Scaling-up Solar & Wind Power

The above graph shows the fifteen countries that generate the greatest percentage of their electricity from wind and solar power. These figures are for 2020. Wind and solar have doubled over the last five years, from generating 5% (1,083TWh) of the global electricity supply in 2015 to 10% (2,435TWh) in 2020. (For more on this see Hannah Broadbent’s article)

These increases in solar and wind power have been an impressive achievement and it is a trend that will only increase over the next few years as solar and wind technology improves, prices continue to fall and integration with existing grids improves.

A dozen or so countries already get very close to 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. Most have excellent hydro-electricity resources, like Bhutan or Paraguay, and also substantial geothermal resources that are easily exploitable, such as Iceland or New Zealand. Most countries don’t have such good hydro or geothermal opportunities, but many more countries do have massive potential to develop solar power and wind power.

It will make sense for some of the countries with the best solar and wind resources to develop very much more electricity than they need and export the surplus either in the form of hydrogen or as electricity via cable to neighbouring countries. A couple of years ago I posted a blog in which I cited Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, saying that his country should rapidly aim to develop 700% of its electricity from solar and wind power, to allow for the electrification of transport, heating, cooling, industrial processes and energy exports.

Which country will be the first to reach 100% of their total electricity demand from solar and wind, and when will they achieve that goal? And which country will reach that 700% goal first, and when?

My guess it will be a small country without a massive population or industrial base that passes both these milestones. In April I posted a blog titled ‘Floating wind comes to Ireland’ in which I described a huge wind development, which on its own will substantially increase the percentage of Ireland’s electricity supply that comes from wind. Ireland is certainly a contender, and as an independent country Scotland would be too.

It seems highly likely to me that a number of countries from the global south will leapfrog the more heavily industrialised global north. Uruguay and Chile are both already in these top fifteen countries and Chile has one of the best renewable energy resource bases in the World. Several African countries could emerge as leaders, and ones to look out for may be Morocco, Mauritania and Kenya, but it could be almost anywhere.

Sun rich countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya currently produce zero percent of their electricity from the sun and wind according to Ember’s interactive map. They are all well placed geographically to generate vast solar export earnings while helping develop their own economies and also help the whole world decarbonise.

As to a time when either the 100% or the 700% milestones might be reached, all I want to say is that it could happen very much more quickly than many people think.

A Bad Week for Big Oil

Climate activists campaign to get the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline stopped

A matrix of crises is simultaneously unfolding. Species are going extinct, atmospheric carbon levels are increasing, new diseases are emerging, and inequality is getting worse. In many ways things look bleak. All these crises call for a radical change of direction. That change may be happening. The signs of change are many, some are subtle and slow, but sometimes change can be sudden.

This week has been a terrible week for big oil, and a good week for climate activists. A Dutch court has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Climate activists have also been influential as shareholders, with successful coups against the management of both Chevron and Exxon. All this unfolded only a week or so after the International Energy Agency released it’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report, which essentially advised against any new fossil fuel projects.

The French oil multinational Total is currently constructing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, or EACOP, across Uganda and Tanzania. It will have devastating impacts on the local ecology and lock us into higher carbon emissions. Local activists are trying to stop it. Today Total is having their AGM. The news from IEA, Shell, Chevron and Exxon will no doubt be on their minds. EACOP is a project that should be cancelled.

Shell is planning to appeal the Dutch court’s decision, and no doubt the management of Exxon, Chevron, Total and the others will try and keep their business as usual model going, with a token bit of greener investment in renewables to try and keep the activists quiet. Most of the oil majors have been involved in decades of systematic lying, backing climate denialism when their own research revealed the huge climate impacts of their industries. In my view most of them have left it too late to change. Probably most will go bankrupt. They have such vast assets which this week’s developments are making look increasingly like worthless stranded assets.

I just want to say a huge thank-you to climate activists everywhere. There are many more battles ahead, but let’s pause long enough to celebrate this week’s victories.

Local elections and emerging trends

Bristol has 70 councillors: Now 24 each for the Greens and Labour, 14 Conservative and 8 LibDem, after this week’s dramatic gains for the Green Party

On Thursday 6th May there were the local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, and slowly over the days since the results have come trickling in. They reveal a number of interesting trends.

The first is that these have been another outstandingly good set of election results for the Green Party. Their vote share went up in most regions of England, Scotland and Wales. There were no elections in Northern Ireland. The Green Party of England and Wales gained an extra 88 councillors, and were very close to winning a number more. Bristol was perhaps the biggest achievement, gaining 13 new councillors and where the Greens and Labour each now have 24 councillors. Green made impressive gains in many counties of southern England, from Kent and East Sussex to Suffolk and Norfolk, and also made impressive gains in northern cities such as Burnley, Birkenhead in the Wirral, Kettering in North Northamptonshire, and in Shrewsbury and Oswestry in Shropshire. They made gains in many other places. All this bodes very well for the future of Green politics.

The second major trend is the very different directions the various countries and regions are headed. Scotland is fired up for probable independence and a strongly Nordic policy direction firmly geared toward regaining a place in the EU, and promoting a wellbeing focused economy. The SNP remain the dominant political force in Scotland, but the party which gained the most seats was the pro-independence Scottish Green Party, sister party to the Green Party of England and Wales, and they can happily work with the SNP. Boris Johnson and right-wing populism have no appeal in Scotland, and post-Brexit unionism is looking increasingly like outdated English imperialism. Labour and Liberal Democrats in Scotland lost more ground, linked as they are to the union.

The Labour party lost ground in the traditional working class northern towns, but they remain strong in many other parts of the UK, especially where there is a distinctively local leadership asserting its independence from central control. Mark Drakeford in Wales and Andy Burnham in Manchester are two good examples where the case for a radically devolved politics is being forged, and both proved electorally popular.

Richard Murphy wrote an insightful blog about the intellectual bankruptcy of the traditional three main parties. Boris Johnson is pursuing a populist, divisive and corrupt form of governance that will inevitably end in disaster. Murphy sees this creating a political void, waiting for a new and hopeful path. May I suggest that it is the Green Party that fills that role? The climate and ecological emergency requires a new political direction. It is significant that many of the new councillors for the Green Party are climate activists, keen to provide the political leadership needed to bring about the required changes.

A globally unified, yet highly decentralized network of regions seems to me to be a way forward as we confront the monumental challenges left to us by the dying era of nation states, of fossil fuels, of pollution and plunder. The Green vision of the future is gaining ground globally. We don’t have all the answers but we are committed to giving it everything we have. The path has to be one of peace, of sharing and of justice. Justice of every kind: economic, social, political, racial, of climate justice and resource use justice. That requires global transformational change. We saw a little bit of it at these local elections. We will see more in the German Federal elections in September. Millions of small steps are being taken by people in many communities around the world. The old order is crumbling; the new one is struggling to be born.

Floating wind comes to Ireland

Ireland electricity by fuel type

The graph above shows how the Republic of Ireland gets its electricity. From 2005 to 2018 demand rose slightly, wind power grew quite quickly and coal shrank slowly. Over the next decade coal use will cease, so too should the burning of peat, and gas use will plummet. The Irish electricity grid will be one of the first to run almost entirely on wind power. Here’s how.

The news this week is that the huge (915MW) Moneypoint power station, on the Shannon estuary is to close. It is, or was, Irelands only coal-fired power station, and has been used less and less over recent years as wind power has been built. The site will become a hub for an even larger (1,400MW) new floating offshore wind farm, and a centre for the production of green hydrogen. In a small country like Ireland a single big project like this will have a huge impact, and it is likely that other similar projects will follow. The Atlantic off the coast of Ireland, and Scotland, is the windiest part of Europe, and many more large scale floating wind farms are likely to be built there, helping the whole of Europe decarbonise its electricity sector. Ireland, like Scotland, is likely to become a major exporter of zero carbon energy.

In 2017 I wrote a blog about the opening in Scotland of Hywind, the world’s first floating offshore windfarm. It was a 30MW pilot project, designed to test the technology, and I speculated that if it proved successful other larger projects would follow. This new 1,400MW project in the Atlantic off the coasts of Kerry and Clare will link back to onshore facilities at Moneypoint on the Shannon. The existing power grid that served the old coal power station can be re-purposed for the wind powered electricity to be used across Ireland, in Dublin and on to the UK. In times of surplus wind power green hydrogen will be made, and stored in order to generate electricity at times of no wind, and for other industrial uses, or for export, shipping it from the Shannon, to countries like Germany.

Also in 2017 I posted a blog titled ‘Can Companies Change?’ In it I looked at DONG, (Danish Oil and Gas), which has transitioned from a fossil fuel company to become the world’s largest developer of offshore wind farms, and divested itself of its former fossil fuel assets, and in the process re-branded itself Orsted. Few companies have made such a dramatic 100% transformation. The Norwegian company Statoil has rebranded itself Equinor. It was the company behind Hywind, and now this project in Ireland. It is scaling up its commitment to offshore wind, and is the world leader in floating turbines, while still saying oil and gas will remain its core business. My view is that over time most of the oil majors will go bankrupt as fossil fuel reserves become worthless. Maybe in time Equinor will have to choose, fossil fuels or renewables? For now it is good that it is putting a lot of money and expertise into floating wind power. Floating wind power now is at an embryonic stage, but it will inevitably grow, hopefully helping to displace much fossil fuel use, and so eventually making those fossil fuel assets worthless.

Time for a Progressive Alliance

Miriam Margolis is spot on. What to do about it?

Perhaps the time has come to form a progressive alliance, with a view to forming a national coalition government? There are many urgent challenges that need to be addressed. Here are my top ten demands. Could a coalition be formed around these issues?

  1. Support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill.
  2. Support: 100% renewable energy, Agro-ecological farming & rewilding.
  3. Reverse the disaster that is Brexit: Rejoin the EU.
  4. A public inquiry into the Covid pandemic.
  5. Electoral Reform: A Proportional system of voting is needed now.
  6. Reverse economic policy: higher taxes and better funded public services.
  7. NHS funding should be increased, for-profit health companies banned.
  8. Radical decentralization: funding to be focused through local authorities.
  9. Bring in a Universal Basic Income for all.
  10.  Slash defence spending by 90%.

My list of ten demands may sound pretty radical. It may not be possible to unite around such an ambitious set of policies. However, something along these lines seems essential. Let us at least start the kinds of conversations that might help build a progressive alliance.

What is the best possible cabinet we could imagine? There are lots of people from outside parliament who I think would be excellent, but let us limit ourselves to just current MP’s.

Let us start with the twelve MP’s who are sponsoring the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. Caroline Lucas (Green) tabled the bill, and was supported by Alan Brown (SNP) Claire Hanna (Social Democratic and Labour Party) Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat) Clive Lewis (Labour) Liz Saville-Roberts (Plaid Cymru) Stephen Farry (Alliance) Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru) Tommy Sheppard (SNP) Alex Sobel (Labour) Zarah Sultana (Labour) and Nadia Whittome (Labour).

These twelve represent a broad sweep of party political opinion, regional and ethnic diversity. It is far from a comprehensive list. Would some former Conservative MP’s support such a coalition? Many are deeply unhappy with the current government. Perhaps John Major or Dominic Grieve would be useful in the conversation? Having both Jeremy Corbin and Tony Blair in on this might add something?

Most important from my point of view would be to add the voices of young people, especially those in the Friday’s For Future school strikes movement, but sadly they are not represented within our existing political system. Bringing down the age of voting to 16, 14 or indeed younger might be another vital aspect of electoral reform.

Fruit

Peach blossom in the foreground, with apricot blossom behind, today, 15th March 2021

It is amazing how much food can be grown on a small area. In my urban garden every day of the year my wife and I have a range of salad crops and usually several types of vegetables ready to harvest. For about six months of the year there is an abundance of fresh fruit, with plenty to freeze to see us through the winter and spring gap in production. In my average sized town garden I grow strawberries, raspberries, loganberries, blackberries, blueberries, jostaberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, whitecurrants, redcurrants, grapes, cape gooseberries (physalis) and then there are the trees: apples, pears, cherries, plums, greengages, damsons, peaches and apricots. We also grow elder trees for elderflower and elderberry cordials. We used to grow hazelnuts but decided we didn’t have the space. There are many more species I’d love to grow but we don’t have the space, the time or really the need for any more fruit.

The UK imports 84% of all the fresh fruit that we eat. This means that only about 16% is grown in UK. This is such a bizarre state of affairs. We could reverse these ratios with many positive outcomes. Just to take one example. Plums that are grown in distant countries and shipped to UK have to be picked under ripe and therefore of poor flavour and poor nutritional content. Really ripe plums are delicious and nutritious, but need to be eaten as soon as they are picked. It is almost impossible to transport, store and retail them in the kind of model that supermarkets and greengrocers use, so most people in UK have never eaten a properly ripe plum. Before the days of cheap imports we used to grow more plums than we do now. I recall old and often neglected plum orchards in Herefordshire which now have all gone. In their heyday the fruit would have been harvested and sold locally, or bottled or made into jam for longer term storage. Plums, like so much fruit and vegetables, should be grown close to where people live, and picked and eaten on the same day, or failing that the very next day.

Of course not everybody has the space, the time or the inclination to grow fruit and vegetables. If the government want to ‘build back better’ post Covid there are lots of things I’d love to recommend they do. One of which would be to encourage and fund the expansion of community supported organic farming projects, and especially agro-forestry systems focused on producing a wide range of fruit and vegetables for their local communities.

Covid & Disaster Capitalism

The Covid pandemic is now about one year old. It is just over a year since the first person in the UK died from it. The response to the pandemic has been very different in different countries, and this has led to very different outcomes. As of today the UK has had 4.21 million cases, resulting in 124,261 deaths. New Zealand by contrast has had 2,398 cases and only 26 deaths.

The extraordinary differences in these outcomes is attributable to the very different actions of the governments of these two countries, especially during the first days and weeks, in February, March and April last year. New Zealand, under Jacinda Ardern, listened to the science, closed borders and locked down early. It quickly and cheaply developed an effective track and trace system, and kept transmission rates low.

UK, under Boris Johnson, talked of ‘taking it on the chin’ and boasted of shaking hands with everyone in a hospital where people had the disease. Like Gove, Johnson has contempt for experts. Instead they were over influenced by some crazy ideas about herd immunity. Thousands of British people paid with their lives for this ideological nonsense.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed and Rebecca Davis, writing in Business Maverick have plotted the links in a bizarre disinformation network featuring Cambridge Analytica and a strange organization called Panda (standing for Pandemics: Data & Analytics) which have been promoting an ideological anti lockdown agenda, claiming it is bad for business. Much of the Tory right wing shares this dysfunctional libertarianism, not least Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson.

Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, this so-called pro-business ideology has been disastrous for business. The UK has suffered badly economically, as well as in health terms, due to Covid becoming widespread. New Zealand on the other hand, by shutting down early nipped the infection in the bud and have since had less economic restrictions and costs.

But maybe from the point of view of the ideologues of the far right and for the Tory government things are going more or less to plan. According to the principles of Disaster Capitalism crises are opportunities to create change and bring forward ever more extreme free market policies, to roll back the state, and an opportunity to simply make money. Many ridiculously lucrative contracts have been awarded for dubious quality PPE, a track and trace system that cost billions and yet didn’t even work, but all opportunities to make money for the governments friends and supporters. One of the largest American health insurance companies is buying up GP practices across London, and the derisory pay rise offered to nurses are all symptomatic of this governments desire to undermine the NHS and to profit from its privatization. From this ghastly perspective Covid has been a splendid opportunity, and they have grasped it, and increased their wealth, power and influence. They have done so at the expense of many peoples’ lives and livelihoods. Of the UK population many of us are incandescent with rage at this government, but apparently nowhere near enough of us. According to the latest opinion poll the Tories are 13% ahead, so this government are very pleased with themselves. They have created a disaster and profited handsomely from it. Welcome to the weird world of Disaster Capitalism.

Carbon Emissions: Billionaires & the BBC

Last summer I wrote a blog about the carbon emissions of billionaires. This week an interesting article was published in The Conversation where two economic anthropologists from Indiana University looked in more detail at the individual carbon footprints of twenty of the richest people on the planet. Their findings reveal that the individual carbon footprints varied from Michel Bloomberg’s 1,782 tons to the staggering annual emissions of Roman Abramovich at 31,199 tons. In my blog I’d estimated the carbon emissions of all, or nearly all, billionaires to be over 1,000 tons. I’d also implied that their average would be even higher than this, and some individuals would be almost unimaginably high emitters. This new data backs up my previous blog.

Global average carbon emissions are currently something around 5 tons per person. Many people have miniscule carbon emissions, of perhaps a few kilograms or even just a few grams. The vast majority of such people are small scale African or Asian subsistence farmers. Some people who are doing ecologically regenerative farming systems will have negative carbon footprints, meaning that the carbon they are sequestering in the soil is more than that they emit in other ways. I follow lots of African climate activists of Twitter and many of them are doing amazing projects setting up tree nurseries, clearing up plastic pollution, educating about ecology and setting up ecologically restorative farming systems.

Meanwhile BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting Bill Gates’ book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. It is a pretty awful book, concentrating entirely on technological innovation and ignoring the vital aspects of social innovation and climate justice. Last week I reviewed Jason Hickel’s book which focuses on the absolute need to move to a post capitalist economy to combat the climate and ecological emergency. I could recommend dozens of other books, maybe hundreds, that are much better than Bill Gates’ one. So why are the BBC reading his one? Is it because he is a billionaire, and the BBC really has become a mouthpiece for the greedy global elite? As the figures published in The Conversation reveal Bill Gates’ personal carbon emissions are 7,408 tons. Rather than write a book his time might have been better spent looking at his own carbon footprint.

Last month I posted a blog about the people who have inspired me over the last year, and I named three young women activists from Africa who all are doing great work on climate, ecological and social justice: Patricia Kombo from Kenya, Kaossara Sani from Togo and Oladosu Adenike from the Lake Chad Region. I could have added many more names to this list. Africa is bursting with great climate activists. Why does the BBC focus on Bill Gates? Is it because he is a rich white man from America and not a poor black women from Africa?

There are many great books and ideas about how to adequately address the climate and ecological emergency. Most call for some pretty radical changes implying huge social, economic and political change as well as technological change. Why do none of them get coverage on the BBC? Is it because the BBC has become too deeply embedded in the present social, economic and political system that they cannot contemplate any challenge to this system, even when it is glaringly obvious that this needs to happen to avert climate, ecological and social breakdown?

Jason Hickel: Degrowth

Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less is More, How Degrowth will Save the World’ is I think the best yet critique of growth and of capitalism. He draws on ecology, economics, history and many other disciplines to chart how this pervasive and destructive ideology came into being and how it spells disaster for humanity. In the light of the Climate and Ecological Emergency the need to rapidly and radically change direction could not be more urgent. Hickel makes only general indications about what a post growth and post capitalist world might look like, but he does give us at least a glimpse of that possible future. (The book I am writing is much more detailed on that front.)

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, is the fundamental goal of nearly all governments. For most of our politicians and media it is taken as a ‘good thing’. It is the bedrock upon which capitalism as a system has been built, and without continuous growth capitalism would collapse. Because capitalism is so ubiquitous it is taken for granted without really being understood as a system and Jason Hickel is particularly strong in outlining exactly what capitalism is and why it is so destructive. People often think of capitalism as the right to trade and to use markets, but trade and markets pre-date capitalism by thousands of years. What emerged about 500 years ago was a system predicated on extracting value from trade to reinvest in ever larger scale trade. Value had to be continually extracted from the natural world and from people in order to have ever larger sums to invest in ever larger enterprises. Profit acquisition for investment replaced the earlier system of trade to acquire things for their usefulness. Stock markets grew and they depended upon profits to pay interest and attract investors in an endless cycle of continuous growth.

Questioning growth as a goal goes back decades, certainly to the early 1970’s, with Herman Daly’s ideas of a ‘Steady State Economy’, Donella Meadow’s ‘Limits to Growth’, ‘Blueprint for Survival’ and many others. Where Jason Hickel is particularly strong is on the insanity of constant growth projected very far into the future, given the impossibility to completely decouple growth from the material through-put of the economy and the associated waste and pollution. He is also very good in his connecting capitalism’s need for growth with its never ending need to colonize and exploit ever more aspects of people’s lives and of the natural world.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. The hardback edition came out last August and a paperback version is due to be published in a week or so, on 25th February.

There are writers such as Mark E Thomas, of the 99% organisation, who are still in favour of growth as an overall objective, but who distinguish between good growth, growth that is irredeemably bad and growth that can be transformed from bad to good. Other writers, such as Kate Raworth, author of Donut Economics, describe themselves as growth agnostic. What I’d love to see, and to participate in, is a debate between them. I think we would all agree on what sectors of the economy need to contract, which ones still need to grow and which ones can be transformed. The trouble is any discussion of radical economic contraction of any sectors of the economy is still taboo for most politicians and the media. That needs to change, as a matter of extreme urgency. As Greta Thunberg keeps reminding us, we are in a crisis, and it is about time we started treating it as a crisis. The obsession with endless economic growth on a finite and fragile planet is perhaps the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunity. If you are not convinced then do read this excellent book by Jason Hickel and judge for yourself.

Offshore wind and energy hubs

Denmark Greenlights North Sea Energy Island Hub
Denmark is planning to build an artificial island in the North Sea, to be used as an energy hub.

On this blog I’ve written about wind power numerous times, but not much over the last four years. During those last four years lots of interesting trends have continued with both individual wind turbines and windfarms getting bigger. Costs have continued to fall, and are predicted to continue to fall, especially as new materials are coming into use. More and more countries are developing offshore wind power. The usefulness of wind power is also increasing as wind to hydrogen technology and batteries are deployed and as more interconnector cables are laid between countries.

Way back in the 1980’s when I first started getting interested in renewable energy there was an assumption that not more than about 8 or 9% of the grid capacity could be made up from wind power: more would destabilize the grid. Like many such assumptions it was in the interests of the existing coal, gas, oil and nuclear industries that such things were believed. It is true that the wind is famously fickle, but relatively minor adaptations to the grid have allowed countries like Denmark to produce a lot of their electricity from the wind. At times of low demand and strong winds, back in 2015 they managed to get 140% of their demand from wind, and that has continued to climb so now it is several hundred percent, and this will keep growing. Surplus wind generated electricity will increasingly be sold to neighbouring countries, or stored in batteries, hydrogen or many other ways.

The news this week shows just how offshore wind power is ramping up. Denmark is proposing building an artificial island in the North Sea, 80kms off the Jutland coast, to act as hub for up to 10GW of offshore wind farms. Cables will connect to Germany, Belgium, and probably other countries, and also back to the Danish mainland. Over in the Baltic the Danes are planning to use the island of Bornholm in a similar way as a wind power hub, in this case linked to Germany, Poland and Sweden. Meanwhile South Korea has just announced a $43 billion investment in 8.2 GW offshore wind projects. USA is also now just beginning to get serious about large scale offshore wind.

In 2010 I wrote a blog about the increasing scale of wind power, both of individual turbines and of wind farms. At that time the largest wind turbine was 7MW. Now the largest wind turbine in production is the Haliade X at 14 MW, and Siemens Gamesa are planning something similar. These are double the size of the biggest ones from a decade ago.

In Sweden they are starting to build wind turbine towers made from cross laminated wood. These look like they will be lighter, cheaper, and stronger and also entail less carbon emissions than steel. They may also be the basis for taller towers. Wind turbines blades may also get lighter, stronger and cheaper by being made out of new composite materials, such as those being pioneered by Scottish start-up ACT blade.

Individual turbines, and offshore wind farms, will get very much bigger over the next decade. Solar power, hydrogen production and several other clean technologies are also ramping up quickly. This ramping up of cleantech is one crucial part of what we need to do in response to the climate and ecological emergency. There is of course so much more that we need to do.