Posts Tagged ‘james martin’


Did you read the one about wind farms that can only produce enough electricity to make a few cups of tea? What a scandal! Why do we need these cursed wind farms? Yet take another look, and it turns out that actually wind farms are growing in importance all the time. The problem is not so much with wind energy; it is the way in which it is portrayed.

The ‘Telegraph’ ran the expose, and its report was widely cited across the Twittersphere. To use the nerdy jargon, it trended. “Some of Britain’s biggest wind farms are at times producing only enough electricity to make a few cups of tea,” stated the ‘Telegraph’ article.

It turns out that official government data has drawn the shocking conclusion that wind farms are not very productive when there is no wind. Here is some more news for you, hot off the press: it is much hotter during the summer. Is that a story? Of course not, to use the jargon, it is somewhat obvious.

So why then run an entire article saying that wind farms don’t do much when the wind is quiet?

But then you might as well ask: why it is that some politicians appear to find it impossible to utter the words wind farm without prefixing them with the word ghastly?

Stuck near the bottom of the ‘Telegraph’ piece, Maf Smith — a spokesperson for RenewableUK — said: “We hit a new record in March, when we generated enough electricity from wind at one point to power four in ten British homes.”

To be fair, the stat saying wind energy powered 40 per cent of British homes is about as meaningless as the one that says at other times it hardly generated wind at all. Presumably this point in March occurred when it wind conditions were optimum and probably in the middle of the night when electricity usage was minimal.

A more interesting quote from the same Maf Smith said: “Government figures show that in 2012 , more than 11 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from renewable sources, with wind providing the lion’s share.”

What we are lacking in the UK is any sense of objectivity. David Cameron jumps on the fracking bandwagon – maybe he is right, but frankly there is no evidence to support the pro or anti lobby yet, so why support it so wholeheartedly at this point?

What we lack in the debate about UK energy be it renewables, shale gas, algae, synthetic energy, or whatever, is any attempt at objectivity.

In fairness, the greens are just as bad as the oil lobby. Bear this in mind, however. According to James Martin in his book ‘The meaning of the 21st century’, the world’s reserves of oil, not counting the undiscovered ones, have a value of about 60 trillion UK dollars. You could say there is an awful lot of money at stake in this one, and the last thing those who hope to make money from these 40 trillion worth of oil reserves want is for us to find a cheaper, and inexhaustible alternative. The last thing they want is an objective debate based on evidence.

© Investment & Business News 2013


Shale gas and oil – -it is everywhere, or at least if feels that way. It is in Russia, and the US, China, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico. It is in Libya and Algeria, Pakistan and Indonesia. It is in Australia and South Africa, and, at the other end of the world, it is in Canada.

For some more good news, there is some in the UK too, and for the really good news, most of it is up north, so there will be no need to spoil the aesthetic qualities of southern England’s rolling hills with wind farms. Instead all we need to do is dig up the Yorkshire Dales, and other areas that Londoners hardly ever visit.

Here is some bad news. There are also deposits in the south – bring back wind farms.

In all, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reckons there are 26 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and 0.7 billion barrels of shale oil in the UK. So what does that mean? Well, the UK currently consumes around 3 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, so 26 trillion would last around ten years. Click here .

Actually, compared to some countries the UK is small fry. The EIA reckons that China has over 1,000 trillion cubic feet of shale gas – or a quadrillion, as they also call numbers with nine noughts. The countries that make up the top ten, in terms of reserves of shale gas – with the largest first – are: China, Argentina, Algeria, US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Africa, Russia and Brazil. As for shale oil, Russia has 75 billion barrels, followed by the US, China, Argentina, Libya, Venezuela, Mexico, Pakistan, Canada and Indonesia. You may have noticed there is a pretty good correlation with size of country – Venezuela, perhaps, is the exception.

All in all, analysts are talking about there being enough shale gas and oil to feed world demand for ten years. You may have noticed that the global economy slipped into recession just as oil started to approach $150 a barrel. The good news on the US economy went from a trickle to gushing torrent, just as the price of gas fell. The cost of energy matters, and may yet be the key to determining economic strength.

Stop: let’s repeat that STOP. The EIA says its estimates of shale oil and shale gas resources outside the US are highly uncertain and will remain so until they are extensively tested with production wells. As for the UK, the jury is out on how practical it is to access shale gas and oil deposits, and not everyone is all that keen on the idea of digging up Yorkshire, or fracking in a country as small as Britain. Some might choose to switch the r in the word ‘fracking’ to a u and then add the suffix awful.

We keep hearing about how shale is not a global warming gas. Well, maybe that is right, but as this article points out: “Gas fracking involves the release of significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere in the form of ‘fugitive emissions’ – an extremely powerful greenhouse gas (72 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over 20 years).” See: Gas fracking will cause ‘irreversible’ damage, says Conservation Council of WA 

The clue may be in the name. On the south coast of England there are what the EIA calls Jurassic-age shale formations. We have all heard of the Jurassic-age and know it happened a long time ago. Less of us have heard of the Carboniferous age, which occurred from around 359.2 million years ago, to 299 million years ago. There are reserves of Carboniferous age shale gas in northern England. In other words, we are talking about reserves of shale gas and oil that have been sitting in the ground for a very long time. And in just ten years we are talking about digging up a big chunk of these reserves that have sat in the ground for hundreds of millions of years; that took hundreds of millions of years to form. Does that strike you as a good idea? How do you think future historians, from say 200 years in the future, will respond when they read about all this so-called “good news on shale gas” in 2013?

What we forget is that the Earth’s climate has changed over millions of years, and it changed as carbon dioxide was sucked out of the atmosphere and deposited in the ground. In just a few years we are reversing a process that took place over millions, maybe even a billion years.

Just to play devil’s advocate, here is question for you: what will shale gas exploration do for renewables? Will investment into shale gas and fracking crowd out investment in renewable energies?

Remember Moore’s Law. In its literal sense, this refers to computers doubling in speed every 18 months or so. But use Moore’s law as a metaphor for rapidly increasing technology and maybe it can be applied to renewables.

Where renewable technologies differ from other energy industries and yet are similar to the computer industry is that the generation gap between each stage in their development is quite small. It can take three decades to build a nuclear power plant, months to build wind farms, and just days to install solar panels.

The more we invest in renewables, the cheaper they get, and the progress rate in the efficiency of the technology can be very rapid.

Forward wind the clock 20 years, and assume that in 2013 the world moved away from carbon fuels and instead invested billions, even trillions, in renewables. Is it not possible that by 2033 our energy would be much cheaper than it is today?

James Martin, in his book ‘The Meaning of the 21st Century’, said: “The world’s reserves of oil, not counting the undiscovered ones, have a value of about 60 trillion US dollars… coal reserves have a similarly high value. If humanity set out to save energy and move to non-carbon forms of energy… much of this vast amount of energy would be abandoned. Both oil-rich countries and petroleum companies want to hang on to their potential wealth.”

Apologies if this sounds like a conspiracy theory, which is not something this column tends to support, but why don’t we hear as much hype about renewables as we do about shale gas, when, by the way, surveys show that most people do not think wind farms are aesthetically ugly at all.

For the EIS report, go to Shale oil and shale gas resources are globally abundant 

© Investment & Business News 2013

James Martin is one of those futurologists. In his book ‘The meaning of the 21st Century” (a very good book it is too, if you are interested in that sort of thing), he suggested that there are three stages of Darwinian evolution. Stage one is ‘primary evolution’: the evolutionary process described by Darwin. It relates to the evolution of living species by natural selection. This stage is slow: it requires mutation to DNA to introduce change; this is the product of chance. Stage two is secondary evolution, which relates to cultural evolution and of ideas themselves, culminating perhaps in the ability to manipulate DNA. This second stage is faster than the first, because it builds on what we have already learned. It works by selecting and favouring ideas developed through deliberation. The third stage is what Martin calls “tertiary evolution”, which is a phase we may be entering now. This occurs when intelligent beings learn how to automate evolution itself. To begin with, we see computer programmes built around artificial selection which follow parameters set down by a human creator. In time this process will accelerate, becoming very swift indeed.

Okay, so let’s take a unit of measurement. To measure stage one evolution our yardstick needs to be about one million years in length, or given that Homo Sapiens (that’s me and, unless you are a very gifted chimpanzee, probably you) have been around for 150,000 years or so the yardstick may need to be 100,000 years long.

For stage two, the yardstick may need to be say a century in length, or perhaps a decade.

For stage three, the unit of measurement might be months, days or even hours.

Just imagine that. Evolution that is so fast we can record significant changes in hours.

It means that once stage three is underway the world will change incredibly quickly. You dare not be cynical, and wait for the evidence of your own eyes because then it will be too late. When we see change this rapidly, the moment we perceive that we have moved to stage three in evolution, change will become too fast to understand. We have to anticipate this in advance.

See it in terms of the super cooling of water. When water is pure, it may not change to ice until it reaches temperatures of around minus 40 degrees. But once it hits minus 40 degrees, the freezing process is instantaneous.

So what has all that got to do with the here and now?

Consider this piece of news from the University of Manchester. Chemists there have discovered how to make molecules from molecules.

Professor David Leigh FRS and his team in the School of Chemistry at the university claim to have developed the most advanced molecular machine of its type in the world.

Professor Leigh commented: “Such machines could ultimately lead to the process of making molecules becoming much more efficient and cost effective. This will benefit all sorts of manufacturing areas as many manmade products begin at a molecular level. For example, we’re currently modifying our machine to make drugs such as penicillin.”

You will need pretty good eyesight to see the professor’s machine, for it is just a few nanometres long. (A nanometre is one billionth of a metre).  And it is based on the ribosome, which is in all living cells.

So far, so unfinished. The good professor says: “The ribosome can put together 20 building blocks a second until up to 150 are linked. So far we have only used our machine to link together 4 blocks and it takes 12 hours to connect each block. But you can massively parallel the assembly process: We are already using a million million million (1018) of these machines working in parallel in the laboratory to build molecules.”

Professor Leigh continues: “The next step is to start using the machine to make sophisticated molecules with more building blocks. The potential is for it to be able to make molecules that have never been seen before.”

But the truth is that this is a synthetic molecule that can build synthetic molecules. And when we make nano-factories that make nano-factories without little need for human intervention the process of evolution can become automated and it can reach stage 3.

Will innovation such as this development seen at the University of Manchester change the world this year?  No. Will they change the world next year, or this decade? Probably not.

Will innovations such as this change the world during the lifetime of most readers of this article? Probably. Make sure you are ready.

©2012 Investment and Business News.

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