Hope Before the Ruins

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Occupy Sandy

To paraphrase the anarchist revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti, we are not afraid of ruins because we know how to build a better world.

We have the technological capacity to abolish a fossil fuel powered global infrastructure and switch to renewable energy. Wind, water, and solar energy can “reliably supply the world’s needs” (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). We already have the “fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how” to solve the climate crisis (Pacala & Socolow, 2004). Even under the global capitalist framework “market trends” are driving “new renewable energy deployment” (Anderson, 2017) and “investors” are increasingly divesting funds from fossil fuel developments (Johnston, 2016). We even have appropriate forms of geoengineering we can use to slow down and stabilise the biosphere while we put our global oikos in order (Lehmann, 2007; Becker et al., 2013; Biggers, 2015).

So what is stopping us?

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Photo by Evergreen Energy Solutions

As Roberts (2017) warns “political and social barriers will do more to slow that growth than any technical limitation.” Clear leadership is needed to ensure clean technologies are promoted rather than the technologies of the entrenched fossil fuel industries (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009). But this leadership must come from below, not above:

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.” (Podobnik, 2010)

These social and political barriers will need overcoming if we are to ever properly confront the Biocrisis. Although we have the technology for a 100% renewable global system, the changes needed are monumental – “We can’t slap on a carbon tax and call it a day. We have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it” (Battistoni, 2012). To quote Chaudhary (2016), we must address the fact that “the crisis is not now, the crisis has already been for some time”. If we don’t, we risk facing a future with “the same winners, the similar losers, the crimes, the human degradation”.

A society powered by clean and renewable energy “is a necessity for a sustainable and equitable society, but not a guarantee of one” (McBay, 2011). But we do have an innate capacity for cooperation rather than competition, a capacity that is not encouraged in today’s capitalist society (Cott, 1980; Schwartzman, 2015; Taylor, 2016). Our future society will have to be modelled on values above and beyond commodification and profit if we are to survive. It will focus on democratic management of resources to prevent pollution and waste (Löwy, 2007), an “economically rational” society with needs guided by ecological standards (Bookchin, 1991). Whether we like it or not, we will have to transition to a situation where we accept and live within biophysical limits (Levy, 2012). As for green growth, it is a dangerous oxymoron if there ever was one.

Surviving and repairing the damage of the Biocrisis will

“require more ability to improvise together, stronger societies, more confidence in each other. It will require a world in which we are each other’s wealth and have each other’s trust.” (Solnit, 2009)

We should take hope in the rebellions already taking place. The story of the US National Park Service going “rogue”, at least on social media, presents a model of subversion within traditional institutions (Jacobin, 2017). Calls for the global science community to involve itself in protest and “rebellion” against climate change continue to mount (Klein, 2013; Johnston, 2017), a promising development in an otherwise detached and aloof institution. People everywhere are “turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and the commons for an alternative” to the status quo (Curl, 2016). A growing “climate insurgency” aims to use “activities the authorities claim to be illegal” in order to “create an irresistible momentum of escalating popular action for climate protection” (Brecher, 2017). Indeed, for multitudes of people across the world, these struggles are far from over – their resistance is just beginning (Bosworth, 2016).

From joining Blockadia to supporting divestment campaigns to standing in solidarity with refugees, there are many ways to fight climate chaos in the immediate future (Out of the Woods 2015; 2016). But to fully address and solve the host of problems that constitute the Biocrisis we will have to “raise long-range, transformative demands that the dominant economic and political systems may prove unable to accommodate” (Tokar, 2014).

Despite our optimism, it may well be that the transnational actors that control the global economy and enforce the world’s borders may be unwilling to adapt to or accommodate our demands for a better world. They may prefer to necrotise the entire planet (McBrien, 2016) rather than change their ways – after all, “one might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation” (Bookchin, 1980). We may inherit a world of irreversibly damaged ecosystems and little energy resources left to build our dreams (Keefer, 2009).

But as Gastón Gordillo and Andreas Malm agree, rubble is a gateway to the future. Malm (2017) prepares us for the fact that “we must accept that loss is a major predicament of our time”, but this loss, as Gordillo (2014) notes, represented by the rubble of the old world – a world of divisiveness, cruelty, and injustice – is “an invitation to remake the world differently”. A world of fairness, ecological balance, justice, and hope. A world where each contributes according to their ability, and each receives according to their need. Let us scoop the rubble into our hands and join together as “heroes in an army of construction” (Keller, 1916) to build our better world.

References

Anderson, A. (2017). The Fate of the Clean Power Plan under President Trump http://blog.ucsusa.org/angela-anderson/the-fate-of-the-clean-power-plan-under-president-trump Accessed 27th April 2017.

Battistoni, A. (2012). The Flood Next Time https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-flood-next-time/ Accessed 27th April 2017.

Becker, K., Wulfmeyer, V., Berger, T., Gebel, J., Münch, W. (2013). Carbon farming in hot, dry coastal areas: an option for climate change mitigation. Earth System Dynamics 4, 237-251.

Biggers, J. (2015). Iowa’s Climate-Change Wisdom https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/21/opinion/iowas-climate-change-wisdom.html Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Bookchin, M. (1980). Toward an Ecological Society. Black Rose Books, Montreal.

Bookchin, M. (1991). Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-libertarian-municipalism-an-overview.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Bosworth, K. (2016). Voices Against the Pipeline — “Five Lessons from Pipeline Struggles” http://nobakken.com/2016/09/05/voices-against-the-pipeline-five-lessons-from-pipeline-struggles-by-kai-bosworth/ Accessed 7th May 2017.

Brecher, J. (2017). A climate insurgency: building a Trump-free, fossil-free future http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988898/a_climate_insurgency_building_a_trumpfree_fossilfree_future.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Chaudhary, A. S. (2016). The Supermanagerial Reich https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-supermanagerial-reich/ Accessed 27th April 2017.

Cott, J. (1980). The Cosmos: An Interview With Carl Sagan http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-cosmos-19801225 Accessed 1st May 2017.

Curl, J. (2016). Reclaiming the American Commons https://roarmag.org/magazine/reclaiming-the-american-commons/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Gordillo, G. R. (2014). Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press, Durham.

Hudson, A. D. (2015). On the Political Dimensions of Solarpunk https://medium.com/solarpunks/on-the-political-dimensions-of-solarpunk-c5a7b4bf8df4 Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Jacobin (2017). The National Park Service Goes Rogue https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/donald-trump-bureaucracy-national-park-service-smokey-bear/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Jacobson, M. Z., Delucchi, M. A. (2009). A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030. Scientific American 301 (5), 58-65.

Johnston, I. (2016). The people providing hope in a post-Trump world of climate denial https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change-global-warming-donald-trump-divestment-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels-google-bill-a7471926.html Accessed 27th April 2017.

Johnston, I. (2017). World-leading climate change scientist calls for ‘rebellion’ against Donald Trump https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-climate-change-rebellion-michael-mann-global-warming-scientists-a7556696.html Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Keefer, T. (2009). Fossil Fuels, Capitalism, And Class Struggle. The Commoner 13, 15-21.

Keller, H. (1916). Strike Against War http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/helenstrike.html Accessed 23rd May 2017.

Klein, N. (2013). Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Lehmann, J. (2007). A handful of carbon. Nature 447, 143-144.

Levy, G. (2012). Natural limits, sustainability and socialism https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/article-store/the-trouble-with-economic-growth/natural-limits-sustainability-and-socialism/ Accessed 3rd May 2017.

Löwy, M. (2007). Eco-Socialism and Democratic Planning. Socialist Register 43, 1-16.

Malm, A. The Walls of the Tank: On Palestinian Resistance http://salvage.zone/in-print/the-walls-of-the-tank-on-palestinian-resistance/ Accessed 23rd May 2017.

McBay, A. (2011). A Taxonomy of Action. In: McBay, A., Keith, L., Jensen, D. eds. Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. Seven Stories Press, New York, 239-276.

McBrien, J. (2016). Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene. In Moore, J. ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. PM Press, San Francisco, 116-137.

Out of the Woods (2015). 6 Ways to Fight Climate Chaos http://novaramedia.com/2015/05/30/6-ways-to-fight-climate-chaos/ Accessed 15th May 2017.

Out of the Woods (2016). Infrastructure against borders https://libcom.org/blog/infrastructure-against-borders-06122016 Accessed 15th May 2017.

Pacala, S., Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305 (5686), 986-972.

Podobnik, B. (2010). Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. In: Abramsky, K.. ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-petrol World. AK Press, Oakland, 72-80.

Roberts, D. (2017). Is 100% renewable energy realistic? Here’s what we know http://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/4/7/15159034/100-renewable-energy-studies Accessed 27th April 2017.

Schwartzman, D. (2015). From Climate Crisis to Solar Communism https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/cop-21-paris-climate-change-global-warming-fossil-fuels/ Accessed 1st May 2017.

Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Viking Press, New York.

Taylor, S. (2016). How Natural is War to Human Beings? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201609/how-natural-is-war-human-beings Accessed 2nd May 2017.

Tokar, B. (2014). Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (2nd edition). New Compass Press, Porsgrunn.

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Trump and the EPA

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Donald Trump is now President, an unpalatable fact but unfortunately a reality we must learn to live with. Over the next few posts we will analyse what his presidency might mean for the environment, and the changes that have already come to pass in the few months since he has come to power. Among environmentalists Trump is known as a climate change denier and a person with scant regard for the ecosystem services provided by a healthy environment so it will certainly be interesting to look into. It won’t all be doom and gloom as we will also address ways we can all be hopeful and fight the changes he has enacted.

First up, the EPA:

What is the EPA?

For those living outside the US, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is an agency of the US government created with the aim of protecting human health and the environment. It writes and enforces regulations according to laws passed by Congress, and conducts environmental assessments, research and education.

Who is now in charge?

Scott Pruitt, a climate change doubter, who in the past has actually sued the EPA several times when he was Attorney General for Oklahoma, an oil-producing state.  Since coming to power Trump has already ordered the EPA to remove all references to climate change from the site, so it’s clear he has appointed a like-minded person in Pruitt. Despite Pruitt being confirmed by the US Senate, there has been resistance from former EPA staff, concerned that he has no interest in upholding environmental laws. Prior to Pruitt’s confirmation, senator Cory Booker had stated: “If you look at this individual, Scott Pruitt, if you look at his track record, you will see that his actual work has undermined the mission of the agency that he is now nominated to lead“, so the Republicans were aware of these concerns. 

The appointment of Scott Pruitt will also be closely followed by those in South Florida. Miami Beach is experiencing increased flooding in its streets at spring tides due to sea level rise and this will only get worse if no action is take to curb carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. California will also be keeping a close eye considering their struggle with drought and water shortages.

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Scott Pruitt

Can the EPA just ignore climate change?

Well, it’s not that the EPA is ignoring climate change. I am sure the EPA is full of scientists who just want to get on with their work, but are being forced into silence by the Trump administration. As former EPA scientists stated: “Reasoned action and acknowledgment of scientific truth are fundamental to democracy, public health, and economic growth. Scientific evidence does not change when the administration changes.” However, the results of EPA studies must now all undergo political review before the information can be passed to the press. Politics should never interfere with the distribution of scientific findings and fact. The public face of the EPA can deny climate change as much as they want, but that doesn’t stop it from existing. It DOES exist and we need to do something about it. Even FOX news network, a normal ally and favourite of Donald Trump roasted Scott Pruitt in an interview over his beliefs.

Budget Cuts

Republican congressman, Matt Gaetz has recently released text of a proposed bill to abolish the EPA. Luckily, nothing seems to have come of that, but Trump has since released his budget proposals and it’s not good news for the EPA. The proposal would see the EPA have its funding cut by almost a third and roughly one in five EPA employees would lose their jobs. Funding reductions would mean the cancellation of all climate change research and even a reduction in the air and water quality work they do. In addition, the Clean Power Plan, along with 50 plus other initiatives would be scrapped.

Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan was one of the best things, at least in my mind, to come out of the Obama administration: a plan to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. As one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, the USA needs a plan like this to get on track with tackling climate change.  However, all Trump wants to do is increase jobs by bringing coal plants back on line and increase the use of oil and gas.  In a recent speech he continually talked about “clean coal”, a contradiction if ever I heard one. Even industry leaders in the fossil fuel sector believe that coal has had its day. There is a grain of hope as the proposal does still have to pass Congress, but that is controlled by Republicans so I am not sure how much resistance it will receive.

Clean Water

Trump is currently asking the EPA and Army Corp of Engineers to review the Waters of the US rule, which expanded the authority of regulators over waterways and wetlands. The rule is disputed by landowners and developers who think it has been too overreaching in its powers, but I think it is very sensible. It helps prevent people polluting drinking water and draining wetlands, effectively saving the environment in cases where development or farming methods are too intensive or not suitable to the land. In the UK we have a similar thing called the Environment Agency which has helped clean up our waterways immensely in conjunction with the relevant local water authorities and councils. It issues fines where rules have been flouted but I don’t see why the US think that is an overreaching power. If a regulation has been broken, there should be some penalty in place to discourage further flouting of the law. I think it’s clear from this that the Trump administration are more concerned about putting people in work than having clean air and water.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s clear that big changes are afoot for the EPA and the USA as a whole. It will take a while to see what the impact of the Trump administration is going to be, but initial signs indicate less protection for environmental resources, and a move away from curbing climate change to increased use of fossil fuels. Among all this doubt though there is certainly resistance. Most recently the Natonal Resources Defence Council and Pesticide Action Network have filed a case against the EPA over its move to ignore the results of a scientific study stating the pesticide chlorpyrifos has links to brain damage. I wish them the best of luck in taking on the EPA and am sure this will be the first of many challenges against the EPA if they continue on in this way.

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Hinkley Point C – Alternatives to Nuclear Ideology

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Image: Jose Juan Castellano

As we saw in the last post plans for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, Somerset have been beset by troubles. This next post aims to detail further problems with a nuclear strategy for the UK, and highlight the alternatives to achieve a genuine low-carbon energy sector.

The Problems

Hinkley Point C (henceforth just Hinkley) is simply another example of the current UK government engaging with projects not for economic or environmental concerns, but for ideological reasons. For example, “taxpayers could end up paying more than £30bn through a range of subsidies” in order to support the new power station because it is not profitable by itself (Business Leader, 2016). Advisors in DECC (when it existed) also had links to EDF, which could explain the preferential treatment given to nuclear energy (Clarke, 2016) despite the fact that the current set price for electricity generated from the power station offered by the UK government is double average wholesale electricity prices (Elmes, 2016), representing another loss for the average UK citizen. As if that wasn’t enough,

“The predicted cost of Hinkley Point C has steadily risen from £14bn to £24.5bn and has steadily risen from earlier estimates of £16bn. The complexity of the project is enormous, due to what is believed to be by many to be an over-engineered design. There are also reported issues regarding the manufacture of the reactor pressure vessel for the EPR [European Pressurised Reactor] associated with anomalies in the composition of the steel.” (Freer, 2015)

These defects – enormously dangerous in a nuclear power station – are down to the French nuclear firm Areva, responsible for leading the construction of Hinkley, misreporting or failing to report key information in their quality control documents. As a result Hinkley – and other nuclear power plants around the world – may be using components that would be unable to “withstand sudden breakdown in certain conditions” (Boren, 2016).

On the bright side, we won’t have to worry about these manufacturing errors causing problems in the immediate future. Due to ongoing delays “Hinkley C is unlikely to produce electricity much before 2030” (Carrington, 2016a). By the time it is online it is likely to face ongoing problems due to extreme weather events caused by climate change (if global warming hasn’t been mitigated appropriately by then). Nuclear power stations are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather as these events

“could disrupt the functioning of critical equipment and processes that are indispensable to safe operation including reactor vessels, cooling equipment, control instruments and back-up generators.” (World Energy Council, 2014)

So at the moment we are looking forward to a nuclear power station billions over budget, not scaled to be completed until 2025 (Farrell, 2016), and subsequently vulnerable to storm damage and rising sea levels.

On top of this the justification that Hinkley will provide the UK with “baseload”power that is “vital to the UK” (EDF, 2016) is a myth. The importance of the new power station “has been repeatedly overplayed” (Gosden, 2016) and “the idea of large power stations [nuclear or not] for baseload is outdated” (Beckman, 2015). Practical experience, such as the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein running on 100% renewable energy, and a host of studies and computer simulations of electricity markets and supply-demand systems prove that monolithic power stations providing baseload power are not required (Diesendorf, 2016). Other studies have shown that closing down nuclear power stations and transitioning to renewable energy provides a host of environmental and economic benefits without jeopardising energy security (Phys.org, 2012; Gawel & Strunz, 2014).

Additionally, any employment supported by the construction of Hinkley will be temporary and filled by overseas workers, and less than a thousand jobs will be “created” for day-to-day operations (Fairlie, 2016). Jobs in the renewable energy sector far outweigh nuclear jobs. It is no surprise then that public support for Hinkley is very low (Chrisafis, 2016; Pagnamenta, 2016). There are even internal disputes within the board of EDF, with worker representatives filing “a challenge to overturn the company’s controversial decision to build the nuclear reactors” due to essential information about the power station not being shared with all board members (Chrisafis, 2016).

So we have seen that nuclear energy would be problematic for UK, and if Hinkley Point C were allowed to develop it would be a tacit endorsement for further nuclear development regardless of its practicality. So what are the alternatives?

The Solutions

The current situation seems dire. At the moment “the percentage of energy Britain now has to import has returned to the levels last seen in the early 1970s, before North Sea oil came on stream” (Elliott, 2016). This is a fear that the nuclear industry has exploited in order to appear as a solution. But as Elliott continues, “the cost of renewables are coming down all the time”. To develop a practical, secure energy supply requires the UK “to move away from large Hinkley-type projects” (Business Leader, 2016). This is not only an environmentally safer option but more economically secure – the thinktank Intergenerational Foundation found that “Britain would pay up to £40bn less for renewable alternatives that would generate the equivalent power to Hinkley over the plant’s planned lifetime” (Vaughan, 2016a). For the UK to pursue nuclear energy when “the world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale” and with global installations of renewable energy projects surpassing “100,000 megawatts of capacity” in 2014 seems ludicrous (Steiner, 2015). As The Economist (2016) reports,

“Since Hinkley became a serious proposal less than a decade ago, the cost of nuclear power has increased, that of renewables has fallen and the price of battery storage—which could one day disrupt the entire power system—has plummeted. What is more, EDF’s nuclear technology has failed to get off the ground in the two projects in Finland and France that have sought to use it.”

So what are our options? Let us assess the evidence.

Wind

The world’s largest offshore windfarm was recently approved by the UK government, set to be constructed 100km off the Yorkshire coast (Anthony, 2016). It will provide power to almost two million homes when completed. As more of these windfarms are constructed (there are currently thirty offshore windfarms in UK territory) the energy generated will steadily become more reliable – as den Rooijen (2016) explains, “if the wind doesn’t blow in one [area], the wind blows in another, and the net effect is that the combined power output is less variable”. He continues

“At present, we have 2,200 wind turbines in operation and under construction, taking up less than 1% of our total seabed. National Grid estimates that nearly half of all power could be generated from our seabed by 2030 through offshore wind, combined with tidal power lagoons and strong electrical connections to our neighbouring countries.”

With 5GW (gigawatts) of offshore wind energy and 9GW of onshore wind currently online with new projects constantly in the pipeline (e.g. Hornsea Projects 1, 2, and 3) the 3.2GW that Hinkley will provide seems insignificant by comparison (Macalister, 2016a).

At the moment offshore windfarms are already being built at cheaper prices than Hinkley, and will meet 10% of the UK’s electricity demand by 2020 (Sauven, 2016; Macalister, 2016b) while Hinkley will only produce 7% when it is finally built in 2025 (ignoring delays common with the reactor design – see Stacey & Burgis, 2016). Looking to land, the UK government’s own calculations predict that “onshore wind power and large-scale solar [will] cost less per megawatt hour than new nuclear by 2025” (Vaughan, 2016b). Renewables will also be cheaper to build – the Intergenerational Foundation found that onshore wind power would be £31.2 billion cheaper than Hinkley whilst producing the same amount of energy over a thirty-five year period (Simms, 2016).

In reality the UK has exploited less than 1% of its offshore wind energy potential – a total of 675GW is economically feasible, which is more than six times the UK’s current electricity demand (Cavazzi & Dutton, 2016). The potential for wind energy alone dwarfs UK nuclear power.

Solar

Solar power is similar to wind power – it is cheap, efficient, and a far better alternative to nuclear projects like Hinkley. By 2025, large-scale solar is expected to cost between £50 and £75 per megawatt hour, according to the UK government’s energy department, whereas nuclear power is expected to cost “around £85-125/MWh, in line with the guaranteed price of £92.50/MWh that the government has offered Hinkley’s developer, EDF” (Vaughan, 2016b). The Intergenerational Foundation’s report consolidates the cheapness of solar compared to nuclear, citing evidence that solar power in the UK would be £40 billion cheaper compared to Hinkley over the thirty-five year contract period (Simms, 2016).

Solar power is now 50% cheaper than it was in 2011, and “more than 800,000 homes now have rooftop solar” (Sauven, 2016) proving its effectiveness. Solar power recently beat coal power in the UK for the first time some months ago, generating “1,273 gigawatt hours of power” in May, beating the 778 gigawatt hours generated by coal (Evans, 2016), showcasing its ability to outclass fossil fuels in power generation.

Looking past simple economic comparisons, solar power arrays can also enhance biodiversity as they take up only a small percentage of the land and often allow insect species “to thrive” compared to arable land (Solarcentury, 2014). A more recent study found that “solar farms can lead to an increase in the diversity and abundance of broad leaved plants, grasses, butterflies, bumblebees and birds” (Montag et al., 2016). Solar power on agricultural land is also a possibility – a 2013 study published in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology found that crops under a “half-density” array of solar panels “were just as productive as the ones in the unshaded control plots; in a few cases, they were even more productive”and that “shading irrigated vegetable crops with PVPs [photovoltaic panels] allowed a saving of 14 percent to 29 percent of evapotranspired water, depending on the level of shade created and the crop grown” (Marrou et al., 2013). Solar power is thus an effective energy delivery strategy without having to sacrifice grassland or arable land, compared to the large footprint required of nuclear power stations like Hinkley.

Other Possibilities

Solar and wind power are not the only alternatives to Hinkley available to us – there is a miscellany of other technologies available. Wave energy devices, for example, placed in the “most economic areas” around the UK’s coast could generate up to 10GW, which equates to “11% of the UK’s current power generation” (Carbon Trust, 2012).

Instead of producing additional power, increased energy efficiency measures in the UK would make projects like Hinkley obsolete. Improving efficiency could, according to various authors, reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of four to six Hinkley power stations (DECC, 2012; Blackman, 2016) and save billions of pounds a year. As Damian Carrington (2016b) writes,

“Energy efficiency could deliver six Hinkley’s worth of electricity by 2030, interconnector cables to Norway, Denmark and France could add another two or three Hinkleys to the grid by 2025 and four Hinkleys’ worth of electricity could be saved by 2030 by increasing the ability to store electricity and making the grid smarter, with the latter alone saving bill payers £8bn a year.”

These trends in efficiency, smart grids, and better energy storage won’t go away – “the National Grid predicts that in some scenarios by 2020, small-scale and distributed generation will represent a third of total capacity in the UK” (Sauven, 2016).  This is simply proof that the age of megaprojects like Hinkley is over – the UK needs to focus on connecting “consumption as well as supply and think more decentralised than central” (Elmes, 2016).

Is it Possible?

These technics are far from implausible – many of them rely on technology that exists today and trends that are already occurring. If Hinkley Point C is cancelled (and it should be) additional renewable energy projects can “plug significant gaps in capacity very quickly – much more quickly than long lead time and significantly delayed new nuclear” (Caldecott, 2016). The recent analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit using “ultra-conservative” estimates and considering “only mature technologies” succinctly surmised that “Hinkley is not essential” (ECIU, 2016), contrary to the assertions of the EDF chief executive (de Rivaz, 2016).

As Gawel and Strunz (2014) wrote in their case study of Germany’s nuclear phase-out, it is less about technology and more about providing a “a long-term transition perspective and a stable political consensus” that will encourage the development of renewable energy and not so-called “low-carbon” energy sources like nuclear or gas. This social and political shift will readily yield “measurable economic and environmental benefits” (Phys.org, 2012).

Many studies and analyses looking at the possibility of a long-term, global shift to renewable energy have found that it is plausible and easily achievable. EDF’s claim that we shouldn’t “hope that a new technology will meet all our needs” is unfounded and false – we don’t need “new” technologies because existing ones are more than enough (de Rivaz, 2016). Such claims muddy the waters when it comes to discussing a sustainable future and betray the wants of large energy corporations like EDF who are threatened by the coming wave of renewable and decentralised energy technologies. In fact, pursuing the idea of nuclear power as part of the UK’s energy strategy would be harmful to genuine renewable energy uptake – a study by the University of Sussex found that countries like the UK who are “nuclear-committed” and plan to replace old nuclear power plants with newer models are slower to adopt renewable energy and reduce the carbon intensity of energy generation (Lawrence et al., 2016; Cuff, 2016). The study identified that

“progress in both carbon emissions reduction and in adoption of renewables appears to be inversely related to the strength of continuing nuclear commitments.”

Thus any and all assertions that nuclear power should be a component of the UK’s energy strategy are detrimental in the long-term.

Jacobson and Delucchi (2010) in a peer-reviewed study found that instituting a global infrastructure based on wind, water, and solar energy could not only meet the world’s energy needs but reduce “world power demand by 30%”. In a growing trend, they emphasise that “barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic”. Schwartzman and Schwartzman’s (2011) similar study, published via the Institute for Policy Research & Development, found that a global transition to (only) wind and solar power could

“occur in two or three decades and requires very little fossil fuel (on the order of one half of a year’s present global consumption) and no revolutionary technological innovations.”

As far back as 2004 one peer-reviewed study identified that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” (Pacala and Socolow, 2004).

Importantly though, we cannot wait for these energy trends to unfold by themselves. Many political and economic actors will work and lobby to ensure that energy systems in the UK remain centralised and based on scarce supplies of fossil fuels, the better to control energy distribution in a country gripped by the worst inequality in decades (Williams-Grut, 2015; Reuben, 2015). But as Podobnik (2010) warned

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.”

A mass social movement in the UK calling for fair, equitable, renewable energy generation (e.g. plasmatelly, 2014) is thus required to not only break the trend of monolithic, centralised energy projects being built, but also to protect and defend the environment from the biocrisis (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009). Projects like Hinkley Point C must be opposed whenever they emerge. Any form of society that hopes to survive in the coming decades can and must be powered by renewable energy.

References

Anthony, S. (2016). World’s largest offshore windfarm in Yorkshire approved by UK government. http://arstechnica.co.uk/science/2016/08/world-largest-windfarm-hornsea-two-uk/ Accessed 22/08/16

Beckman, K. (2015). Steve Holliday, CEO National Grid: “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated”. http://www.energypost.eu/interview-steve-holliday-ceo-national-grid-idea-large-power-stations-baseload-power-outdated/ Accessed 21/08/16

Blackman, J. (2016). The role for energy storage as an alternative to Hinkley Point C. http://www.energy-storage.news/analysis/the-role-for-energy-storage-as-an-alternative-to-hinkley-point-c Accessed 27/08/16

Boren, Z. D. (2016). Hinkley builder admits defective parts may be found in nuclear plants around the world. https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2016/06/18/flamanville-defective-parts-around-the-world/ Accessed 21/08/16

Business Leader (2016). Security is not the only reason to cancel Hinkley. There are many others. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/14/hinkley-point-security-not-only-reason-to-cancel-many-others Accessed 20/08/16

Caldecott, B. (2016). Keeping the lights on: security of supply after coal. http://www.brightblue.org.uk/images/lightson.pdf Accessed 27/08/16

Carbon Trust (2012). Revealed: the UK’s wave power hot spots. https://www.carbontrust.com/about-us/press/2012/10/revealed-the-uks-wave-power-hot-spots/ Accessed 27/08/16.

Carrington, D. (2016a). Five ways to power the UK that are far better than Hinkley Point. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/mar/18/five-ways-to-power-the-uk-that-are-far-better-than-hinkley-point Accessed 21/08/16

Carrington, D. (2016b). Hinkley’s nuclear plant fails all tests – bar the politics. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-plant-fails-all-tests-bar-the-politics Accessed 27/08/16.

Cavazzi, S., Dutton, A. G. (2016). An Offshore Wind Energy Geographic Information System (OWE-GIS) for assessment of the UK’s offshore wind energy potential. Renewable Energy 87 (1), 212-228.

Chrisafis, A. (2016). EDF representatives file legal challenge in France over Hinkley Point. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/31/edf-representatives-file-legal-challenge-in-france-over-hinkley-point Accessed 01/09/16

Clarke, J. S. (2016). Hinkley C: government’s ‘revolving door’ to EDF execs. http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/2988011/hinkley_c_governments_revolving_door_to_edf_execs.html Accessed 21/08/16

Cuff, M. (2016). Study: Countries that support nuclear energy lag on climate targets. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2468561/study-countries-that-support-nuclear-energy-lag-on-climate-targets Accessed 28/08/16

DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] (2012). Capturing the full electricity efficiency potential of the UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/capturing-the-full-electricity-efficiency-potential-of-the-uk–2 Accessed 27/08/16.

Diesendorf, M. (2016). Dispelling the nuclear ‘baseload’ myth: nothing renewables can’t do better! http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987376/dispelling_the_nuclear_baseload_myth_nothing_renewables_cant_do_better.html Accessed 21/08/16

ECIU [Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit] (2016). Hinkley: What If? Can the UK solve its energy trilemma without Hinkley Point C? http://eciu.net/reports/2016/hinkley-what-if-can-the-uk-solve-its-energy-trilemma-without-hinkley-point-c Accessed 28/08/16

EDF (2016). Why Hinkley Point C is vital to the UK. https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c/why_we_need_HPC Accessed 21/08/16

Elliott, L. (2016). UK green energy sector needs nurturing over nuclear. https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2016/aug/15/uk-green-energy-sector-needs-nurturing-hinkley-point-nuclear Accessed 22/08/16

Elmes, D. (2016). As Hinkley Point C put on ice: the UK needs to get over energy megaprojects. https://theconversation.com/as-hinkley-point-c-put-on-ice-the-uk-needs-to-get-over-energy-megaprojects-63166 Accessed 21/08/16

Evans, S. (2016). Analysis: Solar beats coal over a whole month in UK for first time. http://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-solar-beats-coal-over-a-whole-month-in-uk-for-first-time Accessed 27/08/16

Fairlie, I. (2016). If it’s jobs they want, Labour and the unions must back renewables, not Hinkley C! http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988060/if_its_jobs_they_want_labour_and_the_unions_must_back_renewables_not_hinkley_c.html Accessed 01/09/16

Farrell, S. (2016). Hinkley Point C: what you need to know about the nuclear power project. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/07/hinkley-point-c-what-you-need-to-know-nuclear-power-station Accessed 21/08/16

Freer, M. (2015). Simpler, smaller, cheaper? Alternatives to Britain’s new nuclear power plant. https://theconversation.com/simpler-smaller-cheaper-alternatives-to-britains-new-nuclear-power-plant-48071 Accessed 21/08/16

Gawel, E., Strunz, S. (2014). Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power is fundamentally sensible from an economic perspective. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/10/27/germanys-decision-to-phase-out-nuclear-power-is-fundamentally-sensible-from-an-economic-perspective/ Accessed 22/08/16

Gosden, E. (2016). Hinkley Point not necessary to keep the lights on, says SSE chief. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/16/hinkley-point-not-necessary-to-keep-the-lights-on-says-sse-chief/ Accessed 21/08/16

Institute for Experimental Freedom (2009). Introduction to the Apocalypse. https://www.indybay.org/uploads/2009/12/02/apocalypse_read.pdf Accessed 28/08/16

Jacobson, M. Z. & Delucchi, M. A. (2010). Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power. Energy Policy 39 (3), 1154–1169.

Lawrence, A., Sovacool, B., Stirling, A. (2016). Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence? Climate Policy 16 (5).

Macalister, T. (2016a). Hinkley Point C is not only new energy option, says windfarm developer. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/aug/04/windfarms-hinckley-point-plant-henrik-paulsen-dong Accessed 23/08/16

Macalister, T. (2016b). Crown estate wades into Hinkley Point nuclear debate. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/14/crown-estate-hinkley-point-nuclear-debate Accessed 22/08/16

Marrou, H., Guilioni, L., Dufour, L., Dupraz, C., Wery, J. (2013). Microclimate under agrivoltaic systems: Is crop growth rate affected in the partial shade of solar panels? Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 177, 117-132.

Montag, H., Parker, G., Clarkson, T. (2016). The Effects of Solar Farms on Local Biodiversity: A Comparative Study. http://www.solar-trade.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/The-effects-of-solar-farms-on-local-biodiversity-study.pdf Accessed 25/08/16

Pacala, S., Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305, 968-972.

Pagnamenta, R. (2016). Hinkley nuclear support falls as majority oppose China role. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hinkley-nuclear-support-falls-as-majority-oppose-china-role-23lgfff3g Accessed 01/09/16

Phys.org (2012). Bulletin: German nuclear exit delivers economic, environmental benefits. http://phys.org/news/2012-11-bulletin-german-nuclear-exit-economic.html Accessed 22/08/16

plasmatelly (2014). Communising energy: power to the people! https://libcom.org/blog/communising-energy-power-people-18022014 Accessed 28/08/16

Podobnik, B. (2010). Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. In: Abramsky, K.. ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-petrol World. AK Press, Oakland, 72-80.

Reuben, A. (2015). Gap between rich and poor ‘keeps growing’. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32824770 Accessed 28/08/16

de Rivaz, V. (2016). ‘New nuclear’ has to be part of our low-carbon energy future. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/27/new-nuclear-has-to-be-part-of-our-low-carbon-energy-future/ Accessed 28/08/16

den Rooijen, H. (2016). Hinkley C’s future is in doubt. Let’s turn our sights to offshore wind. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/14/hinkley-cs-future-is-in-doubt-lets-turn-our-sights-to-offshore-wind Accessed 22/08/16

Sauven, J. (2016). For a secure energy future, there are far better investments than Hinkley. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/08/for-a-secure-energy-future-there-are-far-better-investments-than-hinkley Accessed 23/08/16

Schwartzman, P. D. & Schwartzman, D. W. (2011). A Solar Transition is Possible. Institute for Policy Research & Development, London.

Simms, A. (2016). Toxic Time Capsule: Why nuclear energy is an intergenerational issue. http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Toxic-Time-Capsule_Final_28-Mar.pdf Accessed 23/08/16.

Solarcentury (2014). Further evidence supports opportunity for creating bio-diverse solar farms. http://www.solarcentury.com/uk/media-centre/evidence-supports-opportunity-creating-bio-diverse-solar-farms/ Accessed 25/08/16

Stacey, K., Burgis, T. (2016). EDF’s French nuclear plant faces years of further delay. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/73d62552-ec65-11e5-bb79-2303682345c8.html Accessed 22/08/16

Steiner, A. (2015). ‘The world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale’. https://www.theguardian.com/vital-signs/2015/apr/20/renewable-energy-global-trends-solar-power Accessed 22/08/16

The Economist (2016). When the facts change… http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21703396-hinkley-point-would-tie-britain-energy-system-already-out-date-when-facts Accessed 01/09/16

Vaughan, A. (2016a). Scrapping Hinkley for renewable alternatives would save ‘tens of billions’. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/05/scrapping-hinkley-for-renewable-alternatives-will-save-tens-of-billions Accessed 22/08/16

Vaughan, A. (2016b). Solar and wind ‘cheaper than new nuclear’ by the time Hinkley is built. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/11/solar-and-wind-cheaper-than-new-nuclear-by-the-time-hinkley-is-built Accessed 23/08/16

Williams-Grut, O. (2015). Here’s just how wealthy the top 1% in Britain are. http://uk.businessinsider.com/ons-chart-on-wealth-inequality-in-britain-2015-12 Accessed 28/08/16

World Energy Council (2014). Climate Change: Implications for the Energy Sector. http://www.worldenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Climate-Change-Implications-for-the-Energy-Sector-Summary-from-IPCC-AR5-2014-Full-report.pdf Accessed 21/08/16

Part 1: Hinkley Point C – What is all the fuss about?

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Image: Adrian Sherratt

You may have seen in the news recently much debate about the new nuclear reactor planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset. EDF had been wondering whether to finance it, Theresa May is delaying the decision, but what is really going on? This post aims to clear up the situation.

UK Government

The government gave the go ahead for new nuclear power stations back in 2006, stating they would make a “significant contribution” to energy generation, considering we are phasing out coal fired power stations. Before Hinkley C the last new nuclear station was Sizewell B which opened in 1995.

The new power plant at Hinkley C will purportedly provide just 7% of our electricity. For some silly reason we have also agreed to pay double the current market price for it over 35 years. To even a passing reader this seems rather expensive to fulfill not much of our energy needs. In comparison, gas power stations are £27.50 per MWh less expensive at generating energy. The executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, says it is “terrible value for money”.

Amber Rudd, the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, emphasised “we have to secure baseload electricity”. However, more and more research is suggesting the idea of needing power stations to maintain baseload is a fallacy. Practical experience shows that renewable energy can easily cope alone. As an example, the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany already use 100% renewable energy. This is a net figure because they trade with each other and between other states to achieve this, but does show with a bit of effort it is possible.

As for construction, at least that will provide 25,000 jobs, although it remains to be seen how many of them come from the local area. Once construction has finished 900 people will be employed to operate the station itself. What will it cost taxpayers? The government has insisted consumers will only have to pay about £10 per year for Hinkley C’s construction, but has provided no figures or evidence to back this up.

photo

EDF

EDF, the French power giant, has been tasked with building the power station. They have yet to complete building any reactors like those which will be used at Hinkley. The construction of their nuclear power plant at Flamanville in France has had many problems and is now years behind schedule and way over budget. I wonder if this is what we have to look forward to in the construction of Hinkley C? It certainly hints that the £10 per year cost to UK taxpayers is like rise and not just by a bit.

As EDF is 85% owned by the French government, any decision on this scale also effects them. They have been under strain to approve this project, even leading to EDF’s finance director, Thomas Piquemal, resigning reportedly amid fears the investment could damage EDF. In July the French Financial Markets Authority raided EDF’s offices, investigating claims they had misrepresented the cost of Hinkley. Some staff believe the project could sink the company, with the company warned its credit rating may be downgraded if it goes ahead. The French government have even offered to help bailout EDF to cover construction costs. Things are certainly not looking good for EDF as a company in its own right, and many are already calling Hinkley C a ‘white elephant’.

Assuming the plant gets built, what would happen should a future UK government decide to close it prior to 2060? Documents seen by The Guardian show that UK taxpayers could be left with a £22b bill if that were to happen. This gives EDF zero risk, but there could be numerous reasons why the UK may not want to continue for instance costs, loss of public confidence and a change in energy infrastructure (IS THIS THE RIGHT WORD?). Do we really want to be tied into such a contract?

Chinese Investment in Hinkley

Now EDF have finally made the decision to proceed with construction the Conservative PM Theresa May has decided to delay the start. May, as former home secretary, had apparently voiced concern about the attitude to Chinese investment in Hinkley, according to Vince Cable. The Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNCP) are providing a third of the £18b cost. It has recently been alleged that the CGNCP had conspired to produce nuclear material without the USA’s permission and were involved in nuclear espionage. Hardly an ideal start to a relationship that will have to last the duration of construction. Wisely, May and her ministers now want to read through the contract and make a final decision this autumn. However at this rate it is projected Hinkley C might not be up and working until 2030 due to delay after delay! Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy secretary, has called the handling of the situation “absolute chaos” and I am inclined to agree.

I understand the need to look at the fine print, but China has now said the delay is putting strain on UK – China relations and warn we are at a “crucial historical juncture”. It isn’t good to rely on any country too much, but the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, says China have already “invested more in the UK than in Germany, France and Italy combined over the past five years”. China is such a super power and their decisions effect us on a day to day basis. Annoying them post-Brexit would not be a smart move and the UK would be wise to consider the current position they have put themselves in.

Conclusion

Hinkley C has been dogged by investment and costs issues from the start and its construction has barely started which is hardly a good omen. Why haven’t the UK decided to look into renewable energy instead of nuclear? Is the government determined to deny climate change is happening and avoid the fact renewables are the way forward? Or have they decided to proceed because it would be far to complicated to stop what is in motion already? These are questions which will be addressed in our next post.

Links that provided information for this post:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/30/theresa-may-delayed-hinkley-point-chinese-beijing-vince-cable

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36921785

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-to-go-ahead-after-edf-board-approves-project

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36903904

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37016120

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-36897180

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/11/nuclear-espionage-charge-for-china-firm-with-one-third-stake-in-hinkley-point

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/08/china-warns-uk-relations-historical-juncture-hinkley-point-liu-xiaoming

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2016/jul/28/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-plant-fails-all-tests-bar-the-politics?CMP=share_btn_tw

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/18/hinkley-point-c-nuclear-deal-22bn-poison-pill-taxpayer

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/17/french-government-edf-united-front-hinkley-point-money-nuclear-plant-union

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/11/nuclear-espionage-charge-for-china-firm-with-one-third-stake-in-hinkley-point

http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987376/dispelling_the_nuclear_baseload_myth_nothing_renewables_cant_do_better.html

 

New posts coming soon

It has been a while since we last posted a series of posts as a team so we thought it was high time to get our act together.

In the coming months we shall be posting on a range of subjects all key to understanding how the environment will fair in the UK post-Brexit. We shall be spotlighting MPs, many newly appointed to the Cabinet by our new PM Theresa May, and definitely touching upon the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Their background prior to being assigned their new roles will be analysed as this if often a good indicator of what they will be like in office. We hope to cover topics including farming, fisheries, forestry, climate change and energy to name a few. In addition to these series of posts there may be reviews of TV programmes that focus on the environment. Personally, I am hoping to watch the latest installment of Hugh’s War on Waste (this evening at on BBC One at 9pm for those interested). Stay tuned!

The Impracticability of Fracking

One of the many gas flares that light up the night at the huge Bakken fracking operation in North Dakota. Photo credit: Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons

Energy use has increased throughout human history, rising tenfold since the twentieth century via a sixteen-fold increase in fossil fuel extraction (Smil, 2008). Fossil fuels have intrinsically linked themselves to today’s global economy and are essential for economic growth (Longwell, 2002; Leigh, 2008). Recent fears of “peaks” in the production of these non-renewable resources (e.g. Hirsch et al., 2005; Mohr, 2010; Patzek & Croft, 2010) have stimulated research and extraction of “unconventional” fossil fuels in order to offset these declines.

Whether an energy source is “conventional” or not relies upon technology and economics (Greene et al., 2006). Recent technological breakthroughs have allowed the extraction of shale gas, deposits of natural gas trapped in shale rock, via hydraulic fracturing. This process involves the injection of high-pressure fluids into shale rock formations underground, inducing fractures and releasing trapped gas deposits which travel to the surface (Hagström & Adams, 2012; Thompson, 2012; Hughes, 2013). Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is not a new process, but the scale of recent developments is unprecedented (Bierman et al., 2011; Guidotti, 2011).

With potentially huge reserves of shale gas now accessible (for US estimates see Engelder, 2011 and Hagström & Adams, 2012) proponents argue that shale gas should be used as a “transition fuel” between a fossil fuel economy and a renewable one (Charman, 2010). However, there are controversies surrounding the fracking industry, including whether shale gas is economically viable to extract (Hughes, 2013), issues with water contamination (Osborn et al., 2011; EcoWatch, 2013), health risks (Bamberger & Oswald, 2012), and its contribution to the greenhouse effect and global warming (Howarth et al., 2012). Should there be a complete ban on shale gas extraction via fracking, or a temporary moratorium to allow for a comprehensive assessment? Is shale gas a worthwhile investment, or should we be implementing cleaner, renewable alternatives?

There is no doubt that improvements in hydraulic fracturing and in the gas industry as a whole have allowed new access to large deposits of shale gas, with reserve estimates in the US alone ranging from fourteen trillion cubic metres (Charman, 2010) to forty-two trillion cubic metres (Engelder, 2011). However, accounting for US natural gas consumption of almost seven hundred billion cubic metres annually (CIA, 2011), this will represent between twenty and sixty years of consumption. This clashes with the claims of a one hundred year supply frequently asserted by some (Nelder, 2011).

A further issue is the energy that shale gas can contribute to society. The ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of shale gas is around 5-6 : 1 (Heinberg, 2012; Hughes, 2013), a worryingly small amount compared to a global natural gas ERoEI of 30 : 1 in the 1950s (Gupta & Hall, 2011). Further energy in extraction is required for extracting and processing the gas (Charman, 2010), and the water-intensive process could “threaten the viability” of shale gas (Kent, 2012). Claims that focus on financial costs rather than net-energy costs also ignore the perpetual capital needed to maintain shale gas extraction, called the “drilling treadmill” (Rogers, 2013) and at the moment extraction is dependent on financial subsidies to remain profitable (Hughes, 2013).

Additionally, the legitimacy of shale gas as a “transition fuel” can be called into question. Stephenson et al. (2012) find that the best available evidence in the industry does not support the transition fuel claim. Furthermore, the emissions and greenhouse gas footprint are typically larger than other fossil fuels (Howarth et al., 2011; Hultman et al., 2011; Howarth et al., 2012). The International Energy Agency (2011) itself admits that shale gas extraction produces higher life-cycle emissions than natural gas. Can a resource that is dirtier than other fossil fuels be called a transition fuel?

Although risks to environmental and human health are prevalent with any method of energy generation, hydraulic fracturing nonetheless presents a unique case. Health-wise, the cocktail of chemicals in fracking fluids present the risk of chronic health problems (Thompson, 2012) including those neurological and respiratory (Lauver, 2012). Bamberger & Oswald (2012) also found a correlation, albeit weak, between gas extraction activities and livestock mortality. However, due to the pace of shale gas extraction in the US, there are yet no well designed studies on the potential health risks it entails (Hultman et al., 2011). Although there are possibilities for safer water use (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013), controversy remains over methane contamination of groundwater (e.g. Osborn et al., 2011 versus Etiope et al., 2013), although evidence abounds of methane leakage from poorly sealed well bores (Johnson & Boersma, 2013).

Further, regardless of its potential economic or social benefits, the issue remains regarding shale gas’ greenhouse gas emissions, where there is overwhelming consensus that its climate footprint is either equal or larger than other fossil fuels (Hultman et al., 2011; Hughes, 2011; Lior, 2011; Howarth et al., 2011; 2012; Jiang et al., 2011; Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). Indeed, even a global transition to conventional gas would provide minimal respite for the climate (Myhrvold & Caldeira, 2012) – what point does shale gas then have?

Combine these issues with significantly downgraded gas reserves in the US (Blohm et al., 2012; Hughes, 2014), doubts regarding its possibility to bring energy independence (Vaughan, 2014), and scepticism regarding the replication of the US “shale gas revolution” in the EU (Johnson & Boersma, 2013), and you have a clear result – shale gas is far from being a long-term energetic panacea. Banning fracking and promoting investment in low-carbon technologies and electric grids would be an environmentally, healthier, and economically more sound move (Paltsev et al., 2011; Howarth et al., 2012; Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013) The Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD) for example, has already calculated that by using 1% of current fossil fuel capacity it would be possible to replace our “entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less” (Schwartzman & Schwartzman, 2011).

It must be noted that shale gas extraction sites are heterogeneous regarding size, production rates, and safety, and so health hazards will vary between different areas (Jiang et al., 2011). Contrary to previous assertions however, shale gas extraction is still a hazardous method of energy extraction, with blowouts occurring in the Marcellus Shale (Zoback et al., 2010), and significant cancer and non-cancer risks affecting those living nearby shale gas extraction sites (McKenzie et al., 2012). Additionally, a historical perspective is required – shale gas was “elevated” as an alternative fuel in the US only after a string of catastrophes previously, including coal mine collapses, the Deepwater Horizon incident and the Fukushima meltdown (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). These high-impact/low-frequency events did well to remove coal, oil and nuclear power from the publically acceptable non-renewable energy portfolio.

It is also stressed previously that if shale gas is not an acceptable transition fuel (see Myhrvold & Caldeira, 2012; Stephenson et al., 2012), then what should be used in its stead? Some suggest the capital invested in shale gas extraction be diverted to smart electric grids (Howarth et al., 2012), or that shale gas can solve the problem of intermittency common with renewable energy (Carus, 2011). Despite this benefit however, shale gas extraction will simply reduce gas prices, which in turn will reduce the competitiveness of upcoming renewable technologies (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). An example is wind power in the US, where low gas prices have slowed or cancelled wind turbine construction (Greenwire, 2012; Wiser & Bolinger, 2012).

A more cynical outlook might proclaim that, despite the related health risks, low energy extraction, massive water consumption, and uncertain greenhouse gas footprint, fracking will continue regardless due to the consumption needs of the world and the “money to be made” (Rahm, 2011; Courtney, 2012). Can we afford to be complacent when the world we leave for our children and grandchildren is at stake?

The unviability of fracking is clear. There is no concealing the potentially huge resources of shale gas available for extraction, nor the (limited) economic benefits fracking can bring to a region via employment and energy independence. But evidence of groundwater contamination and potential health hazards reduce its viability. Add to this a larger climate footprint than coal, a low ERoEI, its water-intensive nature, and the economic problems shale gas has on truly renewable forms of energy, it becomes clear that fracking is neither economically or environmentally sustainable. It should not be pursued, and resources instead should be directed to truly renewable energy sources.


The author would like to apologise for those references which are unfortunately behind paywalls at the time of writing.

Tar sands and their environmental effects

The change in landscape from tar sands mining. Image from: portlandrisingtide.org

Previously I have used images to convey the physical and environmental impacts the extraction of oil sands, or tar sands is having. The impacts are both local to Alberta, Canada and global. In this post I shall briefly outline what exactly these are.

1) The tar sands are being mined for oil, the use of which generates greenhouse gases. However, the method of extraction used with tar sands means the total greenhouse gas emissions is much higher than conventional extraction, therefore there will be a bigger impact on climate change. 1

2) As can be seen in the above picture, the landscape used to be boreal forest. Deforestation means there are fewer trees to take up carbon, one of the main greenhouse gases. I’m pretty sure everyone would prefer to look at boreal forest than the horrible landscape created by tar sands mining.

3) The destruction of the boreal forest also means the destruction of habitat for many species. Who knows how many animals have suffered as a consequence? Just the loss of one species in an area can have a profound impact on the way an ecosystem works.

4) Large amounts of water are diverted from the Athabasca River. It is then superheated and injected underground in order to make the bitumen fluid enough to pump to the surface. One estimate is that three barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil. This means less water available further downstream. 2

Tailings pond. Image from: http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155010 Original source: http://www.niehs.nih.gov, by Jiri Rezac

5) Tar sands create tailings ponds, which are effectively large pools of waste from the extraction process. 3 These ponds are so large they can actually be seen from space. The fact that they are filled with toxic waste is a hazard enough, but they are endangering the First Nation communities in the area. The toxic waste has been found leaking into the Athabasca River and therefore their water supply, and there have been reports of elevated occurrences of cancers and other diseases in the area. 4 It is of course everyone’s right to have safe drinking water, but this is obviously being contravened in this case. The tar sands are also damaging sacred areas and affecting cultural practices. If this is the effect on the human population, who knows how the wildlife in the local area is being affected.

So there we have it, a list of some of the environmental impacts the oil sands, or tar sands, are having on both a local and global scale. We can try and ignore what is going on in Alberta, Canada but in the end it will affect all of us. People in the UK should especially be made aware that the government are actually delaying legislation on fuel quality which would aim to discourage high emissions fuels such as oil from tar sands. 5 Shell and BP are already involved, and the Royal Bank of Scotland is one of the major investors. 1 Countries are obviously so eager to keep using oil and other fossil fuels, and delay the switch to renewable as long as possible, that they don’t care what the environmental impact is anymore. It’s truly a tragic situation and I hope this post will make people more aware of what is happening in Canada.

For more statistics and facts, such as the potential area of tar sands extraction could cover an area the size of England, the Rethink Alberta website has quite a few.

Sources:

1. http://www.no-tar-sands.org/what-are-the-tar-sands/

2. http://portlandrisingtide.org/campaigns/tar-sands-oil-exports/tar-sands-faq/

3. http://www.pembina.org/pub/2470

4. http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Boiling%20Point.pdf

5. http://www.no-tar-sands.org/campaigns/dirty-diplomacy-tar-sands-lobbying-and-the-fuel-quality-directive/

 

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Solutions

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

So is there a solution to peak oil? Not exactly. The actions and strategies we will have to take emphasise a reduction of oil consumption so the impacts of peak oil are not so catastrophic, rather than “solving” peak oil itself. We can mitigate peak oil’s impacts, but we can’t stop peak oil itself.

It is important to emphasise here that there is no “techno-fix” solution. Technology cannot “solve” the problem of oil depletion, and as we’ve seen technology can in fact worsen the problem by accelerating resource exhaustion. The opening of unconventional oil reserves does not reduce oil consumption and has huge problems of its own, and because of the geological timescales needed to renew oil reserves it can only be treated as a finite resource. So what can we do?

The end of globalisation?

Global transport, both of goods and people, relies on inexpensive, energy-dense fuels like oil. 96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all global freight is via shipping, which itself is heavily dependent on oil. Professor Fred Curtis predicts that peak oil will contribute to a phenomenon he calls “peak globalization”, after which “the volume of exports will decline as measured by ton-miles of freight” due to oil depletion and the rising cost of oil-based fuels. This will reduce the length of global supply chains and thus cause the production of goods to be located closer to where they are consumed. As environmental scientist Peter Newman said,

“Localism is the required modus operandi for the post oil-peak world, just as globalism was for the cheap-oil era.” [x]

Although there are political issues with localism (see here and here) it will more likely than not be forced upon the world due to oil depletion and energy availability declines – as Richard Heinberg said, “It is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 45 percent decline in energy available to the world’s growing population over the next quarter-century”.  A localisation (or re-localisation) of industry and agriculture will be necessary to not only adapt to peak oil but also to re-integrate human society with its wider environment. Quoting Murray Bookchin at length is relevant here:

“The recent emphasis in environmental theory on “self-sufficiency,” if it does not mean a greater degree of prudence in dealing with material resources, is regressive. Localism should never be interpreted to mean parochialism; nor should decentralism ever be interpreted to mean that smallness is a virtue in itself. Small is not necessarily beautiful. The concept of human scale, by far the more preferable expression for a truly ecological policy, is meant to make it possible for people to completely grasp their political environment, not to parochially bury themselves in it to the exclusion of cultural stimuli from outside their community’s boundaries.” [x]

Regarding food production, an increase in farms using organic agriculture1 would aid in peak oil adaptation with a reduction of energy costs when accounting for the energy requirements in the manufacture and transport of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and biocides2. Localised organic agriculture would also boost local employment (UK models can be found here and here), improve economic independence and improve sustainability and producer-consumer relations.

An end to growth?

As mentioned in the previous article, peak oil has dire implications for the economic growth imperative via global capitalism. With volatile oil prices leading to an economic growth paradox, the place of economic growth as a basic element of modern society has to be called into question.

The shift from high-EROI non-renewable energy sources to low-EROI renewable energy sources will thus require a new economic model. The geophysicist M. King Hubbert, arguably the father of peak oil theory, assaulted what he called “the culture of money”, and advocated a steady state economy. He recommended an end to economic growth and a future society powered entirely by solar power. “We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.” The idea of a steady state economy is also advocated by ecological economist Herman Daly and organisations such as the UK Sustainable Development Commission and the Post Carbon Institute.

A more overtly anti-capitalist strategy is the concept of degrowth. According to Iris Borowy,

“The concept of degrowth emerged in the 1970s when scholars like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly challenged the conventional economic concept that unlimited economic growth was possible on a finite planet.” [x]

As an umbrella concept, Borowy says, it “entails a voluntary downscaling of the economy, notably its material production, consumption and waste, a voluntary, socially equitable and globally just simplicity which defines human well-being in terms of non-material meaning to life.” Degrowth is detailed by Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, and a (non-voluntary) example of degrowth in action is Cuba’s Special Period3.

Renewable shift

A massive shift to renewable energy is thus in order, though this will bring problems of its own. Some authors believe renewable energies will only cushion an inevitable decline in energy use per capita.

It is useful, however, to analyse the graph featured at the top of the article. As Vaclav Smil said,

“Higher energy use does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. [It] does not bring greater cultural flowering…social stability…[or] any meaningful increase in civilisation’s diversity.” [x]

That said, there are alternative ideas in place. Concepts such as Solar Communism have been proposed, and a recent report by the Institute for Policy Research & Development found that humanity “can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less…by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year.”

Alongside are constant improvements and advances in solar power, nuclear fusionThermoelectronics, and even Space-based solar power. Further improvements in efficiency are also a must for a post-oil transition (although Jevons Paradox must still be contended with).

The future

The scope of the problem is enormous and cannot be overstated. It will be extremely difficult; such changes are hardly in line with the dominant industrial-consumerist paradigm. But even though we may not like the idea of a global energy crunch, it would be utterly imprudent not to take the spectre of peak oil very seriously. As geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, fossil fuels such as oil were a one-time gift we used to lift ourselves from simple agriculture and propel ourselves into a renewable future. Oil must be conserved not for energy production but for petrochemical manufacture; likewise natural gas must be conserved for use in nitrogenous fertiliser production (securing supply for hundreds of years).

A post-petroleum society is an absolute necessity and utterly unavoidable. What matters is how soon the transition is; actions now will have far-reaching consequences as to the future state of civilisation on a global level.

“No social order can accomplish transformations for which it is not already internally prepared.” – Karl Marx

Organic agriculture is a system of food production that attempts to replace conventional inputs (synthetic pesticides; fertilisers) with more environmentally benign alternatives (e.g. manure; natural pest control; crop rotation) to create a more sustainable system, working with rather than against the agroecosystem. For further information and examples see Reganold et al., 2001Gomiero et al., 2011, and Altieri, 1995

2 For example, a Danish government study found that upon a 100% conversion of agriculture from conventional to organic in Denmark, total energy use declined by 9-51% depending largely on the prevalence of meat production in the new system. The report by Dalgaard et al. (2000) can be found here

Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace was a wartime economy-style austerity program following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1989/90. As the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade, Cuba suffered huge losses in imports, including fuel, food, biocides, and oil. It survived via a revival of agro-ecological agricultural techniques, localisation of food production, and emergency rationing, whilst safeguarding achievements in education and healthcare and ensuring equitable food distribution. For more detailed and nuanced information see Wright, 2005Funes et al., 2002, and Gonzalez, 2003

The oil, or tar, sands in Alberta, Canada

In this blog post I shall simply put some photos of the oil sands, which are also called tar sands in Alberta, Canada. This shall be followed up by an in depth blog post at a later date on the harmful effects of the tar sands on the environment.

Image credit: Nigel Allan/ WWF

Canadian tar sands mine. Image credit: Rezac/ WWF

Toxic waste stream. Image credit: Rezac/ WWF

Waste sludge. Image credit: Rezac/ WWF

Slag piles of coke. Image credit: http://beautifuldestruction.ca/ Louis Helbig

This is one of several sulfur piles. Image credit: http://beautifuldestruction.ca/ Louis Helbig

Snow floating over raw bitumen. Image credit: http://beautifuldestruction.ca/ Louis Helbig

The area should be boreal forest. Image credit: http://beautifuldestruction.ca/ Louis Helbig

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Impacts

Peak oil — why didn’t someone warn us?! Alan Moir – Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 2008

The previous peak oil articles have looked at several issues including the concepts of reserves and resources, conventional vs. unconventional oil, and the role of technology and economics in mitigating or accelerating oil depletion. In this article we’ll analyse the impacts of peak oil, and in the next one we’ll look at solutions.

Almost all aspects of the modern global economy are dependent on oil to a greater or lesser degree including agriculture, military, transportation, and industry. As Robert Hirsch stated in the Hirsch Report, “the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society”.

Economy

The economic implications of peak oil include the risk of a permanent economic recession  and indefinite financial crisis unless other fuels take the place of oil in the economy. As there exists a clear link between GDP growth and growth in oil consumption (e.g. here and here) “future growth in GDP must be dependent upon fuels other than oil if it is to continue as expected“.

World GDP growth and world oil production

World GDP growth and world oil production [x]

In order to reduce or prevent these adverse outcomes the use of oil in the economy must be “reduced to the point where it plays only a very minor role…but this needs to be accomplished in advance.” Authors such as Charles Hall et al. help illustrate the dependence of the global economy on oil as

…it is hard to ignore the coincident timing between the increases in the real price of oil culminating in the summer of 2008 and the subsequent financial collapse towards the end of the summer/fall 2008.” [x]

Peak oil will also affect other commodities and economically important activities, such as our extraction and use of other energy sources. As James Leigh states,

…without oil and its petrochemical products as an energy source, we are not able to use heavy machinery, and ships and transport vehicles. And so without oil and these machines we will not be able to neither extract nor transport coal, gas and uranium, nor the oil itself.” [x]

As a result, “when oil prices rise, so do the prices of food and many commonly purchased items.”

David Murphy and Charles Hall also believe that peak oil will lead to an “economic growth paradox”:

…increasing the oil supply to support economic growth will require high oil prices that will undermine that economic growth…[it] leads to a highly volatile economy that oscillates frequently between expansion and contraction periods.” [x]

The forced use of lower EROI fuels will ultimately will redirect energy from other economic activities to the refinement and extraction of these sources as unconventional sources “generally require more energy consumption at all stages of the processing chain, with the result that the net energy available for productive uses in society is likely to be reduced“. As Charles Hall so gloomily predicts:

…as the amount of net energy declines due to peak oil and declining EROI, humans will increasingly give up categories higher on the pyramids and concentrate increasingly on the more basic requirements including food, shelter and clothing. What this may mean in modern society is that performance art, then expensive vacations, then education, then health care would be abandoned by the middle class as the economy is increasingly restricted. Whether this can be reversed by diverting where and by whom we chose to spend such surplus money or energy as we have will be an increasingly dominant challenge to society.” [x]

Political

As expected, the peaking of oil supplies with have important geopolitical ramifications as the number of oil-exporting countries is reduced over time, redistributing political and economic power to the remaining importers. The number of net oil-exporting countries will be reduced from 35 in 2004 to between 12 and 28 by 2030, and some authors claiming that conflicts like the Iraq War are precursors

of the type of conflict we can expect under conditions of peak oil. That is, military action will be taken by countries intent on preventing disruptions in the production and transport of oil.” [x]

Additionally Dr. Jörg Friedrichs postulated a variety of hypothetical courses countries would take in the event of a “global energy crunch”. They include recourse to military strategy to control oil supplies, “totalitarian retrenchment” in a fashion similar to North Korea following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and “socioeconomic adaptation” to peak oil (which Friedrichs states “would be more difficult for people in Western countries, where individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism have held sway for such a long time that a smooth regression is hard to imagine”). Further, the rising supremacy of NOCs (National Oil Companies) compared to IOCs (International Oil Companies) would mean that in a peak oil scenario the major IOCs would face their “ultimate demise” within the next twenty years.

Disproportionate effects on the “developing” world are also predicted, as weakened or non-existence economic growth would massively affect “unemployment in poor megacities and in immigrant ghettos“, and a conflict between rapid oil depletion and the desire of most “developing” countries to rapidly industrialise may “work together to facilitate civilization clash in frantic efforts for each political bloc to secure the world’s oil resources” leading to the creation and destruction of old and new superpowers.

Transport

The overwhelming reliance of modern transport methods on oil means that the rising of oil prices in a peak oil scenario will incur a rise in transport costs. Shipping is particularly vulnerable, accounting for “96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all the freight carried globally“. Even transport infrastructure components like roads and paving are “unthinkable” without oil and oil-derived products. Peak oil in essence will lead to what Fred Curtis calls “peak globalization“, as global supply chains become shorter due to the effects on “both transportation costs and the reliable movement of freight”.

Agriculture

Albert Bartlett once said that “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food“, and this typifies agricultural systems under capitalism which are characterised via mechanisation, long transport distances, monocultures, and reliance on oil- and natural gas-derived fertilisers and biocides. This overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels (especially oil) means agricultural systems and thus food products in the industrialised world are extremely vulnerable to oil price fluctuations and reductions in oil supply. As the Government Office for Science reported,

The single external commodity that has the greatest effect on food prices is oil; it is also one of the most volatile. Oil prices affect food production through changes in the costs of energy, petrochemicals and fertilisers used in agriculture.” [x]

Our food systems that supply us with cheap, plentiful foodstuffs sometimes from hundreds of miles away rely on fossil fuels, and so quite simply are not sustainable. As Richard Heinberg warned, “the agricultural miracle of the 20th century may become the agricultural apocalypse of the 21st.”

In the final article of the peak oil series, we’ll look at the plethora of possible solutions and adaptation strategies humanity can use to face the looming problem of peak oil.