Governments of all shades, and energy utilities, tend to believe that large, centralised solutions are the most cost-effective because of the economies of scale. There is a belief that local solutions will increase costs.
Ground-breaking work by an energy modelling company in the USA (Vibrant Clean Energy (VCE)) has turned this argument on its head, and this could, or should, have profound implications for any strategy to decarbonise the power grid in any country, including the UK, with renewables playing a dominant role in the future.
The present study finds that by including the co-optimization of the distribution system, the contiguous United States could spend $473 billion less on cleaning the electricity system by 95% by 2050 and add over 8 million new jobs. … The findings suggest that local solar and storage can amplify utility-scale wind and solar as well as provide economic stimulus to all regions across the contiguous US.
The study finds that wind, solar, storage and transmission can be complements to each other to help reduce the cost to decarbonize the electricity system. Transmission provides spatial diversity, storage provides temporal diversity, and the wind and solar provide the low-cost, emission-free generation.
We understand that what is true for USA can be true of the UK.
Now, in the UK, various groups have already published reports based on modelling of the grid to show that net zero is achievable. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) produced a report ‘Zero Carbon Britain – rising to the climate emergency’ that showed how this could be achieved. They used granular weather data to help model supply and demand at national scale. Energy storage was included at utility scale (using excess energy on windy/ sunny days to produce synthetic gas that could be used to generate electricity during periods when both wind and solar were too low to meet total demand).
VCE have gone much further in the sophistication and granularity of the modelling:
Firstly, they have modelled the dynamical behaviour of the grid at all scales – with 5 minute intervals and 3km square spatial grid over a minimum of 3 calendar year (and for planning reserves up to 175 years hourly at 30km grid). There was always a suspicion with other models that even if the national supply and demand appear to match up at a point in time, the grid will experience issues at particular points in the grid, particularly at local pressure points. VCE have addressed these weaknesses.
Secondly, the economics of how the roll-out of the capacity is achieved is key to policy. The modelling includes economic aspects to show the marginal cost of each new tranche of generating capacity; and so modelling the evolution of the network, not just an assumed end point. VCE have modelled the period between ‘now’ and future end dates to see what impact different scenarios have on the marginal and net costs.
The astonishing result that VCE have found is that local renewables with local storage – even at only 10% of the total generating capacity – make a disproportionate impact on the speed and cost of further roll out of associated utility scale renewables. This is because it creates flexibility in the grid and relieves pressure points.
VCE note that this was an emergent behaviour of the system, which the modelling revealed, and certainly not obvious to energy specialists, because its only emerges when the model reaches a sufficient level of sophistication.
The bottom line is that we should see local renewables (including community energy schemes) not as marginal additional capacity in the transition to a greening of the grid, but as a key ingredient to both speed up – and lower the cost of – the transition. We should see small and big as beautiful, working collaboratively, to accelerate the greening of the grid.
This may seem quite a technical point for those who are not students of the energy system, but it is truly remarkable and transformative, and from a policy perspective, it highlights the need for Governments to continue to promote and invest in large, utility scale renewables, but also to assist in the roll out of local renewables and associated storage.
Emergent behavior is characterized by properties and behavior that is not dependent on individual components, but rather the complex interactions and relationships between those individual components. Therefore, it cannot be fully predicted by simply observing or evaluating the individual components in isolation.
I have had a number of conversations over the last few years with friends and associates working in climate and green groups who are sceptical about the focus on electrification in decarbonising our energy. They are, for want of a better phrase, green electrification sceptics.
They will argue that only massive reductions in the consumption of energy is the way forward, while of course they agree that we should stop using fossil fuels and are not opposed to electrification per se.
They are neither climate deniers nor renewables deniers (those two being birds of a feather). But they do represent a significant strand of opinion that believes the UK electricity grid won’t be able to cope, within the required timescale, with the demands of transport (Electric Vehicles) and heating homes (using Heat Pumps), because of the huge amount of energy we currently use nationally in the form of gasoline and natural gas.
They would instead argue for a modal shift towards walking and cycling, and public transport and – for many homes – deep retrofit. This should be the focus they would argue, instead of trying to do the same things we do today – with all the wasted energy that involves – and try to decarbonise that.
Well, I agree with this sentiment.
Driving a few miles to a shop to get a loaf of bread when we could have walked or cycled; heating our homes with gas boilers with upstairs windows half open; and all this with no price paid for the damage done by our carbon emissions.
It’s crazy and I agree with that.
However, people do need to move around, and for some in rural areas at least cars are unavoidable, even with improved public services. We certainly should not need 30 million cars in the UK in 2050 or even 2030, but zero is also not the right answer. And we need to heat our homes in winter, and we are not going to apply PassivHaus levels of retrofit to the (according to BRE) 9 million ‘hard to treat’ homes in the UK – at least on that timescale. We need a plan, and the numbers that back up the plan must have a sound basis.
This is where I want to challenge green electrification sceptics, because I see a tendency to bolster their arguments with information that doesn’t stack up. This helps no one, because it doesn’t get us to a realistic plan we can all work towards. And we need to scale up whatever we do pretty damn quick, with solutions that we already have to hand (techno-futurism is a tactic used by the denialists to delay action, and we shouldn’t fall for it).
Electricity in 2016 was about 20,000 ktoe (Kilotonnes of oil equivalent – a unit of energy) and (natural) gas plus petroleum was about 150,000 ktoe.
So, the argument goes, we’d need to increase the electricity energy generated by at least 7 times to displace the gas and petroleum, and this doesn’t sound feasible by 2050 let alone 2030 (the date that many local authorities in UK are committing to getting to net zero in these sectors).
The basic issue here is confusing primary energy, shown on this graph, with delivered energy, and this overstates the amount of electricity that would need to be generated to displace the fossil fuels shown.
‘Primary energy equivalents’ includes not only the delivered energy, but any energy lost as part of the transformation from one form (e.g. gas) to another form (e.g. electricity) of energy.
But there are other factors to take into account when considering the feasibility of electrifying transport and heat. I have listed them here, and they fundamentally change the basis for any debate regarding the electrificationof transport and heat in the next few decades:
Primary energy equivalents: For fossil fuels these shouldn’t be used as measures of the energy required in a transformed system, without appropriate adjustments.
End-Use efficiency factors: Inefficiencies of internal combustion engine (30% efficient) compared to a EV (90% efficient); see Note 1.Heat Pump (typically 300% efficient) is also at least 3 times as efficient as a gas boiler (90%), again meaning a reduced demand to do the same job; see Note 2.
Modal changes: By doing more to get people out of cars (as the new Decarbonising Transport report from UK Gov’t calls for) – walking, cycling and more use of public transport – we can reduce energy required for travel.Reduced consumption and electrification are not mutually exclusive..
Smoothing / lowering peak demand: On the consumption side at grid scale, there is lots that can be done to lower and smooth demand. For EVs, smart charging means we can eliminate large peaks in demand. For buildings, off-peak water heating means less wind turbines to do the same job.
Energy storage / flexibility: Comes in many forms, including electrical (batteries), thermal mass (e.g. hot water tanks), pumped storage, etc. – EV cars can become part of the solution, rather than the problem, by helping to build a flexible and adaptive network at local and national scales.
These factors together mean that instead of 7 times more electricity energy per year for a future UK it would be much less than this. Even if we carry on doing more or less the same things, it would be 2.7 times more according to David Mackay (see Note 3).
With Covid-19, but even before, there were many questioning why someone needs to do a 100 mile round trip for a 40 minute meeting. The digitisation of many sectors of the economy can make a big dent in the need for journeys – by any means – in the future.
… can we reduce the energy we consume for heating? Yes. Can we get off fossil fuels at the same time? Yes. Not forgetting the low-hanging fruit – building-insulation and thermostat shenanigans – we should replace all our fossil-fuel heaters with electric-powered heat pumps; we can reduce the energy required to 25% of today’s levels. Of course this plan for electrification would require more electricity. But even if the extra electricity came from gas-fired power stations, that would still be a much better way to get heating than what we do today, simply setting fire to the gas. Heat pumps are future-proof, allowing us to heat buildings efficiently with electricity from any source.
Further thoughts on EVs
At this point, the Green Electrification Sceptic might say…
Ok, I see what you’re saying, but charging all the cars (that will remain at current levels for some time) is still going to need a massive increase in generating capacity, to deal with the peak load
The flaw in this argument rests on the assumptions that everyone is charging at the same time, but in reality the load can be spread, lowering the peak demand. Nationally, 73% of cars are garaged or parked on private property overnight, according to RAC Foundation. Utilities are offering deals to help them to do smart management of the grid, offering customers some perks for signing up to these win-win deals. You just tell the service provider via your charging App you want to be charged by 7.30am tomorrow morning and the software decides when to schedule you. So the peak demand will be considerably less as a result, and in fact, EVs with their batteries then become part of the solution, rather than the problem. And the charging infrastructure need not be the hurdle many assume it to be with most charging occurring at home. EVs will actually help create the flexible and adaptive grid we need in the move to renewables.
However, as a society we are still too obsessed with cars. Fetishising cars needs to end. A large EV SUV is still using a lot more resources and energy than would be needed by someone able to use regular and affordable public transport (say an EV bus), or a bike (electric or not). There is an issue of fairness at work here too, for the many people who cannot afford an EV, even a small, less resource hungry one.
Having an expensive EV car sitting mostly idle is not a great solution either, because it fails to maximise use of resources.
In the future, people imagine autonomous vehicles which would remove the need to even own a car, and instead we would have a ‘car as a service’ via an App on your phone, which could mean we need many fewer vehicles (but maximising their usage) to cover the same miles required (the cynic might say “isn’t that a taxi?” – yeh, but minus the human driver).
For cities, it is already questionable whether people need a car; many don’t bother because of the hassle.
This not the case in the rural setting, so car ownership will not end anytime soon, but we need to have a major investment in public transport, cycle lanes, and cycle infrastructure in general – and policy measures like dynamic road pricing – to nudge people out of cars, as part of a comprehensive approach to decarbonising mobility and transport.
Further thoughts on Heat Pumps
Gas boilers and a lack of any charging for the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions have encouraged a culture of flagrant wastage of energy in the UK. Someone with a house with a 6kW heat loss might typically have a 20kW gas boiler, so it can be heated in no time, even while windows are left open!
This is our instant gratification – ‘I want it now’ – culture.
There is no imperative to insulate the home because of artificially low gas prices (which of course will sky rocket in the future, just you wait and see).
It is the kind of attitude that ensures that when heat pumps are installed to replace gas boilers without any serious attempt to educate and monitor behaviour, the nameplate performance will be ruined by people continuing to try to heat the town as well as their homes, or oversize the heat pump and also end up killing its measured coefficient of performance (COP).
Let me spell this out. Heat pumps are superior in efficiency to condensing boilers, even if the heat pumps are powered by electricity from a power station burning natural gas. If you want to heat lots of buildings using natural gas, you could install condensing boilers, which are “90% efficient,” or you could send the same gas to a new gas power station making
electricity and install electricity-powered heat pumps in all the buildings; the second solution’s efficiency would be somewhere between 140% and 185%. It’s not necessary to dig big holes in the garden and install underfloor heating to get the benefits of heat pumps; the best air-source heat pumps (which require just a small external box, like an air-conditioner’s) can deliver hot water to normal radiators with a coefficient of performance above 3.
But people still seem to think it’s magic, and myths abound around heat pumps and especially Air-Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) …
… they don’t work on older, larger homes
… they don’t perform well in cold spells
… they are really noisy
… you’ll need deep retrofit to Passivhaus levels to make it worthwhile
All untrue. But people have had bad experiences due to a combination of poor assessments, poor installation and tuning, and poor operation.
The more insidious issue with heat pumps is that people think it’s magic that you can apparently heat a house with cold water or air. The BBC’s record on reporting heat pumps is dismal (see Note 6).
Now, because only a minority or householders have a water or ground source sufficient to heat their homes, so the assumptions is that we would expect the great majority of homes to use air-source heat pumps (ASHPs).
The ‘Green Electrification Sceptic’ will say they understand how heat pumps work, but then repeat some of the myths around ASHPs and say that the Seasonal Coefficient Of Performance (SCOP) – the COP averaged over the year – is not the oft quoted 2.5 for ASHPs, but 2 or even lower. What I think this reflects is bad experiences based on poorly installed or operated systems. This bad experience – in some cases dating back years – is being used as a reason to reject ASHPs.
I attended an excellent webinar hosted by Carbon Coop from Paul Kenny, former CEO of the Tipperary Energy Agency who conducted a pilot, including many homes (working with the Limerick Institute of Technology to assess the results).The video recording is here and his slides are here. These were all ASHP installations.
During a period of October 2017 and May 2018 the overall COP ranged from about 2.6 to 3.6 and averaged 3.1, pre-optimisation. During an exceptionally cold 2 week period, where external temperatures were down to minus 6oC, the COP was never below 2.5 and ranged from 2.5 to 3.
Key points to note:
They did necessary and sufficient retrofit but not to a Passivhaus standard.
There was no external wall insulation, for example.
They did not upgrade 2 panel radiators to 3 panels. They did pragmatic emitter upgrades.
When asked whether it was worth going for a Ground-Source Heat Pump (GSHP) because of extra nameplate SCOP, Paul Kenny said no, because if one has some extra money, they should spend them on upgrading emitters (e.g. get those 3 panel radiators), and you can close the performance gap without the disruption of digging up an area of garden (assuming one has that option, which many won’t have).
It is a very positive story of how to make ASHPs successful (and, btw, Carbon Coop are a great source of material, sharing real-world experiences of whole house retrofit).
He does caution that one needs a properly qualified assessment done, and ‘sufficient’ remedial retrofit is obviously required. But properly sized and installed, there are really no issues using the approach they have now refined. Every house is different, but the ingredients are the same.
He cautions also against oversizing a heat pump (and I think the combination of EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) and RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) may push this outcome sometimes, by being pessimistic about the achievable SCOP), because then they may well be kicking in and out of operation, and this will kill their measured COP.
Increasingly we are seeing ASHP and PV combos (see some examples from Yorkshire Energy Systems here) because, while the peak need for heat and minimum for solar PV coincide in the year – hardly ideal – the ‘shoulder seasons’ (Spring and Autumn) do provide significant benefits, and some households are finding the net cost of operation competitive with gas. When, finally, gas attracts the level of carbon tax it deserves, it will make it easy for ASHPs to compete on a level playing field in price terms.
I support the call for reduced consumption in all its forms, and it should be encouraged as much as possible, but this is not mutually exclusive with electrifying transport and heat. On the contrary, electrification helps in this endeavour, because of increased efficiency and flexibility. But it needs to be coupled with approaches that ensure fair access and market reforms.
We need to acknowledge the issues hitherto in increasing the skills base for retrofit and renewable heat, and improving the quality of installs, but that is not a good argument for dismissing heat pumps. It’s an argument for a major push on the required training and quality systems, something the Government has lamentably failed to prioritise.
As CAT ZCB says, we need to ‘power down’ (stop wasting energy, use it more efficiently, and change some behaviours and norms), but then ‘power up’. The power up bit requires a lot electricity from renewable capacity, and a fair amount of storage too. They have a plan we can get behind.
Currently, the UK Government does not have a coherent plan across all sectors, but whatever plan we decide to finally put some real effort into, it needs to be one that stacks up.
And for those that claim that the CAT ZCB models and assumptions are optimistic, it is worth looking at others who are independently modelling the transition, and are optimistic about our ability to decarbonise the grid in relatively short timescales (see this commentary on a Colorado study).
As the sadly departed David Mackay said, he was not biased in favour of any one solution, but was in favour of maths. We all need to be fans of maths, and be clear about our assumptions, when conceiving and debating options.
Ultimately, electricity is a great democratiser of energy. Generation is de-coupled from consumption in a way that was not (and never can be) true for fossil fuels used for cars or heating homes.
If you consume electricity in a light bulb, EV car, heat pump, fridge or lawn mower, you can take the renewable energy from any source – a wind turbine array in the North Sea, or a community energy scheme, or the solar PV on your house. All powered ultimately by the sun.
It is not surprising that those who have controlled the energy supply chains – from exploration and production to the petrol station forecourt or gas metre at your home – are putting up a fight to retain control, including greenwashing galore, and fake green gases, with the help of lobby groups and big marketing budgets, which is nothing to do with finding the right solution for consumers or the planet (as the dash for methane gets marketed as a dash for Hydrogen).
What is more surprising is that greens do not always appreciate the importance of electrification to both the decarbonisation and democratisation of energy.
It’s time they did.
(c ) Richard W. Erskine, 22nd July 2020
NOTE 1 – EV efficiency compared to Internal Combustion Engine (ICE)
EVs are about 90% efficient (so for every 1kWh of energy in its battery,an EV will use 0.9 kWh to do work), whereas the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is typically around 30% efficient (so for every 1kWh of potential energy in the fuel, only 0.3kWh will do any work). That is a relative efficiency of 3 to 1 (in both cases excluding the energy losses between the engine and moving wheel).
Another way to calculate it is to take a figure of 60 mpg figure for a petrol car, and using a figure of about 30 kWh per gallon, that equates to approximately 2 miles per kWh of primary energy for a petrol car. Whereas, this source indicated 41 kWh battery capacity for a Cleo with a range of 250 miles, this is (250/40) approximately 6 miles per kWh. So, again, a relative efficiency of 3 to 1 in switching to a similar sized EV car.
Hydrogen is not a miraculous source of energy; it’s just an energy carrier, like a rechargeable battery. And it is a rather inefficient energy carrier, with a whole bunch of practical defects.
A hydrogen cell car is about 40% efficient in its end-use of energy, whereas an EV is 90% efficient. If it is ‘green hydrogen’ created from a wind turbine through electrolysis, the overall efficiency for the hydrogen cell car is roughly 50% * 40% = 20%. Whereas for the EV it is 90% efficient (in both cases ignoring relatively minor network losses – for gas or electricity – and in both cases excluding the energy losses between the engine and moving wheel).
20% versus 90% is not a great look for hydrogen cell cars, and would mean (9/2 =) 4.5 times as many wind turbines to support the same level of green mileage by UK drivers.
And if hydrogen is a poor choice for cars, then providing ‘low temperature’ heat for homes is a little crazy in my view. Whatever hydrogen we do produce needs to be reserved for high temperature industrial applications.
But fossil gas is not the fuel of 2050. Hydrogen appears to be waiting in the wings to replace fossil gas in the grid. However, hydrogen is unlikely to be available in large quantities across Europe for home heating, as the available hydrogen goes first to those uses that rely on high temperature heat – which hydrogen can produce but electricity cannot. In the various 2030 and 2050 European decarbonisation scenarios, hydrogen for use in buildings is almost absent in 2030 and provides a small share of energy consumption in only some 2050 scenarios.
Importantly, projections show hydrogen will likely be significantly more expensive than a heat pump for home heating, and adapting to hydrogen will require upgrades of both the grid and home heating systems.
The availability and cost of hydrogen for domestic heat are at best uncertain. If low-income households are disproportionately reliant on gas, they will pay higher costs for infrastructure and be open to the uncertainty and price shocks of replacement fuels.
An important question is: where would the energy come from to manufacture the hydrogen? Fossil fuel companies would love that we continue to source it from methane (currently 95% of hydrogen is produced this way), but a by-product is carbon dioxide, and then you have to believe it can be successfully buried using ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS). Yet CCS is unproven at the scale needed, and the timescales require urgent action. So the full supply chain for hydrogen today is far from green. And then there is the cost of storing this gas, and the infrastructure.
A study done for the Climate Change Committee in Analysis on abating direct emissions from ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ homes (Element Energy & UCL) , July 2020 looked at different scenarios. Interestingly it seems that for those scnearios involving hydrogen, the (probably prohibitive) costs of CCS and the storage off hydrogen are not included in their comparative cost analysis (because of their uncertainties). Whereas the oft stated hurdles for using widespread adoption of heat pumps such as developing the supply chain and raising the skills (relatively trivial things to fix) are highlighted ad nauseum.
But these hurdles could be addressed tomorrow, with an appropriate push from Government (e.g. legislating for air-source heat pumps for all new builds and post-build energy performance certification; and no gas connection). This would force the laggardly big boys in construction to institute the training required and pump-prime the supply chain. It ain’t rocket science. The UK Treasury need to end the short-sightedness that killed the zero carbon homes plan and the Government should tell the UK’s largest house builder to pull their fingers out!
Other ways of producing hydrogen exist, one of the most talked about is by electrolysis using excess energy from renewables, producing so called ‘green hydrogen’, but that these will never be greater than 100% (and electrolysis is around 50% efficient), so can never compensate for the lower of efficiency of hydrogen-cell cars when compared with EVs.
Much of my 45-year career in industry and academia has been spent studying energy efficiency and power production and supply. I believe that hydrogen has a limited role in decarbonisation, and that businesses with a vested interest in promoting hydrogen are doing so at the expense of British consumers.
Michael Liebreich has written on the economics of hydrogen in Separating Hype from Hydrogen, both on the Supply Side and Demand Side.
He has also published a Hydrogen ‘Use Case Ladder’ showing which applications of hydrogen make sense and which don’t. Cars and Heating are in the ‘don’t make sense’ section of the ladder (see NOTE 7).
Hydrogen will play an important role in industry, and on the electricity power grid, providing a form of stored energy that addresses need to balance generation and demand over longer periods. Michael Liebrich shared a figure – the hydrogen use ladder – showing where hydrogen can/ should be used, and where it shouldn’t:
Whichever way you look at it, the hype around hydrogen around transport and heat is overblown.
Nevertheless, there will need to be a role for synthetic gas – hydrogen or others – as an energy carrier and/or storage medium.
The CAT ZCB report includes a significant role for synth methane for energy storage and backup. Their argument being that they can leverage existing gas infrastructure for backup power generation, for example, using truly green synth gas (so no CCS required).
Chemical storage is an important potential complement to gravitational (pumped storage, hydraulic storage) and battery storage, because it can be inter-seasonal in scope. But each must be judged according to its qualities (cost, carbon intensity, capacity, latency, storage, transmission, etc.).
Imagine arrays of solar PV in the Sahara generating electricity; how do you get that energy to where it is needed (Africa and Europe, say)? It could be via an electricity distribution network, but could also be by producing synthetic gas, and transporting that gas via pipelines. If the gas is easy to liquify (as Ammonia is), other options are possible. Instead of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, we could have liquified renewable sunshine from Australia, which could become a leading post-coal energy exporter, with the help of Ammonia.
Ultimately, though, electricity is a great democratiser of energy, when freed from fossil fuels in its generation. Heat Pumps can get their electricity from any low carbon source and so, as David Mackay said, are future proofed.
NOTE 3 – Sustainable Energy without the hot air (2009), David Mackay
This book, available online, should be required reading for anyone who wants to discuss how to decarbonise a country’s energy supply and usage, not because it was the final answer on any scenario (nor claimed to be), but for its approach, which was to provide a tool kit for thinking about energy; to increase our energy literacy. The kiloWatthour (kWh) is a usefully sized unit of energy employed throughout the book, and also one that appears on our utility bills. A kWh per person per day (kWh/p/d) is a measure that makes it simple to assess our average consumption, and compare different options.
Mackay showed how energy consumption in UK would drop purely through electrification (assuming we still do more or less the same things), and since fossil fuels would be displaced by electricity generated without fossil fuels, we would eliminate most of the carbon emissions, but of course, the electricity generation would need to increase in the process (Mackay said that 18kWh/p/d should rise to 48kWh/p/d, or an increase by a factor of about 2.7, or an additional 170% electricity capacity) – See Figure 27.1 on p.204:
NOTE 4 – Centre for Alternative Technology’s scenario
Inefficiencies exist in the combustion of fossil fuels to produce useful ‘work’, but also in different end-use settings, such as electrical white goods (e.g. fridges) and lighting.
There are also reductions in demand possible by changing some of the things we do today, such as increasing the use of walking, cycling and public transport compared to car use, for example. Taking all those into account, CAT propose a 60% reduction in demand in their ZCB scenario:
How is demand reduced? For homes, it is a combination of retrofit and smart controls:
For transport it is mainly through reductions in car use and electrification of transport…
Leading to a very large reduction in transport energy demand …
NOTE 5 – Net efficiency illustration
In this quote from Mackay, he mentions a net efficiency of using gas to electrify heating, based on a Figure provided on page 150. I will do a simple calculation to illustrate a net performance figure. Mackay used a figure of 53% efficiency for gas powered electricity generator (top of line at the time of Mackay’s book) and an 8% transmission loss (92% transmissions efficiency); and an ASHP between COP of 3 – at the lower end of modern ASHPs – and 4.The overall efficiency would be in the range between 0.53 * 0.92 * 3.0 = 1.46 and 0.53 * 0.92 * 4.0 = 1.95, that is, between 146% and 195% efficiency.Mackay uses the range 140% to 185% in the quotation. The point being that any of these figures is much greater than the 90% efficiency from sending the gas to a boiler in the home to provide heating.
NOTE 6 – Heat Pumps are an old idea and not magic
By the mid 19th Century heat was understood as the jostling of atoms – the ‘kinetic theory of heat’ as pioneered by Maxwell and Boltzmann. The greater the temperature above absolute zero (0 Kelvin or -273.15 Centigrade) the greater the average velocity of molecules. A sea of water at 5oC contains a huge amount of thermal energy. We should be careful not to confuse the temperature of a body with its energy content! The energy content will be a function of the temperature and volume of the body of water (the same principle applies to a body of air). With a large enough volume, the temperature becomes relatively less important; there will still be plenty of energy to harvest.
There is no magic. Heat pumps harvest the ambient heat (which can be in the air, ground or water) that ultimately derives its energy from the Sun. This is done through a process that is like a reverse fridge, but in this case moving heat from the outside (often at a relatively low temperature) to the inside (at a relatively higher temperature), with the help of a refrigerant medium and a pump and compressor. No magic is required, just a little A-level physics.
Typically, if a heat pump uses one unit of electrical energy to drive the system it produces three units of heat. This equates to a 3/1 = 3 efficiency factor, or 300%.
It’s barely believable that this sea water has enough heat to warm anything, it’s pretty chilly at this time of year, but yet, thanks to an extraordinary technology called a heat exchanger, it’s the sea that’s going to heat this house.
It is incredible but true that a BBC energy correspondent appears to not understand the distinction between the temperature of a body of water and its thermal energy content, and believes the technology is novel and new. This is not the only report he has made on heat pumps that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of how they work.
The gas network lobbyists championing allegedly sustainable gas in various forms must absolutely love Roger.
The ‘science’ represents the evidence, the ‘Is’, but we need values, the ‘Should’ to arrive at what’s possible, the ‘Can’, and then leadership, capabilties and capacity to turn that into action, the ‘Will’. Only when the plans are executed is it ‘Done’. The refinement loops come from ‘measure effectivity’ and ‘weigh opinion’, and there will always be a tension – sometimes a conflict – between these.
It has been a mantra repeated every day at the UK Government’s Covid-19 press briefing that they are following, or are guided by the science.
What does this mean or what should it mean?
Winston Churchill famously said that scientists should be on tap, but not on top.
This meant, of course, that politicians should be the ones on top.
Scientists can present the known facts, and even reasonable assessments of those aspects of a problem that are understood in principle or to some level, but for which there remain a range of uncertainties (due to incomplete data or immature science). As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Science navigates these three domains.
Yet, it is the values and biases, from whatever colour of leadership is in charge, that will ultimately drive a political judgment, even while it may be cognisant of the evidence. The science will constrain the range of options available to an administration that respects the science, but this may be quite a wide range of options.
For example, in the face of man-made global warming, a Government can opt for a high level of renewables, or for nuclear power, or for a radical de-growth circular economy; or something else. The science is agnostic to these political choices.
The buck really does stop with the politicians in charge to make those judgments; they are “on top”, after all.
So the repeated mantra that they are “following the science” is rather anti-Churchillian in its messaging.
If instead, Ministers said, “we have considered the scientific advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, based on discussions of a broad range of scientific evidence and opinion represented on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and supporting evidence, and have decided that the actions required at this stage are as follows …”, then that would be correct and honest.
And even if they could not repeat such a wordy qualification at every press conference it would be like a proverbial Health Warning – available on Government websites – like on a cigarette packet, useful for anyone who feels brave enough to start smoking the daily propaganda on how brilliant the UK is in its response to Covid-19 (which, despite a lot of attacks on it, has not been as bad as some make out, and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) have rightly gained a lot of credibility during the crisis).
The uncomfortable truth is that ‘following the science’ is about proaction not reaction; about listening to a foretold risk years in advance and taking timely and substantive actions – through policies, legislation, projects, etc. – to mitigate against or build resilience in the face of known risks.
Pandemics of either a flu variety or novel virus kind have been at the top of the UK’s national risk assessment for a decade. Both SARS and MERS were warnings that South Korea took seriously to increase their preparedness. The UK was also warned by its scientists to be prepared. The UK Government under different PMs has failed to take the steps required.
Listening to the science in the midst of a pandemic is good, but doing so well in advance of one, and taking appropriate action is a whole lot better. Prevention is better than cure, is a well known and telling adage.
Of course, the naysayers will come out in force. If one responds to dodgy code prior to 2000 and nothing bad happens, they will say that the Y2K bug was a sham, an example of alarmism “gone mad”; they will not acknowledge the work done to prevent the worst outcomes. Similarly, if we mothball capacity for a pandemic, then once again, expect the charge of alarmism and “why so many empty beds?”.
Our economy is very efficient when things are going well – just-in-time manufacture, highly tuned supply chains, minimal redundancy, etc. – but not so great when shocks come, and we discover that the UK cannot make PPE (personal protective equipment) for our health and care workers and we rely on cheap off-shored manufacturing, and have failed to create sufficient stocks (as advised by scientists to do so).
Following the science is not something you do on a Monday. You do it all week, and then you act on it; and you do this for risks that are possibly years or decades in the future. You also have to be honest about the value-based choices you make in arriving at decisions and not to hide being the science.
Scientists don’t argue about the knowns: the second law of thermodynamics, or that an R value greater than 1 means exponential growth in the spread of a virus. But scientists will argue a great deal about the boundary between the known and unknown, or the barely known; it’s in their nature. Science is not monolithic. SAGE represents many sciences, not ‘the’ science.
For Covid-19 or any virus, “herd immunity” is only really relevant to the situation where a vaccine is developed and applied to the great majority of the population (typically greater than 85%), with a designed-in strong immunity response. Whereas immunity resulting from having been naturally infected is a far less certain outcome (particularly for Coronaviruses, where there is typically a weak immune response).
So, relying on uncontrolled infection as a basis for herd immunity would be naive at best. It is true that it was discussed by SAGE as a potential outcome, but not as the core strategy (as Laurence Freedman discussed here); the goal was always to flatten the curve, even if there was great debate about the best way to achieve this.
One of the problems with the failure to be open about that debate and the weighing of factors is that it leaves room for speculation as to motives, and social media has been awash with talk of a callous Government more interested in saving the economy than in saving lives. I am no fan of this Government or its PM, but I feel this episode demonstrates the lack of trust it has with the general public, a trust that Boris Johnson failed to earn, and is now paying the price in the lack of trust in his Government’s pronouncements.
Yet I do have confidence in the CSA and CMO. They are doing a really tough job, keeping the scientific advice ‘on tap’. They cannot be held responsible for the often cack-handed communications from Ministers, and failure to be straight about PPE supplies and the like.
Some people have criticised the make up of SAGE – for example, because it has too many modellers and no immunologists and no virologists. I don’t understand the lack of immunologists.
Virologists are clearly key for the medium-long term response, but a vaccine is probably over a year away before it could be deployed. So, at the moment, containment of the spread ‘is’ the Emergency, and social distancing, hand-washing, isolation, hospitals, testing, etc. are the tools at hand, and it might be defendable that they are not currently the focus of the discussion.
Groups at Oxford University and Imperial College are being funded to help develop vaccines and to run clinical trials. Virology is not being ignored and it is rather odd to suggest otherwise. But again, transparency should be the order of the day – transparency on who is invited onto SAGE, when and why, and transparency on the evidence they receive or consider. But having a camera in there broadcasting live discussions may inhibit frank debate, so is probably not a great idea, but the Minutes do need to be published, so other experts can scrutinise the thought processes of the group.
The reason why Dominic Cummings (or any other political role) should not be sitting on SAGE, in my view – even if they make no contribution to the discussion – is that there is a risk (a certainty, probably) that he then provides a backdoor summary of the discussions to the Prime Minister, which may conflict with that provided by the CSA. It is the CSA’s job to summarise the conclusions of the discussion and debate at SAGE and provide clear advice, that the Government can then consider and act on. The political advisers and politicians will have plenty of opportunity to add their spin after receiving the scientific advice; not during its formation or communication.
Now, it seems, everyone agrees that testing and contact tracing will be key tools in ending or reducing the lock down, but of course, that means having the systems in place to implement such a strategy. We don’t yet have these.
The British Army, I understand, don’t use the term “lessons learned”, because it is so vacuous. We have “lessons learned” after every child abuse scandal and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.
A lesson truly learned is one that does not need that label – it is a change to the systems, processes, etc., that ensures a systemic response. This results in consistently different outcomes. It is not a bolt on to the system but a change in the system.
Covid-19 asks lots of questions not just about our clinical preparedness but the fairness of our systems to safeguard the most vulnerable.
Like a new pandemic, the threats from global warming have also been foretold by scientists for decades now, and UK politicians claim to be listening to the science, but they are similarly not acting in a way that suggests they are actually hearing the science.
As with Covid-19, man-made global warming has certainties and uncertainties. It is certain that the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere the warmer the world will get, and the greater the chance of weather extremes of all kinds. But, for example, exactly how much of Greenland will melt by 2100 is an on-going research question.
Do the uncertainties prevent us taking proactive action?
No, they shouldn’t, and a true political leader would take the steps to both reduce the likely size of impacts (mitigations), and increase the ability of society to withstand the unavoidable impacts (adaptation), to increase resilience.
The models are never perfect but they provide a crucial tool in risk management, to be able to pose ‘what if’ type questions and explore the range of likely outcomes (I have written In Praise of Computer Models before).
Following the science (or more correctly, the sciences) should be a full-time job for any Government, and a wise one would do well to listen hard well in advance of having to respond to an emergency, to engage and consult on its plans, and to build trust with its populace.
Boris Johnson and his Government need to demonstrate that it has a plan, and seeks support for what it aims to do, both in terms of prevention and reaction. It needs to do that not just for the Covid-19 crisis, but for the array of emerging crises that result from man-made global warming.
We need to change the system, before the worst impacts are felt.
(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020.
FOOTNOTE – Sir Mark Walport and John Ziman – on science policy and advice
I listened to Sir Mark Walport a few years ago in a conversation about the role of Chief Scientific Adviser (a post he has held), which was very interesting
“ON STANDING FOR SCIENCE AND WHERE SCIENCE FITS IN POLICY”, SIR MARK WALPORT, Science Soapbox,
[This episode was recorded on July 21, 2016 in front of a live audience at Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University.]
He said that any policy must look at a problem through 3 different lenses:
– Evidence lens
– Deliverability lens
– Values lens
and that science can only help with the first of these.
He made the point that trust in science is very context specific: Science can say anything about the Higgs Boson and be believed, but on an issue like embryology, values kick in and there will be much less trust.
He also makes a strong distinction between ‘pollable’ questions and non-pollable questions. I will give examples.
“does extra CO₂ in the atmosphere lead to increased global warming?” is a non-pollable questions (the unequivocal answer is: yes); whereas “should UK focus on renewables or nuclear power to decarbonise the grid?” is a pollable question (answer: Brits much prefer renewables, by a wide margin).
Scientists need a special range of skills to be able to do the advice job, above and beyond their scientific skills. John Ziman explored the differences between scientific discourse and political debate in his paper (2000) “Are debatable scientific questions debatable?”
He explains how complex most scientific questions are, with rarely a simple resolution, and conducted in a way quite different to political debate (yet no less argumentative!). The two styles sit awkwardly together.
Yet public and political discourse (especially on social media, but in newsprint, and parliament too) often expects a binary answer: yes or no, right or wrong. Shades of grey are often not tolerated, and if you don’t ‘choose a side’, expect to get caught in the crossfire.
I haven’t read the belatedly released SAGE Minutes yet but I expect there will have been lots of discussions on points where Walport’s lenses (Evidence, Deliverability, Values) sit uncomfortably alongside each other.
At some point, I imagine a fly on the wall, hearing …
“we need to do test, trace and isolate as soon as possible”
“agreed, but we need to recognise the constraint that the test capacity is limited at the moment, so we’ll have to wait till we have flattened the curve enough, to reduce the testing demand, but also build up capacity; meanwhile we cannot avoid a lockdown”
“can someone answer this – how well will the public comply and how would this change the numbers?”
“we ran some sensitivity analysis, and we need very high compliance to make it work”
Leading to a messy compromise set of ‘options’ and scientists NOT the ones with the authority to choose which ones.
The scientists didn’t choose a context where Governments had failed to take on board prior recommendations over some years, to build capacity in PPE, etc. So the advice is very context dependent.
It is highly disingenuous of politicians to say they are ‘following the science’ when that is just one element in the decision making, and where a poor starting position (e.g. the lack of prior investment in pandemic responsiveness) is neither something they influenced, nor can change.
…. o o O o o ….
Updated with Diagram and Footnote on 28th June 2020
Or rather, to be accurate, it could be the future.
In the core of the sun, the energy production is very slow, thankfully, so the beast lasts a long time. You need about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 collisons between hydrogen nuclei before you get 1 that successfully fuses, and releases all that energy.
Beating those odds in a man-made magnetic plasma container (such as a Tokamak) is proving to be something that will be done by tomorrow, plus 50 years (and repeat).
Boris Johnson obviously believes that the way to show a flourish of leadership is to channel dreams of technical wizardry that goes well beyond the briefings from those experts in the know.
But who believes in experts in magneto-hydrodynamics? Stop over complicating the story you naysayer PhDs. Positive mental attitude will confound physics! Get back in your box experts!
*CUT TO REAL WORLD*
Man-made fusion energy as an answer to the man-made climate emergency by 2040 is not just ignorant, it is a deliberate and cynical attempt to delay action now. It is a form of techno-fetishism that deniers love. Boris Johnson spends a lot of time with these people.
We have relevant solutions available today, and just need to get on with them.
We do indeed have a functionally infinite fusion energy generator available to humanity, and it is free.
It’s called ‘The Sun’ (an astronomical entity, not a rag masquerading as a newspaper).
If man-made fusion energy is commercialised it *MAY BE* relevant to a world *POST* resolving the climate crisis, but is definitely not part, or even maybe part, of that resolution.
These past two weeks have been such a momentous time for climate change in the UK it is hard to take in. My takes:
On 21st April, Polly Higgins, the lawyer who has spent a decade working towards establishing ecocide as a crime under international law, sadly died. At a meeting at Hawkwood Centre, Stroud, I heard the inspiring Gail Bradbrook speak of how Polly had given her strength in the formation of Extinction Rebellion.
On 30th April, Extinction Rebellion met with the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a small step but one that reflects the pressure that their actions (widely supported in the country) are having. Clare Farrell said the meeting “.. was less shit than I thought it would be, but only mildly”, but it’s a start.
On 1st May, the UK’s Parliament has declared a climate emergency
At current rates, human-caused warming is adding around 0.2C to global average temperatures every decade. This is the result of both “past and ongoing emissions”, the report notes.
If this rate continues, the report projects that global average warming “is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052”
Perhaps the most shocking and surprising aspect of this report was the difference in impacts between 1.5C and the hitherto international goal of 2C. The New York Times provided the most compelling, graphic summary of the change in impacts. Here are a few examples:
The percentage of the world’s population exposed to extreme heat jumps from 14% to 37%
Loss of insect species jumps from 6% to 18%
Coral reefs suffer “very frequent mass mortalities” in a 1.5C world, but “mostly disappear” in a 2C world.
So, in short, 1.5C is definitely worth fighting for.
In view of the potential to avoid losses, it is not unreasonable for Extinction Rebellion and others to frame this as a “we’ve got 12 years”. The IPCC says it could be as early as 12 years, but it might be as late as 34 years. What would the Precautionary Principle say?
Well, 12 years of course.
But the time needed to move from our current worldwide emissions to net zero is a steep cliff. You’ve all seen the graph.
It seems impossibly steep. It was a difficult but relatively gentle incline if we’d started 30 years ago. Even starting in 2000 was not so bad. Every year since the descent hasbecome steeper. It is now a precipice.
It is not unreasonable to suggest it is impossibly steep.
It is not unreasonable to suggest we blew it; we messed up.
We have a near impossible task to prevent 1.5C.
I’m angry about this. You should be too.
I am not angry with some scientists or some committee for telling me so. That’s like being angry with a doctor who says you need to lose weight. Who is to blame: the messenger? Maybe I should have listened when they told me 10 years back.
So if the CCC has come to the view that the UK at least can get to net zero by 2050 that is an advance – the original goal in the Act was an 80% reduction by 2050 and they are saying we can do better, we can make it a 100% reduction.
Is it adequate?
Well, how can it ever be adequate in the fundamental sense of preventing human induced impacts from its carbon emissions? They are already with us. Some thresholds are already crossed. Some locked in additional warming is unavoidable.
Odds on, we will lose the Great Barrier Reef. Let’s not put that burden on a committe to do the immpossible. We are all to blame for creating the precipice.
That makes me sad, furious, mournful, terrified, angry.
There is a saying that the best time to have started serious efforts to decarbonise the economy was 30 years ago, but the next best time is today.
Unfortunately, the CCC does not have access to a time machine.
Everyone is angry.
Some are angry at the CCC for not guaranteeing we stay below 1.5C, or even making it the central goal.
Extinction Rebellion tweeted:
The advice of @theCCCuk to the UK government is a betrayal of current & future generations made all the more shocking coming just hours after UK MPs passed a motion to declare an environment & climate emergency.
It is I think the target of 2050 that has angered activists. It should be remembered that 2050 was baked into the Climate Change Act (2008). It should be no surprise it features in the CCC’s latest report. The CCC is a statutory body. If we don’t like their terms of reference then it’s easy: we vote in a Government that will revise the 2008 Act. We haven’t yet achieved that.
Professor Julia Steinberger is no delayist (quite the opposite, she’s as radical as they come), and she has tweeted back as follows:
Ok, everyone, enough. I do need to get some work done around here.
(2) there is a lot of good stuff & hard workmaking the numbers work there.
3) Figuring out what it means for various sectors, work, finance, education, training, our daily lives & cities & local authorities and so on is going to take some thinking through.
(4) If you want a faster target, fine! I do too! Can you do it without being horrid to the authors and researchers who’ve worked like maniacs to try to get this much figured out? THEY WANT TO BE ON YOUR SIDE!
(5) So read it, share it, reflect on it, and try to figure out what & how we can do a lot faster, and what & how we can accelerate the slower stuff.
Treat the CCC report as in reality an ambitious plan – it really is – in the face of the precipice, but also believe we can do better.
These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.
Maybe we do not believe that people can make the consumption changes that will make it possible to be more ambitious; goals that politicians might struggle to deliver.
Yet communities might decide – to hell with it – we can do this. Yes we can, do better.
Some are scornful at Extension Rebellion for asking the impossible, but they are right to press for better. However, can we stop the in-fighting, which has undermined many important fights against dark forces in the past. Let’s not make that mistake again.
Can we all be a little more forgiving of each other, faced with our terrible situation.
We are between a rock and a hard place.
We should study the CCC report. Take it to our climate meetings in our towns, and halls, and discuss it.
How can we help deliver this?
How can we do even better?
I for one will be taking the CCC report to the next meeting of the climate action group I help run.
I’m still mournful.
I’m still angry.
But I am also a problem solver who wants to make a difference.
Good work CCC.
Good work XR.
We are all in this together.
… and we don’t have a time machine, so we look forward.
Let not the best be the enemy of the good.
Let not the good be a reason for not striving for better, even while the best is a ship that has long sailed.
You pick an X and Y, and the IPCC will tell how much we can emit (Z). The ‘X%’ is translated into precisely defined usages of terms such as ‘unlikely’, ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, etc. To say something is ‘likely‘ the IPCC means it has a greater than 66% chance of happening.
If you say “I am cutting down on smoking” and it turns out that from 7,300 cigarettes per year over the last 10 years you have managed to reduce your consumption by 25 cigarettes per year over the last 4 years and now are at 7,200 per year, then yes, it is true, you are cutting down.
But are you being honest?
In fact, it is fair to say that far from telling the truth you are in a sense lying or at least ‘dissembling’
That is what BP is doing with it’s latest massive ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ public relations and media advertising campaign, which was “jointly created by Ogilvy New York and Purple Strategies, with the films directed by Diego Contreras through Reset (US) and Academy (UK). The global media agency is Mindshare.”, as Campaign reports.
In a Youtube video on the initiative Lightsource BP is craftily suggesting it is seriously investing in solar energy, but don’t worry folks if the sun goes in, because we have plenty of gas as backup.
They want it both ways: claiming to be supporting renewables while continuing to push ahead with investments in fossil fuel discovery and production.
The on-going investments in upstream oil & gas development runs into many billions of dollars annually, which rather dwarfs the measly £300 million that Lightsource will be getting over three years by a factor of over 250.
This is not a serious push for renewables.
If they were serious they would have actual renewables energy generation (arising from their ‘investments’) as one of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in their Annual Report. They don’t because they don’t actually care, and they don’t expect their investors to care.
No, this is what BP cares about (from the same BP Annual Report) …
…. the value of their fossil fuel reserves. The more the better, because that has a huge influence on the share price.
In the Annual Report referenced above, BP states:
“Today, oil and gas account for almost 60% of all energy used. Even in a scenario that is consistent with the Paris goals of limiting warming to less than 2oC, oil and gas could provide around 40% of all energy used by 2040. So it’s essential that action is taken to reduce emissions from their production and use.
In a low carbon world, gas offers a much cleaner alternative to coal for power generation and a valuable back-up for renewables, for example when the sun and wind aren’t available. Gas also provides heat for industry and homes and fuel for trucks and ships.”
How do we decode this?
Well, what BP sees in a collapse of coal is a massive opportunity to grow oil & gas, but especially gas; they are not the only oil & gas company spotting the opportunity.
So they are not pushing energy storage for renewables, no, they are using intermittency as a messaging ploy to have gas as “a backup”.So while 60% to 40% might look like a fall in profits, for BP’s gas investments it is a growth business, and less renewables means more growth in that gas business. So don’t get too big for your boots renewables – if we own you we can keep you in your place. Maybe you can rule when we have dug the last hole, but don’t expect that any time soon.
No amount of tinkering with emissions from production facilities or more efficient end-use consumption will avoid the conclusion that the “transition” they talk of must be a whole lot more urgent than the – dare I use the metaphor – glacial pace which BP are demonstrating.
Maybe BP should take seriously 3 key learning points:
Firstly, we have run out of time to keep playing these games. Your fossil fuel industry has to be placed on an aggressive de-growth plan, not the growth one you envisage, if you take seriously the implications of the IPCC’s 1.5C Special Report.
Secondly, far from your not-so-subtle digs at renewables, it is possible to construct an energy regime based on renewables (that does address intermittency issues); try reading reports like Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future from the Centre for Alternative Technology.
Thirdly, your investors will not thank you if you continue to ignore the serious risks from a ‘carbon bubble’. Claiming a value for BP assets based on unburnable fossil fuels will catch you out, sooner or later, and that your shareholders, pensioners and many others won’t thank you for your complacency.
Dissembling in respect of your commitment to the transition – which you intend to drag out for as long as possible it seems – will fool no one, and certainly not a public increasingly concerned about the impacts of global warming (and, by the way, also the impacts of plastics – another of your gifts to Mother Earth).
We are out of time.
By investing seriously and urgently in solutions that demonstrate a real commitment to the transition, and in planning to leave a whole lotta reserves in the ground, you can earn the trust of the public.
Change your KPIs to show you have read and understood the science on global warming.
Then you can build a PR campaign that demonstrates honesty and earns trust.