Thursday, April 28, 2011

Focus on the 5%!

Today Engineering News has a really cheering story about the up-and-coming COP meeting in Durban.

After a meeting of the Major Economies Forum, (an informal group of 17 countries including the world's top polluters, China and the United States) US climate negotiator Todd Stern and European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard played down the chance of a breakthrough.

Hedegaard said the EU would push for the Durban talks to make progress on tackling the emissions from ships and planes. "It is not enough for Durban just to implement what was agreed in Cancun," she said. "Inclusion of shipping and aviation – these kind of topics we will also push for."

Oh yes! Aeroplanes and shipping. Just the thing to take the major polluters' emissions offshore. Just the thing to make the cost of developing nations doing business with the developed greater. Focus on the 5% and ignore the 80%. What a wonderful plan to save the world!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Yet again, we wait for the UN

There is a report today that Trevor Manuel has been appointed to the UN Green Climate Fund. The Fund was set up at Cancun to help pay for the costs of developing nations reducing their carbon emissions.

His appointment is all very nice - but how long before the money starts flowing? Cabinet has approved IRP2010, with its fleets of windmills. IRP2010 had as its goal reducing our carbon emissions. Windmill power will cost lots more than coal power.

The Copenhagen Accord said the developed world would pay for the cost of reducing emissions in the developing, and Cancun put some teeth in the Accord. This appointment is one of the first signs of anything happening.

While we wait, South Africa gets shorter and shorter of power. Projects are stalled, new jobs aren't appearing, while we dither about carbon. Can we please just get on with the job of producing the cheapest power we can, and stop this carbon farce? It is now damaging our future far more than carbon itself ever will.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Food for all

I have just watched a video of someone called Sir John Beddington, who is apparently Britain's chief science adviser, telling us how the food system is failing - all because of climate change ( Doom and starvation face the world unless we go low carbon without delay.

To get the nasty taste out of your mouth, it helps to read April 2011 Scientific American, with an interview with Roger Beachy, one of the scientists behind genetic modification of foods. His first success was making tomatoes resistant to the tomato mosaic virus. He tells of the glee as he tended his crops, and the resistant strain flourished even as the original died. Today, over 80% of US maize and 90% of its cotton and soya are 'GM'.

Beachy now heads the US National Institute of Food and Agriculture. He has forthright answers to those who complain about Frankenfoods. Pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use is down, and soil loss is reduced because non-till agriculture is possible. Crop yields are up, and food prices have fallen and would fall further if it were not for occasional forays into biofuels. GM crops are more sustainable than trad crops.

True, there has been a successful law case against GM beetroot in the US. But it was brought by some 'organic' farmers who feared they would no longer be able to charge a premium if there were any spread of the genes into their products. So this had nothing to do with food safety, and everything to do with food marketing.

A final mouthwash is provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, whose data show clearly that food supplies are rising faster than population, and that the rise is faster in developing countries than in developed.

So yet again the climate scare is being invoked as a cause for action. I think the time has come to say we have had enough of that particular lie.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Kyoto Protocol

The Durban meeting of the UN Conference of Parties (you know, the bunch that met to the sound of trumpets in Copenhagen a couple of years ago) is concentrating the efforts of our Department of Environment and Water Affairs. Their latest concern is to find a way of extending the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to end its first Commitment Period next year.

What nonsense! The Kyoto Protocol has done NOTHING in its present guise. Carbon emissions have soared regardless of all the 'commitments' made. If you want any demonstration of why this whole carbon thing is a con, look no further. The farce should be quietly killed off in Durban. Bjorn Lomborg showed years ago that it was never going to achieve anything. It never will.

The Malema Dilemma

The Catholic Bishops have come out with a marvellous statement about our blinged 'youth leader'.

When churchmen finally step up and give leadership where leaders are lacking, the church gains a relevance which it has otherwise lost.The Bish may have retired from public life - what a pleasure to know his role is still being played.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Renewable energy is all very well , but .......

My good friend Anthony Keen has been trying to become as energy efficient as possible. His home boasts 3.8kW of photovoltaic cells on the roof, as well as the ultimate solar water heater. With the best will in the world, he has been driven to conclude that the awful, fossil-fueled grid is a blessing in disguise. Read on ....

Some promoters of renewable energy imply we can survive on renewables alone. I wonder how many of them have actually tried to live on wind or photovoltaic (PV) energy alone? Living on solar energy (by choice) has taught me some lessons.

We all know most renewables are intermittent, but do we really understand what that means? Your power just goes off, Poof ! when the sun goes away or the wind drops. Then you need at least one of three things:

(1) access to a nice stable grid running on coal/nuclear base power

(2) some means of energy storage or

(3) a stand-by fossil-fueled generator.

You don't like (1) and (3), so what about storage? Storage really is the key to all intermittent renewables. The only viable storage on a commercial scale today is the pumped storage system. Eskom has 1400MW pumped storage capacity and 1300MW being built. Cape Town has 160MW. These can only run for a few hours before the dams empty but that generation is vital at busy times.

Nice places to build more such expensive schemes are scarce, hence Eskom’s interest in seawater pumped storage on our coasts. A pilot seawater system has been running commercially in a nature reserve in Okinawa, Japan, for 12 years after successfully overcoming technical and environmental challenges. It can be done. Ireland, Hawai and Portugal are interested.

Commerce and industry cannot run on intermittent renewables without massive investment in (pumped) energy storage. A nice stable basepower grid can absorb up to about 25% renewables but after that the grid becomes difficult to manage and storage becomes necessary.

On a small scale and in specialised applications batteries are useful, but inefficient and expensive. Only when we have efficient and cheap large scale batteries will renewables come into their own. At a residential level, batteries are just acceptable, but if you wish freedom from worry you will need to spend as much on batteries as you spend on PV panels . Plus you still need the grid or genset (or candles !) as backup. All this effectively doubles the initial cost of solar or wind power and this true cost of reliable renewable energy is commonly overlooked. And batteries have to be replaced every few years.

A sad sight was some smart solar PV panels on the roof of a remote Cederberg cottage, some discarded (lead !) batteries lying in the dust and candles in use. Replacement batteries were unaffordable, the weakest link in the now useless chain. Many other promising energy storage technologies are being pursued but none are economic as yet.

Renewables do have their important place in an energy mix for a country, but without adequate storage (or friendly neighbours), I doubt they could entirely replace baseload generating stations. For baseload we need to be weaned off coal , and I see nuclear fission as a temporary but necessary lesser evil until we can copy the sun with fusion power.

Anthony Keen, Rondebosch

Friday, April 15, 2011

FFFFracking again!

Saliem Fakir, the head of the Living Planet Unit at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa, hasn't wasted a moment. Shell has just announced release of its environmental management programme for its drilling for shale gas, and the unshaven one is out there with his usual list of "could"s and "might"s and "legitimate concerns".

What it adds up to is another step back into the dark ages, yet another potential source of energy and wealth doomed to the gloom of GREEN. When will these Job's comforters wake up to the fact that nothing we do is without risk? Risks can be managed - that is what engineering is all about.

In this case, fracking will be about 1000m deep, way below the water about which WWF is so concerned. Yes, a pipe containing chemicals will pass through the valuable aquifer, but that does not mean it will contaminate the aquifer. Yes, there is a risk the pipe might break, but that is remote if it is properly engineered. Yes, fracking will involve the use of some water - but if successful, it could create billions of rand, which our country needs, as well as giving us a source of energy which is far cleaner than coal.

So all the "could"s and "might"s and "legitimate concerns" are postulates which have to be offset by the far more important postulate, that this could be a source of wealth for all our people. Whom should we believe? asks Fakir. What do you want, and what are you prepared to risk? That should be the question.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The UN goes lo-carbon

The UN has announced measures to cut the carbon footprint of its 200 000 employees. It is almost sad, that with so many real disasters facing the world, the UN can still be flogging this particular dead horse. Having 200 000 employees reduce their carbon footprint will do absolutely nothing except make a meaningless gesture. Coping with levels of carbon emissions will take international agreements, and only international agreements. Individual country limits will make absolutely no difference at all except make the country concerned feel good and be non-competitive. International agreements is what the UN is supposed to be all about, and so far, in this area, they have made singularly little progress.

What the frac?

There are calls for a moratorium on exploring for shale gas in the Karoo.

Does the rent-a-mob have a clue what they are talking about? Do they know the depth of the shale, and have they worked out what that means? Do they understand that not much deeper, the rocks start to glow? Are they not worried that 'fracking' might bring all that lava to the surface?

Seriously, though, at the depths we are talking about, the problem is not the damage done by fracking, but how to keep the cracks open while the gas comes out. As soon as possible, at the pressures 1000 or more metres down there, the cracks close up and the miniscule risk of the water from the upper aquifers getting contaminated goes for ever (and anyway, the mechanism for water to move up and down in the upper layers of the Earth's crust is not obvious).

The other thing about this bunch of do-gooders is that they preach 'sustainable development' of the Karoo. That requires some additional source of wealth. All that I have seen is regrowth of the villages by city dwellers anxious to get away from it all. This is hardly sustainable. New wealth to sustain development would flow if gas were discovered in large quantities.

How sad that the producers of that cheap trick called "Gaslands" failed to get the message across in the USA, which has just increased its gas reserves by 500 million tcf due to shale gas. This has probably saved the US economy. The Gaslanders have come here in the hopes of more bounty than they could get at home - and some of us have fallen for it. The wealth that shale gas in the Karoo could create is almost immeasurable - and the anti-fracking mob think it is worth throwing away. Does 'fascist pigs' fit the bill? It does if you are struggling to make ends meet in a distant dorpie.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A climate white paper for South Africa

The Department of Environment Affairs has announced that it hopes to rush a white paper on climate change through Parliament in time for COP17 in Durban later this year.

"The policy statement of the green paper stated that, in achieving its climate change response objectives, South Africa would ensure “the prioritisation of mitigation interventions that significantly contribute to a peak, plateau and decline emission trajectory, where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak in 2020 to 2025 at 34% and 42% respectively below a business as usual (BAU) baseline, plateau to 2035 and begin declining in absolute terms from 2036 onwards”

It helps to remember that these targets came from a SCENARIO study, the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios. One thing about scenarios is that they do not constitute a plan, merely set out the limits on future possibilities. Scenarios never ask questions like "Is it practical?" or "Is it economic?"

But now the Department has turned the scenarios into plans - and guess what, they aren't practical and they certainly aren't economic. Heaven forbid that we should rush acceptance of these crazy plans through Parliament just because we are hosting a conference.