Monday, 28 February 2011

Oil and Freedom

Western policy in the Middle East has been dominated by the politics and economics of oil. With the world economy addicted to the thick black liquid our leaders have supported whichever regime would keep the supplies flowing. This was pragmatic realpolitik of the worst kind. As the people of the Middle East rise up and demand freedom, the West has important choices to make: which side to support? Which faction will keep the oil wells flowing? Who will give new contracts to the international oil companies?

Whilst the oil flows out of the Middle East and cash flows in, leaders can buy a corrupt peace. Staying in power does not need popular support; he who controls the oil income has the weapons and the power. Colonel Gaddafi pays mercenaries from North Africa to be his personal body guard and act as a force loyal to the paymaster to kill Libyan people who oppose him. This is not a man we should support and it is good to hear the UK PM, David Cameron stating clearly that it is time for him to go.

The question I want our leaders to ask is, “what is the future beyond oil?”

The time has come to migrate away from reliance on oil and turn to the future, both of our society and of the oil-rich countries of the Middle East. It is possible that these countries develop new business based on the production of renewable fuels from the desert. They have the oil income to invest in such a future but, whilst we support autocratic tyrants, this income is going into the overseas bank accounts of the few. When the oil era ends, the current leadership will leave and their families live off the income of oil for generations into the future, leaving their countries impoverished.

We should reflect what will be left in the Middle East. The world needs to pull back from blind support for autocratic rulers and take a principled approach to international relations in the region. The revolution now burning through the deserts could set the future for generations to come. We should not fail the people of the Middle East now as they try to find their own way forward. There is more to life than oil.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Electric Cars 2 of 4 – Electricity from...?

Electric cars are zero-emission at the point of use, freeing up cities from the pollution of petrol and diesel engines. Instead of cyclists breathing in nitrous oxide, fine black soot and other pollutants to go with their healthy exercise, they will be able to fill their lungs with clean air. This is the way of the future for city living but there is a problem; where does the electricity come from to charge the cars?

I carried out some back-of-the-envelope calculations working out a comparison between the carbon emitted by my E-Mini and my other car a ten-year old Audi diesel. I took into account the Kilowatt hours of electricity used to charge the battery with the range achieved and compared this with the miles per gallon of my old car. The two were comparable in the overall carbon emitted taking into account the carbon dioxide emitted in generating the electricity.

I used an average figure for the carbon intensiveness of electricity in the UK. I did not take the easy option of claiming that the photovoltaic panels that cover both the south and west elevations of my house were charging the car. Not so of course; the car charges at night with the panels generating during the day, but let use consider the overall figures. I generate approximately enough electricity averaged out over the year to cover my electricity needs. I cannot claim the electricity twice; I need it for the house so I do not claim it for the car.

I was on the podium at the Low-Carbon Vehicle Conference last year in a discussion about electric cars. An electric car advocate did not like my comment that until we decarbonise the electric grid electric cars do make a useful contribution to carbon reduction. They are useful in getting part of the future in place, to deal with user-acceptance issues and develop the technology, but no more than that. He claimed that the figure to use in my comparison is the carbon intensiveness of night-time electricity generation when nuclear power stations carry much more of the load. On this basis, my electric car is lower carbon than my old diesel car. However if we all rush out to buy electric cars, the older coal fired power stations will have to come back on power at night. The marginal additional electricity from electric cars will be from high carbon generation.

Meanwhile, it is reported that London black cabs are being brought into service that run on electric power from hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen is another clean fuel with only water coming out of the exhaust pipe. One fill and a cab will be able to drive a whole shift driving over 200 miles. This overcomes the range limitation of batteries. This looks like another useful component of the future city transport infrastructure; but where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: Electricity (used to split the hydrogen from water).

There is no avoiding the challenge of decarbonising the electricity supply, without making progress here both the electric and hydrogen car are dead.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Peaceful Revolution

This week has been a momentous week: President Mubarak of Egypt has been forced to stand down by his people and China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. This could be the beginnings of massive upheaval in the world’s main oil region and a reconfiguring of the world economy.

The peaceful revolution in Egypt is a good sign, reflecting well on all concerned. The protesters should be admired for their perseverance, determination and restraint, deciding that violent protest was not their way. The police need to be understood, having been asked to retain control against a tide that could not be stopped; many of the junior ranks are now angry that they ended up on the wrong side and vilified unfairly. The army should be admired for their even-handed and sensitive handling of the protests. President (ex-President) Mubarak should also be respected for not pulling all the levers at his command to try to retain power. These have been dangerous times for Egypt. One incident, one mistake such as an accident between a tank and a protester and the mood could have turned.

Meanwhile China continues to grow its economy and reach out to extend its influence across the world to secure the supplies its ballooning economy requires. The continents of Africa and South America are targets for Chinese investment. China is not running aid programs; China is after natural resources and we should be concerned what the consequences might be for these poor countries. As China rises up in the new world order it will be hard to restrain its rampant demand.

This could be the start of a revolution, which I hope will morph into the Sustainable Revolution. It is only the cushion of oil money that keeps the autocratic rulers of the Middle East in power. As the world plans a future beyond oil, there will no longer be a need to prop up unsavoury regimes to secure supplies.

In China there are signs that damage to the environment is now a concern and China may lead in showing a way beyond conventional industrialisation. The West may help the transition by adopting cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and stop the one-way importing of stuff from China that is used for a while before finding its way into land fill.

The coming revolution could be dangerous but we can also be optimistic that if sustainable policy comes to the fore the changes will be for the better.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Electric Cars – The User Perspective

It is possible that in my lifetime all cars will be electric and even the classic cars of the past will have to be fitted with an electric motor to be allowed on the public road. There will remain petrol-head rallies where the gas guzzlers of the early 21st century are allowed to rev their engines and zoom off trailing smoke out of their exhausts. These will be nostalgic events like attending a steam rally with the smell of burning coal as the old traction engines chug around the showground. Modern cities do not have steam traction engines and in due course petrol or diesel cars will not be allowed.

Driving an electric car is a different experience to driving a petrol or diesel car. It is better in that it is quiet, clean and zippy. It is easy to make electric cars quick; high torque electric motors are small and deliver maximum torque throughout a wide range from spinning slowly to high rpm; that means no need for gears. The more power that is used the greater the drain on the battery. That leads on to the disadvantages; the range is limited to the capacity of the battery.

In cold winter weather, the range tumbles as the heater also draws power from the battery. More advanced models in the future may use heat pumps, in effect running the air conditioning in reverse, but the engineers have some catching up to do. Conventional cars now have plenty of waste heat and diverting it to heat the car is simple. There has been no need to have efficient electric heaters.

My experience of driving the E-mini for six months taught me how to live with an electric car. First, plan your journey to confirm that it is within range. Second, if the journey is close to maximum range and the weather is cold, dress up warm so you do not need the car’s heater. Third, if the return journey is outside the range you need a guaranteed place at the end of the outward leg to be able to recharge.

Most days I was driving well within its maximum range of about 90 miles. Provided the journeys are predominantly local range is not an issue. If you need to go on a long journey, hire a conventional car or go by train.