Saturday, 25 July 2009

Paying a heavy price for green power

Published Date: 25 July 2009

THE cost of energy supply in the immediate future isn't all that households have to worry about. Earlier this month, the government unveiled its renewable energy strategy, which it described as a "route map" to a low carbon future.
It proposed investment of more than £3 billion in improving energy efficiency in homes, a smart electricity meter in every home by 2020 and incentives for households generating their own energy, among a raft of measures.But energy experts have warned the strategy could cost households about £253 a year in the form of higher energy bills, with a likely 15 per cent rise in the average electricity bill and a 23 per cent hike in gas bills. The government said much of this would be offset by energy efficiency savings, although critics claimed this would, in turn, be cancelled out by rises in the number of single-person households, an ageing population and growing use of consumer white goods.The comparison site has estimated the average household energy bill could reach £5,000 a year in ten years, up from £1,242 now, due to the cost of extra investment in the UK's energy supplies, such as pipe upgrades, new power plants and smart metering.

A new source of power on which the Sun will never set

Published Date: 25 July 2009
By Dorothy H Crawford
THE Sun, created 4.6 billion years ago by the Big Bang, is Earth's essential life-giving energy source. Plants require solar energy for photosynthesis, and this chemical reaction produces the oxygen necessary for animal respiration.
Although the Sun is losing heat all the time, fortunately, it will continue to light our skies for another five billion years. However, as it cools, it will swell into a red giant, swallowing its surrounding planets, and then collapse into a white dwarf. At present, the temperature at the outer surface of the Sun is 6,000C, heated by energy generated in its core where its furnace reaches an incredible 15,000,000C. So how does this immense production of energy occur? The Sun is a vast nuclear reactor, generating energy by nuclear fusion. The intense heat at its core, combined with gravitational pressure of more than 300 billion times Earth's atmospheric pressure, causes hydrogen nuclei (protons) to fuse together to form helium nuclei (alpha particles). This reaction creates energy that radiates from the surface of the Sun, providing heat and light to Earth. In a single second, the Sun pumps out an astonishing 500 million tons of energy – 100 million times the world's total annual requirements. So, the question is: could we tailor nuclear fusion to produce energy for domestic consumption? This was first posed in the 1950s, but then it seemed impossible to mimic the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure needed to cause the implosion that sets the reaction going. The breakthrough came in the 1970s with the invention of laser power, which could deliver the heat required to start the reaction. "Inertial confinement fusion", also called "laser fusion", became feasible, with the promise of generating enough energy to meet our ever-increasing needs. A one-to-one mixture of deuterium and tritium, both heavy forms of hydrogen, is the best fuel, or target, and high energy lasers act as the heat source, or driver. The driver evaporates the outer layer of the target, causing it to implode inwards. This compresses the target's core to a tiny ball of plasma, with a density of about 100 times that of lead and a temperature of 100,000,000C. When these conditions are achieved, thermonuclear fusion occurs, producing alpha particles and an excess of energy. Fusion, where light atoms are fused together, is the opposite of fission, where heavy atoms are split apart. Fission is used to generate energy in the conventional, but controversial, atomic power stations, but this also produces radioactive waste with a half-life of hundreds of thousands of years. Radioactive waste is not a problem with laser fusion, and neither is the atmospheric pollution and greenhouse gas production inherent in burning fossil fuels. So fusion could potentially provide a clean, safe, inexhaustible source of energy.Since the 1970s, the concept of domestic energy from laser fusion has progressed from a distant dream to near reality. With the manufacture of increasingly powerful lasers, a controlled implosion can now be achieved. However, the system was still very expensive compared to conventional fuels, and it was not until the invention of "fast ignition", using one laser to heat the target and a second to compress it, that commercial viability became a real possibility. The idea would be to harness the energy generated, either by using it to boil water or to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. There is still a long way to go, but clearly the pay-off would be enormous. Most of the early work on nuclear fusion was pioneered at the National Ignition Facility in California, where the world's largest and highest energy lasers were commissioned earlier this year. With the promise of commercial energy production in store, a new European project, HiPER (High Power laser Energy Research), is focusing on fast fusion and aims to demonstrate the feasibility of a power-plant reactor based on this technology. These are exciting times: can physicists recreate conditions in the Sun's core to give us an entirely new and safe source of electricity? Watch this space! •
Dorothy Crawford is professor of medical microbiology and assistant principal for public understanding of medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Global trend for sit-ins and occupations as mass redundancies continue

Terry Macalister, Friday 24 July 2009 21.47 BST

Trade union leaders warned tonight that the direct action seen at the Vestas factory was likely to be repeated elsewhere as workers refused to "bend their knee and accept their fate" in the face of mass redundancies caused by recession.
The sit-in at the Isle of Wight wind turbine plant was the latest in Britain, they said, and was part of a wider trend of militant tactics being used as far afield as the US, South Korea and China.
In France, where such tactics have been more common, the manager of a British company was taken hostage by workers today in a dispute over redundancies. About 60 workers at Servisair Cargo at Roissy airport in Paris prevented the director, Abderrahmane El-Aouffir, from leaving the firm's offices after he refused to meet their demands in the latest case of so-called "boss-napping" to hit France.
The four day Vestas sit-in, which is an embarrassment both to the world's biggest turbine manufacturer and a government trying to launch a low-carbon jobs revolution, follows a similar occupation in April at three Visteon (car parts manufacturer) plants in the UK in addition to action at Waterford Crystal in Ireland and Prisme Packaging in Dundee.
Tony Woodley, the joint general secretary of the Unite union, whose members were involved at Visteon, said: "I think it is absolutely understandable and justified for workers to fight back where they feel there are no other alternatives and employers act badly." Asked whether he thought that Britain could see more sit-ins of the type seen at Vestas, where the staff are not unionised, Woodley said: "I would not be at all surprised. Labour laws do not protect people here and it's all too quick and easy for employers to sack people."
Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT union, who addressed Vestas workers yesterday, said: "The Vestas occupation, and the action at Visteon earlier this year, show that workers under attack can develop tactics that drive a coach and horses through the anti-union laws rather than just bending at the knee and accepting their fate.
"Occupations are immediate, focused and high profile and can force a dispute right into the headlines at short notice. "
In all cases of such action, the workforce came away with either improved severance arrangements or a reduction in the number of planned job cuts, trade union leaders said.
One of the more unexpected sit-ins outside the UK involved a company called Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago where a traditionally peaceful workforce bit back after managers announced a shutdown.
Workers, who assembled vinyl windows and sliding doors for a market hit hard by the housebuilding recession, refused to leave the premises, saying they were given three days instead of the legally required 60 days' notice of closure and were owed holiday and severance cash.
Even though the staff were breaking the law when they took action last December, they won support from Barack Obama, then president-elect.
"When it comes to the situation here in Chicago with the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments they have earned, I think they are absolutely right," Obama said.
Union militancy of this kind in the US is rare but 500 staff at the Hartmarx suit factory in Des Plaines, Illinois, authorised a sit-in over a threat that the company's largest creditor may close it down.
In South Korea, up to 600 car workers are continuing with a two-month occupation of a plant in Pyeongtaek, south of the capital Seoul. They are in dispute with their employer, Ssangyong Motor Company, which has been in court-approved bankruptcy protection since February.

Vestas wind turbine pickets mount 21st century-style protest

Rachel Williams, Friday 24 July 2009 19.59 BST

Huddled around a smoking brazier early today , the fluorescent-vested union officials looked perfectly at home.
But surrounding them on the traffic island at the far end of Newport's St Cross industrial estate, on the Isle of Wight, was a scene that looked a little different from the usual picket line. Battered army surplus boots stuck out of the handful of colourful tents, a half-drunk bottle of South African chardonnay lay on the grass, and the gazebo hastily bought from the local B&Q contained the expected tea, coffee and biscuits, but also two cartons of soya milk.
On a grass mound outside the HQ of wind turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems, which is set to shut down with the loss of up to 600 jobs, a new kind of industrial dispute has taken shape. About 25 workers have occupied the plant in an attempt to prevent the closure, scheduled for 31 July, supported by a unique "red and green" coalition.
This is a protest significant not just for the way in which it has seen environmental campaigners, socialist activists and trade unionists join forces, but also for the way in which members of a previously non-unionised workforce in the largely conservative island community have been mobilised in a way they never dreamed of.
Tonight, about 300 people marched from the town centre to the plant for a rally to show their support for the action. Inside, the men, who since their arrival on Monday have been sleeping shifts on office floors, take it in turns to go out on a balcony to wave at supporters or pass the time with a keyboard discovered under a desk. "People have been putting on headphones, playing prerecorded tracks and pretending to be DJs," said Ian Terry, 23, one of the occupiers.
A game invented to kill time involves throwing and catching balls while seated on increasingly far apart office chairs in the corridor.
Since Thursday morning, Vestas' management has been providing them with two meals a day, so far centred on cheese sandwiches but the men said they were still hungry. Tobacco has been provided by their workmates outside, who throw tennis balls stuffed with goodies.
Those that land short are scooped up using a pole of joined-together broom handles, with a sticky ball of tape attached.
Spirits are high, according to Terry. "The atmosphere is brilliant," he said. "I think it's amazing what people have done. We know there are different groups with different opinions on certain things but they're all singing from the same hymn sheet and support is just snowballing."
Outside Sean McDonagh, 32, a team leader at the plant, marvelled at the cultural shift of the last week. "For so long, management kept us down; they've broken us and bullied us," he said. "To move up the ladder you had to do anything the management wanted. If you didn't want to do that they didn't want to know. People were too scared to stand up for themselves, because they were worried they'd lose their jobs. It's good money, and that's really what the management has worked on."
All that has changed after the arrival, last month, of a handful of socialist environmental campaigners from the group Workers' Climate Action.
By night, they camped at a farm near Cowes and by day set about hanging around the gates of Vestas' two plants at shift-change times, handing out leaflets. Initially, they were met with scepticism, but gradually a small number of workers began to be convinced that action could make a difference.
Last week an occupation committee formed and by Monday evening the men had taken their places inside the plant.
Vestas, the world's biggest wind turbine maker, claimed tonight that "outsiders" were involved in the occupation of the closure-threatened factory but the real blame lay with "faceless nimbys" who opposed wind schemes in Britain, leading to them having to close the factory.
The Denmark-based company, which will go to court on Wednesday seeking a possession order to stop the occupation, also said that green activists should support the switch of manufacturing from the UK to America which was its main market, explaining that having to send the blades by ship across the Atlantic raised the carbon footprint of Vestas.
Peter Kruse, a spokesman for Vestas at its head office in Copenhagen, said the company had been surprised by the occupation and would do all it could to bring it to a peaceful end. He refused to say whether the company would change its mind but said that even with some government aid it "can't make ends meet".
Campaigners rejected the claims that anyone other than Vestas staff were involved in the sit-in and blamed the company for changing its mind, from an expansion of the plant to closure.
But Kruse said the company could not sustain a business at Newport because of the credit crunch, a weakening of the pound and a lack of political action. Later, the Vestas man said he recognised the government was doing "a lot for us".
Back on the traffic island, Jonathan Neale, of the Campaign Against Climate Change, said the coalition gathered there was like nothing he had ever seen in Britain.
"I grew up in the southern US and I remember when the civil rights movement started. This feels like 1960."

Vestas is too vital to lose

The government must now put our money where its mouth was in the energy white paper and support the renewables industry

Caroline Lucas, Friday 24 July 2009 18.47 BST
The chorus of red-green dissent over the proposed closure of Britain's sole major wind turbine manufacturing plant perfectly indicates just how spectacularly this Labour government has failed both workers and the environment. In microcosm, the situation in the Isle of Wight demonstrates the extent to which ministers have ignored calls to promote the renewables industry – squandering opportunity after opportunity to create or protect jobs in fledgling green industries, as well as to meet the UK's greenhouse gas reduction targets.
But it also illustrates the creative way in which the unions and the green movement are recognising that they share a common agenda based on an understanding that green politics can deliver both jobs and social justice.
After the NHS and the council, Vestas is the largest employer on the Isle of Wight. The loss of 600 jobs during a time of economic recession will have a devastating effect on the community. But it is clear to all involved that the decision to close the factory has a wider significance beyond the island's economy, and those workers currently occupying the plant in a valiant attempt to preserve their futures.
The decision to close the plant goes to the very heart of the critical challenge of our time: the need to address the economic and energy crises in a way which also tackles climate change head-on. It brings us right back to the Green New Deal, an innovative plan to restructure the economy through a billion-pound package for investing in green jobs – in renewables and energy efficiency – to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and cut householders' fuel bills.
In the wake of its white paper on energy, expectations were high that the government might be offering companies like Vestas a real reason to maintain UK operations and thus protect UK jobs, through a more favourable policy environment and long-term investment plans, combined with any necessary loans or guarantees. But the rhetoric on renewable energy has yet to be matched with swift and tangible policy changes to ensure, for example, that the wind turbines we will need to build for a greener and more sustainable future make use of parts created in UK factories – not by workers thousands of miles away.
We are undoubtedly entering a period of public spending cuts. And by all means, let us cut the mindless spending of the previous decade of turbo-consumerism, as well as gratuitous spending on the military, renewal of the Trident weapons system, unnecessary ID card schemes or endless road-building. But we must replace this with targeted investment in the energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure we so urgently need to enable us to make a swift transition to a steady-state, zero carbon economy.
Thanks to years of government neglect, the wind energy industry suffers from a significant lack of demand in the UK and Europe. In the face of weighty pressure from the powerful "dirty" energy lobby – coal, gas and nuclear – the government has lacked the courage to give clear signals to encourage sustainable and profitable investment in the fledgling green industries.
The renewable industry has also suffered the consequences of an unwieldy and inconsistent planning system. Only an urgent reform of the UK's planning system that would put environmental sustainability at its heart can ensure that renewable energy developments can prosper. Where there are pressures for conflicting environmental benefits, such as the need to exploit renewable energy opportunities while also seeking to protect the UK's rural landscapes, we need improved dialogue and firmer planning regulations to ensure that green spaces, green belts and biodiverse brownfield sites are protected – while at the same time providing space for the renewable energy industry to grow.
The proposed Isle of Wight closure isn't just a huge blow for the 600 skilled British workers set to lose their jobs. It threatens any attempt the UK makes to position itself at the forefront of global technological efforts to create a greener and more sustainable future. The renewables sector – and the public at large – need something more substantial than intentions laid out in white papers. Ministers could make a positive start by proving to Vestas, and other renewable energy players, that it is seriously committed to providing security for future investment, to a major overhaul in policy and planning, and to the crucial fight against climate change.

'Wind farm may release more Co2 than it saves'

Published Date: 25 July 2009
By Jenny Haworth
CRITICS of one of the largest wind farms planned for Scotland warn it may never save more Co2 than it releases from fragile peat bogs.
Opposition is escalating against the 540 megawatt, 150-turbine Viking wind farm proposed for mainland Shetland.Supporters argue it will provide about 20 per cent of Scotland's domestic energy needs and bring £37 million to the local economy.However, critics warn building the wind farm could release so much Co2 from damaged peat bogs that the scheme may never save a net amount of greenhouse gas emissions.An objection from RSPB Scotland yesterday followed another from the John Muir Trust earlier this week.There has also been a 3,600-name petition against the plans.RSPB Scotland highlighted that the environmental statement submitted by developers Viking Energy calculated in the worst case scenario that the "payback period" would be 48.5 years – because so much of the gas would be unleashed from peat bogs during construction.Lloyd Austin, RSPB Scotland's head of conservation policy, said: "The lack of certainty that there would be any significant net benefits undermines the case for development. There is no point in building renewables that potentially emit more carbon, due to peatland impacts, than they save."He also that warned nationally important populations of whimbrel, a wading bird, plus red-throated divers, golden plover and merlin could be displaced or potentially even killed by the turbines. However, Viking Energy, a consortium of Shetland Islands Council and Scottish & Southern Energy, said the 48.5 years calculation was an error on the application document, and actually the worst case scenario was about 14 years.A spokesman for RSPB Scotland said: "We have to respond to what has been submitted to government under due legal process."John Hutchison, chairman of the John Muir Trust, said even with a payback of 14 years it was "hardly worth destroying such a special, wild place for the relatively small amount of carbon that may be saved".He warned 19 per cent of mainland Shetland would be "significantly affected" by turbines.And he added: "The scale of this proposal is truly staggering and totally disproportionate for an island like Shetland."Shetland's treeless landscape will be completely dominated by the development, with the turbines visible in a 15 kilometre radius around the wind farm." However, a spokesman for Viking Energy said it was "entirely misleading" to suggest a fifth of the mainland would be affected, and insisted it was closer to 4 per cent.He added: "We believe that the development proposed for Shetland is well planned and will contribute significantly to the UK's legally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions."The public consultation into the plans closes on Tuesday.

Bruce Parry: Your planet needs your film-making talents

'Anyone can deliver a short but powerful message to the world about the most important issue of the day,' says the Tribe presenter
Bruce Parry, Friday 24 July 2009 07.00 BST
The climate crisis that's facing all of us means that it's time for all hands on deck. For too long we've been bombarded with short films in the form of adverts that tell us it's cool to consume; cool to replace barely worn out goods with newer ones; cool to travel as far and as fast as possible. Personally, I think it's time to fight back; time to fight fire with fire; time to counter the messages that infinite growth and consumption are good using the same weapon with which they've been delivered to us. Film.
That is why One minute to save the world is being launched. The idea behind it is to enable anyone, anywhere, to deliver a short but powerful message to the world on the most important issue of our day – climate change. The winning films will be sent around the world in November as an online campaign to raise awareness of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December, where all the world's leaders will be gathered to thrash out an agreement on the future of our planet.
The competition is open to total amateurs and professionals alike, and also under-18s. We hear more and more about the "citizen journalist" with international news channels leading stories using footage captured by the public, so we're also welcoming films made on a mobile phone. One minute to save the world are planning to have the winning films screened in cinemas and at the Copenhagen Conference. They'll also be viewable via Guardian's environment website and on the competition website, where the public can vote for their favourite film. The website will become an online film festival which requires no travel or celebrity status to attend – all you need is access to a computer. And as everyone knows, the power of the net can make the most unexpected video attract the attention of millions globally.
The winning entries will be judged by a panel that includes award-winning director and climate change activist Shekhar Kapur; Franny Armstrong, director of Age of Stupid, the Guardian's environment editor John Vidal and me. Together we will be looking for films that convey a powerful message about how climate change affects you and those around you. Were you a flood victim in England or New Orleans? Have you seen a change in the plants and wildlife in your garden? How has your world been affected and how can we address it?
So, we hope you'll all get thinking and shooting – whether you're a seasoned pro or just someone who cares. Your planet needs you and your talents. One minute might not seem like a long time but it's actually longer than many advertisers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on. It's also an easy length of time to hold people's attention. And that is one of the things we urgently need to do if we're going to turn things around for our planet before it's too late.

Brazil to lodge complaint over UK toxic waste export

• Wiltshire police arrest three men in connection with alleged 99 containers• Environment Agency says it will return waste to the UK and prosecute those responsible
Press Association, Friday 24 July 2009 11.06 BST

The Brazilian government has said it will lodge a formal complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over the alleged export of illegal waste from the UK.
The move comes as three men were arrested as part of an Environment Agency investigation into the alleged export of 99 shipping containers of waste to the South American country.
The complaint to the WTO will be based on the Basel Convention, which bans shipments of toxic waste from industrialised nations, Brazil's foreign ministry said in a statement.
Officers from the Environment Agency's national environmental crime team raided three properties in the Swindon area yesterday as part of its investigations into the origin of 1,400 tonnes of material reportedly found in Brazilian ports.
Wiltshire police arrested three men, aged 49, 28 and 24, in connection with the Environment Agency's investigation.
Authorities in the South American country have claimed at least two of the containers were filled with a mixture of household and clinical waste, including syringes and condoms.
But the Environment Agency (EA), which has said it will take back the waste from Brazil, said it could not yet confirm what the containers had in them.
The rubbish, which will be transported back to the UK by the shipping lines which took them to Brazil, will be investigated and then disposed of correctly, the EA said.
Liz Parkes, head of waste and resource management at the Environment Agency, said the arrests marked significant progress in the investigation.
"We are working with the shipping lines for the return of the waste, at their own expense, and are planning to carry out an investigation of the containers once they have been released by Brazilian authorities and returned to the UK.
"The Environment Agency enforces the export of recyclable waste from England and Wales and will not hesitate to prosecute any company or individuals found to have breached the strict laws on the export of waste," she said.
Waste can be sent abroad for recycling, but it is illegal to export it for disposal. The maximum penalty for breaking the rules is an unlimited fine or up to two years in prison.

Nature will never be spent if we act to save our countryside

An integrated world view sees the value in the natural world beyond its aesthetic beauty – it also has an economic value as a carbon store
Nick Herbert, Friday 24 July 2009 14.39 BST

Since the fens of East Anglia were drained in the 17th century, 99% of traditional fen wetland has been lost. Meandering rivers and streams, wet grassland and reed beds, together with the rich diversity of wildlife, were replaced with intensively farmed agricultural land.
This week I visited the Great Fen project, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to restore 9,000 acres of wetland near Huntingdon. Walking through the nature reserve which will lie at its heart, we saw dragonflies and water deer (a threatened species in their native China), and sniffed water mint. It's hard not to be captivated by the project. Yet its very scale draws us into a debate about how land should be managed in future.
When Britain increasingly imports food from other countries, often produced to lower environmental or animal welfare standards, shouldn't we be growing more at home? There are good answers to these questions on the fens. Growing high-value vegetables needs peat, but the habitat is under threat. And by storing water and carbon, the Great Fen will benefit surrounding farmland and society alike.
But the wider question of how we reconcile the need to produce more food while avoiding a return to an intensive and potentially environmentally damaging agriculture is real. So, too, are the challenges of adapting to climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the over-exploitation of natural resources.
Many are beginning to argue that conventional policy levers – with regulation at their heart – won't be enough to address the scale of these problems, especially with pressures on public spending. David Cameron has called for a system of conservation credits to secure greater investment in new habitats for wildlife, effectively putting a value on the natural world.
It's a bold idea. As Graham Wynne of the RSPB says: "Putting a monetary value on the carbon stored in natural ecosystems may well be part of their salvation … but it's much more difficult to put an economic value on the skylark's song." Perhaps – but we already know the price. The RSPB's own Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire, which I also visited last week, shows how simple changes in farming practice through initiatives like leaving small spaces in fields of wheat can see the lark ascend again. And these changes have been funded with public money paid to farmers.
Can we do better with the money that's being spent? Despite being governed by a single department, Defra, policy for the natural world is still fragmented. There's a plan for the water industry here and another for farming there. What's needed is a holistic approach. Instead of the public paying a fortune for the removal of nitrates from water, why not save public money and let the water companies pay farmers to use less fertiliser in the first place? Instead of shoring up defences to prevent floods, why not use natural wetlands to act as water sponges?
The need to adapt to climate change will make us think beyond the aesthetic value of habitats like woodlands to their additional value as carbon stores. The natural environment can't be a peripheral consideration in the low-carbon economy.
Poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote that "nature is never spent". But it can be. Food is running out, water is scarce, and species are being lost. In the UK alone, nearly half of priority habitats are clearly in decline including chalk rivers, fens, wood-pasture and coastal sand dunes. Almost one-third of priority species are also clearly declining, including the red squirrel, turtle dove and juniper.
We need to find new, integrated solutions – which is why today I'm launching a new initiative entitled Future Countryside, to debate these issues. If you value the lark ascending, please join in.
• Nick Herbert is the shadow environment secretary and Conservative MP for Arundel and the South Downs