Posts Tagged ‘Energy’

How will we know when the transition to a new glacial age has started?

September 13, 2014

Once glacial conditions have been established (and they will), they will be unmistakable. Ice sheets will have covered large parts of the northern hemisphere making large swathes uninhabitable. Sea levels would have dropped by about 100 m. Global mean temperature would be around 10-12 ºC rather than the 15 ºC in an interglacial.

Glacials and interglacials graphic

Habitable and fertile land would have increased around the equator and in the tropics – but not as much as would be rendered uninhabitable by the ice sheets. Modern technology and recourse to energy would still allow some exploitation of resources under the ice sheets. Precipitation levels would reduce however (with so much of the water cycle being bound up in the ice sheets). Some of the equatorial regions would see a desertification. New resources would be available due to the 100 m drop in sea level. Population would probably be significantly lower than during an interglacial but what population could be sustained comfortably will be strongly dependent upon the availability of energy and the ease of energy conversion. River flows and hydropower will dry up. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy is what will make the difference.

Ice sheets graphic

But whenever it comes, it will not happen overnight. It would take not less than a few hundred years for the transition from interglacial to glacial conditions but it might take 1000 years or more.


The next glacial will come …

But how will we know if the transition has started? What are the signs to look for? For example a few years of reduction of global precipitation may mean nothing if at the same time an increase of water locked up as ice is not also evident.

Probably the most potent feedback loops (forcings) for the transition to glacial conditions is the ice cover on the earth’s surface and the cloud cover in the upper reaches of our atmosphere. Both of these act directly on the sun’s energy being reflected away from the earth and will shift the earth to a different paradigm of solar energy input. There may be other parameters which cause incoming solar insolation to vary but how much the earth reflects away of whatever is coming in is controlled by the ice and the high clouds. We can consider the interglacial and glacial conditions to be semi-stable equilibrium conditions, each representative of a particular level of solar energy input to the earth system.

So the first real indicators will be the growth of ice cover and an increase in high clouds. All other prior indicators  must finally show up as ice cover or high cloud. Even global temperature (which is merely an averaged, composite, weighted artefact) is not of great relevance except when it shows up as ice or cloud. Note that ice cover at a lower latitude is of greater significance since it causes a greater reduction of received solar insolation than at the poles. For ice cover to be on an increasing path we will first see a reduction in the melt of the previous season’s ice – regularly. We should see this not only at both poles but also at lower latitudes on high ground. We will see warming factors being neutralised. We will see a decrease in precipitation but this will probably lag the reduction of ice cover and the reduction of sea level by many years. It might begin to show up first as a reduction of low rain clouds and increase of high clouds. We should see the sea level increase characteristic of an interglacial, level off and then begin to fall – slowly at first and then accelerating.

An impulse or trigger is needed to shift from one semi-stable equilibrium state to another. What that trigger – or those impulses –  might be is unknown. But I note that

  1. A cooling cycle of 30 + years may have begun and may well be a trigger for a transition.
  2. Expected global temperature increase due to the undoubted (but small) effect of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is not happening and will not any time soon.
  3. Expected increase of sea level (even if based on fallacious CO2 based climate models) is not happening and sea level rise seems to be decelerating.
  4. Antarctic ice cover is at its highest level ever and has been increasing over the last few years.
  5. Arctic ice has recovered from its decrease of a few years ago and is at the same level as about 2 decades ago.
  6. Some unusual sign of fresh glacier formation have been observed on Ben Nevis.
  7. Some Himalayan glaciers. and even Alpen glaciers have shown signs of growth or reduced rates of decrease.

Just indicators of course – and another 50 or so years should tell.

But one thing is clear. Our future depends upon the availability of energy – and that will be primarily fossil and nuclear (and fusion if that has been developed by then). The pointless (and futile) attempts to curtail exploration for and the use of fossil fuels will have to cease – and better they be abandoned sooner rather than later.

Coal is still king in Svalbard

January 29, 2014

Svalbard, ranging in latitude from 74°N to 81°N,  is about as close as you can come to the “top of the world”. The mining of coal would not normally be thought of in the Arctic and that close to the North Pole but the Svalbard economy is dominated by coal mining. The population of Svalbard had increased by two percent, to 2,158 at the end of 2012.

CIA Factbook: The settlements on Svalbard are essentially company towns. The Norwegian state-owned coal company employs nearly 60% of the Norwegian population on the island, runs many of the local services, and provides most of the local infrastructure. There is also some hunting of seal, reindeer, and fox. Goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and vehicles, normally highly taxed on mainland Norway, are considerably cheaper in Svalbard in an effort by the Norwegian government to entice more people to live on the Arctic archipelago. By law, the Norwegians collect only enough taxes to pay for the needs of the local government. None of tax proceeds go to Norway.



Science Nordic reports:

The economy of Svalbard, the Norwegian arctic archipelago that lies between the country’s mainland and the North Pole, is still dominated by coal even as its value dwindles and employment in the mines drops. …

Tourism, a college and polar and space research activities have yet to make this community independent of coal. This has been verified by a recent analysis of Svalbard’s socio-economic status by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR).

“Coal mining has always been the mainstay here, and it still is,” says researcher Steinar Johansen, who wrote the report with his colleague Hild Marte Bjørnsen. ….. In addition to all who are directly employed by the local coal company, Store Norske, mining requires a number of sub-venders, and services need to be provided to family members who move to Svalbard’s little town, Longyearbyen, at the chilly latitude of 78° N. …

But can the Svalbard community surive without coal? Not without major changes, according to the researchers.

Tthe statue of the coal miner in the town of Longyearbyen is a reminder of who – or what – really dominates the economy. (Photo: Georg Mathisen)

Germany returns to coal – and in a big way

December 29, 2013

Reality strikes.

Reblogged from

By Paul Homewood


The new coal fired power plant, which began operations last month in Walsum, along with the one launched in Lunen earlier this month, represent the start of Germany’s new generation of hard coal power stations.

Altogether, ten new hard-coal power stations, of 7,985MW capacity, are scheduled to start producing electricity in the next two years. This is in addition to the two lignite, or brown coal, power stations, with capacity of 2875MW, which came on stream last year.

From PEI:

 A new generation of hard coal-fired power plants has been initiated in Germany with the activation of the 725 MW Walsum facility in Dortmund. 

Steag GmbH started Germanys first new power plant fuelled by hard coal in eight years, allowing the generator and energy trader to take advantage of near record-low coal prices that have widened profit margins.

While electricity output commenced this week, the plant will begin commercial operations later in the year following “optimization works and testing,” according to an email statement.
It marks the start of Germany’s biggest new-build program for hard coal stations since its liberalization in 1998. Ten new hard-coal power stations, or 7,985 MW, are scheduled to start producing electricity in the next two years, according to information from German grid regulator Bundesnetzagentur and operators.
Coal prices have fallen to their lowest price in four years, making this type of facility extremely attractive from a profitability standpoint.
Generating electricity by burning coal currently makes a profit of 9.16 euros a MW-hour, compared with a loss of 19.31 euros a MW-hour from 
gas-fired power, according to data compiled by Bloomberg based on next-year German power prices.

The 10 new units will boost German hard coal generation capacity by 33 per cent to 32,432 MW from 24,447 MW as of Oct. 16, regulator data show.

 The Bundesnetzagentur website also lists coal plants due for decommissioning by 2018, and the capacity of these total 1458MW, a much smaller number, so it seems clear that most of the new capacity is intended to replace nuclear.

The combined capacity of the new plants, including the two lignite ones, based on 80% utilisation, will supply 13% of Germany’s total electricity generation.

It is worth comparing this new coal capacity with the UK’s offshore wind capacity, either existing or coming on stream in the next four years. As I pointed out last week, this amounts to 8.2GW, a similar scale given the UK’s lower overall demand. However, rather than supplying regular, reliable power all year round, it will supply, at best, only 40% of this capacity. For this, we will be paying some £3bn a year in subsidies.

In contrast, the new German coal plants are expected to produce a profit of 9 euros/MWh.

It is also worth noting that Germany have a batch of new gas power stations coming on stream, adding capacity of 2.6GW. As neither these, nor the coal plants, will have Carbon Capture fitted, it is difficult to see how Germany will reduce CO2 emissions in the next few years.

Men walk slower when walking with romantic (female) partners!

October 24, 2013

This is published in PLOS ONE.

Wagnild J, Wall-Scheffler CM (2013) Energetic Consequences of Human Sociality: Walking Speed Choices among Friendly Dyads. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076576

I am still trying trying to decide whether this work is incredibly profound or incredibly trivial.

The authors conclude that “When walking with female romantic partners, males tend to slow down by about 7%,”. They claim that “these findings could have implications for both mobility and reproductive strategies of groups, and could help interpret fossil footprint trails and hunter gatherer strategies”.

Their results.

  1. Partners: Male Partners had faster preferred speeds when walking alone (average: 1.53 ms−1) than the Female Partners (average: 1.44 ms−1; p = 0.05). When Male and Female Partners walked together, the Male Partners significantly slowed their paces in order to walk with their Female Partners (average: 1.44 ms−1; p = 0.009). When asked to hold hands while walking with their Partner, the Male Partners slowed their paces further (average: 1.43 ms−1; p = 0.007). The walking speed of the Female Partners only slightly changed when walking with the Male Partners, with or without hand-holding.
  2. Opposite Sex Friends: When the Female Partners walked with the Male Friends, the Female Partners increased their speeds (from 1.44 ms−1 to 1.48 ms−1; 2.8%; p = 0.410) while the Male Friends decreased their speeds (from 1.52 ms−1 to 1.48 ms−1; 2.6%; p = 0.255), thus demonstrating a compromise of speeds. Similarly, when the Male Partners walked with the Female Friends, the Female Friends increased their speeds (from 1.41 ms−1 to 1.47 ms−1; 4.3%; p = 0.391) while the Male Partners decreased their speeds (from 1.53 ms−1 to 1.47 ms−1; 4.0%; p = 0.146), again demonstrating a compromise of speeds. In summary, when males and females who were not romantically involved walked together, there was not a significant difference in either’s walking speeds away from solo walking. Males did not significantly slow their speeds to walk with females who were their Friend, though their speed choice did decrease slightly.
  3. Same Sex Friends: When Male Partners walked with Male Friends, walking speeds were faster than either individual’s preferred walking speed (4%; p = 0.716 for Male Partners and p = 0.595 for Male Friends). When Female Partners walked with Female Friends, walking speeds were slower than either individual’s preferred speed (3%; p = 0.351 for Female Partners and p = 0.571 for Female Friends)

From their Discussion:

….. The data do show however, that there is a decrease in the speed choice between males walking alone and males walking with females; the degree of this speed “accommodation,” however, is linked to the relationship status of the male-female pair, such that males will nearly match the females’ paces only if they are in a romantic relationship. In friendships, the male slows down, but to a lesser (non significant) degree. Furthermore, the differences found between male-male dyads and female-female dyads are also consistent with the hypothesis that social closeness will be mirrored by speed choices. …….  In recent hunter-gatherer populations, males and females often travel similar distances making the energetic consequences of daily mobility an important selection pressure on both sexes. When people of both sexes walk together, either both sexes must pay an energetic penalty by compromising speeds (as seen in the Partner-Friend dyad) or the male must pay an energetic penalty to accommodate the female’s speed (as seen in the Partner-Partner dyad). To alleviate this energetic penalty, many populations travel in single-sex groups in which males travel alone or in pairs and females travel together ……

So I suppose I should conclude that when hunter-gatherers moved from one place to another, the men went first, the women followed and romantic couples followed last – whether holding hands or not?


When walking with female romantic partners, males tend to slow down by about 7%, according to new research published Oct 23 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, by Cara Wall-Scheffler and colleagues at Seattle Pacific University.

People have an optimal walking speed that minimizes energy expenditure. This optimal speed varies with physical features like mass and lower limb length, and therefore males in any given population tend to have faster optimal walking speeds than females. Given this difference, it is not clear what happens in walking groups of mixed-sex. In order to walk together, someone in the pair will need to pay the energetic cost of deviating from his or her optimal speed.

The authors here examined individuals’ speed choices when they walked around a track alone, with a significant other (with and without holding hands), and with friends of the same and opposite sex. They found that males walk at a significantly slower pace to match the females’ paces, only when the female is their romantic partner. The paces of friends of either same or mixed sex walking together did not significantly change, suggesting that significant pace adjustments occur only for romantic partners.

These findings could have implications for both mobility and reproductive strategies of groups, and could help interpret fossil footprint trails and hunter gatherer strategies.

Removing visual pollution

October 16, 2013

The wind turbines seem to have been replaced by sheep!

Four wind turbines in the Yorkshire Dales are the first in Britain to be torn down

The 150ft high turbines of Chelker Reservoir, near Ilkley, will not be replaced after the council refused permission for two even bigger machines. According to campaigners, the turbines have not worked in years. In an unprecedented move, the utility company sent in contractors at the end of last month to dismantle the rusting structures.

Chelker Reservoir, Addingham, Yorkshire - Chelker Reservoir wind turbines are dismantled

Chelker Reservoir, Addingham, Yorkshire – Daily Mail


Noted in passing 21st July 2013

July 21, 2013
map projections galore

Map Projections Galore

More on cartography and map projections.

The linguistic forensics which unmasked JK Rowling as the mystery author Robert Galbraith.

The drop of tar pitch finally fell after 69 years.

Singing in unison in a choir leads to heart beats being synchronised.

The Indian monsoon is almost half-over and rainfall is running 16% above the long term average. In spite of the floods in Uttrakhand this monsoon will probably be classified as a “good” monsoon.

A Viking trading post,  Steinkjer, mentioned in the Norse sagas and dating from 1000 years ago has probably been identified.

The evidence is mounting that there was a pre-Toba expansion Out of Africa and into Asia around 90-100,000 years ago followed by another post-Toba expansion which then went all the way to Australia. The second wave would have mixed with the first wave survivors of the Toba eruption who were probably the first AMH to intermingle with the Denisovans.

The shale gas bonanza continues in the UK and the advantages are being pushed hard even by Bjorn Lomborg.

When this interglacial ends ….

June 7, 2013

This interglacial will end.

It may take another 100 years or 5,000 or it may already have ended. From whenever the end is reckoned  it could take about 4,000 years for full glacial conditions to set in.


This interglacial will end

The ice sheets will advance again. New land will be exposed as sea levels fall – up to 120m.

The land mass of the world with the reduced sea levels might look like this (

world map ice age image National Geophysical Data Center at NOAA

world map ice age image National Geophysical Data Center at NOAA

Geography will change. Islands will expand. Some seas will disappear as water gets locked up in the expanding ice sheets.  Greenland will expand. Siberia will connect to North America again. The United Kingdom will once again rejoin the continent. Indonesia and Australia will be extremely close. Japan will no longer be islands. The Baltic Sea will not exist. The Persian Gulf will disappear. Across the world coastlines will be “pushed out”. Ancient coastal city sites – long submerged – will reappear. The ice sheets will expand and will drastically reduce populations above 55 °N. The global population would have stabilised and may even fall. Populations will migrate. Nation states will  see their boundaries changing – physically not just by war. No doubt there will be new human conflicts as populations shift – though the shifts will be over hundreds of years and quite gradual in our terms. Average global temperatures will be about 2 – 4°C colder than today.

But this time the ice sheets will not stop humans from utilising the resources under some of the ice sheets. As during the last glacial period, human innovation and engineering will flourish and reach new heights as the challenges are met. New science and new technologies will appear. Art will take new forms. A new wave of exploration will occur – this time into space. And through all of this our energy needs will increase.

Time line of prehistoric inventions (pdf)

But it is the availability of abundant energy which will be the deciding factor, which allows growth to continue and which allows the continued  improvement of the human condition. And this energy will primarily be fossil energy and nuclear energy.  It will be nuclear energy for large central plants (> 1000 MW), fossil energy (coal, and gas) for medium sized plants (100 – 1000 MW)  and gas for municipal and domestic applications. Transportation will – largely as now – be electric or oil-based though the proportion of electric (charged from “cheap” nuclear power) vehicles will increase. Solar and wind and wave and tidal power will have their little place but will – as now – be of small impact.

It is fossil and nuclear power which will allow humanity to meet these new challenges. They will be a necessity for humans to flourish. Carbon dioxide emissions – as now – will be irrelevant. It is in the development of small nuclear, energy storage and more efficient gas- winning and utilisation that we should be concentrating.

Composition of exhaust gases from humans and from fossil fuels

April 13, 2013

It occurred to me when carrying out some combustion calculations that what humans breathe out is pretty close to the flue gas from a gas-fired, gas turbine combined cycle plant.

In a gas turbine combustion chamber, fuel is burned typically at an excess air level of about 200% (the amount of oxygen available in the combustion air compared to that which is needed for complete oxidation of the fuel). This means that about one third of the oxygen available is used and converted to carbon dioxide and water while about 2/3ds just passes through (i.e of the 21% oxygen in air, about 6-7% is “consumed” and about 14 -15% passes through unused). In coal-fired plants the excess air levels are usually only about 25% which leads to about 15 -16% of the incoming 21% oxygen being consumed with about 5% passing through. The amount of oxygen actually consumed depends on the fuel composition and the oxygen demands of the elements which are oxidised during the combustion process. Carbon, hydrogen and sulphur (giving CO2, H2O and SO2) are the main oxygen consumers. All the other constituents of air pass through – heated up of course – but otherwise unchanged. Minute quantities of the fuel- nitrogen and the nitrogen in the incoming air can – depending upon the combustion temperature – be “fixed” to create the nitrogen oxides – nitrous oxide (N2O) and nitrogen dioxide (N2O). The higher the combustion temperature the greater the “fixing”. Too low a combustion temperature – for example with very wet fuels and bio-mass – can give “incomplete combustion” with some carbon monoxide (CO) and even some dioxins and hydrocarbons with a particularly poor combustion process. Internal combustion petrol engines essentially run at stoichiometric conditions (zero excess air) and there is no oxygen in the exhaust. However combustion is never quite complete and around 1% carbon monoxide is usually present (which is why suicide by exhaust fumes becomes possible). Diesel engines on the other hand have 10% oxygen in the exhaust when idling and this reduces to 1 or 2% when fully loaded.

All fuels essentially contain carbon and hydrogen as the main energy releasing elements when oxidised. Most industrial combustion processes happen fast and speed of combustion – which is desirable for complete combustion – has to be tempered by the need to keep temperatures at levels which can be handled by the materials used. The human use of the same elements of carbon and hydrogen for the release of energy however is by a relatively slow oxidation processes. Not all the water produced leaves the human body with our expelled breath since some part of it leaves in liquid form with urine. But from the composition of the waste gas we breathe out it seems that the carbon/hydrogen ratios in our food intake cannot be so very different to the natural gas burned in gas turbines (and not very surprising considering that plant-life is the ultimate source of both).

exhaust gas compositions


Since human exhaust gases emit the same concentration of carbon dioxide as gas turbine, combined cycle power plant perhaps we should penalise every human as well?


Wind farm performance declines by a third in just 10 years

December 20, 2012

The intermittent nature of wind and the speed restructions on wind turbines means that the load factor of wind farms is low to begin with (about 20 -25% for on-shore units and about 35-40% for off-shore units). But this is only when they are new. They seem to age very rapidly. This study of UK on-shore plants and Danish on-shore and off-shore plants shows that

  1. Wind farms age rapidly with on-shore plants declining in performance by about one-third in 10 years and off-shore plants declining by over 60% in 10 years, and
  2. The economic life of a wind farm is, at best, around 15 years and not the 25 years considered “normal” for a power plant

REF’s press release:

The Renewable Energy Foundation [1] today published a new study, The Performance of Wind Farms in the United Kingdom and Denmark,[2] showing that the economic life of onshore wind turbines is between 10 and 15 years, not the 20 to 25 years projected by the wind industry itself, and used for government projections.  

The work has been conducted by one of the UK’s leading energy & environmental economists, Professor Gordon Hughes of the University of Edinburgh[3], and has been anonymously peer-reviewed.  This groundbreaking study applies rigorous statistical analysis to years of actual wind farm performance data from wind farms in both the UK and in Denmark.

The full report is available here.

The Executive Summary states.

1. Onshore wind turbines represent a relatively mature technology, which ought to have achieved a satisfactory level of reliability in operation as plants age. Unfortunately, detailed analysis of the relationship between age and performance gives a rather different picture for both the United Kingdom and Denmark with a significant decline in the average load factor of onshore wind farms adjusted for wind availability as they get older. An even more dramatic decline is observed for offshore wind farms in Denmark, but this may be a reflection of the immaturity of the technology.

2. The study has used data on the monthly output of wind farms in the UK and Denmark reported under regulatory arrangements and schemes for subsidising renewable energy. Normalised age-performance curves have been estimated using standard statistical techniques which allow for differences between sites and over time in wind resources and other factors.

3. The normalised load factor for UK onshore wind farms declines from a peak of about 24% at age 1 to 15% at age 10 and 11% at age 15. The decline in the normalised load factor for Danish onshore wind farms is slower but still significant with a fall from a peak of 22% to 18% at age 15. On the other hand for offshore wind farms in Denmark the normalised load factor falls from 39% at age 0 to 15% at age 10. The reasons for the observed declines in normalised load factors cannot be fully assessed using the data available but outages due to mechanical breakdowns appear to be a contributory factor.

4. Analysis of site-specific performance reveals that the average normalised load factor of new UK onshore wind farms at age 1 (the peak year of operation) declined significantly from 2000 to 2011. In addition, larger wind farms have systematically worse performance than smaller wind farms. Adjusted for age and wind availability the overall performance of wind farms in the UK has deteriorated markedly since the beginning of the century.

5. These findings have important implications for policy towards wind generation in the UK. First, they suggest that the subsidy regime is extremely generous if investment in new wind farms is profitable despite the decline in performance due to age and over time. Second, meeting the UK Government’s targets for wind generation will require a much higher level of wind capacity – and, thus, capital investment – than current projections imply. Third, the structure of contracts offered to wind generators under the proposed reform of the electricity market should be modified since few wind farms will operate for more than 12–15 years.

European Parliament defeats alarmist scare-mongering that shale gas will “destroy the future of mankind”

November 22, 2012

Rational thinking still can prevail over alarmist hyperbole.

It is heartening to see that the European Parliament – which is not my favourite institution – has rejected a moratorium on the exploitation of shale gas and has approved the right of each member state to decide for itself on shale gas exploitation. It has been “green” fanaticism and the environmentalists propensity for myopic adhesion to ideology which has caused Europe to forget the simple reality that “the lower the cost of energy the greater the growth”.

On 20th November the EU Parliament debated reports



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