It’s hot in Cinderella’s basement

The underfunded scheme for hot rock geothermal energy.T

Basement rocks, the ones far below the Cambrian sediments, don’t get much love. Where’s the poem? Kipling wrote one featuring the less interesting ocean abyssal plains. They are of little interest to palaeontologists, as there are no fossils (baked bacteria are pretty invisible), and none to oil and gas drillers. They are vital to us simply because the continents rest on them.

The Grand Canyon, unusually, has a tidy horizontal stratigraphy mapping geological history. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the basement igneous rock at the bottom of the gorge was simply a boring sheet of granite, all the way down. But no. Wikipedia on the Vishnu Schist, which is what it’s romantically named:

Specific names have been assigned to individual plutons and dike swarms because the plutons and swarms differ greatly in their age, origin, and tectonic significance. The oldest of these plutonic complexes, Elves Chasm Gneiss, likely represent a small fragment of basement upon which the metavolcanic rocks that comprise the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite accumulated. The remainder of the Early Paleoproterozoic granites, granitic pegmatites, aplites, and granodiorites – are parts of either younger plutons or dike swarms, that have intruded the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite, either contemporaneously with, or after they were metamorphosed. Etc etc.

If this sounds more like the result of an explosion in a connoisseur jam factory, it’s because the actual processes were similarly violent though much slower.

Acasta Gneiss from Canada, 4.03 Gya   Source Wikimedia

The oldest rocks at the bottom of the gorge are about 1.75 billion years old (Gya). The basement rock below England is considerably younger, about 700 million years old (Mya). The Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years, and the oldest dated rocks are from 4.0 Gya.  Just when the tectonic plate system started is Controversial but those arguing for a late start in the Archaean say that rock life was just too violent:

small protocontinents were common, prevented from coalescing into larger units by the high rate of geologic activity.

Do the Priorplater and Posteriorplater factions speak to each other, or anathematise from their rival journals? Either way, the exploding jam factory was at work for several billion years, moving large lumps of crustal rock about, colliding and subducting them, and metamorphosing early sediments with ferocious volcanic heat. That’s why very old rocks (over 3 Gya) are rare, and the basement is typically complex.

The basement rock may lie on the surface, as in much of Scotland, or be covered by ten kilometres of sediments. What deep rock is, is hot. A heat map of Britain at 5 km and 7 km depths.

This study is the source of the maps and also gives estimates of the British geothermal resource. Tl;dr: it depends. The heat in place in the rocks is mind-blowing: to 9.5km, 357,000 exajoules.

If it were possible to develop just 2% of this resource (7144 EJ), this would be equivalent to 1242 times the final UK energy consumption in 2015.

So now deep igneous rocks have found a fan club: geothermal engineers. Continue reading “It’s hot in Cinderella’s basement”

The London high-rise fire

The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up.  Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded–I expect a toll in the dozens–as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)

How is such a thing possible?  Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.

The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:

  1. start fewer fires
  2. faster emergency response from fire brigades
  3. buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
  4. buildings that facilitate escape
  5. proper behavior by occupants
  6. better medical care for survivors

No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.

No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.

No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.

No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had  “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.

Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.

No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?

Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.

The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.

Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.

[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in.  Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights,  it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything:  ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.

Ulster’s European border

Theresa May’s instant pact with the Ulster Unionists is incompatible with hard Brexit.

Theresa May has lost no time in forming an electoral pact with the DUP, the Northern Irish Protestant/Unionist party, to give her a Commons majority of one.

This has consequences. Northern Irish politics is one-dimensional: it’s about the border, stupid. Republicans want to get rid of it and unite with the Republic, Unionists to keep it and stay in the United Kingdom.  That’s it. But there is a wrinkle. One of the gains of the Good Friday peace deal was the end of border controls, which also depended on both the UK and the Republic of Ireland being in the EU.  One of the very few things both factions in Northern Ireland can agree on is that the open border is just fine and should be kept. The DUP is now in a position to insist on this.

How is this possible after Brexit? Logically Brexit involves re-establishing immigration and customs controls at all EU borders. There are two ways to get round this in Ireland. One is a NI carve-out where Ulster is in a customs union with the Republic, but not the rest of the UK. The DUP will see this as handing Republicans at least half of the reunification they want. Not on. The other is for the whole UK to stay in the EU internal market, accepting Brussels rules on everything, all interpreted by the ECJ. This is what the City of London wants, but it’s been losing the argument against the “hard Brexit” ideologues. Now they have an ally in a position to impose its wishes. (Actually every single DUP MP can too. If one of them demands a large orange statue of Edward Carson in Parliament Square as the price of a key vote, it will go up.) Hard Brexit is dead.

The EU negotiator Michel Barnier knows this too, and his hand has been strengthened.

Sinn Fein won 7 seats too but by longstanding practice will not take them up, as every new MP must swear a oath of allegiance to the Crown. American readers note that the sitting President of the United States has less integrity than a bunch of retired Irish terrorists. I wonder though. If it came to a really critical vote about the border, perhaps Sinn Féin MPs could find a way to take the oath and become loyal subjects of the Queen for a day, vote, then resign their seats, get reelected in the by-elections, and return to the boycott.

Allegiance does not have to be a lifelong thing, and oaths can expire. I took an oath when I joined the Council of Europe not to take instructions from any government. I’m retired now, and the oath has surely ended with my service. I can write blogs (like this one) at the bidding of the Prince of Liechtenstein if I want. He hasn’t offered me enough yet.

Update: If you want to know where the DUP stands on other issues,  see here and marvel. The party could be called “The making Neanderthals look good party”. That’s on top of the ties to loyalist terrorists. Look at Noel Little, the charming father of one of the new DUP MPs, Emma Pengelly.

In court it was said the loyalists were trying to get guns from South Africa in exchange for information about advanced missile systems after parts of a Blowpipe missile and a model of a Javelin missile went missing from a Short Brothers plant at Castlereagh and from a Territorial Army depot in Newtownards.



Lives Worth Talking About

Today I have the honor of participating in a service at Westminster Abbey in which we will grieve the lives lost to addiction while also supporting the families who have experienced it. The event is organized by a charity known as DrugFam, which was founded by a remarkable woman named Elizabeth Burton-Phillips. Elizabeth’s twin sons both became addicted to heroin, and only one them survived. She tells this moving story in her book Mum, can you lend me twenty quid?, which I commend to you.

As the 2000 people come to the Abbey today, there will be for each a brochure on the pews which contains the message below. If this message or issue resonates with you, I hope you will consider supporting the work of DrugFam (donation link here).

Addiction never truly happens to just one person. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children are pulled into the pain and destruction that addiction to alcohol and other drugs can cause. Many of the emotions addicted people feel — hopelessness, shame, sadness — are also visited on the hearts of everyone who loves them. As family members understandably focus intently on saving the life of the person they love, they sometimes forget that they too are suffering and need help of their own. That’s why the support, compassion, and understanding that DrugFAM provides families is so important.

Today we come together to recognize the terrible damage of addiction and to memorialize the lives of those we have lost. We all need to grieve these enormous sorrows in our own time and way. But though this may be a day with some tears it is not a day of despair, but of hope. We have hope because we recognize that recovery from addiction is a reality that tens of millions of people around the world, including in this very building, are living today. We also know that many families facing addiction who seemed on the brink of destruction received the help they needed and as a result are thriving, loving, and strong today. By bringing addiction out of the shadows as we are doing here — making clear that the lives of addicted people are lives worth talking about — we are giving countless other families who have been too afraid to reach out the precious assurance that we are here for them.

Addiction isolates. It cuts off from society the person who experiences it and the families who struggle to help them. The community of fellow sufferers — the people who have “been there” — is the best remedy for this isolation, and the beginning of healing. As we come together today, we will be strengthened by that fellowship and can go forth from here freshly charged to bring comfort and understanding to families facing addiction.

Three Surprises in the UK Local Election Results

The UK held local elections this week, the results of which everyone is sorting through for clues as to what will happen in the snap general election on June 8. You can see the full results on Wikipedia. People I chat with here generally find three things surprising about UK politics at the moment.

1. The Liberal Democrats don’t seem to be picking up anti-Brexit voters despite the party’s unabashedly pro-EU stance. The Remain vote was 48% of the country but the LibDems actually lost seats in the local elections (though their vote share picked up a bit). Perhaps pro-EU British voters have accommodated to Brexit more rapidly than was generally expected.

2. UKIP got what it wanted so everyone assumed the party would lose seats…but over 99% of them? Most people here thought lingering populism would have kept UKIP a minor player, but they are now a non-entity (you will not hear me grieving their demise…).

3. The Tory thrashing of Labour was expected, but the success of Conservatives in some of the poorest areas of the country was not. I find the data in this chart astounding when I contrast it with how British politics has generally worked in my lifetime. The once dependable class divisions have really broken down.

National Grid and the end of British coal

The British grid operator flags its first day without coal.

Somebody in the National Grid control room in the UK has a sense of history.

NG is greatly understating the length of the British coal story. The 1880s were when electrical power stations began. But the switch to coal in England was already under way in 1600, as the trees ran out and wood prices soared. The first Industrial Revolution in the 18th century depended on coal. The steam engine was invented to pump water out of mines. Since coal is no longer burnt for anything else than electricity, the day marks the end of the four-century coal era in the first modern industrial country.

National Grid are noticeably not moaning about their loss of “baseload” coal plants, unlike Rick Perry. In her successful 1989 electricity privatisation, Margaret Thatcher split transmission, a technical monopoly, from generation, which can and should be competitive. National Grid started out in the public sector; it was later privatised, but remains tightly regulated with a public-interest mandate and no generating assets. (In the US the company operates as a conventional mixed utility). The model, as good ideas tend to do, has spread to Texas, Australia, China, India, Denmark, and Germany, and no doubt others. These grid operators are uniformly phlegmatic about the energy transition. They publish reports  about how to integrate 20%, 40%, 100% renewable electricity in their grids, how to fix the problems, and how much it will cost. They never SFIK say: stop this, we can’t cope, a secure supply requires baseload coal or nuclear plants. You only hear this biased testimony from the old-fashioned silo monopolies in parts of the USA and in Japan.

Another telling detail is the little gaps in the chart. The few surviving British coal generators have not been running at night. This is orthodox Econ 101: the grid control room has a merit order list of generators, and will call on the cheapest first. Renewables have zero marginal cost, and therefore go first when demand is low in the small hours. Orthodoxy is terrible for the owners of coal plants, which were designed and financed on the assumption that they will run as “baseload”, that is almost all the time, with spikes in demand met by more expensive gas generators. This effect  is cutting into the returns from coal plants, in Germany, Texas, Colorado, and India, even faster than the slide in the comparative LCOE of new build.

Empty threats

Theresa May’s threat for Britain to set up as a corporate tax haven after Brexit is empty.

King Lear, Act 2, scene 4:

Lear: No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

This is very much the Trump style. I’ll cancel the Paris Agreement! Mexico will pay for the Wall!

Making credible threats is still an essential part of diplomacy. An Fengshan, spokesman for China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, said on 14 December :

Upholding the ‘one China’ principle is the political basis of developing China-US relations, and is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China-US relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted.

Major national interest? Check. Means to deliver on threat? Check. Careful wording allowing plenty of space for future escalation? Check. This threat is serious. Like this one.

You can also go wrong by being too specific. Theresa May, in her Brexit speech on January 17:

While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain. Because we would still be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world. And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. And – if we were excluded from accessing the Single Market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.

What had she been drinking?
Continue reading “Empty threats”

Getting to the Airport in London and in Other Places

A few years ago, I listened to a speech by the UK Minister for Transport regarding why there was no need for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport because a new airport would be built near the Thames Estuary very soon. A retired mandarin sitting next to me whispered that he himself had once been directed to draw up plans for a soon-to-be-built Thames Estuary airport…by PM Harold Wilson.

It does continually amaze visitors that one of the world’s greatest cities ended up with four airports that somehow still do not meet the need, but there is one thing London does as well as any large city: Help people get to and from its main airport. As transport expert Jarrett Walker points out, the Heathrow-related options are hard to beat. You’ve got:

*The lightning fast no stops Heathrow Express train
*Heathrow Connect trains with a few more stops but more affordable
*The Tube (Piccadilly Line) which is even more affordable and stops in many places so that a range of Londoners can board and debark near their homes
*All three of these options connect you directly to the city’s existing transport network of local trains and buses rather than being “bridges to nowhere”.

Walker contrasts the Heathrow situation favorably with systems like Toronto’s fancy airtrain that cost a mint and doesn’t help people from a wide range of geographical locations get to the airport more quickly.

I really loathe the fact that so few US airports (with some wonderful exceptions like Reagan National) have a train or subway go straight to the airport as is the European norm. Indeed, this country seems to have a peverse habit of making trains go near the airport, but not into it. For BWI, you take the train to the middle of nowhere and then a shuttle comes to get you (and maybe you hike a mile and grab a zeppelin after that, I have traumatic memory loss about the particulars due to being on an icy, windblown platform as we waited for the shuttlebus which was late and couldn’t fit everyone when it did arrive).

In the Bay Area we had a proposed tax levy “to extend the train track to San Jose Airport” which I voted against because what this actually meant was that it would stop a few miles away and then people would switch to something else. Stopping the train a few miles from the airport is as useful as having an airplane touch down a few miles from the tarmac. Coming from the south to San Francisco Airport is really annoying, as you usually have to take a Caltrain to Millbrae, get on the BART system and go north past the airport, get off the BART and cross to other side waiting for another BART south on which you backtrack to get to SFO. That creates much hassle and lots of chances to miss flights if any one link in the chain breaks, which understandably reduces the number of people who use it.

Walker is full of good ideas on how cities should design airport transport and his whole post is worth a read.*

*The only thing I either disagreed with or just didn’t follow was Walker’s argument that airport workers should be prioritized when designing transport systems because they make the most trips back and forth. Why should the population of an entire city or state be asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for an amenity targeted at a relatively small group of employees rather than one focused mainly on serving the much larger number of taxpayers who will use it to travel to the airport, however infrequently?

Murphy’s Year

The British ambassador to the EU resigns in disgust, and Trump goes off the rails too.

The British ambassador (Permanent Representative) to the EU institutions in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned on the first working day of 2017.

Splashily. He sent a memo to all his large staff, knowing and presumably intending that it should be leaked. It’s quite a document.

It takes a great deal to push a senior British civil servant to quit like this and slam the door on his way out. Regardless of the merits of Brexit, negotiating it is a terrific high-profile professional challenge: a dream job – if the brief makes any sense. It does not. Oh, his No. 2, Shan Morgan, left in November for the top civil service job in the devolved Welsh government.

Some bullet points.

We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.”

The British government still does not know what it is trying to achieve in the Brexit negotiations, though it has weirdly self-imposed a March deadline for triggering exit under Article 50.

Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council. The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have – a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKRep – and negotiates resolutely. Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27.

London is in the grip of wishful thinking; pro-Leave ministers are refusing to face facts, and blaming the messenger.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.

A hard Brexit (without replacement market access deals in place) would be a shambles. My gloss: The fallback “WTO rules only” may be tolerable for manufacturing, but not for the financial services on which London relies.

I shall advise my successor to continue to make these points.

God help him. He has been quickly named: Sir Tim Barrow, an FO mandarin and recent ambassador to Russia, so presumably tough as well as as slick as a penguin. But these problems can’t be fixed by tradecraft. Theresa May is heading for a trainwreck.

I fear this is the sort of year we are in for. At least in the USA, the incompetence of the Trump administration will offer partial protection from its malevolence. Just two examples picked from the turgid flow of events last week.

Trump went out of his way to insult Chuck Schumer, repeatedly calling him a “clown” on Twitter. Progressive Democrats have been very nervous about Schumer as a successor to the steely Harry Reid: centrist, wheeler-dealer, friend of Wall Street and AIPAC, elected when the job was expected to be shepherding President Clinton’s agenda through Congress rather than fighting President Trump’s. Seduction into lesser-evil compromise might have worked. But Trump has left Schumer no choice but to fight, and he is shaping up. This jibe at McConnell is even better.

The other incident was Trump’s after-midnight tweetstorm immediately after Meryl Streep attacked him in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. It was a reprise on a smaller scale of his small-hours response to Alicia Machado.

The man is ridiculously easy to provoke, and the Democrats have a huge bench of uppity women celebrities who can be wheeled out to do just that at regular intervals. Does he win by distracting us all from his appalling agenda? With his base, perhaps. The Beltway chattering classes will be less impressed, and he loses any pretence at gravitas – it’s very dangerous to a politician to become a figure of fun. Still less those he needs to work with directly to get anything done. The Presidency will be a very taxing job, and you can only stay on top of it by shutting out distractions, and getting a full night’s sleep.

Brexit: Wish I May

An update on the Brexit imbroglio. It ain’t over till the thin lady sings.

The US presidential election is losing interest to the average political junkie, though the hard core can fuss over the margin of victory. We Told You So (footnote). So time for a Brexit update, to remind you what a real politician looks like digging herself out of a deep hole.

MayThe politician is Theresa May, catapulted to 10 Downing Street after her rivals obligingly self-destructed. She is disciplined and chilly to an extent that makes Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton look like Oprah Winfrey. So she follows the first rule of being at the bottom of a hole, which is to say as little as possible. It’s a waste of time to guess her real thoughts and intentions. As with Kremlinology, you watch the deeds instead.

What has she done on Brexit, which she opposed without enthusiasm? Continue reading “Brexit: Wish I May”