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Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power

May 5th, 2015 4 comments

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.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Is Powerwall good for coal and nuclear?

May 5th, 2015 17 comments

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.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Some unwelcome good news

May 3rd, 2015 100 comments

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.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Loaves and fishes, again

May 2nd, 2015 20 comments

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.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The cost of a policy depends on what policy you choose

April 24th, 2015 14 comments

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.

and responds

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.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Lomborg review: repost from 2005

April 23rd, 2015 25 comments

The announcement that the Federal government will be (they say, only partly, but UWA appears to have a different view) funding a move of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center to the University of WA has attracted plenty of comment.

Rather than pile on, I thought I would repost my, decidedly mixed, review of Lomborg’s first CCC effort in 2005.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

CO2 emissions levelling out?

April 7th, 2015 236 comments

Preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, released in March, suggest that energy-related emissions of CO2[1] were unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013. Countries experiencing notable drops in emissions included China, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, but not, of course, Australia[2]

This has happened before, but only in years of global recession, whereas the global growth rate in 2014 was around 3 per cent. Of course, there are plenty of special factors such as a good year for hydro in China. Still, after looking carefully at the numbers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really does represent, if not the long-sought peak in emissions, at least the end of the link between rising living standards and CO2 emissions.

The most striking feature of 2014 in this context was the behavior of fossil fuel prices. Coal prices had already fallen a long way from their peak levels in the years around the GFC, and they kept on falling through the year, even as coal mines began to close and lots of projects were abandoned. Oil prices remained at historically high levels until the middle of the year but then joined the downward trend, which has continued into 2015. Natural gas is a more complex story, since there isn’t a global market, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

Still, it seems to me that the 2014 outcome is a consistent with a story in which most growth in demand for energy services will be met by a combination of renewables and energy efficiency, and in which coal continues to lose ground to gas. The lack of demand implies that fossil fuel prices are likely to stay permanently below the levels anticipated when most recent projects were initiated.

Behind all this, it seems as if the various piecemeal measures introduced with the aim of switching away from fossil fuels are working better than almost anyone expected, and with minimal economic cost. Hopefully, this will encourage world leaders to set more ambitious targets, consistent with stabilising the global climate at temperatures 2 degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Reality finally bites for Willie Soon

February 23rd, 2015 26 comments

Among the handful of apparently reputable scientists who deny mainstream climate science, Willie Wei-Hock Soon, regularly described as a Harvard astrophysicist (he’s actually an aerospace engineer working for the Smithsonian, which has a joint centre with Harvard), has been among the most prominent and durable. His biggest hit was his 2003 paper with Sallie Baliunas* which brought about the resignation of half of the editorial board of the journal concerned.

Soon has finally come unstuck, having failed to declare his funding from fossil fuel interests and the Koch brothers in a number of articles, thereby violating the requirements of the journals that published him. The New York Times has a lengthy and unflattering expose.

The only surprise is that this took so long, and that Soon has been allowed to do so much damage to science. Still, the supply of seemingly credible deniers is small enough that discrediting even one makes a difference.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Turnbull and the Renewable Energy Target

February 8th, 2015 34 comments

At the minute of writing (1404 Sunday), it looks as if Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as PM tomorrow. Among his many challenges will be climate change policy, the issue that brought him undone last time around. The word appears to be that he will adhere to the platform from the 2013 election, which rules out a carbon price (tax or ETS) but gives him room to move in various directions.The assumption is that this compromise will buy both Turnbull and the climate deniers in the LNP enough time to work out some kind of solution.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the Abbott government, in defiance of the 2013 platform, has been doing its best to make drastic cuts in the Renewable Energy Target. To the extent that the processes of government are going on during the current mess, negotations with Labor and the minor parties are still under way. Turnbull will have to decide, more or less immediately, whether to keep pushing for deep cuts.

There’s a further problem. Turnbull can’t simply drop the issue and leave things as they are. Abbott’s obvious intention to destroy the scheme has had a chilling effect on investment, particularly in the wind sector. Under the current rules, fossil fuel generators need to offset their generation with certificates from renewable generators. But it now seems unlikely that there will be enough certificates by 2020, which would result in the triggering of penalty clauses. So, the scheme needs some kind of change.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member put out a report just before Christmas last year, suggesting that the target date of 2020 be shifted out, and that the duration of the scheme be extended past 2030. That’s one possible solution, though not the only one.

The problem for Turnbull is that any realistic solution will instantly enrage the climate deniers, while continuing on the current path will put him in the position of owning Abbott’s broken promises.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Abbott, Knight and Bishop

January 27th, 2015 104 comments

In making my predictions for 2015, I was tempted to predict that Abbott would last out the year, mainly on the basis of inertia, but decided it was too risky (Commenter Fran B sensibly went the other way). I’m already glad of that: even before Sir Phil, it seemed as if he was on the skids.

Assuming Abbott goes (still not certain, but looking more likely with every hour), Julie Bishop looks like a sure thing to replace him. She has looked pretty good as Foreign Minister (if you’re willing to overlook a massive cut in foreign aid), but that’s relatively easy, largely a matter of not messing up. If she does take over, she’ll need to do more than that.

To demonstrate that there’s a real change, she’ll have to break with Abbott on some major issues. Presumably that will include dumping Hockey and the most unpopular of the 2014 budget measures, but most of those are already dead.

The really big break would be to return to some kind of bipartisanship on climate change. There’s some precedent, given the way she stood up to him over going to the Lima meeting. But it would entail a break with the (numerous) denialists and tribalists in the party room and the broader party apparatus (including the Murdoch Press and bodies like the IPA). Still, if she could carry it off, she would be a force to be reckoned with.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Increasing trend keeps on increasing

January 19th, 2015 104 comments

Unsurprisingly, 2014 was the warmest year so far in the incremental record, as measured by NOAA and NASA. A few quick observations

* It’s silly to base global judgements on local observations. Still, living through January 2015 in Queensland, it’s easy to believe that the warming trend has continued into the New Year

* There’s nothing special about a calendar year. The first part of 2014, particularly February, was cooler than the rest of the year. So, it’s a safe bet that the 12 months ending Feb 2015 will be even warmer than the 12 months ending Dec 2014

* The biggest source of short-term fluctuations is the El Nino cycle, responsible for the very warm year in 1998 that is the basis for so much silly talk about “no global warming for x years”. 2014 was the first record year without a full-scale El Nino, though it kept threatening to emerge. Predictions are mixed for 2015.

* Of course, this long-expected news had no effect on denialists. But, like anti-vaxers, they are no longer getting the kind of “balanced” hearing they have counted on for so long, at least outside the Murdoch press. It’s now generally recognised that climate science denial isn’t a scientific viewpoint but a tribal shibboleth, and this is reflected in news coverage.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Only a mug punter would bet on carbon storage over renewables

January 9th, 2015 75 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Conversation. The key point

To sum up, if investing in energy storage is like backing every horse on a race, investing in CCS is like a parlay bet, which pays off only if we can pick the winners of several races in succession.

When you think about it like that, it’s not surprising that the smart money is on storing energy, not carbon.

Categories: Environment Tags:

From Montreal to Lima

December 21st, 2014 10 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

The fossil fuel crash of 2014

December 20th, 2014 43 comments

Among the unforeseen (by me, at any rate) events of 2014, the collapse in the price of crude oil may be among the most significant. Prices have fallen from more than $100/barrel in mid-2014 to around $60/barrel today. This follows a more gradual fall in the price of coal. The thermal coal price peaked at $140/tonne in 2011 and has now fallen to around $70/tonne. Prices for metallurgical coal and iron ore have also collapsed.

What should we make of this? The big questions are
(i) to what extent does the price collapse reflect weak demand and to what extent growing supply
(ii) will these low prices be sustained, and if so, what will be the outcome.

The answer to the first question seems to be, a mixture of the two, with some complicated lags. Strong demand growth (briefly interrupted by the GFC) produced high prices which made new projects appear profitable. Now the projects are coming on stream, but demand has weakened. Since both demand and supply are inelastic (not very responsive to prices) in the short run, a moderate oversupply produces a big drop in prices.

Coming to the second point, if we are to reduce emissions of CO2, a necessary precondition is that the price of fossil fuels should fall to the point where it is uneconomic to extract them. Current prices are below the level at which most new oil and coal projects are profitable, so, if they are sustained, we can expected to see a lot of project cancellations and closures (this is already happening with coal to some extent).

The big question is whether sustained low prices will lead to a recovery in demand. There are at least some reasons to hope that it won’t. There’s pressure to reduce coal and oil use coming from many directions, so, even at lower prices, I doubt that we will see a surge in investment in new coal-fired power plants* or a return to oil for uses like heating.

So, the hopeful scenario is one in which the abandonment of new projects brings us the long-awaited advent of Peak (or rather Plateau) Oil and Coal** in the not-too-distant future, giving time for policy to push the global economy in the direction of decarbonization.

* Someone will doubtless point to the case of Germany. But as far as I can tell, the plants that have opened recently were commissioned around 2006, and most proposals made since then have been abandoned.

** Of course, gas is a different story, partly because there is no global market. Gas prices are rising in some places (Australia, for example) and falling in others as trade expands.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Greenpeace and vandalism

December 14th, 2014 70 comments

In the light of the appalling vandalism undertaken by Greenpeace at Nazca in Peru, I thought I would repost this piece from 2011, published as Greenpeace, an enemy of science. I note that, as in the previous instance, those involved did not turn themselves in. In this case, they have apparently fled the country.

Greenpeace, an enemy of science

Tim Lambert comments on Greenpeace sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. Sadly, Greenpeace has become an openly anti-science organisation.

I agree with everything Tim says, but I’d add something more on the politics of this action. This kind of criminal vandalism, in the “right” cause, appeals to the juvenile instincts that nearly all of us retain to some extent, but it has repeatedly proved disastrous for the left, and the environmental movement. It’s worth comparing this kind of action to civil disobedience protests, where people put themselves on the line and openly invite arrest. If these guys had any desire to promote genuine debate they would turn themselves in and defend their actions in open court.

Given the embrace of anti-science and anti-rational views by the political right, it is important that the left and the environmental movement should dissociate themselves entirely from this kind of action. It will be a long time before Greenpeace can regain my support, if they ever do.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

The strengthening economic case for fossil fuel divestment

December 1st, 2014 23 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Conversation. The bottom line

Leaving aside the ethics of divestment and pursuing a purely rational economic analysis, the cold hard numbers of putting money into fossil fuels don’t look good.

Unless universities are willing to bet on the destruction of the planet they have committed themselves to understanding and preserving, divestment from fossil fuels is the only choice they can make. Forward-thinking investors of all kinds would be wise to follow suit.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Coal and China

November 26th, 2014 32 comments

Among the sceptical reactions to China’s part of the joint announcement on climate policy made by the US and China, two were particularly prominent

* The statement didn’t require China to do anything until 2030
* The statement simply reflected “business as usual”

These arguments were almost immediately refuted when China announced, in its http://thediplomat.com/2014/11/in-new-plan-china-eyes-2020-energy-cap/ that it would cap coal consumption at 4.2 billion tonnes by 2020, with total primary energy consumption (including oil and gas) held below 4.8 billion tonnes of coal equivalent. By contrast, in 2013, the estimate was for 4.8 billion tonnes of coal alone. Back in 2010, the US Energy Information Administration was predicting continued growth in Chinese coal assumption to 2035 and beyond.
Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Planet saved … in Brisbane!

November 12th, 2014 104 comments

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the agreement announced today by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to limit US and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. The limits are significant in themselves: not enough to guarantee stabilization of greenhouse gas levels at the agreed target of 450 ppm, but enough that we can get there just by ratcheting up an existing agreement rather than by looking for something new.

I’ll write more later, but I wanted to note this event as soon as I could

Categories: Environment Tags:

Wouldn’t know if their a**e was on fire

October 28th, 2014 156 comments

As I type this, it’s currently 35 degrees, at 9am on an October morning in Brisbane. And, while one day’s temperatures don’t prove anything, a string of studies have shown that the increasingly frequent heatwaves in Australia can be reliably attributed to global warming. We haven’t had an El Nino yet, but according to NOAA, the last 12 months have been the hottest such period on record.

It will be interesting to see what the denialists come up with in response to this combination of record breaking local and global warming. We can safely rule out anything along the lines of “as a sceptic, I like to wait for convincing evidence before accepting a new hypothesis. But, with the steady accumulation of evidence I’m now convinced”. I suspect we’ll get more along the lines of

* Graham Lloyd, reporting a new study by Jennifer Marohasy, showing that the communists at the Met Bureau are artificially pumping hot air through Australian cities to cover up the fact that they rigged the data to show exactly this warming

* The Telegraph, with a front-page story of an old codger saying something like “You think this is hot? Back in ’23, we had heat waves in July so bad that concrete footpaths melted”

* Andrew Bolt will readjust the start dates so he can continue to claim “no significant warming for the past x years”, omitting the crucial word “statistically”

Categories: Environment Tags:

A simple route to climate disaster

October 12th, 2014 251 comments

I’ve mentioned quite a few times the spurious calculations offered by Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute, purporting to prove that renewable energy can’t sustain a modern lifestyle. But I haven’t looked hard at the other side of the coin; the idea that ‘degrowth’ could provide us with a sustainable, low-tech but still comfortable way of living, based on local self-sufficiency.

Samuel Alexander, also of the Simplicity Institute, has a piece in the Conversation, making this claim. Presumably, unlike energy technology, this is an area where the Institute ought to have some special expertise. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Political change and climate change

September 23rd, 2014 126 comments

Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions

(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need

In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.

In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.

Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.

The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.

Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.

At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.

To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.

[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.

[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.

Categories: Environment, World Events Tags:

From derp to denialism

September 21st, 2014 53 comments

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

From the ‘paperless office’ to renewable energy, change leaves its critics behind

September 12th, 2014 35 comments

That’s the headline for my piece in The Guardian. Unsurprisingly, given experience here, the comments section is a mountain of derp. Amusingly, it turns out that there are still paperless office sceptics about, despite ample evidence of that demand for office paper has been declining for years, and now seems set to plummet. The sceptics seem immune to the irony of posting comments in a digital-only newspaper asserting that paper will never die.

Given the extreme tightness of priors regarding energy issues, I expect our renewables sceptics to be even more diehard.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Is global collapse imminent ?

September 3rd, 2014 386 comments

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]

Categories: Environment Tags:

Hoover channels LaRouche

September 2nd, 2014 10 comments

Despite my attempts at zombie-slaying, the myth that Rachel Carson advocated and caused a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to the deaths of millions, keeps being reanimated. I came across an example that is interesting mainly because of its provenenance. It’s by Henry I Miller of the Hoover Institute and Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. CEI is hack central, so nothing it produces ought to surprise anyone. But Hoover boasts a Who’s Who of (what remains of) the right wing intellectual apparatus: Hnery Kissinger, Condi Rice, John Taylor and Harvey Mansfield, among many others. And Miller was apparently ” founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology”. So, the fact he can run this kind of thing is good evidence of total intellectual collapse on the right.

The two main authorities cited by Miller and Conko in their critique of Carson are “San Jose State University entomologist J. Gordon Edwards” author of “The Lies of Rachel Carson” and “Professor Robert H. White-Stevens, an agriculturist and biology professor at Rutgers University”. Unfortunately, Miller and Conko don’t reveal that Edwards’ piece was published (like much of his work on environmental issues) in the LaRouchite journal “21st Century News”. And, while describing White-Stevens academic affiliation (dating to the 1950s as far as I can tell), they don’t inform readers of the more relevant fact that, when he offered a patronising critique of “Miss Carson’s ideas”, he was a spokesman for American Cyanamid. That’s right: as refutation of Rachel Carson in 2012, this Hoover Institute Fellow is offering the PR put by a pesticide company in the 1960s, along with a screed by a far-right loony.

I suspect the reason these facts weren’t revealed is that Miller and Conko weren’t aware of them. Their piece looks to have been cobbled together from various bits of flotsam in the rightwing blogosphere.

I’d be interested to see if any of the rightwing luminaries associated with the Hoover Institute is willing either to criticise or endorse this piece. My guess is that tribal solidarity will preclude the former and residual intelligence the latter.

Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Fossil fuel review committee report: change rules to benefit fossil fuels

August 29th, 2014 25 comments

That’s the unsurprising outcome of the Abbott government’s review of the Renewable Energy Target, undertaken by climate denialists associated with the fossil fuel industry. It’s hard to see why they bothered with the formality of holding an inquiry.

It now looks possible that the Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member, will survive long enough to conduct a further review. The Authority is answerable to the Parliament, not the government, which makes for interesting times when the two are directly opposed, as at present.

I can certainly see some ways in which the RET could be improved, but I won’t canvass them here so as not to commit myself in advance. I’ll observe however, that the Abbott government itself has removed the strongest argument against the RET, namely, that it duplicates the effect of a carbon price (there were valid counterarguments, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, but it was still an important issue)

Categories: Environment Tags:

Energy storage getting real

August 19th, 2014 130 comments

Now that renewable energy sources like solar and PV are cheaper than new coal-fired power stations in most jurisdictions (anywhere with either favorable conditions or a reasonable carbon price), the big remaining question is that of supply variability/intermittency. As I’ve argued before, this problem is greatly overstated by critics of renewables who assume that the constant 24/7 supply characteristic of coal is the ideal. In fact, this constant supply produces a mismatch with variable demand and current pricing structures are set up to deal with this. A system dominated by renewables would have different kinds of mismatch and require different pricing structures.

That said, for a system dominated by solar PV, meeting demand in the late afternoon and evening will clearly depend on a capacity to store energy in some form or another. There are lots of options, but it makes sense to look first at relatively mature technologies like lithium and lead-acid batteries. Renewable News is reporting a project in Vermont, which integrates solar PV and storage.

The 2.5-MW Stafford Hill solar project is being developed in conjunction with Dynapower and GroSolar and includes 4 MW of battery storage, both lithium ion and lead acid, to integrate the solar generation into the local grid, and to provide resilient power in case of a grid outage.

The project cost is stated at $10 million, or $4m/Mw of generation capacity.

Assuming this number is correct, let’s make some simplifying assumptions to get a rough idea of the cost of electricity and the workability of storage. If we cost capital and depreciation at 10 per cent, assume 1600 hours of full output per year and, ignoring operating costs, the cost of electricity is 25c/KwH. There would presumably be some distribution costs, given the need to connect to the grid. Still, given that Vermont consumers are currently paying 18c/Kwh, this doesn’t look too bad. A carbon tax at $75/tonne would make up the difference.

How would the storage work? I’m starting from scratch here, so I’ll be interested in suggestions and corrections. I assume that the storage is ample to deal with short-term (minute to minute or hour to hour) fluctuations, which are more of a problem for wind.

How about on a daily basis? It seems to me that the critical thing to look at is the point in the afternoon/evening at which consumption exceeds generation (As I mentioned, prices matter a lot here). This is the point at which we would like the batteries to be fully charged. The output assumption suggests an average of about 12 MWh generated per day. If we simplify by assuming that the cutoff time is 6pm and that output drops to zero after that, the system requires that 8MWh be used during the day and 4MWh at night. That wouldn’t match current demand patterns, but if you added in some grid connected power (say, from wind, which tends to blow more at night) and shifted the pricing peak to match the demand peak, it would probably be feasible.

As regards seasonal variability, this would be a problem in Vermont, where (I assume) the seasonal demand peak is in winter. But in places like Queensland, with a strong summer peak, a system with lots of solar power should do a good job in this respect.

What remains is the possibility of a long run of cloudy days, during which solar panels produce 50 per cent or less of their rated output. Dealing with such periods will require a combination of pricing (such periods can be predicted in advance, so it’s just a matter of passing the price signals on to consumers), load-shedding for industrial customers and dispatchable reserve sources (hydro being the most appealing candidate, given that potential energy can be stored for long periods, and turned on and off as needed).

To sum up, we aren’t quite at the point where PV+storage is a complete solution, but we’re not far off.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The case for fuel efficiency standards

August 18th, 2014 28 comments

Thanks to Joe Hockey’s masterful salesmanship, the idea of restoring indexation of fuel exercise, let alone imposing a carbon price, is dead for the foreseeable future. This is one case where, despite my economistic prejudice in favor of price-based measures, I think regulation is the way to go. Australia is one of the few developed countries that does not impose fuel efficiency standards on motor vehicles. Now that the Obama Administration has greatly tightened US standards, we are set to have the most petrol-guzzling car fleet in the entire world.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a board member, recently looked into the issue and concluded that, over the lifetime of a vehicle, fuel efficiency standards matching those of the US would save motorists thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to factor this saving into the initial sale price, given that it may not be reflected in resale values. Still, this would be one of the easiest and cheapest ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

In the long run, given the demonstrated feasibility of electric vehicles, it should be possible to decarbonize most motor transport at a very modest cost. Once the infrastructure was set up properly, this would also solve a large part of the timing problem created by the fact that peak solar supply is in the middle of the day, when household demand is low, but when millions of cars are parked, and could be recharged.

Categories: Environment Tags:

CCS AWOL?

July 25th, 2014 65 comments

As recently as the Stern Review in 2006, carbon capture and storage from coal-fired power stations was seen as the most promising clean energy technology on offer. This was before the huge decline in the cost of solar PV and the more modest, but still substantial progress on wind energy. Since then, the technology has dropped off the radar, to the point that many reports don’t even mention it. But I just got an invite to a conference on the subject, so I thought I would take another look.

The blurb refers to a number of projects “Callide and Surat Basin in Queensland, CarbonNet in Victoria, and South West Hub in Western Australia”. A quick survey suggests that these are mostly at “proof of concept” stage, rather offering a technology that could actually be implemented on a large scale. Globally, the site says

The Global Status of CCS Report: February 2014 states that there are 12 large-scale CCS projects in operation globally and nine under construction. Overall, these 21 projects have a total capture capacity of almost 40 million tonnes of CO2 a year.

If my arithmetic is right, the entire global effort is about equivalent to the impact of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target:the large scale component calls for 41 000 GWH a year by 2020: my rule of thumb is 1MWh = 1 tonne CO2.

There’s also a report on CCS in the New York Times, which is optimistic, but very vague on cost.

That’s disappointing: from Australia’s point of view, a cheap, safe method of CCS would have resolved the climate change problem, at least as regards electricity, with no adverse impact on our coal industry. I’d be interested in comments from more informed readers.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Condemned by history

July 17th, 2014 192 comments

So, after some farcical manoeuvres, the Senate has passed Abbott’s legislation removing the carbon price. I hope and believe that this outcome will be reversed in due course, but those who brought it about will stand condemned by history.

It’s not merely that this is a bad policy, which will impose large and increasing costs (depending on how long it takes us to get back on track) on Australia and the world into the future. Even more damning is the fact that this action is entirely based on conscious lies, embraced or condoned by everyone who has actively supported it.

First, and most obvious, no one (least of all Tony Abbott) believes that the government’s “Direct Action” policy is a superior alternative to the carbon price, one that will deliver emissions reductions more rapidly and at lower costs. It is, as everyone knows, a cynical ploy put forward simply to allow the government to say that it has a policy.

In reality, Abbott and the rest want to do nothing, and the motives for this desire are entirely base. For a minority of the do-nothing group, it is simply a matter of financial self-interest associated with the fossil fuel industry. For the majority, however, it is the pursuit of a tribal and ideological vendetta. Their position is driven by Culture War animosity towards greens, scientists, do-gooders and so on, or by ideological commitment to a conservative/libertarian position that would be undermined by the recognition of a global problem that can only be fixed by changes to existing structures of property rights.

Most of these people would describe themselves as climate “sceptics”. There is no such thing. That is, there is no one anywhere who has honestly examined the evidence, without wishful thinking based on ideological or cultural preconceptions, and concluded that mainstream science is wrong. Most “sceptics”, including the majority of supporters of the conservative parties, are simply credulous believers in what their opinion leaders are telling them. Those opinion leaders are engaged, not in an attempt to determine the truth, but in a cultural vendetta against their enemies or in an ideologically-driven attempt to justify a predetermined do-nothing position.

This is a sad day, but one that will come back to haunt those who have brought it about.

Categories: Environment Tags: