Archive for December, 2009

More on the future (or why humans make me sick)

I was doing some more research into the last comment by the Chairman to my post on how we could eliminate virtually all use of coal for electricity production. I was concerned that I had made a wild assumption that we could switch over to such a large proportion of gas use (up to 44% from 14%) in the short term. It turns out that we actually could (with a current known reserve of 849.5 billion cubic metres, and 43.6 billion cubic metres of production capacity, and currently predicted growth in that production capacity) provided we were willing to cut off about all of our exports.

However, the really interesting thing that came out of my analysis is what a completely achievable task reducing our carbon dioxide emissions to less than 50% of what they are now would be, and how apathetic and narcissistic we are as a species. See, what I did was make up a little spreadsheet to calculate the emissions of CO2 based on fuel mix to achieve our required amount of electricity production that I could then compare to the current and predicted availability of production rates for those fuels and still meet our Kyoto target value. I also used the following assumptions:

• No energy efficiency improvements
• Rise in electricity production required is 2.2% per year in line with GDP growth forecasting
• Data on emissions rates from various fuels from the US Department of Energy from July 2000.

Now just a comment on how amazingly conservative these assumptions lead me to be. First, there are credible estimates (Flannery, etc.) that about 80% of the reductions we would require to achieve the worldwide CO2 emissions reduction target could be done with bog-standard energy efficiency improvements alone using technology that has been around for decades. Second, I predicted a rise in electricity production required each year based on GDP, using the widely documented correlation between GDP growth and electricity usage (UN).

If anyone wants the spreadsheet to critique it, please let me know, but my findings are as follows.

The base case I modelled is the current emissions with a breakdown of fuel from my 10 December post. The first really pathetic finding is that even currently burning coal to make up 77% of our electricity, Australia is still on track to meet its Kyoto commitments. The second thing I found is that with my 2020 case modelled, going to 25% nuclear and 44% gas to eliminate virtually all coal burning while achieving the 20% renewables target set by the government results in us passing our Kyoto target by a whopping 68%! Emissions using the above fuel mix would actually be only 45% of what they are today.

So, I then went back to see how far we could get by keeping some coal and dropping all the nuclear out of the mix to placate those that would rather burn coal than go nuclear. By doubling our gas usage (to 29%) and dropping coal back to 40%, we reduce emissions overall to half of the 1990 figure without any expansion of nuclear use.

The bottom line – this ain’t that tough, and the failure to actually commit to some solid changes that would be significantly less challenging than putting a man on the moon shows how much we have changed in 40 years, and not for the better.

Introducing zombie plans

I was reflecting this morning again on the stakes of something like this meeting at Copenhagen, and it requires a new category, so I have added one, and this explanation.

I have been working in my field now for 22 years, and for the first time, I am seriously considering giving up trying to do the most good in my work, which I would consider to be avoiding and reversing the worst of our environmental impacts upon the earth, and ourselves. Instead, if there is no substantive, and at least possibly enforceable agreement at Copenhagen on things like emissions caps, rate caps, compensation for previous damage/cap take-up, and liability for future claims, then perhaps we should quit attempting to do any good along that path.

Perhaps, instead, we should focus on building and implementing the best “zombie plans”. Not for real zombies initially, of course, but rather to deal with those possible outcomes with respect to climate change that will hurt and possibly kill us. Then when the real zombies start showing up, we will use our experience dealing with our climate zombies dealing with the flesh eating ones.

It will involve swallowing my pride professionally, since I do believe we can prevent the worst of climate change, but even the most altruistic amongst us (and I am certainly not that) would quit beating his head against a wall and shift over to working pretty much fully on mitigation plans with respect to the new climate.

So, I will tag all my zombie plans here, and feel free to add your own in comments. All ideas accepted for evaluation without fear or favour.

First thing up, I am going to need to tap into some of these good computer models, and select a swath of land that is near enough the coast to be beach front in 20 years, and not burn down easily, or get knocked out by tsunamis. Then, I buy a bunch of that property cheap, keep the most defensible for myself, and flog off the rest at a significant profit to other rich people I can find to sell them to, coupled with a decent zombie plan that does not compromise my own.

What the short term future might be

This is a reply to a comment from yesterday, as I wanted to add a couple of figures to explain my position better.

Thanks for continuing to participate, Otto.

My answer is that we will supply current demand load of electricity as we phase out coal rapidly by taking no options off the table in every country, and having a frank and open exchange of ideas about the overall cost/benefit of our electric power generation means. The discussion will be different in each country, but I will give you an example based on Australia to make my point.

But let’s not even talk about the means by which we will generate power, until we first talk about how we efficiently use the power we are generating now, and take whatever incentivised approaches we can to shift people and processes to more energy efficient operation. I am talking about boring old insulation, HVAC balancing, upgrades of lines, transformers, switch and “smart grid” technologies. As we begin that, we then should begin the design, siting and planning for the transitional power plants, and more speculative R&D on the long term power plants.

For example, I believe here in Australia, we should we should have the hard argument about going from 80% coal (the first figure) to something more like 44% gas (we have bucket loads of it), 25% nuclear, and a mix of other renewables (20%) over the next 10 years, as shown in the second figure. This is an aggressive target, and as I said should be combined with the even more aggressive push in energy efficiency.


Screen shot 2009-12-10 at 2.30.07 PM


Screen shot 2009-12-10 at 2.30.19 PM

That is why I think the major thrust of your argument is technically incorrect when you say there is only one thing that can do it, and you are far oversimplifying the argument if you say that all the other sources of energies combined cannot meet our current and future demand requirements. You should have some evidence to support this argument in the USA, if you conclude that only nuclear energy can address your situation.

And note the fatalism in your argument that “we cannot wait until the renewable technologies mature”. Mate, these technologies ARE mature. They work, they have achieved thermodynamic efficiencies that equal or exceed that of the internal combustion engine, and if I switched your place over to a couple of them, you would be surprised how reliable they would run your place, even when you need to keep the big screen tv in the fallout shelter, the weapons store and the underground water purification system running at the same time. However, if what you mean by mature is that they need to cost what the magic dirt does, then that isn’t going to happen. And why should it really? Coal is the false economy, and renewables technologies will never “mature” by falling in cost until there is guaranteed installed base to justify economy of scale in manufacturing, installation and maintenance. By believing only in one answer, you are participating in killing off the others.

While I don’t buy your argument about only nuclear being the solution, your solution could be partly correct. I think that we will have to operate with a significant potion of our electricity supplied by nuclear all over the world, wherever it makes the most appropriate sense. But only for about the lifetime of one plant, which might be closer to 20 years. Then we phase out nuclear and all the other bridging fuels that we can.

In the next five years worldwide, we need to be spending lots of time, money and resources in designing and implementing the energy efficiency improvements that we know already exist (anyone smell a big jobs stimulus package here?) right when we need it, and also possibly in doing some regulation of personal behaviour (maybe even some draconian regulation), but I will open up a heated argument on at a later date.

Join me in the future?

I want to discuss a couple of questions I have had that have been bubbling away in my head for a long while. So, in no particular order, what are we going to do about coal?, and what are going to happen with jobs in a future low carbon emitting world?

See, you can get most anyone who will accept the scientific method to buy into the need to take action on anthropogenic climate change. And to fix the problem, I don’t see any way burning coal for fuel is going to work going forward, due to the huge rate of emissions in relation to the energy that can be produced. But when you talk about eliminating the vast majority of all the jobs in the industries of coal mining, shipping, and burning for fuel, you are talking about a lot of disruption. I see these as key issues that are locked together in the short and long-term. In achieving a low carbon future, we also need to attempt to limit damage to people’s current livelihood, while we at the same time entice them to a better one.

We need to have an answer for where we are going to employ people who leave the coal industry, and what sort of short-term safety net we will put in place to assist those effected, if Australia as a nation decide to make big cuts in our emissions rapidly, and at least start to satisfy the goals of the scientist greenies on the left. Because crap though they may be as a political party, their goals are closer to what are required than anyone on the right of politics, I suggest.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we are to make cuts in CO2 emissions that are deeper than currently proposed, and more rapidly than currently proposed in the draft legislation in front of the Australian Parliament. We can save all the planet for our grandkids, great, but right now, the issue is jobs, and who is going to gain them and who is required to lose them in the near to mid-term.

Let’s first look at the losers. As I have said, there are going to have to be massive amounts of job losses in coal mining, some in shipping, and almost all those currently in coal burning. Below are some numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from August 2009:

• 40,800 persons in Coal Mining (full and part time)
• 6,600 persons in Coal and Petroleum Product Manufacturing (full and part time)
• 31,400 persons in exploration and mining support services
• 10,706,500 persons employed in today (full and part time)

Also, just for later discussion:

• 2,200 persons in electricity, gas and water services
• 55,200 persons in electricity supply

If every one of the 47,400 persons in the coal mining and coal products manufacturing industries were to lose their job, we would need to re-employ 0.44% of working population in Australia. That is a conservative number, since we know that not all of them would lose their jobs, and some of them are actually employed in petroleum refineries and not coking coal plants. But that is the direct severity of how bad the problem could be. How many people involved in shipping coal to the ports and power plants, and shipping coal overseas, would lose their jobs? I am not sure, as the statistics I have are not broken down well enough. But lets say half of the 31,400 persons in the exploration and mining support services area were put out of work. This is probably a conservative estimate, since coal doesn’t make up half of the mass of the minerals that are explored for and mined in Australia.

In the power generation area, I don’t think that there is a good argument that any people will be put out of work, because the electricity demand will continue (and in fact grow), and the persons required to operate and maintain power generation facilities should be roughly similar, regardless of the type. But let’s assume that we do lose 80% of those jobs too, based on the coal usage fraction of our electricity generation. Yes, we are that addicted to burning the magic dirt.

So all up, we have just under 1% of the working population will lose their jobs. And if you told me that we were going to suffer an additional 1% unemployment in a year, or six months or even a month, it would be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for either our society or our economy. And the reality is, we couldn’t lose all those coal plants and replace them with anything else in less than about 10-15 years. We are talking about 80% of our generating capacity, after all.

Then, remember, all those people need not be out of work long, and they don’t all have to go take low paying jobs at McDonalds either. To replace 80% of our generating capacity is going to create so many jobs, it will make the stimulus effort last year look like a bake at a school fete. By my estimate, those jobs will include:

• R&D work for renewables that can be installed in the next 10-20 years;
• Energy efficiency equipment and materials manufacturing;
• Energy efficiency designers and installers;
• Designers of new plants and equipment to deliver power over the mid term (nuclear, gas, geothermal, wind, solar, etc.);
• Manufacturers of equipment to generate power; and
• Construction supervision and labour to build all this new infrastructure.

Of the above, I suggest that all but the semi-skilled installers of the energy efficiency equipment and some of the construction labourers will have jobs that are equally as valuable as the mining, trucking and shipping jobs that will be lost. However, having a job is not all, and we need to consider the disruption of the migrations that may be caused from places like Musswellbrook, NSW. It should be government policy to provide a safety net in the form of re-training, relocation and direct unemployment relief to workers displaced by the conversion away from coal burning.

That is, provided we don’t have to face any arguments based on the reasoning that just because a grandfather was a coal miner and a father was a coal miner, that somehow the son has some sort of mystical right to be a coal miner. There are many communities that have been built around the industries of salt, whale oil, steam engines and asbestos that are all relegated to history, and coal is going there too, whether you like it or not.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. The low carbon future has so many positives going for it, it should be a no-brainer to get society to go along, even those now working in coal. So, I challenge any real people out there working in the coal industry to call me on my facts if they are wrong, test my logic, and help refute or improve my argument. Because it is an argument I feel we must win, and now. And also recognise this: While people may face some uncertainty and disruption over the move away from coal, there are some legal persons (companies) that have a vested interest in using that disruption to real persons in an effort to thwart any attempts to reduce the activity of those companies, even though the change is in the best interest of all the real persons. We should expect that, as those legal persons are sociopathic by design.

NASA scientist embraces the Rapture?

James Hansen, a top NASA scientist who helped bring attention to the dangers of global warming more than 20 years ago, wants Copenhagen to fail.

That’s right, and from the dude who is like the godfather of climate change science.

His major complaint seems to be that the Danish plan reduces emissions over 40 years, which he says is too long, and we will be in a disaster by then. I tend to agree. However, we will also need to recover from that disaster, and having a long term cut in CO2 emissions will also be part of that solution, in real or in spirit. Let me explain.

James is saying that any cap and trade type ETS, won’t work fast enough and that a straight energy tax is what is required immediately. If I ran the show worldwide, I would agree with him, do that immediately, and stifle all debate as strong as required to maintain my control on power. And believe me, you’d have a shit fight on your hands, taking on all business that use energy worldwide, and the energy intense ones most of all. But I would do it, because I believe fundamentally that James is right, and we are either at or just past the point where we must act to stop anthropogenic climate change. However, I am not ready to go join the rapturists, and unless we find a way to reduce emissions soon, and possibly reverse feedforward loops in climate change, we might not be ok long term, like as a species.

Assuming we have not passed the point of no return with regard to overall average warming, then the major advanced economies (in terms of lower energy intensity, or $/GDP, but high overall emissions) are going to have to cap our emissions and reduce them over time. No question about it. And as they do that, industries in those countries will have to either directly reduce their emissions themselves, or get someone else to do for them, through the only flexible compliance method specifically identified in the Kyoto Agreement, an ETS. They are proven to work, use economic drivers and markets for efficiency, and can be on the whole fair and egalitarian (just as Wall Street can be).

So I hope Copenhagen succeeds, although I don’t like the track record of the politicians anymore than James does. Copenhagen would be a real coup if we could also get some countries to sign up to firm commitments on the real issue, so we can quit worrying about how much CO2 we put out in total.

See, while the spirit of the long-term solution will retain emissions reduction, the functional design of it should be an energy intensity tax (or a mix of energy intensity limits for equipment, facilities, industries, etc.), much like vehicle efficiency standards, which improved the fleet so much in the USA beginning in 1978. Pity they didn’t keep that up. So, what we really need long term is for everyone in the advanced and the developing world to sign up to energy intensity targets. Otherwise they will continue to install more high-CO2 emitting, low energy efficiency crap, like they are doing now. It may surprise you to know that coal fired electricity production not only has the largest installed base (50% of production) but that it is also the fastest growing rate of new plants that are being installed (primarily in China, Russia, India). So, as James is saying, we better get cracking on that, or we will also be in need of a zombie plan even if the big emitters now all achieve fantastic reductions in CO2 emissions.

So what after CPRS?

Before a brief note on the pending death of the emissions trading system (ETS) in the Australian Senate, and the implications of that as well as the change in leadership of the opposition in Australia, I first want to provide an update on the climate change fraud post. It is noted today that the head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia has stepped down over the issue of the leaked emails. Good, but let’s hope the authorities continue to pursue any issue of lawbreaking as a result of that affair to the full extent of the law. For those on my side, it does not help our scientific case to take action if we harbour liars, cheats or those who encourage others to such behaviour. This is a particularly pertinent point when debate needs to begin again now toward another election in Australia that will depend largely on winning an argument in the public sphere with a Coalition that is now led by its vocal minority which believes that anthropogenic climate change does not exist.

Despite her hard work, I see the failure to pass a CPRS largely as a result of the failure by the Minister For Climate Change (Penny Wong) in being able to advocate and articulate the issue to the public at large, who would then pressure their elected representatives to take action on the issue, followed by the Greens failure in making the perfect the enemy of the good, as I have discussed in detail previously.

I also see it as a failure on the part of people like me, who have taken the effort over the last 15 years to understand the issue of anthropogenic climate change, decide a position on it, and know some of the solutions, but have failed to lobby hard enough at every opportunity to achieve the goal. This record of my thoughts was begun recently as one means to try to address that failure, in an educational manner. So, I encourage those on any side of the issue to ask me any specific questions and debate me on the merits of your arguments and solutions (if you see a problem).

While we have the science and popular opinion (hearts) on our side, what we need to begin effective action is the minds of the population. We need to detail specifically what an ETS or a simplified carbon tax will cost, and who will pay for it. Because this change isn’t free, and by choice or by coercion, eventually we are going to have to require everyone, as individuals or through their companies, to pay up if we are to address anthropogenic climate change. It is a challenge on the scale of the largest human society has faced, but one I am convinced we could meet, if we so choose. It reminds me of the words of John F Kennedy in 1962.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Almost 50 years later, there are hopefully enough of us left to look past our own short term self interest and do something hard.