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Energy gap

Keith Parkins | 17.09.2008 15:39 | Climate Chaos | Ecology | Terror War | World

In a privately-funded report, self-styled energy expert Ian Fells claims only coal and nuclear can fill the energy gap and that energy security is more important than stabililisng climate. Who financed the report?

Periodically the BBC wheels out self-styled energy expert Ian Fells to talk about energy policy. He must be on their list of 'experts' who they can call upon.

Whenever they do, I inwardly groan, as what I invariably hear is a load of nonsense – we need more coal-fired power stations, more nuclear, and renewables and alternatives are not up to the job.

I often wonder where his research money comes from. Maybe this should be stated at the beginning of an interview as a warning in the same way there is a health warning on a packet of cigarettes.

This morning he was wheeled out on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme to talk about a privately-funded report of which he was the author. No questions were asked who financed the report! The gist of what he had to say was that we need more coal, more nuclear to fill the energy gap else the lights would go out, renewable could not possibly fill the gap and were too unreliable, and that energy security was more important than climate change!

The BBC displayed its famed impartiality and balance, no one was invited to counter his views.

I would have invited Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, as he at least knows what he is talking about.

At least two decades ago Amory Lovins co-authored a report called Brittle Power that looked at US energy security. He concluded that it was not secure, indeed it was very brittle and very vulnerable. Concentrate energy generation and those sites become highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, even attacks by their own workers who can hold the nation to ransom, had long supply chains, were highly interdependent. What he proposed was a soft energy path, which is suited on scale, is distributed and relies on renewables. If such a system fails, it suffers every slow degradation.

During the last energy crisis in 1973, President Carter introduced a crash programme that looked at energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy. It was starting to have results, then in came President Reagan, the oil price slumped and the programme was scrapped.

Energy security and climate instability are not in conflict as claimed by Ian Fells. They are the two sides of the same coin. If we have runaway global warming, we will not have security.

The recent Hurricane Ike shut down 15 oil refineries in Texas a quarter of the refining capacity of the US, and shut down all the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico a quarter of US output.

Our aging power plants will at some point in the not to distant future have to be closed down. To build new power plants, to bring them on stream from inception, through planning to build, will take at least ten years. The energy gap can be closed far quicker through renewables and energy efficiency.

It is claimed renewables are unreliable. If we had one wind turbine, one solar panel this would be true. But we have distributed generation, the sun is always shining, the wind always blowing somewhere.

A recent piece of research by the Rocky Mountain Institute stated the blindingly obvious, with distributed generation you have a stable base load.

Buildings can be net generators. This should be a planning requirement for all new build and refurbishment. Their energy load can also be much reduced, through insulation and energy efficient appliances. Refurbishment can save as much as 80% of the embedded energy as new build.

We have had much nonsense recently in the national media on waste and recycling. Not the fault of the media, they have merely reported on the crass stupidity of local councils, one of the worst being the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor.

All this has served to do is distract from the real issues of resources and recycling.

We can reduce our resource use by a factor of ten. When we do we reduce our energy use.

We sort our waste and put in the recycling bin that which we think will be recycled. Even if it is not shipped to India and dumped on fields, what takes place is not recycling but down-cycling, a downward spiral that ends at the landfill or incinerator.

We have to design our products to minimise the resources they use, are made to last, at the end of their lives can easily be disassembled and reduced to components parts, and the materials of which they are made can be recycled. We mimic Nature and form closed loop cycles. All of which recovers energy which is otherwise lost in our linear throwaway society.

Nylon 6 can easily be depolymerized then re-polymerized, the heat used in the process recovered. The entire process able to recover 99% of materials and heat. It is an industrial nutrient that can be retrieved and reused in closed loop cycles.

The Middle East could supply solar generated power through supercooled cables to Europe. The downside would be increased western dependency on an unstable part of the world, risk of attack on the facilities by Islamic terrorists and Muslim extremists and the need for military intervention to protect a western strategic asset.

In Texas, there are large wind farms, the wind turbines sitting amidst the oil well and nodding donkeys.

Texas, North Dakota and Kansas alone have the potential for wind power to supply the entire US, knocking on the head the notion that wind power is a marginal source.

The cost of wind power is falling. The first wind turbines in California in the early 1980s were delivering electricity at 38c per kilowatt-hour. Two decades later, it had dropped to 4c or less For prime wind sites and some long-term contacts have been signed to supply at 3c. The price is expected to have dropped to 2c per kilowatt-hour by 2010, making it the world's cheapest source of electricity.

Wind is a free fuel. Once the upfront capital costs have been covered, the only costs are ongoing maintenance. The internals of a wind turbine are not a lot different to a car gearbox, thus can be mass produced providing economies of scale.

Billions of taxpayers money is to be spent on cleaning up the nuclear industry. Only a tiny fraction of that is being spend on renewables.

Germany and Japan gave grant aid to encourage photo voltaic generation of electricity.

Japan has an ongoing programme for appliance efficiency.

Ontario in Canada plans to phase out all its coal-fired power station by 2009. It expects to make up the shortfall in generating capacity with wind, natural gas, and efficiency gains.

Washingborough is a escarpment village not far outside of Lincoln. A community-owned wind turbine supplying the village, the surplus fed into the national grid, could be sited at the top of the hill. The farmer paid as he is currently paid for a mobile phone mast or an electricity pylon.

Biomass can be used as a fuel, but not grown for fuel, stealing food from the mouths of the poor. Local organic waste, farm-size scale, supplying the farm and a local grid, any surplus fed into the national grid. Such schemes are already up and running in southern England.

In the Corn Belt in the US, a highly efficient wind turbine on a quarter of an acre can generate $100,000 worth of electricity. The same land growing corn would produce on average 40 bushels of corn that world yield 100 gallons of ethanol worth maybe $200 before the recent oil price hike.

Many large corporations are becoming energy self-sufficient, not because they are green, though they may have a green agenda and it gives good publicity, but because it makes commercial sense.

Subsidiaries of Pepsi-Cola are becoming energy self-sufficient through the use of green waste and solar power.

Ford, at its Ford Rouge plant, one of the oldest car plants in the US, has spent $2 billion redesigning the plant. A green roof, keeps the building cool in the summer, warm in the winter, the grass roof limits water run off, cleans the water run off, the building uses natural light, on site a series of water meadows.

Daylight in a Lockheed building was expected to save three-quarters of the energy costs for artificial light and pay for itself in four years. Due to better working conditions, lower absenteeism, higher productivity, it paid for itself in a year.

Better designed air conditioning can reduce energy costs by a factor of ten. Better designed buildings reduces the need for air conditioning. And are better to work in.

reference and further reading

Lester R Brown, Plan B 2.0, Norton, 2006

Paul Hawken, Amory B Lovins & L Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Earthscan, 1999

Nick Kettles, Designing for Destruction, The Ecologist, July/August 2008

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, 2002

Keith Parkins, Energy tax, February 1999

Keith Parkins, Natural Capitalism, October 2000

Keith Parkins, Soft energy paths, May 2001

Keith Parkins, Brittle power, October 2003

Keith Parkins, Curitiba – Designing a sustainable city, April 2006

Keith Parkins, Do we need industrial agriculture?, Indymedia UK, 19 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Waste, recycling and packaging, Indymedia UK, 8 September 2008

Keith Parkins, Fuel poverty, Indymedia UK, 15 September 2008

Keith Parkins, Beyond sustainability, to be published

Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek et al, Factor 10, Factor 10 Club, 1998

Ernst von Weizsåcker, Amory B Lovins and L Hunter Lovins, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, 1997

Keith Parkins
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