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Unpleasant Medicine

Environmental issues have been on my mind of late. From being stranded in Tokyo by the Eyjafjallajoekull ash plume, to the Deepwater Horizon disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, to the vexed issue of anthropogenic climate change, it's hard to ignore. And so are the human sociological side-effects as we all try to grapple with how best to respond to these issues.

I think it's significant that there's no consensus on the larger-scale significance of environmental threats; indeed, our responses are severely polarized, as if these are debatable matters of opinion rather than ones with quantifiable facts attached. Eyjafjallajoekull can potentially continue to erupt for years, massively disrupting long haul travel across the North Atlantic (especially if Katla follows its historic behaviour pattern and blows up after the smaller Eyjafjallajoekull eruption). But there's a tension between the two available responses — look for alternatives to lots of people and cargo flying through the affected air corridors, or change the tolerated level of atmospheric particles through which flight is permitted — and partisans of one approach or the other seem loath to discuss compromise.

In the case of the Gulf spill, there's Drill, baby, drill, versus calls for increased regulation and steps to decrease reliance on energy sources that add carbon to the atmosphere. And in the case of AGW, there are not merely arguments over the degree to which climate change is anthropic in origin, but a loud body of contrarians (including a large number of astroturf shills bankrolled by the oil and coal industry) who want us to believe that no climate change is occuring, or that any climatological variation is entirely natural and there's nothing to be done about it.

I think a large part of the problem is that messages about environmental change and how to deal with it are frequently delivered not merely in unvarnished and unpleasant terms — but in a manner guaranteed to encourage an anti-environmentalist backlash, due to our in-built cognitive biases. And backlash there is, by the ton.

Cognitive biases cut both ways — firstly, among the environmentaly aware, and secondly, among the broader population when environmentalist messages are received.

Let's take the environmentalist side first. A large subset who believe that consumer capitalism is incompatible with long-term human survival. For their purposes, consumer capitalism is an unchanging and unmodifiable whirl of resource extraction trapped in a positive feedback loop such that increasing economic activity and prosperity can only be maintained by increasing the rate of resource extraction and the resulting polution and production of waste. We've known in general outline about the limits on this mode of capitalism since the 1972 Club of Rome report; we live on a finite planet with a fixed resource base, our numbers are expanding, so delivering an increased standard of living to an increasing population appears to require a geometrically increasing rate of consumption of those finite resources. When they are exhausted, we hit the buffers: everything collapses. Right?

Fortunately, capitalism doesn't work like that. Firstly, there are physical limits to demand for a large range of physical products. Demand for most physical goods isn't infinite — but increasing demand from a very low base tends to follow a sigmoid curve, and from a distance, the first half of a sigmoid demand curve looks like an exponential function. Environmental critiques of capitalism tend to focus on the supply, not on demand. Worse, they tend to ignore the labour theory of value. They also ignore intellectual property. This shouldn't be surprising. An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials (and, in principle, barely constrained by energy); the main constraint on it is labour.

It's a no-brainer to say that we need to reduce or stop the exploitation of finite resources, and that unregulated capitalism is very dangerous. But it's a long leap from these positions to conclude that we need to abandon a growth based economy entirely. The economy can grow indefinitely without immediate environmental impact, as long as the growth takes place in sectors that don't demand energy or raw materials, such as intellectual property and personal services.

Back to those cognitive biases ....

Most of us, at a deep gut level, haven't quite gotten used to the fact that in the past century we have stopped living in rural agricultural societies where 50-90% of the population had to work the land in order to eat. (Never mind that we no longer live in an industrial society where 50% of the work force laboured in factories.) We still use the past societies we and our parents grew up in as a frame for evaluating the performance of our corner of the global economy. Consequently, when the core environmental message (that we need to reduce consumption of finite natural resources) is reformulated by people who share this background with the rest of us, the result is typically a message that we need to reduce economic growth.

That's when the second cognitive bias hits, the one on the receiving side. We have been trained to associate economic growth with improvements in our personal well-being. (More food, more living space, a bigger car: holidays in the sun.) Those at the bottom of the economic wealth distribution curve receive the message "we need to reduce economic growth" and interpret it as "you're never going to get your fair share of the pie". And when those at the top of the heap hear it, they interpret it as "your share of the pie is too big, so we're going to take a chunk of it away".

The upshot is that much environmentalist rhetoric frames an important signal (limited resources and/or the danger of pollution) in terms of a faulty or obsolete economic model to produce a warning message that offends most of the people it's meant to convince by implicitly threatening their perception of their future status.

There's a deeply embedded piece of primate behaviour, common to almost all of us: when someone shoves you, you shove right back. If you're being hammered with an unacceptable instruction, a very common response is denial or argument. And the louder the instruction is repeated, the more extreme the reaction.

For fifty years now we've been hearing warnings about pollution and resource depletion; for thirty years, about AGW and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because these messages are interpreted as carrying an unpalatable payload (stop flying, stop driving, consume less, repent, sinner!) people stop listening and shove back, hard (drill, baby, drill!).

The solution should be fairly clear, and I'm probably displaying my own cognitive biases when I say that giving up on the environment isn't an option. But if action to reduce environmental impact is desirable, then it needs to be framed in terms that don't threaten the intended audience, but promise rewards for behavioural change. Instead of us all consuming less, we're going to consume differently and make huge profits off environmental energy. Instead of being punished for dumping waste, we're going to make money from recycling. Played right, a shift to a sustainable economy should see a net increase in wealth because the wealth-producing activities shift with the demand for sustainability. Hair shirt puritanism is not only unnecessary; it's positively damaging to our future, and I wish the greens would drop it right now.

257 Comments

1:

"Hair shirt puritanism is not only unnecessary; it's positively damaging to our future, and I wish the greens would drop it right now."

Thank you for saying that. It's a point I've been trying to make for some time, but I'm very small potatoes and (obviously) haven't had too much of an impact.

-- Steve

2:

An excellent summary of the current climate, if you'll pardon the pun. In earlier days the environmentalist lobby were described as people who hated their own species and that attitude still persists. Change for the better doesn't have to involve "hair-shirt puritanism" - a wonderfully descriptive turn of phrase. The resource based economy is not going to go away: people still have to build and eat. But I think it can be managed in such a way as to minimalise the damage as long as that change is also seen to profit humanity in every sense.

3:

Whilst it's hard to refute your argument here, it's worth pointing out that in the Bush-Gore election, Gore (at least from the outside) seemed to be pushing your message, Bush was pushing the "Drill, Baby, Drill" message - and whilst we can quibble about who actually won the election, "Drill, Baby, Drill" was certainly popular enough to get so close it was a really hard call.

Getting those well rehearsed and conditioned primate response derailed so the sapiens part of our species name stands a chance of kicking is, already, a significant problem.

That said, it is also possible to sell your message. The Governator seems to have pulled if off in California big style, despite a whole host of other issues that he is struggling to manage. There's a lovely rephrasing of it at http://gov.ca.gov/issue/energy-environment/

I'm pro-environment enough I voted Green at the last election. Sadly not in Brighton though so I'm again represented by someone I didn't vote for. But I can't help worrying that some of the choices that we're facing might be closer to the "give up your pie" ones - if you look at acerage to maintain your lifestyle figures, we're already pretty much at bursting point. Limiting the population will help some, but halving (or reducing more than this) all of the first world's energy, water and food resource consumption and sharing it around the rest of the world would probably do more. And then we are into Robin Hood territory, and the first world is cast as Prince John.

4:

And surely we have some positive examples - i.e. catalytic convertors on cars reducing smog, creating more pleasant cities - and jobs along the way.

The only problem is that an IP-based economy goes right up against the IP devaluation that's happening right now ('you don't create IP, you create services'

5:


Thank you, Charlie.

I am a capitalist, Reagan Republican, tending towards libertarianism, gun toting, religious nut.

BUT, that does not mean I hate the planet. I want to conserve resources and ensure the future. Take the tree hugging, sandal wearing, recycle my urine out of the green movement and I think it would become far more palatable to many people.

I want to see technology and enlightened self interest pave the way for sustainable growth.

6:

Unfortunately, taking a moderate stance triggers two other common human behaviors:

1. Ignoring the noise. If you don't take an extreme position, it's easy to become just another babbling source of noise in a life already filled with noise. Especially for the older generation still in charge, there's a lot of stuff out there competing for attention.

2. "Somebody Else's Problem". A lot of issues that aren't quite so sticky fall prey to this as well. Let's take traffic congestion as an example: obviously this would be reduced if people started taking public transit. But, what's the common reaction (at least in America)? "Someone else should take public transit so that the roads are clearer for me." Same thing with environmental issues.

The real problem here is that real environmental change will threaten some economic livelihood. At the very least the oil industry will take a hit as we find more sustainable energy sources. So, people with those resources are going to expend them to make sure that the profits keep flowing. The question is: how to we channel that reactionary behavior into something useful?

In the mean time, those of us without large bank accounts or positions of high influence are doing what we can. Yep, that means less driving, less flying, and all those other unpleasant things that people without the ability to see into the long term fear and loathe. You may see it as wearing the hair-shirt, I see it as giving a damn about our world.

7:

I agree with you on a tactical level, Charlie, but the targets of these tactics shouldn't be patting themselves on the back.

After all, when people say, "I'm happy to save my planet and not kill my own descendants, but only if you're very, VERY polite to me," then it's pretty clear that they're selfish dicks.

8:

Nice summary. What annoys me about the current brouhaha over the ash density issue is that (for entirely understandable reasons), governments and airlines are in my opinion essentially playing russian roulette with the volcano (and commercial airline passengers are in the firing line).

On your wider point, it doesn't do to underestimate the stupidity of even seemingly intelligent people. For example, the recent case of demonstrably falsified data by climate scientists was an absolute gift to the climate change deniers. That was unnecessary and could retard progress by years.

9:

Perhaps one way to get the point across is to emphasise the fact that there's undoubtedly a lot of potential to make money from green technologies.

For example, at the moment people in the West think of recycling as a dull civic duty that gains us no benefit and leads to people being prosecuted for putting the wrong rubbish in their bins. Yet, as mineral resources become scarcer and harder to exploit, recycling will become more economically viable, and at some point it will be better value to recycle than to mine more materials. When that happens, I would anticipate seriously bad times for mining companies as they fight to extract ever-more expensive and poorer-grade resources while competing with recycled materials. Those who have invested in recycling technologies will no doubt make fortunes from them.

10:

One interesting thought...
Volcano eruptions tend to cause global cooling.

Not that I'm about to recommend one every decade, but this should change the shape of the graph.

OTOH, they also put **LOTS** of CO2 into the air, so after the particulates wash out, they enhance global warming.

Sorry that this is kind of aside of your major points, but people tend to form their ideas of climate change based on local & recent weather changes. Currently where I live it's been raining later in the year than any time in recent history. Probably a poor time to try to convince the locals of global warming.

11:

"But if action to reduce environmental impact is desirable, then it needs to be framed in terms that don't threaten the intended audience, but promise rewards for behavioural change."

Most environmentalists do this--have been doing it for decades. Consider the Sierra Club. They don't get the press. The radicals, now, the hair-shirt types, they get the press. The advocacy of moderation does not sell newspapers and the reactionaries want to paint all environmentalists as scary radicals. Stories of privation, of sin and repentance, people understand those: they are part of the popular ideas of Western civilization. Yet those stories are hopeless models of environmental self-discipline. Privation will not stop the on-going disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and repentance does not matter--there will be no forgiveness from the physical world. All we can do is remedy the damage as best we can.

Stories of moderate discipline and a happy life are not part of our culture and often are not believed: we trust pain more than joy. Yet those are the stories we need. Huge cultural changes are demanded of us, if we are to develop a more healthy relationship with our environment. Framing or not, the reality is that a particular kind of life is coming to an end. We can say it in the gentlest possible words, but if we are honest, we still have to say it.

Me, I finally decided that gentle words were not enough and took up croaking.

12:

I like what you're saying here, and I agree that we have to get used to the fact the growth economics are here to stay – personally I think they embody a natural trait of humanity.

But you lost me a little when you said

An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials (and, in principle, barely constrained by energy)

I'd be interested to hear how that works, but I've my doubts.

Whilst thinking about the same problem it occurred to me that everything we do consumes some of those finite material resources. What we can do is limited by capitalist markets to what we can afford, a natural brake as you suggested.

Not being born in the first place is the only thing that is completely resource free, contraception hardware aside.

Using this as a vehicle to a sustainable future holds some dangers, even if you ignore some of the less savoury methods of achieving this goal available to Man. Population control is a long process, but I think it'll yield the most equitable result.

In the meantime I agree that we have to do something, and you get nowhere without gaining the support of the majority of people... probably shouldn't have suggested avoiding your own birth really.

James

13:

So let's say a bunch of people respond in a way that lets you conclude "it's pretty clear that they're selfish dicks".

Well, okay, so what?

If 30% or 65% or 98% of the population consists of "selfish dicks", then we have to come up with some policy (or rhetoric or whatever) that works when that portion of the population is "selfish dicks".

If our reaction is to just grumble or say "they deserve what they get" or insist that we're not going to work on any other issues until we "solve that problem", then the problem is not going to get solved and we're all screwed.

If you think of the "selfish dick" issue as a constraint on the available solutions instead of a separate problem that must be solved before we can do anything else, what do you come up with?

14:

I think I must be in the first group, as it appears to me that even current consumption is not compatible with long-term survival, let alone the growth in consumption that would have to come along with continuing down our current path for another few decades.

There may not be an upper limit to the size of our economy, but I do think there is an only slowly increasing number of human bodies that can be sustained on the raw stuff around us and the energy inputs from the sun. If we continue to lean on population growth to keep labor cheap and consumer demand for physical products growing, we will eventually see the scales balanced by pollution or disease even if resources are never fully depleted.

That said, your suggestion about how to market efforts to change direction is spot on. Here in North Texas, we're expecting to deplete our aquifers by 50% over the next 20 years, but my neighbors still water their lawns. This is not a group of people who want some nerd telling them what to do.

I find a weird dissonance in my thinking about this issue - on the one hand, I tend to suspect there are already way too many humans and we have done too much harm to avoid a depopulating catastrophe (or series of population-discouraging catastrophettes). I don't see much contemporary humans can do to make the existence of contemporary humanity last another 500 years. On the other hand I'm child-free and mostly a plant-eater because polluting less and wasting fewer resources 'feels right'.

15:

As I said clearly, dfjdejulio, I agree with Charlie that taking people's selfishness into account is necessary as a tactical concern. I never grumbled we should give up, just remember who we're dealing with.

For example, it may be wildly optimistic to think that AGW deniers are really just waiting for someone who's polite and softly spoken to them to lead the way.

For example, Al Gore spent eight years in the US House, eight in the Senate, eight in the White House. A white southerner who wears nice suits and ties, speaks softly, serves on the board of Apple and Google, and has made lots of money in environmental industries. An establishment figure by any measure . . .

And absolutely demonized by AGW deniers, like anyone who promotes environmental concerns.

I don't think the "hair-shirts" are the problem, at least not here in the US. The UK is a bit different, but I think that here the crazy tends to be on the other side, and that has to be addressed tactically as well. We can't wish it away by blaming "dirty hippies" for being too shrill.

16:

Firstly, there are physical limits to demand for a large range of physical products. Demand for most physical goods isn't infinite -- but increasing demand from a very low base tends to follow a sigmoid curve, and from a distance, the first half of a sigmoid demand curve looks like an exponential function.

One item that doesn't follow this - can't, I believe, but I suppose I could somehow be wrong about it - is food production, and - perhaps more vitally - food .

Secondly: It seems to me - and again, I could be wrong, but I'm not seeing where - that a lot of the problems environmentalists complain about (overuse of carbon-generating energy, disruption of animal habitats, lack of land for food production) and possibly even some problems that everyone complains about (poverty? traffic?) might be addressed by reducing the human population. (By half would be good, by 5/6 might be better. Do we really need more than a billion of us?)

(Note: not by Logan's Run-style execution, but over time, with family planning, encouragement of responsibly-sized families, free birth control, etc.)

However, one of the opposing arguments is that it would destroy the growth economy that you mention. Well, it might reduce or stop growth in some sectors (though not in that of IP, but wouldn't it also mean more (already-created) wealth for everyone? (Not that I have any illusions that it would be evenly, or even fairly, distributed. Note that 'or even' implies that I do not think "evenly" equates to "fairly".)

Anyway, I'd be interested in hearing your (Charles's) take on these two topics. When, y'know, you have a moment. :)

17:

@Charlie -- when companies like BP and Shell are nose-deep in the alternative energy subsidy trough, it's way past time to retire the tired old "shills for Big Oil" canard. (My own stance -- if the planet came through the big CO2 spike at the end of the Devonian without turning into a second Venus, I'd say the imminent-catastrophic AGW crowd are overestimating their feedbacks by an order of magnitude -- and I'd rather see a relatively benign warming than a new Ice Age.)

On the broader issue of growth vs resource consumption, Tim Worstall (always a sound chap on this sort of thing) made a good post just a few days ago -- http://timworstall.com/2010/05/14/sigh-economic-growth-and-physical-resources-again-at-the-guardian/ --

"Value as perceived by the human beings doing the valuing. Yes, we might all think that sending a virtual red rose over Facebook is silly but those sending them (and presumably to some extent those receiving them) do value them. And that value is what we measure when we talk about GDP and it is the creation of that value that allows people to make profits."

@12
The way we developed to work with a population of selfish dicks is called the market : as Adam Smith put it “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”

18:

Drat. That should read, "... perhaps more vitally - food transporation."

19:

Population reduction: unnecessary.

(I can't believe I'm having to explain this ...)

First, the whole damn planet seems to be following the developed world into the demographic transition. It turns out that education for women, urbanization, and economic development are all very effective contraceptives (especially combined with, ahem, availability of affordable contraception). The UN projections on peak population have been revised downwards continuously for about 30 years now; we're looking at a peak of 10.5 billion or less, dropping back to 6 billion by the end of the century.

Secondly, thanks to the green revolution, the total number of people living in food poverty has remained roughly the same since 1970 -- while global population has doubled. We've managed to feed everyone; not well, but far better than anyone expected back then. The efficiency of food production globally has more than doubled in the past thirty years, and there is headroom to improve it a lot more, even without looking into exotic farming technologies to replace our current lay-it-out-flat-on-the-ground and run it on sunlight model.

I'd like to see a lot of research on vertical farming, yes. And on genetically modified foodstuffs, from the angle of improving productivity rather than enriching Monsanto. (The work on trying to get C4 photosynthesis running in rice is a good start.)

But those catastrophe models that Paul Ehrlich used to push? Totally busted.

20:

when companies like BP and Shell are nose-deep in the alternative energy subsidy trough,

That's problematic. Regulatory capture (of subsidies for alternative energy research) doesn't imply a committment to rendering their core cash cow (oil) obsolete. It just indicates pursuit of money from any source.

Put it another way: the greenwash from the oil companies would be a lot more convincing if they were building wind farms or solar arrays in New Mexico.

21:

The advocates of population reduction are, I think, plainly right. This is one of the core problems. Rather than an economic model that is part of the problem, patriarchal values are part of the problem. Opposition to population control is in part based in threatened masculinity, and it is proving very hard to answer this fear.

Scott Westerfeld, #15: I think one of the reasons that Al Gore is so demonized is exactly that he is "an establishment figure by any measure." He is perceived partly as a traitor, and partly as a credible critic to be destroyed.

22:

Kevin@7:

the recent case of demonstrably falsified data by climate scientists

No. Not unless you mean something other than the stolen CRU emails, which mainly demonstrated that the media were eager to push a smear campaign and sections of the public were eager to swallow it.

If you do mean something in the CRU emails, then name the scientists, say exactly which data they have falsified, how exactly they have falsified it, and why you believe that. If you can do this, did you make a submission to any of the inquiries which have entirely vindicated them of such foul charges? And if you can't do it then shame on you for swallowing the smear, and again for repeating it.

I read a lot of the emails, and have made submissions to the inquiries, and I watched the live testimony, read the written submissions, and the inquiry reports, and I am absolutely certain that nothing in any of the emails or related documents showed any data falsification of any sort by any climate scientists.

Charles Hixson @ 9:

Volcano eruptions tend to cause global cooling.

You need a much bigger volcano than Eyjafjallajoekull for this, to pump a lot of SO2 and particulates into the stratosphere to make a global haze which lasts for months or years. Pinatubo in 1991, for instance, made tens of millions of tons of stratospheric aerosols which drove the global temperature down by about 0.4C for a year or so. This present eruption, pumping a small amount of dark ash into the troposphere, might have a warming or cooling effect but in any case is very brief and localised. If Katla goes off then that might be different, but the other thing to remember is that even stratospheric aerosol effects are short-term. Once the aerosols fall out, global warming continues unchanged (and temperatures return to their previous trend-line)

23:

An interesting point about the demographic transition: it appears to be a one-way step.

Parents base their expectation of many children to have on the behaviour of their peers. If every family has 7-8 kids, then a family with 4 is somehow perceived as unfortunate, under-fertile. But once mean family size falls to 2, having 3 kids is, well, 50% above average. If mean family size falls further, below 2, then even having 2 children is at the high end of expectations.

So it's not unreasonable to expect that cultures that make the demographic transition to zero population growth won't shift back up a gear without a considerable social kick, the like of which hasn't been seen yet.

(I discount the late childbearing bubble in parts of western Europe -- France, the UK, and elsewhere have had mini-baby booms in the past decade -- as simply the effect of a generational cohort choosing to reproduce in their mid thirties rather than twenties; it's a delayed fertility bubble from a decade earlier, rather than a sharp rise in the long term reproductive rate.)

24:

"An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials (and, in principle, barely constrained by energy); the main constraint on it is labour."

But where is the productive property in such an economy? It is not in large machinery, locations, and organizations--in a word, capital--which is by its nature subject to central control. Rather it is in accumulated knowledge which is fluid and expansible--social--and hard to control centrally. Is an IP-based economy necessarily socialist?

25:

Charlie @0 --

I think you're missing an important part of this.

Certainly you are right that a shift to a greater general prosperity by means of transforming the basis of the economy to a closed-loop model would work, but there is no way to increase the general prosperity without systematically reducing the relative wealth and power of the privileged class. ('cause if you don't, the increase doesn't stay general.)

Moving to a closed-loop (I mean, the loop is closed now, there's a finite mass of planet, a finite energy budget from sunlight, etc., but we aren't acting like that is true at the moment; I mean an economy in which we act as though that is true) economy from the present economy means re-shuffling the relative status deck. If there's a way to do this without having at least as big an effect on relative status as the switch from land to industrial capital as the basis of status, I have no idea what it is.

What we're seeing is a media owned by people who are willing to acknowledge that things have to be done in response to the side effects of our current economy but implacably determined that nothing will be done that decreases their relative social status. I doubt very much that the lobbying effort is run on different terms.

If there's a way to crack that short of bloody revolution is, to my mind, the really interesting question.

Steve @17 --

Markets only work when you can say "no, I don't want that today". Climate is not a subject about which one can say no other than by moving.

So the question isn't "Earth remains habitable?"; the question is "are we causing sufficient climate change to set off mass migrations?". I would submit that the answer to that one is "oh hell yes".

26:

"For example, the recent case of demonstrably falsified data by climate scientists..."

What, the one that was just cleared by the HoC and the National Academy of Science as being fundamentally sound data and based on decent research? That one? Oy vey. You're right that the controversy didn't help, but spreading misinformation helps even less.

27:

The Raven @24 --

I would say rather Egalitarian. Socialist assumes some degree of common ownership of production.

While there's a good argument for collective ownership of various parts of the infrastructure -- anything where running it as a profit-making enterprise adds drag to the economy as a whole -- I don't think you can make a good argument for collective ownership of the means of production in a fundamentally artisanal IP-driven economy, since that will be some combination of people's heads, people's history, and patterns of co-operating in groups.

One way that it might look socialist is if the "you need a really big co-operating group" problem gets handled is by pushing lots of infrastructure into some form of collective ownership. Another way that it might look socialist is through a Scandinavian-style presumption that the economic ceiling should not get too far from the economic floor.

But I'm pretty sure that socialism, as conceived in the nineteenth century, can't be made to work in an IP economy.

28:

"Socialist assumes some degree of common ownership of production."

If the means of production is the accumulation of shared knowledge, how is that not commonly owned? And if that is the primary method of production would not it come to dominate other methods of production?

I think we are arguing over definition: I am using socialism to refer to a broad philosophical idea; you are using it to refer to a particular historical movement. Yet most 19th-century socialist thinkers argued for a broad philosophical idea of socialism; Karl Marx did, after all.

29:

The real problem with Gore's stance (and a lot of other high profile alarmists) is their flagrant hypocrisy. They may talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk; the cutting back on consumption is for us in the hoi polloi, while they continue a lavish lifestyle, because they "deserve it".

There is an unhealthy whiff in all this of the socially backwards, and the yearning to reestablish a society with a narrow elite and an impoverished peasantry, not only for wannabe aristos like Gore, but a number of our own aristocrats who also push the "shiver in the dark, you peasants!" line. The only slight difference across the spectrum is whether the intended elite is an aristocracy or a nomenklatura.

30:

"I'm pretty sure that socialism, as conceived in the nineteenth century, can't be made to work in an IP economy."

Why not? We still have owners, workers, and a need to share the wealth.

31:

I'd love to agree with you, Charlie, but the numbers just don't add up. Yes, better technology can and does improve the carbon intensity of our economy, but not enough.

The economic wealth created per tonne of emissions is the key figure that matters. For your argument to hold true, that we can have economic growth and a realistic chance of avoiding the worst of climate change we need to cut global emissions by about 3% per year, while still delivering growth of 3% per year. So we need is improve carbon intensity by 6% per year and that's a long stretch.

Denmark has managed about 2.4% improvement per year, on top of 2.2% economic growth (1990-2005). The Danes have pushed for renewable energy in a big way, backed by access to German coal and French nukes if the wind stops blowing. The UK has managed 2.9% per year, on top of 2.4% growth in part by growing sectors with low emissions, i.e. pushing manufacturing offshore and focusing on services. Despite the major R&D investments those nations have made and the structural changes to their economies, they haven't developed and rolled out technology fast enough. They have barely kept emissions constant, let alone decreased them. Other nations are worse, much worse.

The only nations that have ever managed to reduce their emissions by anything like enough are places like Poland after the Berlin Wall fell. They could replace 40-year old Soviet tech with modern factories, power plants and cars, and put their economies through radical surgery. They managed to get into the 6-8% region, until they caught up with the West, when progress slowed back to usual.

Yes, flying gets slagged off by environmentalists, but for good reason. Airlines have always wanted to push emissions down, because emissions come from fuel and fuel costs money. Ludicrous amounts of money has been spent for decades on research into making jet engines more fuel (and carbon) efficient. The result? Over the last forty years the global air fleet has increased in carbon efficiency by 1.7% per year. Unfortunately, the number of miles flown has increased by 5-6% per year. The numbers just don't add up. Emissions continue upwards, and the technology is not there to solve this. For planes, it is barely a third of the way there.

Don't get me wrong, better technology, delivered on a large scale, and delivered faster than ever, is absolutely necessary, but it is not going to solve the problem. It might solve half of the problem, if we're lucky. So there is a gap between the solution we have (better tech) and the solution we need (less emissions). What's going to make it up. Either it will be less economic growth, or it will be changes in demand, though social change.

Or, as looks increasingly likely, we'll just learn to live with increasing emissions, and our descendants will piss on our graves.

32:

The Raven @28 --

The infrastructure for the transmission of knowledge, and the accumulated body of knowledge, might both be chiefly collectively owned. But for the IP economy to have functioning incentives, you have to be able to profit from either creating new knowledge, being lucky or clever in arranging existing knowledge, or providing some sort of increased-utility service (like creating indexes...).

So I would say that the machinery of production would be all those individual insights, arrangements, and innovations, and those are precisely those things which cannot be collectively owned without breaking the incentive system. (I think material production is going to remain very important, but it's going to be much more about value and much less about cost.)

I'm fine with a "we ought to all be looking out for each other" philosophical stance; I'm even quite entirely fine with keeping the ceiling close to the floor. (Even with defining the ceiling in terms of the floor.) I'm just sure that either of those things is socialism, or that either is necessarily included in your definition of socialism as a broad philosophical movement.

I am pretty sure that the response to climate change is driving, and will continue to do so and moreso, authoritarianism; the current power-holding class is threatened from all directions, and while it's not the good long term response, going more authoritarian certainly puts off the awful day of necessary change.

Jez @31 --

Saw an article recently that announced that NASA's next+3 generation airliner contest had been won at one size class by an MIT design that promises up to a 70% reduction in fuel use. ()

The trick isn't improved emissions; the trick is to stop extracting fossil carbon at all. Entirely doable (the last one I was worried about, paving tar, has apparently been solved by a process based on pig manure, of which there is a vast plenty associated with commercial hog farms) but really drastic in terms of reshuffling that status deck.

There are four possible fusion designs that might work on paper; only one is being seriously pursued, and not seriously-seriously. Closed loop city design -- where waste heat from one thing heats the greenhouses that are providing tomatoes and strawberries out of season, sort of thing -- is just about completely untouched.

So, yeah, you're right that incremental improvements of current tech aren't enough, but those are likewise not the only tech improvements available.

33:

Actually, contrary to popular opinion, markets work fairly well for the conservation of "finite" resources (in the sense of non-biological resources such as minerals). Price shifts in response to supply-demand dynamics produce strong incentives for both greater efficiency and substitution with less-scarce resources.

However, markets (in isolation) are particularly weak at conserving renewable resources, especially where these are not easily defined by property/sovereign borders and/or require a baseline population for viable reproduction.

34:

Is this prompted by the Hartwell Paper?

I agree with the fundamental idea: decarbonising the economy will be a good thing in many more ways than just averting climate catastrophe. A lot of people are going to become insanely rich by building CSP plants across the Maghreb, because economies of scale will let them turn out huge amounts of electrical power at rather less than coal or nuclear prices. But: the reason we are considering any sort of interventionist approach in the first place is that laissez-faire isn't working, because the pricing of business-as-usual doesn't include the externalities, and those turn out to be immense. Yes, decarbonising will be wealth-creating, but there's a development hump to get over, to get to those economies of scale. The usual way to do that is to send a price signal: either subsidize the new or tax the old.

35:

The 'shoving back' comment rang a bell for me - last week, I had a fascinating conversation with my Mum about global warming. She's a very clever and resourceful woman, but when my wife and I talked about 'global warming' she rolled her eyes about and tut tutted disbelief.

I wanted to understand why she had that reaction, so I bit the bullet and explained to her why I believed in global warming, that it is caused by human activity and a significant change was currently ongoing and will do so for 100-200 years. Long story short, she was upset that the government was using 'you must do this for the global warming!' as an excuse for a lot of policies over the past ten years.

She could believe that CO_2 correlated with mean temperature, and that humans had dumped an unprecedented amount of CO_2 in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age, and that this could to lead to a change - it was resentment for the 'enforced' loss of lifestyle that got to her.

Mind you, she's not changed the way she lives, and I don't blame her. Most green related conservation tips, whilst noble and generally appealing as being more resource conserving and energy efficient, are not going to change the climate our kids will have in any measurable way.

36:

The Deepwater Horizon link in the first paragraph contains an extra " at the end.

37:

Matt K
" Most green related conservation tips, whilst noble and generally appealing as being more resource conserving and energy efficient, are not going to change the climate our kids will have in any measurable way."

--It depends on how many people use those tips. For instance, as explained in another comment above, the size of families is changing through modeling of media behavior (there was an article in the Wall Street Journal in January or thereabouts how a couple of popular telenovelas are changing family size in outlying areas in a couple of South American countries). Also, a small change done by a _lot_ of people can make a huge difference. I don't know what the total results were, but I believe the PRC had a campaign once where everybody had to kill seven flies a day (on average--you had lazy people who bought them from the Enterprising Sort who killed a lot). Now, China's population was not a billion during that campaign, but even so--several hundred million flies a day is a _lot_ of dead flies. As I said, I don't know what the final outcome was, but I suspect it reduced the number of flies for a while in the areas where this campaign was strictly enforced.

Minor efforts by a _lot_ of people do add up.

38:

Graydon @32:
You mean this plane?
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/mit-designs-planes-of-the-future-70-percent-less-fuel-consumption-nasa.php

Yup, 70% more fuel efficient, but they're talking about it coming into service by 2035. The service life of a commercial airline is 30 years, but let's be very generous and say that these new planes are so good that we throw perfectly serviceable planes away after only 10 years. By 2045, every plane in the sky is 70% more fuel efficient than planes right now. That gives us a 3% per year improvement from now.

If air travel continues to increase at 6%, then emissions from aviation still double by 2045. Whoops.

(If MIT really think that they can deliver 3% per year, then they're going against the industries track record for the last four decades. That's like a computing company claiming they can beat Moore's Law. I wish them luck, and I hope they can deliver, but I think they're kidding.)

39:

There's a lot of talk about advanced technology and other ways those of us living comfortably (comfortable meaning we have plenty to eat, no struggle to pay rent or obtain health care, and some disposable income to hand) in the industrialized west can prevent our privileged lives from changing.

But all I can do is look at the UN's projected numbers for world population growth by 2050, http://esa.un.org/unpp/p2k0data.asp, and say that if there are that many more people, given the current rate of technological change and the intensity of social inequality both within most industrialized nations of the west and between residents of those countries and residents of the global south, all I can predict is intensifying inequality bolstered by the capitalistic nature of markets for subsistence materials like food, clothing, and shelter, to start with. We may be able to feed more people, if at a greater cost and with greater difficulty, but what will most likely happen instead of a "rising tide raising all boats" is that existing inequality will intensify so that there will be fewer rich people consuming more than their share of resources and more poor people struggling over an ever-decreasing slice of the pie. The mechanisation of modern economies and restriction of access to jobs within most sectors that might guarantee a middle-class income to people who have the social connections and ability to afford unpaid internships are part of this trend.

40:

Jez @38 --

So far as I know, the 2035 date is so they fit the airline's replacement schedule; I expect they could start building airframes tomorrow if it weren't for the pesky expectations of amortized costs on the part of the airlines.

I don't think it's like trying to beat Moore's Law -- which is an assertion about manufacturing processes, rather than what is being manufactured -- but like trying to beat x86 chip architectures (which has already been done several times to no commercial success); it's really, really tough to get off a well-developed local maximum. (Especially in a business where if stuff goes wrong you drop people from five miles in the air.) That's just the kind of economic shift we're facing to get off fossil carbon, though.

41:

Those claims about Al Gore have largely been debunked. The Gores spend more money on energy at home than most US families, but their house contains two offices. Their home energy budget is for a home plus a business. Al Gore in particular has to maintain an executive office, which takes space and energy. The Gores are also spending extra on sustainably-generated electricity and carbon credits and spent a great deal on refitting their home to improve its energy efficiency.

That claim is an appeal to jealousy and greed.

See: http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/gorehome.asp

42:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8468358.stm

One man's quote "mistake" is another's falsified. Some data was demonstrably incorrect, if you like. It should not ever have been published. As best, there was a failure to verify the data. My main point, which I stand by, was that the whole incident made it so much easier for CCD's to claim (incorrectly) that the whole case for global warming is based on false, or incorrectly interpreted, data.

43:

Graydon @40:
You're kidding, right? You're telling me that airlines could have a plane that uses 70% less fuel right now, but they don't want to because they own planes that waste fuel and they want to keep those planes?

Seriously, a brand new 747-8 costs something like US$0.3 billion right now. In a thirty year lifetime, it will burn about US$80 billion in fuel. Fuel costs completely dominate operating costs for airlines. If more efficient planes exist then leading airlines would flog off their existing planes on the second-hand market and buy new ones. They are buying what exists, 747-8s and A380s, because those are the most efficient planes that can be built right now.

MIT have not designed planes. They have sketched out some speculative concepts. Can we keep the distinction clear, please?

44:

Both Republican and Democratic governors have asked to drill oil off the Virginia coast and Obama finally gave permission. Now, after Deepwater Horizon, both the Navy and NASA want to keep the drilling away.

45:

Jez --

Airlines couldn't have it now; they could have it (probably) five years from now. (Boeing had a similar engines at rear, thin wing, non-tubular fuselage design; they shelved it because there was no demand.) But they'd have to order it now.

Fuel costs of 80 G$USD in 30 years? This would imply one 747 costs more than 2 G$USD/year in fuel to operate. This in turn implies that if it flies 350 times in a year with 400 passengers each time, the fuel cost per passenger is more than 15 kUSD. (14.3 k$USD at 2 G$USD.) So I think you slipped a decimal somewhere.

People hate substantive change. Airlines tend to be extremely conservative about aircraft in part due to liability and in part due to the awful organizational problems that attend on real change. (You need a new kind of engine fitter; how do you arrange to get enough, at the right time? The USAF is pretty good at this; airlines are not.)

So who wants to go first? Nobody. (Much like we wouldn't have got commercial wide body jets when we did without the B-47 and the cargo aircraft competition won by the C5 Galaxy.) So Boeing couldn't get orders and went with the much less radical composite-but-looks-normal design.

It's a lot like that with the whole fossil carbon thing; there is certainly at least one other local maximum at least as high for pretty much everything we use fossil carbon for (except possibly refining iron ore); the problem is in no way a technical one. But no one wants to go first, because they are doing pretty well here, don't know precisely (or, necessarily, even generally; "which of these 3 options is going to win?" is a tough call) where that next local maximum is, nor who is going to pay for the transition.

So the problem is pretty much purely social and political; how do we get those first steps?

Emissions taxes guaranteed to increase steadily would probably do it, but the political will to implement those seems lacking just about everywhere.

46:

I find myself in the odd position of having to recommend Bill Gates... If you haven't seen his recent TED talk on this topic, go and watch it, it's excellent.

47:

I know that an Economy of Plenty vs an Economy of Scarcity is out there. I've seen references to an Economy of Plenty recently. Where's the hard theory?
Money is software. I write software for a living. There's an infinite amount of it out there (re Charlie's point on IP). Where's the soft theory?

48:
Fortunately, capitalism doesn't work like that ... Demand for most physical goods isn't infinite
This may be technically correct-- demand always equals supply -- but it is dead wrong in practice.

One of the reasons is that there is a large industry devoted to persuading us that we don't have enough. Your plasma TV is no good any more; you have to get a "3-D" TV. A large fraction of that industry spends its time dreaming up new kinds of things to own. How much demand (in the sense of desire) was there for jet-skis before they were developed? Infinitesimal amounts.

This industry isn't very good at what it does, but it doesn't have to be, because of two other parts of our psychological make-up (besides the cognitive biases you mention). First, we seek to improve our social position -- keep up with, and for preference, outdo, the Joneses. Second, we are visual -- we respond most strongly to what we see, and we interpret the world almost entirely in terms of sight. Our most basic psychological drives have to do with concrete objects.

The key points are 1) that we compete for relative social status, and 2) that we compete through the medium of things, because things are what we respond to emotionally.

The "relative" bit means that the process can never stop. As soon as one person gets ahead, others compete to outdo her. Our "thing" orientation means that the best way to impress others is by acquiring physical things -- preferably new kinds of things.

You can see where this goes, I hope. "So you have a holiday home on Titan? Big deal, I have two. And two rocket-skis at each one!"

Collectively, we're locked into an ever-ascending spiral of material acquisition -- at least, we are, so as long as we're taking people as they are, and so long as they have the resources.

All that said, I'm in complete agreement with your last paragraph. Greens need to be promoting the fortunes to be made out of biotech and nanotech.

49:

Hair shirt puritanism...

I'm not sure that this particular combination ever existed, but I'd suggest that hair shirts are a reasonably useful tool for fiddling with your comfort level. As such, they are a good way for learning to separate your wants from your needs. If you learn to tolerate the itch, you learn to value what's important (thermal protection, perhaps viable social signals) from what you think you want (ultra-smooth fabric marketed to make you think you belong to a different social class).

A huge part of the problem with capitalism is it's about generating demand for things we don't need. Bottled water is probably the best example, at least in the US. The problem is that there's nothing like a rational signal from which to construct a supply and demand curve, when you factor in the noise from marketing and spin.

That said, I think the future's already here: we've got an excellent recycling society growing in the Third World, and eventually it will get here. They are very energy efficient, and hopefully we can teach them to be sustainable too.

50:

I'm going to have to say again Charlie, you're missing the big picture. You correctly point up that people have to want to change for anything to happen, but trot out canards as to how it all fits together.

As Jez Weston points out, the idea of the "IP-only economy" doesn't really come out in the figures. Even with significant offshoring of heavy industry and lots of one-time tricks, we are seeing higher GDP correlated with higher energy use. In the society we have, having more GDP tends to result in more demand for energy intensive uses ("lets fly to Italy for the weekend") and so even if the productive energy intensive elements are hidden, others take their place. Jevon's paradox is unfortunately much more the order of the day.

We have an economy built on the expectation of growth; debt based and discounting the future. As such that GDP increase in required, and so the energy increases/carbon increases. Its all baked in.

This is why people talk about the need to move away from a growth based economy, which means dramatically rewriting the rules of BAU. It's a target because its not possible to see a solution to the threats within the characteristics of the existing comfort zone situation.

Now you point up something decades old; that for people to want to move from BAU to some new setup, they have to see it as "a better future". Congratulations, now take the next step - describe that 'better' low carbon future.

That's the hard step, the one that people have been thinking over since the 1970s. Lots of ideas have been tried, but the root problem is none of them really entice movement in the general populous. It's also why we've ended up at the hair shirt approach - not because nobody realised that an enticing future was a better route, but because nobody could describe one.

You want to do something interesting and useful, describe a low carbon, low energy future that people would want to live in - but that works with economic principles that don't require growth.

However, much of this is mute. We've basically run out of time. The pace of change that society is capable of is slower that the pace of change it will be hit with. 'Break' is more likely than 'bend', short of a miracle of biblical proportions. And unfortunately is 'biblical' we are likely to end up with by default, as populations are forced down to 2bn by collapse events.

51:

I used to favor environmental causes. When environmentalists
were mostly trying to prevent us from poisoning ourselves, I
was happy to support them. I am _not_ happy to support the
hairshirt variety. Frankly, I'm not persuaded that they are
even acting in good faith. Steve@29 put it well in saying that
a lot of it sounds like "There is an unhealthy whiff in all this of the socially backwards, and the yearning to reestablish a society with a narrow elite and an impoverished peasantry"

At this point, I have a litmus test for greens:
If they respond to global warming by supporting nuclear power,
I'll listen to the rest of what they have to say. If, on the
other hand, they appear to be using CO2 emissions as an excuse
to try to destroy other peoples' standard of living, I won't
lift a finger to help them.

52:

Graydon @45:

(Oops, got my fuel costs wrong, thanks for picking that up. But still, fuel costs exceed capital costs.)

Airbus took twenty years to get the A380 into service. Boeing's 787 is a pretty trivial upgrade to the 767, it might be delivered next year, only eight years after they started work, if there's not more delays. This stuff is hard.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution says: "Blended wing body aircraft are currently only in the concept stage so that, even if proved viable, they could not enter service for decades even on the most optimistic prognoses."

If you really think it is possible to design, build, test, and deliver a radically new design of airliner in five years, then please feel free to give it a go.

My argument remains - no nation has managed to use technology to substantially reduce it's emissions, while still allowing economic growth. No nation has even come close.

53:

Jez @52 --

No argument that fuel costs dominate.

If it took 8 years to go from nothing to Apollo on the moon, they could go from now to blended body aircraft in five. (Since small ones have flown.) It takes treating it as a non-commercial problem, though.

Of course emissions haven't come down; they won't come down until extracting fossil carbon in whatever form means you eat a nuke. (Theoretically, they could come down after the oil runs out, but that's not inside the time frame we've got before everything else goes pear-shaped.)

The options are not -- and I think Charlie touched on this, up there, at least by implication -- low emissions, low energy, or business as usual (which is, really, already low emissions, low energy); it's business as usual (followed by farming collapse with the climate swings), it's no carbon emissions, high energy.

Which is certainly technically possible, but problematic in terms of the political will required to pauperize those whose fortunes currently rest on fossil carbon of all descriptions.

54:

I'm entirely prepared to believe that the attacks on Gore's energy profligacy are canards, but that's still accepting the basic argument - that a person advocating a policy change is obliged to act as if it's been implemented, or admit that they were wrong. The fact that I'm supporting the building of a new bridge doesn't mean that in its absence I'm morally obliged to drive my car across the river.

55:

I am impressed by the interpretive reading skills of so many people. Referring back to the snopes article, you must have missed the words that stated that Gore's energy use was excessive was entirely true.

I worked out of my home for a year and a half as a virtual worker, and do actually have a small office in my home. If I were to estimate my energy bills compared to my neighbors, I'd say I was perhaps 1.5-2x, and not the 20x (actually 12x if you read the article) that the Gores were using. But then again I'm a stickler about turning out the lights if I'm not in the room.

BTW, Al and Tipper bought themmselves another home.
http://content.usatoday.com/communities/greenhouse/post/2010/05/how-green-is-al-gores-9-million-montecito-ocean-front-villa/1

Can you justify this to me given your apparent Gore worship? I'd be interested in hearing your rationale that the Gore's need yet another mansion.

56:

Who cares about Gore's personal energy use? It's a classic case of misdirection, of attacking the person rather than addressing their argument. Which is, I think, rather the point that Charlie is making.

57:

A small office, oh thorny one. You're not an executive, with large needs for space and communications equipment. Isn't it exactly the argument: that it is still possible to be wealthy and be green? Or do you object to the very existence of wealth?

There is little in the linked article on Gore's new California home; the article is largely innuendo. It is likely, however, that the new villa is very energy efficient. It is in a location where heating, cooling, and electric lighting are generally not required--all that is needed is lighting at night. It is in an ideal location for solar generation of electricity as well. It might, in fact, be possible to operate it entirely off the grid--it will be interesting to see if Gore does so.

58:

"...the political will required to pauperize those whose fortunes currently rest on fossil carbon of all descriptions."

Don't take away their money but FORCE them (i.e. legislate it) to spend it on becoming the caretakers (i.e. profiteers) of the new energy. Big Oil has the profits to make Orbital Solar a reality.
Of course I wouldn't trust those guys to not let a collector plow into a major city instead of spending the money to deorbit it safely, but hey...

59:

@Charlie

"
An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials (and, in principle, barely constrained by energy);
"

Are you sure? Is this why Google and others are on the constant lookout for less energy intensive server technologies? An IP-based economy is constrained by energy even more - it takes inexpensive and reliable sources of electricity for granted, otherwise it stops functioning and devolves into simpler forms.

60:

"Is this why Google and others are on the constant lookout for less energy intensive server technologies? An IP-based economy is constrained by energy even more - it takes inexpensive and reliable sources of electricity for granted, otherwise it stops functioning and devolves into simpler forms."

I don't think anyone had an IP-based economy circa 1970 but if the only electricity available is expensive and/or unreliable then that sort of system devolves too. Machine shops and aluminum smelters don't handle random power outages and price spikes much better than servers do.

The suggestive thing about an IP based economy is looking at (e.g.) the amount of energy a company expends to bring in another $100 from games or music vs. another $100 from selling hard goods with little embedded IP. You can deliver ten thousand dollars' worth of songs from iTunes, or a hundred thousand dollars' worth of books on Kindle, for the same marginal energy cost as producing one new kilogram of aluminum that can sell for maybe $3.

If software and entertainment are insufficient to make an economy, consider that improved medical devices and drugs are also largely IP-driven, marginal production requires relatively quite modest expenditure of energy and natural resources, and offer very tangible, quantifiable benefits when improved. New antiviral drugs for treating AIDS have nearly turned it into a manageable chronic condition, but those drugs are not much, if any, more demanding of energy or minerals than the less effective older drugs they have displaced.

61:

One man's quote "mistake" is another's falsified.

Actually, no.

You appear to be displaying a classic example of confirmation bias here.

If I hacked into your email archives for the past 10 years and went digging around for stuff that could be construed as intent to mislead on your part -- be it in your personal life or your work -- I'm pretty sure I could find something incriminating. To quote Cardinal Richelieu, "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

In the case of the "leaked" climate emails, they were in fact obtained by deception by hackers apparently in the pay of someone running a black propaganda operation. Any disclosures from that kind of source is, by definition, deceptive. And in the wake of the extensive subsequent government enquiry, I think we can rule out deliberate deception.

NOTE: This is the final word on this subject in this discussion. Further attempts to raise the matter will be deemed to be an attempt at derailing the discussion, and may be moderated.

62:

I'm not sure if that are my cognitive biases, but I have real trouble bringing together the image of environmentalists painted by our gracious host above and the current politics and policies of the Green Parties in Europe. Things like the current European green parties manifesto - For a Green New Deal - sound sensible enough for me: http://europeangreens.eu/menu/egp-manifesto/

63:

Thorne: apparent Gore worship

Your phrasing is showing warning signs of politically-motivated trollage. I see Chris L and the Raven are already all over your argument, so let's suffice to say: I've had enough of Al Gore's lifestyle, and that topic is hereby banned from this thread and will result in further comments being censored.

64:

Kevin @ 42 linked to a BBC news story about "Himalayagate".

Firstly, this is not data falsification. This is a minor editorial botch. Saying "data falsification" and then backing off to this is like accusing a teacher of child sex abuse and then, when challenged, pointing out that his handwriting is sloppy. Accusations of fraud strike directly at the heart of a scientist's reputation, whereas there are errata like this in any document longer than about a page.

There are lots of other things to say about the 2035 line (particularly, it's a trivial line buried deep in WG2, which concerns regional adaptation, not in the physical science WG1 at all). As usual, skepticalscience.com says them really well:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/IPCC-Himalayan-glacier-2035-prediction.htm

65:

Graydon, developing a new class of airliner -- as opposed to a replacement for an existing model, or a "me too" to take sales away from someone else's cash cow -- is basically a bet-the-company proposition. Boeing bet the farm on the 707/KC-135; they did it again on the 747, and they came horribly close to bankruptcy with the 727 if I remember correctly. Airbus bet the farm on the A320, and again on the A380.

The BWB designs are promising but very risky in business terms. There are a bunch of unexplored parameters to nail down (structural weight is critical to an airliner's efficiency, but there's no huge body of lore for BWB as yet), and regulatory issues (e.g. evacuation times and criteria are set for narrow-body and wide-body planes -- but a BWB passenger plane is probably going to be ultra-wide).

Ideally, what would happen would be that a big entity -- say, the USAF, or the consortium of EU air forces backing the A-400M -- would get together and place an order for 300 BWB freighters, which would cover the basic R&D costs and allow one of the manufacturers to gain experience with the new design. Then it might be possible to commercialize a civilianized derivative.

But it isn't going to happen without a metric shitload of money being dropped on the aviation industry in the form of government contracts, to indirectly insure them against the catastrophic risk of failure (read: Boeing or Airbus going bankrupt). And it needs to be kept the hell away from the existing military procurement channels and military aviation contractors -- which alas now includes Boeing -- lest it be specified and built to MilSpec, which effectively renders it useless for contemporary civilian purposes (because it's built to utterly inappropriate constraints -- e.g. emphasis on in-flight active damage control rather than fuel economy, because being shot at is a more likely hazard than guzzling too much gas to pay its way).

66:

Whoops, sorry Charlie, my comment crossed in the post with your ruling on the subject.

67:

There's absolutely no reason why people should need to use more mass-energy in order to express their desires for relative social status or self-actualisation - a distinction which is hugely subjective in itself, and frequently based on snobbery. (I am truly myself when I'm doing X; you're one of us because you do X; they are vulgarly showing off their excess of X.)

I doubt very much that it took significantly more cotton, labour, or electric power to make the Fred Perry shirt I'm wearing now than it would have to make a similar no-name product (actually, I suspect the cloth is marginally better quality, especially compared to the ones they were making a few years ago - but despite being a Yorkshireman I don't know enough about power looms to say whether this distinction contains any unexpected ecological information).

I'll be in the office in Hoxton later on today, where I will be surrounded by people frantically trying to signal their sophistication, social status, sexuality, etc in various ways that use very little material resources at all. Actually, in the light of biological signalling, the perfect signal is one whose cost component consists purely of information, as that is the cheapest possible costly signal.

This stuff really isn't new. Pierre Bourdieu wrote a huge book about the distinction between cultural capital and the machine tools'n'bricks'n'mortar kind, and the ambiguous and partial degrees of substitution between them.

68:

I gave my copy of _Without Hot Air_ away to some deepish greens (heh! heh!) but I seem to remember that it contains some numbers which point to the fact that air travel (unlike car travel) is already pretty efficient: so much so, in fact, that you can only make it about 50% more so without hitting the physical limits of the amount of energy you have to expend to keep something up in the air. You can short-cut this with a very high aspect-ratio wing, which MIT appear to have done, but this leads you to some pretty horrible ground handling problems, when your 150m wingspan needs to be taken into account.

PS Relax, chaps, I support nuclear power - loads of the stuff. But I what I say is worth listening to, (or not) insofar as it makes sense, not in relation to whether or not I have signed up to the shibboleth of the month. Shibboleth-demanders do their credibility little good.

PPS Treehugger.com is essentially the (imperfect) outcome of a discussion which must have been very like this thread.

69:

Signalling status and engaging in economic activity without spending much in the way of resources? Is there an app for that?

70:

As it happens, Chris, there is indeed an app for just that.

Health warning: may generate unintended signals including but not limited to "vulgar", "nouveau riche", "privileged idiot", "sucker"...

71:

Alex @67:

Absolutely, and therein lies a fundamental problem with resource-free status displays - they need to be credible signals, and the best way to make a signal credible is to make it costly. There's no difference in message between someone with a Ferrari and someone with a t-shirt that says "I've got lots of money to waste". However, the person with a Ferrari is demonstrating the truth of that signal in a way that wearing a $5 t-shirt doesn't. So in a society that values material achievements, you'll get status signals that have substantial material costs.

There's plenty of examples of carbon-free status signalling. In academia, you can appropriately use big words; in dance, you can display status using just your body; in Burner culture, you can take some trash and make it into a a sculpture of a rocket ship. The resources that you have invested in are non-material (intellectual education, physical education, time spent gathering and hammering trash), and the value of those investments is culturally determined. As a priority, we need to increase the value we place on non-material achievements if we are to create a society that has both low carbon emissions and high social wealth. Whether we can do this fast enough, or at a global scale, is another question.

72:

There is a huge economic argument for expanding distributed green energy, especially in the UK, especially in the middle of a jobs crisis.

There's a really fascinating project going on at Gussing in Austria at the moment. Gussing is this little pit of a town that basically had no economy at all on account of being wedged up against the Iron Curtain, and the place reflected it - i've got relatives just on the other side of the Hungarian border, used to pass it on the way to the airport, these decaying concrete block houses, abandoned sugar beet factory being used as a detention centre for Balkan refugees, racist cops... but over the last few years the place started to visibly improve, and I passed that off as just the result of the border opening up, new opportunities etc etc. But it turns out that over the last few years there's been this real futuristic project to move power production to a completely local, distributed system mainly based on biofuel. Basically, the town is generating it's entire power needs from local waste and excess agricultural production, rebooting the moribund local farming economy and employing quite a lot of people. In terms of local economic growth it's apparently been a big success story, with the result that versions of the project are being rolled out across central Europe (notably at Freiburg, which will be a test run for running it in larger places). Some companies in East Anglia are experimenting with similar plans - there's even one group south of Cambridge who're using waste/energy technology that produces liquid hydrogen as a waste product of the process, and they're just bottling it and selling it off stands right there.

The thing is - that could easily be applied en masse to the United Kingdom. There are huge questions about biofuels and their effect on food supply, certainly, but most of them don't apply in the UK where 10% of agricultural land isn't being used, where farming essentially is no longer a worthwhile occupation because the profit margin is non-existent, and where forestry management is appallingly poor compared to most of Europe. Something like the Gussing project could be expanded across the UK as part of a policy programme based around job creation, revival of rural communities, increased security - you wouldn't have to talk about the planet *at all* if you didn't want to. The other option is something like the new Drax coal plant, set to produce 7% of the UK's energy in one single location, where a malfunction or terrorist attack could bring down the entire grid. Not to mention that the UK's energy consumption actually *dropped* by almost 10 percent last year and there's a risk the big generators might cease to be profitable if a combination of economic decline and increasing energy efficiency kick in.

...or, at the risk of disagreeing with Charlie, nuclear. I was speaking the other day to people who were tendering for UK construction jobs relating to new nuke plants, and they were viciously complaining about the figures involved. Essentially, it seems that the Nuke lobby in this country's basic plan is to build the things and then turn around and present the figures for waste disposal to the government after they're stuck with the things, while Bernard Ingham takes millions of pounds to talk down the alternatives. The Atomic Energy Board pulled exactly the same trick on the Civil Service in the 1950s.

The thing is, now that there are profitable, tested waste-energy and biofuel generators suitable for small scale, distributed generation, there is an enormous array of arguments available to support their development without "hair shirt" environmentalism or any mention of global warming at all, if that somehow appears "controversial". The fact that companies are beginning to think in terms of "calories gained" rather than waste-burnt just adds to the argument (I was at an energy conference the other day that pointed out that at the moment, the average UK waste/energy generator actually torches millions of pounds worth of heavy metals a year, and now that that's been discovered, the new generation are set up to recover gold and aluminium in massive salable quantities :D )

73:

Jez: your example of the Ferrari as a status display is interesting.

Let's consider the Ferrari-as-display in comparison to another car, rather than a t-shirt: say, a Volkswagen Polo Diesel Bluemotion -- which delivers close to 70mpg in fuel economy, but lacks, shall we say, the status-signalling characteristics of the Ferrari.

Both of these artefacts are automobiles. They're both powered by a variant of the internal combustion engine, they've both got four wheels with pneumatic tyres, brakes, gearboxes, windscreens, seats ... they're both cars. They both weigh approximately as much (somewhere in the range 0.7 to 2.0 tons). What's the difference?

We can point to their power trains being optimized for different goals: the Ferrari is to deliver metric shitloads of torque on demand, the Volkswagen to deliver much less torque but to do so efficiently. We can point to differences in materials -- the Ferrari probably contains much higher proportions of carbon fibre composites and exotic materials than the Polo, because its production process is not optimized for low consumer purchase price. And there are differences to how the vehicles are designed: you try cramming a bicycle into the back of a Ferrari, or driving the Polo at 250km/h.

They're still cars.

The status issue comes about from our collective attribution of greater value to the Ferrari, and to some extent from the added labour that goes into making it. The status conferred by it bears only indirectly on its consumption of raw materials; the only reason it's so much less economical to drive than the Polo is that if you want to deliver 400kW to the wheels, you're going to burn a lot more fuel per second than if you can get by on 40kW. (Sports car: more powerful motor: needs more fuel per unit time. QED.) Break the link between rapid acceleration and high top speed and status symbol, and you've got ... what?

74:

"Firstly, there are physical limits to demand for a large range of physical products. Demand for most physical goods isn't infinite — but increasing demand from a very low base tends to follow a sigmoid curve..."

What evidence is there to support this? AFAIK, industrial economies have grown with increasing demand for energy, which implies that if there is a leveling off, the wealthiest nations haven't reached it yet.

Whilst we don't have to be pessimistic quite yet, there is no evidence that we definitely can maintain economic growth in any direction indefinitely (whilst restricted to one planet).

The real question is how much further can industrial society continue to outpace the Malthusian state that has prevailed throughout most of human existence, and at what cost?

75:

Alternatively, use an electric drivetrain and rapid acceleration is significantly less of a problem, as an electric motor torque curve looks very different to an ICE. (It's also the classic British sports car trick - the fun is all in the acceleration and the road-holding, so there's no need for a huge engine.)

76:

AFAIK, industrial economies have grown with increasing demand for energy, which implies that if there is a leveling off, the wealthiest nations haven't reached it yet.

They've grown with increasing demand for energy, but with diminishing energy-intensity, i.e. with increasing productivity with regard to energy - less energy per unit of income. This is sometimes attributed to deindustrialisation and outsourcing, but I've not seen a convincing explanation for why it is also true of China if this is the case.

I saw a chart not so long ago showing various European countries' demand for oil, which showed that several of them had experienced peak demand some years ago. Must find it again.

77:

The IP economy is not apparent, and we can debate about whether it will ever happen. People still want big cars etc and car companies are spending huge amounts of money to convince them to do so. No company spending huge amounts of money to convince people that social status signals should not be resource intensive - maybe this is something for Google to try.

Public transport is in many objective ways better than having a car for most travel that most people do. I can walk around in a bus or tram, I can read a book, or even sleep. On an international train in Europe I can eat dinner during my journey! Non-car based public transport seems to be a lot safer than driving cars.

The Prius is a superior vehicle, I encourage everyone to test drive one. It's a lot quieter than most cars and has a surprising amount of space due to good engineering. Last time I was in the US I found that a Prius taxi offered me as much space as a Lincoln Town Car!

A lot of the anti-environment propaganda comes from big corporations that want to make money from pollution, some of those corporations wouldn't even be profitable if they didn't receive regular hand-outs from the government. Essentially corrupt politicians are being encouraged to favour corporations to enrich the corporate officers. The recent fiasco of the Australian government plan to give carbon credits to big polluters was an attempt by the government to pay off the corporations, but it was unreasonably expensive.

I've discussed these issues with lots of people who are at the lower end of the income range and found very little real disagreement with environmental policies. It seems that the vast majority of so-called "grass roots" support for anti-environment policies is actually astro-turf.

Lots of industries have been financially non-viable for years. I believe that the majority of hard-rock mining operations are only economic because the mining companies don't pay the costs of cleaning up their mess. When toxins leak into the water supply the government ends up paying whatever is necessary as the mining company is usually bankrupt. The costs of resources need to increase to a stage where a mining company can make a profit and clean up it's mess, for this to happen countries need to stop subsidising their mining industries by cleaning up for them.

One thing that needs to be considered about economics is that it doesn't work well in the face of sudden collapse. If oil price was to increase in a predictable manner by 20% per year for the next 10 years (which is actually less than the CSIRO predicts for Australian fuel prices) then I think that alternative fuels and fuel efficient vehicles could be developed in a timely manner along with upgrades for old vehicles. But if the price increases by a factor of 5 in a year then you have big problems. I think that in the case of oil prices a responsible government would declare a government monopoly on wholesale sales of oil products and manage the prices such that every year there would be a fixed minimum price increase. Someone who knows that next year petrol would cost 20% more and it would be 44% increased in two years time probably wouldn't buy a V8 for driving to work.

One problem with population control is that it takes a long time to take affect, I believe that China's population is still increasing due to the large number of young people when the one child policy was introduced. Another problem is the food supplies for even the current population depend on a lot of oil, now if everyone was to become vegetarian... That said reducing the population size does work really well for increasing the wealth of individual members of the population while also reducing or avoiding environmental problems.

Having children later does reduce the overall population. If every family has an average of 2 children then having those children at an average age 36 instead of an average age of 18 would mean that the population would be halved if all other factors remain equal.

78:

On the energy side of the question, there is some excellent information available from a free book - sustainable energy without the hot air.
written by a guy who is now advising the UK government on energy, it's full of numbers (no handwaving). you can download a pdf at
http://www.withouthotair.com/
and it is worth a read, enlightening stuff.

79:

Resources are finite? Not really. A resource isn't a particular bit of physical matter. It's that matter PLUS the human knowledge and technology to make use of it. So for example, Uranium ore wasn't a resource two hundred years ago. As incremental/revolutionary improvements roll in over time, our resource base changes. What about the minerals and hydrocarbons in the asteroids, for example? What about using nanotech to reclaim rare atoms from landfill? What about all the nearly 360x360 degrees of sunlight pouring away uselessly into space?

Also, you discuss capitalists balking at hair shirts. What you didn't cover was greens who balk at anything that might remove the hair shirt. For example, atmospheric carbon capture. "Pollution" is a quasi religious sin to them. Continuing to pollute and getting away with it is somehow unjust.

80:

As far as taxing oil goes, I'm quite keen on the idea of not a fuel escalator (although that was pretty good as carshrinkers go) but a fuel floor - declare that the retail price of petrol will not be allowed to fall beneath x, and should it do so, the tax on it will be adjusted accordingly.

On a similar tip, I note that the Kerry-Lieberman bill includes provisions to prevent the CO2 price going under a floor value and also to stop it going up too fast. But then, I'm keener on taxes on fossil fuel - the tax that gets to the cause of your problem, to paraphrase John Birmingham's seminal He Died with a Falafel in his Hand on the subject of money.

76: Any business whatsoever that is concerned with fashion, in the broadest sense, including product design, literary or musical or even chemical (mustn't forget the illegal industries), is in the business of encouraging people to project social status through nonmaterial signals.

81:

Spam trap trapped my link to the "Green new deal" manifesto of the European Greens - much more realpolitical feasible than the scaremongering portrait of greens above.

82:

There's also the important consideration that at a certain point, for most people quality becomes more important than quantity.

I want one luxury BMW, not a half dozen Hyundais. Or clothes -- For the price of a couple pair of designer jeans you could buy 20 or 30 pairs of jeans from Walmart. But people with that size pants budgets are going to buy a few of the more expensive ones. Then there's electronics -- in a lot of cases there's little material difference between items that are different in price by hundreds of dollars. You can get an mp3 player for like $30 or you could get a brand-name iPod using the same materials and with the same capacity for $150...

83:

In the northeastern US I've noticed interesting class-based reproductive patterns since I moved here a decade ago.

The poor tend to have children young, usually 2 of them, possibly 3. The middle class have children later, in their late 20s or early 30s, and will have 1 or 2. The wealthy have children latest of all, in their mid-30s and up. The trend for them has been to have 3 or 4 children.

My interpretation is that children are a luxury here -- child care is very expensive, and it takes time to build a career to the point where you are comfortable having children and providing well for them. The poor are an exception because many times their children are unplanned or they have no careers to speak of. They also get state benefits to help raise their children that the middle class do not.

Hopefully in the long run this demographic pattern means that there is a constant demand in the middle class professions and good upward mobility opportunities.

84:

It's not just capitalist businesses that are willing to go for profits at the expense of our future - society as a whole does the same thing. Which politicians are willing to make hard choices instead of borrowing from the future? Politicians and business folk are looking at now, now, now. The future is someone else's problem.

Most people don't even invest adequately for their future money income, much less for the world's environment. We want our toys now.

What BP did to the gulf is nothing compared to what our fishing industry is doing to the oceans.

85:

I do not think we are seeing less energy intensity, at least not per capita. See here: http://energy.sigmaxi.org/?p=551
This shows per capita energy consumption is still growing, even in OECD countries.

If we were seeing some sort of limit to consumption, there is no evidence for it so far. Now possibly we are reaching some current limit on goods consumption, but we can still consume more energy just by traveling further with commutes and vacations. However I doubt even limits on physical goods. Houses continue to get bigger (possibly peaked in the US in this cycle) and we are increasing energy usage in agriculture.

I maintain my stance that it is just optimism without evidence that our system is even close to decelerating in energy usage.

86:

While hair shirt environmentalism probably does amplify foster backlash, getting rid of them is not an easy thing. They are roughly the same millstone to environmentalism as totalitarian communism is to the Left, or fascism and racism used to be to the Right.

OK, there's a model - how did the Right reduce the damaging political association with fascists and racism?

87:

Me, I think that hair shirt environmentalists tend to exist mainly as rhetorical devices, to be taken out and kicked as part of a religious obesiance whereby people prove that they are not hair shirt enviromentalists. That's about the only actual purchase that they have. So rather more like the CPUSA any time after 1975 than the Second Guards Shock Army.

88:

This post strikes me as remarkably similar in thesis to the deep-space habitation posts, in that the upshot seems to be that carrots, not sticks, will ensure future compliance over the long term. I have a feeling that a lot of other problems suffer from similarly poor framing: exercise, for example, seems bound up in definitions of self-discipline and therefore moral fibre (not to mention attractiveness-as-value), rather than health or comfort. The message "Give up meat/dairy/alcohol/starch, train to muscle failure every day, and become a beautiful person inside and out!" is more memorable than "If you do some Pilates now, your lumbar region will hurt less later," and, much as with both the greenwashing and oil industries, causes enough backlash that money is made from both panicked patients and those who "guiltily" consume things their doctors say they shouldn't. I think in both cases, backcasting from a definite goal is more likely to be effective than projecting forward from an amorphous sense of guilt or obligation: the latter involves a hundred little tasks whose main service is to assuage anxiety, while the former is a plan involving managed expectations and benchmarks for success. I know that at the environmental policy level such targets are the norm, but at the popular level everything still seems to be about what kind of a person one is.

Anyway, a tangent, and an indication that my stretching is long overdue.

89:

Charles Hixson: you may find this infographic enlightening. Eyjafjallajokull has led to a huge net reduction in CO2 emissions over recent weeks.

Charlie @19: my understanding was that the Green Revolution depended to a great extent on heavy use of fossil fuels, and in particular natural gas. Am I just misinformed?

Steve @29: "There is an unhealthy whiff in all this of the socially backwards, and the yearning to reestablish a society with a narrow elite and an impoverished peasantry" Huh? Most Greens are heavily into wealth redistribution and social justice.

Jeffrey Soreff @51: what about Greens (like, say, me) who don't object to nuclear energy per se, but who reject it as a viable solution because of the time and capital required to build new nuclear plants, time and money that could be spent on other technologies which would deliver more bang-for-the-buck, sooner?

90:

The first parts of this thread dealt interestingly with the obstacle of affiliative adoption of ideologies and its orthogonal relationship with environmental threat and solution assessment, connected to individual motivation in the context of the present capitalist consumer economy. Later on, we got to see examples of this ideologically driven framing and, finally, interlocutors getting stuck into the mire of presenting detailed applications of their interpretitive systems in specific contexts.

The latter bit is not as interesting as the former. Let's look at adoption of consensus viewpoints in two specific examples in the context of the germ theory of disease.

First - municipal water systems and the provision of clean drinking water. Hamburg built one of the earliest municipal water systems - but it drew water from the Elbe and did not have sand filtration systems for filtering the water before the water was distributed, and the exposure of the water intakes to backflowing sewage (as a result of tidal pulses), meant that Hamburg's water system was essentially unsafe. By 1885, Koch had determined that the vibrio cholerae bacterium was the agent of cholera, and the mode of trasmission of cholera through fouled water supplies was known from the 1840s. Cities throughout Germany that were under Imperial control were upgrading their water systems to provide filtration (a technique discovered and perfected in the 1860s), but Hamburg failed to do so because of its independence from central authority and because entrenched political elites did not want the burden of paying for a filtration system.

Cholera arrived in Hamburg in 1892. Even at the height of the 1892 cholera epidemic, city fathers and the municipally supported public health authority were denying that the water system was the source of the epidemic - and it took the horrendous disaster of the epidemic to utterly discredit them and institute the necessary reforms.

Another example, in the context of antibiotic resistance. As a phenomenon, antibiotic resistance has been recognized since the 1940s. A number of generations of antibiotics have been interoduced over the last several decades, all becoming useless because of evolutionary adaptation on the part of microbes, and the wasteful overprescription of antibiotics by physicians and antibiotic overuse by the agricultural system. The antibiotics research pipeline had been largely depleted, and the prevalence of resistant, super-infectious, and virulent organisms, like MRSA and E-coli O157, has risen tremendously. As a result, the number of hospitalizations for first line infections in the United States has risen eight percent in the eight years from 1998 to 2006. Also, bacteria causing foodborne illnesses bearing the indicia of heightened antibiotic resistance have increased in prevalence up to ten-fold, with Salmonella enterica, typically multi-drug resistant, infections up 30%!

To put this in perspective, thousands of people per year in the United States are dying needlessly from infections from drug-resistant bacteria, while lax enforcement of management protocols for antibiotic admistration and complete lack of oversight over antibiotic use in agriculture continue.

In contrast, the Ebola outbreaks in Congo and the hysteria over H1N1 (which in aggregate caused many fewer deaths) drew far more attention and mobilized many more resources, *precisely* *because* *the* *long* *term* *interests* *of* *entrenched* *large* *interests* *were* *not* *threatened*.

It took the obvious example of hundreds of people getting sick from CJD, and the visceral revulsion and market boycott of consumers to transform the practices of the continental livestock industry. One would think the example would have educational effects on the American livestock industry? But no - even voluntary surveillance testing for CJD has been banned by the USDA at the behest of the meat-packers and the cattle-ranchers (a Bush era regulation remaining unchanged by the Obama administration) and the population at large is not interested in working against this. And non-scientific, dogmatically held beliefs held for basically selfish reasons continue in the face of clear, unequivocal, and damning evidence. Stick a pin into the livestock industry, and the squealing is loud and proud!

Until the catastrophe actually happens.

So. Given the size of the herd of oxes likely to be gored by large-scale reorganization of the economic system, it is unlikely that major reductions in carbon emissions will occur before most of the AGW pulse is already completed.

As an earlier commenter stated - our descendants will piss on our graves - if the graves remain on high enough ground.

91:

Miles @89 --

While the traditional GW range, huge-project nuke plant is indeed objectionable, the 50 MW hospital basement size, and the 8 MW ship-mover size, are difficult to imagine avoiding in a no-fossil-carbon context.

The core problem with anything with the word 'bio' in it is that it's just horridly inefficient solar. (Peak photosynthesis efficiency is around 1%, then we take the hit from processing efficiency, then we take the hit from shifting arable land away from food production; using sewage is a good idea because we've got to do something with it anyway, but making anything grown in the dirt a core energy policy item is a mistake.) Normal renewable power sources are unsuitable for basic industry because they're not predictable; you couldn't run an aluminum smelter off of windmills, for example.

So there needs to be something providing baseline load, and nuclear or big solar farms is about it for non-fossil-carbon options, and even the big solar farms have serious problems with energy storage.

Richard @72 --

Power generation as import replacement. (I highly recommend Jane Jacobs' Cities and the Wealth of Nations on this subject.)

Charlie @65 --

Certainly; a commercial process isn't going to take that size of risk.

My understanding of the "bet the company" effect is that the Boeing take on it is that you never, ever, develop a plane that involves a new airframe and new engines; you do one or the other, not both. (The 707 and 747 were both.)

Me, I'd like to see some money go into hybrid pulse/ramjet engines; there's a possibility of a very small parts count there, greater ease of fabrication, lower costs, and greater breadth of efficiently combusted fuels. But it's a serious road-not-taken and would take a fair bit of money to figure out if it's worth taking a look at -- if a high-bypass mode is available for subsonic, or if reasonable efficiency is available for supersonic -- and then serious money to commercialize.

92:

Miles@89:

what about Greens (like, say, me) who don't object to nuclear energy per se, but who reject it as a viable solution because of the time and capital required to build new nuclear plants, time and money that could be spent on other technologies which would deliver more bang-for-the-buck, sooner?

Is this true? All available evidence I have seems to contradict this, and for basic, fundamental physics reasons at that.

There's an ObSF here from one of my favorite Old Guys: Isaac Asimov's "The Gods Themselves". In the last third of the book, the protagonist makes the observation that it doesn't matter how dangerous the "free energy" really is, or how solid the science behind the reasoning is, as long as The Public are getting theirs, any such arguments are going to fall on deaf ears, and any officials who have the courage and authority to act will be swiftly replaced.

The answer isn't some sort of austerity program; the answer is an acceptable alternative that allows people to keep some approximation of their old life style. That's in the book, but the same applies, I think, to modern real-world energy usage. I'll concede that with massive investments and with a radical restructuring of the life styles of most people, alternative energy might be made to work. But people will go nuclear - and enthusiastically so - before they'll accept that sort of austerity as part of the compromise.

93:

86: You aren't looking at energy intensity - those aren't charts of energy intensity. One of those, for the US, is on the US Department of Energy Web site here. More usefully, there's a nice chart in this pdf from the same source, and a full table for the whole world from 1980 to 2006 using tonnes of oil-equivalent and GDP at purchasing-power parity here, and a whole page of tables here. Also, there's a really neat chart of European GDP, energy use, and energy intensity here thanks to your tax euros at work.

Here's the table by country for oil, from the BP Statistical Review - are you already living in a post-peak oil dystopia and don't know it? If you're British or French the answer is YES (oil use peaked in 1999 in France, in 2005 in the UK).

94:

@90:

But no - even voluntary surveillance testing for CJD has been banned by the USDA at the behest of the meat-packers and the cattle-ranchers (a Bush era regulation remaining unchanged by the Obama administration) and the population at large is not interested in working against this. And non-scientific, dogmatically held beliefs held for basically selfish reasons continue in the face of clear, unequivocal, and damning evidence. Stick a pin into the livestock industry, and the squealing is loud and proud!

Oddly enough, this is a big part of the reason why I'm about 95% vegetarian; sure I still eat meat on occasion, in fact, intensely crave it at times, but no more $0.99/lb ground chuck for our family - we're scared to death of what may be in it.

95:

Graydon@91:

The core problem with anything with the word 'bio' in it is that it's just horridly inefficient solar. (Peak photosynthesis efficiency is around 1%, then we take the hit from processing efficiency, then we take the hit from shifting arable land away from food production; using sewage is a good idea because we've got to do something with it anyway, but making anything grown in the dirt a core energy policy item is a mistake.)

Exactly. I think even 0.1% overall is optimistic, but if you want to be, you're still only harvesting about 1 W/m^2. Hmmm . . . I see that the U.S. alone uses about 29 Peta-watt-hours, and since approximately one third of this is for transportation, let's say that Other Stuff will take care of fixed-installation needs and we only need about 10 PWH. Then 10^16/10^4 (roughly, for number of total hours of insolation) is 10^12 m^2 for a very optimistic minimum amount of area, or a square 1,000 km on a side. I'm guessing that we're looking at something more like a square 10,000 km on a side, and that's just for current U.S. demands. These are elementary calculations, btw, based upon very fundamental principles. So why they may be off, no amount of sophisticated tweaking is going to shrink this square down to something like hundreds of kilometers on a side, which might be doable in terms of reallocating land use to fuel instead of food.

Hey, how about this riff on SPS's: instead of microwaves, we have algae farms orbiting Earth to provide Gasoline from Space :-)

96:

As I'm fond of pointing out to environmentalists

a) the world is littered with dead cities and ghosts of ag fields past, principally killed by extended droughts (which is the form of climate change we really should worry about)

b) people survived anyway.

Keynes' quote about "In the long run, we're all dead," came from a man who had no children, and it has fucked up the heads of businesspeople for decades now. Anybody that says there are no limits on resources obviously failed high school physics. Sure that's a great 1970s New Age attitude, but the truth is that we live within hard limits all the time.

There's a huge difference between creative work within limits, and mushy-headed "oh, they'll solve that problem" thinking that promotes greed as usual.

Anyway, I figure we're going to slide downhill into something more sustainable, and we're already about 20 years past when we could have climbed *up* to that level and built the shiny sustainable high tech civilization everybody dreamed about when they were children. The question is whether we decide to do business as usual until it fails catastrophically, or start adapting.

Option A is where we are overwhelmed by too many inconvenient catastrophes and our infrastructure falls apart pretty much over the course of a week or two. When my ability to make a living off my computer can be destroyed by a volcano halfway around the world (if my data are downwind) that's a catastrophe waiting to happen. Ditto if my food is coming that far, my power, water, clothes, etc.

Option B is that we keep doing more with less and call it progress. On that level, the web will gradually fail over decades, not weeks, we'll gradually abandon space travel (and probably litter NEO with so much debris that we can never do it again). Personally I think this is worth fighting for.

97:

On the matter of the fossil fuel dependency of agriculture: yes, natural gas currently is an input to the production of the lion's share of artificial nitrogen fertilizers. It is far from irreplaceable, though.

Artificial nitrogen fixation works by catalytically combining artificially produced hydrogen gas with atmospheric nitrogen. The ammonia can additionally be oxidized to nitric acid. The nitric acid and ammonia are used to produce fertilizers such as anhydrous ammonia, ammonium sulfate, urea, and calcium nitrate. Most nitrogen available to cultivated plants starts with ammonia artificially produced in this way.

Natural gas is a cheap and convenient feedstock for the production of hydrogen, nothing more. It can be replaced with coal, oil, or electricity from any source at all. This is more than theoretical: several commercial scale plants already operate or have historically operated using hydroelectric power to produce ammonia and allied derivatives starting with electrolysis of water.

In the last decade a more efficient and simpler solid state electrical synthesis process using proton permeable ceramic membranes has been tested and proposed for large scale use in ammonia synthesis, particularly taking advantage of stranded wind energy to capture value without building new transmission lines. The estimated energy needs are 7000-8000 kWh per metric ton of ammonia. Last year's US wind capacity could displace half of USian ammonia imports at 7500 kWh per metric ton of ammonia. Quadruple wind capacity and all US needs could be met from wind.

Pure ammonia can also be burned as a fuel, in fuel cells or more conventional internal combustion engines, to power tractors or other agricultural machinery. Its combustion emits no carbon, and its production (as above) also requires no carbon. As a liquid its energy density is considerably greater than any known or reasonably foreseeable battery technology. That's one way forward to preserve the productivity of industrial agriculture without succumbing to peak oil or continuing to spew CO2.

98:

@96:

Keynes said this, because it doesn't matter if the economy will be balanced again in the long run, if balancing the economy means starving everyone to death in the short run.

Also, Keynes was deeply sarcastic in a lot of things he said, as you would know if you had read what he wrote. Although you're not alone in not having done that.

(Hint: Yes, he suggested digging trenches and filling them back in to kickstart an economy, but this was followed by a bitter comment on just how foolish people are.)

99:

NOTE: I'm going to be scarce around here for a while due to (a) a weekend trip I'm embarking on tomorrow morning, and (b) eyestrain. Play nice ...?

100:

Hopefully Cynthia, the synthetic bacterium just announced on the news, will have been designed to be like the synthetic replicating creature/compound in "The Stone that Never Came Down" by John Brunner. Altruism, intelligence, tolerance and rationality spread as a disease.

I can't see much use for vertical farms of more than one storey. How would you produce the light for that number of plants? One extra level may be served by mirrors but any less than half the incident light would not support much production. Artificial lights are all based on expensive compounds and high energy input.

200W of light per metre squared would be needed with sodium lighting (the current most efficient source) for a shade-tolerant plant. AFAIK there is no other technology on the horizon that can improve plant lighting efficiency. One hectare of floor space would then need 2MW for about 12 hours per day and 3,333 standard 600W lamps and ballasts. The bulbs would need to be changed every year.

Fancy engineering may be able to cool the structure, move the air to ventilate the plants and recover heat energy from the exhaust air. Fertiliser prices (and water?) are likely to become a constraint on agricultural production.

101:

I think it is also worth remembering that in the Bush Gore election only half the eligible electorate could be arsed to go to the polling station and pull a lever for either of them.

If the vote proved anything it was that George W Bush was arguably less "meh" than Al "done deal" Gore (or not, if you are one of those Japanese soldiers who refuse to believe the war is over).

What I can't get over is that when planning "strategy" for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Fries), not one of the old, rich, oil-money men in the cabinet (including of course the President and Vice-President) could figure out for themselves that a long distance pipeline could never be a securable asset in wartime.

Which is beside the point at hand. Apologies.

102:

The factors as to how America will deal with major policy changes vis-a-vis the green concerns will be driven overwhelmingly by two factors:

1) A need to see a tangible result that garners public support in around two years (the widely accepted window in the four year term in which a politician can do stuff other than work to get elected again).

2) The knowledge that any election is a matter of cash supply. Unlike the UK, American elections are hugely dependent on how much the candidates spend. The "special interests" know this, the candidates know they know etc etc etc.

I'm not hopeful of enlightened self-interest in the long-term becoming a factor in such policy building.

Steve.

103:

Cost is a bad argument against nuclear, as the primary cost driver in nuclear build is.. the political opposition to it which makes this an exceedingly circular argument, and further, outside the US context, it is, quite simply, wrong. China is building western designed reactors below 2k/kwh, which works out to a cost of production significantly below that of coal, never mind renewable sources, and the Indian program is also turning out reactors that produce "cheaper than coal" electricity.
Yes, the Finnish epr reactor went over budget, but note that the reaction of the utilities in Finland to that experience was "lets do that lots more", and they are in a much better informed position than we are, so that must be chalked up to prototype costs, rather than an inherent problem.

That said, it is my strong opinion that we should really fund the a lot more research and prototyping of things like the European Lead Cooled System, since, to be honest, we could really use a better basic design than PWR's..

104:

Pat @100 --

Vertical farms get you a couple-six things.

You can run the whole structure at a temperature and CO2 concentration suitable for optimizing growth.

You get to use (in the Northern Hemisphere) the north side of the building for pumps, etc, with a sort of glassed half-aztec-pyramid around the south side to admit sunlight, saving lots of land area.

You can put the food production in the city, and use other people's waste heat, and maybe moist air, as they should like to get rid of, to keep the plants warm at that optimum temperature.

You pay much less for shipping, and have the potential to do any processing required on-premises, cutting wastage due to shipping and feeding any waste (turnip tops, etc.) back into your compost bins.

You've got a good supply of casual labour, in much the same way McDonald's restaurants currently do, without the social costs of making it a permanent and inescapable occupation.

You have a lot of control over the soil, input air, etc; this is getting very important between neighbors with different pesticide policies and stuff blowing in on the wind and wanting a place to try out genetically engineered crops.

Because you're in an enclosed space, you have a great deal of control over pests; you don't have any need for pesticides because you're not letting pests in in the first place.

You can arrange things in ways more useful for cultivation and irrigation than a flat expanse of dirt.

You get -- sealed system again -- your transpired water back. (or you at least have the opportunity to do this.) That's going to become more important over time.

If you're doing mixed farming, rather than purely plants, you can probably arrange your nitrogen cycle rather vertically, too. This ought to be a significant energy cost help. (Not huge, but significant.)


The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details, but there are certainly opportunities for substantial benefits.

105:

I'd be interested to see the effect on cars as status symbols in the event that driverless cars became commonplace. When your car is effectively an automated taxi, I would imagine that people may care less about performance and brand snobbery, and more about comfort, safety and economy - after all, not many people care about the horsepower of the engine when they're travelling by train, they care about comfort and safety.

The only exception I can think of is limousines, since they're usually chauffeur-driven, but they're usually either hired for special occasions or the preserve of the very wealthy.

106:

Matthew: not many people care about the horsepower of the engine when they're travelling by train ...

They do, however, care about speed.

(For long range, I'll take a Shinkansen Nozomi over a British Rail Class 91 any day, and the latter over anything Amtrak operates, for exactly the same reason: speed.)

107:

Vertical farms are an expensive solution to a problem with much cheaper solutions. One sec.. link hunting!

http://www.seawatergreenhouse.com/

That is essentially using solar distillation to water and cool places like the north african desert. Land in the sahara costs, effectively, nothing, and there is a hell of a lot of it. I am not sure how high the population of earth would have to go before "build more greenhouses" of this type stopped being a valid solution to food supply, but its a heck of a lot more than 10 billion. (materials consumed in construction.. Steel and glass. Nope, not going to run out of those, either) Of course, brute force bioforming of this large amounts of desert would likely have at least local climatic effects, but hey, its a carbon sink! And transporting this food production is not going to be a problem either, as no matter how scarce oil gets, it wont affect bulk goods since both (electric) Rail and shipping work perfectly well with nuclear as the energy source.

108:

Matthew @105:

I'd be interested to see the effect on cars as status symbols in the event that driverless cars became commonplace. When your car is effectively an automated taxi, I would imagine that people may care less about performance and brand snobbery, and more about comfort, safety and economy - after all, not many people care about the horsepower of the engine when they're travelling by train, they care about comfort and safety.

Maybe it's just my age and socioeconomic class, but I'd have to say that compared to what was the norm in my youth, people aren't nearly so in love with their automobiles as they used to be. At least, insofar as they are regarded as status symbols. And for kids like my daughter who turns 16 next month and her friends? Well, they just aren't that excited by brand names, afaict, or the various stylings and design details. Back in '71, of course, you had people genuinely excited about cars like the Grand Am, the Camaro, the Mustang, and much time was lavished on these animals as well as arguing their various merits among guys my age. Now? Apparently not so much.

109:

scentofviolets: my source for that claim was George Monbiot's book Heat, which is of dubious neutrality and a few years out of date now. Casting around the web, it looks like (a) deriving actual numbers for comparison would be the usual maddening game of uncovering every author's axe-grinding and dubious assumptions, but (b) the numbers for nuclear would probably come out a lot better than I'd thought, so even if it's not the best possible option it's probably not too bad. In which case, awesome - viable options Are Your Friends, and despite what Thomas Jorgensen says above, I think large-scale nuclear construction is probably more politically feasible than renewables construction on a scale that will make a difference. Don't get me started on conservation groups which oppose every windfarm by default. Anyway, I'll try to devote some cycles to the aforementioned axe-uncovering and calculation soon.

[Incidentally, Monbiot's position on nuclear has softened since he wrote the book. He now says he'd support it if some not-unreasonable conditions could be met.]

110:

Another consumer toy that people once set great store by was their television. I can remember the excitement in our neighborhood when we first got a color set - one of the first on the block! These days, not so much. The same for the overly elaborate stereophonics that were practically an unwritten part of the courtship ritual. Again, ubiquitous low-cost, high-quality sound equipment along with the wherewithal to play whatever recording one desires has pretty much scotched this as a status symbol. True, there are cultists who do get into blue-ray or gold-plated speaker cords . . . but they are most definitely not the norm.

So what are the new status symbols, and are they as much the mark of profligate consumption as their predecessors were?

111:

Summing it up: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The older I grow, the more I see that PT Barnum was among the wisest men who ever lived. Give the marks a show, they'll leave the tent happy.

112:

Charlie's comment at 73 brings up a weird gap in the car market last time I checked:

I don't have a family, and have a moderately long commute. I'm in my 30's and have now and have had for years a stable, relatively high income.

What I was looking for, what didn't really exist, was a compact car made for someone who is upper middle class or lower upper class. A $25k car that still got 30+ mpg and could park in narrow parking spots. One with relatively luxurious interiors and fun features, but without trading up in size. And which was reliable.

And there's really not a lot like that out there. I ended up getting a Civic was pretty much every option turned to "yes," but it was striking that compact cars seemed to unilaterally be aimed at people who don't want to pay much over $15k for a car. Small, expensive cars are sports cars, with lousy mpg and truly pitiful cargo space.

I loved my 1999 Corolla. Basically, I wanted that car, newer, with a nicer interior. Such a thing just doesn't seem to exist.

113:

Dunno about where you live SoV, but around here the race to the 40-inch plasma screen is still front and centre in the mind of the general public...

114:

Thomas @107 --

One of the sensible goals of policy is to minimize the land area used for farming, because farming is very nearly as ecologically obliterating as paving it would be. (Some common farming techniques, eg. California strawberry field prep with bromine, are worse.)

Cities are (very young) ecosystems; this is obvious from the (accelerating!) rate of selection humans are undergoing in recent time. Metabolism turns food into shit; ecosystems turn shit into food. Cities will fairly inevitably get better at this in one way or another.

Then there's the whole raft of political stability, locality, freshness, and food quality standards arguments. Food is one of the goods where price does not necessarily dominate people's buying decisions.

115:

Michael, you must live in the States, yes? I can think of half a dozen cars that fit your criteria, most of them European. Just off the top of my head: Citroen C4, VW Golf, Ford Focus, Fiat 500.

116:

Just remember--the people who run nuclear systems will probably be the same ones who run the petroleum industry, and the projects will be funded by the financial industry. This makes the whole project unattractive to us corvids--we can't eat radioactive food.

Croak!

117:

Graydon @104

The amount of sunlight you get into the structure would be equal to the shadow behind the structure. In good years you could, perhaps, spread that light out over crops at twice the area of the equivalent field if you are growing shade-tolerant crops. This means the ziggurat would have to be on the south end of some wasteland or a city that it shadows. People don't really need as much light, I suppose. The ziggurats could not be built densely. I would think a simple stilted roof with mirrors at intervals to illuminate the ground floor underneath it would be better.

Depending on their tolerance for humidity plants in a greenhouse need as much as 10 air changes per hour and forced wind around all the leaves. You might be able to do this with passive heat-driven ventilation but I don't see any way you are going to recapture your transpired humidity from that quantity of hot air. Fully-sealed systems are generally only done for University experiments for control of variables, even dope-growers virtually never use them. The amount of energy used in air-conditioning would make an agricultural sealed system prohibitive. Filtering the air that comes in would restrict airflow, you probably will need electrically driven fans even in termite-mound inspired ventilation systems.

Pests and diseases will get in unless all the air is HEPA-filtered before it gets into the building and everyone entering the building is thoroughly washed with insecticidal soap. Once in a greenhouse environment pests love the conditions and multiply rapidly.

The other advantages are available to any greenhouse near an industrial and populated area. I have eaten tomatoes grown in the heat and CO2 of CHP, they were delicious. http://www.farminguk.com/PopularNews/Great-tomato-year-expected-for-Cornerways-Nursery_12126.html

Californian almond "orchards" are paved with concrete to help with harvest. Having picked almonds that missed the nets from the stony ground by hand in Spain I am in two minds as to whether this is a good thing.

118:

Works for me and my apologies, I won't push the issue further.

I was doing some research into nuclear power lately as a possible career change away from electrical engineering and back into reactor operations as chasing Moore's law is detrimental to one's health and akin to a hamster running on one of those wheels.

Surprisingly, the going salary for a shutdown reactor/reactor operator is quite high based on a number of factors (see the nukeworker.com website for salary information). Smaller nuclear US Navy means less operators to move into civilian plant operations. (Yes, in the past I split atoms to make steam).

Anyway the next 6 large nuclear plants to be built are based on the Westinghouse design (AP-1000). The first 4 of these will be built in China and the first 2 there are under construction with the first plant to achieve criticality in 2013. The next two are scheduled to be built in the United States in Georgia with expected criticality in 2017. (More red tape in the US than in China)

brief note to scentofviolets (@94)...here's how I buy my beef so I know what's in it. I go to the county fair once a year and bid on a steer raised by a 4-H member. Have it slaughtered locally, and put it into a freezer. The money goes the child that raised the steer for their college education, and since it is a charity auction it's tax deductible. The last steer I purchased in this manner broke down to about $2/pound which isn't bad considering you get the whole steer if you want all the parts.

In keeping with the topic at hand and environmental issues, this is on my mind lately...Roundup and Monsanto
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy-environment/04weed.html

119:

Damn, Thorne, I could have done without reading this before I went to bed:

"And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War."

What do they expect of Amaranthus anyway? The name means unfading. Good eating, too, they are my favourite greens.

120:

a) economics always wins - black market fills in where politics/regulations/puritanism makes holes. as soon as green-tech actually pays for itself without huge subsidies it'll be easy to get everyone on board. as long as crooked greenies make billions on subsidized noncompetitive tech (wind farms? run the numbers - if you can get 'real' numbers). I wish I could see a fair/big picture take on wind and solar - instead of just hearing its 'free' - whats the cost/footprint/impact of building a giant windmill or a few hectares of solar-panel - what's the life expectancy, maintenance cost - what's the manufacturing footprint of 'green' space-age materials used to build this stuff - you never even hear mention of the toxic batteries we're going to be shoving in landfills as soon as they start wearing out in the Prius-fleet - not to mention the nasty byproducts of making the things in the first place...

b) as long as more than a billion are starving in India and China due to (pick your scapegoat) - green just isn't going to be a priority - and so half the world's population is going to do more than their fair share of eco-damage for the foreseeable future - the limited control we have over our drop in the bucket is basically a rounding error. it cracks me up that green politics in California basically lead to high demand for old, low-efficiency/high-pollution power-generation in neighboring states because their green-state-regs make it impossible to build a new power-plant. they're going to live the high-life with well manicured/watered/chemically treated lawns in a desert - but they're going to import everything 'non-green' they need to sustain their top-of-the-world standard of living...

I wish we could get the big picture/real story instead of politically biased cut/paste spinjobs from both sides. it'd be nice if we had some journalists that actually were capable in math, science, or analysis instead of people that look nice on TV, but the newspapers are dying and the bloggers don't get page-views by being unbiased and informative...

I think we need a little more clarity and a lot less spin/posturing/pie-in-the-sky crapola... it comes down to basic economics - as long as its significantly cheaper to put gas in the car and live on the grid - most people aren't willing to sacrifice their standard of living to go green - and the fact that 'green' is becoming more of a branding/marketing tool than an unbiased assessment is troubling....

121:

How about from the individuals perspective? What should the individual do? As much as I deeply care for the environment I have a big problem with the reduction of consumption or population message. The problem I have is if I reduce my carbon footprint, I'm merely getting out of the way of someone who cares less about their consumption, lowering the price just a little for another. Yet ignoring the problem is not good either

So both this must-stop stance and the status quo/denial stance are actually both unacceptable.

If a large percentage of us managed to cull needless waste of energy at least, do what we do more efficiently, and at best reduce gross energy consumption activity also, then total demand drops, and the price of fossil fuel energy goes way down. This then enables increased consumption from cost-bound consumers.

A similiar thing happens, as population growth stalls and declines, so does demand for resources, the standard of living so rises.

This principal along with what charlie has said further cements my belief that it's Too Late.
I don't think it's possible without a totalitarion reduction in consumption worldwide (I don't want to raise my kids into that kind of world) or a massive reduction in global population (Don't want to live there either) or a combination of both.

So call me a pessimist but I don't see the world being saved without something breaking. At best we have more and more disasters until politicians are forced into action if only to be seen to do something, and green technology reaches a critical runaway point that it saves the day. At worst, there are shortages, wars, death etc.

At this point I really don't see either side of the argument having any solid basis for being right, although reason dictates one should lean towards the environmentalist side of the issue. As a group: Try to save what we can. As and individual at least, don't be part of the problem.

This leaves me with one thing. Advocate rapid technological progress in computing, science, biotech, nanotech, whatever. I see it as the only solution that works. I science gives us understanding of how things work, but doesn't tell us what to do with that knowledge. I think all we can do for our kids is give them the tools to do something, if we are not going to solve the problems ourselves.

122:

@ 43 52.
YES
WHY do the "Greens" STILL reisit nuclear power with a religious (i.e. irrational) fervour?

"Blended-Wing-Body"? You mean 1930's/Dan Dare FLYING WINGS. don't you? Great idea!

@88 Spot on.
When I was at school, I was notorious for hating sports, ggot all the usual crap about "keeping fit" etc.... Until there wwas a school trip to the Lake DIstrict. Only one pupil went out every day, and walked the whole distance (me, of course) - no-one could work out why: I cycled to and from home/school, including lunchtimes (not eating school dinners was probably good for me as well...) totallong 5 miles a day - I wasn't any good at running/ sports, but I was fit. Um.

Charlie @ 106 The ex-BR class 91'a are easily capable of 150 mph+, but thet are NOT ALLOWED TO GO THAT FAST - because the fixed-siganlling is set up for 125, and no-one is prepared to fund a six-aspect (using led's in existing signal-heads) system - or to "tweak" the route so that it becomes, in effect an LGV, bu cutting out the really bad bends (like Morpeth and Cockburnspath) - even though that would be a LOT cheaper than building a totally new LGV.
Interstingly, the "bad old BR" did this in the 1960's/70's, and upgraded the ECML from 70/80 mph running to 100/110mph, and then again when the HST's cam along. But it isn't FASHIONABLE, right now...

@ 110 Gave up my TV over 30 years ago ....

Food.
IF in the UK we were prepared to radically re-jig our transport systems, and our working practices (everyone gets part-time working, with afternoon breaks, then we need an area equal to about half of Suffolk (I worked out that it should be 0.45 thousand square kilometres) set out as ALLOTMENTS, with people REALLY encouraged to work them.
We'd still need conventional farms for dairy, meat, and grains, and a little over for those who could not do their own growing, but virtually everything else could be home-grown. I, for instance, just do not buy vegetables in the shops or from stalls, excepting onions ..... (Area under cultivation, approximately 10x50 metres, and I grow some real luxuries - asparagus, cardoon, capsicums) And they all taste amazing!
But, do please note the requirements to make this work.

123:

"Emissions taxes guaranteed to increase steadily would probably do it, but the political will to implement those seems lacking just about everywhere."

Petrol emits 2.3Kg of CO2 per litre burned. So that's 430 litres per
metric tonne of CO2. Petrol is taxed in the UK at about 70p per litre; or about 300 pounds per tonne of CO2 generated.

The highest estimates of the cost of mitigating the costs of a tonne
of CO2 emission put it in the area of about 50 pounds. (Using the high
end of the range featured in the Stern report). So that's very roughly about 11p per litre.


Fuel tax increased 2p in December 2008, 2p in April 2008, 2p in September 2008. That's seven pence per litre total in twelve months. Plus the VAT at 15% on that giving about 8p in total. In December 2009, VAT went going back up to 17.5%, adding about another 5p a litre.

So in the last 18 months ALONE, we've had fuel tax rises amounting to entire Stern cost of the emissions.


So, at least that money is being spent mitigating the effects of the emissions... no. Is it being spent on developing lower carbon alternatives then? No.

No. It's just tax. There's no market for carbon capture. No-one is offering 50 quid a tonne for CO2 pulled out of the air. There's no government scheme offering 50 quid a tonne for CO2 emissions savings.

It's just an excuse to raise taxes.


And that's what's REALLY putting people off the green message. Because basically being 'green' currently just means being taxed more, with no benefit or end in sight.

124:

Greg Tingey @ 122

It is not entirely irrational (certainly not a matter of religious faith, an insulting exaggeration) to distrust the people who contaminated the public beach by Dounreay with plutonium, because some people trained as physicists didn't understand what would happen if you mixed metallic potassium/sodium, water and radioactive waste in a closed tube. If we are going to have dozens more nuclear power stations then it won't be the brightest and best who will be maintaining them.

The fact that civil nuclear power has been intimately associated with the military nuclear weapon industry with its paranoid secrecy obviously didn't help the public relations.

125:

While energy intensity /$GDP is declining (how can it not with a shift from manufacturing to services?), if we increase consumption even faster than the growth of the economy, then we get the chart I showed, which is energy consumption/capita is still increasing withing evidence of slowdown.

More importantly, the environmental effects are going to reflect aggregates. Thus while populations continue to rise (hopefully peaking this century) and per capita consumption rises, especially for the majority of the planet, the environmental impact will increase. Charlie is being optimistic that we can solve this problem. I hope this is true, although we haven't been that good at doing anything for GW for over 20 years, which suggests that optimism may not be warranted.

126:

The basic problem with that logic is that what we are currently using is quite literally several orders of magnitude more dangerous. The global coal industry kills as far more people than Chernobyl did every week - a lot of this is due to the third world praxis being less than ideal, but more modern plant does not change the basic math - The european and US coal kill counts alone equals 5 Chernobyls every year... Each. And this does not count the CO2 emissions - it is pure classic deaths-by-poisoning of the air, the water and the land, with an added dose of miners dying horrible deaths.

How to put this bluntly.. Ahh...
I once ran across a madcap scheme for generating power by detonating thermo-nuclear devices every couple of days in a steamfilled cavern, and running turbines off heatexchangers in the cavern walls. Compared to coal power, that would be the height of responsible, safety-oriented and green power.

more seriously, anyone opposing nukes on safety grounds while a single coal plant, anywhere, still operates, should be forced to visit a lung cancer ward and personally apologise to everyone in there.

127:

Katie, p. 224 of _Without Hot Air_ gives a number of estimates of the carbon costs required to have an effect: $85 is the Stern review 'social cost', but Oxford ECI gives '$300+'. You'd need $650 before a UK carbon tax revenue would equal all UK taxes. You need $110 to shift energy production to renewables.

Remember, several gigatonnes of CO2 don't care about the real motives of the UK government. As Feynman put it in the Challenger report, 'political realities' have absolutely no impact in physical ones. You can't fool nature. Crap, isn't it?

128:

Pat @ 124:

If we are going to have dozens more nuclear power stations then it won't be the brightest and best who will be maintaining them.

This is a bit off-topic:

The expression "the best and the brightest" always annoyed me to no end. Like in "One positive outcome of financial meltdown is that the best and the brightest stopped going to Wall Street and began doing something more useful". What the hell does it MEAN? Nobody is ever "brightest" at everything -- someone really good at statistical analysis SHOULD be at Wall Street, even when it is in the doldrums (heck, especially when it is in the doldrums!). He would not be terribly useful as a nuclear power plant engineer -- at least no better than any other smart person. Whereas someone obssessive about detail and procedure should be at a nuclear power plant -- and would suck at Wall Street. And, anyone who chooses their occupation purely by how big a pile of money they can get -- how on Earth are they "best"? Not morally best, that's for sure.

Sorry for the rant, but it just seems to be an utterly meaningless phrase people toss out without thinking.

129:

While energy intensity /$GDP is declining (how can it not with a shift from manufacturing to services?), if we increase consumption even faster than the growth of the economy

Think carefully about this statement. If energy intensity is declining - true by observation - energy consumption can't be growing faster than the economy, by definition.

130:

Ilya @128

I thought carefully about that phrase and intended it to mean that the best and brightest, trained and capable nuclear engineers are not common and it would take a long time to train enough of them to run dozens of nuclear power stations. There was some irony intended also as I had just described a case where the present engineers were not particularly well-informed about chemistry.

I certainly would not want some out-of-work bankers to take over running nuclear power, I would think of them as greedy and blinkered, not best and brightest.

Thomas @126

Having watched governments refusing funding for alternative power sources since I was old enough to watch Tomorrow's World I am not the one to be apologising to the dying victims of the coal industry. Remember the Salter Duck from 1974? Prototypes are just being built for wave power capture.

If nuclear power was not being run as a hobby industry for physicists but became as large as coal power production we might have a much higher death-rate. Are you including the deaths of miners of uranium and other necessary exotic minerals? What is the death rate for wind farms? It is intriguing that the Chinese are now trialling extraction of uranium from the ashes of their horribly dirty coal.

"The nuclear sector faces unprecedented demand for people with the right skills to support both the construction and operation of the new generation of nuclear power stations and the decommissioning of legacy assets." Strangely, not many people want to go into the nuclear power industry. Pure irrationality, obviously.

131:

You are correct. Obviously aggregate consumption approx equals the economy.

However, if the economy grows as population increase + productivity increase, then even if the economy becomes less energy intensive, the per capital use of energy can increase. So if productivity increases = 2% p.a. and energy intensity decreases by 1% p.a., we still get net energy growth per capita of approx 1% p.a., hence my assertion that aggregate energy demand is increasing as is per capita usage.

132:

I don't think vertical farms will ever generate anything but nice looking concept art.

It's just a dumb idea.

Farms spread out on the ground work great, and you don't have to build a giant building to get one.


Consider the much simpler vertical parking structure. A single space in a parking garage costs around $20,000 to build. They don't make sense until land prices are around $1,000,000 an acre. The average US farm is 400 some acres, and I'm pretty sure the land for a single ordinary farm is never worth anything like half a billion dollars. Probably more like 1/1000th of that (some stats I dug up say that is in the ballpark, $2k/acre=$1mil for a farm, so 1/500th of a half-billion).


Building a large building is hugely energy and resource intensive. There is simply no real reason to try to grow food in multistory buildings when you can just spread it out on the ground and ship it a little further.

Heck even greenhouse growing is single story on the ground because heavier structures just don't make sense.


Vertical farms are no more reasonable than intentionally running all your trains over the tops of mountains. The whole idea is just "doing it wrong".

133:

"We have studies that show [zero-energy buildings] are practical for approximately 62% of buildings in the U.S., based on technologies we have today," he said. "That's mostly one and two-story buildings and still leaves out a lot that can't reach it, but those buildings can be low energy."--Kent Peterson, past president of ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.) Not exactly your hippie types.

But, no, nuclear power is the answer.

Croak!

134:

@ 124 and onwards re. "safe operating" and "the brightest and best".

This is total rubbish.
You devise, as carefuly as you can (and usually by trial-and-error over the years, as well) a set of safe operating procedures that enable ordinary guys (and gals as well these days) to operate the syatem.
This has already been done, twice.
Railways and airlines.
The rail and air operating "rule books" are there for a very good reason. That's why, in Britain at least, you are safer in a train than almost anywhere else AT ALL in the country - certainly safer than in your own home.
In both cases, of course, the presence of an INDEPENDENT monitoring and reporting body, which does NOT seek to find someone "guilty" but to find out what went wrong, and try to ensure no repeats is essential.
In air the AAIB, and on rail the RAIB (previously HMRI) fulfil those tasks.
This can and should be (and is) done for nuclear.
The one thing you MUST NOT have is politicians trying to make capital out of any of these systems - which is how we got the Hatfield crash - because of the way the politicos had set up Railtrack - with NO ENGINEERS on its' board (!!!) And how most of the entire nuclear industry has been run in the past, because of the weapons connection.
But.
We need the power-generation capacity.

Agree with the poster @ 123 about "Green" taxes being a con - but that's the politicans AGAIN isn't it?

135:

Pat: I take it you're unfamiliar with the state of nuclear power in France? Not exactly a hobby industry ...

136:

Jeff: The USA isn't exactly typical of the world. Land is dirt cheap, the farming environment is good -- for the time being. Get on a commuter plane at my local airport and fly over the Netherlands and you'll already see vertical farms -- just one story high ones. (A huge proportion of their agricultural output comes from greenhouses.) Also consider the exigencies of keeping your existing farming infrastructure going through a period of climate change. Some of the projections for what a 5 degree global rise will do to our farmlands are just not funny at all (read: the US grain basket becomes a desert; the temperate farming band on that continent moves north to the Canadian shield ... but the post-glaciation soils there are simply not rich enough to support the kind of intensive maize and wheat farming currently practiced south of the border).

137:

Graydon@91: Baseload power is a straw-man.

Coal fired power plants are most efficient (economically and in terms of the ratio of coal to electricity) if run 24*7 at near maximum power. So they searched for ways to use the electricity, this included running factories at night at discount electricity rates.

In warmer parts of the world the greatest availability of solar power matches the greatest electricity demand due to the huge demand for air-conditioning. So that level of variability is a good thing.

Solar-thermal power plants can store energy for several days or even a week.

Wind power can vary a lot in a small region but on average over a large area (EG mainland USA, Australia, or the EU) it doesn't vary that much and can be predicted.

Coal power plants can be converted to run on gas which allows a very rapid spin-up from standby, the ~10 minutes of advance notice you get of a wind farm losing power due to decreasing wind speed is enough time to ramp up a gas power plant.

138:

I think 'hair shirt' green puritans (who surely wear moderately uncomfortable hemp shirts) are straw men put forward by the same kind of media manipulative / agenda controlling people who stole the emails.

In the housing co-op where I live (link above) we reduced the CO2 from our housing by 59.1% during a project to cut it by 60%, that's first year figures. We also cut our running costs (very slightly) and would have cut them (and CO2) more but for the immaturity of the UK infrastructure.

It didn't require much lifestyle shift, our retrofitted biomass boilers need about 30 mins maintenance per week at peak use plus we often have to fill them manually and they don't get fixed as quickly as gas boilers (again an infrastructure issue). We levied a £5 per week rent rise but some of this was towards other projects and rents could have started to drop back in real terms but for the infrastructure issues.

From a business point of view, community point of view and lifestyle point of view 'going green' has been a good decision. We suffered from being pioneers but we benefit from that also (on balance we suffered but it was a good gamble).

The soil is poison, raised beds have been low yield so we are looking at hydroponics for local food production. We can't grow meat here, even if we can cultivate food fish they will be absurdly low yield. Food is an emotive subject but some lifestyle changes must happen towards the IPCC recommended reductions.

139:

I am dubious about an IP based capitalist growth economy. Capitalism requires that you know what you are buying and it's tough to protect your IP if you have to tell them what it is first.

Intellectual capital is very tough to value and very easy to appropriate, this leads to situations like the HTC vs iPhone legal battles. I fear that an IP based economy tends towards a lawyer based economy and I don't think that is capitalism.

Also IP gains value once it is shared, 'there's no such thing as an original idea' and all that. In an IP based economy those structures which tend towards free association of ideas will be more successful. This contrasts with capitalism which tends towards concentrating the maximum productive power into the fewest hands.

My last issue, perhaps frivolous, is that if the economy is based on consuming and producing intellectual property then the labour theory of value says that I must exchange my time (labour power) in order to use (spend) my time consuming (reading) your IP. I spend my time to spend my time, where do I find the time?

140:

Uranium mining is done on a much smaller scale than coal mining around the world. Almost all of the uranium mines are open-cast working rather than deep-mine operations which are the real man-killers in terms of accidents and long-term health.

It takes a lot less uranium ore to produce a GWhr of electricity than the equivalent tonnage of coal. Most of the easy-to-get coal has been mined and burnt already (with the exhaust dumped into the atmosphere hence the rise in atmospheric CO2 over the past couple of hundred years) whereas we have only been mining uranium for about 60 years on a limited industrial scale and so there is lots left that is cheap and easy to extract right now.

141:

Robert Sneddon @ 140

Approaching half of world uranium production is presently from underground mining according to http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf23.html , up from the low of 33% in 1999. Do you mind letting me know the source for your data? 36% comes from the rather dubious in-situ leaching process. "Radiation doses at Australian and Canadian uranium mines are well within regulatory limits." No mention of standards in Namibia, Kazakhstan etc.

Total presently known recoverable resources of uranium are enough for less than a century at current usage rates.

Charlie @ 135

Yes, I forgot about France. I have tended to ignore their official statistics as suspicious since they blew up the Rainbow Warrior. Just bigotry on my part, I admit. They are getting round to thinking about licensing long term waste disposal, by 2025, perhaps. Twelve power stations are currently being decommissioned, producing a lot of waste with nowhere to go.

Jim Noble @ 138

A good hemp shirt should be as comfortable as linen, mine certainly are.

142:

The amount of known uranium reserves is limited by the fact that nobody's looking particularly hard for more uranium since, as you say, there's about a century's worth in existing deposits either in store or being exploited right now. Why bother spending money and effort exploring now for new sources of uranium when we can't use up what we've already got in less than a hundred years? After all, we're only mining fifty thousand tonnes of uranium metal per year -- compare that to the seven thousand million tonnes of coal being mined and burnt each year with the resulting CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere. The figures are a bit fuzzy but some calculations say the known reserves of coal might run out in less than forty years at current consumption rates.

We know there are recoverable amounts of uranium in seawater which are too expensive right now to be worth exploiting in terms of equipment and energy inputs because existing land-based uranium ore sources are cheap. There's no way to get coal or oil from seawater.

143:

The reason the french are not disposing of their spent fuel is that they have every intention of loading all of it into fast reactors repeatedly until every atom of heavy metal has been fissioned, so burying it now would just mean they would have to dig it back up again in 15-20 years, which falls under the heading of "waste of effort". Note that the fact that all nuclear power programs are aiming at fast reactors makes the whole resource constraint thing moot - under a fast reactor regime there is enough uranium available to support *any* level of industrial activity that does not actually result in the planet melting from waste heat indefinately, and the existing stockpiles of waste and depleted uranium would obviate any need for any mining whatsoever for many centuries.

144:

Robert @ 142 The uranium separation from seawater you describe is said to be feasible but expensive - if powered by ocean current/wave power. http://www.jaea.go.jp/jaeri/english/ff/ff43/topics.html Why would you want coal from seawater when you can get electricity from wave power?

How much actual ore is mined to make that 50,000 tonnes of uranium? How much waste?

You can probably get biodiesel from sewage - if that runs out we won't have to worry about energy sources.

Plenty of oil in the Gulf of Mexico seawater at the moment, it seems to be difficult to get it out, though.

145:

Thomas @ 143

What is reason the French are not disposing of all the rest of the waste from decommissioning nuclear power stations? Tens of thousands of tonnes of waste like graphite rods sitting there waiting for a decision.

I am not saying nuclear is not an option, just pointing out that the PR has been horrifically badly managed due to the military aspects and the technology is not all there yet.

Personally, I would rather some restrictions came in now. How about outlawing all illuminated advertising? Video posters by roadsides, neon-decorated shopfronts, floodlit hotels - tacky and unnecessary.

146:

Pat@41:

Total presently known recoverable resources of uranium are enough for less than a century at current usage rates.

Not to traverse the whole weary loop yet again, but breeder technology is well in hand (particularly since every reactor is to some degree a "breeder reactor"), and undiscovered reserves of uranium notwithstanding[1], there's enough known thorium in the ground to run these sorts of reactors for millennia.

[1]In fact, one of the sf tropes from forty and more years ago was extraterrestrial mining of uranium (I suspect this is where the helium 3 nonsense came from.) Maybe this will be the big space industrial app of the (far) future.

147:

You can get electricity from wavepower, right enough. You could get it from hamster wheels too... There have been small-scale experimental systems meant to extract energy from waves, tides and currents being tried for about forty years now. There's a slight problem, though, they have to be deployed in open seas to be most efficient (it's where the big waves and currents are) and pretty much any area of open sea gets hurricanes, typhoons and other 100-mph-plus weather systems pass through or over them occasionally. This breaks things, especially things that are meant to extract energy by standing in the way of currents and tides.

We'll skip lightly over the problems of maintaining such machinery immersed in corrosive seawater and aggressive lifeforms that like to attach themselves to moving parts, the costs of operations and the effort needed to transmit the energy back to the land where we want to use it. Compared to that little lot running a nuclear reactor complex on-shore is pretty much cost-free.

Re: mining uranium, commercial ore runs about 1-1.5% metal so the 50,000 tonnes of metal produced each year will require the mining of about 5 million tonnes of ore. There will be some overburden but not much. That's less than 1% of the amount of coal that is dug up and burnt each year. Of course "burning" the uranium doesn't add to the CO2 in the atmosphere unlike Killer Coal.

Re: making biodiesel from sewage, there isn't enough sewage available and the energy costs of the processing are probably not in its favour either. It's a bit like the turkey guts thing that was going around a few years back. I think ethanol from sugar-cane is just about financially feasible but there's limited places on Earth that can grow cane and that would eat into the acreage dedicated to arable farming in those locales.

Other comments: nobody in the West uses graphite in fuel rods and the Russians stopped using graphite-moderated cores in their reactors decades ago, even before Chernobyl lit off. Graphite reactors are good for making Pu-239 for nuclear warheads and all of the known nuclear Powers already have way more Pu-239 than they need for their existing weapons stocks. From memory, the UK has about 70 toonnes of the stuff and the US has currently 100 tonnes of metal in store.

Fuel rods sit in cooling ponds after they are "spent" to allow short-half-life products to decay and the metal to cool down thermally, usually for a decade or so. The French actually reprocess their fuel rods as Britain does; we started doing this in the late 60s or early 70s because we thought we'd have a lot more reactors than we actually ended up with and the French actually do have the number of reactors that we should have had (I blame North Sea Oil). I think France is the only country with a working research breeder reactor, the Phenix although it is now being run in test mode doing research into actinide transmutation for waste reduction.

148:

Greenhouses are not vertical farms, and I already mentioned why not: they don't go up. They are farms on the ground with a canopy over head to control the environment a bit. The most they are going to have is a concrete slab underneath, and the builders will skip that if they can.

The problem really is not that land is too cheap everywhere for vertical farms to make sense it is that the construction costs for multistory buildings are far too high.

Heck the Netherlands is a great example of the ridiculousness of vertical farms. It is apparently far more reasonable to turn shallow ocean into farmland than to build vertical farms because the Netherlands has repeatedly turned ocean into farm while nobody has built a vertical farm that isn't a showcase.

The vertical farm is ridiculous not only because it can't beat today's farmland but because it can't beat reclaiming shallow ocean or turning fresh lava fields into a farms or terraced farming on the sides of mountains.

To get vertical farming to make sense you need the constraints of a space station or Trantor. Even on the moon it would be cheaper to build single story greenhouses.

149:


Is it even feasible for a developed nationt run all it's cars and aeroplanes on renewable fuels produced on its territory?

150:

One thing I have noticed is that there is, as far as I can tell, an extremely likely future coming that absolutely nobody is talking about. It is the one where energy is about the only resource we have enough of, because the appetite of a planet with 5 billion people living in industrial societies demand mad amounts of raw materials, even with extremely efficient recycling.

151:

149: No. Not even close. There are, however, any number of ways to convert electricity into liquid fuels, of varying degrees of exoticness and cost. Ammonia can be combusted, and is easy to make from air and power, actual jet fuel can be wholly synthetically manufactured as well, if the price is high enough. NB: I am not all that optimistic about the electric car unless someone comes up with a high preformance battery that is not based on lithium - there just is not enough good ores to support a global fleet at a reasonable price.
Energy is near-limitless, the planet is mostly made out of iron, and silicates, so steels, glasses, ect? Not ever going to be scarce, esoterica however, are going to start costing you an very pretty penny as more countries move out of poverty

152:

@150:

Well, no.

If the raw materials run out, it is in fact the energy that ran out - unless you're living in empty space. There is very little that we can't do, given enough energy. We'll never run out of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, iron, aluminum, silicon and a lot of other stuff that's just so abundant on earth that it's not even funny.

Given enough energy, we can do anything.

153:

Robert@147:

We'll skip lightly over the problems of maintaining such machinery immersed in corrosive seawater and aggressive lifeforms that like to attach themselves to moving parts, the costs of operations and the effort needed to transmit the energy back to the land where we want to use it. Compared to that little lot running a nuclear reactor complex on-shore is pretty much cost-free.

Without resorting to "some people say" rhetorical device, I will note that cost of operations seems to get minimal consideration when these sorts of alternative schemes are proposed. I believe you once pointed out that even a small hydro installation with an output of, say 10 kW is going to take 10 man-hours a week of maintenance. So while it's true the "fuel is for free!", and it's even true to some extent that the up-front construction costs can be amortized away for some of these alternative energy schemes, they still have maintenance costs that drive the $/kW figure substantially higher than what you have with conventional power plants.

154:

Russell @137 --

Do you live somewhere warm?

Baseload power is critical life support -- hospitals, anything (like elevators and subway trains) where cutting the power leaves people some place they will die, like losing heat in a Canadian winter -- plus non-interuptable process industry like aluminum smelters, rolling mills, glass production, and pretty much the entire existing chemical industry (you can't stop/start/stop/start a nylon fiber production plant, for example.)

Even in Toronto, there are four months of the year where solar just isn't going to cut it; in Edmonton or Edinburgh, it's a nigh-total non-starter.

So yeah, there really is such a thing as baseload power, and for some things -- that aluminum smelter -- we're not ever going to get away from it.

155:

Graydon@154: Australia is pretty warm, as is most of the US. Canada is cold, but they already have high voltage lines going between the US and Canada as part of the North American electricity grid.

If you had solar thermal power plants in US states like Arizona and Texas and wind power plants all over the US and Canada then you really wouldn't have any problem with supplying electricity whenever it's needed. You just aren't going to have a week of no sun in Texas and Arizona followed by a day with no wind in all of North America!

The amount of power used by hospitals etc is a minute fraction of the total electricity used by a city. Street-lights take much more electricity, and are still a small fraction of electricity use.

People DON'T die when elevators run out of power. In early 2009 parts of the Melbourne CBD were cut off due to excessive demand that the coal plants couldn't handle and no-one died - while many people died in the bushfires that were caused by the same heat wave. If solar power had comprised a reasonable portion of the Victorian power supply then we wouldn't have had the power outages in the city (which incidentally cost businesses huge amounts of money).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_meter

Of the power that is used residentially a large portion of it is highly variable and the peak load can be reduced with smart meters (which are already being introduced). Many of the initial installations of smart meters merely allow different pricing so the users can choose not to use electricity when it's expensive, but the next logical step is to allow non-critical devices such as washing machines to delay their operation when power is expensive.

Even for heating in a Canadian winter, the use is variable, instead of having a thermostat temperature of 15C all night long you could allow it to temporarily dip to 14C at times when electricity was expensive and rise to 16C when it's cheap.

The problem with aluminium smelters is that the aluminium price is far too low due to government subsidies (in Australia the smelters buy electricity at below cost prices). Higher costs for aluminium would drive more recycling and therefore less electricity required for production.

156:

Two things strike me, reading through the later comments:

Fist, nobody seriously thinks that coal is a good option for our future energy needs, so can we please throw that particular straw-man on the fire where he belongs?

Second, Charlie is normally a sensible sort of fellow, but his fondness for Scotland seems to have blinded him to the fact that northern Europe is actually pretty hostile to organic life. If you want to grow crops more efficiently, moving closer to the equator seems much easier than building agro-skyscrapers.

157:

It gets brought up a lot, because, firstly, it is the current default power source, and secondly, because so far every single time a nation has rejected nuclear power "in favor of renewable energy" the actual outcome has been the continuing use of coal. The danish anti-nuclear campaign in the 1970s - was explicitly "no to atoms, yes to sun and wind", and the politicians got aboard with that and funded the development and deployment of the current wind tech to the tune of billions of krona.. Result: Thirty years later, the danish grid is still 80% coal, and Denmark is the worst carbon emitter per capita in the EU. The popular rejection of nukes in Austria? Result : Coal.
The end of nuclear construction in the USA after the fiscal catastrophe of Shoreham? Result: Coal.
If the Germans go through with their nuclear phaseout, the result will, again, be more coal. This is not a strawman, but simply the facts of life- the real choices of what to build is coal, nukes, and natural gas (And if you come out in favor of a natural gas baseload grid, I have nothing more to say to you. Its a horrible idea, since natural gas facilities can actually produce fracking mushroomcloud-sized explosions, and it is still carbon power)
There are extant examples of no-coal, zero-carbon electrical grids, and all of them except Iceland are based on the use of large scale hydro power and nuclear fission. Nothing else has been proven to work, and I do not think we will see that change anytime soon.

158:

@ 157
Spot on
Coal should be reserved for steam locomotives , and the rest of our power-generation should be nuclear / hydro (Where hydro includes tidal and wave and multiple small turbines as well....)

159:

Chris, moving closer to the equator isn't an option if we get the warming patterns projected in some of the models for a 5 degree overall rise. Global climate change is unevenly distributed, and for much of the equatorial continental land masses the actual projected rise exceeds ten degrees, rendering the tropics largely uninhabitable -- much of Africa, Australia, the Southern United States, central America and the northern Amazon will be dangerously hot and useless for agriculture.

(Admittedly they'll still be useful for solar farms once they've fully desertified, but photosynthesis doesn't work above about 40 celsius -- there'll be no farming there.)

When your topsoil has been baked to near-sterility in temperatures similar to the great Saudi deserts, and what you're left with is thawed tundra and glacial moraines, some creative approaches to agriculture are going to be indicated (because the traditional methods are going to be less than useful) ...

160:

Aussenseiter@149:

For most developed countries cars really aren't a good method of transportation in most cases. Most drivers would be better off if they had good public transport, it means you can work, sleep, eat, etc while travelling to/from work (which is a large portion of all travel).

As for flight, a significant portion of flights are on routes which are quite viable for trains. For travelling between Melbourne and Sydney (the most popular flight route in Australia) it's about 850Km, just under 90 minutes of flying time which means about 2.5 hours all up given the time for bag searches etc. If one of the fast European-style trains was implemented which could average 300KM/h (top speed 350Km/h) then it would take just under three hours for the trip. Last time I travelled to Germany by train I had a choice of buying a reserved seat on one particular train or a ticket that allowed me to catch any train on the day and risk standing up if there weren't enough seats. Using that ticketing model for trains between Melbourne and Australia the effective travel time would be almost identical for train and plane if you chose not to get a reserved seat!

Being a little taller than average I really hate economy airline seats and as I can't afford business class that means I take the train whenever I have the opportunity. A 6 hour train trip between Amsterdam and London is preferable to a 1 hour flight IMHO. Opinion varies of course.

Thomas@157: A chemical explosion needs an oxidising agent. A factory that produces solid fuel rockets or explosives can explode in a spectacular way because the fuel and oxidising agent are mixed (or part of the same chemical depending on what is being used). A hydrocarbon such as gas, petrol, coal, etc really won't do anything interesting without an oxidising agent. A gas leak in an enclosed space (such as a gas fired power plant that is being constructed) can result in gas mixing with the air in an explosive combination. But that's not much different to petrol fumes, coal dust, dust in grain silos, etc which all have histories of producing explosions that are quite similar.

I think that the reason why plans to change from nuclear power to renewable energy sources sometimes falter after the step of blocking nuclear power is that there is not a lot of general support for having a nuclear power plant nearby where people work or live. As some electricity is lost in transmission there are strong economic incentives to produce electricity in places that aren't too far from where it's used, particularly for expensive sources of electricity such as nuclear power (which is expensive even when all cleanup costs are considered to be externalities paid for by the tax-payer). Now if the modern HVDC technology was available some decades ago then maybe things would have been a little different, nuclear plants could have been constructed in more remote places with less opposition.

Now if more people were aware of the incidence of cancer in areas near coal fired power plants then perhaps we could mobilise the NIMBYs to support renewable energy instead of coal.

161:

Shorter:

Nuclear might be bad, but coal is several times worse.

We can decarbonise our heating - at least for houses - but it's going to lead to greater demand for electricity. Ditto transport.

Power storage with the solar that counts - using a working fluid not PV - is trivially esay, given that we know how to build large insulated tanks. So stop the 'can't store solar power' meme already.

So:
1) Where do I go to invest in Desertec?
2) Carbon-negative concrete would appear to be the next thing to talk about.

PS I got 144C on the roof panel yesterday. Lots of clothes and stuff got washed.

162:

I believe you once pointed out that even a small hydro installation with an output of, say 10 kW is going to take 10 man-hours a week of maintenance. So while it's true the "fuel is for free!", and it's even true to some extent that the up-front construction costs can be amortized away for some of these alternative energy schemes, they still have maintenance costs that drive the $/kW figure substantially higher than what you have with conventional power plants.

I'd love to see the original of that statement! The fact is that small scale hydro ought to get a monthly/quarterly maintenance check and an annual service - for which you assign a few hours. They are designed to be low maintenance. You can only get to ten hours per week if you count every time you walk past the inlet or outfall and remove a dead fish or leaf; or possibly if you home brewed the system from a diesel alternator and plywood water wheel (thinking here of the BBC2 series 'It's Not Easy Being Green!' where some of the contraptions were definitely Heath Robinson (Rube Goldberg in the US).

163:

Monbiot was saying we could get our total energy requirements from offshore wind, according to this report:
http://www.offshorevaluation.org/downloads/offshore_vaulation_full.pdf

And they would also provide some refuges for fish from trawlers. UK fish stocks have done exactly what the scientists predicted, ie. decreased, and if we are to sustain fisheries we need large areas where you can't catch anything that allow the ecosystem to recover.

164:

Russel @ 160

The only type of power plant that people seem to accept in their neighborhood is solar.

Even for Green power we already have people objecting to wind (not pretty, noise), tidal (interferes with fishing), hydro (drowns land).

People want their power, but they want the production somewhere else. The answer is always to put it where someone else lives, like those guys 50 km away who don't have as much pull politically.

In general I think we have a problem with the democratic political system. We have to convince a large portion of the voters that a choice must be made that they won't like in the short term. Unfortunately the political opposition will use that choice to beat down the government in power. If the solution could be implemented in a period of two years the government might choose to try, otherwise it's not worth the political cost.

The only way we will see any real effort is if(when) a visible catastrophe occurs. Then we will see some action, probably too late.

I think we will have to be satisfied with the traditional muddling through solutions.

165:

The problem is not that the renewable plans faltered because of lack of commitment, political or economic - The problem is that despite heroic, enormous, and decade long efforts from some of the most efficient and competent governments on earth, and the finest engineering talent you are likely to meet working their asses off employed in corporations that are lean, mean innovation machines that make your typical silicon valley startup look like a staid overcautious rent collector.
(Vestas infamously doesnt file much in the way of patents, because by the time you've ripped them off, that model is obsolete anyway..)

Despite all this, which is everything a new technology could ask, and more, it has, simply, failed.

Let me put things into perspective: The german feedin tarrif for solar power built in the years 2004-2009 represents a present and future fiscal commitment of over *60 billion euros*, and resulted in a solar power program supplying some 1.3% of Germany's electricity. A commitment on this scale to nuclear power would have gotten you (going by historical costs of nuke build in germany) 20+ EPR's, enough to completely eliminate coal from the german power supply. But the reason the solar programme was an abysmal failure was most certainly not because the germans did not try hard enough! 60 billion counts as trying pretty damm hard. It was simply because the underlying tech does not work.
Offshore wind? if you want similar stories of abysmal failure, I can list them all day, as it would simply amount to listing every seamill park ever built. Even with the extreme cost overrun, sea based wind makes okiluto-3 look absurdly cheap, even without considering the fact that reliable power is quite simply more valuable than intermittant ditto.

166:

The Russians have been running a fast-breeder reactor (Beloyarsk-3) on the grid since 1980; apparently they're building another one next door and have sold 2 to China. Also, the Japanese started theirs up a couple of weeks ago.

167:

John@162:

I'd love to see the original of that statement! The fact is that small scale hydro ought to get a monthly/quarterly maintenance check and an annual service - for which you assign a few hours. They are designed to be low maintenance. You can only get to ten hours per week if you count every time you walk past the inlet or outfall and remove a dead fish or leaf

IIRC, yes, it was low-grade maintenance of cleaning and clearing inlets and outlets sort. But I fail to see your point in bringing up what kind of maintenance it is: ultimately, you need a guy on site for a certain amount of time and he draws a paycheck. For our 10 kW plant with 10 hours a week and a salary of $40 K/yr, that's $200/week you've got to figure into your costs, ie, 200/1680= $0.119/kWh. Looking up my rates online, I see that I am being charged $0.09275/kWh from my coal-fired utility . . . including maintenance, upgrades, fuel, etc.

So yes, you've really got to look at the very mundane dollars and cents chores to really get a sense of the costs. Even a hundredth of a cent can make or break a scheme in terms of profitability. Iow, it's not the hi-tech that kills you, it's the lo-tech for these sorts of things[1]. What, you thought you were going to install those shiny solar cells on your roof and they'd just shine on, shine on eternally? All you have to do is plug them in and amortize the start-up costs away? In your dreams (I'm sorry, I don't mean that turn of phrase pejoratively.) While the concept looks very cool in the artist's conception that is all that most of us ever see for a lot of these sorts of things, at the end of the day, you've still got to pay a guy with a long stick and some grippers to clear out dead branches, doll-heads, six-pack rings and dead soldiers, the decaying corpses of possums, etc from the sensitive parts of your installation.

[1]This is true for very broad classes of work, of course. Growing up lo-tech (which is why I'm very much for hi-tech), my job was to keep the fires burning at home, literally. People would come by and see the large fireplace with a good fire going, the generous stack of cord wood laid close at hand, the dogs snoozing and farting practically on the hearth, and comment on how sometimes you just can't improve on the good old days. They never saw the sweat that went into the cutting and splitting and stacking of that wood, nor did they see the absolutely amazing amounts of ash generated each day (lo-tech, remember? In the winter it was going almost 24/7) and that I had to dispose of in an "environmental" fashion.

168:

165 posts so far and no mention of Spain's foray into solar power? Or the lessons learned?

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/business/energy-environment/09solar.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Just an observation: the human ability to screw things up on an ongoing basis never ceases to amaze me. The examples are plentiful and I'll quote from the above link...

"that new solar plant sits just next door, with more than 100,000 parabolic mirrors in neat rows on about 400 acres of former farmland."

Now you tell me, what sort of genius covers over 400 acres of viable farmland just to put in a solar plant?
In all of Spain you couldn't have found 400 acres of relatively useless land on which to build this solar plant. Did the builders of this solar plant even take it into consideration? (But then again, do they ever?)

169:

I've decided that nuclear power has the same effect on hominid male thinking as fast cars, tequila, and firearms.

Funding for renewables research was cut back in the 1980s in the USA, under Reagan, who never gets the credit for feeding us corvids so well. So don't give us this rotten garbage about how huge amounts of money have been spent on renewables research--the spending is much, much less than the petroleum industry spends on research and exploration. Perhaps it is even less than the petroleum and coal industries spend on global climate change denial. Ironically the current US Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, was formerly the head of Lawrence Berkeley Labs, of one of the major research facilities in this area. I suspect he must be tearing his hair out about now.

170:

The maintenance man... Remember that any sort of maintenance work is done by at least two people these days in case one guy ends up falling in a hole or getting asphyxiated or electrocuted or whatever. It doesn't matter if you're working in an office or down a manhole there's always somebody else on site with you. There have been too many cases in the past where somebody got into difficulties when working by themselves and nobody noticed until it was too late. If you've ever wondered what that guy standing at the top of a hole in the road was doing just hanging around and not swinging a shovel well now you know.

The ten man-hours a week of maintenance I commented on for small-hydro schemes in a previous thread would be five hours for two workers, not ten for one. There are other costs to employing them, of course -- vehicles to get them to the sites, safety gear and appropriate clothing, training, supervision etc. etc. It all adds up, unlike the economics of most renewable energy schemes.

171:

Energy policies are national - and while you can, perhaps, lay the failure of the US to achieve this goal at the feet of lack of political will, the fact remains that this has been tried, and tried seriously and repeatedly, by governments that are flat out *better* at directing national industrial policy in desired directions than the US will ever be. All of those policies failed. Nuclear advocates can point to France, to Sweden, to Switzerland as remarkable and total successes at achieving a carbon free grid. Nuclear advocates can point to large reductions in carbon intensity in Japan, to long term plans in India, in China.
Which examples of success can renewable advocates point to? Denmark ? Denmark has the worst emissions in the european union, bar none. One of the worst there is, globally. And if "pursue renewable power" has just flat out failed in Denmark, with all the of natural advantages wind has here, in terms of terrain, in terms of wealth, in terms of balancing done cheaply by neighbours deeply invested in hydro, in terms of a consensus political state that can, and does, pursue goals for decade after decade. Then? It is just flat out not going to be a solution to global warming.

172:

Raven@169:

So don't give us this rotten garbage about how huge amounts of money have been spent on renewables research--the spending is much, much less than the petroleum industry spends on research and exploration.

In your estimation, just how much money should be spent, and what, specifically, should it spent on? You can't say things like "better solar cells"; that's far too vague.

I won't attempt to defend the amount of money spent on renewables so far, but please bear in mind that there's a huge difference between pure research, investigating specific effects to exploit, developing a unit in the lab, developing a unit for use in real-life conditions, and developing a unit that works well in the field at a competitive cost[1]. What may be a lot of money at one stage in this process could be a pathetically small amount at another. But you can't simply bypass any of those stages and so it's quite possible that what is being spent is entirely appropriate to the task.

[1]Think about effects like giant magnetoresistance or tunneling magnetic resistance, discovered more than 20 years ago as quantum mechanical effects being investigated in the lab. Then think about the development cycles that led to this effect being the basis for high density storage on gigabyte hard drives.

173:
The ten man-hours a week of maintenance I commented on for small-hydro schemes in a previous thread would be five hours for two workers, not ten for one. There are other costs to employing them, of course -- vehicles to get them to the sites, safety gear and appropriate clothing, training, supervision etc. etc. It all adds up, unlike the economics of most renewable energy schemes.

Right, but as I said, it doesn't matter why the workers are there, it only matters how much their paycheck detracts from the bottom line. Kind of like employing a security guard, even though all he's doing is watching the cameras from his desk; he's not really doing anything per se, but his job is necessary, and you have to figure the costs of having him around into the costs of the operation.

I tend to harp on these operational costs because I get the feeling - maybe it's just projection - that when people look at their utility bill and see a rate of $0.09/kWh they think that $0.08 of that is for the coal. Kinda like gassing up your car. That tends not to be true in a lot of cases involving alternative energy sources. This also tends to create an impression that there's more room for improvement in the basic technology than is really justified.

174:

Admin note for ScentOfViolets: if you want to respond to a specific comment, why not click the "Reply" link to the right of the commenter's name and the date? That'll generate a back-link to the entry you're commenting on, making it easier for other folks to follow the comment thread in a busy topic. (Hint, hint.)

Yes, I know, proper threaded comments would be good. Not gonna happen until I get time to look for a bolt-on that implements it ...

175:

A couple of points on emissions from air travel:

- Air travel contributes only a relatively small fraction of total carbon emissions. So even though emissions from air travel may increase because growth in demand outstrips growth in efficiency, the impact on total emissions may be relatively small.

- Increasing aircraft efficiency is not the only way to reduce emissions. Substituting biofuels for conventional jet fuel could reduce emissions, or even make air travel carbon neutral.

176:

Which examples of success can renewable advocates point to?

New Zealand. Eighty percent renewable generation and climbing, in an energy market with no subsidies (except the usual hidden subsidies that come from disregarding the environmental costs of fossil fuels). Project Westwind is within spitting distance of Wellington (you can see the turbines from parts of the harbour), and the Manawatu windfarm is even more visible from the nearest city. If you can glorify Palmerston North with the title of "city". And our consent process gives individual swivel-eyed NIMBY nutters considerable clout, so if we can build those, anyone can.

And if you attempt to write this off as a special case, I've got more "special cases" waiting for you.

177:

Air New Zealand announced an intention to run entirely on biofuels a little while ago. Subsequent investigation showed that this would require something like the entire world supply of jet-compatible biofuels (for ONE small airline) and the idea was quietly dropped. Ramping up biofuel production to the required level just isn't practical if we also want to grow food and have rainforests.

178:

Also, Spain *is* a success story - they've had days when the grid has been over 40% wind (it's all online at ree.es). That an economy which had the world's biggest property bubble had a property bubble is not unexpected information.

I tend to harp on these operational costs because I get the feeling - maybe it's just projection - that when people look at their utility bill and see a rate of $0.09/kWh they think that $0.08 of that is for the coal. Kinda like gassing up your car.

Yes, but you don't seem to be providing any actual evidence that they are dealbreaking or even significant. Do you think no-one else, including people who have been running pilot plants for the last 30 years, has ever thought of this? Nuclear has labour costs; coal has labour costs; some people look at labour costs and call them "jobs".

I actually think this is a point in Desertec's favour; one of the things about oil is that it's an industry which is transplanted everywhere. Not only the professionals, but also the workers are nomadic. This is one of the reasons why it tends to be so pathological - what money stays behind goes to the Dictator and his clientele, the Dutch disease kills local industry and agriculture. If Desertec needs lots of workers on a long term basis, so much the better - let's see solar workers' unions around the Med rather than frenchified military dictators, saudified takfiri cells, and texanised elite petroleum engineers who fuck off somewhere more profitable as soon as General So-and-so pays for their degree.

179:

"you can see the turbines from parts of the harbour"

Really? Where? All I ever see is the one turbine above Kowhai Park.

I live in Hataitai above Evans Bay and for a while the big yellow Wave Power Generation test was bobbing around by the Scout building. I was hoping to see a bunch of them, but alas...

180:

New Zeeland is large scale hydro, and seismic-area geothermal. - the wind and wave bits are pilot projects of no particular importance to the grid. I explicitly listed large scale hydro as one of the technologies proven to work, and it does. If you have the geography to build lots of hydro power, that is a solution - and two of the grids I counted as wins for nuclear are cheats. - Switzerland and Sweden are, in fact, roughly half and half fission and hydro for power. Hydro does not work without appropriate geography, and geothermal is, as off yet, only viable in very few places. The second example you are about to bring up as a win for renewable is Norway, correct? The thing about Norway is, that like new zeeland, it is a long chain of mountains set down across prevailing winds, and that really just does not describe a whole lot of nations. Outcomes matter, and renewable energy has been vapor ware for longer than I have drawn breath now, with the result that the bulk of the world has continued to burn coal with utterly ruinous consequences. If I seem skeptical of betting on renewable energy it is because going by the record, to date the entire industry has been nothing but a political smokescreen for the continued use of coal and gas, and secondly, because the consequences if that state of affairs persists are so very bad.

Shorter and clearer: We know nuclear fission will get us a carbon free grid, because it is an old technology, it does not change the basic way electric grids or utilities work, and the main materials needed (steel, concrete and skilled labor) are all in abundant supply. So, if we build a bunch of nuke plants, and down the road someone perfects renewable energy technologies that are better and cheaper than nuclear.. well, so what? At that point, we can just run those plants to the end of their design life and then replace them with "Shiny tech" no harm, no foul. Some investors loose their shirts, sure, but that is what investors are for.

If we bet on renewable, storage, the smart grid, demand management, and so on and this bet does not pan out, what are the consequences of that? 30 more years of burning coal? This is not a game. That is, quite simply, an utterly unacceptable outcome.

181:

Virginia has a request in to build two more nuclear plants, but Obama gave both to Georgia. We're fine with nuclear plants, in fact, the houses and land on the lake have very high prices because the area has a better temperature due to the plants.

Now, getting people in my city to let American Type Culture Collection build here took many many hearings. They're worried a virus will get out.

182:

No one has mentioned Kite Power. Still in the research stage, but available anywhere on the planet that has access to the sky...

http://www.physorg.com/news165082424.html

183:

Thomas@165: $60B isn't trying that hard. Australia is a smaller country than Germany but our government has committed $43B to a FTTH network even though the current ADSL2+ speeds are not attainable because Australia doesn't have fast enough International links. So the government essentially spent $43B to break the Telstra monopoly instead of implementing anti-trust laws. For something that takes a few years to implement the government of even a relatively small developed country can spend $60B for a project on a whim.

Robert@170 et al: 10Kw is a tiny power plant, in Australia each power circuit is rated at 15A (3.6Kw) and each lighting circuit is rated at 10A (2.4Kw). Electric ovens and stoves often have their own circuits so they can have 15A+ for one appliance. Electric water heating systems can draw even more. If a 10Kw power plant was to power more than one home then they would have to be really energy efficient homes. So the 10Kw system you talk about is not going to be something that's run by the state electricity commission, it's going to be something that one family runs in the backyard and has their children clean out the junk from the water after they feed the dog. Before anyone says "oh noes, children could drown in that tiny hydro-dam", please keep in mind that the swimming pools that many people have for fun kill lots of children.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Iceland

Thomas@171: Iceland uses renewable energy (mostly hydro-power) to provide 100% of their electricity. About 81% of their primary energy is from renewable sources and about 66% of their primary energy is from geo-thermal. This isn't just because Iceland has some good geo-thermal resources. It's because of the environmental problems that Iceland has had in historical times which have given them a cultural understanding of the need to solve these problems. The book Collapse by Jared Diamond gives some good background information.

Mad Lemming@175: Aircraft place their emissions in the upper atmosphere where they do more damage.

Chris@177: Virgin has done some testing of planes that run on a mix of bio-fuels and regular fuels. I expect that they could blend a small amount of one of the more readily available bio-fuels with the regular jet fuel to save some non-renewable oil without using any obscure plant source or causing deforestation. But really the best thing to do is to replace all short plane flights with trains and use passenger ships for travel between places like Australia and New Zealand.

Thomas@180: A significant part of the problem is that investors DON'T LOSE THEIR SHIRTS! In most countries it's difficult to determine which industries are even profitable with the way that the government redistributes money according to political lobbying. A large part of the Australian car industry probably wouldn't be viable without the $100,000,000 bonuses that the government pays out to car manufacturers. Cars with larger engines wouldn't be as popular if the government didn't give tax deductions based on engine size rather than running/repair costs such that buying a car with a larger engine can save money - with the last car I owned the tax deduction was almost big enough to make it worth driving around in circles for a bigger tax deduction! Some of the proposed payouts to coal companies to supposedly protect the jobs of coal workers are greater than would be required to give each worker in question a salary of $100,000 per annum for doing nothing.

So we have coal companies being paid by the government to dig up coal to run power plants and government research being spent on making more efficient coal power plants. Then we have aluminium smelters being sold electricity that is below the cost of production (even when considering the subsidised coal etc). Finally people say "we must have coal power plants to provide continuous electricity for producing aluminium because it's not expensive enough to make it worth recycling all those cans".

If coal companies were forced to pay all the costs of production (including cleaning up the mess) and if aluminium smelters had to pay the regular wholesale price for electricity then renewable energy would look a lot more financially attractive.

184:

Wind power currently meets 3% of New Zealand's energy needs, with five times that amount in the approvals pipeline. At what point does it stop being an experiment? Especially given that the 3% is actively contributing to the existing grid, not just making dials move in a lab?

I was going to mention Iceland as another example, and you were going to say that they were a special case for having so much geothermal, so I was going to bring up Australia's solar thermal potential (they could actually convert some of their existing coal plants to solar thermal, they've already got solar feed-water heaters on a few of them). You were then going to say that that was a special case... how about I shortcut that entire loop by suggesting that northern Europe is the only special case here, and the sooner they acknowledge they can no more be self-sufficient in energy than they are in food, the better?

Craig: Days Bay, ironically. I'm not sure exactly which turbines they are, but half a dozen are nicely framed at sunset.

185:

Biofuel technology is still in its infancy. I'm not suggesting that biofuels could provide a practical or economic large-scale substitute for jet fuel today. But 30 or 40 years from now, they may.

186:

Ah! Of course! The "view from my view", so to speak.

187:
In your estimation, just how much money should be spent, and what, specifically, should it spent on? You can't say things like "better solar cells"; that's far too vague.

The person in the best position to answer that question in the USA is surely Secretary of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu, who has both knowledge and authority in that area. I doubt, however, that the Obama administration would allow an honest answer.

I really don't know enough to draw up a budget, I'm sorry to say. Personally, from what I do know, I would say the biggest thing to focus on right now in the USA is implementing what we have already researched. In the areas I am most familiar with, I would say that implementing building energy improvements where possible is one of the simplest and most effective things we can do. This technology is already researched, and nearly 2/3s of the buildings in the USA can be heated and cooled off the grid. (I cited Kent Petersen, past president of ASHRAE, upthread.) There are new lighting technologies emerging; these are worth funding.

In transportation, surely the best thing the USA could do would be to modernize and restore its rail network. There are even some techniques for gathering solar power along railroad rights-of-way--it might be possible to substantially improve efficiency.

The largest broad issue in my view is population and, while again I do not have a complete answer, surely the best thing we already know to do is still educate women globally.

Beyond that that I advocated starting a crash research program to identify goals and set funding targets. This is exactly what Al Gore advocated back in 1991 in *Earth in the Balance* and, unfortunately, still has not been done. We need to get down to work. We've been relying on the various industries to do the work and this is unfair both to the industry leaders, who after all are in the business of making a profit by doing what they already know how to do, and to the public, who needs solutions that do not primarily preserve the profits of the energy industry. We're having a nasty taste of this through a straw in the Gulf of Mexico right now: we need programs outside of industry.


To sum up:
1. In building and transportation, put what we already know into wider practice. Make buildings more energy efficient. Make transportation more efficient.
2. Educate women worldwide.
3. Start a crash government program to identify goals and set funding targets, then put these into practice.

188:

Alex@178:

I tend to harp on these operational costs because I get the feeling - maybe it's just projection - that when people look at their utility bill and see a rate of $0.09/kWh they think that $0.08 of that is for the coal. Kinda like gassing up your car.


Yes, but you don't seem to be providing any actual evidence that they are dealbreaking or even significant. Do you think no-one else, including people who have been running pilot plants for the last 30 years, has ever thought of this? Nuclear has labour costs; coal has labour costs; some people look at labour costs and call them "jobs".

See the figures in my comment @167, where I give a BOTEC for just the maintenance of a small hydro plant as $0.12/kWh compared with my metered power which is $0.09/kWh for everything, including coal. Yes, I'm quite sure that the people actually doing this stuff for a living take all of these costs into detailed account. I am not so sure that those who have a relatively casual acquaintance with various alternative energy schemes do though, and it is to those people I am addressing my comments. That's not to say there is a complete lack of awareness there; just that you've got to run the numbers before making comments about profitability and technological feasibility[1]. Sometimes things fail to pan out and it's not because of governmental foot-dragging. The obvious example is all of the money that's been thrown at commercial fusion and which still seems to be about fifty years away.

[1]Think about Heinlein's apocryphal comment that in WWII carrier ships time at sea was limited by - of all things - the launch harnesses used to catapult ships off the deck. Or how about the concrete used for the (stillborn) SSC? Apparently coming up with the requisite amount and quality and the sheer scale of earth-moving required was a real budget-buster. Not the fancy hi-tech.

189:

Mad Lemming@185: These matters will all be decided long before 30 years. Anything that is delayed 30 years might as well not happen. Maintaining a level of technology and political stability needed to have large scale passenger airlines around the world in 30 years time requires that we solve these problems reasonably soon.

In 30 years lots of exciting things may happen, battery powered planes might become viable.

Raven@187: You could also install wind turbines along the railway rights of way. A 350Km/h train is going to cause more noise and disturbance than a few wind turbines. I'm pretty sure that a fraction of the rights of way for railways could be used for wind and solar installations that provide more than enough power to run the trains.

While talking about alternate uses of reserved land, the land area currently controlled by electricity companies in Victoria Australia is enough to provide via wind power almost half the Victorian electricity needs! That includes the land from coal mines and power stations.

scent@188: If the prices of coal and wind are 9c and 12c then a small carbon tax will equal that out. The best plans for carbon capture are an increase in overall cost of 20%, so if CCS does everything that they hope of it then it will end up making a significant impact on that 3c difference that you cite.

Of course a 20% cost increase is only for coal power plants which are conveniently located near geological formations which are suitable for storing CO2. Power plants which aren't so close will have greater costs. If a geological formation is discovered to be unsuitable after they start using it then there will be additional costs of pumping out that CO2 and transporting it elsewhere.

Whether you use coal with CCS or nuclear power you will have significant hidden expenses in monitoring the waste for a long time. If this is passed on to consumers then it will make a significant impact on the price.

190:

Australia could, in fact, *not* replace their coal with solar. Even in conditions as favorable for solar power as the great Australian desert, the costs are, quite simply, bonkers. I do not get why there is this hardon for solar power, in fact. People keep linking me "new exciting world-changing solar tech"! and I keep dividing the costs given (when any are given) with the output and coming up with utterly insane numbers. 25, 40 eurocent per kwh produced. Wind turbines at least are within spitting distance of coal+coal-externalities cost, and would thus be a viable solution if we invented the hyper-battery tomorrow. Solar? Solar is a subsidy vampire that sucks down money through a hose and delivers power through a pipette. But people love it beyond reason anyway. I dont get it.

191:

This discussion is making me cranky, because I have had it too many times before. So, honestly, I have a simple question. Is there, in fact, anything short of a time traveler from the year 2250 showing up and beating you half to death with a copy of "the black book of fossil fuel industrialists and the useful idiots that enabled them" that would change your opinion on this?
People have been promising a future based on sun and wind for decades now. How, exactly, do you think Greenpeace activists of the 1970s would have responded to being told that come 2010, thanks to their efforts to halt nuclear, coal would still be king? They would have laughed me out of the room.
Now, consider. How do you know you are not every bit as horrifically wrong as that roomful of criminals-against-the-planet were?

192:

@ 187 ...
That SHOULD read:
2. Educate women worldwide.
2a Kill all the priests

Otherwise, perfectly OK.

Another thought.
How is it that the politicians really don't get it?
Especially as to how horrible coal is. Or is it that coal is familiar, so no-one notices?
That we REALLY NEED nuclear power, that it isn't difficult, and, since the French have conclusively demonstrated that it worls, what the hell are we waiting for?
And, the "hair-shirt environmentalists" do exist, unfortuinately - look at any Green Party publications, and the scientifically and technologically not-even-illiterate spoutings contained therein.

193:

Russel: But really the best thing to do is to replace all short plane flights with trains and use passenger ships for travel between places like Australia and New Zealand.

Ahem: I suspect if you look at a map you'll find Australia and New Zealand are just a little further apart than you think.

(I had reason to check Melbourne to Wellington flights the other week: they're three and a half hours apart as the 737 flies. If your definition of "ship" includes big jet-powered Ekranoplans, then yes, you could put ships on that route. Otherwise, not ... unless you're also proposing to put passenger ships back on the trans-Atlantic routes.)

194:

Greg, your clause 2a is faulty, because a policy of "kill all the priests" will simply apply a natural selection filter for viability to priesthoods that come with a martydrom complex -- e.g. shi'ism.

I think a policy of "educate all the priests" is likely to be more productive. There are horror stories out there of surveys of evangelical Christian pastors in the USA that have 50% of them burning out/dropping out, and 80% of them feeling ill-equipped for the job -- partly because less than 10% of them have any training in necessary skills such as counseling. Their schools all focus on 100% theology, 100% of the time, and to become a priest usually precludes having a modern general education. These people are ignorant. Moreover, when canvassed in private they'll admit to it, and agree that it's a drawback. So I'd start by regulating the seminaries. Requiring the graduates to have at least the equivalent of a liberal arts degree -- one aimed at broadening their horizons and equipping them with a range of useful skills -- would, over time, fix most of what's wrong.

(Alas, given the way hierarchical institutions function that's about as likely to happen as monkeys flying out of my butt.)

195:

The debate over "Hairshirts" is a challenge of framing for Greens: while Greens might promote a positive image of the future, others will deliberately view this in a negative light, and use the hairshirt argument.

For instance, while I promote small, dense town design with easy cycling, walking and good public transport, those involved in selling cars will push the 'anti-car' side of the picture. And as infinite exponential growth in car numbers simply is unsustainable, it must be stopped in favour of planning something better. We have to recognise that we must win this argument with the population in general, but we are not going to win it with car manufacturers.

So we need to pitch accordingly. Eg. when politicians hail success at attracting / creating new business to the country or locale, "We particularly welcome $IP_INDUSTRY to $HERE, as it is a sustainable industry, not dependent on consuming precious resources".
So that people will see demands by unsustainable sectors for the business-as-usual as special pleading.


196:

And 4 hours apart if you are heading west.

Wellington and Melbourne are 'close' in the same way are that London and Moscow are 'close' - it's all a matter of perspective! :-)

197:

The economy can grow indefinitely without immediate environmental impact, as long as the growth takes place in sectors that don't demand energy or raw materials, such as intellectual property and personal services.

This is true, within some limits. For example, energy consuming for datacenters and other computing devices is already becoming a not trivial slice of general energy consumption, and computing power is fundamental to many new ip based products.
Also, even if we can eliminate a lot of waste in how we currently manufacture and do other human activities, thermodynamics give us some strong limits in the best results we can achieve, if we want things done at the end.
But I'm not going to argue the fact that knowledge and labour based economy it's a lot more efficient than old-fashined resource-based economy.
But, if we experience an exponential economical growth of IP goods and labour-based goods, while keeping a static lid on material resource consumption, as the "virtual" economy grow compared to the other, what we're going to experience on a subjective pov is that we'll de-valutate enormously labour and ip goods compared to the basic needs of humans, that at least for a while will still be quite heavy on resources: food, transport, dresses, housings... honestly this seems already a process going on on its own: I've no hard statistics, but from my subjective experience as both a worker and a work-giver, labour worth now seems on a descending slope, and on the other side there's a lot of pressure among consumers and customers towards considering ip goods as free goods.
This must not be a bad thing, but it's only semantically different from the standard "sustainable economy" mantra... altough I must admit that, as advertising and propaganda companies well know, semantics is far from unimportant...

198:

@94:

Oddly enough, [CJD] is a big part of the reason why I'm about 95% vegetarian; sure I still eat meat on occasion, in fact, intensely crave it at times, but no more $0.99/lb ground chuck for our family - we're scared to death of what may be in it.

Well, prions are destroyed by thorough cooking, so CJD is only a danger if you insist on "still mooing" rare steak, or bleeding burger. Personally, I do not LIKE beef much -- or any mammal meat for that matter.

199:

Where did you hear that? Prions are famously not destroyed by cooking! Back in the days when we didn't know what BSE was caused by, thoroughly cooking the meat was doled out as advise because people thought we were dealing with a virus.

200:

How is that possible? Prions are proteins. Proteins unravel when heated. Unravelling temperature is different for different proteins, but I am not aware of any protein (that does not come from extremophiles) which retains its function after being subjected to 150 C or so.

201:

@110
So what are the new status symbols, and are they as much the mark of profligate consumption as their predecessors were?

My daughter is 18 and just finished high school. As far as I can tell, status symbols in her social circle are iPhones, MP3 players, and elaborate meals. Including elaborate meals one actually cooks -- she and some of her friends are very good cooks, and her showing-off skills have a noticeable impact on our food bill. Although still much cheaper if she and her friends were eating that way in restaurants.

Utterly contrary to "teenagers eat at McDonalds" trope.

202:

Wish you could edit comments after posting. Meant to say "cheaper THAN if she and her friends were eating that way in restaurants."

203:
You could also install wind turbines along the railway rights of way. A 350Km/h train is going to cause more noise and disturbance than a few wind turbines. I'm pretty sure that a fraction of the rights of way for railways could be used for wind and solar installations that provide more than enough power to run the trains.

That's a really interesting idea, and one which--if it has not already been studied--deserves some research attention.

204:

Ilya, your view of proteins sounds somewhat simplistic to me. Pace wikipedia: "Prions are hypothesized to infect and propagate by refolding abnormally into a structure which is able to convert normal molecules of the protein into the abnormally structured form. All known prions induce the formation of an amyloid fold, in which the protein polymerises into an aggregate consisting of tightly packed beta sheets. This altered structure is extremely stable and accumulates in infected tissue, causing tissue damage and cell death. This structural stability means that prions are resistant to denaturation by chemical and physical agents, making disposal and containment of these particles difficult."

Protein structure is complex. Strong suggestion: look here. Not all secondary and tertiary structure is determined by hydrogen bonds or Van der Waals forces; you can get other cross-linkages such as disulphide bridges that are thermally stable (albeit not as much as the covalent bonds that hold the peptide backbone together).

The real problem with prions is that the proteins that comprise them have multiple stable 3D shapes; the pathological prion form is one in which they get refolded and "stuck" -- and worse, they catalyse the conversion of the non-prion form of the protein into the prion form.

To denature the prion you basically have to hydrolyze the peptide bonds -- which takes seriously high temperatures and pressures, or strong reagents. Cooking won't do: you have to pretty much burn the stuff.

205:

Charlie --

Thank you -- I did not know this. Although as I said, it does not affect me much, as I do not care for beef to begin with.

206:

Alex@178, in what sense Spain is a success story? In this ?

207:

> I've decided that nuclear power has the same effect on hominid male thinking as fast cars, tequila, and firearms.

I see nothing wrong with fast cars, tequila, and firearms.
Sorry, what was that about?

208:

Wind turbines cost money to build and install. For that reason they are installed in optimum locations where the wind is reliable over a yearly cycle, blowing for long periods of time at a windspeed the turbine can harvest (they shut down if the wind speed gets too high as that would wreck the turbine). For the best wind-generation sites a 5MW turbine produces on average about 30% of its maximum rating (1.6MW). Most of the best sites have already been used up and sites returning 27-28% capacity are now being developed (about 1.4MW average).

Planting wind turbines in non-optimal locations such as alongside railway lines simply because somebody thinks it would be a good idea means their energy return drops way down from that 30% figure to 10% or even less. This means the cost of the electricity they generate goes way above the price of baseload coal thermal stations and nobody would buy it except at the point of a gun.

To be useful to grid operators "renewable" generators depending on solar or wind need storage systems so that the energy they generate over a given period of time can be released to consumers when the demand is there - it's the reason hydro is about the only workable renewable energy source around as it has intrinsic storage in the form of the reservoirs behind the dams. The problem is that solar and wind are so expensive and intermittent that adding the cost of building and operating enough attached storage would make the whole enterprise totally uneconomic. Instead they rely on other generators such as natural-gas fuelled turbine and coal-fired generating stations being available to supply the demand when the wind drops of the sun gets occluded and they stop supplying power to the grid.

Someone else commented on the fact Spain reached 40% renewables recently. How long did that last before the wind dropped, the sun went down and the Spanish grid had to fall back on their thermal (NG/coal/oil/nuclear) generating fleet? Worst case they could always buy electricty from the French nuclear grid, I suppose...

209:

> Instead they rely on other generators such as natural-gas fuelled turbine and coal-fired generating stations being available to supply the demand when the wind drops of the sun gets occluded and they stop supplying power to the grid.

It gets worse.

Combined cycle gas turbines now have efficiency about 60% thanks to second stage steam turbine. Alas, when they run in the mode following highly intermittent sources like wind, they have to stop using steam turbine because frequent restarts use up its resource fairly quick. Therefore in wind power following mode efficiency of gas plant goes south to approximately 40%.


The idea that we can always use wind energy from other region if we do not have wind here seems to be not very well thought through . (I am not hosting this link, if it goes away buy the article here ). A good blog entry on the same subject

210:

Robert Sneddon @ 147 Does France not count as a Western country? They currently have 18,000 tonnes of graphite rods waiting to find a repository.

It seems that the problem is getting the power from the sunny places to the colder places. If only someone would come up with a silicon combustion engine. Would it work in a fuel cell?

211:

You keep on saying that the French have large numbers of graphite rods in store. What have these graphite rods got to do with nuclear power reactors?

All power generating reactors store fuel rods (which contain no graphite) in water ponds for a period of years after they have been removed from the reactor cores because they are intensely radioactive and noticeably warm due to the buildup of short-half-life isotopes while they were in the core. After that time in the ponds the radioactivity has died down to a fraction of its inital level and the rods are then sent off to be reprocessed[1]. Britain's recycling operation is over-sized for the local demand (it was originally scaled to deal with fuel rods from more reactors than we actually ended up with) and hence it takes in fuel rods from other countries such as Japan to reprocess them.

[1] The US doesn't recycle power reactor fuel rods for weapons non-proliferation reasons. It's not actually a good reason but it's US law hence the giant 80 billion dollar Yucca Flats boondoggle.

212:
You keep on saying that the French have large numbers of graphite rods in store. What have these graphite rods got to do with nuclear power reactors?

I expect it's a reference to control rods. Indeed, like other parts of the reactor, these rods can become irradiated and hazardous. Sometimes they can be partially composed of long-lived isotopes. Obviously, you can't recycle a reactor vessel the way you can a fuel rod, so the waste issue there is actually somewhat pressing.

213:

Russel Coker@ 189
"These matters will all be decided long before 30 years. Anything that is delayed 30 years might as well not happen."

Air travel is responsible for only a small fraction of total GHG emissions. Reducing emissions from air travel isn't nearly as important as reducing emissions from other sources, such as automobiles and power plants. And there is no basis for your claim that "anything that is delayed 30 years might as well not happen." Even if it takes 30 years to replace petroleum-based aviation fuel with biofuel on a large scale, that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

TheRaven@187
"In transportation, surely the best thing the USA could do would be to modernize and restore its rail network."

No remotely plausible expansion or improvement of America's rail network could produce anything more than a small reduction in transportation emissions within the next few decades. Even in Europe, which is much more suitable for rail travel than the U.S. and which has a much more extensive rail network, rail provides only a small fraction of total passenger-kilometers of travel. And that share is shrinking, despite all the European investment in high-speed rail.
The overwhelmingly dominant mode of motorized transportation in the developed world is the automobile. And developing nations are rapidly embracing it too. Over the next few decades, China, India, Brazil and other developing nations will almost certainly add hundreds of millions of new cars and drivers. The only plausible way of producing a large-scale reduction in transportation emissions over the next few decades is cleaner automobiles. Fortunately, the technology and markets for cleaner cars are advancing rapidly.

214:

"The only problem is that an IP-based economy goes right up against the IP devaluation that's happening right now ('you don't create IP, you create services'"

This is a standard trend in economies. The Industrial Revolution was associated with, caused and was dependent on a cheapening of agricultural value. Food became a commodity; families spent a smaller fraction of their incomes on basic food. One became rich by mass production, large scale resource exraction or large scale transportation.

In the Post-Industrial Revolution (or advanced Industrial Revolution, IP (including marketing/branding/systems/business models) became the way to make money. Making cars became a break-even game (as well as aircraft, trains, appliances); only a few players made a profit, due to a combination of market share and superior IP.

It's quite reasonable that we are now in a truly post-industrial economy ('we' meaning 'the top 25% of the world's population), where making IP in an of itself is of limited value to the maker. It's all in (a) can you use it, and (b) can you make sure that the value of using goes to you, rather than the general population.


215:

"collapse. If oil price was to increase in a predictable manner by 20% per year for the next 10 years (which is actually less than the CSIRO predicts for Australian fuel prices) then I think that alternative fuels and fuel efficient vehicles could be developed in a timely manner along with upgrades for old vehicles. But if the price increases by a factor of 5 in a year then you have big problems"

A factor of 5 in a year was pretty much what the world got in 1973.

216:

"As I'm fond of pointing out to environmentalists

a) the world is littered with dead cities and ghosts of ag fields past, principally killed by extended droughts (which is the form of climate change we really should worry about)

b) people survived anyway"

Odd logic. Many of the people involved did *not* survive those disasters. As for 'people survived',
it's hard to imagine anything other than a dinosaur killer or gamma ray burst which would actually exterminate the entire human race.


217:

My understanding is that the "non fuel rod" nuclear waste is less of an existential issue because while it is more voluminous and physically awkward it is much less radioactive and decays much faster.

We do have the knowledge and experience to safely sock it away for the couple hundred years it needs. "harden it, dig a hole in a dry place, dump, bury" is almost good enough (and lots of that was done in the early decades of nuclear weapons so we actually have fifty year old dumps exactly like that). Line and cap the hole with concrete and you have a reasonable solution using tested technology.

Fusion reactors would still generate this kind of waste and so do xray machines.


RE Proteins:
You also have to account for the fact that sometimes a protein which is denatured will fold back into its former configuration once the heat/salt/alcohol/etc is removed. Depends a lot on the particular protein.

218:

CJD proteins can and do arise spontaneously. This is the primary reason for the testing; you might catch an imported animal, but mostly you're trying to catch the spontaneous cases and make sure they leave the food system.

There are four mathematically plausible ways to get to fusion power; tokamaks, the Bussard Polywell design, laser implosion, and magnetized target fusion.

Only one of these has meaningful funding; the USN is funding polywell research at the few tens of millions of dollars level, General Fusion is going after magnetized target fusion with about 10 million dollars in investment, and the thing that would be required to make the laser implosion work -- many very, very cheap target pellets -- hasn't been touched, despite the US's National Ignition Facility.

Both the Polywell guys and General Fusion figure they can get a definitive answer -- they describe it as working reactor -- for a gigabuck. I'd say they should both get their gigabuck.

219:

Thinking it over, I think the hair shirt is largely in the imagination of the people being asked to participate in the necessary changes. I don't think it's mostly the idea of environmentalists at all.

Look in a mirror.

220:

As regards fusion, I am a PhD student working on diagnostics for MAST. You may therefore find some bias towards MCF in what I am about to say.

Inertial Confinement Fusion (lasers) suffers from not only needing cheap fuel pellets, but also principally much better lasers and optics resistant to neutron bombardment. To produce reasonable amounts of power they will need a laser repetition rate of ~10Hz, and the best currently available is approximately 4 times a day. In addition, the optical systems tracking the pellet will need to be able to survive neutron bombardment, and track the pellet. They will also need to devise some method of extracting the plasma from the chamber fast enough that the lasers will not interact with the plasma before hitting the pellet. All these components (Optics, pellet injection device, plasma removal device) will need to be able to survive ten to a hundred displacements per atom per year caused by high energy neutrons moving atoms out of their crystalline structure (assuming an electricity output of 1GW).

Now, I have not looked at polywell fusors in any detail, but there appears to be as few problems, such as bremsstrahlung losses when using high Z fuel, and the problems of energetic neutrons when using DT fusion, and most importantly the problem of plasma turbulence in larger devices. These devices also seem to ignore the "frozen-in" condition of plasma in a magnetic field, which will alter their magnetic geometries as the plasma moves in the device.

Again, I have not looked at MTF, but it appears to have the complexities of both MCF and ICF, without being able to work in reasonable magnetic geometries for either.

For all the complexity of MCF, and acknowledging the larger amounts of money put into funding this research, it appears to be the best way forward for fusion power plants. The fusion research program has been incredibly successful, with the Fusion triple product doubling every 1.8 years, faster than Moore's Law. Yes, fusion has been "only 50 years away" for quite some time, but sadly the problem of turbulence in plasmas was considerably harder than initially anticipated. Were it not for this turbulence, you could happily run 1m devices to produce energy, instead of having to build ever larger devices such as ITER.

(Sorry to go on a bit, but I think that this is very important. It is just a sadness that the lack of funding and excess politicking have prevented fusion from being able to help with the current energy crisis.)

221:

I think it's well understood that the laser inertial confinement system is not meant to be used as a power generation system -- its main job is to provide nuclear weapons research data to support the US stockpile maintenance operation. It can provide experimental data for general plasma fusion work but that's about it.

Have the other two systems mentioned, polywell and magnetized target fusion actually produced any fusion events even in benchtop setups or is it all handwaving and Powerpoint slides?

There's been some talk about building a prototype magnetic-confinement power generating tokamak right now, a dash for fusion project that would run in parallel with the ITER rather than waiting until its research programme gives the engineers the numbers and info they need to build a "perfect" first-generation power generating fusion reactor. Whether that happens is in the lap of the gods but presuming the money and effort was expended then we might see the first fusion watt put onto the grid in ten to fifteen years.

222:

Laser ICF is mostly funded by Atomic Weapons Institutes, but there is also interesting science coming out of these devices, looking at things like ion accelerators, which can potentially produce ions with energies higher than the LHC in a fraction of the space.

The big problem with MCF fusion is that the materials science needed for most of the device is very far from settled. Not only do you want to use the neutrons given off to breed tritium from lithium, which no-one has done, but you also have to construct your device from materials which would be resistant to the neutron bombardment, able to cope with the radiated heat flux, and not contaminate the plasma with too much dust. To me this is the biggest hurdle in creating Fusion Power Plants. Whilst I would love to see another device being built next to ITER, and which would allow us to look at far more exciting designs, I fear that a dedicated materials testing centre would be more useful.

223:

hen3ry @220 --

I agree that the polywell and MTF are long shots, but, you know, under the circumstances, at what odds is the possibility of a working fusion reactor worth a gigabuck?

I'd say 1:1000 is a complete no-brainer "yes" for any G20 government.

224:

Charlie writes: "Hair shirt puritanism is not only unnecessary; it's positively damaging to our future, and I wish the greens would drop it right now."

You are speaking of what we should do. However, we do not live in that world of Charlie Stross, Benevolent Ruler. We live in a world where politics controls policy. The game theory of politics requires one to take positions which are not rational (this is even before appealing to populism). To form a good compromise with extremists often requires taking the position of the opposite extreme.

225:

224
You DO NOT "form a good compromise with extremists" - this is called "Appeasement", and is currently being practised by the UK guvmint with regard to muslim extremists, and, quite frankly, any other deluded set of nutters who claim to be "religious".
They should be publicly mocked, as vigorously as possible, as a start, then, in stages, increaseing ones' reaction up to killing them all, IF they look like really threatening your life, and especially women's lives - like the Catholic Church and the other lot I mentioned earlier ....

226:

A prototype fusion power reactor would effectively be a materials testing facility; it would be broken a lot of the time, spread over the floor of the building in little bits while the engineers figure out why it broke and fixing it until it breaks again. Building it would require making educated guesses as to how such a reactor would work in practice, very much a suck it and see approach. It would probably cost more than the ITER project and it would not obviate the ITER research either so they would have to run in parallel. The Big Win would be to kickstart grid fusion power generation and make the first-generation fleet of reactors a lot better than they would be if they were designed only on the basis of the ITER research programme.

227:

Greg, perhaps you should have read that post before replying.

228:

The plan's always (or at least, since 1998, when I was a fresh-faced intern at JET) called for the construction of a prototype power plant called DEMO to investigate the engineering issues of running a viable power plant on fusion. What folk here are proposing is essentially to build DEMO at the same time as ITER, rather than 16 years later.

Incidentally, the "always fifty years away" thing really annoys me. Yes, fusion has turned out to be a lot harder than expected, and yes, overly-ambitious claims were made in the early days. But the "always fifty years away" meme is self-perpetuating, because it encourages the underfunding of fusion research.

229:

This looks like bigotry, and dangerous bigotry at that.

230:

#228

That's true as far as it goes, but the last informed discussion of fusion I saw said "fusion is always 10 years away, but the power gap between current experiments and a working fusion reactor is reducing by better than an order of magnitude every 10 years".

231:

227 & 229
Unfortunately, you don't seem to realise the threat that religious nutters pose to civil and secular society.

The RC church is one of the most evil organisations to stalk the surface of this planet. For its modern excesses, one only has to look at the child abuse scandals, the Irish Industrial Schools, and the worldwide condemnation of poor women to multiple childbrths in squalid conditions, Any organisation that can elevate fascist supporters and encouragers of poverty and suffering to near-or-actual-sainthood, like the unspeakable "mother Theresa" needs taking apart.
Preferably through education, at this late date.
We (now) won't go into the numbers of people deliberately individually murdered by the church over the centuries.

Then there's the other lot.
OK, how do you "compromise" with people who throw acid in girl's faces, because they are going to school to learn, and read and write? How do you "compromise" with people who want to establish a world-wide religious "caliphate"? Or who honestly believe and act on the principle (enshrined in their holy book) that: "women are inferior to men and subject to their orders"? (etc ad nauseam...)

No, it isn't bigotry, it is looking at some extremely unpleasant facts that some people would like to pretend don't exist.

Answers on the back of a post-card please!

232:

Greg: please let me remind you that this is my soapbox. If you want to continue in this vein, please get one of your own.

233:

Charlie - feel free to delete this if you don't think it's helpful.

Greg, when has 'point and laugh, while talking about willingness to escalate to lethal levels, and if they escalate, escalate also' ever done much good in reining in the evil of nasty militant religions? I can't think of any examples, and I'm a historian.

I'm also the Secretary of the oldest Secular Society in the world, so I'd hope that my commitment to secularism is not in question. But one of the principles that we've always been up for is freedom _of_ religion as well as freedom _from_ religion. There are two reasons for this - the first is the classical intellectual one about the virtues of freedom, and the second is that we're a lot more likely to win long-term battles against the various gits if our position is "we'll protect your right to you do your thing, but don't expect help if you try to do it to anyone else" rather than "don't get too comfortable - we intend to change the way that you and yours think".

234:

A partial apology seems to be in order - however.....
I don't think I was suggesting going out, and deliberately targeting religious nutters, just for the sake of it. And if anyone has thought that was what I was saying, then I retract that apparent suggestion.

After all, that's what they do to others, and we are SUPPOSED to be the good guys - right?
What I was suggesting is that, once these people do start their activities, against women, London commuters, jews, unbeleivers generally - THEN we are justified in making sure that they don't and can't do it again. It's called self-defence.

The ones who really scare me are the extreme extremists (if you see what I mean) in "Iran", and that they will try to follow their religious "13th prophet" logic through, and launch a nuclear attack on Israel, because, even if they are all killed, from their point of view, it WON@T MATTER - because the apocalypse will claense the Earth, and bring holy rule, or some such idiocy.

Enough of this.
I think Charlie has sounded a call for this sub-thread to cease.

235:

Greg, I was going to reply, but don't wish to offend our host, Charlie, so I'll confine myself to say that offering one last argument and then agreeing that things are over is not a polite or considerate act.

236:

"An IP-based economy can exhibit growth unconstrained by the supply of raw materials." However, despite the protestations of generations of mathemeticians to the contrary, it would appear that there is not in fact an infinite supply of numbers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv4_address_exhaustion

"In early May 2010, Infoworld reported that a last-minute rush in IANA /8 allocations seemed to be in progress, quoting ARIN's CIO Richard Jimmerson as saying that 'There were just eight /8 allocations in all of 2009, but there have been six /8s issued just in the first 100 days of 2010.' On the basis of this allocation rate, Infoworld predicts that the IANA pool may be exhausted by the end of 2010."

237:

Well, Global Thermonuclear War is right up there as a potential exterminator, despite the Doomsday Clock disappointment. To an extent, the probability of GTW is dependent on how long it takes us get to Singularity and what form Singularity will take. To be on the safe side, I always make sure to write highly complimentary comments in my code to let the AIs know that I for one welcome our artificially intelligent and benevolent masters...

238:

I believe by "IP-based economy" he meant "intellectual property," not "internet protocol v4."

239:

Regardless of whether AGW is real or imagined, the fact remains that whatever science may have been there has been utterly discredited by the terrible data management policies at CRU. The failure of NASA to release its raw data for peer review in response to numerous FOIA requests just makes the more scientifically-minded people here in the US throw up our hands in frustration. Either you do science right or you aren't doing it at all. Peer review is an essential element of scientific publication and you can't just refuse to allow skeptics their fair chop at you. If your data can't stand the light of day, you may well be wrong.

If AGW is real and the worst predictions come to pass, then the jackasses at CRU are as much to blame as Exxon, BP and you and me for that matter.

That having been said, call my cynical but IMO regulatory solutions requiring international cooperation utterly fly in the face of centuries of historical precedent. People are people and they will do stupid short sighted things until they die, for the most part. The only possible way out is to develop engineering solutions to directly cool and/or warm the atmosphere using orbital mirrors and sunshades to control the climate. Of course the advantage there is that regardless of whether climate change is AGW or SGW or both, you can actually deal with it.

Right. Off to a pool party at the pastors house. Have to wait until after we get home for beers though.

240:

Throwing acronyms around will get you in trouble... but it stands that there is a real problem a-comin' in the Intellectual Property economy. \

In what book did CS use "reputation" as a medium of exchange? Or was that Sawyer? Hmmm... off to the pool for real this time.

241:

I croaked, "I've decided that nuclear power has the same effect on hominid male thinking as fast cars, tequila, and firearms."

And Alexey Goldin replied, "I see nothing wrong with fast cars, tequila, and firearms. Sorry, what was that about?"

These things all seem to be magnets for obsessions in men. Obsessed men pursue them regardless of how much damage they do. I am struck by the way the mostly men who love these things are convinced that their love is an expression of maturity. The W. Bush administration policy-makers, in love with violence, believed they were "the grown ups," and they seem to have been in fact teenage boys who never got over it. Sitting in the wreckage they have made, they still proclaim that they know better

It is not adult behavior to implement risky technologies to sustain a too-large population. It is not adult behavior to pretend that, no matter what stresses hominids put on their planetary ecology and their planet's chemical and energy systems, they are immune to the consequences.

This brings the discussion around to a deeper matter, if there is anything deeper than planetary survival. Upthread, I see a number of slams at religion. I do not want to participate in a holy war. & yet...

The rejection of the constraints of physicality common in Western religions is part and parcel of the problem. In the end, if humans have any future, it is as participants in ecosystems. Even offworld, it humans will still be participants in ecosystems. Humans have embedded an unhealthy attitude towards their life in the physical world into their dominant cultures, and if they survive, it will be in part because they have changed those attitudes. In practice, that means a spiritual transformation. "Surely some revelation is at hand..."

Going to be an interesting few centuries!

Croak!

242:

And as an alternative it is acceptable to what? kill them all? leave them in poverty? There are over 6 billion people on the planet, most of them are young, and they are not going to just go away. And they all need electricity. Now, electricity may not formally be considered a human right, but it damm well ought to be - Electricity is cooling for food, for medicine, it is cooking your food over a heat source that is not dung or wood, it is light in the evenings, it is radio, cellphones, and those things are not luxuries, but the tools of enlightenment and political participation.

As for risk, lets put numbers on this, shall we?
http://manhaz.cyf.gov.pl/manhaz/strona_konferencja_EAE-2001/15%20-%20Polenp~1.pdf

That is from Externe - Coal is over 2 orders of magnitude more dangerous than nuclear, but for some mindblowingly bizzare reason I never see people picket coal stations. I keep coming back to those numbers, and they keep giving me a head ache, because, given that we are currently killing a million people every year by using coal, how is anti-nuclear activism morally defensible? At what point can we bring greenpeace up on charges for mass manslaughter?

243:

I think that was Cory Doctorow's 'whuffies' from "Down and out in the magic kingdom".

244:

Thomas@190: What you fail to understand is the cost of electricity at peak times. The wholesale price at spot auctions increases by a factor of more than 1000 at the peak times, it's enough to significantly affect the economics of power production but still not quite enough to build many more power plants that will be idle most of the time. Power plants that produce their maximum power at the times of maximum demand gain a significant economic benefit from the fluctuating wholesale prices.

http://www.freightercruises.com.au/

Charlie@193: There are already people doing such things, the above web site is one that advertises cruises on cargo ships.

I couldn't see any information on the time taken, but last time I investigated the matter in terms of travel to NZ and Japan it seemed like a good deal. It would be cheaper than flying and I could spend the time coding. I expect that some authors would find the time aboard a ship useful for writing - although based on your previous comments on such matters I suspect that you wouldn't be able to work on a ship.

Charlie@194: Why not make the religious tax-exempt status only apply to organisations that have certain percentages of their employees with a certain level of education and/or counselling qualifications. Religious groups love money, they will do what it takes to maintain their tax-free status!

Fizz@197: There is ongoing work in improving the energy efficiency of servers. Largely this involves doing more work with the same amount of energy. CPUs have been exponentially increasing in performance for the last 20+ years while the energy use has been increasing in a linear manner. SSD is starting to replace hard drives for better seek times with the same or less energy use. The question is, how much computer performance do we really need? I just replaced a 6yo laptop that I used to use for most of my work, if it hadn't been broken I would still be using it now. Maybe the government agencies that donate billions of dollars to hydrogen fuel research should divert some of that money to research in more energy efficient computer hardware and software.

Robert@208: Can you cite some evidence to support your claim that most of the optimum wind farm sites have been used up? I find it very difficult to believe that any significant portion of the good sites have been used in countries such as Australia and the US which have large land areas and almost no use of wind power.

Charlie Asbornsen@239: International agreements such as those creating the WTO and the WIPO have worked reasonably well. It's just a matter of getting the relevant people to agree to them. Getting international agreement on increasingly draconian legal action against children who infringe IP laws is apparently not that difficult to do. Getting similar agreements on CO2 taxes etc shouldn't be any harder once the economic impact of these problems becomes apparent to more people.

As for your anti-science stuff, that's been debunked many times in many places. If you actually want to learn then you'll do a Google search.

Thomas@242: Some friends of friends have picketed coal power stations. If you put "coal power" and "picket" into Google you will get a few relevant stories.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_performance

An amateur cyclist can produce 3W per Kg of body mass for more than an hour, that's 200W or more for an adult male. Last time I tested a laptop it idled at 20W, NetBooks go as low as 14W, and mobile phones probably don't use more than 14W when charging. A few hours on a bike powered generator in the evening should cover charging your Internet use and charging a mobile phone. The success of the crank powered radio demonstrates the potential in such forms of generation.

Also note that some of the new technologies such as ePaper (and the Pixel-Qi hybrid displays) have the potential to significantly reduce laptop power use. An ARM based laptop with a Pixel-Qi display could run on a fraction of the electricity used by typical laptops nowadays.

It seems to be standard practice nowadays to have at least one crank-powered torch per household just in case of emergency. I expect that the use of such things will increase.

245:

.. wait, what? Take a second and read what you are typing?
Pedal generated power as an alternative suggestion to an actual grid? That is not a hair shirt, it is a barbed wire shirt, and suggesting it to the people who would be doing the actual pedaling would get you shot. With an AK-47 clone. On auto.
People have an expectation and a right to a better standard of living than a dollar/day, and if your solutions are not solutions you could suggest to the people affected by them to their faces, they are not solutions, because a: they will not be implemented and b; It most emphatically discredits you and your causes by making you seem, for lack of a better word.. Evil.

Steven Brant is correct: The best outcome for both mankind and the health of the planet is for nearly everyone to pile into nuclear powered megacities - leaving the rest of the planet to heal. And this is an outcome which can be worked towards because moving to the city is already the dream of well-nigh everyone currently labouring as a peasant, so that is a plan that works *with* the aspirations of earths billions, not against them.

246:

We need just TWO new things to drastically change the energy-generation and usage patterns, plus an agreement that nuclear is best....
The two things are:
1. A photovoltaic that is better than 15% (preferably better than 25%) efficient, that does not "burn out" and is relatively cheap to make in mass-production.
2. A practical means of storing large quantities of pre-generated power (Really efficient capacitors in other words) - beware of these though, sice they could be as dangerous as a very large bomb.

As for nuclear, it is a matter of political will, and serious education - e.g. the facts about coal vs. nuclear that have already been discussed here.
The trouble with coal is that EVERYONE IS USED TO IT - and almost no-one realises how horrible it is (except for powering railway locomotives, of course).

Requirement #1 above isn't too far off - especially if serious amounts of research-monies were made available.
Dream on!

247:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windup_radio
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriate_technology

Thomas@245: Please read about the Windup Radio and Appropriate Technology.

248:

Russel, there's a big difference between running a radio and running your whole damn life on a pedal-dynamo.

(I've got a wind-up radio; it also has a solar panel, and can charge NiCd AA cells or run off same.)

For one thing, a radio can run on fractional-watt power. Even with a fairly beefy speaker and amp, it's quite capable of running on under 10 watts. Air conditioning, lighting, or heating -- not so much. A low-power computer ... maybe, though it won't be a current-generation PC more powerful than a slow netbook.

But pedal power limits usage to the physically fit. You try selling it to a paraplegic, or an old age pensioner, or someone with a debilitating illness. And a lot of our technologies don't really scale down that well. A microwave oven or a refrigerator are poor fits to a pedal-powered world, but the latter is just about vital -- for infestation and decay prevention, if nothing else: it probably saves more energy overall than it consumes, if you take food wastage (and the energy inputs into agriculture thereby thrown away) into account.

249:

Why not make the religious tax-exempt status only apply to organisations that have certain percentages of their employees with a certain level of education and/or counselling qualifications. Religious groups love money, they will do what it takes to maintain their tax-free status!

No, the DC Catholic Charities gave up running several DC programs when DC voted to require any organization, including religious ones, to accept workers and their spouses who are LBGT. They seemed to think the programs would falter, but other groups are running them and so far (about nine months), no problems. On the other hand, Catholic Charities lost about $10M a year.

250:
how is anti-nuclear activism morally defensible?

Well, their requirement that alternative risks to those of nuclear energy shall be taken is a requirement for which they are willing to make exemptions.

A lot of people here seem taken with the coal-vs.-nuclear trope. Really it's natural-gas-versus-nuclear. On natural gas, governments make money.

251:

Charlie@248: For people in developed countries there is no realistic possibility to run their entire life on pedal power etc. For a significant portion of people in developing countries things are a lot different. There are people who's supply of electricity is based around carrying a car battery into town to charge it and then carrying it home! Using pedal power might save them energy, and a car battery that is carried around is not going to power a microwave oven.

In regard to fridges, they can work really well on solar power. What you need is one large container of something that changes phase between -25C and -10C and another container of something that changes phase between 1C and 7C. Then you just need enough electricity to freeze those liquids during the day and let them absorb heat by melting during the night. Such fridges were designed some time ago and I think that they are already being manufactured. We should use such fridges in developed countries too, even in the wealthier parts of the world you have periodic power outages (EG during summer in Australia) and it's good to not lose the contents of fridges.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

Also if you look at the world Life Expectancy you can see that in most of Africa people don't expect to live long enough to be unable to use pedal power.

Not that an electricity grid is ever going to be viable in a country where they use mobile phones because everyone steals the copper from land-line phone cables - which means large parts of Africa.

252:

Russell, I'm pro-science. Very much so. If it can't stand peer review, it isn't science. If the lead scientist is heavily engaged in perception management, it's probably politics. To the best of my knowledge, scientific method doesn't involve a concensus of opinion. If it did, the Sun would still be orbiting around the Earth.

The truth doesn't care what people think of it. AGW may well be true, and I am very much in favor of major efforts to replace carbon-based fuels; but you have to recognize that means replacing wood burning stoves in Africa, internal combustion and coal in India and China, burning of manure in Asia, and ethanol in the advanced western hemisphere. Just shutting down the west while letting the developing world drive on to higher and higher carbon outputs, as outlined in the Kyoto Protocols, will accomplish nothing except to turn a global recession into a depression. And of course severely weakening the ability of the west to defend itself from eastern despotism.

It's shameful that the so-called experts at CRU are so unprofessional as to deny access to their raw data. It makes their conclusions non-verifiable and basically means that they are telling us (not asking mind you) that we must take it on faith that they know what they are doing. That's religion, not science. Calling my skeptisicm "anti-science stuff" just labels you another acolyte of the church of AGW.

253:

252
Bollocks
There are (excuse me) PLENTY OF OTHER STUDIES which show global warming taking place, and the raw data is readily available.

One of the most reliable is one in which I play a very small part. START HERE for more information.
There are many thousand volunteers in the UK, noting the first and last appearances of various seasonal indicators, and forwarding their results for collation. Because there are so many recorders, the eroor-bars for the results are SMALL, and there is a wealth of this sort of data for the UK, going back many years.
They have come to the conclusion that 1 degree of warming brings Spring events forward by at least 6 days.

I suggest you look at this REALLY SIMPLE, yet very elegant study, and stop pretending to be a reasonable "skeptic"....

254:

> It is not adult behavior to implement risky technologies to sustain a too-large population.

What is your suggestion for fast reduction in population? Genocide is pretty effective, but I suspect those who are targeted for reduction may object.

Yes, we need to use technology (and my idea of too risky technologies is different from yours -- in my opinion generating more pollution from fossil fuels is more dangerous then running nukes) to sustain humans on this planet and help them have fruitful and meaningful life. Not dying from starvation, infectious diseases and having access to education helps with having a fruitful and meaningful life. Having energy helps a lot to achieve these goals.

255:

Interesting points...

For the actual disaster:

Personally I suspect this entire fiasco is quickly becoming a lesson in how NOT to manage a disaster scenario. Great deal of public interest (for obvious reasons), very much hype, and as of writing this, very little in terms of results.

As per the responses from various groups, those I find ironic (in a semi-disgusted way). Example, people blaming the president for "lack of leadership" while no one has yet had a viable solution ready - people blaming BP and Trans-Ocean even before the investigation results are public (though the claims such as "cleaning up every drop of oil" are PR hogwash), and my personal favorite (in terms of misguided logic): http://article.nationalreview.com/435089/whose-blowout-is-it-anyway/charles-krauthammer

And on a separate note:

Anyway, first time visiting your blog... Randomly came by from your US amazon page with the Fuller Memorandum listed. Looking forward to it.

Also came across your older 2009 FAQ and saw the notes on Ebooks. One response for this part Ace have published ebook editions of "Singularity Sky", "The Atrocity Archives", "Accelerando", "Halting State", and are slowly bringing the backlist online. The ebooks are available via Fictionwise and Amazon's Kindle. They are DRM-locked to a single machine, come in annoying proprietary file formats ... and most cost as much as the current paper edition. I'd have to agree with you (and I'd also add my own personal objection to proprietary formats in general such as .lit, since depending on the platform they simply stink), and that Ace's efforts are ineffectual anyway. (Since you're a former programmer and know how to use a search engine and/or IRC I doubt there is any need for elaboration).

That being said, I still prefer a print edition over a ebook version for pleasure reading (bathtub & bed reading, a book simply can be easier to read).

256:

"If it can't stand peer review, it isn't science."

1) Clue is in my emboldening. Blog 'scientists' like Anthony Watts or lecture hall performers like Christopher Monckton are in no way peers to the scientists who work at CRU. The methodology underlying the CRU temperature series has been documented in numerous papers in the relevant scientific literature and has (so far) survived and thrived under peer review.

"It's shameful that the so-called experts at CRU are so unprofessional as to deny access to their raw data."

2) The CRU are not custodians of raw data. They rely upon the national meteorological services for their inputs. The raw data are therefore available if you care to approach the relevant organisations. You may well need to sign a variety of NDAs and/or pay fees to access these data however, although this is less of an issue now than it was a decade or two back.

"It makes their conclusions non-verifiable and basically means that they are telling us (not asking mind you) that we must take it on faith that they know what they are doing."

3) CRU's product (the HadCRUT temperature series) is subject to verification by the GISSTemp series and the RSS and UAH satellite series. Their results are consilient with these independant lines of evidence. A sceptical person could take the raw data from the various met organisations I mentioned in (2) and use the papers published by CRU scientists I alluded to in (1) to reconstruct their methodology and test their results. Most people aren't sufficiently motivated to do this of course, but those who are concerned about CRU's work do not have to take anything on faith.

Regards
Luke

257:
The wholesale price at spot auctions increases by a factor of more than 1000 at the peak times

I think this deserves repeating and highlighting, because it is one of those reasonably obvious facts which have not-so-obvious consequences once you dig in to some of the underlying issues. For me it was thinking about demand, supply and how they combine to create the energy dispatch curves which determine how the spot market clears that allowed me to figure out the dash-for-gas that has occurred in recent years.

For the longest time I was bemused by the D4G because it was obvious (to me at least and I'm no one special) that gas prices and related security-of-supply issues were going to be big problems for gas-fired stations well within their designed lifetime and I couldn't figure out what the people who were commissioning and financing these things knew that I did not1.

My lightbulb moment was when I realised (thanks mostly to reading Jerome Guillet's stuff at the European Tribune) that in a deregulated market such as the one operated by the UK energy grid, gas-fired plants (and also hydro) are price makers, whereas conventional baseload plants (coal and nukes) and most projected renewables (eg solar, wind and tidal) are price takers.

This distinction has a huge effect on the risk profile of these assets and goes a long way to explain what gets built and why. Basically being a price taker means that what you really, really need is for your cost-to-build to be as cheap as possible, so that you can maximise the area of the profitable region above the demand curve. Cost-to-operate is still significant of course so having what is effectively a zero marginal cost to dispatch each additional kilowatt (wind, solar, nukes, tidal) is very useful and, when the relevant conditions are operational (wind blowing, sun shining, atoms fissioning, seas flowing), you'll clean the clock of your marginal-cost competitors such as coal and gas; but if your cost to build is high then large parts of the demand curve are going to be dripping red onto your balance sheet and even if a credible business case for your project can be put together now, it's the risks which derive from worrying about future changes to the supply and demand and the consequences for the resulting energy dispatch curves that kill your project deader than Dillinger2.

Contrariwise the nice thing about being a price maker is that there is scope to live with fairly high upfront costs especially if you have a low cost-to-operate (hydro), but if your cost-to-build is low enough (which is gas-burners) then the cost-to-operate is effectively irrelevant - the demand curve in the wholesale energy market is sufficiently inelastic that there will *always* be periods when the spot price will cover your costs plus a healthy profit (that 1000:1 discrepancy in the spot price Russel mentions) and the rest of the time you can afford to idle your plant because your debt payments are peanuts. This means that for the operating companies and, more importantly, the analysts at the investment banks who are putting together the project finance packages for the operators there is no risk3 associated with a gas-fired power station under the current market regime. You have yourself a license to print money.

Now, if there's one thing that business people really like it is having a reliable (and ideally, legal) way to access the top-right corner of a supply/demand graph and if there's one thing that bankers really, really like, it is a zero risk4 loan - so it's not surprising that there was plenty of appetite for building gas-burners and ample funding provided to build them.

Regards
Luke

[1] They could just be herd-following idiots of course. But I prefer to avoid jumping to that conclusion about people who do this stuff for a living - even investment bankers, recent evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

[2] Incidentally I think this partly explains the anti-wind animus that comes from the nuclear industry. The merit-order effect of large scale wind penetration into an energy market acts to push the left-hand portion of the supply curve up, which pulls the market clearing price leftwards and carves a chunk off the bottom of their profit-space in the supply/demand graph. I say partly because I think that there may well be substance behind many of the technical criticisms (intermittency, spinning reserves etc) that pro-nuclear people advance about wind but I think the vehemence of the attacks on wind stems from the way that wind intensifies the market risks that nuclear energy projects have to contend with.

[3], [4] Using terms like 'no risk' and 'zero risk' needs a bit of defensive weasel-wording which is provided by the phrase current market regime. There is nothing set in stone about the present structure of the UK wholesale energy market, so of course these projects carry a certain amount of political risk5 (but that's true for all critical infrastructure assets with multi-decadal lifetimes) and there's always the risk of a disruptive technology coming along and rendering your license to print money null and void (cf. Lou Grade). The key point is that gas-burners carry virtually zero market risk, which I would suggest is what many risk analysts tend to focus upon.

[5] I actually think this political risk is sufficiently non-negligible that the presumably-clever people mentioned in [1] above may well have dropped a fairly significant bollock. This is much more obvious now, given the kicking that the neoliberal market consensus has received over the last couple of years, but even without the recent unpleasantness I don't think the 'current market regime' would survive the significant, prolonged and egregious use of the sort of market power that I think these analysts were building into their assumptions about gas-burners.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 19, 2010 2:48 PM.

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