Will renewable energy sources be enough?

Humans consume energy. We want heat, light, we want to get to other places, we like to transmit information electronically. We like to make things, and ship them across the world. Much of the energy that we use is in the form of electricity but we also directly burn coal, and petrol, diesel and other oil products to propel vehicles and heat buildings. In some areas people burn wood for heat, light and cooking. Despite predicted problems, our consumption of energy is not going to change quickly, if at all. We are attached to our comfortable lifestyles and it doesn’t matter if the forecast is doom and burnout, humans will keep consuming until it is too late for our climate or for our energy-guzzling lifestyle. All this energy must come from somewhere. We use about 17 terrawatts (TW) from fossil fuel.[1] Fossil fuels release carbon into the atmosphere when burnt, which the balance of evidence tells us causes climate change. Fossil fuels are also a limited resource, with oil set to run out within my lifetime. Given that we are unlikely to reduce our energy usage, can we replace our fossil fuel dependency with something more sustainable and less harmful?

Carbon Capture

The immediate solution to carbon release causing climate change is Carbon Capture technology. The principle sounds simple – just remove the carbon from the exhaust gasses of your fossil-fuelled power station before releasing the rest into the atmosphere as before. Then bury the carbon, or pump it back down the oil well, or even recycle it back into some form of synthetic hydrocarbon to burn again. Unfortunately it isn’t simple. Carbon Capture is only really possible on a large scale, and so it can’t be used on vehicles or at home. It adds expense to power generation. Carbon Capture does not solve the issue of fossil fuels running out either. It may be a solution to keeping existing power stations running, but it is not the way forward.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is seen by most as the best solution. Renewable energy generally refers to using energy from our environment which will be continuously renewed by the sun, such as wind or solar, rather than extracting stored energy by burning fossil fuels. Some renewables are used directly, such as burning wood (biomass) for heat, using biofuels in internal combustion engines, or using a water wheel to turn machinery. Most renewables are converted to electricity for consumption. Wind, Wave and Tidal power all involve converting the motion of wind or water into electricity through the use of turbines or pistons that spin a generator. Solar energy can be converted with the use of expensive solar cells, or by collecting the light with mirrors and using it to generate steam to turn a generator. In the UK, solar power is more often used to heat water for homes. Geothermal power involves drilling down to find hot parts of the earth and then extracting the heat by pumping water through it, and using the steam to heat homes or generate electricity.

Problems with renewable energy sources

Most of the alternative energy sources have drawbacks. They depend on local climate as some places have more sunlight than others, some places have more wind, or rivers, big tides, or geothermal activity. In addition, wind, wave, tidal and solar power all vary in intensity at different times of day and in different seasons as well as varying by geographical location. Our energy needs vary continuously depending on the time of day, the weather, and what is on TV! This presents two problems. That of storing energy for when we need it, and that of getting the energy from where it is abundant to where it will be consumed. In addition, solar cells and the best battery technologies rely heavily on rare earth elements. China has a near 100% monopoly on these at the moment, although mines are being re-opened in the USA. China has reduced exports of these materials in order to keep in China the manufacturing processes that use them.

Energy Storage

While battery technology is great for small devices, and getting there for vehicles, storing electricity on the scale needed for the national grid is a different story. We store our energy in the form of coal, oil, gas and uranium, and we burn fuel to make electricity as and when we need it. We have teams of people dedicated to making sure that we produce the electricity at exactly the right time it will be needed for heat, light, air conditioning, or even just millions of kettles being used at the end of a popular TV programme. Once the fuel has been burnt and electricity produced, we have only one way of storing it – hydro-electric power stations. We use the electricity to pump water into reservoirs, and we can let that water out through turbines to get electricity back again. Unfortunately we have hardly any places where we can do this, so basically we can’t store electricity for later use by the grid. One promising technology is Molten Metal Batteries. Some Sodium Sulphur (NaS) batteries are already in use, but batteries using magnesium and antimony at 700 degrees look even more promising. A molten metal battery the size of a shipping container could provide about a megawatt of power.

Micro Generation

In recent years small wind turbines and solar panels on roof tops have become popular. Since April 2010 there has been a scheme for homes to sell electricity back to the grid through Feed In Tariffs which means that surplus electricity can be sold to offset the cost of installing equipment. The Green party have been pushing Micro Generation and small local projects as a solution, citing the inefficiency of the national grid as one reason. I believe that small power generation like this is not a particularly good idea. Generating electricity on this scale is inefficient and expensive, and in densely populated areas there can only be so many wind turbines before there is not enough wind left to turn any more. Solar water heating and ground source heat pumps can be good for providing hot water and heating homes, but are best installed at the time a home is built.

International Cooperation

To make the best use of renewable energy we will need many countries to work together. In the UK we have abundant wind and wave energy, but little usable solar energy. It is the other way around in the Sahara desert! Iceland and Norway have lots of geothermal energy. Some of these sources produce varying levels of electricity at different times. Ideally, we would all join an “International Grid” so that when our own energy sources are not up to it we can use surplus energy from other countries, and vice-versa. We already have a distribution system in the National Grid. This even extends internationally with links between countries, for example the UK is linked to France and at peak times we top up our own supplies with French nuclear power. Power distribution in this way is not particularly efficient though. Our power grid uses AC electricity for various reasons, some historical. To transmit power over international distances we could use High Voltage DC (HVDC) power lines[2] which will lose far less energy than the normal AC system. With an international HVDC power grid we could share British wind energy with other countries, and make use of Nordic geothermal energy and North African solar energy. I strongly suspect that the political will to do this does not exist though.

Renewable does not mean infinite

Worryingly, a paper by Axel Kleidon[1] found that there isn’t actually all that much energy available to extract from renewable energy sources. Extracting energy from the wind to make electricity means (of course) that the energy is no longer in the wind. Kleidon found that when we take into account the effects of removing energy from the wind, we will be able to take far less than was thought. He calculates that it may be possible to extract up to 70TW from wind but that it would cause serious changes affecting rainfall and the amount of solar radiation reaching us. There are also serious concerns about the environmental impact of wind farms and tidal barrages.

Where does that leave us?

Renewable energy sources are our future. I believe we must switch to these sources as much as possible. We will need a mixture of many power sources to overcome variation in power usage and supply, dependence on rare materials, and damage to the environment. To link up this variety of sources we will need an international “Supergrid” using HVDC, and we will need new forms of energy storage such as Molten Metal batteries. All of this will require huge investment and political willpower as well as international cooperation.

My personal opinion is that we just won’t get this done in time to prevent damage to the environment or avoid running out of oil, even if we can find the money. I also don’t believe that renewables will be enough to replace fossil fuel. I think that we will have to turn to nuclear power to fill the gap. Nuclear power has massive drawbacks, and yet there are a lot of things we can do to make it safer and less problematic. I will address the issue of nuclear power in a future article. (In about a month if my last promise is anything to go by!)

[1] Information is from a paper by Axel Kleidon due to be published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society via New Scientist 2nd April 2011.

[2] While writing the above article I went off track a bit and wrote about AC and DC power lines. I’ve left it in here by request so you can read it if you want.


Electricity can be made in two forms. Direct Current (DC) and Alternating Current. (AC) With DC the electrons simply flow from one side of the battery / generator to the other. With AC, the electrons switch directions rapidly. When generating electricity it is easiest to create AC, and it is easy to change AC to a higher or lower voltage using a transformer. Batteries usually create DC. Electricity also has current, which describes the quantity of power flowing, and voltage, which describes the force with which it is flowing. (Forgive the bad descriptions, please, I’m tired!) Current and voltage are tied together, so that if you have a higher voltage, you can use less current to transmit the same amount of energy. When we transmit electricity through the national grid, we want a high voltage so that we can have a lower current. This has two benefits, it allows us to use a thinner wire with less metal in it, and it slightly reduces the amount of energy lots along the way. When the electricity reaches our homes, we need a lower voltage as high voltages are not safe or easy to work with. We use transformers in substations to convert the electricity from thousands of volts down to 230 volts.

HVDC distribution

When transmitting electricity over a large distance, some of the energy is lost as heat. Using a higher voltage, and therefore a lower current, reduces this loss. We usually put AC electricity on the national grid because our generators produce AC, and because AC is easily converted to a different voltage by using a transformer. Unfortunately when transmitting AC, some of the energy is lost as a magnetic field. The solution is High-Voltage Direct Current. (HVDC) In the past we didn’t have the ability to convert AC to DC and convert low voltage DC to high voltage DC on the scale that we needed for transmitting between cities and countries, but things have moved on. We now have to ability to create a HVDC SuperGrid covering whole continents. More on HVDC (Wikipedia)

One Man, One Vote: demystifying AV

This article is by Julian Yon and originally appeared on his blog here.

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man, he had the Vote.” (Mort, Terry Pratchett)

I am again writing in response to a specific concern raised on Twitter. The context is the forthcoming referendum to decide whether the UK should adopt AV (the Alternative Vote system, also known as Instant Runoff Voting) for its general elections.

It is worth dispensing with a red herring before continuing. AV is not a way of achieving Proportional Representation, and it does not try to be. Therefore all arguments relating to PR are moot. There are no PR options in this referendum, and therefore a vote for or against AV is not a vote for or against PR. The only other option being offered is FPTP (First Past The Post), the non-proportional status quo.

I’d also like to dispense with the “AV is complicated” myth. Offer a typical 5 year old strawberry, chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Ask her which one she likes most. Then which she likes next best. And then which she likes least. Chances are she can answer you without much difficulty. My daughter (who is far from typical and has significant learning difficulties) can manage it. This is how you vote in an AV poll. You don’t need to know exactly how the votes are counted (not that it’s hard) in order to cast your vote.

AV is a system for minimising “wasted votes” while, in the context of a general election, maintaining the strong constituency link which has often been used as an argument for FPTP. It is used for electing an individual person to a single seat, and therefore has no bias against independents. The intention is to eliminate tactical voting and “safe seats”, by ensuring that every vote is counted and that a majority is required to win.

AV is not flawless. It is probably the smallest and simplest improvement that could be made to our existing system. Taken alone, it falls short of what many campaigners for electoral reform would have liked to have seen. However, it is an improvement. It is somewhat harsh to have to vote for a “lesser of two evils”, but this is what is on offer. Neither outcome guarantees further reform, and this may be the only chance we get for a generation. Because of this, I will try to keep my examples simple. It’s easy to get hung up on small details when the way we elect our MPs is only one of things wrong with our constitution.

So, what is a “wasted vote”? Put simply, it is a vote that is correctly cast but cannot make a difference to the outcome of the election. They happen under FPTP because it is designed for two party elections. In that simplest case the two systems are equivalent. Either A or B will get >50% of the vote[1], and win with an outright majority. Every person’s vote has an equal weight and a direct effect on the outcome. One man, one vote.

It starts to go wrong when we allow a third candidate to stand. As long as that candidate has some support, there is the possibility of a democratically incorrect outcome due to wasted votes. The probability of such an outcome depends on the circumstances of the election, but it can happen in both marginal and “safe” seats.

Let’s pretend there are three candidates, imaginatively named A, B and C. People go to the polls. The results come in. A has 41%, B has 31%, C has 28%. Under FPTP this is a win for A, but no candidate actually has a majority. There are many different political situations which can lead to this outcome, and not all of them give A a democratic mandate. AV provides a way to differentiate between these situations.

In order to highlight just how badly wrong FPTP can theoretically be, let’s say that B and C are two candidates with very similar manifestos. This is the notorious “split vote”. If B was not in the running, every one of B’s supporters would vote for C, giving a win with 59%, a clear majority. And vice versa. By the accident of two people standing on the same platform, the minority candidate wins the seat.

The important way that AV differs from FPTP is that it insists on a majority to declare a win. This is achieved by taking second (etc.) choice votes into account. But, crucially, each vote only counts once. Nobody gets multiple votes. Here’s how it works (but you don’t need to know this to vote):

It’s Friday afternoon, and the teacher has promised the class something special. But they must choose collectively which activity they want to do. The teacher puts signs up in each of the corners with a letter that represents each activity, and the children have to gather under the signs. For argument’s sake, these made-up children are not influenced by their peers’ choices.

They gather as follows: 11 under A, 10 under B, 6 under C and 4 under D. There is no majority, but there is a loser. The teacher removes the sign for D and tells those 4 children they’ll have to choose again. One heads to B, and the others to C.

We now have 11 for A, 11 for B and 9 for C; still no majority. The teacher removes the sign for C, which is the new loser. Five children move to B, and the rest to A. Now there are 16 votes for B, which is a majority, and the decision has been made.

Now of course, only in fairy tales would children not be influenced by their peers. But this is where AV is actually simpler than the above example. You’re not asked to choose again, you get to vote in private, and you cast your vote once. All you have to do is write your order of preference, and let the ballot counters do the rest. They will play out this algorithm, taking your choice into account. One person still has one vote, just like in the two party FPTP, but as minority options are eliminated that vote is transferred to your less preferred candidates, in the order you specify. The winner will have a majority, and therefore a mandate.

If you have any trouble understanding the mechanism, remember that you’re only casting the vote, not counting it. It’s just like choosing your favourite ice-creams. A five year old can do it.

[1] As a tie in a large-scale election is statistically extremely unlikely, I will assume it cannot happen.



I haven’t written a blog post for a couple of days. I feel bad about that. I feel like I have let people down because I know that I have expectant readers, but I also know that they will say it’s fine. I also feel like I have let myself down, and that one is true. You see, writing on my blog is therapy for me. It allows me to collect my thoughts, and arrive at conclusions, it gives me some purpose while the only other thing that I have to do is lie in bed and think about pain or get depressed. It also makes me happy when my blog helps other people to understand, or provide a way for other people to get their friends to understand them. It makes me happy when I look at my stats and see that one or two hundred people have read what I wrote, because that means it was worthwhile.

I am reminded of a character called Nutt from Terry Pratchett’s book Unseen Academicals. Nutt is an orc, although he has been told that he is a goblin and sent into society to see if he will fit in. Nutt was told that he must strive to acquire worth, and throughout the book he constantly asks the question “Have I worth?”

Being sick at home has stripped me of the things that I felt gave me worth. I can’t work, my father is running our business without me. I can’t even answer his questions when he comes to me for help. I’m not a Christian any more so I don’t lead worship (the music) at church. I’ve not been playing computer games much until this week, so I have been away from the gaming clan that I run and not there leading it, organising it. All these things gave me a purpose, and a sense of achievement and they have all been on hold. Even my internet-based political activism has been wound down slightly this week, as I have had too much brainfog to join the Armchair Army in bombarding everyone with messages about the NHS changes.

I know that it isn’t really those things that give me worth, that each person has worth in their own right. I think what I really need from my activity is purpose. If I can find a purpose in my activities, especially if they are activities that I can do while sick or recovering, then I can ignore some of the bad stuff in my life.

This has accidentally turned into an honest insight into my mind. I’m not actually sure that I want to post it, but I’m going to anyway. Because then I can feel better for having written something for my blog. 🙂

Stop the world, I need a rest!

While I am sick at home the world doesn’t stop. There are weddings. There are big shows, music festivals and other events. There are protests that I want to attend. There are real-life meet-ups for groups that have been chatting over the internet. My intended schedule for the next month is hectic: First it is the Prescott Bike Festival, to raise money for Blood Bikes. The following weekend some friends are getting married, 180 miles away from here. The week after that, we’re up in court for non-payment of council tax. (Which we disagree that we owe, due to benefit chaos caused by attempting to do the right thing.) Over Easter my wife’s parents will be visiting, and we will have a big dinner together with my parents. The weekend after that I am visiting Brighton for the weekend to meet up with other politically aware people I talk to on twitter. Then there is a gospel choir performance a few days after that. On top of all this, I have jobs that I need to do such as some work on my wife’s motorbike. Oh, and I’m moving house in the next two months.

It just isn’t going to happen like that.

At the moment I can spend around eight hours per day out of bed, and not every day. I can’t predict when I can get out of bed, or when I can do anything that is expected of me. On many days I can choose to either have a shower, OR to wash the dishes, OR to do other things that I want to do. Given that, how can I do any of the big things I just listed? In reality, I have to prioritise. I have to choose what is viable, and what is really important to me. I have to acknowledge that a really big weekend will wipe me out for a week afterwards, likely leaving me unable to even get my own food and drink and struggling to reach the bathroom. Out of all that I listed above, the bike festival will depend entirely on how I feel that day, it is not practical for me to get to the wedding, since the travel and sleeping on a friends floor will destroy me, and I can’t afford it anyway. The visiting family, I can just about handle as I will disappear off to rest lots while they are here. The trip to Brighton, I am going to manage if it kills me. Unfortunately, it just might.

This is the reality of long-term sickness and disability. This is #disabilitynormal

A personal update

I know a few people are concerned about me after reading my recent blog posts, so this is an update on my health and situation. It’s quite detailed so you might not want to bother, or just skip to the summary at the end. I’m also writing this partly for my own record.

Pain and fatigue

I’ve been taking pregabalin (Lyrica) for a few weeks now. For the first week I was quite ill, with dizzy spells and lots of fatigue. During that week I spent several hours in a car and stayed with my wife’s parents, and for a few days after we returned home I couldn’t really get out of bed because of the fatigue. The pain started to ease after that, and within two weeks of starting pregabalin I was nearly pain free. I also had a lot more energy and started to spend twelve hours a day or more out of bed and sitting on the sofa or at my desk.

Unfortunately that was short lived, and the burning pain started to creep back, and I had more fatigue again. The levels of pain are low enough to handle with paracetamol and codeine, so this is what I am doing rather than increase the levels of pregabalin and risk more side effects. I’m currently able to spend about eight hours out of bed, a few days per week. I’m crap at pacing myself, but if I can impose some self-discipline then I might manage to build that up.


I started following the Atkins diet at the start of March. Atkins, although considered a fad  by many, is actually thought to be quite good for diabetics. It had an instant effect on my blood glucose, dropping down to 4 – 6 mmol/l. I dropped my gliclazide which I had previously been taking 120mg / day of. After two and a bit weeks I was very very fed up with Atkins, and I had lost only 1kg, so I stopped the diet and decided just to follow a reasonably strict normal healthy diet as recommended in my diabetes books. At this point I have resumed taking gliclazide again, but less than before, and my blood glucose is within normal ranges most of the time. I’ve also lost 2kg since stopping Atkins! You can see on this graph where I was on the Atkins diet, and how bad I was before I started that.

Blood Glucose Line March 2011
Blood Glucose Line March 2011


I posted an article about depression just over a week ago and worried a few of you. I have been really depressed since before Christmas. I seem to have dips in my mood of just a few hours, sometimes even just one or two and at these times I can be suicidal. Most often the dips leave me lying there unable to make myself do anything apart from concentrate on an overwhelming sense of dispair. My friends on twitter have been really helpful in getting me through some of those dips. I have told my doctor about everything and I have been taking Duloxetin for the last month. It clearly hasn’t worked and so today my doctor has switched me to Citalopram.

Benefits and Housing

I wrote an email to my MP about our chaotic situation with our benefits. He has written to our council asking them to look again at our claim, but as yet we have not heard back from them. As far as we know, our court date is still going ahead. In the meantime, my wife has been hired for a full time supply teaching job until the end of the summer term, which is fantastic. It should mean that we can pay the council tax to stop the court case now, and hopefully apply the payment to future council tax when they finally realise that we shouldn’t have had to pay it in January.

Since our landlord decided to kick us out and gave us two months notice we have applied to the local housing scheme. I’ve been really happy to find them moving quickly – because of my health, and our being evicted, we have been classed as “Gold Plus” priority for a new home. The only difficulty now is that they have hardly any homes to offer.


In summary then, my pain is under control, my diabetes is just about under control, we (probably) won’t be homeless, but I’m still suffering from the depression.