed an incineration contract and is committed to supplying the operator with 150,000 tonnes a year of high calorific value waste. It finds that it won’t have enough of this waste after recycling. Solution? Charge residents for brown bin organic waste collection and abandon recycling collections altogether in some parts of the city. Private Eye claims that as a result recycling rates in Derby have fallen from 50% to 34%. But in these straitened times no council can risk financial penalties. 

It’s been a week of protests.
There were protests in Lancashire last week against fracking and protests in other parts of the country as well. This follows the decision by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to allow drilling at Preston New Road in Fylde, as I reported in the last Sustainable Futures Report.

A detailed report from a planning inspector was carried out on another potential fracking site in Lancashire, at Roseacre Wood. The report found that the threat to road safety caused by heavy vehicles moving to and from the site was so serious as to outweigh any benefits from fracking and the the inspector recommended that permission should be refused. The Secretary of State said that he would authorise the operation provided that the concerns about road safety could be dealt with. He said that fracking would support  64,000 jobs. Who can oppose something that will support 64,000 jobs? Makes a great headline, but can it be substantiated? How do you actually get to 64,000 jobs? How long will they be supported for? Just the construction phase, the production phase or for ever? And is this the result of the one well, or does it depend on drilling multiple wells? And are these Britsh jobs for British people? Who cares - it's the headline that counts.

Meanwhile in Nottinghamshire would-be frackers are frustrated by a covenant which has been discovered to restrict what can be done on their chosen site. Nuisance, noise and noxious activities are all prohibited and at least part of the site is an SSSI Site of Special Scientific Interest and wildlife reserve. Formerly a Ministry of Defence (MOD) missile base, when it was sold off in 1969 this covenant was placed on future owners of the land. The lawyers are sorting it out.

Across the pond US actress Shailene Woodley has been arrested  during a protest in North Dakota against a huge oil pipeline project that will cross four states. The Dakota Access pipeline project has drawn huge protests.
Native Americans have halted its construction in North Dakota, saying it will desecrate sacred land and damage the environment.
The Divergent star was arrested at a construction site as she was broadcasting the protest, which involved about 200 people, on Facebook,. Police say she was one of 27 people arrested on charges of criminal trespass and engaging in a riot.

In the Facebook Live footage, Shailene said she had been walking peacefully back to her vehicle when "they grabbed me by my jacket and said that I wasn't allowed to continue... and they have giant guns and batons and zip ties and they are not letting me go”. She handed her phone to her mother who continued filming. As she was led away with her hands cuffed, she said she had been singled out from hundreds of other protesters "because I'm well known, because I have 40,000 people watching”.

Protest is nothing new and sadly it's rarely effective. One exception of course is the poll tax riots which led to the end of the poll tax and the end of Margaret Thatcher. But there’s a long way to go and in any case the US government is preoccupied with an election and the UK government is preoccupied with Brexit, whatever that means. Oh of course, it means Brexit.

In Australia, the state of South Australia lost all electrical power on 28th September and it took up to 24 hours for it to be restored to all consumers. The reasons for the the outage are still under review, although some have pointed fingers at the large proportion of renewables in the generating mix, principally wind. It’s not as simple as that. The state gets 40% of its power from wind and all coal-fired generation has been mothballed. How green. The rest comes from a mix of gas-fired power and two interconnectors that link it to Victoria’s brown coal-fired power plants. Not so green. The problem with the wind power is its intermittency and the fact that other sources of power have to be manipulated, in order to stabilise the supply. This is complicated by the fact that the transmission grid was built long before wind and other renewables were ever thought of, and it has to cope with a very high level of domestic solar installations as well.

The trigger for the problem was a storm which crossed the state causing damage and blowing down 22 transmission pylons. Six wind farms shut down, the interconnector to Victoria became overloaded and tripped and the rest of the network collapsed. The problem came when they attempted to restart the system.  According to a report from ABC news  on 5th October there was difficulty in getting sufficient power to restart the power station at Torrens Island and to restore the interconnector. Now I’m no engineer, but I don’t understand this. The plant at Torrens Island is a thermal power station which means it burns natural gas to raise steam and drive conventional turbines which drive generators. Surely you only need to light the boiler, raise steam and off you go. I’d be really interested in an expert view on this. The article also mentions a gas turbine power station at Pelican Point near Adelaide. Apparently this had been off-line at the time of the blackout because up till then there had been a supply of cheaper wind-generated power. After the blackout the message came from Pelican Point that it would take four hours for the station to come back on line. I thought that gas turbine stations were flexible and responded rapidly to changes in demand. Why four hours? An aircraft jet engine, which is also a gas turbine, starts up in a matter of minutes. The station uses combined cycle gas turbines, which means that the hot exhaust gases are used to raise steam which drives steam turbines. Maybe this complexity is what makes the plant slow to start. Expert advice, please.

I’ve heard it said by those that know that if the UK grid ever blacked out it would be very challenging to restart it. It’s never been done before, and you certainly can’t practise by turning it off to see what happens when you try and get it going again. The National Grid promises to publish its annual Winter Outlook Report later this month, which will forecast how much spare capacity or safety margin there will be in the event of a hard winter. I’ll keep you posted.

Peak Energy
Per capita energy demand will peak before 2030, finds a new World Energy Council report launched at the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul.
The report examines three scenarios and even the most optimistic is worrying. For example, by 2060 we could still be using fossil fuels for 50% of our primary energy. While the use of solar and wind energy have grown rapidly, the fossil fuel share of primary energy has changed by just 5% in the last 45 years. The implications for global warming and meeting the COP21 targets are stark. The report says that “limiting global warming to 2℃ will require an exceptional and enduring effort, far beyond already pledged commitments, and with very high carbon prices.” The best scenario sees emissions in 2060 to fall 61% below 2014 levels: the worst sees them rise by 5%. In all scenarios the global carbon budget will be exceeded within the next 30 - 40 years. This means that total all-time emissions will exceed 1,000Gt CO2, the level at which it is believed it will be impossible to stop runaway climate change. The UK government has repeated its commitment to lowering domestic emissions to 80% below 1990 levels. The UK currently accounts for around 2% of global emissions. We will need far-reaching global consensus to make a practical difference.

I'm conscious that the Sustainable Futures Report  is in danger of becoming an energy newsletter. Energy is of course a very important part of sustainability, but as I said last week, there's an awful lot more to it than that and I intend to cover a much wider range of topics.

The Human Angle
Sustainability is about ensuring that the planet is protected as a habitat for the human race, but the social issues and the maintenance of a stable and prosperous society are in my view equally part of sustainability. The refugee crisis is one of the most pressing global concerns, although some would argue that we ain’t seen nothing yet. Conflicts are already driving migration, but climate change and particularly rising sea levels are likely to displace millions more. Inevitably there is conflict between those seeking simply to survive and those who resent any encroachment on their present comfortable lifestyles, as well as those who are just surviving and fear that refugees will push them all below subsistence level. It’s probably the most serious and most difficult issue of our time, and one I will return to.

This week I chaired the HR Leadership Exchange in London and had the benefit of listening to some leading experts in the field. We were talking not about global issues but about changes in the workplace which will have profound effects on workers and consumers and could themselves destabilise society. The key issue is the nature of work, the availability of work and the distribution of rewards across society. Work gives people status in society, gives structure and purpose to their lives and gives them a right to some share in society’s wealth. At the moment, in the UK and the West, the divide between rich and poor is rapidly widening. Automation and robotics are eliminating not just low-level jobs but also more and more roles where skills and experience are traditionally required. An app on the BBC website  lets you enter your job title and it tells you how likely your job is to be replaced by technology. For example it predicts that people working as Book-keepers, payroll managers and wages clerks have a 97% chance of being replaced and so do bank and post office clerks. Assembly workers are up at 92%.  Some people will be pleased to see that traffic wardens have a 79% chance of being replaced, although some unkind people might say that they’re robots already. Even legal professionals, depending on their role, have a 66% chance of being automated out of a job. Maybe it’s best to be a career advisor with only a 24% risk, or even a conference organiser with just a 4% risk. How does your job measure up?

 There are software tools now which will examine spreadsheets in detail, identify trends, variances and black spots and after training automatically produce written reports and PowerPoint presentations for the board. No longer will workers have to sweat into the night over the figures, but they may no longer have a job. The key question is whether they will have the resources to enjoy increased leisure, or simply be stuck with endless idleness. Such people may have little interest in saving the planet or working for the good of society. The irony is that others who have profited to an enormous extent from the technological revolution also seem to have little interest in the good of society. The Apples, Starbucks, Googles, Facebooks of this world seek to minimise the taxes they pay by all legal means possible and thereby avoid paying for the upkeep of the society which facilitates their businesses, trains and supports their workers and provides the consumers without whom there would be no business. Of course some of these organisations have philanthropic foundations with ambitious and altruistic objectives. But tax isn’t optional. Not morally, anyway. And who should decide about how to invest society’s wealth? Democratic governments or unelected entrepreneurs?

Outlook Fog
Meanwhile, in Africa the Moroccans are harvesting fog  We may think that we have problems in our Western society but many parts of the world have basic concerns like the lack of clean drinking water. On the edge of Morocco’s Sahara Desert, more than 400 people from five villages will have running water in their homes. No wells or springs or new oases. Instead, their water is in constant flow from the sky. Fog harvesting uses specialised mesh, hung between poles, to trap the water droplets in fog. It’s a bit like dewdrops on a spider’s web. The wind pushes fog through the mesh, where droplets are trapped, condense, fall and amass in a container placed at the base of the unit.  Drop-by-drop, they constitute a substantial amount of water.

The project, in the village of Ait Baamrane in Southwest Morocco, includes 600 square meters of specialised  mesh netting, seven storage reservoirs, 6 solar panels and over 10,000 metres of piping. It is considered to be the largest fog harvesting installation in the world. Before the project, most women spent more than three hours a day fetching water from a distant and frequently depleted wells. 

The United Nations has awarded the project a prize under the Momentum for Change Women for Results focus area for its women-led climate adaptation initiative, providing an environmentally-friendly water source to combat the effects desertification.

“It is impressive to see so many original and creative ways to tackle climate change,” said United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) Spokesman Nick Nuttal.   “It’s also great to see a winner from Morocco, this year’s host of the United Nations Climate Change Conference.”

It’s another world. But it’s our world too. We all have responsibility for all of it.

And that's it for another week. This is Anthony Day thanking you for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report and hoping that you will listen to the next one next week. I'm always keen to have your feedback and particularly if anybody can answer those questions about why power stations take a long time to start up I'd be really interested. 
Who knows what next week will bring? I'm keeping my eyes and ears open and I hope whatever I find to be interesting and useful and informative. So until next week have a great week and I'll talk to you again next Friday. Bye for now!