Tag Archives: Renewable energy

Hydropower illuminates a piece of history

Cragiside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878 Image: National Trust
Cragside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878
Image: National Trust

By Alex Kirby

A British conservation charity has turned to technology thousands of years old – the Archimedes screw − to provide electricity for lighting one of the historic mansion houses it looks after. 

LONDON, 31 July, 2014 − Hydropower is making its return to one of the UK’s grand houses, which almost 140 years ago pioneered the use of water to provide electricity.

A modern version of an ancient device, the Archimedes screw, has been installed at the Cragside mansion, in north-east England, to harness the power of a stream in the grounds and provide lighting for the house − which in 1878 became the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, provided by a turbine.

The new system, a galvanised turbine 17 metres long, will produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in Cragside, although not enough to power its computers, freezers, fridges and heaters. It will generate about 12kw of electricity − enough, over a year, to provide the property with around 10% of its electricity.

Cragside was built by the 19th-century inventor and innovator, Lord Armstrong, who used the lakes on his land to generate hydroelectricity. It is now in the care of the National Trust, the charity responsible for conserving historic houses and countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

Sculptural sight

Andrew Sawyer, the Trust’s property curator at Cragside, said: “It is a very visual demonstration of the way hydropower works, an almost sculptural sight in the landscape.

“Hydroelectricity is the world’s most widely used form of renewable energy, so we are looking forward to sharing this very special part of its heritage.”

The Trust is committed to reducing its energy use by 20%, halving fossil fuel consumption, and generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. This will enable it to cut its energy costs by more than £4m annually, releasing more money for conservation.

Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside Image: North News and National Trust
Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside
Image: North News and National Trust

Earlier this year, it installed at one of its Welsh properties, Plas Newydd, a marine source heat pump, which uses sea water to provide all the heating the house needs.

At Cragside, water from the lowest of the five lakes on the estate will feed through the Archimedes screw and into the stream below. As the water passes down through the spiral blades, the device uses its energy to turn the screw. The energy is then converted into electricity by a generator.

Power-saving potential

The Trust has replaced all 350 lightbulbs in Cragside with LED bulbs, whose low electricity consumption improves the scheme’s power-saving potential.

But despite the screw’s ability to cope with a wide range of flow levels in the lake, fed by a stream that rises in nearby moorland, there will be some times of year when the water level is too low to produce any power.

Sarah Pemberton, regional head of conservation for the Trust, said: “The technology is easy to maintain due to the simple mechanics, and because it works at low speed, it’s possible for fish to pass through the turbine unharmed.”

The Trust is working with a 100% renewable electricity supplier, Good Energy, to provide clean energy at 43 more of its historic properties. − Climate News Network

Boom-or-doom riddle for nuclear industry

Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) 
Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic.
Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The nuclear industry remains remarkably optimistic about its future, despite evidence that it is a shrinking source of power as renewables increasingly compete to fill the energy gap. 

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − The headline figures for 2014 from the nuclear industry describe a worldwide boom in progress, with 73 reactors presently being built and another 481 new ones either planned or approved.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) official website paints a rosy picture of an industry expected to expand dramatically by 2030. It says that over the period 1996 to 2013 the world retired 66 reactors, and 71 started operation. Between now and 2030, the industry expects another 74 reactors to close, but 272 new ones to come on line.

This represents a much larger net increase in nuclear electricity production than the basic figures suggest because most of the newer power stations have a bigger capacity than those closing down.

Pipe dream

Detractors of the industry say that these projections are a pipe dream and that nuclear power will not expand at that pace, if at all, and that solar and wind power will grow much faster to fill the energy gap.

Which projection is correct matters enormously because the world is both short of electric energy and needs to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources of power to save the planet from dangerous climate change. Nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar are in competition to fill the gap.

The figures show that nuclear production is currently in decline from a peak in 2006, and is now producing less than 10% of the world’s electricity needs.

World solar capacity, on the other hand, increased by 35% in 2013, and wind power by 12.5% − although, added together, they still do not produce as much power as nuclear.

All the evidence is that wind and solar will continue to grow strongly, and particularly solar, where technological advances and quantity of production means that prices have dropped dramatically.

Costs of producing energy are hard to compare because solar is small and local and dependent on sunshine, while nuclear is large and distant and must be kept on all the time. However, research suggests that solar is already producing cheaper power per kilowatt hour than nuclear, the costs of which have not come down.

Commercial market

Both costs and time seem to be major factors in deciding which technology will gain market share. Nuclear stations are expensive and a long time passes before electricity is produced, making them almost impossible to finance in a normal commercial market. Solar panels, in contrast, can be up and running in days, and wind turbines within weeks.

Historically, nuclear power plants have always been built with government subsidy – a pattern that is continuing across the world. For example, the two countries with the largest number of reactors under construction − China, with 29, and Russia, with 10 − have populations with no democratic say in the matter.

Critics of the WNA figures say that while the claims for reactors planned and proposed might be real, the chances of most of them actually being built are remote.The US is said to have five reactors under construction, five more planned and 17 proposed – but with existing nuclear stations closing because they cannot compete with gas on price, it is unlikely that all of these will be completed by 2030.

The UK, which has a government keen to build nuclear stations, is said to have four stations planned and seven more proposed. The first of these stations was due to be opened by 2017, but work has not yet been started. The earliest completion date is now expected to be 2024, and the rest will follow that.

The delay in Britain is partly because the subsidies offered to French, Chinese and Japanese companies to build the UK reactors are under investigation by the European Commission to see if they breach competition rules.

Massive subsidies

Martin Forward is from the English Lake District, where one of the four nuclear stations is planned, and runs Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment. He said: “I cannot see how nuclear has any future in Europe because of cost. Nuclear needs massive subsidies to be financially viable, but these are currently illegal under European law, so it is unlikely that the British ones will be built.

“Even if the government can get over that hurdle, there are many problems to overcome − for example, the designs of the stations have to be finalised. The process could take years, by which time wind, solar and other renewables will have expanded so much it will make nuclear redundant.”

The industry does not accept this, pointing to the US, where utilities hope that all five plants currently under construction will be producing power by 2019.

Siobhan O’Meara, a senior analyst at Nuclear Energy Insider, is one of the organisers of an annual “nuclear construction summit”, the sixth of which is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October.

She said: “With nuclear new build taking off once again across the globe, it’s never been more critical to finance, plan and deliver your construction programmes on time and budget.”

Time will tell who is right. – Climate News Network

Offshore turbines get approval of seals

Fishing grounds: Sheringham Shoal wind farm off the north Norfolk coast, England Image: Haradl Pettersen/Statoil via Wikimedia Commons
Fishing grounds: Sheringham Shoal wind farm off the Norfolk coast, England
Image: Harald Pettersen/Statoil via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers tracking the movements of seals in the North Sea reveal that “artificial reefs” created by wind farms and pipelines are becoming attractive as foraging grounds on fishing expeditions.

LONDON, 25 July, 2014 − Environmental campaigners and countryside conservators aren’t the only fans of those great arrays of turbines, generating renewable energy from the winds at sea. Grey and harbour seals in the North Sea are beginning to show a preference for offshore wind farms as well.

Deborah Russell, research fellow at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and colleagues tracked the movements of both the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus).

There are an estimated 56,000 harbour seals in the North Sea and around 65,000 of the greys haul out on the British coast on the North Sea alone. Tagged specimens, with their movements tracked by GPS satellite systems as they surface to breathe, reveal a lot about the ecology of each species and their response to environmental change.

Distinct preference

The researchers report in the journal Current Biology that some of their tagged animals seemed to show a distinct preference for offshore wind farms and associated pipelines. Eleven harbour seals headed for two wind farms: one was Alpha Ventus, off northern Germany, and the other was Sheringham Shoal, off the North Norfolk coast, England.

Some individuals regularly cruised the sites, and some even revealed a pattern of grid-like movements as they appeared to forage at individual turbines. Two seals in the Netherlands were tracked along sections of submarine pipeline, on fishing expeditions that lasted 10 days at a time.

A harbour seal with a GPS phone tag used to track movements Image: Current Biology, Russell et al
A harbour seal with a GPS phone tag
Image: Current Biology, Russell et al

The guess is that the seals regarded the offshore structures as artificial reefs where crustaceans settle and fish congregate.

Turbine blades can swirl at speeds of up to 280 kilometres an hour, and represent a danger to  birds and bats − one estimate is that such structures in the US account for 600,000 bat deaths a year. But marine creatures far below the circling blades seem to value a touch of freshly-planted, three-dimensional shelter in the muddy basin of a shallow sea.

“I was shocked when I first saw the stunning grid pattern of a seal track around Sheringham Shoal,” Dr Russell said. “You could see that the individual appeared to travel in straight lines between turbines, as if he was checking them out for potential prey, and then stopping to forage at certain ones.”

Open questions

Only a small proportion of the tracked animals showed a preference for wind farms, and such structures still cover only a trifling area of the available coast. But the research leaves open a number of questions.

One is whether, as wind farms add to the available habitat in the North Sea, they will increase the available fish and crustacean populations, or whether they simply attract the prey and make life easier for innovative predators.

As offshore investment grows, such studies may help engineers to design farms that help both the consumer and the wild things in the offshore waters.

The researchers say: “In this period of unprecedented development of the marine renewables industry, the number of apex predators encountering such structures is likely to increase. The ecological consequences may be dependent on whether such reefs constitute an increase or just a concentration of prey.” – Climate News Network

Bold pathways point to a low-carbon future

Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK Image: David Clare/Climate News Network
Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK
Image: David Clare/Climate News Network

By Alex Kirby

The positive message from a scientific report for the UN Climate Summit is that the tough task of cutting CO2 emissions to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C is definitely achievable by following a set of bold, practical steps.

LONDON, 11 July 2014 − Scientists often hesitate to give a cut-and-dried, yes-or-no answer when asked how serious climate change is going to be, and whether the world can still escape significant damage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a report prepared for a UN conference in September is unequivocal. Yes, it says − the worst is not bound to happen.

The good news is that the world can keep climate change within what are thought to be acceptable limits. The less good news is that while it is possible, it certainly won’t be easy.

The report shows how the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can cut their carbon emissions by mid-century to prevent dangerous climate change. Prepared by independent researchers in 15 countries, it is the first global co-operation to identify practical pathways to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP) report is an interim version prepared for the UN Climate Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. The full DDPP report will be ready in the spring of 2015.

Dangerous change

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said the report tried to show how countries could help to achieve the globally-agreed target of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C. “Ambitious national action is critical to averting dangerous climate change,” he said. “This report shows what is possible.”

The report aims to help countries to set bold targets in the run-up to the UN climate talks to be held in Paris in 2015.

The work is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of Columbia University’s Earth Institute for the UN, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a policy research institute based in Paris.

Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the SDSN, said the world had committed itself to limit warming to below 2°C, but not to practical ways of achieving that goal.

He said: “This report is all about the practicalities.  Success will be tough – the needed transformation is enormous – but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations.”

“The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present”

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, said: “The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present. Paris 2015 may well be our last hope.”

Despite the global agreement to stay below 2°C, the world is on a path that, without action, will lead to an increase of 4°C or more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its Fifth Assessment Report, known as AR5, that such a rise might exceed the world’s ability to adapt.

It said that a 4°C rise could endanger harvests and cause drastic sea-level rise, spread of diseases, and the extinction of ecosystems.

Some leading climate scientists − including NASA’s former chief climate scientist, Professor James Hansen, who is now at Columbia University − say that even a 2°C rise would be very dangerous. But many politicians regard it as an essential commitment.

The 15 national pathways examined in the report all show the importance of three factors for achieving radically lower carbon emissions.

The first is greatly increased efficiency and conservation in all energy use.

Renewable sources

The second factor is taking the carbon out of electricity by using renewable sources, “such as wind and solar, as well as nuclear power, and/or the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning”.

Nuclear energy still attracts widespread and determined opposition, and carbon capture and sequestration (trapping CO2 emissions and storing them underground or beneath the sea floor) has not yet proved that it can work on a commercial scale.

The third factor involves replacing fossil fuels in transport, heating and industrial processes with a mix of low-carbon electricity, sustainable biofuels, and hydrogen.

The authors say their interim report shows the critical long-term importance of preparing national deep decarbonisation plans for 2050.

Emmanuel Guerin, the DDPP’s senior project manager, said the pathways were crucial to shaping the expectations of countries, businesses and investors. − Climate News Network

UK doctors vote to end fossil fuels funding

Unhealthy view: fossil fuel industries will not be funded doctors Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clean break: fossil fuel industries will no longer get funding from the UK medical profession
Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The British medical profession’s influential national organisation has sent out a strong message about climate change by deciding to withdraw its funds from the fossil fuel industry and to support renewable energy instead.

LONDON, 1 July, 2014 − The body that represents doctors in the UK has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organisation in the world to do so.

A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.

Growing support

Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the UK.

Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets”.

There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.

The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference”, meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.

During the debate, the BMA’s Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly”, and not “only if [they] feel like it”.

An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.

“The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing
divestment movement . . . around the world”

The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet UK, which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organisations to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.

“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.

Principled position

“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”

Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the co-ordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organisation has billions to invest it can’t by itself make a huge difference.

“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, to follow suit.”

David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.” − Climate News Network

Tofu offers a taste of cheaper solar energy

 

Traditional tofu production points the way to cheaper solar energy Image: DryPot via Wikimedia Commons
Traditional tofu production points the way to cheaper solar energy
Image: DryPot via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The discovery by British scientists that a chemical used in making tofu and gritting icy roads is a much cheaper, safer option in the production of solar cells could have huge financial benefits for the renewable energy market.

LONDON, 30 June, 2014 − British researchers have found a new way to cut the cost of solar cell manufacture, and at the same time make the process less hazardous. Ironically, it is also very old way – using a chemical important in turning soy milk into tofu.

Jonathan Major and colleagues at the University of Liverpool report in Nature journal that magnesium chloride − traditionally added to soy milk as a coagulant to make tofu, but also used in gritting roads in winter time, used as bath salts, and sometimes even sold as a health supplement – could replace cadmium chloride as a “doping agent” to increase the efficiency of cadmium telluride solar cells.

Dangerous to handle

Cadmium chloride is very expensive, costing $0.30 (£0.18) per gram. It is also highly toxic and very dangerous to handle, which adds to the process costs. Naturally-occurring magnesium chloride costs only $0.001 per gram, and is one of the substances that makes the ocean salty. Since the planet is two-thirds ocean, there is no danger of running out of supplies.

Photovoltaic solar cells that convert sunlight directly to electricity are now big business, and getting bigger. They can be made of thin slivers of silicon, but the silicon wafer has to be 99.999% pure, and 200 microns thick  (0.2 millimetres). So industry has also started using cadmium telluride to make sheets of photovoltaic cells that have a thickness of only two microns (0.002mm) − so thin and flexible they could even be sold by the roll.

The problem with cadmium telluride is that, to make it efficient enough to compete, it must be washed with a doping agent − an impurity added to a pure substance to produce a deliberate change− and, so far, the industry has relied on cadmium chloride. Cadmium is a dangerous metal, toxic if swallowed, fatal if inhaled, and linked by some researchers to breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and even gout. It isn’t very good for aquatic life either.

Extra expense

Cadmium telluride is a stable salt and safe to handle, but cadmium chloride separates in solution into cadmium and into chlorine, another toxic substance. So manufacturers have the extra expense of safety during production, and then of safe disposal of waste.

Dr Major and his team at the university’s Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy are competitors in a worldwide search for ingenious ways to exploit renewable energy and reduce fossil fuel emissions.

They started this latest research by considering what it was about the cadmium chloride that made it effective, and then whether some other salt might serve the same purpose. They found that magnesium chloride had some of the same important physical properties, and then tested it.

“If renewable energy is going to compete with fossil fuels, then the cost has to come down,” Dr Major said. “Great strides have been made, but the findings in this paper have the potential to reduce costs further.” – Climate News Network

Satellite zooms in on crucial carbon questions

 

Data booster: an artist's impression of the OCO-2 satellite in orbit. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Data booster: an artist’s impression of the OCO-2 satellite in orbit
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Tim Radford

The ability of scientists to make accurate predictions about future effects of CO2 will be boosted by vital data from a US satellite being launched to take a detailed inventory of the planet’s sinks and sources of carbon.

LONDON, 28 June, 2014 − The US space agency NASA is about to send up a satellite that will provide vital data for predicting future effects of CO2 by taking the measure of the planetary carbon budget.

OCO-2, more formally known as Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, is planned for launch on July 1 and will circle the globe, taking an inventory of those places on the planet that absorb carbon from the atmosphere (the sinks) and those places that release it into the atmosphere (the sources).

Although the satellite’s acronymic name pleasingly evokes CO2, the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas that is now at higher levels in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 800,000 years, this is pure accident. The first attempt to launch an orbiting carbon observatory came to grief when the satellite failed to separate from the launch rocket. OCO-2 is the second attempt.

Future build-up

“Knowing what parts of Earth are helping to remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they can keep on doing so in future,” said the project scientist Michael Gunson, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Quantifying these sinks now will help us predict how fast CO2 will build up in the future.”

Carbon dioxide exists in the atmosphere only in trace amounts: 400 parts per million. But humans are adding 40 billion tons of the gas a year by burning fossil fuel, destroying forests and quarrying lime for cement.

Less than half of this total stays there: the rest is taken up by forests on land and by algae in the oceans. But quite how much, for how long, and how predictably, remains a puzzle.

Climate scientists need to know more about sinks and sources to make more accurate predictions. And governments, planners and foresters need to know more about the ways the forest world absorbs and emits carbon dioxide.

The new satellite will use onboard spectrometers to take hundreds of thousands of measurements every day to answer these complex questions of supply and demand. Researchers are also likely to match the data with other studies of the planet’s changing forests.

Scientists at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich − where records show that average temperatures have risen by 1.5°C in the last century − have been observing at ground level, to measure changes in the growing season.

There are around 16,000 species in the Munich Botanical Garden, and researchers have measured changes in leaf-out times for 500 species to establish why the characteristic forests of the region are likely to change with warming temperatures. The answer is that some species burst into leaf when daylight reaches a certain number of hours, while some respond to temperature.

This will put central European species − such as beech, which buds when there are 13 hours of daylight, whether the spring has arrived early or not − at a disadvantage. Southern species, which respond instead to rising temperatures, will gain a growing advantage.

Inexorable change

Meanwhile, in the US, foresters have begun to resign themselves to inexorable change in the iconic forests of Minnesota.

A report by the US Forest Service warns that, in the next 100 years, the evergreen white spruce and balsam fir and cool-climate deciduous trees, such as tamarack and quaking aspen, could give way to black cherry, eastern white pine, sugar maple and white oak.

As temperatures rise, researchers expect to see longer growing seasons, increases in heavy precipitation, more flooding and erosion, more drought stress, increasing risks of forest fire, and many more invasive pest species.

“Our assessment gives forest managers in Minnesota the best possible science on the effects of climate change so they can make climate- informed decisions about management today,” said Stephen Handler, the report’s lead author. – Climate News Network

Campaigners spy signs of concern among frackers

 

A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace
A mother and children walk to join the Balcombe anti-fracking protest
Image: Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace

By Caroline Lucas

Does the NATO Secretary General really believe that Russia is secretly the puppet master behind efforts to stop shale gas extraction in Europe, or is it – asks UK Green Party MP Caroline Lucas − just an indication of the growing effectiveness of anti-fracking campaigns? 

LONDON, 25 June, 2014 − Arriving at the beautiful village of Balcombe last August, ready to take part in the growing protests against Cuadrilla’s plans to start fracking deep in the Sussex countryside in southern England, my biggest concern – as I weaved my way through families with children and dogs, stepping over people picnicking on rugs on the grass verge − was whether we’d escape without rain.

I have to confess that looking out for Russian spies was not high on my list of preoccupations. Yet if Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO Secretary General, is to be believed, perhaps it should have been.

Stunned audience

Speaking at a Chatham House conference in London last week, Rasmussen stunned his audience by asserting that Vladimir Putin’s Russian government was behind attempts to undermine projects using hydraulic fracturing technology in Europe.

He said: “. . . I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engages actively with so-called non-governmental organisations, environmental organisations working against shale gas – obviously to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. That’s my interpretation.”

This is a pretty mind-boggling assertion − and it is one for which absolutely no evidence at all was adduced.

“The fact that these are the views of the man in charge of
the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying”

If this had been the “interpretation” of a fellow Balcombe protester who had turned to their homemade cider a shade early on in the proceedings, it would simply be odd. But the fact that these are the views of the man in charge of the biggest nuclear alliance on Earth is positively terrifying.

The allegation is, quite simply, ludicrous. I’ve met a good many anti-fracking campaigners over the years, and I have never heard anything so absurd. Indeed, Greenpeace gave the proposition admirably short shrift, saying: “The idea that we’re puppets of Putin is so preposterous that you have to wonder what they’re smoking over at NATO HQ.”

Quite. But Rasmussen’s assertion is also deeply worrying.

First, it besmirches the motivations of many thousands of sincere protesters who campaign in good faith against a technology that causes serious pollution to water, soil and air, and which will lock us into ever greater fossil fuel dependence at precisely the time when climate scientists are warning that we urgently need to invest in renewables instead.

It is a technology, moreover, that will not deliver the much-vaunted European energy independence claimed for it, since even under the most optimistic scenarios, shale gas is projected to meet just 10% of European gas demand by 2030. Most commentators agree that 2%-3% is a more realistic estimate (International Energy Agency: World Energy Outlook 2012). Even in the best case scenario, the volumes of EU shale gas will be too small to impact meaningfully on EU security of supply concerns.

Second, it raises serious questions about the judgment of one of the most powerful men in the world. The head of NATO must be dangerously deluded if he genuinely believes his own rhetoric. And if his assessment is in such serious doubt over this, on how many other issues is his judgment falling short?

Growing campaigns

Perhaps one thing this episode does show, however, is how effective the growing anti-fracking campaigns are becoming, and therefore how much of a threat they pose to those shale gas enthusiasts who still believe − flying in the face of the evidence − that it will offer a low-cost, low-carbon energy future. Fracking is already banned in five of the 14 EU Member States with estimated reserves − including in France, which has the second largest resources after Poland.

The reality is that one doesn’t need to fantasise about possible Russian attempts to discredit fracking. The evidence is doing that very effectively on its own. The bigger conundrum is why, in a country with such plentiful renewable resources as the UK, we have a government intent on locking us into yet more fossil fuel dependence.

Judging by the bewildering lack of ministerial commitment in the UK to cheaper, more plentiful renewables − which, alongside a serious investment in efficiency and conservation, really could deliver energy independence − perhaps we should check whether the Russians have infiltrated the Department for Energy and Climate Change as well. If so, they seem to have been remarkably effective. – Climate News Network

  • Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party Member of Parliament, was arrested at a protest against fracking in southern England last year. She was found not guilty of the charges the police brought against her – for wilful obstruction of a public highway and breaching an order under section 14 of the Public Order Act (relating to public assemblies).

Hot rocks are a core asset

Bright future: a geothermal power plant near Iceland's Krafla volcano Image: Asgeir Eggertssonj via Wikimedia Commons
Bright future: a geothermal power plant near Iceland’s Krafla volcano
Image: Asgeir Eggertsson via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

New engineering techniques mean that hot rocks in the Earth’s crust are second only to hydroelectric schemes as the most productive source of renewable energy, with huge potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions

LONDON, 15 June − Many countries with volcanoes have long used hot rocks and steam to generate electricity, but new engineering methods promise a boom in geothermal energy.

The deeper you drill into the Earth’s crust, the hotter the rocks get − and the heat that is radiating upwards from the core of the planet is constantly replaced. Japan, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand and the US, among other nations with volcanoes and hot underground water, have long exploited this for generating electricity and heating.

But now engineers have found that they do not need to look for naturally-occurring hot water. They can inject cold liquids into the hot rocks and bring it back to the surface through a second borehole to generate electricity. Unlike other renewables that can be variable, the hot rocks produce constant power 24 hours a day.

Drilling techniques

The temperature increases by 30ºC for every kilometre further underground. At a depth of between 3km and 10km, which can be reached with modern drilling techniques, temperatures exceed 150ºC, depending on location. This is hot enough to power a geothermal power station.

France, Australia, Japan, Germany, the US and Switzerland are already building experimental plants using what is called enhanced geothermal technology. An Atlas of Geothermal Resources of Europe shows that there is potential in 28 countries in Europe to develop plants.

One study just published in Spain by Platforma SINC, using information from the atlas, shows that the country could in theory produce five times the electricity it needs solely from geothermal. A report by the University of Valladolid (UVa), in the journal Renewable Energy, says that while Spain has no geothermal plants at present, the technology could provide all the nation’s needs.

Enhanced geothermal systems involve fracturing hot rocks by injecting cold liquids into them, causing rapid expansion similar to the force of an explosion. Afterwards, the liquid is brought back to the surface and the heat is used to generate electricity.

Once the system is operating, the water or other liquid is cooled on the surface and is then re-injected back into the rock in a closed loop.

Enormous potential

César Chamorro, one of the authors of the study, said the hot rocks in Spain “are distributed widely and uniformly, meaning they have enormous potential and could supply significant power in the medium or long term, 24 hours a day, constantly”.

If Spain used 10km-deep boreholes, Chamorro says, the 700GW of electricity indicated in the study “represent approximately five times the current electrical power installed in Spain, if we add together fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable power”.

The potential for power is reduced considerably for shallower boreholes – 190GW for boreholes 7km deep and 30GW for between 3km and 5km – but this is still the equivalent of 30 large power stations.

A life-limiting factor for the technology is that the constant injection of cold liquid into hot rocks gradually cools them, despite the constant heating from below. This is estimated to be 10ºC heat loss over a 30-year period, which might render the station uneconomic after that time.

If less hot water was extracted, allowing the heat of the rocks to regenerate, the system could be sustainable, although it would produce less power. – Climate News Network

Germany struts its renewable stuff

The Reichstag not only looks remarkable: It's designed to produce much of the heat and light it uses Image: Komila Nabiyeva
The Reichstag in Berlin is designed to produce much of the heat and light it uses
Image: Komila Nabiyeva

By Komila Nabiyeva

A guidebook with a difference is selling well in Germany. It details nearly 200 renewable energy sites it thinks will appeal to tourists.

BERLIN, 11 June – Wind turbines and solar panels: do you love them or hate them? Do you think of renewable energy as the way to a greener future, or an awful blight on the present?

Either way, growing numbers of German communities think they have found a silver lining: they’re touting renewables as tourist attractions. A guidebook is now available, listing about 200 green projects around the country which it thinks are, in the travel writer’s time-hallowed phrase, “worth the detour”. The publication, which has already run to a second edition after the first sold out, was supported by  Germany’s Renewable Energies Agency.

Nuclear power stations are not top of every tourist’s must-see list. But the book’s author, Martin Frey, says a nuclear plant in Kalkar, a town on Germany’s border with the Netherlands, is the world’s safest. It pulls in more than half a million visitors annually.

Safe? It should be, because local protests – driven partly by the 1986 Chernobyl accident – meant it never started operation. Now it’s an amusement park offering hotels with all-inclusive holidays, restaurants and merry-go-rounds. Its most popular attraction is a gigantic cooling tower with a climbing wall outside and a carousel inside.

Blast from the past

Another strictly retired “attraction” listed is Ferropolis, the City of Iron. Located on the site of a former brown coal (lignite) opencast mine in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, it’s a bit of an oddity in Frey’s list – an open-air museum, preoccupied not with emerging technologies but with echoes of one that many hope has had its day.

Huge redundant metal structures, immense excavators and towering cranes, all abandoned, give Ferropolis the air of a post-apocalypse movie. But in a nod to the future the roof of a former workshop is covered with solar panels which help to power the museum’s annual summer music festivals.

Germany is moving rapidly away from the past which Ferropolis evokes in its switch to renewable energy. In the last decade renewable power generation has tripled and now provides a quarter of the country’s electricity and about 380,000 jobs. Wind, hydro, solar and biogas plants are taking over from coal and nuclear power.

The change is evident right at the heart of the nation’s political life. The glass dome of the Reichstag, a tourist magnet which stands resplendent on the Berlin skyline, contains a cone covered with 360 mirrored plates, which reflect sunlight and illumine the plenary hall below. And there’s more: a heat exchanger inside the cone’s ventilation shaft significantly reduces the building’s power consumption.

Steep climb

The Reichstag also boasts an array of solar panels, and half its electricity and most of its heat come from two combined heat and power generators beneath the building, which run on bio-diesel.

If you want to combine some mildly energetic activity with your environmental sightseeing, then head for Lower Saxony where you’ll find the Holtriem wind farm. The largest in Europe when it was built, with a total capacity of 90 MW, it has an observation platform on one of the turbines, 65 m above ground. That offers tourists – if they’re prepared to climb the 297 steps to the top – a stunning view of the North Sea and, in good weather, the East Frisian islands.

Also in Lower Saxony is Juehnde, the first German village to achieve full energy self-sufficiency. Its combined heat and power plant produces twice as much energy as Juehnde needs. The villagers are so keen to share their experience that they built a New Energy Centre to win over visitors.

Frey, a journalist specialising in renewable energy, says he wrote the book because he’d been impressed by a large number of innovative renewable projects and wanted to share them with tourists as well as experts. – Climate News Network

* Germany: Experience Renewable Energies, published by Baedeker, is available in German (and only in print) for €16.99. An English language version may be produced if there is enough demand.

Komila Nabiyeva is a Berlin-based freelance journalist, reporting on climate change, energy and development.