Saturday, 6 February 2010

Solar panels: what a bright idea

Fitting solar panels could make financial sense when the government pays up to 44p a unit for home-grown electricity

Gordon Miller and Emma Wells

Patrick and Frances Colquhoun are happy pensioners. Since they installed solar panels on the roof of their five-bedroom detached home on the outskirts of Cambridge last July, they have seen substantial reductions in their energy bills. Things look set to get even better for the couple, and others embracing the micro-generating revolution, after the government announced details last week of the rewards it will pay homeowners who generate their own electricity.
The Clean Energy Cash Back scheme — which will start on April 1 and apply to systems completed between July 15, 2009, and March 31, 2012 — introduces a series of so-called “feed-in tariffs” (FITs). These give homeowners up to 41.3p per kWh (kilowatt–hour) of electricity they generate from renewable sources, even if they use it themselves. That is about four times the market cost of electricity — and there’s a bonus 3p for each unit they export back to the grid. It is all part of the government’s effort to provide 15% of the UK’s energy through renewable means by 2020.
“The guarantee of getting an income, on top of saving on energy bills, will be an incentive to householders and communities wanting to make the move to low-carbon living,” said Ed Miliband, the energy and climate-change secretary. To make the scheme even more attractive, any income received will be tax-free.
The Colquhouns spent £12,348 on installing their system, of which £2,500 was covered by a government grant. The 1,600kWh of energy it is expected to generate each year should earn them £736 and save another £112 on bills — an annual return on their investment of more than 8%.
“I am renowned for being frugal,” says Patrick, 70, a volunteer with a special interest in healthcare in Romania. “The £2,500 grant definitely helped, and the promise of further payments made a big difference. The only snag is, despite generating your own electricity, if there is a power cut you can’t use it.”
Another motivating factor was the positive impact the panels had on the value of the house. “We will now be selling a house with an income,” he says.
Solarcentury (020 7803 0100,, the firm that initially advised the Colquhouns, estimates that the system could generate a profit of more than £19,000 over the next 25 years if electricity prices continue to rise at 5% a year — which may prove an underestimate, given the warnings last week from Ofgem, the industry regulator, of a looming energy crisis.
According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, a typical three-bedroom home uses 3,300kWh of energy a year. A system producing peak power of 2.5kW on an optimum south- or southwest-facing site should generate an annual 2,125kWh, earning the homeowner £900 a year and saving a further £140 off their electricity bill.
Nor are payments confined to solar energy. Those with wind turbines, or even their own biomass plants, are also eligible — albeit at a lower rate.
Research by the Energy Saving Trust, which works with the government to reduce emissions, suggests that at least 800,000 householders could benefit from FITs. “The trust has appointed specialist advisers around the country to help people choose the right technology for their homes,” says Marian Spain, its director of strategy. Its website will have a tool to let people calculate how much they could earn (0800 512012,
So, should you rush to bolt solar panels onto your roof or install a water wheel in your stream? “A lot of people will be jumping on the green-energy bandwagon,” says Tony Juniper, Home’s green adviser and a former director of Friends of the Earth. “Make sure the installation companies you are considering look at your whole house properly and give neutral advice on the best supplier to use. It’s also important that they address possible planning issues if, for example, you live in a conservation area.”
Correct certifications and good local recommendations are also vital. Solarcentury says you should pick brands that offer a minimum 20-year guarantee. Following manufacturers’ advice on cleaning and maintenance will keep the panels functioning properly for as long as possible.
As one financial incentive is given, however, another is being taken away. The £2,500 grant offered by the Low Carbon Building Programme, provided by the government since 2006, is set to end this April — although those who buy their panels before then could benefit from both schemes (visit lowcarbon
Surprisingly, perhaps, real eco-pioneers, such as Neil Hammond, will not benefit directly from either scheme. Hammond, 51, and his wife, Amy, 34, moved to Glenelg, on the west coast of Scotland, in 2000 with the dream of living off-grid. Hammond, a trained engineer, has designed and built a micro-hydro generator, as well as installing solar panels and a wind turbine. “It’s been a labour of love,” he says.
Hammond does not seem unduly concerned that he won’t personally be eligible for the incentives — he is just hoping others will. He recently launched a new business, Wind Harvest, to take advantage of the expected boom in people keen to follow his example. “Thanks to feed-in tariffs, smaller-scale generation is becoming more financially viable,” he says.
Show me the money
Retrofitted photovoltaic (PV) systems of up to 4kW for existing homes will earn the highest initial payments, 41.3p per unit (although this declines over time). Lower rates, up to 36.1p, apply to new-builds and larger setups. Payments for wind power go up to 34.5p, depending on size, and for hydro up to 19.9p. Visit for details.
A warm glow
Although the new feed-in tariffs apply only to electricity generated in the home, the government intends to extend the scheme to heating systems. The Renewable Heat Scheme, due to be introduced in April next year, will reward homeowners who install equipment such as air and ground-source heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal panels (used for heating water). Under the plan, a ground-source heat pump installed in an average semi-detached house would generate income of £1,000 a year and lead to savings of £200 if used instead of heating oil. The tariff levels are calculated to give a 12% rate of return on investment.

Osama's greenspeak

Bin Laden's apparent support for environmentalism is rooted in an apocalyptic vision of the future
Nazry Bahrawi, Friday 5 February 2010 10.00 GMT
When the leader of al-Qaida sought to fashion himself a spokesperson for the climate change cause in a tape sent to the Al-Jazeera network last week, he was not speaking out of character. Osama bin Laden was merely being true to his radical self.
As The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenerg perceptively highlighted, the Saudi ideologue is no greenhorn when it comes to speaking up against environmental degradation. In 2002, he had chastised America for destroying nature "more than any other nation in history".
But Osama's motivation for acknowledging the truth of global warming is far less noble than Al Gore's. It is likely that bin Laden did so to validate a central al-Qaida tenet – a belief in the coming messiah.
In Islam, this doctrine draws on ideas inherent in both the Sunni and Shia traditions which imagine that the world will witness a clash between the forces of good and evil that will usher in the apocalypse. Culled from hadith (a collection of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) rather than the Qu'ran, these traditions envisage the coming of a messianic figure known as the Mahdi, who will triumphantly eradicate evil and injustice from this world.
However, Mahdist narratives have been contested by some Islamic scholars, the most famous being the 12th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun who rejected it because of these hadiths' questionable authenticity.
Given Osama's track record of manipulating Islamic teachings for his own political ends, it should come as little surprise that he would actively invoke the Mahdist narrative. Coming just two months after the disappointing Copenhagen summit, Osama's audiotape message is designed to reiterate the rich-poor schism that was played out so dramatically there.
In this light, Osama's latest rant looks like a recruitment strategy that capitalises on the frustrations of hapless Muslims from developing nations searching for a saviour to address their plights. It could even be seen an initiative to fashion Osama as the Mahdi.
Even if intelligence agencies were to find this latest Osama recording inauthentic, they would do well not to discount its apocalyptic rhetoric. For there is a real possibility that eco-jihadism could come to dominate the discourse of extremist groups beyond al-Qaida.
In his 2007 book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, English philosopher John Gray writes: "[A]s climate change runs its course we can expect a rash of cults in which it is interpreted as a human narrative of catastrophe and redemption."
If al-Qaida could qualify as one such cult, then its Indonesian counterpart Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – the extremist network responsible for the deadly Bali bombings – could be another.
Already, the group's spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, has begun toying with greenspeak. In 2007, the radical cleric warned that Indonesia could face "a big disaster" if authorities executed the three convicted Bali bombers. Later, he again invoked the apocalyptic myth when he portrayed the landslides and floods that had hit Indonesia then as a form of divine punishment caused by "immoral acts".
And with public anger at the government swelling in the past year over issues like shoddy building standards, an erratic tsunami early-warning system and alleged corruption, the JI could easily find a receptive audience among the disenfranchised in disaster-prone Indonesia.
Yet what is more disconcerting than the Osama or Ba'asyir's greenspeak is the lack of a viable non-confrontational Islamic eco-theology that could stymie it. Such a discourse has been pursued by far too few Muslim theologians.

Is climate change the new faith?

Fanatics must stop playing fast and loose with global warming data

Simon Hoggart
The Guardian, Saturday 6 February 2010

As a climate change agnostic – and I suspect most of us are, especially now, and more especially after the Guardian series this week – I've been bothered by two aspects of the argument. The first is the religious overtone. Humankind has always wanted to blame its own behaviour for natural events, whether Noah's flood, plagues of frogs, or volcanos which demonstrate that the gods are angry.
Three years ago a British bishop announced that gay marriage had caused our floods. I've often wondered whether global warming is another example of this, an irrational belief designed for a rationalist world.
And there is an element of religious faith in the true believers. Those who disagree are "deniers", with its echo of fanatics who don't believe in the Holocaust. Years ago I saw a sceptic howled down at a British Association meeting; scientists shouldn't behave like that. If people disagree with you they might not be morally wrong, or agents of Satan. (Or big oil, as the believers often claim.) This ties in with my second worry. Clearly many believers have played fast and loose with the data: since what they believe is true beyond doubt, they have a right – no, a moral duty – to suppress any evidence that might contradict them.
Years ago I cowrote a book, Bizarre Beliefs, about various crazy things people believe in, such as astrology, the Bermuda Triangle and spiritualism. Most of them generated vast amounts of data from which believers simply cherry-picked whatever suited their case. The world's climate produces millions upon millions of facts and figures, and it's very easy to select the ones that suit you and ignore all the rest.
Of course I don't know who's right. But I'm not surprised to see the true believers struggling.
✒The Tories want to bring in big changes at the BBC, and no doubt they will. But ask yourself one question: which is the more popular and respected institution in this country – the BBC or the Conservative party? Mind you, this government is no better. We have lost the fight on product placement, so that the programmes we watch will soon be legally contaminated by clandestine advertising.
The fact that a Labour government has brought this in, to please the millionaires who run commercial television, is as shameful as anything else they have done.
✒The other day we were crossing a bridge, on the pavement, when a cyclist – aged around 40, I'd guess – pounded towards us ringing his bell. We declined to jump out of his way, so he had to wobble on to the road, from where he yelled "Fuck off!"
I know it's only a small majority of cyclists who give the rest a bad name, but they are only one of the menaces that make simply walking down the street so much harder these days. Nobody carries a suitcase any more; instead they pull them behind on wheels, occupying twice as much space. In 1,000 years, anthropologists will wonder why we all suddenly developed spindly arms. People listening to iPods or speaking on the phone are in a world of their own, and have to be avoided with special care.
For some reason many people seem to have stopped watching where they are going, so they suddenly stop in the middle of a fast-moving crowd, or walk briskly out of shops without looking to either side, or just go into reverse for no apparent reason.
Then there are chuggers – charity muggers – and people handing out leaflets and cheap phone cards. A walk down the street is like an army assault course for not-very-fit people.
✒Baby buggies seem to get steadily bigger, so that if you're behind two mums having a chat, it's like being blocked on a motorway while one gigantic truck edges past another at a total speed of half a mile an hour.
The other day two of these vast things, like scaled-down SUVs, were wheeled on to a packed bus I was in. The first juggernaut occupied all the space provided for strollers, so the other had to block the whole aisle, making it impossible for other passengers to move.
That mother looked fraught and harassed, and I felt sorry for her, but it didn't occur to either of them to get off and wait for a less crowded bus.
✒I had to go to and from Manchester twice this week, and was able to plan ahead, so I found that with a railcard I could get a first-class single on some trains for £22.45. Marvellous. Space for a laptop, room for your legs, free Wi-Fi, delicious snacks and drinks included. I could have swilled gin all the way to Wilmslow and got the trip, in effect, for free.
Meanwhile a bossy voice on the loudspeaker was warning anyone who didn't have the right paperwork that they would be charged the full single fare – £131, standard class! And it's not just a scary threat: I've seen them do it. Standard class on Virgin Pendolino trains may get there as soon as first class, but your knees are jammed against the next seat, the aisles are narrow and there is almost no space for luggage, as I found on a crowded evening train when first class would have cost about £40 more.
Isn't this all a bit crazy? Even air fares aren't as ridiculously varied as this.
✒Spellchecks on computers produce some delightful mistakes. I've pointed out before that we've lost "bated" breath (as in "abated") but "baited" breath implies that you have a worm stuck to your tongue. Even the Guardian has described a wrecked car as a "right-off". Nobody seems to know the difference between "phase" (a stage in a process) and "faze" (confuse or bewilder). And the other day, the Times said that Andy Murray was "trying out a new racket on the tour", which may imply that he was flogging the other players fake Rolex watches.

Climate science: Truth and tribalism

The Guardian, Saturday 6 February 2010
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is the mantra of the courtroom, but it is also the motivating ideal of good science – as well as good journalism. The Guardian's special report into the leaked emails between climate scientists has revealed as many roughnesses, pimples and warts as any Cromwellian portrait. In and among (plentiful) electronic evidence of the University of East Anglia researchers going about their job diligently, we have uncovered an abject failure to ensure essential records were kept on Chinese weather stations, determined manoeuvring to exclude critics from leading journals and international reports, and suggestions of deleting potentially embarrassing correspondence with a view to evading the Freedom of Information Act.
For a newspaper that prides itself on leading the fight to fix the climate, avoiding such a forthright interrogation of the scientific pro­cesses on which our call for action ultimately depends might have been more comfortable – comfortable but wrong. The reality is that 4,660 files from East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit are in the public domain. The pragmatic argument runs that it is better that these should be evaluated seriously, methodically and in proper context, rather than hyped and distorted on the blogosphere. The principled argument, however, is more powerful still. Scientific progress comes through free and frank debate, the bedrock of truth being revealed only after every muddying stratum above it has been penetrated and cleared away. Indeed, the settled core of our knowledge on climate – the fact of increasing atmospheric carbon, the rising temperature trend, and the heat-trapping mechanism linking the two – has acquired the terrific authority it now possesses precisely because it has been forced to withstand so many challenges in the past. The moment climatology is sheltered from dispute, its force begins to wane.
So the sort of closing of intellectual ranks witnessed at UEA was serious and, in the end, self-defeating. That point is made by the briefest glance at the sort of polemical denials which instantly found their way into the mainstream media after the emails first emerged, and was underlined yesterday by a new BBC poll which showed public scepticism has increased since November. What Copenhagen did for the chances of a meaningful climate deal, East Anglia has unwittingly done for the prospects of prevailing in the battle for hearts and minds. Before rushing to judgment on the hapless scientists involved, though, it is as well to recall the peculiar pressures that climate researchers face. The climate clock is ticking on civilisation and it falls to them to answer the all-important question about just how much time there is left to act. Providing the answer necessarily involves forecasting the future, inevitably a less certain business than making sense of the present, and yet as much certainty as possible is urgently required. The blatant foul play of the deniers invites a tit-for-tat response as a matter of human instinct, while the well-grounded suspicion that their aim is squandering precious time provides a seeming rationale for simply cutting them out of the debate.
The temptation to fall into tribalism is, then, understandable enough. It is also true that many of the specific sins involved, such as partial peer-reviewing and overly zealous defence of one's own research, are and always have been found in all manner of science departments. With climate, though, the stakes are higher – and so the standards must be too. The well-financed interests that are set to pay a heavy price from any curbing of emissions will do anything to discredit those uncovering facts that they would rather keep buried. Their arguments will get a sympathetic hearing from a public whose understanding can be distorted by the desire for an easy life. Complacency is tough stuff to puncture; only the purest strain of truth can be relied on to do the job.

If you're going to do good science, release the computer code too

Programs do more and more scientific work - but you need to be able to check them as well as the original data, as the recent row over climate change documentation shows
Darrel Ince, Friday 5 February 2010 15.42 GMT
One of the spinoffs from the emails and documents that were leaked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia is the light that was shone on the role of program code in climate research. There is a particularly revealing set of "README" documents that were produced by a programmer at UEA apparently known as "Harry". The documents indicate someone struggling with undocumented, baroque code and missing data – this, in something which forms part of one of the three major climate databases used by researchers throughout the world.
Many climate scientists have refused to publish their computer programs. I suggest is that this is both unscientific behaviour and, equally importantly, ignores a major problem: that scientific software has got a poor reputation for error.
There is enough evidence for us to regard a lot of scientific software with worry. For example Professor Les Hatton, an international expert in software testing resident in the Universities of Kent and Kingston, carried out an extensive analysis of several million lines of scientific code. He showed that the software had an unacceptably high level of detectable inconsistencies.
For example, interface inconsistencies between software modules which pass data from one part of a program to another occurred at the rate of one in every seven interfaces on average in the programming language Fortran, and one in every 37 interfaces in the language C. This is hugely worrying when you realise that just one error — just one — will usually invalidate a computer program. What he also discovered, even more worryingly, is that the accuracy of results declined from six significant figures to one significant figure during the running of programs.
Hatton and other researchers' work indicates that scientific software is often of poor quality. What is staggering about the research that has been done is that it examines commercial scientific software – produced by software engineers who have to undergo a regime of thorough testing, quality assurance and a change control discipline known as configuration management.
By contrast scientific software developed in our universities and research institutes is often produced by scientists with no training in software engineering and with no quality mechanisms in place and so, no doubt, the occurrence of errors will be even higher. The Climate Research Unit's "Harry ReadMe" files are a graphic indication of such working conditions, containing as they do the outpouring of a programmer's frustrations in trying to get sets of data to conform to a specification.
Computer code is also at the heart of a scientific issue. One of the key features of science is deniability: if you erect a theory and someone produces evidence that it is wrong, then it falls. This is how science works: by openness, by publishing minute details of an experiment, some mathematical equations or a simulation; by doing this you embrace deniability. This does not seem to have happened in climate research. Many researchers have refused to release their computer programs — even though they are still in existence and not subject to commercial agreements. An example is Professor Mann's initial refusal to give up the code that was used to construct the 1999 "hockey stick" model that demonstrated that human-made global warming is a unique artefact of the last few decades. (He did finally release it in 2005.)
The situation is by no means bad across academia. A number of journals, for example those in the area of economics and econometrics, insist on an author lodging both the data and the programs with the journal before publication. There's also an object lesson in a landmark piece of mathematics: the proof of the four colour conjecture by Apel and Haken. They proved a longstanding hypothesis which suggested - but had never been able to show and so elevate to a theory - that in any map, the regions can be coloured using at most four colours so that no two adjacent regions have the same colour. Their proof was controversial in that instead of an elegant mathematical exposition, they partly used a computer program. Their work was criticised for inelegance, but it was correct and the computer program was published for checking.
The problem of large-scale scientific computing and the publication of data is being addressed by organisations and individuals that have signed up to the idea of the fourth paradigm. This was the idea of Jim Grey, a senior researcher at Microsoft, who identified the problem well before Climategate. There is now a lot of research and development work going into mechanisms whereby the web can be used as a repository for scientific publications, and more importantly the computer programs and the huge amount of data that they use and generate. A number of workers are even devising systems that show the progress of a scientific idea from first thoughts to the final published papers. The problems with climate research will do doubt provide an impetus for this work to be accelerated.
So, if you are publishing research articles that use computer programs, if you want to claim that you are engaging in science, the programs are in your possession and you will not release them then I would not regard you as a scientist; I would also regard any papers based on the software as null and void.
I find it sobering to realise that a slip of a keyboard could create an error in programs that will be used to make financial decisions which involve billions of pounds and, moreover, that the probability of such errors is quite high. But of course the algorithms (known as Gaussian copula functions) that the banks used to assume that they could create risk-free bonds from sub-prime loans has now been published ( That was pretty expensive. Climate change is expensive too. We really do need to be sure that we're not getting any of our sums wrong - whether too big or small - there as well.
Darrel Ince is professor of computing at the Open University

Head of IPCC insists science behind climate change remains valid

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has insisted that the science behind global warming remains valid, despite recent embarrassing mistakes which has threatened to damage the organisation's credibility.

By Martin EvansPublished: 8:48AM GMT 05 Feb 2010

The IPCC faced widespread criticism after it was revealed that predictions that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 were out by around 300-years.
But speaking ahead of the biggest climate change conference, since the Copenhagen summit in December, Dr Pachauri said the mistake did not detract from the underlying message of climate change.

He told BBC Radio4's Today programme: "There is one mistake that occurred unfortunately and we have clearly accepted that, we have accepted regret that it took place but there is a huge volume of science over there, the IPCC fourth volume assessment report is a massive piece of work and I think all of what we have said over there is totally valid."
He added: "The fact is that we have clearly shown that the impacts of climate change, if you don't take action are going to become progressively serious. And it is not merely a warming of the earth's system it is also a disruption in terms of extreme events and there are some leaders in the world who have actually realised that. They are actually saying that the best way to way to get out of the current economic recession is to invest in green jobs."
Dr Pachauri also denied allegations of a conflict of interest between his position as the head of the IPCC and his role with the Teri research organisation in India.
He said any money he earned from advising companies around the world went back into Teri, which among other things, aims to provide solar power to people without access to electricity.
"Not a single penny goes into my pocket," he said.

Tibet temperature 'highest since records began' say Chinese climatologists

Average Tibet temperatures in 2009 increased 1.5C, with rises noted in both winter and summer at 29 monitoring sites

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent, and agencies, Friday 5 February 2010 13.31 GMT

The roof of the world is heating up, according to a report today that said temperatures in Tibet soared last year to the highest level since records began.
Adding to the fierce international debate about the impact of climate change on the Himalayas, the state-run China Daily noted that the average temperature in Tibet in 2009 was 5.9C, 1.5 degrees higher than "normal".
It did not define "normal", but Chinese climatologists have previously drawn comparisons with an average over several decades.
"Average temperatures recorded at 29 observatories reached record highs," Zhang Hezhen, a Lhasa resident and specialist at the regional weather bureau told the newspaper. "It's high time for all of us to take global warming seriously and think about what we can do to save the earth."
The average rose in both summer and winter, which is unusual as most of mountain warming has previously been observed in the winter.
A monitoring station at the foot of Mt Everest also recorded a new record high temperature of 25.8 degrees, which was 0.7C warmer than the previous peak.
Amid the worst drought in decades, Lhasa experienced its first temperature above 30C since records began in 1961, the report said. Rainfall in Tibet fell to its lowest level in 39 years, affecting nearly 30,000 hectares of cropland - an eighth of Tibet's arable land.
Xiao Ziniu, director general of the National Climate Centre told The Guardian last year that the Tibetan Plateau was particularly sensitive to climate change due to the impact on fragile grasslands, permafrost and glaciers.
Tibet's annual climate report was released at a time of growing international controversy about signs of global warming in the mountain region, where the average altitude is over 4,000m.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was forced to retract a forecast that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by 2035. A study by Indian scientists last year found that the rate of glacial retreat was considerably slower than previously estimated. Chinese experts are debating the subject and have proposed cross-border studies, but most published research in the country suggests glaciers are shrinking, raising the risk of flash floods in the short-term and drought in the more distant future.