Friday, August 22, 2008

2,000 Watt Society

We are getting towards the end of our summer sojourn in London and I was hoping I would have an electricity bill to compare with our life in Houston. But they bill only quarterly here – which itself may be a commentary on how much less they use! – and so the only bill I have to hand is for the period from early March until early June when my tenant was in the flat. Total usage was 724 kWh, less than I have ever used in a single month in Houston. Bear in mind that the Houston house has gas for cooking and heating, whereas the London flat has only electricity, and the contrast is even more remarkable. The price by the way was about 12 pence per kWh, about 50% more than in Houston.

All this remind me of the 2,000 Watt Society, so-called because that is what the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology believes is sustainable. If each of us consumed 2000 watts continuously, this would amount to 17,520 (2000 times 265 times 24 divided by 1000) kilowatt hours per year. The typical American or Canadian uses about 6 that.

Of course this is meant to cover ALL our energy usage; not just electricity but natural gas, gasoline, and all the energy content in the things we buy. Nevertheless, our electricity consumption is a major element and it is interesting to find that in London my wife and I are running on the equivalent of about 330 watts, whereas in Houston it’s over 2200 watts. (This is based on the calendar year 2007 when we used about 19,400 kWh. With new double glazing and insulation we are looking forward to a lower number for 2008.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Vertical Farming & Climate Change

There was an interesting program on BBC radio this morning about technological solutions to the problem of feeding a growing world population. Among other things, it dealt with vertical farming. The idea is to grow crops – and even small animals and ultimately maybe cultured meat – in high rise urban buildings. A quick Google found this site which is well worth a look:

Of course, efficient land use is the main objective, but some of the of the other advantages of vertical farming listed on the site may surprise. For example, the absence of pests would make organic farming the norm. More obviously, it brings the food production closer to the market, saving transport costs and making urban living even more eco-friendly than it already is. By drastically reducing the competition for land it might even make bio-fuels a viable solution to our transportation needs.

Taken at its most basic, our energy problem – of which producing food is just a special case – is how to convert enough of the energy arriving from the sun into forms we can use with zero net emissions of greenhouse gases. Skyscrapers growing plants for food and fuel might just be the way to go.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Setbacks in UK

Britain suffered two blows to its climate change credentials today. It looks as if the proposed acquisition of British Energy by the French government-controlled EDF will not go through, leaving a hole in the UK government’s energy plans. British Energy operates eight nuclear power stations in the UK, providing about 20% of the country’s electricity, but several of these need decommissioning over the next few years. The sites of most of these reactors are also on the shortlist for new nuclear power stations, so EDF’s experience (France produces over 70% of its electricity from nuclear sources) would have been very useful in modernizing the UK’s nuclear energy industry.

Meanwhile the government has also got some not entirely warranted bad press concerning its progress on greenhouse gas emissions. It claims a 13% reduction in emission relative to 1990 levels, which puts it well on track to satisfy its Kyoto commitments, but a report by York University suggest that in fact emissions have increased by 13% if the effects of aviation, shipping, and imports are included. Aviation and shipping were excluded from the Kyoto agreement for a number of reasons, while emissions from manufacturing accrue to the manufacturing country rather than the consuming one. Globalization has moved a lot of manufacturing to developing countries, and the associated emissions move with it, thereby making the developed world’s progress seem better than it is. (In addition, industry in the developing world is often less efficient, while transporting these goods around the world adds still more emissions.)

In the UK government’s defense it should I think be pointed out that they are no different from other developed countries in this regard, and that they are merely reporting progress against the yardstick agreed in Kyoto. This progress is I believe better than that of most other developed countries. The government also points out that the report was in fact commissioned by them to point out the problem with that yardstick. Hopefully, 2012 will see a better replacement for Kyoto.