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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Claim and Counter Claim

A recent conversation with someone who opposes power generation from any form of fossil fuel, on the grounds that the heat transfer from the cooling towers to the atmosphere and the 'carbon' release is a major cause of 'global warming' raised some interesting assertions. We do have to acknowledge that no form of energy exchange is perfect, the laws of physics simply do not allow 100% efficiency in anything. The person I was talking to correctly pointed out that normal power stations have pretty efficient boilers and make good use of the energy released in the fire box to convert the water to steam, the real wastage lies in the recondesing of the steam back to water. When this is taken into account the 'efficiency is around 40-45% overall of converting the heat released in the firebox into electricity.

It is claimed that solar water heaters are about 65% efficient in taking your hot water or central heating water to a temperature of about 50*C when the ambient air temperature is around 10*C. However, there are some other considerations with these and they are expensive to install - I considered it a few years ago and the cost was prohibitive. There is also the question of manufacture, maintenance and 'end of life' disposal. Some of these systems draw on some pretty nasty materials to operate. Fine while they are sealed in the system, not so good during manufacture and disposal when they have to be removed or replaced for any reason. The laws of physics again - nothing lasts forever.

Solar panels convert about 20 - 27% of the light they receive to electricity according to one source. That is hardly 'very efficient' and, once again, the materials used in them are quite exotic, come from China and South America among others, are difficult to recover and pretty toxic. The ecological damage done in obtaining them, processing them and manufacturing them, doesn't, in my view, merit the rather meagre 'efficiency' they deliver. Nor has anyone, it seems, actually considered the effect of covering vast areas with these devices They reflect a lot of light back into the atmosphere, as any pilot can tell you who flies over them, and they shade the ground beneath them which prevents that from absorbing a great deal of the energy. OK, that may be a good thing, but, if a recent study is anything to go by, it may have another and entirely unwelcome effect. It has been found that the drive in the US to paint roof surfaces white to reflect the sunlight away and absorb less of the heat energy actually reduces the rainfall in those areas by up to 16%. Has anyone considered the impact of covering hectares of landscape - as they've done in Spain - with these things?

It is also commonly claimed that wind generators recover their cost in as little six months. I don't think this is true for a number of reasons, not least being it doesn't address 'end of life' removal and the environmental imapct that has, plus it relies on a hefty subsidy to achieve it. Theoretically, thanks to the rather complex drive shafts, gearing and inertia, a wind turbine converts about 59% of the wind energy it receives into electricity. The problem there is that the wind is not a constant stream running at precisely the same speed continuously. With a steam turbine the speed is constant, so the output from the attached generator is constant, with wind there are varations in wind speed and these must be 'smoothed' out to avoid surges in the current or sudden voltage drops. That means some rather complex kit is needed to regulate it. When you add that for less than a third of the time they are actually producing anything at all, you do have to question the economics of it all.

Like the solar panels, massive amounts of copper, nickel and other exotic materials go into making these things and then there is the massive ecological impact of installing one. Studies in the Baltic, and some more on North Sea sites, show that the impact on sea life may be a great deal more serious than has been claimed. Some North Sea sites are already showing signs of problems with the base foundations which may mean they have to be shut down or replaced at great expense long before the claimed 'life' span of 25 years. It is also seldom acknowledged, that, at present, these windfarms only make a return because their operators are in receipt of massive subsidies and the amount of electricity they actually contribute to the National Grid - according to national statistics - is pitifully small.

This could, of course, be due to the fact that they electricity generated is difficult to distribute and may well, as in Germany, require a completely different type of grid before it can be properly utilised. That, in itself, will cost billions, may well not deliver anything like what is needed, and leave us with a system which is too inflexible in the longer term.

Those who argue that adopting systems and energy sources that are incapable of meeting present, let alone future, demand on the grounds that we "must reduce the 'fossil carbon' released in energy generation," are not living with reality. I do not, as they often seem to think, subscribe to the 'do nothing' standpoint on emmissions. I do believe that reducing our carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and several other 'waste' gas emmissions is an object to be achieved. I do NOT believe that any price is worth paying to do it. We cannot deconstruct our technology and we cannot countenance a return to some pre-industrial idyll. The pursuit of wind turbines, solar panels and the imposition of "Green" policies detracts from the examination of real, positive and lasting alternatives to coal, gas and hydrocarbon consumption.

Finally, I do not like being patronised by anorak wearing "Greens" who believe they can create a Utopia if only I can be forced to agree with their religion of Anthropomorphic Global Warming. The climate is changing, it has been changing for something of the order of 15,000 years since the last Ice Age and for millions of years before that. The idea that by removing 0.01% Carbon Dioxide emitted by Western Europe and the US from the atmosphere will "save the planet" is rubbish. What does need to be looked at is how we can adapt effectively, how we can REDUCE world population in those areas were overpopulation is having the greatest impact and how we can make everything we do more efficient. Replacing one inefficient technology with an even less efficient and reliable one will not, cannot, save anything.

The climate is not a 'fixed' situation. The geological record, ice cores, and a number of other indicators tell us it is constantly changing. The dreams of those who think they can halt it are akin to the wishful thinking that led to the famous case of the king seated on the seashore commanding the tide to retreat ...


  1. I really want to see a complete breakdown of solar panel manufacture and disposal. I doubt it's freely available, and the only thing I've really seen on turbines is a questionable (where science is concerned) Daily Mail story:

    On a 'head in the clouds' point on reflecting light, global warming has been touted (George Monbiot) as increasing due to lack of ice to reflect the light back up. The sea, which is dark, absorbs the sun and warms the surface temperature, which messes with the eco system:

    If we were to replace the lost ice with solar panels, we could potentially resolve that issue. But bearing in mind weather patterns, those replacement panels would have to sit where the ice was and that may not be feasible......if we believe in global warming of course.

    Green ideas as a whole are good, in that we must (post-industrial revolution) think about the damage that manufacturing does to our planet. I don't think the solutions that are bandied about are 100% perfect. Perhaps not even better than the existing systems. The lack of real information here, and the mantras issued by those who go out into our community to spread the gospel, plus those who control the flow of information for their own purposes (government, corporations) means that this is a very murky area indeed, and the end results we see here could very well be nothing more than 'weapons of mass distraction'.

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  3. I leap to the defence of King Canute, or more probably Knut, he did not try to turn back the tide, he set up the exercise mainly as a demonstration of the limits of his power.

    Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet "continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.' He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again "to the honour of God the almighty King". This incident is usually misrepresented by popular commentators and politicians as an example of Cnut's arrogance.

    Henry of Hntdn., The Chronicle, p. 199.

    Apart from that, I agree.

    I remember in the 1970s we were all waiting for the return of glaciers to the Scottish highlands, we were to enter an ice age covering the age of Aquarius according to the hippies of the time.

    There are two main comments I have here, the first is a huge generalisation, but has its place: I refused several job offers from the oil industry, because I knew the middle-east would not suit me as I detest heat. I now find that dozens of my ex-colleagues are making a mint over there in comfort because of the air conditioners! What a wanton waste of energy. The same applies to the US, move to Michigan if you don't like heat.

    The second I mention as an asthmatic; in my youth diesel engines used to pour out filthy black smuts, if you blew your nose after a bus journey, the results were black. Today they are not because of "clean diesel". However, just like the smoke layer in a two storey mall, (for the fire engineers here!) that clear emission is still smoke, except that you can see through it! Reason: "micro-particulates."
    Result, instead of those primitive nasal hairs catching the black smuts, the sneaky micro-particles get clear down into your lungs... and they wonder why asthma is becoming more prevalent.

    If anthropomorphic climate change was going to happen, I rather suspect that the late Victorian and Edwardian days would have triggered it and that it would already be well advanced, I am far, far more concerned with the continual diminution of the world's rain forests that continues apace even 50 years after it was declared (rightly) a threat to the stability of the earth's climate. The sheer number of aircraft in the air also causes me some concern, we didn't get out summer this year as the Jet stream was too far south, has anyone published credible academic research into how jet airliners affect said jet stream?

    Oh well, I'm praying for a "St Luke's Summer" I might get my summer chores completed between St Luke's day (18th Oct.) and All Hallows (1 Nov.)

  4. You said it well Grey Monk. Though in Florida, I believe Solar Power would be slightly more benficial as we have so much sun light. And I like Josephus statement, if you are cold go to a place that is warm and if you are warm go someplace cold. Though that is harder than it seems. ;-) Always enjoy reading your blog even if I don't comment much. I learn so much!