Wednesday, August 30, 2006

$100 Barrel means "Peak Oil".

According to a survey of economists, if the price of oil should rise to $100 a barrel, the result would be a recession of the U.S. economy. The rider, however, is that it is unlikely to get that high, according to the panel of 195 National Association for Business Economics forecasters. Should we be reassured by this, or not? That such a question needs to be asked is indeed astonishing, and pinpoints the clearly precarious nature of an expanding global economy fuelled by a relentless consumption of hydrocarbons by the industrialised nations, along with those growing economies in Asia which similarly rely on oil. Indeed, some industry insiders including the Algerian Energy and Mining Minister, Chakib Khelil, are of the opinion that the continued growth in China has caused such an upwardly consistent trend in oil prices that they are likely to approach $100 a barrel by the end of 2006.
As Chevron CEO, David O'Reilly has pointed out, half the world's exploitable oil has now been used, and although it took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of it, we will use the remaining trillion in just 30 years. This is terrifying. It means that we have reached the point of peak global oil production, but with the taps now fully open. This prediction is endorsed by Ali Bakhtiari, head of strategic planning at the Iran National Oil Company, Dr Colin Campbell, former executive vice president of Total-Fina and Mathew Simmons, an energy investment banker, who too believe that global oil production is about to peak.
Chris Skrebowski (whom I mention in my previous posting) is more specific, and has predicted that we are just 1,500 days away from "Peak Oil". This is not good news, considering that around 90% of all transport relies on oil, and around 95% of all goods sold in shops depend on such means to get them there in the first place. Food production is almost entirely dependent on oil or gas to produce fertilisers and pesticides, and of course the farming machinery and ultimate transportation of meat and crops is also powered by hydrocarbons.
Instability in the Middle East could spike the price of oil: for example if Iran, feeling increasingly beleaguered, decided to impose an oil blockade against the U.S. or Britain. How in all seriousness can the West impose "sanctions" against Iran, when it is the world's third greatest oil producer? Are we to believe that our governments will suddenly refuse to buy their oil from them? It is nonsense.
The aviation industry is described as "quaking" at the prospect of the $100 barrel, which will in effect introduce an economic machete to it. Cheap package flights will be a thing of the past, as airlines can no longer afford to offer them, with the knock-on effect that rising ticket prices will force down demand, and some airline companies out of business. However, compared to food production and supply this is the least of our worries.
The scenario is clear. The cost of everything will increase. Putting more expensive fuel into cars will take president over fuelling planes for foreign holidays. If it should become a choice between the car and food, then cars will litter the expanding road-networks, which are also built by means of oil. If people are unable to travel, they will be forced to act on a more local level.
There is no doubt about it - life is going to change, and perhaps become more boring in the sense of less luxury items (the "latest"...) on sale. However, I suspect we will need all our time and ingenuity to develop a programme for sustainable living. So, $100 a barrel by the end of the year or not, change will come sooner not later; there will be no choice, the economics of oil-pricing being merely a mirror to the imminent dearth in the physical availability and supply of oil.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Oil Prices will Rise until 2010!

Chris Skrebowski, the editor of Petroleum Review, has said that world production of petroleum ("oil") will peak at around 94 million barrels per day, an increase from the current roughly 86 million barrel daily output. He believes that the peak will hit in 2010, until when the price of oil will steadily increase, but will be subject to vagaries of weather or political disruption (war?) which could cause abrupt hikes in its price. It is clear that the global community must break its dependence on oil by developing new technologies, in order to avert disruption in energy supplies, a sentiment that Mr Skrebowski endorses, but I question whether that is in the slightest way likely given that we now have a bare three years left to do it in. As I have pointed out in these postings, any realistic substitution of conventional energy sources by e.g. hydrogen produced from wind-power, or from biofuels is unrealistic given the gargantuan scale of infrastructure that would need to be implemented to meet current and inexorably rising demand.
If peak oil is going to arrive in 2010, then the predicted rise in the price of oil will not then suddenly slacken-off, or fall. It can only get worse for a world that is inextricably enmeshed in a network of operations all of which rely on the supply of cheap oil; even those as fundamental as food production. Without the means of oil-derived chemical fertilisers and pesticides, it would be impossible to feed 6.5 billion people on planet Earth, and the sudden loss of their supply will spell disaster and "Die-off" on a terrible scale. There is an extensive but rather depressing internet site called "Die Off" which spells out some likely prognoses post Peak Oil (I wrote an early posting here called "Die Off", which distills the essence of what is at stake precisely), such as a fall in population by somewhere around 90% i.e. the death of sufficient people to reduce our total global number to under one billion, or put another way the loss of 9 out of 10 of us. I used the analogy of bacterial growth, that while there is sufficient food, the population follows an S-shaped curve (roughly exponential growth - as human population is growing now) , but this reaches a maximum, beyond which point the population falls, and in the world of the Petri-dish the bacteria begin to eat each other! In human terms this is hardly a pleasant scenario.
In the midst of all such considerations, the Hummer (and other SUV, 4 by 4 vehicles) gets some pretty bad press. There is an amusing link between two despised symbols of U.S. consumer capitalism, namely McDonalds and the Hummer, which is that among the range of "toys" given "free" to kids in order to encourage them to pester their parents into buying them their favourite "M(u)c(k) meal", is a baby Hummer. Nothing like cooperative indoctrination, is there? However, as far as the real vehicle is concerned, Ford is now heralding a slide in the market away from SUV's to smaller cars, and with its eye on future trends, the company is considering investing $1 billion in plants that will manufacture more "hybrid" vehicles. These are the cars that run on electric power "in traffic" but then burn gasoline at relatively high efficiency on longer hauls. Ford has conducted market research the results of which suggest that 70% of Americans (in their sample, at any rate!) are concerned about "green issues". However, a combination of this and moreover, I suspect, clean economics will drive the motor market away from gas-guzzling vehicles as fuel costs escalate - and they will, as they must - I would put money on it, albeit as I have noted, there is far more at stake than that!
Interesting research continues to come from Russia to the effect that there is in fact plenty of petroleum to be recovered. That may be true - I am no expert, but I do acknowledge there are alternative theories as to the origin of petroleum, beyond the one I learned at school about how it was formed from "cooking" plant and animal remains over long periods of history. There are variations on the deep-origin of petroleum, stemming from the great Russian chemist Mendeleev (who devised the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements - a work of commendable insight) who believed that it was of geological origin, probably formed by the reaction of water with iron carbides deep within the Earth. The late Thomas Gold proposed a modified version of the theory "The Deep Hot Biosphere" (the title of his book on the subject) in which bacteria living some kilometres underground are able to produce petroleum. Apparently there are a number of successful deep-drilling projects based around the Caspian Sea that might support this hypothesis (although some "conventional" oil experts think that there may be the filling of "deep" pockets from elsewhere by conventionally generated petroleum). The latest is that a group of Russian scientists led by Azary Barenbaum from the Russian Academy of Sciences , who argue that large reserves of hydrocarbons can be formed in only decades, not requiring millions of years, and the process is connected with the way carbon is transported into the earth by the hydrological (water) cycle which washes carbon from the surface (atmosphere) through rain, leading to the formation of oil and gas. They conclude that up to 90% of hydrocarbons are formed principally from hydrogen carbonate (HCO3-) ions at a depth of only 1 - 10 kilometres.
Hence there may well be more oil and gas than previously thought, but this still does not detract from the "Peak oil" (or eventual "Peak Gas") scenario, since that refers to the production of cheap oil (or gas), which probably will still peak. Even if the latter theory should prove correct we cannot wait for even decades until the reserves are replenished.
The question still remains of "What will the world do in the meantime?" Either way, we need to be saving oil... using less and preserving what we have.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Microprocessors - a Fragile Commodity - post "Peak Oil".

In July, I posted two articles about solar energy, and I estimated the amount of silicon that would be required to implement this technology on a scale to significantly supplant other (e.g. fossil fuel fired and nuclear) forms of electricity generation. If solar cells of ca 300 microns thickness were to be used, this amounts to 54 million tonnes of pure silicon, which may be compared with the 30,000 tonnes currently manufactured annually. Hence, a scale-up to around 100 times the present production capacity would be required to meet that demand over a 20 year period! Neither does the market auger well, since the existing and relatively minor increase in demand for silicon for photovoltaic technology has caused a bottleneck in supply, with the result that there is now a hike in the price of silicon. Placed in context, there is likely to be a rise in silicon contracts of around 50% to £31,000 per tonne this year over last. Spot prices are far greater, which some analysts put at around £130,000 per tonne. Ouch!!
I did note, however, that the quantity of silicon needed for significant production of electricity worldwide using photovoltaics could be dramatically reduced using "thin-film" silicon cells, otherwise I don't foresee its use on the wide scale, though it will remain important for niche applications. There is, however, pressure on other elements such as indium, in terms of the likely demand which could well exceed the available world resource of some of them.
Of course, a major use of ultra high purity silicon is in the fabrication of microprocessors "silicon chips" in computers. Where would the modern world be without them? I wouldn't be typing this here, and would need some other publication medium instead. A thin slice "a wafer" in accord with its extreme thinness, is first cut from a silicon crystal. The crystal does indeed consist of "silicon", since all traces of other materials are as far as possible removed, leaving silicon of 99.9999999% purity. A single atom of impurity in the wrong place can cause the silicon-based devices to "leak", and hence they are made under ultra-clean conditions, using ultra-high purity liquids and gases. The normal world of our experience, our bodies, water and air are too dirty to be admitted to any process involving chip manufacture. Mechanical dislocations on a minute scale are also enough to cause a chip to fail, hence they must also be engineered with inordinate precision.
John Hamaker wrote a book called "The Survival of Civilization" in the early 1980's in which he focussed principally on what factors might cause civilization to collapse. Hamaker was concerned particularly with the quality of soil, believing that it had become demineralized, but that if "rock dust" were deliberately ploughed into it, soil became far more fertile, and greater crop yields were obtained from it, of plants that were "healthier" since they too imparted minerals, into human and animal diets. He thought too, that "Remineralizing the Earth" (there is a group and web-site with that name) hold-back rising CO2 levels and allay global warming through helping the soil microbiota (bacterial and fungi etc.) to "fix" (absorb) CO2 from the atmosphere. Failure to do this, in his opinion, meant the collapse of civilization.
Surely civilization will collapse in the tailing availability of post-"Peak Oil", as it has become almost entirely reliant on cheap energy - much of that supplied in the form of oil, gas and coal, and from nuclear power, which requires the former primary fuels to extract its own uranium fuel. A strong case, as I have perhaps laboured in these articles to manoeuvre to a more localised social system, based around small largely self-sustaining communities.
A further factor is the matter of adaptation and knowledge. It is difficult for a complex society to adapt to such changes as I have just mentioned. Computers are by now absolutely central to the "global" economy upon which the modern world is based, for communication, and increasingly paper gives-way to electronic forms of data manipulation and storage. Most advanced machines, providing life-support in hospitals for example, require computers. How will we function if it is no longer possible to extract silicon and all the other raw materials, in order to fabricate computers, and luxuriate sufficient electricity to run them? How will we get hold of the "older" knowledge desperately needed by communities in the crisis that will inevitably follow Peak Oil?
We must begin to inaugurate a new infrastructure to cope in the "new world order" of things, which most likely will not involve computers. Sitting here typing this, such a world seems unthinkable, but we must think of it, and plan for sustainable existence within its scope.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Fall Follows (Hot) Summer.

As we enter the Autumn (known as the "Fall" in Old English, and hence in the U.S. and Canada) floods may follow the unusually hot summer we have "enjoyed" in the U.K. this year. Interestingly, in Turkey, there may well be a fall in electricity generating capacity as a consequence of the low water levels in reservoirs engendered by the "heatwave". I have noted in previous postings that there is a problem with providing enough water to meet our needs, particularly in the South East of the U.K., a situation that demands urgent attention and in particular the "fixing" of the national water supply infrastructure - "leaky pipes" and so forth. That would do the trick, but it is expensive and not necessarily at the top of the agenda for any nationalised industry that is accountable to its shareholders. Hence, it is likely there will be "new" reservoirs built - presumably, this is a cheaper and more "visible" option; meanwhile there will continue to be hosepipe bans and in the worst hit areas, more draconian measures are threatened (i.e. standpipes in the street).
It seems that the weather - capricious as it is - is now set to beset us with floods during the coming months, in an ironic turn of the screw. It is thought that a combination of unusually high tides and storms with heavy downpours may act in conspiracy to flood many parts of the country (we are a largely low-lying set of islands) just at a time when funding for flood defenses is being cut - for which the finger of culpability is being pointed at the government. Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell who is Head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University, has warned that the risk can only increase over time. The point is that a sense of "maybe" is created by such maverick shifts in funding which implies that there is uncertainty about the issue of floods, whereas in fact, implementing a coherent and consistent strategy over decades is mandatory. Sadly the electoral and political system does not match even short geological timescales.
There are two exceptionally high tides expected, the highest of which is due on the 9th of October. If they were to coincide with storm surges then severe coastal flooding is practically inevitable. Professor Penning-Rowsell said that there are three main threats from flooding. The first is to low-lying areas of Eastern England (around East Anglia) which is in any case at risk of inundation from rising sea levels. The second is the Thames Valley (mmm... that's where I live!) which is largely unprotected from flooding, and the third is London, which is at the mercy of exceptionally heavy downpours which can overwhelm the city's drainage system, built in Victorian times.
Turkey is also experiencing a shortage of water in its reservoirs. This could hit Turkish electricity production especially hard since much of the country's power is produced using hydroelectric generators. Water supplies at some rain-fed reservoirs are drying-up because of continuing high temperatures, so increasing the demand for water. As the nation swelters in 40 degree temperatures, people have clamoured to buy air-conditioners; however, the discounts offered by the retailers of these units were finally offset by an increase in the price of the electricity required to run them! In microcosm, this is what will happen over all our energy - overuse will be priced-out, therefore matching the production drop in oil and other sources.
Turkish demand for electricity has increased by 700 million kWh for the first 17 days of August this year compared to the same period in 2005, with an overall 8.2% increase for the first 8 months of this year compared to last.
Driven by a desire to avoid a nation-wide electricity shortage, ministry officials are considering using natural gas fired power stations. Nearly half of Turkey's electricity was produced from gas in July, but about a quarter from hydroelectric power. Such measures will result in a steady increase in demand for imported natural gas, however. To complete the balance sheet, I note that 18.5% of Turkey's electricity came from domestic lignite (a low-grade brown(ish) coal of fairly poor heat generating capacity), with around 6% from imported coal and 2% from fuel oil. Notably, nearly 3% came from other resources such as wind-power. Now that is higher than in the U.K., by a factor of about 10!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Madonna has "Cure" for Nuclear Waste.

The singer, Madonna, has apparently developed a "cure" to eliminate the Earth's nuclear waste based on a "magic" Kabbalah potion. She and her husband Guy Ritchie have been lobbying the nuclear industry over a plan to clean-up radioactive waste, and have contacted Downing Street (where Mr Blair lives), Whitehall and British Nuclear Fuels (Ltd.) proposing a "mystical" liquid that has already been tested with success in a Ukrainian lake, near Chernobyl. The creation of the potion apparently involves chanting the name "Chernobyl" and those of other nuclear power installations over the liquid as part of a Kabbalah ceremony, which confers upon it magical properties. One official is reported to have commented: " It was like a crank call... the scientific mechanisms and principles were just bollocks, basically."
However, civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry were obliged to take the couple seriously, presumably in view of their celebrity. The Kabbalah Centre, based in California, holds that water is a uniquely important material that can be imparted healing powers by "meditations and the sharing of consciousness." Madonna apparently believes that it is her mission on Earth to rid it of the problem of nuclear waste, as she made clear in newspaper interviews during her lobbying campaign of a few years ago, saying:
"I mean, one of the biggest problems that exits right now in the world is nuclear waste. That's something I've been involved with for a while with a group of scientists - finding a way to neutralise radiation, believe it or not."
Although a BNFL team have been unable to find any scientific validation that it works, I wonder whether they may be any basis. I have been unable to find any details of the "fluid" and so can do no more than speculate. For example, does it work in combination with natural minerals - i.e. "zeolites" - which as I have written about before are very effective in decontaminating radioactively contaminated land, materials, animals and people? That would have a sounder scientific underpinning, perhaps, but it is not clear why the Kabbalah water would be any better than ordinary water. I don't know if there is a mineral used anyway, of if the "fluid" is just poured into the contaminated lake, and "Hey Presto!" If so, then another explanation must be sought.
I am, however, open-minded, and since it is hard to disagree with Madonna that nuclear waste "is" a very large problem, perhaps all angles should be explored! I read recently about a material called "Brown's Gas" which can apparently substantially reduce the level of radiation emitted by "Actinium", I think? So there may be forces at work beyond those we are normally familiar with, which takes our understanding and faith into the Twilight Zone of "Cold Fusion" which is still being investigated. For sure, we do not understand many aspects of our world (let along the vast swathes of "The Universe"), but something pretty profound would need to have been missed to underpin these and many other proposed "alternative" phenomena - but perhaps it has?
Returning to rather more simple and mundane - but consequentially profound - matters, there remains the issue of "energy use" (and provision) to sort out. I have perhaps laboured the point is many of these postings that we need to use less energy, and that has to be "key" to devising any strategy to our future survival beyond a back-track to the Stone Age. I feel vindicated that many voices, even from the U.K. government, are now sounding along these lines too. Hence, there is a call for the return of the bicycle.
Rather as a rough estimate based on a head-count of the number of vehicles on the road in my immediate vicinity, I reckon that 90% of the requirement for liquid transportation fuel could be eliminated by a change of lifestyle. This would involve a similar "cut" in the number of plane flights too. Intriguingly, a recent study in Montana has concluded that about half of all car journeys (we are not specifying the type of "car", Hummer and its friends or not) are only 3 miles or less, and so could be made without resorting to the internal combustion engine. Making them by bicycle instead would save about 24 billion gallons of gasoline per year in the U.S. That's about 150 million barrels, or two days supply for the entire world.
Since the U.S. uses around one quarter of the world's oil if everyone took this simple expedient that would equate to eight days worth less to find of oil. If we move to an entirely more localised approach to life (that's on a daily basis but keeping truly advantageous global mechanisms of communication, particularly the Internet), then we could approach my 90% reduction - but that would be a far less comfortable option. However, we will need to consider it at some point, and the sooner we do the less painful the transformation will be. It is common sense really, you can't carry on and on squeezing this precious stone that we call "Earth" and expect blood to continue to drip from it... or just squeeze it harder as we "need" to take more. It is already showing signs of running dry.

Friday, August 18, 2006

"Bush is Crap."

John Prescott, the U.K. Deputy Prime Minister has denied saying that the Bush administration is "Crap" on the Middle East road map, or that the U.S. President is a "cowboy with his Stetson on." Mr Prescott claims that these were remarks overheard from a private conversation and that they had been taken out of context. He is quoted as saying: "This is an inaccurate report... and it is not my view." The remark is said to have been made at a private meeting in Mr Prescott's Whitehall office on Tuesday with Muslim M.P.'s and other Labour M.P.'s with constituencies representing large Muslim communities. The context is the concern that a backlash might be expected from extremist groups if U.S. driven military action is exacerbated in the regions of the Middle East, notably Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and God forbid, Iran. The fact that all these countries are actually sitting on enormous oil wealth or on "Arabian" shores used to export oil from the region, makes the whole issue of Middle East politics an extremely sensitive one, and decisions made now will prepare the stage for whatever future acts may unfold upon it.
In an effort to mitigate the potential damage caused by the "C-word" it was emphasised that Mr Prescott was referring to a "road map"; presumably an amusing metaphor of a large animal plodding along unmindful of its path, dropping great swathes of "dung" behind it as it makes its way. However, it is a fact that many Labour M.P.'s are infuriated by the now familiar "pair" of George Bush and Tony Blair standing side-by-side, endorsing military action by Israel. This is hard to square with the heartbreaking and horrific images of mutilated civilians including children who have borne the pounding of the shells fired from there. Mr Blair has given the commitment that he will make the Palestine-Israel peace process a priority when he returns from his holiday in the Caribbean. (In fairness, if anybody deserves a holiday, it is Mr Blair - I wouldn't want his job).
The uneasy ceasefire in the Lebanon has drawn Mr Blair a little time, but there is anger generally in this country over the way Britain has been allowed to be perceived as "Bush's poodle". You have probably seen newspaper cartoons to this effect. Many ministers have urged Blair to break the "special relationship", feeling that Britain will be dragged into yet more examples of terror than the London Bombings, or the apparently foiled plot by Muslim extremists to blow up several large passenger jets flying between London's Heathrow Airport and the United States earlier this week. George Bush has referred to an "axis of evil", while Mr Blair has coined the term "arc of extremism", saying that you only had to "join up the dots around the world" - geologically around the belt of oil.
Some American commentators, e.g. Irwin Stelzer, agree that there is gain to be had from the special relationship, seeing Mr Blair not so much as Bush's poodle, but as his "guide dog", pointing out that it was Mr Blair who persuaded the White House to seek out the UN for a second resolution before the (second) Iraq War. That as may be, an opinion poll suggests that 80% of Britons want the U.K. government to adopt an even more aggressive foreign policy to battle international terrorism. Admittedly this was taken after the arrest of 24 suspects in connection with the attempted "plane-bombing" last week, and only 14% think that Britain should continue to align itself with America.
Politics in the U.K. is rather like its climate systems. What weather we have depends on the balance between fronts from the Atlantic and from Europe (and occasionally from Scandinavia and from Russia), drifting aimlessly between the two. As far as politics is concerned, it is time to decide which influence is to dominate: do we go with Europe or with the U.S.? That is the pressing question Mr Blair needs to answer.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"U.S. Oil Crisis 'Solved' say Experts."

According to energy experts, the entire needs of the United States for transportation fuels can be supplied from Oil Shale; however, a massive investment in new technology will be required before much of it sees a "gas tank". This potentially optimistic message was given to 75 guests at a recent Northwest Colorado Energy Producers Association dinner. Tracy Boyd, a manager with Shell's Unconventional Resource Energy (SURE) division said that the world's largest countries, including India and China, will double their energy consumption by 2050, and as the supply of "easy oil" becomes depleted, the search for not-so-easy oil will become critical. It would seem then, that Shell are in accord that Peak Oil is an inevitability.
It is estimated that there are 800 million barrels of recoverable oil to be found in Northwest Colorado, eastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming, and Shell is working closely with the Bureau of Land Management to obtain the necessary permits for exploration since two thirds of these reserves are on federally owned land. The technology that is being tested by Shell is known as a "down-hole heater". The procedure is an "in-situ conversion process" (ICP) and it entails lowering electric heaters down a drill hole to raise the shale rock to a temperature of 650 - 700 degrees Celsius. The process takes three to four years, and releases a product that consists of one-third gas and two-thirds light oil, which is easily refined (by distillation) into transportation fuels such as diesel, jet fuel and gasoline.
There is a potential snag to doing this in-situ (rather than mining the rock and heating it "ex-situ"), and that is that groundwater might become contaminated as the whole operation is conducted on the mineral underground. However, a solution has been invented which involves constructing a "freeze-wall" of ice 15 feet thick around the ICP zone which should isolate the shale on the inside and protect the water on the outside. The groundwater is then to be pumped out from the ICP zone and stored, being reintroduced when the oil extraction is completed. I can foresee problems here?
Since the freezing process takes two years (and must be highly energy intensive) before the three to four year heating process is carried out, the whole procedure is a time consuming one; however, the richest zones of oil shale are thought to hold as much as 25 gallons of oil per tonne of rock. It is hoped that some of the oil and gas so recovered might be used to fuel the heaters (and coolers too?), to help meet the energy cost of extracting the oil, which it must be said are considerable. The oil is to be removed from the region by pipeline. Marianna Raftopoulos, former County Commissioner and a consultant for Northwest Colorado Oil and Gas, said that she is encouraged by the way the project is progressing slowly and in a more structured manner than previous oil shale projects. "I think it's an absolutely feasilble project," she commented. "We need to produce energy from the oil shale in the Rocky Mountain Region." To a British commentator, the name "Rocky Mountain" implies "pristine natural wilderness", and that doesn't square with the kind of gargantuan "oil landscape" that might be envisaged in this region!
In any event, Shell has applied for three, 160 acre oil shale leases from the BLM in Colorado, and Chevron is applying for leases there too.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sellafield run by Homer Simpson Jibe.

Two major nuclear operators have been fined £2 million ($3.5 million) over incidents involving the spillage of radioactive waste, by the Nuclear Decommission Authority (NDA) - a sum that will be deducted from the fee the quango (a peculiarly British institution) pays to the operators. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was penalised over an incident at Dounreay in Caithness, while Sellafield was similarly brought to task over a radioactive leak at its THORP (Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant) in Cumbria. In September 2005, 266 litres of a spent-fuel solution (presumably in concentrated nitric acid) were spilled onto a floor at the Dounreay cementation plant, where it was to be mixed with cement for storage in 500 litre drums. No one was injured or exposed to radiation by the event, however it is the largest penalty suffered at Dounreay and led to the facility beong closed temporarily.
The Sellafield leak was of a more spectacular volume, and is famously described as being sufficient to half fill an "Olympic Sized Swimming Pool". Here too, no one was harmed by the leak of 20 tonnes of plutonium and uranium dissolved in concentrated nitric acid which had seeped unnoticed from a fractured pipe during a period of nine months, as far as can be judged, and resulted in the THORP facility later being closed for several months. In a separate development, operators of Dounreay could face action over the discovery of radioactive particles on a nearby beach; more than 1,000 in total about the size of a grain of sand. However, this is small beer compared to the ultimate cost of decommissioning Dounreay (an experimental fast breeder reactor establishment), a task to be completed by the year 2033.
Although no one came to any harm, such stories do nothing to reassure the public that Mr Blair's recently heralded commitment to a new nuclear programme is a safe option, even though it may be. Since the THORP leak happened in one of two chambers designed to calculate how much plutonium and uranium is present in nuclear waste, as part of an intention to comply with international treaties on the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons, the release of 20 tonnes or uranium and 160 kg of plutonium is rather embarrassing - perhaps though, there is the silver lining that at least they know how much it does contain now! It is not good PR for nuclear. The result on public image is that the Sellafield nuclear plant is being compared to its cartoon counterpart in Springfield, where Homer Simpson is a hapless safety inspector - "dooooo!".
Interestingly, Britain's first purpose-built nuclear decommissioning training and research centre was opened near Thurso (in the north of Scotland, and not so far from Dounreay) last week, with the intention that it will support the £70 billion programme to clean-up the "electricity too cheap to meter" generation of nuclear power stations. The centre at Janetstown provides facilities where staff can be trained for private industry and to test the type of equipment that will be required to dismantle mothballed nuclear installations. Since this has yet to be accomplished in practice on the full scale, it remains to be seen how this will work in fact and undoubtedly there will be much learned "on the job" when that job is undertaken.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Caversham - not so Green!

Today's message comes from near home, I'm afraid. It seems that I don't live in the leafy village idyll that I thought. Seriously, I am not surprised to read this in the local paper ("Reading Chronicle"), as each morning he entire area is gridlocked by cars, and mostly 4 x 4's (Hummers or our British equivalent of them). Where did they come from, I wonder, as they seem to be a recent phenomenon these "Chelsea Tractors", and were not previously seen other than in the countryside where they are actually needed, especially in winter, and other motorists are very grateful for them, with their ability to pull smaller 2 wheel drive cars out of ditches, when they slide in on the ice. I bring attention to this because it is not merely a local problem, but is a microcosm of a collective modern feature. The problem in Caversham is compounded by the fact that the south east of England has become highly built-up during the past few years, mainly because of the apparently inexorable will to locate (or relocate) commercial enterprises within the environs of London. It is made worse by the transport geography of this particular region, in that Caversham (and its environs) are predominantly residential, and it is necessary to cross the River Thames to reading in the south, where most of the local "industry" is; or to go thence further afield into London itself, hence the rising pressure of traffic on the only two bridges that permit such a river crossing to be made.
There are calls as ever, to build a "third bridge", which so far has been resisted on environmental grounds and due to a lack of ready investment in such a project. Meanwhile, the unacceptable levels of sir-pollution during the "school-run" especially, has created a number of black-spots, and I can confirm that walking along the banks of mostly immobile cars in the morning rush is not a pleasant experience. Fortunately since I have become self-employed, my office is right here, and my day no longer depends on a commuting distance further than making it down the stairs, and into my office at the rear of the house.
It is an interesting conundrum: if they do build the third bridge, allegedly in an effort to safety-valve the pressure of the morning traffic, this will encourage more residential occupation of the area this side of the river (which currently is resisted by the lack of road infrastructure), and in a few years we will be back to square one! A more sustainable solution would be to locate (relocate, perhaps?) businesses away from Greater London and its outreaches, say to the north of the country and Scotland, and as part of the plan to render such actions as locally-based as possible. Indeed, if we did that even given the present circumstances, the problem of pollution would be solved, since there would be no need for 90% of the traffic we now have to accommodate.
Once again, it is the cultural pressure of "more and more", draining oil, water and other natural resources into what will ultimately be a non-functioning urban wasteland.
Reading has, I am pleased to note, redeemed its reputation a little from being the worst CO2 emitter town in the U.K. ( per capita, because there is quite a lot of money down here and people don't worry about paying their fuel bills too much ) to the place of the eco "show house", which is constructed in terms of both environmental efficiency (less fuel, better insulation and collecting rain-water etc.) and renewable power generation, as fitted with solar panels and a small wind turbine. If it were built by the River Thames, I guess a small hydroelectric turbine might be added to complete the suite. It is claimed that the eco-house reduces the CO2 emissions of a "normal" house by 70%, and that can't be bad, either in terms of pollution or fuel bills.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Water - the Ultimate Resource Limit.

The Earth may be the "Blue Planet", but the amount of Freshwater available on it is actually quite small, and upon which the demand from human population both on a rising numerical basis and through the aspirations of its individuals is exacting an unsustainable toll. The Earth is the "Blue Planet" because almost 70% of its surface is covered by water, but this is mainly salt-water which constitutes the seas and oceans, and which without desalination is unfit for drinking, washing-in or for most industrial processes. Only 2.5% of the Earth's water is fresh, and about two thirds of that is locked-up in glaciers, mainly in the Antarctic and Greenland ice-sheets, and in permanent snow cover. Nonetheless on inspecting the detailed figures ("Freshwater Resources - The Atlas of Canada") the volume of liquid freshwater available appears vast, at close to 11 million cubic kilometers (km*3). However, near to 10.5 million km*3 of that is located in deep underground aquifers.
The principal sources of water available for human access are lakes, rivers, soil moisture and relatively shallow groundwater basins. There are various estimates of that total volume contained therein, ranging from as little as 60,000 km*3 to >300,000 km*3, from which I estimate as a reasonable average that around 200,000 km*3 of water is available, which is less than 1% of all freshwater and only about 0.01% of all water on earth. To be sure, we are not going to hit "Peak Water" in the same way as "Peak Oil", gas or uranium, since water as an entire resource is completely renewable, being "distilled" around by the planet's hydrological cycles - it is never transmuted permanently into any other form by Nature - rather the problem is one of providing "clean" water free from contamination, and to meet a seemingly inexorable and increasing demand for it.
Strain on water resources is particularly acute, unsurprisingly, in more arid regions where large-scale agricultural production and or large populations are. Hence, the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, South Asia, China, Australia, Mexico and the western United States are notably prone to water shortages. Globally, use of freshwater has tripled during the past 50 years, while population has more than doubled, and improved technologies permit farmers to extract groundwater from increasing depths and harness rivers with more inclusive dams. Almost 70% of all such water is used for agriculture (irrigation mostly) while industry and domestic use takes 20% and 10% of it respectively.
Between 1950 and 2003, the area of irrigated land increased globally from 94 million to 277 million hectares (three-fold) but this expansion is levelling-off as the water needed to drive it is becoming increasingly scarce. As demand for water continues to grow mainly to meet the rising demands from agriculture, industrialisation and residential needs, aquatic ecosystems struggle to respond. Since the dawn of civilisation, countless communities have depended on rivers (many having been deliberately established thus, including my own village of Caversham, located on the north bank of the River Thames). However, in many locations, demands being made up-stream have become so great that there is almost no down-stream, and so communities there have been dessicated to extinction.
Aquifers are being drained in major areas of food-production, including the North China plain, which provides half of China's wheat and one third of its corn; Punjab, Hayana and other "bread basket" regions of northern India; along with the southern Great Plains of the United States. Altogether, these countries produce around half the world's grain, and along with Pakistan together account for over 60% of the world's total agricultural water extraction. I am making an educated guess, here, but the combined populations of India, China and the U.S., must be close to 3 billion, or around half the burgeoning total of 6.5 billion humans on the face of the Earth, so such an immediately large proportion (60%) in fact merely reflects the number of mouths in must feed.
To all intents and purposes, water "is" running out, and there must be a "Peak" where supply can no longer sustain demand. The rider lies in the provision of "clean" water (not the total volume of H2O, as already noted); accordingly, much effort is being made to improve methods for "desalination" of sea-water. Thus, water thus purified by its means might be drawn inland from the coasts around the western U.S., the Middle east, Mexico, Central Asia, and elsewhere, although even then, a highly intensive infrastructure would be necessary to pipe it to those regions of necessity. However, desalination in a nutshell involves pumping salt-water through a semi-permeable membrane which excludes salt at a pressure greater than the osmotic pressure (reverse osmosis), and so lets the pure water pass through it to the other side. In principle this is feasible, and there are thriving cities in the Middle East (e.g. Kuwait and Qatar) that have been "taken back from the desert" using desalinated water. Indeed, desalination is used in over a hundred countries, with Saudi Arabia accounting for about 24% of total world capacity. Kuwait built the world's first large-scale desalination plant in the 1960s and, on account of its enormous energy reserves, is unique in using desalinated water to support agriculture. Interestingly, he world's largest desalination plant is in Ashkelon, Israel, which began operating on August 4th, 2005 is capable of producing 100 million cubic meters of water per year.
There are a number of drawbacks to desalination, which suggest that it will never provide a long-term solution to the world's water shortages, which are now inevitable. (1) The process is energy intensive ( we go again... yet more pressure on energy reserves which are already under pressure). (2) The salt that is removed from the water which ends up "pure", has not "disappeared", it is merely concentrated in the sea-water on the opposite side of the membrane, and needs to be disposed of. This is not a trivial matter, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as "industrial waste". Simply pouring it onto land is likely to render that unfit for agriculture, and sea disposal in sufficient concentration could disrupt sensitive eco-systems. (3) The projected rise in sea-levels could inundate ("swamp-out") coastal desalination plants as it threatens to do to similarly located nuclear plants.
We have to save water... let's start thinking in terms apart from those of unsustainable production; the prevailing "more and more" attitude, is getting us nowhere fast.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Eiger Poised to Fall, but is it Global Warming?

Having just returned from a trip to Switzerland, I am concerned for the state of the Eiger mountain. On taking the busy path from Kleine Scheidegg to Mannlichen, the mighty north face ("nordwand" in German) of the Eiger stares back at you flat-on, an enduring reminder of the 50 deaths that have occurred among those climbers with the temerity to attempt an ascension of it, hence the nickname "mortwand" (from the German meaning "death face"). The Eiger ("Ogre") is the edge-stone of that trilogy of mountains, including the Jungfrau ("Young Woman", usually translated as "Virgin"... well, it was named a long time ago) and the Monch ("Monk"). Set centre between the Jungfrau and the Monch is the "Sphinx" (High Alpine Research Station that monitors the composition of the atmosphere), on the "Jungfraujoch", and as implied by the name "Jungfrau yoke", it lies on a "flat" stretch of glacial rock between the Jungfrau and Monch peaks as though set laden upon the shoulders of a burden bearing animal. Switzerland, it must be realised, is traditionally an agricultural nation, and hence this would be a ready metaphor to farmers long past. Around a century ago, Switzerland made some wise investments as it turned out, and hence has long since unshackled itself from dependence on agriculture, while remaining traditional and indeed rural in many respects of Swiss society.
It is, however, the east face of the Eiger that has attracted the major recent attention, since there has been a significant rock-fall from it. Large fissures were spotted in mid-June on the eastern side of the mountain, and so far around 700,000 cubic metres of rock - around one third of the original 2 million cubic metres (about four and a half million tonnes) - has fallen, with the remainder set to par away and collapse into the valley overlooking Grindelwald. Geologists have installed an infrared laser system to measure the size of the disintegrating slab of rock and hence the rate of its imminent collapse. It is not certain that the final demise of the slab will be spectacular, and it may well rivulet away in the form of many relatively small rock slides, rather than in one concerted avalanche. The question remains of what is causing this effect, and begs another of what if anything can be done about it? It appears that there are no houses in the way, and the fall so far has been contained in the valley, thus Gridelwald is in no immediate danger. No one has been hurt so far, neither resident nor climber.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, the Eiger glacier ("Eigergletscher") reached completely up to the highest part of the mountain where the rock is now breaking away," thus spoke ETH geologist Hans Rudolph Keusen. "Now it's 200 metres lower so it's no longer supporting the cliff and without it, the rock has loosened and cracked, allowing water to seep in, creating a lot of pressure. We are going to have a lot of situations like this in future," he added, pointing a stark finger at rising temperatures caused by global warming. I would normally have been skeptical over this apportion of blame, since global warming seems to cop for everything - too cold or too hot - it's always down to global warming. However, anyone with eyes and reasonable experience of the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland can see that there is significantly less glacial ice than formerly covered its mountain peaks, hence "The Sphinx" too, is more clearly visible than I have ever known it and I would now take Keusen's warning seriously. The outcome remains to unfold, and there is almost nothing we can do to allay the effects of any existing global temperature changes, although the future impact may rest partly on what we do now, and burning less fossil fuel might be the thing.
The two heads of the energy issue turn about - CO2 emissions and "Peak oil". Either emphasis points to the same course of action, and that is to reduce our oil dependence and use dramatically and in short order. This takes me onto another aspect, namely the question of what might life be like post - "Peak Oil"? Here again, Switzerland offers an insiders' eye. At Ballenberg is the Freileichtmuseum - an open air representation of traditional Swiss rural life, farming methods, water-mill powered bone-crushing and plank-sawing apparatus, and traditional animals such as the "woolly grazing pig" - a hardy creature that we were pleased to see had survived the terrible flooding of last year, and its attendant land-slides, and that indeed she had since given birth to a litter of healthy "woolly" piglets. It is a "museum", a simulation of events and as such is not self-sufficient as the Swiss ancestors would have been, largely through implementing such living methods as it portrays. However, the thought came to our minds that this may well be what life will become again, and not just for Switzerland but for all of us.
The thought does not comfort me personally, and I am not an advocate of going back to the "stone age". However, I am reminded that small communities in the future might well be growing their own timber, their own food, working metal "plowshares" with charcoal "burned" in local pits, and purifying water with "lime" that again had been burned locally. I live in the village of Caversham (which lies on the north bank of the River Thames from Reading), and we are on the edge of the Chiltern Hills which are made of chalk - a form of calcium carbonate that when intensely heated loses CO2 to leave the lime as a solid material. As our ancestors did, this could be once again cut to make lime for making bricks and for sanitation. To be sure these are all CO2 emitting processes, but nothing like the emissions from Hummers and their British variants which gridlock the roads ridiculously and thoroughly clog the mere two bridges that connect Caversham with Reading to the south and the transport lanes into that mighty capital, London. Mostly, however, the SUV's (4 x 4's) are just used for taking the kids to school - locally!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Heat is on for Nuclear Power.

As the whole of Europe (including the U.K.) swelters in the unaccustomed summer heat, some unexpected limitations on the future of nuclear power have emerged. The heat wave that has pervaded since mid-June has compelled the governments of France, Germany and Spain to ramp-up their own environmental limits for draining hot water into rivers from the cooling systems of their nuclear power plants, in order to ensure that adequate electricity provision is maintained. France is especially vulnerable, since it generates around 80% of the country's electricity using nuclear installations housed at 58 nuclear power plants, of which 37 are located near rivers so to use them as a "drain" for their cooling water.
The volume of the rivers has been substantially depleted by the drought incurred in the hot summer, and hence the heating effect of the outlet water may be an ecological hazard, so forcing some plants to shut down. Under normal circumstances, there are environmental criteria including a maximum temperature for waste water from nuclear power plants, imposed to protect river flora and fauna. Stephane Lhomme, coordinator of the environmental network Sortir du Nucleaire (which I translate as "Leave Nuclear Power"), said: "For many years now, French authorities have defended nuclear power arguing that it is clean energy, good for the environment, and that it will help combat global warming, for it does not emit greenhouse gases.
"Now, with global warming leading to extreme hot summers, we are witnessing that it is the other way round. Global warming is showing the limits of nuclear power plants, and nuclear power is destroying our environment." And that's even without the nuclear waste.
During the hot summer of 2003, French authorities allowed the nuclear power plants to drain excessively hot water into rivers, and in consequence this may have raised the level of ammonia in the river waters, harming fish, and other river fauna. Meanwhile, France has been importing 2 GW of generating capacity from neighbouring countries to compensate for shortages in nuclear power production. In Germany, rather than override environmental restrictions, a decision has been taken to "throttle-down" some of its reactors to limit waste water temperatures and protect the ecology. The Kruemmel, Brunsbuettel and Brokdorf reactors have been "slowed" as have some coal-fired plants along the Rhine river. In contrast, the reactors Isar 1 (near Munich) and Neckarwestheim (near Stuttgart) have been given the green-light to discharge hotter water than is normally permitted.
In Spain, the nuclear plant at Santa Maria de Garona (one of eight in the country in total) was closed-down last weekend in response to the high temperatures measured in the river Ebro, to prevent the waters heating further. This action must not have been taken lightly since the plant produces 20% of Spain's entire electricity.
German energy expert Hermann Scheer has called for a radical change in energy policy. Scheer is president of Eurosolar (Europe's association for renewable energy resources), and winner of the "Alternative Nobel Prize" for his commitment to the environment.
French nuclear scientist Hubert Reeves has urged the government to "invest massively" in renewable energy; he said; "we are behind many of our European partners such as Germany, Denmark and Spain in this matter (although I doubt they are behind the U.K.), and cannot wait until the energy crisis reaches its climax to find an alternative to our present model.
He said further, that "a crisis is round the corner. Fossil energy sources are about to be exhausted, and nuclear technology will not solve present problems within a reasonable period of time. We should abandon nuclear power and invest in alternative sources."
Clearly the man is upset, and I don't blame him for that - who couldn't be. It's as though we are standing in the path of a speeding truck wearing a blindfold and with our fingers stuck firmly in our ears. But when will we begin to ramp-down our use of oil? Sooner, by choice; or later on, by default? The time must come eventually, but there is not even a consensus of "when". I know some experts in the oil industry who think that "peak oil" is already with us, but that is neither the official line of the oil companies, nor of the world's governments.
Surely we need to phase-in a rational strategy while phasing the pre-existing one out. Either way, like it or not, we may well need nuclear power's part of the energy-mix. Providing the vast quantities of energy that we use by "renewables" (let's remind ourselves of the list: wind, water, solar, micro) is probably not "on" in the short term, and most likely not in the longer run either. Whatever manner of vehicle is headed our way, energy efficiency must be our principal course of action.