Urban space is at a premium, and cars waste that precious space
The move away from petrol, and more especially diesel cars, buses and trucks is gathering pace. Greenpeace and the Guardian have shown how hundreds of thousands of children are routinely exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. Sadiq Khan is bringing in the Ultra Low Emission Zone. Courts in Munich and Stuttgart have instructed city authorities to prepare to ban diesel cars and plan the transition to electric. Many cities around the world are now striving to clean up their air quality, and since the dieselgate scandal the image of the diesel car has been in freefall. The petrol engine too is on its way out.
Stock markets sense the direction of travel. Last week the stock market valuation of Tesla overtook both Ford and General Motors, despite Tesla still having never made a profit and only producing a tiny fraction of the number of vehicles than their more established rivals.
As the population of many big cities is growing and space is very much at a premium there is a very strong argument to limit private car use within cities, even for zero emission vehicles: there simply is not the space for them. By improving public transport, walking and cycling facilities it is possible to move very much larger numbers of people more quickly around the limited available space, as the above table shows.
A few weeks ago the giant Chinese company Geely opened a new car factory in Coventry. It is now making the new TX5 London taxi, a plug-in hybrid with a 70 mile battery range and a petrol back-up motor. The TX5 is a six seater with space for a wheelchair. This looks to be a considerable improvement on the old dirty diesel taxis currently in use. In the longer term the TX5 hybrid is likely to be superceded by an all electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
The best cities around the world are continually improving walking, cycling and zero emissions public transport systems. More streets are being pedestrianized. The next logical steps are to roll-out zero emission taxis, ban diesel and petrol cars and allow some, but probably quite restricted, use of zero emission private cars. Such cities should be a joy to live in: safer, quieter and cleaner, and with air fit to breathe.
Energy Observer, which uses on-board solar and wind power to desalinate and electrolyse seawater to make hydrogen for its hydrogen fuel cell power system.
Ships are responsible for a lot of global pollution. Small gains in efficiency have been more than offset by the increased volume of trade. Historically most environmentalists argued that relocalizing the economy and decreasing trade was the best way forward, but there is little evidence that this is about to happen any time soon. Another path is to make shipping very much less polluting. Currently most shipping uses diesel engines burning a particularly polluting form of fuel oil known as bunker oil. A range of exciting technical innovations are pointing to the possibilities of a future with global trade based on pollution free ships.
In 2013 I blogged about the MS Turanor making the first circumnavigation of the globe using just photovoltaics and batteries and I’ve frequently blogged about hydrogen fuel cars, trucks and trams. Today I want to focus on two hydrogen powered boats that I think have tremendous potential.
In April 2016 Cheetah Marine successfully launched a catamaran powered by an outboard motor using hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. Cheetah are based at Ventnor in the Isle of Wight where they make hydrogen using energy from the solar panels on their workshop roof to split ordinary mains water into oxygen and hydrogen using ITM’s electrolysis process. The hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks on the boat.
The Energy Observer is a French boat currently being completed ready for its official launch this May in Paris. Again it is a catamaran but in this case using hydrogen fuel cells. Seawater will be purified and pass through an electrolysis process onboard the boat utilizing energy from onboard solar panels, two small vertical axis wind turbines and a traction kite. A six year round the world trip is planned calling in at 101 ports as an educational showcase for clean technology.
These two hydrogen powered boats, along with MS Turanor, show the technological potential for shipping to become radically more sustainable. What is needed at this stage is strong action on pollution through outright bans, taxes and other disincentives, and support to take these innovative cleantech solutions out into the mass market. Last month I blogged about how electric buses, many with solar panels on the roof, have suddenly leapt from the eco-fringes to the commercial mainstream in some Chinese cities such as Shenzhen. How long will it be before clean renewable hydrogen replaces dirty bunker oil as the main energy source powering the global shipping industry? Much of the best innovation is happening in Britain and France, yet will it be China that takes it into mass commercial production? We need to stop pollution and replace it with very much cleaner technology, and there are huge economic and health opportunities to be gained by doing so. To grab these opportunities requires political support. It is about time Britain and Europe turned this native innovation into the norm for mainstream commercial shipping. If they don’t somebody else will. Bunker oil has had its day. Better technologies are available. Now is the time to develop and deploy them.
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.
Nikola hydrogen fuel cell powered truck
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about railways and renewables. The German start-up Locomore was running its single train on renewables. Today I’ve learned that since 1st January 2017 the entire Dutch rail system is now running on wind power. During 2016 Holland tripled its offshore wind capacity with the opening of the Gemini and Westermeer wind farms. This meant that the railways could switch to 100% renewables a year earlier than planned. Hats off to the Dutch!
Also in the news has been the starting of a regular freight train service linking Yiwu in eastern China to Barking in east London, UK. It takes about 18 days to cover the 7500 miles. I wonder how long it will be before this entire route is electrified and powered 100% by renewables. The route passes through lots of areas where cheap, clean solar and wind power can be generated.
The Nikola Motor Company launched their remarkable hydrogen fuel cell truck just a few weeks ago in Salt Lake City. They intend to build their own solar farms to drive electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The technical specifications of the trucks look great. Meanwhile in Sweden they are experimenting with trucks using overhead electricity lines as we are used to seeing with trams. The world’s first road paved with solar panels has just opened in Normandy using similar technology to the Solar Roadways system I blogged about a couple of years back.
The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have said they plan to ban diesel cars by 2025. We should go further and faster and ban both diesel and petrol cars, trucks and buses from all major cities globally, and some cities may be able to achieve this before 2025. My guess is that Oslo will be the first to achieve this goal, but it is quite small and not as polluted as many places. Which of the really big and horribly polluted cities will be first, Delhi, Beijing, Dubai, Lagos, London or Los Angeles?
It is quite extraordinary to see how quickly the transport sector is innovating to bring us a zero emissions global system. I’ve written before about experimental solar ships and planes, but how long before we see regular commercial renewably powered ships and planes carrying cargo and passengers? Air travel will of course be the hardest nut to crack, but the pace of innovation in many sectors of transport is breathtaking!
Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up
Trains are inherently a better system than cars or buses for moving large numbers of people between cities. They tend to both faster and more energy efficient. Steel wheels on steel rails produce very much less friction than rubber wheels on tarmac, and being very long and narrow they need displace little air relative to the number of passengers they carry, again adding to their efficiency.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about municipalisation and contrasted this with the limitations of both privatized and nationalised industries. Allowing space for start-ups to try new ideas is part of this pluralistic provision. In banking, health care, energy infrastructure and much else Germany has a much more diverse provision of services. One exception is Deutsche Bahn which still runs 99% of the trains in Germany.
A couple of weeks ago a new Crowdfunded start-up company called Locomore started operating its first train which runs between Stuttgart and Berlin. They only have one train, an old 1970’s model, painted in retro orange and brown. It’s innovative in so many ways, offering very low fares, with trains using 100% renewable electricity and selling organic fair trade food and drink. Perhaps most innovative of all is a system where you can book a seat near people with similar interests, with the intention of sparking interesting conversation.
Ideally we’d like our railways to be powered by renewables. Five years ago I blogged about Deutsche Bahn’s plans to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Over the last five years the cost of most forms of renewable energy has come down dramatically and that timescale now looks hopelessly lacking in ambition. Locomore buys renewable electricity for its train, and is one of the first to do so. In Chile the metro system of Santiago gets 60% of its energy from renewables. Many train operators are installing on site renewables. One of my favourite buildings is Blackfriars Station in London, which has an impressive solar roof. Some train tracks are having solar canopies installed and these could in theory supply all the electricity needed to run a whole countries train network.
Enderby Wharf: a missed opportunity
Planning permission has been granted for a new cruise ship terminal in Greenwich. Ships moored in port run their diesel generators to provide power, and this creates terrible air pollution. Yesterday the Radio 4 programme ‘Costing the Earth’ investigated the situation. The answer is simple. Connect the ships to shore based electricity supply so they don’t need to run their generators. This requires some additional investment, but when planning a new port like Greenwich’s cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf providing such infrastructure should clearly have been a condition of the planning approval. Los Angeles was the first port in the world to build such a system, back in 2004. By now it ought to be standard practice. Radio 4’s Tom Heap interviewed lots of people in making the programme, but nobody from either local or national government, or the developers, were prepared to talk to him. As ever governments and commercial developers drag their feet, hounded by community groups, health professionals and environmental activists.
London has long had air pollution problems, dating back centuries. I was born not long after the Great Smog of 1952 and one of my earliest memories is of my family replacing open coal fires with gas ones as a result of the 1956 Clean Air Act. By the 1960’s pollution from cars was a big issue. On the 1971 ‘O’ level English paper, one of the questions was ‘Should the car be banned?’ I argued that it should. The many disadvantages, including local air pollution, climate change, accidents and communities divided by roads outweighed the benefits. This, I recall, became the policy of the Ecology Party, first called the People Party, (later, the Green Party) when it was formed in 1972-73. Since that time the evidence of the damage to human health has grown very much more detailed.
Air pollution from various forms of fossil fuels has long been a problem, for London, and for all big cities. As an issue it has periodically risen up and slid down the media agenda. Now at long last the Cleantech Revolution means that we can still have the many benefits of modern city life, but with radically reduced pollution. Technically much is possible. What is needed is for governments to understand this and take action. Tragically they seldom do, unless forced to do so by the valiant efforts of campaigners and activists, with the support of wonderful organisations like the activist lawyers of Client Earth and insightful radio programmes like ‘Costing the Earth’.
Tesla’s new solar roof tiles.
Elon Musk and his Tesla company are making multi-billion dollar investments in a number of mutually reinforcing technologies, which taken together point to a very different energy future. His $5bn gigafactory is being built near the appropriately named settlement of Sparks, Nevada. When completed in 2020 it will be the biggest building in the world and will be churning out electric cars and batteries on a prodigious scale. It will be powered entirely by its own on-site solar, wind and geothermal energy, with no doubt plenty of battery storage!
Tesla has just unveiled solar photovoltaic roofing tiles that look great and are cheaper and more durable than building a traditional roof and then retro fitting ordinary solar panels. I see this as the future for solar roofs on new houses, and on many retrofits. Simultaneously Tesla is in the process of buying SolarCity for $2.6 bn, which will give them a huge entrance into the solar roof market. Tesla has also recently unveiled the new Powerwall 2, a higher capacity, more energy dense battery for domestic households. Many Californian households will be able to generate all their household and motoring energy from their own roofs, and store it to match domestic supply and demand. They might also use the battery to buy cheap grid electricity at times of oversupply on the grid and sell it back at times of peak demand, so making money in the process, and helping the grid level out fluctuating supply and demand.
A few weeks ago Tesla signed a contract with Southern California Edison to supply 80MWh of their Powerpack grid scale energy storage batteries. These grid scale batteries and the domestic batteries, combined with various other storage technologies, are changing the nature of the electricity industry. Couple this with falling demand as a result of ever increasing energy efficiency, and the results are profound. Baseload becomes an obsolete concept. Pacific Gas & Electric have just announced that they plan to shut down the huge 2.2 GW Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2025, many years earlier than planned, simply because it is too costly and inflexible to operate. It is old technology. Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant in California. Coal has pretty much ended as a part of the Californian energy mix but its place has largely been taken by gas, but that too will diminish as efficiency plus renewables plus storage become ever more important. It is a moot point which should be phased out first, gas with its carbon emissions or nuclear with its risks (and Diablo is very close to geological fault!). Either way, California is heading toward a 100% renewable energy future. It will be fascinating to see how Tesla develops over the next decade and what contribution it makes to that 100% renewables goal.
Heathrow Expansion: Another stupid infrastructure investment decision
The government has announced expansion plans for Heathrow, despite Teresa May, David Cameron and the Conservative manifesto all being against it back in the day when it was a Labour policy. Jeremy Williams covers the tortured history of the issue very well in his blog and Greenpeace have published ten good reasons why it is a bad idea. There will be huge opposition, Judicial Review, Zac Goldsmith has resigned and forced a by-election. Naturally I think it is a terrible idea. Put simply airport expansion should be opposed anywhere until such time as we can fly in ways that do not have such awful consequences for climate change, noise pollution, air quality and therefore human health.
Caroline Lucas has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for a frequent flyer levy, which sounds a sensible idea, designed to dampen demand. I’d also like to see aircraft fuel taxed and increased investment in rail. Perhaps most importantly, and certainly least debated in Parliament or the media is putting very much greater resources into developing alternative, very much less polluting and quieter aircraft. I’ve blogged about Solar Impulse, the solar powered plane, and the helium filled airship Airlander. Within the next decade or so, given the right support, I’m pretty sure something like the Airlander could have a large photovoltaic array and batteries built into its design. It might incorporate hydrogen fuel cells. It would then have zero emissions, be quiet and not need a huge runway. An airport designed specifically for such aircraft would not need runways anything like Heathrow and would generate very much less opposition and could therefore be built very much more quickly.
Post Brexit this government wants to portray itself as a modern can-do government, open for business. However the policies it backs are all rather old fashioned, polluting technologies reflecting last century thinking: Trident, Hinkley, Fracking and Heathrow. All decisions we’ll come to regret. If humanity is to have a better future it will be socially inclusive, economically egalitarian, pollution minimizing and fuelled by renewable energy. Innovative Cleantec infrastructure investment decisions will need to be made. Tragically this government seem incapable of understanding any of this.
Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire
A few weeks ago I blogged about Solar Impulse and speculated about the possibility of radically more sustainable air flight based on lighter than air airships. Little did I realise at the time that such craft were actually being developed and were pretty much ready to go. A few days ago the Airlander 10 took its maiden voyage over a field in Bedfordshire. This Airlander 10 is very impressive. It is huge: 92 m long and 43.5 m wide, a vast helium balloon encased in high-tech Vectran material. It is has been designed and built by Hybrid Air Vehicles and is a true hybrid, its lighter than air main body is like an Airship, its aerodynamic body and small fixed wings are more like an airplane and its multidirectional engines give it much of the functionality of a helicopter. It can land anywhere, on water, in fields, in deserts or on ice-sheets. This will give it tremendous advantages in delivering goods or people to remote locations, and also opens the possibility for smaller quieter city airports. It can travel at up to 100 mph and stay airborne for weeks at a time. The Airlander 10 comes with a £25 m price-tag, very much cheaper than an Airbus A380 at £287m. They expect to have one hundred of these craft operating within 5 years. The Airlander 10 can carry a payload of 10 tonnes, and plans are afoot to build an Airlander 50 to carry 50 tonnes, with much larger future possibilities, of anything up to 1000 tonne versions.
The Airlander already creates less environmental damage than other planes, but this might well be further improved by incorporating solar cells and batteries as pioneered by Solar Impulse. I wonder whether the two teams have been in touch, it might be of great mutual benefit. Together they hint towards a future with very much more sustainable air travel. Bring it on!
I’ve been blogging for six and a half years and have posted 210 blogs and not one of them has focused on air transport. For decades environmentalists have opposed airport expansion, and a few committed individuals vowed never to fly again. However the numbers of people flying continues to rise. Globally many people can afford to travel who previously could not, and many businesses require international travel. International air transport is not about to end any time soon. Air travel represents one of the fastest growing sources of carbon emissions. Current aircraft technology is highly polluting. Slight gains in efficiency are more than offset by increased numbers of people flying, so pollution from aircraft continues to get worse.
Many MPs, led by Grant Shapps, are lobbying for an immediate decision to build a third runway at Heathrow. Other airports want to expand. However with existing technology this will only make pollution worse.
Meanwhile this week two eccentric round the world flights have taken place. The Russian balloonist Fyodor Konyukhov has just knocked two days off the fastest round the world balloon record with a hybrid helium and hot air balloon. Solar Impulse has just landed in Abu Dhabi, so completing the first round the world flight using just photovoltaic power from the sun. The question is do these two achievements have anything to contribute to the mainstream development of aviation? I think they have, given the right market encouragement. So taxing polluting aircraft fuels would help, not building new infrastructure for this current polluting technology and putting more money into less polluting alternatives would all be steps in the right direction.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the two pilots and entrepreneurs behind the Solar Impulse has said “I make the bet that in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short to medium-haul flights”. That for me is one of the most encouraging statements about the future of air travel I’ve ever heard.
Might we also see lighter than air, zeppelin type craft being developed which may include helium for lift and photovoltaic cells for power? Such aircraft would be virtually free of carbon emissions, particulates or noise pollution, and might be able to land on very much smaller inner city airports. Perhaps air travel may yet become ecologically sustainable, but it has a long way to go and needs the support of governments to achieve this important objective. Today thanks go to Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, and to Fyodor Konyukhov, for helping us think differently about the possibilities of flight.