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Climate Effort - Drowning in Self-Congratulation

October 16, 2018 8:27 PM
By Steve Bolter

(From our GLD October 2018 newsletter)

Steve Bolter (KNDaws)Britain's efforts at slowing climate change are drowning in a sea of unfounded self-congratulation.

Despite the attempts by the BBC and other media to ensure that climate change deniers are heard, most of the population accepts that anthropogenic climate change is happening and needs to be addressed. However overegged reporting of minor achievements is producing complacency.

While we are drowning in unfounded self-congratulation, the numbers drowning in the words real floodwater are increasing.

People's need for energy (beyond the natural sunlight falling on them), and hence their potentially need to produce greenhouse gases, depends not only on the local climate, geology and population density, but also on the kind of contribution they are making to society. Assessing a nation's fair share of emissions is both supercomplex and subjective. This has meant that targets for greenhouse gas reduction have mostly been set as fractions of existing levels.

In the era of cheap coal Britain became a prolific burner of greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel, to heat ineffectively insulated buildings and to drive the industrial revolution. From that high base, impressive percentage reductions are easy to achieve, especially as much heavy industry has relocated abroad.

We congratulate ourselves on doing better than China and India on a fractional reduction basis. We forget that they are going through the change from subsistence agriculture to an advanced economy. When we were at an equivalent stage, our emissions increased exponentially.

Indian's per capita emissions are only 35% of ours, and while China's are now higher than ours, they are still lower than Germany's.

China is not only installing nuclear power stations and millions of solar cells at home, it is using its energy to manufacture most of the solar cells used in Europe too. India has completed vast hydroelectric schemes and has done pioneering work on Thorium cycle reactors, from which it is planning to get 25% of its electricity.

One of the worst drivers of the illusion that we are doing better than we are, is that we have set the easiest targets first, those in electricity.

We frequently get news with impressive looking figures on output, or installed capacity, without setting the figures in context.

People think we are well on track they when they see headlines like "51% of our power came from renewables yesterday". It is not just that such high fractions only occur when wind combines with summer sunshine; the whole headline is simply a lie.

It should read "51% of our electrical power was from renewables". We use vast amounts of power for transport. Very little of this power is from the electricity supply. Most is diesel, petrol, aviation fuel, or bunkering oil - fossil fuel power. We use even more power on space and water heating. Most of this is gas or oil fossil fuel power. Probably only between 10 and 20 % of the total power came from renewables that day.
We see that the installed capacity of solar panels somewhere is the same as the installed capacity of a nuclear power station. The problem is they are only part timers. and they only reach that installed power at the middle of a clear summer day. They are not generating at all for 8 or 9 hours per day in summer or for 16 or 17 hours per day in winter. The average power from solar PV is only about 10% of the installed capacity.

There have recently been press articles, on an Australian emergency storage battery with hugely impressive power of 100 MW. People think we could get a few of them to survive the loss of renewables on a cold winter night with high pressure centred over the UK. But such batteries are designed for emergency breakdowns or demand spikes, not providing basic backup for renewables. At 100 MW the Australian battery would be run flat in an hour and a quarter.

Just having the label "renewable" does not mean the electricity is very low carbon. In a gas balanced grid, wind and nuclear electrical power are equally very low carbon, but the carbon footprint of geothermal is twice as high, and that of solar PV is four times higher (because the greenhouse gases emitted by panels' manufacture is large for the amount of electricity they will produce in their lifetimes). Once we have sufficient renewables to start using storage rather than gas backup, the gains are not quite as good as they look. We will remove the emissions from gas backup, but the carbon footprint for intermittent sources will go up, because of the emissions released in the manufacture of the necessary storage systems and the energy lost in their charge and discharge.

You may be have impressed by seeing that 50% of UK electricity generation was low carbon in 2017; but that did not mean 50% was from renewables. It was 20% very low carbon nuclear, plus 30% renewables (ranging from very low carbon wind to not so low carbon solar PV).
So:- we have made a start on decarbonising electricity and also made progress on efficiency, but we have a long way to go on both. We have hardly started getting rid of fossil fuels in heating and transport.
We are a very long way from a low carbon economy, and even further from a low carbon, non-nuclear economy.
We need to step up our campaign for environmental sustainability. Not just sustainable energy, but sustainable resource use too. Sustainability has to be more than a bolt on extra, it has to be embedded in our whole economy and culture.

[Steve Bolter Oct 2018]

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