Monthly Archives: March 2018

Towards an Ecological Civilization


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, 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.