Archive for category Snake Oil

I’m just glad . . .

. . . that these fucking morons aren’t in charge of my portfolio.

Why Clean Coal is Bullshit

As a tiny bit of background, I have been working on the nuts and bolts of dealing with climate change for about 30 years, somewhat by accident. When I went to work as an environmental engineer back in the US, you couldn’t even get an environmental engineering degree precisely (I have a chemical engineering degree) as the subject area was confined to “can we make drinkable water?” and “Can we treat water with poo in it before discharge?”

When I started, we were only about 10 years past a Time article I read as a young lad wondering if we were going to go into another ice age, because of what was being discovered in relation to the elliptical motion of he earth and the slight wobble the planet has on its axis. [Fun fact: these factors are now used by climate change deniers as reasons why climate varies naturally and so we shouldn’t worry about it.] Anyway, I have worked on doing things that are called emissions inventories, and air emissions compliance testing, and computer automation of emissions logging and estimation based on mass balancing, and then how one might produce a scientifically verifiable emissions reduction certificate such a way that it could be traded in a market like any other commodity (think pig belly futures), and then finally developing and demonstrating the methods by which companies large and small could do their CO2-e accounting in a way that caused minimal extra effort through their normal expense reporting processes.

This was all done as a thread in my whole career behind the scenes of earning a crust doing whatever industry and industrial clients needed at the time in relation to HSE risk identification and management.

Now I have realised over the past few years that I have pretty much wasted my career working on something that we aren’t going to do, or do in time at least since the Abbott government got elected with their whole chain of lies about the carbon tax, and the fact that they won public opinion with their fear mongering. So, we aren’t going fix up the worst problems with climate change and really, I should have been concentrating on zombie plan research or something more likely to be useful. The basic problem is that people won’t listen to any argument that can’t be wedged into a 30 second sound byte and doesn’t come with a catchy slogan. But the truth is the truth, especially when that truth follows the scientific method. Whether or not we can translate scientific truth into peoples’ lived experience is another thing entirely, I have found, and that is why I am, at the end of the day, a failure professionally. I actually now do know a couple of ways to translate how a 2°C average temperature rise manifests itself in events people could experience (not any specific one, you understand but in a trend), but really its too late once I can show someone that. The key lies, I believe, in getting people to understand through lived experience the nature of entropy.

The problem with getting people to understand entropy is that its like dark matter right here on earth. Entropy is enthalpy’s weird cousin. Enthalpy is a type of energy we call heat, but entropy is essentially chaos. You cannot see, touch or sense entropy directly, but only in the effects it has around you. But understanding entropy is essential in understanding climate change, as well as bullshit like clean coal, which I promise you, I will get to eventually.

The guy that really did the seminal work on providing our understanding entropy in my opinion was J. Willard Gibbs, who is the father of modern thermodynamics and who won the Nobel Prize for it, before there was an it (he won for statistical mathematics). But why don’t we remember him? Probably because he was actually just a bit too far ahead of his time. Scientists joked at the time that the only person that could understand Gibbs’ work was Maxwell (that’s James C. Maxwell of electromagnetism Nobel Prize fame). Most people remember Einstein, however, and Einstein identified Gibbs as one of the scientists he most admired. And that makes Gibbs up there in importance with Newton, Einstein and Hawkings, in my book.

Anyway, there are 4 laws of thermodynamics, and Gibbs helped translate what the equations of state are when mass becomes energy, energy transfers between systems, as well as to put some boundaries on what happens to entropy (the state of chaos) during the interactions. So, it can be a little bit thinky and its easy to give up on trying to follow it. However, the understanding of thermodynamics is the basis for things like energy production in internal combustion engines, refrigeration and superconductors, so its very real and not some faith (or even fake news!). Thermodynamics is like translation of something in 2 dimensions (mathematics) into the third dimension where we need things like refrigerators. But with refrigerators comes Category 6 cyclones. See, now your saying, there aren’t any, since classification of cyclones only goes up to Category 5. Which is true . . . today. But by the time they have to add the Category 6 classification and we can prove to enough people that through their lived experience, they are seeing a manifestation of a massive rise in entropy in their atmosphere, its really is too late, and I mean in the second law of thermodynamics sense.

However, while I must accept that we as a species will fail to do anything substantive to stave all but the worst effects of climate change, I would like to stop the further huge waste of money along the way, as that is an issue that apparently does resonate with most Australians. And so we arrive at “clean coal” technology. The same laws of thermodynamics that hold true for the rest of our known world also specifically and directly apply to the combustion of solid fuel material to produce electricity, waste heat and waste gases materials.

Each and every “clean coal” technology ends up requiring supplemental inputs in energy and cash to make them viable even as demonstration projects. So, it was nice to see an industry insider finally admit as much this morning in the ABC news. But I will go further and state categorically that there is not and will not be in my lifetime a scientifically and economically viable “clean coal” combustion device of any sort that can satisfy the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The Chevron Gorgon carbon capture and storage (CCS) project is not an example of combustion to capture and storage, and there is no viable ‘clean coal” system in operation anywhere in the world. Notice how we never see one advertised as actually available for operation? They are all pilot projects or experimental demonstration installations that will never be scaled up by private investors (because private investors believe in mathematics). Which basically means money for ‘clean coal’ technology is just cash handouts in the millions for R&D in the fossil fuel industries to get them not to lobby against upcoming legislation (ala John Howard), or bullshit additional spending that Josh Frydenberg wants to allow the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to loan (waste) money on. They want to waste public money on this grift because they know people, once again, don’t understand thermodynamics, don’t want to, and want to believe in something like “clean coal”.

Under no circumstances is an apples for apples comparison of any hydrocarbon burning and CCS system competitive economically now or in the foreseeable future to any viable renewable energy production facility (PV solar, solar heat, hydro or wind) whether we look at the systems themselves or examine the whole of lifecycle mass and energy balance of them. There is simply no way that a combustion energy plant can produce enough energy for recapturing and liquefying all its gaseous emissions, then store them, while at the same time producing electricity for the grid. Its called a perpetual energy machine and its bullshit and has been known as such since Da Vinci’s time.

See, the best of “clean coal” technology is sold to you as a complicated engineering thing that is added to the front end and back end of a standard coal fired steam generator. The ‘best’ of it is a combination of fuel processing and combustion burner technology to maximise the amount of energy production of each molecule of hydrocarbon burned and minimise the amount of nasties produced while doing that (NOx, SOx, CO, CO2, etc). This technology does work, but it is very expensive and raises the cost of a coal fired plant a lot. And, it still doesn’t allow each molecule of coal burned to generate more energy than the first law of thermodynamics allows, meaning that about 2/3 of a molecule of coal becomes waste heat and only a third of it becomes electricity. Second, we have to capture all (or a significant part) of the waste CO2 that is produced in our coal plant as a result of the second law of thermodynamics and absorb or adsorb it into liquid or solid, then transport that liquid or solid material to long term storage, and that equipment is both costly and energy intensive. So what you get is a Rube Goldberg machine that costs more in materials and energy than it can produce. See a graphical representation of the mass and energy balance comparison between coal, clean coal and a couple of renewables below to simplify things a bit. Just skim the pictures and you tell me which is more expensive to build and operate.

To waste any more taxpayer money on this bullshit idea, that should be called as such at every opportunity, is criminal, especially while we also continue to subsidise the dirty fuel required to extract other dirty fuels, and build roads and railroads to service dirty fuel production, all the while hearing complaints about how wind and solar are getting “unfair” subsidies.

If we aren’t going to do anything about climate change, then lets at least be honest about it. We’re gonna live it up until your kids, or your grandkids start having to pay the piper. We simply don’t fucking care as a whole of society if there is even the slightest risk of it raising our electricity prices even perceptibly. But lets not buy any more of this snake oil like we are back in the days of the travelling salesman. I can move to America if I want that shit sold by their current orange carnival barker.

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The future looks stupid

OK, a bumper crop of Hulka today, as here is another thought that has been brewing in my head for a couple weeks. See, periodically, I can see the future. But I am unfortunately a cynical futurist, and when I can see things well, I can basically only see bad things. Here is the first of my views on where we are going in Australia in the next few years.

We are almost certainly going to have a Coalition government in Australia following the next election. If that future Coalition government follows through on its promise to repeal the carbon tax AND also repeal the move to carbon trading, it will be a very retrograde and bloody-minded step that will cost us billions of A$.

The step back will take us back to before the Howard government started us down the path of legislating NGERs (estimating CO2e scientifically) and the CPRS (the trading instrument for the CO2 market), and essentially ignore (in a bureaucratic sense) the anthropogenic effects of CO2-e gases in the atmosphere. I believe it will also expose the government of Australia to significant legal claims with respect to liabilities created in the implementation of carbon pricing mechanism to this point by industries. As industry in Australia has already “tooled up” significantly to address its CO2-e emissions in its methods of accounting, capital planning and trading, it likely has a valid claim of loss if the government abandons the game, rather than just modifying the price, or moving more quickly to a floating price. One thing is for certain; the abandoning in full of the pricing of CO2e, and failing to internalise those costs is wrong scientifically, is known to be wrong scientifically by a large majority of the members of the Coalition, and is therefore simply bloody minded.

And here is some evidence as to why I am telling the truth: I don’t have an interest in advocating my position, and will actually likely do better financially if what I believe is bad policy goes through. For my company (which is carbon neutral and independently certified as such), it won’t make much difference. We don’t emit much now, we emit at a lower rate each year, and we have enough CO2-e in the bank to cover our needs in the short term, regardless of the effect on the market of the government abandoning carbon pricing. In fact, we can probably hedge our long-term expense very cheaply in the short term, if a new Coalition government carries through on its promise. Plus, I can also probably figure out a way to make some money on the bad change in policy.

But over time, the real important loss under proposed Coalition policy will be that of opportunity to Australia as a whole. This is because the adage that “the world is ruled by those that show up” is fundamentally true. Australia is now in a position where we participate and lead in addressing anthropogenic emissions of carbon internationally, and we can help define the markets that will deliver a means to address it. A future Coalition government has committed to abandoning participation, in a move that will rightly be viewed as embracing climate change denial. We will be left out of the “team” that makes up policy and infrastructure in the trading of CO2-e, and the yanks will likely end up owning the game again.

Add to this another really bad idea from the Coalition that I have gone through in detail before, direct action. See, direct action involves picking winners and losers in industry. Shit like giving large emitters large sums to stop emitting nasty shit rather than regulating them. Picking individual winners and losers by any government is virtually always (and I cant think of a single counterfactual) a bad idea. It’s assumes a way too effective means of prediction, is distorting of markets and invites corruption. I hate it when Labor does it, the Greens do it or the Coalition does it. That is not to say that incentivising markets is wrong. I have nothing wrong with the government providing incentives for innovation, just incentives for any specific innovation. Incentive for anyone that can improve the delivered efficiency of electricity to homes in all Australia = good. Direct subsidy to build more gas fired power plants to private companies because that is the currently available cheap fuel = bad. Now, you want to talk about doing a little bad in the short term to get a long term good, let’s discuss nuance, but it had better be part of a well thought out and comprehensive plan, and not just the next government’s rort for their buddies. I am not sure the Coalition does nuance.

I am happy to be proven wrong by evidence and alternate theories at this point, or by history, but that is my view about where we are going with respect to doing something bureaucratically about climate change. My next prediction of looming bad could be the NBN under the Coalition. But we shall see. I also take requests.

You ain’t no Darryl Kerrigan

I reckon Clive Palmer might have gone burko, and is having delusions about having gone to law school instead of into real estate as a young fellow. But whatever the cause, he has moved off free speech as his focus last week on the constitutionality of taxation this week. Busy guy. Perhaps he reckons he can do it all: run his magic dirt and mineral enterprise, fight the FFA/FIFA, fight the mining tax and fight the carbon tax all at once. Or perhaps he is a full of shit, bluffing windbag.

I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but here is why I will go with option 2:

1. The Federal government has the right to impose taxes and duties. This has been tested a number of times, but is pretty solid, based on the amount that my company and I pay every quarter. I don’t reckon Clive is on a winner, if he wants to take on the constitutionality of taxation in general.

2. The Federal government has the right to identify air pollutants of concern and regulate the collection of data on them and their emissions into the receiving environment. We have about 40 years of precedent in this area generally. With respect to CO2, the basis upon which the carbon tax will be collected is the data generated under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting (NGER), and despite the huge shit fight over its introduction in industry, no industry lobbying group (and all the big ones were involved) ever suggested it was unconstitutional. It has also passed muster on the basis of sound scientific methodology, so there goes any arbitrary and capricious argument.

3. The Federal or State governments have the right to apply fees (or taxes) to companies that want to discharge pollutants to the common environment in their jurisdiction. Tipping fees, sewage charges and even air pollutant emissions are charged by State and Local governments now, and the extension of this to the Federal Government is not a huge reach in logic. He might be attempting the challenge in this area on the basis of an argument of Intergovernmental Immunity (thank you Wikipedia):

“… the Engineers’ Case held that there was no general immunity between State and Commonwealth governments from each other’s laws, the Commonwealth cannot enact taxation laws that discriminated between the States or parts of the States (Section 51(ii)), nor enact laws that discriminated against the States, or such as to prevent a State from continuing to exist and function as a state”

He may also want to make an argument based on an argument that the new law does not fall within a permissible head of power granted to the Commonwealth government by the Constitution.

While either of these is a possible route of attack, the case of the Carbon Tax being applied to the whole of the country is not likely to be found to be discriminatory against any state, and if this type of taxation of a pollutant is found to be a States’ right rather than the Commonwealth, there are one or more easy workarounds to deliver the intent.

4. But the most obvious reason this constitutional challenge isn’t going to hold water came from Clive himself. Clive was not willing to leak the details on the 730 Report of the precise basis of the means by which the carbon tax is unconstitutional. If he had anything, he’d come out with it. See, constitutional law isn’t like a regular tort. It isn’t like Clive would benefit by hiding his most excellent constitutional argument for a packed courtroom, spring it on the packed house and unsuspecting government barristers, get a judgement and penalty in his favour on the day and be carried off on the shoulders* of his supporters and then next day be much richer. If he had anything worth a damn, he would have won the argument last night with it.

Now, if there were some technicality that did allow the High Court to rule the carbon tax unconstitutional, the government would merely find another means by which to attach its revenue generating mechanism to existing sources to achieve the same effect**. For instance, it could use the NGER data collected to establish the amount owed by each business, then reduce the amount of GST or mining tax revenue returned to the individual states with the identification of the business that the reduction was due to, then suggest that the State recoup that revenue through rate-based licensing regulations that are already on the books by simply adding CO2-e to the pollutants of concern that they “tax” now.

But let’s hope Clive gets lots of lawyers in Sydney and Canberra involved, because that part of the country needs some stimulus. It would really nice if, like in a tort, the Federal government could recoup its costs from Clive when he is unsuccessful.

* if you could even picture that
** as it says right in the legislation, a similar case to many other precedents where a specific law was found unconstitutional, but that did not prevent the Commonwealth from delivering the intent of the law through other mechanisms.

Zero degrees of balance

A repeated theme I touch on here is the false equivalency that is presented in the media as a whole on issues such as climate change. In reading and listening over the past week, I have come across a couple of things that I want to use to illustrate this point again, so that readers can help identify it when it happens.

The false equivalency typically works in one of two ways, either by giving equal time or voice to both sides of an argument, regardless of the weight or validity of the two sides, or by treating both arguments as “faith”, even if one is wholly based on the scientific method and has a wealth of empirical evidence to support it, and the other is just a belief based on nothing more than a single instance anecdotal evidence. Some journalistic outlets do the false equivalency thing to appear to be fair, and others (like anything owned by Rupert Murdoch) do it as a means to obfuscate genuine debate.

The latest example of this crappy practice is at the Wall Street Journal, where they gave over their opinion page on 27 January to a letter from 16 “concerned scientists and engineers” in No Need To Panic About Global Warming. Interestingly enough, the WSJ declined to print a rebuttal on the basis that they were only supplying “the other side of the argument” and that the position of the actual Union of Concerned Scientists is already well known. The rebuttal can be found signed by 250 members of the National Academy of Science in the peer reviewed journal Science right here.

Note that I am not going to attack the 16 authors of the WSJ piece on the fact that they are working outside their area, as I feel (like climate deniers don’t) that anyone who agrees to follow the scientific method is allowed to have a view on scientific issues. What I will attack them on is a line from their piece, “cui bono” (follow the money), because thats one of my favourite games, baby. As I have said before and I will say again, anytime a right wing authoritarian accuses you of something, you can bet they have done it already. The 16 say follow the money because all these academics get their money from government grants and they need to keep those coming. Really. Well, cui bono with regard to these 16 and you will find (credit to Media Matters):

Roger Cohen and Edward David are both former employees of ExxonMobil. William Happer is the Chairman of the Board for the George C. Marshall Institute, which has received funding from Exxon. Rodney Nichols is also on the boards of the George Marshall Institute and the Manhattan Institute, which has been funded by Exxon and the Koch Foundations. Harrison Schmitt was the Chairman Emeritus of the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, which was funded by oil refiners and electric utilities in the 1990s, according to a Wall Street Journal report (via Nexis). Richard Lindzen also served on the Economic Advisory Council of the Center, was funded by ExxonMobil through the 2000s.

See, the truth is that while you may be able to scrape together 16 people to support most anything (especially if you have a shitload of cash), and some of them might even have impressive resumes, the fact remains that the vast vast vast majority of people that work in peer reviewed area of climate science agree on the specific points raised in the rebuttal:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our
atmosphere. A single cold and snowy winter in Washington or Europe does not alter this fact.
(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due
to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being
overwhelmed by human-induced changes.
(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations
in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.
(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities
and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Now, while these points above are concerning, I note that they don’t anywhere say “panic”. They do say “do something”, which is what I and others have been advocating for years, and while their should be some urgency, given how hard it is to change inertia, that does not equate to freaking out or being irrational.

Which brings me to the other form of equivalency that really pisses me off: when I hear anyone (but typically a climate change denier) claim that belief in climate change is like a religion and anyone who believes in it is irrational. Excuse me, but fuck off. A logical and evidence based conclusion that is founded in the scientific method and is continually peer reviewed by actual expertise so that it can be tuned is not a religion, and frankly I see some projection going on there. Bill Maher (and his writers) do such a good job of addressing this issue in another context that is equally valid, I will just give time over to him.

Try this for an experiment. The next time you meet someone who denies climate change, ask them their views on god. I have 2:1 that they are big believers that either their god will save them, or better yet that its all part of the rapture.

[Bloom Box], Things which are probably bullshit . . .

. . . as our friends at Hungry Beast say. But hey, nobody does a launch of an 18 year old technology like the yanks. A former NASA scientist (to make it sound more sexy, no doubt) has brought us the trendily named Bloom Box, claiming it to be the big thing after ten years of development. Ah, unfortunately, not.

Oh, he has got a planar design, solid oxide fuel cell in those fridge size boxes, to be sure. The problem is, they aren’t new, having been first begun commercialisation in 1992 by companies such as Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited here in Australia, or UTC in America. These companies actually sell now what this bloke is saying you can have soon for $800k and hopefully for $3000 in a few years. Hell, the Australian company had their piece of kit doing demo work on top of the old office I had in the technology park back in 2000.

I don’t know exactly what CFCL sells their piece of kit at, and to my knowledge they are still only selling them to small companies, with a consumer product to be available “sometime in 2010”. My guess is that CFCL would probably offer their unit at a cost a bit less than what Bloom is saying for a similar sized application for small businesses. The big difference is that if you call CFCL or UTC, they actually have something to install when they take your money.

In my opinion, Bloom’s entrepreneur is most likely a hype merchant so insignificant I won’t even look up his name. My suspicions were raised when I first heard his release where he says he has some “proprietary software” that is the key to his Bloom Box. Uh huh, and mine has magic beans.

According to reputable news agencies on science and technology (National Geographic News), based on the information the company has made public, the Bloom Box technology is not revolutionary. They quote Friedrich Prinz, a fuel cell expert at Stanford University, the design of the Bloom Box appears to be fairly standard and that there was nothing obviously revolutionary about it. “They didn’t reveal any new physics or any new principles, but I don’t think they need to do that,” he said.

Note the end of the professor’s statement. What he means by “they don’t need to do that” is that solid oxide fuel cell technology is exciting and very interesting. It’s essentially “burning” something, but not in the physical sense, more in the chemical sense, through a reactor that can be coated onto thin plates. It’s basically a chemical engineer’s wet dream, so I will go on, or you can do your own research elsewhere. The heart of the fuel cell is a high rate chemical battery that produces the electricity

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell

You feed it the same type of stuff you feed an internal combustion engine (methane and air) and it produces electricity (only in DC form as opposed to AC) and it also produces waste heat you can recover at high temperature for other use (like heating water for your house). But the cost of the fuel cell to manufacture is pretty high, because the methane you use to feed it is just a good source of what you really want to feed it – hydrogen. So you basically have to put a miniature stripper and reformer on the front of the rig. Plus, coating the anodes and cathodes of the reactor and getting them spaced out exactly as you require is expensive assembly work.

However, the real current manufacturers (CFCL and UTC) of solid oxide fuel cells do intend to get their equipment down in cost for home application in the next year. And then let them work the kinks out of the technology at their demonstration plants and then we will see whether I will be buying one for my back yard.

But you know, probably I will anyway just to mess around with it. Either that, or I am starting the home nuclear reactor this year. Besides, all the cool kids will have one. I thought so enough at the depth of the financial crisis that I started buying stock in the company. There’s your free stock tip for the day, for those tuning in that made it this far.