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Posts Tagged ‘Energy

World Made By Hand

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Harmony Community, Putnam Co., GA, May 28-June 1, 1941

This letter was published today at

I recently finished trenching and running a few hundred feet of irrigation pipe on land that has been in my wife’s family for a few generations. We are the proud recipients of this small farm in the Southeast US. My Mother-In-Law was helping, and getting various tools and such out of the 100 year old barn (still standing and strong). We found an old hoe that was worn so that over half of the tine was missing. She said that her father and grandfather had used this hoe to manually weed and till every bit of the 50 acres! This was a farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing until the early 1970s.

Here I was, exhausted from digging a trench (with a machine of course), and laying pipe (plastic with glue), and had been working “very hard” for a few hours. Slowly realizing, listening to my mother-in-law that her family worked this land without the aid of gas powered equipment until her father died in the late 1980s. For over 125 years this farm had produced an income and raised families. I was tired after working, but now had an understanding that in no way can I count myself in the same league as the men that had worked sun up to sun down by hand, these were true men. I whine when the lawn mower won’t easily start, or when the padded handle on the shovel gets too hard for comfort!

In the interest of preparedness, each of us should examine ourselves to see if we have it in us both physically and mentally to work at providing for our loved ones. After this experience, I am doing more to get myself physically in shape for what may come. No matter, I will be happier, healthier, and more humble than before! God Bless, – RJ in the Southeast US

This letter serves to remind us how much we’ve lost, how much we’ve forgotten, and how much we take for granted in our modern world.

For an imaginative view of life in a possible future world without abundant, cheap energy, I thoroughly recommend James Howard Kunstler’s novel ‘World Made By Hand’.


Written by Pete Smith

May 19, 2008 at 10:14 am

Goodbye To Cheap Air travel

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Popeye Express

Shares in British Airways rose sharply this morning after preliminary results for the 12 months to March revealed annual pre-tax profits up by 44.5% to £883 million. These excellent figures are bucking the trend in airlines around the world, and particularly in the US, where the airline sector as a whole posted an $11 billion loss in the first quarter of this year. BA warns that the next year will be “challenging”, in the light of continuing economic slowdown and oil prices showing no sign of a significant retreat below the $125 a barrel mark. The airline expects its fuel costs for the past year to have been more than £2 billion, around a quarter of its cost base, rising to £2.5 billion in the coming year.

In the last 90 days, jet fuel prices have jumped 38%. As oil has hit record high after record high, fuel costs have exceeded labour costs for many airlines, accounting for as much as 40% of operating expenses. Airlines can’t set their ticket prices high enough to keep their businesses in the air. According to Delta CEO Richard Anderson, ticket prices would have to rise 15-20% just to cover increased fuel costs. Of 769 million passengers on US flights last year, many are thought to be on non-essential trips which will be cut back as times get harder.

The budget carriers’ business models have always relied on the thinnest of margins, and fuel price rises have so far caused eight airlines to go under, with more tipped to follow. One of them, ATA Airlines, left US soldiers stranded in Iraq, unable to get home to Vermont as the company went bankrupt.

The larger carriers have responded to mounting fuel costs by eating into their cash reserves to keep prices artificially low. At its current spend of $3.3 million a day, American Airlines could have spent its $5 billion cash reserves, the largest in the industry, in four years. There’s only limited scope for cutting costs by tricks such as economising on maintenance, taking safety risks like flying with inadequate fuel reserves, and skimping on customer service. Carriers are hoping that mergers will ensure their survival, at least for a while. Northwest Airlines and Delta have a proposed merger under review, with United Airlines thought to be in talks with both Continental Airlines and US Airways.

Cheap air travel is almost certainly doomed. Depending on how you feel about flying, that may or may not be the downside. The upside is that rail travel is bound to gain market share in the years ahead. Rail is the cheapest and most fuel-efficient form of transport, using a third less fuel than air for personal travel, and as little as 3% of the energy for freight. Rail companies have recently been attracting substantial investments from some of the wealthiest US investors:

These are all freight companies, the North American passenger business having withered in the face of cheap, aggressively-marketed air travel, but there is good reason to expect that passenger services will follow growth in freight traffic. In their book ‘Transport Revolutions: Moving People & Freight Without Oil’, Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl predict that in 2025, no more than 25 airports will be operating. Electric powered transportation and rail will be the standard transport options. In a post-peak oil world, rail is probably the longest safe bet one could possibly make.

Written by Pete Smith

May 16, 2008 at 12:31 pm

Goodies From Ken

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Goodies from Ken

We came home from our Easter break to find that the offspring had taken delivery of a sturdy parcel from the Mayor of London, addressed to me personally. “DIY Planet Repairs” it says on the box, “Will you help with the repairs?”. Inside, there’s a collection of prezzies from Mayor Ken himself:

  • A china mug with the slogan “Only boil enough water for the cups you’re making”
  • A “DIY Planet Repairs” button badge
  • A handy four-minute shower timer
  • A window sticker
  • A set of labels to stick on your appliances, saying “switch off”, “turn down”, “unplug”, “wash low”
  • A leaflet for a £49 loft insulation offer from British Gas
  • Last but definitely not least, a booklet of energy saving hints of tips. There’s actually some quite useful information in this (he said grudgingly).

There was no covering letter with this bundle, so I can’t be sure why I received it. I certainly don’t remember asking for it. It was addressed to me personally, so I may have got myself on some mailing list at

Whatever the reason, I’m sure there must be thousands of other people who received the same mailing. Someone has spent a lot of money and energy on getting this lot sent out. I applaud the message, of course we need to save energy and water, but there’s no information that isn’t freely available in many other places. I can’t help feeling that the timing, a month before the mayoral election, is either clumsy or cynical or both, and may backfire.

I like Ken Livingstone, and I’ll vote for him once again in May, but I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Is it really the Mayor of London’s job to lecture his ‘constituents’ on environmental matters? There’s a fine line between policies that directly affect the welfare of Londoners, and using the power of the Mayor’s office to promote his own pet projects. Coming so soon before the election, freebies like this can only be seen as a campaign stunt using public funds, providing ammunition for the opposition. This would be a shame, because I don’t see either of the other two major candidates (sorry, Green Party) showing any desire to make a platform on environmental issues. For that reason alone, it’s vital that Ken Livingstone gets re-elected, and I hope this little parcel doesn’t work against him.

Written by Pete Smith

April 15, 2008 at 11:44 am

Commitments? What Commitments?

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Guardian front page
“Britain seeks loophole in EU green energy targets” trumpeted The Guardian yesterday, as if this is something new that hasn’t been on the cards for months. Back in August, newspapers reported that Government ministers had been told that Britain has no hope of meeting its commitment to renewable energy and should consider ways of getting out of it (‘Wriggle out of challenging energy targets, ministers told‘).

What is new this time round is that the UK has formally broached the idea of changing the way that EU targets are calculated to make them easier, and cheaper, to meet. At a closed session of the Energy Council of Ministers, Baroness Vadera, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Competitiveness, made two proposals:

  • British investments in renewable energy anywhere in the world should count as part of UK’s effort
  • All EU countries should be allowed to count carbon “saved” from coal-fired stations fitted with equipment that captures harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The electricity generated by this “clean coal” would then count as renewable energy and go towards UK national targets.

The logic behind this doublethink is pretty clear: Britain is desperate to postpone or scale back investment in renewable energy projects. This reflects a significant shift towards nuclear energy. Energy Secretary John Hutton has this week spoken out in favour of a major expansion of the British nuclear and coal industries, going beyond merely replacing existing capacity. President Sarkozy’s state visit confirmed that the French nuclear industry will be involved in developing four British nuclear power stations, with the potential for more to follow.

All this costs money, in spite of the mantra of ‘zero subsidy’. The government’s touching faith in the power of the market has led to private investment in renewables going abroad. Last December we reported how Renewable Energy Holdings, the AIM-listed UK green technology company, was investing in a Polish wind farm (‘Renewable Energy‘). From the private investment angle, this makes perfect financial sense: cheaper land, lower construction costs, a faster and more liberal planning system. The government’s problem is that it’s saddled with targets which it’s assuming will be fulfilled by the private sector. If market forces drive investment in renewables to other EU member states, or beyond, how can domestic targets be met? Small wonder that the government is looking to renegotiate its obligations.

But I’d still like to know how they think they can convince anyone that burning coal counts as renewable energy.

Written by Pete Smith

March 30, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Choking On Growth

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Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The New York Times has been running a series of in-depth articles ‘Choking For Growth’, exploring the extent of the pollution crisis in China. In the latest instalment, ‘Far From Beijing’s Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules’, Howard W. French shows how China’s campaign to cut energy use is having little effect outside the capital.

When the Beijing government announced a nationwide energy reduction campaign two years ago, officials in the western Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region started work on creative schemes to evade the requirements.

Local officials were required to raise electricity prices to discourage the growth of large energy-consuming industries and to force the least efficient to close down Instead, fearing local economic impacts, the regional government brokered a special deal for the Qingtongxia Aluminum Group, which accounts roughly 10% of the region’s GDP. The company was removed from the national grid and supplied directly by the local company, exempting it from expensive fees and allowing it to continue to get its power at the lowest price.

Before the national energy consumption campaign began, Ningxia officials worked to get around environmental regulations that could hinder growth. In 2002 Beijing issued rules limiting the number of new coal-burning power plants, but Ningxia has built at least three that either did not have the required permission, or failed to meet new environmental standards.

Even after Beijing cancelled company exemptions to special consumption fees in 2004, the local government extended them for another year, obtaining huge savings for its metal industries. As recently as 2005, regional officials continued to argue that the exemptions should remain. Many of the region’s strategic metal working industries had been spared Beijing’s mandated price rises until as recently as this May, nearly two years after they were announced. “That favourable price wasn’t approved by the state. It was a regional policy”, said a company official. As French says in his article:

“The tug of war between localities and the central government also shows the limits of China’s ability to impose change on a vast, unruly country by edict, while exposing the weaknesses of a one-size-fits-all approach to reform in a country where regional economic disparities are rapidly growing.”

One could say much the same about the United States, where individual states are increasingly ploughing their own furrow at a local or regional level. The big difference is that US states are acting on their own initiative to exceed inadequate Washington environmental directives. In China, they’re busting a gut to avoid compliance with regulations that stand in the way of the drive for growth.

Written by Pete Smith

November 26, 2007 at 10:49 am

Carbon Sequestration The Old Fashioned Way

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Forget all those fancy ideas about pumpng CO2 into holes in the ground. A millenia-old technique could hold the key to our greenhouse gas problems and declining soil fertility .

Terra Preta is the name given to the areas of fertile ‘dark earth’ scattered throughout the Amazon basin, which explain how Indian peoples were able to sustain high agricultural outputs on generally low-fertility soils. Biomass-derived carbon (“bio-char”) was dug into the earth in huge quantities. Recent research shows that bio-char can persist in the soil for thousands of years, improving soil structure and fertility.


Millions of tons of agricultural wastes are discarded annually which can be used to produce bio-char and applied to soil. In the modern version of this age-old process, agricultural wastes and bio-energy crops can be used to produce energy by charring them in specialised power plants yielding bio-char as a by-product. The bulk of the energy would be extracted as hydrogen or bio-diesel at potentially very high levels of efficiency.

For a second opinion, go to:

Generally favourable, with the additional interesting information that bio-char may not be suitable on all soil types as it increases alkalinity.

And a link to a Nature article with details of the processes involved here.

Written by Pete Smith

January 19, 2007 at 12:11 pm