Saturday, 11 April 2020

The Times newspaper; a paragon of hypocrisy about free speech?

The Times exposed its own hypocrisy today when it said that universities 'should not turn a blind eye to baseless propaganda' - ignoring its own promotion of climate scepticism through publishing the views of Matt Ridley.

Under a headline 'Spreading Falsehoods' a Times leader today criticises three named academics for spreading conspiracy theories, variously about how the WHO or the West was using the C virus as a bioweapon. Well, to make my own view clear, I condemn anybody who spreads such nonsense and I call upon them to stop it. But should the universities take action against them? I think not! 

The Times says:
 'Real news outlets are reporting the state of medical knowledge and safeguarding public health. Their efforts are being undermined by dilettantes who lack specialist knowledge. Those who share conspiracy theories under the guise of academic affiliation are trading in falsehood. Their institutions should not turn a blind eye to baseless propaganda'.(1)

It's very interesting that The Times should complain about how science is being undermined by 'dillettantes who lack specialist knowledge' when it publishes climate scepticism by Matt Ridley. Take for example the article published in 2018 by Matt Ridley discussing theories of global cooling when he says, for example:

'the argument that the world is slowly slipping back into a proper ice age after 10,000 years of balmy warmth is in essence true' (2) 

This is utter nonsense of course. The climate science tells us that the temperature of the Earth is increasing much more quickly than anything that can be seen in the last 10,000 years or more and that this is associated with anthropogenically induced warming. No doubt Matt Ridley might excuse his article as being a wind-up or something; but then I'm sure the peddlars of the current conspiracy theories have parallel excuses.

The plot thickens when one considers the articles that the Times' publishes on protecting academic freedoms. Only a couple of months ago the newspaper published an article by the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson which said, among other things:

'The University of Oxford has adopted strong codes of conduct that champion academic freedom and free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence. Every university should promote such unambiguous guidance'. (3) 

Aha, so, putting these various strands together, Universities must defend free speech even though people are offensive.....but they must crack down on academics who spread offensive conspitary theories? 

This doesn't make sense really - unless you come to the conclusion that it's ok to be anti-science if this doesn't offend your own prejudices, or to put it more bluntly 'Freedom of speech is ok so long as it isn't offensive to my own general worldview'. It's called hypocrisy.

But, for universities, you do get the impression that they cannot win. Somebody is always going to complain whatever happens on campus. 

Perhaps in view of all this, universities should simply ignore what opinion leaders say in The Times and regard these articles instead merely as sometimes irritating pieces of entertainment.

(1) 'Spreading Falsehood' Times Leader, April 11th page 29
(2) Matt Ridley 'Global Cooling is not worth shivering about - The Earth is very slowly slipping back into a proper ice age but technology should enable civilisation to survide it' January 8th 2018
(3) Gavin Williams February 7th 2020 'If universities can't defend free speech Government will'

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Renewable energy likely to soar upwards in 2020 as proportion of UK electricity consumption

Now, I must start by saying that I'd far far prefer renewable energy increases NOT to occur if it magically prevented further deaths in this dreadful epidemic. However simple analysis of trends does imply that renewable energy is likely, ceteris paribus, to increase as a proportion of UK electricity consumption from around 37% in 2019 to around 43% in 2020.

Why? Well a big factor here is that electricity consumption seems to be running around 10 per cent less than one would expect this time of year. If this only translates to around 5% over the whole of 2020, then, added to continued (on trend) declines in UK electricity consumption, and the effects of recent additions to renewable energy generation, then this will produce quite a big increase in the proportion of UK electricity from renewables during the year.

Of course even if there was no renewable energy installed this year (although I'm assuming about 20% of planned installations occur this year) we would still see an increase this year because the installations registered last year will not have been operating for the whole of 2019, whilst they will be available for operation the whole of 2020. (I'm also assuming that maintenance of existing electricity infrastructure is counted as an essential activity). So that adds 2-3 per cent onto the RE proportion on its own.

Electricity consumption has been declining for several years now of course, and declines in overall electricity consumption will increase the poportion supplied by renewable energy simply because the bulk of renewable energy will continue to generate whilst it will be fossil fuels that will be usually constrained because of declining consumption.

My assumptions are to a degree weather-dependent - eg they will go awry to the extent that this year isn't as windy as last year, and to a lesser extent if it isn't very sunny.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Why using hydrogen to supply heating would be a terrible choice

The natural gas industry is now campaigning to save its business by extolling the alleged virtues of converting gas heating to supply by 'blue' hydrogen. This blue hydrogen production would be done using natural gas to produce the hydrogen whilst capturing and storing carbon dioxide produced in the process. But this is a facade that will delay transition to a sustainable clean energy economy and waste renewable energy into the bargain.

Blue hydrogen is not a substitute for energy from renewable energy. Even if the hydrogen was sourced from renewable energy (and not much of it will be) the result would be a grandiose waste of renewable energy. This is because using hydrogen from renewable energy to heat buildings is around four times less energy efficient compared to using heat pumps (using renewable electricity) to supply heating in buildings. 

The gas industry's plan is to start off with blue hydrogen, after which at an unspecified period this would be replaced by green hydrogen generated from renewable energy like wind or solar. There are three big reasons why hydrogen in general is a bad choice for our heating networks. 

First, carbon capture, in the blue hydrogen production process, is unlikely to be close enough to 100 per cent because carbon extraction processes become more and more expensive the higher the proportion of carbon is captured (over 85 per cent). 

In practice, of course, the carbon capture will probably not even be 85% as the gas industry seeks to produce hydrogen at a low commercial costs and tries to absorb the many infrastructural costs of changing the system to hydrogen. These are rather greater than the gas industry is letting on at the moment since hydrogen will need to be distributed differently compared to natural gas at present. 

Second, such a programme will provide support for a continued fossil fuel industry (including unabated methane leakage from extraction activities). The industry will include the possibility (read near-certainty) of production that is not subject to carbon capture and storage. There is then the issue of monitoring and accountability over the extent to which the carbon is stored in a sustainable fashion. These are likely to be lacking.

The reality is that 'blue hydrogen' in the UK will be used to develop new natural gas fields that will only be economic if they carry on supplying large quantities of unabated natural gas to other parts of the world. 

A third reason why 'blue hydrogen' is bad is that using 'blue' hydrogen, in as much as it succeeds in paving the way for supply of renewable hydrogen, will lock in a huge wastage of renewable energy compared to using this renewable energy much more efficiently. 

On the one hand the electrolysis process by which renewable energy is converted to hydrogen is only 80 per cent efficient. That is bad enough since using renewable electricity to supply heating would not involve these losses. However things get a lot lot worse when you realise that the best way of suppling heating in efficiency terms is through electrically powered heat pumps. These use the renewable energy input some 3-4 times more efficiently to produce the same heat compared to heating by 'green' (renewable) hydrogen.  We're going to need a lot of of offshore windfarms and solar farms already, so using renewable hydrogen when you could be using heat pumps supplied by renewable energy is a big, big waste of renewable energy.

We ought to focus on electrifying the heating system, not locking it in to hydrogen. New build properties can be built to maximise energy efficiency and using heat pumps to supply what should be a much-reduced need for heating services. Existing buildings can be heated with district heating supplied by large scale heat pumps, or at worst converted to electricity-only heating, or preferably fitted with heat pumps.

Hydrogen has its purposes, but heating buildings is not a good purpose. So all those green anti-nuclear activists who have for many years been thinking that hydrogen is a good way of using renewable electricity for heating should think again. Far from helping towards a renewable energy economy they may actually be inadvertently promoting demands for nuclear power since they will be increasing the need for non-fossil fuels to supply all the hydrogen needed for the heating sector. Green energy involves energy efficiency as well as green energy supply, and blue and even green hydrogen should be ruled out as a means of heating buildings.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

What's especially shocking about the coronavirus outbreak in Italy - a lack of testing

The news from Italy today is especially tragic given that the daily death toll rose to 133. But there's something that makes this look even more awful - and that's the very high ratio between deaths and confirmed cases in Italy. This suggests that a large proportion of the C virus cases in Italy have not been discovered - and therefore that the fact that the outbreak is, currently, dangerously out of control is related to this lack of discovery. This may well signal a very big lack in testing for infection in Italy, if not elsewhere.

In fact, according to the official statistics the fatality rate of confirmed cases in Italy, at 5 per cent, is rather higher than than the fatality rate of China, which is 3.8 per cent. Indeed the death rate among Italian cases appears to be getting higher.

Now, once one has excluded the possibility that the virus circulating in Italy is more virulent that the one circulating in China (elsewhere in Europe the death rate is much smaller than in Italy, so this seems unlikely) the one very concenring conclusion is that a very large proportion of the C virus cases in Italy have not been discovered. This has serious implications for controlling the spread of infection. The difference between the death rate in Italy and China may be partly or wholly concerned with the significantly higher average age of people in Italy compared to China. However, even if this explains all of the difference (I would be surprised if it did), Italy (and most other countries to a greater or lesser extent) are still falling well short of 'best practice' in testing, which is set by South Korea at the moment.

If we want to look for a country where a comprehensive testing programme has been conducted, we should look at South Korea. There has been a similar number of confirmed cases in S. Korea as in Italy. However, whilst, as of February 8th, there were 266 deaths in Italy, there were only 50 deaths in South Korea. Again, if we dismiss the idea that there is a different virus circulating in one of the two countries we can only assume that the death rate compared to confirmed infections is, using the S. Korean statistics, around 0.7 per cent.

The South Korean figures (garnered as a result of mass, often random, testing, as opposed to the much more apparently limited Italian testing) offer a little crumb of comfort in that the death rate is lower than some fears. However it also highlights the yawning likely gap between Italian official data and the much larger likely scale of the epidemic in Italy.

People have been discussing the implications of the rapidly increasing scale of the outbreak in Italy, but one lesson seems obvious to me. There needs to be a big increase in testing, most of all in Italy, but also in all other countries. If you don't know who has the disease, you don't know who their contacts are, and you cannot easily close off the disease.

Michel Foucault said that 'power is knowledge'. He is certainly right there, and at the moment we do not have nearly enough of the knowledge that is gained through testing

Source of medical data

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Solar pv cost plunge presages surge in UK subsidy free solar projects

All over Europe there are reports of a plunge in the prices of solar pv projects, and in the UK a leading solar analyst has predicted that over 1 GW of solar pv will be deployed in the UK in 2020.

Solar pv prices have been hurtling ever lower for many years. and some crazily low prices for solar pv projects have been reported in Middle East in contract auction contests such as in the UAE and Qatar. But this trend is now even affecting not-as-sunny parts of Europe. Solar pv costs - what finance geeks call 'levellised cost of energy' (LCOE) - and which indicate what projects investors and banks will support - are dipping below wholesale electricity prices in more and more countries.

That means that solar pv schemes, big ones that can be built efficiently using higher power outputs compared to rooftop solar projects, are now coming forward on what is called a 'subsidy free' basis in the UK. That is without Government based incentives such as feed in tariffs that launched the first markets for solar pv (before being scaled back in recent years).

Even in often rather cold Finland the cost of solar pv is now below that of the wholesale power price. In Germany, which still gives some feed-in tariff support for what is now a booming rooftop solar pv market (increasingly associated with home batteries) the Government is giving out contracts to large schemes through auctions which deliver low prices. Nearly 4 GW of solar pv was deployed in Germany in 2019.

The surprise is that in the UK, which no longer has a Government backed system of awarding contracts to solar pv schemes,  increasing quantities of 'subsidy free' solar pv schemes are in the development pipeline. According to Finlay Colville, Head of Market Research at the Solar Power Portal, around 6.6 GW of solar pv capacity is currently at various stages in the pipeline, with over 1 GW said to be deployed in 2020. These projects are dominated by (what is for solar pv) very large projects, many being 40 MW or bigger in size. Of course this pipeline is, on this trend, likely to grow in the future. 6.6 GW of utility solar projects would generate around 2.4 per cent of UK electricity on its own on an annualised basis.

There have been so far, in the UK, a small number of 'subsidy free' solar projects that have been deployed in particularly favourable circumstances (eg alongside already available grid connection equipment, or as extensions of battery projects). However this new crop of what can be called 'utility scale' projects represents a new development that will make a substantial addition to UK generating capacity.

There are also various plans for 'subsidy free' onshore wind projects (including projects being taken ahead by Scottish Power and SSE). Around 500 MW of what will be 'subsidy free' wind projects are registered for the capacity mechanism for the 2022-23 year, but the capacity of solar pv projects threatens to move well ahead of wind power in the subsidy-free development stakes (note: for comparison a MW of wind power will generate roughly twice as much electricity per annum as a MW of solar on average). Although wind projects on the best sites offer very cheap prices, a big constraint on renewable energy projects is the availability of sufficiently low cost grid connection options. Solar pv may have an advantage here. Whilst high windspeed sites are tied to specific limited locations, there is an even spread of sun resources around the country. Hence solar pv may have more of a chance to pick up good grid connection possibilities.

Of course when it comes to offshore wind power, things are different.There are very, very large areas of good windspeed locations offshore, and grid connection costs for schemes can be calculated down simply by building ever more massive windfarms. But that's another story, albeit a very big one!

Reference links:
Solar Power Portal
also LCOE analysis at

Monday, 13 January 2020

Why EDF's argument that they cut costs with early start to Sizewell C is nonsense

As reported in 'The Times' EDF is now pressing the Government for an early decision to fund Sizewell C nuclear power plant through what is effectively a blank cheque financial model. EDF say they want to start building Sizewell C in 2022 because they will save money through transferring staff from building Hinkley C.

To me this sounds a very dubious argument for the simple reason that building another two units of their 'Euorpean Pessurised Reactor' (EPR) at the same time as Hinkley will put even greater pressure on staff resources - which  are very scarce in the highly specialised nuclear industry - and lead to increased problems and costs, not savings. The argument posed by EDF annoys me especially as I have been (for some time) researching a book for Routledge about the factors that have led to the nuclear power construction cost overruns, and  big factor appears to be precisely the fact that there is just not enough specialised nuclear staff in the West to build nuclear power plant. So this argument about 'transferring' staff seems to me to be especially tendentious.

EDF claims they are going to 'transfer staff'. Planning to transfer staff could produce even bigger delays as construction fell behind schedule, the staff couldn’t be released on time  and building at Sizewell has to be halted leading to  even greater costs as other staff sit around doing very little.

Really the whole argument seems to me to be a clever way of distracting from the obvious point that they cannot build more than two units at once (indeed, cannot even do that on time). To say that there is some sort of cost-saving in this seems bizarre. But then, in reality, we shall find that the real start of construction at Sizewell C will be pushed back and back.

But EDF have an big incentive to pre-commit the UK Government to an early start for Sizewell C (which may in practice be no more than some light work in advance of serious construction) because of three possibilities.

The first is that bad news continues to come about the longer and longer delays with building EPR reactors in France and Finland. The second is that bad news could soon be also coming concerning more delays with Hinkley C itself. The third is that EDF are in big financial trouble having to fund Hinkley C on their own balance sheet while suffering losses with their construction at Flamanville and would be given considerable succour with an open-ended committment to pour money into the company for another twin power plant. (See my earlier blog post on the massive losses EDF are suffering with Flamanville). The quicker they can get a decision from the UK Government then the less chance that the Government will be put off by continuing bad news from Flamanville and Hinkley C itself.

EDF have been consistently arguing for arrangements that they say reduce costs, while the outome is that costs increase. This is most likely to be the case with the arrangements that they have promoted to build Sizewell C. They have claimed that it will be cheaper because using Government money is chreaper. But the reality is that the Government will be committed to paying for any cost overruns of the project - so how is this project going to be built cheaper when the company doing it has no contractual incentive to keep costs down?

The reality is that every nuclear power project being built in the west over this century is costing at least double (probably even more than that eventually) than they were supposed to cost in the first place. The cost of building Sizewell C under the proposed 'Regulated Asset Base' is likel;y to be much higher for the energy consumer compared to even Hinkley C - even if it is cheaper for EDF! And EDF are rushing the public into accepting the inevitable high public costs before there is further mouning bad news from the construction of their power plant at Flamanville and Hinkley C.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Why the UK Government may be encouraging greenwash in its announcement about 'hydrogen ready' boilers

The Government's announcement that from 2025 gas boilers will have to be 'hydrogen ready' could presage the start of one of the greatest pieces of greenwash that have been committed in the UK. It seems likely to result in carbon emissions being substantially increased compared to the present use of natural gas in boilers to heat homes.

The oil and gas industry is promoting so-called 'blue hydrogen', that is hydrogen produced by 'reforming' natural gas, and capturing the carbon dioxide that is produced. Yet currently most hydrogen is produced by reforming natural gas and not capturing carbon dioxide, a process that will dramatically increase carbon dioxide emissions if hydrogen is used to heat homes. The efficiency of the gas reformation process is only around 65 per cent meaning that much more carbon dioxide is generated to produce the hydrogen as fuel compared to simply burning the natural gas. Any claims that the process will be done using carbon capture and storage, beyond that is a few demonstration projects supported by public grants, should be taken with a wagon load of salt.

But the sad thing is that even if 'green' hydrogen for heating homes was to be generated by renewable energy (through electrolysis of water) it would still be a grossly inefficient way of using that renewable energy. Renewable energy is normally distributed through the electricity system where it can power heat pumps in homes (either individually or through district heating systems) to much much greater effect. The heat pumps use electricity much more efficiently compared to any hydrogen boilers, no matter how the hydrogen is produced. Indeed a heat pump may increase the efficiency of the use of renewable energy by approaching fourfold compared to using 'green hydrogen' in a boiler.

Not only does the heat pump multiply the heat from the electircity by around threefold (by using heat in the surrounding environemnt) but it avoids losing energy through electrolysis,

So, in terms of reducing carbon emissions we will need FOUR times the amout of renewable energy to produce the same heating effect in buildings if we turn it into hydrogen  - compared to using the renewable energy delivered through the electricity system and used in heat pumps.

So the Government should be looking at ways to ensure heat pumps are used as a rule in new buildings and giving incentives to have existing buildings retrofitted with heat pumps. This is as opposed to being hijacked by the oil and gas lobby to pass off business as usual under a greenwashed cover story.