Ecobricks

I’m Bricking It

“If the ocean dies, so do we” says Margaret Atwood, a novelist who has long been an environmental activist as well. In this, she’s not wrong.

Phytoplankton are microscopic, single-celled organisms that inhabit the sunlit layer of the sea, absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Few people realise that organisms in our oceans provide almost as much oxygen as we get from trees.

Trouble is, humanity is busily changing the seas, just as we have done the land.

The sea is easy to overlook when considering the parts of the natural world that are threatened by human activity. Things that are thrown in either sink from sight or are borne away by tides and wind. Liquid wastes are diluted in a way that seems most convenient – if thinking only in the short term. In reality, the sea has been already seriously damaged.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation warns us that by 2050 the plastic in our seas will outweigh the fish. Plastics are great materials with applications such as non-toxic toys, durable fittings on buildings and lightweight automotive components – but we also use plastics in many applications where their durability is a drawback. It’s entirely possible that some of the plastic items you throw away today will still be kicking around long after you’re dead and gone.

Single-use plastics come in for a lot of criticism, therefore, and while many of us try to do the right thing by sorting our waste, national recycling efforts are commonly centred upon clean, empty drink bottles: the easy job.

Few recycling centres can do anything much with plastic films, so the shrink-wrap protecting cucumbers, the individual wrappers on sweets and the peel-back tops on yoghurt pots are all just litter. These are lightweight, crinkly little oddments of plastic that blow around the place and have little real value to recyclers, so they are at an increased risk of ending up in the sea. For a long time I thought this was just the way things had to be: after all, what system could possibly cope with this assortment of plastics in small quantities?

Then I learned about making Ecobricks – taking a used plastic bottle and packing it full of waste plastic, squashed down with a stick. The practice appears to have begun in Guatemala around 2004, where the resulting ‘bricks’ were used in construction. It’s an approach that has spread – or perhaps been thought up simultaneously – throughout the developing world. In the form of an Ecobrick, plastic waste is locked away – at least for a while. If it’s built into a structure such that sunlight doesn’t reach it, it’ll be sequestered for decades… which has got to be better than letting it pollute the natural world.

Making an Ecobrick

Making an Ecobrick. I recommend using a wooden spoon to compress the contents as it’s easier to hold than a stick.

I started making Ecobricks for no particular reason other than to experiment. I knew that they wouldn’t be of much use in the UK because you’d never get a mortgage or home insurance on a building made from waste plastic. ‘Earthships’ – sustainable buildings made from recycled and natural materials – have never really caught on in the UK: there’s one in Fife and another in Brighton, but neither is residential in nature so it seems highly unlikely that anybody will ever use one of my Ecobricks in construction.

So why did I persevere, to the point where I’ve now made about ten Ecobricks? Because I discovered two remarkable things…

Firstly, a British household gets through a lot more plastic film than you probably think: those negligible quantities of crinkly plastic really add up and it’s easy to fill about two litres’ worth of Ecobricks a week. When you see all that plastic – and discover just how much it weighs – it’s not so easy to go on consigning it to landfill. Not that landfill works for plastics anyway: they photodegrade into smaller fragments and blow away, ending up in the soil or in the sea… which means our food chain.

Secondly, when you make Ecobricks you notice an immediate reduction in the total volume of waste that you produce. Taking out the trash is something you do a lot less often – and you never run out of bin space before collection is due. Clearly, when left uncompressed, all that plastic is taking up a lot of space.

You might say that I’m not helping matters because I’m taking a recyclable item (a plastic bottle) and filling it with waste that renders it non-recyclable.

Well, maybe… but there’s a good deal of difference between “recyclable” and “actually going to be recycled” – and since China closed its doors on waste imports, recycling rates have fallen. A shortage of single-use plastic bottles is not the limiting factor, so I think we can spare some.

The most absurd thing about all this is that waste plastics actually have value, and the technology to do something profitable with them already exists. Thermal depolymerisation isn’t choosy about feedstocks: waste such as mixed plastics, used tyres, sewage sludge and even abattoir leftovers can be converted into light oils, gases, steam and solid waste. This last is nicely sterilised, which significantly increases the usefulness of the process since even medical waste can be converted. There is money to be made from this.

Typical outputs from thermal depolymerisation, by feedstock

Typical outputs from thermal depolymerisation, by feedstock

As industrial processes go, this isn’t hard to do: water is added if the material is dry, and then everything is heated to 250°C in a pressure vessel. When the pressure is released rapidly the water evaporates and can be captured for reuse. Other outputs from the process include methane (typically used to fuel the heating of the next batch, although some is sold as biogas) and other hydrocarbons that can be separated by fractional distillation, yielding (among other things) a low-sulphur replacement for diesel fuel.

Or you can just pile everything in the ground and forget about it… although a landfill site isn’t always the final resting place of plastic waste; with under-investment and mismanagement it’s all too likely to end up being washed into the sea.

What I like about both Ecobricks and thermal depolymerisation is that they’re sufficiently low-tech that they can be employed anywhere – and in combination they offer the possibility of affordable energy and waste management. In a world where more than ninety percent of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans comes from just ten river systems in poorer countries, that’s got to be significant – but we all have a part to play.

Floating refuse in the Ganges

Sacred river: the Ganges

I’m going to keep on making Ecobricks, although my standards have slipped a bit now that I’m certain they won’t actually be used as building materials. (With compression resistance no longer an issue, I have decided to permit bubble wrap and expanded polystyrene in my Ecobricks. Also, if my bottles are a little less than 100% filled, it doesn’t matter.) While they’ll never be built into a wall, my “lazy Ecobricks” still offer a neat and tidy fuel source, if only I can find somebody to take them. Haig et al (2013) provides a valuable primer for those looking to understand how plastic waste can be processed into fuel, demonstrating that the solution is within our grasp if only local authorities will invest to turn a present-day liability into an asset.

So, how can they be persuaded? I’m thinking… civil disobedience. Back in 1971 a largely unknown group called Friends of the Earth achieved a publicity coup when they carried out a ‘bottle dump’ at the London offices of Schweppes, who had recently announced their intention of phasing out returnable, deposit-bearing bottles. (In those days, glass bottles.) Reuse has dwindled to almost nothing, but campaigning by groups such as FoE eventually got us bottle banks in 1977, and can banks in 1982.

Friends of the Earth protests, 1971

Friends of the Earth protests, 1971 [images: FoE]

Might a similar protest start us on the road to sorting out the plastic films problem? Not laying the materials at the feet of the manufacturers, but at the doorstep of local authorities that haven’t put in place a proper recycling solution. If they have a depolymerisation solution in place, having a few hundred thousand bottles of clean, well-packed waste delivered to council premises will be a gift… but if they’re still just piling up waste plastic, their failure will soon become highly visible.

It’s time for the Ecobrick. Everywhere.

 

 

Reference:

Haig, S., Morrish, L., Morton, R., Onwuamaegbu, U., Speller, P., and Wilkinson, S. (2013) Plastics to oil products: Final report. Available online: http://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/sites/default/files/Plastics%20to%20Oil%20Report.pdf (accessed 24/08/18)

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Running on sun… by proxy?

On several occasions, I’ve visited businesses that are known for their sustainability work, and I’ve seen that they don’t have all the ‘eco’ features that you might expect. Why don’t they have solar panels? A rainwater collection system? Light pipes? (There are quite a lot of other architectural improvements I might list.) The reason they can’t have these things is often because they’re working out of rented premises, and this means they can’t put in all the equipment that they might otherwise have done.

Some ‘eco’ businesses choose to buy their energy on a tariff that promises renewable generation, in an effort to regain some of the lost ground. That reduces the damage to their ‘green’ image a little, but… what if you could have solar panels by proxy? Who says a solar panel has to be on the roof of your building, just because you funded its installation? Energy is just a commodity, readily fed into the grid and then used wherever it’s needed. Money – the return on your solar investment – is even more readily stored and transmitted.

Understand this: the big ‘sustainability crunch’ of the early 21st century is going to be all about energy. We’re facing a crisis because a succession of UK governments have failed to face up to difficult, long-term questions. Issues such as energy security (what to do if that nice Mr Putin decides to cut gas supplies next winter) and climate change (the extent to which we can afford to disregard our Kyoto Protocol obligations) have to vie with popularity (few people vote for the party that puts a nuclear power station in their neighbourhood) and simple economics.

Renewable energy is interesting to some, although in many cases the payback period is formidable. It’ll be interesting to see if investment in renewables harms liquidity in the years to come, but even if a person or business has money to spend and is entirely happy for it to be tied up for decades, not everyone can join in the ‘dash’ for renewables.

Piggy bank, and solar panels

Solar energy: money for nothing, or the longest of long-haul investments?

Would I want to have an array of solar panels on the roof of my home in rainy Yorkshire, looking desperately out of place on a 200-year-old building? Not really – and since it doesn’t have a south-facing roof, its energy-generating potential is somewhat limited. Despite all this, the investor in me is attracted to the idea of putting my money into a renewable energy scheme.

Enter CloudSolar, slogan: “No roof? No problem.” Given the negative effect that cloud cover has upon solar generation, the name is obviously one of those immune to irony things, but the basic premise is intriguing: just because you want to buy a solar panel, why should you have to find a place for it? Instead, buy a micro-share in a solar farm and have them take care of siting and maintaining it.

Solar panels on a home

Environmentally sound. Aesthetically… not so good!

CloudSolar take a 20% cut for what they do, and they plan to send you a payment (the other 80% of the money received for the sale of ‘your’ electricity) every three months for twenty-five years.

Each panel, rated at 250 watts, is priced at US$750. (Is that good? A quick search suggests that a branded 250W panel currently goes for about £207/$325 on the Internet, but that’s for the panel itself, without the associated equipment, the installation, or the place to put it.) For those with a different amount to invest, CloudSolar offer discounts on multiple panels, and half- and quarter-sized ones are also available. A key feature of the deal is that you own the panels that you buy; if circumstances change, it seems you can claim your property back. Meanwhile, the panels are guaranteed for twenty-five years, after which they can remain in place as long as they function. That 20% fee also covers them against theft, and damage.

This could be huge. Even if people only manage to invest a small amount, a sufficient number of citizens could put a big hole in carbon emissions from electricity generation. If CloudSolar are right in their claim that over 25 years, one of their panels will deliver enough electricity to run an average household for seven months, that means you’d need 43 of the things in order to operate a carbon neutral home. (In simplistic terms, not including however many more you’d need to offset the carbon from the manufacture, installation and servicing of your share of the solar farm…) Still, it’s a start; and 43 CloudSolar panels would only cost you $32,250… which isn’t much money, compared to the price of a house nowadays. (The average UK house price is around £192,000, which is $303,000.) Best of all, they’re not just asking people to give up all that money in order to be ‘green’; they’re inviting them to make an investment that pays real dividends.

CloudSolar promotional information

CloudSolar don’t guarantee a return on investment, but their business model is refreshingly different [image: CloudSolar]

The technology is nothing new, but the business model is intriguing – and far better than those ‘plant a tree to offset your guilt’ schemes that are just about completely unregulated.

I’m not suggesting that any reader should pursue the CloudSolar option: like any major investment, you ought to speak to your financial advisor before you take the plunge. Might CloudSolar go bust? I have to wonder if they’d prove to be like every double glazing firm I’ve ever done business with; you know, the ones that close down around the time that the warranty claims begin…

Are they offering a reasonable deal? You’d have to get a professional to read the small print. The currently unspecified charges for having CloudSolar remove your panels and ship them to you might come as a nasty surprise; I really couldn’t say. Also, while you’re free to invest in an American solar farm if you want to, you might find that there are financial incentives to a home-grown solar solution: if you’re in the UK you should have a look at the Energy Saving Trust’s information.

A setback for CloudSolar came when crowdfunding service Indiegogo shut down their campaign, refunding over $440,000 to the backers. This was because the CloudSolar campaign breached Indiegogo rules by inviting backers to participate in a profit-sharing scheme… but what had originally been a successful campaign, comfortably exceeding its target, seems likely to resurface. Even if crowdfunding doesn’t offer a route to investment, it’s clear that a lot of people want what they’re offering.

Solar enthusiast homeowners who have a suitable roof might also want to investigate A Shade Greener, whose business model is to fit solar panels entirely free: this means that they benefit from the governmental feed-in tariff, not you… but when you’re in the house you get to use whatever the panels deliver for free – and the rest of the time, the surplus electricity they sell is at least preventing some greenhouse gas emissions.

So many different business models! I suspect that the price of grid electricity can only head upwards for the next couple of decades as the older nuclear and perhaps coal plants get decommissioned; running on sun (one way or another) is looking increasingly attractive, and it’s becoming easier to do, at last.

Impressions of Sustainability Live

As I contemplated the scale of the event, I recalled that moment in ‘Jaws’ where Roy Scheider comments, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” I found myself in a similar situation: Sustainability Live 2015 is huge. That it’s co-located with UtilityWeek Live in an adjacent hall only increases the load upon our synapses.

The two events’ workshops and seminars are grouped into about half a dozen thematic areas, covering subjects such as water, energy recovery, energy efficiency and so on. This helped a bit, because it meant I had a fighting chance of being in the right place at the right time… but of course I could only be in one place, so at least five sixths of the seminars went unheeded. Also, I was only there for day one of the three, so things were bound to be missed. We should have sent a small army of researchers. Anyway, here’s the first of my reports arising from the event…

On the decarbonisation of energy

In the ‘Energy Theatre’ this afternoon John Scott, Director at Chiltern Power, chaired an interesting session entitled ‘Whole system approach to decarbonisation of energy’.

I think of moves towards ‘green’ energy as a good thing… but that’s because I’m not the person who has to deal with the consequences. As a result of the session, I now understand something about how clean energy poses challenges for the grid because of intermittent supply, and reverse flows. You put solar panels on the roof of your building, and you start feeding energy into the grid… at least, until it gets cloudy. Or until you start running a piece of equipment that demands a large amount of energy. All of a sudden you’re not a supplier, but a customer… and the grid doesn’t get any advance warning. Intermittent supply and reverse flows are not good.

UK energy flow chart for 2007

In the session I learned something new: this is an Energy Flow Chart, detailing the inputs and outputs of the UK energy sector. Of particular interest to me are the losses. Click to have a closer look.

Imagine that electric vehicles take off in a big way, and hundreds of people in a district have them plugged in. Being ‘smart’, the cars know not to recharge themselves when the variable price of electricity is highest, so they wait until a period of lower demand and then commence their recharge. That’s a good thing, surely? A way to achieve load balancing? Well… no. It would be just like those software agents that play the stock market, with no human intervention. When the price of the commodity falls, all the electric vehicles would pounce at once, resulting in a surge in demand that no source of supply can meet. According to the panel, if an estimated 5% of our vehicles were electric and were programmed to act in this way, the disruption would be enough to crash the national grid.

That’s not a crash of the kind that Microsoft puts me through with depressing regularity: it’s a wide-area outage that would take two or three days to recover from – and we’re moving into a period of increased risk of a “crash and reboot”, says Dr Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald. Part of the problem here is the disconnect between the timescale on which the energy system evolves, and the timescale for the products it serves. Simon Harrison’s unit of measure was the parliament; cars last up to three parliaments, aircraft last five and trains six.

One suggested goal was to have de-carbonised UK electricity by 2030 (three parliaments…) but we have no idea what devices the grid of 2030 will be powering. Present-day laptops and mobile ’phones only last half a parliament or so, meaning that there will be a lot of iterations between now and then. But how “smart” will they be, and can they be persuaded to operate with the needs of the grid in mind?

New pylon design

A recent design competition yielded this new design for electricity transmission pylons. In future, the grid will be a much more intricate entity, supporting a diverse mix of sources of generation  [picture: Peter Trimming]

Who decides on the formats by which these devices communicate, and the technologies that are most appropriate? We’re seeing disruptive changes to the established system of regulation, John Scott warns, and we can’t simply leave it to the market to find solutions. Market-led developments add to the problems because you get bespoke solutions, not inter-operable ones.

Undoubtedly, technological developments will improve performance and reduce costs… but the downside of this is ever-increasing complexity: future energy systems are going to be much more vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and supply, and you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.

Personally, I think they’re going to need a bigger boat.

In search of some Miracle Gro for the ‘Green Shoots of Recovery’

An ambitious EU-funded project is beginning (the official launch is in April) aimed at demonstrating sustainable urban regeneration. In the European project tradition it has a funny, pseudo-acronymic name, in this case REMOURBAN: REgeneration MOdel for accelerating the smart URBAN transformation. Maybe it trips off the tongue better in some other language…

REMOURBAN

REMOURBAN [www.remourban.eu]

Featuring an impressive “who’s who” of project partners, five cities are involved: Nottingham (UK), Valladolid (Spain) and Tepebaşı/Eskişehir (Turkey), with Seraing (Belgium) and Miskolc (Hungary) as “follower cities”. The project will “transform urban life”, according to the CORDIS information service. Targets include energy savings of 40% and the avoidance of 50% of CO2 emissions. Impressive… but what does it actually involve?

The planned regeneration work is aimed in particular at low-carbon heating and transport, with ICT as an enabler. The cities involved share a common feature: that of district heating… which isn’t all that common outside of Iceland (where geothermal energy makes it an obvious choice). Meeting heat and hot water requirements centrally instead of leaving homes and businesses to make their own arrangements typically delivers higher efficiencies, and facilitates a move towards better emissions controls and the incorporation of renewables such as solar energy and biomass.

Practitioners generally agree that efficient energy generation is all very well but a big chunk of going ‘green’ must involve using less. In REMOURBAN this is reflected in the desire to demonstrate substantial improvements in insulation – not through the construction of a handful of fabulous modern ‘eco houses’, but by making improvements to the existing housing stock, which in Nottingham includes many older buildings that don’t have cavity walls. This is significant; a project that tackles the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

Another strand to the project comes in the form of sustainable transport, with electric buses and delivery vehicles, plus hourly car hire schemes. As with district heating, electric and hybrid vehicles in public transport seem to be a good starting point for green initiatives, because the higher initial investment (and expensive mid-life replacement of batteries) needn’t be prohibitive, since they aren’t borne by individuals.

electric buses

You wait half a century for an electric bus, and then several turn up all at once. (In this case, in Beijing.)

Joining it all together is information and communications technology. CORDIS tells us that “smart, joined-up thinking is key to urban renewal” and since the project is funded under the Smart Cities and Communities call, it’s clear that ‘smart’ will be a big part of these sustainable cities. In addition to ICT playing a role in improvements to transportation, retrofitted houses will include smart meters, providing better information to the energy providers and also to consumers. One has to hope that REMOURBAN introduces smart meters that are better than the current crop, which have been met with bafflement from some householders, and considerable resistance from others. Concerns include high costs, the invasion of privacy, security risks (for instance, a meter reporting when your house is empty), and the new ability for utility companies to turn services on and off remotely, without gaining access to the property. Given that 65% of the households under study (I’m thinking of Nottingham in particular, here) are social housing, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the people that the project calls “have-not citizens” can be engaged.

I think there are two ways to interpret “sustainable urban regeneration”. Are we only talking about urban regeneration that has a ‘green’ element? That’s commendable enough in itself, but the other way to interpret the phrase would mean it offers urban renewal that is itself sustainable, and sustained. A future-proofed city?

Five years from now, when the project is all done, It’ll be interesting to see just how much sustainable renewal has been delivered for €21.5m. (When you’re on one of these EU projects you’re acutely aware that it’s taxpayers’ money…) Will this injection of funds have primed the pump, and shown how best to renew other cities across Europe? I’m impressed by the pragmatism of an approach that builds upon existing systems rather than the clean-slate infrastructure we might wish to have. I’m also pleased to see a project looking at how “have-not” citizens can move towards sustainability, because too many people still dismiss ‘green’ thinking as a middle class phenomenon. If it’s true that 24% of UK households are in fuel poverty (defined as needing to spend more than 10% of household income for an adequate heating regime) perhaps climate change begins at home.

We shall see.

Dude… where’s my wind turbine?

When serving as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, MP, said that “the battle to deal with climate change needs to be fought like World War Three.”

Let’s pursue that analogy for a little bit. In a democracy, how do citizens fight a world war? Along with all the things you might expect, such as volunteering or ‘digging for victory’, one of the most important things that can be done to support the war effort is to provide money – typically by buying war bonds.

In the First World War, my ancestors would have been found buying war bonds at the ‘Tank Bank’. This was a touring display of the weapon that promised to overcome the deadlock of trench warfare, and the people on the home front went nuts for them: during the course of the war over £2 billion was raised. (This is a good time to mention the bonds, since the 3½% War Loan is finally to be redeemed, in its entirety, on March 9th of this year. A century is quite long enough to borrow money for, don’t you think?)

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

Buying war bonds at the Tank Bank

After the success of the Tank Banks, in the Second World War came the Spitfire Fund: towns and counties raised money to fund the production of warplanes.

“If you buy it I’ll fly it” – buying Spitfires in World War II

“I’ll fly it if you’ll buy it,” – donating towards Spitfires at a shop given over to fundraising

So, here we are in the opening stages of what Hilary Benn described as World War Three, but the people in my community don’t appear to be clubbing together to buy machinery that could ‘win the war’. In particular I’m thinking of the wind turbine: a machine that has the potential to provide some of our energy on a clean, renewable basis. Conjuring power from thin air: what’s not to love?

It seems strange to me that some of my fellow citizens dislike wind turbines to the point where they club together to protest against their installation. They’re not being asked to part with their hard-earned cash (at least, not directly), nor even to give up their land; only to have turbines placed where they might have to look at them, sometimes.

"Painful facts about wind energy"

Information displayed on a Facebook group opposing wind farm construction where I live.

I wish I could describe their efforts as quixotic, which is to say idealistic and unworldly. We derive the word from Don Quixote, adopted name of the principal character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes that dates back to 1605. Poor, deluded Don Quixote believes (among various other things) that the thirty or forty windmills he sees on the plains are marauding giants: he charges them, and ends up unhorsed.

“Tilting at windmills,” we call it… but the efforts of the NIMBYs are not entirely quixotic. They’ve been highly successful. Like would-be invaders, the wind turbines have been driven quite literally into the sea, condemned to an offshore existence where difficulties in installation, servicing and power transmission mean they are far less cost-effective. (And still some people complain that they don’t like looking at them, on the horizon.)

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

Cost of wind energy, per megawatt hour [Parsons Brinckerhoff, 2010]

The appeals to buy war bonds in the two World Wars were each centred upon an iconic and popular product, whereas the wind turbine seems to need something of a makeover.

There are problems with wind turbines. One of the major complaints levelled against them is that the benefits don’t trickle down to the local community. Perhaps part of that is because the UK was so slow off the mark with wind energy, and as a result a lot of the technology comes from our European neighbours. The wind turbines installed in the UK are more likely to have benefited a Dane or a German than a Briton, although that’s beginning to change as the supply chain develops.

Another accusation is that there are relatively few local jobs once a wind farm is up and running. Again, it’s true: a wind turbine just stands there, twirling away and putting out electricity. (This is why they’re so brilliant: they give us something for next to nothing… but it does mean that they create less jobs than, say, coal mining.)

For the landowner who manages to secure planning permission for the construction of a wind farm, it’s a license to print money: they don’t need to invest money of their own, merely leasing the land to people who do the rest. This leads to further resentment, because again that’s money for the few, and not for the many who will see them on the skyline. Part of the problem here is in using a planning system that’s poorly suited to this particular purpose. Did we reject major projects in the midst of the first two world wars? No: villages got evacuated to make space for gunnery ranges; forests were cut down for their timber, and so on. Because that’s how you fight a world war. While the installation of renewable energy systems is governed by the conventional planning process, residents will always be left wondering if an approval was granted because of a “funny handshake” or a plain brown envelope stuffed with banknotes.

I suspect we’re going about this backwards. That a community doesn’t benefit from something it never invested in shouldn’t come as a surprise. Instead of leaving wind energy to a new class of ‘little energy barons’ who happen to own the land, why aren’t we erecting wind turbines in the grounds of public buildings? We could start with schools and hospitals, slashing the energy bills of services that we all pay for. You might say that a local authority is too cash-strapped to be able to afford money for such projects… but current wind farms are constructed by companies that borrow money at commercial rates, and they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t expect a return on investment. Why not a council, or even a consortium of citizens?

And the next time somebody says “I don’t want a wind farm here,” I’m going to reply: “No problem! A new nuclear power station will probably bring a lot more jobs to the area…”

Fracking: an Inside Story

(Part III in a series on ‘fracking’. See parts I and II here.)

While it arouses considerable loathing, fracking is in some senses an absolute gift to protestors. The slogans practically write themselves: ‘no fracking way’, ‘frack off’, ‘Lancashire’s not for Shale’, etc. In this regard the anti- brigade are shooting fish in a barrel. They also benefit from a home team advantage at public meetings, where their concerns about the quality of drinking water and the risk of earthquakes seems very reasonable, compared to the position of ‘big oil’.

"Get the frack out of Sussex"

I hope this gentleman is sufficiently clothed, but… um…?

Fracking has an interesting but hardly admirable pedigree. Consider the story of the three businessmen who, in 1864, formed the Dramatic Oil Company: they took out a lease on a property in Pennsylvania, hired staff and set about drilling an oil well. All did not run smoothly, but presently oil was struck and a modest amount was obtained. Seeking to increase the yield, the investors decided to ‘shoot’ the well – to detonate a large amount of gunpowder at depth in order to fracture the surrounding rock. That’s what you did back in 1864, hydraulic fracturing being unknown until 1949… but the blast ruined the well, and ended oil production at the site. This would be nothing but a tiny footnote in the history of the US oil industry, but for the identity of one of the three investors: John Wilkes Booth, who would soon assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If he hadn’t lost the modern-day equivalent of $90,000 on his oil venture, perhaps he’d have stayed in Pennsylvania, and away from Ford’s Theater.

When gunpowder didn’t pack enough punch for the ‘shooting’ of oil and gas wells, there was nitroglycerin: a ‘torpedo’ containing perhaps a couple of hundred litres of the substance would be lowered down the well, and detonated. Nitroglycerin continued to be used until 1990. There were also three experiments in releasing gas from shale through the use of nuclear devices. First there was Project Gasbuggy (29 kilotons) in December 1967; then came Project Rulison (43 kilotons) and Project Rio Blanco (three devices at 33 kilotons each). Conducting twenty-seven nuclear tests between 1961 and 1973 for the purposes of demonstrating non-combat uses for nuclear explosives, Operation Plowshare certainly marks an interesting phase in US history… and one that I’m glad I didn’t have to witness. The three tests that were done for the purposes of fracking showed a very poor return on investment – and yielded a short-lived, radioactive gas supply that was never used commercially.

I learned about John Wilkes Booth’s history as an oil investor, and about atomic fracking, courtesy of John Midgley at a meeting of the Craven & Pendle Geological Society last week. His presentation ‘Fracking – a Geological Perspective’ contained much else besides, and our interest is in hydraulic fracturing rather than in more exotic, explosive solutions to wells running dry… but I enjoyed the history lesson all the same.

Now, I’ll attempt to reproduce more of what I learned from the speaker…

Mr Midgley’s stated aim was not to promote or condemn fracking, but to talk about “how it sits in the current energy landscape”, and as such it matched my hope to learn more about the science and engineering involved.

The speaker had a lot of experience in the industry, and had been fracking overseas more than 25 years ago. One example that he gave involved fracking with acids, to stimulate oil wells by dissolving carbonates, in the Middle East. As I have written before, not all fracking involves shale gas; in fact Mr Midgley reported that “you can frack any well” (and sometimes it happens unintentionally).

He was careful to distinguish between resources and reserves, and commented that the media often fail in this regard. Resources are estimates of the total quantity of oil and gas physically contained in a deposit, while reserves are the subset that can be extracted, subject to technological and economic constraints. Thus, we need to be careful with language when discussing the UK’s shale deposits.

So how big is this gas bonanza that we can anticipate? The shale deposits in the USA are massive, compared to ours. It’s a big country (obviously) with thick seams that are easy to access both physically and legally. Gas quality was also said to be better in the US. Basically, every attempt to prospect for shale gas in the UK has been a disappointment, and the UK has yet to see a single fracked gas well that is commercially viable. Between our less generous deposits and more difficult legislative environment (including far-reaching company liability) UK shale gas looks like something of a hardscrabble proposition.

The UK has three main areas where shale gas might be mined: the Weald basin in the south of England, the Bowland-Hodder formation in the North, and the Midland Valley in Scotland. In the same way that Murphy’s Law dictates that military operations inevitably take place at the intersection between two maps, each on a different scale, studies of the UK’s shale beds seldom use the same unit of measure, but Mr Midgley did his best to interpret the data for us, juggling “barrels” and “trillion cubic feet”. His assessment was that the Weald Basin wouldn’t be exploited because it’s relatively small and “too many policymakers live there”, and that the Bowland-Hodder formation (in what Lord Howell of Guildford called the “desolate north”) was the most promising of the remaining pair, for reasons of logistics, although it in no way resembled the attractiveness of the US gas fields.

Prospective shale gas fields

Anticipated shale gas in the Bowland Basin (BBC news)

Is it worth doing at all? Mr Midgley reported that fracked gas has a good calorific value and requires very little post-processing. In response to an audience question along the lines of “Should we leave it in the ground until later?” he felt that the time was right to commence fracking as it offered a supply of gas for approximately 50 years – if used to top up declining volumes from the North Sea and “keep the lights on” as politicians like to say. Thirty years, he felt, would be sufficient to buy time during which a new generation of nuclear plants could be constructed.

Amid these sometimes gloomy assessments, the audience learned a great deal about the business of drilling for oil and gas, such as how you steer a drill bit, and gauge its position below ground, and what you can and can’t do at the bottom of a very deep hole. We learned about the differences between biogenic and thermogenic methane (something it’s very important to understand before taking everything in Gasland at face value) and about the super-hard, super-expensive form of concrete that is used to line a bore, and how very difficult it is to control (and measure) the integrity of that bore. No apologist for the industry in this regard, Mr Midgley frankly admitted that over time, all wells will leak. He weighed this knowledge in terms of social need versus social impact.

shale gas pad drilling

The presenter scoffed at the idea of drilling ever being as precise as this…

I was interested to see Mr Midgley make reference to the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1994) and the idea that an acceptable near-future energy mix must be socially just and environmentally bearable, as well as commercially sound. While many people have expressed concerns about the environmental pedigree of fracking, the speaker observed (based on his own career in the oil and gas industry) that much of Britain’s gas comes from nations with highly questionable politics and human rights. This is an interesting thought; we talk about “conflict diamonds” but there is no equivalent dialogue about “conflict gas” and we are quite happy to buy our energy from countries that aren’t democracies. All we tend to hear are the oft-voiced concerns that the present deteriorating relations between the EU and Vladimir Putin’s Russia might result in limitations being placed upon the gas supply from that country.

The audience, of course, consisted primarily of geologists. (Interestingly, the older ones tended to occupy the lower tiers of the auditorium: is this merely expedient, due to hearing loss, or do geologists instinctively mirror the formations that they study?) Anyway, there were some highly pertinent questions from the audience, including one about NORMs: Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials. When you liberate something from below ground, you will often acquire a side-order of radiation. That’s troubling enough where gases such as radon tend to migrate out of the Earth’s crust over time and build up in your basement, but radiation is also a significant issue where fracking fluid is concerned. After the fracking operation, much of the liquid comes burping back out of the ground when you release the pressure, but what do you do with what the industry calls “produced water”? Of the 16,000 cubic metres of water invested in a well, you might expect to get 12,000 back… complete with chemicals such as salts, friction reducers, scale inhibitors, biocides, gelling agents… and a dose of radiation. While some of these things can be removed, Mr Midgley reported that the radioactivity of the fluid was not addressed on site – although it might be diluted, or used in an application where radioactivity is not considered to be an issue. (The example given was that if used in roadmaking, any contamination in the water will be moot since it will be mixed with a naturally radioactive shale material.)

In terms of the quantity of water expended to obtain gas, Mr Midgley dismissed it as “about half what’s used by a golf course in a year”. I’ve heard this analogy before: Brian Dunning reported something similar, although it would appear that a US golf course gets through more water. I think I’d like to know more, though: presumably the water sprinkled on a golf course is a reasonably wholesome runoff, and it remains a part of the water cycle; it doesn’t get locked away far below the water table. But do we even want to get used fracking water back? I simply don’t know. This article suggests we need to do more, though.

Not everything our speaker had to say was accurate, though, if I’m any judge. For example, in endorsing a nuclear future he dismissed wind turbines on the grounds that they “require more carbon than they sequester”, and said that the construction of solar panels was impractical because of the rare earths required for their construction.

With CO2 emissions for wind power ranging from 14 to 33 tonnes per GWh of energy produced (White, 2007), and a typical Energy Return on Investment of 16:1, this blanket dismissal of wind energy was simply wrong. The claim that solar panels require rare earths in their construction is likewise garbled: you might well raise a concern that manufacturing masses of wind turbines is going to require vast quantities of neodymium, the rare earth used in their magnets… but solar panels require silicon (which is relatively abundant, and not a rare earth). I don’t expect a person to be an expert in every field, but a speaker from the oil industry doesn’t do himself any favours when he stumbles like this in his assessment of alternative technologies.

Make of that what you will, but it was a very interesting and at times entertaining evening, and I’m glad to have attended. There were one or two things to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I was impressed with Mr Midgley’s frankness on key issues such as well integrity, and the short useful life of a well.

 

References:

Elkington, J. (1994) Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development, California Management Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 90–100

White, S. W. (2007) Net Energy Payback and CO2 Emissions from Three Midwestern Wind Farms: An Update, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 271–281

Fracking by Numbers

Part II of a series on High Volume Well Stimulation, or ‘fracking’…

At a training and strategy event organised by Friends of the Earth (see Part I, here) I’d heard some of the concerns and objections to fracking, but I had yet to make up my mind on the subject. In fact, that’s still the case. On the one hand, the natural gas would be very useful to a nation that’s just beginning to suffer from quite a bad hangover as the party that was North Sea oil and gas winds down. Against this, it’s a fossil fuel energy source (so it’s finite, and a contributor to climate change) and the methods used for extraction are causing people anxiety for a number of reasons.

If I’m going to come down off the fence on this important issue, I’m going to need to base my decision on evidence, and good science. That has called for quite a bit of research.

One thing that I learned early on came as a surprise: that fracking appears to have been common in North Sea oil and gas extraction since the 1970s, and has been used onshore about 200 times in British oil and gas wells since the early 1980s. I should clarify that its use when going after shale gas is relatively recent.

Now, fracking can cause earthquakes. This particularly well-known ‘smoking gun’ in the case against fracking comes from two earthquakes that occurred in April and May of 2011, close to the Cuadrilla Resources’ Preese Hall drilling site near Blackpool, UK. They were of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 respectively. To people who live in an area not known for its earthquakes, that sounds pretty scary. We know what an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 did to the beautiful city of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the same year. People (including the news media) need to understand, though, that the Richter magnitude scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale; thus a 4.0 wouldn’t be twice as bad as a 2.0, but a hundred times as bad. The two Blackpool earthquakes were tiny. (Cuadrilla’s Mark Miller was on the BBC in November 2011: see what you think of his assessment here.)

Independent newspaper: Blackpool earthquake

The Independent, June 1st 2011

A fact in favour of fracking is that the burning of natural gas has less potential to cause climate change, if the alternative is burning coal. I looked up DEFRA’s carbon dioxide conversion factors in an effort to get a definitive figure here. Using net calorific value in an effort to compare like with like I learned that the greenhouse gas emissions (expressed in kg CO2e per kWh, including the emissions resulting from extraction, transport, storage and so on) for natural gas are 0.22674 kg CO2e/kWh. In comparison, coal-fired electricity generation comes in at 0.39988 kg CO2e/kWh… which is to say 75% higher.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG), tankered in from elsewhere, is associated with emissions of 0.27750 kg CO2e/kWh, which argues that using locally-produced gas is the better choice, all other things being equal. What a shame that DEFRA currently make no distinction between gas obtained by conventional and unconventional means. I believe that gas produced via a fracking operation would have a somewhat greater carbon footprint, given the technology involved and the energy that must be invested before gas flows; more CO2e per kWh out. Exactly what the figure might be, I have not been able to determine, but if fracking takes off in the UK I bet that a future edition of the DEFRA conversion factors will include it – and I very much doubt that it will approach the climate change potential of coal. (We know that with cheap shale gas edging out coal in the USA, that country’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen – something that Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Doha and all the other talks failed to do.)

A problem with any calculation based purely on greenhouse gases released, of course, is that it says nothing about other issues related to gas exploration such as traffic congestion, impacts on the tourist trade, water consumption, concerns about toxicity, etc.

Gasland

Gasland, a 2010 independent documentary, prompted a lot of dialogue about fracking… but it’s no less biased than the industry’s own efforts. Who do you believe?

“Once you frack, you can’t go back,” one of the activists I met had warned me. To hydraulically fracture a shale bed you use a fluid that’s perhaps 90% water, with the bulk of the remainder being proppants (the material injected to hold fractures open; originally sand, but sometimes something more exotic such as sintered bauxite or zirconia silicate), and certain chemicals. It’s typically the chemicals that have the activists up in arms, and it’s true that there have been a bewildering number of different ones employed in the USA – although those available for use in the UK are significantly reduced by legislation. It seems that exactly which chemicals are used, and what happens to them afterwards, will be a major determinant in the acceptance (or not) of fracking in the UK.

That’s about as much as I had learned before yesterday. Last night I attended a talk by John Midgley of Energy Geoscience International Ltd., hosted by the Craven & Pendle Geological Society, and learned some interesting things about the history and science of fracking – which I’ll share in part III.