Category Archives: Global

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?

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!

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!

Protecting Nature


More of wonderful Patagonia becomes a National Park!

Last week Chile’s outgoing President Bachelet announced the creation 10 million acres of new national parks, one million acres of which came from the Kris and Doug Tompkins Foundation. This action will help ensure the protection of many unique landscapes and iconic species. Chile has also created some impressive no-take marine reserves.

The renowned biologist E O Wilson set up the Half-Earth Project with the goal of protecting half the Earth’s surface as National Parks and Marine Reserves. It seeks to identify the most ecologically diverse and species-rich environments and work with partners to achieve their protection. It is a very big goal.

The concept of a national park is often thought of as an uninhabited wilderness, but the reality is that most national parks are home to people, and are to some extent farmed. Scotland’s Cairngorms or Kenya’s Masai Mara are typical of these places that combine sparse human populations with wildlife and habitat conservation. A few weeks ago I blogged about the possibility of London becoming a national park city, which would certainly expand the notion of what constitutes a National Park. It raises the question, if London can become a national park, then can E O Wilson’s ambition of half the Earth be extended to the entire Earth becoming protected.

The concept of nature reserves and national parks has always been somewhat limited if the biggest single threat that many species face is from the macro ecological crisis of climate change, ocean acidification and myriad forms of pollution that know no boundaries. So, of course, the whole world needs protecting, but with each area having its own unique balance of varied human activities and space where nature can be left to flourish with minimum human disruption. We need to minimize pollution and the damage it does AND we need to protect the many species with which we share this wonderful and unique planet. So this week, let’s celebrate Chile’s new national parks, one more step towards a more sustainable future!

Treasuring Our Oceans

Humpback whale

Humpback whale, one of many species found in the magnificent Revillagigedo archipelago

The world’s oceans are being damaged by plastics and pollution, overfishing and drilling for fossil fuels, by acidification and warming. One part of repairing the damage is to create marine reserves where no fishing or extractive industries are allowed. It is especially important to create these no take reserves in some of the most biologically rich and unique habitats. A number of countries bordering the Pacific Ocean are now doing just this.

Mexico has just created a huge reserve around the Revillagigedo Islands, in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Baja California. Over the last couple of years New Zealand, Ecuador, Niue, Chile and French Polynesia have all created large marine reserves. Thank-you to all these countries for doing something that will benefit so many species, including humans. Meanwhile, bizarrely yet predictably, Trump is threatening to reduce marine reserves in American waters and open them up to fishing and to oil and gas exploitation.

Creating marine reserves has many advantages. It is not just about protecting wonderful and unique habitats. There are potentially many economic benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is tourism. As the reserves provide sheltered breeding grounds and fish stocks recover so the adjacent seas outside the reserves become much more productive fisheries. The enhanced global reputations of countries creating these reserves can also have significant diplomatic, political and economic benefits.

The North Sea, like many others, has suffered from overfishing, pollution and from the oil and gas industries. Now the North Sea is the epicentre of the global expansion of the offshore wind industry. I welcome this. Humanity needs to switch from a fossil fuel to a renewables based economy with great urgency. As we do so many wind turbines will be built in the North Sea. There seems some evidence that the sea’s biodiversity can recover as a result. The base of each turbine creates a mini reef effect, providing an anchorage for seaweed and crustaceans and shelter for fish to spawn and so for seals to hunt. I would love to see more focus on how these effects could be enhanced, for example by suspending chains between the turbines and creating no take reserves within the wind farms. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog enthusing about offshore wind, tidal lagoons and the idea of creating an artificial island in the North Sea to act as an energy hub for all the countries bordering the North Sea. This could be designed to help create a very much more biodiverse ecosystem, as well as being a major part of helping Europe become a zero carbon economy. It could have many and varied political, economic and ecological benefits. Helping nature flourish is not just about protecting pristine habitats. It is also about creating new habitats within our cities, in our industrial landscapes and also in our changing and industrialized seas. To really protect the oceans we need to switch from a linear to a circular economy, from fossil fuels to renewables, from pollution to conservation, and we need to do it all quickly. Humanity is capable of rising to the challenge. There is much to celebrate and very much more still to do!

Challenging Global Oligarchy

ssange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

Assange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

The Panama Papers, and then the Paradise Papers, reveal much more than just the murky world of how the very wealthy avoid paying tax. They provide an insight into how democracy is being undermined by oligarchy. Phil McDuff, writing in the Guardian, shows how tax havens and offshore accounts have been set up as a direct result of government policy. They could and should be closed down. However, they will not be closed, not until we have some pretty radical political change. We live in a global oligarchy where the institutions of democracy have been captured and are being used to further enrich a tiny class of international billionaires. One might ask why a billionaire would want more money; surely they own every material possession they could possibly desire?

One explanation is that what they want is ever greater influence on the political process to promote their own vision of how the world should be. ‘Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist’ (Wikipedia) Globally the super rich are pouring more money into buying up the allegiance of ever more politicians and the media outlets that can promulgate their views. This increasing global trend toward oligarchy is being driven by a strange mix of American libertarians and autocrats, racists and misogynists, Putin’s Russian state machine, some extreme right-wing ideologues and organised crime networks and the limitless greed of already obscenely wealthy individuals.

In 2015 former President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States is now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Wikipedia). The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit Referendum and many other elections and political processes were swayed by the flows of dark money and divisive propaganda flowing from the global oligarchy. This is a complex area. Challenging this will require the actions of many people. The best journalists will be needed to uncover this labyrinthine, secretive and dangerous world. Politicians capable of taking a lead and painting a vision of how society could be better organised will need to step up to the task. It will also require the efforts of millions of us ordinary citizens of the world to work together to win the many millions of victories that need to be won in order to implement change.

The oligarchs may have more money and power at the moment, but they can be toppled. Our little local victory that I blogged about last week is one tiny step in the right direction. Millions more steps will be needed. Globally a broad movement that desires a more egalitarian and ecological political and economic system is globally growing in momentum. The limitless greed, belligerent nationalism and ecological damage of the current oligarchy cannot go on much longer.

China gets serious about pollution

Air pollution in Beijing

Air pollution in Beijing

This week China has shut down about 40% of all its factories, approximately   80,000 of them. Some may be shut down permanently, some just until they can clean up their act. The early evidence is that fines are being strictly imposed as the tax bureau acts in tandem with the pollution inspectors. Some factory managers and owners may well be sent to jail. There will be disruption in global supply chains. The price of Chinese made things, from clothing to car components will increase a bit in the short term. A few percentage points may be knocked off Chinese GDP figures. However all these things seem a small price to pay for the benefits at stake.

China has a public health emergency in terms of local pollution. In rapidly reducing this local pollution many macro ecological threats from climate change to ocean acidification can also be mitigated. In a blog a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need to create a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the social and economic benefits of a modern economy. By shutting down obsolete and dirty factories cleantech innovation will be stimulated, leading to more sustainable forms of prosperity. Just in purely economic terms China will probably benefit in the longer term.

Over the last sixty years or so successive legislation has helped clean up most of the rivers of Europe and North America. London’s air quality improved rapidly after the 1956 Clean Air Act. Cleaning up pollution always requires strong government leadership. This week Sadiq Khan introduced the new £10 toxicity charge for bringing older more polluting cars into the centre of London. Although this is to be welcomed, it is too little, too late. The pace of shifting to a cleantech economy needs to speed up dramatically.

The medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that 50,000 people in the UK, and 9 million globally, die each year due to poor air quality. It is time governments the world over took more radical steps to tackle pollution. It will mean shutting down thousands of businesses. This needs to be managed in ways that create greater social and economic security while cleaning up the mess. To me this seems quite doable. Stop subsidies to polluting industries, introduce hefty fines on all forms of pollution, introduce a universal basic income and incentivise cleantech innovation.

In numerous blogs I’ve sounded an optimistic note that China’s carbon emission might plummet over the coming decade. These factory closures will contribute to that goal, and they will also help ensure China is a leading economic powerhouse in the future. As USA under Trump and Britain under the quagmire of Brexit both look back to a fantasy of past glory China is forging ahead, creating the kind of economy which will typify the post fossil fuel age. China has a long way to go to reduce its horrendous pollution, but it is making a very bold start, and that is to be welcomed.

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.

Australian Solar (Again)


Baldivis: of 5,765 houses 3951 now have solar panels

In 2012 I wrote a blog entitled ‘Re-powering Port Augusta’, advocating large scale concentrating solar thermal power stations be built to replace Northern and Playford B ageing dirty brown coal fired power stations, which were due to close. Since I wrote that blog a number of coal fired power stations have closed and many parts of Australia have experienced power cuts. For many decades Australia has had excellent pioneer academic solar thermal researchers but still has no large scale solar thermal power stations with thermal storage. India, South Africa and Chile have all overtaken Australia on that front. Now, rather belatedly, there is a flurry of interest in building various types of solar power and energy storage systems in Australia, and especially in the Port Augusta region. Port Augusta in South Australia is ideally located for such projects with good grid connections, a very sunny climate and a workforce with relevant skills.

Sundrop Farms, with Aalborg CSP, have built the excellent system that I blogged about a few months ago (here and here). This however was relatively small scale and just for the tomato farm, not for feeding electricity into the grid, but does provide an excellent example of what can be done.

Australia’s adoption of solar power has been very unusual. The vast majority of its solar power, about 80%, is domestic rooftop arrays. (Solar farms only account for about 8%) Rising gas and electricity prices, recent power cuts, government policies that favoured small scale arrays, large numbers of detached owner occupied houses and falling prices of solar panels and batteries are all factors contributing to the rise in rooftop solar systems in Australia. Thirteen months ago Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg stated that 15% of Australian households had photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs. Renate Egan of the Australian Photovoltaic Institute claims this figure is now 26% (higher than any other country, except perhaps a few tiny island nations). In Baldivis, a suburb of nearly 6,000 houses to the south of Perth, the figure is 69% and rapidly increasing. Within a year or two it is likely that some such places will have solar panels on 90% or more of households.

Rooftop solar looks set to increase. So far this is mainly by adding solar panels to existing buildings, which are often not ideally suited due to their orientation and many having hipped roofs. If new houses were designed and orientated to maximize solar generation very much more power could be produced at very competitive prices. The next steps will be to increase energy storage and for people to switch to electric transportation systems. As I’ve said before, Australia could become a 100% solar powered economy. It is happening piecemeal, but could be very beneficially aided by clearer government goal setting and forward planning.