Dependable wind

Bishop Hill has rightly pointed out that the current weather is casting the Met. Office's claims of technical superiority in a bad light. But let's not limit it to the Met. Office. It is also making a monkey of wind fanatics.

The current weather presents an interesting challenge to proponents of wind-power. Jeremy Paxman just asked Mike O'Brien how much power is currently being produced by renewables (assuming in standard BBC-style that renewables would deliver power on demand regardless of conditions), to which O'Brien answered truthfully "very little".

Even that is an exaggeration for wind at this precise moment. Just when our needs are greatest, because of the cold weather, our output of wind-power must be less than "very little", because of the same high-pressure system that has caused the cold weather.

Wind-fans argue that if we had better networks, the wind will always be blowing somewhere. But it would need to be a big network, with massive redundancy, in conditions like this. The UK is not remotely big enough. Western Europe wouldn't be big enough. In these conditions, we would need a network that stretched from Scotland to Greece and from Spain to Estonia, to achieve reasonable smoothing through geographical diversity. It would need to be a completely new, DC network because of the losses on AC over that distance. It would need massive duplication of wind capacity over that network. The cost would be immense. And the geopolitical insecurities huge. Hardly an answer to our energy-security problems.

The reality is that wind-power cannot serve much more than the 20% of our electricity demand (7% of our energy demands) that always used to be assumed (before the Renewable Energy Directive made it necessary to lie), and needs standby thermal generation capacity equal to almost the whole of the wind capacity. Like a pan-European HVDC network, keeping those power-stations available but idle won't be cheap.

BBC - The Broadcasting Bollocks Corporation

Chinese recycling
Photo courtesy of

In Radio 4's Home Planet today, Dr Lynn Dicks, pronouncing on the relative merits of recycling and landfilling, in terms of energy-consumption and carbon-footprint, said:

"Various people have looked at this from the point of view of greenhouse gas emissions, and again there are various different estimates from different people, but one particularly academic piece of research that I found was a full Lifecycle Assessment of the greenhouse gas or the CO2 emission from waste - either disposal of paper, including manufacturing of new paper and disposal to landfill, or recycling paper [Presenter interjects: And the lorry-loads that would be involved in that because that's something that Phil mentioned] and including taking the waste to the recycling facilities, disposing the residual waste after recycling... This was done by a consortium of people at UEA (University of East Anglia) and University College, London in 1995. It was all based on Milton Keynes, and what they found was that... oh well, I'll give you the figures - recycling paper produced about 50 kg of CO2 per tonne; if you disposed of it in landfill and made new paper, 550 kg of CO2 per tonne. So, it's much better to recycle."

1995! Our information and waste disposal techniques haven't improved since 1995? Oh well, if this is what the recycle-nuts want to hang their hats on, let's have a look at it. You can download it from here.

Take this, from p.11:

A second problem that occurs at the manufacturing stage is the scarcity of data, particularly with regards to the manufacture of products using secondary plastic materials. Whilst information concerning energy use is sometimes available, data for the remaining environmental inputs and outputs is either commercially sensitive or simply unreported. In this exercise, the process data (emissions arising directly from the process) has been taken as being identical for both primary and secondary plastics, but an energy saving (and thus the associated emissions of generation) of 77% is obtained by using secondary materials, as suggested by White, Franke and Hindle (1995).

Or to put it more succinctly, "we don't know how much energy is used in production of items from recycled feedstock, so we're going to assume it's 77% less than in the same processes using raw materials." That's how to get the "right" result. Use assumptions that make sure you get the desired outcome.

Even more questionably, from p. 13:

For each average tonne of waste which is disposed of to landfill in the UK, 81% by volume of the gaseous emissions are released to the atmosphere, 13% are flared, and 6% are used in landfill gas generating schemes (Williams, 1994 and Bellingham et al, 1994). This paper uses this average data when calculating the amount of electricity recovered. The electricity generated will displace emissions from old coal-fired power stations, and this study gives credit for these.

This probably wasn't even true in 1993 (the most recent year for which the Williams and Bellingham papers are likely to have had data). As I have mentioned before, I ran (until recently) the company that sold many of the flarestacks used on British landfills, so I know that a lot more flares went into landfills before 1993 than is usually assumed in government studies aiming to maximize the claimed reductions in landfill-gas emissions since then (which undermines the Government's claims that we are on target to meet our Kyoto obligations, but that is another story).

Whatever the case in 1993, nowadays this is absurd. The usual figure quoted for the capture-rate of methane from landfills over the lifetime of a modern, engineered landfill is about 85%. This is the figure used as standard in the government-approved model (GasSim) for estimating emissions from landfills. During the period when the gas is contained (i.e. after the phase has been "capped") and being converted (i.e. until the gas quality falls so low that it can no longer be flared), the capture rate is probably close to 100% in modern, engineered landfills. The 85% represents an allowance for emissions from the uncapped phase being tipped at any one time (the usual source of any odour), and slow seepage of the tail-end gas once it is no longer possible to flare it, by which time you are talking low volumes and low percentages of methane. Given sensible incentives, it would be possible to further reduce these emissions so that the overall capture-rate was over 90%, but let's take 85% as a reasonable average. Of that, provided that sensible incentives are maintained for its utilisation, the vast majority will be converted to electricity.

The impact on the LCA of assuming 19% capture, of which 6% utilisation, rather than the current figures of 85% capture of which perhaps 80% utilisation, is enormous. Methane (CH4) has a Global Warming Potential 23 times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2). If you assume that most of the carbohydrates in your waste are converted into landfill gas (roughly 50:50 CH4 and CO2), that most of that gas gets out, and that very little of it is used to displace fossil-fired generation, the comparison between landfill and any other form of waste disposal will be a no-brainer. Of course landfill is the worst technique if it's simply belching methane into the sky.

But this is bollocks. Methane isn't belching out of modern landfills - it is being captured and used to provide the largest single source of new renewable electricity in the country. Last year, landfill-gas generators produced nearly 4 TWh of renewable electricity. Onshore wind projects produced 2.8 TWh, offshore wind less than 0.7 TWh, while co-firing of biomass with coal, and refurbished hydro plants produced almost 2 TWh each.

The authors of the paper carefully ensured that it was not possible to trace their calculations from their assumptions to their conclusions. So it is not possible to reconstruct their calculations with more accurate assumptions. But even where they state their results, without showing how they were calculated, further errors intrude. On p.17, it is assumed that 13,000 grammes of methane are released per tonne of plastic landfilled (around a quarter of the methane emission-rate of paper). Ah yes, that famous putrescible plastic. This is such a beginner's error, that you have to wonder whether the authors had ever set foot on a landfill, or spoken to a waste-disposal operator.

And there is more. Landfilling of aluminium is assumed on the same page to produce 206.5 kilogrammes of methane per tonne of aluminium. Biodegradeable aluminium joins biodegradeable plastics in these academics' parallel universe. And thanks to what I can only assume is a labelling error, it is magnified by a factor of one thousand - not 206.5 g/t, but 206.5 kg/t in their scheme, or four times as much methane as is released from landfilling paper.

This study is so wrong that it isn't even in the right ballpark and so obfuscated that it is impossible to correct. And yet it is on studies like this that recycle-nuts like Dr Dicks rely to justify their brain-washed mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle". That may be the right approach, in some circumstances, but where appropriate (as indicated by relative costs), not as a rule. The current EU Directives on waste disposal, the Government's dirigiste waste strategy (in compliance with the EU), and councils' complex collection schemes (in compliance with the Government's strategy), are based on nothing more than incompetence and distortion.

Mark Thompson puts the case for carving up the BBC...

Indirectly, not intentionally, of course.

Mark Thompson today justified the BBC's licence fee on the basis that (in the words of the FT) "the quality of commercial broadcasters' news, current affairs and comedy output is declining". I agree (at least, that it isn't getting better). In fact, I have been saying that there is a case for supporting the BBC's news, current affairs, and innovative comedy for years.

But that could be achieved by funding BBC2, Radio 4, and the World Service, "tasked with the undemocratic job of producing high-quality, diverse, educational, public-service broadcasting", as I put it two years ago. At a fraction of the cost of the BBC's current £3bn.

You will notice that Mr Thompson did not try to make the same argument for soap operas and light entertainment. He did not say that commercial broadcasters are providing insufficient quality and choice in music radio and TV. He did not pretend that there is a shortage of sports (and particularly football) coverage in commercial circles. Because even a BBC executive would not have the balls to go out in public and try to make such a blatantly untrue argument.

It seems, then, that Mr Thompson has conceded the point, and that we can move on to discussing the details of the breakup. When even the Director-General of the BBC can see that 80% of its output is not justified by providing a necessary alternative to commercial services, it is time to discuss how, not whether, we are going to move that output properly into the commercial sector.

Summer downpours and global warming

In what follows, I want to strike the right balance. I am not a sceptic of the anthropogenic global-warming (AGW) theory, in the sense of one who says that man definitely has no measurable impact on the climate. We ought to take account of the risk and continue to try to understand it. But neither am I an alarmist who is convinced that the science is done and dusted. I think we also ought to take account of alternative (or complementary) theories of why our climate is changing. What I say below does not mean that I have now joined the ranks of those sceptics. It is a criticism of the worst kind of credulous, proselytizing alarmist. It says, we should represent the facts accurately, and keep our eyes and our minds open to all possibilities.

A reporter on BBC Radio 5Live has just said something like "Of course, no one could have forecast the recent downpours, but experts say that extreme weather events like this will become more common if climate-change theories are correct." This was echoed by that other peddler of received wisdom, The Independent. Michael McCarty writes:

"Even though yesterday's remarkable downpours seem very much out of the ordinary, no scientist is going to say that in themselves they prove the climate is changing. There have always been floods; there have always been severe floods. The natural variability of the climate has always included extremes. However, if the predictions of supercomputer climate models are correct, rain of the unusual intensity experienced in many places yesterday is going to become a much more commonplace feature of the weather in Britain as the century progresses."

A couple of problems:

  1. Every AGW model forecasts lower rainfall in England in summers. It is in winters that rainfall (and therefore flooding) is expected to increase. This event is contrary to the models, not evidence of them.
  2. Someone did predict the downpours. His name is Piers Corbyn. His company is WeatherAction Long-Range Forecasters. He forecast on the 30th May the downpours of both the 12-14th and the 24-26th June. In the case of the 12-14th, he forecast the downpours six months previously. Piers is an astrophysicist, and a leading AGW sceptic, whose weather-forecasting models are based on the same principles that lead him to contest the AGW theories. I have asked him for permission to publish his 30th May forecast, and will put them up on this site if he agrees.

This is not probitive. But it is illustrative. The attempts by the AGW alarmists to shoehorn, by implication and innuendo, the recent events into their view of the world was entirely predictable. And thoroughly dishonest.

UPDATE: Piers has allowed me to make his 30th May forecast available. I have attached the Acrobat file (PDF) containing the detailed forecast to this post (click "Read more" if you are viewing this from the home page and can't see the link), and have copied the relevant parts of his accompanying email in the Comment below.

Energy liberalization and the EU reform treaty

One of the things that made me laugh in the BBC's typically-rigorous reporting (I think in last night's Newsnight) of the proposed EU reform treaty was the claim that the extension of Qualified Majority Voting would bring benefits such as the opportunity to force the break-up of national energy monopolies. Isn't that already required under existing agreements on deregulation of European energy markets? QMV is more likely to enable the majority of our partners who would rather protect their "national champions" at all cost to backtrack on this sort of requirement.

The BBC's idea of business

The BBC ran a half-hour promotion on Thursday night for government-funded investment in businesses or technologies that government judged to be promising. In other words, a promotion for picking losers (the policy, not the site, sadly). I'm sure the institutionally-biased BBC didn't think that was what they were doing, but that's what it was.

That advert was masquerading as one of their business programmes - Radio 4's In Business - which ought to be the last place that one would find such a concept promoted. But this isn't real business, this is the BBC's idea of business. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a commercial perspective from a state-funded organization, and from a business reporter (Peter Day) whose background is an English degree, four years with a Glasgow newspaper, and then a lifetime of service with the BBC. This guy has barely been close to a commercial organization or a set of accounts, let alone tried to run a business in a world of government-funded competition.

You can download an MP3 of the programme here (careful, it's a 12MB file). Those of a rational disposition may want to ensure that they have a punchbag (a BBC employee would be ideal) to hand before starting playback, to avoid stress-related injury due to excessive internalization of anger.

There was nothing wrong with looking at the issue of picking losers. But even the most Trotskyite of BBC producers [Tautology - Ed] might have to admit that there are two sides to this story. There was an almost complete failure to examine the arguments against, and plenty of commentary that said to the listener, in effect, "of course government should be picking losers". Let's look in detail at how the programme went about this issue.

Impartiality of state employees

There was some accidentally revealing stuff today on Radio 5Live's reporting of Tony Blair's resignation and their review of his premiership. First Jane Garvey reported that the halls of Corporation House were awash with empty champagne bottles the morning after the 1997 election. Realising that this gave the lie to the BBC's supposed impartiality, she whittered briefly on the subject of whether this really indicated preference for Labour, before eventually saying that she wished she'd never brought it up. Oops.

BBC sceptics

The BBC is in many ways excellent (when you compare the quality of TV and radio in other countries, for example), but is nevertheless a persistent irritant with occasional outbreaks of festering sores. The priority given to football over everything else on Radio FiveLive is a long-term annoyance, as is the English bias of a supposedly British broadcaster (e.g. regularly giving preference to second-grade domestic English football games over Scottish, Welsh or Irish internationals of various sports). Their blatant and boring pursuit of a vendetta on Iraq is another persistent scab, particularly when their talking-up of opposition puts the lives of our troops in greater danger than need be, and drives the country towards more rather than less violence. Their liberal (in the American sense) bias, exposed by Robin Aitken and acknowledged by more independent-minded BBC journalists such as Jeff Randall, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman, is perhaps the most egregious example of the problem that Hayek identified in The Intellectuals and Socialism.

My answer is that BBC1, Radios 1, 2, 3 and 5 and the various digital services should be privatised, leaving Radio 4, BBC2 and the World Service to produce high-quality programming that would not be provided by the market. All the talk of providing what the viewers want and giving them value for their licence-fee is hogwash. The market should provide what people want. If the government is going to tax us to provide something, it should only be for things we need but which will not be provided for by the market. It is quite clear from the various competing television and radio channels that the market can and does provide what BBC1, and Radios 1-3 & 5 offer - often better than they do. The BBC has to decide whether it is a commercial organisation pursuing ratings, in which case it should not be tax-funded, or a public service, in which case it should not pander to the lowest common denominator in the search for ratings. At the moment, they want to have their cake and eat it.

I admit this plan would not remove the bias, but it would dramatically reduce the amount we have to pay to support it. It would retain some of the pockets of individualism, such as can be found in the Newsnight team, to balance a reduced liberal majority. And it would expose most of those who are happy spoon-feeding the public with their sloppy metropolitan chatter to the reality of having to provide the public with what they actually want, rather than what the presenters want to give them.

The latest example of their unconscious bias was yesterday's reporting of the Budget debate on Radio FiveLive. Having suffered a recurrence of my chronic irritation, I was looking for fellow sufferers with whom to share sympathy, and came across a couple of excellent blogs that I have added to our blogroll. Biased BBC is the definitive site for recording examples of dripping-wet, state-funded reporting. Some Stuff is a newish blog with a wider interest than just the BBC or the media, but Ralph clearly shares my irritation with their partial reporting. I recommend them both to you.

The Budget, the BBC and the Bias

The BBC's reporting of the Budget debate on Radio Five Live has been fantastically lop-sided. On the most basic measure - air time - they broadcast the whole of Gordon Brown's speech but cut off both David Cameron and Ming Campbell mid-flow.

Instead of hearing their words, we were given John Pienaar's conclusions to save us the bother of making up our own minds. DC had been "outmaneouvred", he was "like a man who had had his legs cut off from under him", he was "floundering" and "drowning", unable to respond to the "magic" of Brown's cut in the basic rate of income tax to 20%.

To be fair, Cameron had missed the main point - that the cut to 20% had been largely paid for by the replacement of the starting rate (10%) with the basic rate, which Brown disingenuously announced as the abolition of the starting rate - sounding as though tax on income within the 10% band would now be zero, rather than the 20% that is actually intended. This is dangerously close to deceiving the house, but it did seem to have done the job in deceiving DC.

Ming Campbell (whose Treasury team, headed by Vince Cable, have a real understanding of economics, unlike the Tories) was not taken in, and, in his earnestly dull but intelligent way, nailed the point - that the changes to income-tax rates benefited middle-income earners but penalised low-income earners. We were not allowed to hear much more of his speech (in many ways a blessing, but hardly balanced) before the BBC cut back in and Pienaar told us that Campbell must have "mis-read" the announcement, that the effect was not to penalise the poor. This is what we need from the BBC - insightful analysis of the impacts of the budget. So why has Campbell got that wrong, then, John? Because Gordon "would not do that", apparently. What insight!

No wonder the big beast of the political jungle has survived so long, when the elephant guns of the media have been aimed largely at his predators. How strong is the beast really, if he needs that sort of protection?

The multifunction carbon tax

I don't know if this is exactly a case of picking losers, but it certainly falls into the category of stupid policy assessments, and they usually end up with more losers than winners. Anyway, it is so stupid that I had to post about it.

I have just watched a recorded episode of Newsnight (from Tuesday, 3 Oct, I think) in which Susan Watts, their Science Editor, made the following pronouncement:

"David Cameron's new green Tories could use a small carbon tax both to pay for new technologies and to raise revenue to let them lower taxes elsewhere."

BBC censorship

While I'm posting on the subject of the BBC, let me show you a great example of their intolerance of dissent.

In August 2005, I posted on the FiveLive message boards a message complaining that they were covering Championship football when the second Ashes Test was coming to a tense conclusion. They moderated it away. I exchanged correspondence with them, and it was subsequently restored. Below is a copy of the email exchanges. The link to their messageboard archives still works if you want to view the thread. I will post each message as a reply, as the web-host seems to have trouble accepting this all in one go.

Dominance of the "majority"

Yet again, it only took a few minutes of driving yesterday to be infuriated by the radio. 5Live was doing football. TalkSport was doing football. The regional channels were doing football. Radio 4 was doing…. drama.

It is early August. The second Ashes Test is coming to a tense conclusion. Britain’s athletes are competing (mostly unsuccessfully) in the World Athletics Chamionships. The Premiership (football) hasn’t started yet. Why must we have wall-to-wall football? The previous football season only ended in May. And we haven’t even had a break during our two months off - what with transfer gossip and reporting from the various warm-up matches and tournaments that our teams compete in during the “off-season”.

BBC Charter Renewal

Driving back from picking up my car this afternoon, I turned on the radio, more in hope than expectation. I do not listen to the music channels (the channels that play current music lost their attraction when I reached the age of thirty, and if I’m going to listen to oldies, I’d rather listen to my own selection than someone else’s). So I have a grand total of three analogue channels to which I can listen: Talk Sport and BBC channels 4 and 5-Live. My expectations were low from bitter experience. And sure enough, I experienced that small thrill of pleasure that comes from having one’s worst expectations confirmed, followed by the more sustained depression of realising that yet again there was no intelligent discussion going on anywhere in British radio.