New year, new ideas

Me, Andy Extance (centre front) and ECOE Operations and Maintenance Co-ordinator Margaret Pickering (left) with SOL Electrical Director Simon Lord (centre rear), who put up the panels, and Westbank’s Operations Manager Justin Milton. who represents the building, (right) celebrating installation of 46kW of solar panels at a safe social distance.
Me, Andy Extance (centre front), and ECOE Operations and Maintenance Co-ordinator Margaret Pickering (left) with SOL Electrical Director Simon Lord (centre rear), who put up the panels, and Westbank’s Operations Manager Justin Milton. who represents the building, (right) celebrating installation of 46kW of solar panels at a safe social distance.

Is anybody out there? If so, thanks for reading after such a long time without posts on this blog. Due to a combination of personal and professional reasons my focus had shifted elsewhere. In 2022, I plan to return to posting, in a slightly different form.

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Becoming more than an old gasbag: Climate chemistry on YouTube, cryogenic energy storage, and community renewable energy

All gas and bulls**t. That’s me – or so some of my critics think. And this time they’re right, although not in the way they think they are.

Over recent months I’ve been delighted to work with the enormously talented Adam Levy, better known as ClimateAdam, on a couple of videos. They deal with just why greenhouse gases trap energy in the atmosphere, a subject that has come up when I’m discussing climate with friends. It’s hard to understand how gases that are present in the atmosphere in such tiny amounts compared to oxygen and nitrogen can be so powerful. But it’s all to do with molecules absorbing light energy in a way that makes their atoms vibrate, which is also how substances get their colours.

I know this because it came up in my first year undergraduate chemistry course at the University of Southampton. My amazing lecturer, Martin Grossel, demonstrated the principles by standing on a stool with balloons in each hand, representing atoms. He then wiggled his arms to represent the vibrations in question. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t come across in writing. So when I bumped into Adam at the Association of British Science Writers’ annual award ceremony last year, I suggested he put something like this into some of his videos. He then used the opportunity to apply for some science communication funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Having secured that cash, through the course of 2018 we’ve been working together on the script, and here are the final products:

These videos also show why carbon emissions are not the same as carbon dioxide emissions – the difference is two oxygen atoms – a common confusion that jangles my chemical sensibility. Apologies in advance if I ever annoyingly pull you up on this.

That’s the gas, but it’s definitely not the bulls**t. That comes in an article I recently had published on Physics World that talks about the exciting prospects for gases in energy storage. Cryogenically cooling and condensing gases – such as the air around us – when renewable energy is abundant is a potential means for storage. What’s more, you can use the cooling for refrigeration, and the liquid gases are portable.

But the bulls**t is what excites me the most. As our second video above shows, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and its emissions from farming – including from cows belching and pooing – are hard to reduce. So one of the companies I wrote about is looking to store the manure, collect the methane and cryogenically store it. Then,  farmers can burn it when energy is needed and feed electricity into the grid, displacing natural gas, for example. But like the other gases, the liquid methane is portable and could be used to run trucks that currently use diesel, and eliminate the horrible pollution that brings. Or it could be used to supply the many people in rural areas that – surprisingly to many urbanites – have no access to the gas grid.

It’s been months and months since I last posted here, but I hope that some of you have been following my climate writings elsewhere. I’ve used the time I used to put into blogging for lots of other things, including becoming a director of Exeter Community Energy this year, supporting renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the climate issue is more pressing than ever. I’ve valued how Simple Climate enabled me to see how true that is. But having learned more about science writing, I appreciate that those reading this are mostly going to be those who likewise care about the climate. You guys know this stuff is important already – and so I’ve mainly decided it’s time to stop faffing around with blog posts and go do something practical. If you feel the same way, seeking out your local community renewable energy group is one excellent way to make a difference.

Renewable energy beats ‘clean coal’ on cost in Australia

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales' Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales’ Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

It’s unlikely that fossil fuel power stations that capture and store their CO2 emissions could supply eastern Australia’s electricity more cheaply than renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power. That’s according to a study based on hour-by-hour analysis of electricity demand by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and Mark Diesendorf from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Although renewables are often seen as expensive, these findings highlight that they can be competitive after accounting for the impact of burning coal and gas on our climate. “Our studies, and those conducted by other research groups around the world, find that it is possible to operate reliable national and subnational electricity systems on predominantly renewable energy generated by commercially available technologies and that these systems are affordable,” Mark told me.

Ben is a PhD student, supervised by Iain and Mark, and together the three have sought to answer key questions about renewable energy. Is it possible to supply a whole electricity grid’s needs with these technologies, or are some ‘base-load’ coal or gas power stations needed to fall back on? And if it is possible, would it be affordable?

To answer these questions, Ben designed a computer programme to simulate running an electricity supply system. His program can go through a year’s hourly data on electricity demands, wind and sunshine over the region in a fraction of a second. “Everything else follows from this, provided of course one asks the right questions,” Mark noted.

Over the last two years they have published work exploiting that programme, first showing that it’s possible to reliably supply 100% of eastern Australia’s electricity using renewable energy. Wind and solar power supplied most of the electricity, but output from these technologies varies due to changes in weather. But rather than filling gaps with fossil fuels, they showed existing hydroelectric power stations and gas turbines burning biofuels could be used to meet the grid’s reliability standard. Read the rest of this entry »

Society must be 50 times more responsive to meet leaders’ climate promises

Even with the deployment of giant wind farms like this, society's adoption of renewable energy in response to rising temperatures is too slow to prevent a 6°C temperature rise, according to Andrew Jarvis and colleagues. Credit: Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr

Even with the deployment of giant wind farms like this, society’s adoption of renewable energy in response to rising temperatures is too slow to prevent a 6°C temperature rise, according to Andrew Jarvis and colleagues. Credit: Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr

Based on society’s response to a warming world, we are not building clean power plants fast enough to prevent a 6°C temperature rise compared to pre-industrial levels. According to Andrew Jarvis and colleagues from Lancaster University, UK, current efforts to cut climate-changing CO2 emissions in response to warming aren’t enough to hit the temperature control targets our governments have agreed. Even slightly stronger responses from society to our warming world could be powerful in lowering their prediction – but delaying action means much greater effort will be needed.

We have all probably experienced some strange and perhaps even extreme weather in recent years – some of which has been shown to be down to climate change. But how strong an effect – or feedback – does knowing this have on the CO2 our society emits? That’s the question that Andrew’s team looked at in their paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change last Sunday.

To do this, they considered worldwide energy use, CO2 emissions and average temperature. Energy usage and emissions have grown at a steadily increasing rate as temperatures have risen over the past 150 years. However, since 1990 the amount of extra electricity each year coming from renewable generation plants, rather than by burning gas or coal that emits CO2, has also grown. That can be thought of as our society responding to warming, even if it isn’t yet enough to slow it down.

“Presumably this is owing to a combination of increased public responsiveness to the risks of climate change during that period and of political action concerning climate change,” Andrew’s team wrote in their paper. “This climate-society feedback has been too weak and short-lived to have caused significant changes… suggesting that, so far, the risks and damages attributed to climate change cannot have been deemed significant enough by society.” Read the rest of this entry »