Published on 13 Mar 2013
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.
September 22, 2014
September 17, 2014
Gregg Easterbrook on the difference between ordinary jobs and government subsidized job creation:
Elon Musk Recharges His Bank Account: Tesla’s agreement with Nevada to build a battery factory is expected to create about 6,000 jobs in exchange for $1.25 billion in tax favors. That’s about $208,000 per job. More jobs are always good. But typical Nevada residents with a median household income of $54,000 per year will be taxed to create very expensive jobs for others. Volkswagen is expanding its manufacturing in Tennessee, which is good. But the state has agreed to about $300 million in subsidies for the expansion, which will create about 2,000 jobs — that’s $150,000 per new job, much of the money coming from Tennessee residents who can only dream of autoworkers’ wages. The median household income in Tennessee is $44,140, about a third of the tax subsidies per new Volkswagen job. The Tesla handout was approved by the Democratic state legislature of Nevada; Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state government approved the Volkswagen corporate welfare deal.
At least it’s a bargain compared to federally subsidized solar jobs. A Nevada solar project — state that is home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Barack Obama’s closest ally on Capitol Hill — cost $10.8 million in subsidies per job created. Local public interest groups noticed the extreme subsidy while the national media did not.
This cheeky website monitors giveaways state by state.
June 22, 2014
Environmentalists seem to all feel that capitalism is the enemy of sustainability, but in fact capitalism is the greatest system to promote sustainability that has ever been devised. Every single resource has a price that reflects its relative scarcity as compared to demand. Scarcer resources have higher prices that automatically promote conservation and seeking of substitutes. So an analysis of an investment’s ability to return its cost is in effect a sustainability analysis. What environmentalists don’t like is that wind does not cover the cost of its resources, in other words it does not produce enough power to justify the scarce resources it uses. Screwing around with that to only look at some of the resources is just dishonest.
I did not critique the analysis of energy payback per se, but if I were to dig into it, I would want to look at two common fallacies with many wind analyses. 1) They typically miss the cost of standby power needed to cover wind’s unpredictability, which has a substantial energy cost. In Germany, during their big wind push, they had to have 80-90% of wind power backed up with hot fossil fuel backup. 2) They typically look at nameplate capacity and not real capacities in the field. In fact, real capacities should further be discounted for when wind power produces electricity that the grid cannot take (ie when there is negative pricing in the wholesale market, which actually occurs).
Warren Meyer, “Bizarre Payback Analysis Being Used for Alternate Energy”, Coyote Blog, 2014-06-16.
January 1, 2014
VA Viper dug up an Asimov essay from 1964, where he speculated on what life would be like in 2014. It’s an interesting read:
What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?
I don’t know, but I can guess.
One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.
Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid: large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)
General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)
The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotope batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.
An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas — Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.
Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).
For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires: intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.
Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.
Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.
November 13, 2013
Ethanol was supposed to be an environmentally friendly substitute for gasoline, and it was renewable … but it’s not living up to promises:
With the Iowa political caucuses on the horizon in 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made homegrown corn a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. And when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year, Bush predicted it would make the country “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”
But the ethanol era has proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.
Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.
September 21, 2013
Robert Bryce explains why — no matter how much we might want it to be so — alternate forms of energy like wind and solar power cannot cover our demands:
That 32 percent increase in global carbon dioxide emissions reflects the central tension in any discussion about cutting the use of coal, oil and natural gas: Developing countries — in particular, fast-growing economies such as Vietnam, China and India — simply cannot continue to grow if they limit the use of hydrocarbons. Those countries’ refusal to enact carbon taxes or other restrictions illustrates what Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, calls the “iron law of climate policy”: Whenever policies “focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time.”
Over the past 10 years, despite great public concern, carbon dioxide emissions have soared because some 2.6 billion people still live in dire energy poverty. More than 1.3 billion have no access to electricity at all.
Now to the second number: 1. That’s the power density of wind in watts per square meter. Power density is a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume or mass. Six different analyses of wind (one of them is my own) have all arrived at that same measurement.
Wind energy’s paltry power density means that enormous tracts of land must be set aside to make it viable. And that has spawned a backlash from rural and suburban landowners who don’t want 500-foot wind turbines near their homes. To cite just one recent example, in late July, some 2,000 protesters marched against the installation of more than 1,000 wind turbines in Ireland’s Midlands Region.
Consider how much land it would take for wind energy to replace the power the U.S. now gets from coal. In 2011, the U.S. had more than 300 billion watts of coal-fired capacity. Replacing that with wind would require placing turbines over about 116,000 square miles, an area about the size of Italy. And because of the noise wind turbines make — a problem that has been experienced from Australia to Ontario — no one could live there.
In 2012, the contribution from all of those sources amounted to about 4.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or roughly one-half of a Saudi Arabia. Put another way, we get about 50 times as much energy from all other sources — coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and hydropower — as we do from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.
September 20, 2013
In The Spectator, a muted tone of “we told you so” about the upcoming IPCC report:
Next week, those who made dire predictions of ruinous climate change face their own inconvenient truth. The summary of the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be published, showing that global temperatures are refusing to follow the path which was predicted for them by almost all climatic models. Since its first report in 1990, the IPCC has been predicting that global temperatures would be rising at an average of 0.2° Celsius per decade. Now, the IPCC acknowledges that there has been no statistically significant rise at all over the past 16 years.
It is difficult to over-emphasise the significance of this report. The IPCC is not simply a research body making reports and declarations which are merely absorbed into political debate. Its word has been taken as gospel, and its research has been used to justify all manner of schemes to make carbon-based energy more expensive while subsidising renewable energy.
The failure of its predictions undermines the certainties which have been placed upon the science of climate change. Previous IPCC reports — and much of the debate over how to react to them — have appeared to treat the Earth’s climate as if it were a domestic central heating system, with carbon emissions analogous to the dial on the thermostat: a small tweak here will result in a temperature rise of precisely 0.2°C and so on. What is clear from the new IPCC report is that the science is not nearly advanced enough to make useful predictions on the future rise of global temperatures. Perhaps it never will be.
Some climate scientists themselves, to give them credit, have admitted as much. Their papers now incorporate a degree of caution, as you would expect from genuine scientists. The problems arise when the non-scientists leap upon the climate change bandwagon and assume that anything marked ‘science’ must be the final word. As the chemist and novelist C.P. Snow once warned in his lecture about the ‘two cultures’, you end up in a situation where non-scientists use half-understood reports to silence debate — not realising that proper science welcomes refutation and is wary of the notion of absolute truths.
August 3, 2013
Tim Harford talks about an obscure 19th century prognosticator and the implications of one of his predictions:
Despite Keynes’s admiration, Jevons might now be forgotten, save for one famous prediction and one intriguing argument. The famous prediction — that the UK’s economic prosperity was at risk because the country would run out of viable reserves of coal — was contained in The Coal Question (1865), a book that made Jevons a celebrated pundit at the age of 29. The coal industry did fall into decline. Production peaked exactly a century ago, when there were 1.1 million coal miners — four times as many as when Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979. Whether this had much to do with the fall of the Empire is a fascinating question.
Jevons remains notable in some circles for an argument he made in The Coal Question, rebutting critics who claimed that a coal shortage was no problem because steam engines would become dramatically more efficient. Jevons replied: “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” This idea became known as the Jevons paradox: that energy efficiency does not reduce energy consumption. When light was hugely expensive, a person might read by the fickle flame of a single candle; now it’s so cheap we flood our cities with it. Double glazing could mean lower heating bills but in practice it means warmer houses.
So was Jevons right? That’s a hotly contested topic. On a microeconomic level, he was not: a 50 per cent increase in the energy efficiency of a device will lead to increased use, but rarely to the doubling in usage that would be necessary for Jevons to be correct. Aha, reply Jevons’s defenders: even if a fuel-sipping car does not induce me to drive much further, I may still spend my cash savings on some other energy-guzzling device. True. But energy is a small enough part of the economy — about 6 to 10 per cent — that the actual cash savings available to spend elsewhere will usually be modest.
July 27, 2013
The South China Morning Post on the economic troubles of the provincial, municipal and local authorities in Jiangsu:
The nightmare scenario for China’s leaders as they try to wean the country off a diet of easy credit and breakneck expansion is a local government buckling under the weight of its own debt. Few provinces fit that bill quite like Jiangsu, home to China’s most indebted local government.
Hefty borrowings through banks, investment trusts and the bond market by Jiangsu’s provincial, city and county governments have saddled the province north of Shanghai with debt far higher than its peers, public records show.
Many of the province’s mainstay industries, including shipbuilding and the manufacturer of solar panels, are drowning in overcapacity. Profits are dwindling, and the government’s tax growth is braking hard.
Little public information is available on the total debt of Chinese local governments. Indeed, earlier this month China’s Vice-Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said Beijing did not know the precise level of their debts either.
But from what ratings agencies and think-tanks can piece together, Jiangsu may be the standout debt risk among China’s 31 provinces.
Looking at bank loan books, they can see that China’s eastern provinces including Jiangsu have the highest concentration of government debt. Jiangsu then looms large because of its reliance on costlier and alternative forms of financing, which they said suggested that cheaper bank loans and land sales are not giving the authorities the funding they need.
The risk that Jiangsu might pose to the Chinese economy in a crisis is clear. On its own, the province would be a top 20 global economy with GDP greater than G20 member Turkey. Its 79 million population tops that of most European countries.
July 5, 2013
A short video of Kirk Sorensen taking us through the benefits of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, a revolutionary liquid reactor that runs not on uranium, but thorium. These work and have been built before. Search for either LFTRs or Molten Salt Reactors (MSR).
The main downsides/negatives to this technology, politics, corrosion and being scared of nuclear radiation. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors were created 50 years ago by an American chap named Alvin Weinberg, but the American Government realised you can’t weaponise the by-products and so they weren’t interested.
Another point, yes it WAS corrosive, but these tests of this reactor were 50 years ago, our technology has definitely improved since then so a leap to create this reactor shouldn’t be too hard.
And nuclear fear is extremely common in the average person, rather irrational though it may be. More people have died from fossil fuels and even hydroelectric power than nuclear power. I added this video for a project regarding Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, watch and enjoy.
No, it would not collapse the economy… just like the use of uranium reactors didn’t… neither did coal… This is because you wouldn’t have an instant transition from coal… oil… everything else to thorium. We could not do that. Simply due to the engineering. Give it 50 years we might be using thorium instead of coal/oil (too late in terms of global warming, but that’s another debate completely), but we certainly won’t destroy the earths economy. Duh.
And yes he said we’d never run out. Not strictly true… bloody skeptics … LFTRs can harness 3.5 million Kwh per Kg of thorium! 70 times greater than uranium, 10,000 greater than oil… and there is over 2.6 million tonnes of it on earth… Anyone with a calculator, or a brain, will understand that is a lot of energy!!
H/T to Rob Fisher for the link.
July 2, 2013
The Economist on a promising new development in battery technology:
LITHIUM-ION batteries are hot stuff. Affordable, relatively lightweight and packing a lot of energy, they are the power source of choice for everything from mobile phones to electric cars. Unfortunately, the heat can be more than figurative. Occasionally, such batteries suffer malfunctions that lead to smoke, flames and even explosions. In gadgets, such meltdowns can be distressing and dangerous. In aircraft, they can be fatal. Earlier this year airlines grounded their entire fleet of Boeing’s next-generation 787 passenger jet after the lithium-ion batteries installed in two planes caught fire. Last month they have been permitted back in the air after being retrofitted with a protection system in the form of a tough steel box that vents directly outside in the event of a fire.
A more comforting solution, of course, would be to build a lithium-ion battery that could not burst into flames in the first place. Katie Zhong at Washington State University might have just such a device. For the last few years, she has been working on battery technology for flexible and bendable electronic gadgets. By blending a polymer called polyethylene oxide (PEO) with natural soy protein, she had made a solid electrolyte for lithium ion batteries that could be bent or stretched to twice its normal size without affecting its performance.
Like all batteries, lithium-ion rechargeables consist of two electrodes separated by an electrolyte. In a typical lithium-ion cell, the electrolyte is a solution of lithium salts and organic solvents. Charging drives lithium ions from the electrolyte into a graphite anode. On discharge, the reverse happens, with a balancing flow of electrons through the device being powered.
June 22, 2013
Matt Ridley explains why replacing natural gas (or even coal) electrical generation with biomass is an absurd “solution”:
Under the Government’s plan, biomass power stations will soon be burning much more wood than the country can possibly produce. There is a comforting myth out there that biomass imports are mainly waste that would otherwise decompose: peanut husks, olive pips, bark trimmings and the like. Actually, the bulk of the imports are already and will continue to be of wood pellets.
It is instructive to trace these back to their origin. Reporters for The Wall Street Journal recently found that the two pelleting plants established in the southern US specifically to supply Drax are not just taking waste or logs from thinned forest, but also taking logs from cleared forest, including swamp woodlands in North Carolina cleared by “shovel-logging” with giant bulldozers (running on diesel). Local environmentalists are up in arms.
The logs are taken to the pelleting plants where they are dried, chopped and pelleted, in an industrial process that emits lots of carbon dioxide and pollutants. They are then trucked (more diesel) to ports, loaded on ships (diesel again), offloaded at the Humber on to (yet more diesel) trains, 40 of which arrive at Drax each day.
[. . .]
Over 20 or 40 years, study after study shows that wood burning is far worse than gas, and worse even than coal, in terms of its greenhouse gas emissions. The effect on forest soil, especially if it is peaty, only exacerbates the disparity. The peat dries out and oxidises.
Yet the Government persists in regarding biomass burning as zero-carbon and therefore deserving of subsidy. It does so by the Orwellian feat of defining sustainability as a 60 per cent reduction in emissions from fossil fuels. As Calor Gas puts it: “This is a logical somersault too far, conveniently — for the sake of cherry-picking the technology — equating 40 per cent to 0 per cent.” (Calor Gas supplies rural gas and is understandably miffed at being punitively treated while a higher- carbon rival industry is subsidised. […]) Moreover, unlike gas or coal, you are pinching nature’s lunch when you cut down trees. Unfelled, the trees would feed beetles, woodpeckers, fungi and all sorts of other wildlife when they died, let alone when they lived. Nothing eats coal.
So, compared with gas, the biomass dash is bad for the climate, bad for energy security and dependence on imports, bad for human health, bad for wildlife and very bad for the economy. Apart from that, what’s not to like?
April 28, 2013
“What has always alleviated our scarcity? What has always alleviated our environmental problems? Technology. What breeds technological dynamism? Economic success,” explains Joshua Jacobs, co-founder of the Conservative Future Project, a new pro-science, pro-technology organization that’s trying to get the Republican Party to embrace an open-ended future filled with driverless cars, stem-cell research, and private space exploration.
If that sounds like a tall order for a party whose leading presidential candidates in 2012 waffled on whether they believed in evolution, you’re right. But Jacobs argues forcefully that the GOP is no less anti-science than the Democrats and actually has a long history of pushing scientific and technological innovation.
Nick Gillespie sat down with Jacobs in Reason‘s D.C. studio to talk about how conservatives might stop standing athwart history yelling stop and march boldly into the future.
April 18, 2013
In The Register, Tony Smith discusses a new prototype battery that might be coming to your electronic devices … eventually:
Electronics continue to shrink to ever smaller sizes, but researchers are having a tough time miniaturising the batteries powering today’s mobile gadgets. Step forward, bicontinuous nanoporous electrodes.
Smartphones use smaller power packs than they did five years ago, it’s true, but that’s because their chips and radios are more power efficient, not because of any major new battery technology.
Now boffins from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reckon they have come up with a new pocket-friendly electricity supply.
Enter the “microbattery”, a compact power cell constructed from many three-dimensional nanoporous electrodes capable, its developers claim, of delivering both high power and a large energy capacity.
The negative cathode was devised by another team at the university, but graduate student James Pikul, working under Bliss Professor of mechanical science and engineering William King, figured out how to create a compatible anode and put the two into a battery.
[. . .]
The cathode design, devised by a team led by the University’s Professor Paul Braun, is fast charging. Pikul reckons building a battery out of it yields a rechargeable that can be filled up in a thousandth of the time it takes to charge a comparably sized regular rechargeable cell.
Building a battery in a lab is one thing. Working out how to manufacture it commercially at a price that makes it a realistic power source for future devices is another thing altogether. Pikul and King will be working on that next.
April 11, 2013
Ontario’s Green Energy Act is pushing the province to the top … of the retail electricity price table
Ontario loves to be at the top of rankings, but Ontario electricity users should be upset that we’re surging to the top of this particular ranking:
Ontario’s Green Energy Act (GEA) will soon put the province at or near the top of North American electricity costs, with serious consequences for the province’s economic growth and competitiveness, concludes a new report from the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian think-tank.
“Already, the GEA has caused major price increases for large energy consumers, and we’re anticipating additional hikes of 40 to 50 per cent over the next few years,” said Ross McKitrick, Fraser Institute senior fellow and author of Environmental and Economic Consequences of Ontario’s Green Energy Act.
“The Ontario government defends the GEA by referring to a confidential 2005 cost-benefit analysis on reducing air pollution from power plants. That report did not recommend pursuing wind or solar power, instead it looked at conventional pollution control methods which would have yielded the same environmental benefits as the GEA, but at a tenth of the current cost. If the province sticks to its targets for expanding renewables, the GEA will end up being 70 times costlier than the alternative, with no greater benefits.”
[. . .]
The study shows that the GEA’s focus on wind generation is particularly wasteful: 80 per cent of Ontario’s wind-power generation occurs when electricity demand is so low that the entire output is surplus and must be dumped on the export market at a substantial loss. The Auditor General of Ontario estimates that the province has already lost close to $2 billion on surplus wind exports, and figures from the electricity grid operator show the ongoing losses are $200 million annually.
The wind grid is also inherently inefficient due to the fluctuating nature of the power source. The report calculates that due to seasonal patterns, seven megawatts of wind energy are needed to provide a year-round replacement of one megawatt of conventional power.
“Consequently, the cost of achieving renewable energy targets for the coming years will be much higher than the Ontario government’s current projections,” McKitrick said.