Yes, Scotland's electricity is Green: No, it's not due to wind

While the focus of the UK nuclear sector is on the new-build programme, recent results from EDF remind us that existing nuclear capacity is still a major player in the UK energy scene. Their nuclear fleet is now delivery more electrical energy than at any time during the last 8 years, resulting in a boost for operating profits. And with a 10 year life-extension for Dungeness B due to be finalised later this year, nuclear investments from the 1970s and 80s will still be paying dividends for many years to come.

Nowhere is the contribution of the UK nuclear fleet more apparent than in Scotland, with two reactors at Hunterson and Torness. Though a little-known fact, through these two compact plants nuclear is the largest generator of electrical energy in Scotland by some margin, as it has been for many years.

Indeed, the output from the single nuclear plant at Torness alone (9 TWh) comfortably exceeds the combined output of every wind, wave and solar generator in Scotland (8.3 TWh). This clearly illustrates the benefit of energy dense fuels used in compact and efficient thermal plant which can provide continuous output over a plant life of many decades.

While Scotland is pitched as the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, it’s steadfastly nuclear-powered.

In contrast, the arbitrary government target of generating the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electrical energy consumption from diffuse and intermittent renewable resources by 2020 is perplexing. While climate change targets are mooted as one of the primary motivations, Scotland’s electrical energy generation is in fact already 100% low carbon, as measured against the government’s own metric.

In 2012 Scottish electrical energy consumption was 30.8 TWh, while production from our two compact nuclear plants was 17.0 TWh, all wind, wave and solar production was 8.3 TWh, hydro 4.8 TWh and other renewables 1.6 TWh. Output from low carbon sources therefore exceeded domestic consumption, a fact which is rarely noted, or indeed celebrated by government and environmental NGOs. 

To do so would be to acknowledge the reality of the immense contribution of nuclear energy to Scotland’s electrical energy production, and indeed its exports to the rest of the UK.  

First published The Herald 24 February 2014 

Energy, Entropy and the Human Enterprise: Royal Society of Edinburgh

In my lecture this evening I propose to consider three ideas: that the human enterprise is a catalyst through which dead matter has organised into conscious life; that it’s successes have been in transcending, rather than recoiling from environmental boundaries; and that the human enterprise can be a persistent, self-organising phenomenon that has the potential to prosper into the deep future. But before we consider the future, let’s first consider the distant past . . .

Lecture transcript pdf from:

Lecture audio from:

The curious case of Denmark: Admired by Left and Right alike

While Shakespeare’s Marcellus was convinced that something was rotten in the state of Denmark, our Scandinavian cousin is now seen by many as a poster-child for the future of Scotland.

But confusingly, while the left-wing Jimmy Reid Foundation marks out Denmark as a near cut and paste template for their Common Weal project, the US conservative Heritage Foundation also ranks it in their top 10 for economic freedom. Similarly, while the left is aghast at the privatisation of Royal Mail, most of the fire and ambulance cover in Denmark has long been provided by a private firm.

This is a curious nation indeed.  

Towards a post-ideological Scotland

As a party political agnostic it’s often difficult to get under the skin of those who align themselves with a single, often narrow world view. But ideology seems to be a hard-wired human trait, as evidenced by the lasting historical imprint of many radical political thinkers. This same ideologically driven thinking can often be glimpsed in the contemporary debate over Scotland’s future. These views range from a visceral belief in the historical destiny of Scotland as an independent nation, to those who strive for a red-flagged Socialist republic or even a green-flagged environmental utopia.
Clearly, Scotland has seen ideologies rise and fall, from the struggle of the Red Clydesiders to the more recent experiments of the Thatcher-era. But a post-ideological Scotland need not see the replacement of conventional politics with bland managerialism, or indeed the petty moralising over personal behaviour which now often takes the place of big ideas. A post-ideological Scotland can be a home for radical thinking on what constitutes a better future, whether part of the Union or otherwise. But to do so, we need to ditch our preconceptions as to what constitutes genuinely radical thought.

Geoengineering: Beyond planetary boundaries

It’s no coincidence that industrial civilization has flourished during a time when the climate has been in a relatively benign and temperate state. Compared to the natural climate calamities of the past, whether glaciation or volcanic winter, this favorable setting has allowed rapid population growth through intensive agriculture, along with growing global prosperity through a mix of hydrocarbon energy consumption and innovation-driven economic growth. Such is human progress.

However, recent concern associated with human-driven climate change has brought into sharp focus that the climate is not static. It’s clear that the Earth is a dynamic, far from equilibrium system, and that the popular view of nature as being perpetually in equilibrium is only due to the narrow slice of human history through which we view the past. Addressing both human-driven, and indeed long-term natural climate change, will therefore be an essential requirement for the sustainability of the human enterprise into the deep future. Concerns over human-driven climate change merely bring these issues to a head.

Bursting the Carbon bubble

There’s a new meme running wild on the internet that goes something like this.

The world’s energy majors are valued by the market on the basis that coal, oil and gas reserves can be turned into real economic value, making them an attractive punt for investors. However, if tough climate change legislation kicks in through international regulation, then the majors are in trouble and may in fact be massively overvalued. The claim is that we now have a rapidly inflating ‘carbon bubble’ of unburnable fossil fuels. And if the bubble bursts, investors will lose their shirt.

But there are two problems with this argument. First, as economist Richard Tol points out, from the valuation of coal, oil and gas companies it’s clear that the market expects us to be burning fossil fuels some time to come. Share price is after all an estimate of future expectations, not just current value. That’s not to say the market is correct, but prices simply reflect a cold assessment of reality as seen by investors. Based on current valuations, their call is that governments will not enact draconian restrictions on fossil fuel use any time soon. 

All hail the rise of the robots

I became acutely aware of the droid takeover whist travelling through Schiphol airport. Like many regular flyers, I witnessed long ago the substitution of blue-uniformed KLM check-in staff with rows of sliver touch screens. But what’s new at Schiphol is that even the baggage drop-off desks have gone, replaced by yet another row of quiet and efficient machines.

For those yet to experience the full techno-glory of it, a low door slides open and luggage is placed inside. The door shuts, and then quickly re-opens with the luggage spookily gone. There is a vaguely disturbing fear that it will never be seen again. Quietly it seems, the droids are taking over. Not in a sci-fi cull of warm meat by cold steel, but in a subtle, silent and ultimately glorious revolution. And as the humans whose labour is being culled we should rejoice.

Rich, elderly white male takes an interest in the fecundity of poor, young African women

The casual misanthropy of the darker corners of Green thinking has been on display again in the broadsheets, with broadcaster Sir David Attenborough’s off-hand comment that humanity is “a plague on the Earth”. Ironically, this renewed interest in the fecundity of young African women arises mainly from elderly white men such as Attenborough, a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT).

As some may recall, the OPT was the organisation which implicitly likened raising a third child to buying a patio heater, for the carbon footprint that both leave. They cheerily note that “each addition to the population that does not take place saves 744 tonnes of Carbon dioxide”. Call me sentimental, but I rather thought that my own three children were simply wonderful new humans who bring meaning and new potential to the world, rather than another few outsized carbon footprints.

Ultimately, the answer to the crushing poverty of subsistence farming is not more subsistence farming

The Enough Food (IF) campaign rightly highlights the impact of the crushing poverty caused by small-scale subsistence farming in the developing world, noting that resources are required to help “small farmers to improve their productivity”. However, in seeking to support small-scale farmers, we should remember that the goal of economic development must ultimately be to make them, or at least their children and grandchildren, metaphorically redundant.

Escaping from the poverty of an economy dependent on labour intensive agriculture will require the same transition which the developed nations enjoyed after the industrial revolution, when hydrocarbon-fuelled machines replaced carbohydrate-fuelled human labour. Through the resulting, historically unprecedented prosperity which we now enjoy in the developed nations, nurses are free to nurse and teachers teach only because their calorie needs are met through efficient, large-scale mechanised agriculture. Innovation, and the efficient use of energy dense fuels, freed us from the land to engage in these more progressive pursuits. This same transition from an economy based on labour intensive agriculture to one based on efficient agriculture and modern manufacturing is clearly required elsewhere. 

Energy and Environment: News from the State of Euphoria

Let’s play a game. The rules are simple.

Imagine you’re the Minister of State with responsibility for Energy in a small country on the northern fringes of Europe. With apologies to David Lodge, we’ll call this country Euphoria. As a member of the newly elected Green-leaning government, your ministerial role is to deploy low carbon energy in this island State of Euphoria, whilst keeping the lights on.

In the frustrating days of opposition you were able to imagine a bright Green future of large-scale energy storage, tidal power around the coast of Euphoria, carbon capture and storage and a host of other technologies which haven't yet reached industrial-scale. You'll invest heavily in energy R&D, but now you’re in power, you need to deal in the reality of nuclear, gas and wind as the practical tools at your disposal (coal has long been killed off by EU directive). The key question is how much of each?