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Archive for March, 2012

I’m not really a climate scientist (a physicist, since you ask), and all this talk of apocalyptic doom is a bit depressing. So here are some interesting things:

In my end of the woods, I’ve been doing some really time consuming and exhausting analysis work. It requires creativity, focus and technical knowledge, and came packaged with loads of data to go through and a tight deadline. Said deadline is tomorrow, but as it’s someone else’s job to check the numbers I’ve already worked out I feel like the pressure is off me a little now. Perhaps when it eases I’ll be seen back on twitter on occasion (@turbinetastic).

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I’m tired.

It’s been busy at work lately, and busy at home, and that’s part of the reason why.

But really I’m tired of seeing the same conversation played out over and over again.

It seems so clear to me that the status quo is unsustainable. Fossil fuels take millions of years to be created, and we’re using them up at a terrifying rate. Burning them and turning those long-dead sea creatures and forests into carbon dioxide, changing the composition of the atmosphere. One day, they will run out.

Not they might. They will.

You might be right when you argue that we have decades yet, perhaps a century, of using fossil fuels at the current rate. But what about the Global Middle Eastern Crisis of 2025? You know, where all the oil in the Middle East was stockpiled in various fundamentalist states that banned export to non-Muslim countries? When petrol reached £4 and £5 and then £10 a litre?

Or maybe it was in 2018, when a critical set of valves heavily used in offshore oil platforms turned out to be faulty. There were three explosions in various locations of the same scale as the BP Gulf Of Mexico disaster before the fault was finally traced; maintenance to fix the fault shut down another twelve.

Or perhaps the third world war broke out in 2035. Both sides enforced shipping blockades at key points to cripple the other side’s oil supply. Pipelines in the desert were targetted by missile fire; oil rigs bombed.

Or perhaps the tide turned in 2021 when there was a series of enormous climatological upheavals which brought drought to some parts of the world and floods to others, killing millions. The same year, the Gulf Stream which gives Britain its moderate climate suddenly shifted south to arrive in Portugal instead of Ireland, responding to tonnes of excess Arctic meltwater, and forced us to endure the hot summers and frozen winters they get in New York. Perhaps after that climate change stopped being something to debate and started being something we should work to prevent.

It may be that none of those things happen. It may be that the oil simply, and quietly, starts to run low. Before long only three nations have any claim to oil at all. Perhaps they’re benevolant and fair nations who don’t restrict the fair trade of their oil. Perhaps it gets rationed so that each nation gets a quota.

Eventually, one way or the other, the whole economy that we’ve built on relatively cheap, readily available fossil fuels will falter. It’s not an if. It’s a when, and a how, but not an if.

In your world, what happens next?

Do we leave our children or our children’s children to squabble over the remains of our technology? Do we trust to luck and good faith that technology will find a way forward, even if starved of the funding and the environment it needs to thrive? Do we risk that the scientists who say the data says the climate is changing are all corrupt or mistaken?

Or do we use what we can to build redundancy into our systems so that there’s an alternative when things get hard? Do we strive for flexibility, and to use resources that can’t be denied us by war or economy? Do we wait, with bated breath, for fate to remove what we’ve been able to exploit for so long, or do we plan for its demise to minimise its impact on our culture?

Every time you say “not in my back yard”, you’re arguing that we should sacrifice the future for the present. Every time you tell me that wind farms are useless or ugly, you’re not only mistaken, you are contributing to a climate where we have no alternative to fossil fuels and other fuel-based power.

Wind farms are not the answer. But they provide us with power from the wind when the wind blows. They are flexible and responsive. They enable and encourage us to develop a grid infrastructure that can respond to variations in supply as well as demand. They teach us to balance the demands of the ecology with our thirst for energy. And out there, on the hillsides, they are an unmistakable sign that someone, somewhere gives a damn about tomorrow.

And I’m tired of having the same argument. Don’t tell me I have to defend wind farms. You defend your strange belief that, contrary to all evidence, tomorrow will be just like today only better. It won’t. We have to create tomorrow.

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Linked to from the Scots Renewables blog.

I like it because it makes the point I always want to make. If I shout “Duck, he’s got a gun!” you don’t say, “I’m not going to bother because it might not hit me anyway.” You duck first and then check to see if I’m right.

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Transport is one of the cornerstones of the modern world. Fast, convenient transportation has allowed us to live and work at very different locations, offering us the ability to live where we want to with the minimum of compromise on our work and careers. It’s also one of the three main pillars which make up our energy use: electricity, heat, and transport. In the UK and in Scotland in particular, most of our efforts in reducing our carbon use has gone on the first of these: generating more low-carbon electricity. But that’s only part of the story.

When it comes to transport, walking, running and cycling are probably the most environmentally-friendly forms of transport you can choose. They all run on the food we consume and on the fat reserves we store. But walking is slow, and we’ve set up our road system in the UK so that cyclists share their road spaces with buses and for me, certainly, that makes cycling seem like a dangerous option.

Electric cars are starting to gain a foothold, though. A couple of years ago it was all about the hybrids, but more recently environmentally-friendly vehicles has meant fully electric cars. But they still have their limitations. We have petrol stations available at regular intervals the length and breadth of the country; we don’t yet have electric recharging points (As Top Gear pointed out). That means their range is limited to hopping from one known charging point to another. Similarly even a large petrol car can be fully refuelled after ten minutes at the pump, while electric cars generally require longer. Even their sheer quietness can be a point against them, as pedestrians and cyclists can’t hear them coming.

But every technology has to start somewhere. And it looks like electric cars are starting to get a real foothold, with the opening of the new Power of Now exhibition in Glasgow from Scottish Hydro. I had a look round it today, and it’s a bit of a strange mix between a science centre exhibit and an electric car hire and charging facility.

The exhibition space is smallish, about the size of a standard city centre retail unit, and is split into three displays, focussing on hydro power, wind power and energy savings at home. Then, next door, there’s a car hire and display unit which contains various models of electric vehicles. If I recall correctly, the staff said there’s charging available for up to six cars at a time, and that facility is free. They also had a DC charger which can charge a car in about half an hour, although apparently it only works on electric cars with Japanese engines (because they’re DC, apparently).

My car is a normal small petrol runabout. I don’t use it much because I live near a train station which gets me to work and back with minimal hassle, and those journeys it is used for tend to be short trips for the shopping and so on. I see no reason why an electric car wouldn’t do me, and thousands like me, almost all of the time. Until the technology and infrastructure catches up, it wouldn’t be hard or expensive to simply hire a petrol car for the occasional longer journey. And apparently Glasgow City Council has committed to free parking for electric vehicles within their jurisdiction.

With free car tax, petrol prices through the roof (didn’t you just know that once the £1 a litre barrier had been broached it’d never really go below it again?), and now free parking, it’s beginning to look feasible. To really take off, it does need corporations with a vision to invest in the technology, and the Big 6 energy companies do have both the incentive and the profits to help us get the infrastructure in place.

Of course, most of our electricity isn’t carbon free at the moment. But then, none of our petrol is either.

It feels like a turning point to me. But we’ll have to wait and see what will happen next.

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