All posts by Robert Wilson


The size of solar farms

I have been rather busy with my day job modelling plankton, so have been neglecting my column at Energy Collective. But my first piece in a month is available for those interested in the size of power plants. I look at the size of Ivanpah solar farm in California, the world’s biggest.

Hopefully I can get another one out next week looking at the decline of coal in Britain in the last century. A fascinating subject, but no doubt it will have a readership of one.


Sucking CO2 out of the air using bio-energy. A bad idea.

The Guardian reports today that the next IPCC report might suggest using biomass to suck CO2 out of the air, burn the trees for electricity, and then shove the CO2 under ground. Naturally these reports are full of assertions by various concerned parties, but numbers are glaringly absent.

So, here is a very straightforward calculation that can test the limits of biomass. Globally we consume fossil fuels at a rate of almost 15 terawatts, that is 15 trillion watts. Possible yields of bio-energy are relatively well understand. Without massive improvements through genetic engineering we cannot get anything above 0.5 watts per square metre. This 0.5 watts per square metre is achieved partly through subsidising bio-energy with fossil fuel based fertilizers and machines such as tractors.

100% biomass energy would require something like 15 trillion divided by 0.5 square metres. In other words 30 million square kilometres. This is roughly two times bigger than Russia. It is also six times bigger than the Amazon Rainforest. It is also around 20 times bigger than the area of the planet that is currently forest plantation.

So, converting all global forest plantation over to quick growing trees so that we can harvest them to generate electricity could offset perhaps a couple of years of growth in global carbon dioxide emissions. And this assumes that biomass is carbon neutral, a questionable assumption.

Clearly this is not much of a solution to anything.

A fine idea: ban onshore wind farms and promote solar in Sunny Britain

Britain is one of the windiest countries on the planet. Unfortunately it has a rather large number of nimbys. Hence the Conservative now seems to be considering pledging to ban onshore wind farms.

So, the renewables to promote will be offshore wind – rather expensive – and solar – rather ineffective given the dogged nature of Britain’s clouds and latitude.

This then is the biggest problem for decarbonisation. The technologies that are the most effective for quick cuts in carbon emissions are also the least politically correct. Few people like nuclear or onshore wind. But stick a rather ineffective solar panel on a suburban roof in England and no one will complain. The UK should abandon its climate targets now for we are reaching more and more for ineffective tools.

Ban wind turbines now

I have long been a firm advocate of banning wind turbines, though for rather unorthodox reasons. As wind turbines proliferate fatuous opinion pieces have proliferated at an even greater pace. The only way to stop them is to ban the turbines.


One of the beautiful things about energy is that you can set out your opinions in national newspapers without even a hint of knowledge of the subject. Imagine football commentary by people who do not know what the offside rule is, and you have a close proxy to energy punditry.

Today we have one in the Independent by Jane Merrick, the Independent on Sunday’s political editor. And it is certainly of the talking about football without knowing what the offside rule is variety.

Here are a couple of sentences from the concluding paragraph:

“To lash the green movement to 50-metre steel blades no longer makes sense. Far better to get behind a renewable energy that is more efficient and less offensive, like offshore wind, tidal power, or even new nuclear.”

Lashing the green movement to 50 metre steel blades makes no sense, I’ll agree with her on that point. But I would perhaps go further and point out that steel blades make no sense, as the wind industry has found out. They are much too bloody heavy. So, instead they use fiberglass. Steel blades would provide a rather sluggish appearance when it comes to turbine rotation. Merrick perhaps used the phrase steel blades because it sounds good, and not to convey her lack of basic knowledge about the subject.

I can possibly be generous and blame poor syntax for the implication that nuclear energy is renewable. But one must wonder how the offshore wind industry can get by without these dreaded 50 metre blades.

She also informs us that “Every time I see a wind turbine, from Romney Marsh to Halifax, they are as still as statues.” This suggest she does not spend too much time looking at wind turbines. From where I live I can see Europe’s largest onshore wind farm, Whitelee Wind Farm. Most of the time the turbines are turning. And this is a wind farm with a load factor of around 25%, rather typical of the UK. I am also fairly certain that reliable statistics show that the average turbine is turning the majority of the time.  So, either Merrick is making this stuff up or she has a faulty memory.

This however is what you have to put up with in terms of energy punditry.

But please, for my sake, ban wind turbines. Can we start a petition?



Listen to the science on climate change. Ignore the science on Fukushima.

This week saw two reports issued under the auspices of the United Nations.

One re-iterated the science on climate change, the other informed us of our scientific knowledge of the impacts of Fukushima.

One has been received enthusiastically by environmentalists, the other has been completely ignored.

If you wish to find an example of the conflicting attitudes the environmental movement has to science here it is.

So, what has UNSCEAR, the United Nations scientific body that deals with the science of radiation, concluded about the health impacts of Fukushima?

Here is the relevant section from their report:

38. No radiation-related deaths or acute diseases have been observed among the workers and general public exposed to radiation from the accident.
39. The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants. The
most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing
radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported. Estimation of the occurrence and severity of such health effects are outside the Committee’s remit.

The conclusion then is almost identical to that of Chernobyl: fear of radiation is a far greater danger than radiation itself. Scaremongering has its consequences.

Is it possible that some within the environmental movement might read this report and rethink the assumptions that underlie opposition to nuclear energy? If not, why should they demand that climate change “skeptics” be willing to change their minds?