Sucks …

First they came for the vacuum cleaner …

On Monday many of the best vacuum cleaners available for sale in the UK will be banned as a result of the EU energy efficiency rules that prohibit the manufacture or importing any vacuums with motors above 1,600 watts.

Tesco said sales of the most powerful vacuums had soared by as much as 94 per cent for some models after the Telegraph reported consumer group Which? urging shoppers to act quickly before they sold out forever.

This is supposed to be an energy saving measure … clearly not the energy of the person cleaning the house.

A study ordered by the European Commission,currently in draft form, has identified up to 30 electrical appliances including lawn mowers, smart phones and kettles that could be covered by the EU’s Ecodesign directive outlawing high-wattage devices.

Hairdryers are next in line it seems. And kettles soon.

What springs to mind is the obvious fact that to boil a kettle of water requires the same input of energy whether its quick and powerful or slow and frustrating (ignoring the small amount of additional heat lost to the atmosphere whilst the pot is watched for longer).

And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space …

Tilting at windmills …

Fortune,” said Don Quixote to his squire, as soon as he had seen them, “is arranging matters for us better than we could have hoped. Look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants rise up, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes. For this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.

Australia’s Renewable Energy Target has been in the news this week. To the forces of one side of the climate war any change would be an attack on clean energy. To the other side the RET is a cursed impost on consumers and manufacturers that is reducing our standard of living by pushing up energy costs. It is not disputed by either side that the clean stuff can only compete with the dirty stuff if government tilts the playing field by means of regulation and subsidies.

Energy is a fundamental requirement of life. Animals must eat. In fact animals must eat the primary production of plants. A typical terrestrial food chain is three-tiered, eg grass, rabbit, fox. Longer chains are possible eg algae, zooplankton, copepod, little fish, big fish, seal, shark. At each step up the chain there is a reduction of very approximately 90% in biomass. If there is less than about ten times as much prey than predator food is hard to catch. If food requires more energy to catch than the energy it yields the predator starves. It is a biological reality that energy returned must be greater than energy invested (variously abbreviated EROI – energy returned on investment, or EROEI – energy returned on energy invested). And it explains why big fierce animals are rare.

Prior to the industrial revolution most people had to make do with the power of their own bodies plus the odd draught animal. The rich and powerful could put others to work on their behalf and parasitise their labours. Cheap energy makes us all rich and powerful. Buckminster Fuller went to the trouble of converting the energy being put to work in the world to its equivalent in slaves. In 1950, every human on earth had the equivalent of 38 full-time slaves. It would be more now. Our capacity to grow and distribute food, educate our community, enjoy manufactured goods and fight off the barbarians who would like to behead us depends on the availability of enough energy.

There is a fear upon the land that carbon dioxide, essential to that very first step in the food chain, photosynthesis, is a pollutant and will cause us to fry. There have been a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the human output of carbon dioxide. It would be reasonable to expect that such initiatives would reduce the output of CO2 but that doesn’t seem to be essential to their adoption. Burning biomass for example produces more CO2 per unit of energy than does coal or gas but enjoys the blessing of the EU. And then there is wind …

A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great vanes began to move.

“Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus  ye have to reckon with me!” exclaimed Don Quixote, when he saw this.

And of course he said his prayers, lowered his lance and charged.

A slight breeze can spring up at any moment or die away. It means that wind is of little value for base load power. The fossil fuel power station can’t be turned off and on willy nilly so when the wind blows the impact on coal or gas usage is small and the CO2 output is little diminished.

The answer, my friend, is storage. Why don’t we build a very large battery?

Which brings us back to EROEI.

A plant that only generates as much energy as it took to build it has an EROEI of 1 (and had better be pretty). Weißbach et al. investigated the figures for a variety of energy sources and compared them with their estimate of the EROEI required to maintain civilisation at a standard comparable with the US or Germany which is about 7.



Energy Returned on Energy Invested, derived from Weißbach et al.,with and without energy storage (buffering).  CCGT is closed-cycle gas turbine.  PWR is a Pressurized Water (conventional nuclear) Reactor.  Energy sources must exceed the “economic threshold”, of about 7, to yield the surplus energy required to support an OECD level society.

You can see from the graph that our conventional power plants have an EROEI of 30. Energy is stored simply by storing coal. We set one slave to work, in return we get the output of thirty slaves. Good value. Civilisation flourishes.

Wind performs quite well at 16. Civilisation can flourish whenever the wind blows.

If you would like power when the wind isn’t blowing we must have some storage. The cheapest form of storage is to pump water uphill when the wind blows and generate hydroelecticity when you need it. This is practicable where the terrain permits. This drops the EROEI to 3.9 …  civilisation collapses, we are all beheaded. Any form of battery or chemical storage requires the investment of at least 10 times more energy … you would be better off putting real slaves in a treadmill.


The bird mincers, therefore, are good for only a small proportion of electricity production. Photovoltaic solar and biomass will not cut it. At all. Full stop. In a competitive market no-one would invest money in those technologies. The redirection of taxes or the imposition of regulation to foster these technologies is truly corporate welfare. The Solar Generators that concentrate the sun’s rays on a central boiler or any passing bird or insect by reflection scrape above the line but at a cost to the environment that should be unacceptable. Their EROEI would be somewhere between 19 and 9 unless you shut civilisation down every night.

The population that we have on earth today cannot be sustained without cheap energy. Famine is the result of political failure. If we cannot produce the energy required to grow and distribute food in a stable society there will be war.

Hydro power has an excellent EROEI but requires a particular combination of water and terrain. More of it would be good but in the long run the true solution is inescapable. We will embrace nuclear power or leave the earth to the cockroach.

Sources …

Weißbach et al.

The catch 22 of energy storage. John Morgan.




Farewell Madagascar …

There is this awful sense that if you don’t see it soon you won’t see it at all. Madagascar, a crucible of evolution in isolation, is losing its distinct suite of habitats. Virtually every lemur species is endangered.
Threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity and ecosystems
  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction.
  2. Agricultural fires.
  3. Erosion and soil degradation.
  4. Overexploitation of living resources including hunting and over-collection of species from the wild.
  5. Introduction of alien species.

You can read all about it at

How did it come to this?

The industrial revolution has hardly touched this place. At every turn you see people at work, not machines at work. People dig fields with shovels, not tractors. They carry or pull their loads. They make crushed rock by taking a hammer and cold chisel to large chunks of granite.


The majority of homes are not connected to an electricity supply.

When it comes to their carbon footprint the Malagasy lead exemplary lives. Their environment is going to hell in a handcart.

It is worth noting that the main source of cooking fuel is charcoal. That’s what the guy has on his back in the sack capped with grass to stop it falling out. That’s what the wood in the photo below is destined to become. The two men have dragged the three wheel cart up the hill. The journey down is gravity assisted and not without hazard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharcoal is a renewable.

The European Union gives its blessing to burning an American forest in one of England’s power stations. Renewable … but it would require the consumption of the entirety of British forests to keep it going and it would not be renewed in our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Conservation is the privilege of affluent nations. For poor nations survival is the only priority. Energy poverty is not the saviour of our world.

Carbon tax …

The carbon tax, that Julia and Wayne promised we would not have, is designed to increase the cost of energy.

I played the Inverloch jazz festival again this year, in the past it has had problems with flood, this year it happened to coincide with a heatwave. One of the venues is a council hall. To avoid the carbon tax the council would not turn on the air conditioning. The result was that the audience fled to the one hall that they could sit in without melting whilst some great musicians played to an almost empty house.

The availability of affordable energy is almost the measure of a civilisation. In hot places like Australia or in cold places like the UK people on low incomes are being forced to make a choice between keeping their houses at a comfortable temperature and putting food on their tables.

But the most ridiculous side effect of this ridiculous tax, ridiculous because it will have no impact on the world’s climate, is the burden placed on hospitals.

VICTORIA’S cash-strapped hospitals have been hit with an extra $6.7 million in energy costs due to the carbon tax in just six months, new data reveals. State government analysis of hospital bills shows carbon charges made up on average 15 per cent of hospital energy bills. Herald Sun.

How incredibly stupid …

Thorium, the fuel of the future …

The promotional blurb for SuperFuel by Richard Martin …

At the dawn of the atomic age, uranium and thorium were equally important as the element of choice in researching nuclear energy. Either one could have powered the world’s reactors. But it was uranium that won out, and thorium, which is far cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium, was relegated to the dustbin of science. With it went the possibility of creating a low risk nuclear energy source to power our planet.  What might have happened had our scientists and our government, and the nuclear power industry invested the resources to develop this little known yet abundant element? Would we face a global energy crisis and the prospect of catastrophic climate change today? Why are countries around the world, including rising economic superpowers India and China, rushing to develop electricity from thorium while the United States, which studied thorium reactors extensively in the 1960s, plays catch up?

I’m sure they won’t mind me using it. Why did thorium lose out to uranium? Largely because government scale investment was needed to develop a nuclear energy and governments rather liked the fact that uranium would make very nice bombs whilst thorium would not.


More green maths …

Food miles, bad news, eat local and save the planet.


…it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food.

He points out that transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system. The other favorite targets of sustainability advocates, fertilizers and chemicals’ share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

Agriculture accounts for just 2 percent of America’s energy usage …

In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy.