fossil fuels

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Image source: Scientific American (courtesy of American Electric Power).

Image source: Scientific American (courtesy of American Electric Power).

Two pieces of news provide evidence of a fightback by coal. American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in West Virginia is reporting significant success for its small scale carbon capture project. And the UK has just licensed exploratory boreholes for offshore Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), a woefully under-researched technology that may make CO2 sequestration easier. The scale of the challenge facing the globe’s coal users is enormous but with determined research and development, the fuel may remain usable for power generation in a low-carbon world.

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_MG_0739Plimer

Image source: The Sydney Institute.

Professor Ian Plimer is one of the most influential global warming sceptics. A university academic in Australia, his trenchant views on climate change have helped persuade opposition politicians in his home country to back away from supporting schemes to reduce emissions. His book Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science (reviewed here last month) remains a best-seller in the UK.

He spoke in central London on 1 December at a meeting organized by the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The material in the talk was largely taken from his book, though his language was even more open and unrestrained. Unsurprisingly, in view of the controversy over the content of recently exposed CRU emails, he repeatedly used the word ‘fraud’ or ‘fraudulent’ to characterize the views of his opponents. He described his critics as ‘rent-seekers’ who spent their time seeking out the next research grant.

This article takes a small number of the more controversial statements made by Professor Plimer and sets them against the standard scientific view.

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Image source: Taiga Company.

Image source: Taiga Company.

1) If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – www.energytariff.co.uk – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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Books referred to:

Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science, UK edition, Quartet Books, 2009.

Christopher Booker, The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With ‘Climate Change’ Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder In History?, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

The phrase ‘the science is settled’ is regularly used by politicians arguing for meaningful action on climate change. To the majority of the world’s scientists, global warming is a clear and present danger and those who deny it, or argue that its effects will limited or benign, are dangerous lunatics. Nevertheless, an increasing numbers of voters, particularly in the US and the UK, have drifted into the sceptic camp in recent months and years. A Pew Research October survey in the US showed the percentage of people seriously concerned by the climate change issue down from 77% to 65% in two years. An international survey by HSBC showed a fall from 32% to 25% over the past year in the percentage of people from developed markets saying that climate change was the biggest issue that respondents worried about. The overall figure across all 12 countries surveyed fell from 42% in 2008 to 34% in 2009.[*]

A batch of highly successful books from journalists and maverick scientists has provided the intellectual covering fire for this decline. The result of the growing scepticism will be a weakening of national resolutions to take the difficult steps required to shift rich countries away from dependence on fossil fuels.

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The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

The Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed stands in the sea off Kurumba to show the threat the islands face. Photograph: Chiara Goia. Source: Guardian.

Plans for a new windfarm are set to make the Maldives the country with the highest proportion of renewable power in the world.

The 30-turbine proposed windfarm, close to the capital Malé, will deliver 75 megawatts of electricity at full capacity, enough to provide electricity for the whole of the capital, the international airport and the surrounding resorts. Excess power will be used to run desalination plants that will produce bottled drinking water from the sea.

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Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills.

Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The budget confirmed the acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change‘s recommendation for carbon emissions in 2020. The UK will have to reduce its CO2 output by about 110m tonnes by 2020, equivalent to a 21% reduction on actual emissions in 2005 (and 34% on the 1990 figure). The proposed rate of emissions reduction is far faster than the UK has achieved thus far and the chancellor’s budget shows the government has started to recognise the scale of the challenge.

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The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

The existing Kingsnorth power station. Image source: E.ON.

E.ON’s £1bn plan for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is waiting for approval from the UK government. Other generators have shifted away from coal. Drax, which owns by far the largest coal power station in the UK, is investing in biomass. Other companies have focused on new gas plants. Why is the world’s largest investor-owned utility pushing ahead with a project to burn coal without carbon capture?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that burning coal to generate electricity is extremely profitable. Very low prices for emissions permits and tumbling coal costs mean that a profit-seeking management team is highly incentivised to try to push for permission to use coal in power stations. This article provides the background calculations for an estimate that the new Kingsnorth will generate an operating profit of about £300m a year if current fuel and carbon prices persist. Additionally, it also tries to show that the cost of fitting CCS equipment and running the plant to capture the large majority of all carbon emissions is likely to add no more than about 1.5p per kilowatt hour to the cost of generating electricity at current coal and carbon prices. This means that a new coal fired power station with CCS may have operating costs only marginally above gas power plants

Nevertheless, E.ON has just asked for government subsidy to install CCS at Kingsnorth from day one. The purpose of this article is to offer an estimate of the maximum the government ought to offer E.ON in order to get it to invest in CCS prior to opening the new power station.

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