In Part 1 of this article, I introduced the problem of climate change and the history of the science behind it. I then went on to discuss greenhouse gases, noting that greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing and that the need for our intervention is very urgent, and our action needs to be immediate, robust, and extensive. I looked at what we need to do in general terms, so I said, “Every nation needs to introduce new legislation today, which will ensure and encourage investment in, and development of, renewable sources of energy, and which will expedite the installation of whatever renewable energy plant is currently available.”
Encourage Investment in and Development of Renewable Sources of Energy
I now cover that in more detail. Where I mention particulars, this will be for the UK, but readers from other nations will no doubt recognize parallels with their situations in their home countries.
What has worked very well has been government subsidies to either help with installation costs or to lower the price of the energy produced, in order to make it more competitive against less desirable fossil fuel-generated power. Most fossil-fueled generation is being heavily subsidized both in the unpaid costs to society of the pollution it causes (also true of nuclear power), and in government tax breaks to the fossil-fuel industry to artificially lower the price and ensure a plentiful supply. The UK government allows around £6billion per year in such tax breaks.
Renewable energy, such as wind and solar, are becoming cheaper and more efficient year after year, so that very little subsidy is needed. On-shore wind is now becoming so cheap it might eventually not need any subsidy.
Installations also need planning permission, and though planning control is needed, the approach could be adopted of allowing installations as much as possible. Solar and wind farms are generally built on less productive land not required for agriculture. Land owners could be given financial incentives for either building or allowing such energy systems to be built on their land. Central planning could be set up to identify suitable sites where new plants are most needed, and to actively identify the existing players in the industry and co-operate with them to build the energy systems there. For solar, installations can also be added to existing infrastructure such as railway lines and roads as well as on buildings. Even productive agricultural land can be used for wind farms, and even for solar, where the panels are mounted on pylons high enough to allow all normal agricultural activity to continue underneath.
Perverse UK Government Energy Policies
UK Government energy policies are unfathomable. It announced its 25-year green plan, and before that a ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2040, but both of these have no real substance. By 2040, most new vehicles will be EVs in any case, without any grand government announcement. The 25-year plan seems mainly a way of doing nothing for 25 years, as it contains vague aims and no measures to achieve them other than to appeal to big business to play along, which is something they are not well known for. That is the thin PR veneer, but what are they are actually doing? In the UK we have energy auctions, where green-energy providers can bid for contracts to provide subsidized energy for the National Grid. The awarding of contracts is based on price, except that for some perverse inexplicable reason, since 2015, onshore wind companies are not allowed to enter into the auction. Even though their prices per megawatt hour are the cheapest thing going, they are not being allowed to compete. Also, the government has, firstly, tried to remove planning decisions from local authorities, where they normally sit, in order to turn down every onshore wind-farm proposed. Having drawn much criticism for that antidemocratic process, they then returned these decisions to local authorities, but altered the planning laws to ensure that any vociferous “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) person, not wanting the nice view from their home diminished by the installation of wind generators, could block these plans quite easily. At the same time, they corrupted the planning laws in a different way by designating fracking installations as being “nationally significant infrastructure projects,” so that even though local authorities and hundreds of local protesters have been entirely against these fracking operations, the Tory government has forced them through. As far as can be understood, the only reason for the policy against on-shore wind farms is that the NIMBY objectors are Tory voters in rural areas, where such rural constituencies tend to be safe Tory parliamentary seats.
A further general blow to renewable energy has been the freezing of a carbon tax in the 2017 budget that the government had imposed not long ago. The carbon tax added to the overall cost of energy and increased domestic energy bills, but provided better prices for renewable energy, allowing it to be commercially viable. By freezing the tax, many renewable energy projects that had relied on the price increasing have been left high and dry, causing a shutdown of renewable energy investment. The UK government talks about being green and having “green plans,” but does just the opposite in the most perverse and deceitful way possible.
Solar, unlike wind, which requires large-scale installations to be efficient, can be installed by individual households and businesses for their own independent supply. Information, encouragement, and plentiful cheap supplies and installation are what is needed there. Currently there are too many commercial organizations involved who see solar installation as yet another way of making a fast buck at the public’s expense. Non-profit installers and suppliers need setting up with central or local government endorsements and licensing, in order to give the public the lowest possible costs and guaranteed standards. At the very least, we need a licensing system for current suppliers and installers, and a centralized information website where people can get lists of licensed suppliers and clear comparisons for price and service. None of this is likely with our present Tory government.
For R&D, we used to have some government research centers in the UK responsible for the development of many new technologies before they became mainstream, but under the Tory privatization policies, these have been converted into privately-run “science parks” spending time only on projects most likely to turn an immediate profit. Universities are perhaps the only places left for pure research, and grants could be given to those already engaged in promising new developments to ease the way for them. Scotland has a special fund for green development, but Scotland does not have a Tory government, as is our misfortune in England.
Improvements to The Grid
To make better use of renewable energy systems, we need more storage on the grid. The latest wind turbines have storage built in, so that they can be self buffering for short periods, but large-scale storage, using batteries, flywheels, pumped hydro, or whatever the inventive mind can develop, needs to be added to the grid. The EU is developing an EU-wide smart grid, so that power can be distributed all across Europe from where it is being generated to where it is needed. The foolish Tory “Brexiters” in the UK might make participation in that more difficult.
All other methods of energy harvesting, such as hydro, wave, tidal, and geothermal, need to be developed and utilized as soon as possible in the UK.
Phasing-out of all Fossil Fuel Burning
We need definite plans for the phasing out of all fossil fuel burning as alternatives become available, and to make every effort to make those alternatives available as soon as possible. This would include fossil fuel burning in power stations, transport, and for domestic and industrial space heating.
The key phrase here is “as alternatives become available.” We cannot simply turn off the valve at the oil well, leaving people with nothing, and there is no point at all in replacing one fossil fuel, such as coal or oil, with another, such as gas, which is only slightly less damaging to the environment. When the gas is shale gas, obtained by hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking,” as it has come to be known), where the product might be slightly less damaging, the process represents huge additional risks to the environment. These risks are mainly poisoning the water table and the release of large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Similarly, although nuclear power stations might score a point by generating electricity without the release of CO2 or methane, we ask how many more nuclear disasters will it take before people consider that this is not such a good idea after all? Also, the cost of decommissioning and dealing with nuclear waste adds enormously to the very high cost of building and maintaining these stations. The 2017 forecast is that future clean-up across the UK will cost around £119 billion spread across the next 120 years or so. See the government report. This is just for the 17 oldest sites, and does not include newer sites still operating, and those yet (if ever) to be built, such as Hinkley Point C.
One obvious choice is to replace fossil fuels with biofuels where they cannot yet be replaced by renewable energy sources, but there is some level of controversy about that. Biofuels release CO2 into the atmosphere, but this is CO2 that was in the atmosphere during the lifecycle of whichever plant source is being used. This could be a few weeks, in the case of algae, or months, with fast-growing grasses, or perhaps a year or two, in the case of fast-growing shrubs like willow, or even 20 years or so in the case of a tree. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, release CO2 into today’s atmosphere from the atmosphere of millions of years ago, when the organic material from which they are formed was living. Biofuels, therefore, are cycling CO2, and so are carbon neutral, whereas fossil fuels positively add to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
However, we rely on plants of all kinds in all places on the planet to absorb carbon dioxide and provide us with oxygen, so that biofuel production would have to be very carefully managed so as to increase, rather than reduce, the total capability of plant life to absorb carbon dioxide across the planet. Also, any process of burning produces pollutants in addition to CO2, such as carbon monoxide, particulates, and nitrous oxides such as nitrogen dioxide, so it’s not an ideal solution. Though not ideal, it would still be better to use biofuels where fuel has to be used, rather than continuing to burn fossil fuels. There are many areas, such as aviation, shipping, and heavy haulage, where currently there are no easy alternatives. Alternatives need to be developed, and are being developed right now.
In aviation, the low energy density of batteries when compared with aviation fuel makes a straight swap between 10 tons of aviation fuel and 10 tons of batteries one that would leave an aircraft short of range. Jet engines are a mature technology, but electric propulsion systems are in their infancy. There is also a technical difficulty, in that the maximum take-off weight of an aircraft is more than the maximum landing weight. This is because the aircraft is lifting away from the ground on take-off, but falling towards the ground on landing, and so has a downward momentum which has to be absorbed in the landing gear at the point of impact. During a jet-fueled flight, many tons of aviation fuel will be burnt in the engines, but a battery-powered aircraft is exactly the same weight during both take-off and landing.
Plans for electric short-haul aircraft are already being developed, and 1- to 5-seat electric aircraft already exist, but long-distance aircraft will still need to use aviation fuel unless some as yet unknown technology is developed. Biofuels are the only current solution.
Shipping, on the other hand, seems ripe for electrification as weight is less of an impediment, and ships have dead-weight above the keel, known as ballast, to keep the ship upright in the water, so batteries would make just as good of a ballast as concrete or lead. The old sailing clippers could do around 20 knots, which is faster than most modern cargo ships. There will not be a return to sail, however, because it was a very labor-intensive and dangerous operation. A modern version, with rigid, vertical, wing-like “sails” which are entirely motor-controlled, can be used as a supplementary power source, even on an unmanned autonomous ship. Ships are also ideally suited to take advantage of solar power out on the open ocean. It seems to me that shipping could very easily be developed toward a fossil-fuel-free fleet.
For heavy haulage, we now have the Tesla semi-truck and other contenders soon coming into the market, and smaller trucks and vans are already available as electric vehicles. Electric buses are very available and are being deployed, especially in China, where they exist in the thousands. For private cars, we are now at the stage of having, in the UK at least, good charging infrastructure and perfectly acceptable EVs for people to buy — both new and used, and to lease. We also have a reasonably good grant scheme for buying the cars, at £4,500 for a new EV. Home charging units are only £150 or so with a government grant. However, the government has not raised the fuel tax in the 2017 budget, which would have been a good way of forcing the pace of change, especially away from polluting diesel, It would not only make drivers think more urgently about changing to an EV, but would also reduce unnecessary car journeys and make walking, cycling, and public transport more appealing. It did increase the annual vehicle tax (Vehicle Excise Duty, or VED) for all diesel vehicles by moving them all up into the next tax-band, where EVs still have a VED of £0. As I mentioned earlier, the government also continues to give £6 billion in tax breaks annually to fossil fuel corporations, which somewhat dwarfs the one-off 2017 budget commitment of £500 million to encourage electric vehicle take-up. That £500 million includes the cost of the electric vehicle grant scheme which already exists, and so is not new money, and they have also said, mysteriously, that £400 million is for the encouragement and development of charging infrastructure. I say “mysteriously” because they already have the grants for home charging, and the UK already has the most comprehensive charging infrastructure on our motorways of any country in Europe, courtesy of Ecotricity. Chargers are sparse in some areas of the country, and certainly some central government planning is essential to ensure good coverage across the UK, but this requires liaison with all of the main players, rather than any new money. Like many Tory government announcements, the 2017 budget commitment of £500 million is something of a PR stunt to make a good impression, rather than doing what is needed to achieve their stated aim.
In Part 1 of this article, I have already gone into sufficient detail about space heating, methane, and food production, and the production of gas from bio-materials from otherwise non-productive land. See this CleanTechnica article where Dale Vince of Ecotricity says they have the system for meeting all of the UK’s gas needs using un-productive land, if they had access to it.
I also said:
“In general, it must be made illegal to seek out any new sources of fossil fuels, or to drill any exploratory well or mine to test for the existence of fossil fuel deposits. All current fossil fuel production must cease, and wells and mines decommissioned as soon as alternative energy sources become available. To put it more simply, all fossil fuels must be left in the ground as soon and as much as is practically possible.”
I cannot see Republicans or Tories doing any such thing. In the UK, the main player in the fight against fossil fuel pollution has been Sadiq Kahn, the London Mayor, who is quite aggressively and rapidly imposing expanding zones where polluters have to pay a high premium to drive their vehicles. This has already resulted in air quality improvements, but soon the zone is to be expanded to the North and South Circular Roads, which means nearly all of London. The central UK government is doing nothing of that kind, but this needs to be adopted in all major cities. As long as people are allowed to drive their polluting vehicles where ever they want, they have no incentive beyond their own conscience to change to zero-carbon transport. They will continue to burn fossil fuels with disastrous consequences.
I also mentioned energy efficiency, and could say more about that. It is extraordinary to me that we in the UK are mainly constructing buildings using materials and techniques which have changed little since Elizabeth I was on the throne. We now use double glazing, and double walls with an insulated cavity, and we do have insulation in the roof space, but we are still building with bricks and mortar, wood, and tiles, just as then. Buildings can and should be built in factories and erected on-site, using highly-insulating materials and designs, which eliminate the need for space heating and cooling. The buildings would have an energy-harvesting surface and an energy-retentive surface, and be positioned in relation to the direction of the Sun, which is south in the UK. The government could introduce radical new building regulations to ensure that all new houses are energy neutral, generating all the energy they will use. This could massively reduce the amount of energy required for domestic houses. It could also set up schemes to bring older houses up to standard, and although that is happening to some extent, it is hardly sufficient to make much impact. The EU has introduced some regulations for domestic appliances to encourage greater efficiency and less energy usage, such as a limit on the wattage of vacuum cleaner motors and a ban on incandescent lightbulbs. Every appliance has a label on it showing the level of efficiency represented by letters A to E, which helps consumers to make the right choices. All of these are good but could be better, and one of the worries about “Brexit” is that away from the good influence of the EU, our Tory government will not adhere even to these mild measures.
So in conclusion, while it is easy to note down all that could and should be done, it is not happening, and governments, especially those with a Neoliberal ideology, just seem to be pursuing a “business-as-usual” fossil fuel-loving policy with a thin veneer of PR, otherwise known in more honest circles as lies and deceit, in order to give the appearance of concern for the environment. Unless these governments change their ways, or are removed at the ballot box, there is little hope for the future of this planet for future generations. We all need to do everything in our power to wake the collective human mind from its slumber, before we sleepwalk off the cliff.
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