Sunday, 4 October 2009

Professor David MacKay: Britain ‘must go nuclear’ to control climate

Jonathan Leake

THE government’s chief scientific adviser on climate change has proposed a quadrupling of Britain’s nuclear power generation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Professor David MacKay believes nuclear power could be the only way Britain can meet its soaring demand for electricity while keeping emissions under control.
He has calculated that renewable energy sources such as wind and tidal power will never provide more than a fraction of Britain’s electricity needs.
Speaking last week on his first day as chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, MacKay set out a vision of how Britain could generate the threefold increase in electricity it needs, with nuclear power at its heart.

He cited Sizewell B, Britain’s largest nuclear power station, as a benchmark.
“This plan would involve a fourfold increase in nuclear power over today’s levels,” he said. “So at Sizewell, for example, you would have four Sizewell Bs and at other nuclear sites you would have another four Sizewell Bs, and so on.”
He added: “Britain could never live on its own renewables. If the aim is to get off fossil fuels, we need nuclear power or solar power generated in other countries’ deserts, or both.”
MacKay, who will advise Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, stressed he was not personally pro-or anti-nuclear. “My point is that whatever energy sources we choose, the sums have to add up,” he said.
Britain emits greenhouse gases equivalent to 680m tons of CO2 a year. The government has pledged to cut this to 140m tons by 2050 and has said it wants nuclear power to play a part.
In the next few weeks it is due to publish a shortlist of up to 11 sites where nuclear power stations could be built. Most are next to existing installations.
The scale of the nuclear programme hinted at by MacKay is far greater than that suggested by ministers, however.
There are 10 ageing nuclear stations in the country, with 12 gigawatts of generating capacity — about 15% of Britain’s needs. Two are due to close next year, the rest by 2023.
MacKay’s calculations, set out to an audience of Cambridge academics, are based on a new generation of nuclear power stations supplying 40 to 50 gigawatts of power by 2050.
Since modern nuclear power stations are likely to be much more powerful than those built in the past, this suggests fewer than 15 new reactors would be needed.
At the heart of his thinking lies a prediction that, by 2050, Britain will need three times more electricity-generation capacity than it has now.
This is partly because the only way to cut the surging emissions from road transport — roughly a third of all UK emissions — is to make most vehicles electrically propelled. Millions of electric vehicles would need regular recharging.
MacKay also wants to see an end to the use of gas for central heating and the replacement of boilers with heat pumps that extract heat from the atmosphere. They run on electricity.
“Setting fire to chemicals like gas should be made a thermodynamic crime,” he said. “If people want heat they should be forced to get it from heat pumps. That would be a sensible piece of legislation.”
MacKay said there were other ways of generating the electricity Britain needed. One was to rent swathes of desert from north African countries such as Algeria or Libya, cover them in solar panels and transmit the power to Britain along high-voltage cables.
In theory an area the size of Wales could meet all of Britain’s power needs, but the idea is fraught with technical and political problems. It would also leave Britain at the mercy of the countries whose territory contained the equipment.
Another possibility would be carbon capture and storage, in which CO2 emissions are captured before they enter the atmosphere and buried. MacKay said this was an untried technology, however, and should not be relied on.

Pension funds warned to invest in a low-carbon future

Tricia Holly Davis

Pension funds are endangering the long-term value of their investments by continuing to pour money into environmentally unfriendly businesses, according to research backed by the United Nations.
A report to be published in advance of the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December will urge funds to switch investment from traditional energy-intensive industries to low-carbon alternatives.
The study, prepared by Trucost, a consultant, will say that while pension funds may make money in the short term through backing environmentally un-sound industries, they are putting their long-term health — and that of the wider economy — in jeopardy.
“The global economy will bear the cost of unsustainable use of natural goods and services,” Trucost said. “Pensions funds should have an interest in reducing environmental threats as their investments are exposed to these hidden, but real, costs.”
As an example, the UN report will cite evidence that air pollution will cut gross domestic product in the European Union by 1.7% a year to explain how pension funds could in the long term be harmed by investing in companies whose operations have an adverse effect on air quality. The potential losses are far greater when taking into account the broader impacts of global warming, such as rising sea levels, which would destroy property and food supplies. The costs of continuing to emit dangerous levels of carbon dioxide are estimated at $1.4 trillion (£880 billion) a year.
The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change said the consequences of failing to prevent rising temperatures could be as grave as a depression-level collapse that could permanently wipe 20% from global GDP by the end of the century. Pension funds would be affected because their ability to meet liabilities depends on investment growth.
Fund managers have a duty to investors to consider the impact that carbon markets and other emissions reduction regulations will have on companies’ performance, said Penny Shepherd, chief executive of UKSIF, the sustainable investment and finance association. “Companies need to question whether their pension investments consider the impact climate change will have on wealth creation over the next 40 years,” she said.
Pension funds were mentioned as an important source of low-carbon finance during the Labour party conference last week. “Pension funds could definitely play a bigger role in helping the UK to develop new green technologies and infrastructure,” said Joan Ruddock, energy and climate change minister.
James Gifford, executive director of Principles for Responsible Investment, the UN group that commissioned the report, said: “There is no doubt pension funds will be the source of much of the capital that is required for the transition to the low-carbon economy.
“But pension funds are not charities — they need to fulfil their duties to seek good returns. Governments need to put in place the carbon-pricing structures to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is also the most prudent investment strategy for large investors.”
Alistair Darling, the chancellor, allocated £405m in his budget this year to encourage the manufacture and take-up of low-carbon goods and services.
The International Energy Agency has estimated that $10 trillion must be invested globally in low-carbon technologies by 2030 to stave off the temperature increases that could cause permanent damage to the environment.
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Arctic seas turn to acid, putting vital food chain at risk

With the world's oceans absorbing six million tonnes of carbon a day, a leading oceanographer warns of eco disaster
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 4 October 2009
Carbon-dioxide emissions are turning the waters of the Arctic Ocean into acid at an unprecedented rate, scientists have discovered. Research carried out in the archipelago of Svalbard has shown in many regions around the north pole seawater is likely to reach corrosive levels within 10 years. The water will then start to dissolve the shells of mussels and other shellfish and cause major disruption to the food chain. By the end of the century, the entire Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic.
"This is extremely worrying," Professor Jean-Pierre Gattuso, of France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, told an international oceanography conference last week. "We knew that the seas were getting more acidic and this would disrupt the ability of shellfish – like mussels – to grow their shells. But now we realise the situation is much worse. The water will become so acidic it will actually dissolve the shells of living shellfish."
Just as an acid descaler breaks apart limescale inside a kettle, so the shells that protect molluscs and other creatures will be dissolved. "This will affect the whole food chain, including the North Atlantic salmon, which feeds on molluscs," said Gattuso, speaking at a European commission conference, Oceans of Tomorrow, in Barcelona last week. The oceanographer told delegates that the problem of ocean acidification was worse in high latitudes, in the Arctic and around Antarctica, than it was nearer the equator.
"More carbon dioxide can dissolve in cold water than warm," he said. "Hence the problem of acidification is worse in the Arctic than in the tropics, though we have only recently got round to studying the problem in detail."
About a quarter of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by factories, power stations and cars now ends up being absorbed by the oceans. That represents more than six million tonnes of carbon a day.
This carbon dioxide dissolves and is turned into carbonic acid, causing the oceans to become more acidic. "We knew the Arctic would be particularly badly affected when we started our studies but I did not anticipate the extent of the problem," said Gattuso.
His research suggests that 10% of the Arctic Ocean will be corrosively acidic by 2018; 50% by 2050; and 100% ocean by 2100. "Over the whole planet, there will be a threefold increase in the average acidity of the oceans, which is unprecedented during the past 20 million years. That level of acidification will cause immense damage to the ecosystem and the food chain, particularly in the Arctic," he added.
The tiny mollusc Limacina helicina, which is found in Arctic waters, will be particularly vulnerable, he said. The little shellfish is eaten by baleen whales, salmon, herring and various seabirds. Its disappearance would therefore have a major impact on the entire marine food chain. The deep-water coral Lophelia pertusa would also be extremely vulnerable to rising acidity. Reefs in high latitudes are constructed by only one or two types of coral – unlike tropical coral reefs which are built by a large variety of species. The loss of Lophelia pertusa would therefore devastate reefs off Norway and the coast of Scotland, removing underwater shelters that are exploited by dozens of species of fish and other creatures.
"Scientists have proposed all sorts of geo-engineering solutions to global warming," said Gattuso. "For instance, they have proposed spraying the upper atmosphere with aerosol particles that would reduce sunlight reaching the Earth, mitigating the warming caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide.
"But these ideas miss the point. They will still allow carbon dioxide emissions to continue to increase – and thus the oceans to become more and more acidic. There is only one way to stop the devastation the oceans are now facing and that is to limit carbon-dioxide emissions as a matter of urgency."
This was backed by other speakers at the conference. Daniel Conley, of Lund University, Sweden, said that increasing acidity levels, sea-level rises and temperature changes now threatened to bring about irreversible loss of biodiversity in the sea. Christoph Heinze, of Bergen University, Norway, said his studies, part of the EU CarboOcean project, had found that carbon from the atmosphere was being transported into the oceans' deeper waters far more rapidly than expected and was already having a corrosive effect on life forms there.
The oceans' vulnerability to climate change and rising carbon-dioxide levels has also been a key factor in the launching of the EU's Tara Ocean project at Barcelona. The expedition, on the sailing ship Tara, will take three years to circumnavigate the globe, culminating in a voyage through the icy Northwest Passage in Canada, and will make continual and detailed samplings of seawater to study its life forms.
A litre of seawater contains between 1bn and 10bn single-celled organisms called prokaryotes, between 10bn and 100bn viruses and a vast number of more complex, microscopic creatures known as zooplankton, said Chris Bowler, a marine biologist on Tara.
"People think they are just swimming in water when they go for a dip in the sea," he said. "In fact, they are bathing in a plankton soup."
That plankton soup is of crucial importance to the planet, he added. "As much carbon dioxide is absorbed by plankton as is absorbed by tropical rainforests. Its health is therefore of crucial importance to us all."
However, only 1% of the life forms found in the sea have been properly identified and studied, said Bowler. "The aim of the Tara project is to correct some of that ignorance and identify many more of these organisms while we still have the chance. Issues like ocean acidification, rising sea levels and global warming will not be concerns at the back of our minds. They will be a key focus for the work that we do while we are on our expedition."
The toll by 2100
■ The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast in 2007 that sea levels would rise by 20cm to 60cm by 2100 thanks to global warming caused by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. This is now thought to be an underestimate, however, with most scientific bodies warning that sea levels could rise by a metre or even higher. Major inundations of vulnerable regions such as Bangladesh would ensue.
■ The planet will be hotter by 3C by 2100, most scientists now expect, though rises of 4.5C to 5C could be experienced. Deserts will spread and heatwaves will become more prevalent. Ice-caps will melt and cyclones are also likely to be triggered.
■ Weather patterns across the globe will become more unstable, numbers of devastating storms will increase dramatically while snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains.

Soot clouds pose threat to Himalayan glaciers

Fumes from wood fires and from diesel engines accelerate melting, Indian scientists warn
Randeep Ramesh and Suzanne Goldenberg
The Observer, Sunday 4 October 2009
Glaciers in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau that feed the river systems of almost half the world's people are melting faster because of the effects of clouds of soot from diesel fumes and wood fires, according to scientists in India and China.
The results, to be announced this month in Kashmir, show for the first time that clouds of soot – made up of tiny particles of "black carbon" emitted from old diesel engines and from cooking with wood, crop waste or cow dung – are "unequivocally having an impact on glacial melting" in the Himalayas.
Scientists say that, while the threat of carbon dioxide to global warming has been accepted, soot from developing countries is a largely unappreciated cause of rising temperatures. Once the black carbon lands on glaciers, it absorbs sunlight that would otherwise be reflected by the snow, leading to melting. "This is a huge problem which we are ignoring," said Professor Syed Hasnain of the Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in Delhi. "We are finding concentrations of black carbon in the Himalayas in what are supposed to be pristine, untouched environments."
The institute has set up two sensors in the Himalayas, one on the Kholai glacier that sits on the mountain range's western flank in Kashmir and the other flowing through the eastern reaches in Sikkim. Glaciers in this region feed most of the major rivers in Asia. The short-term result of substantial melting is severe flooding downstream.
Hasnain says India and China produce about a third of the world's black carbon, and both countries have been slow to act. "India is the worst. At least in China the state has moved to measure the problem. In Delhi no government agency has put any sensors on the ground. [Teri] is doing it by ourselves."
In August this year Yao Tandong, director of China's Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, projected "a 43% decrease in glacial area by 2070", adding that "more and more scientists have come to recognise the impact of black carbon in glacial melting".
Black carbon's role has only recently been recognised – it was not mentioned as a factor in the UN's major 2007 report on climate change –but this month the UN environment programme called for cuts in black carbon output. In November it will publish a report stating that 50% of the emissions causing global warming are from non-CO2 pollutants.
Decreasing black carbon emissions should be a relatively cheap way to significantly curb global warming. Black carbon falls from the atmosphere after just a couple of weeks, and replacing primitive cooking stoves with modern versions that emit far less soot could quickly end the problem. Controlling traffic in the Himalayan region should help ease the harm done by emissions from diesel engines.
Both New Delhi and Beijing, say experts, have been reluctant to come forward with plans on black carbon because they do not want attention diverted from richer nations' responsibility to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
At a high-level forum on energy in Washington on Thursday, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, rejected attempts to link black carbon to the efforts to reach an international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Black carbon had no place in the Copenhagen negotiations towards a global pact on global warming, he said. "Black carbon is another issue. I know there is now a desire to bring the black carbon issue into the mainstream. I am simply not in favour of it."

Greg Clark: Global warming is not on our back burner

The shadow Climate Change Secretary insists the environment is still a priority for Cameron, despite its absence from the Tory leader's 10 key pledges. Jane Merrick meets Greg Clark
Sunday, 4 October 2009

Greg Clark promises that climate change will be 'centre stage at the general election'
Back in April 2006, David Cameron handed out silver birch saplings to journalists at a press conference in which he urged voters to "vote blue, go green". The next day, the Tory leader of four months was photographed perched on the melting Svalbard glacier in Norway, his hair windswept, an arm wrapped around a huskie which was nuzzling Cameron's North Face jacket. These were the 24 hours in which Cameron imposed his environmental credentials on the world. They were followed by a pledge to help prevent climate change with "green taxes".
Tomorrow, three and a half years later, the Conservative leader will lead his party conference as prime minister-in-waiting, with Britain's "broken economy", "broken society" and "broken politics" at the top of the agenda. In Manchester, climate change has been shoved into debates on the recession.
The huskie-hugging was part of the party's decontamination strategy, which was always going to be overtaken by tougher messages on law and order. And the economy has dominated everything in politics for more than two years. But even so, environmentalists could be forgiven for thinking that Cameron has deserted them.
Last week, in an interview with The Sun to mark the newspaper's defection to the Tories, Cameron laid out 10 key pledges – none of which included the environment or climate change. In a separate interview with The Spectator, Cameron listed "the deficit, Afghanistan, the broken society and mending the mess of our politics" as his priorities.
And here is Greg Clark, the shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, presenting himself for interview with The Independent on Sunday, which has a long history of campaigning on the environment, to reassure our readers that climate change still matters to David Cameron. Can we see past the carefully calibrated PR messages and believe the Conservative leader?
It may be a statement of the obvious, but I feel the need to ask Clark anyway: aren't the Tories trying to be all things to all people?
"No, no," says Clark, who has a mix of geniality and evangelism – a bit like a country vicar. He tells me the environment is "absolutely" a priority for a Tory government. "Always has been." He adds: "When David Cameron appointed me, we had a conversation and he said to me he wanted the environment to be a very important part of the proposition we put to the public at the general election – as it always has been to David personally."
Yes, we know about the bike – the one that was followed by his chauffeur-driven car – the sledding, the trees. But there is a nagging doubt that this is all for decontamination purposes as Cameron retreats to more a populist position in preparation for power.
Some of the 10 policy pledges are obviously important, but some of them are, frankly, questionable in comparison to the global threat of climate change – such as the proposal to reduce the number of MPs.
From Clark there is a pledge that climate change will be "centre stage at the general election". He tries to insist that, far from it being overlooked by Cameron, the environment underpins every one of those other priorities. "There is a real coalition of interest in this, that people are concerned about our national security, economic security, household budgets, future jobs, the future of the planet – all of the answers to those questions actually coalesce."
This sounds wonderful – a sort of holding-hands-around-the-world notion – but it seems slightly laughable the claim that climate change is so important to the Tories that it doesn't need to be mentioned.
Clark complains that the Tory paper on energy efficiency published in January, The Low-Carbon Economy, has been lifted at length by his opposite number in government, Ed Miliband.
He says the Tories first came up with the plan for smart meters months before Labour, and that a Conservative government would have the devices rolled out nationwide by 2017, three years before Labour's deadline. In fact, this idea was first floated in the Quality of Life policy document of September 2007, drawn up by Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer, which trashed Thatcherite materialism in favour of a focus on the environment and well-being. Cameron distanced himself from some of the more radical ideas, but smart metering has entered common policy-making.
This week in Manchester, Clark will announce a "consumer energy revolution" and a plan for urgent action to "keep the lights on and decarbonise the economy" amid fears of routine blackouts by 2017 – concerns that will be raised at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
Besides smart metering, a Tory government would refer the "cartel" of six big energy companies to the Competition Commission for an independent investigation into why gas and electricity bills remain so high.
Bills would be overhauled so they tell householders, in simple terms, where they could be saving energy and money on different tariffs.
Clark says bills are currently "taken from a metal wheel spinning round in your garage – something that Thomas Edison would've recognised".
The first term of a Tory government will also push ahead with technology on carbon capture and storage – using revenue from the emissions-trading scheme to pay for the clean coal alternative.
Clark says the Tories will not drop their opposition to Heathrow's third runway under any circumstances. Instead, investment will be ploughed into high-speed rail. People should learn to love trains. It is a "good example of where, if you make people's lives better, people prefer to travel by train from city centre to city centre".
Listening to Clark is reminiscent of Cameron's early leadership phase – the speeches about letting "sunshine win the day", envisaging a world where people's lives are made better by a pleasant train journey. It is hard to reconcile this vision with the relentlessly miserable, hell-in-a-handcart messages from the current version of the Tory leadership: of everything being "broken".
Clark was elected MP for Tunbridge Wells in 2005. Before that, he was policy chief for Cameron's three predecessors – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.
A Cambridge graduate, he worked as an adviser in the last Tory government. But he has a working-class background: the son of a milkman from Middlesbrough – a dream past to counterbalance the Old Etonian leadership. Clark married his wife, Helen, in a charity hostel for homeless women, where he was a trustee.
Clark is rather shy about his role in the Tories' 2005 election campaign, which included the sinister slogan "Are you thinking what we're thinking" on immigration. The environment was nowhere to be seen in the manifesto. "I hope that's going to be different in 2010. If it is, that is down to David Cameron, right from the beginning of his leadership putting that on the agenda."
When I ask what mistakes were made, he says the party "learnt a lot" from Howard in terms of discipline and organisation.
But is there a danger of too much discipline – or should people like Goldsmith, the would-be Tory MP for Richmond who is still committed to the Quality of Life report's conclusions, be free to express themselves?
"I think David has always been a very collegiate leader. The discussions that take place at Shadow Cabinet are very genuine, and it is clear he values that forum. This is not an authoritarian regime, by any means. But a prospective government has to be disciplined. The scale of the challenge if we were to be elected is so acute you can only do that if you are absolutely focused about your approach."
Clark appeared to criticise Cameron in 2007 over his shift away from grammar schools. When I ask if he will feel free to do this again, it is the only moment when he stiffens slightly. "I have never said anything on grammar schools that is different from the policy. David's made clear our policy."
Despite Clark's denials that Cameron is running an "authoritarian regime", the leader has ruthlessly sacked people he is close to. And despite his insistence that the Tories are committed to the environment, it must be a concern that the "vote blue, go green" message has become diluted for political expediency.
In the months before the 1997 election, Tony Blair's operation became command and control exercise, combined with trying to be all things to all people. There is no reason to think Cameron's regime is any different.
CV: From the Social Democrats to Cameron's inner circle
1967 Born in Middlesbrough.
1978 Attends St Peter's Comprehensive, South Bank, Teesside.
1986 Degree in economics, Cambridge University, where he leads student branch of SDP.
1988 Joins Conservative Party.
1989 PhD at London School of Economics.
1991 Consultant, Boston Consulting; works in Mexico, USA, Iceland and South America.
1996 Special adviser to Ian Lang, then Trade and Industry Secretary.
1999 Controller of commercial policy, BBC.
1999 Marries Helen in a charity hostel for homeless women in Soho, of which he is a trustee; they have three children.
2001 Director of policy at Conservative Party under William Hague, later Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.
2003 Elected Westminster councillor.
2005 Elected MP for Tunbridge Wells.
2006 Appointed shadow minister for charities.
2008 Appointed shadow Climate Change and Energy Secretary.

The future is green, the future is nuclear

From The Sunday Times

Professor David MacKay, the government’s chief scientific adviser on climate change, has said what many people have long believed. You cannot meet Britain’s future energy needs and reduced carbon emissions without a big expansion of nuclear power.
As we report today, he believes we should aim to be producing four times the amount of electricity from nuclear as now. Alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and wavepower will never provide more than a fraction of the country’s energy needs. Relying on gas, coal and oil, with an increasing proportion imported, does not square with Britain’s international climate commitments.
The case for nuclear is set out in accessible detail in Professor MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air. The average British person consumes 16kg of carbon fuels a day and is responsible for 11 tons a year of CO2 emissions. The corresponding figures for nuclear are 2g of uranium and a quarter of a gram of waste.
Professor MacKay thinks that setting light to gas for the purposes of heating homes “should be made a thermodynamic crime”. He insists he is not personally pro or anti nuclear power but either it, or importing electricity produced by solar means in other countries’ deserts, is the only way of making the carbon sums add up. “The fact is that Britain could never live on its own renewables,” he says.
He is not the first to come to this conclusion. Five years ago James Lovelock, doyen of green scientists and known for his Gaia hypothesis, declared nuclear power was the only green solution. “Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the green lobbies and the media,” he wrote. “These fears are unjustified and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.”
Britain has been moving in the opposite direction, as the government dithered about replacing ageing nuclear power stations. In 1997, 30% of the country’s electricity needs were supplied by nuclear. Now the proportion is closer to 15%, with two nuclear stations due for closure next year and the rest by 2023.
The government is preparing an announcement about a programme of replacements for that lost capacity but has so far gone no further. Professor MacKay believes the country should aim for between 40 and 50 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050, four times the present 12 gigawatts. The expected rise in electricity demand, as more people switch to electric vehicles, will make that case even stronger.
These decisions need to be taken soon. Too much time has already been wasted.

Water wars threaten solar future

Published Date: 04 October 2009
By Todd Woody in Amargosa Valley, Nevada
IN A rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a glimmer of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer announced plans to build two big solar farms, creating hundreds of jobs.
But then things got messy. The company, Solar Millennium, revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 per cent of this desert valley's available water.Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. Amargosa Valley's population is divided, pitting people who hope to make money selling water rights against those concerned about the project's impact on the community and the environment."I'm worried about my well and the wells of my neighbours," George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said.This is one of the inconvenient truths about renewable energy: sometimes it demands a huge amount of water. Certain types of solar farms, biofuel refineries and cleaner coal plants could consume billions of gallons every year. "When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy," said Michael E Webber, an expert and the assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin.Conflicts over water may shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewables are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators.To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the South-west, where dozens of multi-billion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. At public hearings fromNew Mexico to California local residents have sounded alarms over the impact that this industrialisation will have on wildlife, their desert solitude and, most of all, their water.Joni Eastley, chairwoman of the county commission in Nye County, Nevada, which includes Amargosa Valley, said at one hearing that her area had been "inundated" with requests from renewable energy developers that "far exceed the amount of available water".Many projects involve building solar thermal plants, which use cheaper technology than the solar panels often seen on roofs. In such plants, mirrors heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. As in a fossil fuel power plant, that steam must be condensed back to water and cooled for reuse.The conventional method is called wet cooling. Hot water flows through a cooling tower where the excess heat evaporates along with some of the water, which must be replenished constantly. An alternative, dry cooling, uses fans and heat exchangers, much like a car's radiator. Far less water is consumed, but dry cooling adds costs and reduces efficiency – and profits.The efficiency problem is especially acute with the most proven technique, mirrors arrayed in long troughs. "Trough technology has been more financeable, but now trough presents a separate risk – water," said Nathaniel Bullard of New Energy Finance, a London research firm.That could provide opportunities for developers of photovoltaic power plants, which take the type of solar panels found on rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. They are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms but require a relatively small amount of water, mainly to wash the panels.Water disputes forced Solar Millennium to abandon wet cooling for a proposed solar trough plant in California after the water district refused to supply the necessary 815 million gallons a year. The company subsequently proposed to dry cool two other massive California solar trough farms in the Mojave Desert. "We will not do any wet cooling in California," said Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium's US operations. "There are simply no plants being permitted here with wet cooling."Even solar projects with low water consumption face hurdles. Tessera Solar is planning a large project in the Californian desert that would use only 12 million gallons annually, mostly to wash mirrors. But because it would draw upon a depleted aquifer, Tessera may have to buy rights to ten times that amount of water and then retire the pumping rights to the water it does not use. For a second big solar farm, Tessera has agreed to fund improvements to a local irrigation district in exchange for access to reclaimed water. "We have a challenge in finding water even though we're low water use," said Sean Gallagher, a Tessera executive. "It forces you to do some creative deals."In the Amargosa Valley, Solar Millennium may have to negotiate access to water with scores of individuals and companies. "There are a lot of people out here for whom their water rights are their life savings, their retirement," said Ed Goedhart, a local farmer and state legislator, as he drove past sun-beaten mobile homes and patches of irrigated alfalfa. Farmers will be growing less of the crop, he said, if they decide to sell their water rights to Solar Millennium. "We'll be growing megawatts instead of alfalfa," he said.

Greenhouse effects: Eco consultations

Tony Juniper

John Lewis stores are veritable temples of consumerism: all kinds of wonderful products, beautifully presented so as to catch eyes, touch hearts and unleash credit cards.
It might seem the last place you'd seek out a eco-friendly existence, but even here there is greenery on offer.
I shop at John Lewis now and again, and have noticed recently how items such as energy-efficient kettles, power-saving digital radios and certified wood products are appearing on the shelves. To back up this greener procurement, the firm is launching Eco-Home Consultations at nine stores around the country.
You can book an in-store appointment free of charge; or, for £200, an adviser will visit your home and make comprehensive suggestions on how to make it greener. The fee is redeemable against purchases you subsequently make.
Advice will be offered across product ranges, including heat-saving curtains, rugs, carpets and underlays made from natural fibres, efficient lighting, Marmoleum flooring, organic cotton sheets and home energy monitors.
Many of the products I was shown during a briefing on the new service certainly had ecological merit.
More important than the technical aspects of the products, however, is that this service might help to dispel the myth that going green somehow marks a shift back to the Dark Ages. We need to cut our consumption, but we still want and need to consume.
One or two pioneering companies have been at this for some time — including B-Neutral, at Woodbridge, in Suffolk ( This firm sells only eco-products, but reaches a relatively small number of green shoppers. The arrival of greener shopping on high streets will potentially reach many more, especially if it sparks competitive reactions from other stores.
John Lewis says that the new service is customer-led, and comes from an increase in demand for products that please the eye while lightening the load on the earth. If this emerging preference is coupled with more responsible consumption, then I think shoppers and stores, in partnership, can be a powerful positive force.
To book a John Lewis Eco-Home consultation, call 0845 604 9049.
Tony Juniper is an environmental campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth;