All entries for February 2007

February 22, 2007

Tony Blair's response to road pricing

As some of you will be aware, the road pricing petition closed this week, and Tony Blair has e-mailed out a response to all those who signed it. An interesting read by his press release standards. I’m glad that he (or one of his aides) at least took the effort to acknowledge the protest and attempt some form of communication with us, as opposed to being 100% dismissive.

Some of the points raised in the e-mail – that of congestion being bad, economically damaging, an increasing problem etc – are al pretty valid, if undisputed points. I also don’t think it will pose a massive problem to civil liberties. Such technology would likely take the form of a GPS tracker, which would allow the government, theoretically, to trace everyone’s movements. But processing this amount of data for 30 million vehicles would be impractical. Location movements would only be likely used for tracking criminals etc, which can only be a good thing in my view. Of more concern is the potential for prosecution of any vehicle disobeying the speed limit for a fraction anywhere. I’m not going to argue here that there is a good case for this, because speeding is breaking the law etc etc. My main problem with this that I can raise validly is that it’s liable to force motorists yet more to concentrate on their speed precisely and less on the road around them, which has implications for road safety.

What I find abhorrent though is the recurring message that it’s not another tax. The whole point of this charging, we are told, is to ease congestion. This can surely only be achieved if the scheme prevents people from being on busy roads at certain times. This must therefore mean one of three things – the scheme would force people to use different, more minor routes (causing increased traffic in more residential areas for example, or less safe minor routes) which is undesirable for fairly obvious reasons, people would travel at different times (this is unlikely, as people don’t sit in congestion by choice, they do it because travelling at other times is simply not suited to their needs. Motorists hate congestion and alter journey times where possible to avoid it anyway), or they would stop using their car altogether as a result of the charge (basically pricing motorists off the road). So the impact of the first case is worse than what we have at present, the second case is pretty unlikely already, and the third case is exactly what he says it isn’t – a new tax to price motorists off the road. The reality, of course, is that the scheme will probably have a combined mixture of all three. But motorists already pay a fortune for motoring, and are pretty resilient to costs. We might moan like fury when petrol goes up, or when road tax or insurance skyrockets, but the fact is that despite all these rapid cost increases, as Blair points out in his own e-mail we’ve had over 6 million additional vehicles on the road in the past 10 years. Despite rising costs, traffic volumes are growing. Cost is not going to dissuade motorists until it’s really horrendous, which then becomes some sort of very heavy and punitive tax on us all. What motorists want is not to have to sit in congestion. The reality is that there isn’t enough room for us all on the roads. But until the government realises that the only thing that will have a significant impact is a real alternative for the millions that drive but don’t really want to because they hate driving or traffic, congestion will only worsen. Furthermore, it is not the place of the motorist to provide subsidy for public transport, which Blair makes clear is where much of the funds will go. And who will pay for the massive administration costs of charging 30 million vehicles a year by the time and type of road they drive on, and how far? What sort of a massive, expensive (and likely to fail) computer system/bureaucratic department is that going to look like? Or the cost of the GPS trackers in the first place? I just can’t see it adding up somehow.

February 17, 2007

Just what do the environmentalists want?

Writing about web page

Well this is something rare – I agree with Tony Blair on something.

The issue in question is that of new nuclear build. For those who have been asleep during the past couple of years, the government has made clear it’s intention to build a new generation of nuclear power stations (one would anticipate some form of PWR generation 2/3 design, or perhaps even a generation 3+ such as the Westinghouse AP1000). Last year a public consultation was held, which Greenpeace took the government to court over for being ‘unlawful and seriously flawed’, and have won their case. Now I felt the government’s consultation process was pretty reasonable from what little I know of it, but that’s not quite my issue with this. What annoys me is the downright stupidity of organisations such as Greenpeace for taking this course of action.

So, if any environmentalists happen to be reading this, I ask you to understand these basic facts: the UK has an electricity baseload in excess of 45GW, with peak demand higher than this still. Electricity does not get dug out of the ground or appear from thin air (if anyone wants to be clever with that and try and mention wind turbines, read my previous posts), it has to be generated. Currently this is mostly done by burning coal, oil, gas, and a reasonable bit of nuclear. Now, all you environmentalists have spent quite a while now getting very agitated about global warming/climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. Fair enough I suppose; I’ll concede that the principles of carbon dioxide trapping heat in the atmosphere are valid, along with the rise in carbon dioxide levels over the past couple of hundred years and their link with global temperature changes now that the modelling and measurements have been sorted out to a fair extent. I contest the doomsday forecasts of some, the irritating way in which these predictions are treated as absolute certainty by others when respected scientists get very different answers depending on their models, the neglect for a changing climate’s more positive side effects (such as currently uninhabitable areas becoming quite temperate, for example). But the principle that CO2 emissions from mankind have the quite realistic potential to alter our climate, I’ll accept, along with the notion that it’s probably for the best if we can sensibly limit our impact and that you lot care about this a lot. Fine.

So, can anyone please explain to me what the hell you muppets are up to if you oppose carbon emissions on the one hand, and take legal action to try and stop the building of new low-carbon dioxide alternatives at the same time? I will again readily concede that in 50 years time (where the governments target is for in excess of 60% renewables generation, which I personally question with their current direction of wind farm technology – renewable energy in this country should be focussed on harnessing wave and tidal power, which are at least predictable and reliable) we might be able to get the majority of our energy from methods that don’t involve fossil fuel combustion or nuclear reactions. But, pray tell dear environmentalists, where do you suppose the electricity is going to come from for the next 50 years (and even by 2050 and beyond, the still pretty significant 40% or so that won’t be renewables generated). Because if you don’t want fossil fuels or nuclear fuels in the meantime, the only alternative I can see is for us to return to the dark ages and have no power at all. And what would all your massive supercomputers with fancy climate models be running on then? Seriously, wake up and engage your brains for a minute. We will not have 100% of our power generated by renewables in the next 20 years. It’s just not going to happen for a whole host of valid reasons – the technology isn’t ready, the cost is too great, the change is too rapid, the principle is unproven etc etc etc. So, you therefore have a simple question to answer. Would you rather have many millions of tonnes more CO2 pumped into the atmosphere, or a few hundred tons of decaying radioactive material buried hundreds of metres under the ground where we can keep the stuff in control? Answers on a blog comment please.

February 08, 2007

Good news – what a rarity

Writing about web page

It’s good to hear that the government have at least one or two good policies that are technically sound – the news of the government’s plans for a geological repository for nuclear waste came out a while back, unsurprisingly to heavy opposition from the uneducated and prejudiced masses. I really hope the government stands its ground on this one. I’ve been arguing the case for nuclear power and deep geological disposal for years now, and a meeting of scientists from all the relevant backgrounds have come out in support of the geological disposal scheme as well. From what I remember, about a third of the UK is suitable for repository placement, so hopefully if the government gets its finger out in finding a site we could see construction of such a facility soon, which would tie in nicely with a new nuclear build programme if we decide to have one, and with it the largest barrier for new nuclear build (we currently don’t have a way/facility to deal with the waste long term) would be removed, paving the way for new build (probably a number of PWRs or if we decide to go higher tech EPRs, since PhWRs cost too much and Generation 4 reactors won’t be commercially available for another 20 years).

February 07, 2007

Government wants to have it's cake and eat it

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New legislation is being planned to cut fleet average emissions to 130g/km of CO2 by 2012 for the European car industry apparently. Such targets are not new, a 2008 target of 140g/km has been around for some time (which the industry is likely to miss). I don’t know how the government expects manufacturers to ensure that they will hit this target, or what will happen if they don’t. I suspect it will be in some form of penalty pollution tax, but if someone who knows more about this than I do could enlighten me then I’d appreciate it. But no matter.

No, what annoys me about this target is that European manufacturers are up there with the Japanese in being market leaders of car manufacture. They have spent billions on researching new, better materials and refining the more diesel engine to a point where it’s nearly as good as a petrol engine for most humdrum applications now, whilst spending yet billions more on more efficient fuel injection, engine management, emissions control systems et al. We leave the American industry behind in our wake in this respect along with other major manufacturers of cars (such as those around the Pacific rim), and only the Japanese can really lay any claim to being in the same league technically. So why therefore is it the European industry that faces these penalties, and where has it all gone wrong if we spend so much on research?

Well it’s pretty simple really. Ecomentalists in European government have it in for the car, and demand rapid improvements from car manufacturers in all directions at once. They demand better safety, so the industry’s response is to develop safer cars – so we have anti-lock braking systems (now I believe compulsory for all new cars, or at least this was mooted a short while back), tons of airbags, tough, strong crumple zones and impact bars to protect the integrity of the passenger cell whilst ensuring a more gentle decelleration… The list goes on. Consequently, we have very safe cars. But the trade-off for all this is weight, so our cars are heavier. This means increased rolling resistance, which needs more power to overcome, as well as more power needed to get more weight shifting in the first place. Everything else on the car also needs to be sized up to cope with the extra weight, adding more weight again. Furthermore, space considerations on our cramped roads and pedestrian impact laws mean that cars are adopting shapes that aren’t all that aerodynamic. Problem number 1.

Problem number 2 is emissions of other pollutants. Modern legislation in this area basically demands the use of three-way catalysts, which reduce engine fuel efficiency because it imposes a flow restriction on the exhaust. To give you an idea of how much, the cats on the old Jaguar XJ220 soaked up a whole 60 horsepower, or just under 10% of power output. In order for the 3 way cats to work, and also to counter the production of other nasties from the exhaust, the engine map needs altering so that the air/fuel ratio is away from the optimum for peak fuel efficiency.

So basically, legislation is making demands that mean that our cars are heavier than they used to be, whilst at the same time our gains in efficiency from technological improvements are being lessened by ever-tightening emissions legislation. At the same time, governments are expecting a rapid reduction in fleet average fuel consumption. That it’s coming down at all is something of a miracle given the rapid increases in weight and emissions regs, but then governments are surprised that in order to counter this engine power outputs have had to climb to match. You can’t ask the impossible – all of these parameters are trade-offs – you make one better, the other gets worse. To expect improvements of the level demanded of the industry on all fronts is just ridiculous, and especially so considering the direction of the European car industry compared to that of the US or the Pacific rim. Perhaps the governments of the EU will finally be satisfied when our automotive industry is crippled and we are instead forced to rely on imported Hyundais, manufactured abroad where there are much lower standards for workers, manufacturing emissions and the vehicle design is of much worse quality and more harmful to the environment? I wonder.

February 2007

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