Farming for energy – do solar and geothermal power have a place in a modern farming landscape?

On Friday I attended the Devon County Show, at Clyst St Mary outside Exeter. Now I love the Show, and try and attend as often as possible. I love the crafts, the gardening, the livestock (I have a special place in my heart for the heavy horses and the Dartmoor Grey-faced sheep), but this year I was looking for something else – I was looking for energy.


In the last 6 months I have begun to notice just how many onshore wind and solar farms there are near me and having an interest in geothermal power I wanted to see if this move into farming energy was represented at the county’s biggest exhibition of farming and rural life. What I found was pretty interesting. Energy farming was present at the show, but the largest contribution was for solar.


I spoke to one of the companies – Faltser Energy – about the use of solar by consumers in Devon. The sales representative, Greg Hockin, told me that it was a pretty mixed portfolio, especially for their company. A lot of products were for individual installations, but they also supplied to farms, most often as a supplement to activities (i.e. on a barn roof) than as a revenue generator. He also mentioned that they had developed a technique to colour the panels – something I had never seen! I understood the green or the blue, but pink solar panels?!? Seems a bit like an extreme choice for me!!


Another thing that Mr Hockin mentioned is that all the panels were made in the UK. When I questioned him further, he did clarify that by saying that many of the components would be made overseas, for instance in China, then assembled in the UK and that got me to thinking about what a solar panel is actually made from….


I’ve never really had a close look at a solar panel, but when you get near you can really see the crystalline structure of the panel itself. Solar panels are usually made with silicon crystals which provide the pretty crystalline pattern. They usually have another mineral added into the mix to make them more efficient, such as gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride or copper indium diselenide. One tricky thing with these compounds is that the source elements are all listed as under moderate to high risk on the British Geological Survey’s ‘Risk List‘, a list that calculates the risk to the supply of economically important elements. For four of the elements used, the main producer and reserve holder is China. So with China having the monopoly on these mineral’s supply and on production of many of the component parts, how much can you really say is made in Britain? And if we had to, could we make solar panels entirely from British products? Well the simple answer is probably not. Although you can find many of these elements in their mineral forms in the UK either as an ore or a byproduct of processing that ore – none of them exist in quantities large enough to mine commercially anymore – our reserves are depleted.

An ore rock of Gallium.

Gallite – an ore rock of Gallium.

So do we have another option? Well, although solar power is great, I have great faith in the future of geothermal, and at the Clean Earth stand, I met a young man, whose parents have adopted geothermal power on their farm in an interesting way. At Clean Earth, they are involved in leasing land from farmers to create energy farms – be it solar, wind or biomass. They have a number of success stories around the south west (anyone from down here may know about Crealy Adventure Park? They now have 2020 solar panels to supplement the Park’s use of energy from the National Grid), but I was most interested to hear about Mesmear Farm in Cornwall.


At Mesmear, the Roses have combined a geothermal powered heat pump with solar panels to provide heat and electricity to the farm and the rental cottages they maintain. The geothermal heat pump makes use of the farms proximity to the massive granite batholith nearby and heats water to around 50°C for space heating and hot water from a ground temperature of about 11°C.

To me this was an innovative use of combining a tried and tested (but limited) method of electricity production – the solar panels – with a new and innovative, but untested method of heat and energy production – the geothermal. The farm still draws from the National Grid, but only at times of peak requirement and it’s carbon footprint is much smaller. It makes me wonder how many farms, business and households across the South West (and in other areas where geothermal is an option) are using this low key, combined method of incorporating geothermal into their energy mix. I’d love to hear from you if you do!!

So there you have it, it’s easy to dismiss the Devon County Show as all mud and cows, but there are important things for geologists there too…. and the odd dinosaur!


The Natural History Museum, Vienna

Whilst in Vienna I had a number of recommendations as to things that I should try and see during the conference. My mother, the art historian, suggested The Belvedere to see the Klimt paintings. My father, the hospitality expert, suggested visiting a Viennese coffee house. My supervisor, the experienced EGU delegate, suggested the Hundertwasserhaus (knowing that I appreciate interesting architecture). But the sad reality of going to a conference in a new city is that as much as you may want to explore the city itself, there is so much happening at the conference that you can hardly tear yourself away from that one building. That is what happened with me and EGU – with one exception, the Natural History Museum (or Naturhistorisches Museum Wien -NHMW).

A lovely sunny day - to spend in a Museum. Yeah I'm a nerd.

A lovely sunny day – to spend in a Museum. Yeah I’m a nerd.

Now as a former employee of the NHM in London I have a strong appreciation for a good museum and the NHMW Vienna had been recommended to me by a few different people. To be honest, if I could only visit one thing in any city – a museum would probably win. So one afternoon, when I had a two hour gap, I hopped on the train to the Museums Quarter. The first thing I noticed was that the building itself was beautiful – but in the process of being cleaned. Half of it, therefore, was obscured by scaffolding. Luckily the museum opposite, the Museum of Art History (or Kunsthistorisches Museum) was uncovered and in a mirror image represented what the NHMW would normally look like.

The Museum of Art History

The Museum of Art History

The NHMW was guarded by ths cute little elephant!

The NHMW was guarded by ths cute little elephant!







It cost €5 to get in (with a student discount) but that included entry to a special exhibition on Extinction. The Museum is divided between two levels, which can roughly divided into Life Sciences upstairs and Earth Sciences downstairs. One of the sections was closed for refurbishment; the human evolution and anthropology galleries, but to be honest, with only two hours, I couldn’t have done them justice anyway.


Below are a few photos to show just some of the brilliant things about this Museum, but there are so many more!

One great thing for me was that most signs were in German and English.

One great thing for me was that most signs were in German and English.

Just your average dinosaur gallery?

Just your average dinosaur gallery?

Not quite! Little details actually jumped out at you!

Not quite! Little details actually jumped out at you!

And they get extra points for having a feathered Deinonychus model!

And they get extra points for having a feathered Deinonychus model!

They have beautiful victorian display cabinets...

They have beautiful victorian display cabinets…

But even those are not always quite as they seem...

But even those are not always quite as they seem…

He is getting away!!!

He is getting away!!!

Dioramas were used to fantastic effect...

Dioramas were used to fantastic effect…

And objects were placed together that gave you new insight - look at the tiny white brain of this whale!

And objects were placed together that gave you new insight – look at the tiny white brain of this whale!

They even won prizes for their taxidermy and display - who knew you even could!?!

They even won prizes for their taxidermy and display – who knew you even could!?!

Every part of the building had been thought about. Even the windows were illustrated with microfossil drawings to emphasise their beauty.

Every part of the building had been thought about. Even the windows were illustrated with microfossil drawings to emphasise their beauty.

And the figures around the ceiling were just spectacular! And in case you were wondering - yes this does appear to be someone wrestling a pterodactyl next to someone with an icthyosaur tucked under their arm.

And the figures around the ceiling were just spectacular! And in case you were wondering – yes this does appear to be someone wrestling a pterodactyl next to someone with an icthyosaur tucked under their arm.

"*sigh* being a figurehead is SO TIRING. I'm just going to lean on this huge crystal conveniently covering my groin..."

“*sigh* being a figurehead is SO TIRING. I’m just going to lean on this huge crystal conveniently covering my groin…”

There were so many specimens...

There were so many specimens…

That I simply did not have time to see them all.

That I simply did not have time to see them all.

But one thing is clear....

But one thing is clear….

NHMW - I will be back!

NHMW – I will definitely be back!!!


5 things you wouldn’t expect to find at a geology conference

One of the things that I realised whilst at EGU last week was how broad the subject of geology actually is and how we don’t always appreciate the breadth of our subject. Some of this obviously come from the influence of interdisciplinary studies like my own, but some it comes from the unique and innovative ways that geoscientists are attempting to broaden our understanding of the planet. To highlight this I have picked out 5 things you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference – some more than others.

1- Astronaut photographs

Automatic Georeferencing of Astronaut Auroral Photography: Providing a New Dataset for Space Physics‘ from Multi-scale Plasma Processes in the Earth’s Environment session (ST2.2) – using data from recent space missions to advance our understanding of space physics.

Recently, the work of astronaut Commander Hadfield brought the activities of the people who get strapped to a rocket and propelled beyond our atmosphere to learn more about our planet back into the public eye. But although the images they produce are beautiful, inspiring and humbling all at the same time, they are often not very useful because there is no way for scientists to tell the scale of the image or where exactly it was taken. The work of Reichart, Walsh and Taylor addresses this problem by using ‘starfield recognition software‘ to calculate the height and location of the images. Now I don’t know about you, but there is something so romantic sounding about starfield recognition software. It makes me think that the software we so often associate with catching criminals can actually be used for something uplifting and will, once fully developed, improve our understanding of how the Auroras (both Australis and Borealis) work.

2- Willow tree root growth patterns

Root Growth Studies of Willow Cuttings using Rhisoboxes‘ from How Vegetation Influences Soil Erosion and Slope Stability: Monitoring and Modelling Eco-hydrological and Geo-mechanical Factors session (SSS2.10/BG9.7/GM4.8/HS8.3.9/NH3.9) – the relationship between vegetation and how soil behaves, especially focussing on land restoration projects and management plans.

When you think of geology, willow is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, when you think about landslides – which are most definitely geological – the presence, absence or behaviour of plants is very important. In Central Asia (amongst other places) willow is vital in facilitating the colonisation of other tree species in forests that help protect the soil from erosion. This study, although it seems like it belongs in a botany (or at least biology) conference is actually examining the material necessary to mitigate the effects of erosion, which can lead to lots of other geological problems.

3- Fluid dynamics of cars

A Preliminary Numerical Model on the Incipient Motion Conditions of Flooded Vehicles‘ from Flood Risk and Uncertainty session (NH1.6) – predicting current and future flood risk using state of the art flood risk assessment methodologies.

This had to be one of my favourite posters – mostly due to the obvious/unexpected dichotomy of the contents. If you picture a flood, what do you see? Rushing muddy brown water tearing away at the countryside, carrying the odd tree? Perhaps. But more and more often nowadays floods are affecting our urban areas, and the thing the floodwater is likely to be dragging is a car not a tree. This work by Arrighi, Castelli and Oumeraci takes a closer look at how vehicles are affected by flood water and how they affect the flow themselves. It’s also a sobering look at how easy it is to loose control of a vehicle in a flood and explains why most studies identify the greatest cause of deaths from drowning in a flood to be a car.

4- Coffee residue

Biochar from Coffee Residues: A New Promising Sorbent‘ from Novel Sorbent Materials for Environmental Remediation session (SSS9.8) – the use of sorbent materials (a material that can collect molecules of another substance) for environmental applications.

If the conference last week was attended by over 12,000 delegates, how many cups of coffee were drunk do you think (added to the fact that it was nigh on impossible to get a good cup of tea)? Now imagine you could take the dregs of all that coffee and do something useful with it! Well that is precisely what Fotopoulou, Karapanagioti and Manariotis were exploring- how to use coffee residues to make biochar. Biochar is a carbon-rich substance that is added to soils in order to sequester carbon, improve the quality (fertility) of the soil and assist in environmental remediation. Who knew an old cup of coffee could be so useful?!

5- Wind patterns in the Pacific

Origin of Wind Events in the Equatorial Pacific‘ from ENSO: Dynamics, Predictability and Modelling session (NP2.1) – ENSO stands for the El Niño Southern Oscillation and includes all studies of El Niño and La Niña.

So wind may not be that disconnected from geology – but wind patterns? Over water? Yes at a geology conference a geoscientist’s awareness of the processes that shape our planet extends even to the climate. Which is not all that surprising really when you consider that one of the biggest issues and areas of study that geologists deal with nowadays is climate change.

These are only the posters that I came across and thought interesting during the conference – I’m sure there were many many more! Did you see any examples of a poster or a presentation that you wouldn’t expect to see at a geology conference?!

EGU 2014 Day 5 – The big presentation, widening participation and communicating global risk

So here we are. The final day at EGU and I’m about to present in my first international conference. To add to all that I actually have a pretty busy day as I have to be in Lyme Regis in Dorset this evening – so packing, catching the flight and driving for 3 hours back to Lyme were all also in my schedule today. Nevertheless I appeared all ready for my talk at 8am this morning – and was welcomed by my name on the board!


The session I was presenting in was called ‘Geoscience Education for Sustainable Development and Widening Participation‘ (EOS7) and was a mix of talks looking at geoscience communication and understanding from how to communicate your science, to using serious games to increase understanding about CO2 storage, to using place-based learning to help students engage with geology. Now I know I’m biased, but I thought the session was great – lots of interesting ideas and new concepts. My talk went pretty well I think – I always worry about speaking to an academic audience, especially when I’m an interdisciplinary. How many terms from cognitive science can I use without it being jargon? This is a highly educated audience after all! So I retreated into my preferred method of assuming some knowledge, but embroidering any terms with an accompanying image or explanation. I hope it worked!! In any case, after the initial terror faded I actually really enjoyed it (despite having to present after the dynamic and accessible presenting style of Sam Illingworth – gulp!). Hooray!


The orals were followed by the poster session of the same name, and I went along to have a look at the posters presented. Again there was a huge variety, but one of my favourites was about ‘A New Protocol in La Spezia for Elementary and Secondary School Students for Monitoring Perception Towards Science and Performance in School Classrooms‘. I had a long talk with Mascha Stroobant and Silvia Merlino about their research and during this talk I couldn’t help thinking how it was really difficult to know what was happening in science perception studies in other countries as all our research is at such an early stage. There seemed to be no advanced or established research in science perception at EGU (that I could find, but I will kick myself if there was and I missed it), which makes it difficult to know what mistakes have been made before, how to avoid those pitfalls and the best methods for ensuring we have valid data.

My final session of Friday (and of EGU) was ‘Global and Continental Scale Risk Assessment for Natural Hazards: Methods and Practice‘ (NH9.13). I could only go to half of this session and I wanted to go to support a friend who was presenting there – the brilliant Joel Gill, PhD student at Kings College London and founder/director of Geology for Global Development. He was presenting his work on ‘Reviewing and Visualising Relationships Between Anthropic Processes and Natural Hazards within a Multi-Hazard Framework‘. The brilliant thing about his research is that he presents risk within a continuum of natural and anthropic causes of hazard, not just in terms of vulnerability.


Unfortunately after Joel’s talk I had to dash off to catch the coach and so that was the end of my first EGU experience. I learned that geoscience is a much broader subject than I ever thought it was, and that people like myself in all varieties of interdisciplinary research are attempting to expand our understanding of the planet to new fronteirs. I learned that communication and public understanding of geology isn’t just important to industry, but to ALL geoscientists and even those working in narrow fields see the value of speaking about their research. I learned that I am part of a vibrant, enthusiastic and welcoming community, and all those things that I think I am alone in worrying about (because they are about interviews, psychology and data representation) are shared in different forms by many other reseracheres. I also learned that there is so much more to learn – and EGU just got me even more fired up to go back into the field and get back into my office – BRING ON THE DATA!!


EGU 2014 Day 4 – Global catastrophes, uncertainty and can you ever know your audience?

Day four in the big geology house…. Today started well, I took a little time in the morning to work on my presentation for tomorrow, but because I forgot to reset the clock on my computer I missed the workshop on applying for funding that I was aiming to attend. Nevertheless I made it to my first session of the day ‘Volcanism, Impacts, Mass Extinctions and Global Environmental Change‘ (SSP1.2/GMPV41) which is a session that has to win the prize for BEST NAME OF A SESSION EVER. I bumped into a lecturer from my University there, who seemed a little surprised to see me – he asked why I was there and I said ‘Global catastrophes? Of course I’m coming to this one!’ and he replied that he was there for the isotopes. Strangely the organisers seemed to underestimate the interest factor of such an epic session title, and had put the session in a really small room. People were crammed in all over the place, sat on the floor, standing by the walls, and every seat was full. You just can’t deny the pulling power of massive disasters.


The talks themselves were great, a series of presentations on Tunguska and the Siberian trap flood basalts and their associated infrastructure. There were questions of whether magamatism could trigger a mass extinction, and if the dates of massive flood basalt eruptions did actually precede the extinctions? Seth Burgess did actually present data that suggested the main body of the eruptions did actually commence AFTER the extinction, but also recognised the problem of sampling bias – a common problem in the geological sciences – that you can’t always get the data you want because, oh, a mountain is on top of it. So you have to predict as best you can based on incomplete data. From the data that Seth Burgess had, he suggested that there was more than one phase of the eruption and that the lavas that couldn’t be sampled may actually contain sills that predate the extinction.


Later on the session, the extinction moved from the end-Permian to the Cretaceous. Now if you are unfamiliar with that name – think dinosaurs. It’s the one where the famous film should really have been called Cretaceous Park instead (and why it wasn’t I really don’t know!). The thing with the end-Cretaceous extinction was that it happened not only at the same time as a massive flood basalt, but at the same time as a massive (and famous) meteorite impact called Chixulub. Mark Richards from the University of California, Berkeley, told us that there was a 1 in 5 chance of all of these events being a coincidence, which isn’t really that bad. But when you include the size of the Deccan eruptions, the chance becomes 1 in 50, so it is hard to dismiss this as a coincidence. He suggested that another reason for the correlation, was that the impact could have triggered massive worldwide magmatic activity – in the same way that seismic triggers have been shown to induce magmatic activity on a much smaller scale. A question was asked however, if there was any evidenced for this systemic increased activity and although at the moment there is not, Professor Richards thinks that geochemical data could be available to support this hypothesis.

So from volcanoes and massive meteorite impacts I thought I would move on to uncertainty and the ‘Communication of Uncertainty about Information in Earth Sciences‘ (SSS11.1/ESSI3.6), convened by R Murray Lark from the BGS. This session was all about how we, as geoscientists, represent unceratinty. This is a really big deal, especially when you relate it to what I was saying above about sampling bias – a large amount of geological information is interpreted on, what the researchers would see as, less than perfect data sets. Now a lot of uncertainty work is based on how to represent a statistical analysis of the uncertainty to other geologists, but there is a growing interest in how we represent uncertainty to the public. Robert Kirby talked about how using ensemble data (think hurricane tracks) can help people to understand different types of data simultaneously, but by using means and standard deviation statistical analysis you can extract more meaningful data (which may be harder to understand). What was interesting to me, was the suggestion that non-experts would have a better understanding of the value of ensemble data that statistically analysed data, but this hadn’t been tested yet. In fact a lot of the work on public understanding of uncertainty seemed to be based upon assumptions – so perhaps these were initial results of studies that were ongoing.


The day ended with the Townhall meeting ‘You don’t know your audience! A ClimateSnack debate‘ (TM8). This meeting drew together a number of science communications experts from a variety of backgrounds to discuss ‘knowing your audience’ a central concept in sci comm and one that is often under debate. The panel consisted of:

Dr Sam Illingworth, a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University (read more about him here)
Christina Reed, an independant science journalist
Liz Kalaugher, from environmentalresearchweb
Prof David Shultz, a lecturer in Synoptic Meteorology at Manchester University and the author of Eloquent Science
Mathew Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack (the moderator)

The discussion covered a wide range of subjects relating to audience – can you ever know your audience, how do you know what your audience wants, where is ‘the room’ in a digital age? We even discussed the seemingly opposing views of should we even be attempting to communicate all forms of science (as some parts are genuinely too difficult to understand without four years of university education) and do we seek to maintain the ‘aura of mystery’ to preserve our academic importance? What was interesting here was the idea that as science communicators we all WANT to communicate every aspect of our science, but that is just unrealistic – and most people genuinely wouldnt care. What we have to do is make our science AVAILABLE instead.


Finally I asked about training our undergraduates in science communication and Prof Schultz raised an interesting point – that our undergraduates often have a hard enough time writing scientifically first and that writing for a general audience from a scientific perspective – especially as a scientists – often means you need to understand scientific writing before you can communicate it back to the public. Also, he said, in his experience students already think they can communicate with non-scientists without training!

This session finished at 8, so I trundled myself back to the hostel to prepare for my oral presentation tomorrow at 9.15am (eek!).