What do I think, What can I do?

Archive for February, 2013

Is there a future for biofuels?

Image from Wikipedia

What happens with biofuels? (biofuels can be distinguished from biomass, because they need a chemical process to extract the liquid fuel and the biomass is burn directly or after just cutting and drying)

There are frequent news about promising biofuels , about good and bad perspectives at the same time in Neofronteras , some really negative from climate progress , some more standard and encouraging news from Denmark or other explaining the possibilities of biotech , and this last one about the interesting possibilities of marginal lands for biofuels.

Consequently, in this subject, we can say that clearly there is no consensus.

I think that the problem is that we are talking about too many things when saying biofuels. Nowadays there aren’t many doubts about the problems and scarce utility of using crop to fuel our cars, or destroying some hectares of rain forests for getting some liters of ethanol called “green”. And maybe the greatest sin have been to think they could be a direct substitute of petroleum. They can’t.

Nevertheless, there are many other possibilities of obtaining energy from plants or their wastes. I do not think they will solve our dependency to fossil fuels but they can contribute to certain extent and in some places help to get a self-containing solution because they can use the long experience we have on moving things by burning liquid fuels. For example, I imagine some marginal lands in a farm that are useful to obtain fuel for some machinery there.

So, let’s include some biofuels as part of the solution, even if small, being , at the same time, critical with their production process, giving priority to food but remembering that they are the most ancient solar power stations. In fact, they power our bodies.


Are renewables so expensive? Research about renewable electricity supply system costs

definanzas.com.wp-content.uploads.energias-renovablesThis very recent paper focuses in costs studies of a fully renewable electricity supply system based in part of EEUU states grid. It is very interesting and deserves a more profound reading but the main conclusion is that for 2030 (less than 20 years ahead) it is not only possible to supply 100% electricity in this part of the USA by renewables, it would even be profitable!.

The good news do not end there, another study says that new wind and solar are competitive in the long-term with new natural gas in Texas. And another study, based on Australian data shows wind is cheaper than fossil fuels in Australia, even without carbon tax.

OK, maybe some of those data have been analysed with a positive bias towards renewables (in the first one for example), and it is true that renewables always compete to already paid systems of energy production, so it is a difficult-to-win battle; (it is interesting the debate in England about the feed-in-tarif or similar to new nuclear, newborns have a hard time even with Uranium). Nevertheless, the good news are that renewables are reducing costs clearly, and have been for a long time, while fossil fuels are more fluctuating and nobody is really confident they will not increase in the near future, so the maths continue to be confusing but they are changing.

Of course, all this without considering the enormous costs of climate change effects, sooner or later they will be evident in the balance and then the doubts will simply disappear, the problem is that  by then it may be too late for some and will be more expensive for sure.

We are not just wasting time, also money



This nature paper i quite interesting because it calculates economic costs of acting against climate change earlier or later. Usually the only question a bout time is when it will too avoid reasonable 2ºC temperature increment or 550 ppm CO2 in future atmosphere (it was 450 ppm target not so long ago).

Some voices say we do not have much time left to act if we want to assure a maximum 2ºC degree limit (in principle a quite safe limit). The following sentence from Michael Brune (Executive Director of The Sierra Club) in Sierra Club’s blog is a good summary of this idea:

 We have a clear understanding of the crisis. We have solutions. What we don’t have is time. We cannot afford to wait, and neither can President Obama.

I agree with the concept. I do not know if nobody can’t be sure about the exact timing needed in climate change action; there are too many uncertainties in this calculus, some scientific, most social and economical. The immediate action call is more related with another word: Inertia. This word obtained from the basic physics is beautiful and at the same time frightening. It can be applied to a wide range of things and the basic meaning is that in some cases the things have a strong trend to continue being like they were; for that reason, to change them, the action has to be continued in time and patient.

The climate has its own inertiae, the oceans need time to warm up, once they do it they need a lot of time to cool down. And our human societies have a lot of inertiae too, electricity production system can’t be changed from one day to another. So, this urgency to act has to do with the response time of the climate change problem, if we start to act now we will harvests the results one generation or two later. In fact, we are acting to some extent, the renewable energy installations, the research on them and the reduction of emissions per capita in many important countries show some action.  But our action up to know has been timid, has not stop the growing path of CO2 emissions, and even worse it is not guaranteed at all that with this action level the emissions will tip in a short time.

So, yes, I agree, if we do not act fast to get this tipping point we are likely to be short on time later. And here comes the very interesting conclusion of this study, it will not be only much better for our grandchildren, if will be far more cheaper to start seriously now. So let’s talk about carbon taxes to introduce this numbers in our economy.

Biomass for heating

im003235Today, I have been in a meeting were representants from three small towns (Aramaio, Otxandio, Zerain) explained their intention to develop Distric Heating for the greatest part of their town using wood from their own lands. There were some differences in the concepts, the scope, the development stage and the size of the towns that ranges from 300 to 1500 inhabitants. At the same time, there were some interesting common points too:

  • The Biomass from forests was the main energy source for our grandparents for more than 1000 years.
  • The investment needed to start the system was a problem for most due to the low-budget of the towns but they all were considered that the change from oil or gas to local Biomass would make economic sense in the mid-term, and they had done detailed studies for that.
  • It would also benefit local wood producers as their income would be fixed in the long-term.
  • It would create local jobs.
  • It would help to prevent wildfires.
  • It would make environmental sense.
  • It would complement well other local economic activities as tourism or sheep growing.
  • It would be compatible with forest harvesting for more expensive use of wood.
  • Their projects were based on local wood, a wood moving 100 Km would be too expensive.
  • They would need more help than the one their are getting.
  • And the last one, they have discarded other renewables after some preliminary studies.

And my own conclusions:

  • Our forests can be used for different purposes at the same time and even if I usually do not mention land use it is an important issue in climate change.
  • Biomass heating use of second quality wood is a nice substitute of gas or oil for small towns with forests, but can even work for Distric Heating of buildings in nearby cities. It will not heat everyone everywhere but can be part of the solution, and this is what we are looking for: partial substitutes of fossil fuels.
  • Local approaches can be important, maybe more than in global emission numbers, as an example and motivation, like el Hierro island
  • The only discouraging news was the low acceptance of other renewables in their studies, and the worst case of three small hydro power stations that were not used after being abandoned in the cheap oil times. Certainly, in some cases the information they got was not updated. But this is something that happens many times.



Klimagune and the value of local difusion

3 months ago I attended a public conference about climate change and health in Bilbao, it is called klimagune, and it is part of the divulgation work done by bc3 research centre. It was interesting for me and the presentations are available in its web, the one from Paul Wilkinson and the other from Bilbao’s perspective. There were even some tweets (#klimagune). From the two hours, the video and the two lecturers I remember two or three points that came to my mind in this quite extreme winter:

  • The important difference of mitigation and adaptation, and that in any case both will be needed.
  • The idea that we will suffer climate change to some extend and it will have many effects and some directly in our health, but if we do not surpass the 2 ºC barrier we should be able to cope with them as they will be incremental.
  • The story of malaria coming to Europe is quite possible as it was before, just in my house not so far ago.
  • Even a wet city like Bilbao can suffer from water supply problems as the rains will be more extreme and irregular.
  • Sea rise level can have many effects in coastal areas  before we are under the water.

The pity was maybe that we were no more than 30-40 people there. Maybe not a failure but few in any case, climate change is not in the agendas of most people in the world and this is something to work about, for example by showing those presentations.

Climate Change in Kutxaespazioa

A week ago I visited with my family a science museum called Kutxaespaxioa close to the beautiful city fo Donotia-San Sebastian. Being a science museum the presence of climate change was unsurprisingly accurate and clear. Just another small probe that there are not substantial doubts in current science about the main facts of climate change. My document in some photographs:

There was a book about climate change

Anyone could produce a mini tornado and understand its basic concept and the increase of probability with a warmer and wetter atmosphere

There was a beautifully shown combustion motor, it is really a marble of the mechanics:

Nevertheless, solar and wind energy could be clearly in action and with a great presence
solar_and_wind_turbine_energy wind_turbine

And finally, everyone could sense the heat of a tiny greenhouse, as the one we have over our heads

China and Climate Change

China and World emission paths. The magnitude of the emissions if different but the scales are the same

China and World emission paths. The magnitude of the emissions if different but the scales are the same

Now that we are close to the new year eve in China it is a good time to write something about them. The figure in the beginning of the post displays how influential is China in the current emission path of the world.  25% of the emissions come from there, if the rest of the world would suddenly stop every emission China’s CO2 would be enough to be over the 20% maximum that is considered a reasonable equilibrium. Even more important than the share (lower than the population share) is the trend, whereas most developed countries are not increasing their emissions significantly lasts years Chinese CO2 is growing very fast. It is not the only one but it is the greatest and I think that the leader of the developing-developed countries group. In a previous posts I mentioned USA and China as keys. They are, all of us are to some extent. However, I think that China will fix the trend that many others will follow, because they can reverse the upwards emission path and fix the peak, after that the perspective will be different.

And how is it doing in China? I am not an expert and see news of both sides. In one part, they are burning half of the coal of the world, if they do not stop we will get quite hot.In the other hand there are signs for hope as most Chinese are convinced of the importance of climate change, they want to be more active in renewables and form part of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and even if their 6 ton per capita emissions per year are not far from many European countries (but far from the USA), they burn them in part to produce goods that export. Transport emissions are low for example.

Apart from those news there are three great reasons I believe should make us hopeful :

  • Chinese are quite vulnerable to extreme weather, so for climate change. It is they fight as it is everybody
  • They have the opportunity to lead the development of many renewable energy technologies.
  • They have the opportunity to build many things in their society in a low-carbon way and this is much easier than transforming high carbon structures.

Last chapters in Spanish energy politics regression

definanzas.com.wp-content.uploads.energias-renovablesI started this post many time ago. And every now and then there are novelties, so it is like an never-ending post. Therefore, I have decided to stop and publish.

There was a time, not so far ago when Obama considered Spanish energy politics as a good example. A favourable Feed-in-tariff helped the development of a strong industry capable of exporting technology and an amazing 44% of electrical generation from renewables in January 2013 is an example of what was done. But this panorama, quite succesful, in fact, started to decline some time ago, concretely with the previous socialist government. And the current one, from the conservative party is deepening the problem and forcing the companies to look only abroad for new contracts.

After stopping feed-in-tariff for new installations the subsequent changes have attacked the installed solar panels and wind mills. The suggestion of removing the TUR tariff (the fixed tariff for most small consumers 99.6% of the consumers but only 50% of the KWh) was just a step. The general 6% new tax for all electricity generation followed.  And, last week a new change in feed-in-tarif for the active installations was designed with the tariff deficit in mind again.

But it does not stop there, efficiency measurements have been stopped too in a way quite difficult to understand. In one way european building efficiency directive has not been converted in law (it should be long ago) and this could be clearly an impulse for a collapsed building sector and certainly a help to save petroleum and gas expenditure and many of the programs from IDAE institute have been cancelled to support car sales (PIVE plan). The result is a record expenditure in fossil fuel imports. Is it not a bit contradictory with tariff deficit reduction philosophy? The only two good news are that el Hierro will not be affected nor a thermosolar central (just one).

It is clear from the beginning that Soria (industry and energy minister) has been mainly worried to reduce a very strange concept called “tariff deficit” , i. e. the difference between the attributed energy production costs and the final market value (TUR for most of the consumers). This difference has been steadily increasing in the last years and it is considered a debt of the consumers (or government I am snot sure) towards energy producing companies. Even if they have earned considerable money in spite of not getting all the attribution costs. Nowadays, with a terrible financial crisis this kind of debt is a heavy burden and Soria blames the renewables for it. Yet, there are data that  say the blame should be shared by many others as gas. Meanwhile the electricity demand continues falling with the economy and Soria is afraid this will continue to harm main energy companies.

I agree that the system was flawed, and that currently installed renewables are more expensive than some other energy types in direct costs but at the same time I think the whole electricity production and paying system should be redefined. It should be more transparent, clear and new renewables should have a reasonable possibility to enter as currently they are cheaper than ever, had a consolidated industry behind and produce many other benefits as jobs and reduction of CO2 footprint (Spain’s vulnerability to climate change is not low). By the way:

  • why not electrify transport to increment electricity demand but not energy demand?
  • or, why so much delay in self-supply regulation? If solar panel are expensive only the really convinced will install them and it they are not.
  • or, even better, why not simplify the system and introduce a carbon tax instead of the many other taxes to rightly account for actual externalities of the  different energy production processes?

Finally, the biggest problem with all this is the uncertainty it produces for other countries to start ambitious programs of  renewable energy. Spain was an example for energy transformation and it is at risk of becoming an example about how such a process could be spoiled. Nevertheless, the game is not over yet, a 44% of renewable electricity production in January (not based on Hydro power) is still a great number.

Renewable Electricity, many reasons for hope

In a previous post, I mentioned the rough figure of 42% of the energy in the world devoted to electricity production, sometimes,  when we talk about energy and climate change we only think in electricity. It is a mistake I do frequently. So, OK it is just 42%, it is not all but it is almost half of the problem. So it seems a good starting point for the solution as well. And though the situation is not wonderful and we are in a hurry, there are some sings for hope just in the electricity production data by country. They are in the following figures:

Share of renewable electricity by country, divided in the top consumers (80% of world electricity) and the rest

Share of renewable electricity by country, divided in the top consumers (80% of world electricity) and the rest

Share of Hydro power in the total renewable electricity by country, divided in the top consumers (80% of world electricity) and the rest

Share of Hydro power in the total renewable electricity by country, divided in the top consumers (80% of world electricity) and the rest

The so-called top producers correspond to the 16 countries that concentrate the 80% of consumption, the data come from the Wikipedia and are from 2009-2010, in this moment they should be better for many places.

Anyway, my hope comes from those facts:

  • The top producers are less renewable than the rest. But even there, there  are 2 countries with most electricity from renewables, so it is possible to maintain a “big” electricity system this way.
  • “The rest” show a lot of countries very renewable. It is hopeful because they should be the ones needing more new energy, so they can install it renewable. In th other hand this confirms that the problem and solution is concentrated in a few bunch of countries.
  • Among “the rest” hydro power is their main source of renewable energy, among top consumers too, but with significant amount of others as wind, solar or even Geothermal. This is interesting as the future and present should come from them.
  • Finally, electricity can be the way to decarbonize other sectors as transport (the road is the most important contributor there)