Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Political will amidst climate uncertainty

I don’t expect that there will be many tsunamis in Germany over the next century, nor, apart from the occasional man-made earthquakes that can come from potash mining, do I expect the country to suffer any major damage from an earthquake. Seriously, I rather suspect that the German government has the same view of the future. But that has not stopped them from deciding to close all nuclear power stations within the next eleven years, using the recent events in Japan as one of the justifying reasons.

Germany gets about 25% of its current energy supply from nuclear power, and about 17% comes from the sustainable sources such as solar and wind. But the problem, in part, is that these become unreliable sources in winter, with lower wind speeds and shorter, darker days. Yet, without a balance sheet having been presented that will show where the lost power will come from, the decision has been made, on apparently political grounds, that nuclear must go.

There comes a time in the affairs of Government when a commitment is made to a policy that makes it virtually impossible for those in charge to later reverse the decision. This decision by the German government is one such probably irrevocable decision, and it seems that the step that the British Government recently made in their commitment to a “green” anti-carbon future for the UK, is another.
A limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases to be emitted by the UK between 2023 to 2027 has been proposed to cut Britain’s emissions by 50% from 1990 levels.
The ultimate goal is to get the emissions down 80% by 2050. The evidence that these “green” technologies will support existing levels of power and production is becoming more debatable. Thus the powers-that-be anticipate that there should also be a cut in energy demand from the general populace. In the case of Germany this target is about 10% of their current consumption.

The commitments to turn away from existing technologies with the capacity to supply energy at an acceptable financial price, and instead to rely on wind and solar, technologies that are not as consistent in providing power when needed, comes at a time when there has been enough experience with sustainable power that the advantages and disadvantages are becoming more evident. Though, before discussing that I should explain that, writing as I do about coming shortages of oil, the reality is that the world is going to need whatever energy supplies it can find in the coming years and that includes energy from wind, solar, geothermal and hydro.

But there is a growing question as to the real practicality of some of the “green” solutions being proposed, and also questions on their cost. One such, for example is the book “The False Promise of Green Energy”. This epitomizes a growing body of criticism that takes a hard look at the costs and energy actually produced by the “green revolution” and concludes that they not nearly as beneficial in reality as they have been made out to be. I don’t agree with a lot of the philosophy that drives the Foundation that published the study, leaving the energy future to the marketplace to find answers to me indicates a failure to understand the size of the problem that is developing. Nevertheless the book does raise some legitimate concerns over the drive to commit to the “energy solution of the day.” For a while at the end of the last Administration in the United States, cellulosic ethanol was going to be that White Knight. Mandates were to provide a market to justify the investment in large plants required to have any increment on national supply. Well it turns out that those getting the money were more optimistic than realistic, and those targets have been scaled back.

Today the solution of choice still remains wind power. The cost has come down, and particularly on-shore, the reliability of the plant has gone up. Unfortunately the other partner in the success of the technology is a natural one, and the consistency and strength of the wind to drive the wind turbines has not been as good. The John Muir Trust examined the record,, and reported last January,
The research found over 395 days, the wind farms could have produced 17,586,000 MW hours of energy running at full capacity. In reality, 3,881,900MW hours was generated, equivalent to 22.07 per cent.

And over the past two years, wind generation across the sites fell below 20MW on 123 separate days for a combined duration of 25 days. For a total of nine days, output dipped below 10MW, barely enough power to boil 3,300 household kettles.
More recently the Telegraph has noted
The Coalition has drawn up plans to open more wind farms in an effort to meet Britain’s European Union target of providing 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.More than 3,600 turbines are expected to be installed in offshore wind farms over the next nine years.

But statistics suggest that the winds that sweep across the British Isles may be weakening. Last year, wind speeds over the UK averaged 7.8 knots (8.9mph), a fall of 20 per cent on 2008, and well below the mean for this century, which stands at 9.1 knots (10.5mph).
If the current power systems (often nuclear and coal) are to be done away with, as the current European Governments seem set on achieving, then they should, were they morally responsible, also indicate the sources, costs, power and true likelihood of being able to replace existing power plants with a viable alternative. Those answers are often given in general terms and rely on projections (such as, for example, that wind will produce 30% of nameplate capacity) that are now being shown to be wrong. This seems a more certain way of destroying the future of our children than the threat of carbon dioxide level rise, though one would have to look hard to find many that recognize this reality. Politicians have grasped an approach and now use the threat of climate change to justify policies that cannot be easily undone.

The same is equally true about the opinions of the validity of the models that are used to justify these decisions. Changes in the reliability of the models, as data is acquired and time passes are often largely not to be admitted. For example, one of the more prevalent aspects of the global warming argument is that the accelerating rise in sea level is going to lead to the swamping of land around the globe well within this century. That later prediction has largely been based on models, but a series of buoys was placed around the world to give a more accurate assessment of the rise in sea-level. As this data has become more widely available and over a longer time, so it has been possible to discern the trend.

Sea level change over the past eighteen years (U of Colorado )

If one looks at the second half of the plot (green and orange) it is possible to conclude that, if anything , the rate of sea level rise is slowing down. This despite the increased quantities of carbon dioxide that have been added to the atmosphere.

That view of this data by Dr James Hansen, the “guru” of the AGW world, has now been announced through the Goddard Institute for Space Science (GISS) in the form of a paper “Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications” . And while it lays the blame on the slow-down on volcanic activity and a solar minimum, nevertheless it recognizes the phenomenon
Although the accuracy of ocean heat uptake in the pre-Argo era is inherently limited, it is clear that heat uptake in the Argo era is smaller than it was during the 5-10 years preceding full Argo deployment, as discussed by Trenberth (2009, 2010) and Trenberth and Fasullo (2010).
Yet with this evidence of a stability in the ocean temperature, the IEA has just announced a major increase in CO2 emissions, which leads them to predict that the temperatures will rise, around the globe, by 4 deg C by 2010, and that many of us will drown.

It would seem that even as the science becomes less certain, so the politicians who cling to it, become more determined to implement an answer that may no longer be correct.

Incidentally I was down in Florida last week, and one of those I met with was bemoaning that the oranges that used to be grown in Northern Florida (Jacksonville) can now only be grown economically further south in the state due to the colder climates of recent years, ah!


  1. One has to worry about Germany, as self righteous as their anti nuclear bets are, wouldn't the next step be not using imported nuclear power too?

    People will be pleading for global warming in the winter.

    I think the issue that politicians are missing is, what if global warming is not an actual reality. The evidence against the research that has been created to support the theory is mounting.

    I have to side with the group that discounts government interference, the stutter steps of the open economy make better movement towards the goal. Since the goal's location is yet to be fixed.

  2. The problem is finding the folk with sufficient long term vision.

  3. There is no problem finding folk with sufficient long term vision: they are all around us. One of them even writes this blog!

    The problem is the Politically Correct minority who have seized control of governments and all that governments influence. So we find scarce taxpayer resources poured into scientifically-laughable notions like Alleged Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming -- while potentially game-changing research into prospects like Bussard fusion and Low Energy Nuclear Reactions struggles along on crumbs.

    If only certain people would pay as much attention to the sustainability of massive government borrowing as they do to the sustainability of energy supplies!

  4. well said Kinuachdrach.

    My hope for change (ugh)is that the USA finds a leader worthy of the predicament.