20 Jun 2009

Cascade Democracy


Two years ago I posted an idea that had been percolating in my head for a while.

With the recent expenses debacle, this idea is even more worthy of further examination.

The idea, in summary, is to make each level of government the electorate of the next level, with candidates drawn solely from that electorate. For example, the local council is made up of 100* people from the area, each of whom stood for election to represent the 100 households that included their own. This council elect one of those 100 people to represent them to their regional assembly, which is a collection of 100 local councils. The regional assembly elect one of their number for the national government, and so on.

The point of this system is that every candidate can have a personal interaction and understanding with every member of their electorate. What is more, every representative at the higher levels retains their role(s) as representative at the lower levels, so a member of the national parliament would simultaneously have to perform their duties at regional and local level. What is more, any of those three constituencies would have the right to recall the representative, having the effect of denying them the right to remain in any higher post.

For example, let's say that Joe Bloggs of 47 Acacia Avenue, Newtown, Southshire, England stands for election to represent Nos1-100 Acacia Avenue. He wins because he is well respected and his neighbours appreciate his honesty and intelligence.

After a few years serving on the Newtown Council there is an election for a representative to serve Newtown at the Southshire Assembly. He is nominated and gets elected because the 78 other Councillors in Newtown have grown to respect his integrity and clear debating style.

Things carry on for a few more years, and Joe serves on both the Assembly and Council. He regularly talks to his neighbours and the other Councillors, and always takes their views into account when he votes. He has even taken advantage of an online straw-poll system to let his constituents know what votes are coming up soon, and how he intends to vote and why. Whenever the poll goes against his advice, he scrupulously follows the mandate, despite his personal feelings. One or two of his fellows failed to do this, and they were rapidly recalled.

Then the long-serving MP for Southshire retires, having been told by the Assembly to support a windfarm subsidy and deciding that he could not. The 35 Assemblymen decide to send Joe to Parliament, considering him their best candidate. Joe now spends three days a week in London, One at the Assembly building in Southshireham, and one back in Newtown covering Council business. His remaining time is spent talking to constituents and spending time with his family.

Joe is a Councillor, Assemblyman and MP all at the same time. He cannot forget any of his constituencies, because they can recall him at any time. If he moves house away from Acacia Avenue, he will immediately lose his eligibility for the seat. If his conscience forces him to vote against the wishes of any one of his electorates, he can be recalled and replaced in under a week.

This is pure personality politics. It is not a person's party affiliation or policies that get them elected, it is their ability to carry out the wishes of the people they represent. There is no need for a party machine, because the electorate is never larger than a few hundred people, and every individual in the electorate can communicate directly with the candidate if they wish, and he has time to reply and the personal relationship with them to make the reply meaningful.

Now some might say that the Assemblyman for Newtown is only answerable to the 78 Councillors and 200-odd residents of Acacia Avenue, which leaves the other 150,000 voters of Newtown out in the cold. This is far from the truth. Each Councillor will advise their constituents how they plan to vote for the next Assemblyman, and offer them reasons. They are at liberty to mandate him to vote differently. In effect, although only 78 votes will be cast, every resident of Newtown will have had their say.

Because constituency sizes are always very similar, each of the 78 votes will, in effect, be a block vote. However there will be some variation when, say, a student area with an average of four adults per household elects one Councillor and a block of Council flats with an average of one adult per household does. This could be overcome by varying the wards by occupancy rates, but I feel this is unnecessary. Council tax is currently levied per household, and many local services are on a per household basis. Moreover, occupancy rates are seldom equally high or equally low across large groups of households, so the problem will be relatively infrequent.

The title of this blog post is Cascade Democracy because I feel this system allows greater democratic accountability by cascading voting onto each level. It will create a greater involvement and a greater sense of responsibility among voters, as well as changing the relationship of politicians to their constituents fundamentally for the good.


As always, I really should search Google before I imply any idea I have is original. In this case, I even managed to coin the same term used elsewhere!

* As before, 100 is for illustration purposes. It might be seen as the upper limit, with smaller numbers used according to geographic convenience. I think the 100 household number should be fairly fixed, however, with deviations of no more than 10 houses allowed.

18 Apr 2009

Electric Dreams


Recent activity in the electric car market has given rise to hopes that the eventual dream of a fossil-fuel-free transport system might one day be realised.

    There are still, however, two major hurdles to overcome:
  1. Range - 50 miles per charge is poor, and as batteries age this will only shrink
  2. Refuelling - Even if refuelling stations can fully charge a battery safely in about 10 minutes, the technology required for fast-charging is more complex than slow charging, and is, in any event, dependant on the battery technology in use. Also, for most people it is not practical to charge their vehicles at home or work, leaving cables lying around.

Here is a concept that will not only resolve these two issues, but make the transition to electric cars entirely viable.

User-portable Battery Packs

The car industry needs to adopt a standard for electric cars so that they all contain sets of identically sized battery packs, light enough, or well enough designed, to be removable from the vehicle and taken indoors for charging.

Imagine, as an initial design concept, a car with say 50KWh of battery capacity, which is enough for around 200 miles. 10KWh of this in in a single reserve pack, slung under the car roughly where current designs put the fuel tank, protected by a steel plate or similar from road debris, and replaceable quickly and easily at a garage. The remaining 40KWh is in 8 5KWh battery packs mounted under the bonnet in an array capable of controlled installation and release.

A new li-ion car battery can achieve around 125Wh/Kg, so a 5KWh battery would weigh in at around 40Kg, giving a total battery weight in the car of 400Kg. For comparison, a 4-cylinder engine, plus gearbox, plus 50litre fuel tank can easily exceed 400Kg, and in the US the total weight of an average vehicle is in excess of 2000KG.

Now, it isn't practical to ask all car drivers to lift a 40Kg weight out of a car and onto some trolley or platform, although most fairly fit men could manage it. Instead, there needs to be a system where the battery can be slid out of the space on rollers, onto some sort of variable-height trolley platform, something like an ambulance gurney. With enough design thought, the battery could be shifted without any lifting onto a small two-wheeled hand-trolley.

Once you have the battery on a trolley, it can be delivered to a private recharging point in the home or office, taking multiple trips if required. Owners can lease extra batteries so thay can have some on charge and some in the vehicle at all times. But the massive advantage of this system is not at home, but at service stations.

Being able to swap out a flat battery for a fully charged one makes 'refuelling' possible anywhere. Service stations can install charging units that take the flat batteries into a locked-off sorting and storage area and deliver replacements in seconds. The flat ones get recharged until needed by another customer, and the range of the vehicle becomes, effectively, unlimited

The benefits continue: Leasing batteries and replacing them at self-serve service stations means that their age is no longer an issue. When they get old they can be taken out of circulation and recycled. Furthermore it offers future-proofing. As new battery technology becomes available, it can simply be rolled out to the service stations, slowly increasing the power storage capacity of the vehicle and its range. What other car technology could offer the possibility of improving performance over time? The service stations can also serve (more practically than private homes) as buffer systems for the electricity network, absorbing changes to a supply increasingly dominated by renewables.

The concept requires certain standards. Every battery pack needs to be the same size and shape, with the same connectors, handles etc. These cannot be changed after the system gains momentum, so they have to be very well designed. If different versions restrict configurations, such that every pack in a car (including the reserve, perhaps) has to be of the same version, then this will lead to unnecessary complications, so the in-car technology must be able to cope with batteries of different types, performances and capacities.

Overall I think the concept needs to be studied very carefully by the car companies, and adopted across the industry to help accelerate the switch from liquid fuels to electric. The continued importance of service stations for refuelling and the relatively cheap technology required for storing and slow-charging leased batteries will remove the opposition of the station owners (the oil companies) to the loss of revenue that the switch represents, and the removal of the twin challenges of range and refuelling will accelerate the take-up of electric cars


A company called Better Place are proposing something similar, although in their case they appear to want to automate everything and work with multiple sizes and makes of battery, replacing the whole thing rather than standard units. They have a MOU with Renault Nissan, so already have the first element of support they will need. I think they need to consider making the standard criteria 'man-portable' to allow people to charge the batteries away from the street.

8 Apr 2009

Ecotec Methods for Methane Transmission


In a previous entry on the future of energy transmission, I claimed that the best way to maximise the efficiency of renewable energy was to convert it to methane, allowing it to be stored and moved around far more easily, and providing a direct source of non-fossil hydrocarbons for all our needs.

Well, today I learned it has come a step closer, with the news of a discovery of a bacterium that can turn electricity into methane.

The new method relies on a microorganism studied by Bruce Logan's team at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. When living on the cathode of an electrolytic cell, the organism can take in electrons and use their energy to convert carbon dioxide into methane.

New Scientist, 6/4/09

As for the efficiency:

Of the energy put into the system as electricity, 80% was eventually recovered when the methane was burned – a fairly high efficiency.

22 Feb 2009

Those floating Oases Again


Back in August 2006 I floated an idea which (so far as I knew) was original, although as it seemed obvious to me, I assumed it had been thought of already. Certainly between March and August of that year, I discussed it freely on the Climate Chage newsgroup (via Google's reader) and had some positive responses.

Tonight I watched an experiment to verify the potential of this idea - on the Discovery channel. I'm glad to see others have come up with the idea independantly (or read it on the group and took it further as I encouraged them to do).

Hungry Oceans
Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet and are one of the most important carbon sinks we have, but the phytoplankton that convert carbon dioxide into living matter are declining – and many scientists believe that Climate Change is the culprit. Dr. Brian von Herzen of The Climate Foundation join forces with Marine Biologists at the University of Hawaii and Oregon State University to deploy three wave powered pumps. They head into the huge swells of the North Pacific in an attempt to restore this critical natural mixing effect.

14 Feb 2009

The Future of Energy Transmission


Using Methane to transmit energy

I doubt that we will, in the long term, transmit electricity from wind turbines. It makes far more sense to use the electricity onsite to generate methane (or methanol for remote areas that need a tanker collection) and plug it in to the existing gas network. The technology for this is not yet cheaply available, but people are working on it.

    Methane generation blows all the objections of the doubters out of the water:
  • It can be stored easily, so you never need to leave a turbine idle when it's not needed.
  • It can be shipped to every home and business in the UK with ease, and exported to generate revenue.
  • It can be used as a feedstock for heavier liquid fuels and plastics, eliminating the need for fossil fuels completely.
  • It can be burned, if necessary, in gas-fired power stations for baseload and high-demand electricity use.
  • Since it is made, in this instance, from water and CO2, there is no net cost to the environment*.
  • You can use all types of renewable energy, including microgeneration, to power the same distribution network with zero load balancing issues.
  • You can provide every home and business with its own methane-powered generator, making electricity transmission a thing of the past.

*beyond the hardware and inevitable but hopefully minimised leaks

Imagine replacing every eyesore pylon with a turbine?

Methods of Generating Methane or Methanol

Bearing in mind that free methane is an extremely bad idea I thought I would raise a few ideas about how to go about generating methane on demand using just (sea) water, air and ambient energy (which may or may not be turned into electricity) such as wind, waves, tides and sunlight.

The first method is an engineered organism, derived from methanogens.

There is a kind of autotrophy which is far less familiar. This kind is labelled chemoautotrophy because it relies on chemical processes rather than light for the energy needed for food production. Instead of dumping oxygen, these organisms dump other metabolic waste products. Methanogens, the ones with which we are most concerned, dump methane. Although numerous organic molecules, including acetate, formate, and methyl alcohol, can be used as the source of carbon, the simplest methanogenesis reaction employs carbon dioxide and hydrogen:

(carbon dioxide)+(hydrogen)(yields)(methane)+(water)


So, generate a hydrogen-rich atmosphere in a reaction chamber filled with these organisms using hydrolosis, syphon off the methane waste product, recycle the water into the hydrolysis section, and you have a methane-generator that also oxygenates the surrounding seawater. As they grow, they will need a nutrient stream, but if they are able to feed off their own dead, that could be self-contained. Otherwise, they may need an effluent stream, such as sewage, to live off, the remnants of which might prove effective fertiliser for the oxygen-rich waters.

Alternatively, the technologies developed for coal gasification may offer a more mechanical way to achieve the goal, given a way to concentrate the CO2 and reduce it to CO (perhaps using focused beam solar)


The most active organisation in this area is, however, Nasa who are looking at ways to generate methanol from CO2 in the Martian atmosphere. They do say in the linked article, talking about potential commercial applications:

Current methods of methanol production yield about 27 million metric tons worldwide per year, with the principal feedstocks being natural gas, coal, and wood. All of these have other applications. In contrast, a MMISPP based methanol factory could use renewable energy sources to combine the CO2emissions from existing industrial plants (such as steel mills) with water to produce methanol, thereby supplying the economy with large quantities of storable fuel, while reducing or eliminating steel mill CO2emissions.

8 Feb 2009

Fight the enemy, not his weapons.


Our number one goal is to bring about change. Any campaign that scares off potential supporters and marginalises the remainder is counter-productive. We have to start thinking in the short terms and practical realities that politicians are forced to consider.

1. Meat is Murder.

We certainly have to look at reducing meat content in our diets, but calling for global veganism is too extreme and attacks the generality when it is the specifics that matter. We have to move away from intensive farming to a more labour-intensive organic system, and that means rearing animals in a natural way with a varied diet so they can fertilise the land they live on and bind up large volumes of carbon in the soils.

Often the best way of looking at the problem is to figure out why a particular activity leads to large emissions. With meat-eating, it's because the volumes we demand lead to factory farming. Do away with factory farming, then adjust your meat intake to match production in less intensive ways. Reducing population will allow significant meat content without harming the atmosphere.

One must also consider that, within the carbon cycle, biomass is just biomass, no matter what form it takes. Any animals that exist will produce methane and CO2, and even if they are part of a manmade/managed ecosystem, they are still a part of the natural cycle of carbon and do not add anything man-made. Those animals that are extracted from anything that might be called an ecosystem and reared artificially, however, are extraneous to the natural cycle, and their emissions should be eliminated.

2. All Cars are Bad

Again the target is wrong. We have to stop burning fossil fuels to make and power cars, and reuse/recycle every part they contain. A car is not inherently wrong. We just have to make their manufacture and use low- to zero-impact.

3. Evil King Coal.

Burning coal should be phased out as rapidly as possible - except in those rare instances where using coal has no significant impact on the environment. Coal can be used for a large number of things, just so long as none of its by-products from use are released into the atmosphere.

Take, for example, plastics and carbon nanotubes (and this holds true for all fossil fuels). They require long-chain hydrocarbons for efficient manufacture. They often incorporate molecular structures that would be poisonous if set free in the world. But plastics are frequently the most stable forms of carbon sequestration there is. When Oil peaks, it's not just the price of fuel that will sky-rocket (as it did last summer). The price of everything that uses oil as a feedstock will go through the roof too.

We might also consider a campaign against biodegradable plastics. Burying megatonnes of plastic deep in the ground where it will remain indefinitely is one way to sequester fossil carbon more or less permanently and avoid it turning to methane.

4. Too Many Children.

Population control happens anyway - there's no need to campaign for it. In any country where women are educated and have ready access to contraception, fertility rates fall - ultimately to below 2.1 per couple, which is the level for sustained population. Most of Europe, Japan and North America are already below this rate and worrying increasingly about demographics - with a falling number of workers supporting a rising number of pension-welfare dependants.

So climate campaigners can join the existing, highly positive campaign, and keep quiet about their reasons. Campaign vigorously for universal primary education for girls (as well as boys), and for family planning clinics throughout the third world. Oppose those who object to any form of effective contraception. Encourage healthcare for children so that their parents do not think they need any 'spare capacity'.

Above all, remember that the enemy is not lifestyles, over consumption and wealth. The enemy is the wanton burning of fossil fuels and the lack of support for sustainable alternatives, coupled with unsustainable population growth caused by ignorance and lack of access to condoms or the pill.

The goal is to live in harmony with the world, taking what it can give, and give again the following year without any danger of running out.

30 Jan 2009

No Excuse


Further to my previous post, a reply to the latest Denialist Letter (pdf)

I would ask Mr Hemmingway who, he supposes, decides what is and is not 'proper evidence', if not the scientific community by general consensus?

It is the process of assessing all the evidence for and against man-made climate change, undertaken by the IPCC at the behest of the international community, that has given rise to the consensus Mr Waugh refers to.

As for quoting this 'proper evidence', I would gladly do so, so long as the Standard is willing to publish thousands of scientific quotes and references. I will settle for just one - IPCC Fourth WG1 (Scientific Basis) Report These are not climate alarmists. They are as conservative and precise a group of career scientists as you will ever come across. 640 of them!

Mr Hemmingway misleads in his 'truth' about whan most scientists are saying. What they ARE saying is "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal" and "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."

In the terms of this publication, which is the most difinitive and authoritative statement of its kind on the state of the planet, that means there is no contradictory evidence suggesting that warming is not occurring, and that more than 90% of all the evidence collected and analysed points at man-made greenhouse gases being the main cause.

Suggestions that there is no hard evidence for this are ridiculous. Reams of hard data are being collected every day, some of it covering timescales of thousands, even millions of years, and none of it reliant on the models he wrongly considers a key element of the argument. All of this real evidence shows that the Earth's temperature, and therefore its climate, changes in lockstep with CO2 concentrations.

And while Mr Hemmingway's description of how energy is trapped by CO2 is accurate, he draws the false conclusion that CO2 will not cause warming based on the false (and concealed) premis that absorption bands are anywhere near full, for the principle greenhouse gases.

And finally, despite exhorting us to produce evidence for the seriousness of the climate change challenge ahead of us, Mr Hemmingway supplied not one single verifiable reference or fact. Even his quote from Dr Richard North turns out to be nothing more than a throwaway line in a blog, written by a lobbyist for Big Agriculture. The Lies that money can buy

Don't take my word for it - look for yourselves and make your own minds up.

The letter was published here on Friday 6th. (archive pdf file here)

19 Jan 2009

Mr Ward's Many Mythtakes


This was in response to a denialist letter in the local rag.

Mr Stephen Ward makes all the usual debunked arguments, in all the usual ways.

He starts off characterising the science of global warming as a series of assumptions, when in fact they are a rock-solid scientific theory supported by thousands of peer-reviewed papers and literally billions of measurements. The evidence supporting what he calls "assumptions" is a mountain of data assembled by every climatologist, biologist, glaciologist, geologist and meteorologist around the world, working at times with intense rivalry as well as frequent co-operation. The "assumptions" he quotes are exactly the conclusions reached by the IPCC, representing the most conservative views and least controversial avenues of study. Proven? Get a few PhDs, then say otherwise.

He follows with the old saw about a scientific consensus on cooling in the 1970s. There was no such thing. There was a global journalistic scare story derived from a single paper suggesting we were due for a return of the ice age because the warm period was longer than any of the previous ones. If anything, the fact that we were not sliding into an ice age is evidence for human impact on the climate stretching back even before we started burning fossil fuels. There is a suggestion that farming and forest clearance kept the world at a warmer than natural level for the last 5000 years.

The article he quotes talks about a trend of 20-30 years. The period in question (1945 to 1975) was dominated by massive industrial growth on the back of coal-burning and car fumes, which release soot and sulphates into the atmosphere. These make clouds with smaller droplets, reflecting sunlight and cooling the surface of the earth in a phenomenum called Global Dimming - a very real and accepted aspect of climate calcualtions. Since the various attempts to eliminate dirty coal fumes across the US and Europe, this form of human pollution has diminished (although it is coming back around India and China) and the underlying warming trend from CO2 has therefore returned with a vengeance.

We then get a few cherry-picked snippets of data. 1998 was, indeed, one of the warmest years on record following a ferocious El Nino event. What he ignores is that climate is about long trends of 10, 50, 100 years and more. Any single year is just noise in these trends. The global temperature rise over the 100 year period from 1906-2005 was 0.74°C. The warmest year between 1880 and 1980 was 1944, 0.2°C above the overall mean. In the past ten years every single year has been more than 0.3°C above the mean, with one, 2005, more than 0.6°C above the mean, beating 1998 into a cocked hat.

Included in all Mr Ward's misinformation is a claim that the main sources of data are satellites and remote sensing equipment, and that these are both showing cooling trends. This is simply false. The main sources of data are the thousands of weather stations around the world, and the temperature measurements logged by hundreds of ships' captains aboard sea-going vessels. There were no satellites nor remote sensing stations between 1880 and 1970, and the ones deployed since 1970 all, with no substantial exceptions, support the measurements taken on the ground.

Mr Ward winds up this abundance of ignorance and falsehood with an appeal to reason. We should balance job creation against the dangers of climate change. It makes me wonder what, amidst all his denials that climate change is happening, he thinks those dangers are? Does he think it will get a little stormier, maybe have a few more floods and heatwaves and lose some seafront properties to gently lapping waves?

No, Mr Ward. That level of ignorance must be addressed.

There has only ever been one period in Earth's history when it has experienced the runaway global warming we are now faced with. When the Canadian and Russian permafrost releases gigatonnes of methane, and seas warm to release teratonnes more from frozen methane clathrate on the seabed, then we will have a global extinction event on a par with the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Try arguing for a third runway when 96% of all marine species and 70% of all land vertebrates (including everything bigger than a mouse that can't survive on dead and decaying things) are dead and gone.

To put it in insurance terms for you. The level of risk is the termination of everything that makes human civilisation possible, from mass food production to the ready availability of fresh water. That's 99.9999% of current global GDP gone. The chance of this cost being incurred over the next 100 years or so, given the prevalence of (frequently wilful) ignorance on the subject, is currently around 10-15%. This can be reduced to maybe 1% if everyone starts doing something significant right away.

As your insurer, I know that you probably won't be able to pay your premiums after about 2050, as you will be too worried about the 2 billion refugees from Asia and Africa trying to take your Big Mac and Fries. So, I offer you a choice of two 40-year annuities. Either pay 1% of Global GDP for 40 years to reduce the risks, and another 1% per year insurance premium to meet the costs of failure, or spend nothing on risk reduction, and 5% of global GDP (starting in ten years time after it is too late) to make sure I will rebuild civilisation after your grandchildren have died of starvation.

Your choice - don't let me pressure you. We need to be rational about this. Only, could you pay me in rocket fuel so I can build my luxury retreat in space.

The Standard seems to remove articles after a week, so the original link is now dud. Alistair Waugh (the originator of the discussion) got right of reply last week, and now another denialist has chimed in with more garbage.

The permanent locations are PDF files
Mr Waugh's opener
Mr Ward's myths
Mr Waugh's reply
Mr Hemmingway's excuse

My reply in a new post, shortly