Energy in 2019: dead horse roundup

If the world is going to avoid dangerous climate change, we need to accelerate the pace of the energy transition towards decarbonization. So, as 2019 begins, it’s worth looking at the state of play. Easing into things, I’ll take a look at the dead horses: nuclear and “clean coal”.

AFAICT, hardly any nuclear plants started construction in 2018, continuing the trend of recent years. At the beginning of the year, lots of reports suggested China would start 6-8 plants, but (again AFAICT) the actual number was zero. Elsewhere, the massively delayed Vogtle project in the US just avoided scrapping. At this point, the best hope is to limit premature closures of existing nuclear plants and keep the focus on ending coal.

“Clean coal” is a deliberately ambiguous term, encompassing carbon capture and storage, which would eliminate CO2 emissions, if only it worked, and ultrasupercritical or “High Efficiency Low Emissions (HELE) technology, a marginal improvement on existing technology.

CCS was an obvious dead horse a year ago, and nothing has changed that. Bob Burton gives a good summary.

But at least CCS would have made a difference if it had worked. The marginal improvement in efficiency going from 1990s “supercritical” technology to more modern “ultrasupercritical” isn’t worth worrying about. In any case, it’s come too late. Although there’s still a big pipeline of coal projects using older technologies (most of which will have to be cancelled if we are to achieve climate goals) there aren’t many new ones. Outside China, the number of HELE plants we are ever likely to see can be counted on fingers and toes: one in the US, a few in Europe, a few more in India, and a handful in developing countries.


14 thoughts on “Energy in 2019: dead horse roundup

  1. Isn’t there a third meaning of “clean coal” specific to Trump: just washing the dust off it? Calling this “cosmetic” would be unfair to professional nail beautifiers.

  2. New renewable capacity currently beats new conventional coal capacity on price, so no one is going to build a new coal power station in Australia and they are definitely not going to build much more expensive coal power with carbon capture or nuclear power.

    New renewable capacity doesn’t currently beat the marginal cost of electricity from Australia’s brown coal generators, which should now be over 2 cents per kilowatt-hour thanks to increases in Victorian coal royalties. But, at today’s current high black coal prices, the marginal cost of most coal generation in Australia could be over 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. While high coal prices may not last, it is interesting to see how close large scale renewables are to being the marginal cost of the majority of Australia’s coal generation.

    Rooftop solar, of course, already beats the marginal cost of grid electricity in general.

  3. Ronald: the last German hard coal mine closed at year’s end. So it’s Auf Wiedersehen to all the sympathetic, dusty-faced underground miners, as they head for their generous retirement or retraining packages. (There is a real difference between neoliberalism and ordoliberalism, though the Greeks might not notice it.) So the remaining German miners are the few operators of monstrous village- and forest-eating lignite excavators, who have all the empathetic appeal of Imperial stormtroopers. I’m sure Greenpeace will be able to exploit this.

  4. not quite Ronald.

    Origin says solar is now the same cast as old coal whilst wind is at 50 MW/hr.

    however both are still falling in cost as opposed to old coal which is rising as the coal price has been rising.

    Bear in mind new coal plants are estimated to be twice as costly as either old coal or solar and you can see the inherent madness of using public monies to support them straight away

  5. What I notice in these discussions is the continual implicit assumption that the operations of the market alone will be sufficient to direct the necessary change: the change necessary to accelerate the pace of the energy transition to a rate sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. Which “market” can we mean? We can only mean the extant global, regional and national market(s). On any analysis, which is not completely blind to political economy issues, this broadly is a neoliberal capitalist market.

    Reporting “good news” coming out of the current system is insufficient yet it is now the standard modus operandi on this blog. The items of good news are the dribs and drabs of hope which come out of allowing the current system to operate without reform. Deeper analysis goes begging. One of the characteristics of late stage capitalism is the power of entrenched capital in mature industries like the energy sector. Entrepreneurial capital is more rapidly successful in new fields but only slowly gains a foothold in some established sectors. The energy sector is a prime example of this latter phenomenon. There are a number of reasons for this. Some are related to capitalism itself and some are related to the inertia of any system which has large real capital investments (existing and operating plant and equipment). This post would get too long if I went into this issue at this point.

    To keep it short, is it too much to ask that this blog deal with more than uncritical reportage? Haven’t we reached the stage where we must be asking serious questions about why change, so far, has been too slow under capitalism? There is plenty of evidence that change has been too slow and that the actual trajectory of climate change to date has been worse than the worst case IPCC projections. But again, to keep this post short, that discussion can be deferred to if and when we begin genuine critical analysis. If this process is not going to happen on every blog with a socialist and democratic viewpoint, where is this debate going to happen? How is it going to spread?

  6. Iko:
    The Book of Jonah captures the syndrome of the prophet furious that the evil city of Nineveh has in fact listened to him and repented. “Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

    JQ has just published a whole book about the failures of the market. He and we his readers here discuss all the time the manifold problems that current capitalism creates in the way of rising inequality, regulatory, political ad cultural capture, unpriced externalities, and media monopoly. Together they create a fat argument for vigorous state corrective action founded on a revived politics of democratic socialism. Why do you insist against all the evidence that capitalism must also be failing in the one thing it is demonstrably doing very well at, the energy transition?

    In addition to the Jonah syndrome, I suggest you also suffer from a common socialist projection of excessive agency onto the chaotic workings of capitalist competition. There is nobody at the wheel. Sure, there is much local collusion and coordination, both on pricing and in political influence – within industries. Between them, it’s Darwinian struggle all the way. Wind, solar, and batteries will soon destroy coal, oil, and internal combustion engines, just as completely as electricity destroyed gas lighting, cars and trucks the horse and cart, and the musket the longbow. There is as little reason to fear that the wind and solar industries will fail to met the ever-rising demand for their products than to worry that the Colombian cartels will fail to met the American demand for cocaine.

  7. James,

    Clearly, a modern day Jonah or Jeremiah is in no danger of being listened to. 😉

    However, a book of myths is of no use in analyzing reality (or people), as I am sure both of us know.

    The critique I am making is that J.Q.’s critique is not thorough-going enough. By extension, I am saying the general level of the critiques of capitalism on this blog, such as they are, if they occur, are not thorough-going enough.

    You say I project an “excessive agency onto the chaotic workings of capitalist competition. There is nobody at the wheel.” That’s a good criticism at a number of levels. I don’t think it holds up but I would have to write a long essay or a book to make a full attempt to refute it. Here, I have to be much briefer.

    First, I think we can agree that chaotic (stochastic?) phenomena at the micro level can generate a steady pressure or tendency at the macro level. Consider gas at pressure in an enclosed vessel. The random motion and collisions (Brownian motion) of the gas molecules result in a steady macro pressure on all parts of the walls of the vessel. The law which describes this is Boyle’s Law (IIRC) which states P1 x V1 x T1 = P2 x V2 x T2. (The numbers should be in sub-script but I can’t do that here.)

    If we have a large number of small firms in a market where no one firm can control price, we have a situation which standard economics posits as an ideal free market. The prices for goods and services are determined by the open market and consumer decisions. The laws of supply and demand are supposed to govern prices. The agencies (free wills) of the producers and the agencies (free wills) of the consumers also are supposed govern what happens in the market.

    Here however, we see the beginnings of a strange paradox or contradiction. Agencies (free wills) acting together, in concert, generate a steady pressure on prices such that price, according to the model, begins to obey a law; the law of supply and demand. The agencies (free wills) of the producers and consumers then become constrained (not entirely free) because they must, in some senses, begin to obey the law they have created in concert. A consumer must pay the lowest going price for a particular good or forego buying it at all. A producer must sell a particular good in a given price range (not higher than the competitive price and not lower than the cost of production to him) or else go out of business: these prices all being set by the law of supply and demand. Sellers and buyers are both constrained to sell and buy at least some things ultimately by the law of survival, meaning both business survival and personal survival. To elect not to participate is to elect to die. Hunting and gathering is no longer an option for us.

    Here, we see that agency (the free will of the individual) is in a sense over-rated or over-estimated. Their free will is constrained within real limits. And the system they create in concert (the so-called free market) acts to further constrain their free will by the emergent laws (of supply and demand for example) which the system generates and which the persons must obey to survive. Obeying laws absolutely seems to be the province of inanimate nature, with physics being the hardest of the hard sciences which deal with (apparently) inviolable laws. Humans individually show unpredictable behaviors which are difficult, perhaps impossible, to reduce to laws. Yet humans in massed numbers begin to develop systems which then become amenable to be being described (to some extent) by laws, or at least so it seems. Laws, like the law of supply and demand, in idealised economic model form, appear to emerge out of the massed actions of humans.

    Looked at in the above light, claims about our free will, our agency, might seem to be considerably exaggerated. How free are we? Looked at in another light, we can perhaps say this. When we choose a system, that system then chooses and continues to choose for us. The real choice (if humans have agency at all) is thus for the system. Once the system is chosen, the system tends to constrain us and choose for us. When a system is found to be making wrong choices and false choices then we need to go back to the originating choice which is a choice for the system itself.

    Footnote: The issue of monopolies and oligopolies is not even addressed by the above. The system we have chosen (capitalism) and which is now choosing for us is revealing laws of development (emergence of new phenomena) which are different from the theoretical modeled laws of the perfect free market and competition. One might call it the law of the rise of oligopoly and monopoly. This development is even more concerning… but I have written enough now for a blog post.

  8. Here’s a line from a recent news article on the Vogtle nuclear plant in the US — the only one in that nation under construction:

    “The staff is seeking $3.6 million to hire a consultant.”

    $5 million Australian dollars for a consultant? That’s more that what a 2 term US President gets paid over 8 years. Or what 6 Australian Prime Ministers get paid over the same time. It was hard to understand why the cost of nuclear power has risen so high, but I think I’m starting to understand.

  9. Sustainable economic development planning is so long term it is way outside the “election cycle” attention span of politicians. The failure is not just market based. The western democratic system fails every day somewhere in our present day reality. Brexit like indecision, Trumpism, cronyism, corruption and shortsighted policy making are now endemic in our democracies. Economic systems do not fall until political rigidities are overthrown.

  10. Gregory J. McKenzie:

    I refer to your statement, “Economic systems do not fall until political rigidities are overthrown.”

    I agree that this is true in itself. However, it can be the case that economic systems fall because they are in conflict with real systems. We know how this can go. Environmentally destructive economy causes environmental collapse causes economic collapse. Political rigidities, very commonly enforced by small elites, have to be overcome or overthrown by larger masses (usually) of common or average people. In turn, what prompts these masses to act is widespread economic and social hardship and injustice plus often environmental and living condition problems.

    In analysing political economy and effecting political economy change, one has to work with a theory of truth of course. The best theory is the correspondence theory of truth. Models ought to correspond with and reflect reality to some extent or they are not useful. Indeed bad models can do much harm.

    “That truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true.” – Charles Sanders Peirce.

    Now, I will get a little analytical. It is necessary to touch on issues which orthodox economics, in the main, refuses to deal with. This is part of the rigidity of the current system too; the refusal of its economic ideology to deal with empirical realities.

    To take an example, what Bill Mitchell and Jospeh Stiglitz have been saying critically about the Eurozone is substantially true and be can be shown to be true in two ways. Firstly, what they say about national accounts, fiat currencies and finance is true because they are accurately describing the axioms, formulas and operations of a formal mathematical accounting system. Certain things are true by definition and/or by the rules and equations in the system. Secondly, certain outcomes they predicted for the real system(s) (the real economy and real people) have been proven true enough so far, within allowances for complexity and error. They consistently predicted poor economic performance and serious social problems for the Eurozone and these predictions have come true.

    This satisfies an empirical inso far as it can be satisfied for what is, in its entirety, a wickedly complex science, namely political economy. Political economies demonstrate chaos, complexity, emergence, evolution and even (probably) some indeterminacy. Perfect predictions are not possible.

    What is of particular interest is the interaction of the formal system(s) with the real system(s). To reiterate, the formal economic system consists narrowly of national accounts, fiat currencies and finance. More broadly, the formal political economy system consists of all the rules, regulations and customs of the entire institutional environment of society.

    Formal statements in formal systems may be either descriptive or prescriptive or both. It is this ambivalent nature of formal statements which is not properly understood (or is denied) by orthodox economics and its justificatory ideology. Money prices are posited (by classical and neoliberal economics) to be a dependable measure of real value, this measure being achieved by the operation of the free market and its laws of supply and demand. Money is supposed to merely reflect real values (and facilitate its exchange in the form of traded real goods and real services). Other than this, money is supposed to be substantially neutral.

    The neutrality of money is the proposition that any money supply change makes no difference to real economic variables. Money is supposed to be descriptive of reality but not prescriptive, not to actually influence the real (not to prescribe then influence how the real is or should become) by its supply or operations. But money in its form, its supply and its operations via finance is constructed by humans, just as markets are constructed by humans. They are both constructed in ways chosen in a sociopolitical context and they could have and can be constructed in other ways.

    I said above that “Formal statements in the formal system may be either descriptive or prescriptive or both.” We see however, that statements about a real system can never be prescriptive but only descriptive. The Laws of Thermodynamics can only be described once we have discovered or learned them. We cannot prescribe new laws for thermodynamics or anything else in the domains covered by the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology).

    How then can a formal system “prescribe”? A formal system can only prescribe via rules which must pass through “logic gates” to be enacted. Then humans behave according to the rules (or sometimes rebel). Logic gates (at the level at which we are considering matters) are in turn only found in human brains and in certain machines (computers) made by humans. I will leave aside here the complex issue of whether logic gates exist in some manner in genes, cells or cell complexes. (They must, by the way, or how else does a brain possess or develop logic gates?)

    Rules, for example institutional rules on how to construct and use money, are then put into action by humans if such action is possible. Even legal laws are rules in this sense, they are not hard laws like the laws of physics. Where human rules contravene natural laws they cannot be put into action. The law of capital punishment (not a good law by the way) can be put into action. A law to resurrect a long clinically dead and even decomposed human (who was incorrectly convicted and executed) cannot be put into action. Such a legal law (really a rule) contravenes hard, natural laws.

    In like manner a set of formal rules (like the formal rules of currency in the Eurozone) can possess a tendency to violate natural, real system laws. The formal rules are not just descriptive (and often they are poorly descriptive of the real economy in any case) they are prescriptive; prescribing how money is to be made and used. In turn the prescription of how money is to be made and used has the strong tendency to prescribe how the real system should operate. It can push the real system to real limits but not beyond them (or fail to push the system to its real potential). Real limits include not just real economy limits but real environmental and real human limits. In each case the real systems start to break down if and when pushed to the point of their real limits. Anyone who ignores real limits (beyond which damage occurs), in an effort to ensure prescribed formal system consistency (of the money system for example) is either a fool or a dupe or a Machiavellian type with sectional interests quite different from the broad public interest.

  11. James Wimberley
    Your invocation of Jonah was quite brilliant. The left continues to be frustrated that our chaotic mixed economy and society continues to produce pretty good results without there being the significant reform that the idealists want. I have no idea, by the way, as to why we still get OK results given how dysfunctional the economic structure is. But it undeniably happens. The latest stroke of luck I read about was the CSIRO discovery that a particular type of algae fed to cows as only 2% of their feed reduces their methane emissions by 98%. There goes the argument that we need to reduce our consumption of red meat so as to save the planet. Humanity does not deserve the luck that keeps being thrown its way!

  12. John Goss,

    Pretty good results are okay if one is in a social class that gets a pretty good share. The “strokes of luck” come from science not capitalism. Most of the good R&D has come from state funded laboratories.You also omit the fact that the system that produces okay results for some is unsustainable. These okay results are not going to last.

    It’s always easy to be part of the dominant system and to accept its dominant myths. Instead of having to think and analyse, people just blindly accept the dogma of the dominant ideology. The day (or rather the decade) when the dominant system fails is going to be a terrible shock for a lot of people who failed to think critically about the economic system they embrace.

  13. And, as I posted on the latest Monday message board.

    The Menindee fish kills (2), the death of half the Barrier Reef since 2016, the 2016 mangrove die-off in the Gulf of Carpentaria (7,000ha of dead mangroves over 700km of coastline)… These are recent examples, just in Australia, of the damage that climate change and other presses and pulses (as they are called) are wreaking on our environment. These and other events like the massive and new wildfire patterns in many parts of the world, taken together, indicate the beginnings of a runaway collapse of our climate and ecosystems which in turn support our economies and human life. It is not individual events but the pattern of increasing frequency and severity of multiple events which sounds the alarm.

    Those who believe that weak and slow market led adjustments, in an extraordinarily wasteful and ecologically blind economic system, will be sufficient to adjust to these problems and save the world ecosystems and ourselves are already in denial of the extant evidence. The market has failed to react in time. The runaway collapse has started. Those who deny it simply can’t read the early, yet incontrovertible signs.

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