Category Archives: Energy

Three inspirational events


Almere, pioneering community self building on land reclaimed from the sea.

Apologies, it’s now nearly a month since I last posted a blog. I usually try and write one every week or so. It’s been a busy month. One annoyance has been the General Data Protection Regulation regulations that I couldn’t fathom, which meant that I’ve cancelled the Mailchimp automated newsletter, and I’ll have to work out how to delete the sign-up form from this webpage! Sorry to those of you who enjoyed getting the blogs via the newsletter format.

Over the last week or so I’ve been to three events that each in their own way were inspiring and indicated positive trends. All could do with strong government support to really grow to their full potential.

The first event was the AGM of Ledbury Solar Coop. The coop is doing well and the directors are doing an outstanding job. This is one of the Sharenergy renewable energy coops of which I’m a member, and which I’ve frequently mentioned in previous blogs. To me they seemed to have massive potential to meet many social and environmental challenges. Unfortunately government support has been weak, confused and generally unhelpful, which has certainly slowed the spread of such coops.

The next event was Riversimple’s launch of the Rasa in Abergavenny. It is looking increasingly likely that our car club will be part of their trials for this hydrogen fuel cell car. The Riversimple car and our car club are things I’ve blogged about before. Together they indicate a way of moving beyond the era of individual ownership of wasteful and highly polluting petrol and diesel cars. We could free up a lot of urban space, cut traffic congestion and pollution by moving toward more flexible patterns of mobility.

The third event I’d like to flag up was the launch of Hereford Community Land Trust’s Building Momentum project. They had two outside speakers who I thought were excellent and showed how the UK’s housing crisis might best be addressed. Keith Cowling spoke about the achievements of Bristol Community Land Trust while Ted Stevens gave an inspiring talk setting UK community self build in context with the extraordinary projects being built in many other countries. (eg Berlin)

Together these three events show how energy, transport and housing outcomes could all be improved.


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?

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.

Open Letter to Malcolm Turnbull PM

Highbury Quarry

Tilt renewables want to turn the old Highbury Quarry into a pumped storage facility.

The Australian power company AGL plans to close the huge Liddell coal fired power station by 2022, and replace it with renewables and storage. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently pleaded with them to keep it open saying “You can’t run an electricity system just on solar panels and wind farms. You can’t.” Well, Mr Turnbull, you are wrong, and you are holding back the Australian economy with your outdated understanding of emerging technologies. Let me explain.

Australia could use the power of the sun and wind for all its energy needs, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There would be many advantages in doing so. Obviously there would be the environmental advantages of cleaner air and plummeting carbon emissions. What is less well understood is that now there would be enormous economic benefits. The costs of renewable energy and of storage technologies continue to fall as repairing old coal fired power stations rises. With renewables, once the equipment is up and running the ongoing costs are minimal, whereas with fossil fuels, as they are burnt, there is the ongoing cost of fuel. With every year that passes the balance tips further in favour of renewables and storage.

Understanding storage is of critical importance. Batteries are the best known form of storage, and in 2017 the number of home energy storage batteries in use in Australia tripled as their cost tumbled, and as costs are projected to keep falling people will keep buying them to back-up their rooftop solar photovoltaic panels. There is now a cumulative capacity of 170MWh in all these domestic scale batteries, and this is bound to keep rising rapidly.

A few months ago, with much fanfare, Tesla opened the world’s biggest battery adjacent to the Hornsdale wind farm in South Australia. It brings another 100MWh of storage onto the system. Many more batteries are planned, both domestic and industrial in scale. In Adelaide there are plans to install solar panels and batteries to 50,000 homes, which would in effect add a virtual power station with 250MWh of storage.

However it is not just batteries that will be used to store all the cheap, clean, wind and solar energy. Tilt renewables are planning a new pumped hydro storage facility in an old quarry in the Adelaide suburbs, with a capacity of 1350MWh storage. They are also planning on adding a 44MW solar array and a 26MWh battery to their 368MW Snowtown Wind Farm, which all taken together with their pumped storage, will greatly increase the usefulness of the wind farm.

Solar Reserve expect soon to start construction of the 150MW Aurora concentrating solar thermal power station, just north of Port Augusta, also in South Australia. This will have eight hours full load thermal storage, thus adding another 1200MWh of storage.

As transport systems switch to hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric vehicles they will soak up vast quantities of surplus solar and wind generated electricity. Hydrogen, methanol and other storage gases and liquids will be used as more ways of storing energy, to add to the batteries, pumped hydro and thermal methods of storage. A 100% renewable energy economy should be every bit as reliable as the existing infrastructure, as well as being less polluting and cheaper.

South Australia has elections coming up on 17th March 2018 and energy policy is a central issue. In 2012 I wrote a blog called ‘Repowering Port Augusta’, where I argued for building renewable energy facilities and then closing down the dirty and decrepit Northern and Playford B coal power stations. Unfortunately these obsolete power stations were closed before the renewables were rolled out, compounding mismanagement and leading to a shortage of electricity, chaos, blackouts and price hikes across South Australia. Jay Weatherill’s Labour Party and Nick Xenophon’s SA Best Party have both now come to understand the need to switch to a renewables based economy. Please Malcolm Turnbull and Steven Marshall get your Liberal Coalition Parties up to speed with what is now technically possible and what the advantages might be for the Australian economy. Please help roll out the whole raft of renewable and storage technologies as fast as possible, ideally before obsolete old Liddell closes in 2022!

Solar & Farming

solar & farming

Fraunhofer trial of solar panels over arable crops

The number of solar panels in use will keep growing for decades. Some will be on trains, ships, planes and integral with road surfaces. Probably most will be installed on rooftops and in deserts where they are not in competition with other land uses. A lot will be on farmland, where they can detract from agricultural production. Currently in the UK they tend to combine solar and livestock, often with the added goal of increasing biodiversity. Another possibility is to grow fruit, vegetables or arable crops in association with the panels. The Fraunhofer Institute have been running a trial on a third of a hectare plot at Heggelbach near Lake Constance, growing a variety of crops under the solar panels. The panels are more widely spaced than usual to allow sufficient light to reach the crops, and high enough for a combine harvester to work under them. The combined solar and agricultural productivity of the land should allow increased income for farmers. Other trials have taken place in USA, India and Japan. The Japanese project is growing 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms per year under a 4MW solar installation, which I would think must be one of the most productive dual uses of land anywhere and produce a good income for the farmer.

It seems to me that the best place to combine solar panels and agriculture is in the hot arid tropics where the shading is likely to help plant growth and reduce transpiration. The vegetation may also help keep the panels from overheating and so aid the efficiency of the solar panels. Doing a web search I’ve only come across a couple of small trial projects in India and USA. I’m sure other projects exist. They ought to. The potential benefits are huge. I would really like to see a large scale project doing both electricity and food production at a commercial scale, and doing proper scientific evaluation. The solar power might in part be used to drive irrigation, perhaps from solar desalinated seawater. The steel structure supporting the solar panels could also be used to hang shade netting, horticultural fleece or be integral to glass or plastic greenhouses, all of which could help increase crop production while reducing water use. Pioneering projects that I’ve blogged about in Somalia and Jordan could be expanded to incorporate solar panels directly over cropping areas. I think this may be one of the most beneficial technological combinations in the fight for food, energy and climate security. If anyone reading this blog knows of such projects perhaps they would send me a link. Thanks.

Renewables Rampant

UK elec

Coal Collapses and Renewables Rise. This graph of UK electricity; part of a global trend.

At this time each year on this blog I like to highlight something that has helped in the process to make a more ecologically sustainable, socially just and peaceful future possible. Sometimes I focus on a political leader who has made an outstanding contribution, sometimes on a particular innovative clean energy technology. This year I want to celebrate a whole global trend, the switch from fossil fuels to renewables, and especially the growth of North Sea wind.

Ever since I started blogging I’ve been saying humanity should switch to 100% renewables, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport. We can then simultaneously ditch fossil fuels and nuclear. The speed with which renewable technologies are progressing is staggering. Performance is improving while costs keep tumbling. The ecological case for moving from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’ always was strong, now it is the most economically sensible thing to do.

In 2017 the first contract has been signed which will see an offshore wind farm built without subsidies. The German electrical utility EnBW submitted a bid of Euro 0.00 in a competitive tendering process to build the 900 MW He Dreiht windfarm in the North Sea. As solar and wind energy get cheaper the case for greater international grid integration gets stronger. The Dutch grid operator TenneT has proposed building an artificial island on the Dogger Bank and linking all the electrical grids of the countries surrounding the North Sea together in a hub and spoke arrangement. Electricity could then be sent to wherever in Europe it was needed. I’ve blogged before about this, but now support seems to growing and it is projected to be in operation by about 2027. TenneT estimates that 30GW of windfarms might connect to the first hub, and that other hubs might also be built. This would be a huge step forward in reducing carbon emissions and pollution in general across much of Europe.

All over the world innumerable renewable energy projects are demonstrating that we can provide electricity, heating, cooling and transport to all 7.6 billion of us while tackling climate change and achieving all the other global goals. Over the coming year I’ll highlight more of the technologies and politicians that are showing the path to a better future.

Time for Big Solar?

TuNur's proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

TuNur’s proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

The technology of concentrated solar power (csp) has been around for a long time. Augustin Mouchot pioneered its use in the 1860’s and Frank Shuman built an impressive system in Maadi, Egypt in 1912. I’ve long been a strong advocate. However prices remained high as rates of deployment were low, and rates of deployment were low because prices were high. This is now changing fast as several countries and companies compete to bring forward the technology. Over the last few years there have been significant price reductions of projects in Chile, Dubai, Morocco and elsewhere as the technology improves. In February I blogged about China starting work on 20 demonstration projects, and as they establish a supply chain of mass produced components prices will continue to fall. Concentrating solar power has the advantage over solar pv and wind in that energy storage is typically built into the projects so they can guarantee to supply electricity 24 hours a day. As techniques of thermal energy storage improve the advantages of concentrating solar continue to improve. Some very big schemes are currently under construction or have been announced.

At Ouarzazate in Morocco a 580 MW plant is being built in four stages, the first of which is already in operation. In Dubai they are planning a 5 GW mix of solar pv and csp. In 2014 I blogged about TuNur’s proposal to build a system in Tunisia which recently took a step forward as they applied for a permit to build a 4.5 GW plant over three stages, the first exporting electricity to Malta, the next to Italy and the third to France. A couple of weeks ago the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute proposed to build a vast 7.4GW CSP facility in Akesai County, in China’s remote Xinjiang region.

The Paris Climate Agreement incorporated the ambitious goal of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. In many ways governments are failing to implement the policies necessary to achieve this objective. Collectively we are failing to curb our wasteful and profligate lifestyles. However there is one area where the news is consistently very good and that is the speed with which renewable energy is progressing. As the costs of renewables continues to tumble coal, gas and nuclear are all failing to compete.

In UK the falling cost of offshore wind received a lot of media coverage, undermining the viability of the government’s commitment to Hinkley and further nuclear power projects. In India numerous coal projects are being abandoned as India embraces cheap solar pv. The falling cost of concentrating solar power has received less media coverage, but is of just as great significance. If these giant csp projects all go ahead they will displace a lot of fossil fuel usage which of course will be very good news from a climate change perspective. If they are done with the right social and economic policies in place they could also transform the lives of many people, especially in poorer countries like Tunisia.

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.

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.