Monday, 28 July 2014

All fracked up

Sooner or later if the government’s plan comes off there will be a shale gas fracking site near you. Or you will have a friend or family member who lives near one.

That’s because around 3,000 wells could be drilled at more than 1,000 sites across the country in order to deliver up to a fifth of the country’s annual gas demand to an increasingly power hungry society - welcome to Fracking GB plc!

Today the government began a new round of licensing for onshore oil and gas, which opens up around half of the UK to potential fracking, including national parks in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

The licences are the first step towards exploration but firms will also have to obtain planning consent, permits from the Environment Agency and a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive.

Fracking involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations deep under ground to release the gas held inside.

In announcing the so-called 14th onshore licensing round, Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said: "Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.

"We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy."

Today’s Guardian newspaper reports the government has committed nearly £2.5m of public money to an office to encourage fracking - before a single home has been powered by shale gas.

David Cameron has said the UK is going "all out for shale", with his government offering tax breaks to fracking companies and promising local authorities they will be able to keep 100% of the business rates from fracking operations, rather than 50% as before.

Previously unreleased figures show that the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (Ougo) - set up in March 2013 to encourage the development of shale gas and oil and coal bed methane - has already spent £568,000 and has been awarded a budget of £1.8m for this financial year.

There are already people living near fracking sites in the north of the country whose homes have been blighted - making insurance difficult and expensive, and significantly reducing property values.

"In pushing forward with their fracking fantasy, Cameron and co are riding roughshod over the climate science," said Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party.

"The science overwhelmingly indicates that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left underground if we are serious about meeting internationally agreed climate commitments."

She said fracking would add to the huge financial risk of the carbon bubble and called for the use of renewable and conservation technologies to build a sustainable energy policy.

"We need a government that doesn’t want to sacrifice our homes and communities for the profits of oil and gas firms while ignoring the pressing reality of climate change," she added.

The renewable wind power industry has had to deal with a broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact, and so far this doesn’t seem to be on the shale gas radar.

But type ‘shale gas rig’ into an internet search engine and select 'images' to see a taster of what might actually be in store for any community where drilling might take place.

We're likely to see the industrialisation of tracts of the British countryside, gas flaring in the home counties and a steady stream of trucks carrying contaminated water down rural lanes.

Production rates for the UK are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards and the proximity of populated areas.

Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase (considered a critical danger threshold), then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground.

The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new ‘dash for gas’ should be Plan Z, not Plan A.

All this makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country, which the Government seems determined to ignore in its public pronouncements and new round of licensing.

The industry will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced.

And no one really knows how much of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost both financially and to the environment at large.

Add to that the expectation that it will not in reality reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks a lot more risky than proponents and the Government is suggesting.

The shale gas narrative and tax breaks presented by George Osborne a year ago are also, in part, based on the fear of being 'left behind'.

At the time Osborne said that a technological revolution based on government "getting out of the way of progress" is what we need. He couldn't be more wrong.

Where the country is being left behind, howerver, is in the development of new environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas in the mix, it requires clear policy and leadership.

You can get away with small government on some issues - but not when it comes to energy. The UK needs a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don't have that.

The current UK government - initially hailed by Cameron as ‘the greenest ever’ - is a liturgy of broken promises and short-term opportunism.

When it comes to energy policy and our long-term future it seems that little George has no idea. And neither has little Britain.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Global connections

Photo: Clive Simpson

As temperatures across the UK soared again this week it is worth taking note of how meteorological events in one part of the world can trigger weather on the opposite side of the globe.

Last weekend the UK recorded a total of 62,277 lightning strikes as storms moved in from Spain and France.

This followed a mini heatwave which enveloped most of the country, bringing with it temperatures in the low 30s and by far the hottest day of the year so far.

And all this was because of a storm thousands of miles away - super typhoon Negouri which had been churning across the north west Pacific in the first week of July.

As well as bringing strong winds and heavy rain to Japan it also dragged a mass of tropical air northwards and gave the jet stream a kick in the process.

That set off a ripple effect along the jet stream, running across the Pacific and extending its influence out across the Atlantic, forcing the jet stream there to swing northwards across Europe.

Super typhoon Negouri photographed by astronauts on the Space Station.

This is what allowed the exceptionally warm and humid air - known as a Spanish plume - to spread up and across the UK, bringing a brief heatwave before breaking down with severe thunderstorms.

So, a storm over the north west Pacific can set off thunderstorms 10 days later some 10,000 miles away - illustrating in a very real way how the weather in one part of the globe is often directly influenced by what is happens elsewhere.

We’ve also had news this week - data released by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) - that last month was Earth's warmest June since records began in 1880. It marked the second month in a row the world has set a warm-temperature record.

The average temperature over global surfaces for June 2014 was 1.3 degrees above the 20th century average of 59.9 degrees. In May, the Earth's temperature was 1.33 degrees above the average of 58.6 degrees.

"The warmth was fueled by record warm ocean temperatures," explained Jessica Blunden, a NOAA climate scientist.

"Large parts of the Pacific Ocean and most of the Indian Ocean hit record-high temperatures or were much warmer than average for the month."

Most of the world's land areas saw warmer-than-average monthly temperatures, with record warmth measured across part of southeastern Greenland, parts of northern South America, areas in eastern and central Africa, and sections of southern and southeastern Asia.

Every continent except Antarctica set temperature records and overall Earth's land areas in June were the seventh-warmest on record. It was also the 352nd consecutive month that the global temperature was above average.

So far, this year is tied with 2002 as the third warmest year on record, with a global temperature about 1.21 degrees above average.

According to NOAA, the last below-average global temperature for June was in 1976 and the last below-average global temperature for any month was February 1985.

It seems likely more records will be broken in the coming months as global warming combines with an emerging El Niño (see Countdown to El Niño).

NOAA currently puts the chance of El Niño forming at about 70% during the northern hemisphere summer and close to 80% during the autumn and early winter.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Thursday, 17 July 2014

What's in a name?

British astronaut Tim Peake has named his mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next year after a book by Sir Isaac Newton.

But the name Principia - which refers to Newton's book of mathematical principles Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica - could turn out to be a pronunciation nightmare.

More than 4,000 people came up with possible names for the mission earlier this year and Principia was suggested 20 times.

When the winning name was revealed yesterday by those who had made the suggestion the ‘ci’ was pronounced with a ‘k’ sound (PrinKipia), in-line with the classical pronunciation of Latin.

Newton himself, an adept Latinist, would probably have pronounced it the same way but modern studies of Newton generally refer to the work as 'PrinSipia'.

Adhering to strict Latin pronunciation standards of old for a 21st century space mission might seem a little irrelevant today - so which way do we go?

Like et cetera, the title of Newton's work has been pretty much absorbed into English and the ‘s’ version flows more naturally in the context of other English words and modern usage.

Principa set out the laws of motion and gravity more than 300 years ago and Major Peake chose the name in honour of its author Sir Isaac Newton, Britain's greatest scientist.

Photo: Clive Simpson

Tim will be launched from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in November 2015 and he will spend six months in orbit carrying out scientific and medical experiments.

One of his aims is to inspire children during his stay in space, in particular by promoting healthy eating.

"I am delighted with this name that honours one of Britain’s most famous scientists," Tim said.

"Our planet Earth is a precious and beautiful place and we all need to safeguard it. I hope it will also encourage people to observe the world as if for the first time - just as Isaac Newton did."

Each time an ESA European astronaut prepares to go into orbit it is customary for the public to help choose a mission name.

Names that reflect an astronaut's nationality are encouraged - but they should also have a wider European flavour and be easy to pronounce.

Previous mission names have included Marco Polo (Roberto Vittori, Italy), Delta (Andre Kuipers (the Netherlands), Celsius (Christer Fuglesang, Sweden), Cervantes (Pedro Duque, France), Esperia (Paulo Nespoli, Italy) and Blue Dot (Alexander Gerst, Germany).

Viewers of the BBC children's programme Blue Peter will be invited to design the mission patch for the Principia mission in a competition to be launched in September.

The pronunciation conundrum is, perhaps, a little unfortunate for what is designed to be a popular mission bringing space to a new audience in the UK.

Time will tell exactly how the name of Britain’s most exciting space mission to date will be pronounced - and whether modern usage or tradition will win the day.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Friday, 4 July 2014

Government passes wind

Photo: Clive Simpson

British government policies are failing to support renewable energy despite more of the country’s electricity than ever before coming from renewable sources in the first part of the year.

Statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate change (DECC) reveal almost one fifth of electricity generated in Britain came from wind farms or other green technologies in the first three months of 2014.

New wind farms, strong winds and a good winter for hydro power plants sent renewable energy generation surging to 19.4% of all electricity from January to March.

The power produced was enough for about 15 million homes during the quarter and the figure is up from about 12% compared to the same period last year.

The figures were welcomed by green energy entrepreneur Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity*, but he warned that government policies would severely limit further expansion of green power generation.

"Making our own energy here in Britain from green sources is the only way to keep our energy bills down and meet our climate targets," he said.

"To see Britain 20% powered by green energy is the first quarter of this year is fantastic - we've come a long way in a few years.

"Unfortunately we may not get much further with this government which is set firmly against the green energy industry and is in favour of fracking and nuclear power."

The DECC data reports the total amount of electricity generated by all forms of renewable power reached 18.1 terrawatt hours in the first three months of this year - up 43% on the same period last year.

Across the whole of 2013, the amount of electricity generated from renewable energy sources, including solar, hydro and biomass, was up by 30% on 2012. Offshore wind rose the most – by 52% – but solar was also up by 51%, while hydro generation fell by 11%, reflecting lower rainfall.

The DECC data reveals that the price of electricity for domestic customers was up by 5.9% in real terms quarter on quarter – the same figure as recorded for industrial electricity prices.

Jennifer Webber of RenewableUK, the renewable energy trade association, said: "Onshore wind is delivering today and it is deeply illogical to talk about limiting its potential.

"The government would have been even further behind its energy targets without the strong performance of wind last year. That's why we need to ensure that there's continued investment in both onshore and offshore wind."

When it comes to power generation we certainly live in a topsy turvy world.

Already this month more than 100 right-wing Conservative MPs have signed a letter urging the prime minister to further cut subsidies to onshore wind farms – beyond the planned 10% reduction already announced.

Apart from arguments over cost subsidies, the most common objection to wind turbines is they spoil the view. This despite much of our countryside having been blighted for years by countless miles of ugly power pylons and electricity cabling.

Yet, compared to a fracking well (coming soon to a location near you) or pollution spilling from a gas-fired power station, the symmetric beauty of wind turbines appear serene and unobtrusive.

Where prejudice - and the ‘need’ to preserve previously unremarkable or average ‘views’ - trump the very real needs of energy provision and protecting our future it is surely time to look at things with a new perspective?

Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour party, said in London yesterday that the country has a "decades-long problem" of short-term decision-making by successive governments.

Coherent long-term strategies are desperately needed in many areas and nowhere is this more important than in national energy policy and the renewables market.

*Ecotricity, one of the country's small energy suppliers is based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, and is the UK's leading supplier of green energy. It started supplying its customers with 100% green electricity from August 2013 and, according to its annual Progress Report, now sources ‘a unit of 100% green electricity' from its own windmills and sun park, or from the wholesale market, for every unit of electricity its customers use.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Factory food

Tournaments like the World Cup often serve as a reminder that our different languages and cultures across the globe remain distinctive and individual.

But when it comes to what we eat there is growing evidence that traditional diversity is being eroded.

Flicking between TV channels during mundane moments of the Germany versus Algeria World Cup match last evening I came across an interesting documentary on Channel 4.

‘The World’s Best Diet’ was a compelling exploration of the dietary habits of people all over the world, ranking the best and worst diets and asking what we should be eating.

It revealed how eating habits across the globe have transformed over the last 50 years - and how this has affected our health.

For the record England came in at number 34 of the 50 nations surveyed. And top of the diet pops was Iceland, where fresh fish is a staple.

I was surprised to learn that inhabitants of the Marshall Islands in the remote Northern Pacific now have the worst ranked diet - and highest rates of death by diabetes - largely because their traditional farming has been replaced by additive-filled American imports.

Overall, the message of the programme was clear - stay away as much as possible from all kinds of processed food.

But somehow all this talk of healthy eating seems to have the opposite effect and I just can’t resist the urge to pop out and buy a Snickers bar - or should that be a Marathon?

Monday, 30 June 2014

Blue sky thinking

Photo: Clive Simpson
Researchers concerned about the climate change potential of condensation trails in the sky caused by aircraft have suggested the impact could be reduced by re-routing flight paths.

Contrails - a cirrus-like cloud - are a relatively new type of high-level cloud that appear in the wake of high-altitude aircraft as water vapour from engine exhausts coalesces.

They can be up to 150km in length and last up to 24 hours, forming when planes fly through very cold and moist air causing engine exhausts condense into a visible vapour.

Founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society Gavin Pretor-Pinney writes in The Cloudspotter’s Guide that we may be surprised to learn that contrails are even classified as clouds.

But clouds they are - and the only difference between them and what nature produces is that contrails are definitely man-made.

Contrails reflect sunlight back into space and so have a cooling effect - but they also trap infrared energy in the atmosphere, which adds to global warming.

Scientists at the University of Reading in the UK have been looking at how the warming impact - which is more significant overall than the cooling - could be reduced by altering the flight paths of long and short haul aircraft.

Previous work has suggested that planes could fly at lower altitudes to limit the trails but this would burn significantly more fuel and adding to CO2 emissions overall.

The Reading study attempted to see if the benefits of curbing contrails would outweigh the extra fuel burned if flights were re-routed whilst at the optimum flying altitude.

They suggest that avoiding the creation of a major contrail on a flight between New York and London would only add 22km to the journey but could curb the flight’s warming impact.

"You think that you have to do some really huge distance to avoid these contrails," said Dr Emma Irvine, the study’s lead author.

"But because of the way the Earth curves you can actually have quite small extra distances added onto the flight to avoid some really large contrails."

The researchers found that short haul aircraft are more fuel efficient and can add up to 10 times the length of the contrail to their journeys and still reduce overall warming potential.

So, if a flight from the UK to Spain is predicted to create a 20km long contrail, as long as the plane flew less than 200km extra to avoid it, the overall warming impact would be reduced.

But for large planes on longer routes over oceans and unpopulated areas - which offer more flexibility to minimally alter flight paths - this reduces to three times the contrail length.

"The key things you need to know are the temperature of the air and how moist it is, these are things we forecast at the moment, so the information is already in there," said Dr Irvine.

On average, 7% of the total distance flown by aircraft is in the type of air where long lasting contrails form but none of the calculations on the impact of aviation on global warming currently include them.

The carbon restrictions being introduced from 2017 for long haul flights originating or arriving in the EU will not include this significant source of warming from aviation.

"The mitigation targets currently adopted by governments all around the world do not yet address the important non-CO2 climate impacts of aviation," said Dr Irvine.

"Contrails may cause a climate impact as large, or even larger, than the climate impact of aviation CO2 emissions.

"We believe it is important for scientists to assess the overall impact of aviation and the robustness of any proposed mitigation measures in order to inform policy decisions. Our work is one step along this road."

Four years ago when flights across Europe were grounded - due to the dust cloud created during the eruption of an Icelandic volcano - our skies and sunsets could be viewed without visible signs of human intrusion.

Contrails and their delicate linear patterns often add a seemingly innocent beauty to the skies above but Pretor-Pinney is not so sympathetic and describes them as "the bastard sons" of the cloud family.

"They may cut dashing figures across the rosaceous autumn evening but these icy swathes of progress must be the writing on the sky for cloudspotters and everyone else besides," he says.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission
enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

New North Sea harvest

wind farm, renewables, north sea

Just as the UK's gas and oil bonanza is drawing to a close it seems that the often maligned North Sea off the east coast of Britain is about to deliver again.

This time the harvest will be in the shape of electricity from the gusty winds that ply relentlessly across the busy stretch of water.

The government announced today the go-ahead for one of the world's largest offshore wind farms that is set to be built off the coast of East Anglia.

‘East Anglia One’ will cover an area of 300 square kilometres in the southern North Sea and support almost 2,900 jobs and is expected to generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 820,000 homes.

It could also pump over £520 million into the region’s economy and today’s announcement is an important milestone for the 50/50 joint venture between ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall,.

Construction is expected to start in 2017 with offshore installation commencing the following year and generation starting in 2019.

Initial plans were to install up to 325 offshore turbines in a zone some 43 km off the coast but the use of larger turbines means that only around 240 will likely be needed to deliver the same 1.2GW of capacity.

UK energy secretary Ed Davey said: “East Anglia and the rest of the UK have a lot to gain from this development. The project has the potential to inject millions of pounds into the local and national economies, and support thousands of ‘green’ jobs.

“Making the most of Britain’s home grown energy is crucial in creating job and business opportunities, getting the best deal for customers and reducing our reliance on foreign imports.”

RenewableUK’s chief executive Maria McCaffery described it as “a huge confidence boost” for the UK’s entire offshore wind sector.

“Our world-beating offshore wind industry is set to more than treble in size by the end of the decade – projects like this will help us to maintain our global lead,” he said.

“This marks the start of what is set to be one of the world’s major green energy infrastructure developments. It is the first of six projects within the same zone with a combined capacity of up to 7.2 gigawatts, enough to power more than 4.6 million British homes.

The government announcement stressed that the new wind farm would be ‘significantly larger’ than the the London Array, currently the biggest wind farm in the world.

ScottishPower Renewables and Vattenfall will now accelerate supply chain contracts and start detailed negotiations to determine which ports could best support the project.

Geographically, the North Sea - most of which has an average depth of around 94m - is on the European continental shelf and, strictly speaking, is part of the Atlantic ocean.

It lies between Norway and Denmark in the east, Scotland and England in the west, and Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France in the south.

Drilling for oil - in fields mostly owned by the UK and Norway - began in the 1960s and led to still on-going arguments between England and Scotland about how revenue from the oil should be spent.

In contrast to oil and gas, wind power is both sustainable and clean in terms of emissions and is now recognised as one of the world's fastest growing energy sources,.

Harnessing its power to make electricity won’t solve the world’s climate change problems but developments like East Anglia One are definite steps in the right direction.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission
enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information