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Another one (or more) bites the dust …

April 20th, 2014 174 comments

Coming back yet again to nuclear power, I’ve been arguing for a while that nuclear power can only work (if at all) on the basis of a single standardised design, and that the only plausible candidate for this is the Westinghouse AP1000. One response from nuclear enthusiasts has been to point to possible future advances beyond the Gen III+ approach embodied by the AP1000 (and less promising competitors like EPR). The two most popular have been Small Modular Reactors and Generation IV (fast) reactors. Recent news suggests that both of these options are now dead.

The news on the Small Modular Reactor is that Babcock and Wilcox, the first firm to be selected by the US Department of Energy to develop a prototype, has effectively mothballed the project, sacking the CEO of its SMR subsidiary and drastically scaling back staff. Westinghouse already abandoned its efforts. There is still one firm left pursuing the idea, and trying (so far unsuccessfully) to attract investors, but there’s no reason to expect success any time soon.

As regards Generation IV, the technology road map issued by the Gen IV International Forum in 2002 has just been updated. All the timelines have been pushed out, mostly by 10 years or more. That is, Gen IV is no closer now than it was when the GenIV initiative started. In particular, there’s no chance of work starting on even a prototype before about 2020, which puts commercial availability well past 2035. Allowing for construction time, there’s no prospect of electricity generation on a significant scale before 2050, by which time we will need to have completely decarbonized the economy.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Derp, a 20 year history

April 10th, 2014 221 comments

Noah Smith’s classic definition of “derp” as “the constant repetition of strong priors” was developed with particular reference to solar energy, to refer to people who’ve taken the view, at some point in the past, that solar energy can’t work, and who are neither willing to change their minds, whatever the evidence, nor to state their views once and for all and remain silent thereafter.

The classic illustration of this would have to be Ted Trainer of the University of New South Wales. For the past 20 years, he’s been writing and rewriting the same paper, showing that renewables can’t possibly sustain a consumer society. Here’s a version from 1995, and from 2003, and here’s the latest.

What’s striking is that, while the numbers change dramatically, the conclusions don’t. The 1995 report says, in essence, that solar PV is totally unaffordable for all practical purposes. [1] So, our only hope is to embrace a massively simpler lifestyle,

The most recent version, written at a time when cheap solar power is a reality, has much less scary numbers. He estimates that the capital investment required for decarbonization of the economy would amount to 11 per cent of GDP. That’s still an over-estimate but it’s in the right ballpark. Trainer rightly observes that this number far exceeds current investment levels and is unlikely to be attained. But, unlikely as it may be, it would certainly be chosen if people accepted Turner’s conclusion that the only alternative was to live in huts with peat roofs.

And, over time, the insistence on negativity about renewables has led Trainer to promote views that are the opposite of his original concerns about simplicity For quite a few years, his work was published primarily at pro-nuclear site, Brave New Climate[2].

If Ted Trainer actually wants to help save the planet it’s time for him to abandon the campaign against renewables and urge society to accept the relative modest reduction in the rate of growth of income needed to decarbonize energy supply. Once the prospect of massive extinction has been staved off, we will have plenty of tiem to think about a simpler lifestyle.

fn1. As an illustration, the cost of a system to charge an electric car is estimated at $350 000, an estimate that is supposed to take account of optimistic projections of efficiency gains. These systems haven’t quite arrived yet (as usual, there are a bunch of technical difficulties to be overcome) but it appears they will soon be on the market for less than $10000. These systems have an obvious potential to resolve the problem of mismatch between peak PV availability at midday and peak demand in the evening, and may therefore reduce the conflict associated with the idea of a “utility death spiral”/

fn2. BNC ran into the same problem. In his eagerness to push the idea that nuclear power is the only way to save the planet from global warming, Barry Brook ran slabs of anti-renewable nonsense from climate delusionists such as Peter Lang.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Why nuclear power worked once in France and might work again in China

April 4th, 2014 181 comments

That’s the question I looked at a while back in this piece in the National Interest, which I was too busy to post about at the time. TNI’s headline, which I didn’t pick, is the more definitive ‘China Can Make Nuclear Power Work‘. The key point is that, when France embarked on a crash program to implement nuclear energy in the early 1970s, all the right ingredients were in place: a centralised state in which a skilled technocratic elite could push projects through without much regard to public opinion, the ability to fix on a single standardised design, low real interest rates and preferential access to capital, and the ability to fix pricing structures that eliminated much of the risk in the enterprise.

Over time, these factors were eroded, with the result that as the program progressed, the cost per megawatt of French nuclear plants tripled in real terms. As the Flamanville fiasco has shown, whatever the secret of French success 40 years ago, it has been well and truly lost now. And the picture is equally bleak for nuclear power in other developed countries. New nuclear power is far more expensive than renewables, even after making every possible allowance for the costs of intermittency, the various subsidies available, and so on. That’s why, despite the vast range of different policy settings and market structures in developed countries, the construction of new nuclear plants has been abandoned almost everywhere.

But China today looks, in many respects, like France in the 1970s, a technocratic state-capitalist society with the capacity to decide on, and implement, large scale projects with little regard to anyone who might object. If nuclear power can be made to work anywhere, it’s probably in China.

Obviously, pro-nuclear commenters like Hermit and Will Boisvert are welcome to have their say on this one.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

West facing solar panels

March 29th, 2014 37 comments

There was a bit of a fuss on the US web late last year about whether solar panels should face south (that is, towards the path of the sun) or west (towards the setting sun). One point that emerged is that, while the electricity generated by west facing panels during the afternoon peak is more valuable, that isn’t reflected in the prices paid by consumers.

But thinking about the situation for new installations in Queensland, and particularly North Queensland, the case for facing west looks strong. The first thing to observe is that, in the tropics, the sun is in the south in summer and the north in winter, so there’s not a lot of benefit in choosing one or the other.

Second, Ergon now has a “time of use” tariff, to be used in conjunction with a “PeakSmart” airconditioner, which has a peak rate of 34c/kwh between 4 and 8 pm on weekdays. That’s almost as good as the 44c feed-in tariff that used to be on offer, and massively better than the 8c rate available to new installations. Even the shoulder rate of 24c is way above the feed-in tariff So, if you are installing panels, you really want to maximize your own consumption and minimise the amount fed back to the grid.

My first cut at a calculation suggests that, with this tariff, solar PV looks pretty good. Assume a cost of $2/watt installed, which is common for large systems, and suppose that, with the western orientation you get 1000 hours a year, equally divided between shoulder and peak. That is, each installed watt of capacity saves you 1 kwH/year, at around 30 c/kwh, for a 15 per cent rate of return. Even if you add back the 70c/watt or so saved by virtue of renewable energy credits, the return is still above 10 per cent.

Feel free to point out arithmetic or parameter errors here.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Reef saved?

March 9th, 2014 29 comments

Following a similar announcement last week by Lend Lease, and earlier announcements by BHP Billiton annd Rio Tinto, mining company Anglo American has withdrawn its proposal to take part in the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal. That leaves only two proposals, both from Indian companies owned by billionaire entrepreneurs reminiscent of Bond, Skase and other Australian heroes of the 1980s. Both Adani and GVK are heavily indebted conglomerates of the type that invariably emerge when money is cheap, and mostly collapse when the tap is turned off.

It’s not surprising that these companies have not yet abandoned their bids. Doing so would involve booking huge losses on their mining prospects in the Galilee Basin. But, it’s hard to believe anyone is going to lend them the billions required, not just for the port expansion, but for a 500km rail line and the mine itself. The price of coal is well below the level required to cover the costs of extraction and transport, let alone to provide a return on capital. And if Adani and GKV don’t build the rail lines, the development of the entire Basin will grind to a halt.

The end of the Abbot Point expansion and the proposals to mine the Galilee Basin would be a huge win for the Barrier Reef and the entire planet. The port expansion will involve the dredging of millions of tonnes of waste, to be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But far more dangerous is the Galilee Basin itself, containing at least 25 billion tonnes of coal. That would produce around 50 times as much CO2 as Australia currently generates every year.

And, unsurprisingly, both Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer hold big stakes (though Rinehart wisely offloaded much of hers). So, as well as saving the Reef and the planet from some imminent threats, the abandonment of the Abbot port expansion and rail line will clip the wings of some very unappealing billionaires. Here’s hoping.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Toxic projects

March 1st, 2014 10 comments

The announcement that Lend Lease is pulling out of a joint venture bid with Aurizon (the former Queensland Rail freight arm) to participate in the expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal comes shortly after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved a proposal to dump dredge spoil from the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion in the marine park area. (The government’s go-to guy for “independent” ethical clearances, Robert Cornall[1], assures us that there were no conflicts of interest arising from the presence of coal companies executives and employees on the Board. Then he had to rush off to whitewash investigate the conduct of the government and its agents on Manus Island).

On normal commercial calculations, this decision ought to have made the project more appealing. But the Lend Lease statement withdrawing from the project included the slightly gnomic observation that “Lend Lease remained committed to applying “rigorous due diligence” and considering the environmental impacts of all it projects,” it’s reasonable to infer that the decision made the project more toxic rather than less. The obvious reasons
* Coal projects are attracting more and more opposition, but it’s always possible for the proponents of one project to say that if theirs didn’t go ahead, another, possibly worse one, would. By contrast, when a government that’s busy revoking World Heritage Status announces that the project will involve dumping waste in a sensitive marine park, any company that cares about its public image is going to run a mile
* Given the obvious PR costs, the fact that the proponents went for this, rather than looking for a more expensive but less politically toxic approach to waste disposal suggests that the project is economically marginal, an inference supported by the earlier abandoment of a more ambitious version involving Rio Tinto and BHP.

An obvious follow-on project is: who is financing these projects. It looks as if all the major Australian banks are involved to some extent. Westpac is already running into trouble in New Zealand for financing coal mines in sensitive areas. As major international banks, particularly development banks, start dumping toxic projects like this, the Oz banks are likely to find themselves with a lot of undiversifiable risk.

fn1. Breaking usual protocols, I’ve linked to the Oz. When the Murdoch press calls someons a “Howard defender” and strongly implies that he’s stooge, I think it’s safe to say that the appearance of independence is compromised.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Some thoughts on energy storage

February 3rd, 2014 107 comments

A lot of the discussion of my last post on energy issues was devoted to discussion of energy storage. Rather than get involved in that, I thought I’d collect my own thoughts on this. Broadly speaking, Here are some observations, labelled for convenience and partly derived from this study by the US Department of Energy

(a) Any reversible energetic process represents a potential storage technology. Reversibility entails that some energy is stored (as potential or chemical energy) when the process goes one way, and released when it goes the other. Of course, the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that we will always add entropy (that is, lose useful energy) in this process
(b) Any technical or social change that shifts the time at which energy is finally used replicates the effects of storage
(c)Energy storage is in much the same position as renewable electricity generation was, say, 15 years ago.
(d) There are a lot of potential approaches, most of which have been developed in niches where particular characteristics are required. For example, car batteries need to store a lot of energy for given weight, household batteries need to store energy for a long time and so on. The needs of a renewable-dominated electricity system are very different and will require substantial modifications of these technologies
(e) With one big exception, there is currently no price incentive, in most jurisdictions to use storage technologies and therefore none are used
(f) The big exception is off-peak hot water. Coal and nuclear systems generate baseload supply when it is not needed for consumption. Price incentives are used to encourage people to store the resulting excess energy in the form of hot water
(g) There’s no technological obstacle, given the availability of smart meters, to changing the timing of hot water systems to reflect actual availability of excess electricity rather than reflecting the assumptions of a coal-based system
(h) All of this applies to electric cars. Even ignoring the possibility of feeding power back into the grid, the economics of electric cars would be drastically improved if they could be charged using low-cost power in times of excess supply (in the case of solar PV, around midday when lots of cars are sitting in parking lots)
(i) Something I just found out from the DoE study: Electric car batteries are considered unfit for services when they fall to 80 per cent of their original charge capacity (recall that energy density is critical for car batteries). But they still have a long potential life as static storage devices. This enhances both the economics of electric cars (since the battery has resale value) and of storage (since the opportunity cost is zero)

Here’s an older post, with a really simple example of how the argument works, once you get away from the fixation on replicating the characteristics of a coal-fired system.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

The anti-science right on wind farms

January 27th, 2014 130 comments

So, Tony Abbott is going to hold another inquiry into utterly spurious claims about adverse health effects from wind farms. Credulous belief in these effects, or silent acquiescence in claims about them, is now compulsory on the political right, particularly among those who, absurdly, describe themselves as “sceptics” on climate science and, more generally, on scientific evidence about actual health risks from genuine environmental hazards. The extreme example, chosen by the Oz to lay down the party line, is James Delingpole whose denial extends beyond climate change to include rejection of the health effects of passive smoking (based on the bogus and discredited research of tobacco-funded “researchers” Enstrom and Kabat). Despite claiming that there is no risk in inhaling a toxic mixture of dozens of carcinogens, Delingpole has no difficulty in believing that noise levels quieter than those of a public library will cause all manner of health risks, including “night sweats, headaches, palpitations, heart trouble”. [fn1]

It’s easy to multiply examples of this kind (Miranda Devine, Jennifer Marohasy, Christopher Booker). What’s more striking is the silence of those who know this stuff is nonsense, but don’t want to offend their allies and supporters

Andrew Bolt is particularly interesting here. He obviously knows that the claims about health risks are nonsensical, and is careful (AFAICT) to avoid mentioning them, while writing in a way that hints at support. So, we get a favorable link to the Delingpole piece, but the pull quote refers to economics not to health issues. Of course, if the politics were such as to demand support for wind, Bolt would make mincemeat of the nonsense Delingpole is putting forward.

A couple of takeaways from this

1. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single climate denialist anywhere in the world who has the minimal consistency and honesty needed to reject nonsense arguments from their own side, even when they take a form (NIMBY claims about unproven health risks) that they routinely denounce when put forward by misguided environmentalists. That can be extended to the entire political right in Australia – I’m not aware of a single person on the right who has called Abbott out on this nonsense. Active liars like Delingpole, and enablers like Bolt are representative of the entire right, even those who would like to appear rational and reasonable.

2. It’s crucial for the left to reject this kind of argument whenever it appears, even when the proponent takes the correct stance on other issues.

[1] This article earned a rebuke from the Press Council, but that merely perpetuates the notion that Delingpole is a journalist and that the Oz is a newspaper. These 20th century categories have ceased to be applicable – the Oz is better understood as a lunar right blog that, for historical reasons, is printed out on broadsheet paper every day.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Greenpeace splits on GM sabotage

January 23rd, 2014 75 comments

Andrew Revkin of the NY Times has an interesting interview [Youtube with no transcript :-( ] with Phil Radford, departing chief executive of the US branch of Greenpeace. The main focus is on the energy issues that have been debated at length in this blog, and on these issues I broadly agree with Radford’s take. Two points of interest

* While correctly arguing that new nuclear power is uneconomic, he concedes that a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy may involve some nuclear plants continuing to operate over future decades

* He gives an unequivocal condemnation of the Greenpeace Australia sabotage attack on CSIRO GM foods, which I discuss here.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

A few more observations on nuclear power

January 18th, 2014 300 comments

I thought I should respond to the latest suggestions from Department of Industry and others that nuclear power is an option worth considering for Australia. While I’m at it, I’ll add some updates on global developments.

* The most striking feature of recent Australian discussion, beginning with the Australian Energy Technology Assessment from 2011 is the claim that “small modular reactors” represent an appealing option for Australia. AETA listed these as being one of the cheapest options for 2020. with an estimated levelised cost of between $75 and $125/MWh. That’s both ambitious and remarkably precise for a technology that does not yet exist, even in prototype form. Leaving aside niche technologies like the Russian proposal to adapt nuclear sub reactors as floating platforms, the only serious contender in this field is the US, where the Department of Energy has provided grants for the development of two pilot plants. The target date (almost certainly over-optimistic) for these to begin operation is 2022. To get any idea of economic feasibility, it would be necessary both to undertake commercial deployment (in the US, obviously) and to to accumulate some years of operating experience. To get this done by 2030, or even 2035 would be an ambitious goal, to put it mildly. Again assuming everything goes well, Australia might be in a position to undertake deployment of SMRs by, say, 2040. But obviously, if we are going to reduce emissions on anything like the scale we need (80 per cent by 2050), we need to phase out most fossil fuel electricity well before that. Obviously, all these points apply in spades to proposals that exist only as designs, with no active proposals even for prototype development, such as the Integral Fusion Reactor. As I’ve argued before, to the extent that nuclear power makes any contribution to reducing CO2 emissions on a relevant time scale, it will have to be with current technology, most likely the AP1000.

* Talking of the AP1000, the builders four plants under construction at two sites in the US have just announced another 6 months delay, pushing the operations date out to 2017 or 2018 (release from FoE, but links to originals)

* Most interesting of all are projections released by the International Atomic Energy Agency last year for the period to 2050. Currently nuclear power accounts for around 11 per cent of global electricity. The IAEA “low’ projection has that falling to 10 per cent by 2030 and 5 per cent by 2050. The “high” projection, which includes steady growth in both North America and Western Europe as well as spectacular growth in Asia, has the share remaining roughly stable. So, even on the most optimistic projections of the world’s leading nuclear agency, nuclear power won’t play any significant role in decarbonising the electricity sector, let alone the economy as a whole.

I’ve come to the conclusion that nuclear power advocates, like climate delusionists (virtually all climate delusionists are nuclear fans, though not vice versa) are essentially immune to empirical evidence. So, I’d prefer no comments from our usual advocates (hermit, Will B etc) unless they have something genuinely new to say.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Time for Turnbull …

January 1st, 2014 56 comments

… to speak up in defence of climate science, or give up any pretense of being better than the rest.

If there is one prominent figure on the right of Australian politics[1] who could plausibly claim to be both sane (on issues such as climate change) and honest, it’s Turnbull. He has stood up in the past, notably against Abbott, but has said nothing (AFAICT). Until relatively recently, he could reasonably claim that the government’s policy was based on acceptance of mainstream climate science, and that, even if he disagreed with Direct Action, he was bound by the principle of cabinet solidarity. But a string of events, culminating in Maurice Newman’s latest idiocy have made this position untenable. If Turnbull remains silent, he is tacitly accepting denialism as the view of the government of which he is part.

It’s possible that speaking up could cost him his ministerial view. But, as Tony Abbott observed recently, that might be a liberating experience. And, unlike the GMH workers to whom Abbott was referring, it’s not as if Malcolm needs the money.

fn1. Two former leaders of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, have taken a strong stand on climate change. But Fraser has quit the party, and Hewson was threatened with expulsion over this and similar remarks.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Abbott vs Science: The case of the Murray Darling Basin

December 19th, 2013 36 comments

I’m travelling at the moment, so updates are a bit erratic. A few days ago, I had a piece in The Guardian looking at the way the Abbott government is rejecting scientific advice on just about everything, notably including the Murray Darling Basin, on which I worked for a good many years. Comment here or there.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Peak aluminium?

November 30th, 2013 76 comments

The announcement that Rio Tinto is to close its alumina refinery at Gove struck me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that members of my family are affected by it. First up it’s worth noticing what’s mentioned (the high dollar and low aluminium price, which flows through to bauxite and alumina) and what isn’t (the carbon tax and legislation for its removal). Having claimed that he was going to save industries like alumina and aluminium smelting from the carbon tax “wrecking ball”, Abbott is now shown up, once again, as a fraud[1].

In the short run, the obvious policy implication is that the RBA needs to be firmer in pushing the dollar down. It was, I think, a mistake to hose down talk of direct intervention, as was done recently. Given our declining terms of trade, we should be closer to $US0.80 than $US0.90 now, and heading down further.

The bigger question of interest, though, is the future of aluminium. The big story of the past 10-20 years has been the massive growth of production in China, driven by cheap coal-fired power and lots of subsidies. That’s driven prices down to historically low levels (inflation-adjusted, probably record lows). Production in Australia is now clearly uneconomic, but even the Chinese are losing billions.

Declining prices have driven steady growth in demand for aluminium. Since the supply of recycled aluminium is dependent on past production, there has been a multiplied effect on demand for primary aluminium, which is the big driver of greenhouse gas production in this industry.

The general assumption (as with most trends) has been that these trends will continue indefinitely. But it’s clear that prices have to rise just to cover costs, and will rise further as China starts to price the local and carbon costs of coal-fired electricity. Moreover, in technological terms, aluminium is definitely a 20th century commodity. Its inherent properties of lightness and strength gave it great advantages, but it is now being displaced in advanced uses by carbon fibre and in some basic uses by lightweight steels.

So, it seems to me quite plausible that aluminium demand could stabilise over the next decade or two, with the result that most demand can be met by recycling rather than energy-intensive production of primary aluminium from bauxite (via alumina).

Note: I topic-banned regular commenter Hermit from talking about aluminium smelters, as it become an idee fixe. The ban is lifted for this post.

fn1. Has any new PM ever been shown up so comprehensively in such a short time? Not in my memory, which goes back to Harold Holt, and includes some shockers.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do?

November 13th, 2013 111 comments

This quote is attributed, perhaps spuriously to Keynes. A sharper version of the same point is made here by Noah Smith, exploring the concept “Derp”, “”the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”, where “strong priors” in the technical Bayesian sense, mean that ” … you really, really believe something to be true. If your start off with a very strong prior, even solid evidence to the contrary won’t change your mind. ”

A notable example of this, very relevant on this blog, and cited by Smith, is the cost of solar energy. Roughly speaking, the cost of solar modules has fallen by a factor of 10 over the past few years, and the cost of installed systems by a factor of three. If that hasn’t changed your mind about the relative merits of alternative policy option, then you must have really strong priors, and in that case, you shouldn’t be engaging in debate, since your mind can’t be changed by evidence. As Smith observes, “That is unhelpful and uninformative, since they’re just restating their priors over and over. Thus, it is annoying. Guys, we know what you think already.”

But, it’s easy to throw stones, so I thought I would check my own archives to see if I was guilty of Derping on this point. Here is what I thought in 2004

Nuclear (fission) power is probably the cheapest large-scale alternative electricity source (there are some sites where wind is cost-competitive, and similarly for geothermal) but it is still a good deal more expensive than coal or gas. How much more expensive is hard to tell because the industry is riddled with subsidies, but I’d guess that the full economic cost is about twice as high for nuclear electricity as for coal or gas. Moreover, most recent construction has been in places like China and Korea where safety standards may not be as high as they would have to be to get nuclear energy restarted in the developed world as a whole.

What this means is that nuclear power won’t enter into calculations until we have a carbon tax (or equivalent) steep enough to double the price of electricity. It’s clear though, that much smaller increases in costs would make a wide range of energy conservation measures economically viable, as well as reducing final demand for energy services. Implementing Kyoto, for example, would not require anything like a doubling of prices. Whether or not a more radical response is justified, it’s clearly not going to happen for at least a decade and probably longer.

Nevertheless, if mainstream projections of climate change turn out to be correct, and especially if, as Lovelock suggests, they turn out to be conservative, we’ll eventually face the need for new sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaics are improving fast but still a long way from being cost-competitive. So it may well be that, at least for an interim period, expansion of nuclear fission is the best way to go.

I didn’t mention carbon, capture and storage, but I also supported that as a good option for Australia, assuming it could me made to work.

The facts have changed, and I have changed my mind. I now think the role of renewables, and particularly solar is going to be much larger than seemed likely ten years ago, nuclear much less, and CCS marginal.

Update Obviously, this post was intended to provoke a reaction from the critics of renewable energy (normally, also advocates of nuclear) who regularly comment here, challenging them to say how they had adjusted their views in the light of the evidence of the last decade. Most commenters responded thoughtfully. But our single-topic nuclear fans, Hermit and Will Boisvert, responded by herping even more flerps of derp. Despite being reminded of the topic, they just kept on pumping out the same constant, repetitive reiteration of their priors that defines derp. This does, at least provide me with some guidance. From now on, comments from single-issue pro-nuclear commenters (specifically, the two mentioned) will be deleted unless they contain a point that has not been made previously or (highly improbably) a change of view.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Pandora Post-mortem

November 10th, 2013 107 comments

I have a piece in the Guardian responding to the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise. The core of my argument is that, in most countries, political resistance to nuclear power is no longer the primary problem – the big difficulty is with the economics. The key paras

he fact that the world has not turned to nuclear power as a solution to climate change is a matter of economics. In the absence of a substantial carbon price, nuclear energy can’t compete with coal and other fossil fuels. In the presence of a carbon price, it can’t compete with wind and solar photovoltaics. The only real hope is that, if coal-fired generation is reduced drastically enough, always-on nuclear power will be a more attractive alternative than variable sources like solar and wind power. However, much of the current demand for “baseload” power is an artifact of pricing systems designed for coal, and may disappear as prices become more cost-reflective.

To put the point more sharply, if we are convinced by the arguments of Pandora’s Promise, what would the makers of the film have us do? Stop protesting against nuclear power? Most of us did so decades ago. Abandon restrictions on uranium mining and export? The Australian government has done so already, with barely a peep of protest. The only remaining restrictions on exports to India relate to concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation, not nuclear energy, and seem likely to be dropped in any case. Give nuclear power a level playing field to compete against renewables? In the US at least, nuclear power is already treated more favourably than alternatives, leaving aside the massive subsidies already handed out in the 20th century. The same is true in many other countries that have sought, with limited success, to promote a nuclear renaissance.

Two of the leading environmentalists quoted as supporting nuclear power are Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. They have some interesting reactions to the recent announcement that EDF will build a nuclear reactor, Hinkley C, under a deal with the UK government. Monbiot sees it as a disaster, going for massively expensive Generation III technology when the alternative was to build an Integral Fast Reactor, a design with lots of theoretical advantages but one that has never been built (other breeder reactors have been expensive failures). Lynas, writing before the announcement has a more sanguine view of the cost. Lynas compares the “strike prices” offered by the UK government for various renewables, ranging from 100stg/MWh for onshore wind, to 305stg/MWh for experimental technologies like wave and tidal energy. Offshore wind (the only source without severe supply constraints in the UK context) comes in at 150 and large-scale solar at 125. These are guaranteed for 15 years from 2014. Hinkley has as strike price of 92.50, for 35 years from the estimated start date of 2023.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The end of the coal boom

November 4th, 2013 188 comments

A bit over a year ago, I put up a post with the same title as this one, except that it ended with a question mark. At that point, most of the authorities I cited took the view that the decline in the world price of steaming coal was just a blip. In fact, prices have kept on falling and are now, in real terms, not much higher than they were in 2004. More importantly, there is now no expectation of a recovery any time soon. The clearest evidence of that is the abandonment or deferral of a string of proposals to create or expand coal export terminals, most recently by BHP at Abbot Point. Investors are desperately trying to get out of the most recently completed project, at Wiggins Island.

A few observations on this

* It’s common for participants in the Australian debate to claim that the rest of the world is going ahead with coal-fired power stations and fossil fuel projects at an unprecedented rate. That was the view that motivated these port expansion projects, and it’s been falsified as clearly as it can be by their abandonment.

* Much of the discussion about climate mitigation is based on the assumption that Australia can decide how much or how little of the burden we should bear. Leaving aside the risks of a free rider strategy, our status as a coal-exporter means that the biggest impacts will arise from decisions made overseas

* Finally, for some light relief here’s former Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser (paywalled) citing the now-abandoned Abbott Point project as evidence of the benefits of the Bligh government’s asset sales program, of which he was the biggest booster. It will be interesting to see if he now changes tack and claims that the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could (a more plausible line, but both dubious and contradictory of his previous position).

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Hand it back

October 29th, 2013 103 comments

The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed 35 economists and found 30 of them favored carbon price (tax, ETS or some mixture) over Direct Action. It quotes Chris Caton as saying “Any economist who didn’t opt for emissions trading “should hand his degree back”, says Chris Caton.

I’d take that a step further.

Anyone with a natural science degree in any field will find plenty of examples of denialist lies on everything from basic physics to bushfires. More generally, denialists have attacked the entire scientific enterprise with absurd conspiracy theories. No-one who endorses these attacks, explicitly or tacitly, deserves to call themselves a scientist.

Similarly, anyone with a degree that includes even minimal exposure to statistics should understand that denialists were misusing the concept of statistical significance when they claimed, a few years back there had been no significant warming since 1995. Subsequent hacks have had to move the goalposts forward to 1997. And that’s just one example of the cherrypicking dishonesty rife on the denialist side of the debate. So, anyone who claims to be a sceptic and hasn’t distanced themselves from claims like these should send back their math/stat degree.

Then there are those with university degrees, but without the training in science, maths or economics to assess the key issues independently. Anyone with a university education ought to be able to recognise the limits of their own expertise, and to be able to distinguish between bogus sources of information and the products of genuine peer-reviewed research. If they prefer the kind of nonsense circulated on denialist websites to the conclusions of scientific research, they should hand in their degrees and instead obtain one of the many qualifications available, for a modest fee and no work, on internet sites like those listed here.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Abbott’s Sister Souljah non-moment

October 25th, 2013 40 comments

As I said in my last post, Tony Abbott has set himself the tightrope-walking task of maintaining his government’s official endorsement of mainstream climate change, while keeping his denialist base happy. Having made a mess of this with his bushfire comments, he had a chance to rectify the situation when he gave an interview to denialist and conspiracy theorist Andrew Bolt. Newscorp ran in under the headline “Andrew Bolt tackles the PM on the big issues”, but Bolt was playing touch, not tackle.

The interview was a sycophantic exercise in mutual admiration, with all the tough questions you might expect from, say, Anne Summers interviewing Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd interviewing himself. But such interviews present smart politicians with the chance to play against type, by disagreeing with the interviewer on an issue dear to the base, but politically problematic for a would-be statesman. Presented with a soft lob question about the bushfires, Abbott could have taken the chance to define his own position as the “sensible centre”, by repudiating both Bolt’s denialism and the “alarmism” of those stressing the link between bushfires and climate. Bill Clinton famously did this when he denounced radical rap artist Sister Souljah, signalling the shift to the right undertaken by the Democratic Leadership Council of which he was part.

Instead, Abbott chose to dig himself deeper, extending his denialism on bushfires and further claiming that the observation of record high temperatures is not evidence of climate change. I mentioned in my last post that he would have a problem in formulating a response to the likelihood that 2013 will turn out to be the warmest year in the Australian observational record. He’s chosen his answer now, one that is unlikely to carry much credibility except with those already committed to denialism.

His summary of climate science, previously reported as “crap” has been replaced by “hogwash”, perhaps in deference to the sensitivities of Greg Hunt, who took strong exception to being confronted with the previous term by a BBC interviewer. I won’t link to Bolt, but the relevant passages are quoted over the fold.

Read more…

Falling off the tightrope

October 24th, 2013 56 comments

Having gained office on the basis of three-word slogans, the Abbott government has the problem that it now needs to answer questions in complete sentences. As a result, Abbott has immediately faced some tricky tests, and failed most of them. “Stop the Boats”, for example, ran into the problem that it assumed the Indonesians could be strong-armed into doing our government’s bidding. Unsurprisingly, that proved false, though the inevitable backdown was managed reasonably smoothly.

The trickiest balancing act, though, is on climate change. The government needs to balance its base, the vocal elements of which are almost uniformly denialist[1], with the risks of adverse consequences to Australia if we repudiate our commitments on the issue, and the risks to its own credibility of being openly anti-science.

After only seven weeks in office, both PM Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt, have fallen off the tightrope, rejecting the clearly established (and intuitively obvious) IPCC findings on bushfire risk in Australia [AR4 (2007) , WGII , Chapter 11, Executive Summary]

“The climate of the 21st century is virtually certain to be warmer, with changes in extreme events. Heatwaves and fires are virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency (high confidence).”

These findings were reinforced in an interview with the head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, Christiana Figueres (listen to the audio,as the report may mislead)

Abbott’s response was to accuse Figueres of “talking through her hat”, while Hunt went to Wikipedia to discover that “bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year”.

This was really an unforced error by both Abbott and Hunt. They could have ducked the issue by resorting to the standard formula that climate predictions are about frequencies, not about individual events. Abbott could even have cited Figueres who was careful to say that “the World Meteorological Organisation has not yet established a direct link between the these fires and climate change.” (emphasis very clear in audio). Hunt scrambled back to the script at the end of his interview, but after the Wikipedia reference, it was far too late.

Given Abbott’s earlier “total crap” statement[2], it’s going to be hard for him to walk back a second time. He now faces two problems. On the one hand, now that he’s outed himself as one of them, the denialist base will be encouraged to demand the scrapping of his Direct Action policy. On the other hand, locking the LNP into denialism is a recipe for long-term disaster, especially with Malcolm Turnbull waiting in the wings.

It’s highly likely that 2013 will turn out to be the hottest calendar year on record for Australia. The frequent occurrence of record highs like this is a predictable consequence of climate change. Abbott had better get his spin doctors working on a form of words to handle the inevitable questions.

fn1. I’ve decided to abandon “delusionist”, my own coinage, in favor of the more standard term “denialist”. I’ll write more on this later.
fn2. In fairness, this statement was presented as a view his audience might hold, rather than as Abbott’s own. But since he’s held every possible view on this topic, and some that seem impossible, fairness can only go so far.

Free riders

October 23rd, 2013 47 comments

It’s widely assumed that small rich countries, like Australia, can choose to do nothing about climate change, without suffering any adverse consequences. Like a dozen or so other countries, we contribute about 2 per cent of total emissions. So, whether we reduce emissions or not won’t (at least directly) have a big impact on the climate change we experience, just as an individual decision to engage in (or refrain from) littering, won’t have much impact on the amount of litter they see.

But this analysis assumes that countries that do make a serious effort won’t impose any sanctions on those that don’t. Until recently, this was a reasonable assumption since the most prominent laggards were China and the US, both of which can do pretty much as they please in international matters. But China and the US are taking their commitments seriously now, and are taking some big steps to reduce emissions. That changes the calculation for a would-be free rider.

The Harper government in Canada is already discovering this. Harper is a (barely concealed) climate denialist, who has attacked climate science, and promoted the work of ‘sceptics’. Having repudiated Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it interfered with Canada’s aspirations to be an ‘energy superpower’ Harper imagined he would have no trouble securing agreement for the Keystone Pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil from the hugely destructive Alberta Tar Sands projects to markets in the US.

Canada is in the inner core of US allies, historically distinguished by its devotion to being a global ‘good citizen’. Unsurprisingly, the Canadians had plenty of favors to call in at the US State Department, which duly reported that the project was environmentally benign and should be approved.

But then everything went wrong for Harper.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

“We got it wrong”, says Oz, but they’re still wrong

September 21st, 2013 42 comments

Along with many others, I pointed out the absurdity of Graham Lloyd’s piece in the Oz, headlined “We got it wrong, says IPCC”. The Oz has printed a “correction”
https://twitter.com/MeddlesomPriest/status/381258223413510145/photo/1/large

blaming their absurd error on “the production process”. In the sense that the processes of the Oz, from the hiring of general editor Chris Mitchell and environment “reporter” Graham Lloyd, combined with uncritical reproduction of claims by discredited sources like David Rose “produced” the error. I guess this is true. But, this is part of a consistent pattern. Errors like this have been produced routinely in the past, and will continue to be produced in the future. Regular, but inadequate, retractions are part of this process.

Categories: #NewsCorpFail, #Ozfail, Environment Tags:

A new two-step

September 13th, 2013 125 comments

I’ve always been envious of John Holbo’s discovery of the two-step of terrific triviality, a manoeuvre we’d all seen, but never properly identified. I’d like to solicit names for a manoeuvre I run into all the time in debates over climate policy which goes along the following lines

A: The planet is doomed unless we abandon industrial civilization/adopt my WWII-scale emergency program

B (me): On the contrary,we could cut emissions by 50 per cent quickly and with minimal effects on living standards.[^1]

A: What about cars, methane from ag production, air travel etc?

B: (me) We could cut vehicle emissions in half just by switching to the most fuel-efficient cars now on the market, methane by eating chicken instead of beef, air travel by videoconferencing and taking one long holiday in place of two short ones. The same for most other sources of emissions.[^2]

A: That’s absurd. No one would ever stand for that.

So, does anyone have a name for this manoeuvre, or, alternatively, a defense of this kind of argumentation

[^1]: Actually, we need a 90 per cent reduction by 2050. That would be a bit harder, but once you accept the idea that we could greatly reduce emissions without harming living standards, we’re down to arguing about parameter values in economic models. All economic models yield the conclusion that we could decarbonize the economy over 40 years while still improving living standards greatly.
[^2]: I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s better to bring this about using prices (eg a carbon tax) or direct controls. My preferred answer is a bit of both, but either will work for the purposes of this example.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Declining electricity consumption in Australia

July 25th, 2013 68 comments

I missed this when it came out a few weeks ago, but the Australian Energy Market Operation (AEMO) has released new forecasts of electricity demand to 2020. The forecasts represent a further reduction on the big cuts in estimated demand made between 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the medium forecast was for nearly 250 000 GWH by 2020, up from 200 000 in 2010. The latest medium forecast is 211 000 GWh for 2020, and the low forecast stays below 200 000 out to 2022-23. These forecasts would be even lower if it were not for three large export LNG projects in Queensland.

Even more striking is the forecast for residential and commercial consumption per persom. In much of the debate around energy issues, it is assumed that increases in living standards must go hand in hand with higher consumption of all forms of energy. But AEMO, assuming moderate rates of economic growth, is predicting that consumption per person will drop to 6000 KwH per year by 2020. In 2005, it was around 7200 KwH, so that’s a drop of more than 15 per cent. Over that time, income per person is likely to rise by around 30 per cent.

The AEMO measures don’t include rooftop solar, but they do include large-scale renewable energy (wind and grid-connected PV). Current policy calls for an additional 20 000 GWh of large-scale renewables by 2020, which would imply a significant reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions over the next decade.

Of course, a lot of this is the fortuitous result of high electricity prices, driven mainly by distribution costs. But it’s certainly an impressive demonstration that lower energy consumption does not mean lower living standards.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The right’s anti-wind campaign is pure scaremongering (updated)

July 23rd, 2013 113 comments

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, here and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

Read more…

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The return of the ETS

July 17th, 2013 56 comments

As a member of the Climate Change Authority, I’m constrained to some extent in what I can say about the plan to bring forward the date at which emission permits will become tradeable, so I’m going to make a few points, and leave discussion to others

* The really big change, which went largely un-noticed, was the link to the EU scheme, announced by Greg Combet shortly after the carbon price came into effect. Bringing this forward by a year is a minor adjustment by comparison

* The offsetting savings announced today are mostly good, the most obvious exception being the biodiversity fund. I supported assistance to Carbon Capture and Storage in the past, on the general principle of backing every horse, but it’s time to admit that this horse won’t run

* The tightening of Fringe Benefit exemptions for cars is, I hope, a recognition that subsidising motor vehicle use in general isn’t going to save the domestic car industry, which has a small and shrinking share of the market. The impending demise of the Falcon should kill the presumption that fleet cars are likely to be Australian-made I hope this view is taken more generally. Preservation of the domestic industry is probably a lost cause, but if governments are going to try, they should do so with direct subsidies to domestic production not subsidies to car use in general.

* I hope Parliament sits again, and that the government puts the necessary legislation forward. The amusement of watching Tony Abbott voting *for* the carbon tax would be well worth the price of admission.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Hope and climate change

June 25th, 2013 57 comments

According to various reports, Obama is making a speech today in which he will announce limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These limits can be imposed by regulation, and are justified by court decisions requiring the Environmental Protection Authority to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

Going from realistic hope to wishful thinking, a sufficiently positive reaction on this might give him the nerve to block the Keystone pipeline. But strong action on power plants would be enough for me – it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Decarbonising Australia (updated)

May 7th, 2013 214 comments

I’ve been meaning to post about the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report on the feasibility of a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply system for Australia (H/T commenter Ben). In the meantime, Brian Bahnisch at LP has done a detailed summary, so I’ll refer you there and make a few points of my own.

First, this study should kill off, once and for all, claims made here and in many other places (notably, at Brave New Climate) that the intermittency of renewable electricity is an insuperable problem.[1] The AEMO is the body that manages the electricity market on a minute-to-minute basis, so it has the expertise to assess this claim, unlike the many amateurs who have tried their hands. And, since it might have to do the job, it has no reason to understate the difficulties of a renewables-based system.

Second, the estimate cost of $111 to $133 per megawatt-hour represents an increase of $60-80/MwH on current wholesale prices, or 6-8c/Kwh on retail prices. That’s much less than the increase we’ve seen thanks to the mishandling of electricity market reform. If we wound back those costs, we could actually end up with both 100 per cent renewables and cheaper electricity.

Third, although the study envisages a role for electric vehicles, it doesn’t present a full-scale program for decarbonization. But once you have a scalable, fully renewable electricity supply, everything else is comparatively easy.

Finally, if we take Tony Abbott at his word in wanting direct action to deal with climate change, this report provides him with a blueprint. If we want to, we can eliminate the great majority of domestic CO2 emissions simply by mandating renewable technology and electric vehicles. The cost would be substantial in dollar terms ($250 billion for the electricity component). But, over a couple of decades, it would be a barely detectable deduction from growth in national income.

Update As it turns out, there’s a response at Brave New Climate from Martin Nicholson. Nicholson reports on a study of his own, in which nuclear is included in the mix. On Nicholson’s estimates, this substantially reduces capital costs, a point of which he makes a big deal. But obviously, renewables have much lower operating costs and Nicholson estimates the levelised cost for his system at $124/MWh to $126/MWh. As he says:

As this is in the middle of the AEMO range, wholesale prices are likely to be similar with or without nuclear

Given that very few current-generation nuclear plants have been built, cost estimates for nuclear are speculative. The obvious inference for Australia is that we should push along with renewables, and take a “wait and see” position on nuclear, observing developments in the UK, US, France and China. If they can deliver nuclear safely and at low cost, we can add it to the mix (say, after 2030).

Sadly, I think most of the BNC readership are locked into a position that nuclear must be the answer, which requires them to believe that renewables won’t work. Even a comprehensive demonstration that renewables can deliver a 100 per cent solution at a cost comparable with optimistic estimates for nuclear isn’t going to shift them.end update

fn1. This is part of a rhetorical manoeuvre aimed at pushing the conclusion that nuclear is the only feasible zero-carbon option. Once it’s admitted that 100 per cent renewable electricity is feasible, nuclear advocates need to present a case based on comparative costs. In the Australian context, it will be very hard to make that case, given the need to set up a complete nuclear infrastructure from scratch.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Some electricity links

April 30th, 2013 21 comments

The Australia Institute has a report out making the point that the growth in the administrative and marketing costs of electricity companies, following the reforms of the 1990s, has added more to electricity prices than has the carbon price.

Also, the Centre for Policy Development has a nice piece on solar PV coming out soon. Look for it.

Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for the The Economic and Labour Relations Review in 2001. Conclusion over the fold. I think it stacks up pretty well, certainly compared to the gushing praise for reform that was commonplace at the time.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Another encouraging graph

March 30th, 2013 90 comments

Wandering around the web, I found this OECD graph on per-capita oil use in residential/commercial/agricultural uses reproduced here

45-Per-capita-oil-use-in-residential-commercial-agriculture-1971-2009-OPEC-WOO2012

It raises some interesting points
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The good news

March 14th, 2013 58 comments

Discussions about reducing CO2 emissions often have a dismal tone, saying that we can’t reduce emissions without a drastic reduction in living standards. Sometimes the inference is that we should do nothing, other times that we should embrace drastically lower living standards (but probably won’t). Most people share this intuition to some extent, particularly as regards activities like driving, that seem central to a modern lifestyle. So, it’s striking to see what’s been happening to per capita gasoline consumption in the US

gasoline-volume-sales-per-capita-vs-price

There’s a lot going on here: prices, fuel economy regulations, ethanol and general cultural shifts which have reduced distances driven. But the big point is that this drastic decline has happened with only modest policy measures, and without any obvious impact on living standards (US living standards haven’t done well in the 2000s, but for entirely different reasons). Looking ahead, Obama’s fuel economy regulations and sustained high prices should drive US gasoline consumption much lower.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags: