Use this Powerful Tool and Avoid Talking Twaddle about Climate

The naked truth about the CO2 from our electricity

ElectricityMap for the EU Carbon intensity of the electricity sector in Europe on 26/10/2018. Green = low carbon, Red = carbon-intensive.

Any discussion around sustainable energy tends to have the effect of generating large volumes of hot air. Advocates of coal power, renewable energy, and pro-nuclear lobbies are all guilty of talking twaddle in the defense of their favoured energy source.

As David MacKay put it in his game-changing 2008 book Sustainable Energy — without the hot air (which you can get for free here):

Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emotional (for example about wind farms or nuclear power) and no-one talks about numbers. Or if they do mention numbers, they select them to sound big, to make an impression, and to score points in arguments, rather than to aid thoughtful discussion.

We can all be guilty of speaking twaddle when it suits us. Simple and effective tools like electricityMap help cut through the twaddle and diffuse that hot air.

I’m really impressed with how electricityMap has developed since I became aware of it a year or so ago. Here’s a summary of what electricityMap does:

  • Uses simple colour coding to grade carbon intensity by country/region. Green = low carbon, red = high carbon.
  • Accounts for imported as well as in-country generated electricity (doing otherwise may underestimate the carbon intensity of your electricity).
  • Detailed energy source breakdown per country/region, both right now and during the last 24 hours.
  • Electricity price per country/region in last 24 hours.
  • You can turn on visualisations that show live wind and solar energy potential.
  • Data is available for most industrialised nations.

On the day I wrote this article it wasn’t particularly sunny and not very windy either, so countries like Germany come out a dirty shade of orange:

ElectricityMap Germany Whilst Germany has significant installed capacity of wind and solar it is rarely fully-utilised due to changing weather conditions.

It was quite windy over the UK, but still only 50% of the theoretical installed wind capacity was being utilised, leaving the UK feeling a little more orange than it might like:

ElectricityMap UK wind Windy day but still only 50% of UK’s wind installed capacity generating.

Meanwhile, France with it’s huge nuclear fleet supported by hydro is all fresh, green tones:

ElectricityMap UK wind France’s nuclear chugs away all year round.

Of course, you could come back another day, and Germany would fare better, but that’s not the point. France’s carbon intensity is low every single day, while Germany’s on average is much higher. A little-known fact is that the low-carbon heroes of Europe are those nations relying principally on nuclear and hydropower. Don’t believe me? Here’s a timelapse from electricityMap for all of 2017.

All energy sources have an impact on the environment, even hydro has impacts on wildlife and requires a lot of concrete. So let’s cut out the twaddle, understand the numbers, and question our leaders about how to achieve a sustainable energy mix.

You can also read this piece in the Generation Atomic magazine.

© David Watson 2019 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Written on September 20, 2019