Category Archives: Earth Sciences

Blackouts or Nuclear Power – UK’s stark choice

The map shows the commercial nuclear power pla...

Image via Wikipedia

There’s a good deal of talk about power today: oil prices retaining their high levels in spite of Saudi offering to make up any shortfall due to Libya, nuclear back-tracking following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and so on.

How, the media seem to be asking, is the UK going to be able to generate sufficient power for its needs in an affordable manner?

Consequently, attention is turning increasingly to sustainable power – particularly as today (27th June), when much of the South East of the country saw temperatures break the 30C mark, was a day marked by the switching-on of the UK’s largest solar power plant, one near Wallingford in Oxford that is expected to generate nearly 700 megawatt-hours of electricity per year.

The trouble is, it’s just not the answer. Nor is wind, tide or any of the other “new technologies” being spoken about.

At present, around 75% of the UK’s maximum power generating capacity is from fossil fuel sources (oil, coal and gas). But, as we know, these resources are being depleted rapidly all over the world (and that’s apart from the well-documented problems of global warming being brought on through the use of fossil fuels). However, for any country – including the UK – to continue to see economic growth, its power requirements grow. In fact, it is estimated that the UK’s power generating capacity will have to increase by at least 25% in the next 10 years – and this figure may be low if oil reserve issues accelerate the necessity to move to electric vehicles.

“Green Technologies” such as wind and solar suffer from a major drawback – a lack of reliability and predictability (and that’s before looking at cost issues which are significant – huge government subsidies benefit the builders but have to be reclaimed from the tax-payer). The fact is that while they will generate power during periods when the wind blows and there is sufficient daylight, this is far from constant, and power is needed on a 24-hour basis. It’s simply impractical from a cost, space, etc., perspective to store such power (assuming you’re generating excess) to any great extent. Yes, the UK has some level of stored-power reserves (mainly using pumped storage technology), but this is limited to around 3% of maximum capacity at present and is unlikely to be able to be increased to any great extent.  So, solar and wind generators need to be backed up by other technologies that can be switched on immediately the wind or light levels drop – effectively meaning a doubling of peak capacity.

Wave power and Tidal power technologies, although more constant, have not yet proven sufficiently scalable, nor reliable, to be of significant practical use either.

Hydro-electric power is well understood, but the UK geology does not really suit it – which is why only about 1% of current electrical power is from hydro-electric schemes here.

The only practical answer is nuclear.

I recognise that this is a highly emotive topic, particularly in the light of the recent events in Japan, but the facts are that today’s technology makes nuclear plants infinitely safer than just about any other form of power generation. Of course, care needs to be taken that they are not sited where natural disasters are likely to cause a breach of the all-important containment vessels, but the UK is fortunate in being extremely stable geologically, so this is not an issue.

Nuclear “waste” – the by-products – can now be safely processed to remove the contaminants and reuse the rods in existing plants, or to utilise other up-coming technologies such as fast-breeder and fusion which can utilise the waste products.  Incidentally, Scientific America published an article showing fly-ash from coal-fired power plants pumps 100 times more radiation into the surrounding environment than any nuclear facility today…

France today generates something like 85% of its electricity, China is looking at 132 plants by 2030, Korea is planning to obtain 50% of its power from nuclear sources by 2020, as is Japan (still).  The UK simply has no option but to embrace nuclear power – and to do so quickly – or face much higher utility bills and a “return to the dark age” as power shortages loom.

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A Failure of Leadership

A beach after an oil spill.
Image via Wikipedia

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted many problems – problems with the technology for drilling at depths where the water pressure is around a ton per square inch; problems with BP not being transparent from the outset as to the extent of the spill; problems with oil companies putting short-term profits ahead of ensuring that these issues cannot happen; problems with the US Regulators who seemingly have been extremely lax in applying the regulations and have been granting waivers freely to the oil industry; problems with our ability to clean up oil spills even 21 years after Exxon Valdez (what’s happened to Kevin Costner’s centrifuge-based cleaner?)…

But for me, one of the most surprising things to emerge from this has been the failure of leadership. BP’s leadership issues are, to an extent, understandable – although not excusable – in that they have been focused on protecting shareholder value by trying to downplay the size, scope and likely cost of the problem. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour, as I’ve said, but one can understand it, so it’s not too surprising.

No, the leadership failure I’m referring to has been that of President Obama.

I realise that this statement might cause something of a firestorm from some readers of this blog, but bear with me on this for there are lessons to be learnt and actions to be taken – so it’s not (yet) too late.

We need to recognise that when running for office, then-Senator Barack Obama focused on the need for change – a need that the US population clearly believed in, given the fact that it propelled a largely-unknown junior Senator to the office of President. Central to this theme was his strong belief that things could best be accomplished by working together on the issues with all concerned parties – no matter on which side of the fence they stood.

This, of course, has not been a great success in the Congress and Senate as the divisions have, in many cases, simply been too deep to facilitate working together. The oil spill, though, is a different matter – for there is no question that everyone has a common goal: to stop the leak and clean up the mess as quickly as possible and with as little damage to the environment as is possible.

However, apart from being slow off the mark in terms of visiting the Gulf Coast, President Obama has spent most of his time publicly berating BP rather than being seen to work with them to address the issue in the most comprehensive way. Perhaps he was trying to cover up the shortcomings in his own administration – those regulatory bodies that were not doing their job properly – given the looming mid-term elections, or perhaps his anger simply clouded his judgement. Either way, instead of seeking to work shoulder-to-shoulder with BP and for them to jointly marshal the considerable forces that could be at their disposal if they, and other oil companies, worked together, the situation has become one of adversity. And an adversarial relationship never produces the best overall result.

It’s time for President Obama to put personal feelings and party politics aside on this problem; to work with all stakeholders – oil companies, state and local government (of all political persuasions), and anyone else that can play a positive role. He needs to remember his campaign promise to change the way things are done in Washington, and to work for the best result regardless of personal feelings, of politics and of attribution of blame. There’s plenty of time for all that after the mess is cleaned up.

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Can Europe Survive? Life after Katla…

Katla
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The recent chaos surrounding the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland – with effects being felt globally in terms of significant financial losses, disruption to travellers, disruption to food supplies, and so on – needs to provoke some serious discussion as to what actions are needed to prevent even greater, and much longer-term, chaos in the event of a more significant eruption.

After all,  history has clearly shown that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, it’s very much larger neighbour Katla is generally not far behind, and Katla is overdue for an eruption anyway.

While the size of eruptions can never be accurately forecast, the historical evidence shows that Katla’s eruption is likely to be at least ten times the size of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption – and quite possibly more. This could mean not only significant floods of fresh glacial-melt water into the sea (a volume equal to the combined flow of the Amazon, Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers is estimated to have occurred following its 1755 eruption), but a column of ash rising 20km, or more, into the jet stream and being spread over a much greater part of the Northern Hemisphere.

History has already shown some of the worst effects from major volcanic eruptions in Iceland – that of Laki in 1783 resulted in famine across Western Europe, and as far south as Egypt, one of the longest and coldest winters on record in North America, and the death of tens of thousands of people from gas poisoning and famine. It was even linked to the start of the French Revolution, where the lack of food played a significant role.

Admittedly, these are somewhat extreme examples, but they show what is possible should Katla’s eruption be a big one – and almost all experts agree that with Katla, it’s not a question of “if” but of “when” it will erupt.

So, what are some of the possible effects of a big Katla eruption?

  • Air travel – the recent 6-day chaos would potentially be dwarfed by one that could last months. This would not only impact passengers, but freight, too. Tourism would certainly be impacted negatively, but so would food imports and general freight movement.
  • Agriculture – the impact of a prolonged cold spell would drastically affect crop production in Europe and, potentially, elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. For Europe, this would just add to the difficulties faced by the lack of air transport to bring in fresh produce from elsewhere.
  • Power – of course, a lengthy period of exceptionally cold weather would push up power consumption dramatically. Could Europe cope with a prolonged extra demand for power for heating?
  • Wealth – potentially a significant shift in the wealth of Europe as the combination of food shortages, collapsing tourism, freight reduction and prolonged cold takes its toll. Where would this wealth go, and who would benefit?

Disturbingly, though, little attention seems to being paid to this, in spite of the lessons we’ve learnt from Eyjafjallajökull. And if it’s not Katla, how long before another significant eruption – perhaps in Iceland, or perhaps elsewhere (Yellowstone?)…

European, and other, governments need to get together as a matter of urgency on this: the planning for overcoming the potential problems is not something that can be done overnight in a reactive manner. Rather, they need to start work today on ways to reduce the reliance on current modes of air transport (could the airship make a comeback?), to find additional reliable power sources, determine ways to source sufficient food, and so on.

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Understanding Geological Timeframes (and other massive numbers)

With the talk of global warming having “heated up” as we approached the Copenhagen conference, we’re seeing more talk around what can happen in different timeframes. So, although this is somewhat off my normal range of business topics, given the critical importance of Copenhagen to our future, I hope you will forgive this tangential post and find it nonetheless interesting.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had difficulty contextualising geological timeframes – millions and billions of years – as I could not visualise them.  How can one understand, say, 65 million years (approximately when the dinosaurs disappeared)? So I set out, some years ago when doing a geology course, to find an easy way to express these in terms that made sense to me.

Hopefully this will make sense to you too. Of course, if you don’t accept the underlying premise of the earth being billions of years old, then this post is not for you.

So – to the background.

The basic assumption here is that the world is around 4.5 billion years old (we don’t need an exact number for the visualisation – so this is close enough).

Interestingly, somebody of the biblical threescore years and ten (70 years old) has lived a little over 2.2 billion seconds (70 x 365.25 x 24 x 60 x 60). This points to a really handy scaling mechanism: we can equate the earth to a 70 year old person – meaning that each second in that person’s life equates to 2 earth years for scale purposes.

So:

  • 100 years in earth terms is the equivalent of 50 seconds in that person’s life (let’s call it a minute for ease).
  • 1000 years is 500 seconds, or a little over 8 minutes, so 2000 years is approaching 17 minutes ago.
  • 100 000 years is about 14 hours, so that the period when modern man left Africa (about 70 000 years ago) is less than 10 hours ago, and Homo sapiens emerged a little over a day ago (200 000 years).
  • 1 000 000 years represents less than a week in our person’s life (5.8 days), and 100 000 000 years represents only about 1.6 years, so the dinosaur extinction of about 65 million years ago happened just on a year ago.
  • And a billion years is approaching 16 years in the person’s life.

One can apply this scale easily to any geological timeframe. It also helps understand why nature is not exact. So, for example, although the Supervolcano currently underneath Yellowstone seems to have erupted every 600 000 years on average, and the last eruption was 640 000 years ago or so, this does not mean it will erupt in our lifetimes – they are, after all, only 35 seconds long on this scale, and what is the likelihood of any event happening in 35 seconds?  

I hope this makes it easier to contextualise, understand and explain these massive timeframes.

Of course, you can use the same scale for other massive numbers: for example the current US National Debt is something over $12 Trillion, or close to $5 500 for every second a 70 year-old person has been alive (or $11 000 for every second a 35 year old person has been alive) – now these numbers are truly scary!

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