Saturday, 9 May 2009

Ofgem relaxes rules to boost green energy

• Energy regulator removes obstacles to low-carbon generation• National Grid says wind scheme could start now instead of 2018
Terry Macalister, Friday 8 May 2009 19.47 BST

A significant obstacle to delivering a host of green power schemes was swept away today when the energy regulator relaxed the rules for electricity generation in a move that could soon benefit 300,000 homes.
There was also recognition that temporary changes to the industry rules that could bring forward 450 megawatts of small and large wind farms in Scotland did not solve wider difficulties over lack of capacity.Ofgem said there was a long queue of renewable projects awaiting connection to Britain's networks, and being flexible was "an innovative" way to speed up the process. "Low-carbon projects, whether seeking connection to the transmission or distribution systems, will no longer be delayed by the need to invest in the grid," said Steve Smith, Ofgem's networks managing director.National Grid said one wind scheme, which was to have been be connected in 2018, could now be brought forward to this year because of the move.
The company, which operates the high-voltage electricity transmission network across Britain, said 16 projects had seen their connection date moved forward by an average of six years, with more to be offered earlier dates in the coming weeks.
The relaxation of the rules lets projects connect to the grid as soon as their local connection is ready and not have to wait for the wider reinforcement of the system.
The British Wind Energy Association said it was "very welcome and a good step", that would help a number of delayed schemes move forward. But a spokesman warned: "This will not change the fundamental problem that we need substantial new capacity brought on line in the next few years to begin to serve an anticipated 50% growth in power demand over the next ten years."
One wind industry executive questioned why it had taken so long to tackle a problem that had been known about for years. He pointed out it would not affect other issues that hindered more wind farms, notably planning constraints and a lack of access to capital.
Nick Rau, renewable energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, added: "The UK has a first-class renewable energy potential – but a third-rate attitude towards developing it. The government must take urgent action if Britain is to become a world leader in green energy."

Changing the planet might help preserve it

By Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent
Published: May 8 2009 17:28

A giant mirror drifts slowly through space between the Earth’s surface and the sun, intercepting the rays of sunlight before they reach the Earth, and deflecting them safely away.
The mirror, made up of millions of silicon chips, is situated at a point in space where the sun’s gravity and the Earth’s cancel each other. This vast structure, assembled painstakingly for years by spacecraft, drifts naturally away from its starting point over time, but complex on-board systems nudge it gradually back to resume its vital role in keeping us safe.
This space mirror is – so far – science fiction. Such a structure would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, even if it were technically feasible. But soon many scientists say we may need to start building space mirrors, creating artificial clouds or altering the chemistry of the sea to prevent the worst effects of global warming.

Climate change is occurring faster than predicted, and the risks are growing day by day. Altering the Earth’s systems in order to help cool the planet may soon be the only option, many scientists believe, as our runaway appetite for fossil fuels overtakes our good intentions on emissions.
“The chances of reducing emissions fast enough now are very low,” said Stephen Salter, professor of engineering design at Edinburgh University. “This is a jolly strong reason to look at alternatives. It’s an insurance policy.”
An ocean of opportunity
Many proposals to save the planet through geo-engineering are immensely expensive and futuristic, writes Clive Cookson.
One of the most straightforward ideas, already tested on a small scale, is to stimulate the growth of plankton – microscopic algae and plants – in the oceans, by increasing the supply of nutrients.
A dozen trials so far have examined the effects of ocean iron fertilisation. The latest is taking place this spring: the Indian-German LohaFex experiment. The research vessel Polarstern, with 48 scientists on board, has distributed six tonnes of dissolved iron over 300 sq km of the Southern Ocean.
Results so far show that iron fertilisation does stimulate spectacular algal growth in the upper waters. What is not yet clear is whether this results in the long-term sequestration of CO2 – which would require a significant proportion of the algae to sink into the ocean depths after they die.
Several companies, such as Climos of the US, hope to commercialise ocean iron fertilisation, funding the activity by claiming carbon credits from emissions trading schemes. At present there is an international moratorium on large-scale commercial ocean fertilisation, in response to concerns about its impact on local ecosystems, but scientific trials such as LohaFex are permitted.
Although the focus so far has been on iron fertilisation, on the grounds that shortage of iron nutrients is the factor limiting algal growth in the open oceans, it would also be possible to add phosphorus and nitrogen fertilisers.
A study at the University of East Anglia, published in January, came to the surprising conclusion that adding phosphorus compounds (phosphates) to the oceans could have more long-term potential for carbon sequestration than adding iron or nitrogen. Even if we do not deliberately fertilise the ocean with phosphorus, human activities – mainly run-off from agricultural activities – are already increasing the amount of carbon locked up in the oceans.
A final possibility is to add crushed carbonate rocks (limestone) to the oceans. This would have the dual benefit of increasing algal growth and counteracting the growing acidity of the oceans, which many analysts see as one of the most pernicious long-term effects of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.
The challenge of adding carbonates is to find a way of doing so that does not require exorbitant amounts of energy to mine, crush and transport the rocks.
The science of altering the world’s natural systems is called geo-engineering. Once on the whacky fringes of scientific research, the subject is rapidly becoming mainstream, attracting serious attention from academics and governments.
John Holdren, chief scientific advisor to US president Barack Obama, said in public a few weeks ago: “It’s got to be looked at ... We don’t have the luxury of ruling [out] any approach.”
The debate has been intensified by a set of studies published last week in the journal Nature. They concluded the world had little chance of holding temperature rises to 2ÂșC – a level widely regarded by scientists as the limit of safety, beyond which climate change becomes irreversible and potentially catastrophic. Such a level of warming risks leading for example to the melting of permafrost in Siberia, so releasing large quantities of methane, in turn causing stronger and more rapid warming.
Most suggestions for geo-engineering fall into one of three categories. Some of the most outlandish would block out the sun’s rays using mechanical means – a sunshade or mirror, for instance. These would be enormously expensive, even if possible.
Some of the most promising proposals involve ways to increase the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space. Sulphur particles shot into the stratosphere, could reflect enough sunlight to make a measurable difference. There is a problem – sulphur causes acid rain. Proponents point out much less sulphur would be needed than pours from dirty power stations, but objections are still likely.
A cheaper and less controversial method would be to spray seawater into the air from boats. This creates clouds made up of smaller than usual droplets of water, which are more reflective. Prof Salter says a drawback would be that, as well as reflecting sunlight, clouds trap infra-red heat on Earth.
But he says the net benefit would be huge – each drop would reflect 20bn times the amount of energy used to make it. He estimates that a fleet of about 500 ships would be needed, costing about £1m each.
Scientists are also exploring removing carbon from the atmosphere. One way is to fertilise the oceans with iron, so plankton grows and absorbs carbon. Less realistic are enormous air “scrubbers” – banks of sails coated with chemicals that react with CO2. Two unsolved problems are mastering the chemical absorption, and the sheer amount of energy that would be needed to propel vast volumes of air.
Employing geo-engineering would not remove the need for deep emissions cuts, Prof Salter warned: “No one in geo-engineering would argue that. We think it’s very important to get emissions down.” The two must be pursued in tandem, or rising emissions would counteract the benefits of the Earth-altering projects.
Tim Lenton, professor of Earth system science at the University of East Anglia, who conducted a review of geo-engineering methods, said scientists must beware of “tinkering with a system you do not fully understand”. For instance, he said, studies showed that putting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere caused drying in vulnerable regions such as the Sahel and India.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Beijing retreats on fuel price promise

By Kathrin Hille in Beijing and Javier Blas in London
Published: May 9 2009 02:54

China took a step back from its promise to move towards more market-oriented domestic fuel prices, warning on Friday that Beijing would limit petrol, diesel and other fuel price increases when oil costs moved above $80 a barrel.
Oil traders said the long-awaited outline of China’s retail fuel pricing mechanism cast doubts on the actual reform and pointed to more government interference.

China is the world’s second largest oil consumer and its domestic retail fuel price policy affects global oil prices because the country keeps domestic bills artificially low. The International Energy Agency, the developed countries oil watchdog, has pressed Beijing to liberalise its domestic prices to rein in consumption.
The national development and reform commission, China’s main economic policymaking body, said retail fuel prices would move relatively freely while global crude prices remained below $80 a barrel. In those circumstances, Chinese refineries would profit from distilling crude into fuels with a “normal” refining margin.
Above $80 a barrel and up to $130 a barrel, domestic prices would also move, but Chinese refineries would not make a profit. The authorities said that above $130 a barrel they would would guarantee supplies of retail fuels through “tax measures”, probably supporting refineries with tax rebates, but added that “petrol and diesel prices will in principle not be raised or not be raised much”.
Beijing pledged in November to allow prices of refined oil to “reflect fluctuations of international oil prices” from the start of this year. It had also announced a steep rise in petrol and diesel taxes to replace other fees, such as some road tolls.
The new regime replaces a system of periodic adjustments by the government without explanation of the underlying rationale. But traders in New York and London suggested it was a step backwards rather than the promised liberalisation.
The system also fails to explain how changes in global crude prices would be calculated. Under new rules, the two state-owned refiners can adjust retail prices if global crude oil prices change more than 4 per cent from their moving average over 22 days. However, they did not indicate what variety of crude oil the authorities would track, nor how the refineries would be compensated above $130 a barrel.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009