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Researchers demand more research!

The UK government’s former chief scientist, David King, a man who back in 2004 correctly identified climate change as a more serious threat than global terrorism has co-authored an article in today’s FT. In it, he argues that we need an Apollo/Manhattan style project to bring the cost of solar electricity below that of any fossil fuel by 2025. Now, solar power has been experiencing a hilariously steep cost reduction, halving in the past two years alone, a continuation of a long trend of exponential decrease in solar prices. Those of you who watch Parks and Rec may be as delighted as I was to learn that this history follows Swanson’s Law. Those of you who don’t watch Parks and Recreation, go watch some P&R.

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So solar costs are falling. They’ve now fallen low enough that in sunnier parts of the world, solar PV already is cheaper than grid electricity. The graph above (adapted from Bloomberg New Energy Foundation) shows how the falling cost of solar will lead to more and more countries reaching this situation (anywhere above the line has solar cheaper than grid electricity). That’s not something David King is disputing, what he wants is for additional progress on electricity storage and distribution technology to match this and bring the cost of round-the-clock solar power (including storage and distribution) down below that of grid electricity. I presume, although it was not stated that this is also expected to provide 24-hour power year round. The ‘ambition’ was to have 1 GW of commercial, unsubsidised, round-the-clock solar in cities in Europe, Asia and America by 2025. I’d hardly call this ambitious. Every time anyone has set solar a target it has been steamrollered, absolutely smashed into tiny pieces.

In this particular case, the opportunity for a second emerging clean technology trend to make this a reality has been ignored; electric vehicles. What is an electric car if not a battery on wheels? There is good evidence from the US where electric vehicles have been making relatively good progress to show that the demographics of people who have been (relatively) early adopters of residential PV in states like California and Colorado are the same as those of people who will get in early on electric cars. They are, put simply, nerds like me (only richer). They tend to be highly educated, quite technical and to have both an understanding of the harm human consumption of fossil fuels is doing to our global environment and the financial resources to do something about it.

There are problems with electric cars as storage and perhaps the largest and most obvious is that cars will get unplugged and driven about. This is a problem because there is a rush hour. A large proportion of the electric cars on the grid will be removed at the same time and leading up to this time, the cars will have to be charged adequately to meet their expected daily requirements and a little more. Similarly, there is a fear that synchronised behaviour will also cause problems in the evening with the assumption that people will plug their EV in when they get home, causing a massive spike in power demand. I actually don’t buy this one, the technology to defer charging until electricity demand is lower overnight is basically good to go. The short story of what I’m trying to say is that the existing pattern of electricity use is informed by our activities but also by how our electricity is supplied. With ever evolving uses of ICT, we can help smooth the shift that will be required as we change where our electricity comes from to reflect the fact that new renewable energy sources don’t offer the same flexibility to deliver electricity when it’s needed as traditional fossil fuelled generation.

I seem to have digressed a little into electric vehicles as distributed storage, the point I wanted to make was this:

Solar electricity without storage or overnight capability is already cheaper than grid electricity in some places and is becoming so in more places. The way to make solar with storage for 24 hour operation cheaper than fossil fuels is not to spend more money, time and effort on primary research but to continue to ramp up installations. As scale increases, costs come down and as the market gets bigger the case for R&D within the industry becomes increasingly attractive.

The sky is falling in! No worries…

Last week our lovely media decided to unceremoniusly dump any nuance or uncertainty and declare the British summer a thing of the past. At least for another decade. The Met Office held a meeting discussing the recent run of wet summers where it was reported that there are some indications that this may be linked to medium-term (decades) variations in the behaviour of the Atlantic Ocean.

So I was brought into an email conversation by the company I work with who had been contacted by a major newspaper to ask how this might affect solar power in the UK. Could we say with any confidence that it would make no difference? Did last year suck? If so, how badly did last year suck, can we put any numbers on it?

The piece for the newspaper doesn’t have anything about solar power in the end. Maybe it wasn’t as interesting as rising sales of wellies or a need for us to all start taking vitamin D supplements (caution: suspected total bunk). Anyhow, I spent all of half an hour looking at the historical numbers I happen to have lying around and playing the game of “If there are 10 wet summers…” even though it’s far from assured and personally I think it’s a crap way to report science (note, it’s in the paper under ‘weather’, not ‘climate’). So here’s my analysis:

1. If solar has a bad year because of a dull, rainy summer then the chances are that the other big renewable technologies, wind and hydro will have bumper years. The negative correlation between them is very handy.

2. The overall climate trend is a warmer world and that’s because we’re burning all the dead things we’ve dug and sucked out the ground. Solar power helps deal with this.

3. Last year was pretty crap for solar power in the UK. Looking at Met Office data for nine sites, solar radiation was on average 3% below the 2000-2012 mean (figures are on the horizontal, it’s almost never measured on a slope making the lives of solar researchers like me worth living/much trickier). In three of the nine sites, last year had the lowest radiation in that same time period. The worst case year was on average 6% below the mean year and in only one case was it below 90% (just).

4. Solar costs are falling hard and fast and will continue to do so for several years to come, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predict that the installed cost of solar power will fall over 40% between now and 2020. With those numbers, a 6% or even a 10% drop in the amount of solar radiation would still only make a small dent in the falling cost of solar electricity.

I’m actually delving a little deeper into what’s been happening with solar radiation and with the various services which compile this data for use by the PV industry and should have some more interesting results (and pretty charts!) soon.

EdF. Sticking it to anyone within beating range.

On the 29th of October last year, sixteen people managed to shut down EdF’s West Burton gas power station. They were motivated by their reading of the evidence that climate change is a serious problem and that building a fleet of new gas power stations without any way of keeping the CO2 produced from getting into the atmosphere is something that we as a society cannot allow to happen. This isn’t a silly fringe view, it’s also the view of the government’s own Committee on Climate Change as well as anyone scientifically literate that isn’t a complete idealogue/dick.

At the end of February, it was revealed that these guys (21 people plus ‘persons unknown’ i.e. anyone else they can link to the campaign) are being sued by EdF in a civil lawsuit for £5,000,000 in (non-existent) damages. This is a blatant attempt to stifle civil disobedience now and in the future and it shows a company which lacks morals, lacks courage and, quite possibly knows which side of history it is on but doesn’t much care about that because there is money to be made.

The Huffington Post has a reasonable article about how this threatens the whole civil disobedience/direct action space in the UK. The energy side of things could have been done better (by me) but it gives a good sense of how direct action is threatened by EdF’s actions.

Something I loved about this No dash for gas protest is how well organised it was, by a smallish group acting as far as I can tell without a great deal of support from the big beasts of direct action like Greenpeace. They knew that scaling the chimneys would get the station shut down and enable them to keep it shut down for a sustained period (about a week in the end). They took advice from engineers and had training in climbing to make their action as safe as possible. It reminded me in many ways of the Drax train protest a few years back where climate activists hijacked a train supplying Western Europe’s largest single source of greenhouse gases and began emptying coal onto the tracks. These guys had worked out the best place to stop the train was over a bridge where they could fix it in place with ropes etc which would damage the bridge if the driver tried to move the train and they followed emergency train stopping procedures (with red flags and the like) so it was again as safe and well planned as possible.

When I’m not thinking about energy and the environment, I like to listen to music and this morning over my breakfast I got round to watching a TED talk by excellent musician, social media phenomenon and sometime 8-ft bride Amanda Palmer who last year set a record for the biggest ever Kickstarter project getting 25,000 people to give here a combined $1,200,000 to make her new album.

I did an MSc in Environmental Technology which now has around 3,000 alumni and that’s just people from one course in one walk of life who are passionately committed to the environment and who would get why these guys from No Dash for Gas did what they did. I know there are others who care about direct action, the right to protest, the anti-competitive behaviour of the big energy companies that want to help these guys.

If EdF win this case and take them to the cleaners, what would it say if we could crowdfund their £5,000,000? I don’t want to give EdF a single penny for what Amy Winehouse once called fuckery but it doesn’t matter. The message would be that enough people care about what these guys did and about what they stand for in the history of protest movements to give free money to my own worst enemy. I’m not religious but I bet Jesus would have done that.

I am No Dash for Gas. And I’ll put my hand in my pocket if EdF win.

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What I do for money

I was asked to put together some words on what my research involves today. To make life more interesting I decided to have a go at doing it ‘up goer five’ style. This is the result:

My work tries to find out how well sun power is working.
First I looked at how much light coming from the sun reaches sun power making things. I have to work out how much light falls on something lying on the ground between places where I know how much light there is. Then I have to work out how much more light there is when you are pointing in some other direction (like if you are lying on top of a building).
Once I know this, I can find out if the sun power making thing is working well or not. This is important because the better it does, the more money I get and if I find it is doing bad, I can fix it.
Second I look at how much of the air which is making the world hot like a green house stays out of the sky because of sun power. Most people just use the same number all year round to work this out but power is made by burning a different set of things at different times so you really should change this number at different times of day and year.
If sun power is used instead of very very old dead trees, more bad stuff is not made than if you use sun power instead of air that you burn that comes out of the ground. I am using a big set of numbers about where our power came from to find out how much ground air and how many really old dead trees weren’t burned because we got some power from the sun instead.

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Predict and Provide. We’re doing it wrong.

Apparently one of The Times’s cycle safety campaign manifesto points is for 2% of the highways budget to be spent on cycling infrastructure.

Over the decades, transport policy has been characterised as “predict and provide”. How much traffic is there going to be in ten years? Do we have enough roads? No. So we build some more roads. End result, the volume of traffic expands to fill the road space available. Nature abhors a vacuum.

This philosophy has now pretty much run its course. Not many people now say “Our roads are full, let’s build more roads, that will fix the problem”. Linking that back to the 2% of the roads budget going on cycling, why stop at 2%?

There is an opportunity to go for sustainable transport in a huge way simply by repurposing the discredited notion of predict and provide. We know that for cars, if the road infrastructure gets built then the traffic volume will grow to fill it to capacity (see also airports). Maybe it wouldn’t work the same way for bikes or even railways but I just wonder if there was someone at the Department for Transport with ability to lie through their teeth about their modelling and say “Our research suggests that by the end of the decade, 30% of all journeys under 5 miles will be made by bike, we need to put the infrastructure in place to meet that demand”… If we decide with no particular evidence that the demand is there…

If we build it, will they come?

Tariff Simplification is a Red Herring.

More from the Today programme this morning on simplifying energy tariffs. Two main problems with this. Firstly it has to be based on the premise that energy isn’t complicated. Secondly it assumes that the consumer is unable to engage because their brain can’t do more than one number at once.
On the second point, to my mind it is obvious that the consumer is concerned about rising energy bills and would be willing to engage. I think the real challenge is to bring clarity to the complex ecosystem of tariffs that we have.
The main reason for the huge array of tariffs is that there are four variables interacting so you have Gas, Electricity, Meter type (prepay or credit) and payment method (direct debit at various intervals being cheapest).
Compare this with mobile phones where there are also a handful of major suppliers and this time, the interacting variables are minutes, texts, data and PAYG/Pay monthly. I for example use a fair bit of data, not so many calls and hardly any texts and I went and found a tariff that suits me. It isn’t hard to do the same sort of flowchart for energy tariffs:
– How much gas do you use? Lots/Middling/A little
– How much electricity do you use?
– How do you want to pay?
Once you know what combination of these you are, the choice of tariffs will have dropped from 400 to about 2-3 per company.
Rather than consolidating tariffs to reduce choice, rebrand them as ‘mix and match’ and make sure there are common definitions of high/medium/low consumption for gas and electric so people know what type of customer they are and hence are better able to pick a combination that is right for them.

Her Majesty’s Treasury.

This post could run and run if I let it.

The Chancellor’s recently revealed vision for the UK becoming a Gas Hub at the expense of renewable energy is awful short-termist nonsense (in that it makes no sense).

Vincent de Rivaz of EDF has indicated the strike price levels being negotiated by his company for support for new nuclear are around £140/MWh, £50/MWh more than onshore wind currently costs. Incidentally, I am not in principle against nuclear, as long as we’re honest about what its purpose shall be, how much it will cost (and who is paying)and how long it will take to build.

A 3p/litre rise on fuel duty was deferred from the start of August until the end of the calendar year. At the same time, rail prices are in line for 6%+ rises next year. So we’re helping out people who cause congestion, air pollution and climate change while making life harder for people who take public transport.

Great.

Genuine Skepticism.

A week or so ago, the Berkeley Earth project published a preliminary report on their findings as relates to land surface temperature data.

I think it is a wonderful example of how science works. The group of scientists, led by Richard Muller, that conducted this work were suspicious about claims made about the increase in average global surface temperatures since pre-industrial times.

They were not disputing that the numbers in the records were not going up, but that the methods used to derive those numbers were perhaps subject to some systematic errors. Their first cause of suspicion was that cities are warmer than the countryside. This is an issue with the temperature record because many of the weather stations that feed into most climate datasets were established in the countryside, just outside of towns and cities which over the decades and centuries have grown to surround and envelop the surrounding countryside and its weather stations. As an example, here are two maps of London showing how much it has grown (look at the Thames for an idea of scale).


London in the 1820s (British Library)

So this growth of cities might have made it look like temperatures are going up when actually all that’s happening is that weather stations are coming under increasing influence of their host cities.

The other thing the Berkeley Earth team thought might be going on is that the records have systematic errors. Temperature measurement equipment has improved alot over the past 150 years. As weather stations upgrade their equipment, they might find that the old kit was systematically reading too low or too high. At the times where the equipment is changed over for different (hopefully better) devices, the old data has to be tweaked to make the records with the old kit line up with what those measurements would have been if the new kit had been there all along. This isn’t cheating, it’s not a dastardly trick on the part of climate scientists, it’s just something they do to give themselves a consistent dataset across time. The problem was that these tweaks to the existing climatological datasets were not applied automatically according to carefully crafted algorithms but by human researchers who could perhaps be making the data look how they want it to look, not how it really should look.

So the Berkeley Earth guys (with some of their funding from heavyweight fossil fuel bods) got enough data and enough computing power together to make a much bigger dataset that takes account of these growing cities and inconsistent records phenomena. They wanted to know if one or both of these effects were at play in the climate records to see if there wasn’t as much climate change as we keep hearing or even any at all.

What the data they produced actually showed was remarkably consistent with what the consensus view on climate change: Getting on for 1 degree C of average global surface temperature rise on pre-industrial levels, almost certainly attributable to human activity (i.e. deforestation and especially burning long dead things).

It is to their enormous credit that the scientists who conducted this work have published and publicised it. It is a fine example of how science is supposed to work. You see what others have done, you are maybe not convinced they’ve done things right and think you have a better method that could maybe lead to a different conclusion, you go away and try your method and you accept the results of your analysis.

Now if only we could get the same kind of scientific rigour out of the guys who gave them money…

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Go. Green.

Green.

Word association.

Plants. Hippies. Pacifism. Snot. Mould.

Save.

Word association.

Scrimp. Poor. Cheapskate. Miserable. Goalkeepers. Jesus

Bruce Oreck gave a talk about the power of words and what they mean yesterday at WREF2012.

He excoriated our industry for our unceasing commitment to two fundamentally unattractive pictures. Nothing wrong with green as a colour (some of my best friends are green) but if you are trying to get your energy project financed and you go tell your bank you want money for a green power initiative, you create in their mind a picture of a bunch of filthy hippies. This makes them think you are a BAD investment.

The other word he hated was Save. So if you give someone two choices. One they can save $100, two they can earn an extra $100. Whichever way you cut it the impact on their life is exactly equal. People want to earn the extra $100 not bank the savings.

So where Bruce didn’t go so much was what terms we should be using. If saving is about as sexy as a weatherized house, what makes me think energy efficiency is any better…

Efficiency.

Word association.

Mechanical, automated, soulless

How can we sell the idea of not being so profligate with energy as we have been since we started burning extremely decayed animals and plants?

I think clean is a good replacement for green. Sustainable is a meaningless term that I don’t really like. It’s an ad agency word like Smart. Because it means nothing, it means everything. Anyone can use it. Do you want a sustainable world or an unsustainable world? Do you want your kids to be smart or do you want them to be dumb? How do you objectively know our world is sustainable? How do you objectively know your kids are smart?

I think on the production side, we can make a good go of telling the world that solar, wind, renewable power is clean energy, clean electricity, clean generation.

But on the other side it comes back to George Monbiot’s Riot for Austerity. How can you make people think that less is more? Hey, maybe that’s it – less is more. We need to start branding our efficiency programmes with that line.
Make the switch to clean energy.
Less is more (in your wallet).
Why are you still paying a hundred dollars a year with those crummy old lightbulbs that Edison would have recognised? Your neighbour has got LEDs now. They won’t change a bulb again in their life and they are paying ten bucks a year on their lighting. The spare $90 went on a family trip to the movies.

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Breathtaking arrogance

Just saw a presentation of a desk study on potential of PV in the UK. They took a two step approach, firstly calculating an absolute technical potential and then applying a set of socioeconomic filters.

I was mostly fine with the technical estimates. There was room for improvement but with the data that was available they did a decent job.

It was when they got onto social and economic factors that my jaw dropped. The renewable energy industry is largely populated with bleeding heart liberals so to see “desire factors” (i.e. the likelihood that people will be interested in installing PV) used in the model being education level and local recycling rate was horrifying.

Let’s deal with the second one of these first. Local recycling rate was used as an indicator of general environmental consciousness across a city population. In fact, in the UK, variation in local recycling rates has as much to do with the set of waste streams separated for kerbside collection by the local authority as anything. Specifically, there are authorities which fail to even recycle obvious materials like glass and some plastics like polypropylene (doesn’t weigh much so makes little impact on a weight-based target), meanwhile other authorities recycle food waste which can add double-digit percentage points to a municipal recycling rate.

Education level. There are actually two issues here.
The first, and that which I found deeply offensive was the implication that people who do not have a degree level education couldn’t care less about the environment. While there may indeed be a correlation between uptake and education level, this is likely to be a consequence of earnings potential and ability to pay considerations which were addressed elsewhere in their model. I’m sure the researchers wouldn’t have been so crass as to make the claim that religious or ethnic minority groups were not interested so why pick on the less educated. It’s because you’re working on your second degree and you think everyone else is too thick to understand why we need to move to a renewable world. It strays dangerously close to Orwell’s vision of the proles in 1984.
The other issue around using education level is that there is plenty of evidence that there is no firm correlation between a high level of education and a commitment to pro-environmental causes. I hardly think Nigel Lawson of the (ahem) Global Warming Policy Foundation is open to solar power and yet he had the intelligence to run HM Treasury (no comment on his achievements in this role, just pointing out that cabinet level politics usually demands an Oxbridge degree).

The third missing plank of the presentation (though it is partly addressed by the paper) was the absence from the discussion of free PV social housing schemes where a housing association provides PV to tenants who receive the free electricity while the housing association takes the FIT subsidy to recover the cost of the systems. These schemes are currently not viable after the reduction of the FIT rates however it has been widely acknowledged that this regressive change to the FIT system was not ideal and work is underway at DECC to introduce a tariff specifically to re-create this segment of the market.

Update: the paper I am discussing here won the best paper award at the conference. I laughed heartily.