Science in Society Archive

Green Power Rules

A ground-breaking launch conference for Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 and turning point for renewable and sustainable energies. Sam Burcher

The Jubilee Room in Westminster was packed to the rafters for the launch conference (25 November 2009) hosted by Michael Meacher MP and Alan Simpson MP, just weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Every seat, every spare inch of table space and standing room was abuzz with expectation. It was an extraordinarily high- powered panel of speakers assembled for the occasion; half of them coming from abroad.

UK not green

Prof. Peter Saunders, co-Director of ISIS opened the conference bang on time by delivering an opening salvo to the UK government for its reliance on nuclear power, carbon capture and storage and carbon credits. “It’s hard to believe they take renewable energies seriously when despite all the talk, out of the 27 countries in the EU we come 25th in the proportion of our energy that comes from renewables.” As to UK’s reliance on carbon credits:”Either these reflect CO2 that was never going to be emitted, in which case they are bogus, or they mean people who are poorer than us are going to have to cut more than their fair share while we cut less, which is immoral.”

Green power to the people

Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Director of ISIS and lead author of the Report gave the first speech (see Power to the People, 100 Percent Renewables by 2050, SiS 45) Her message was “Power to the people!” in all senses of the word power. Renewable energy is inexhaustible, it is free once you installed your equipment to capture it, and it is available to all, so no need to fight over it. People themselves are in control. Basically, green power is renewable, environmentally friendly, healthy, safe, and sustainable. It is especially amenable to distributed, decentralised small scale generation that give people energy autonomy.

She emphasized that climate change is real and human activities have a lot to do with it, especially by burning fossil fuels. “That happens to be the best explanation of all the observations, past and present.” She said, alluding to the hacked e-mails from East Anglia University that has been blown up by climate sceptics. “But being green is a good end in itself, regardless of whether you believe in climate change.”

The potential for renewable energies are huge. Top of the list are wind, solar and anaerobic digestion of biological wastes. She warned against false solutions such as nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and in particular biochar that’s in many ways intended as a successor to the already disastrous biofuels boom, and could really endanger life on earth by accelerating the depletion of oxygen.

And being 100 percent renewable by 2050 is realizable. Germany is well on course, thanks to enlightened government legislations and subsidies to stimulate the internal market, especially feed-in tariffs.

She ended by giving a peek at the fantastic possibilities “over the rainbow” that’s also covered by the Report.

As though on cue, the next two speakers gave brilliant examples of green people power

Being green makes money

Dr Seigfried Brenke from German development agency GZT underlined the importance of feed in tariffs. There is no question that the feed-in tariffs are needed for renewables, which means a reshuffling of the subsidy system, he said. To achieve a renewable energy economy we need to do two things; we need to push in the green energies and to reduce energy demand through energy efficiency.  An increasing number of countries have already embraced feed in tariffs. These are Australia, Austria, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, and several states in the USA. 

He then explained the “the investment opportunity curve” that invests green profits and savings into further green investment to make money. He gave two examples where public buildings have switched to renewable technologies such as solar power to produce energy rather than consume energy (see Cities and Climate).

The ICLEI (The International Council for Environmental Initiatives) has established the Copenhagen City Climate Catalogue, or cities that are independently striving for carbon emissions reductions.  The catalogue has recorded 2 765 participating cities that includes 1 097 in America, 387 in Germany, 152 in the UK, 67 from Canada and 13 cities in China. These cities have adopted five keystone principles from which local councils can initiate local sustainability at international levels.  Dr Brenke will introduce these principles to a meeting of the Mayors in Copenhagen during the UN Summit on Climate Change.

The power of green community

Alan Simpson MP for Nottingham South also paid homage to the power of community in bringing about not just an energy revolution, but a power revolution (See Faith, Hope and Chaos, SiS 45). When you empower people the most astonishing transformation takes place, he said. Alan has spent quite a bit of time travelling around Germany where on weekends 90 percent of its total electricity supply can be supplied by wind and solar PV. He has seen how the income from feed-in tariffs puts the profits from electricity into the hands of people not big business. And, there is the added benefit of being part of an ecologically and socially equitable virtuous circle. 

Alan has been inspired to start his own Community Energy Services Company, which is about to announce a long term partnership with an energy sector partner, and the deal is that this transformation has to begin from the poor, and the long-term contract agreement he is entering into is that the energy generating systems will be given away for free as part of the ten year agreement.

Alan has learnt lessons from Hamburg where green energy is being produced by 100 000 biogas units installed directly into people’s homes. The combined heat and power energies will deliver two gigawatts of electricity for that whole area of Hamburg, which is the energy equivalent of two power stations. 

He also learnt from the Manchester Gas and Water Board Company, which began the era of public energy services in the UK during the era 1817 to 1890.  The proceeds from that company funded all sorts of positive public amenities.  This company was driven by people that put pensions and dividends into the communal pot.  Alan said that this is the real definition of energy security instead of supporting a casino economy of boom and bust with big payouts only for big business.

Big business in nuclear and renewables

Dr. Armin Tenner, retired nuclear physicist from The Netherlands who used to make frequent trips to the CERN (European organisation for Nuclear Research) facility in Geneva warned us not to dismiss the “nuclear renaissance” too quickly.

Siemens’ joint venture with the Russian company Rosatom foresees a worldwide market of 400 nuclear reactors before 2030. In the past decade, important new nuclear fuels and procedures have been developed in India and in Russia.  India developed its bigger prototype reactor that will be competed in 2010 and have three extra units added by 2020.  This reactor can convert natural and also depleted uranium into plutonium.  It also converts thorium into uranium-233, which is also a fissile material.  India has developed this technique because it has little uranium and a considerable amount of thorium and was excluded from importing uranium due to its reluctance to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  It has been claimed by opponents of nuclear energy that the uranium resources will soon be depleted.  But if all thorium was converted into uranium-233, and there’s more thorium in the world than uranium, and it is used much more efficiently, there will be enough nuclear fuel for thousands of years. The anti-nuclear movement should take notice of these developments.

Dr. Tenner also highlighted the involvement of big business and finance in recent renewable energy developments in Europe, Russia and Asia. He said that Siemens are involved in the planned creation of a factory for offshore turbines in Newcastle. They are also one of the 12 big businesses involved in the Desertec Joint Ventures that will operate in Algiers, Germany, Morocco and Spain. The aim of the Desertec project is to establish the concentrating solar heat power stations in the Sahara Desert.  Together with wind turbines and other renewable energy stations it will supply 15 percent of the European electricity needs. The solar heat installation consists of arrays of mirrors that concentrate the solar heat into the energy grid. A similar project is planned in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. 

The community cooker a social project

Jim Archer, architect from Kenya, has designed, developed and invented a machine that transforms rubbish into what is needed most in slums and refugee camps.  The community cooker (see The Community Cooker Turns Rags to Riches, SIS 44) prototype has engaged the local people in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum in collecting and recycling the ubiquitous piles of rubbish into energy for the community.   The rubbish is dried and burnt in a kiln-like oven that provides energy for heating water for washing and drinking, and cooking food.  While there are criticisms of incinerating rubbish at high temperatures, the chimney flue and filters ensure that environmental pollution is kept to a minimum.

Jim’s World Architectural award winning Planning Systems Services team is working hard to bring the cooker within the safety levels set by the WHO.  Karuga Koinage, part of the Planning team remarked to me later that the benefits of community cooker really come into perspective when you see just how little the people in Kibera have and how the positives of the cooker far outweigh the negatives.  To be able to give people that have never before washed their hands in hot water or had a cooked meal and to reduce the incidence of disease and rubbish in slums is something that you have to see for yourself, he said. Jim also has ideas for ingenious add-ons to the community cooker that include a solar heat pump that will provide a cooling system for fridges and freezers.

Lord David Steel, a childhood friend came specifically to introduce Jim. He said it was a wonderful green project that is also a very important social project; “and as you can see it has a capacity of being very low cost and can fundamentally raise the standard of living dramatically for large numbers of very poor people on our planet.”  He has visited the community cooker in Kibera. “It operates 24 hours a day and during the night,

unemployed youngsters in the slum  bake bread on the community cooker and take it into the city during the day to sell.  So it has an economic benefit as well. I think it’s a very remarkable invention and again my thanks to Jim Archer for his initiative in building it.” 

Henry Ndede, the co-ordinator of UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) for the whole of Kenya, said he fought hard to find a site in Kibera where the community cooker could become operational. Kibera is one of the fifteen slums within Nairobi City.  In fact, 60 percent of the city of Nairobi is in that poverty bracket.  Since the community cooker was introduced by Jim, it has brought in a lot of partners. One of the major challenges is how can we introduce the community cooker to Dadaab and other refugee camps and areas where after the atrocities in Somali, more than 400 000 refugees are living.  Now they have gone down to 260 000 because some have been assimilated.  But the challenge in Dadaab for instance is that people have to travel 50 km in search of firewood. Yet all around them there is plenty of rubbish for which the community cooker could provide a very easy solution. The people who have to go in search of firewood are women and their children, who should be at school.

Deep water air conditioning

Professor Joe Cummins emeritus professor at University of Western Ontario Canada, looked at systems that provide efficient cooling, as global warming makes summers more and more unbearable, which also minimise CO2 emissions. The idea arose in Hawaii when a student’s car broke down and he took the radiator out of his Volkswagen

and ran deep water from the ocean through it to cool it down, which also cooled the whole of the laboratory. 

He described the project that took the deep water from Lake Ontario to cool buildings in Toronto. In the last couple of years all the major buildings in Toronto have been air conditioned in this way.  This is a tremendous saving in electrical power and it’s a huge savings in carbon emissions.  And it has also reduced the “brownout” effect when during the peak of the summer the whole power delivery systems would collapse and people were made very ill or killed by the excessive heat. 

There is a criticism that deep water cooling systems are disturbing the ecology.  “I have a dispute about this,” Joe said.  For one thing if you are taking water from Lake Ontario for cooling it has a flush time period when the water changes over roughly every 7-10 years.  So the flush time means that it is unlikely that the deep water ecology would be disturbed by this.  However, it is important not to minimise this point and ecological effects should be studied and evaluated in a more formal way and this has not yet been done.

He also gave further examples of using deep water from disused mines to cool buildings in nearby towns and factories. All that is done via heat exchangers that circulate the water back in a closed system right back to the source.

Praise for the Carbon Budget Bill

Michael Meacher MP, former environment minister, was on fine form when he explained to the crowd that there are a number of political barriers to implementing green energies (See Politics of Green Energy, SiS 45).  These barriers include no money, no domestic market, no planning, and overwhelmingly no political will.  However, he did praise the UK Government recent initiative to introduce the world first’s carbon budget.

He also made a strong case for carbon tax, rather than carbon offsetting. In addition, he made the point of equitable access to the grid for renewable electricity generation in agreement with Alan Simpson MP, who revealed that many wind turbines are turning, but are not actually connected to the grid.

Michael concluded that microgeneration is the future.  There is no question about this, he said. There are enormous nuclear dinosaurs stuck in the countryside costing billions to build where 50 percent of energy is lost in production and further 5 percent in transmission.  Microgeneration is the way out, but you’ve got to give people an incentive as they have done in Germany.

Scrap windturbine could meet demand for small scale community renewables projects all over the world

Max Robson, a post graduate student from the University of Portsmouth described how the simple idea at the heart of his low cost wind turbine from widely available recycled scrap could be applied to small scale projects all over the world. The original prototype that he made was designed using a bicycle frame because it provides that standardised structure and is also very cheap (See Harnessing the wind with Scrap SiS 44).  He also used an alternator from an old scooter, which again is very available and require a very low mechanical input for the energy output it gave. 

When Max got feedback from newspapers and news channels like ITV it really encouraged him that there was a lot of interest because it’s recycling, it’s renewable energy and it’s helping the developing world.  In addition, he received lots of emails from people in developing countries; El Salvador, Ecuador, Ghana, Chile, all these places trying to say to him,  “We want this, we need this, we don’t have a lot of money,  but we really need renewable energy.”  Max explained that marketing and raising awareness of these technologies are important, as well as being sensitive to local people and involve them in delivering benefits of renewable energies for them.

Comments from the floor

The full programme left too little time for the greatly enthused audience, and only a few comments got through.

Impossible to invest in renewables in the UK

Colin Leakey from Lunar Energy responded to Michael Meacher’s point about UK’s rich potential for tidal power and said that it is impossible to invest in it as a private investor.  He had wanted to invest £12 000 of his own money, but was told that he had “not sufficient net worth to do that.”  He mentioned a “widget” attached to gas and oil exploration stations in the North Sea; the engineers who designed it were already generating tidal energy in South Korea and the Far East.  But its use was not supported in the UK. 

Is saving the planet illegal in the UK?

Peter Dawe describes himself as “a radical architect”. He said that saving the planet was actually illegal in the UK.  He had wanted to site wind turbines on the low lying and windy fields on his farm. But as it is 30 miles from two RAF airfields, he was told that wind turbines placed there were illegal.  He is promoting a barrier across the Norfolk Wash to protect the fens from flooding, which would produce two Gigawatts of power. But again, that is illegal because a few birds might be disturbed by it.  “It gets to the point when you wonder – why bother in England?”  He also wants to burn straw on his farm, but the regulations for on-farm burning makes the costs for that prohibitive. 

Judge rules obligation towards green energy

Malcolm Walward from DARE (Derbyshire Action on Renewable Energy) said he is always intrigued when the politicians tell us that we are going to take a leading role in renewables.  His small co-operative was faced with what he describes as “statutory nibyism” when they tried to put up a wind turbine in their community. The local Peak District Park decided that they didn’t like the view of a turbine from the park and refused the application. His plans for a 500 KW turbine turned out to be unaffordable because of problems at the factory, steel prices going through the roof and China sucking in all the raw materials.  A commercial application made to his district council for a wind farm went to full committee, but was also kicked out. They appealed and the case went all the way to the High Court where the judge ruled that we have a moral obligation to support a movement towards green energies.  Malcolm’s environmental group now plan for a low cost wind turbine that can be locally sourced and developed.

Article first published 16/12/09

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a cat?

There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

susan rigali Comment left 17th December 2009 23:11:24
Good on Malcolm for continuing the fight. I was told by the Health Dept and Building and Safety Dept. that cooking in public could only be done with a pizza oven or a grill. Upon hearing this I called the manufacturer of my solar oven. He advised me to label and call it a pizza oven.

Rory Short Comment left 9th February 2010 20:08:43
Environmental activism is faced with an immense problem of social inertia. This is brought about by the fact that most societal mechanisms were formulated before societies became at all environmentally aware and thus will often contain practices and procedures that are actually antithetical to environmental needs. The fact is environmental health is so critical to the continued existence of us humans that it should take pride of place in everything that we and our societies do. This is clearly not yet the case, we have to work towards it, our lives depend upon it.