Life After Fossil Fuels

Oil: do we need it to keep modern civilization running?

Oil: do we need it to keep modern civilization running?

A decade or so ago I started running evening classes called ‘Global Problems: Global Solutions’. We tried to envisage solving multiple mega problems simultaneously, from climate change to hunger and poverty. It still seems to me the possibilities of creating a better future are almost limitless.

One of the key concerns of people coming to these events was how life might look without fossil fuels. Some people were most worried from a resource scarcity angle. They saw Peak Oil as a big problem. Others were more worried from a planetary pollution perspective, and for them Climate Change was the biggest worry. Many people seemed to think that as oil is the basis of so much of our global economy we would have to do without many of the oil derived products, and much of the productivity and prosperity that oil has made possible. Many of these people thought that it would be the horse and cart that replaced the car, that global food supplies would massively decrease and that cities would collapse due to lack of food and energy.

I tended to put forward the case that the transition to virtually 100% renewable energy for all humanity’s electricity, transport, heating and cooling would be possible, and that recycling and resource substitution would be possible for most types of industrial production. We could at least in theory move to a circular economy where pollution was minimized and efficiency maximized, and for it all to be based on renewable forms of energy.

Looking back over the last decade it seems to me that the improved technology has led to falling costs of renewables to such an extent that this transition should be even easier than even I predicted. What we didn’t see coming a decade ago was the re-emergence of overt racism, ultra-nationalism and fascism. The likes of Trump, Orban and the Brexiteers care not a jot about climate change, the plight of the poor or any of the other problems we considered in our evening classes. They represent a denial of scientific reality, and simple human compassion, on a scale I’d never have envisaged seeing in any democratic state. They act to protect the ultra rich and the fossil fuel industries.

Now we have the rather bizarre situation of much of the global financial community understanding the risks associated with climate change and backing a lot of ideas put forward by Green activists and environmentalists, most of whom are quite critical of the concepts like capitalism and endless economic growth. Opposing them are a lot of right wing politicians who in theory support capitalism and growth, but who now endlessly have to intervene in the market to protect the economic interests of those who profit from the pollution.

Hydrogen: Trucks

J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923 he predicted that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future.

J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923 he predicted that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future.

A Nikola hydrogen powered truck. By 2023 a number of companies, including Nikola, Toyota and Riversimple, expect to have fleets of hydrogen vehicles on the road.

A Nikola hydrogen powered truck. By 2023 a number of companies, including Nikola, Toyota and Riversimple, expect to have fleets of hydrogen vehicles on the road.

From the 19th Century onwards people have been predicting switching from coal to hydrogen as the energy to drive industry. As cheap oil and gas were developed the prospect of making hydrogen from renewable energy was put on the back burner. Enthusiasts talked of ‘the hydrogen economy’ and lots of interesting experimental projects were developed. Over the last century fossil fuel usage has skyrocketed, destabilizing the global climate and creating urban smog. Now the need to switch to a cleaner basis for the global economy is more urgent than ever. Using solar and wind power to split water via electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen means that cheap surplus clean energy can be conveniently stored and used to generate electricity when required, to directly drive industry or, and perhaps most importantly, in our transport infrastructure.

There is much debate about whether battery electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell ones will predominate. Both will have a role to play. Both are essentially forms of electric propulsion. Battery electric vehicles are currently more widely deployed, but they have three major disadvantages. The batteries are heavy, slow to charge and have end of life recyclability issues.

On this blog I’ve written several times about prototype cars, trucks, trains and ships using hydrogen fuel cells. Some cities have deployed fleets of a few dozen hydrogen fuel cell buses, but nowhere has yet seen the large scale transition from diesel to hydrogen. That may be about to change, and the change may be very rapid, in the key long distance trucking sector.

A race to bring the first mass produced hydrogen fuel cell trucks onto the market is opening up, with Toyota and Nikola Motors competing for the key North American market. California alone is expecting a thousand hydrogen refuelling stations and a million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be on the road by 2030. Many of those refuelling stations will have onsite hydrogen production from local renewables. For example Toyota are partnering with Shell to build a biomass based hydrogen facility at the port of Long Beach in California.

Compressed and liquefied hydrogen will also be transported by pipelines and tankers from where electricity can most cheaply be generated to where energy is most in demand. This might include utilizing Iceland’s geothermal, Norway’s hydro or Moroccan solar to supply the major cities of Europe. Japan and South Korea are power hungry and energy resource poor places and could in theory be supplied from Australia with solar used to produce cheap hydrogen. Western Australia has just established a Renewable Hydrogen Council to research just such opportunities.

In 1923 Haldane predicted a hydrogen economy. By 2023 we might have made a good but rather belated start.

California opts for Renewables

Kevin de Leon

Kevin de Leon, California Senate Leader and proposer of the 100% RE legislation

Yesterday California passed legislation to achieve 100% low carbon electricity by 2045, with 60% by 2030. This is a policy academics such as Mark Z Jacobson and many environmentalists have long advocated. The legislation was introduced by the Democratic Senate Leader Kevin de Leon and was passed with the support of climate conscious republicans such as Chad Mayes and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile a few weeks ago Donald Trump scrapped Obama’s clean power plan and is attempting to promote greater use of coal. If successful this would of course be a disaster for public health and for the climate. However industry analysts think his legislation will have only marginal effects on keeping a few coal plants operating a bit longer, in a few States.

A huge division is opening up in America as a growing number of States, led by California, Hawaii and Vermont are pursuing 100% renewable electricity. Environmental considerations rightly play a part in their thinking, but so too does the falling costs of wind and solar power. Also renewables create many more jobs than coal, gas or nuclear. Trump makes much of trying to protect jobs in the coal industry, but his real motivation seems to be more about protecting the share price of his backers in the coal industry, and I think also his personal hatred of anything that smacks of care for the planet.

California has abundant renewable resources. By developing these resources intelligently it could create many social, economic and environmental benefits. It might well find it has got to 100% renewable electricity well before the 2045 deadline it has set itself.

Big Solar in Egypt & Dubai

Dubai solar

Concentrating Solar Power Tower, one of several types of solar being built in Dubai

One of the themes I write about most often on this blog is the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Today I will write about two very big solar projects that are currently being built, one in Egypt and the other in Dubai.

The Benban Solar Park is a huge development in southern Egypt, where they are building a 1,650 MW power station entirely with photovoltaic panels. Interestingly the project is made up of 41 varying sized units, each being built by different companies from all around the World. The first unit started feeding electricity into the grid in March 2018, and the others will rapidly follow over the next couple of years. There are 10,000 people currently working on the site, and for many of these people it is the first period of continuous work they have ever had, having previously been day labourers. This helps lift them out of poverty and also get more skills and training. (Also see IFC on Benban)

One of the interesting aspects of Benban is that, as far as I can see, it has no on-site energy storage. However it is not very far from the Aswan Dam. The two projects could be used in tandem, with water held back in the day time while Benban is producing solar electricity, then the hydro turbines could be opened to full in the evenings to match demand. In the longer term, as Egypt develops lots more solar energy the Aswan Dam could also be converted into a pumped storage hydro facility.

In Dubai the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is currently being built in phases, the first of which came on stream in 2013, a small first step with just 13 MW of solar photovoltaics. Subsequent stages are each much bigger, and by 2030 they anticipate the whole planned 5,000MW plant will be operational. The fourth phase contracts have just been signed for 700MW of concentrating solar thermal power, made up of three 200 MW parabolic troughs and a 100MW central power tower. The whole system will have up to 15 hours of thermal energy storage, probably in the form of molten salt. This will mean that this solar park will be able to supply reliable electricity night and day to Dubai. Each successive phase of this solar project has seen the price of power come down as the technology continues to improve.

Many countries are now rapidly ramping up their use of solar power. The global transition from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’ is underway. Whether humanity makes this transition fast enough to escape the worst ravages of climate change will be one of the prime determinants of our collective future as a species. Bring on ‘The Solar Age’!

 

Ethiopia & Spain

Eritrean crowd

The war is over: Eritrean crowds welcome Ethiopian leader Abiy to Asmara

As democracy is under threat from a resurgent neo-fascism in UK, USA and elsewhere, in other places well functioning democracy is making significant progress. Ethiopia and Spain each have new governments, and both seem to be getting off to spectacularly good starts, each in difficult circumstances.

Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia on 2nd April 2018. In his first four months in office he has done many good things. Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea had dragged on for many years, yet in just a few months, peace has been declared, ambassadors exchanged, direct flights resumed and economic ties look like being rapidly expanded. Hopefully peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will help de-escalate other conflicts across the Horn of Africa as both sides previously backed rival proxies in the region. Abiy has released many political prisoners, relaxed censorship and is seeking to bring Ethiopia’s many factions into a more engaged and solution focused political dialogue. Abiy has four university degrees, including an MA in Transformational Leadership and Change, and published post doctrinal research on de-escalation strategies as a way of countering violent extremism, both useful training for his current job!

Pedro Sanchez became Prime Minister of Spain on 2nd June 2018, and he too has got off to a very promising start. He has appointed a female dominated cabinet that looks strongly progressive, pro-European and has drawn in people from outside politics. I’ve blogged before about how Spanish leadership in solar power and cleantech was undermined by the dreadful policies of the conservative Prime Minister Rajoy. Sanchez has merged the ministries of Energy and of Environment into a new Ministry for Ecological Transition, to be headed by the well respected Teresa Ribera. One of her first acts was to abolish Rajoy’s tax on solar power. There are many promising signs that Spain will rapidly expand its renewable energy while phasing out coal.

Both Spain and Ethiopia have many problems but they do both seem to have recently taken a turn for the better, towards reconciling differences and trying to heal economic woes. I’d love to see Spain and Ethiopia do some pioneering solar cooperation. Spain has much expertise in developing renewable energy, especially solar power, and Ethiopia has a vast and very little developed solar potential. It could help give both countries the economic and employment boost they both need.

Hereford: Road Mania Continues

Copenhagen

More bicycles than cars now enter Copenhagen each day

Hereford council seems to be in a frenzy of road building mania. As with previous such frenzied periods of infrastructure investment there is an over estimate of future demand. Canal mania resulted in canals for which there never was an economic case, railway mania produced railways which were not really needed. Hereford has now built the Rotherwas Relief Road and the Link road, and is planning a Southern Link Road and a Western By-pass. There are those who also want to see a Northern Link Road and an Eastern By-pass, so completing their desired Hereford Orbital Road. All of this road building seems based on some very out of date assumptions about the economic advantages of road building and the future growth of traffic.

The Commission on Travel Demand has shown that people in the UK are now driving 10% fewer miles than in 2002, and spending 22 hours less travelling each year than a decade ago. There has been a 20% reduction in commuter trips per week since the 1990’s. The fall has been most rapid amongst young men, with 18 to 30 year olds now driving only half the distance their parents did at their age. After decades of growth the demand for road space has now levelled off. It could fall rapidly over the coming decades, and there would be many benefits to society if it did. We could combat a diverse range of problems from obesity to climate change, social isolation to air quality and asthma, while building a stronger local economy.

Hereford should cancel all road building. It would have been better had we not built the Rotherwas Relief Road and the new Link road. Here are some suggestions.

Make all local public transport within the county free. This is a growing movement in cities globally. Estonia has now extended this to the whole country, having successfully trialled it in Tallinn. Gradually replace all the counties buses with hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric, and our local railway lines would be strong candidates also to switch from diesel to hydrogen.

Build many more walking and cycling routes into Hereford, including bike superhighways. Make bus routes into the city much more frequent and reliable. Gradually and systematically reduce all car parking spaces within the city. By doing all these three things simultaneously and consistently over the last 45 years Copenhagen has successfully achieved a modal shift from cars to cycling, walking and public transport. In a small city like Hereford we could create this modal shift very much more quickly.

Safe walking and cycling routes to all schools should be created, while banning or at least massively restricting all car use close to schools during the start and finish of the school day. Slower speed limits, which might be variable and digitally displayed, so that a 20mph limit might the norm for residential roads but lowered to say 5mph in the vicinity of schools during the times children are arriving and departing.

As more and more people work from home the regular daily commute is becoming less the norm. Shopping too is changing, as more people shop online. In our family we do all our shopping by foot, with a shopping trolley for heavy stuff. Many new housing developments around the world are now being built with no or minimal car parking spaces, and where a condition of residency is not to own a car. Many people now find that they only need to use a car occasionally, say once or twice per week, per month, or even per year. For such people owning a car is unnecessary and a burden: much better to join a car share club. In Hereford we have a successful community run car sharing club that is open to new members. If you live in Hereford do contact us for more information. By next spring we hope and expect to be the first community car share club in the world to be using a hydrogen fuel cell car, in our case the groundbreaking Riversimple Rasa.

Hereford is an ideal size for walking and cycling. If more people felt safe to travel in this way the problem of traffic congestion would rapidly diminish, without the expense and damage caused by road building.

The public mood swings against Brexit

Molly

Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP: speaking sense on Brexit

Brexit is unfolding as an unmitigated disaster. Never has the British political establishment looked more dysfunctional, confused and weak. But as big a deal as Brexit undoubtedly is, it is only part of a bigger picture. The economic self interest of some very wealthy individuals is aligned with the Russian policy of weakening democratic structures and institutions on a global scale. Weakening tax and safety regulations is part of these people’s agenda, so too climate change denial and protecting the interests of the fossil fuel industries.

For those of us wanting a more peaceful, socially just, democratically accountable and ecologically sustainable future, where do we look? Economic equality is fundamental, and it was the rising inequality linked to globalization that led to the vulnerability of the liberal institutions to be attacked. It has been easy for the far right to tap into people’s anger and insecurities. How best to achieve radical equality and all the other goals to which this blog aspires?t

A few weeks ago I watched the film ‘Accidental Anarchist’, the account of Carne Ross’s trajectory from career diplomat to advocate of anarchism. A very powerful film and one I’d highly recommend. We certainly need more grassroots self organising democracy. Practically the most many of us can do is to engage in as many grassroots organisations as possible, but in the context of states such as the UK this has little effect on government. We do need good politicians and good journalists to expose the wrongdoing and to propose better ideas and policies. We need better technological options in order to pollute less, more grassroots organizations to help us effect bottom up change. Last week the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato spoke in Hereford to a packed hall on the subject of Brexit, and she was excellent. Do read her Bad Boys of Brexit. Also see her new Brexit Syndicate website.

As the UK disintegrates into chaos, many countries are flourishing. Sweden has just reached its 2030 renewable energy goal twelve years ahead of schedule; its policies on everything from pollution reduction to economic equality seem to be working well. Its system of proportional representation has resulted in a very well functioning red/green coalition government. In ‘Why Nations Fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty’ Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson argue that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when the English invited to Dutch to have our throne was a critical turning point in the growth of democracy in England. Might now be the time to say our main political parties are simply failing us? Should we simply invite the Swedes to run our country until we can get our act together? Of course I say this at least partly in jest, but we do certainly have a lot to learn from the Swedes about democracy, equality and sustainability. The EU is such an important institution where countries can learn from each other and collectively strive to improve the future for all of us.

Molly Scott Cato quoted the Joni Mitchell lines ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. Only now that we are on the verge of leaving the EU are many people realizing what a good institution it is in many ways, and how it is worth staying in and working with our European friends to continually improve it. I feel the public mood swinging strongly against Brexit and the ghastly clique in whose interests Brexit is being pursued.

Azelio

Azelio is a Swedish engineering company who are developing concentrating solar power. Their technology is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, as far as I know, they are unique in that they are utilizing an aluminium alloy as a heat storage medium. Secondly, they plan to use a Stirling Engine rather than a steam turbine to actually generate the electricity. They are now working with the Moroccan solar agency, MASEN, to bring these technologies together and test them at MASEN’s Ouarzazate Solar Park. This is an excellent example of international cooperation, bringing together Swedish engineering expertise with Moroccan political commitment to developing their immense solar resource.

Azelio aim to commercialize this technology aimed in large part at mid scale off grid locations in the sunny tropics. This is where most of the 1.2 billion people without access to electricity live. For individual isolated households and hamlets solar photovoltaic panels plus batteries would be the appropriate technology. Azelio are aiming at the 0.5 to 20MW scale, so the village to town scale of infrastructure. These communities currently often have dirty and expensive diesel generators, with many people having no access to electricity at all. Conventional power stations and electricity grids never will reach them. Local solar plus storage is now a cheaper and more reliable alternative. Azelio is just one of a number of companies developing various forms of solar power which will further accelerate this aspect of humanity’s shift from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’.

We all know the names of companies of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’: BP, Shell, Exxon, Total, Gazprom, Ford, BMW and Volkswagen and of course, many more. How many of these companies will reinvent themselves as cleantech companies? My guess is that most of the biggest firms of The Solar Age’ will not be these, but rather the small innovative companies who are currently developing the best solar technologies. Perhaps Azelio will be a globally well known name in years to come. Their technology looks promising to me.

Brexit Britain is Bonkers

Farage

Nigel Farage, one of those who led us into Brexit, and made a fortune for his friends.

The UK is now as poorly governed as at any time in my life. Decisions are being made that are crazy.

Yesterday the government decided not to build the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, citing its high cost. Meanwhile they are proposing to build a new nuclear power station at Wylfa in Anglesey, as well as the one currently under construction at Hinkley Point. These nuclear power stations are every bit as expensive as the scrapped lagoon project, and come with massively greater risks and less benefits. As this tidal lagoon would have been the first of its kind anywhere in the world costs will be high, but as many more are built the costs will fall. It is potentially a vast global market to which the UK has turned its back.

The UK government is still paying subsidies to outdated and polluting technologies, (oil and gas exploration, fracking, nuclear power) and are pushing ahead with a third runway for Heathrow. Meanwhile they seem to have done all they can to damage the new clean industries of the future. Solar installations in the UK halved for the second consecutive year, while soaring globally. Onshore wind has been effectively killed off. Locally owned and controlled renewable energy coops are growing in other countries, but in UK they too have been stopped in their tracks.

There are some brilliant things going on in Britain. Take just one example, the new hydrogen fuel cell ferry service destined for the Orkney Islands. I’ve blogged before about hydrogen fuel cell shipping. It will be a huge industry as renewably generated hydrogen replaces diesel in the World’s ships. Ferguson Marine have attracted this pioneering technology to Port Glasgow on the Clyde with help from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation fund, who have supplied three quarters of the current research funding. Leaving the EU will of course end, or at least damage, such innovative collaboration.

Dozens of business, from Japanese car manufacturers to Herefordshire fruit farmers are starting to relocate away from the UK. Brexit will be a disaster for many of those who voted for it. They were hoodwinked by a campaign of lies. As Bloomberg investigations show some hedge fund managers with close links to Nigel Farage made an absolute killing. Perhaps they are the only clear winners of the Brexit vote. Worse than the economic chaos that Brexit has caused is the breakdown of social cohesion. The damage Brexit has done will take generations to heal. The best that we can do now is to campaign to stay in the EU. Last Saturday’s demonstration in favour of a people’s vote on the deal was very well supported. (And please sign this petition.)

While this government make an endless series of dreadful decisions, and the Labour opposition fail to oppose, the real job of holding the government to account is falling to others. So let’s finish on a positive note. Three outstanding women come to mind. Caroline Lucas is the one MP speaking sense on every issue from Heathrow expansion to energy policy, human rights to Brexit. Carole Cadwalladr has just won the Orwell prize for her excellent investigative journalism on how Cambridge Analytica misused data to achieve the Brexit referendum result. Molly Scott Cato is a Green MEP who speaks a lot of sense, and her piece in today’s Guardian illuminates Farage and the hedge funds and the killing they made from the Brexit referendum. Three clear voices of courage and sanity in a country that seems to have gone bonkers.

Housing

Vauban community self build

Vauban community self build

In the UK debates have raged for decades about whether various services or industries should be privatized or nationalized. Such debate tends to pit people into opposing ideological camps. Such static and polarized positions overlook the possibility of other models of doing things. In September 2015 I wrote a blog about this in relation to the energy sector and the emerging civic or municipal sector in Germany and elsewhere. This municipal, civic, pluralistic, flexible and networked model has many advantages over either simple nationalized or privatized systems. In that earlier blog I looked at energy. Today I want to look at the UK’s housing crisis. In subsequent blogs I may look at other industries or services through this prism of organization and ownership.

It is generally acknowledged that the UK has a housing crisis. Home ownership is falling and a growing percentage of the population live in private rented accommodation, which is often overpriced and substandard. Many people would like to buy a home of their own but can’t afford to. The UK property market treats houses as assets to profit from rather than homes to which people have a right to. Many years ago I worked for the old GLC housing department. The council estates we owned and managed had many problems and I wondered then about how things might better be organized. Margret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ legislation helped many people onto the property ladder, but at the cost of future generations, as it massively depleted the supply of affordable housing. Council housing did offer affordability, but often at the expense of disempowering people. Families were often stuck in sink estates with little or no hope of moving to somewhere better. The right to make improvements and alterations were all taken away from people and vested with the local council, which de-motivated and disempowered many people.

Self build offers tremendous scope in all manner of ways. It can get people onto the housing ladder and into the homes of their dreams. It can be tremendously empowering. In the UK both individual and group self build has traditionally been a very small part of the housing sector. It is growing, but is still tiny, especially in comparison with many other countries in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. House building in the UK is dominated by half a dozen or so private companies who have long had too close relationships with local councils and national government. In many countries local and national governments, and importantly also banks, work very much more closely with self build groups. At an event I mentioned in my last blog Ted Stevens showed dozens of examples. Most were from Holland and Germany. A growing, but still tiny, number are from the UK. The National Custom and Self Build Association have a fascinating selection of examples on their website. One is Vauban, near Freiburg, a place I have often cited in talks for its cutting edge sustainability. Community self build is at the core of Vauban’s success. Do read about it on the Self Build Portal and imagine if something on this scale could ever happen in UK, and ask yourself what is holding us back.