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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The High Cost of Green

Germany was very quick to shut down their ageing nuclear generating plants in the wake of Fukushima, driven to a large extent by the hysteria whipped up by Greenpeace and the Green Party here, both of which have long anti-nuclear credentials. The problem was, of course, how to replace them. All the 'renewable' technology is expensive, ecologically extremely damaging in the places where the necessary minerals have to come from, and needs to be supported by more 'conventional' technology. Plus, of course, the distribution 'grid' was not designed for rapid switching from one source to another, or to distribute power across very long distances.

Anyone familiar with electricity distribution and generation knows that ideally one has the generating station and the user as close as practicable to one another as possible to maximise efficiency. The greater the separation, the greater the power drop across the 'net' and the less efficient the whole thing becomes. Less efficiency also means more cost. And that is what is currently exercising the German government, industry and commerce - and the ordinary people more than anything else.

In the last sixteen years 'energy' prices have gone up exponentially for the ordinary householder. The rise starting in 1998 is due mainly to the drive to switch from coal and oil to wind and solar, but is now further complicated by the rushed closure of the nuclear plants in 2011. For the ordinary householder electricity has risen from €0.17,11c per kW/hr to €0.28,73c per kW/hr (3.5% per year). The main reason for this is that the biggest users - heavy industry - are being subsidised in order to protect jobs. To hold their costs low (and protect the employment of the individuals who pay for household use) the cost of the 'Greening' of energy is being passed to the private individual.

The problem for the 'Greens', most of whom are middle to upper income earners or students and others on 'supported incomes' is that the larger population has noticed, and are starting to complain bitterly. Their complaint is, as the Chancellor, Frau Merkel acknowledges, justified. But now everyone is between a rock and a hard place. Efforts to reduce energy use have failed, and failed spectacularly. Resistance to building more windmills is stiffening, with increasingly angry exchanges between rural communities and city dwelling Greens and energy chiefs who want to cover every landscape with towering windmills and, of course, the power lines for distribution.

The government here is acutely aware of these concerns and is trying to find alternatives. They are also very aware of the fact that a large slice of the gas used in generating and heating of homes comes from Russia - a particularly tricky source at the moment - while we are actually sitting on vast quantities of a material that sends the Greens into a frenzy - brown coal. Ironically most Green campaigners have failed to realise that diesel and gas turbine generators are being installed to 'support' their beloved 'renewables' while they furiously oppose the building of new clean technology conventional power plants. And don't even mention anything nuclear ...

So the costs continue to rise while the politicians struggle to balance the need to ensure a stable and secure power supply, the Greens continue to dream of 'restoring' the climate to a non-existent idyllic past 'norm' and the rest of us pay. The greatest irony is that the poorest members of society are, in effect, paying proportionately more for this than those who so passionately enforce their vision of a 'better world' on the rest of us. As they say, there is the view from the Ivory Tower, and then there is reality.


  1. Just had this conversation with pamibe and the entire "green" thing has gotten out of control. At this point, it's not really about minimizing carbon footprints or anything else (since you can buy credits from other companies who have a surplus), it's about money. It's an industry in and of itself. Money that could be better spent elsewhere, perhaps even on the people who can't afford the major increase in their energy bills. But that will never happen. Once governments glommed on to the faulty science behind glowball worming, it was a done deal.

    If all of us simply recycled, reduced, reused, carpooled, and basically acted responsibly, we could do so much more for the environment than all this spending could.


  2. The “Green” debate. Part 1

    Yesterday, a senior scientist from the UK Meteorological Office was interviewed on BBC Radio 4. To hear her prattle on about the amount of “Carbon” in the atmosphere made me ashamed to have had a scientific education in the days when we knew the difference between Elements and compounds. If “Carbon Dioxide” and “Methane” are simply “Carbon” then I shall certainly review my intake of common salt in my diet, not because of my blood pressure (now returning to normal) but because Sodium and Chlorine are two highly toxic and corrosive Elements and therefore must be doing terrible damage to my body.

    In relation to convenient modern energy use, it might be worthwhile looking at the history and development of the use of power domestically, primarily for heating and lighting, even though this will be considered a boring waste of time by the “Tweet” generation as it cannot be told in fewer than 140 characters.

    For most of mankind's existence, over most of the globe's surface, heat was provided by burning timber in one form or another and light by burning oils derived from animal or vegetable sources using a wick. The difference between a Babylonian “cruze” using a rush wick and an Edwardian paraffin lamp are only in construction and material, the concept and underlying principle remains the same. The same can be said of the humble candle, modern candle waxes burn cleaner and if they smell, it is a result of sweet perfumes being added rather than a result of impure oils such as unrefined tallow. (Please note, “unrefined” probably means you made the candle from rendered fat from your own slaughtered livestock rather than buying a modern industrially produced candle.)

    In Western Europe, particularly in Britain, between 1800 and 1850 huge proportions of the population moved from a traditional rural, land-based, probably feudal, existence to a commercial and industrial, wage-earning existence in towns and cities. This move was made possible by the Industrial Revolution which was driven almost universally by the use of coal as a fuel. Abraham Derby, in Coalbrookdale, developed the use of coke in iron smelting in the mid Eighteenth century, coke, for those who are younger than I, is coal with the gas and tar removed, it therefore burns with a cleaner flame, therefore adding fewer impurities to metals. Coal Gas was therefore an industrial by-product of the industrial revolution and during the Nineteenth century became the lighting fuel of choice in cities all over Britain and Europe. The tar provided a smooth and durable topping for the growing number of modern “MacAdamed” roads. At first the gas was burned as a naked flame in a “batswing” burner, but then the gas mantel was developed, incidentally introducing into the home a highly radioactive isotope in the Thorium Oxide that helped to give the intense white light. Gas also became a fuel for cooking, both domestically and commercially and gas fires emerged, especially for use in domestic bedrooms which saved carrying coal upstairs and ash down which was a very dirty process producing large amounts of dust. Therefore coal gas, or town gas provided a convenient, on demand heating, cooking and lighting fuel which was rapidly taken up as it saved much work and preparation.

  3. Part 2

    By the turn of the Twentieth century, electricity was making its first appearances although for the common family in a city street, it would be the second half of the century before electricity became the overwhelmingly dominant fuel for lighting and even today, it shares the heating and cooking duties with gas, albeit now natural gas rather than the original distilled from coal. However, as electricity did become available in some, then many, through most to “all” domestic dwellings, there was also a revolution in the availability of “domestic appliances”. First, there was “steam radio” and the occasional kitchen appliance or vacuum cleaner, but after the late nineteen forties, the revolution began in the UK. The Canadian “pre-fab” housing brought in to assist in the post-war housing re-build brought the unheard of New-World invention of the refrigerator, the BBC televising of the coronation of 1953 ensured that the sale of television sets soared. Although gas kept pace with electricity for cooking and heating, portable heaters became almost universally electrical rather than paraffin, an entirely new world of portable equipment was emerging rapidly. By the nineteen sixties, the Kenwood Chef food mixer, the washing machine, the spin dryer, the “Flatly” clothes dryer / airer emerged; the immersion heater replaced the “back boiler” relying on a coal fire to heat water, we were entering the age of the domestic appliance. Today, it is almost impossible to imagine a house without electrical power, even if is often used remotely in that the laptop computer, the iPhone / iPad / iPod / iThing needs to have its batteries topped up regularly. The reality is, however, that this utopian electrical household is barely fifty years old for all but the rich and privileged.

    I have almost entirely ignored industrial power use so far and do not intend to analyse it deeply as there are highly significant variations from area to area depending upon which power source the electrical equipment replaced and also upon the development of modern industrial buildings, however, it is fair to say that in the last sixty to sixty-five years, electricity has become the principle form of final use energy for industry, however, what is the primary fuel that generates this electricity? The single answer surprises the majority of the ordinary people in our society. They think of it as an archaic fuel, one that has long been superseded by more modern form of energy. Your electricity, dear reader, unless you are either a remote country dweller or an ethically ascetic “green” is produce by steam. The only variable is the power source used to heat the water. The best fuels in many ways for this mundane by essential tasks are those which can reliably generate the core power requirement twenty four hours a day, each day of the year. They are, without question, nuclear and coal. The more marginal fuels, both oil and gas are wasted on heavyweight power generation, their place is elsewhere, especially domestic gas and oil in the petrochemical / plastics industry, remember to take a look at all of those domestic appliances and admire the subtle mahogany and rosewood veneers on their wooden cases! They do have a place in reserve power, those surges at breakfast and tea-time, half time in the FA cup final and so on, they can be brought on-line rapidly and therefore perform well a task that coal and nuclear are not suited to, they want reliable full-time operation.

  4. Part 3

    Now we enter the realms of fantasy. Windmills to provide a core amount of grid electrical power. Electricity and gas began as town and city based services and remain so in principle, we rural dwellers are connected to the grid simply because the grid has that functionality, although my current home town has mains gas only because it originally had a coal gas works, I can think of other towns where this applies; the towns to the north and south of my town have no mains gas. The reason for this is that the spine transport of both electricity and gas is in an unusable form. The electrical “super-grid” operates at many hundreds of thousands of volts potential to minimise power loss which increases as the square of the current flowing. The high pressure spine gas mains out of St Fergus in NE Scotland operate at hundreds of Atmospheres of pressure, again to minimise losses of flow due to friction and heat. So we can simplify the issues here, there is firstly how do you generate steam to turn the turbines? The second is how do we distribute without REALLY contributing to global warming by losing significant amounts of our expensively generated power as heat or noise into the atmosphere?

    Now to put this into a contentious “green” question. I am a philistine of my age in that I prefer white bread, I appreciate that others do not, however I refuse to eat “rustic” or “hand milled” flour on the grounds that I still have all my own teeth in retirement and pay significant amounts of money to keep it that way. I want my flour, of whatever hue, milled between steel rollers, not millstone grit. That means a modern flour mill, probably driven by electricity. One hundred years ago, it might have been driven by wind, the windmill played its part in many agricultural societies, but it couldn't really compete with reliable continuous modern power. No wind, no flour.

    This brings me to the question of “wind turbines”, does anyone really believe that steam turbines driven by a nuclear power station working constantly for year after year with minimal maintenance; that is, minimal in the sense that it needs little, not that it isn't being carried out, can be replaced effectively by a windmill? Dream on.