Category Archives: Climate Change

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.

Global Political Divisions

Andrew Weaver

Andrew Weaver joins Caroline Lucas, Jesse Klaver and Isabella Lovin as one of my political heroes.

On this blog and in numerous talks I’ve put forward the case that the prime political divisions can no longer be seen as left/right, but rather socially and ecologically literate on the one hand and oil addicted nationalistic despots on the other.

It looks like Trump is on the verge of pulling the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The US House Intelligence committee has issued subpoenas to Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen in the latest instalment in the Trump-Russia saga. There is certainly a huge overlap between Putin and Trump as they struggle to keep the global carbon bubble economy going. Both Trump and Putin are irrelevant. When it comes to finding solutions to the biggest issues facing humanity, from climate change to poverty, they either are in denial of the problem or simply don’t care. Other, more intelligent, socially and ecologically responsible politicians are taking leadership roles.

A few days ago there were elections in British Columbia. Andrew Weaver, inspirational leader of the BC Greens and a professor of climate science will now be an influential figure in John Horgan’s New Democratic Party government. Expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline was one of the defining issues of the election and the result is a great victory for those of us standing up to big oil and their puppet politicians.

The EU and China look set to rebuff Trump and to increase political commitment to the Paris agreement and to intensify cleantech collaboration. They will want partners in North America. Canada, with Justin Trudeau, John Horgan and Andrew Weaver involved will have much to contribute. As the Federal government in Washington collapses into irrelevance individual states and cities are increasingly stepping up to take leadership roles. In April Isabella Lovin and the Swedish government delegation signed a climate cooperation agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown, simply bypassing the idiocy of what passes for politics in Washington these days.

Britain’s role in the world is rapidly diminishing as the Brexit buffoons lead the country into increasing inequality, isolation and irrelevance. Globally constructive solution focused thinking is being led by pioneering left leaning Greens and right of centre pragmatists like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping, who do certainly have their differences but are united in seeing the need to tackle climate change and to bring the post fossil fuel economy into being, and to doing it collaboratively.

Time for Change!

Caroline Lucas & Jonathan Bartley to head UK government???

Caroline Lucas & Jonathan Bartley to head UK government!?*

This week atmospheric Co2 passed 410ppm, the highest level for three million years. We are heading for a climate totally unfit for human civilization, a climate unseen for 50 million years, and we could get to this ghastly outcome within the lifetime of children alive today. Climate change is just one aspect of a wider Ecological Crisis that includes habitat loss, species extinction, ocean acidification, desertification and myriad forms of pollution. In the UK we also face a Social Crisis that has at its heart rising inequality and chronic underfunding of health, education, housing and other public services.

Since my adolescence in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I’ve been an environmentalist, and like most environmentalists then and now, also committed to social justice based on much greater equality. In those early days the only way of causing less polluting lives was to live simpler lives. We drew inspiration from Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher and then young Jonathon Porritt. An ecologically sustainable lifestyle inevitably meant using less energy. There were some futuristic writers, like Buckminster Fuller, who had visions of the future based on higher tech, but any truly sustainable source of energy supply was off in some distant future.

Over the last half a century there has been a cleantech revolution. Now we have the technology to provide a Swedish standard of living to all 7.5 billion of us humans. As I keep saying on this blog, technologically so much is possible. If we applied the principles of ecological sustainability and social justice systematically humanity could very quickly banish much of both the Ecological Crisis and the Social Crisis to history. We could create a carbon negative global economy with zero hunger and poverty. To achieve this we need different politicians. Why Sweden is rich and Somalia is poor has more to do with politics, history and culture than due to resources or possibilities. Why we in UK are living through a protracted period of austerity and Sweden is not is due to the different political decisions that have been made. While Sweden systematically applies goals of ecological sustainability and social justice the UK does not. We in this country currently have a government focused on further enriching a tiny clique of billionaires, and are prepared to trash the climate and the lives of our own people in order achieve this insane goal.

We have a UK general election on 8th June, and local elections on 4th May. Please register to vote, and please vote, ideally for the Green Party, but failing that for any politician you feel can contribute to getting rid of Theresa May and this awful government. The UK desperately needs a government that understands the Ecological Crisis and the Social Crisis and is prepared to radically redistribute resources to achieve the twin goals of Ecological Sustainability and Social Justice.

Solar Buses in China

Solar powered buses

Chinese Battery Electric Buses, with solar panels.

Over the years I’ve posted a number of blogs about why I’m optimistic that Chinese carbon emissions will plummet over the coming decade, and that the Chinese will make significant headway on tackling their ghastly air pollution. I’ve also written about lots of prototype zero emission transportation systems, but much less about the mass roll out of such systems and the effect they might have in reducing pollution.

Diesel buses and trucks are a major source of pollution in Chinese cities. Their days are numbered. Battery electric bus sales are booming. China represents 98% of the global market for such vehicles.  Many now have solar panels built into the roofs, as the above photograph shows. In Europe and North America a few pioneering places are doing small scale trials, mainly by importing electric buses from China. A few ground breaking efforts are being made to design and build electric buses, some with roof mounted solar panels, such as in Kampala, Uganda, by Makerere University and Kiira Motors, the first such project in Africa. However it is only in China that the rapid adoption of electric buses is forging ahead at incredible speed. The huge city of Shenzhen plans to have a fleet of 15,000 electric buses up and running by the end of this year. Other cities are expected to follow in rapid succession. There are several Chinese electric bus companies that are expanding very rapidly, such as BYD which is currently growing 50% per year. Chinese deployment of solar power is currently growing at 100% per year. Increasingly renewable electricity will be what fuels both the Chinese electricity grid and its public transport systems. Trains, trams, trucks, cars and motorbikes are all likely to go electric, or hydrogen fuel cell. It is now becoming possible to envisage fossil fuelled powered cars, trucks and buses in the same way we see steam trains, with a strange confused nostalgia for a more polluted past. If humanity is to have a future it will be with clean, pollution minimizing technology, and currently China is forging ahead of the rest of the world. Chinese carbon emissions rocketed during the decade 2002 to 2012 then levelled off for the last five years and now, I believe, are on the cusp of rapid reduction. And as carbon emissions fall so too will local air pollution. There is a long way to go, but improvements can be remarkably rapid, as the roll out of battery electric buses and solar power in China show.

China: CSP

China_provinces

The Provinces of China. New CSP will mainly be in Qinghai, Gansu & Inner Mongolia.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) uses mirrors and lenses to focus the energy of the sun to make steam, drive turbines and so make electricity. This solar technology can be used to directly drive industrial processes, desalinate seawater, or to power air conditioning via absorption chillers. With CSP heat is usually stored in molten salt and this is then used to generate electricity in the evenings after the sun has set. This is a very important advantage over photovoltaic solar. I’ve long been a fan of this technology and have written about it frequently on this blog. In the first decade of this century Spain lead the world, before abandoning support under the Rajoy government in 2010. In February 2013 I posted a blog asking ‘where next for CSP?’ I’ve posted blogs about Morocco, Chile, South Africa and USA who have all built impressive examples of this technology.

Until recently China had not built any serious CSP power projects. A couple of months ago they simultaneously announced twenty projects, ranging in scale between 50MW and 135MW, all with thermal storage and all designed and built mainly by local companies. Various mirror configurations will be used: parabolic troughs, power towers and Fresnel systems. All the projects will have to be up and running before 2019 to get the agreed price of 1.15 yuan/kWh. This is a very tight time scale, but I’d expect all will be achieved on schedule. The Chinese government refers to these as demonstration projects. If they are successful, which I’m sure they will be, I would expect the next tranche of projects to be on a larger scale. The projects are all in the sunnier west of China: mainly in Qinghai, Gansu and in Inner Mongolia. High voltage direct current power-lines will connect them to the cities on China’s less sunny east coast.

Jeremy Williams wrote an interesting blog about China’s carbon emissions and the various viewpoints people have about their future emissions. On this issue I’m firmly on the side of the optimists. I’ve blogged before about how China’s carbon emissions skyrocketed in the decade 2002 to 2012. They’ve since declined a little. I both hope and expect they’ll plummet over the coming decade, 2017 to 2017. Urban air quality is a very serious health issue in China, and China is also very vulnerable to climate change. The government is very conscious of these threats and has the money and technological ability to take action on a heroic scale and by doing so it will become a leader in both the technological and political spheres, just as USA is abandoning any sense of political leadership, particularly on Climate Change. China is investing heavily in most forms of low carbon energy, including nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaics and hydro. All forms of energy generation have advantages and disadvantages, but CSP seems to me to be one of the best for the hot dry regions of the world. These initial twenty projects will probably be followed by many larger scale projects over the coming decade, and make a significant and worthwhile contribution to reducing carbon emissions and local air pollution.

Lovin trumps Trump

Swedish Green deputy PM

Isabella Lovin, Swedish Deputy Prime Minister, signs Zero Carbon legislation. The photo is a parody of Trump.

It is barely a fortnight since Trump’s inauguration. He is proving as ghastly and bonkers as we feared he might be. No American president even comes close. Hitler in 1933 is perhaps the best comparison. It is still way too early to see how things will develop. USA has very much stronger checks and balances than Weimar Germany had. Civil society is still strong. Resistance, demonstration and litigation will abound. My task here is not to detail the mess, but to understand it, and to offer hope for a better future.

Alex Steffen wrote an excellent article focusing on the carbon bubble as the prime motivator for both Trump and Putin and why their interests align so strongly. They are the political mouthpieces of oil industries whose very existence depends on delaying any meaningful action on climate change. Scientific reality demands humanity quits fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and the vast majority of governments signed up to the Paris agreement to start the transition to a low carbon economy. Trump and Putin exist to resist this. George Monbiot has written some of the best investigative journalism about the dark forces behind Trump, Brexit and the Conservative party and the Atlantic bridge that unites them.

By contrast many countries are embracing the transition to a zero emissions economy, and are doing so in ways that are very good for people and for the planet. Sweden is perhaps the most outstanding example to focus on. In legislation signed this week by Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Green Party member and deputy Prime Minister, Sweden committed itself to become a zero emissions economy by 2045. The photograph of the signing was designed as a parody of Trump’s style of signing executive orders. Not only great legislation and leadership, but done with humour! Environmental regulation does not need to be a cost to the economy; it can be the opposite, a net gain. The World Economic Forum (hardly a green or leftie organisation) recently issued a report titled ‘Why Sweden beats other countries at just about everything’, which shows how economically competitive Sweden is while running a very well functioning welfare state with great quality of life indicators.

The horrors of Trump’s America and the antics of Theresa the Appeaser may grab the headlines but it is the countless small changes happening elsewhere in the world that give me hope. The Irish vote to dis-invest from fossil fuels is but one of hundreds of hopeful signs from all over the world, which, like the Swedish legislation for zero emissions, indicate the inevitable ending of the age of fossil fuels and the possibilities of a better future.

Trump: Appeasement or Resistance?

Climate Science takes to the streets

Climate Science takes to the streets

Today Theresa May will be meeting Donald Trump in Washington. In 1938 Chamberlain went to Munich to appease Hitler. There are parallels. Trump is emerging as a real and present danger to world peace and good governance and must be resisted and not appeased.

Donald Trump’s insane plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and get the Mexicans to pay for it is not surprisingly causing outrage in Mexico. The Mexican senator Javier Lozano summed it up: “The uncertainty is over. It is confirmed that we will have to deal with an arrogant and ignorant despot in the USA”.

It is humiliating that the British Prime Minister is going to grovel at Trump’s feet. Britain needs friends in North America, but Theresa May would be better employed meeting Mexico’s President Pena Nieto and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather than wasting her time trying to influence Trump. It is at a time like this that we should be deepening and strengthening our membership of the European Union, not blindly blundering into Brexit.

Naomi Klein provides insightful analysis of Trump’s cabinet and the corporate capture of American political power. It is clear that the resistance of ordinary citizens will be crucial to uphold human rights, climate science and much else. As Trump tries to silence scientists they are increasingly resorting to publishing facts on social media. For Twitter users I strongly recommend following ClimateReality. As they tweeted this morning “It’s a sad day for democracy when stating scientific truths becomes a rebellious act”. Again very similar to 1930’s Germany. We must not appease Trump and stifle scientific debate.

The recent Women’s March was the largest single day protest in US history. Worldwide about 4.8 million people participated in over 500 marches in eighty-one countries. Marching is important, but it is only a small token gesture. We will need to organise globally online and face to face in our communities to have any chance of success, and get politically engaged. Globally most people want the same things: peace, cooperation, clean air and water, economic and physical security. The UN Global Goals are all easily achievable if we can unite and cooperate together to build a better future. To overcome the forces of ignorant and despotic nationalism civil society will have to get organised on a scale it has never before achieved. That is the challenge. Join in. Connect. Be a part of the change you want to see.

Xi Jinping, Trump & leadership

Xi Jinping at Davos

Xi Jinping at Davos

Donald Trump is now president of the United States. He has just issued ‘An America First Energy Plan’. It is a bizarre document. Absolutely no mention of renewables or energy storage, instead it focuses on oil and coal. It reads like something out of the 1970’s, assuming action to protect the environment is a cost to the economy rather than a net gain to the economy. What on earth all the companies involved in Cleantech research, development and deployment will make of it is hard to know. Will they move operations overseas? When in 2010 the Rajoy government was elected in Spain they very much slowed Cleantech innovation in that country and the companies that survived relied on foreign contracts. Will something similar happen in USA, or will California and a number of other states just develop energy policy totally at odds with what Washington wants? Scottish and UK policies on energy are on increasingly divergent paths.

As America retreats into a backward looking, insular, debt ridden shell of its former self, paradoxically communist China is rapidly emerging as the leader of the capitalist world. At Davos Xi Jinping argued in favour of free trade and open markets. He emerged as the dominant statesman of the gathering. He restated China’s commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change. One of Trump’s first actions was to delete all mention of climate change from the White House website. If the 196 countries who signed up in Paris are looking for leadership Xi Jinping will be one of the people to watch out for.

In the decade 2002 to 2012 Chinese carbon emissions skyrocketed, then levelled out for a few years and have been declining for the past couple of years. My prediction is that Chinese emissions will plummet over the decade 2017 to 2027. Over the coming few weeks I intend to do a number of blogs exploring the basis for this belief. There are lots of positive trends emerging: the closure of thousands of coal mines, the cancellation of coal fired power stations including ones under construction, increasing energy efficiency and flat energy demand, massive investment solar and wind power and in energy storage and transmission technologies. If the Twentieth Century was ‘the American Century’ and it was based on fossil fuels, the Twenty-First Century may be ‘the Chinese Century’ and it will feature the rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Mongolia & the Supergrid

Proposed Asian Supergrid

Proposed Asian Supergrid

Mongolia is a vast landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China. It is a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum who at the Marrakech climate conference signalled their intention to switch to 100% renewable energy. Mongolia has abundant resources of wind, solar and also of coal. In 2012 98% of its electricity came from coal. Its per capita carbon emissions shot up from 1.4 tonnes to 14 tonnes between 1960 and 2013, one of the fastest rates of growth of any country. With a population of only three million and huge solar and wind resources they may be able to reduce emissions impressively quickly. They may also be able to generate huge quantities of cheap renewable energy to export to Japan, Korea and China.

Masayoshi Son is a Korean-Japanese businessman, founder and chief executive of SoftBank. In the aftermath of Fukushima he threw himself into solar pv in Japan. Now he is developing a first 50 MW wind farm in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, with plans to rapidly expand both wind and solar, potentially up to more than 100% of Mongolia’s power needs. The plan then would be to connect up a high voltage direct current (HVDC) grid to export cheap low carbon electricity to Japan, China, South Korea and possibly Russia. This could be the basis for Mongolia’s future prosperity while reducing their carbon emissions, and the emissions of their bigger neighbours. Japan, with its dense population, big industry, poor resource base and high energy prices will probably eventually be the main market, despite the difficulty of it being the most distant.

Masayoshi Son and the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation are proposing building a supergrid linking up most of Asia to develop the free flow of low carbon renewable energy from wherever it can be most cheaply produced to where it is most needed and where the prices are highest. I’ve written before about Grenatec and their similar plans, which also included Australia. Eventually the Asian and European grids might be linked up, meaning that for example solar electricity from Mongolia could be used in Europe before our sunrise. There are all sorts of new technologies, such as the elpipe, that look set to bring down the cost and ecological footprint of long distance electricity movements.

Technologically the possibilities are very encouraging. The difficulties are much more likely to be political. If political cooperation is achievable the economic and ecological rewards could be huge.

Queensland: Coal or Solar

fish on Great Barrier Reef

The future of the Great Barrier Reef, and the planet’s climate, will be greatly affected by plans to export vast quantities of coal from Queensland. There is an alternative.

Two worlds are colliding. The fossil fuel industry and its pet politicians plan ever greater acts of folly, piling more money into ever more reckless projects. Climate change, ocean acidification and air pollution all suggest it would be more sensible to quit all investment in fossil fuels and just leave them in the ground. There are better, less polluting and increasingly cheaper alternatives. Take what is happening in Queensland, Australia, as an example of the choice humanity must make.

The Great Barrier Reef is dying mainly due to the warming ocean. The Queensland government, led by climate change denying Pauline Hanson has approved several massive new ports to export vast quantities of coal. Huge swathes of sea will need to be dredged further damaging the reef. Avaaz, WWF and Greenpeace all have campaigns and petitions opposing the development. (Do please sign their petitions)

In remote northern Queensland a couple of small rays of hope suggest a better alternative. The Kidston Energy Park is just about to start building a 50MW first phase solar photovoltaic project, which it is planned, will then be expanded to 270 MW. What makes this project especially interesting is that a 250MW pumped storage hydro system is planned to be co-located on the site, meaning that excess solar energy from the middle of the day can be turned into more valuable evening electricity, or be stored for use on the occasional cloudy days. The whole project is located at an old gold mine at Georgetown with the pumped hydro system located in the old gold mine workings. This will be a world first, co-locating solar with pumped storage hydro.

Another pioneering cleantech project is planned for Hughenden, Queensland. The Kennedy Energy Park is due to start construction in early 2017, with a first phase to be 30MW of wind, 20 MW of solar pv and 2 MW of Lithium Ion batteries all co-located and grid connected. Further expansion of the site would only be possible with improvements to the grid.

As I wrote in a blog last August, Australia could be a world leader in solar power. It has the perfect climate. Sadly is does not have the politicians able to take a lead. Last week I blogged about Mauritania, a country with a similar vast solar potential as Australia. Australia has much greater technical and financial clout, and is doing a number of useful projects, but I’d put money on Mauritania getting to a solar powered economy long before Australia, given the strength of Australia’s coal lobby and their political puppets.