India: Coal or Solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

Last month atmospheric Co2 levels passed 410 parts per million. To avert climatic catastrophe humanity needs to shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. India presents us with both the scale of the challenge and the scope of possibility. The government of India wants to bring electricity to all its 1.3 billion people, the population is still rising and the country is rapidly industrializing. Energy demand is increasing, and so too carbon emissions. Many new coal fired power stations were built in the decade 2007 to 2017, more than doubling coal capacity. This all bodes ill for local air quality, and for the global climate. At the Paris climate summit a couple of years back the Indian government was rather dragging its feet, only promising to decrease the carbon intensity of its economy, while planning for rapid economic growth and emissions still rising for years to come.

However things could change for the better very rapidly. The price of solar, both photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal, is falling fast, and India has a very good solar resource. In 2017 for the first time India added more new renewable capacity than new coal. Many coal plants are proving economically unviable: they simply cannot match solar on price and are shutting down. As solar prices are predicted to keep falling this should only accelerate this process. Currently the government are still trying to protect coal from these market forces. They are also beginning to grasp the new opportunities that solar can bring. For isolated rural communities across India local solar plus storage will be key to their development. At the other extreme are new solar based megacities.

The Dholera Special Investment Region, located near the head of the Gulf of Khambhat in the Indian state of Gujarat, is a huge area earmarked for a new city and cleantech industrial hub. A 5 GW solar pv plant is planned, with local manufacture of solar cells and panels and other ancillary industries. This will further decrease the price of solar electricity, hastening the demise of coal. A project like Dholera opens up many new opportunities to create new forms of prosperity not based on ever more pollution but on new and ecologically sustainable technologies. It would be a perfect place to invest heavily in solar desalination and new forms of super productive hydroponic agriculture, on many forms of energy storage and on electric and hydrogen fuel cell transportation systems. India could lead the world with the speed to its energy transition. Technologically India has lagged behind Europe, USA or China, but it has probably the best solar resource of these four. It could leapfrog them, and be the first solar powered superpower. Essentially it is a political choice, which path India will follow, coal based or solar based development? The economics of going all out for solar are looking increasingly good, which is good news for India, and for the rest of us.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is providing leadership in so many inspiring ways. Following a short civil war in 1948 it abolished its army and has for these last seventy years put the money saved into improving education, health and welfare systems. It now has longer life expectancy than USA. It is by far the most peaceful country in Central America and has very much lower crime levels than any of its neighbours. It has done much to protect and enhance its biodiversity. It has long been a beacon of good democratic government, and last month elected Carlos Alvarado as president.

The new president arrived at his inauguration ceremony in a hydrogen fuel cell bus, the first one in Central America. Costa Rica has for some years got about 99% of its electricity from renewables and has famously gone for 300 days without needing to burn any fossil fuels to generate electricity. It seeks to be a world leader by being the first country to fully decarbonise all its energy use. Transport is the big challenge. Carlos Alvarado has announced the incredibly ambitious goal of replacing all petrol and diesel use with battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars and buses by 2021. That would be a global first. It may not be fully achievable within these four years, but it is a goal worth pursuing. President Alvarado has described the full energy transition as a ’titanic and beautiful task’.

In order to make the transport sector fossil fuel free they will need to expand their renewable energy systems. So far most comes from hydro, with geothermal expanding quickly. Solar, wind and biomass are all still relatively underdeveloped. There is lots of scope for expansion. It will be very interesting to see what they can achieve in these next few years.

All the indexes and polls measuring happiness and wellbeing put Costa Rica up near the top, along with the five Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Low military spending, low levels of economic inequality, strong commitment to ecological sustainability and well functioning democracy seem to be unifying themes which help build a strong sense of social solidarity, wellbeing and happiness in all these countries: surely a recipe for others to follow?

Local Elections: Reflections

The local elections are over. The results are in. We’ve had a few days to read the analysis and reflect. What do they tell us?

The above graphic from the BBC sums up the results very nicely. Unfortunately the BBC coverage and analysis I found very disappointing, focusing as they usually do these days with both a very pro Brexit bias, and, as ever, seeing the election as a contest between Labour and the Tories. True Labour and the Tories are the biggest parties, and Labour did, just, gain more seats than any other party, but there are other and more interesting stories to be told.

Of the 4,404 seats contested across 150 councils which parties had the greatest percentage gains in terms of number of councillors, and why? By this measure the Green Party and Liberal Democrats did very well, with the Greens gaining 25.8% and the LibDems gaining 16.3%. Labour’s performance was pretty patchy and lacklustre at a gain of 3.4%. The Tories lost 2.4% of their councillors, which is a poor performance, but not as bad as it could have been had they not picked up so many former UKIP voters. The UKIP loss of 97.6% of their councillors must be one of the greatest annihilations of any political party in UK history.

If these local election results have anything to tell us about Brexit is that the public is rapidly turning against the whole process as a very bad idea. UKIP has collapsed and yet the Tories, supported by both the DUP and Labour are pushing ahead regardless. This is one factor why the most pro European parties are gaining ground. Clearly there are many other factors why people are turning to the Greens and LibDems, but the calamity of Brexit is certainly part of the picture. Their gains of 25.8% and 16.3% I find impressive and significant.

There is an extraordinary political paradox unfolding. The most passionately Unionist parties; UKIP, Tories, Labour and DUP are all in favour of Brexit, yet it will, in my view, almost inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The complexities Brexit presents regarding the border and the peace process in Northern Ireland seem unlikely to be solved any time soon. Scotland, like Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. The SNP, like the LibDems and Greens, is very strongly pro European. If Brexit does indeed go ahead then pressure will continue to grow for an ‘IndyRef2’, which would almost certainly lead to a win for Scottish independence from the UK. Yesterday there was a huge demonstration in Glasgow calling for independence.

After Brexit it seems probable that Scotland would gain independence. Northern Ireland would either join the Republic of Ireland, or possibly seek independence, strongly tied to the other parts of the British Isles still within the EU. So Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would remain in the EU while England and Wales were outside, and increasingly fractured by the calamity of Brexit.

I, like an increasing number of people, think that Brexit will not happen. Public opinion has turned against it. Any kind of ratification referendum would now almost certainly be a landslide for remaining in the EU. Yet Labour and the Tories still seem dedicated to pursuing the wishes of UKIP, despite UKIP’s demise.

Pesticides, Plastics & the Precautionary Principle

neonicotinoid ban

Neonicotinoid ban: a victory for grassroots environmental action, bees and human health

At long last the EU has passed legislation to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. The ban should come into place within six months, covers the three main types of neonicotinoids on all outdoor use on crops (but not use in greenhouses or on pets and some other instances) This ban is something a whole raft of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Avaaz have campaigned in favour of for many years. At last Michael Gove has reversed UK government opposition to the ban. Similar bans are under consideration in many other countries around the world.

The evidence that these chemicals harm bees has been gathered over many years. What I find staggering is how little research has been done on the effects on human health. Science Daily states that ‘Very little research has been done on their effects on human health’. One recent study indicates that neonicotinoids have endocrine disrupting effects that may be one cause of breast cancer. Clearly more research needs to be done on this, and much else. It is widely known that neonicotinoids change bee’s behaviour and sense of navigation. How might they be affecting human neurological function?

Another issue that has huge, global and as yet largely unstudied ramifications are microplastic particles. These are present in the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink. Larger scale plastic debris has had very much more media coverage over the years, with well documented damage to marine wildlife. Because microplastic particles are essentially invisible they have been largely ignored until recently, yet potentially they pose a serious threat to human health.

Radically reducing the use of both pesticides and plastics is possible. The precautionary principle should be applied. The protection of environmental health, and human health, should be prioritized. A circular economy which reuses and recycles as much of its throughput of materials and energy as possible is the only long term sustainable direction in which to develop the global economy. This recent ban on neonicotinoids is a step in the right direction.

War & Peace

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

The UK is yet again intervening militarily in the Middle East. The actions this week in Syria are as unlikely to bring lasting peace to the region as our previous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Tensions with Russia are as bad as during the Cold War.  Theresa May ordered these current attacks without debate or a vote in Parliament.

The global armaments businesses are always looking for opportunities to battle test their weapons systems. There is a remorseless logic to the military industrial complex. A peaceful world would be the death knell for their business model. Many of our global political leaders see the world in frighteningly adversarial terms. Each military action ramps up the dangers of further escalation, and with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable world leaders the prospect of total global devastation is all too real.

Can we envisage a more peaceful world?

There are parallels with action on climate change. Many people struggle to imagine how the modern world would function without fossil fuels. As I keep stressing in numerous blogs, technologically and philosophically a radically less polluted world is possible. The fact that the fossil fuel industry is forever seeking to sow doubt in this fact has greatly slowed progress. Likewise, a very much more peaceful world is possible. It requires politicians very much more strongly committed to cooperation and to building social solidarity. The military industrial industries seek to undermine such a worldview. When neither an ecologically sustainable future or a peaceful future are in the interests of certain industries it is time to change the economy that promotes such suicidal business models. To do that requires a different breed of politicians.

The European Union is far from perfect but it has probably been the greatest example of cooperation replacing conflict in human history. It is also leading the world in action on climate change. Local communities across Europe are cooperating on peace and sustainability through processes like the Aalborg Commitments. Ramping up such initiatives globally would be a vital step toward a better and more peaceful future. The UK should put itself at the heart of such a process, and of course the nonsense of Brexit needs to be reversed.

The UK has local elections on 3rd May. Issues like international military action and Brexit may not be the responsibility of local government, but they certainly effect all local governments in myriad ways. It seems to me that UKIP, the Tories and Labour are all wedded to an isolationist and adversarial mindset. Electing more local councillors from the Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru might be a way to open up a spirit of greater cross party cooperation and peaceful international cooperation and engagement. It would certainly be a powerful message on Brexit. Caroline Lucas is a voice of sanity on this latest attack on Syria, as on so much else. We desperately need more politicians like her at every level of government.

It often feels like we as individual can’t do much about huge global issues, from climate change to world peace, from hunger and poverty to biodiversity loss. Voting is one thing that we can do. Today, make sure you’ve registered to vote, and if your council is up for election on 3rd May do please vote. Of course to create meaningful change we need to do so much more than just voting, but voting does matter: one tiny step on the long road to a more peaceful future.

Democracy Under Threat

Christopher Wylie

Christopher Wylie speaking at Parliamentary select committee

Democracy is under threat like never before. Digital warfare seems to be incredibly effective in changing how people think, feel and vote. There is growing evidence that many elections have been influenced in very negative and socially divisive ways, from the election of Donald Trump to the UK Brexit referendum.

In December I wrote a blog about why we should ‘Exit from Brexit’. Since then the revelations have shown a very frightening picture of voter manipulation, illegal data harvesting and campaign spending greatly exceeding legal limits. In that blog I highlighted the excellent investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalladr and others. In Saturday’s Guardian she posts the latest update on this whole sordid mess. The embedded videos of her interviews with Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni are particularly powerful. Their revelations about Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ are dynamite. The UK has much to do to restore its reputation as a reasonably functioning and law governed democracy.

Democracy has always needed defending from those out to destroy it. Lives are at stake in this battle. Every year dozens of investigative journalists are murdered as they investigate links between organised crime and corrupt politicians. Wikipedia lists 71 journalists killed during 2017. Propaganda has long been used to whip up hatred, and sometimes the effects take years to become apparent. The Nazi propaganda in the 1920’s and 30’s directly led to the eventual death of scores of millions of people by 1945. Kenya, like much of Africa, has a long history of inter tribal tensions. It appears Cambridge Analytica interfered in the last election in Kenya, in very socially damaging ways. It may be years before the full impact of this becomes apparent.

For those of us who care about democracy we will have to redouble our commitment to holding truth to power, through excellent investigative journalism and the vigorous upholding of the rule of law. If we fail to do this now, the future consequences for our species could be fatal. We live in a world packed full of weapons of mass destruction and with an unfolding global scale ecological crisis: we need global peace and democracy if we want to have a hope of survival into the next millennium.

Politics: Violence & Hope

Norm Chomsky

I’ve just finished reading Norm Chomsky’s book ‘Who rules the World?’ He charts the development of American imperialist expansionism from the Founding Fathers, through the Monroe Doctrine to the ‘War on Terror’ and reiterates his view that the USA is the greatest sponsor and perpetrator of state terror. Much of what he says seems true to me, but he tends to overlook or downplay the imperialistic expansionism of other major powers, and the terror they inflict in their own spheres of influence. From China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950’s to its current island building ventures in the South China Sea doesn’t look too different from America’s atrocities in Latin America and South East Asia. The best comparison is with Russia, whose continuity of territorial expansionism dates from the Sixteenth Century and has remained horribly unchanging through many Tsars, through the Soviet era and continues under Putin. A couple of weeks ago the BBC screened an excellent if terrifying documentary ‘Putin: The New Tsar’. One highlight was the contribution of Dr Ian Robertson on the psychological impacts of achieving too much power. In China President Xi Jinping’s personal concentration of power looks increasingly ominous.

Geopolitical rivalry between USA, Russia and China provides much cause for concern. On these blogs I always try and identify reasons for hope. My last blog was entitled Towards an Ecological Civilization. I am firmly of the opinion that most people would like a more peaceful, fairer and less polluted world to pass on to the next generation, but they are often at a loss as to how to get to this more hopeful outcome. So much of our media encourages fear and apathy, in part because they concentrate on reporting the rhetoric of the most divisive politicians. On this blog I try and encourage engagement and activism for a more hopeful future, and I will just stress three points.

The first is that countries can and do change. Think of Germany. Emerging from the horrors of the Nazi era it has remade itself as one of the most peaceful, responsible and best governed countries on Earth. I’ve blogged before about what Uruguay has achieved. Nowhere is perfect, but rapid and radical improvement is possible.

The second point is that the most interesting role models for positive change are often the least reported. So, while Trump’s idiotic pronouncements about energy make headline news I’ve never once seen coverage of the Danish District Heating Association, who continuously develop sensible practical solutions. More generally the Nordic Model offers so much more to learn from than USA, Russia or China, yet gets very much less press coverage. The world’s happiest and best run countries are the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. I’m just about to read ‘The Nordic Theory of Everything’ by Anu Partanen, which I think will be a much more cheerful read than Chomsky, and a much more practical guide to a better future!

The third point I want to make is about engagement and activism. If you feel something is wrong, where possible, don’t just bemoan the situation, get active with others and work on solutions. After the horrors of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland Florida it is heartening to see American youth organising the March for Our Lives. To reduce gun crime in American schools, or reduce American state terrorism, will require much effort, but don’t forget Bernie Saunders could have beaten Trump and that could have set America on a very different path. One worth striving for!

Towards an Ecological Civilization

Paris

Can we make our cities, and World, less polluted and better to live in? This picture is of Paris, one of the places leading the way.

Humanity wants a better future. Increasingly we are united in our demands for a cleaner, less polluted environment, and we see this as a fundamental human right. We want to protect the oceans, the forests and the air we breathe from the multiple onslaughts of industrial civilization. Achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable lifestyle for all humanity is a goal worth striving for.  Increasingly we have the technological tools to help us do this, and there is a global groundswell providing the pressure politicians need to enact positive change.

Slowly the United Nations is moving towards recognising the human right to a healthy environment. Over the last eight and a quarter years I’ve posted three hundred blogs highlighting some of the positive steps that are being taken on this path to a better future. My focus has been on the shift from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewables. This change in energy use is one part of a bigger shift, what David Korten and Joanna Macy refer to as ‘The Great Turning’, from Imperial Civilization to Ecological Civilization.

In a great video Jeremy Leggett argues that the transition away from fossil fuels and to a 100% renewables based global economy is happening faster than most people understand. He identifies three meta-narratives in this process. First, the global groundswell of people, governments and increasingly also from corporations who see the need for change. Second, the falling costs and increasing efficiency of the renewable energy technologies, and thirdly, a whole set of problems within the old energy incumbency, from the ponzi like debt structure of the fracking industry to the inability of everything from coal and oil to nuclear to compete with renewables on either cost or environmental legislation. Together all these trends conspire towards an exponentially fast energy transition. We will see a lot of stranded assets.

There are many victories to celebrate. Over the last few years UK carbon emissions have fallen, so that in 2017 they dropped to levels last seen in 1890. This rapid improvement was mainly due to the decline in coal and rise of renewable sources of electricity.

As I’ve stressed in a number of recent blogs, the next big change needs to be in transport. At last many cities are starting to ban cars and make city centre areas radically more pedestrian focused. Cycle paths and public transport infrastructure are being improved. Several German cities are about to introduce free public transport in order to help get people to quit their car addiction. Many cities are banning the most polluting vehicles, and as I’ve shown in recent blogs very much cleaner alternatives are rapidly developing. Over the next decade I would predict air quality to improve and carbon emissions from transport to fall. Putin, Trump and few ghastly politicians will do all they can to stop this transition, but the overwhelming tide of global opinion combined with the pace of technological innovation is stacked against them.

Shipping beyond fossil fuels

Ampere

Ampere, the Norwegian pioneering battery electric ferry.

Last week I looked at how transport systems might work in the post fossil fuel era. Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries are emerging as the main contenders in the race to store cheap, clean, surplus wind and solar energy and use it in various types of transport. The speed of change is likely to much faster than most people envisage. Reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up local air pollution have usually been portrayed as a cost, but if making these improvements proves cheaper than carrying on with old polluting technologies, then the pace of change may be very rapid. One extraordinary example of this is the ‘Ampere’.

The ‘Ampere’ is a ferry operating between Lavik and Oppendal across the Sognefjorden fiord in Norway. It is a battery electric vessel and came into service in 2015, and has now a couple of years of data which show that emissions are 95% down and operating costs are 80% cheaper than the previous diesel powered ferry. Due to these staggering environmental benefits and cost savings orders for similar ferries are flooding in. The busy ferry route between Helsingborg in Sweden and Helsingor in Denmark now has battery electric ferries, but the route is only four kilometres. The Dutch company Port-Liner are due to launch their innovative fully automated battery electric container barges this autumn, operating between Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. On the Pearl River in China a large new battery electric coal transport ship has come into operation with a 50 mile range. There is much scope to increase the use of battery electric ferries on short trips, but for large international ships crossing the major oceans something more than just batteries will probably be needed. This might include onboard solar panels and use of the wind via sails, kites or aerofoils. All these are being trialed.

As ships currently use heavy, very dirty, forms of diesel they emit huge quantities of a whole range of pollutants. Switching to radically cleaner forms of energy makes sense first in urban contexts, such as in port, along rivers and canals and on short ferry crossings, up to and including say ferries linking England and France. We have the technology to do this now, and it makes perfect sense both environmentally and economically. Long distance global shipping will also make the transition to cleaner fuels, but it’ll take a little longer, as the technical challenges are more complex, but certainly not impossible.

Transport beyond fossil fuels

Coradia iLint

The Coradia iLint made by Alstom, a hydrogen fuel cell regional train

Many countries are now setting themselves the goal of moving from petrol and diesel powered transportation systems to very much cleaner technologies. The UK, like many countries has set itself the goal of banning sales of new fossil fuelled vehicles by 2040. Norway plans to do so by 2025. Many people still don’t seem to realize that we already have most of the technologies we’ll need to run a modern global economy purely on renewable forms of energy. Renewably generated electricity, supplied via the grid, via batteries or via hydrogen fuel cells will be the basis of most methods of transport.

For over a hundred years trains and trams have used electricity via either overhead cables or live rails. There is a strong case to keep electrifying railway lines. An emerging alternative, particularly suitable for quiet rural railway lines, where the high cost of electrification might not be justified, are hydrogen fuel cell trains. Alstom is already marketing the Coradia iLint, and Siemens are now partnering with Ballard to make something similar. There are lots of advantages to getting people and freight off the roads and on to rails. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, meaning greater energy efficiency and less pollution. The longer thinner shape of trains means less air resistance, again aiding efficiency.

We will of course still need buses, trucks and cars. There are many possible fuel options. Oslo has a fleet of 135 buses powered on biomethane made from food waste and sewage. I’ve blogged about methanol fuel cells, and a whole range of innovative and experimental ships, planes, and solar panel clad roads and cars, which are all promising but not yet in common usage. Battery electric vehicles are getting massive media coverage due to Elon Musk and Tesla, and are beginning to sell in large numbers. Last year in Norway over half of all new cars sold were either battery electric or petrol/electric hybrids, but sadly in most other countries the proportion is very much smaller. In terms of volume of sales, China is a long way ahead of any other market for battery electric or hybrid cars and buses.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the other main technology to be moving from the experimental stage to the mass production stage. (earlier blogs from me in 2015 and 2017) The Scottish government has recently helped Aberdeen double its fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses from ten to twenty. Cologne in Germany has just ordered thirty, and dozens of cities are ordering a few. Ballard, the Canadian hydrogen fuel cell specialist has now teamed up with some Chinese companies to build a fleet of 500 hydrogen fuel cell light trucks and the refuelling infrastructure to support their roll out in Shanghai. Meanwhile the Nikola company has secured 8,000 pre-orders for its huge hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and will start production next year in Arizona. At the other end of the spectrum is Riversimple, who are due to build their first twenty tiny hydrogen fuel cell cars later this year, and which our local car club may be in a position to trial. Exciting times!

The days of petrol and diesel are numbered. It is too early to say which technology will dominate in the post fossil fuel economy. Both hydrogen and batteries are in essence ways of storing surplus wind and solar electricity and it is this aspect of how best to store energy cheaply and at vast scale which may be the main determinate of which fuel is used where. There will undoubtedly be a role for many technologies in various settings. I’ll explore more on this next week.