Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Hazards of Flying

November 17, 2019

Radiation Dose

Radeye in Cabin

RadEye Geiger Counter on my lap in the plane.

It is well-known that by flying in commercial airliners, one exposes oneself to increased intensity of ionising radiation.

But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and another to watch it in front of you.

Thus on a recent flight from Zurich I was fascinated to use a Radeye B20-ER survey meter to watch the intensity of radiation rise with altitude as I flew home.

Slide1

Graph showing the dose rate in microsieverts per hour as a function of time before and after take off. The dose rate at cruising altitude was around 25 times on the ground.

Slide2

During the flight from Zurich, the accumulated radiation dose was almost equal to my entire daily dose in the UK.

The absolute doses are not very great (Some typical doses). The dose on flight from Zurich (about 2.2 microsieverts) was roughly equivalent to the dose from a dental X-ray, or one whole day’s dose in the UK.

But for people who fly regularly the effects mount up.

Given how skittish people are about exposing themselves to any hazard I am surprised that more is not made of this – it is certainly one more reason to travel by train!

CO2 Exposure

Although I knew that by flying I was exposing myself to higher levels of radiation – I was not aware of how high the levels of carbon dioxide can become in the cabin.

I have been using a portable detector for several months. I was sceptical that it really worked well, and needed to re-assure myself that it reads correctly. I am now more or less convinced and the insights it has given have been very helpful.

In fresh air the meter reads around 400 parts per million (ppm) – but in the house, levels can exceed this by a factor of two – especially if I have been cooking using gas.

One colleague plotted levels of CO2 in the office as a function of the number of people using the office. We were then able to make a simple airflow model based on standard breathing rates and the specified number of air changes per hour.

Slide5

However I was surprised at just how high the levels became in the cabin of an airliner.

The picture below shows CO2 levels in the bridge leading to the plane in Zurich Airport. Levels around 1500 ppm are indicative very poor air quality.

Slide3

Carbon dioxide concentration on the bridge leading to the plane – notice the rapid rise.

The picture below shows that things were even worse in the aeroplane cabin as we taxied on the tarmac.

Slide4

Carbon dioxide concentration measured in the cabin while we taxied on the ground in Zurich.

Once airborne, levels quickly fell to around 1000 ppm – still a high level – but much more comfortable.

I have often felt preternaturally sleepy on aircraft and now I think I know why – the spike in carbon dioxide concentrations at this level can easily induce drowsiness.

One more reason not to fly!

 

 

 

Getting there…

November 14, 2019

Life is a journey to a well-known destination. It’s the ‘getting there’ that is interesting.

The journey has been difficult these last few weeks. But I feel like I am ‘getting there

Work and non-work

At the start of 2019 I moved to a 3-day working week, and at first I managed to actually work around 3-days a week, and felt much better for it.

But as the year wore on, I have found it more difficult to limit my time at work. This has been particularity intense these last few weeks.

My lack of free time has been making me miserable. It has limited my ability to focus on things I want to do for personal, non-work reasons.

Any attention I pay to a personal project – such as writing this blog – feels like a luxurious indulgence. In contrast, work activities acquire a sense of all-pervading numinous importance.

But despite this difficulty – I feel like I am better off than last year – and making progress towards the mythical goal of work-life balance on the way to a meaningful retirement.

I am getting there!

Travelling 

Mainly as a result of working too much, I am still travelling too much by air. But on some recent trips to Europe I was able to travel in part by train, and it was surprisingly easy and enjoyable.

I am getting there! By train.

My House

The last of the triple-glazing has been installed in the house. Nine windows and a door (around £7200 since you asked) have been replaced.

Many people have knowingly askedWhat’s the payback time?

  • Using financial analysis the answer is many years.
  • Using moral and emotional analysis, the payback has been instantaneous.

It would be shameful to have a house which spilt raw sewage onto the street. I feel the same way about the 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide my house currently emits every winter.

This triple-glazing represents the first steps in bringing my home up to 21st Century Standards and it is such a relief to have begun this journey.

I will monitor the performance over the winter to see if it coincides with my expectations, and then proceed to take the next steps in the spring of 2020.

I am getting there! And emitting less carbon dioxide in the process

Talking… and listening

Physics in Action 3

Yesterday I spoke about the SI to more than 800 A level students at the Emmanuel Centre in London. I found the occasion deeply moving.

  • Firstly, the positivity and curiosity of this group of group of young people was palpable.
  • Secondly, their interest in the basics of metrology was heartwarming.
  • Thirdly, I heard Andrea Sella talk about ‘ice’.

Andrea’s talked linked the extraordinary physical properties of water ice to the properties of ice on Earth: the dwindling glaciers and the retreat of sea-ice.

He made the connection between our surprise that water ice was in any way unusual with the journalism of climate change denial perpetrated by ‘newspapers’ such as the Daily Mail.

This link between the academic and the political was shocking to hear in this educational context – but essential as we all begin our journey to a new world in which we acknowledge what we have done to Earth’s climate.

We have a long way to go. But hearing Andrea clearly and truthfully denounce the lies to which we are being exposed was personally inspiring.

We really really are getting there. 

Why does heating my house require 280 watts per degree Celsius above ambient?

August 18, 2019

Previously I explained how I learned that for each degree Celsius the outside temperature falls below 20 °C, it takes 280 watts of heating to keep my house at 20 °C.

In order to provide this heating, I burn gas which last winter resulted in the emission of around 17 kg of carbon dioxide per day – around 2.5 tonnes in all.

I would really like to reduce this shameful figure, but I have only finite resources. In order to act I need to know where best to spend my money.

In this article I will explain how I came to understand the relative significance of the windows, roof and walls in this heat loss.

Windows

It is easier to estimate the heat loss from windows than it is from walls.

This is because walls are opaque and (without expert knowledge) it is not obvious what the wall is made of. Moreover, different walls in the house can have different construction and thickness. However, being transparent, one can see directly the type and construction of windows.

The heat flow through a window(or wall) is characterised by a U-value. This states the amount of heat which flows across 1 square metre of the window when there is one degree Celsius of temperature difference across the window.

The units are for U-values are watts per metre squared per degree Celsius (W/m2/°C) or watts per metre squared per kelvin  (W/m2/K). These two units are equal to each other.

Roughly speaking U-values for windows are [Link]:

  • Old single-glazed windows: 6 W/m2/°C
  • Old double-glazed windows: 4 W/m2/°C
  • New double-glazed windows: 1.5 W/m2/°C
  • The best triple-glazed windows: 1.0 W/m2/°C

I proceeded as follows:

  • I made a list of the 21 windows, skylights and glazed doors in in my house.
  • I measured their area – width × height in metres.
  • I multiplied their area by their U-value to get the transmission per degree Celsius through that window.
  • I then added them all up.
Slide5

For each window in the house I multiplied the area by the estimated U-value to get the heat transmitted per degree Celsius of temperature difference. I colour-coded the column to highlight which windows were the worst. Adding up all the windows came to 75.7 watts per degree Celsius. If I replaced all the windows with the best available I might be able to reduce this to 24.0 watts per degree Celsius.

The estimated total transmission through all the windows and doors came to about 76 watts per degree Celsius. I concluded that:

  • Firstly,  I could see which windows lost the most energy – they are colour-coded red, amber, and green in the figure above. There are no surprises – the largest area windows lose the most energy.
  • Secondly, I could see that if I replaced all the old windows with modern ones (U = 1.5 W/m2/°C), I might hope to reduce the window losses by roughly half their current value, to around 36 watts per degree Celsius. If I spent a lot – on triple-glazed windows and used insulating blinds, I might hope to achieve U = 1.0 W/m2/°C and reduce the losses to 24 watts per degree Celsius.
  • Thirdly, since the house as a whole is losing 280 watts per degree Celsius, I could see that windows and doors account for about a quarter of the energy lost from the house.
  • And finally, logically, the remaining 75% of the losses (280 – 76 = 204) must be going the through the roof, walls, and floors or lost in draughts.

Roof and Walls 

By analysing the thermal transmission of the windows and doors (transmission = 76 watts per degree Celsius), I concluded that roof and walls must be transmitting about 204 watts per degree Celsius.

  • Is this estimate reasonable?

To answer this question I embarked on yet another tedious and difficult exercise.

  • The tediousness arises because I need to add up all the areas of the roof and walls, subtract the areas of the windows and skylights, and then estimate the U-value,
  • The difficulty arises because I don’t know the materials from which the walls of the house are constructed!

Most of the walls date from the 1930’s (I think) and are probably solid brick. A 1970’s extension is probably not much better thermally, but I don’t know. However, the extension we built 10 years ago was built to building regulations at the time and I have a pretty good idea of the appropriate U-value.

So I made measurements of the wall areas. And then I assumed (link) that:

  • The old walls had a U-value of 2 W/m2/°C – a value appropriate for a double-skin solid brick wall.
  • The new walls had a U-value of 0.3 W/m2/°C – a value specified by current building regulations.
Slide6

For each wall or roof, I multiplied the area by the estimated U-value to get the heat transmitted per degree Celsius of temperature difference. I colour-coded the column to highlight which were the worst. Adding it up came to about 229 watts per degree Celsius. If I clad all the walls to achieve a U-value of 0.3 watts per metre squared per degree Celsius, I might be able to reduce this to 54 watts per degree Celsius.

With these assumptions I estimated the heat transmission through the roof and walls. As shown in the table above, I arrived at an estimate of 229 watts per degree Celsius. This should be compared with estimate of 204 watts per degree Celsius that I arrived by analysing:

  • My gas meter readings
  • The average weekly temperature
  • The estimated properties of the windows.

Given all the uncertainties, I take this as confirmation that within about 10% uncertainty, I can understand the thermal properties of my house.

Summary

Slide7

Currently my house loses 280 watts for each degree Celsius the external temperature falls below ambient. Of those 280 watts,

  • roughly 76 watts flow through the windows and doors
  • the remaining 204 watts flow through the walls, floors and roof.

With modern double-glazing I could reasonably hope to reduce the glazing losses from 76 watts to around 36 watts, or possibly even lower with triple-glazing and thermal blinds.

Cladding the entire house I could hope to reduce the losses from around 204 watts to around 50 watts.

  • What should I do?

In the next article I will discuss my strategy.

Should I still be using gas?

May 6, 2019

TL/DR The carbon emissions associated with electrical generation in the UK have fallen so much it is has become greener – but not necessarily cheaper – to cook and heat using electricity.

Electricity Generation

The carbon intensity of a source of electricity is a measure of how much carbon dioxide (measured in kg) was emitted to make one unit of electrical energy: an electrical kilowatt hour (kWe).

The chart below shows the carbon intensity of electricity generated by various techniques. The average carbon intensity depends on generating mix – and how that varies with time.

Carbon Intensity of different generating sources

When I began talking about Climate Change back in 2004, Coal, Gas and Nuclear were the main generating sources for UK electricity. And the average carbon intensity – if I remember correctly – was around 0.50 kg CO2 per kWe.

The generating mix in 2019 is radically different. The carbon intensity varies daily and seasonally between about 0.1 kg CO2 per kWe (at times of low demand and high renewable generation) and 0.4 kg CO2 per kW(at times of high demand and low renewable generation). The average value is less than 0.3 kg CO2 per kWand falling.

The chart below shows how the carbon intensity of electricity varied through the month of December 2018. The average value was 0.243 kg CO2 per kW.and the maximum and minimum values were 0.390 kg CO2 per kWand 0.094 kg CO2 per kWrespectively.

Carbon Intensity in December 2018

In my home

I can choose to heat by using electricity or gas.

  • If I heat using electricity then I can convert electrical energy into heat with 100% efficiency, so for every kW of electrical power I use, I generate 1 kW of thermal power (kWth). And hence release roughly 0.3 kg of carbon dioxide.
  • If I heat using gas then I can convert chemical energy in the gas into heat with high efficiency – but not generally 100%. So (looking at the chart at the start of the article) for every 1 kWth, I emit at least 0.47 kg of carbon dioxide.

Now the price per kWh (one kilowatt hour) that I am charged by EDF, the French government-backed company that supplies my electricity and gas is:

  • 26.6 pence for 1 kWh of electrical/thermal energy during the day.
    • Generally higher carbon intensity ~ 0.4 kg CO2 per kWe.
  • 5.0 pence for 1 kWh of electrical/thermal energy during the night.
    • Generally lower carbon intensity ~ 0.15 kg CO2 per kWe
  • 4.2 pence for 1 kWh of thermal energy (via gas) at any time.
    • Always at least ~ 0.46 kg CO2 per kW

So the reduction in the carbon intensity of the UK’s generating mix means that switching to electricity now makes ‘green sense’. i.e. If I generate 1 kW heat in my house using electricity then less carbon dioxide is emitted than if I just burned the gas directly

But in order to make financial sense I would need to make sure that I didn’t use any ‘daytime’ electricity.

Mmmm. Well at least I have a choice!

Resources

 

Hot dry summers

August 10, 2018

Apparently its been hot all around the northern hemisphere this summer.

And that got me thinking about the long hot summer of 1976 when I was 16.

I have the general impression that summers now are warmer than they used to be. But I am aware that such impressions can be misleading.

Being the age I am (58), I fear my own mis-remembering of times past.

So was 1976 really exceptional? And will this year (2018) also prove to be really exceptional?

I decided to download some data and take a look.

Heathrow Data.

I popped over to the Met Office’s Climate pages and downloaded the historical data from the nearby Heathrow weather station.

I had downloaded this data before when looking at long-term climate trends, but this time I was looking for individual hot months rather than annual or decadal trends.

When I plotted the monthly average of the daily maximum temperature, I was surprised that 1976 didn’t stand out at all as an exceptional year.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data July Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. I have highlighted the data from July each year using red squares. Notice that since 1976 there have been many comparable July months.

In the graph above I have highlighted July average maximum temperatures. I tried similar analyses for June and August and the results were similar. 1976 stood out as a hot year, but not exceptionally so.

Ask an Expert

Puzzled, I turned to an expert. I sent an e-mail to John Kennedy at the UK’s Met Office  and to my astonishment he responded within a few hours.

His suggestion was to try plotting seasonal data.

His insight was based on the fact that it is not so unusual to have a single warm month. But it is unusual to have three warm months in a row.

So I re-plotted the data and this time I highlighted the average of daily maximum temperatures for June, July and August.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data June July August Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines as in the previous figure. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 now stands out as an exceptionally warm summer.

Delightfully, 1976 pops out as being an exceptional summer – in line with my adolescent recollection.

More than just being hot

But John suggested more. He suggested looking at the seasonal average of the minimum daily temperature.

Recall that in hot weather it is often the overnight warmth which is particularly oppressive.

In this graph (below) 1976 does not stand out as exceptional, but it is noticeable that warming trend is easily visible to the naked eye. On average summer, summer nights are about 2 °C warmer now than they were at the start of my lifetime.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data JJA Minimum Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature minima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 does not stand out exceptionally.

John also suggested that I look at other available data such as the averages of

  • daily hours of sunshine
  • daily rainfall

Once again seasonal averages of these quantities show 1976 to have been an exceptional year. Below I have plotted the Rainfall totals on two graphs, one showing the overall rainfall, and the other detail of the low rainfall summers.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall

The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer. The data below 50 mm of rainfall are re-plotted in the next graph.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall detail

Detail from the previous figure showing the low rainfall data. The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer.

de Podesta ‘Hot Summer’ Index

Following on from John’s suggestion, I devised the ‘de Podesta Long Hot Summer Index‘. I defined this to be:

  • the sum of the seasonal averages of the minimum and maximum temperatures (for June July and August),
  • divided by the seasonal average of rainfall (for June July and August).

Plotting this I was surprised to see 1976 pop out of the data as a truly exceptional hot dry summer – my memory had not deceived me.

But I also noticed 1995 ‘popped out’ too and I had no recollection of that being an exceptional summer. However this data (and Wikipedia) confirms that it was.

Now I just have to wait until the end of August to see if this year was exceptional too – it most surely felt exceptional, but we need to look at the data to see if our perceptions are genuinely grounded in reality.

Heathrow Hot Dry Summer Index

The de Podesta Hot Dry Summer (HDS) index as described in the text.  Construct an ‘index’ in this way really flags up the exceptional nature of 1976, and also 1995.

John Kennedy’s blog

In typical self-deprecating manner, John calls himself a ‘diagram monkey’ and blogs under that pseudonym. 

His is one of just two blogs to which I subscribe and I recommend it to you highly.

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.

 

Volcanic Clouds

September 28, 2015
The estimated average air temperature above the land surface of the Earth. The thick black line. The squiggle lines are data and the grey lines give an indication of uncertainty in the estimate. Th bold black line shows the results of a model based on carbon dioxide and the effect of named volcanoes.

The estimated average air temperature above the land surface of the Earth. The squiggly lines are data and the grey lines give an indication of uncertainty in the estimate. The bold black line shows the results of a model based on the effects of carbon dioxide and the effect of named volcanoes. Figure is from the Berkeley Earth Temperature Project

The explosion of Mount Tambora in 1815 was the largest explosion in recorded history. Its catastrophic local effects – earthquakes, tsunami, and poisonous crop-killing clouds – were witnessed by many people including Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java.

Curiously, one year later, while touring through France, Raffles also witnessed deserted villages and impoverished peasantry caused by the ‘year without a summer’ that caused famine throughout Europe.

But at the time no-one connected the two events! The connection was not made until the late 20th Century when scientists were investigating the possibility of a ‘nuclear winter’ that might arise from multiple nuclear explosions.

Looking at our reconstructed record of the air temperature above the land surface of the Earth at the head of this article, we can see that Tambora lowered the average surface temperature of the Earth by more than 1 °C and its effects lasted for around three years.

Tambora erupted just 6 years after a volcanic explosion in 1809 whose location is still unknown. We now know that together they caused the decade 1810-1820 to be exceptionally cold. However, at the time the exceptional weather was just experienced as an ‘act of god’.

In Tambora: The Eruption that changed the world, Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes both the local nightmare near Tambora, and more significantly the way in which the climate impacts of Tambora affected literary, scientific, and political history around the globe.

In particular he discusses:

  • The effect of a dystopian ‘summer’ experienced by the Shelleys and Lord Byron in their Alpine retreat.
  • The emergence of cholera in the wake of a disastrous monsoon season in Bengal. Cholera went on to form a global pandemic that eventually reached the UK through trade routes.
  • The period of famine in the rice-growing region of Yunnan that led to a shift towards opium production.
  • The bizarre warming – yes, warming – in the Arctic that led to reports of ice free northern oceans, and triggered decades of futile attempts to discover the fabled North West Passage.
  • The dramatic and devastating advance of glaciers in the Swiss alps that led to advances in our understanding of ice ages.
  • The ‘other’ Irish Famine – a tale of great shame and woe – prefacing the great hunger caused by the potato-blight famines in later decades.
  • The extraordinary ‘snow in June’ summer in the eastern United States

Other Volcanic Clouds

Many Europeans will recall the chaos caused by the volcanic clouds from the 2010 eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced like this  or phonectically ‘[ˈeɪjaˌfjatlaˌjœːkʏtl̥]).

The 2010 eruptions were tiny in historical terms with effects which were local to Iceland and nearby air routes. This is because although a lot of dust was ejected, most of it stayed within the troposphere – the lower weather-filled part of the atmosphere. Such dust clouds are normally rained out over a period of a few days or weeks.

Near the equator the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere – known as the tropopause – is about 16 km high, but this boundary falls to around 9 km nearer the poles.

For a volcanic cloud to to have wider effects the volcanic explosion must push it above the tropopause into the stratosphere. Tiny particles can be suspended here for years, and have a dramatic effect on global climate.

Laki

Tambora may have been ‘the big one’ but it was not alone. Looking at our reconstructed air temperature record at the head of this article, we can see that large volcanic eruptions are not rare. And the 19th Century had many more than the 20th Century.

Near the start of the recorded temperature history is the eruption of Laki in Iceland (1783-84). Local details of this explosion were recorded in the diary of Jon Steingrimsson, and in their short book Island on Fire, Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe describe the progression of the eruption and its effects further afield – mainly in Europe.

In the UK and Europe the summer consisted of prolonged ‘dry fogs’ that caused plants to wither and people to fall ill. On the whole people were mystified by the origin of these clouds, even though one or two people – including the prolific Benjamin Franklin – then US Ambassador to France – did in fact make the connection with Icelandic volcanoes.

Purple Clouds

Prior to the two books on real volcanic clouds, I had previously read a fictional account of such an event: The Purple Cloud by M P Shiel, published in 1901, and set in the early decades of that century.

This is a fictional, almost stream-of-consciousness, account of how an Arctic explorer discovers a world of beauty at the North Pole – including un-frozen regions. But by violating Nature’s most hidden secrets, he somehow triggers a series of volcanic eruptions at the Equator which over the course of a couple of weeks kill everyone on Earth – save for himself.

I enjoyed this book, but don’t particularity recommend it. However what is striking to me now having since read accounts of these genuine historical events is that the concept of a globally significant volcanic cloud actually existed at the end of the nineteenth Century.

Final Words

The lingering flavour of these books – factual and fictional – is that historically there have been poorly-appreciated tele-connections between historical events.

Now, we live in a world in which the extent and importance of these global tele-connections has never been greater.

And in this world we are vulnerable to events such as volcanic clouds which – as the chart at the top of the page shows – affect the entire world and are not that rare.

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.

Some things to look forward to…

March 1, 2014
Swansea lagoon visitors centre

Swansea lagoon visitors centre. Picture from BBC News.

‘News’ is frequently an abbreviation for ‘Bad News’. There seems to be no end of stories about ‘things’ getting worse.

And so it is something of relief to hear of people providing solutions to our problems. Here are few things which have recently inspired me with hope.

  • Meeting some teachers today.
  • The Swansea Lagoon Project in Swansea.
  • The Solana and Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power projects in the western USA.

Teachers: Today, Saturday March 1st, I got up early and drove to Birmingham to give a talk to a group of eight physics teachers at a training day.

They were a friendly and positive bunch – but what inspired me was not their subject knowledge (which was actually excellent) but their looks. To my 54 year-old male eyes these people didn’t look like what I expected physics teachers to look like.

From this gender-balanced group there was short and tall, thin and chubby, and a range of ethnicities. They were united only in an interest in Physics and in teaching it well.

As I reflected on the long drive home, it seemed as though these people were part of the solution to a long-standing problem in physics education, and I felt honoured to be able help a little.

The Swansea Lagoon Project (BBC Story) may or not get built, but I loved the design flair in their visitors centre (main picture above), and modesty of the project.

This is not the Severn barrage which would block the entire Severn estuary and which would be able to supply 5% of UK electricity demand to the detriment of nobody but a few wading birds.

This is a much more modest lagoon off the coast of Swansea which would not even harm the birds! Its lower cost makes it much more likely to actually get built, and the technology is scalable – multiple projects could be developed one by one – something which also makes it much more investment friendly.

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Two solar thermal projects in the US have recently begun operating.

  • The Ivanpah plant consists of an astonishing 170,000 parabolic mirrors each of which tracks the Sun to focus light onto a furnace at the top of gigantic tower. This heats steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity.
  • The Solana plant in Arizona is similar, but distinctly different. One difference is that it uses cheaper parabolic troughs to heat a synthetic oil which runs along a tube at their focus. But this plant can also generate electricity after dark! This astonishing engineering ‘trick’ involves storing the thermal energy in gigantic vats of molten salt. The heat can then be used to generate electricity after the Sun has gone down, allowing the generation of electricity at its time of peak demand.

These plants have been heavily subsidised. But they show that this technology is practical and I am sure the next generation of plants will be cheaper to build and operate.

However the LA times reports today that solar thermal plants are already obsolete – even as they open! – because the falling cost of silicon photovoltaic plants is making them uneconomic. That may be true – but photovoltaics definitely don’t work in the dark!

The future is not obvious. But when I see the diversity of people teaching physics and wanting to do it better. And when I see the range of emerging options for sustainable energy generation I feel able to hope that even if I don’t recognise it immediately, the future will arrive all by itself – and that it will not be all bad.

Signs of change

January 6, 2014
An electric car charging in central London.

An electric car charging in central London. How long might it be before such a sight is commonplace?

I don’t often walk through central London: I find the place mystifying and alienating. But one can sometimes see things there before they become common in other places.

Earlier in 2013 I remember spotting hydrogen cylinders on top of a fuel-cell powered bus. And just before Christmas as I shopped for gifts, I wandered past two electric cars being charged. I had previously seen the charging stations all over the place, but I had never seen them being used.

So how long might it be before such a sight becomes commonplace? Well I don’t know – it’s a question about the future – but it is likely to be decades. And of course electric cars are currently mainly powered by coal and gas burned in power stations, not renewable energy.

Scientific American recently published an article about the slow rate at which ‘new’ sources of energy have historically been adopted. I adapted the data and re-plotted it below.

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a give share of world energy supply - after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables?

Graph showing the number of years it took various fuel sources reach a given share of world energy supply – after they reached 5%. What realistic growth rate can we expect for renewables (3.5% in 2012)?

Notice that throughout the 19th Century, coal was never more than 50% of world energy supply: the world was still burning wood. And notice that the ‘switch to gas’ is still underway.

Each of these transitions represents colossal financial investments from which people will not simply walk away. And since ‘World Energy Supply’ now is vastly larger now than it was in 1850, it is inevitable that change will be slow.

But the lesson of this graph is this: Take Heart. Looking back coal, oil and gas seem like they were somehow ‘obvious’ or inevitable, but that is probably just hindsight. Was it obvious that we would overcome the seemingly impossible engineering challenges required to sink mines, drill wells and capture natural gas?

So when it comes to renewables – and this refers only to ‘modern’ renewables: mainly wind and solar – the rate of rise in usage is unlikely to exceed that seen for coal, oil or gas. But that does not mean that change is not coming.

The slow rate of growth is not something to be proud of, or to rejoice in: but neither is it a cause to berate ourselves and say ‘nothing is happening’. It’s just a measure of how much energy we use, the colossal investment in existing infrastructure, and how much more we need to do.

Hopefully new sights will become visible to us in the decades ahead as we build a new world which doesn’t require fossil fuels to make it work.


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