Aqaba Project

Sahara Forest Projects' new Aqaba facility

Sahara Forest Projects’ new Aqaba facility

A couple of weeks ago the Sahara Forest Project announced the opening of an exciting new facility at Aqaba in Jordan. It takes forward the concept of solar powered desalination and energy generation to make possible highly productive horticulture in hot dry deserts. This project has been a long time in the making; in February 2011 I blogged about seawater greenhouses and flagged up plans for a project near Aqaba. In January 2013 I wrote a blog about the Sahara Forest Projects excellent one hectare experimental project in Qatar. In October 2016 I wrote a blog about Sundrop opening the first commercial scale solar powered desert based horticultural project opening at Port Augusta in Australia. This new facility at Aqaba only has 3 hectares of glasshouses, with plans to expand to 20 hectares in a possible stage two of the project.

This Friday, 22nd September, I’ll be giving an updated version of my talk ‘Can We Feed Nine Billion People Sustainably?’ Of course my answer is an emphatic ‘YES’ with a few big ‘ifs and buts’. One of the ideas I’ll be including in this talk is how humanity might invest in some very big projects that could combat multiple problems simultaneously, from climate change to poverty, war and the factors creating so many refugees and migrants. One example I want to explore with the live audience is how one might invest say, £100 billion, or a trillion, to expand a project like this at Aqaba into thousands of acres of solar power, greenhouses, orchards and farmland in the desert and forming the basis of a new type of city devoted to sustainable and socially inclusive prosperity. Jordan currently hosts a very high number of refugees in a very generous way, especially given the poverty of many of its own citizens. Theoretically I want to explore if we could bring this entire population of about nine million people living in Jordan up to a Scandinavian standard of living and do it in ways that provided a model for other countries to follow? If you’re in Leominster this Friday do come and listen, ask questions and join in the discussion. I learn so much from your feedback.

 

An Autobiographical Blog

Me July 2015

As a child I recall my sense of outrage at the damage humanity was doing to the natural world and the injustice and violence we were doing to each other. I wrote to Lynden B Johnson to protest the bombing of Vietnam and was horrified as Russian tanks rumbled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring in August 1968.  I gave my first talk on climate change, habitat loss and the macro ecological impacts of industrial civilization in 1972, to the school sixth form assembly, while studying for my A levels.

Going to university, having a career or starting a family all seemed rather pointless. After leaving school I wanted to explore other ways of seeing the world and other ways of living. I had no money. Hedonism or pre-packaged belief systems were not for me. I wanted to try as diverse range of jobs as possible in as many countries as possible, and to live as frugally as possible in order to save money for further travel or self directed projects. In order to come close to other cultures it felt best to travel alone, forcing myself to communicate with as wide a range of people as possible.

I hitch-hiked back and forth across Europe, working on vineyards in Luxembourg and France, cleaning hotels and working as a waiter and building labourer in Germany. My father had been in a German prisoner of war camp, my uncle killed in the Second World War and my grandfather injured in the First. It was important for me to build strong relationships with Germans. In my confused and youthful way I wanted to explore how one might live that old hippy adage, ‘make love not war’. I rejected the damage coming from capitalism and communism. I lived in Berlin partly in order to have frequent access to the communist East, where I went most weekends.

At 21 I bought a one way ticket to Cairo and started on a series of long overland trips across Africa. I thought of settling and living in Kenya. I was humbled by the extraordinary hospitality and generosity of the very poorest Africans. I recall being the only white person sleeping by the railway tracks in Khartoum and sharing breakfast with a group of camel herders returning home to Darfur having made their annual walk across the desert to sell camels in Egypt.

Wherever I went I always read widely, and I had a lot of time to think and to reflect. The question of how one might lead a life that was more interesting and fun, more ecologically sustainable and socially just was always at the back of my mind.

I returned to England in 1981 feeling that, for better or worse I was English and this was where I wanted to make my home. I bought a tumbled down ruin in a lovely old Herefordshire orchard, and took on a lot of debt and a lot of work. I also threw myself into supporting all the local environmental groups and causes. I joined the Ecology party, soon to change its name to the Green Party.

Now, decades later, I’m still in Herefordshire, living in town, married with step sons and grandchildren. As I approach what for many people is retirement age I feel like my career is just beginning. I am now a pretty much full time writer and speaker and earn less than I have for any other job I’ve ever done but enjoy it infinitely more.

Over these decades of campaigning for a better world I’ve become ever more excited by what is now philosophically and technologically possible and ever more frustrated by the poor quality of most of our politicians and media. There are so many good ideas, projects, policies and technologies that are not being discussed in the mainstream at all. Getting these things discussed and hopefully acted upon is the focus of my work now and I hope to carry on as long as possible. No retirement plans for me!

Methanol Fuel Cells

Methanol fuel cell boat

MS Innogy, the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat

I’ve never mentioned methanol on this blog, yet it is important both as a fuel and in many aspects of the chemical industry. It has a huge range of uses and can be made in many ways, many of which are very polluting. However some new innovations, making methanol from renewables and using it in fuel cells, look very good and may play an important role in the evolving cleantech revolution.

Methanol use is expanding, and has mainly been based on methanol made from coal and shale gas. An alternative and very much better way of making methanol has been pioneered in Iceland by Carbon Recycling International. They use carbon dioxide from a geothermal power station and combine it with hydrogen, which they make by electrolysis, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, driven by surplus renewable electricity. Carbon Recycling International market geothermally made methanol as a fuel under the trade name Vulcanol.

In Denmark Anders Korsgaard and Mads Bang worked on developing methanol fuel cells while at the University of Aalborg and have since founded Serenergy to commercially develop the most sustainable path to a methanol based economy. They recently spent five months working with the German energy company Innogy to convert an old diesel powered boat into the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat. On 25th August they launched the MS Innogy at Lake Baldeney on the Rhur, where it will act as a passenger ferry carrying over 100 passengers. Innogy has also developed a small experimental unit making methanol from electricity at the local hydro electric dam at Lake Baldeney and carbon dioxide captured from the local air, to supplement the methanol they import from Iceland. Methanol fuel cells look like being a competitor to hydrogen fuel cells for a whole range of transport technologies from boats to cars, trains, trams and buses. They might possibly one day be important in the global shipping and aviation industries.

Serenergy are already selling their methanol fuel cells for a variety of uses, including for a few cars and to generate electricity for off-grid situations, or to help the grid in times of peak demand. One of the most interesting is for the telecommunications industry that requires very reliable power for phone masts, often at very remote locations.

Good luck to Carbon Recycling International, Innogy and to Serenergy, between them they are pioneering what might prove to be a key part of the transition to a post fossil fuel future.

Floods, Climate Change & Human Life

Flooding in Mumbai 29th August 2017

Flooding in Mumbai 29th August 2017

Hurricane Harvey continues to bring unprecedented flooding to Texas and is now making landfall in Louisiana. Large parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been flooded in heavier than usual monsoonal rains. Niger in the African Sahel is also now experiencing higher than normal flooding with more than 40 deaths.  Earlier this month torrential rain caused a devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and Typhoon Hato battered Macau, Hong Kong and parts of South-Eastern China. There are two points I would like to highlight about how these events are covered in the media.

First is about the relative importance we put on human lives. Hurricane Harvey has attracted vastly more media coverage than the South Asian monsoon. Both situations are still on-going, but at the time of writing the death toll from Hurricane Harvey is 30 while for the South Asian monsoon it is 1,200. If the media, and their readership, which I guess includes us all, really valued all human life as having equal value would we reflect this in our reporting and give greater media attention to where the death toll was higher? Let us simply say that our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from these extreme weather events wherever they live and whoever they are.

The second point is about the causal relationship between climate change and these types of events. This has been particularly heated in the USA where climate change deniers and over simplistic arguments saying climate change caused the hurricane scream at each other. David Roberts, writing on the Vox website, makes a very intelligent and nuanced analysis of the complex relationship between individual weather events such as Hurricane Harvey and climate change. Of course hurricanes and monsoons have always killed people and the death toll is made worse by many factors such as how and where we build our settlements, but to exclude the role of climate change is simply wrong. Climate change is certainly making Hurricanes like Harvey worse as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than was historically the case, leading to greater evaporation and precipitation, which coupled with rising sea levels, has resulted in more flooding. The US military describe climate change as a ‘risk multiplier’ or ‘threat multiplier’. They rightly see it as exacerbating many pre existing threats from flooding to terrorism in ways that are both complex and highly nuanced. The simple truth is wherever we can reduce threats and risks we should do so and rapidly reducing carbon emissions is a very doable policy. And a second simple truth is that we should value all human life equally.

Snowdonia & Hafod y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan, with me peeking out from behind it.

Hafod y Llan is a farm covering over 2,600 acres of the south-eastern slopes of Snowdon. I’ve just got back from holidaying in the area and was very impressed by how the National Trust, who own the farm, are managing it. 60,000 people climb the Watkins path across the farm and up Snowdon each year. The National Trust run a lovely campsite on the farm and maintain the footpaths and in other ways welcome the many people coming to this magnificent scenery. They are also managing the land to increase its biodiversity by reducing sheep numbers, introducing Welsh Black cattle, and employing a couple of shepherds to focus the grazing animals onto those areas that need it and away from the sensitive ridges where grazing might be detrimental.

Three years ago I wrote about how the National Trust is working to produce half their energy needs by developing local on-site renewables, and also to reduce their energy needs by 20% by 2020. Then I wrote about the impressive marine source heat pump they had installed at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. Last week in Snowdonia we were very lucky to meet the very knowledgeable Wynn Owen who works at Hafod y Llan and who showed us two of their recently installed hydro electric systems. They had integrated the work into the landscape in a very sensitive way. One of the systems is a small 15KW turbine, the other, pictured above, is a 660KW system, which, as far as I’m aware, is the National Trust’s biggest renewable energy project to date. They also have a couple of other hydro systems, including the Gorsen 18KW at Hafod y Llan and a 45KW system on the neighbouring 2,100 acre Gelli Iago Estate, also owned and managed by the Trust.

The extensive farmhouse and buildings at Hafod y Llan house National Trust staff and volunteers, a holiday cottage and the campsite with its showers, washing machine and recharging point for an electric car. On site they have a range of other renewable energy projects, apart from the hydro systems, including a good sized photovoltaic array on a barn roof, ground source and air source heat pumps, 18KW wood pellet boiler and are hoping to develop a number of other projects in the future including an anaerobic digester.

So far most of the electricity that the National Trust generates has been sold to Good Energy, and as we are Good Energy customers it is nice to think that some of our energy is coming from them. Recently the National Trust has started selling some of its electricity directly to local people which is both more profitable for the Trust and cheaper for the local energy consumers as it cuts out the middle man.

The way the National Trust is managing Hafod Y Llan successfully combines tourism, biodiversity, renewable energy generation into a productive organic farm and has increased on-farm employment. It shows how land can be managed in ways that are good for ecology and for the economy at the same time.

Thanks to Keith Jones and Wynn Owen for providing useful information for this blog.

Trump: Beyond the Moral Pale

Heather Heyer, killed by Neo Nazis in Charlottesville

The situation in USA is very dangerous as Neo Nazis are on the rise, egged on by a President who at times seems merely narcissistic and incompetent, but at times simply evil. The Guardian has a very good editorial which puts the case that Trump is ‘beyond the moral pale’. To me, USA now feels to me much like Germany must have felt in 1934, with a clearly deranged and hate filled leader supported by a fanatical band of supporters. In many countries and at many times in history small far right racist groups exist, but then in Germany and now in USA they have taken over the reins of power. The task humanity is faced with is getting rid of Donald Trump and all he stands for as quickly as possible, yet peacefully and in such a way as to strengthen democracy. If this is not done USA faces the real danger of civil war, or of Trump making a pre-emptive attack on another country just in order to try and unite Americans behind him.

Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville while peacefully protesting against the Neo Nazis assembling there. Her last words on Facebook were ‘If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.’ Trump’s failure to clearly condemn the forces that killed her means he is totally unfit for office. Theresa May foolishly invited him on a state visit to the UK, which apparently he still intends to accept. This is comparable with inviting Hitler on a state visit to the UK in 1934, at that stage where he was in power, but while there was still an opportunity to limit the damage he was to do. Evil leaders must be opposed, strongly, peacefully and by the vast majority of ordinary citizens standing up for what is right. If Trump visits Britain the demonstrations will probably be the biggest in the history of this country. I would expect millions to be on the streets. One of the lessons from the Nazi era was that by staying silent we are complicit in evil. Good people must stand up and speak out.

In USA the ordinary citizens must join together to oust Trump. We have seen many Republicans distancing themselves from Trump: they need to go much further. I would like to see the majority of people encouraging politicians from across the spectrum of respectable political beliefs to work together to create a less confrontational and hate generating system of politics. The key is local people organising in their own communities but some top down leadership would also be useful. I’d like to see Jill Stein of the Greens, Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Jerry Brown and Barack Obama from the Democrats sitting down with respected Republicans such as George Bush, George W Bush, John McCain and perhaps Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. They may not agree about much, but rescuing American democracy ought to be a sufficiently unifying project. The most important thing is to change the tone of political debate. It has been too adversarial, confrontational and tribal for years. Putting proportional representation on the agenda might be the first step to help bring about a more collegiate atmosphere. American people are desperately insecure and atomized. A universal citizen’s income, free health and education would help to transform American people to feel more safe, secure and less susceptible to give their support to hate filled populist leaders. But these are just my ideas.

The new ideas and main opposition to Trump has to come from within American Society. Today I want to pay tribute to Heather Heyer and to the millions of Americans who are standing up, speaking out and putting their bodies in harm’s way in the interests of democracy.

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

Sono Motors solar cell clad Sion

I’ve blogged before about solar cells being integrated into ships and planes, and this week I came across a story of Indian trains having them, and many experimental solar cell clad cars compete each year in a race across Australia. It now looks likely that the first solar cell clad car is going to go into commercial production, assuming it can get 5,000 pre-orders. Munich based start-up Sono Motors have just successfully Crowdfunded and launched the Sion. (Great videos) It looks to me to be the coolest electric car in the world and is being sold for the very modest price of £14,500 or 16,000 Euros, excluding the battery, which currently costs an extra 4,000 Euros, but this figure is falling rapidly as battery prices continue to come down. Currently the world’s largest selling electric car is the Nissan Leaf, despite the Tesla’s massive hype. The Sion will be considerably cheaper than either of these, and has a lot of additional features, such as the solar cells, that make it very much cooler. Perhaps the most novel feature is its living moss air filter. The battery has a power take off so that it can be used to charge up other electric cars, for power tools or to sell electricity to the grid.

It is a family sized car totally covered in 330 high specification solar cells, which even on a cloudy day should generate enough electricity to drive 30Kms. With a full battery it has a range of 250Kms. The car is designed for car sharing and lift sharing and comes complete with apps to help these systems.

The UK government has announced its predictably unimpressive goal to rid the country of diesel and petrol cars by 2040. As one might expect much of the press and the incumbent motor industry is bleating about how this could undermine the existing motor industry or require many new power stations. The reality is that this is part of a globally disruptive series of changes that are needed to tackle a human health crisis and the climate crisis. Getting people out of their cars and into public transport is clearly happening in many cities around the world, and needs to happen on a very much greater scale.

I, like a growing number of people do not own a car but share the ownership and use of a number of cars through a car share club. Our club, St James and Bartonsham car share club currently owns four cars, all still fossil fuelled. We hope before too long to switch to electric or hydrogen fuel cell. I’ve written before about Riversimple’s Rasa, probably the most sustainable and best car on the planet. The Sono Motors Sion looks to me to be another one of the best. Note Sono like Riversimple is a tiny start-up. Most of the big volume car makers now have all electric models, but none seem to be so ground breaking as the Rasa or the Sion.

Globally it is estimated that the fossil fuel industry is being subsidized to the tune of $5 trillion per year. We should curtail all such subsidies immediately and aid the speedy end of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ and invest in the coming ‘Solar Age’.  In the UK electric car sales make up just 2% of new car sales, while in Norway the figure is 42%. The mayor of Oslo says that she wants her city to have the cleanest air of any city in the world. Reducing the number of cars on the road, having as many of them as shared use as possible and making sure that the actual cars are as minimally polluting as possible are all part of this desired policy, and the Rasa and Sion seem to me to be the cars that best fit this goal.

 

Disruptive Technologies

Ben and Erica

Dr Ben Garrod with Erica the ‘idealized women’ robot

We live in an era of ever faster technological change. Like all technological changes it is disruptive of old businesses and employment patterns based on earlier technologies. Robotics, artificial intelligence, self driving vehicles and big data are all progressing at incredible speed. The BBC and the OU have jointly made a couple of series of TV programmes looking at this. In ‘Hyper Evolution: The Rise of the Robots’ Prof Danielle George and Dr Ben Garrod focused on the technologies while in ‘The Secrets of Silicon Valley’ Jamie Bartlett focused more on the social impact of these technologies. Both made fascinating viewing, and there are more episodes to come.

Jamie Bartlett pointed out how Silicon Valley technology companies like Apple, Google, Uber and Facebook portray themselves as ‘the good guys’ yet operate much like any corporate entity, seeking to maximize profits with scant regard for the social (or ecological) consequences. Many of them pay very little tax and governments struggle to make them pay. In the past national governments had the ability to nationalize companies that failed to comply with national laws. With these global tech giants that operate in cyber space it is proving difficult for governments to get them to act responsibly.

The fundamental question to me seems to be in whose interests are these companies allowed to operate? At the moment it seems to be a small group of Silicon Valley billionaires. It is probable that hundreds of millions of jobs will disappear as a consequence of these technologies. We could see inequality widen to the extent that there are a few trillionaires and billions of serfs and slaves. Siddharth Kara points out that there are today more slaves than ever before and that slavery is more profitable now than ever before. Current trends in many areas are leading toward a dystopian hell.

A better future may depend on developing new forms of global governance with the power to tax, regulate and redistribute the profits of these global corporations. If jobs are to be automated then a global basic income scheme seems an absolute necessity. The corporations will fight any such plans. Civil society has to prove stronger than corporate interests. That will be one of the epic struggles of the coming decades. Technology has the power to amplify humanity’s impact on each other and on the biosphere, with consequences that could be for good or ill. We as a species have to regain some political control of the process to ensure these technologies are used for the common good.

I’ll be giving a talk on Weds 9th at De Koffie Pot, Left Bank, Hereford, expanding on all this, showing slides and leading a discussion. The title is ‘The Human Future: Changing Technology, Changing Politics’. If you’re in Hereford do come and join us: free entry and very friendly. All welcome.

Tales from West Africa and South Carolina

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

In February I blogged about the exponential growth of solar pv and the disruptive effect this will have on existing power systems. A couple of stories have come my way that highlight the changing economics and technologies.

Togo, the small West African country, provides an interesting example of how the cleantech revolution is progressing. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. Only 7% of the rural population have access to electricity. This is about to change very quickly. A couple of weeks ago UK start-up BBOXX signed an agreement with the government of Togo to bring solar power to 300,000 people. BBOXX supply solar panels, batteries, smart appliances and remote monitoring. Most of the rural population of Togo do not have access to conventional banks. All manner of financial transactions are now done in Africa by mobile phone, including of course for BBOXX’s electricity. The combination of solar panels, batteries and mobile phones is replacing the need for both conventional power stations and banking systems. One of the priorities for the Togolese government in this project is to bring financial inclusion as well as electricity to rural populations. BBOXX expect to bring their solar electric system to 20 million people, mainly across rural Africa and South Asia, by 2020.

In South Carolina, USA, two partially built nuclear reactors have been abandoned at huge cost to the local people. Gains in energy efficiency, cheap gas and cheap renewables have pushed down demand and power prices. Westinghouse has gone bankrupt and the number of operating reactors in USA is falling as old ones are decommissioned and very few new ones are being built. The nuclear renaissance that some commentators were talking about a few years back looks unlikely. This has ominous implications for the viability of UK’s investment in Hinkley C.

South Carolina currently gets 55% of its electricity from nuclear and 40% from coal and gas, and remarkably little from renewables. I would expect this to change very quickly despite Trump. The combination of increases in energy efficiency and the falling costs of renewables look set to have a growing global impact, even in South Carolina. One example is the Tesla solar roof tile that I blogged about last November. I would expect it, and similar products, to grow extremely rapidly. The stock markets sense this direction of travel, so as Westinghouse collapses Tesla soars. Fracking has brought cheap gas to the American market, but at huge environmental cost, and even it is failing to compete with renewables on cost. In 2016 for the first year ever in American history solar added more new generating capacity than any other energy source, adding 14,626 MW. This marks an annual growth rate of 95%, similar to China and many other countries. Expect exponential global growth of solar to continue for some time yet. Good news for people everywhere, from rural Togo to Jenkinsville, South Carolina.

Can Companies Change?

Race Bank_ First Blades

The first wind turbine blades leave Siemens Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm

A few days ago I posted a blog about the Norwegian oil company Statoil developing and deploying the world’s first commercial scale floating wind turbines. Statoil is changing its business model. Climate change, ocean acidification, air and water pollution are all largely driven by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. Technological innovation and falling prices have made the case to switch from fossil fuels to renewables an economically smart move, as well as being a macro ecological imperative and an absolute necessity for humanity to continue to flourish. The cleantech revolution is happening and is being driven mainly by small start-up companies. What future do the big incumbents have? Will they change with the times or struggle to keep the old polluting economy going? Peabody and DONG provide the most extreme examples of this choice.

The name DONG stands for Danish Oil and Gas. In 1972 it was set up by the Danish government to develop North Sea oil and gas fields. It expanded into electricity supply and owned coal fired power stations. Fossil fuels were its core business. As it has grown it has transformed itself into a cleantech pioneer. It is now the world’s largest builder and owner of offshore wind farms. 80% of its capital is employed in the wind sector and just 4% in oil and gas, and it has said it will sell off this vestigial side of the business while investing heavily in more offshore wind. Last week the first wind turbine blades left Siemens new Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm. DONG has also invested in the Cambeltown wind tower factory in western Scotland, owned by Korean company CS Wind. DONG is also now developing some interesting waste to energy projects such as the REnescience project at Northwich, Cheshire. It is creating lots of useful jobs helping develop the technologies that will help combat climate change.

Peabody is a much older company, founded in 1883 in Chicago, USA. It was and remains focused overwhelmingly on coal. To quote Wikipedia ‘Peabody has been an important actor in organized climate change denial.’ It has totally failed to make the transition to a cleantech future. It filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in April 2016. The day after the election of Donald Trump its shares shot up by 50% and in April 2017 it emerged from bankruptcy. It still owns vast coal reserves. If this coal is ever going to be exploited then Peabody has economic value, but if, as climate change and the cleantech revolution show, these assets are just worthless liabilities then a return to bankruptcy seems inevitable.

Most of the world’s huge oil companies, such as Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell, are still dominated by their oil interests. Most of them have dabbled in renewables but their main capital resources are still overwhelmingly in oil. Will they make the change and fully commit to the post fossil fuel future or will they cleave to the old polluting past? My hunch is that most of them have left it too late: cleantech start-ups will grow exponentially and squeeze them out of the energy market. Their stock market values are likely to plummet as the realization that the reserves they own and that underpin their stock market valuations are worthless. Oil and coal will follow flint from being key economic assets to interesting geological curiosities. When in 1991 the first offshore wind farm opened at Vindeby in Denmark many in the global energy industry thought offshore wind a ludicrous idea. Nobody would say that now. A lot has changed in the last 26 years: much more will do so in the next quarter century as the pace of change inevitably quickens.