Archive for the ‘Electricity Generation’ Category

Not everything is getting worse!

April 19, 2017

Carbon Intensity April 2017

Friends, I find it hard to believe, but I think I have found something happening in the world which is not bad. Who knew such things still happened?

The news comes from the fantastic web site MyGridGB which charts the development of electricity generation in the UK.

On the site I read that:

  • At lunchtime on Sunday 9th April 2017,  8 GW of solar power was generated.
  • On Friday all coal power stations in the UK were off.
  • On Saturday, strong winds and solar combined with low demand to briefly provide 73% of power.

All three of these facts fill me with hope. Just think:

  • 8 gigawatts of solar power. In the UK! IN APRIL!!!
  • And no coal generation at all!
  • And renewable energy providing 73% of our power!

Even a few years ago each of these facts would have been unthinkable!

And even more wonderfully: nobody noticed!

Of course, these were just transients, but they show we have the potential to generate electricity which has a significantly low carbon intensity.

Carbon Intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere for each unit (kWh) of electricity generated.

Wikipedia tells me that electricity generated from:

  • Coal has a carbon intensity of about 1.0 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Gas has a carbon intensity of about 0.47 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Biomass has a carbon intensity of about 0.23 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Solar PV has a carbon intensity of about 0.05 kg of CO2 per kW
  • Nuclear has a carbon intensity of about 0.02 kg of CO2 per kWh
  • Wind has a carbon intensity of about 0.01 kg of CO2 per kWh

The graph at the head of the page shows that in April 2017 the generating mix in the UK has a carbon intensity of about 0.25 kg of CO2 per kWh.

MyGridGB’s mastermind is Andrew Crossland. On the site he has published a manifesto outlining a plan which would actually reduce our carbon intensity to less than 0.1 kg of CO2 per kWh.

What I like about the manifesto is that it is eminently doable.

And who knows? Perhaps we might actually do it?

Ahhhh. Thank you Andrew.

Even thinking that a good thing might still be possible makes me feel better.

 

Hinkley C: An alternative response

August 1, 2016

My earlier article on Hinkley Point C received a well-conceived and written response that deserves to be somewhere better than a comment page: here it is:

Hi Michael,
I am no economist either but I will make a few comments on your article about the Hinkley C project. Your conclusion is that overall the project is neither the best thing nor the worst thing could do and therefore sort of Ok. This rather equivocal judgement is made on the basis that the ongoing cost (of £1.15 billion p.a. for 35 years) is probably worth the price because it frees the UK government is from any upfront investment or later costs due to failure or delays. I think this is a very naive view.

This project aims to provide at least 7% of the nation’s power. As far as I am aware the UK government has no Plan B to meet this energy gap. This makes the Hinkley Point C scheme simply “too big to fail”. And if it falters or fails it will be for the UK government to salvage it regardless of contracts agreed at the beginning. The deals will be renegotiated when problems arise and the government / nation needs this power so it cannot just walk away or buy an alternative power station off the shelf.

The situation strikes me as analogous to the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) used to build public sector infrastructure for the last few years. This was sold as a wonderful risk free way of financing new hospitals and schools by using the private sector. Certainly new infrastructure has been built (though often not what was wanted) but at enormous cost which will cripple the public sector for decades. The scheme was devised to avoid government borrowing (even though the costs of this are much lower that for the private sector) but still has to be paid for year in & year out. (It is estimated that the UK owes £222 billion to banks & businesses via the PFI. (The Independent 11 April 2015)

By seeking to avoid public borrowing to finance Hinkley C the government has made a political and ideological choice which reduces it’s control (through lack of ownership), inflates the cost (even if kicked a few decades into the future) and does nothing to reduce the risks (because the government / nation really needs this energy so has no choice but to stick with it).

Best Wishes
Charlie

PS
It is also the case that the UK government has explicitly underwritten £2 billion of costs through the Treasury’s (infrastructure) Guarantee Scheme. This was announced by George Osbourne on a visit to China in September 2015 as an incentive to get the Chinese to invest in the project. EDF itself, in its own press release on the deal refers to “further amounts [being] potentially available in the longer-term.” So there is real chance that the UK government will increase the amount of the project it will explicitly underwrite.

I basically agree with everything you are saying. And if I had had the time I might already have written some of it myself.

However the point of the article was that in narrowly financial terms, this deal isn’t as insane as it is being made to sound.

Concerning Plans A and B, here are some other thoughts.

  • If we want nuclear power, then the current EDF design is one of the very few options available. The real missed opportunity here is that the decision to build was delayed so long that the option for using UK technology was lost.
  • Like you, I find the government’s aversion towards state ownership bizarre. How can it be OK for foreign governments to own our infrastructure, but not the UK government? That is just bonkers. As you say, if this is critical infrastructure then the owners of the infrastructure – the Chinese and French governments – will be able to hold us to ransom in the future.
  • Assuming the project goes ahead, then – taking a positive view – the government will have freed up the capital resources to invest in what I think is the real challenge facing us: integrating energy storage into our generating mix. But that is a story for another evening.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Michael

==============================

[August 1st  2016: Weight this morning 73.4 kg: Anxiety: Very High]

I can’t bear to think about it

April 20, 2016

Over the last few years I have written a fair amount about the problem of global warming.

But in the last few months I have felt barely able to bring my mind to bear on the subject – let alone write about it.

The reason is that the news is overwhelmingly terrible, both in our knowledge of the unfolding reality and our utter inability to focus on the hundreds of do-able things we might be doing.

So for example working backwards through my bookmarks:

Global Warming February 2016 anomaly

The monthly-mean global land-surface temperature anomaly based on data from meteorological stations only. The base period 1951-1980 is shown as a thick red line. The data for this February 2016 is shockingly exceptional.

I could report more stories, but in short, I am overwhelmed.

Now before you say “but its it’s not all doom and gloom” please let me elaborate.

  • I know that the world – and even civilisation as we know it – will not end if the Earth warms by 1 °C. Or even 2 °C. Or probably even 3 °C.
  • And I also know that ‘bad news’ is great news for the media that bring ‘news’ to my attention and so I experience a cognitive bias towards ‘bad news’ because I encounter it more frequently.
  • And I also know that there is good news. For example, use of coal to generate electricity in the UK has fallen dramatically (See Gridwatch for data)
The amount of electricity (GW) generated from coal in the UK. The data are taken every 5 minutes since May 2011. The decline is very striking.

The amount of electricity (GW) generated from coal in the UK. The data are taken every 5 minutes since May 2011. The decline is very striking.

I understand all these things. But overall, I give us – by which I mean me, my generation and this government – a massive vote of disapproval.

IMHO this issue is completely solvable by actions available to our government right now. But they are choosing not to do them. And I just can’t bear to think about the entirely avoidable consequences.

Road to Nowhere

September 21, 2015
A road to nowhere. This road is 60 metres below the surface of the Finnish peninsula on Olkiluotu and leads to giant silo - the end of the road for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste in Finland.

A road to nowhere. This road is 60 metres below the surface of the Finnish island of Olkiluotu and leads to two giant silos – the end of the road for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste in Finland.

I wrote last week that one of the things we in the UK need to build in ‘someone’s back yard’ is a Nuclear Waste Repository.

Last week during a progress meeting for the European Metrodecom project, I joined a visit to the site of such a repository in Finland, on the island of Olkiluoto.

Olkiluoto Island houses two working nuclear reactors, each generating approximately 400 MW of electricity for more than 95% of the time. It is also home to the first construction of a new type of reactor which may (or may not) be built at Hinkley Point in the UK. When completed this third reactor should generate approximately 1600 MW of electricity.

But more important than nuclear generation, Olkiluoto is home to Onkalo (meaning ‘Cave’ or ‘Cavern’) the world’s first final disposal site for high-level waste.

The lower levels of Onkalo are still under construction and so sadly we were not able to visit the tunnels 400 m below the surface. But we did visit the 60 m deep repositories for low-level and intermediate-level radioactive waste .

Importantly, these are not ‘storage’ facilities, but represent sites for the final disposal of this waste. When they are full, they will be sealed off and left.

The visit

After three briefings on Olkiluoto in general and Onkalo  in particular, we boarded a bus for a tour of the site, ending up at the entrance to the so-called VLJ repository.

We were asked not to take pictures of the site, but once inside the repository we were told that we could ‘fill up our memory cards’.

We put on obligatory hard hats, and after a large roller-door was raised, we descended on a sloping roadway mined from solid granite.

The tunnel descends, carved out of solid granite.

The tunnel descends, carved out of solid granite.

After 15 minutes or so we reached a large chamber containing two gigantic silos, each about 20 metres in diameter and about 40 metres deep.

Panoramic picture of the Low-level (on the left) and intermediate level (on the right) wast repository.

Panoramic picture of the low-level (on the right) and intermediate level (on the left) waste repository. (Picture from Simon Jerome). Click for larger version.

Above ground, waste is packed into concrete crates about 2 m x 2 m which are then driven along the ‘road to nowhere’ aka the repository. And then lowered by crane into the silo where they are carefully stacked.

Waste is packed into these concrete containers and lowered into the silo

Waste is packed into these concrete containers and lowered into the silo

We weren't allowed to peek into the silos, so this my photograph of a stock photograph of the silo showing the stacks of waste.

We weren’t allowed to peek into the silos, so this my photograph of a stock photograph of the silo showing the stacks of waste.

Most of this waste is ‘operating waste’ from the two existing nuclear reactors on site: typically single-use garments used by maintenance workers and operators, and ion-exchange resin used in maintaining water purity.

The current plan calls for three similar silos to be built to accommodate the decommissioned remains of the two existing reactors at the end of their lives.

Onkalo

By the time that Olkiluoto 1 and 2 reactors are being decommissioned, the Onkalo deep repository will be ready to take all the high-level waste that the reactors have produced over their lifetime.

The fuel rods from the reactors will be removed and placed in water storage for about 10 years – a backlog of fuel awaits the availability of the repository. Bundles of fuel rods are then placed inside a strong cast-iron frame and sealed inside a 4 metre long copper cylinder.

Fuel rod bundles (one visible) are placed in a cast Iron frame (right) chosen for its strength. This is then plced inside a copper cylinder chosen for its corrosion properties.

Fuel rod bundles (one visible) are placed in a cast iron frame (right) which is then placed inside a copper cylinder. Cast iron is chosen for its strength and copper is chosen for its corrosion properties.

Significantly, no attempt is made to reprocess to the fuel. This is somewhat wasteful since useful nuclear material remains unburnt in the fuel rods. But this choice dramatically simplifies the disposal.

Simulated gallery in Onkalo. The tops of several cylinders are visible. When the gallery is full, the space will be back-filled with clay and sealed with a concrete plug.

Simulated gallery in Onkalo. The top of one cylinder is visible and locations of its neighbours can be seen in the distance. When the gallery is full, it will be back-filled with clay and sealed with a concrete plug.

Comparison with the UK

The contrast between the rational Finnish approach and the UK’s ‘let’s put this off and make it someone else’s problem’ approach could not be greater.

Admittedly, Finland’s ‘back yard’ is bigger than the UK’s: they have one tenth our population and twice our land area. And additionally they require a much smaller repository than the UK will require.

However, Finland has begun preparing for disposal of waste before their first generation of reactors have reached the end of their life.

In contrast the UK has been generating about 20% of our electricity from nuclear power for around 50 years, so we have benefited profoundly from nuclear power. Our first generation reactors are now being decommissioned and we have lots of spent fuel and other types of radioactive waste.

But despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds planning, in practical terms, we have done absolutely nothing about safely disposing of nuclear waste – including high level waste.

Some is stored in warehouses, but shamefully a great deal is stored in filthy outdoor pools.

Outdoor storage of nuclear waste at Sellafield

Outdoor storage of nuclear waste at Sellafield.

My visit filled me with a sense of national shame. But overall I feel pleased to have seen this site with my own eyes. Finland has shown the world that safe disposal of nuclear waste is possible, and not at an extravagant cost.

And if they can do it, then why can’t we?

 

Ready for final disposal

Ready for final disposal

The coolest sandpit in the world.

November 17, 2014

At the end of October 2014 I visited the British Geological Survey, (BGS) in Keyworth, near Nottingham.

I was attending a meeting about ‘geological repositories for either nuclear waste or carbon dioxide.

In the foyer of the BGS  was an ‘interactive sandpit’ in which the height of the sand was monitored by a  Kinect sensor (as used with an X-box games console). From the sand height measurements a computer then calculated an appropriate ‘contour’ image to project onto the sand.

The overall effect was magical and I could have played there for much longer than felt appropriate.

http://www.georepnet.org/

Schematic diagram of the ‘interactive sand pit’. A Kinect sensor determines the sand hight and a computer then calculates an appropriate image to project onto the sand.

The meeting itself was fascinating with a variety of contributors who had completely different perspectives on the challenges.

However what is holding back the construction of a UK repository for nuclear waste is nothing to do with the scientific or engineering challenges: it is a failure of political leadership.

The UK has been a pioneer of nuclear power, the technology through which  we reap the benefits of nuclear power.

But we have been a laggard at cleaning up the radioactive waste generated by the nuclear industry. In this field Sweden and Finland have led the way.

Admittedly their repositories will be smaller than the UK’s, and so easier to construct: I have been informed that the UK’s repository will need to be ‘about the size of Carlisle‘. But it is all do-able.

And when the UK eventually builds a repository, its cost will be inflated by the need to ensure the safety of the repository for a million years. What?…did I just say … one million years? ‘Yes’ I did. And ‘Yes’, that’s bonkers.

This time-scale makes for a number of unique challenges. At the meeting I attended, scientists were confident of the safety for a time-span somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years. And frankly, for me that would be good enough.

The ridiculous specifications required to be guaranteed before construction can begin, contrast with the laissez faire attitude towards burning carbon and affecting Earth’s climate. Why do we not have a moratorium on emitting carbon until we can be sure it is safe?

For example one area of uncertainty is the potential significance of microbiological fauna within rocks deep below the Earth, something about which we know very little. Do we have to wait until we can understand the millions of as yet undiscovered microbes before we can proceed?

Of course the main uncertainty – which is ultimately unresolvable – arises from the extreme lengths of time under consideration. This leads to consideration of extremely unlikely scenarios

For example, the Swedish repository company SKB is carrying out extensive research on what will happen to the repository if there is another ice age, and the repository is covered by several kilometres of ice.

First of all, given the problem de jour of global warming, this is frankly unlikely. And secondly, if Sweden is covered by several kilometres of ice, then of course all the people in Sweden would already be dead! At that point the safety of the repository would be frankly a moot point.

You can learn about this research in three short but intensely dull videos here.

Wind versus Nuclear: The real story in pictures

November 3, 2014
Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power.

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power. (Click Graph to enlarge)

For a few days in October 2014,  wind energy consistently generated more electricity in the UK than nuclear power. Wow!

You may have become aware of this through several news outlets. The event was reported on the BBC, but curiously the Daily Mail seems not to have noticed .

Alternatively, you may like me, have been watching live on Gridwatch – a web site that finally makes the data on electricity generation easily accessible.

I was curious about the context of this achievement and so I downloaded the historically archived data on electricity generation derived from coal, gas, nuclear and wind generation in the UK for the last three years. (Download Page)

And graphing the data tells a powerful story of the potential of wind generation – but also of the engineering challenges involved in integrating wind power into a controllable generating system.

The challenges arise from the fluctuations in wind power which are very significant. The first challenge is in the (un)predictability of the fluctuations, and the second challenge is coping with them – whether or not they have been predicted. Both these challenges will grow more difficult as the fraction of wind energy used by the grid increases over the next decade.

As an example, consider in detail an event earlier in October shown in the graph at the top of the page

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power.

Detail from the graph at the top of the page showing how earlier in October, wind power went from an impressive 6 GW to less than 1 GW in a period of around 18 hours . (Click Graph to enlarge)

The grid operators have a wind forecast running 6 to 24 hours ahead and would have planned for this. The forecasts are typically accurate to about 5% and so at the high end that amounts to a margin of error of 0.3 GW – which is within the reserves that the grid can cope with routinely.

However the fluctuations in wind power are becoming larger as the amount of wind power increases. The graph below shows the monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in pink and light blue are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes.

Monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in grey are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes. It is clear that the fluctuations in wind power are large - and getting ever larger. (Click Graph to enlarge)

Monthly averages of electricity produced by Wind and Nuclear since May 2011. Also shown in pink and light blue are the data (more than 300,000 of them!) taken every 5 minutes. It is clear that the fluctuations in wind power are large – and getting ever larger. (Click Graph to enlarge)

Incorporating wind energy is a real engineering challenge which costs real money to solve. Nonetheless, as explained in this excellent  Royal Academy of Engineering report, we expect capacity to double to ~20 GW by 2020, and to at least double again by 2030. So these problems do need to be solved

Because wind-generated electricity supply does not respond to electricity demand, as the contribution of wind energy grows we will reach two significant thresholds.

  • When demand is high, unanticipated reductions in wind-generated supply could exceed the margins within which the grid operates.
  • When demand is low, unanticipated increases in wind-generated supply could exceed the base supply from nuclear power which cannot be easily switched off

These challenges will require both economic and engineering adaptations. At the moment, because the marginal cost of wind power is so low, we basically use all the wind power that is available.

However, it is possible to ‘trim’ wind turbines so that they do not produce their maximum output. In a future system with 40 GW of wind generating capacity, we might value predictability  and controllability over sheer capacity. Then as the wind falls, the turbines could adjust to try to keep output constant.

These challenges lie ahead and are difficult but entirely solvable. And their solution will be essential if we really want to phase out fossil fuels by 2100.

But for the moment wind is providing on average about 2 GW of electrical power, which is around 6% of UK average demand. This is a real achievement and as a country we should be proud of it.

Perhaps someone should tell the Daily Mail.

Is anything truly impossible?

October 27, 2014

A recent Scientific American article highlighted the work of two Canadian engineers. Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson, who built the world’s first (and only) human-powered helicopter.

After they had completed their brilliant and imaginative work, they learned of a recent paper which showed that what they had just done was impossible.

Their achievement put me in mind of Lord Kelvin’s misguided pronouncement:

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.

This is a popular meme: illustrious expert says something is impossible: ingenue shows it is not.

But nonetheless, there are (presumably?) things which, even though they may be imagined, are still either truly or practically impossible.

But how can you distinguish between ideas which are truly or practically impossible, and those which are just hard to imagine?

This is not a merely an academic question

The UK  is currently committed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds on a nuclear fusion experiment called ITER which I am confident will never result in the construction of even a single power station.

Wikipedia tells me the build cost of the project is an astonishing $50 billion – ten times its original projected cost. Impossible projects have a way of going over budget.

I explained my reasons for considering the project to be impossible here

And on reading this Jonathan Butterworth, Head of Physics at UCL tweeted that he:

could write a similar post on why the LHC is impossible. IMHO

But I don’t think he could. Let me explain with some examples:

1. The large hadron collider (LHC) where Jonathan works is a machine called a synchrotron, which is itself a development of a cyclotron.

The first cyclotron was built in a single University physics department in 1932 (History). If, back then, you had told someone the specification of the LHC, would they have said it was impossible?

I don’t think so. Because although each parameter (size, energy etc.) has been stretched – through astonishing ingenuity and technically virtuosity  – the LHC is an extrapolation from something that they knew definitely worked.

2. A modern nuclear power station  is an engineering realisation of ‘a pile of graphite bricks‘ that was first constructed beneath the stand of a playing field of the University of Chicago in 1942.

Within this ‘pile’, the first controlled nuclear reaction took place and worked exactly as had been anticipated. Would the people who witnessed the reaction have said a nuclear power station was impossible?

Definitely not. Everyone in the room was aware of the significance (good and bad) of what had been achieved.

Controlled nuclear fusion, is in an entirely different category from either of these stories of engineering success.

  • It has never worked.

We have never created sustained nuclear fusion and the reasons for the failure of this achievement have always changed as we have understood the problem better.

The rationale for ITER is – cutting through a great deal of technical detail – that it is bigger than previous versions. This increases the volume of the plasma (where energy is released by fusion) in relation to the surface area (where it is lost).

I expect that ITER will meet its technical goals (or most of them). But even on this assumption, they would then have to solve the technical problems associated with confining a plasma at a temperature of 150 million ºC for 30 years rather  than 10 seconds.

As I explained previously, I just don’t think solutions to these problems exist that would allow reliable operation for 30 years with 90% availability required for power generation.

So I think controlled nuclear fusion as a means of generating power is – while perfectly conceivable – actually impossible.

What if – in 50 years time – we make it work? 

Then I will be proved wrong. If I am alive, I will apologise.

However, even in this optimistic scenario, it will be 50 years too late to affect climate change, which is a problem which needs solving now.

And we will have spent money and energy that  we could have spent on solving the problems that face us now using solutions which we know will definitely work.

Care for a Danish-Style Shower?

September 1, 2014
Have you tried showering 'Danish Style'?

Have you tried showering ‘Danish Style’?

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the continuing Californian drought, my friend Bernard Naylor commented that in many cultures people had adapted to a climate in which rainfall was scarce.

And he mentioned in particular ‘the Danish style’ of showering. He wrote:

Bermuda was settled by the British in the early 17th century. The island has no rivers or springs and is dependent entirely on rainfall. For hundreds of years, every building was required to be constructed over a cistern (to hold its water supply) and roofed so as to maximise water collection. People are encouraged to shower ‘in the Danish style’. That is,

  • You wet yourself all over,
  • then SWITCH OFF THE SHOWER.
  • You then soap/wash yourself,
  • and finally run the shower again to wash off the soap.

This struck a chord with me because I remembered reading that when Proctor and Gambol investigated the carbon footprint of their shower gels, they found that the carbon emissions arising from heating the water for the shower was massively more than the carbon footprint of the products themselves.

So over the last few weeks I have been giving Danish-style showering a try, and it is surprisingly pleasant.

  • Firstly, the soap lathers much more easily than when the shower is continuously running and this is very pleasurable.
  • Secondly, because the lather is so much thicker, I think I use less soap/gel than I did previously.
  • Thirdly, I think I spend less time than I used to in the shower. The simple act of consciously switching off the water somehow interrupts the dreamy warmth of the showery idyll.
  • And finally, I am saving a tiny amount money

My shower – which is typical of UK showers – uses about 7 litres of water per minute. (How do I know? I just measured it using a timer and a jug).

If the water is heated from 10 ºC to around 40 ºC (a hot shower) then pausing for just one minute saves approximately a quarter of kilowatt hour (882,000 joules) – which currently saves about a penny if the shower is gas powered, and between two and five times that much if the shower is electrically heated.

So this is a little thing that saves a little money and a little water. But it is actually quite pleasant.

Care to give it a go?

 =================================

edaviesmeuk commented (below). How could I not have heard of this before!

  • Also called a navy shower:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navy_shower

    Don’t do it where I’m staying at the moment as the “instant” LPG boiler takes a few seconds to light as the water’s turned on allowing a big slug of cold water into the system to surprise you after the warm which was in the pipes. Will make sure to arrange the plumbing on my new house to allow restarting the shower at the right temperature for just this reason.

 

Cradle of the best and the worst

July 19, 2014
One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

I am on holiday with my family in Nevada and California, and while shopping for beer and clothing in Las Vegas, I was reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and the worst

Lenny’ was speaking of Democracy,  but I feel that the phrase can be extended into environmental, technological and cultural realms. And in his blog I wanted to record a few thoughts about the ‘best’ of the things I have seen.

Amidst the hyperbolic kitch of Las Vegas, we stayed in the walls of a gigantic hollow pyramid that is a truly astounding architectural and engineering achievement. For example, the elevators obviously cannot run vertically but instead run at angle along the slanted edges of the pyramid.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel - which is pyramidal in shape.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel – which is pyramidal in shape.

Housed underneath this beautiful roof were any number of gaudy distractions. But amongst them was the Bodies exhibition. I found the exhibition dignified, tasteful and astonishingly  educational. I left with renewed wonder at my body.

We visited the Hoover Dam in which the barely mentioned reality is that the water levels are running low. But there is no denying the engineering genius and boldness of the ambition behind it’s construction.

The Ivanpah Solar Power plant may be on the wrong-side of a historic divide between solar photo-voltaic and solar thermal. But the engineering is awe-inspiring: three giant towers concentrating solar energy – one resource which is not in short supply in this part of the world.

In Los Angeles we have used the excellent public transport rail system, which is easily accessible and welcomes bicycles. Over long stretches it has been built to use the inner lanes of freeways or major roads to minimise construction costs. And nearly all the buses have bicycle carriers attached to their fenders.

An LA Metro Train. Teh station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

An LA Metro Train. The station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

Many freeways have car pool lanes – in which only cars with more than one passenger may travel. Some freeways use a road pricing system –  long-discussed in the UK – in which the price to use a ‘Fastrak’ lane changes minute by minute – reaching peaks of 10 times the minimum charge at times of peak congestion. These lanes also allow fast buses to speed public transport as advertised in this excessively positive advertising video.

Of course road traffic defines LA. But driving speeds are slower in suburban streets  than in the UK’s narrower and more congested roads. In the suburban area of LA in which we are staying (El Segundo) traffic is dramatically better than Teddington.  And contrary to myth, there is excellent provision for pedestrians. And of course, California is a world-leader in legislation to control vehicle emissions.

The Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl  is aunique cultural venue combining excellent music with the  friendly ambience of the proms and the ability to picnic as the Sun sets over the Hollywood Hills.

Culturally, the Getty Centre and Villa, the California Science Centre  (which houses the space shuttle Endeavour) and the Griffiths Observatory are among the best museums I have ever visited. And they are free.

The Disney Theatre is breathtaking and the Hollywood Bowl provides a venue for music that is unique – it felt like ‘the Proms with picnics’

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a modern day secular temple to the stars.

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a secular temple to the stars.

So forgive me if I pass on reciting the sins of this resource-gobbling satan. In this ‘cradle’along with ‘the worst’, are some things that I find inspiring and well-worthy of the epithet ‘the best’. And I hope that like many Californian innovations – such as vehicle emission limits – many of these will leave this cradle and spread around the world.

And to my friends: forgive me if I forgive myself for this carbon-heavy holiday.

Nuclear Nonsense in The Independent

April 28, 2014

Can you spot the difference between the two headlines below?

Two headlines for the same independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine

Two headlines for the same Independent story about the plight of residents of the Chernobyl district of the Ukraine. The first one claims there are ‘cemetaries the size of cities’: this is not true.

That’s right: The first shocking headline claims the existence of’cemeteries the size of cities’. The implication is clear: that vast numbers of people have died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

This was not my understanding, and  I was so shocked by this claim that I tweeted the author: you can read our conversation below:

weets exchanged with Thom Davies. I have no idea if this was personal or public conversation - twitter is like that!

Tweets exchanged with Thom Davies: Thom didn’t reply to my last question. t have no idea if this was personal or public conversation – twitter is like that!

After this exchange I thought I would re-read the article and was surprised to find that the headline had changed. Indeed, I wondered if I had been mistaken in what I had seen, but fortunately I had left a browser window open and was able capture an image of the earlier page.

So what have we learned?

Firstly we learn that there are no ‘cemeteries the size of cities’ containing the unacknowledged dead from Chernobyl.

Secondly we learn that despite the absence of ‘cemeteries the size of cities’, the Chernobyl disaster was just that: an ongoing disaster played out in the lives of poor people trying to earn a living.

The ‘point’ of the article was probably to draw attention to their plight and to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK. However by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?

And finally we learn that The Independent is continuing its splendid tradition of nonsense front page ‘scare’ stories. They have sadly taken down their front page story from  Sunday 20th January 2008.

That story began routinely reporting results of an unrefereed conference article which claimed that mobile phone radiation affected the sleep of a cohort of people studied. Scratching around for supporting evidence they wrote:

It also complements other recent research. A massive study, following 1,656 Belgian teenagers for a year, found most of them used their phones after going to bed. It concluded that those who did this once a week were more than three times – and those who used them more often more than five times – as likely to be “very tired”.

I would like to finish by saying that ‘you can’t make this stuff up’. Except that The Independent can. And continues to do so.


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