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.
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.
Freiburg, Germany. An early solar pioneer
I’ve just finished reading ‘The Switch’ by Chris Goodall about how solar photovoltaics will become the dominant source of global electricity production. The key point Goodall stresses throughout the book is the effect of the learning curve and how this has been bringing down prices by about 20% every two years and how total installed capacity has doubled every two years. This exponential trend has been going on for decades, but back in the 1970s and 1980s the biannual doubling was from a few kilowatts to a few more kilowatts, then a few megawatts to a few more, so generally photovoltaics were considered insignificant by mainstream commentators. Solar enthusiasts were an easily dismissed fringe group.
This exponential rate of growth has continued. In the last few weeks the global installed capacity of photovoltaic panels passed the 300 GigaWatt milestone. A couple more doublings and we will pass the TeraWatt level. Of course exponential growth on a finite planet cannot go on forever. However it does look as if solar power will keep expanding extremely rapidly for the foreseeable future, whatever politicians like Trump and Putin might do to try and stop it. There are a number of technical innovations in the pipeline that make continuing falls in production costs inevitable, and then simple economics means that rates of deployment will continue to increase.
Over the last two years China and Japan have lead the world. Globally about 1.2 billion people are not connected to mains electricity and at least another billion experience frequent power cuts due to poor grid infrastructure. Most of these people live in Africa and South Asia and it is in these regions that I would expect solar to grow most quickly over the coming decade. For the rural off grid tropics solar plus batteries is already cheaper than either diesel generators or connecting up to distant electricity grids. They will leapfrog the need for grids.
This week I was talking to someone in Herefordshire who is renovating a cottage and putting sufficient solar panels to run his air source heat pump and all his family’s electricity needs for most of the year. Smart technology will determine when appliances operate and when to store electricity for later use. An electric car could easily be added to the mix. Although still connected to the grid he envisages buying and selling as little electricity as possible. If half hourly metering comes in it will become profitable for him and useful for the grid managers, for him to buy electricity at times of weak demand and sell it at times of peak demand. In his renovation insulation and air tightness have been improved to minimize winter heating requirements. Globally such possibilities are opening up as the technology evolves. Within a decade I think it probable that hundreds of millions, or indeed billions, of households will operate in this manner. In the process they will make coal, gas, oil and nuclear power obsolete.
In colder cloudier climates wind, tidal and geothermal energy will undoubtedly have a major role to play. Batteries will be important for short term energy storage. There are an increasing number of emergent technologies focusing on interseasonal energy storage, such as renewable liquid fuels and gases, many of which will be created with surplus summer solar energy.
Solar still has a long way to go to become the dominant energy source, but if exponential rates of growth continue this might become the reality far faster than most people expect. Last year China more than doubled its solar capacity in a single year. Many other countries will more than double their solar capacity over the next year or two, and I’ll write about the most exciting examples on this blog. The Solar Age is coming.
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.
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 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.
Cyprus: hope for a better future?
Talks are underway on the future of Cyprus. The island has been divided since the Greek inspired coup and Turkish invasion of 1974. The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is hopeful of a solution. There is much pain, fear and insecurity to overcome. The slow process of finding and identifying bodies from the 1974 war is continuing. Lots of complex issues need to be resolved to the satisfaction of both the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community and then both communities need to ratify the process by referendum.
It might be helpful to the peace process if both sides had some joint projects that were future orientated and which could provide a positive shared goal to work towards. Currently Cyprus gets most of its electricity from expensive to run old heavy fuel oil power stations such as those at Dhekelia, Moni and Vasilikos. Cyprus has a wonderful sunny climate and would be an ideal location to experiment with moving the entire energy system of the island to run on solar power, for electricity, heating, cooling and for transport. Local pollution and carbon emissions could be cut and new forms of employment created. It would provide a future vision that Greek and Turkish Cypriots could shape together. Grant funding might be available to get some projects up and running, but many projects would be cost effective from day one. Many of the innovative solar and energy storage technologies I write about on this blog could be developed in Cyprus.
Of course the future of Cyprus is up to the people who live on the island. I wish them well in these negotiations. Reconciliation will be slow and complex, but it can happen. They have much to share with the people of Northern Ireland, Columbia, South Africa, Bosnia and many other places. Coming to terms with past pain needs to be balanced with hope for a better, shared future.
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!
Philipp Saumweber, Chairman & CEO of Sundrop Farms
Reinier Wolterbeek, Chief Technology Officer at Sundrop Farms
It’s the time of year to select this blog’s achievement awards. I was tempted to choose Jo Cox, whose murder has highlighted the growing threats from intolerance, racism and demagogues. Her memory has become a rallying point for those seeking a gentler, more collegiate, more inclusive form of politics. She and these opposing world views are getting much coverage in the media. As is something of a tradition with this blog I will instead choose people who are not much in the headlines yet have helped open up new possibilities, showing how we might live more sustainably in the future.
In October I wrote about the official opening of Sundrop Farms Port Augusta facility in Australia. This is perhaps the greatest technological achievement of 2016, in a year that has seen many extraordinary breakthroughs. The key individuals behind it have been Chairman and CEO Philipp Saumweber and the Chief Technology Officer Reinier Wolterbeek. They share this blog’s accolade, ‘person of the year 2016’. Using solar power to desalinate seawater, generate electricity and to grow food in the world’s deserts unleashes extraordinary possibilities. New cities might grow in the world’s hot sunny deserts based on these technologies. I’ve followed this from when it was just a concept, through various precursor projects, and now at long last they have a full scale commercial project up and running. No small achievement!
Sundrop farms next two projects are to grow peppers in Portugal and berries in Tennessee, neither of which is a desert environment. It will be interesting to see what technology they use in each of these projects to demonstrate their aim of making intensive food production very much more ecologically sustainable. I’ll be waiting to see if they, or others, plan further food production projects in the world’s deserts, and how they learn from and build upon what has just been achieved at Port Augusta.
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.