Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen, Genome, The Rational Optimist and other books, dropped by Reason‘s studio in Los Angeles last month to talk about a curious global trend that is just starting to receive attention. Over the past three decades, our planet has gotten greener!
Even stranger, the greening of the planet in recent decades appears to be happening because of, not despite, our reliance on fossil fuels. While environmentalists often talk about how bad stuff like CO2 causes bad things to happen like global warming, it turns out that the plants aren’t complaining.
March 14, 2013
March 4, 2013
The German government is having to pay a lot of money in subsidies to solar power generators, but is also having to scramble to buy power from other European sources as the solar output is falling far below current demands:
The Baedeker travel guide is now available in an environmentally-friendly version. The 200-page book, entitled “Germany – Discover Renewable Energy,” lists the sights of the solar age: the solar café in Kirchzarten, the solar golf course in Bad Saulgau, the light tower in Solingen and the “Alster Sun” in Hamburg, possibly the largest solar boat in the world.
The only thing that’s missing at the moment is sunshine. For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity. The days are short, the weather is bad and the sky is overcast.
As is so often the case in winter, all solar panels more or less stopped generating electricity at the same time. To avert power shortages, Germany currently has to import large amounts of electricity generated at nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic. To offset the temporary loss of solar power, grid operator Tennet resorted to an emergency backup plan, powering up an old oil-fired plant in the Austrian city of Graz.
Solar energy has gone from being the great white hope, to an impediment, to a reliable energy supply. Solar farm operators and homeowners with solar panels on their roofs collected more than €8 billion ($10.2 billion) in subsidies in 2011, but the electricity they generated made up only about 3 percent of the total power supply, and that at unpredictable times.
December 23, 2012
Matt Ridley on an interesting paper from Jesse Ausubel and Iddo Wernick of Rockefeller University, and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station:
Globally, the production of a given quantity of crop requires 65% less land than it did in 1961, thanks to fertilizers, tractors, pesticides, better varieties and other factors. Even corrected for different kinds of crops, the acreage required is falling at 2% a year.
In the U.S., the total corn yield and the total corn acreage tracked each other in lock step between 1870 and 1940-there was no change in average yield per acre. But between 1940 and 2010, corn production almost quintupled, while the acreage devoted to growing corn fell slightly. Similar divergences appeared later in other countries. Indian wheat production increased fivefold after 1970, while wheat acreage crept up by less than 1.5 times. Chinese corn production rose sevenfold over the same period while corn acreage merely doubled.
Yet the amount of farmland in the world was still rising until recently. The reason is that increased farm productivity has been matched by rising demand for food, driven by population growth and swelling affluence. But the effects of these trends are waning.
[. . .]
Even with these cautious assumptions, the researchers find that over the next 50 years people are likely to release from farming a land area “1½ times the size of Egypt, 2½ times the size of France, or 10 Iowas, and possibly multiples of this amount.”
Indeed, the authors find that this retreat from the land would have already begun but for one factor so lunatic that they cannot imagine it will not be reversed soon: biofuels. If the world had not decided to subsidize the growing of energy crops on 3.4% of arable land, then absolute declines in the acreage of arable land “would have begun during the last decade.” The prospect of “the restoration of vast acreages of Nature” is enticing for nature lovers.
October 20, 2012
The Economist looks at the performance of electric cars, fuel-cell cars, and nitrogen-powered cars:
As long as its storage container is well insulated, liquid air can be kept at atmospheric pressure for long periods. But on exposure to room temperature, it will instantly boil and revert back to its gaseous state. In the process, it expands 700-fold — providing the wherewithal to operate a piston engine or a turbine.
Liquid nitrogen does an even better job. Being considerably denser than liquid air, it can store more energy per unit volume, allowing cars to travel further on a tankful of the stuff. Weight for weight, liquid nitrogen packs much the same energy as the lithium-ion batteries used in laptops, mobile phones and electric cars. In terms of performance and range, then, a nitrogen vehicle is similar to an electric vehicle rather than a conventional one.
The big difference is that a liquid-nitrogen car is likely to be considerably cheaper to build than an electric vehicle. For one thing, its engine does not have to cope with high temperatures — and could therefore be fabricated out of cheap alloys or even plastics.
For another, because it needs no bulky traction batteries, it would be lighter and cheaper still than an electric vehicle. At present, lithium-ion battery packs for electric vehicles cost between $500 and $600 a kilowatt-hour. The Nissan Leaf has 24 kilowatt-hours of capacity. At around $13,200, the batteries account for more than a third of the car’s $35,200 basic price. A nitrogen car with comparable range and performance could therefore sell for little more than half the price of an electric car.
A third advantage is that liquid nitrogen is a by-product of the industrial process for making liquid oxygen. Because there is four times as much nitrogen as oxygen in air, there is inevitably a glut of the stuff — so much so, liquid nitrogen sells in America for a tenth of the price of milk.
October 17, 2012
All the media chatter about Premier Dalton McGuinty running for leader of the federal Liberals must be coming from folks who want to watch a national train wreck, says Michael Den Tandt:
Set aside that, with nine years as premier of Canada’s most populous province, constituting more than one-third of the national population, McGuinty would be past his best-before date at the best of times.
And let’s ignore his long track record of broken promises, beginning shortly after he was elected on a solemn vow to run balanced budgets and hold the line on taxes. He made that promise in writing. He broke it without a shred of visible remorse, blaming the other guys.
Let’s set aside the e-Health scandal, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. scandal, the eco-tax affair, and the continuing Ornge air ambulance scandal. While we’re at it, let’s wave off the abrogation of the rule of law in Caledonia. That’s all old news.
Forget the voluminous independent study by economist Don Drummond, who found, in a nutshell, that McGuinty’s entire approach to government in the previous eight years had been wrong-headed, slipshod and ruinously wasteful. Drummond recommended a radical course correction. McGuinty nodded sagely, kindly even, and ignored him.
We could even try — come on now, let’s do this — to ignore the Green Energy Act. This was the ideologically driven plan, still in place, to create an artificial market for “green” energy and erect thousands of 50-storey industrial wind turbines across Ontario, destroying the landscape for the sake of energy that only flows when the wind blows — that is, intermittently.
[. . .]
Let’s set aside, also, the cloying, nanny-state condescension of McGuinty’s approach to leadership — never a principle too firm to be melted into formless goo, never a controversy too sharp to be smothered in a warm quilt of apple-pie hokum. Never mind that, temperamentally, McGuinty is Mitt Romney without the millions. These are intangibles.
July 3, 2012
In the Guardian, George Monbiot (known to his detractors as “The Great Moonbat”) admits the terrible truth. He was wrong, again:
The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil — the decline of global supplies — is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.
Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.
[. . .]
Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time.
A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.
June 16, 2012
James Lovelock, who is perhaps best known for his “Gaia” theory, gives a somewhat surprising interview to the Guardian:
“Adapt and survive,” he says, when asked why he has decided to move. After more than three decades living amid acres of trees he planted himself by hand, he and his wife Sandy have decided to downsize and move to an old lifeguard’s cottage by the beach in Dorset. “I’m not worried about sea-level rises,” he laughs. “At worst, I think it will be 2ft a century.”
Given that Lovelock predicted in 2006 that by this century’s end “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”, this new laissez-faire attitude to our environmental fate smells and sounds like of a screeching handbrake turn.
Indeed, earlier this year he admitted to MSNBC in an interview reported around the world with somewhat mocking headlines along the lines of “Doom-monger recants”, that he had been “extrapolating too far” in reaching such a conclusion and had made a “mistake” in claiming to know with such certainty what will happen to the climate.
[. . .]
Having already upset many environmentalists — for whom he is something of a guru — with his long-time support for nuclear power and his hatred of wind power (he has a picture of a wind turbine on the wall of his study to remind him how “ugly and useless they are”), he is now coming out in favour of “fracking”, the controversial technique for extracting natural gas from the ground. He argues that, while not perfect, it produces far less CO2 than burning coal: “Gas is almost a give-away in the US at the moment. They’ve gone for fracking in a big way. Let’s be pragmatic and sensible and get Britain to switch everything to methane. We should be going mad on it.”
Lovelock says the political fallout from the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year means that the chances of a surge in nuclear power generation are dramatically reduced. “The fear of nuclear is too great after Fukushima and the cost of building plants is very expensive and impractical. And it takes a long time to get them running. It is very obvious in America that fracking took almost no time to get going. There’s only a finite amount of it [in the UK] so before it runs out, we should really be thinking sensibly about what to do next. We rushed into renewable energy without any thought. The schemes are largely hopelessly inefficient and unpleasant. Fracking buys us some time, and we can learn to adapt.”
The reaction in Germany to Fukushima — which announced within weeks of the disaster that it was to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022 — particularly infuriates Lovelock: “Germany is a great country and has always been a natural leader of Europe, and so many great ideas, music, art, etc, come out of it, but they have this fatal flaw that they always fall for an ideologue, and Europe has suffered intensely from the last two episodes of that. It looks to me as if the green ideas they have picked up now could be just as damaging. They are burning lignite now to try to make up for switching off nuclear. They call themselves green, but to me this is utter madness.”
Nestled deep into an armchair, Lovelock brushes a biscuit crumb from his lips, and lowers his cup of tea on to the table: “I’m neither strongly left nor right, but I detest the Liberal Democrats.”
[. . .]
Lovelock does not miss a chance to criticise the green movement that has long paid heed to his views. “It’s just the way the humans are that if there’s a cause of some sort, a religion starts forming around it. It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don’t think people have noticed that, but it’s got all the sort of terms that religions use. The greens use guilt. You can’t win people round by saying they are guilty for putting CO2 in the air.”
June 7, 2012
Tim Worstall explores the range of possibilities:
Viewing the ghastly mess that politics makes of anything, it can be difficult to decide between cock-up and conspiracy theories. Are politicians simply too dim to perceive the effects of what they do, or are they are plotting to make the world a worse place?
Which brings us to where I believe the real climate change conspiracy is: in what we’re told we must do about it all. I’ve pointed out that if we assume that the basic science is correct (and I certainly don’t have either the hubris or technical knowledge to check it) then the answer is a simple carbon tax. The British Government employed Nick Stern to run through what was the correct economic response, assuming the IPCC was correct, and that was his answer. So the question has to be why hasn’t that same government enacted that very solution? Which is, as I say, where I think the conspiracy comes in.
For instead of this simple and workable solution we end up with the most ghastly amount of wibble and dribble.
Consider the subsidies to renewables. Our system gives higher subsidies to the more expensive technologies: clearly ludicrous. We have some limited amount of money, whatever that limit is, and we thus want to get as much renewable power as we can from that limited money. But we give five times more money per unit of power to the most expensive technology, solar, than we do to the cheapest, hydro. What have the politicians been smoking to deliberately spend our money in the most inefficient manner possible?
Or we could look at the argument for subsidy to solar itself: we’re told that it will be economic, comparable to coal-generated power, within only a couple of years. Thus we must have subsidy now – which is insane. If something is about to be profitable without subsidies then we don’t want anyone installing it yet; install it in a couple of years when it is profitable without subsidies. Why waste good money when we can just wait?
May 23, 2012
Simon Jenkins in the Guardian:
Anyone who claims to understand energy policy is either mad or subsidised. Last week I wrote that politics is seldom rational. It is more often based on intuition and tribal prejudice. This week we have a thundering example: the government’s new policy on nuclear energy.
Do not read on if you want a conclusion on this subject. For years I have read papers, books, surveys and news stories, and am little wiser. I trust to science and am ready to believe there is some great mathematician, some Fermat’s last theorem, who can write an equation showing where energy policy should turn. I have never met him.
The equation would start with the current market price of coal, gas, oil, nuclear and so-called “renewables”. That would give simple primacy to coal and gas. The equation would then factor in such variables as security of supply, which — being imponderable — can be argued from commercial interest and prejudice. Then it would have to take account of global warming and the virtue of lower carbon emissions. At this point the demons enter.
We must consider CO2 reduction through substituting gas for coal, carbon capture, nuclear investment, biomass, wind, wave, solar and tidal generation. We must consider the application of fiscal policy to gas and petrol use, to energy efficiency and house insulation. Each has a quantity attached to it and each a fanatical lobby drooling for subsidies. As for achieving a remotely significant degree of global cooling, that requires world diplomacy — which has, as yet, proved wholly elusive.
Britain’s contribution to cooling can only be so infinitesimal as to be little more than gesture politics, yet it is a gesture that is massively expensive. Meeting the current EU renewables directive, largely from wind, would cost some £15bn a year, or £670 a household, and involve the spoliation of swaths of upland, countryside and coast. It is calculated to save a mere 0.2% of global emissions, with negligible impact on the Earth’s sea level.
April 19, 2012
Scott Stinson explains why Ontario consumers are facing huge price hikes for electricity over the next 18 months:
It’s no secret that Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals have placed a huge bet on growing a green-energy sector by subsidizing the production of renewable energy. Although energy bills have been steadily rising since the party took power in 2003 — the average cost of a kilowatt of electricity was more than 30% higher last year than it was five years ago — the Liberals have somewhat masked this fact by handing a 10% rebate back to consumers with the euphemistically named Clean Energy Benefit, which also happens to utterly contradict the conservation incentive that should be part of a switch to a greener grid.
Electricity costs, though, are set to spike.
“Ontario’s power system is fuelled by consumers to the tune of about $16-billion a year,” says Tom Adams, an energy consultant who has written extensively on electricity and environmental issues. “That number is headed for $23-billion or $24-billion soon, by 2016,” he says in an interview.
[. . .]
Mr. Adams notes that when the Green Energy Act, with its guarantees of above-market rates for wind and solar electricity known as feed-in-tariffs (FIT), was introduced in 2009, the Liberals said electricity costs would only be impacted by about 1% annually. We now know that rates for consumers are rising by 9% a year. “The government says about half of that is due to Green Energy, but if they were being honest it would be more than that,” Mr. Adams says.
The coming increases, meanwhile, which can partly be attributed to locked-in contracts for renewable energy, are also a result of a host of other factors, from new generation capacity being introduced to phase-out costs of existing facilities to new transmission capacity being added to the energy grid.
March 20, 2012
Australian bush hats can apparently be made of tinfoil:
Australian Mining Magnate Clive Palmer has declared the CIA is behind a Greenpeace campaign that aims to slow the growth of Australia’s export coal industry.
[. . .]
The Greenpeace campaign centres on a document titled Stopping the Australian Coal Export Boom (PDF) which explicitly states that “Our strategy is to ‘disrupt and delay’ key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the industry and continually building the power of the movement to win more.” Greenpeace hopes to do so in order to build support for fuels other than coal, in order to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.
The Greenpeace document says it is “… based on extensive research into the Australian coal industry, made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Family Fund.”
That statement is Palmer’s smoking gun, as he said at an event today, as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and other outlets, that “You only have to go back and read the Church Report in the 1970s and to read the reports to the US Congress which sets up the Rockefeller Foundation as a conduit of CIA funding.”
March 7, 2012
Andrew Orlowski on the bad economic and technological decision by the British government to put so much reliance on wind power:
Two studies published this week calculate the astounding cost of Britain’s go-it-alone obsession with using wind turbines to generate so much of the electricity the nation needs.
Both studies make remarkably generous concessions that favour wind technology; the true cost, critics could argue, will be higher in each set of calculations. One study reckons that the UK can still meet its carbon dioxide emissions targets and save £140bn — but only if it dumps today’s inefficient hippie technology. The other puts the potential saving at £120bn — pointing out that the same amount of electricity could be generated using open cycle gas plants at one-tenth the cost of using wind turbines.
“There is nothing inherently good or bad about investing in renewable energy and green technology,” writes economist Professor Gordon Hughes — formerly of the World Bank and now at the University of Edinburgh. “The problem is that the government has decided to back a technology that isn’t ready for prime time, thus distorting the market.”
Hughes’ study — Why is Wind power so expensive? An economic analysis — is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation today, and simply looks at the costs. The other study, by technical consulting group AF-Mercados, specifically looks at how to reduce CO2 in the cheapest manner — by incurring the least collateral economic damage. It’s called Powerful Targets: Exploring the relative cost of meeting decarbonisation and renewables targets in the British power sector. KPMG originally commissioned the study, but then got cold feet. Both come to similar conclusions: wind is astronomically expensive compared to other sources of energy — and consumers and businesses must pay a high price for the privilege of subsidising such an inefficient technology.
Update, 10 March: A lovely little cartoon from Watts Up With That on this topic:
March 5, 2012
Matt Ridley on the inability of wind power advocates to distort reality:
To the nearest whole number, the percentage of the world’s energy that comes from wind turbines today is: zero. Despite the regressive subsidy (pushing pensioners into fuel poverty while improving the wine cellars of grand estates), despite tearing rural communities apart, killing jobs, despoiling views, erecting pylons, felling forests, killing bats and eagles, causing industrial accidents, clogging motorways, polluting lakes in Inner Mongolia with the toxic and radioactive tailings from refining neodymium, a ton of which is in the average turbine — despite all this, the total energy generated each day by wind has yet to reach half a per cent worldwide.
If wind power was going to work, it would have done so by now. The people of Britain see this quite clearly, though politicians are often wilfully deaf. The good news though is that if you look closely, you can see David Cameron’s government coming to its senses about the whole fiasco. The biggest investors in offshore wind — Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens — are starting to worry that the government’s heart is not in wind energy any more. Vestas, which has plans for a factory in Kent, wants reassurance from the Prime Minister that there is the political will to put up turbines before it builds its factory.
It’s a lesson we still need the Ontario government to learn: our electricity prices are scheduled to go up substantially to finance the massive wind farm investment the McGuinty government has signed up for. Much more of our landscape will look like this in future:
Even in a boom, wind farms would have been unaffordable — with their economic and ecological rationale blown away. In an era of austerity, the policy is doomed, though so many contracts have been signed that the expansion of wind farms may continue, for a while. But the scam has ended. And as we survey the economic and environmental damage, the obvious question is how the delusion was maintained for so long. There has been no mystery about wind’s futility as a source of affordable and abundant electricity — so how did the wind-farm scam fool so many policymakers?
One answer is money. There were too many people with snouts in the trough. Not just the manufacturers, operators and landlords of the wind farms, but financiers: wind-farm venture capital trusts were all the rage a few years ago — guaranteed income streams are what capitalists like best; they even get paid to switch the monsters off on very windy days so as not to overload the grid. Even the military took the money. Wind companies are paying for a new £20 million military radar at Brizlee Wood in Northumberland so as to enable the Ministry of Defence to lift its objection to the 48-turbine Fallago Rig wind farm in Berwickshire.
February 8, 2012
Kevin Myers on the folly of abandoning nuclear power generation in favour of renewables:
Russia’s main gas-company, Gazprom, was unable to meet demand last weekend as blizzards swept across Europe, and over three hundred people died. Did anyone even think of deploying our wind turbines to make good the energy shortfall from Russia?
Of course not. We all know that windmills are a self-indulgent and sanctimonious luxury whose purpose is to make us feel good. Had Europe genuinely depended on green energy on Friday, by Sunday thousands would be dead from frostbite and exposure, and the EU would have suffered an economic body blow to match that of Japan’s tsunami a year ago. No electricity means no water, no trams, no trains, no airports, no traffic lights, no phone systems, no sewerage, no factories, no service stations, no office lifts, no central heating and even no hospitals, once their generators run out of fuel.
Modern cities are incredibly fragile organisms, which tremble on the edge of disaster the entire time. During a severe blizzard, it is electricity alone that prevents a midwinter urban holocaust. We saw what adverse weather can do, when 15,000 people died in the heatwave that hit France in August 2003. But those deaths were spread over a month. Last weekend’s weather, without energy, could have caused many tens of thousands of deaths over a couple of days.
[. . .]
Frau Merkel has announced that Germany is going to phase out nuclear power, simply because of the Japanese tsunami. Well, that is like basing water-collection policies in Rhineland-Westphalia on the monsoon cycle of Borneo. As I was saying last week, the Germans have a powerfully emotional attachment to everything that is “green”, and an energy policy based on renewables will usually win German hearts. But it will not protect the owners of those hearts from frostbite and death due to exposure, for wind can often be not so much a Renewable as an Unusable, and also an Unpredictable, an Unstorable, and — normally when it’s very cold — an Unmovable.
The seriousness of this is hard to exaggerate. The temperature in the Baltic countries last weekend was -33 degrees Celsius. The Eurasian landmass from Calais to Naples to Siberia was an icefield in which hundreds of millions of people were trapped. Without coal, oil and nuclear energy, mass deaths of the old and the young would have occurred on the first night. Three nights on of such conditions, and even the physically fit would have been dying of exposure, as the temperature inside dwellings fell and began to match that of the outside, an inverse image of what happened during the French heatwave 10 years ago, when there was no escape from the heat.
February 6, 2012
Coming to a boutique near you soon: wearable battery clothing.
Scientists charged into the fashion industry this week, unveiling a flexible battery that can be woven into fabric and used to boost the juice of everyday gadgets.
The lithium-ion cells were produced by a group of boffins from the Polytechnic School of Montreal. The team claims their bendy power cells are the first wearable battery that uses no liquid electrolytes, New Scientist reports.
The team sandwiched a solid polyethylene oxide electrolyte between a lithium iron phosphate cathode and lithium titanate anode. These are thermoplastic materials which, when gently heated, can be stretched into a thread.
There is a short-term restriction, however:
The next step is to waterproof the technology before attempts to implement it in future clothing and accessories can go ahead. Backpacks and medical-monitoring garments are said to be the first items the team is planning to add the tech to.
It’d be a bit unpleasant to have your shirt packing “hundreds of volts” discharge unexpectedly just because you broke a sweat …