The completely dreadful economics of solar power in Britain

A flurry of news that Currys, the electrical retailer, is to sell solar photovoltaic panels to the public. The ‘photovoltaic’ (PV) panels generate renewable electricity from sunlight and displace carbon dioxide emissions generated in conventional power stations.

Surely, an environmental success story?

I think not… I’ve been a solar sceptic since the mid 1990s when Greenpeace was pitching that PV would be producing competitively priced electricity by 2000. It never happened. And it was never likely to.

The Currys deal claims to be a bargain… but it looks like the offer is £9,000 for a 2KW system, and that certainly isn’t a bargain for the user, or for the environment.

My inner-anorak (see PV calculator) reports that this £9000 investment will do the following: Continue reading “The completely dreadful economics of solar power in Britain”

What you can’t smell can harm you…

One thing always strikes me when I go for a walk on the hills: the first time you come to a road or see a car after being on the fells, the smell of the exhaust is really strong and unpleasant. Yet in London and most cities we are immersed in this smell 100s of times over. But we don’t smell the air as there is no clean air to create the contrast, which is what our olefactory senses are really picking up. In London, what must be a disgusting ‘baseline’ of traffic smell is just tuned out by our brains. But that deprives us of a health warning signal.

The pollution levels (NOx pictured) are soaring in the summer heat, the big pink blob over London on 18 July – and it has been awful. What would it take for there to be a partial ban on cars in London on high risk days? Could the congestion charge be increased to £20 on a bad day?

Flooding – ready for the apocalypse? Not really.

Given the hot dry weather, one’s thoughts inevitably turn to flooding. The picture to the left is from an excellent amateur flood mapping site. Exploiting Google Maps, the application allows the user to display the approximate impact of sea-level rise up to 7 metres (about what would happen if the Greenland ice shelf melted). The application desinger, Alex Tingle, explains how it was done and the caveats. For a given level of sea-level rise, the impact will be greater than just the new contour of the coastline – storm surges and high tides doing more damage. So what is the investment thinking given this threat?  Continue reading “Flooding – ready for the apocalypse? Not really.”

Personal carbon trading

The Guardian reports on “Swipe-card plan to ration consumers’ carbon use” – it looks like the idea of a personal carbon trading scheme is in the air again, following a ministerial speech. Each of us would be given an allowance of carbon emissions, our use of carbon would be recorded and if we over-used our budget, then we would buy carbon from those who had under-used their budget. In 2005, the Tyndall Centre published a report on Domestic Tradable Quotas that underpins the excitement (Click graphic on the left)

Let us be clear: however robust this is in theory (and it has much to recommend it in theory) this is a non-starter. The reason it is “easy to dismiss the idea as too complex administratively or too much of a burden for citizens” is for the good reason that this is, in fact, true and an understatement. As soon as this becomes mandatory, which it would be in the system envisaged, a truly enormous system of transactions, monitoring and verification would be necessary. The question is not whether it could be done (it probably could given unlimited resources and a suitably compliant population). The question is whether the costs and complexity are justified compared to the alternatives, of which there are many simpler and cheaper approaches available.

However, this does not mean that nothing can be done to personalise the carbon footprint: Continue reading “Personal carbon trading”

Energy review ahead – biggest issue to be ducked?

More well-briefed speculation in the papers about this coming week’s Energy Review see The Observer Revealed: Blair’s energy blueprint following a hefty run through in the FT last week – with each paper given a cut of the announcement best calculated to charm or sedate its readership – the Observer got the scoop on renewables and the FT the removal of tiresome planning obstacles that stand in the way of nuclear power stations. The high price of gas and improved designs, mean the government can now declare nuclear is ‘economic’ when it wasn’t in 2003 and now conveniently needs no subsidy. All that’s needed is some tidying up of licensing, planning and commercial back-end liabilities arrangements and they’ll be going up like branches of Starbucks. But will that really be enough? Continue reading “Energy review ahead – biggest issue to be ducked?”

Ecological footprint and One Planet Living – is it complete nonsense?

Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong… do tell me if I have.

There’s much excitement about “One planet living” and the concept of an “ecological footprint“. WWF has popularised it and David Miliband blogs his enthusiasm. The idea is to convert all the various impacts on the environment to ‘global hectares‘ (gha), the area of productive land required to grow food, extract minerals, manufacture things, build houses, dispose of wastes and absorb emissions for each person. This is then compared to the actually available productive land area per capita. The ecological footprint of the UK is thus determined to be 5.4 global hectares per person (gha/cap) compared with a world average of 2.2 and an available global capacity of 1.8. So here in the UK, we are Three Planet Living or thereabouts.

Given the heady excitement surrounding the idea, I thought I ought to be up to speed. And now I am, I fear the idea is pure nonsense. A few comments: Continue reading “Ecological footprint and One Planet Living – is it complete nonsense?”

Copenhagen consensus – wrong question leads to wrong answer on climate change

In theory, it would be good to prioritise resources for global do-gooding by asking what is the best use of an additional $50 billion,and weighing costs and benefits of different approaches. The Copenhagen Consensus Center, headed by Bjørn Lomborg author of the Skeptical Environmentalist and bête noire of the greens, attempts to address this sort of question. In doing so, they’ve created a list of 40 possible global interventions and asked workshop participants drawn mostly from UN represenatives (China, India, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam and Zambia) to rank them. The ranking they came up with places climate change at the bottom and tackling communicable diseases at the top. There are several flaws in this superficially attractive approach. These are: Continue reading “Copenhagen consensus – wrong question leads to wrong answer on climate change”

Some like it hot….

And some really don’t like it hot… and I’m one of them. May have to move to up-and-coming Murmansk in the next 20 years to escape the heat. The chart shows the predicted European temperature rise until 2100, with the extreme hot European summer of 2003 shown as a yellow blob – and it really was hot. About 30,000 people died prematurely and much agricultural output was lost. But the models predict that the 2003 heatwave will be typical of summer temperatures by 2050, and unusually cool by 2080.

That is depressing. Especially as something similar will happen to many places outside Europe that are already unbearably hot.

The biggest possible question – growth in the 21st Century

A session with Her Majesty’s Treasury yesterday reminded me that one of the most startling things is just how big the world economy has become. It has increased by about 8 times since 1950 – now about $55 trillion. Growing on average at about 3.74% per year, meaning it doubles in size about every 19 years

You might recall the Hindu legend of Ambalappuzha in which Krishna arrived in the court of the king and challenged him to a game of chess. The prize would be an amount of rice calculated using the chess board – one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. The king accepted, lost the game and then found there wasn’t enough rice in the world to match the bet. Benevolent Krishna let the king off with a promise that he’d serve free rice pudding to passing pilgrims forever.

It might not be so easy with the world economy… Continue reading “The biggest possible question – growth in the 21st Century”

Thames Water – why water metering needs to be mandatory

Just received a slightly irritating letter from Thames Water cheerfully suggesting: “Let’s beat the drought together”. At no point in the letter do they suggest that customers should ask to have a free water meter installed. Yet when people actually pay for the volume they use, they do actually use 10-20% less on average. Even in the advice on saving water section on their web site they decline to suggest it. But meters are essential for fair charging for water, efficient use and sensible tariffs. Continue reading “Thames Water – why water metering needs to be mandatory”