Tuesday 26 February 2013


Unknown @ Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Switch off the mind and let the heart decide
who you were meant to be

 - Thomas Dolby, Windpower

Let's get one thing clear to start with; I like wind turbines. I think they're pretty cool in a sort of 80's near future sf movie kind of way. That slow, steady apparently inexorable turning is in some ways fascinating. At the same time I can appreciate that a lot of people would prefer that they were built out of sight - off shore for example - rather than smack in the middle of unspoilt countryside.

Cool to look at, but does it make sense...

I should also make public my bias in favour of nuclear energy. It's low carbon, fuel is plentiful (anywhere between 3,000 and 100,000 years of fissionables available) and the Generation 3 and 3+ designs are a significant advance on efficiency and safety when compared to the Generation 2 designs (e.g. Fukushima's Boiling Water Reactors or Chernobyl's RBMK). As for Generation 4 designs, such Molten Salt Reactors, well although they're probably 20 years or so away, they potentially offer a realisation of Lewis Strauss's vision where "Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."

However you can pretty much guarantee that in any group of environmentalists the majority will, at the mere mention of nuclear power, start banging on about Fukushima this, Chernobyl that, Three Mile Island the other. "Build more wind turbines" they say, "wind is good, clean and can meet our energy needs". Last summer Mark Jacobson and Cristina Archer published a paper which backed this up.

Wind turbines convert kinetic to electrical energy, which returns to the atmosphere as heat to regenerate some potential and kinetic energy. As the number of wind turbines increases over large geographic regions, power extraction first increases linearly, but then converges to a saturation potential not identified previously from physical principles or turbine properties. These saturation potentials are >250 terawatts (TW) at 100 m globally, approximately 80 TW at 100 m over land plus coastal ocean outside Antarctica, and approximately 380 TW at 10 km in the jet streams. Thus, there is no fundamental barrier to obtaining half (approximately 5.75 TW) or several times the world’s all-purpose power from wind in a 2030 clean-energy economy

Mark Z. Jacobson and Cristina L. Archer
Abstract here (paper requires subscription)

So that's okay then. Wind power can meet global requirements several time over. And with the right infrastructure periods of low wind in one country can be covered by power generated in other countries or regions. In fact the good professors reckon that 4 million wind towers spread across the globe could be generating 7.5 terawatts by 2030. Which seems pretty good. Except that the World's population is growing and while some nations will be making efforts to reduce their energy consumption it is safe to assume that other developing nations will be disinclined to follow suit. So 7.5 terawatts may well be considerably less that 50% of global requirements by 2030.

And 4 million wind towers? Now 7.5 terawatts across 4,000,000 wind towers is roughly 1.9 megawatts per tower. But current designs have an energy yield of around 30% (best designs currently in production) so we'd require each tower to have about 6 megawatt capacity. That's a big tower, a big expensive tower. Northern Power Systems have an 8MW design, good for winds up to 36km/h. Now a 100m tower (and the NPS design has a rotor diameter of 175m, so the towers will be significantly taller than 100m) would cost around $500k. And that's on land. Without any additional infrastructure costs. Or taking in to account inflation.

So to generate less than 50% of global energy demand from wind by 2030 would require a spend of in excess of $2,000,000,000,000 just for towers. I dread to think how much the cost of connecting to the various national power distribution networks would cost. Or the maintenance costs. At least as much again I suspect. So a spend of around $4 trillion. That's not a solution, let alone a viable one.

It turns out we may not have to worry about funding such an exercise. A recent paper by Amanda Adams and David Keith reckons that sustainable wind power generation per square metre has been significantly overstated. Rather than the 2-4 Wm −2 usually quoted, a more realistic limit is 1Wm−2

Estimates of the global wind power resource over land range from 56 to 400 TW. Most estimates have implicitly assumed that extraction of wind energy does not alter large-scale winds enough to significantly limit wind power production. Estimates that ignore the effect of wind turbine drag on local winds have assumed that wind power production of 2–4 W m−2 can be sustained over large areas. New results from a mesoscale model suggest that wind power production is limited to about 1 W m−2 at wind farm scales larger than about 100 km2. We find that the mesoscale model results are quantitatively consistent with results from global models that simulated the climate response to much larger wind power capacities. Wind resource estimates that ignore the effect of wind turbines in slowing large-scale winds may therefore substantially overestimate the wind power resource.

Amanda S Adams and David W Keith 2013
Abstract and link to paper here

So before tackling the challenges of building, linking and maintaining 4 million wind towers across the planet, we need to face the fact that we may not be able produce any more than 25% of global requirements at best.

Don't hold your breath waiting for this to be built
Assuming we all want to survive in style rather than accept reduced circumstances and take to living in yurts then wind isn't going to comprise anything more than a very small portion of any future power generation system. Which makes me question whether we ought to be subsidising wind generation at all.

More viable alternatives would appear to include hydroelectric (all forms including tidal), geothermal and solar (proper solar generation, not the domestic installations which appear to be more of an long term investment scheme for those with spare cash than a genuine attempt at small scale renewables). But in the UK neither large scale solar (not necessarily appropriate) nor tidal (very much appropriate) is getting much of a look in.

And the program to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in this country is becoming farcical as more companies pull out. Last year it was E.ON and RWE npower, and more recently Centrica have also abandoned plans to build new nuclear power stations.

With Ofgem predicting blackouts within 3 years (link is PDF) it is probably time to break out the candles and wood burning stoves ready for those cold dark days and nights when the electricity is turned off. And having lived through the "three day week" in 1974 I can assure you that it isn't a romantic or charming prospect.

The way we'll have to live???

Sunday 24 February 2013

Addicted to ideology

Unknown @ Sunday, February 24, 2013
The number of people who are unaware that the UK has lost its prestigious triple-A rating with Moodys must be pretty damn near zero.

But does it really matter?

On a day-to-day basis investors will have been factoring in the negative outlook from the ratings agencies for a while now, so it is possible that this downgrade will have no immediate noticeable effect. And given the less than stunning performance of the ratings agencies in the past (credit default swaps rated AAA; Enron; etc) then I suspect their influence has been significantly reduced too.

However from a political perspective the loss of the AAA rating will further diminish the credibility of George Osborne (assuming he has any). After all the primary justification given by the coalition for the austerity waltz was the need to preserve this rating. Which is a pretty damned stupid mast to nail your colours to, when as Chancellor you have no control over Moodys, S&P and other agencies.

But I deliberately emphasised given above because I doubt that the motivation for austerity talk was ever anything to do with our credit rating. Rather the objective was always to roll back the state, privatise public services and above all put the fear of God into everyday working people. A clue is in the employment figures; unemployment isn't rising, but that's down to the number of people working part time or going self employed. I suspect the real level of employment is much lower that the statistic indicate.

So will the political impact of the rating downgrade have any impact policy?

Probably not. Austerity was talked up for ideological reasons, and the ratings loss will be used to further the current agenda. Einstein once stated that The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Now if Osborne truly believed that austerity was the panacea he claims it to be, then he would indeed be a candidate for a shirt that fastens at the back for refusing to change direction. However, given that the beneficiaries of the current policies are his fellow travellers, it is safe to assume that this continued destruction of society's security is the desired result. Why else was the schools building programme cancelled; the banking system protected; taxes for the rich cut? 

No, Osborne is not insane, just ideologically motivated and disinclined to support a healthy society.

Monday 28 January 2013

In my backyard

Unknown @ Monday, January 28, 2013
So the preferred routes for the extensions to HS2 north from Birmingham have been published. Looking in detail at the route from Sheffield to Leeds it would appear that the line is going to cross the valley behind my house on a 150m long viaduct before diving down a 1-in-50 gradient into a tunnel.

Now there's going to be a massive amount of NIMBYism over these routes, but my own personal attitude is bring it on. I'm looking forward to seeing high speed trains hurl themselves  across the valley before diving underground. The only problem is that I'll probably be a geriatric old crumbly by the time the line is built.

One thing is for sure, there're countless people lining up to slag off the whole project; it'll take too long; it'll go over budget; it'll only benefit a wealthy few, yadda, yadda, yadda... And certainly there's an argument that the billions could be spent on new schools, hospitals, roads, etc. But sometimes you need to take the long view. The current rail network is struggling with express services between cities fighting for paths with local trains and freight. Moving high speed services on to dedicated lines could free up capacity for more freight to be transported by rail, or for more frequent local services.

And all this talk of the line never being used tends to overlook the fact that big transport infrastructure projects quite often end up fulfilling an equally valid yet different role. An example is the Great Western Railway. Built to maintain Bristol's status as Britain's second port and maintain its share of trade with America, its main source of revenue was passenger traffic with freight peaking in the 1920's.

 A closing thought; Brunel's line is still in use today more than 170 years later. If HS2 is built well, the country could be reaping the benefits well into the next century.

Saturday 26 January 2013

A dream and a fear

Unknown @ Saturday, January 26, 2013
Perhaps life is just that... a dream and a fear. - Joseph Conrad

For Boeing the 787 Dreamliner would appear to be Conrad's quote made real. But perhaps, just perhaps, Boeing are architects of their own downfall, their hubris and arrogance finally coming back to bite them.

Dreamliner 787 Electronics Bay Fire

Now certainly the 787 would appear to be a masterpiece of technological advancement, but with the whole fleet grounded and investigators still unclear as to why the batteries keep catching fire, perhaps there are more fundamental reasons that mere tech? For example, if we look back to 2009 it would appear that the FAA have given Boeing significant authority to self-certify their own aircraft as airworthy.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday extended the authority of Boeing Commercial Airplanes to self-certify its aircraft and aircraft technologies. Under the agency's new safety oversight model, Boeing manufacturing and engineering employees will perform delegated tasks for the FAA, including signing certificates approving new designs. - FAA extends Boeing's authority to self-certify aircraft

Now no one would imagine that Boeing would deliberately cut corners, but with MBAs running technical departments, there is more than just a weather eye on the bottom line, and financial pressures can lead to oversight. So why would the FAA grant such powers to Boeing? I doubt it is down to any form of back-handers passing between the two bodies. More likely we're just looking at the FAA once again siding with the industry over the public (look at the origins and background to the NTSB for more evidence). Back to the batteries; li-ion rechargeable batteries have form in the area of spontaneous combustion. There was the case of the flaming iPods or Dell's burning batteries. Heck, even Boeing has had problems with the damn things during testing.

In 2006, a devastating lab fire in Arizona showed just how volatile Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner lithium-ion battery can be if its energy is not adequately contained. A single battery connected to prototype equipment exploded, and despite a massive fire-department response the whole building burned down. - 787 battery blew up in ’06 lab test, burned down building

 Now a fundamental problem with Li-ion batteries is that they can liberate oxygen from their own combustion products, so simple foam or inert gas extinguishing systems aren't going to cut it. Instead you're looking at heavy smothering agents (sand would work well, but not at 20,000 feet!!). There are safer battery alternatives such as NiMH or LiFePO4, but they weigh more and the Dreamliner's big selling point is fuel efficiency which means cutting as much weight from the design as possible. In the meantime the NTSB, Boeing, GS Yuasa and other involved parties will keep looking, and the Dreamliners will gather dust in hangers.

Chairman Hersman also expressed concerns about the adequacy of the systems to prevent such a fire from occurring. "The investigation will include an evaluation of how a fault that resulted in a battery fire could have defeated the safeguards in place to guard against that," said Hersman. "As we learn more in this investigation, we will make recommendations for needed improvements to prevent a recurrence." - NTSB Chairman says 'We have not ruled anything out' in investigation of Boeing 787 battery fire in Boston.