Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Power of a Battery: distributed energy

Microgrid

Who needs the power grid when you can generate and store your own electricity cheaply and reliably? Such a world is drawing nearer: good news for consumers, but a potential shock for utility companies. That is the conclusion of a report this week by Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, which predicts that ever-cheaper solar and other renewable-energy sources, combined with better and more plentiful batteries, will allow many businesses and other electricity users to cut the cord on their electricity providers.

Tesla Motors, an American maker of electric cars, recently said it will build a “gigafactory”, which by 2020 will turn out as many lithium-ion batteries as the whole world produced last year (2013). These batteries can do more than power cars; they can also store electricity which is produced when it is not needed, and discharge it when it is….

In poor, volt-starved countries, a lorry-mounted aircraft engine can become a mobile gas-fired power station. GE recently installed 24 such units in Algeria, providing 30MW of power. Local difficulties meant it took six months; that was fast by the standards of big power stations, “but we could have done it in ten days,” says Lorraine Bolsinger, who heads GE’s new distributed-generation business….

Morgan Stanley reckons that if Tesla’s factory provides the cheap batteries it promises, Californian households will be able to run off a solar-plus-storage system costing just $350 a year. Buying electricity off the grid may cost them around $750 a year by then.

Morningstar, an investment-research firm, says that though distributed generation represents only 1% of America’s installed capacity now (compared with 20% in Germany), it could make up a third by 2017 and could “kill” utilities in their current form. Small-scale producers will dump their surplus power on the market at prices below those at which the utilities can recoup their cost of capital—and thus pay to maintain the grid.

America’s Electric Power Research Institute last month produced a paper highlighting the dangers of an unplanned move to distributed generation, using Germany as an example. The dash for renewables there has strained the power network and made life hard for utilities. This week one of the country’s largest, RWE, announced that it made a net loss of €2.8 billion ($3.8 billion) in 2013, its first annual loss in more than 60 years, as the rising supply of electricity from (subsidised) renewable sources undercut its prices.

Distributed generation: Devolving power, Economist,  Mar. 8, 2014, at 69

The Benefits of Being a Threshold Nuclear Power: Japan v. China

japan nucler fuel limited logo

China has urged Japan to return over 300 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium to the Unites States and to explain how it intends to resolve its surplus plutonium problem. At a regular press briefing in Beijing on 17 February 2014, and in response to a question on Japan’s plutonium stocks, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated:

“China attaches great importance to nuclear proliferation risks and potential threats posed by nuclear materials to regional security. China has grave concerns over Japan’s possession of weapons-grade nuclear materials… Japan’s failure to hand back its stored weapons-grade nuclear materials to the relevant country has ignited concerns of the international community including China.”

As reported in January 2014, agreement has been reached between the United States and Japan for the return of plutonium used in the Fast Critical Assembly (FCA) in JAERI Tokai Research Establishment, Tokai-mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The formal agreement is expected to be concluded at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014. In its latest declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in its 2012 plutonium management report Japan stated that the FCA facility has the total of 331 kg of plutonium, of which 293 kg is fissile plutonium. The largest share of this plutonium was supplied by the United Kingdom in addition to that supplied by the United States.

Commenting further, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared:

“China believes that Japan, as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, should strictly observe its international obligations of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear security. The IAEA requires all parties to maintain a best possible balance of supply and demand of nuclear materials as contained in the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium. Japan’s large stockpile of nuclear materials including weapons-grade materials on its territory is an issue concerning nuclear material security, proliferation risks and big supply-demand imbalance.”

In addition to the call for the return of the weapon’s grade plutonium, the Chinese statement also raises a question over Japanese fuel cycle policy and its inability to use its existing plutonium stocks. With all 48 nuclear power reactors shutdown there is currently no demand for its separated plutonium as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. However, Japanese policy continues to plan the commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant as early as October 2014, following a safety assessment by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA). In its latest declaration to the IAEA, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission reported that as of 31 December 2012, Japan held 44,241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9,295 kg was stored in Japan and 34,946 kg was stored abroad. Japan’s plutonium program, its challenges and alternatives was recently addressed at a Tokyo symposium and in detailed analysis by IPFM.

As yet, there has been no official response from the Japanese government to the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement, which has been extensively reported through Chinese media outlets

By Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider, China calls on Japan to return weapons grade plutonium to the United States, International Panel on Fissile Materials, Feb 18, 2014

The Missile Market: players

Javelin is the first "fire-and-forget" shoulder-fired anti-tank missile.  Image from wikipedia

Late last year (2013) Forecast International predicted that manufacturers will produce 200 000 anti-armour missiles worth $9.7 billion through 2022. The company said that combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have spurred anti-armour purchases by the U.S. and other militaries. Ironically, these missiles are not engaging tanks, but rather a host of other target types – from terrorist hideouts to unarmoured pickup trucks. Established market players have benefitted from this evolving trend, according to Forecast International.  “U.S. and Israeli firms still have the largest share of the anti-armour missile market,” said Larry Dickerson, Forecast International’s senior missile analyst. During this period, “Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Rafael will earn $2.8 billion selling anti-armour missiles to customers worldwide,” Dickerson said.

The market positions of these manufacturers have become increasingly intertwined. For example, Lockheed Martin has cooperated with Raytheon in the development and production – and marketing – of the FGM-148 Javelin man-portable anti armour missile system. The Javelin is the U.S. Department of Defence’s standard man-portable anti-tank guided weapon, and nearly a dozen nations employ it.

Meanwhile, new systems are emerging overseas. “Europe is working on next-generation systems to win back the market share it once had,” Dickerson said. These include the Missile Moyenne Portee (MMP) and the Missile Longue Portee (MLP), which will replace MILAN and HOT, respectively.

For its part, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems is Israel’s leading anti-armour missile manufacturer. Against most expectations, Israel has slowly secured export production contracts for its anti-armour missiles and from an area once thought to present few opportunities – Europe. Rafael can count seven European countries as customers of its family of SPIKE anti-armour missiles, providing a stable production base for the company, according to Forecast International.

Companies are also working on new lightweight missiles that can perform various missions and demonstrate the blurring between different markets. “Missiles are slowly evolving, becoming more than just a weapon for use against tanks or aircraft or bunkers,” Dickerson said. “Eventually, the anti-tank missile market will cease to be an independent entity, becoming submerged in a larger strike weapons market.”

Excerpt from Shoulder launched anti-tank missile market worth $3.2 billion, defenceWeb, Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014

What is the Stratobus: drones and satellites

stratobus thales. image thales.com

StratoBus, a surprising vehicle halfway between a drone and a satellite, will be able to carry out a wide range of missions, including observation, security, telecommunications, broadcasting and navigation… and it offers a lifespan of five years.   The StratoBus project is led by Thales Alenia Space, along with partners Airbus Defence & Space, Zodiac Marine and CEA-Liten. It embodies a new concept for an autonomous airship, operating at an altitude of about 20 kilometers. This is in the lower reaches of the stratosphere, but well above air traffic and jet streams. StratoBus will be able to carry payloads up to 200 kg. The project is part of the creation of an airship company by the Pégase competitiveness cluster in southern France…

The platform itself is a high-altitude airship measuring 70 to 100 meters long and 20 to 30 meters in diameter. It will feature a number of technological innovations, in particular to make sure it captures the Sun’s rays in all seasons: a power generation system (coupling the solar panels to a solar power amplification system patented by Thales), an ultra-light reversible fuel cell for energy storage, etc.  The StratoBus platform will require continuous significant energy input to offset the wind: two electric motors will automatically adjust their output power depending on wind speed (up to 90 km/h).

STRATOBUS – HALFWAY BETWEEN A DRONE AND A SATELLITE, Thalesgroup.com, Mar. 10, 2013

UN Force Intervention Brigade: offense better than defense

Rwandan_Genocide_Murambi_skulls. Image from wikipedia

U .N. peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of Congo and government forces have attacked Rwandan Hutu rebels based in eastern borderlands, U.N. and Congolese official..The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels have been involved in nearly two decades of conflict that spilled into eastern Congo after neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Government troops, backed by a United Nations brigade with a robust mandate to eradicate Congo’s myriad eastern armed groups, won a rare victory last year against M23, a Congolese Tutsi rebel force that had been the FDLR’s principal enemy.  Colonel Felix Basse, military spokesman for the Congo mission, known as MONUSCO, said U.N. troops had deployed in the Virunga National Park in North Kivu province and were backing a Congolese offensive against the FDLR.  Basse said the 3,000-strong U.N. Intervention Brigade, made up of troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi, was taking part in the joint offensive. “These operations will continue. We have a mandate to protect the population and restore the authority of the state,” he said.

The FDLR is made up in part of former Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militia who fled to Congo after taking part in the killing of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus 20 years ago. They are accused of civilian killings and rapes by rights groups.  While their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand in recent years, previous attempts to disarm the rebels have failed. They are considered one of the principal obstacles to durable peace in the mineral-rich zone.

Rwanda twice invaded Congo in the late 1990s to try to wipe out Hutu fighters, helping ignite two regional wars and countless smaller conflicts that killed millions of people.  Kigali has been accused of backing armed groups in eastern Congo, most recently by a panel of U.N. experts who say Rwanda armed and organized M23. Rwanda has denied this and says Congo’s army is collaborating with the FDLR.  At the height of its 20-month rebellion M23 took control of Goma – eastern Congo’s largest city – in the most serious threat to President Joseph Kabila’s regime to date.  A U.N. experts’ report in January said there were credible reports that the M23 continued to recruit fighters in Rwanda.

U.N. and Congolese troops attack Rwandan Hutu rebels, Reuters, Mar. 13, 2014

 

Right to Information in China

Factory in China. Image from wikipedia

China is now emitting almost twice as much carbon dioxide as the next-biggest polluter, America. At current rates, it will produce 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2050—as much as the whole world produced between the start of the Industrial Revolution and 1970. Pollutants in the air in Beijing have hit 40 times the level decreed safe by the World Health Organisation. Yet China did not have a ministry devoted to environmental protection until 2008, and the government has done its best to keep information about the levels of filth in the air and water under wraps. Even now, the state is keeping secret a nationwide survey of soil pollution.

The new rules that have just come into effect signal the beginning of a move towards openness. They require 15,000 enterprises, including some of the biggest state-owned ones, to make public in real time details of their air pollution, waste water and heavy-metals discharges…Things are opening up at a local level, too. In 2012 only a few cities, including Beijing, published statistics on air quality. Now 179 do. And more firms are volunteering information about pollution—especially those that need foreign investors.

The impetus behind this new transparency is not a sudden enthusiasm for liberalism. Rather, the government is worried that people are increasingly angry about pollution—a recent Pew survey of the concerns of Chinese citizens found that pollution was fourth, behind inflation, corruption and inequality, but was rising fast—and attempts to clean the country up by central-government fiat are foundering.

China’s environment: A small breath of fresh air, Economist, Feb. 8, 2013, at  14

Governing the Oceans: a Dysfunctional Family

manganese nodules in seabed. Image from wikipedia

About 3 billion people live within 100 miles (160km) of the sea, a number that could double in the next decade as humans flock to coastal cities like gulls. The oceans produce $3 trillion of goods and services each year and untold value for the Earth’s ecology. Life could not exist without these vast water reserves—and, if anything, they are becoming even more important to humans than before.

Mining is about to begin under the seabed in the high seas—the regions outside the exclusive economic zones administered by coastal and island nations, which stretch 200 nautical miles (370km) offshore. Nineteen exploratory licences have been issued. New summer shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic Ocean. The genetic resources of marine life promise a pharmaceutical bonanza: the number of patents has been rising at 12% a year. One study found that genetic material from the seas is a hundred times more likely to have anti-cancer properties than that from terrestrial life.

But these developments are minor compared with vaster forces reshaping the Earth, both on land and at sea. It has long been clear that people are damaging the oceans—witness the melting of the Arctic ice in summer, the spread of oxygen-starved dead zones and the death of coral reefs. Now, the consequences of that damage are starting to be felt onshore…

More serious is the global mismanagement of fish stocks. About 3 billion people get a fifth of their protein from fish, making it a more important protein source than beef. But a vicious cycle has developed as fish stocks decline and fishermen race to grab what they can of the remainder. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a third of fish stocks in the oceans are over-exploited; some estimates say the proportion is more than half. One study suggested that stocks of big predatory species—such as tuna, swordfish and marlin—may have fallen by as much as 90% since the 1950s. People could be eating much better, were fishing stocks properly managed.

The forests are often called the lungs of the Earth, but the description better fits the oceans. They produce half the world’s supply of oxygen, mostly through photosynthesis by aquatic algae and other organisms. But according to a forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC; the group of scientists who advise governments on global warming), concentrations of chlorophyll (which helps makes oxygen) have fallen by 9-12% in 1998-2010 in the North Pacific, Indian and North Atlantic Oceans.

Climate change may be the reason. At the moment, the oceans are moderating the impact of global warming—though that may not last.,,Changes in the oceans, therefore, may mean less oxygen will be produced. This cannot be good news, though scientists are still debating the likely consequences. The world is not about to suffocate. But the result could be lower oxygen concentrations in the oceans and changes to the climate because the counterpart of less oxygen is more carbon—adding to the build-up of greenhouse gases. In short, the decades of damage wreaked on the oceans are now damaging the terrestrial environment.

Three-quarters of the fish stocks in European waters are over-exploited and some are close to collapse… Farmers dump excess fertiliser into rivers, which finds its way to the sea; there cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) feed on the nutrients, proliferate madly and reduce oxygen levels, asphyxiating all sea creatures. In 2008, there were over 400 “dead zones” in the oceans. Polluters pump out carbon dioxide, which dissolves in seawater, producing carbonic acid. That in turn has increased ocean acidity by over a quarter since the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 2012, scientists found pteropods (a kind of sea snail) in the Southern Ocean with partially dissolved shells…

The high seas are not ungoverned. Almost every country has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which, in the words of Tommy Koh, president of UNCLOS in the 1980s, is “a constitution for the oceans”. It sets rules for everything from military activities and territorial disputes (like those in the South China Sea) to shipping, deep-sea mining and fishing. Although it came into force only in 1994, it embodies centuries-old customary laws, including the freedom of the seas, which says the high seas are open to all. UNCLOS took decades to negotiate and is sacrosanct. Even America, which refuses to sign it, abides by its provisions.

But UNCLOS has significant faults. It is weak on conservation and the environment, since most of it was negotiated in the 1970s when these topics were barely considered. It has no powers to enforce or punish. America’s refusal to sign makes the problem worse: although it behaves in accordance with UNCLOS, it is reluctant to push others to do likewise.

Specialised bodies have been set up to oversee a few parts of the treaty, such as the International Seabed Authority, which regulates mining beneath the high seas. But for the most part UNCLOS relies on member countries and existing organisations for monitoring and enforcement. The result is a baffling tangle of overlapping authorities that is described by the Global Ocean Commission, a new high-level lobby group, as a “co-ordinated catastrophe”.

Individually, some of the institutions work well enough. The International Maritime Organisation, which regulates global shipping, keeps a register of merchant and passenger vessels, which must carry identification numbers. The result is a reasonably law-abiding global industry. It is also responsible for one of the rare success stories of recent decades, the standards applying to routine and accidental discharges of pollution from ships. But even it is flawed. The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, a German think-tank, rates it as the least transparent international organisation. And it is dominated by insiders: contributions, and therefore influence, are weighted by tonnage.

Other institutions look good on paper but are untested. This is the case with the seabed authority, which has drawn up a global regime for deep-sea mining that is more up-to-date than most national mining codes… The problem here is political rather than regulatory: how should mining revenues be distributed? Deep-sea minerals are supposed to be “the common heritage of mankind”. Does that mean everyone is entitled to a part? And how to share it out?

The biggest failure, though, is in the regulation of fishing. Overfishing does more damage to the oceans than all other human activities there put together. In theory, high-seas fishing is overseen by an array of regional bodies. Some cover individual species, such as the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, also known as the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna). Others cover fishing in a particular area, such as the north-east Atlantic or the South Pacific Oceans. They decide what sort of fishing gear may be used, set limits on the quantity of fish that can be caught and how many ships are allowed in an area, and so on.

Here, too, there have been successes. Stocks of north-east Arctic cod are now the highest of any cod species and the highest they have been since 1945—even though the permitted catch is also at record levels. This proves it is possible to have healthy stocks and a healthy fishing industry. But it is a bilateral, not an international, achievement: only Norway and Russia capture these fish and they jointly follow scientists’ advice about how much to take.  There has also been some progress in controlling the sort of fishing gear that does the most damage. In 1991 the UN banned drift nets longer than 2.5km (these are nets that hang down from the surface; some were 50km long). A series of national and regional restrictions in the 2000s placed limits on “bottom trawling” (hoovering up everything on the seabed)—which most people at the time thought unachievable.

But the overall record is disastrous. Two-thirds of fish stocks on the high seas are over-exploited—twice as much as in parts of oceans under national jurisdiction. Illegal and unreported fishing is worth $10 billion-24 billion a year—about a quarter of the total catch. According to the World Bank, the mismanagement of fisheries costs $50 billion or more a year, meaning that the fishing industry would reap at least that much in efficiency gains if it were properly managed.

Most regional fishery bodies have too little money to combat illegal fishermen. They do not know how many vessels are in their waters because there is no global register of fishing boats. Their rules only bind their members; outsiders can break them with impunity. An expert review of ICCAT, the tuna commission, ordered by the organisation itself concluded that it was “an international disgrace”. A survey by the FAO found that over half the countries reporting on surveillance and enforcement on the high seas said they could not control vessels sailing under their flags. Even if they wanted to, then, it is not clear that regional fishery bodies or individual countries could make much difference.

But it is far from clear that many really want to. Almost all are dominated by fishing interests. The exceptions are the organisation for Antarctica, where scientific researchers are influential, and the International Whaling Commission, which admitted environmentalists early on. Not by coincidence, these are the two that have taken conservation most seriously.

Countries could do more to stop vessels suspected of illegal fishing from docking in their harbours—but they don’t. The FAO’s attempt to set up a voluntary register of high-seas fishing boats has been becalmed for years. The UN has a fish-stocks agreement that imposes stricter demands than regional fishery bodies. It requires signatories to impose tough sanctions on ships that break the rules. But only 80 countries have ratified it, compared with the 165 parties to UNCLOS. One study found that 28 nations, which together account for 40% of the world’s catch, are failing to meet most of the requirements of an FAO code of conduct which they have signed up to.

It is not merely that particular institutions are weak. The system itself is dysfunctional. There are organisations for fishing, mining and shipping, but none for the oceans as a whole. Regional seas organisations, whose main responsibility is to cut pollution, generally do not cover the same areas as regional fishery bodies, and the two rarely work well together. (In the north-east Atlantic, the one case where the boundaries coincide, they have done a lot.) Dozens of organisations play some role in the oceans (including 16 in the UN alone) but the outfit that is supposed to co-ordinate them, called UN-Oceans, is an ad-hoc body without oversight authority. There are no proper arrangements for monitoring, assessing or reporting on how the various organisations are doing—and no one to tell them if they are failing.

Governing the high seas: In deep water, Economist, Feb. 22, 2014, at 51