Climate Change Realities?

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Mean monthly temperatures, Ross-on-Wye, measured from 1931 to 2013. Source: UK Met. Office.


Close to Home


The UK has some of the best weather records in the world. People have been measuring the weather for longer on this small island than almost anywhere else. My ‘local’ weather station, at Ross-on-Wye, has 83 years of data; i.e., a human lifetime’s worth.

Is it true, as some claim, that the rate of warming has flattened off in the last few decades? Or has it only warmed at sites where the land uses have changed radically over the last 60 years; e.g., Heathrow?

Land uses at Ross-on-Wye have not changed radically. The graph shows the monthly mean temperatures recorded from 1931 to 2013. The best approximation to a trend line that I could obtain shows relatively little change for the first 30-40 years followed by a marked warming since the late 1960s. The mean annual temperature has apparently risen by 1.0-1.5 degrees K.

All is superimposed, of course, on normal fluctuations. We can only deal in the statistics of this; there are no absolute certainties.

Similar figures are published on the Met. Office website for over 50 sites spread almost from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Anyone can download the figures into a spreadsheet and plot it on a graph. Maybe others who read this could look at their local weather station data and report what trend it shows?


World View


The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change has published a report saying what it thinks will happen if we continue on our present business as usual course [1]. It is not ‘a pretty sight’.

I have ‘only’ read part of the 40 pp. ‘summary’. I ‘skimmed’ the rest. The document turned out to be extremely ‘heavy going’. Far longer versions are available if one has the time.

As always, combatting the climate change problem seems to depend on action in the next few decades. This could restrain the temperature rise to a further 2 degrees K.

But we have been making similar comments to this for over a decade, so time is getting pretty short for some serious action. What I notice is that there are millions of opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions in ways that make money, rather than lose money as all too many ‘non-oil’ options seem to do – I pointed this out in the last blog when I actually went as far as supporting some things which Owen Patterson MP had said.

I am writing a post on one major example of these ‘win-win’ technologies. I intend to publish it within about a week.





Surprising Agreement


Up the cooling tower in England.
Source: Wikipedia.

Or … pumped to the nearest town to heat the buildings in Denmark. Source: DBDH.








I never thought that I would find myself supporting Owen Paterson, the former Secretary of State for the Environment and MP for North Shropshire. I had earlier associated him with what I thought were rather unprogressive views on energy and climate change. He certainly used some unfortunate phrases too. But in a recent piece in The Ecologist [1] , some of the points in his recent speech are hard to disagree with.

Paterson supports greater use of local gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Three cheers for that. The UK throws away enough cooling water from its power stations to heat its urban and suburban buildings.

He seems to support much greater efforts on other energy efficiency measures. Three more cheers. If only the UK would support other EU member states which, despite being more energy-efficient than us, are moving ahead more rapidly. The UK has been opposing these efforts.

He notes that the government’s policy of a nearly ‘all-electric future’ by 2050 appears unaffordable. Given the economics of ‘electrification’ versus the present use of gas in heating building and oil in road transport, the cost of these measures is indeed vast, when expressed in £ per tonne of CO2 displaced. Adopting a more realistic world view, Germany envisages its electricity consumption declining by 25% by 2050.

Rather than pursue a flawed policy of a ‘smart’ National Grid, bigger than today’s network, we urgently need to focus on a ‘stable grid’. The UK is more dependent on a continuous supply of electricity than it has ever been but the National Grid struggles to provide spare capacity equal to 5% of the peak demand. The CEGB provided a reserve margin of over 20%.

Moves to grid stability might include, as Patterson points out, simple controls that turn our fridges or freezers into interruptible electricity loads. That offers to reduce the peak demand by over 1 GW.

He discusses the awkward fact that burning wood does not appear to reduce CO2 emissions over the timescale of interest; i.e., the next few decades. As I pointed out in my blog of 2 May 2014, this stubborn official policy of subsidising people to burn wood, sometimes harvested by cutting down the forests of Appalachia, defies the advice of the last Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

He notes that anaerobic digestion of farm and other wastes can be very beneficial if it disposes of a waste material and produces, as its three main outputs: fertiliser, soil conditioner and clean energy. Of particular benefit are the very large digesters which are already common in Denmark and Germany and are both cheaper and more efficient than small ones.

I do disagree with Paterson on two pretty major points: shale gas and mini-nuclear reactors. On the evidence summed up in my blog of 19 April 2014, shale gas is pretty bad for the environment versus ‘conventional’ piped natural gas or even imported LNG. Maybe it is less bad than imported coal but that is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Small nuclear reactors seem set to be as unaffordable and unsuccessful as medium and large ones have proved to be for the last 60 years. Nor do they resolve the other problems associated with nuclear fission, like waste disposal, a looming shortage of uranium and proliferation. There are much better buys out there if we want to combat climate change affordably.

That apart, this article cheered me up considerably. If a former Minister from the political Right agrees that UK energy policy needs serious reform, such critical comments cannot be attributed easily to the ‘usual suspects’.





Life After Oil?

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Peak Oil.


Source: Wikipedia.




According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in the Daily Telegraph, the world’s companies have spent $5 trillion; i.e., $5,000,000,000,000 in the last six years on fossil fuel exploration. Much of it has been wasted [1]. The IEA has now said that we must double this rate of expenditure and invest $48 trillion by 2035 to meet world energy needs [2].

This call by the IEA invites participation in a seemingly herculean task. $48 trillon is 20 times the UK’s GDP. It brings to mind Amory Lovins’s description of the USDOE’s energy forecasts of 1976. He termed them ‘strength through exhaustion’ [3]. No, those forecasts did not come to pass either.

Earlier in 2014, Gail Tverberg, an actuary and former contributor to the respected website The Oil Drum [4] noted that the oil majors have not been participating very much in this rush for new, unconventional oil and gas. Rather, they have been selling assets to continue to pay dividends in the style which shareholders have come to expect [5].

Since 2011, the price of oil has been static, seemingly dictated by what the market will bear. But the cost of exploring for it and extracting it has been soaring [6].

The oil majors probably accept that nothing that operates industrial societies will ever be as cheap and easy to extract and pump or pipe to market as conventional oil and natural gas have been. At present, they are not able or willing to partipate in higher-cost sources of supply.

Whatever source of energy supply replaces petroleum, returns on capital earned by energy suppliers are set to decline – unless energy prices rise sharply. But drastic price rises, say a doubling or tripling, seem increasingly implausible. Consumers are so cash-strapped that if this happened they would have to drastically cut back on their energy purchases, with dire economic results.

The oil companies which have seemingly been ‘selling off the family silver’ to maintain their dividends and their share value seem to be unable to state in public the utterly obvious. If future energy supply technologies, like renewables, are set to cost more, and if oil majors are to continue to be energy supply companies, their shares are overvalued. There is not necessarily any rivalry; they are all overvalued.

If these organisations intend to continue to be energy companies, they would have to find something cheaper than energy supply as a means of providing society’s energy-related services. They would have to evaluate the obvious alternative of becoming energy service companies.

The other twist to this tale is that UK pension funds are still heavily invested in dividend-paying oil majors like Royal Dutch Shell and BP PLC. Perhaps they continue to believe the advice to ‘never sell Shell’. When will they notice that the ground is shifting under their feet?





[1] But most renewables may be too costly to ‘come in under the radar’ in the way he mentions.


[3] Lovins, A B, Soft Energy Paths. ISBN 978-0884106159. Harper Collins (1979).

[4], still available to users but as an archive only.

[5] 25 February 2014 posting entitled ‘Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.’




EU Energy Efficiency Laws and States’ Rights

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EU Regulations


The European Union regulates the energy efficiency of new electrical appliances and cars. Citizens of less progressive member states should probably welcome this intervention if it means a slow move forward instead of no action at all.

But the way that the EU works, member states can lose any right to legislate. One might hear comments of this kind:

‘We’d love to move faster on [insert name of product or appliance here]. But we can’t; the EU’s in charge. Still, the next set of EU standards were issued three years ago, so not too long to wait; they should be law in another two years’.


States’ Rights


Under the concept of ‘states’ rights’, the United States sometimes appears to allow its 50 states more powers than the EU does. California announced in 2009 that it would legislate on the energy efficiency of new TVs. The allowed electricity consumption of TVs sold in 2013 was half that of those sold in 2009. US states can sometimes get permission to set standards above the federal minimum, with the legislation of the more innovative states being copied later at federal level.

I think that it would be a positive step for environmental protection if the EU would allow member states to set higher energy efficiency standards than the EU-wide ‘lowest common denominator’ level. No member state would have to do more than meet the bare minimum EU energy efficiency standard for a car, television, refrigerator or other product. But if it wanted to, it could.

To avoid anomalies, member states would probably have to ask the Commission for permission to set a higher standard. But the statutory deadline for the Commission to respond should be short. Also, if it objects, the burden of proof should be on it to demonstrate that the proposed legislation would substantially obstruct free trade.


A Legal Precedent?


Roughly a decade after Denmark joined the EU, it wanted to regulate standard sizes of glass containers and to increase its customary use of returnable glass bottles for beer and soft drinks. Reusable bottles save large amounts of energy and CO2 emissions compared to the use of aluminium or steel cans, plastic bottles or glass bottles recycled in bottle banks.

But Denmark was up against the might of the EU Commission. The Commission alleged that regulating the type of container used was an unlawful barrier to free trade. ‘OK’, said Denmark, ‘See you in the Court of Justice’.

Denmark subsequently won its case on most points. As far as I know, no other member states have since stood up to the Commission in this way but I cannot see how allowing member states to set higher energy efficiency standards on some manufactured goods constitutes a fundamental threat to free trade. Surely a few member states might occasionally like the right to do what the USA’s 50 states may do?





[1] The legislation had the support of its privately-owned electricity suppliers.


[3] US states and the federal government are regulated by the 10th amendment to the constitution. States may legislate on a topic without reference to the federal government if that power is not reserved to the federal government. After the federal government has legislated in an area, states may well be free to add to the impact of the existing federal law but not to detract from it.



Retrofit for the Future: What Did It Cost?

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Results Now Out


In summer 2009, I and others were involved in setting some of the rules for this competition. They included the minimum CO2 reduction targets to aim for and methods to calculate whether a proposed retrofit would meet the target or not.

Well, the results of the work are now out. The costs incurred have been analysed in a report by the Sweett Group PLC for the Technology Strategy Board, the body which funded most of the RFF project [1].


Interesting Reading


It certainly makes ‘interesting’ reading, as one might say. ‘Interesting’ is an ambiguous word which can be used to express either positive or negative emotions. On reading it to analyse the figures for a client, I think that the predominant emotion should be a little downbeat. We should be thinking along these lines: ‘Well, some of this is very satisfactory, but the bulk of the results are not good enough. How can we do better in future?’


The Bottom Line


The average costs for the measures utilised ranged from moderately high to extremely high. Bearing in mind that money matters to people, the sums involved are inconsistent with the vision of every UK building undergoing a ‘Passivhaus retrofit’ between now and about 2050.

There are circumstances in which such extensive work might be worthwhile. One of them could be an oil-heated solid-walled house undergoing very major renovation. But they do not seem likely to arise on every dwelling.

On average, the cost incurred for external solid wall insulation (EWI) with a slab of plastic foam insulation, usually EPS or XPS, was £123 per m2 of wall area. Strikingly, this is almost 50% more than the ‘mature market’ cost of EWI analysed in a report by Ecofys for the European Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in 2009 [2]. Based on continental European experience, including Germany, Ecofys documented a cost of around £80 per m2 for 50 mm of EWI plus a marginal cost of around £4/m2 per extra 50 mm of thickness.

Does this 50% ‘premium’ over experience in continental Europe reflect limited UK experience and the resulting ‘learning curve’, combined with a temporary excess of demand over the supply of installation skills? I hope so.

The Sweett report also lists the maximum and minimum costs incurred for the measures. Here I am slightly reassured. The lowest cost paid for EWI was a very modest £56 per m2, suggesting that a significant minority of projects may have paid close to ‘mature market’ costs.

But it could have helped to analyse and present this information if Sweett had asked each separate team how long they had worked on energy-efficient buildings and listed the costs incurred by experienced, average and novice teams. Maybe all the experienced teams did manage to install EWI for £80/m2 or less.


The Future?


Even if EWI can be fitted for £56 to 80 per m2, and other measures for correspondingly ‘reasonable’ amounts, the inescapable logic is that Passivhaus-level thermal retrofits are not set to be universal on UK buildings by 2050. We need to plan harder for how our buildings might meet demanding CO2 reduction targets despite this limitation on retrofit insulation measures.





[1] Retrofit for the Future: Analysis of Cost Data. Prepared for the Technology Strategy Board, Swindon by the Sweett Group PLC (June 2014).

[2] Andreas H. Hermelink, How Deep to Go: How To Find The Cost-Optimal Level For Building Renovation. PBENDE084668. Prepared by Ecofys GmbH, Köln, Germany for European Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (August 2009).