Monday, July 28, 2008

How Biofuelled Is My Valley?

Speaking of policies that fit our world-view but not necessarily the facts, the dramatic turnaround in the status of biofuel has been a welcome fillip to those of us who care more about pesky little things like facts; we'd expected it to take a lot longer for everyone else to notice. Nevertheless, the real lesson of the whole saga still hasn't quite hit home as it should.

Ultimately, the reason we liked biofuels is the reason we like householder recycling, is the reason we like energy-saving light bulbs. It's all a question of the total sum of individuals making little contributions; biofuels were meant to help in this respect because it's much easier to change from diesel to biofuel than it is to change your car. As Liberal Democrats, we've embraced the idea wholesale and with good reason; for all their talk about neoliberalism, the parishioners of the Church of Environmentalism have failed to notice that this part of their own ideology is the most authentically liberal of the lot.

The key word in that paragraph, however, is car. If changing individual behaviour is your goal, the car is obviously the key target in the transport arena. We've had experiments in other modes, but they've met with a mixture of indifference and antipathy. The biofuel train got the Prime Minister's bum on a seat, but once it reached Llandudno everyone stopped caring. Meanwhile, the biofuel plane was met with positive hostility, but that was more a reflection of a visceral hatred of air travel and Richard Branson than any problem with the energy medium.

Before we write the obituary of biofuels, then, we should at least consider how valid that focus on cars was. Moreover, as much as we need to consider the Kyoto enforcement period (six months down, fifty-four to go), we should also think about the long-term scenario, the eventual low-carbon society we will need to meet the next set of targets and the set after that and the set after that. In the long-term, the criterion to apply is relatively simple. All we are looking for is the technology that delivers, for any particular purpose, the necessary quantity of energy at the right rate for the right period with the lowest emissions.

For the car, you're talking about a technology that can make a one tonne vehicle go from 0-60mph in about ten seconds, maintaining 60mph for about 400 miles with an engine and fuel tank of similar size to those in existing units. For that sort of performance, battery/solar electric systems, fuel cell systems and hydrogen systems are all likely to get there in the next decade or so; on that basis, biofuel is a pretty poor contender.

With the train, the answer is even more obvious because it already exists. Heck, between their massive use of nuclear and the level of electrification of their network, France are already operating an effective model for the sort of zero-carbon system we could introduce in quite short order. Even without a move to nuclear, increased electrification in Britain would mean an effective fuel switch from oil to gas, with at least some reduction in emissions.

(It's worth noting at this point that Labour are perilously close to matching their Conservative predecessors by capping their decline with a disastrous railway-related decision. The crimes of the foot and mouth cull and Iraq and the wastage of the NHS IT programme will be as nothing to the insanity of the current Intercity Express Programme if it does indeed produce a new diesel High Speed Train instead of the wholesale electrification of the remaining inter-city lines we so desperately need.)

And so we come to air travel, where we face a fundamentally different challenge. Jet propulsion absolutely requires a combustible medium, nothing else will do. Moreover, whereas an electric motor for 60mph is a relatively easy proposition, a lightweight pure propeller engine for 60,000lbs of thrust is not. Barring that sort of technological leap, your options are basically hydrogen and biofuel, and even then you have to figure that unless metal hydride storage takes off, hydrogen for air travel pretty much ended with the Hindenburg...

As it turns out, not only are the Envionmentalists wrong that biofuel shouldn't be considered for air travel, but air travel is the only area where pursuing biofuels is essential. I'd be surprised that the truth is the exact opposite of the dogma, but that point has long since passed...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So, before I was so rudely interrupted by Tom Brake's legislatory indiscretion, I was writing about some energy news the blogosphere has missed. A more cynical mind would suggest that that omission was a tad convenient...

Microgeneration is one of those policies that ticks all the liberal boxes. The mere idea of millions of individual households all selling electricity they generated themselves undoubtedly generates warm fuzzy feelings in many of our number. It certainly generates warm fuzzy feelings in policy working group members, warranting its own subsection of last year's Zero Carbon Britain policy paper.

You might expect, therefore, the blogosphere to herald the publication of a report commissioned by a consortium including DBERR, various Regional Development Agencies, a couple of NGOs and the odd utility company that, if media reports are to be believed, promises a bright future for the various technologies concerned. Then again, it's entirely possible that the bloggers, unlike the journalists but like the good folks at The Register, actually read the report...

The headline figure is, it is true, quite good; a possible 30 MtCO2 reduction in emissions by 2030, which would represent a 5% cut on present UK total emissions. From the end of the first paragraph of the headline summary, however, things start to go downhill.

The immediate barrier to adoption of microgeneration is entirely financial. Not only do the existing technologies have significant up-front costs, but consumers continue to attach a higher importance to those up-front costs than to any subsequent long-term savings. In countries where microgeneration has proliferated, it has done so through massive subsidy, both in terms of funding for installation and guaranteed prices for excess generation sold to the market (the “feed-in tariff” of myth and legend...)

Moreover, when we talk about wide scale uptake of microgeneration, we should not con ourselves that we are looking forward to a world of wind turbines on every roof. The reality is that the truly attractive technology is combined heat and power; right now, micro combined heat and power is attractive at a subsidy of 5p/kWh, while micro renewables are only attractive at 40p/kWh.

And as the split there suggests, combined heat and power may well be microgeneration, but it is fossil fuel microgeneration, so the carbon benefits are non-existent. To hit that 30MtCO2 target, therefore, fuel cell combined heat and power technology is needed. It may well come about, but any assessment of time scales is of necessity an estimate whose optimism must be accounted for.

All in all, the optimistic scenario from paragraph one (and, indeed, from the headlines in The Grauniad and elsewhere) delivers 110 TWh of heat and 30TWh of electricity, of which 16 TWh of heat and 4 TWh of electricity are renewable. The cost?

£21 billion. By 2020. And £5.5 billion per year thereafter.

Of course, the press coverage downplays both the fossil fuelled element and the cost, while making the normal lazy comparison with, in this case, “five nuclear power stations.” Unfortunately, that number is utter bollocks, appearing nowhere in the report. In reality, the zero-carbon element of the microgeneration proposed is worth half a Sizewell B a year (two if you consider total energy and not just electrical). Furthermore, a new Sizewell B costs at most £3 billion, so for the same subsidy needed to give microgeneration a shot you could get twice as much electricity and three times as much zero-carbon energy from new nuclear build.

The numbers go on and on, but I fear there's little point. As I said at the start, we like microgeneration not because it is green, but because it is the opposite of the monolithic, centralised system that nuclear in particular represents. We should remember, however, that our creed is not devolution per se; it is devolution to the lowest level practicable. Microgeneration may entice us, but if it cannot deliver the level of milk and honey we seek, we must discard it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Putting The (Tom) Brakes On

The Lib Dem blogosphere generally does a good job of covering comprehensively the political events of the day, even though in the Information Age there's always something more to talk about (and usually someone more to discuss it). Nevertheless, some of the things the blogosphere miss can be a little surprising. Indeed, I was working on a review of some energy matters we'd missed the other night when a bout of idle channel-hopping led me to something that had me hopping in a rather different way...

Last month there was a brief tizz about a protest in Wallington regarding the imaginatively-titled shop, “Your High”. There was a brief discussion about the nature of liberalism and the demands of councillordom, but very little came of it. Until, that is, I was flicking through the channels at the back end of Freeview and alighted on BBC Parliament's coverage of the introduction of a Ten-Minute Rule Bill last Wednesday, July 9th by our own Tom Brake. The title of his putative legislation?

The Cannabis Seeds (Prohibition) Bill

In case anyone needs reminding why that would be a serious problem, allow me to quote from the Party's existing drugs policy;

“While retaining the criminal penalties on the statute book, we therefore propose to issue policy guidance that it is not in the public interest to prosecute individuals for possession of cannabis for their own use, cultivation of small numbers of cannabis plants for their own use, or social supply of cannabis.

(Honesty, Realism, Responsibility; Policy Paper 47, 2001)

Theoretically, of course, there can be no prohibition on any Member of Parliament bringing any legislation he so desires and it would be highly dubious for any political party to attempt to restrict the rights of individual members. But in case you'd missed it, Tom Brake is not just MP for Carshalton and Wallington; he is a shadow minister in Chris Huhne's team and is our names spokesperson on Home Affairs.

Acting as a local member in the perceived interests of your community is one thing. It is completely inconsistent, however, for a member of our party's shadow ministerial team to introduce legislation that runs contrary to approved party policy.

Yes, it's a Ten-Minute Rule Bill, it's chances are slim and none. Nevertheless, a Bill sponsored by The Right Honourable The Earl Of Vaz, GCB, CH, VC, DFC and Bar must be considered fairly serious when it falls within the purview of his select committee. And in any case, there is a distinct matter of principle involved.