Friday, July 31, 2009

Air traffic visualized

There is a very nice you tube video showing all planes flying during a 24 hour period. I have extracted a frame every 5 seconds to make an animated gif which you can view on this page - I find that my animated gif, which goes about 60 times faster than the youtube video, allows you to perceive some things that are hard to perceive in the video.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Diluted" Carbon dioxide is "less harmful" - Hot Air Oscar nomination

Get ready to splutter with astonishment... This Reuters feature about UK Carbon Capture and Storage, featuring the switching on of a new OxyFuel combustion burner contains an astonishing sentence:
The Doosan Babcock burner will not attempt to store CO2 but release it in a diluted, less harmful, form into the atmosphere.
Presumably a Nobel prize is in order, for the discovery that the climate-change impact of CO2 is reduced by diluting it.
I'm not sure to whom this Hot Air Oscar nomination would be directed - to Doosan Babcock? to the journalist? - but anyway, this must be a strong contender for the Hot Air Oscar for most jaw-dropping twaddle about greenhouse gas emissions.

Thanks to Paul for the nomination.

Eco eco eco! And super-efficient too (Hot air oscar nomination)

A Hot Air Oscar nomination for boldest appropriation of the word eco goes to Australian company "todae" for their promotion, in their "eco-lighting" section, of "Super Efficient" Halogen 35W downlights. Their product description explains how awful standard halogen lights are, wasting 80% of the energy as heat. These super-efficient halogen replacements for halogen bulbs will save 30%.
Now, it may seem harsh to nominate an energy-saving product for the Hot Air Oscar when there are so many other "eco" scams out there which save much less energy than this (for example, BMW's "EfficientDynamics" innovations). Well, please keep the nominations rolling in. I notice in Toady's web page (just to the right of Galadriel there) that they are also promoting miniature solar panels. Perhaps more nominations can be harvested right here!

Thanks to Carl Myhill for the nomination.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Wouldn't it be better? No, I don't think so! (Hot Air Oscar nomination)

The website encourages people to be aware of the carbon intensity of the grid, saying "Wouldn't it be better if we could use power when it's greenest?". I am pretty sure that the answer to this question is No!
Imagine, for the sake of simple discussion, that we have a country in which on average half the electricity comes from baseload nuclear power (intensity, 20 g/kWh) and half from demand-following gas (470 g/kWh). And that at night, demand is 60% of the average, and 83% of the electricity comes from nuclear. And that in the day, demand is 140% of the average, and 36% comes from nuclear.
Under these assumptions, the nighttime grid intensity is 95 g/kWh, and the daytime grid intensity is 310 g/kWh.
People using the RealTimeCarbon service will be advised by the red flashing "carbon alert" icon to avoid using electricity during the day, and will be rewarded with feelings of green smugness if they go to great lengths to use electricity at night instead. They may delude themselves into claiming that they have reduced their carbon footprint. You could even imagine them selling carbon offsets based on this sort of electricity-consuming time-travel. But, in the cartoon world that I have just described, the time at which you use electricity makes no difference at all to the carbon emissions! Imagine that 1000 people all earnestly follow the RealTimeCarbon guidance and turn on their 1kW toasters in the middle of the night instead of during the day. What happens? Well, in response to the increase in demand, an extra 1MW of electricity is generated while their toasters are on; and this electricity (in my cartoon world) comes from the gas power stations being turned up just a little bit, whether they turn their toasters on at night or in the day. The true marginal impact of their consumption is 470 g per kWh, whenever they consume.
Now, I am not saying that this cartoon is a faithful representation of what's going on in the UK. Maybe in the UK there are some times of day that are "good" times to use electricity, and others that are "bad". But I think this cartoon proves that "knowing the grid average" doesn't tell you anything useful about that. And I think that the cartoon is a fairly good cartoon of the UK, since in the UK much of the really low-carbon electricity is wind and nuclear, both of which are (at present) not demand-following.
Moreover, I think that if people go to great trouble to check RealTimeCarbon for guidance on "when it is ok to consume", the end result may be a worsening of the UK carbon footprint! Here's two arguments why:
(1) I can imagine people inconveniencing themselves in order to switch on their equipment at night - their inconvenienced lifestyle may well use more energy (for example, when they wait up late for the RealTimeCarbon to go from red to green, they may keep the lights on for longer at night!);
(2) If people think that their electricity is "green" they may give themselves permission to consume more of it. (I know some people argue, for example, that "their electric car is powered by wind, therefore they can drive as much as they want, and it doesn't do any harm to the planet".)
I therefore nominate RealTimeCarbon for a Hot Air Oscar for "Best intentioned but most useless consumer-engagement".

Thanks to Kim West for pointing me to the website and asking questions.

PS - I posted a message on the realtimecarbon forum 3 days ago, querying another aspect of their methodology, and there has been no response.

Table for one

INCPEN, The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, have produced a super leaflet called Table for one. It is a detailed document full of numbers estimating the energy footprint of one typical British person's food.
All the numbers are expressed in MJ per week. There's lots of nice diagrams, some showing the breakdown of the energy footprint of, say "Snacks" between food supply, primary packaging, transport packaging, transport from factory, retailing, travel to shops, home storage, and home cooking; and some showing summary numbers.
The one below summarises how much energy the average person gets from all their food (73 MJ/week (2.9 kWh/d)), how much it costs to produce and deliver it (337 MJ/week (13.4 kWh/d)) and how much energy is used to produce the packaging (35 MJ/week (1.4 kWh/d)).

The final figure below shows the breakdown of the footprint by food type, and there is a clear message about meat consumption (as I guessed in my book): meat has a bigger energy footprint than any other foodstuff. [They were assuming that the average person gets 7 MJ per week (1,700 calories per week, or 242 cal per day) of energy from meat; this is a weight of 1029 g per week (147 g per day). For comparison in Ch 13 I assumed a carnivore ate 227 g per day.]

It's nice to see an industry publishing such clear energy-footprint numbers! A copy of "Table for one" (pdf) is sitting on my website. I assume INCPEN don't mind my sharing it there.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Moon, and Age of Stupid

This post is fairly off-topic for a sustainable-energy blog, as it is a review of a film that I enjoyed, and would like to recommend. Moon is a film about the life of a man, Sam, working for the biggest eco-energy company, mining helium-3 on the moon.
I am happy that all I knew about this film was that "Sam was lonely on the moon". The only review I read was Roger Ebert's, and he (good for him!) didn't spoil the movie by revealing its plot.
I recommend that you read no reviews of the film (apart from Ebert's), and don't even watch trailers for this film. Even looking at the strap-line on a poster for the movie may reveal more about the movie than you really want to know.
To make this post increasingly on-topic, I'd also like to recommend Age of Stupid. I wrote a review of it after seeing its UK premiere, of which I quote the opening paragraph here.
"The Age of Stupid" is a splendid film. Here's what sets it apart. Whereas many documentaries interview each subject briefly, on a single topic, "Stupid" slowly unveils each character and their web of relationships. The principal characters are real people, whose life-stories relate to the topics of climate change, energy policy and consumerism in multiple fascinating ways.
Both are great films, thoughtful, with twists, and thought-provoking.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Where the wild things are

In SEWTHA, I included, as a joke, a map titled "Where the wild things are". The map shows in white the areas within 2km of human habitation (and thus of course excluded from wind farm development). It shows in black the areas that are more than 2km away from human habitation; these areas are thus tranquil, and also inappropriate places for wind farms. Wind farm development is to be encouraged in all other areas on the map.
Some readers have failed to understand my joke; that amuses me.
What's even funnier is the map produced by the RSPB, "to ease conflict between wind farms and wildlife" (October 2006).
This image shows their map, and the painfully funny thing is how similar its message is to my joke-map's. Almost every good location for wind in Scotland is excluded! - Almost all the islands are given a "sensitivity rating" of "4 high" (the maximum), with the exception of the single island of Jura, which is mainly judged "medium"; most of the highlands are also "high sensitivity". The only really promising locations for wind that squeak through below "medium sensitivity" are the Mull of Kintyre and the southern coast from Glasgow to Stranraer.
How is this map meant to relate to last week's RSPB announcement that the Renewable revolution is overdue?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two exciting things (DII and DWFTTW)

The first thing I got excited about recently is the news announcement that roughly 20 big German companies are talking about investing €400 billion in the Desertec Industrial Initiative. What is thrilling about this announcement is that it involves a sum of money that is in the right ballpark for a genuine plan to get off fossil fuels. So often, government announcements have involved 1 million here, 10 million there, and (rarely) 100 million. I reckon the cost of putting together a new energy system for the UK must be roughly 400 billion pounds, or 10 billion pounds per year from today to 2050. This is much more than millions; but it is still perfectly affordable, given that we already spend 80+ billion per year on energy and 80+ billion per year on insurance. I'd love to see details of what the German companies think they could buy for their 400 billion euro.
The second exciting thing was to discover, thanks to James from Isentropic, what I now consider to be the two best videos on ther internet. Namely: Downwind Faster than the Wind (DWFTTW) [which demonstrates that it is possible to make a wind-powered vehicle that goes directly downwind faster than the wind] and Under the ruler faster than the ruler [which explains with a nice simple model how faster-than-wind travel works].
What intrigues me philosophically about the wind-powered-travel expositions is that it reveals how fragile and weak "understanding" can be: I thought I understood wind-powered travel, and I already knew about wind-powered vessels that can sail directly upwind (eg, Revelation II, pictured). But I got the answer to the question "is DWFTTW possible?" wrong! - even though the principle by which upwind travel works is just the same as the principle of DWFTTW travel. So it seems that when I "understood" upwind travel, what I really did was append to my stack of physics heuristics another heuristic, permitting upwind travel; I didn't add a piece of knowledge that was capable of working in new situations.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


RouteRANK provides a journey-costing service, which tells you all the different ways of getting from A to B, how long it will take, how much it will cost, and how many kilograms of CO2 will be emitted. For any A and B in Europe. The image below shows the results for a "Cambridge to Edinburgh" query. Cute! I wish it displayed "energy used" too.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Most inaccurate numbers in a right-wing newspaper - Hot Air Oscars

Well well! Ed Miliband's announcement of the government's energy road-map has given rise to a remarkable pair of nominations for the Hot Air Oscar for inaccurate numbers in a right-wing newspaper. What's remarkable is that both pieces of poor journalism, in the right-wing press, make assertions about wind power that spin erroneously in favour of wind power!

Nomination 1

The Daily Mail says Research by the University of Southampton has found that a well-placed turbine could make enough energy to power 825,000 homes a year.
Hahahahaha! As usual, the units are wrong. [They should either say "One turbine" could power "X homes" (no "a year"), or "one turbine could make enough energy in a year to power X homes for a year". Why can't people get units right?] But the inaccuracy of "X" is the funniest thing. Realistically, a typical 2MW turbine with a load factor of 27% will produce 0.54MW on average, which, using the standard definition of "a home" (see p 329 for my rant on that topic) means that it can power 1000 "homes", on average. I think a better way to visualize the impact of one such turbine is to say that its output is equal to the total energy footprint (including transport and heating and electricity) of roughly 100 UK people.

Nomination 2

The Daily Telegraph has twice propagated another piece of twaddle concerning the area required for wind farms to provide "all Britain's energy consumption". First there is a letter from Anthony Ridge-Newman, Royal Holloway University of London, published Sept 2008, which says "The most startling thing is that scientists estimate all of Britain's energy can be supplied by an offshore wind area as small as 70 square miles", and that "Britain could be producing enough energy from wind to begin exporting to Europe within 10 years." "Startling" - yes indeed! You'd think you'd be sufficiently startled to check your numbers before writing to a national newspaper! And you'd think the newspaper might check the numbers sent in by its startled correspondents before wasting ink on publishing them. But no. The Torygraph has actually printed this "startling" (and false) meme a second time, this time in an "Analysis" piece authored by "Dave Andrews, head of the Claverton Group", published on 16th July 2009. He writes of onshore wind that "it needs an area of only 70 square miles to generate Britain's total power requirements". Crikey. Did the copy-editor do this to make the Claverton Group look like a bunch of fools? Apparently so, yes! - The Claverton site says the article as submitted said "a 70-mile by 70-mile square". Yes, that would be 70 times more accurate! For the record, (see my survey of UK wind farms if you want, where I show that UK wind farms, whether onshore or offshore, generate roughly 2.5 watts per square metre, on average), 4900 square miles of windfarms would generate about 32 GW on average, which is close to Britain's average electricity consumption (it's about 42 GW). If you want to produce "all Britain's energy consumption today" (ie transport and heating too) then you need about nine times the area, since Britain's primary energy consumption is about 300 GW.
The bottom line - the Daily Mail article is off by a factor of 825, and the Telegraph's rendition of Clavertonism is off by a factor of 70 or 630, depending on whether you allow energy to be confused with electricity. It's a close battle for these awards!
Keep sending in nominations.


I thank Christopher Booker for pointing out these two "lunatic" articles. Booker coyly didn't name the two newspapers responsible for propagating the twaddle.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sustainable Energy Pirates

I'm upset to discover that some criminal types have gone to considerable lengths to make and sell fake paperback versions of Sustainable Energy - without the hot air on amazon marketplace. [Photo above shows a pirate copy (left) alongside a genuine paperback copy of the book (right).]

This page shows photographs of an example pirate paperback alongside genuine paperbacks. If you bought SEWTHA from amazon marketplace, please check your copy. If it looks awful, maybe it's a pirate copy. (Some reviewers seemed to think that the genuine book looks awful too!) The genuine books look professionally produced and are on good quality paper. To check whether your book is a pirate, please look at the photos. If anyone has been sold one of these fakes, we urge you please to (a) ask amazon for your money back; (b) complain to amazon about the 'marketplace' criminals. Thank you!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sustainable Energy news

SEWTHA was published in the USA on May 1st. Last week, it was reviewed in Science magazine, and now some people who like SEWTHA have written a submission to slashdot "Solving the Energy Crisis by Tripling Electricity".
If you like this article and have a slashdot account, please click on the "+" button to help the article get promoted.
And finally, the third printing of SEWTHA has just come out, and it has got a NEW COVER (shown above). My publisher and I are very democratic about these things, and when the Guardian's Leo Hickman opened his review with the words "It has a crashingly dull cover and title", we were happy to respond to feedback. We hope you like the new cover! [full size image]
The third printing brings the number of copies printed to 30,000.