This week I’m talking about energy - again. About fusion and fracking and batteries and banks. I'm talking about carbon. About capture, offsetting, inequalities and scrutinising net zero. Pollution is still an issue, increasingly so, it appears in the United Kingdom. And I look at the wider environment and the changes in the oceans, in the permafrost and in the record books.
News this week that researchers have made a significant advance in the development of fusion energy. Conventional nuclear power plants are based on nuclear fission which is the splitting of atoms. Nuclear fusion generates vast amounts of heat when atoms are fused together. This is the process which is going on in the sun, and takes place at very high pressures and very high temperatures. Because it is not possible to replicate such pressures on Earth, the reaction has to take place at much higher temperatures - millions of degrees centigrade. The problem with that is that there is no material on Earth which can survive such temperatures and therefore the reaction takes place in plasma held within a magnetic field. This in turn requires a vast amount of energy and so far the reaction created has not yielded more energy than the amount needed to power the magnets. At the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the Joint European Torus (JET) produced 11MW of power for 5 seconds, more than twice as much as its previous record in 1997. Research continues to achieve a reaction which will be self-sustaining indefinitely. Once this has been done the next stage is to develop a commercial reactor which can use the heat to raise steam and generate electricity. As someone once said to me, 21st electricity generation, apart from solar PV, still relies on 19th century technology: Mr Parsons’ steam turbine and Mr Faraday’s magneto.
Fusion energy is attractive because fuel is cheap, no carbon emissions are created and there is minimal radioactive residue. The problem is that Culham’s JET facility and other around the world have been working on fusion for decades and commercial operation is still decades off.
You may remember that back in May 2020 I spoke to Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE Technologies. His organisation is also working on fusion energy although using a different technology from JET. He was confident of a breakthrough in 10 years and suggested that electricity might eventually be generated direct from fusion using some sort of PV technology. Solar panels on steroids, as we called it.
BBC News has recently published an article on TAE Technologies. You’ll find the link below.
Last week the UK government announced a moratorium on fracking, drilling into rocks to release natural gas. The whole idea was highly controversial a couple of years ago, leading to protest camps, site blockades and arrests. It seems to be because exploratory drilling triggered earth tremors that the government decided to bring an end to the project, even though it was initially very enthusiastic and offered substantial payments to communities that would accept fracking sites in their area.
Consternation from a number of people, including Lord Frost who resigned from his Brexit negotiation role just before Christmas. He joins an initiative from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which claimed in an open letter to the PM that shale deposits around Lancashire and surrounding counties offered “at least 50 years of cheap and sustainable gas”. Haven’t they heard that gas is a fossil fuel and produces climate changing emissions when it’s burnt? And how can they be sure that it will be cheap? If these reserves are exploited by private operators they will surely sell the gas at world market prices. Of course if it were nationalised, a public sector project, then the government could control the price. Somehow I don’t see right-wing Conservatives going for that option.
Banking on Carbon
Meanwhile there are plenty of other opportunities for investing in fossil fuels. Banks including HSBC, Barclays and Deutsche Bank are still backing new oil and gas. Since last year these banks, together with others also in the UN’s Net Zero Banking Alliance, have invested $33billion in companies like Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, and Saudi Aramco. It’s in the interests of these companies and of the banks to keep the oil flowing and the price up. Otherwise this new infrastructure will lose its value, the oil reserves will become stranded assets and there will be insufficient funds to repay the loans. These members of the Net Zero Banking Alliance are therefore working directly against the idea of net zero, aren’t they? They all claim to be committed to setting up plans for Net Zero, but while future investments may be net zero, existing investments are not and will continue to deliver emissions for decades to come.
Heat Pump v Heat Battery
Once you've got your electricity, and hopefully it’s clean and green electricity, what's the most effective way of using it at home? The government is very keen on heat pumps but they have some disadvantages, not least that they cost significantly more than a gas boiler. A heat pump provides heat on demand which means it will be running on full price electricity during the day, unless perhaps you have a storage battery charged from your solar panels or from off-peak electricity. In cold weather a heat pump has to work harder, using more electricity. The temperatures which it achieves are suitable for underfloor heating, but conventional radiators may have to be replaced with larger units to provide sufficient heat output. If you haven't already got underfloor heating it is very expensive to install, as the pipes need to be laid in a concrete floor. Underfloor heating will not work beneath a timber floor. I know that from bitter and expensive experience. You will need a separate heater for hot water. A heat pump is a mechanical device which will need periodic maintenance.
Not a Thermal Store
I have come across the idea of a heat battery. This is not the same as a thermal store which retains heat in a large water tank.
A heat battery uses PCM, Phase Change Material. This material is heated by electricity and turns from solid to liquid as it is heated and returns to solid as the heat is used up. PCM can store far more heat than an equivalent volume of water and therefore these units can be much smaller than a conventional thermal store. Heat is extracted by passing water through a heat exchanger and the output temperature is much the same as from a gas boiler. It will therefore provide hot water and will run existing radiators. Its efficiency is not affected by cold outside temperatures.
A heat battery can be charged by electricity from solar panels, although there may not be much of that during the winter, or with off-peak electricity. A typical domestic unit will have a capacity of 40 kWh. Whether it saves you money will depend on how much you can buy your off-peak electricity for. There are tariffs which provide four hours off-peak at 5p per unit, although these are not currently available to new customers. If you were to recharge your heat battery fully in four hours that implies a rate of 10 kW, more than a typical battery will provide, and in any case you might be recharging your electric storage battery at the same time. My economy seven tariff gives me seven hours at the off-peak rate, but in my case I am paying 15.23p per unit. That’s still a saving on the 26.37 peak rate but a lot more than 5p. If I had a heat battery, an electric battery and an electric car and I wanted to charge them all off-peak I doubt if a domestic installation could cope with the load. That might be possible with a three-phase supply, but it’s not clear whether three-phase would be available and it would certainly involve an installation cost and maybe a different tariff.
More research needed!
Insulation - Keeping it In
The key to energy saving is keeping the heat in. Last week Chris Stark, head of the UK's Climate Change Committee, told the BBC he rates government policy on insulation as "very poor”. Insulation is the way out of the current energy crisis, he says. The problem with that, of course, is that while once you have installed insulation it provides savings effectively forever, the initial cost is very high. The Green Homes Grant scheme failed. As I’ve said before, we need a new scheme that works.
The RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects, published a report last week entitled “Homes for Heroes: solving the energy efficiency in England’s interwar suburbs” They point out that many of the the 3.3 million homes built between 1919 and 1939 leave residents vulnerable to soaring energy prices largely due to their poor insulation, solid wall construction, and high gas reliance. Significantly more households in such properties are in fuel poverty than the national average.
The institute calls on the government to focus a new National Retrofit Strategy on updating these homes and calculates that if current Band D rated homes were retrofitted to achieve Band C performance, households would save £483 per year under the 2022 energy price cap. The retrofit the institute recommends would cost billions, but they estimate that it would create 5,000 jobs for 10 years.
With the present government committed to cut taxes and cut spending this seems unlikely to happen, even though improved insulation and reducing fuel poverty was a Conservative manifesto pledge.
Find the video on the RIBA website. There’s a link below.
The carbon offsetting debate continues. Writing in the Guardian newspaper George Monbiot warns that oil companies are using offsetting projects to justify exploiting new reserves by claiming that the net effect is net zero. He says,
“While there are international standards for how carbon should be counted, there is no accounting for the moral hazard of carbon offsets: the false assurance that persuades us we need not change the way we live. There is no accounting for the way companies use these projects to justify business as usual. There is no accounting for how they use this greenwashing to persuade governments not to regulate them. Nature-based solutions should help us to avoid systemic environmental collapse. Instead, they are helping to accelerate it.”
He points out that there is not enough land on Earth to mop up all corporate carbon emissions. It is greenwash on a grand scale. It destroys habitats, disturbs the peatlands that are Nature’s principal carbon sink and dispossesses indigenous peoples.
A number of correspondents to the paper responded, making the distinction between green and ethical offsetting. Comments included,
“Please don’t confuse [ethical offsetting] with the corporate greenwashing of big oil.”
“The question is not whether offsets are good or bad, but which ones are good.”
“Planting a few more trees with one hand while destroying forests or drilling for more oil with the other does not pass muster.”
“Whatever is happening to the commitments made by European nations at Cop26?”
My own view is that carbon offsetting has a place, but only when carefully controlled and as a very last resort. Net zero will only be achieved by engineering emissions out of every level of industrial and social activity. Only then can the remaining, minor, unavoidable emissions be offset.
E&T, the journal of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, reports that researchers at the University of Delaware working on fuel cells found that the technology that they were using was seriously inhibited by CO2 in the atmosphere. They then turned the whole thing round and realised that they had developed a new method of carbon capture. It's still at the research stage but they predict that units based on this technology could provide CO2-free air in enclosed spaces such as cars, aircraft or even spacecraft. It's not clear at this stage how the storage of the captured carbon dioxide would be achieved.
Net Zero and the NZSG
I reported last time that the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) of members of parliament was accused of waging a culture war by blaming green levies for the escalation in fuel prices and the cost of living. Now Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, is urging the British government to hold fast to its climate commitments. This is particularly important since as chair of the COP 26 climate conference, Britain retains responsibility for ensuring that all nations have their promised revised NDCs, carbon targets, ready for COP 27 in Egypt next November.
In response to an article in the Guardian a letter from a group of parliamentarians insisted that the NZSG represented a small minority and that the vast majority of MPs of all parties were committed to Net Zero targets. Let’s hope the government will listen to the largest, not the loudest.
Let’s now look at some environmental issues, starting with pollution.
Rivers and the Environment Agency
The Salmon and Trout Conservation has published “Doing its job?”, a report on the state of the Environment Agency and its role in protecting English rivers, lakes and streams.
It finds that only 14% of English water bodies are in good ecological condition and that monitoring by the Agency has reduced dramatically over recent years and looks set to reduce further both. This is clearly a consequence of the government’s decision to cut funding.
Reports elsewhere claim that Environment Agency staff have been instructed to ignore smaller pollution events because there are insufficient funds to deal with them. There are reports too that the water companies are discharging raw sewage into rivers and watercourses on a daily basis, whereas the law says they should only do this in storm conditions when heavy rainfall overfills the sewers. Maybe the fines are cheaper than investing in upgrading pipelines and treatment facilities.
Chemicals and Plastics
A paper in the journal Environmental Science and Technology warns that we are “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities”. Novel entities are substances which are not normally found in nature. They could be manufactured items including plastics, chemicals or pharmaceuticals, or they might be substances released by human activities such as mining, agriculture or burning.
While the authors focus on chemical pollution, they say,
“Among novel entities, plastic pollution has been elevated to a potential NE-PB issue of high concern. After several decades of mass production, plastics are now ubiquitous across the planet. The whole production cycle of plastics carries climate impacts, and plastics may also affect biodiversity through physical impacts, for example, via entanglement or ingestion, adding to other large pressures on biodiversity. The understanding of what is harmful or hazardous from a planetary perspective has thus expanded to include effects beyond toxicity as the current major focus of chemicals management.”
“Just as actions aimed at curbing climate change transitioned from concentration or discharge-based limits to fixed caps on greenhouse gas emissions, calls for caps on plastic production and use have been made. We suggest that the same approach is needed for all NEs, getting back within the safe operating space can only be achieved through globally capping emissions of NEs at a rate that is commensurate with the physical and chemical capacity of the Earth system.
If we are to mitigate current damage and avoid future surprises from unknown NE-PB threats, a more preventive and precautionary hazard-based approach is needed to address novel entities.”
The Climate Crisis is urgent, but if we’re saving the Earth we also need to address issues like these and save an environment that we can live in.
And talking of climate change, here are some stats.
“Another Record: Ocean Warming Continues through 2021 despite La Niña Conditions” is the title of a paper published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.
The authors report that, “The increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human activities traps heat within the climate system and increases ocean heat content (OHC). The world ocean, in 2021, was the hottest ever recorded by humans, and the 2021 annual OHC value is even higher than last year’s record value…”
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that climate change is destroying homes across the Arctic. This is because global warming means that permafrost is no longer permanently frozen. Warming is happening in the Arctic some two to four times faster than the average for the world. As the permafrost thaws landslides occur and sinkholes appear. The permafrost may not thaw evenly, so buildings and roads crack as different parts of their foundations sink at different rates. Most of the cities in the Arctic are located in Russia and the degrading landscape is affecting food security, traditional lifestyles and accessibility. A huge oil spill caused one of Russia's worst environmental disasters when around 21,000 tonnes of diesel poured from storage tanks into rivers and lakes in Russia's Arctic north. Investigators believe the tanks sank into the ground after it became unstable as permafrost thawed.
“Impacts of permafrost degradation on infrastructure” appears in “Nature Reviews Earth and Environment”.
The authors warn that, “The warming and thawing of ice-rich permafrost pose considerable threat to the integrity of polar and high-altitude infrastructure, in turn jeopardising sustainable development…These impacts, often linked to anthropogenic warming, are exacerbated through increased human activity. Observed infrastructure damage is substantial, with up to 80% of buildings in some Russian cities and ~30% of some road surfaces in the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau reporting damage. Under anthropogenic warming, infrastructure damage is projected to continue, with 30–50% of critical circumpolar infrastructure thought to be at high risk by 2050.”
They go on to suggest mitigation techniques, but conclude that,
“To be effective, however, better understanding is needed on the regions at high risk.”
With the ocean heat content at an all-time record level it's hardly surprising that the last seven years have been the hottest on record. Remember the heat waves and the wildfires in the western United States and in Canada. Remember the violent floods which occurred in Germany and other parts of Europe in the course of last year. We've not got to the critical 1.5°C threshold yet, but the trend is ever upward and four of the last six years exceeded 1.2°C. And July 2021 was the world's hottest month ever recorded.
Carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere last year reached 414.3 ppm.
The consequences of climate change are absolutely everywhere from the Arctic to the tropics to the Antarctic and all the lands in between. And plastic pollution is found from the summit of Everest to the abyssal depths of the oceans.
And that’s it…
…for this week. Next time I'll try and bring you some good news.
There will be another Wednesday interview next Wednesday. I had hoped to interview an expert on Russia and Ukraine, looking not just at the present tensions but at the longer-term prospects for sustainability in those countries as well. Although I have been put in touch with an expert you can understand that she is in high demand at present, so we may have to wait for a couple of weeks before I can set up the interview. If I'm not talking to her I should be talking to somebody who is explaining how his organisation is tackling deforestation across the world.
Thank you for listening this far and thank you, if you are, for being a patron. I have to say I am delighted to see that far more people are now listening to the Sustainable Futures Report. In fact the number of downloads this month to today, 16th February, already exceeds the total for January. I must be doing something right, but it'll only be right if it's what you want to hear and what you want to know about, so if you’re a patron, do get in touch with your ideas for interviewees or for topics you think I should investigate.
I value very much the support of my patrons because it means there is no advertising on the Sustainable Futures Report and I can stay totally independent and say exactly what I like. I hope you like it too.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
RIBA on insulation
Net Zero Scrutiny Group
Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities
Ocean Heat Content