A Burning Answer? The Solar Revolution to come

Barhnam_Burning_AnswerIn 2013 I described “The Burning Question” by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark as “one of the most important books on man-made climate change” yet written. So I was looking forward to reading “The Burning Answer – A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution” by Keith Barnham (ISBN 978-1-7802-2533-3 Weildenfeld & Nicolson in 2014, 3rd paperback edition, with new preface, April 2015). Although the title of Barnham’s work seems likely to cash-in on the Berners-Lee/Clark book there is no (to my knowledge) mention of it whatsoever in “The Burning Answer”. This is not a direct answer at all! It is an entirely different beast. The author is a Professor of physics and used to work at CERN. Needless to say his work is therefore…, how shall we put it? “Sciencey.” He left CERN mid-career to pursue solar energy research and has given us a book of two halves: one; a long and tedious description of the solar energy development with all the physics, two; an up-to-date critique of UK Government policy pertaining to renewables. It is the latter to which the readers will be rewarded with their attentions.

When I read a hard-copy book these days (increasingly rare) I turn the pages corners to mark items for later reference. Of this 372 page work the first 140 pages (all of “Part 1”) concerns history of semiconductors. These pages passed with hardly a single page being turned down. The author admits, with no due modesty, in the extensive bibliography (worth a read in its own right) that his explanations of the working of quantum physics are probably unique. The only other place you need to go to see this stuff are the sort of undergraduate text books that I recall from my years as an Engineering student at University. It was not an enthralling (or easily understood) read at the time. Nothing has changed.

Quite why Barnham, thought this would be interesting to the lay-reader, OR even be relevant, is a mystery. Maybe nobody at the editorial department of the publishing house thought to take him aside and ask him to politely cut to the chase. This earlier tedium does serve to demonstrate the author’s boundless enthusiasm for particle physics – and this is to his credit. However the description of how protons, electrons, waves and particles interact at the atomic level do nothing for the readability of the book. No doubt many a casual reader will have given up and walked away long before the reward of Part II.

Yet from Part II onwards the author kicks into gear and the pages start to get turned down. We should start with an observation that is key to understanding where Barnham is coming from. Late in the bibliography he makes a brief note about being “initiated […] into a lifetime of support for causes unpopular with the rich and powerful“. He was referring to earlier involvement with the anti-apartheid campaign. Needless to say the book also strongly reflects the author’s strong distrust for nuclear power. Whilst this can be quite refreshing of a nuclear physicist it colours the language and assumptions for the rest of the book. Readers should be aware of this bias. Although we largely share the author’s conclusions (regarding the direction of travel of energy policy) we felt the need to keep our guards up lest his hyperbole lead us astray. His numerous mentions of terrorism threats to the nuclear industry are passed on with little or no justification. Despite his enlightening and critical analysis of the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons his judgements about the risk remain subjective.

Regardless of this caution we found great novelty in some of Barnham’s conclusions. He believes there is no coincidence that the world’s three leading nations in photovoltaic technology are Germany, Italy and Japan, ie, the losing Axis powers of World War two. Barnham concludes that since none of these countries were allowed to develop nuclear weapons then it was natural for them to develop solar power. Although I agree there may well be a link the author does not elaborate. Since all three nations clearly developed Nuclear Power then what is the relevance of the weapons link? Probably none. Barnham quickly moves on to suggest that there is something intrinsic in the health of the democratic mechanisms in these nations that lead to such policy decisions. Beyond that the links between the histories and the futures of these nations remains obscure. Yet still the author sees fit to pummel the perceived relationship between nuclear weapons and PV development several further times without concrete justification.

A narrative that works somewhat better is the references to the “sexy” equation E=mc² as opposed to its little know cousin E=hf. Einstein’s famous equation links matter and energy leading us into the Nuclear era. The other less-well-known equation refers to the energy available from electromagnetic waves. Sunlight (in this case) can be turned into energy with a semiconductor. The author suggests that one form of energy currently dominates over the other ONLY because one could be weaponised.

“..new semiconductor technology developed most quickly when governments and the military were most interested in the application”

This theory is intriguing but hardly watertight. I cannot see this as a race of nuclear versus semiconductor. Both have their uses and all our weapons contain semiconductors. It is a nice idea but, once again, it only seems to underline a pre-existing antipathy that the author feels towards nuclear technology. This is great, fresh, thinking – but unconvincing.

The first practical PV cell dates to work in a Bell Laboratory in 1954. It is worthy of note (although not mentioned in the book) that the Russians launched Sputnik 3 in 1958 with an array of solar panels all around the satellite. The author dips into his quantum explanations as to how it all works at several points – but if you can survive this then you reach the important conclusion around page 127 that PV is important because it is a distributed power source. It generates energy where it is needed, not in some remote mega-power station. This is an important distinction that Barnham does not dwell upon. The Bibliography makes no mention of “The Third Industrial Revolution” by Jeremy Rifkin [ISBN 978-0-230-11521-7 Palgrave Macmillan 2011] which is the one book all interested parties should be reading. It spells out the truly ground-breaking paradigm shift that an internet of distributed renewable energy supplies will bring to our society. It has everything to do with democracy and very much less to do with mega projects such as nuclear.

These technologies are not opposed because one is good and the other evil. They stand opposed because one is small and scalable, whilst the other is big and centralised. They represent completely different understandings of, not only how a power grid should work, but also of how our society can work. For a moment it looked like this revolution would grip the imaginations of every politician…

Somehow it was not quite to be, not yet. To understand what really went wrong it may be useful to have a browse through the book “Too Little, Too Late – the politics of climate change” by Colin Challen MP [ISBN 9780956037008 Picnic Publishing 2009]. Challen explained how the inertia of the Whitehall bureaucracy leads Civil Servants and Politicians to continually turn to tried and tested solutions to every problem. Truly revolutionary ideas do not take root unless they serve the purposes of a very narrow elite. It is too easy to cite a Nuclear or Fossil Fuel lobby whilst what is really happening is more correctly termed a “lack of vision”. The third industrial revolution upsets one too many apple carts. It is my conclusion that we have ample evidence to how obstacles to clean power arise within the political establishment. A narrower argument about nuclear power, like the one delivered here, fails to convince in quite the same way. The real world is infinitely more complicated and defies simple explanation.

This won’t stop Barnham from banging on about it. His reason why we don’t all use solar energy?

“…you cannot make bombs with solar panels…”

Yeah… but.. Thus the author imagines the reaction of more enlightened extra-terrestrials (to our earthly obsession with nuclear power) with the comment

“They have decided earthlings are too stupid to be worth colonising.”

Our super-smart aliens have discovered energy from sunlight before nuclear power. Of course they would! But you do wonder if they have found a way to power their space ships with photovoltaics? No? Maybe they haven’t conquered us because they simply cannot reach us from all those light years away. Which might not be a bad thing.

In fact there is plenty of sunlight in space and the military were quick to “weaponise” photovoltaics onto spy satellites. Integrated circuits benefitted more from the space race – or so Barnham would have us believe. No justification for this statement is delivered. Only the assumption that, because the result is very little photovoltaic investment, this must be because it doesn’t go bang. QED. The fact is that we only have PV in any meaningful quantity because of the space race. Maybe we should be grateful and put down the disparities to more simple explanations.

Through the book the author starts to answer the critics of solar power. This is actually his stated objective – although you have to find this in the Bibliography on page 340:

“My intention is that [this book] provides the information to counter arguments of those why deny that solar technologies can do the job.”

To this end we wait until page 149 to get to the real crunch where we learn that the author contributed to a paper covering the way that electrical power demand in Germany and the UK varied through a year. They argued that

“…the UK will need less wind and PV supply than Germany to achieve an all-renewable electricity supply. This is because wind and PV power resources are complementary.”

So it is not PV alone that will save us. It is a mix of renewable resources. We are quickly moved on to the Kombikraftwerk study from Germany in 2006 that suggested that very little battery storage will be required by utility companies in a 100% renewable grid. This is because the deficits in power supply can be made up for by a third renewable source: biogas.

I recall the Kombikraftwerk study from my early days writing about the Transition movement in 2008 to 2010. However since then I do not recall much work to back up this single study. The idea that we need significant battery (or other reserve) storage system to back up renewables remains a significant and somewhat undisputed “fact” that even environmentalists discuss openly. Yet here we see this single study being resurrected some eight years after it was done. This sounds a little fishy. No doubt the work was genuine but to cite it alone suggest that it may have been an outlier. What work has been done to confirm its findings in the UK? Has there been further modelling? Where will the biogas come from in adequate quantities to match the power lulls? Will the biogas itself need an expansion of storage facilities? I would feel more comfortable about this model if it could be updated and upgraded from computer model to real world experiment.

Barnham admits that the grid will benefit from more storage but cites the Kombikraftwerk study to justify his belief that we should not use excess caution in installing new PV and wind power systems (as long as we have biogas backup). The author takes great comfort from the experiences in Germany and Italy where large amounts of renewables were absorbed into the grid. So much so that the price of wholesale electricity regularly goes negative in periods of high generation. At this point we run into the problem with the UK Nuclear Power ambitions in general, and Hinkley Point (the site for a new nuclear plant in the UK) specifically. Whilst detractors often cite the need to upgrade the grid to install a large amounts of renewables Barnham rightly points out that National Grid needs to spend £1 billion on improvements to incorporate new nuclear.

Given the years of under-investment (following deregulation/privatisation under Margaret Thatcher) the power grid is now due a massive over-haul. This is regardless of what sort of power-generation it needs to take on. This is a point seldom brought up by the anti-renewables brigade who pretend that clean power is somehow uniquely expensive. All generation is expensive, everything is subsidised. It only takes political will and that extends from having a clean-power-friendly press. But since Britain enjoys the most far-right, pro-establishment and anti-green media sector the governing elite feel the need to denigrate clean power as “green crap” rather than as a necessary act of long-term self-preservation & security.

Barnham worked with the authors of the Kombikraftwerk study to reach the conclusion that Governments can now confidently build ONLY renewable power sources going forward. This is an important watershed: capital investments in the power sector can take years to build and then run for thirty years or more due to their enormous sunk-cost. That should not be our direction of travel as the inertia it generates will lead us to a climate future we cannot afford and which cannot be undone now that the UK Government has canned its carbon capture project.

“The evidence from Germany and Italy suggests the electrical power would be cheaper and there should be no need to fear the lights will go out.”

Seldom have we heard such good news in mainstream discourse on this matter. The good news goes on. If the UK Feed-in Tariff has been closely modelled on the German experience then “Britain would have sufficient PV for an all-renewable exlectricity supply by 2020“. That’s 37GW of installed power – far higher than the paltry 1.6GW for one new nuclear plant. We would need 104GW installed win power capacity to meet the goal. Half of that goal is expected to be achieved by 2023 – IF the UK Government stays on target. Is it? Seemingly not, and at this point Barnham has to take on the DECC policy machine and none other than their chief advisor Professor David MacKay (author of “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” which we reviewed in 2009). MacKay’s appointment was welcomed at the time as being a positive step forward but Barnham’s research suggests that his appointment was closely linked to MacKay’s somewhat conservative estimates for clean power installation rates and capacity. What is more disturbing was how the DECC’s sums always seemed to require new Nuclear. No model seemed acceptable to a government devoted to new nuclear unless it proved they needed new nuclear. Hardly objective.

Barnham describes some of MacKay’s calculations as “suspicious” beginning with his estimates for UK geothermal energy. The author digs up actual research showing that geothermal can be exploited to a much greater extent and more sustainably than Mackay suggests. Others too found the MacKay/DECC numbers to be artificially low and a new study was commissioned that showed that 20% of the UK’s electricity could be generated from geothermal sources. Not only that but it could supply all the heat we needed too. It seems the nuclear reactions deep beneath the earth’s surface are the only new nuclear we need. Between that and the enormous fusion reactor of the sun it looks increasingly unlikely that we would ever need to reproduce such power in a man-made power station. We have all we need if we go out and gather it. So what gives? Why doesn’t policy follow the evidence?

Barnham uses the example of early wave power experiments to claim that it is the power of the “nuclear establishment and fossil fuel interests” that are holding us back. However he doesn’t add any evidence to justify this. To him it is self-evident. If your confirmation bias is so inclined then you would agree with him without question. A problem. The Westminster elites seem less keen on these wonderful new sources of power. Maybe the lobbying is part of the problem but it is more likely a single facet of a wider culture that finds much macho-comfort in big, nasty, machines, digging big holes and extracting lots of nasty stuff. It was columnist and author George Monbiot who speculated that Government Ministers got really turned on by mega-projects that they could use as photo-opportunities. What with all those hard hats, diggers, cranes and hi-viz jackets. Don’t forget the hi-viz jackets. Oooo!

But maybe the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) could save us? Well yes, and no. They recommended that by 2030 all electricity generation in Britain would need to be from sources that emit less than 50gCO2/kWh. Barnham agrees this is a good target. The CCC assesses different technologies for their suitability. Whilst hydropower comes first all the clean power technologies, we are familiar with, would be suitable although PV came in at the high end. This was because of the electricity needed to create the panels. However as the grid carbon-intensity dropped so too this would drop and tend towards zero. That is not something that can be said to be true of any fossil fuel or nuclear-based technology relying upon extraction of resources from the ground.

Now, controversially, the carbon footprint of new nuclear is hard to pin down. It depends upon the assumptions made. Hence if the government wants new nuclear then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the assumptions are groomed to yield the result the policy makers have already decided upon. Barnham surveyed the known results from other studies and suggests that the footprint of new nuclear is vastly higher than the one the UK government is using to make policy. But he would say that wouldn’t he? Yet there appeared to be little need for the policy makers to cheat. The carbon footprint of natural gas was nine times higher than the CCC limit. The British government henceforth championed a carbon footprint limit on new generation that as nine times higher than the CCC limit. It was deliberately set so that fracked gas could be exploited. Very cynical.

There again Barnham performs his own mental Olympics sometimes. He suggests we switch our home heating systems to electrical resistance heaters. The mind boggles. No doubt Chris Goodall would take him to task. It is hard to imagine how it is efficient to convert high-carbon electricity into low-carbon heating. Barnham’s excuse is that you need only switch your energy supplier to an all-renewables supplier and heah-presto, problem solved! Of course we could not do that ALL tomorrow could we? Likewise his argument that electricity could be cheaper than gas depends upon you having a really old gas boiler running at 50% efficiency. It seems there is something about the electrons in electricity that gets the author so very excited that he abandons all common-sense in his loathing of simple combustion. Needless to say he makes no mention of the use of biomass for home heating. Something he shares with MacKay.

Likewise Barnham is fond of ground source heat pumps. Yup, no combustion, just lots of technology and electrical stuff going on… And physics. Stuff he can explain with the laws of thermodynamics. Somehow the academic nature of his time in the ivory towers and at CERN has never quite left the author. Nobody on the natural gas grid should be using a heat pump. Likewise such things are only of use if your home is as well insulated as those are in Scandinavia. These basic metrics are well known in the trade and somehow it seems more sensible to trust those who ‘do’ rather than those who ‘teach’. With no disrespect for the author he often seems out of his depth and out on a voyage of fancy. He remains at his most persuasive when he is closer to his home topic.

The critics of solar power are tackled head on, be they George Monbiot or David Mackay, and it seems the retorts are credible coming from Barnham. Still, MacKay was in a position of influence and DECC chose him because they knew he would give them the narrow policy spectrum they had already decided upon. The resulting DECC model ignored the complementary power peaks and troughs from different renewables. DECC’s “energy flow” model favoured nuclear over renewables by a factor of seven. So with slightly different assumptions, than those used by DECC, you can work out a pathway to 100% renewables with no nuclear whatsoever. As Barnham rightly point out: all it takes is political will. Since the government wants a certain policy mix it is simply making the facts fit what it wants, rather than making policy based upon evidence.

So what would policy look like here if we did have that political will? Once again we turn to Germany as the model with its two national laboratories devoted to renewables: one for solar and the other for wind. UK development of renewables is being held back due to lack of government investment in research and development. If we really need a crash program, some Apollo moon-shot or new Manhattan Project then it will not be done on a shoestring. One of the problems in the UK is not only Government intransigence but also lack of support from scientific institutions who, like their macho-peers in Parliament, prefer sciencey, mega-techno-projects like new nuclear. Whilst the Royal Society has pressed for a National Nuclear Laboratory to be commissioned they have not called for a Solar Laboratory. Likewise the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have been rather too supportive of fracking in the UK for the author’s liking. Alternatives like biogas are ignored. Hence we lag behind the Germans on solar because the establishment prefers nuclear. The UK Government prefers what Barnham describes as “myths” about gas fracking. Nothing new here then.

Once finished with criticising UK Government policy decisions the author moves onto cover some exotic technologies. This belongs firmly in the realm of the theoretical and includes technologies that create carbon fuels through solar panels on your roof. Barham hopes for the development of fuel cell cars that use methanol or ethanol rather than hydrogen. Ethanol is a simple carbon fuel that can be created from carbon dioxide at the domestic level. Barnham explains how, even if the concept is years from commercial development. Maybe some form of artificial leaf powered by a biological mechanism could be appearing on our roofs to power our cars. The back-of-the-envelope calculations show it is possible. Sound like a great idea. One day. Maybe if we devoted some of the resources to this, that we currently throw at fusion technologies, then such dreams might become reality?

Barnham’s vision for the global spread of the renewables/solar technological panacea is for the solution to be taken up in very sunny countries. He suggests that is in such solar-blessed climates that many new solar and wind technology factories should be built to create low carbon technologies for export and domestic use. Unfortunately in a global system dominated by free trade mantras and the World Trade Organisation it would prove quite hard in the real world to make such a vision happen. It could only come about if Climate Change agreements would trump world trade agreements. For that to happen the current dogmas must be over-turned.

The author goes on to pitch big/bad nuclear against renewables with his repeated accusations of the close links between energy generation and nuclear weapons. He believes that nations should come together to stop the proliferation of nuclear technologies by substituting in renewables. He cites the example of Iran who could peacefully exploit it vast solar resources at a fraction of the cost of building a nuclear power plant. Yet still… The nuclear club is an exclusive one. Those who enter it win new respect. They are feared and become immune to attack. They sit at the big table of world affairs. A nuclear power. This is the magic elixir that macho-government desires. Solar isn’t going to quite cut it in the real world. Not until we find a way of turning it into a weapon to blast our enemies off the face of the earth with a big bang. Then it would be cool. From Tehran to Washington there would be Manhattan Projects to spare if we could weaponise the sun.

So, what to do about Hinkley Point C in the UK – our site for new nuclear? Barham suggests covering the site in PV to generate at 0.1GW of power. A 1.5GW offshore win farm could be built close by. Together they would generate the 1.6GW that the nuclear power station was supposed to. It would cost vastly less and be ready much more quickly. Barnham drops in the fascinating factoid at this point: both nuclear and wind farms both operate for about 49% of the time. Hmmm… What dreams… Common sense (sadly) has nothing to do with the macho-decisions of the energy establishment.

We end with a lot of ‘wishful thinking’ (actually the author’s phrase not mine). Yes we really should move fossil fuel subsidies over to renewables and establish a National UK Solar Laboratory. Even if we had just stuck to our guns with the Feed-in Tariff Britain would be well on its way to a 100% renewable energy grid by 2023. We need to keep the faith. Yet faith is a preciously rare commodity in the domain of the Realpolitik these days. Austerity is just another macho-engine of a conservative establishment. The book closes with a glimpse of what is possible. It is within grasp. We are so close to solving this problem yet our policymakers seem content with grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Our establishment culture does not like such revolutionary change to happen so quickly. This is a deficit in the UK’s democratic institutions more than anything else. Maybe we really should have lost a war here and there to cut down our hubris by a peg or two.

This is a sprawling book that is half physics text book and half policy critique with a whole load of other stuff just thrown in. To be kind it is a bit of a mess. I have named above several works by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, David MacKay, Colin Challen, Jeremy Rifkin, Chris Goodall, etc. all of whom write more persuasively on this topic. This stops way short of being a convincing manifesto. It is at times naïve, fanciful and academic. Yes – maybe worth a read but, if you are given the choice, then instead read “The Burning Question” and “The Third Industrial Revolution“. That with a sprinkling of Jeremy Leggett will probably deliver all you need to know.


About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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