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Can we clean King Coal and live happily ever after?

Should we adopt the Ise Shrine notion of sustainability? No - the issue is really about costly irreversible action, not keeping doing what we do for a very, very long time.

Cutting the vampire appliances

May 31st 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 22. Can we be more efficient users of electricity?

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Many gadgets consume a surprising amount of power on standby. David cut his electricity consumption by half by making sure his "vampire appliances" were kept off. There are real savings available here. David and friends set up "ReadYourMeter.org" to try to encourage others to make this sort of saving. According to the International Energy Agency, standby power consumes a surprising8% of residential electricity.

"Small is beautiful" ... "but big is efficient" in heating systems

May 10th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 21. Efficient Heating

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The average winter-time temperature in English homes in 1970 was 13C. Today, 50% more than that is usually thought of as just about tolerable.

There are three strategies for reducing the carbon footprint of keeping warm: reduce the temperature difference between the inside and outside; reduce heat losses from inside to outside and increase the efficiency with which energy is transformed into heat.

The first two seem obvious and cheap solutions. We hear a lot about "nudging" as a policy, and this seems an ideal area for clever devices to make people aware that they could be heating less and leaking less heat. David does not mention my own favourite long term solution here---a widespread move to small exoskeletons as a substitute to housing: we should be able to walk around with our temperature control close to our bodies and our living spaces open to the elements.

David makes a powerful argument for heat pumps rather than Combined-Heat-and-Power plants, and slips in a big fault-line in eco-politics versus eco-engineering: energy transformation efficiency tends to rise as scale rises, whereas green politics loves to decentralise and make solutions small and local.

This chapter is full of low-ish tech, labor-intensive investments that make energy-efficiency sense today. This is just what government policy should be stimulating our economies with today.

 

Transport: Bicycles, trains, electric cars and nuclear ships

May 4th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 20. Transport

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Electrify transport. There's not much to beat trains+bicycles, and any government looking for a Keynesian stimulus should find lots of infrastructure opportunities here.(For the UK, reverse Beeching at last))

David MacKay comes down softly on the car---which shows great realism---and finds that electrification is the only real solution there. He debunks hydrogen as a good energy carrier. Flying is a really tough case---there is not much that can be done to reduce its energy intensity. (I was sitting in an easyjet plane the other day that tried to convince me of its greenery by saying: "Flying contributes less CO2 than driving to the atmosphere" ...). Batteries are the way to go---though just wait for the peak lithium scares.

David has an interesting aside on nuclear ships. If we could make the (political) world safe for small-scale nuclear power, maybe there's more than ships that could benefit.

Energy group read - The basic solution

April 21st 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 19. The basic solution

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Chapter 18 was depressing --- the diffuse nature of renewables in the crowded UK basically means that a realistic view of their usage makes it clear we won't make it on local wind, tide, sun, geothermal, wood etc.

Assume: a) we can't change energy per capita too much; b) we can't change the capita (ie no creepy population control) and we still want sustainability ... The basic solution is: 

1. electrify transport

2.  electrify space heating

3. produce electricity with whatever local renewables we can, augmented by clean coal, nuclear and imported solar from desert regions.

Sounds simple, no?

Balance: thinly spread and unpopular

March 30th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapter 18. A first balance

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This is the first chapter attempting to balance-up consumption and production. While the story told so far of the raw energy potential from renewable sources shows an ecouragingly close race to maintain our rich lifestyles with sustainable energy sources, a little digging provides much disappointment. Between the potential and the realisation lies a factor of over 100! From a production potential of 180 kWh per day per person, we get to an actual production figure of just 1 kwh/d/p and a "realisable" estimate of 18 kwh/d/p---a full ten times less than our consumption.

Looking at the heart of the physics problem, David MacKay points to the geographically diffuse nature of renewables: each person needs a huge amount of land, tidal exposure, wind per person to make the sums add up. The sustainable potentials, as David emphasises, need "country-sized solutions". "To get a big contribu- tion from wind, we used wind farms with the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from solar photovoltaics, we required half the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from waves, we imagined wave farms covering 500 km of coastline. To make energy crops with a big contribution, we took 75% of the whole country."

Yet protection of species, habitats, nature, beauty etc. all move the same people who want to reduce fossil fuel dependency to limit the installations. Something will need to give to balance our energy ...

Drilling deep holes and making bombs

March 15th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapters 14 and 15. Geothermal and Public Services

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It matters where the energy is: lots of heat just 100km under our feet doesn't help much although manufacturing earthquakes might, just a bit. We're not Iceland which can rely on geothermal heat closer to the surface to operate huge aluminium smelting plants. So we can (almost) forget geothermal. Public "services" like a well-equipped army or well-heated academics also consume. Maybe some demand should be counted as production if it can be sustainably avoided by our efforts?

Next week is the first chapter looking at the overall balance of demand to potential renewable supply.

Tides and Stuff - March 8, Chapter 14 and 15

March 8th 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapters 14 and 15. Tides and Stuff

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Tide farms, tide barriers and two-way tide pools sound very attractive. And they won't make the world stop turning. Unfortunately, even for the rather tide-rich British Isles, we can only really hope to cover something about equivalent to our lighting and gadget energy consumption this way. And the economics of building large installations are not yet clear. Stuff, on the other hand, is much less attractive. Just making and transporting it -- TVs, food, drink, packaging, cans, computers ... -- is our biggest single consumption category. Reducing the stuff-intensity of well-being seems like a good goal.

Group Read. Energy without hot air. Wave and Food

Feb 23 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapters 12 and 13. Wave and Food

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In which we learn that to get by on wave power you need to be very very insular -- that is, have a small number of people per unit length of exposed coastline (sounds like a nice place to me, but the British Isles don't fit the description) -- and also that our food habits, especially for red-blooded carnivores with meat-eating pets -- amount to more than half our driving habit in energy. There is a real energy case to be made for vegetarianism (approximately twice as efficient) and even more for veganism (another doubling).

Energy group read, Week 6

Feb 23 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapters 10 and 11. Offshore and gadgets

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Offshore wind seems intuitively a nice option for an island liuke Britain - out of the sight, a sort of power belt that you can see from high places on a clear day. The energy is indeed there - about as much as we use for our heating and cooling. But you'd need an aweful lot of turbines and a massive investment. (Would we then have to worry about the birds?)

What about our chargers and gadgets? There is a myth that they are responsible for the developing "power gap" -- all those new power stations we will need over the next 20 years as the big nuclear power stations are decommissioned. Well, it turns out to be quite small - about the same energy consumption we use for lighting.

Just like to repeat a big thank you to David MacKay who has been very supportive of this project, and to William Sigmund without whose amazing html and perl skills I do not think we would have had an online version to work with.

Group read, energy, week 4. Will solar energy let us fly to the sun in winter?

Feb 7 2009. Join the Group Read. Chapters 5 and 6. Flight and Solar

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Will solar energy technologies allow us to sustainably take those long-haul flights to get our winter dose of sunshine? On the way, we discover that flying intecontinentally once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day, all year, despite the fact that modern planes are twice as fuel-efficient as a single-occupancy car. It may be no surprise, therefore, that Airline businessman Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, has developed a Swiftian the solution to the problem: " The best thing we can do with environmentalists is shoot them."

Just like to repeat a big thank you to David MacKay who has been very supportive of this project, and to William Sigmund without whose amazing html and perl skills I do not think we would have had an online version to work with.

"Energy without hot air" Group Read

Join the Group Read of David MacKay's book: "Energy without hot air". Chapter 2 - how to answer the question of "one planet living" (or even "one nation living")?
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