F1 boffin’s turbine is a thing of beauty – whatever the weather! May 05 2015

David Derbyshire – The Sunday Times (30/3/14)

A decade ago Michael Blaize was devising ways to make gas-guzzling Formula One cars go faster. Now the engineer is the brains behind a slimline wind turbine that could usher in a new era of low-carbon public transport.

His invention, an elegant structure in curved carbon fibre that resembles the double helix of DNA (see image below), is billed as the most advanced vertical axis turbine in the world. Revolutionary – excuse the pun!

the double helix design turbine

“The design is smaller, quieter and easier to maintain and less offensive to the eye than traditional wind turbines” Blaize claims.

A full-sized prototype is being put into production soon and within two years five test turbines should be up and running. If all goes to plan then thousands of them could be installed alongside railways in an attempt to generate 70% of the network’s electricity needs!

Vertical-axis turbines, in contrast to regular conventional wind turbines, can spin no matter which way the wind blows making them ideal in places that wind is changeable. With a much smaller footprint they can be installed more densely and their simpler design makes repair and maintenance much cheaper.

It has two spiral blades, arranged in a double helix, and can generate electricity for 13 homes. It is 19 metres tall and sits on a 30 metre mast, making it as high as an electricity pylon. It spins at up to 60 revolutions a minute, starts with wind speeds of 8mph and stops at 56mph. Blaize’s prototype – XW-80, was created to bridge the gap between small-scale vertical axis turbines generating 10kW or so and the giant horizontal axis 10MW machines used in commercial wind farms. Tests on a smaller 6kW model installed on the Isle of Wight last year showed it performed comparably to traditional horizontal axis turbines but at lower wind speeds and closer to the ground.

Blaize claims that “The design could help to get around some of the objections of the anti-turbine lobby. It provides clean energy but with a much lower visual impact and its smaller scale is more appealing to look at.” This, along with it being quieter and easier to maintain makes it ideal for sites with restricted access or limited space.

His long term goal is to have 12,000 turbines installed along Britain’s railways. Network Rail are very interested in getting involved in the two year project to develop these turbines. An initial investment of £1.5bn could save them around £3.8bn in energy over 30 years. He is targeting the end of March 2015 as the date by which two turbines should be in operation.

Britain is in the middle of an extraordinary boom. During the month of February, wind farms generated a record 11% of the country’s electricity, 2.7GW - which is enough to power 6.5m homes. Concerns over the gas supply from Russia have focused our attentions on the instability of imports. We need a stable domestic energy sector. David Milborrow, technical adviser to Renewable UK and a wind-power expert stated “X-Wind Power have clearly solved some of the problems that have hampered previous designs and if they point to performance results from its 6kW turbine, it will be in a strong position.”

Note: Another company capatalising on Formula 1 technology, namely the scientists from the team that invented the Blown Diffuser on the Brawn Formula 1 car (now the Mercedes team) have also established a new technology company which claims to be able to generate increased output at low wind speeds - see Anakata Wind Power Resources for details.

Emergency Tax Cut Needed to Rescue North Sea Oil January 14 2015

Based on an article by Danny Forston: The Sunday Times – 11/01/15

The oil price collapse in December 2014 has led to a sharp drop in North Sea drilling and a flurry of job and pay cuts.  The industry employs 375,000 people and is one of the biggest contributors to the exchequer - remember the Independence for Scotland debate?

Production last year averaged just 1.2m barrels a day - a 75% drop from the 1999 high.  Companies say one of the biggest challenges facing small or depleted oil fields is the tax take, which can still run to 80% for old fields. The basic levy is 60%.  Further, the cost base for exploration and production has soared out of control.  After decades of production, only small and, at these prices, barely economic fields are left.

A supplementary corporation tax charge was introduced in 2002 by Gordon Brown.  Osborne lopped 2% from the basic rate in the autumn statement but the industry says this is not enough.  The proposals under discussion include removing the supplementary tax altogether for new developments, and creating a simpler regime to replace the jumble of allowances and tax breaks that govern North Sea work.

Burgate, a little oil company run by a trained geophysicist Tim Boycott-Brown, was among the 60 or so companies the government chose, in November 2014, to receive exploration and development permits in the North Sea.  It came at a critical juncture.  North Sea production had fallen to a low of 1.2m barrels a day, down more than three-quarters on its 1999 high.  Exploration has slowed to levels not seen since the industry's founding.  The exchequer's take was at a 10 year low, and that was before the oil price collapsed.  Its drop from $114 a barrel in July 2014 to $49 in January 2015 has thrown the industry into chaos.

Big Oil has largely abandoned the North Sea.  Most of the companies handed new licences in the recent round do not have the expertise, money or even the intention to develop their acreages.  That is because most of them were handed "promote" licences.  These were introduced in 2003 to open up the industry to smaller players which lack the financial clout to develop a prospect, but are willing to expend the effort to find those geological gems that Big Oil has missed.

Of the 130 or so publicly traded oil companies, 55 have no reserves on their books.  Their bosses are just like Boycott-Brown: big plans but no cash to back them up and the future of the North Sea lies in the hands of companies such as these.

Big Oil has steadily sold out in recent years as its focus shifts to new basins that offer bigger returns and larger reservoirs, from east Africa to offshore Brazil.

The huge rise in government tax-take has whittled away profits.  Gordon Brown introduced the supplementary corporation tax on the North Sea in 2002.  It was increased twice thereafter before Osborne introduced a 2% reduction last year, taking the basic rate back to 60% - still three times that levied on other industries.  The chancellor said this week that the budget in March "may well involve further reducing the burden of tax on investment in the North Sea."  That will only help so much.

Even though oil has more than halved in price, average earnings estimates have fallen by 25%, cashflow estimates have fallen 12% and the stocks have fallen 20% on average.  If today's crude prices persist, these numbers will trend towards 50%, 22% and 50% respectively.

It has been years since any North Sea explorer found a big new field.  Anthony Lobo, head of oil and gas at KPMG, said: "The question is whether they take their losses and sell out now, or wait and hope for an increase in the oil price or improved exploration success - neither seem likely in the short term".

Could this be the time that the gloomsters are finally right? Probably not.  There are possibly still billions of barrels to be recovered, money to be made, tax to be collected.  And oil represents one of the last bastions of Britain's shrinking industrial base, one that fosters skills which are exportable around the world.  However, to squeeze out those last drops will require the Treasury to do some painful tax gymnastics, and sub-contractors to lower their charges.

A fateful reminder... September 09 2014

...of why enforcement and oversight of a transparent design and operating system must be agreed to put fracking on the same safety footing as our Nuclear Power Industry?

Extracted and adapted from Sunday Times article by Danny Fortson – 7/9/14

One hundred feet, it turns out, made all the difference.

It was April 9, 2010. Drilling on the Macondo reservoir, 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, was already 54 days behind schedule and $60m over budget. Each day BP spent trying to finish the troublesome well, some 18,000ft beneath the deck of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, lost it another $1m.

The walls at the bottom of the 2.5-mile well had failed just a few days before. BP had to stop drilling and pump in millions of gallons of drilling “mud” to prop it open. The “margin” – the measure of the pressure between the oil, the well bottom, and the drilling fluid being pumped in to keep it from spewing up uncontrollably – was virtually zero.

Yet the drill bit had, at long last, reached the first of two targeted reservoirs. BP would be able to plug the “well from hell” and move on.

All it needed was another 100ft to punch through the bottom of the reservoir, which would be vital to test how productive it could be. Having already pushed its luck, BP decided to push it 100ft more.

Alan Huffman, an expert witness of the US government, called the decision “one of the most dangerous things he had ever seen in his 20 years’ experience”. Eleven days later, a geyser of crude burst forth. The Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank. Eleven workers died; their bodies were never recovered. Crude spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months.

BP has been struggling to rehabilitate itself ever since. Last week the FTSE 100 giant was hit with the worst possible outcome. An American court ruled that BP was “grossly negligent”, a legally extreme finding that opens up BP to $15bn (£9.2bn) in fines on top of the $43bn it had already paid to clean up beaches, settle lawsuits and pay for funerals.

In a damning 153-page decision, Carl Barbier, the 70 year old New Orleans judge overseeing the case, discarded BP’s argument that the tragedy was the result of multiple mistakes by multiple parties. He apportioned 67% of the blame – and eventual damages payments – to the company. Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon, and Halliburton, the company contracted to cement the well, were liable for 30% and 3%, respectively.

Both were negligent, in Barbier’s view, but only BP was deemed to have met the harsher standard of gross negligence and wilful misconduct. Analysts at Investec said: “This, we understand, is effectively a moral division.”

From the beginning BP was the villain in the public eye. Last week’s verdict means it now is legally too. Barbier accused it of “reckless” conduct. The decision to drill the final 100ft “was the initial link in a chain that concluded with the blowout, explosion and oil spill”.

Brian Gilvary, BP’s finance director, said the company “strongly disagreed” with the judge’s “erroneous” ruling. BP pledged to appeal, a process that will probably drag on for years.

From the earliest days of the crisis, when the underwater “spill-cam” of inky crude billowing into the sea was on an endless loop on America’s cable news channels, BP was adamant. The company would not, it claimed, be found grossly negligent. That would be a bridge too far.

Indeed, the term itself was a subject of great debate at the trial. Barbier devoted eight pages of his judgement to the duelling interpretations put forth by BP and the American government before siding with the latter. It classified gross negligence as “an extreme departure from the care required under the circumstances or a failure to exercise even slight care”.

BP claimed prosecutors would have had to prove intent; that BP proceeded “with conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or well being of others”.

Barbier’s dismissal of that argument was crucial. It made finding the company guilty that much easier, and in turn opened the door to much heavier fines. Under the Clean Water Act, BP is liable for $1,100 for every barrel spilt. The gross negligence ruling means that BP could be forced to pay up to $4,300 a barrel. The company has set aside $3.5bn for such penalties. If it loses the appeal that figure could rise to nearly $18bn.

The legal wrangling is far from over. Barbier must still hand down his ruling on the second phase of the trial, which was held to determine how much oil was spilled. The government claims 4.2m barrels were released. BP reckons just over half that figure (2.5m barrels) escaped. The final sum is critical, as it too will affect the amount of damages.

The final stage of the trail, set to determine an over damages sum, to be split among BP and its co-defendants, will not start until January. The judge is expected to take eight factors into account, including BP’s response to the spill, which could mitigate the severity of the penalty.

In the judgement, Barbier methodically catalogued the chain of errors and “profit-driven decisions” that led to the catastrophe. The well was drilled with fewer safety back-up measures than expected for such high-temperature, high-pressure wells.

Warning signs mounted. There were unexpected gas “kicks” – sharp releases of hydrocarbons into the well bore. At one point all the drilling mud BP had pumped underground disappeared, indicating a big breach – or several – in what was supposed to be a sealed hole. This took five days to repair.

Weeks behind schedule and millions over budget, the crew were under huge pressure to finish the job.

On the fateful night of April 20, Don Vidrine, the senior BP manager on the rig at the time, misread a key pressure test that should have raised alarm bells. Mark Hafle, an engineer who was monitoring the data in Houston, “told Vidrine essentially that the test could not be considered a success given the inconsistent pressure readings”, Barbier wrote.

Vidrine didn’t run another test. Hafle didn’t insist on one. Thirty six minutes later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded. There is little argument over the facts. BP’s best hope is that the appeal court will decide to evaluate them in a more favourable light.