‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
The quest for good governance is a long and ongoing struggle. When Colette and I were on our honeymoon in Italy we saw a lot of paintings, but it was ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti that impressed us the most. It is a series of six paintings depicting the effects of good and bad governance, painted for the Councillors of the republican city state of Siena in 1339.
Today, as in the Fourteenth Century, ensuring peace and freedom from the fear of violence are the most basic requirements of governments. This week a historic peace deal has been signed in Columbia ending 52 years of civil war that left 260,000 people dead and six million internally displaced. Congratulations go to President Santos and to the Farc rebel leader Timoleon Jimenez, to the Columbian people and to all those who helped bring this agreement into being. President Santos said “Columbia celebrates, the planet celebrates because there is one less war in the world”. There are of course still far too many countries wracked by civil war and chaotic and sporadic violence: Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Zaire to name but a few.
If ensuring peace and freedom from fear of violence is the most basic requirement of governance, what then in the highest aspiration of governance? Scandinavia has for decades led the world in good human rights, social justice and much else. Danish politicians like Ida Auken are trying to establish a circular economy to make the best use of resources, and the Danish Green Party is campaigning to end the import of fossil-fuelled cars by 2025. The Swedish coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens have created a strong economy with falling unemployment, strong economic growth, where the deficit has been eliminated and they are now introducing a system to give tax incentives to people who repair all manner of goods rather than throw them away and buy new. This should reduce the materials through-put of the economy and create more jobs. Scandinavia is pioneering so many ideas focused on ecological sustainability and social justice, and that for me is the very essence of good governance in the Twenty-first century.
The Danish word hygge is sometimes translated as ‘cosiness’. It is also associated with being comfortable in ones community, with social solidarity, with being at peace and with happiness. Perhaps ensuring it is how all people feel should be the highest ambition of governments. We all have a lot to learn from Scandinavia.
The campaign to disinvest from fossil fuels is gaining momentum. Last night Waltham Forest Council Pension Fund Committee voted to fully disinvest. They are the first UK council to do so, but it’s probable that many others will follow. In the past the main arguments were ethical, all about climate change, air pollution and trying to promote better alternatives. Renewable energy technologies, including generation, transmission and storage, are all seeing rapid increases in efficiency and decreasing costs. This will mean that many investments in fossil fuel and nuclear will become stranded assets, unable to sell the energy they generate when competing against cheaper renewables. It now makes very prudent business sense to disinvest from fossil fuels.
Waltham Forest joins 600 institutions with combined assets of over $3.4 trillion in the disinvestment movement. The powerful combination of good business sense and strong ethical foundations make this a movement set for exponential growth. We’ve seen a lot of bankruptcies in the coal industry of late, oil, gas and nuclear are all likely to see casualties over the coming year or two.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in the light of the Paris Climate Agreement and in relation to the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewables based economy said that “The once unthinkable has now become unstoppable”.
Graph of UK electricity, note falling demand and growth of renewables
Theresa May’s new government has given the go ahead for Hinkley C nuclear power station. This seems to me to be a deal of mind boggling stupidity. Although the deal has been signed it is far from clear if the reactor will ever work. EDF’s design has been described by technical experts as “unbuildable” and the financial situation as “madness”. Only two reactors of this type have ever been attempted and both are massively over budget, behind schedule and may never be completed due to ongoing technical faults in the reactor vessels, at both Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland. There are all manner of security and waste management issues that are far from resolved. The initial price tag of £18bn will turn into a figure far higher once the 30 year contract for buying the over-priced electricity is taken into consideration: I’ve seen figures suggesting this could push the total project price up to £24 or £37 bn. All rather fairytale figures if, as I suspect, the project may be a colossal white elephant, and may never actually generate electricity anyway.
Over the last decade two very good and significant trends have emerged in UK electricity generation, as the above graph shows. One is that demand is falling quite steeply. This is due to increased efficiency. The other is the rapidly rising share of renewable energy in the mix. Both these trends could be further enhanced with intelligent government leadership, and fossil fuel use could continue to plummet at the same time as nuclear power could be gradually phased out. Hinkley C was designed for a world that no longer exists, where demand was thought to be increasing and that there was a need for large base-load power stations. What is now needed is flexible load balancing technologies to back-up the growing solar and wind power. The proposed interconnector with Norway, the proposed expansion of pumped storage hydro at Cruachan and the proposed Swansea bay Tidal Lagoon are all excellent examples that the UK should be building.
There is so much more that we could be doing. One idea I’d like to see developed would be to take a city like Liverpool with high unemployment and high rates of fuel poverty and see what could be done to work out a whole city approach to improving things. One could improve the energy efficiency of every property with a coordinated insulation and draft proofing programme and connect every property in the city to a district heating system modelled on that of Copenhagen, and include a huge heat pump taking heat from the Mersey, as Drammen in Norway do from their local fjord. This would create more employment, warmer homes and other benefits for a fraction of the cost of Hinkley C.
The extraordinary Hagia Sophia, built in 537 AD, for 1,000 years the world’s largest cathedral, later a mosque, now a museum.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted a blog. We’ve been away in Turkey for a family wedding, and then a bit of sightseeing while we were there. Tragically so much of what one hears about Islam these days is in connection to terrorism. In Turkey we saw quite intimately the other side of Islam: extraordinary reaching out to create loving bonds between people, irrespective of differences across religion, language and culture. Personally I’m delighted by the growing cultural diversity within my own extended family and proud of the integrity all the individuals within it.
After the wedding our sightseeing took us to the ruins of Ephesus, to Selcuk, Milas and to Istanbul. We found the Turkish people very warm and welcoming, and very keen for tourists to come. Given the political problems over the last few months they naturally want political calm and economic recovery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a rich mix of archaeological and architectural treasures. Ephesus, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were all extraordinary.
As this blog is usually about climate Change and energy issues it’s only fitting that I give them a mention. We saw lots of rooftop solar water heating systems, but plenty of scope for more. We saw remarkably few photovoltaic panels, but these are apparently just starting to take off in Turkey, and in 2013 Turkey opened its first small concentrating solar power station. Carbon emissions in Turkey are 4.4 tonnes per capita, but as this a county with huge solar potential this figure could be rapidly and beneficially reduced, but for that to happen Turkey needs peace. Many Turks are currently looking to neighbouring Syria with a sense of fear and dread that all that chaos and bloodshed could only too easily spread to Turkey. We share their desire for peace, for a calm evolution of democracy and a revived economy, ideally powered by the sun, and accessible to us via sustainable flight!
Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record
Australia could be a world leader in solar power. The entrenched interests of the powerful coal lobby have been a barrier preventing the government getting fully behind the conversion to a solar powered economy. However the tide is turning in favour of solar power as technical innovation progresses, prices come down and popular support grows. Today I want to write about two solar stories from Australia.
Tyalgum is small community of just 300 residents in the beautiful hilly county along the border between New South Wales and Queensland. They are proposing to disconnect themselves from the electricity grid and supply all their energy needs from ordinary rooftop photovoltaic (pv) solar panels with batteries in all the buildings to store electricity in the most distributed way possible. For relatively isolated small communities at the end of the electricity grid this makes perfect sense. Once Tyalgum achieve this many other similar communities are likely to follow them.
Meanwhile scientists at the Australian National University at Canberra have just announced 97% conversion efficiency for turning sunlight into steam. They use a huge 500 square metre parabolic mirrored dish to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a small central receiver. Water pumped through this receiver is heated to 500 degrees Celsius by the power of 2,100 Suns, creating steam to drive turbines and so make electricity, or to be stored in molten salt to generate electricity after the sun has set. Australia has long been good at research into concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) but unfortunately has never had the government vision and support to achieve large scale commercial deployment, so consequently Australia lags a long way behind Morocco, Chile, South Africa or the USA in terms of deployment of CSP. However as costs continue to fall, spurred on by innovation and increases in efficiency, the economics of concentrating solar power relative to coal continue to improve.
It makes sense for cities to be linked into power grids, but for isolated communities cutting themselves off from the grid makes increasingly good economic sense. Solar power could supply all of Australia’s power needs and both pv and CSP have a role to play. Australia now has a new government and it is high time they put the conversion to a solar powered economy as a top priority: there would be many benefits, including cheaper electricity and reduced carbon emissions.
Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire
A few weeks ago I blogged about Solar Impulse and speculated about the possibility of radically more sustainable air flight based on lighter than air airships. Little did I realise at the time that such craft were actually being developed and were pretty much ready to go. A few days ago the Airlander 10 took its maiden voyage over a field in Bedfordshire. This Airlander 10 is very impressive. It is huge: 92 m long and 43.5 m wide, a vast helium balloon encased in high-tech Vectran material. It is has been designed and built by Hybrid Air Vehicles and is a true hybrid, its lighter than air main body is like an Airship, its aerodynamic body and small fixed wings are more like an airplane and its multidirectional engines give it much of the functionality of a helicopter. It can land anywhere, on water, in fields, in deserts or on ice-sheets. This will give it tremendous advantages in delivering goods or people to remote locations, and also opens the possibility for smaller quieter city airports. It can travel at up to 100 mph and stay airborne for weeks at a time. The Airlander 10 comes with a £25 m price-tag, very much cheaper than an Airbus A380 at £287m. They expect to have one hundred of these craft operating within 5 years. The Airlander 10 can carry a payload of 10 tonnes, and plans are afoot to build an Airlander 50 to carry 50 tonnes, with much larger future possibilities, of anything up to 1000 tonne versions.
The Airlander already creates less environmental damage than other planes, but this might well be further improved by incorporating solar cells and batteries as pioneered by Solar Impulse. I wonder whether the two teams have been in touch, it might be of great mutual benefit. Together they hint towards a future with very much more sustainable air travel. Bring it on!
Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies
Climate change dictates that we need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero or even to net negative emissions as fast as possible. There has been much talk of carbon capture and storage. However just pumping carbon dioxide into old oil and gas wells seems both a waste of a potentially valuable resource and a rather insecure method of storage. I’ve long argued that carbon capture and utilization was a much better path to explore. There are many methods of doing this, from very well known and old to the most innovative high tech fields of research.
Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Using high quality timbers like oak and teak in construction locks this carbon up in the fabric of a building, potentially for many centuries. Algae grow rapidly and are potentially the basis of a whole range of sustainable renewable energy and chemical industries. In 2009 Scottish Bioenergy built a very interesting algal bioreactor at the Glenturret Whiskey Distillery in Crieff, turning industrial waste into energy and a range of useful products, including high protein fish food. Using photosynthesis to capture carbon in timber, algae and other useful plant materials has a powerful positive role to play in carbon sequestration and in modern industrial innovation.
Carbon can also be directly captured from the atmosphere, or from flue gases, and used in a whole range of other useful products, from cement to plastics. A few years ago I got very excited at the prospect of carbon negative cements, which have great potential but which unfortunately cannot yet compete on price with ordinary Portland cement. Currently there is a lot of interest in making the plastics industry more sustainable. One of my favourite examples of this is Econic Technologies.
Econic Technologies is an amazing UK start-up. It was founded in 2011 by Professor Charlotte Williams to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock in the production of polymers. These are used in an extraordinarily wide range of products from trainers to mattresses, coatings and adhesives to appliances and in construction. The process they use will help reduce the energy use and ecological footprint of this whole range of industrial products. Econic Technologies, like MeshPower that I blogged about last week, was started by people from Imperial Collage in London. They have now grown due to investment from Imperial Innovations, Jetstream Capital, Norner and most recently Woodford Investment Management. This has allowed them to hire more staff and to open a new Application Development site at Alderley Park in Cheshire. This small start up seems to be growing well, and the technologies they have developed may have a huge role in helping reduce the pollution caused by the global chemical industry. I wish them every success.
MeshPower brings electricity to another family in rural Rwanda
About 1.2 billion people, or 17% of the world’s population, don’t have access to electricity. Most of them live in rural parts of Africa and southern Asia. One of the UN Sustainable Development goals is that everyone should have access to electricity. Once communities have electricity literacy rates tend to increase, new businesses spring up and gradually people become a little better off so other aspects of poverty can be more easily remedied. Solar panels, batteries and a range of other Cleantech innovations are bringing electricity to these people in new ways that are less polluting and cheaper than traditional power stations and electricity grids.
One excellent example of this process is MeshPower, a small UK company started in 2012 by students from Imperial Collage in London. MeshPower connect whole communities, rather than just single properties, to their bespoke nanogrids, and they sell electricity rather than solar panels, batteries or other expensive equipment, so members of the community can just pay for exactly the amount of electricity they use. MeshPower use solar panels connected to a single battery base-station, located in the centre of a village and with a nanogrid system of cables connecting about 50 to 100 houses, usually within a 200 metre radius, to this battery. A low voltage DC system is used with USB ports instead of normal plugs and sockets. This is very much safer and also extremely energy efficient and perfect for LED lighting and mobile phone chargers, but also suitable for televisions and many other devices. Each nanogrid, and each household’s energy use, can be monitored remotely via the internet, so problems can be rapidly fixed and the whole system tweaked to improve performance.
MeshPower have their headquarters in the Imperial Collage Incubator in London and are working with communities in Bugesera District in southern Rwanda. In June 2016 they connected their 1,000th customer, and by the end of 2016 are planning to have 10,000 customers connected. Currently they employ 25 people in Rwanda, but envisage this figure to have grown to 40 in a few months. In 2014 I blogged about Solar Aid, an excellent charity come business that has now sold its one millionth solar powered light in Africa. I think MeshPower may have an even better solution than Solar Aid, and together they show that dirty old kerosene lamps will soon be consigned to history. Here is yet another aspect of the transition out of ‘The Fossil-Fuel Age’ and into ‘The Solar Age’.
The Fold, a lovely organic market garden and care farm. Good for people and for wildlife, yet will it benefit from Brexit?
For more than four decades UK food and farming policies and practices have been hugely influenced by policies and funding stemming from the European Union. The whole Brexit process will be slow to implement and could further damage rural Britain as many good schemes come to an end. However Brexit provides a massive opportunity to create new policies and practices. A group of 88 organisations have written to David Davis, the Secretary of State overseeing Brexit, and to Theresa May. The letter stresses that many positive outcomes, in terms of public health, wellbeing, rural employment, biodiversity and global poverty can all be achieved with the right policies. I hope this government listens to this group and recognises their collective wisdom.
The number of farms has been declining in Britain for many decades. The EU Area-based payment system, as interpreted by the British government, has intensified this trend. Big, already wealthy farmers, mainly farming in ways that are not ecologically sustainable have received huge subsidies. Many of the most innovative, socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable farming systems are being pioneered on tiny land holdings that have been below the radar of these payment systems. I hope that these smaller scale projects get more support in future. The Landworkers’ Alliance, one of the 88 organisations behind the letter to David Davis, makes the case on their website.
Last week Colette and I went to visit The Fold, a small organic market garden and care farm selling a great variety of vegetables directly to the public through a few local shops and markets. It is typical of the farms that enhance biodiversity, sustainability and social inclusion yet have found grant assistance difficult to obtain, and which would stand to benefit if David Davis and Theresa May listen to the organisations behind that letter.
I’ve been blogging for six and a half years and have posted 210 blogs and not one of them has focused on air transport. For decades environmentalists have opposed airport expansion, and a few committed individuals vowed never to fly again. However the numbers of people flying continues to rise. Globally many people can afford to travel who previously could not, and many businesses require international travel. International air transport is not about to end any time soon. Air travel represents one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions. Current aircraft technology is highly polluting. Slight gains in efficiency are more than offset by increased numbers of people flying, so pollution from aircraft continues to get worse.
Many MPs, led by Grant Shapps, are lobbying for an immediate decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Other airports want to expand. However with existing technology this will only make pollution worse.
Meanwhile this week two eccentric round the world flights have taken place. The Russian balloonist Fyodor Konyukhov has just knocked two days off the fastest round the world balloon record with a hybrid helium and hot air balloon. Solar Impulse has just landed in Abu Dhabi, so completing the first round the world flight using just photovoltaic power from the sun. The question is do these two achievements have anything to contribute to the mainstream development of aviation? I think they have, given the right market encouragement. So taxing polluting aircraft fuels would help, not building new infrastructure for this current polluting technology and putting more money into less polluting alternatives would all be steps in the right direction.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the two pilots and entrepreneurs behind the Solar Impulse has said “I make the bet that in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short to medium-haul flights”. That for me is one of the most encouraging statements about the future of air travel I’ve ever heard.
Might we also see lighter than air, zeppelin type craft being developed which may include helium for lift and photovoltaic cells for power? Such aircraft would be virtually free of carbon emissions, particulates or noise pollution, and might be able to land on very much smaller inner city airports. Perhaps air travel may yet become ecologically sustainable, but it has a long way to go and needs the support of governments to achieve this important objective. Today thanks go to Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and to Fyodor Konyukhov, for helping us think differently about the possibilities of flight.