I have a piece in The Economist climate blog, making the point that the risk of catastrophic climate change has been ignored by “lukewarmists” like Bjorn Lomborg and Jim Manzi.
Update \ I thought I’d repost this a year on, and reopen the discussion 10 September 2015
Reader ZM points me to a paper with this title, by Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne. Not only does Turner answer “Yes”, he gives a date: 2015. That’s a pretty big call to be making, given that 2015 is less than four months away.
The abstract reads:
The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.
A central part of the argument, citing Simmons is that critics of LtG wrongly interpeted the original model as projecting a collapse beginning in 2000, whereas the correct date is 2015.
I’ve been over this issue in all sorts of ways (see here and here for example, or search on Peak Oil). So readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t buy this story. I won’t bother to argue further: unless the collapse is even more rapid than Turner projects, I’ll be around to eat humble pie in 2016 when the downturn in output (and the corresponding upsurge in oil prices) should be well under way.
Given that I’m a Pollyanna compared to lots of commenters here, I’d be interested to see if anyone is willing to back Turner on this, say by projecting a decline of 5 per cent or more in world industrial output per capita in (or about) 2015, continuing with a sharply declining trend thereafter. [minor clarifications added, 5/9]
It’s often hard to get an idea of the scale at which different technologies are operating. For example, there’s a lot of discussion about Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS or ‘clean coal’), though less than there used to be. To get an idea of current and near-future prospects for CCS in the power sector, I went to the Global CCS Institute list of large-scale projects. The site says
Large-scale CCS projects in the power sector are now a reality, demonstrated by:
* The world’s first large-scale power sector CCS project – the Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Canada (CO2 capture capacity of 1 Mtpa) – becoming operational in October 2014
* Commissioning activities on a new-build 582 megawatt (MW) power plant beginning at the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi (US, CO2 capture capacity of 3 Mtpa) with CO2 capture expected to commence in the first half of 2016
* The Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project at the W.A. Parish power plant near Houston, Texas (US, CO2 capture capacity of 1.4 Mtpa) entering construction in July 2014, with CO2 capture anticipated by the end of 2016.
Tactfully ignoring the fact that the Kemper project has turned out to be a disaster, I thought I would scale this against an option that we can all comprehend, shutting down the brown coal power station at Hazelwood. According to this article, Hazelwood generates 15.7 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, or about three times the total from all CCS Power projects now in operation or under construction.
Looking further down the page, there’s a summary of all the CCS projects currently at any stage of consideration anywhere in the world
Globally, there are 14 large-scale CCS projects in operation, with a further eight under construction. The 22 projects in operation or under construction represents a doubling since the start of this decade. The total CO2 capture capacity of these 22 projects is around 40 million tonnes per annum.
There are another 14 large-scale CCS projects at the most advanced stage of development planning, the Concept Definition (or Define) stage, with a total CO2 capture capacity of around 20 million tonnes per annum. A further 15 large-scale CCS projects are in earlier stages of development planning (the Evaluate and Identify stages) and have a total CO2 capture capacity of around 30 million tonnes per annum.
So, if all of these projects were successfully completed, they would offset the emissions of six Hazelwood-sized plants. It gets worse. Many of these projects serve only to reduce the “fugitive” emissions from oil and gas fields, and most rely for their viability on using the captured CO2 in oil fields, to push more oil to the surface (enhanced oil recovery).
It’s time to bury the myth of CCS once and for all.
were implemented on schedule, the impact over the next fifteen years would be negated if we allowed Hazelwood to continue operating over that period.
The Queensland government is going ahead with (or, more hopefully, going through the motions of) the process for expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement has just been released, and there is a call for comments here
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just reported that the global mean temperature for July 2015 was the highest for any month since record keeping began in 1880. That follows a string of record-breaking months. And with a major El Nino well under way, it seems highly likely that more record high temperatures will follow.
To anyone with a sceptical attitude to factual assertions, this evidence would appear to cast grave doubt on the claim that the world is experiencing a “hiatus” or “pause” in global warming. On the face of it, either the supposed “hiatus” never occurred, or it has now ended.
So, it’s natural to ask whether such sceptical attitudes have been observed among those who describe themselves as “global warming sceptics”. I would be genuinely glad to find examples, since it would imply some possibility of serious discussion, as opposed to a restatement of tribal shibboleths.
Are any sceptical sceptics reading this? Has anyone else noticed any? Or are self-described “sceptics” only sceptical about things they don’t want to believe.
The question of “green jobs” has arisen in a lot of different contexts. At present, the most relevant is the problem of how to deal with the employment effects of the necessary and inevitable decline of industries based on fossil fuels. Part of this question is whether expanding sectors of the economy will create a number of new jobs comparable to those that disappear , and whether those jobs will be appropriate for the kinds of workers who worked, or would have, in the declining sector (that is, predominantly, male manual and trades workers). There are a lot of conceptual problems here, which I’m not going to address in detail. Rather, I’ll just look at some raw numbers and throw in some comments.
I was struck recently to read that, in the United States, the solar power industry now employs 174 000 people. That’s twice as many as coal mining. And, while these aren’t direct substitutes, they are, it would appear, broadly similar kinds of industries in the sense that the core workforce is dominated by male manual and trades workers.
Looking quickly at similar stats for Australia, I found that the numbers were reversed. According to the ABS, there were just under 40 000 Australians employed in the coal mining industry in May 2015, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012, but well above the 20 000 or so employed in the early 2000s.
The Clean Energy Council estimates around 20 000 jobs in the renewables sector in 2014 – that’s up from virtually zero before 2010. So, broadly speaking growth in renewables has offset the decline in coal mining.
One specific issue in the US, that’s less of a problem here, at least in Queensland, is that of declining communities in places like Appalachia. Thanks to the practice of Fly-in Fly-Out, there are many fewer Australian communities focused on coal mining.
Finally, some related statistics I found in the process of researching this. The forestry and logging industries currently employ 3900 people (this number bounces about a lot, so I’m not sure how reliable it is). That’s about the same as the combined total for the NSW and Victorian National Parks systems. I expect if you added in various kinds of manual/trades jobs in adventure tourism and similar, you would find a net gain over the past 25 years or so.
Following my previous post there was some discussion about the need for grid backup of solar PV to deal with extended periods of overcast weather. It’s obvious that storage will help with this to some extent, since batteries can store electricity from the grid as well as from distributed solar. I thought I would try to put some numbers on this (slightly changed from last time to simplify the numbers).
I’ll focus on 1 kW of solar PV generating an average of 4.8 kWh per day, with (as before) 2 kWh of storage. If there is zero solar generation and no demand management, the entire 4.8 kWh per day must be drawn from the grid. In the absence of storage, we might suppose that 1kW of backup capacity is needed to match the peak output of the solar PV system. But with storage, all that is needed is enough to supply 4.8 kWh over the course of a 24-hour day, that is, 0.2 kW.
The optimal backup choice is a fully dispatchable technology such as hydro or gas. Hydro resources are pretty much fixed, so I’ll focus on gas. According to the US Energy Information Agency, the capital cost of gas-fired power plants is around $1000/kw so our grid backup will have a capital of cost only $200 for each kW of distributed solar. There’s also the need to take account of fuel and distribution costs. Fuel costs will be low since the system is only used as backup, while distribution costs will be around 20 per cent of what would be need if peak loads were to be met by centralised generation.
To sum up, if battery storage becomes available at a sufficiently low price, there’s no obvious problem with a system in which over 80 per cent of capacity, and an even larger proportion of generation is distributed solar PV.
As I showed in a recent post, a typical solar cell will generate at least 10 times the electricity used to produce it, and probably substantially more. This Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) calculation didn’t take account of battery storage, which is needed to make solar PV comparable to dispatchable technologies like gas.
For this purpose, I’ll assume that each kilowatt of PV capacity requires 2 kilowatts of battery storage. The reasoning behind this is that we get an average 5kWh/day from the PV system, of which 3kWh is used during the day and 2kWh is stored.
According to this life-cycle assessment, a 26.6 kWh battery has a life-cycle cost of 4.6 tonnes of CO2, which comes out to around 0.4 tonnes for the 2kWh system proposed here. Assuming that the system displaces black coal, which conveniently yields about 1 tonne of CO2 per mWh, we have a cost of 400 kWh, which is only a few months worth of generation from a 1 kW system.
This seems amazingly good, so I may have made an order of magnitude mistake somewhere. If so, I’d be grateful to have it pointed out. If not, I think we can put the EROEI constraint to bed, at least as regards solar PV.
Several pieces of news in quick succession, have made in clear that the nightmare prospect of six mega-coal mines in the Galilee Basin has been staved off, at least for the foreseeable future. The key to the whole process is the Carmichael mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani. The rail line and port expansion proposed by Adani is necessary if any of the other mines are to proceed. Now the goods news
* Having already sacked its contractors, Adani is laying off most of its own staff, their non-denial denial notwithstanding. The break with Korean Steel company POSCO is particularly notable since POSCO was a likely equity investor and could have brought in debt funding from the Korean Export-Import bank
* The Federal Court overturned Minister Hunt’s approval of the project. While the grounds were technical, the decision raises the possibility that the whole process will need to be reassessed in the light of the adverse information that
* The Commonwealth Bank, the last likely source of debt finance for the project has ended its role as advisor
The remaining question is why, with no mine remotely in prospect, the Queensland government is still calling for expressions of interest in dredging for the proposed Abbot Point expansion. Hopefully, they have just been going through the motions. But, with the latest news, it’s time to stop throwing public money at this mirage. The tender process should be halted, at least until, and unless, the project is re-approved.
Among critics of renewable energy, one key idea is that of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI). The central idea can be illustrated by the case of ethanol produced from corn in the US. It’s argued by critics that the production of ethanol from corn uses more fossil fuel inputs than it displaces. The US Department of Agriculture has an EROEI slightly greater than 1, but it’s still clear that corn ethanol is not going to do much to solve the carbon dioxide problem.
Now lets look at the case of solar PV. The energy-intensive component of a solar PV module is the polysilicon used to produce the wafer, which is produced using an electric furnace. Clearly, if more electricity is used in this process than is generated by cell, EROEI < 1, and the idea does not work. We can do a rough check by observing that a typical wafer uses 5 grams/watt of polysilicon. The cost of polysilicon is $20/kg. To be conservative let's assume this is all electricity, at a cost of 5c/Kwh. Then a quick calculation shows that each watt of PV requires 2 KWh of electricity in production or about 1 year's generation in a favorable location. So, for a panel with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI is 10. Clearly not much of a problem. The estimate omits the energy costs of the rest of the module, but that's almost certainly more than offset by the conservative assumptions about polysilicon.
Some EROEI fans don't like this calculation. They want to include all sorts of other costs, going as far as the food energy used by the workers who instal the panel. At this point, the exercise becomes one of trying to price all economic activity in terms of energy, an idea that has been tried without success for decades. For everything except energy-intensive activities like smelting, energy costs are a small part of the total, and imputing such costs to any particular energy source is a fools errand.
Another quick reaction piece, this time on Obama’s climate policy, for The Conversation. My key observation is that, despite its ambitious goals, Obama’s policy is still in the “no regrets” class. That is, the domestic benefits for the US, disregarding climate effects, outweigh the costs. More over the fold
I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:
The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.
There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.
With only a handful of pilot projects in operation around the world, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has not played a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. CCS has, however, been valuable as a fiction for all those who want, for whatever reason, to avoid dealing explicitly with the fact that stabilizing the global climate will require ending the use of fossil fuels, and particularly coal. For example, rather than prohibiting new coal-fired power stations, the US EPA has proposed that only power stations equipped with CCS technology should be permitted. Since new coal stations are mostly uneconomic even without CCS, this amounts to a ban, but can be justified simply as requiring best practice.
It now appears that this fiction has outlived its usefulness. Recent reports suggest that the EPA will drop the CCS requirement in favour of the weaker requirement that all new coal-fired stations should use supercritical combustion. There are two main reasons for this
(a) The requirement might not stand up to legal challenge on the basis that CCS is not a feasible technology
(b) No new coal plants are likely to be built anyway
Meanwhile, the EU is struggling over proposals to stop subsidies for coal-fired power. Again, the compromise was to subsidise only projects with CCS. But the coal lobby is now arguing that
proposed requirements on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise emissions have to be realistic as the technology is still in its infancy.
In this context, “realistic” means supercritical and therefore theoretically ready for CCS, as opposed to actually using the technology.
That’s the title of a paper I wrote a while back about the Renewable Energy Target scheme. I was reminded of it when Labor announced its proposal to raise the RET to 50 per cent by 2030.
First, it’s striking to observe that no one has popped up to claim that the target is unachievable or that an electricity supply system with 50 per cent renewables will be unworkable. The strongest claim I could find in this article describing coal lobby responses is someone from the Minerals Council of Australia saying that the target is “technically questionable” which could mean anything. By contrast, until very recently, sites like Brave New Climate were full of amateur experts claiming to demonstrate the impossibility of such a goal.
Second, it’s clear that the economic impact will be minuscule. Owners of coal-fired power stations (if they are not compensated, as they should not be) will bear most of the costs. Electricity prices may rise a little compared to the current RET, but will probably be no higher than if we had stayed with a coal-based system. Perhaps this will help to convince those who think that decarbonization of the economy as a whole must have a massive cost impact, but, based on past experience, I can’t see this happening.
Third, as argued in the paper mentioned in the title, an expanded RET may not be the best way to achieve climate goals, but, if the carbon price is below the appropriate level ($50/tonne or more), a RET for the electricity sector is an appropriate policy. The main problem is that the RET doesn’t discriminate between different fossil fuels. A RET, combined with incentives to close down brown coal power stations, would have much the same effects as an adequate carbon price, and is politically much easier to do.
If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.
The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Adani Coal. To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. Korean conglomerate POSCO (originally a steelmaker) was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.
Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.
Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.
Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb
* I can’t see this happening
* You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
* He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp
I’ve just signed a statement drawn up by a group of economists from the Toulouse School of Economics and the Université Paris-Dauphine, in advance of the current COP21 international negotiation. The aim of the statement is to encourage the parties to aim for a more comprehensive and economically effective agreement that would ultimately supersede the patchwork of voluntary commitments being put forward at present. While the commitments being made for COP21 represent a huge advance on the vague aspirations that emerged from Copenhagen, we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal of decarbonizing the global economy in a way that minimizes the economic costs by taking advantage of the power of price mechanisms.
From an Australian viewpoint, the most important part of the Call is Part 3: “Free rider” behavior must be hindered. The current government’s attempts to position Australia as a free rider on the efforts of others cannot succeed in the end, and will only do Australia harm.
If you’re a professional economist and agree with Call, you can sign it here. More generally, it’s open for discussion in the comments thread.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administratioh has just released its global climate analysis for May 2015. The results
May 2015 was
* The warmest May on record globally
* The warmest May on record on land
* The warmest May on record on the oceans
* The warmest May on record in the Northern Hemisphere
* The warmest May on record in the Southern Hemisphere
Also, the warmest March-May, Jan-May and (I think) 12-month period in the record.
Comment is superfluous, but don’t let that stop you.
Regular readers will be aware that I have a generally optimistic disposition. You may wish to bear this in mind when you read this Inside Story piece arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.
On the whole, though, I think excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, I think lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.
There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.
Australia is dragging the chain under the Abbott government, but even Abbott seems to be feeling the international pressure judging by recent reports. With luck the last couple of years will turn out to have been a temporary detour in progress towards decarbonization.
I had a couple of pieces published today, one on house prices in the Sydney Morning Herald, and one in The Conversation on the G7 proposal to phase out fossil fuels. Also, I gave an interview for this environment360 piece on Solar PV.
As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up. One of the most important, and surprising, developments has been a string of increasingly sharp attacks on coal, coming from representatives of major oil and gas companies. As this (rather excitable) piece explains, the reason is simple. The policy debate has crystallised around the idea of a carbon budget – the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted while keeping atmospheric concentrations at levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming or less.
Obviously, if such a budget is imposed and adhered to, a lot of fossil fuel resources, currently sitting on corporate account books, will have to be left in the ground. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies have done their best to prevent such an outcome, promoting science denial, and encouraging national governments to shirk their share of the burden with the argument that others should do more. Such a strategy implies a united front among fossil fuel owners, since the longer the imposition of a budget can be delayed, the better off they all are.
The recent break in the fossil fuel coalition therefore marks a new stage. Rather than try to expand the budget for all fossil fuels, the oil and gas companies have decided to get as much as possible for themselves, which means shutting down coal as fast as possible. The facts that have made such a strategic switch sensible are many and varied but the most important are
(a) the increasing recognition of the health effects of burning coal which gives national governments like that of China a strong incentive, independent of climate change, to reduce coal use
(b) the fact that the most immediately promising alternatives to fossil fuels are renewable sources of electricity which compete directly with coal, and are, to a significant extent complementary with gas (as a dispatchable source, gas-fired electricity tends to offset problems associated with the variability/intermittency of renewables.
What’s the appropriate response here? In the end, it will be necessary to phase out fossil fuel use altogether. But the logic of tackling coal first is inescapable. If that logic drives a wedge in the fossil fuel coalition, so much the better for all of us.
Graham Lloyd in the Oz (not going to link) is pretty upset about the latest research showing that there is no significant difference between the rate of global warming over the 15 years since 2000 and that over the 50 years 1950 to 2000. The finding is the result of some corrections to data on sea surface temperatures, with the result that the estimated temperature at the beginning of the period is higher (so warming since 1950 is lower) and the fact that the period since 2014 has been the warmest on record.
Lloyd and others have popularized the term “hiatus” to refer to the slowdown which could at least plausibly be found in the data prior to this update and correction. Climate denialists capitalized on the ambiguity in this term to keep alive their beloved, but long discredited, “no warming since 1998, no significant warming since 1995” talking point.
For those interested, there’s a good analysis at Real Climate.
I’ve decided to make a submission to the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. I can’t actually submit until I find a JP or similar to witness it. This is a minor inconvenience for me, but may be a big problem for plenty of interested groups (for example, indigenous people). On the upside, I have time to ask for comments, and maybe make changes in response. This thread will be open to discussion of any issues related to nuclear power. However, in the event of lengthy two-person debates emerging, I’d ask the parties to move to the sandpits and leave room for everyone else.
Among the international banks that might finance Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine, and the associated rail line and port development, the most significant is probably Standard Chartered of the UK, currently Adani’s largest lender outside India. The media is providing mixed messages here.
Standard Chartered has announced its intention to “review” its involvement, stating, according to the Financial Times that
We will go no further with this until we are fully satisfied with the environmental impact of this project.
The chairman added that
He added that the bank was in “active dialogue” with the Australian government about the issue.
I’d normally read this as a euphemism for “we are going to pull the plug, like everyone else”, except that the Fin reports that the bank is.
running a now fairly discreet process because of the line-in-the-sand assault by the environmental defenders on banks that support coal
We’ll find out soon enough, I guess, given that Adani claims that it will start dredging in September. But given that the previous CEO and Chairman were forced out a few months ago, mainly because of bad loans to mining companies, it’s hard to see what the bank could gain by extending more credit to a venture that’s both financially marginally and politically toxic, or how it can claim to have satisfied itself on the environmental impact of a mine that will contribute as much to global warming as all but a handful of national economies. Surely they don’t believe that they will please anybody by announcing that the Abbott government has assured them that everything is fine.
I have a piece in The Conversation, looking at the continued fall in Chinese demand for coal, and a highly relevant IMF study confirming previous findings that, even disregarding climate change, the health costs of burning coal make it more costly than renewables. So, the idea that the path to development lies through coal is a nonsense. The Chinese government has recognised this and acted, and the same will be true in India before too long.
I’ve reprinted over the fold.
As I anticipated, my post on Tesla’s new battery provoked some pretty hostile responses, most notably from pro-nuclear diehards. I’ve written plenty on this (use the search facility), so rather than repeat myself I’ll make an observation drawing on the previous post.
Ten years ago, solar PV was a faintly hopeful technologica prospect, making a minuscule contribution to electricity generation. Today, it’s a reality that is creating massive disruption for electricity utilities around the world. As I said in the previous post, the availability of even moderately cost-effective storage removes the last big obstacle (more on the economics soon)
By contrast, ten years ago, nuclear energy was a mature technology which seemed to be at the beginning of a renaissance. Today it’s further away, in almost every respect, than it was in 2005. Construction times have blown out, costs have turned out to be twice as high or more than expected, the operating record (thanks to Fukushima) is far worse, and the various new technologies (SMRs, Gen IV) have receded even further.
None of this means that the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables+storage is going to happen under current policy settings. But such a replacement is now clearly feasible, much faster, more reliably and at much lower cost, than attempting to reboot the failed nuclear renaissance.
Backing the nuclear horse was a reasonable choice in 2005. But it’s dead, and flogging it won’t revive it.
No one seems to have spelt this point out, but there’s an obvious potential for Powerwall to be used in ways that benefit coal, nuclear and geothermal power, as well as renewables like wind and solar. Advocates of these technologies love to cite the fact that they are “baseload” supplies, but this is a misconception. Because they are costly to turn on and off (or even up and down), these technologies produce too much power at times of little demand (late night and early morning).
If owners of home solar systems, connected to grids with an off-peak excess supply, install battery storage on a large scale, it would make sense to run two cycles per day. The systems (most sensibly oriented west) would charge up from solar panels in the early afternoon, and supply power in the evening. Then they would recharge from the grid in the early morning, and supply power to meet the morning peak associated with getting ready for work, school etc.
What’s the net effect of this. First, obviously, it makes storage a more appealing economic choice for householders. Second, although it reduces costs for any kind of electricity that is not fully dispatchable, the benefits are bigger for renewables for two reasons. First, the variability of these sources is greater. Second, pricing systems, at least those in Australia, are already set up to encourage use of off-peak grid power, whereas current feed-in tariffs discourage solar PV.
From our current starting point, effect of adding more systems with a combination of solar PV and storage will be to reduce total demand for coal-fired power (and, where it exists, nuclear power), and to enable more efficient use of existing capital stock. So, it’s likely to discourage new investment in these sources. However, unless we have a carbon price, or other measures in place, it won’t necessarily accelerate the closure of existing coal-fired plants.
Update A note on the economics: Calculations I’ve seen on the web assumed that lithium batteries have a life of 1000 recharge-discharge cycles, but it appears this number can be improved drastically. These guys are claiming 20 000. More on this soon, I hope.
The announcement by Tesla of a new home battery storage system, called Powerwall, costing $3500 for 10KwH of storage, has been greeted with enthusiasm, but also a good deal of scepticism regarding its commercial viability, which depends in any given market on such things as the gap between retail electricity prices feed-in tariffs for solar PV.
This is missing the forest for the trees, however. Assuming the Tesla system comes anywhere near meeting its announced specifications, and noting that electric cars are also on the market from Tesla and others, we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income (and hence a small fraction of national income for any country) .
That’s something hardly anyone expected (certainly not me) a decade ago. And, given how strongly people are attached to their opinions, and especially their public commitments, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this conclusion. Based on the evidence available a decade ago, people drew some of the following conclusions:
(a) decarbonizing the energy sector will require radical economic changes which will entail the end of industrial society/capitalism as we know it
(b) conclusion (a) is true and therefore climate change must be an enviro-socialist hoax
(c) any solution must involve a return to nuclear power on a massive scale
(d) any solution must involve the development and deployment of a “clean coal” technology
(e) a market-based solution will require a very high carbon price, say $100/tonne
I was in group (e), and was still talking about prices up to $100/tonne as recently as 2012. But it’s easy to revise a price number downwards in the light of technological change, much harder to revise strongly held and publicly stated conclusions like (a)-(d).
So, I’m not going to bother trying to demonstrate the assertion that a technological fix is now possible – from past experience, demonstrations of such points are futile. Rather, I’m going to spend some time thinking about the implications for the next round of global climate policy, and what constructive contributions I can make to getting Australia back on tract.
I expanded my earlier analysis of the Galilee Basin mines in this piece for The Guardian. The really striking number is 483, the number of long-term new jobs the Carmichael mine is estimated to generate in the local (Mackay Isaac Whitsunday) region. That estimate comes from a computable general equilibrium (CGE) modelling exercise by Adani’s own consultants, ACIL Allen. Before the Queensland election, of course, much bigger numbers of 10-20 000 were bandied about. That’s partly a difference of coverage – the bigger numbers envisage, implausibly, that all the proposed mines in the Basin will go ahead, along with rail lines and port expansions.
Also, some of them focus on peak numbers during construction for each project, so that the jobs in question would only last a year or so. But the big difference is that the larger estimates were made using the discredited input-output method, in which each job created directly generates many more indirect jobs. This is an extreme version of the Keynesian multiplier effect, valid during a deep recession. But, as ACIL Allen observes, it makes sense only if you assume that the recession is going to last for the life of the project.
I don’t usually respond to posts on Catallaxy, but I will try on this occasion to fix up what I hope is simply a misinterpretation. Responding to the recent proposal by the Climate Change Authority (of which I am a member) for an emissions reduction target of 30 per cent, relative to 2000 levels, to be achieved by 2025, Sinclair Davidson picks out the following sentence
As noted earlier, the Authority is not in a position to prepare meaningful estimates of the costs of meeting its recommended target, primarily because many of these costs will depend on the policies adopted.
Wow. Really wow. Let’s adopt a policy even though we have absolutely no idea how much it will cost.
This is a serious misreading. As the report says, there a variety of ways in which this target might be reached. There are the methods favored by economists, involving a major role for carbon prices. Costs of achieving emissions reductions using these methods have been estimated on many occasions. The invariable finding is that carbon prices can achieve large-scale reduction si emissions very cheaply.- typical estimates are for a reduction in the rate of economic growth of around 0.1 percentage points. Or, there are much more expensive methods, such as a massive expansion of the current government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (on which more later, I hope).
Since we don’t know what policy this, or a future government, might adopt, we can’t estimate the cost. So, to rephrase Davidson “Let’s propose a target even though we don’t know how the government, should they adopt it, will choose to achieve it”. That is, of course, exactly what the government asked the CCA to do in this report.