Parallel universes

by John Quiggin on March 11, 2016

Of the 20 years or so that I’ve been observing climate change policy, global developments over the past year have been the most hopeful I can remember, particularly as regards electricity generation

  • The Paris Conference was a big success, at least relative to expectations
  • Coal-fired power stations are shutting down around the world
  • China has reduced its coal use for two years in a row
  • India has increased its coal tax, and greatly expanded use of renewables

Whether emissions reductions will be big enough and fast enough remains to be seen, but at least we are going in the right direction.

As far as climate science is concerned, the string of temperature records broken recently has killed any idea that we are in a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. Even the favorite source of deniers, the satellite data from UAH, is now showing a new record. The only remaining issue is the second-order debate over whether there was a pause or perhaps slowdown at some point in the first decade of the 2000s.

At the same time, following the US election, I’ve been paying more attention than usual to rightwing blogs, most of which run climate denialist pieces fairly regularly. Given that nearly all the major US coal companies are now bankrupt, and that coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly, I’d have expected a lot of “wrecking ball” pieces on the supposed damage to the economy (in reality, the effects are small and mostly offset by the expansion of renewables) now that mitigation policies of various kinds are taking effect.

But I don’t see anything like that. Rather, most of the articles I’m reading are claims of victory in the debate over both science and policy. Here’s a fairly typical example, with the title “Is the Climate Crusade Stalling?

We really do live in parallel universes.

{ 105 comments }

1

PlutoniumKun 03.11.16 at 1:09 pm

I don’t have the stomach to read too many denier blogs, but I have been noticing a change of tune by the astroturfers and trolls you get on climate articles. Most of them clearly aren’t very bright, so they tend to repeat talking points given out by the various organisations, so I assume its part of a strategy (of course, there might be more than one strategy, there are lots of groupsicles involved in denier activities).

Where once they would argue against the science, they seem to have realised that they are just making fools of themselves doing that. There was a brief flurry of ‘yes, the climate is changing, but it would cost too much to make a realistic difference, so lets just adapt with it. Anyway, we have centuries’. Now there seems to be a general line that goes something like: ‘hey, coal and oil use is peaking anyway, and gas is clean, so we are on the right path, so why worry?’

The advantage to them of the latter approach is that it leaves them multiple rhetorical exit holes when challenged. They can go from denying to saying ‘well, maybe it is caused by humans, but 2% change is inevitable, so why go to the expense of change when its too late?’, to ‘hey, we are on the right path anyway, the free market has looked after it’. And from there you end up in arguments about whether natural gas is a transition fuel, whether nuclear is better than renewables, etc., etc. By which time, 90% of the public has switched off. Which of course is the whole point. Without a swell of public support, there will not be real action, so the fossil fuel industry can squeeze out a bit more profit before it all goes to hell.

2

Lee A. Arnold 03.11.16 at 1:25 pm

Today as it happens, Kevin Drum links to a new Vox piece showing that solar energy is exceeding expectations:
http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/03/our-long-awaited-solar-power-future-finally-here

As to whether this is good enough, fast enough, who can know? But it surely doesn’t look good, because of empirical inferences from other complex systems.

If the climate system transition is on a sigmoid curve to a new syndrome, which is a typical pattern all sorts of systems, then the present heat spikes suggest that we could be in for a very wild ride. And not merely encountering stronger storms or droughts in different areas.

I wonder whether rapid warming of the Arctic icesheet would allow enough warming of the adjacent land masses to accelerate methane release, by defrosting the permafrost. This might cause a huge global heat spike that destroys world food crops for a few years and thus destroys civilization.

If this sort of thing has happened in the past, before civilization, we might not be able to see evidence of it, to warn us now. Why?

Methane volatizes into less harmful molecules rapidly. As it does, if major forest fires had already begun in drought conditions, enough smoke particles in the atmosphere might rapidly cool the planet down again, as we observe that big volcanic eruptions do.

Then, if plant and animal species had not been entirely extinguished in the heat wave, they would thereafter repopulate the surface rather quickly. Thus the two-year blip of their smaller populations wouldn’t show up in the coarser fossil records. (There are dried lake-bed pollen records with some missing years of deposition.)

This could be a sort of past disaster that has happened rather often (geologically speaking) but doesn’t leave enough empirical evidence to warn us of the possibility, much less to calculate a probability. But it would be the end of most of us.

3

Guano 03.11.16 at 1:28 pm

“The advantage to them of the latter approach is that it leaves them multiple rhetorical exit holes when challenged. ……. And from there you end up in arguments about whether natural gas is a transition fuel, whether nuclear is better than renewables, etc., etc. By which time, 90% of the public has switched off.”

Yes, that seems to be the tactic. The UK government, for example, makes separate announcements (often contradictory) about various aspects of climate and energy policy so that it is difficult to understand what the overall policy is. This makes it difficult for campaigners to identify and locate a target.

4

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 1:32 pm

“Given that nearly all the major US coal companies are now bankrupt, and that coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly”

If anyone wants a list of which companies are the remaining and still operating major greenhouse gas polluters in the U.S., here’s a list. (It includes only direct emissions from large facilities.)

5

BenK 03.11.16 at 2:37 pm

As someone who studies complex systems, I guess I’m in a universe parallel to both. As someone who doesn’t embrace the narrative of sin and redemption through greenhouse gas emissions, I guess I’m a ‘denier.’ I certainly don’t support the concentration of political power excused by the climate ‘crisis.’ In so much as that concentration can be challenged or rolled back, the climate crusade could be stalling; and if the only opponents to that centralization were coal company owners, this would be a huge problem. Of course, the collapse of coal could still be a huge problem if the ‘liberal crusaders’ see their way clear to extort tobacco, coal, oil, timber, agriculture, and basically any other economic entity that appears to be a juicy target; and conversely heap selective subsidies on supportive institutions within education, health care, technology, etc… and all those entities get the message.

6

John Quiggin 03.11.16 at 2:56 pm

@BenK You guess wrong. You are in the same parallel universe as the National Review (source for the link above).

7

Trader Joe 03.11.16 at 2:58 pm

Total U.S. coal employees – all types, everyone from the mail room to the deep mine – is only about 100k to 110k employees and the fact is, until gas, solar etc. replaces the 40% of generating capacity provided by coal someone still has to dig the rocks, insure safety, comply with laws and regs. etc.

In context, weekly jobless claims have be running around 240k for the whole U.S. If every single last person in the coal mining industry were fired at one time, it would still leave weekly jobless claims below where they were running 2008-2011.

Said differently, just because we don’t need as many buggy-whip manufacturers as we used to, doesn’t mean we don’t need any….as much as I might root for this process to be accelerated, there is still a transition period.

8

Marc 03.11.16 at 2:58 pm

@5: What bizarre rhetoric. In order:

– CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are rising
-Humans are responsible
-CO2 is a greenhouse gas, thereby directly increasing temperatures;
-There is feedback in the system that amplifies the warming effect of CO2.

None of these things have anything to with targets or control or whatever; do you deny them, and by extension basic science?

9

Omega Centauri 03.11.16 at 3:01 pm

I think Plutonium Ken has it right. There are many stopping points. They make it about the scientists, so that every time data is corrected -its deliberate politically motivated deceit. Then they say, its warming but that’s a normal part of nature. Then of course, that doing anything would be too expensive, and so on. So the end result, is that the political debate about the subject has mostly shut down, and US national policy stays in a muddle, whilst more and more resources are thrown into fracking.

10

TM 03.11.16 at 3:03 pm

“coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly”

According to EIA, the peak coal use in US was reached 2005-2008, about 1.13 billion short tons. Since 2012, the number has been around .9 GT and the last twelve months (December 2015 figure not yet available) .82 GT, a reduction of 28% from the peak. Quite amazing reduction in seven years.

11

TM 03.11.16 at 3:04 pm

12

jake the antisoshul soshulist 03.11.16 at 3:18 pm

I still see a lot of old school, the scientists are wrong/lying information. What I see might not be the leading edge of denial, though.

13

bruce wilder 03.11.16 at 3:51 pm

14

Map Maker 03.11.16 at 4:00 pm

I look back with a sense of shame that responsible partners in both political parties in the US couldn’t agree on a carbon/BTU tax in the past decade. There were more than a few republicans who supported it. Certainly no one calls T Boone Pickens a RINO or democrat, yet hi has been one of the biggest supporters of wind power and displacing oil and coal consumption in the US. Yes, he is talking his book of natural gas, but was pointing in the right direction.

We live in an era that supports principles at the expense of compromise. No loaf is better than a half loaf. Which makes this presidential election particularly disappointing, because unless the democrats win both house and senate, all the policy proposals of Hillary and Bernie will go nowhere. And that is fine with a lot of folks. No different that if gawd forbid Trump gets elected, not much will be done either …

15

Dipper 03.11.16 at 4:05 pm

one quibble and one gap.

Are you sure the western pro-green energy governments are not just being told what they want to hear? Would those figures on Chinese coal use come from the same department that produces the numbers for economic growth? I sense an upward revision to these figures coming in a few years time.

And all that solar power is great, but would be a lot better if we could find somewhere to put it. Until there is effective large scale electricity storage then the renewables picture will have a significant gap.

And as for people being dumb … trying to select the winner in a stupid competition between outright deniers and people who promote a strategy for UK renewable energy based on wind and sun when the maximum electricity consumption occurs when there is no wind and no sun is quite a challenge.

16

Jim Harrison 03.11.16 at 4:45 pm

Quite apart from this denialism business, there’s quite a debate going on about the pace of climate change and the scale of the damage it will do. In part, that argument is going on because the cheaper and easier ways to mitigate the problem have already been done or are in progress while the next level of remedies are much more expensive and politically difficult. For example, there is considerable push back on efforts to implement post-combustion carbon capture because (it is argued) the cost is greater than the benefit. More generally, whether prevention or adaptation is the better option depends on how bad you think the consequences will be under various scenarios. William Nordhaus has a different line on that Michael Mann or (I’m assuming) John Quiggin. Obviously there are plenty of uncertainties. Can we afford to wait until we know more or does the possibility of drastic outcomes justify haste?

This is going to be a long slog, and dealing with the denialists is only part of it.

17

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 4:54 pm

Large scale electricity storage is simple. You dig a big hole in the ground and put water in it. When you have extra electricity, you pump the water higher in the hole. When you don’t, the water falls past a turbine that generates electricity again. I think that the first plans to do this were something like WW II era, but it’s never been needed to be done so it hasn’t been done.

18

Dipper 03.11.16 at 5:03 pm

@ Jim Harrison – “depends on how bad you think the consequences will be under various scenarios”

that depends on your perspective. From a wildlife perspective the consequences are already quite bad. Insects and birds are all behaving as if the planet is warming, so populations are moving north, moving higher, and moving north earlier. Species that cannot go north or higher are seeing their populations diminish markedly.

The ecosystem has evolved over millennia to exploit coincident timings, and as the world gets warmer these timings are becoming disrupted. One example is the Bee orchid. Male bees emerge looking for females, but the females emerge later. The bee orchid produces a flower that looks and smells like a female bee at exactly the right time for the male bees, so in the absence of females the male bees visit the bee orchid flowers and pollinate them. As the northern hemisphere warms the bees are emerging earlier, so the bee orchid now flowers too late in the year to capture the male bees attention.

There are lots of such examples, and we are still finding them. the rate of change is very rapid compared to previous changes (I assume), so there is no time for species to evolve to fit the gap. I expect an acceleration in extinctions.

19

Dipper 03.11.16 at 5:10 pm

RP @ 17. Yes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinorwig_Power_Station and with an efficiency of 75% which is not too shabby.

But I haven’t heard our UK politicians saying this. I’ve heard them demanding more wind farms, more solar panels, and closing coal-fired power stations, but haven’t heard a single one call for more storage until last week when Lord Adonis popped up on the radio with this.

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/505218/IC_Energy_Report_web.pdf

its almost as if someone sensible had thought about it.

20

Salem 03.11.16 at 5:14 pm

“-There is feedback in the system that amplifies the warming effect of CO2… basic science”

While you’re first two points were basic science, that one isn’t. Sure, it’s easy to identify potential positive feedback mechanisms (water vapour, methane from tundra) but it’s equally easy to identify potential negative feedback mechanisms (cloud formation, photosynthesis rates). Whether the overall feedback effect is positive or negative is a huge question of practical application, and about as far from “basic science” as I can reasonably imagine.

As it happens, I think it’s likely that there’s positive feedback in the system, because of the ice ages. But I know people who disagree, and I can’t say they’re fools.

21

Dipper 03.11.16 at 5:21 pm

My understanding is that the most likely really bad thing to happen is an acceleration of the rate at which glaciers in the Arctic slide into the sea due to warming in the oceans accelerating the melting of the ice plugs at the bottom of the glaciers. So the first disaster is likely to be extreme coastal flooding.

22

John Quiggin 03.11.16 at 5:28 pm

@20 Feedback effects aren’t basic science, in the way that the greenhouse effect is. But they have been studied very intensively, so that forming your opinions on the basis of your own inferences from limited data makes no sense.

AFAICT, the last serious scientist to claim a net negative feedback was Richard Lindzen, about the time he stopped being a serious scientist. This was the “adaptive iris” hypothesis, which was comprehensively shot down, though it still pops up occasionally.

23

eric titus 03.11.16 at 5:29 pm

I’ve given up trying to understand climate change denialism. Maybe its proponents just want to be “winning” in the struggle against expanded government, whatever the cost? In the US there has been a swing towards accepting the existence of climate change while denying the ability to do anything about it.

There is a role (even a need) for skeptics of GHG reduction programs. But the skeptics in the US end up pushing the government towards worse, politically expedient programs rather than better ones (i.e. biofuels).

24

Dipper 03.11.16 at 5:32 pm

the warming seems to be most prominent in the arctic. is there a paper anywhere that demonstrates whether this is due to positive feedback from disappearing ice? or is there another explanation?

25

bob mcmanus 03.11.16 at 5:44 pm

17: Zurich? Googling doesn’t find it quickly, but I thought Switzerland used some pumped water energy storage.

Reduction in “Global dimming” due to particulates isn’t a positive feedback factor, but I am interested in it. McPherson looks at an immediate spike as a catastrophic consequence of industrial collapse, but I am curious about more incremental effects as we move to clean energy, and as something to be careful about if we somehow choose a radical adjustment like a move to all electric cars in five years. I assume global dimming effects can be understood fairly easily, as we have been monitoring particulates for a long time. It would be a localized temporary effect, but large.

26

bob mcmanus 03.11.16 at 5:45 pm

24: albedo changes?

27

jake the antisoshul soshulist 03.11.16 at 5:51 pm

@Eric Titus. Among the rank and file, it is a conspiracy by “liberals” to increase government/seize power/attack capitalists/ make everyone give up a middle class lifestyle
Most seem to be convinced it is not real, or that it a natural occurrence that the left is taking advantage of to advance the “liberal agenda”.

28

Layman 03.11.16 at 5:55 pm

@ dipper, the ice in the Arctic is already in the sea, since there’s no Arctic land mass for them to rest on. I think you’re thinking about Antarctic glaciers, which rest on land. If they melt or, more likely, break up with some portions sliding into the sea, then you’ve got sudden and substantial sea level rise.

29

Marc 03.11.16 at 6:09 pm

@24: The reduced ice cover on the seas does allow the water to heat up rather than reflecting the heat to space, and positive feedback is clearly strongest in the Arctic.

See

http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/regional/index.php?idp=43

Agreed that feedback is more complex, but quite well studied; anyone who denies the first three points that I made has a disagreement with very basic things.

30

Yankee 03.11.16 at 6:14 pm

Google “pumped storage” … half a million hits, including the San Luis Dam, part of the California Water Project since 1967. The big problem (aside from efficiency, and the fact that the stored power must be generated somehow) is that such a thing is a large-scale project with exacting site requirements. A cool trick, but won’t work everywhere.

Everybody thinks they invented sex, nobody ever really got it before.

31

bob mcmanus 03.11.16 at 6:17 pm

29: And in McPherson’s latest video he shows a great segment in which a camera is focused on a glass of water with ice in it connected to a thermometer. The temperature rises very slowly until the ice is melted and then goes up very quickly.

32

rea 03.11.16 at 6:19 pm

BenK, our token denialist, tells us:

I certainly don’t support the concentration of political power excused by the climate ‘crisis.’

It’s Volokh and the asteroid, allover again.

http://volokh.com/2011/02/15/asteroid-defense-and-libertarianism/

33

bruce wilder 03.11.16 at 6:22 pm

Much of the interesting scientific speculation about ghg and climate concern trying to discern or discover disruptive feedback, positive or negative. The speculative frenzy occurs against the certain background knowledge that the accumulation of ghg in the atmosphere will be a persistent forcing. Even if the feedback emergent from the disruption were to be a fair coin, producing positive and negative feedback in equal dollops of probability, accumulated ghg will persist, providing a bias in one direction, giving a greater practical weight to the amplifying positive feedbacks.

And it is about chemistry, not temperature. The increasing acidity of the oceans combines with the rise in retained heat to kill the coral and accelerate the on-going crash in the ocean ecology.

People talk about costs and benefits as if costs and benefits were inscribed on a prix fixe menu. Climate change is not happening in isolation from the other effects of population and economic growth, effects which involve positive and negative feedbacks of their own on the continuing capacity of the economic system to productively marshal resources. We ought to consider that the foundations of industrial civilization are being eroded in ways that may fundamentally alter the reference standards for cost and benefit. That climate scientist turned policy wonks are blithely projecting large-scale extraction of carbon from the atmosphere (after 2050), in a desperate attempt to avoid drawing apocalyptic scenarios all day every day ought to worry us more than it seems to.

34

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 6:33 pm

All right, thanks for all the pointers to actually existing pumped storage, I agree that it has actually been implemented in some places. In theory, though, I’m not sure about the “exacting site requirements”. What I remember seeing was an old proposal for how you could set up a site like this almost anywhere where you can dig a stable hole that won’t collapse. It’s obviously cheaper to use a pre-existing hole, but digging is not in itself especially difficult to do.

35

Jim Harrison 03.11.16 at 6:50 pm

One general point about pumped storage and other power storage schemes: the utility business has been trying to find economical and efficient ways to store energy for a very long time. The quest for such systems began before anybody was talking about climate change or distributed generation—load leveling has been the holy grail of the power business for many decades. Because it is anything but a new research area, a host of approaches have already been tried. There are some promising new developments, but it’s mighty unlikely that some simple solution will suddenly pop up.

36

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 7:02 pm

I thought that the major problem wasn’t that the solution was complicated, but rather that there was no economic reason to do it as load leveling for existing systems. Special-built pumped storage units are large installations, and I could easily see why they wouldn’t be worth it if you have fueled power plants that you can basically turn on and off when you need to. But obviously I don’t really know that much about this.

37

Jim Harrison 03.11.16 at 7:13 pm

Turning power plants on and off is expensive, though the newer natural gas plants are easier to cycle. What the utilities would love is a situation where they run their most efficient plants full time and cover periods of peak demand with stored power. Intermittent sources of power such as PV or wind makes storage even more important.

Of course there’s a fundamental problem with storage. You never get as much power back as you put in because no system is perfectly efficient. No free lunches.

38

P O'Neill 03.11.16 at 7:15 pm

The climate change denial might eventually run into the problem now evident in the Republican primary races. Republican policy elites are struggling to explain why their base has a deep understanding of the general equilibrium and fiscal sustainability dimensions of tax cuts, but is a bit confused about the basics of international trade.

39

Matt 03.11.16 at 7:47 pm

Here are levelized costs for battery storage for some newer storage solutions. It goes as low as 10 cents per kilowatt hour for Powerwalls sourced at wholesale prices from Tesla.

People who buy solar power from a community solar garden like this one in Orlando may pay 13 cents per kilowatt hour, or perhaps 17 cents if they have a third party rooftop system from e.g. SolarCity. Both of those prices are with the 30% federal investment tax credit, so 19-24 cents “real” cost after removing the credit.

The stacked unsubsidized-solar plus battery storage cost totals up to 29-34 cents per kilowatt hour, assuming you can get the least expensive batteries and live in a sunny region. Though this assumes that every kilowatt hour goes through the battery first, which is unduly pessimistic; most days are going to see a considerable amount of electricity consumed instantaneously during daylight hours. If only 60% of consumed energy goes through storage first, the levelized cost range is more like 19-30 cents per kWh.

This report on American retail electricity prices from 1935-1959 is very eye-opening. After correcting for inflation, the price per kWh in the cheapest consumption tier is 48 cents per kWh in 1935, 27 cents in 1945, 18 cents in 1955, 17 cents in 1959. Retail priced, unsubsidized community scale solar plus storage is already cheaper than retail electricity prices from the 1940s and within spitting distance of retail electricity prices from the 1950s. Large scale solar in favorable regions can produce electricity at less than half the cost of rooftop or community scale projects; in Texas, recent contracts have been under 5 cents per kWh (~7 cents after backing out the investment tax credit). The old argument, equally beloved by coal lobbyists and the Doom contingent of the Peak Oil crowd, was “only fossils can produce energy cheaply/abundantly enough to support industrial civilization.” It seems to be dead.

40

SamChevre 03.11.16 at 7:47 pm

The other key problem with storage is that you are storing energy. Any form of energy storage has some “uncontrolled release of energy risk”. Dams are no exception–see “Johnstown flood” for an illustration.

41

Matt 03.11.16 at 8:04 pm

Note also that retail electricity prices in the US trended higher in rural areas, even after the extensive federal support for building rural electrical infrastructure. If you had a time portal going back to the mid 1930s, the less expensive way to electrify rural America would have been storage-backed distributed renewable generation, not the path actually taken at the time (build a lot more transmission and distribution to connect farms with large centralized generators). Today India and Bangladesh are even less urbanized than the USA was in the 1930s (~30% compared to ~56%). It’s not surprising that they have big plans for solar power. “Cheap” fossil power from centralized sources is a lot more expensive after it’s delivered to everyone in a nation that’s 70% rural.

42

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 8:18 pm

TVA is still a major generator of GHGs. The U.S. government is 6th on the list I linked to above, and if you look at the detailed data for the contributors to that it’s dominated by plants in TN and KY.

43

Layman 03.11.16 at 8:43 pm

My utility (APS) charges peak demand rates from noon until 7pm, which presumably represents their peak demand window. This window corresponds at least partly with the most effective solar production window, which for me runs from about 10AM until about 6PM. In the summer, I require about 100 kWh per day less than I would without solar, and that savings occurs during the peak demand period. The rest of the year, I produce much more than I need(*), and send it into the grid to be used by my neighbors, again during the peak demand period.

If everyone had solar, that overproduction would be wasted without a storage solution of some kind. But, in fact, everyone does not have solar, far from it. So it strikes me that the storage problem isn’t yet acute – there is a lot of headroom to reduce GHG emissions with rooftop solar solutions without solving the storag problem. The same should be true for large-scale solar production, even if operated in tandem with traditional plants.

(*) The easiest way for me to characterize my usage is with cost. I paid an average of $7 per month for electricity the last 2 years. Bearing in mind that APS charges a $10 a month service fee to every residential customer, I produced more than I drew from them over that time.

44

Matt 03.11.16 at 8:45 pm

Rich, that list is a great resource. I recognize at least some coal assets on the list that have already shut down. The TVA’s coal burning Widows Creek Fossil Plant shut down its last unit in October 2015, for example. I know that the list maintainers probably don’t want to comb through newspaper stories so information can be more up to date than the EPA’s centralized data sets, but the number of coal retirements in 2015 was pretty remarkable.

45

Matt 03.11.16 at 8:53 pm

If everyone had solar, that overproduction would be wasted without a storage solution of some kind. But, in fact, everyone does not have solar, far from it. So it strikes me that the storage problem isn’t yet acute – there is a lot of headroom to reduce GHG emissions with rooftop solar solutions without solving the storag problem. The same should be true for large-scale solar production, even if operated in tandem with traditional plants.

Very true. My earlier cost numbers incorporating storage were just to show that even if you add storage today, solar costs are competitive with retail electricity from the mid 20th century. Of course that cost comparison also used only sunny regions, which makes things a bit easier again. But the annual insolation difference between Seattle and Los Angeles is less than a factor of two; solar is a more evenly distributed resource than other renewables like hydroelectric, geothermal, or wind.

46

Omega Centauri 03.11.16 at 8:54 pm

Dipper, another arctic feedback is vegetation. On the land vegetation is growing taller, and that means the reflectivity of the land -articularly when there is some snowcover is reduced (because the taller plants stand above the snow). Forests are also moving North as well. I remember seeing a report that tress at high lattitudes add more to global warming due to albedo efects, than they provide cooling due to seuqestering carbon. So that is another feedbaack.

Of course if one does cost benefit analysis, the timerame for the accumulation of the “benefit” is critical. The planet will be warmer for thousands of years (and sea level rise will be as issue for hundreds of years), but most economic models ignore or highly discount effects so far in the future.

47

Francis 03.11.16 at 9:04 pm

JQ: How do you square the evidence regarding shrinking coal use with Tamino’s evidence that the rate of CO2 growth is still increasing? Link here.

(If I scramble the link, it’s the January 2016 post at tamino.wordpress.com)

48

clew 03.11.16 at 9:42 pm

Dipper, another simple cause is that the physical movement of heat is (for the relevant processes) proportional to the difference in temperature from the sink to the source — see the Hadley, Ferrel, and Polar atmospheric circulation cells.

From that page, The major driving force of atmospheric circulation is solar heating, which on average is largest near the equator and smallest at the poles. The atmospheric circulation transports energy polewards, thus reducing the resulting equator-to-pole temperature gradient. The mechanisms by which this is accomplished differ in tropical and extratropical latitudes.

But it’s the temperature gradients that cause the circulation, too, because warmer air rises and colder air sinks.

49

clew 03.11.16 at 9:52 pm

Francis, someone is probably checking the isotopic composition of atmospheric CO2; 13/12 measures how much of the CO2 came through photosynthesis (this year’s forest, ancient coal) and 14/12 to estimate how old the plant C was (same carbon dating that we use for archaeology).

If we’re really unlucky, we’re now oxidizing current organic matter (to ecosystem stress->burn-or-rot) faster than we’re reducing fossil fuel use.

50

Nadabupkis 03.11.16 at 11:16 pm

@27 Yes, apparently in the denialosphere climate change is a conspiracy by liberal/social scientists, with their $70k/yr salaries, to wreck the economy and advance some undefined liberal agenda. In this saga, the energy companies, with their multi-billion dollar profit margins are the good guys looking after our well-being.

51

Omega Centauri 03.11.16 at 11:35 pm

I’ve seen enough studies of potential high penetration levels of renewables that claim only modest amounts of storage going to be needed. If your model is everyone has panels and a battery and is offgrid, then you will need a lot of storage. But if you can use a grid to distribute generation and consumption things get a lot easier. Also any 100% renewable solution is going to include a biomass component, which could be designed to only be used when the intrinsically variable sources are seriously underproducing. If you think there is any credibility to these studies (as I do), then claims that we can’t go very far without a huge amount of it begin to feel like deliberate attempts to delay the transition.

clew:
If anything we might be near an anthropogenic CO2 plateau, we shouldn’t expect the rate of increase in the atmospheric concentration to show a major decline anytime soon. Also El Ninos tend to be accompanied by natural short term CO2 spikes. The natural world does have both seasonal of irregular cycles with amplitudes of a few years of human emissions, so trying to ascertain the recent state of human emissions from a short trendline of atmospheric CO2 has issues with “noise”.

52

John Quiggin 03.11.16 at 11:47 pm

@47 In statistical terms, looking at a noisy measure of levels over a long period is an incredibly bad way of measuring changes in the rate of increase of a variable over a short period. It’s as if you took observations on the position of a car travelling on a winding road for several hours to work out if the driver had accelerated or decelerated in the last 5 minutes.

Tamino is usually good, but I’m very much underwhelmed by this analysis. There’s simply no way it could detect the changes I talk about in the OP.

53

pnee 03.12.16 at 1:04 am

@23

I think orchestrated denialism follows the playbook of the tobacco industry, for much the same reason. Like the tobacco companies, the fossil companies will have to make concessions in the end, but they want to push off the end of the current high profit no responsibility era for as long as possible.

Tobacco companies had something of a natural constuenceny in (healthy) smokers, but I think the fossil fuel companies managed (in the US at least) to take advantage of the right wing tribalism.

54

Plucky Underdog 03.12.16 at 11:37 am

Rich — pumped storage is the way to go if you’ve got the right terrain within a few kilometres of your existing power-line corridor. Nature gives you the storage volume (lake) and the gravity-head (mountains) for free. However, mountain lakes are often valued for their beauty, ruggedness and remoteness, and people object when you convert them into an engineering project (stupid greenies, spoil it for everyone, yeah right).

Trying to replicate the necessary hydraulic conditions (volume, head) by construction and excavation on a random greenfield site turns out to be orders of magnitude more expensive; works as a technology, doesn’t work as infrastructure. Anyway, we’ve got another perfectly good energy storage solution — batteries. (Forget compressed-air energy storage at scale — that’s thermodynamic snake-oil).

Nobody ever seems to mention David McKay’s book round here. The technologies to convert a modern industrial economy to sustainable energy, at a level energy consumption rate, are well-understood, generally decades old, and thoroughly proven. It would take a few decades (in the case of the UK), and it would require investment equivalent to the rail network PLUS the motorway network PLUS the existing power and gas grids. It would also transform the landscape, but that’s already happened multiple times in the past millennium, so. http://www.withouthotair.com has a lot more about this.

55

Moz of Yarramulla 03.12.16 at 11:48 am

Sorry, my interest in pro-climate-change people is limited. Unless it’s pointing out that many of the “climate change activists” in politics and commerce are actually *pro* catastrophic climate change, they just don’t like people pointing it out. Big shout-out to my homies Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama!

I’ve seen enough studies of potential high penetration levels of renewables that claim only modest amounts of storage going to be needed.

I’ve seen similar studies. One of the hot projects is concentrated solar power with molten salt storage. One minor advantage of that is that the actual generation is done using the same steam based systems as fossil plants, so we can basically leave them out of the development budget – it’s very much “steam in at 800K, electricity out” off the shelf stuff. But the big advantages are that they are baseload and they are already in operation at the “big trial” stage (bigger than 100MW). There’s even an industry magazine. But like gas and hydro, it’s easy to build them to be very fast reacting (in grid terms) so they slot nicely into a grid based on renewables.

One thing no-one is doing yet is overbuilding their renewable generation and using the huge excess power you get intermittently to suck CO2 out of the air. People whine that a 100% wind/solar grid would need significant overcapacity to cope with peak demand meeting low generation times, but we *need* excess power to go CO2 negative. My vague knowledge of engineering such things is that it’s relatively easy to build pumps that switch on and off on a seconds-to-minutes scale, so if you’re just pressurising a reservoir you can use those pumps as a dump load for your wind/PV generators. Pressurising gas to then filter CO2 is not the most efficient way to do it unless you actually want liquid CO2 … but that’s how many of the sequestration systems want it. Anyway, speculation of the sort that makes denialists seem well grounded.

56

Rich Puchalsky 03.12.16 at 12:35 pm

Plucky Underdog, I understand that what you’ve written is true. Let me try to rephrase what I meant from the beginning.

Saying that something “works as a technology, doesn’t work as infrastructure” means that it basically works as an idea. Moreover, it’s an idea that’s easy to explain to people. When people have concerns about how energy storage would work — sometimes concerns that are fed by demialists, sometimes not — they tend to really understand water falling down past a waterwheel into a big hole, and a pump that you use to pump it back up. You could say “We don’t need to do it that way, because batteries are really much cheaper” but batteries and most things to do with electricity are little mystery boxes to most people. (In the immortal words of Insane Clown Posse: magnets, how do they work.) Maybe the pump part is a bit of a mystery but they get the basic idea.

So the parts about “we need the right pre-existing terrain to make this economical” and “people don’t want to spoil all the lakes and canyons” and “what if the dam breaks” are kind of beside the point. The idea is about “construction and excavation on a random greenfield”, i.e. digging big holes wherever they are needed. This does not need to be a practical idea in order to be an idea that people instinctively seem to understand and that in practice seems to reassure them that a solution is possible. I’m not about to form the Society For Digging Big Holes Everywhere (although now that I’ve mentioned it, I would find it deeply amusing in an absurdist way to do so.)

If you mention batteries, people say “But aren’t batteries high tech? Do we know how to build them? Don’t we need lots of rare elements from SomewhereNotHere and maybe we’d run out? How much energy does it take to make all those batteries? Where do we throw out the batteries?” People understand holes and waterwheels.

57

John Quiggin 03.12.16 at 12:49 pm

More simply, any reversible process involving energy provides a potential storage technology.

https://theconversation.com/only-a-mug-punter-would-bet-on-carbon-storage-over-renewables-35920

58

Barry 03.12.16 at 1:49 pm

Rich Puchalsky 03.11.16 at 4:54 pm
“Large scale electricity storage is simple. You dig a big hole in the ground and put water in it. When you have extra electricity, you pump the water higher in the hole. When you don’t, the water falls past a turbine that generates electricity again. I think that the first plans to do this were something like WW II era, but it’s never been needed to be done so it hasn’t been done.”

As usual, the Fourth Coast of the USA gets no respect:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludington_Pumped_Storage_Power_Plant

I saw this being built as a child – it’s frikkin’ huge.

The Wikipedia article says that they are building wind farms nearby; the wind power is intermittent, but feeds into the pumped storage.

59

Plucky Underdog 03.12.16 at 2:32 pm

Moz — once you’ve let the CO2 escape into the atmosphere, you’ve pretty much lost it. Mixing is a textbook example of a thermodynamically irreversible process (meaning, you have to put work e.g. electrical energy back in to reverse it). More prosaically, combustion flue gases are pretty much everything you don’t want in a feedstock; hot, dirty, and the CO2 is still pretty dilute. Nobody manufactures liquid CO2 or dry ice (pretty useful stuff) on an industrial scale by getting it out of the air.

Barry — yes, the Ludington plant is a fantastic piece of large-scale engineering. As I’m sure you and Rich understand, it depends on a unique landform (a 300-foot hill right next to lake Michigan), and it can’t be scaled-up any further (the hilltop is now completely occupied the upper reservoir), or replicated just anywhere. As you point out, though, pumped storage goes nicely with wind power (though that wouldn’t have been the reason it was built in the late 1960s).

60

Matt 03.12.16 at 8:47 pm

Nobody ever seems to mention David McKay’s book round here. The technologies to convert a modern industrial economy to sustainable energy, at a level energy consumption rate, are well-understood, generally decades old, and thoroughly proven. It would take a few decades (in the case of the UK), and it would require investment equivalent to the rail network PLUS the motorway network PLUS the existing power and gas grids. It would also transform the landscape, but that’s already happened multiple times in the past millennium, so. http://www.withouthotair.com has a lot more about this.

I thought MacKay’s book was great when it first came out. On re-readings I like it somewhat less, both because it is getting dated and because of some questionable assumptions he makes.

First, the praise: MacKay does a good job of building a quantitative, bottom-up account of the energy requirements of a contemporary highly developed nation. I like to develop the qualitative as a distillation of the quantitative, and MacKay does that too.

First problem: it’s out of date. When he totals up the potential of renewable energy sources, the single largest contributor is large-scale solar. But he estimates that modules used for large-scale solar will never be more than 10% efficient. This was incorrect in 2007 and even more incorrect now. There has never been a year in which large scale solar projects have been dominated by the low-efficiency thin film silicon technology that he assumes as the only way forward. The most charitable interpretation: in the time frame he was writing, refined silicon prices were spiking and people were very bullish on thin film approaches that would minimize silicon consumption. Maybe he thought that rapid increases in silicon prices would end in a plateau. It didn’t. Polysilicon prices fell back to their old level and kept dropping. Both when he was writing and today, manufacturers of leading-efficiency modules, like SunPower and Panasonic, use the very same modules when they supply big solar farms as well as rooftops.

Second problem: it’s systematically skewed to overestimating energy requirements. He doesn’t use actual figures for average rates of travel by car or airplane in the UK. He uses a “typical moderately-affluent person” as his representative UK resident; that choice overestimates aggregate car travel by about 50% and international air travel by about 100% (to pick two numbers I looked at in detail). I don’t know if he’s skewing all his other numbers upward also by imagining everyone to be affluent or if he just does it for the big transport numbers.

Third problem: his idiosyncratic definition of “sustainable” includes producing all the embodied energy of imported goods within the UK. That embodied energy is actually tied with automobile use for #1 energy use in MacKay’s accounting. So the sustainable UK must practice autarky… but he also adds the energy cost of international shipping to the total. For the goods that he’s determined to produce domestically. Wat.

Later he abandons the quantitative approach to make a sweeping qualitative declaration about imports (either direct or embodied) of renewable energy:

We could buy, beg, or steal renewable energy from other countries – bearing in mind that most countries will be in the same boat as Britain and will have no renewable energy to spare; and also bearing in mind that sourcing renewable energy from another country doesn’t magically shrink the renewable power facilities required. If we import renewable energy from other countries in order to avoid building renewable facilities the size of Wales in our country, someone will have to build facilities roughly the size of Wales in those other countries.

This is not remotely true. The UK has more than twice the population density of the European Union average, five times the world average (excluding Antarctica). The UK also has pretty lousy renewable generation potential compared to most countries, except for offshore wind. Most of the world’s nations have a better ratio of land-based renewables potential to population than the UK and would not in fact need to build to the same scale, or inconvenience as many people, to produce the same energy as you could get by tiling Wales with solar farms. Using renewable electricity to make energy-intensive materials in Iceland or Australia instead of the UK is much better than a zero sum reallocation of land requirements.

Fourth problem: in the section “Green ambitions meet social reality” he eliminates almost all of the big stack of renewable energy potential he has identified either because it’s expensive or because of NIMBY objections. The nuclear power chapter is conspicuously missing a corresponding “Nuclear ambitions meet social reality” section about the financial costs and NIMBY objections attending new nuclear power projects. The NIMBY component might be roughly the same now as in 2007, but the costs of new reactors in the EU keep climbing and the costs of new renewables keep falling.

I admire MacKay’s quantitative approach but I would challenge some of the assumptions even in the context of 2007, and other inputs to the model would look significantly better 9 years later. If I were redoing his “racing stacks” model of energy supply balancing energy demand today, I’d identify the most efficient current means of delivering energy services up front instead of deferring them to a second section, and I’d want to update the various cost/efficiency/energy density numbers using figures from the past year instead of 2007. That would make nuclear a bit less attractive and renewables a lot more attractive. I’d use actual median or mean per-capita consumption figures for a developed country like the UK instead of imagining everyone is above average in consumption. I’d assume that international trade continues, but sustainable international trade requires international decarbonization. Finally, putting efficiency up front instead of new energy supplies (whether nuclear, solar, or other) makes a big improvement both financially and in terms of geophysical requirements for replacing fossils.

61

Sasha Clarkson 03.12.16 at 9:12 pm

I suspect that any figures about the costs of battery storage are obsolete as soon as they’re published. The technology is improving – and becoming cheaper – almost daily.

For examples:

http://www.energy-storage.news/news/dutch-grid-operator-tennet-batteries-offer-excellent-alternative-to-convent

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/how-distributed-battery-storage-will-surpass-grid-scale-storage-in-the-us-b

On a personal note, last summer I replaced a 2-stroke petrol hedgetrimmer with a lithium ion battery powered electric one, and the performance is better in every way more powerful, cleaner, quieter – and very cheap to run!

62

Lee A. Arnold 03.12.16 at 9:22 pm

Barry #58: “pumped storage”

There is also new-generation air-compressor storage being designed. This has the virtue of being down-scalable for homeowners to recompress daily from their own roof solar. Nice overview of plummeting storage costs by Ramez Naam, probably already outdated because he wrote it 6 months ago:
http://rameznaam.com/2015/10/14/how-cheap-can-energy-storage-get/

63

Moz of Yarramulla 03.12.16 at 9:37 pm

Plucky Underdog: please don’t confuse my suggestion for going carbon negative with existing scams to keep running fossil fuel plants as “carbon neutral” via CCS. We need to start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere/ocean ASAP on an industrial scale, and there’s currently a viable market in CO2 extraction systems that source it from air (usually preferring CO2-rich exhaust, but they seem able to work from our current CO2-rich atmosphere). There are no doubt much more efficient systems around (I like C4 plants and biochar), but I think combining the need for electrical dump loads with CO2 extraction is possibly a useful approach. It should probably only ever be a marginal approach, but it might be fairly large scale – refining aluminium and titanium, for example, takes a lot of electricity but demand for those materials continues to rise.

And even in Australia so many people have done properly costed “how do we get from here to renewables” that it’s degenerated into an argument between economists about whose cost assumptions are most stupid (no offence to Prof Q, but I’m an engineer and don’t find that stuff very exciting). The total number is ridiculously tiny even with the sillier assumptions, unless you are looking for reasons it can’t be done (like the Australian National Broadband Network, if politicians keep playing with the system costs go up exponentially. Start the project, make a huge technology switch mid-course, put it in the hands of someone committed to seeing it fail, pretend to be surprised when costs keep going up and delivery dates disappear into the never-never)

64

guthrie 03.13.16 at 12:22 am

Dipper #19 – plans are already well afoot (As in they are movbing through the planning system) to build a new pump storage station in the Highlands of Scotland, and there are more plans to build another and extend Cruachan to nearly double it’s capacity. So some parts of the UK are looking at storage, but not all of them. Given that the last decade or of government here has worshipped the almighty market, why would expect them to think ahead in the best interests of the citizens of this country?

65

guthrie 03.13.16 at 12:25 am

Also, as for storage of energy and the needs of grids etc, I recall this article in Scientific American, that looks to be 1/50th an Iraq war or less:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-path-to-sustainable-energy-by-2030/

66

ZM 03.13.16 at 1:44 am

In terms of grids and storage — in a town in the Shire I live in the State government has an great pilot project to make the whole town 100% Renewable.

There was a recent MOU signed with the company that runs the grid, Powercor. The blog for the project describes the reasons:

“Why Powercor is involved?

Of course there will be those who choose, with the technology rapidly getting cheaper, to go it alone – to go off grid. It’s likely most of us will choose to stay connected to the existing grid of poles and wires.

There are many questions arising in people’s minds:

What happens in winter? What if I am a renter? Maybe there is no north-facing roof on my home?

Most of us will choose to remain in the safety of a power-sharing grid.

Currently the wires and poles could best be described as a Power Sending Grid, bringing us power from the distant Latrobe Valley’s coal-fired power stations. In the future, renewable energy sources will be added to this. Power-sharing will overtake power-sending.

So the answer to the “Why Powercor?” question is beginning to become clearer – in our part of Victoria.

They run the Power Sharing Grid.

If three words can sum up a project, those are the ones.”

I think this is a really good idea, since the government is facilitating energy companies to work with the community to move to a renewable energy model.

67

Omega Centauri 03.13.16 at 2:05 am

Matt @60. I wouldn’t be to down on MacKay’s 10 percent efficiency fugure. Utility ground mounts are both tilted and track the sun, there needs to be enough separation between them so that one “panel” doesn’t too often shade another, and that means that when the sun is high, a significant fraction of it will miss the panels and fall on the ground. So in computing the area needed for solar farms, you need to use an efficiency far lower than that of the panels. I think that thin film is already at the 17% figure, it may soon surpass silicon.

Actually, the evolution of wind turbines is continuing, and they are getting taller, and with higher capacities (and lower levelized cost of power). There should be plenty of scope for expanding on shore wind in the UK -provided that the hostility of the current government can be overcome. Wind makes more sense for the UK than solar, which is really weak in December for instance. Batteries might be able to bridge day/night production shortfalls, but they won’t be capable of storing excess summer sun for winter use.

Also of course a wider transmission network is almost always better. There are even proposals for Iceland to the UK. Long distance transmission is cheaper than storage, and it can greatly reduce the amount of storage required. So strict self sufficiency is a far from optimal policy.

68

ZM 03.13.16 at 2:34 am

Omega Centauri,

“Actually, the evolution of wind turbines is continuing, and they are getting taller, and with higher capacities (and lower levelized cost of power). There should be plenty of scope for expanding on shore wind in the UK -provided that the hostility of the current government can be overcome.”

There is evidence that communities find shorter less imposing wind turbines more accepatble technological interventions in the environment. In Germany there are shorter wind turbines located more closely to towns with community owner ship models. When large wind turbines were developed as farms, community support for wind energy decreased in Germany, to be more controversial like in Anglo countries.

“Wind makes more sense for the UK than solar, which is really weak in December for instance. Batteries might be able to bridge day/night production shortfalls, but they won’t be capable of storing excess summer sun for winter use.”

In Australian models bio-gas turbines have been used to meet energy needs in Winter. We have more agricultural land than the UK so maybe this is more practicable here, I’m not sure.

Have researchers done modelling of how to provide 100% renewable energy to the UK using real weather data? I know of about 3 of these projects already done in Australia. If UK researchers have done this it would be interesting to see the make up of renewable energy technology in the models.

69

Matt 03.13.16 at 4:34 am

I wouldn’t be to down on MacKay’s 10 percent efficiency fugure. Utility ground mounts are both tilted and track the sun, there needs to be enough separation between them so that one “panel” doesn’t too often shade another, and that means that when the sun is high, a significant fraction of it will miss the panels and fall on the ground. So in computing the area needed for solar farms, you need to use an efficiency far lower than that of the panels. I think that thin film is already at the 17% figure, it may soon surpass silicon.

No, he is talking module level efficiency when he references the 10% figure:

Photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into electricity. Typical solar panels have an efficiency of about 10%; expensive ones perform at 20%. (Fundamental physical laws limit the efficiency of photovoltaic systems to at best 60% with perfect concentrating mirrors or lenses, and 45% without concentration. A mass-produced device with efficiency greater than 30% would be quite remarkable.)

His claim that typical panels achieve 10% was too low for 2007 and even more too low now. From later calculations, where he estimates 5 W/m^2 for PV farms, it’s clear that he was (quite rightly) accounting for full-area land use when he considered solar farms, but he started with too low efficiency figures for the modules.

Cadmium telluride thin film as developed by First Solar has indeed reached high-teens efficiency levels. That’s more efficient than this year’s median silicon module though many manufacturers produce even higher efficiency modules based on crystalline silicon. Copper indium gallium diselenide thin film, championed by Solar Frontier and several much smaller manufacturers, is currently around 13-14% for mass produced modules.

The really low efficiency thin film modules stuck around 10% are those based on hydrogenated amorphous silicon. That seemed like a promising technology when silicon costs were high, since it uses about 1% as much silicon per watt as mainstream crystalline silicon modules, but the low silicon use was outweighed by low module efficiency once the silicon price spike ended. Some factories are still operating with that technology but much of the production capacity has retired and nobody is building new fabs for it.

70

Omega Centauri 03.13.16 at 5:10 am

Matt,
Thanks for a highly informative comment.

When discussing large scale PV we are talking deployment that will happen on average several years or more away. I would expect average efficiencies will probably reach around 20 percent.

An issue with wind -particularly onshore (I have doubts about of offshore due to cost), is the size of the resource. The higher off the ground you intercept it, the more power you get for exploiting the same limited resource. Not to mention the capital cost which usually matters to the consumers. Whatever the esthetics is, the cheapest renewable power will be from massive scale wind turbines. I don’t expect them to be situated very close to population centers. Wind and solar have different temporal variation, so a mix of both should be complementary. I mentioned I had serious doubts about offshore wind -can it ever be made cheap enough. I have similar doubts about solar thermal with storage, which doesn’t seem capable of competing economically with PV (or fossil for that matter).

71

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 1:03 pm

Moz@63 — I think you’ll be disappointed if you mail-order a CO2 extraction system. What will arrive is an apparatus that uses supercritical CO2 as a solvent to get caffeine out of coffee, or THC out of weed, or essential oils out of flowers. And the CO2 won’t be generated out of thin air; depending on the scale, you’ll order it by the cylinder from Air Products, or piggyback an intercooler and cryostill onto your factory’s diesel-electric generator.

72

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 1:15 pm

ZM, Omega, Matt — Without Hot Air was a tabletop proof-of-concept exercise. All the numbers in it are wrong to a greater or lesser degree, especially after a decade of technological and political evolution. But wrong != bad; the whole point of the book’s predictions is that they are falsifiable. All the moving parts of McKay’s calculations are there for you to take apart, fix, and reassemble. Instead of getting hung up on one wrong parameter, celebrate the fact that it looks like it can be done, and if the parms are getting more favourable, so much the better. Now (1) stop whinging and (2) start building.

73

John Quiggin 03.13.16 at 2:53 pm

@72 I hadn’t heard of McKay’s book. The general idea sounds right, but there have been many more exercises like this in recent years. Those from my universe confirm the conclusion that we can make the transition to a (near) zero-carbon energy system at modest cost and in reasonable time.

Naturally, the opposite result holds in the parallel universe, where wind turbines are the main cause of cancer.

74

Matt 03.13.16 at 7:37 pm

Naturally, the opposite result holds in the parallel universe, where wind turbines are the main cause of cancer.

The opposition to wind farms, or even solar farms, is a bit of a puzzler. In 2010 surveys showed that 82% of the UK public favored wind power, just behind the 88% favoring solar. But nearly every day I come across some solar or wind project that has been refused planning permission, or that locals are complaining about after it’s received planning permission. Is this a case of a small minority of loud objectors seeming more numerous than they are, because the people in favor don’t say a lot? It’s another puzzler that at a government level the UK has slashed support for onshore wind, maintained support for much more expensive offshore wind, and then complained about the high cost of wind power. There’s a similar pattern in UK solar where the larger, more economical solar projects are more discouraged.

I can understand people objecting to wind projects if the setbacks were so minimal that blade shadows actually flickered across their homes. I don’t think that happens much in the UK, though. Or in most places.

I can understand people objecting to these large, very visible wind structures if they didn’t know what they were for. I can imagine being annoyed at seeing wind turbines if I were told that (e.g.) they were broadcasting towers for a Google experiment in delivering more advertising, or that an idiosyncratic religion with billionaire backers were building them to keep the Devil away. So I can understand people objecting to the visual changes in the landscape if they believe that AGW is just a big con/cult, or if they believe that wind turbines don’t actually generate electricity. (It’s been a while, but I used to see letters to the editor asserting that wind turbines were all for show; when they were rotating they actually consumed electricity from the grid, like a giant fan.) But the UK does not seem to have unusually poor rates of scientific literacy or AGW denialism. So it remains a mystery.

75

Layman 03.13.16 at 8:00 pm

As it happens, I’m selling my house. My agent pushed the value of my solar plant, and I ended up talking with a lot of people about it. The buyers, a young couple in their 30’s, came by a couple of times before putting in their offer. They seemed enthusiastic about them, but then, on their last visit, they asked me if my solar panels weren’t too much trouble to bother with, and if they could simply turn them off and ignore them rather than go to the trouble of ‘running’ them. And these are well-educated, professional, affluent people.

During the appraisal, I had to explain several times that I owned the plant, not leased it. Apparently leased systems are a net negative to resale value. The appraiser didn’t know what to say about an owned system, but he thought it was still negative. I told him he could value them several ways. He could use the original cost and adjust it for the ensuing 6 years of depreciation, like he would value any other capital improvement. Or he could use the current replacement cost, similarly adjusted. Or he could take the annual savings they create (about $2500), and, using current mortgage interest rates, calculate the payment – to – principle value of about $200 per month.

He declined to do any of these things. He said that it would not be fair to the buyers, since if they only owned the house for a few years, they would never get that value from the panels. I said that in this, the panels were identical to the square footage of the house, or the flooring or countertop material, to all of which he was imputing a value. He said yes, but they’ll get their money back on those if they well the house in a few years. I said ‘as they would the panels, right?’ He didn’t say anything. In the end, he valued my solar plant at $0.

76

Rich Puchalsky 03.13.16 at 8:20 pm

If only you’d bought community solar, Layman. I bought a 20 year subscribed share of a bunch of solar panels in a field a few towns over. If I move locally, I keep the subscription: if I move further than that, I let the company try to sell my share to someone else. There’s supposedly no cancellation fee with 30 days notice, but even if there is, it’s going to be no worse than changing cell phone plans. I end up paying a lot more than you did month by month (I have a 20 year stable price that’s under what I paid for electricity before, but still something) but I have no up-front cost and no machinery to dispose of.

77

Dipper 03.13.16 at 8:22 pm

@Matt 74.

Well there is a massive parallel universe in evidence here, between those who think politicians are a heroic group of selfless individuals nobly promoting policies for the benefit of mankind (most contributors and commentaries on CT), and those who think they all are at best utterly hopeless and at worst corrupt self-serving lying bastards (everyone else).

The thing that is missing throughout all climate discussion on CT is any scepticism about the motives of the parties promoting various types of green energy. For many people in the UK there is no sight quite so terrifying as a lib-dem political announcing that climate change is absolutely the most important issue mankind faces and we absolutely must invest in whatever madcap scheme some organisation is now promoting as the latest saviour. Everyone looks on in horror knowing that millions of pounds of our money is about to be poured into someones pockets for absolutely no benefit.

Just to summarise the 2012 parliamentary report, the reduction in CO2 emissions achieved by the UK has been achieved in the following manner:
1 bring in large electricity tax to fund madcap white elephant schemes
2 manufacturing moves offshore to countries with cheaper electricity (produced by opening new coal fired power stations no less).
3 as a consequence of collapse in energy intensive industries domestic CO2 production falls (but no reduction in CO2 emissions required to meet UK consumption)
4 announce success of whatever madcap schemes were built in 1.

There is a particular kind of UK political who thinks that the UK just isn’t big enough for their talents, and they really should be active on a European or global stage. What absolutely everyone apart from the individual political knows is that if you want that kind of role you have to buy it, and it is very expensive. The price for climate change is the jobs of UK workers.

So there is no contradiction for most people in the UK in believing that anthropogenic global warming is true and thinking that most initiatives that aim to reduce it are a con.

78

ZM 03.13.16 at 8:38 pm

Matt,

“The opposition to wind farms, or even solar farms, is a bit of a puzzler. In 2010 surveys showed that 82% of the UK public favored wind power, just behind the 88% favoring solar. But nearly every day I come across some solar or wind project that has been refused planning permission, or that locals are complaining about after it’s received planning permission. Is this a case of a small minority of loud objectors seeming more numerous than they are, because the people in favor don’t say a lot?”

I did a group project on community participation in planning and the acceptance of wind farms. That is where I found out about in Germany smaller wind turbines located near towns under a community ownership model were more popular, but when the government changed the policy to larger wind turbines owned privately in large scale farms the support for wind turbines in Germany decreased.

One author I read had a view I found convincing. He argued that classifying objectors to wind turbines as NIMBYs (not in my backyard) was not the best approach, and instead he thought that opposition to wind turbines was based on people’s sense of place attachment being disrupted.

This is particularly where an environment that has not so much technological infrastructure gets wind farms, as then the sense of place is considerably altered.

In the German example of wind turbines near towns there are not the objections about noise and headaches and things. I think this is partly as people in towns accept there is a lot of technological infrastructure, but perhaps people who live further out do so as they prefer more natural environments.

I think the placement of wind farms is important to do with community consultation so people don’t feel something that is such an environmental intervention is being imposed on them by government or companies. As you say wind power is important in renewable energy systems so ensuring wind farms are built is important, but it would be better if it was with community support.

79

Layman 03.13.16 at 8:52 pm

Rich P @ 76

I got my full asking price, and the house appraised at full value, so I don’t think I was harmed. Community solar wasn’t an option for me at the time – it still isn’t, I think. I’m just relating the huge comprehension gap about solar. The buyers couldn’t grasp that running the solar meant doing nothing. I argued with the appraiser because that’s my reaction to institutional bias masquerading as obtuseness. Obtusity?

80

ZM 03.13.16 at 8:53 pm

Dipper,

You may like the online book Plucky Underdog recommended, Without Hot Air, although he said that it was slightly out of date with some technology, being from 2008:

“I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy. Everyone says getting off fossil fuels is important, and we’re all encouraged to “make a difference,” but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up.
Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emo- tional (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.”

“What fraction of the country can we really imagine covering with windmills? Maybe 10%? Then we conclude: if we covered the windiest 10% of the country with windmills (delivering 2W/m2), we would be able to generate 20 kWh/d per person, which is half of the power used by driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 km per day.”

“If a breakthrough of solar technology occurs and the cost of photovoltaics came down enough that we could deploy panels all over the countryside, what is the maximum conceivable production? Well, if we covered 5% of the UK with 10%-efficient panels, we’d have 10% × 100 W/m2 × 200 m2 per person ≃ 50 kWh/day/person.”

http://www.inference.eng.cam.ac.uk/sustainable/book/tex/sewtha.pdf

81

Layman 03.13.16 at 8:54 pm

“between those who think politicians are a heroic group of selfless individuals nobly promoting policies for the benefit of mankind (most contributors and commentaries on CT)”

I have met exactly 0 such people on CT. Maybe even fewer than that, but I lost count at 0.

82

Dipper 03.13.16 at 8:58 pm

No-one is going to say to a pollster that they don’t like wind power. Why volunteer to look mean spirited when appearing generous and considerate is cost free?

But here’s the thing from the UK. I’m not responsible for global warming (UK CO2 productions are globally insignificant). It doesn’t affect me (we don’t have millions of people living in tidal deltas) but I am expected to pay for it. So no thanks.

The people who are telling us we have to do something about global warming are invariably the same people who told us we had to join the euro, and that anyone who wanted to keep the pound was a knuckle-dragging neanderthal. Well we saw how that one went, so excuse me if I never believe a word these useless deceitful lying bastards say ever again.

83

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 9:05 pm

Matt @74 — FWIW, I think 3-blade windmills look incongruous in most landscapes, and downright bizarre when stationary (especially when it’s just the odd one or two in an otherwise functioning farm). If you’ve absolutely got to have an artificial structure on a rolling hilltop, straight lines or right angles feel a little less … uncanny than 120 degrees, somehow. Anyway, I can understand objections to a wind farm being plonked down in front of a well-liked or even just familiar view. Quite the opposite of contempt for nature, in fact.

Tastes change, of course, but tastes in landscape probably don’t change fast. And while I don’t think the “sustainable energy is a con” meme has much real currency in the UK, there’s a generalised fuzzy awareness that wind power still makes little difference to our energy budget or carbon footprint, and is at best a wash cost-wise. So there isn’t even the feeling of trading off something (local quality of life in the form of a pretty view) for the greater good (affordable electricity, long-term security).

84

John Quiggin 03.13.16 at 9:07 pm

What’s truly bizarre is the belief that the left (broadly defined) has decided to overthrow capitalism through policies that give incentives for corporations and households to use one energy technology rather than another.

Less surprising, but still annoying is the belief that “”Insert home country name here” is doing all this crazy stuff to the benefit of “insert unpopular foreign country name here”. Dipper thinks it’s the UK, but it’s the same in every other English-speaking country, and (with slightly different rhetoric) lots of Asia.

85

Matt 03.13.16 at 9:09 pm

One author I read had a view I found convincing. He argued that classifying objectors to wind turbines as NIMBYs (not in my backyard) was not the best approach, and instead he thought that opposition to wind turbines was based on people’s sense of place attachment being disrupted.

This is particularly where an environment that has not so much technological infrastructure gets wind farms, as then the sense of place is considerably altered.

The bolded second part is where it’s hard not to read the opposition as myopic NIMBYism. These rural areas have grid supplied electricity. They’ve been enjoying the benefits of fossil-generated electricity for decades, just like urban centers. But residents object when they have to look at clean electricity infrastructure supplying their needs instead of having pollution hidden beyond the horizon, giving other places asthma and unsightly ash ponds.

I agree that it’s always better if you can get community support, but some of the rural community opposition looks awfully selfish.

Recognizing that “you’re just being selfish!” is not a magic phrase that dissipates community opposition, some more expensive but less visible options may sometimes be an easier way forward. This is why I have joined you (I think) and Val in the past in supporting rooftop solar, since even though the costs per unit of generation are higher it can move forward with less community opposition and more grassroots support. Putting PV canopies over parking lots is another relatively high cost option that can unlock a lot more renewable energy potential without making visual intrusions on rural areas.

86

Dipper 03.13.16 at 9:14 pm

JQ The question was asked why the UK population object to wind power. I’ve tried to give an answer why that is. The logic may be faulty but that is how I think most people in the UK think.

Most Folks don’t really care about politics, but they do care about being made fools of, and watch very carefully what politicians get up to.

87

John Quiggin 03.13.16 at 9:21 pm

@Plucky Underdog: I really don’t see the point in relying on a 2007 source like McKay, given that there is so much more recent and thorough work available. You get rhetorical statements like

The solar power capacity required to deliver this 50 kWh per day per person in the UK is more than 100 times all the photovoltaics in the whole world.

This might have been true in 2007, but it’s easy to check that the installed base of PV has increased by a factor of around 100 since then, which rather undermines the point. If you want to say “the UK is not a great location for solar PV”, that’s fine, but so what?

I assume it’s from your reading of McKay that you get claims like “wind power still makes little difference to our energy budget or carbon footprint, and is at best a wash cost-wise” which is simply untrue.

88

Ze K 03.13.16 at 9:32 pm

@84 “…doing all this crazy stuff to the benefit of “insert unpopular foreign country name here””

Well, if you make your country too expensive and/or inconvenient for investors, they’ll move to some other country. Not to the benefit of that foreign country, but for their own benefit. That’s what globalization is all about. I don’t think it’s a special “belief”; it’s reality.

89

John Quiggin 03.13.16 at 10:22 pm

@88 The problem is that, in this as in many cases, the same claim is being made in “unpopular foreign country” with the roles reversed.

90

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 10:33 pm

JQ@87 — the following numbers refer to the UK in 2014, the last calendar year in the most recent BP Statistical Review of World Energy, which generally collates national statistics from energy ministries or local equivalent.

Windpower : 31.6 TWh Total Electricity: 335 TWh so wind is about 9.4% of UK electricity. Using the conversion factors in the Appendix, that displaced some 7.2 million tons of oil fuel equivalent, relative to 188 MTOe total UK primary energy, so that’s about 3.8% (UK primary energy was mainly oil and gas, with coal in third place).
Eyeballing the recent years in the BP Stat Rev, it looks like there was a huge build-out of wind power in the UK from 2011 to 2013, but then it stalled quite badly. Maybe it’ll come back.

So, not nothing, but relative to what has to be achieved for carbon neutrality? Barely getting started. I withdraw my throwaway comment on costs; I would welcome some hard numbers, but commercially sensitive stuff like that is harder to get than raw production stats.

And no, I wasn’t quoting McKay. He sets out five different sustainable energy plans for the UK, involving different policy choices (Chapter 27). All his plans have some wind; Plan N, which is nuclear-heavy and places the least reliance on wind, still uses 44 TWh/y. So we’re still doing less than the minimum that he assumes (though we’ll probably get there within two or three years).

91

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 10:41 pm

Dipper@82 — it’s trivial, of course, to figure out current or cumulative historical carbon emissions, either per caput or per country, and I think you know what you’d find if you cared to look them up. Shall I Google them for you?

No continental river deltas, it’s true. However, Great Britain has a few million people living in watersheds that get the brunt of our exciting new wintertime Atlantic storm conveyor belt, now that Greenland ice melt is dumping a few dozen cubic kilometres a year of cold freshwater into the Davis Strait that wasn’t going there 20 years ago. Cold, but low salinity so it’s light, stays on the surface and messes things up in the adjacent atmosphere. Who saw that coming, eh?

Of course these things change slowly at first, and the UK is a rich and fairly large country with an only moderately-corrupt polity and a reasonable level of social cohesion, so no immediate danger of anything like a climate refugee crisis. Just some short-term internal displacement, and the progressive diversion of increasing resources to patching things up as they fall apart. It would certainly be possible in the long-term to build a flood barrier around the whole Metropolis, for example, which could serve the additional purpose of keeping out undesirables like poors from the northern river valleys.

92

Plucky Underdog 03.13.16 at 11:01 pm

JQ@87 (again, sorry) — more than 100 times all the photovoltaics in the whole world is true but misleading — it’s actually about SIX hundred times all the photovoltaics in the world (as of 2014 — BP Stat Rev again). And the UK is what, <1% of the world's population? It's true that PV has staggering growth, about 30%/year by eyeball, but that probably has little to do with technology and lots to do with Chinese immunity from commercial reality.

93

Val 03.13.16 at 11:24 pm

Dipper @ 82
But here’s the thing from the UK. I’m not responsible for global warming (UK CO2 productions are globally insignificant).

Variations of this argument currently come in at 99 on the Skeptical Science list of denial arguments https://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-limits-will-make-little-difference.htm

I reckon they should upgrade it (although possibly it is declining in popularity elsewhere and Dipper has just been a bit slow to jump on the bandwagon)

94

Matt 03.14.16 at 12:02 am

JQ@87 (again, sorry) — more than 100 times all the photovoltaics in the whole world is true but misleading — it’s actually about SIX hundred times all the photovoltaics in the world (as of 2014 — BP Stat Rev again). And the UK is what, <1% of the world's population? It's true that PV has staggering growth, about 30%/year by eyeball, but that probably has little to do with technology and lots to do with Chinese immunity from commercial reality.

I don’t know how you are calculating the factor of six hundred. Here’s my arithmetic so we can compare.

UK population: 65 million
50 kWh per day per capita
365 days in a year

~250 GWp PV capacity is now installed globally (estimated to reach 310 GWp by end of 2016).

65 * 10^6 * 50 * 365 = 1,186,250,000,000 kWh, e.g. 1186.25 terawatt hours.

To get that much generation from 0.25 terawatts-peak of PV would require a capacity factor of 54.1%, (1186.25 / (0.25 * 365.25 * 24)), which is unrealistically high. In the USA, utility scale photovoltaic plants operate at an average capacity factor of only 28.6%, which means that putting all that PV in the USA would still leave us short by nearly a factor of two in producing the desired 1186.25 TWh per year.

It gets worse if we imagine all that equipment in the less-sunny UK, of course. The DECC estimates a capacity factor of only 9.7% for PV in the UK. (I can’t find corresponding actually-measured values like the EIA reports for the USA). That would put present PV capacity about a factor of 6 short of supplying 1186.25 TWh per year. But that’s a lot smaller gap than a factor of 100, much less a factor of 600.

China is the most important player at present in manufacturing and installing PV equipment, but it is overblown IMO to say that growth “has little to do with technology and lots to do with Chinese immunity from commercial reality.” The USA is projected to tie with Japan for #2 solar market in the world this year, China of course #1, and the USA has had punitive tariffs against Chinese solar equipment for the last few years. PV manufacturers outside of China have increased production and dramatically cut costs since 2007 too, though Chinese manufacturers are still at the forefront of large scale and low cost. Western manufacturers like SolarWorld already have modules that retail for under a dollar per watt with manufacturing cost well under the $1 threshold. The new module factory SolarCity is building in Buffalo, New York is projected to produce high efficiency crystalline silicon modules at a manufacturing cost of under USD $0.60 per watt-peak. In 2007, manufacturing c-Si solar modules at a cost around $2.00 per watt-peak was the state of the art (n.b.: note that the lower end of polysilicon prices in 2007 was $45/kg, whereas the $2-per-watt module figure in that document comes from pretending that polysilicon was only $30).

Of course, the decline in system cost has not been as dramatic as the decline in solar module cost. Permitting, mounting/racking, wiring, labor, trackers (for utility scale) and inverters have not seen comparably rapid cost-per-watt declines (though inverters seem to now be in the midst of a rapid price drop too).

95

Matt 03.14.16 at 12:18 am

Here for example is a source for SolarWorld polycrystalline silicon panels at only 78 cents per watt, retail. SolarWorld manufactures only in the USA and Germany and just saw its full-year 2015 revenues and capacity shipments up 1/3 over forecasts. Solar has come a long way in the last decade even if you ignore everything originating from China.

96

Plucky Underdog 03.14.16 at 12:35 am

It’s possible I’m wrong! OK, lessee: world Solar PV energy production in calendar year 2014 (not the same thing as installed capacity, as you’re obviously aware) was 185.9 terawatt hours (Ye Olde BP Statistical Review again). Divide by 365 gives 0.5 TWh/day close as dammit. Divide by 65 million gives 7.7 kWh/day per head of UK population. So there’s the factor of six shortfall of world solar generation relative to a per-UK-capita goal of 50 kWh/day, as of 2014.

I’m going offline now (probably to the great relief of most other thread participants). Goodnight, all.

97

John Quiggin 03.14.16 at 12:38 am

Dipper, why bother with jurisdictional claims to show you don’t matter? They work just as well for Americans (Delaware is much smaller than the UK, and if you’re in a big state like California, you can just go down to the county level), and anyone else.

Why not rely on the simple fact that you, personally, account for around 1 billionth of all emissions. *irony on* So, it’s not your problem, or anyone else’s *irony off*.

98

Plucky Underdog 03.14.16 at 12:38 am

Aaaargh no. Stupid stupid stupid. SIX times, of course. The factor of 100 was JQ’s growth and/or McKay’s rhetoric, which I freely concede. Now, goodnight for real.

99

Ze K 03.14.16 at 6:22 am

@89 “The problem is that, in this as in many cases, the same claim is being made in “unpopular foreign country” with the roles reversed.”

Investors shop around; countries compete for investments (the process also known as a ‘race to the bottom’). Introducing any restrictions or costs will hurt your chances to attract investments and therefore your economy, whether you are the UK or a foreign country. I don’t understand: what is the objection? Is this illogical somehow?

100

Layman 03.14.16 at 1:08 pm

“Introducing any restrictions or costs will hurt your chances to attract investments and therefore your economy, whether you are the UK or a foreign country.”

This is why MicroSoft has decamped for Somalia, Ford has set up shop in the Sudan, and so on. Wait. Maybe there are other factors in play…?

101

Dipper 03.14.16 at 5:33 pm

JQ – because whilst I can make a contribution to combating global warming at a variety of levels – personal, local, regional, etc, its the national level as a citizen of the UK where my contribution is biggest. My issue is with the politicians negotiating this, and agency theory applying – i.e. they have a personal agenda and are happy to leave me and others worse off for no benefit to achieve it.

102

Lowhim 03.14.16 at 9:10 pm

Most comment sections are the id of the people. I find it very informative to read them. It makes things like Trump and Cruz (and Rubio) doing well not so much of a surprise when it comes along. Also helps to look at other groups, even if “theirs” is not a sciencey worldview (that’s a word, right?). Funny thing is that they think of their own view as very science based (some claim to be in the maths or engineering and look at the climate sciences as soft), while the climate change people are those same hippies whining about mother earth.
That being said, this is all a long-winded way of saying that we should always look at what a group of people are saying, even if it’s asinine. Helps sharpen some of the rhetoric needed.

103

TM 03.15.16 at 12:57 pm

I always found the Do-the-math blog http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/ a great source of insight on energy matters.

104

John Quiggin 03.16.16 at 1:05 pm

@103 Thanks, very useful

105

Ogden Wernstrom 03.16.16 at 10:51 pm

Slightly off-topic, but it amuses me when the National Lampoon Review uses the term “crusade” to emphasize their belief that said crusade is built on lies.

I hope I got the link formatted correctly….

Comments on this entry are closed.