Tag Archives: energy

Why I just can’t get enough of bannng lightbulbs

I wrote my article earlier this week on the Daily Mail’s bonkers line about a sinister EU plot to ban traditional lightbulbs primarily to point out quite how many non-facts were in the story. I should have remembered the golden rule – nonsense begets nonsense. Because the next thing I knew I was getting ticked off, not for making any factual errors, but for advancing the cause for banning things (yes Jennie, I am talking about you).

There is a certain degree of irony in this, having pontificated about the perils of banning things myself from time to time. When it comes to bans, Rob Knight gets to the heart of things:

what about when trying to control the bigger picture is just as harmf ul as ignoring it?

Well exactly. Indeed, I would go further than that. You need more justification for a ban than simply some narrow cost-benefit analyis. You can justify pretty much anything that way. Where bans are bad is when they become about bullying and forcing conformity (the tricky thing being that sometimes not banning can have the same effect).

So it is that, eighteen months down the line – and despite being a non-smoker and enjoying the benefits – I’m still not comfortable about the smoking ban. Patio-heaters, and thus a cost to the environment, have not become quite as ubiquitous as we were promised they were – although that has clearly been a problem. The fact that every single bit of shelter on the London streets now reeks of tobacco as smokers have taken up semi-permanent residence, is an unfortunate by-product but still nicer than the alternative. Why I’m uncomfortable about the smoking ban is that I simply don’t believe that the dangers of passive smoking actually outweigh the denial of the smoker’s liberty – particularly given that as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs, etc. I appreciate it was a balancing act but I continue to think the wrong call was made. Furthermore, the more I consider the class angle and the fact that anti-smoking policies seem to be generating a small, inevitably poor, hardcore who are more addicted than ever, the more uneasy I get. These policies are helping those who need help the least while harming the most vulnerable.

That it was a balancing act at all however, is a fact that is not recognised by the libertarian right, who only consider the restriction on the smoker as material. And this gets to the heart of why I don’t frankly have much time for libertarianism. It is a fetishised, parodic version of liberalism in which personal liberty trumps everything (except money). Libertarians have it easy; they never need to consider anything other than the fact that all bans are automatically Wrong.

Going back to lightbulbs, the calculation seems extremely one sided if you accept the need for urgent action on climate change. Incandescent lightbulbs are not a lifestyle choice but a different way of producing light less efficiently. If you don’t define their dominance as a market failure (General Electric even originally decided to shelve the design of Compact Fluorescent Lights as soon as they were invented – they were only produced at all because the designs were “leaked” and copies made), I seriously question how you define market failure. We could try taxing incandescent bulbs and try gradually phasing them out like that I suppose, but that would be even less popular.

And the arguments in favour of keeping them? That CFLs are “too dim” (they aren’t)? The interests of the snake-owning, lava-lamp demographic (even that is contested)? 33 year old studies on fluorescent bulbs based on miniscule sample sizes? Come on!

There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet. You’re entitled to disagree with me of course, but until you can come up with a stronger argument, implying that supporting phasing them out is illiberal is simply lazy.

Does the Guardian work for an Octopus God?

funny pictures
moar funny pictures

Okay, panic over. It turns out that rumours of Martian tripods returning to earth and confusing our!women! with wind turbines have been exaggerated. It transpires that it was, in fact, a combination of metal fatigue and what sounds like a rather unspectacular fireworks display put on the family of Guardian journalist Emily Bell.

Fair enough. Mystery solved. But what the hell is the guy going on about in the first paragraph?

“It was huge,” John Harrison, a farmer from Saltfleetby, said yesterday of the light display he saw in the Lincolnshire sky on Saturday night. “At first I thought it must have been a hole where the moon was shining through, but then I saw the tentacles. It looked just like an octopus.”

I suspect John Harrison has been at the rarebits again. Nevertheless, that description does sound familiar. And then it hit me: this is almost exactly what happens at the end of the first Hellboy film.

Somehow I doubt the Great Old Ones are particularly interested in wind energy, but maybe that’s what the Guardian wants us to think.

Eek! Evil EU ban our traditional way of light!

Chris Applegate’s life work is without purpose. Why? Because the Daily Mail is unspoofable. What satirical mind could have come up with this pile of nonsense for instance?

Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies

Millions of Britons are finally waking up to the fact that their beloved light bulb will disappear for good after 120 years.

Traditional 100-watt bulbs are vanishing from the High Street because of a controversial European Union decision.

Yesterday panic buyers were snapping up the remaining bulbs in a last-ditch attempt to stockpile the final supplies. Hundreds of leading supermarkets and DIY chains – including Sainsbury’s, Asda and Homebase – have already sold their last remaining bulbs after a surge in panic buying.

Other stores say they have enough stocks to last until the end of next week.

Let’s work backwards on this one. First of all, very few stores will have enough stock to last until the end of next week. That’s how modern shops work. Why keep loads of deadweight stock in store when you can have it delivered to you when you need it?

Secondly, until you read this, were you aware of any panic buying? No? Me neither. On the other hand I am very much aware that one of the main suppliers of lightbulbs on the high street, Woolworths, shut its doors for the last time yesterday. I was also very aware over Christmas how all stores were keeping their stock particularly low. During an economic downturn and with the banks in trouble, we should expect this as cash flow has become that much more important.

Thirdly, traditional? Joseph Swan invented it 131 years ago (with that crook Edison trying to rip him off as per). How does that count as “traditional.” My generation’s grandparents will have had gas when they were kids – that is how new an invention this is.

Fourthly, 100w? If your complaint about energy saving lightbulbs is that the light from them is “harsh” (I disagree, but there you go), why would you want a 100w bulb? Wouldn’t a 60w or 40w suit you better (lower wattage bulbs will remain on sale until 2011)? I am not a historian of the lightbulb but I’m pretty much willing to bet you that the “traditional” bamboo-filament bulbs of the late 19th century would have blown up if you put 100w through them.

Fifthly, an EU decision? The UK voluntarily signed up to the scheme.

Sixthly, energy saving bulbs cause seizures? Epilepsy Action don’t think so (hat tip: Blagger).

Seventh, energy saving bulbs cause rashes? Maybe, in certain cases, but only for people who already have dermatological conditions.

Eighth, energy saving bulbs damage the environment? They do contain trace levels of mercury, but if recycled properly are no problem (I’ve been using these bulbs for over 20 years and have never even seen a broken one – they’re much more robust than incandescent bulbs). “Traditional” bulbs contain mercury as well – in fact by switching to compact fluorescent lamps, you will reduce the level of mercury you use.

Regarding points six, seven and eight though, they are out of date as LEDs are set to replace CFLs over the next few years. The main barrier to introducing them has been, yes, the predominence of the “traditional incandescent light bulb.”

All in all, the Mail story amounts to a confection of lies and misleading scare stories. Pretty much nothing in it turns out to be true. So no change there then.

Will the nuclear boom harm global warming?

So the government is to give the green light to nuclear. No surprises there then.

Part of me would like to be an optimist, denounce the green lobby for being apocalyptic, line up with Jim Lovelock and David King and comfort myself that nuclear is a better alternative to coal and gas. I certainly am fairly dismissive about the “danger” argument (although moving a hundredfold more uranium and nuclear waste around the world, which appears to be where we’re headed, does strike me as a significant security threat).

The problem is, I’m simply not convinced by the economics of it all.

A thought has struck me this week: if these plants are really to be built without a penny of government subsidy, with the industry even paying for the clean up costs, it seems to be based on a model that the cost of gas and oil will remain high. John Hutton seems to confirm this:

Analysis of future gas and carbon prices showed nuclear was “affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions”.

If that’s the case then it suggests that things like oil shale are likely to remain extremely commercial indeed. Indeed, it suggests an economy in which coal becomes affordable as well (we’re already seeing this happen). In other words it appears to be based on a model where a killing will be made exploiting the most dirty sources of energy imaginable, many of which will counteract the carbon savings by going nuclear. And they won’t take until around 2020 to come on stream.

On the plus side, it also makes numerous renewable sources more viable. But the government is still resisting opening the door for micro-generation through a German-style import tariff, so progress on that will not be driven by thee and me as it is in other countries. And the government also seems reluctant to invest in R&D comparative to even the US which not only will make development take longer but denies us opportunities in terms of jobs and enterprise.

Overall, it is hard to shake the impression that we are pursuing this goal due to a chronic lack of imagination more than anything else. While I normally am the first to defend scientists, I do wish we heard a little less of them in this debate and a little more from the economists.

Going nuclear?

One developing story I didn’t get around to blogging about over the past couple of weeks is nuclear policy. There have been several stories in the papers recently on this. Most recently, the Nuclear Consultation Working Group issued a damning condemnation of the government’s second consultation on nuclear energy. This is bad news for them as they’ve already had one consultation thrown out in court.

The most bemusing line I’ve read about this was on the front page of the Guardian yesterday was this:

The government is expected to insist it has a mandate. In meetings in the autumn, more than 1,000 people were asked their view of nuclear power after seeing videos and taking part in discussion: 44% said power firms should have the option to build nuclear; 36% said no.

I accept that the first sentence is a journalist’s embellishment. Nonetheless, if the government is claiming a “mandate” it has another thing coming. Nuclear energy, along with Trident and a basket of other important issues, was one of the topics Labour would not mention during the general election, either on the stump or even in the small print of their manifesto. And if they are basing their consultation on the balance of responses received, this would be a government first. Normally, government departments are the first to point out that to do so would be to cede policy to the views of a vocal minority and that they are not statistically signifcant. It would seem to me that it would be unwise to set a precedent on this.

The second nuclear theme is rather more tricky. David King, the Royal Society and the European Commission have come out urging the government to consider reprocessing and using the UK’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. This is a different argument to the standard go nuclear one: we already have tons of the stuff – enough to provide 60% of the UK’s electricity needs until 2060 – and there are serious safety and security implications in just stockpiling the stuff.

Personally speaking, my main objections to going nuclear are geo-political. I simply cannot see any merit in exchanging an oil economy for a uranium one. Most supporters of nuclear seem to think the UK exists in a bubble, that we alone are facing this decision and that there are no economic or security implications for increasing the global demand for uranium by a factor of ten or even one hundred. The prospect of us waging our first “uranium war” or propping up some corrupt African regime simply to ensure security of supply doesn’t exactly entice me (note – I accept the argument that we only have 30 years of supply based on current levels of consumption is bogus; demand creates its own supply. But the truth is we simply do not know how much uranium there is out there or how much it might cost to extract it – the counterargument that you should base future supply of uranium on an oil-based model is, if anything, even more bogus). And the cost appears comparable to investing in renewables to the point where they would become economical. With solar now threatening to, erm, go nuclear, I’m not convinced by the TINA argument that fission is the future. Introduce a UK feed-in tariff before lecturing me about what is or is not possible.

Most of these arguments however do not apply to reprocessing. This is about making the most of our past mistakes, not making new ones. It would be potentially cheaper, and I’m prepared to buy the argument that nuclear buys us time for renewables to develop (so long as investment in renewables goes hand in hand with it).

If this was what the government was pushing, rather than its bleak vision of making the UK economy entirely dependent on a non-renewable substance we don’t produce and have no guarantee of supply over, I’d be more sympathetic.

Official response to green energy targets: lie

The Guardian’s expose of DBERR’s response to the EU’s 20% renewable energy target which Tony Blair signed us up to earlier this year is sadly reminiscent of Yes, Minister, replete with calls to reclassify solar panels in Africa and nuclear energy as counting towards our renewable target.

The worst thing about all this is that our partners on the mainland are making us look like chumps. The civil service response to every green target has always been to fudge it; now we are lagging behind to a cringe-making degree. Even if you are a climate change denier, surely decreasing the UK’s dependence on foreign oil has to be a good thing? And how can a relatively land-locked country like Germany be spanking us on windpower? Isn’t that just plain embarrassing?

To catch up, all it takes is the level of spending recommended by the Stern Review, launched with great aplomb by the then-Chancellor last autumn. Instead, we’re ploughing public investment into money pits like the M6.

The tragedy of environmental policy is that for all the rhetoric, our Government isn’t even prepared to do the basics. It then turns around, having sat on its hands, and insists that we have to stick with things like nuclear energy. Sadly, with time pressing, I fear this may be a bullet we can’t afford to dodge, but let’s be clear what this means. Never mind stuff about the safety of plants or disposal of waste, the real thing we should be worrying about is where all that uranium is going to come from if worldwide demand for it trebles (which is a conservative estimate); is switching from foreign oil dependency to foreign uranium dependency really progress? What does this mean for global security? Sadly, I’m not optimistic.

A final point: most of the level of renewable energy across the EU appears to be coming from energy from waste. Perhaps it is time that environmentalist groups who so dislike the oil, gas and nuclear options should start muting their opposition to such a rich potential source of energy?

Die Harder

Two things to say about Tony Blair’s Bruce Willis inspired soundbite-of-the-day about Nuclear power being “back on the agenda – with a vengeance“:

  1. It is insuffrably ridiculous, the verbal equivalent of a 50-something man driving around in a Lambourghini;
  2. It is code for “that stuff about being genuinely open minded about nuclear power? Big fat lie. Suckers!”

Neither of which are uncharacteristic of our beloved PM of course. And of course, along with his outburst about the Human Rights Act, it is entirely designed to stop the commentariat from talking about loans-for-peerages and the meltdown that is the Home Office (not to mention the parlous state of DEFRA). But it does make you wonder how sad it must be to realise that your Premiership has sunk to such silly nonsense. Outbursts like this are all we have to look forward to from Blair. Subconsciously he’s almost certainly screaming for someone to end it for him.

Half-Baked Incineration Policy

Ming’s podcast question hotline is a great idea and it is a shame they didn’t go with it earlier.

Unfortunately, it was let down by the content. No Mr Campbell, it is not a matter of deciding between incineration and recycling. There is a third option which is usually labelled as “incineration”: energy from waste. In other words you burn waste product and capture energy from it – as energy efficient as most gas or oil powered generators and even more so if you make it part of a combined heat and power system. And there is a fourth option which ought to be at the top of everyone’s agenda but gets sidetracked: waste reduction.

A lot of things – not least of all paper – are environmentally very expensive to recycle with little gain. Indeed, environmentally speaking, surely burning used paper has got to be better than growing crops specifically for the purpose of energy production – at least you get a double hit? Plastic is a tricky case: because of the way much of it is treated, it is often much more environmentally friendly to burn, but there’s a lot of mileage in regulating to standardise the plastics we use for packaging and thus make recycling more viable.

The claim that incineration discourages recycling is utterly spurious. Think about it. If it is true that an incineration industry discourages recycling (actually the EU’s top recyclers are also top energy from waste generators), then it is equally true that a recycling industry discourages waste reduction. If you are going to employ such simplistic arguments then the only conclusion is to oppose both.

A more sensible approach is to have an integrated recycling and energy system in which the two work hand-in-glove. A more sensible approach would be to tightly regulate incinerators to ensure that only modern, efficient and zero-emissions systems can be used. A more sensible approach would scrap the landfill tax and replace it with a tax on packaging at source to discourage creating unneccessary packaging in the first place. Yet the FoE lobby, which unfortunately Norman Baker pays too much lip service to, actively works against it. Not for the first or last time has the environmental lobby proven to be a hindrance not a help.

Green Waste

I hate to be such a nay-sayer all the time, but what a wasted opportunity Kennedy’s speech on climate change was today.

Don’t get me wrong; he’s absolutely right to criticise the Tories and Labour – we still have a stronger record on the environment than them. But it doesn’t appear to have moved us forward from a year ago. Worse, he appears to have gone quiet on Airport Departure Duty, which was his big thing in 2004.

What I wanted to hear was some idea about how we move forward, on both the national and global stage. It is good to see him emphasising contraction and convergence again, but while this may help get India and China on board, it leaves us with an even bigger headache with the US, Australia and Japan. His digression on green cities was bereft of detail. We need to hear about reduction measures, not simply more stuff about how all our problems will be solved by renewables, carbon capture and extremely limited initiatives such as biofuels. We need to hear about how our environmental aims relate to our localisation objectives.

In short, we need to start hearing some real policy in Lib Dem environmental speeches, especially ones where we attack our rivals for merely talking rhetoric on the subject.

But to be positive for a second, at least we’re talking about policy again.