Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cutting emissions with rail upgrades, or, stuff white people like


A lot of the discussion about carbon emissions is pretty one dimensional -- more low carbon energy means less emissions. Efficiency, when it enters the discussion, is often conflated with conservation -- which, at least to Americans, carries connotations of making do, of cutting back, of low-flow toilets, brief lukewarm showers, and long bus rides to work listening to homeless people ranting about the CIA's implants in their teeth. Somehow, this has not caught on.

It is a mistake to confuse conservation and efficiency. Efficiency can be big, bold, and transformative. For example: doubling and electrifying America's railway system.

About 39.5% of US freight is transported by rail. The vast majority of the American rail system is powered by onboard diesel engines. This is an inefficient, wasteful technology with large associated carbon emissions. Electrified rail has been around for decades, and not only allows you to power your train with zero-carbon energy from whatever source, but also decreases the energy requirement as the train doesn't have to haul a diesel engine with it. Power can be recaptured via regenerative braking, just like a hybrid or electric car.

The second major problem with the American rail system is congestion. In many areas, traffic slows to a crawl, averaging 4mph or less. The Chicago area is a particular offender:
A recent trainload of sulfur took some 27 hours to pass through Chicago — an average speed of 1.13 miles per hour, or about a quarter the pace of many electric wheelchairs.
Obviously the comparably slow speed of rail transport, due to congestion, is one of the reasons the rail system, passenger and freight, have continued to lose market share to the roads. The solution is simple: double the tracks. Most railroads in America are single-track, meaning there's no passing lane. Every mechanical problem, every delay ripples back through the rest of the system. With doubled lines everywhere a slowed or stopped train can simply be bypassed.

So what would be the cost of that? Obviously there would have to be a costly study to determine the cost, but as a back-of the envelope calculation, a recent project in Spain doubled and electrified the tracks of an existing railway at a cost of €2.125million/km. Apply that to the US railway system (ignoring the economies of scale inherent in a far larger project, and cost differences due to terrain, etc.) the cost to double and electrify the entire US rail system would be about $500 billion.

That's a steep bill, but infrastructure spending returns a lot of money to the economy with new jobs and business growth. As a comparison, the Fed's Quantitative Easing program, in which the government essentially prints money and gives it to the banks, has printed up $3.8 trillion so far, a total that continues to rise by $85 billion per month. Yes, really.

We need to think bigger. A zero-emissions future is not going to look like today. Our economy needs to be fundamentally restructured, beyond adding bike lanes and wind farms (as good and helpful as those things are.) And in the political sphere, climate hawks have been caricatured as anti-consumer, anti-growth, neo-Puritan hippies (and some are; not that there's anything wrong with that).

The people buying into this messaging and off-put by it are the white, conservative, hierarchist males. And you can resent 'em if you want, but there are a lot of them and they have a lot of power. Maybe nothing will get them on the right side of history, but if anything can, it will have to start with showing them that our dreams for our country are big, bold, and ambitious, and that the world after fossil fuels is one of abundance and hard-driving industry.

Friday, January 16, 2015

GISTEMP is in: 2014 is the hottest year; there's still a tiger in your bedroom

Anomaly +0.68C. 2014 edged out 2010 at +0.66C.

Warming continues to be closely in line with the trend since 1970:

Many people have tried to explain this to climate deniers, who chose not to understand it (1). If anyone else is confused by it, this is the bottom line: you need to apply the same standard of proof to a hypothetical change in the warming trend as you would to determining the existence of a trend in the first place.

Having determined that there has been a warming trend of about 0.16C/decade for the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, the correct question is not has the warming stopped OMG (a question you will never be able to answer with a few years of data) but rather is there any reason to think the trend is different from what it was before?

If you determine there's a tiger in your bedroom, and then (wisely) don't go into your bedroom for a while, the test for whether there's still a tiger there in not whether you've heard it roar in the last 5 minutes. Unless you have convincing evidence, you probably should conclude that the tiger's still there, until and unless you get some strong evidence something has changed.

So, what is wrong with Cruz’s statement?  Well, assuming that by ‘recorded warming’, he means the satellite-derived lower atmospheric surface temperatures his statement is absolutely correct.  If he is referring to globally averaged surface temperatures since 2000, there is only a very small amount of warming; this small amount of warming is indeed contrary to the theory of AGW.
Who? Who else?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tols: Hot Emotion, Denier Logic in Tol's Latest Screed

Hey, look, Richard Tol knows global warming is real!
It means more or less rain, snow, wind, and clouds in various places. It means different outcomes for plants, whether direct or, since plants compete for resources, indirect. It means changes for the animals that eat those plants. And this includes changes for everything that hitches a ride on those plants and animals, and hence changes for all sorts of pathogens. Nature, agriculture, forestry, and health will all be different in the future. The seas will rise as water expands and glacial ice melts, affecting coastlines and everyone and everything that resides there. Water supplies will be affected by changing rainfall patterns, but water demand will also be altered by changing temperatures. Energy demands will change, too; there may be less need to heat houses in winter and perhaps greater need to cool them in summer. Traffic, transport, building, recreation, and tourism, too, will all feel the impact of a changing climate.
 Unfortunately, his ability to think rationally about what that means is, well, disappointing:
For some, the mere fact of these impacts is reason enough for governments, businesses, and individuals to exert themselves to reduce greenhouse gases to minimize the change. That is strange logic, however. Change, after all, can be for the better or the worse, and at any rate it is inevitable; there has never been a lengthy period of climate stasis.
There are multiple levels of facepalm committed here. None are entirely new (the boring repetitive nature of climate denier is one of the reasons you do not see more debunkings here) but they are startling from the mouth of a once-respected economist.

You have the notion that climate change is no big deal because "climate is always changing." We might equally argue that being shot in the head is no big deal, because the composition of our bodies is always changing. In other words, it's breathtaking stupid know-nothingism trying to pass itself off as judiciousness.

Of course if changes in temperature of the magnitude we see unfolding today were common in human history, Tol might have a hint of a glimmering of a point here. But in fact, as he well knows, the entirety of recorded human history has taken place with the assistance of an 8,000-year period of highly stable climatic conditions -- what one might call a lengthy period of climate stasis.

Eight thousand years of flat
 So in fact, "Change happens" is meaningless as far as it is accurate, and inaccurate as far is it is meaningful.

But that trope is sagacity itself next to Tol's next fallacy:

Just as there is no logical or scientific basis for thinking that climate change is new, there is no self-evident reason to assume that the climate of the past is “better” than the climate of the future. With just as little logic, we might assume that women’s rights, health care, or education were necessarily better in the past.
 Are we here seeing Tol preparing to abandon an unfulfilling career as an economist, and embark on a mid-life career shift to Platonic philosopher? Because it is philosophers who sit in their studies and worry themselves about self-evident truths derived from pure logic alone. Scientists, even of the dismal sort, are expected to look outside into the world from time to time.

What I can't get over about this essay is how much ignorance it express of basic economic principles, principles that Tol, as a trained and extensively published economist, should know in the marrow of his bones.

Do I exaggerate? Well, economic concepts do not get a lot simpler than sunk capital. Sunk capital means that once you've put your money into certain things, you can't get it back. It follows from that, as even a bright eight-year-old could grasp, that rapid changes in the environment pose a risk to sunk capital.

Tol's claim that the future of the climate is just as likely to be good for humans as it is bad would be applicable to the first human beings setting foot on a new world, presuming they knew nothing at all about it to begin with (an analogy I've explored before.)

If you ask the (ludicrously unprepared) space colonists if they would like it a degree warmer or a degree cooler, they have no rational reason to care. It might be better a little warmer or a little cooler, then again, it might be completely uninhabitable either way.

But of course this is not remotely the situation we are in. Besides the fact that we know we can exist in this climate, and we don't know if we can exist, without a horrific die-off, in a world 3C or 4C or 6C degrees warmer, there is the additional problem, which I alluded to above, that we have trillions or dollars in sunk capital investments optimized for this climate, not a radically different one.

There is no rational question as to whether a sea level rise of 5m is "better" for humans, because we know that vast amounts of capital and high-value property would be destroyed. There is no rational question as to whether a +5C world would be better for farms; at best, some new areas may be opened up to agricultural productive, but the existing farms, and the existing communities they support, will suffer horrific (and expensive) harm.

So the "Hey! Rapid radical climate change could just as easily be to something better!" argument makes no sense at all. And the nonsensical nature of the argument is emphasized with odd and completely irrational comparisons to deliberate progressive reforms: "With just as little logic, we might assume that women’s rights, health care, or education were necessarily better in the past"

Now the deliberate change of social rules and government policies to achieve a benefit is compared directly with a massive, unintended set of changes to the earth. What?
The climate of the 21st century may well be unprecedented in the history of human civilization; the number of people living in countries with free and fair elections is unprecedented, too. So what? “Unprecedented” is not a synonym for “bad.”
Does Tol perhaps think that he will appeal to the left with a facile comparison of environmental disaster to the progress of human liberty? Because make no mistake, he is raving. Biological arrangements aren't comparable to social structures. In biological arrangements, unprecedented is bad. If the doctor comes out of your mother's surgery to tell you that they found something "unprecedented," do you think you're about to hear something good about her prognosis?

Rapidly acidifying the oceans versus Thomas Paine publishing Common Sense. Expanding ranges of deadly tropical diseases versus the Voting Rights Act. Are they different? Are they the same? Is Tol seriously arguing this?

He goes on, invoking the shibboleth of "cheap energy" ("Cheap energy fueled the industrial revolution, and lack of access to reliable energy is one factor holding back economic growth in most developing countries" but without offering any evidence for either assertion.) Fundamentally, though, this essay represents a step away from Tol's lukewarmism and towards simple climate denial. For years he's published studies of the costs of climate change, studies which consistently found much lower costs than those of his peers. But fallacies like the above go beyond that. Now he seems to be plunging into outright blog scientist logic and advance-stage Curryism.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Simple Plan

As wind and other renewables get cheaper, intermittency will matter more.

I have an idea that I've alluded to here before and which I've been trying to explain on Twitter but which requires -- a bit -- more than 140 characters to explain.

Here it is in a nutshell: fossil fuels could make great grid-scale batteries.

The problem is this: many clean energy sources are either intermittent (solar, wind) or have the opposite problem, being "fixed" (difficult to adjust to demand) like nuclear or geothermal. This is in contrast to, say, a modern natural gas plant, which can easily adjust its output minute by minute to match the demand.

Conventional batteries continue to get better and cheaper, but right now their capacity is orders of magnitude below what would be needed to store, say two or three weeks of energy.

However we do have a large amount of energy storage in the form of fossil fuels: liquid, solid, and gas. This form of storage is stable on geological time scales and extremely energy dense. Unlike many of the alternatives, including chemical batteries, capicators, pumped hydro storage, or molten sodium, the infrastructure to store and release hydrocarbon energy is simple and cheap -- in the case of petroleum, it can be as simple as a barrel or a hole in the ground.

The storage capacity of the German natural gas network is more than 200,000 GW·h which is enough for several months of energy requirement. By comparison, the capacity of all German pumped storage power plants amounts to only about 40 GW·h (Wikipedia). 

These are some of the reasons, of course, why fossil fuels have dominated our energy mix for so long (especially in the transport sector) and threaten to do so for many decades to come. But in using synthetic fossil fuels intended to store power, rather than provide power, we might be able to sidestep the disadvantages of these fuels, whilst retaining some of the crucial benefits.

Start with a conventional gas plant equipped with carbon capture technology (assuming we ever get serious about perfecting and deploying that technology.) Then, rather than put the CO2 in the ground, feed it into a synthetic natural gas plant and use a clean energy source to turn the CO2 back into gas. Burn, capture, and un-burn as needed in a closed cycle that doesn't release CO2 into the atmosphere.

Such a program assumes an abundance of clean energy [1], since carbon capture and synthesizing natural gas both require large amounts of energy relative to the energy stored in the final product. It can easily accommodate intermittancy as well as fixed or semi-fixed outputs. Since you can package and ship fossil fuels, this also means that the generation capacity can exist far from where the power is needed.

Another advantage is that this repurposes infrastructure we already have. We already use natural gas plants to adjust output to demand. We already have literally hundreds of billions of dollars of global infrastructure dedicated to the storage, transport, and burning of fossil fuels. Using hydrocarbons this way would simply mean that we stop pulling them out of the ground and recycle the emissions back into fuel. Much of the same infrastructure could be used.

I still think you would want a smart grid, dynamic pricing of electricity, HVDC networks, and some battery (or battery-like) grid-scale storage. These might function well enough that you wouldn't need this work-around on a regular basis. But it would be available to you if, say, there was a prolonged period of low solar output, or low wind output, or if a nuclear disaster led the government to shut down some or all of the nation's nuclear reactors.

1. If we estimate that capturing the CO2 require 30% of the energy of burning the gas, and turning CO2 back into gas requires 120% of that energy, you'd need about 1.5MWh of clean energy for every MWh of emissions-free syngas.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A scary graph

Whether or not you think growth in nuclear power is a smart play -- I think, on balance, it is -- nuclear energy production declining in absolute terms is bad, bad, bad news. It's going to eviscerate efforts to cut CO2 emissions via RE. You are going to end up -- as Germany has -- substituting low carbon renewable energy for low carbon nuclear energy. Leaving fossil fuels dominating the energy mix for decades to come. No es bueno.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Wind turbines get better

Siemens has just installed a wind turbine with a 154-meter rotor. This is an exciting development because the higher you go, the harder and steadier the wind blows. A report by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (h/t The Economist) recently looked at the new generation of giant turbines in terms of the areas they open up for productive wind farms:

They made this calculation by assuming a need for a gross capacity factor of 30%. The larger turbines achieve that over a much larger area than those in common use today.

I'd be interested as to the average capacity factor of these larger turbines in areas with optimal wind conditions. Danish offshore wind farms average a capacity factor of about 40%, compared to a US average (consisting overwhelmingly of onshore turbines) of 29%. However, the wind behaves differently over oceans as opposed to on land. It's probably reasonable, as a back-on-the-envelope calculation, to suppose that onshore installations the size of offshore turbines would achieve a capacity factor that would be intermediate between the two.

Improvements in photovoltaic cells get a lot of press these days, but it is worth noting that wind energy is not a stable technology either. It is rapidly getting cheaper and more productive. Now if we as a country would invest in a grid that can ship power cross-country and manage demand with dynamic pricing, you could really see renewable energy explode.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What snow machines can tell us about the 21st century

Studies conducted by University of Colorado snow scientist Mark Williams and his colleagues predict that, if we continue to pollute the way we do now, skiing will be confined to the top quarter of Aspen Mountain in average years by the end of the century. Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort will have no snowpack whatsoever. The Great Melt will hit maritime ski resorts in the Cascades and Sierra even sooner. A study in New England found that only four of the region’s 14 major ski resorts will still be profitable by 2100 — if they even survive that long.
 -- "As the climate warms, skiers can kiss their Aspen goodbye"

Madeleine Thomas over at Grist has an article up with the catchy title "In the ski business, there are no climate deniers." To the optimistic mind, this might seem a herald of good things to come, as climate change's effects impact people and businesses so directly and forcefully that it's no longer practicable not to take into account. And so it may come to pass. But lurking in the latter paragraphs of the piece is a stark warning that the actions taken in response to that reality may not be what climate activists hope:
Many resorts across California, normally a Mecca for powder hounds, are being left with no option but to invest in snow-making equipment in order to stay afloat during the winter months — as much as $8 million worth within the last three years at larger resorts like Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. But making snow is not without its costs: At resorts like Big Bear Lake, snowmaking equipment can suck up to 7,000 gallons of water from the lake per minute, at a whopping $3,000 per hour.
Economic analyses of the costs of climate change typically assume rational adaptation -- sacrificing places and aspects of are way of life when sustaining them becomes expensive or impracticable. But the opposite reaction is all too plausible -- expending resources lavishly to sustain one's existing patterns of behavior.

We would like a ski resort owner to hasten to DC a purchase a piece of a Congressperson in the service of fighting climate change. But what they are doing in practice is buying snow machines. Just as the people feeling the heat in New Delhi are buying air conditioning. And not just there, of course, but all over the globe:

China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020. Consider this: The number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in China in 2010 alone. And it is projected that the number of air-conditioned vehicles in China will reach 100 million in 2015, having more than doubled in just five years.
As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.
Beyond air conditioning or snow machines, desalinization of sea water, farmed fish, and vertical farming are all examples of energy-intensive "adaptation" that may make the long-term problem worse. This is something we are going to see a lot of in the come years, so we will need a name for it. You might call it local energy-intensive resistance (LEIR.)

I don't begrudge an Indian family a cool place to sleep or, indeed, a ski resort owner their snow, which is, after all, their livelihood. But from the perspective of the larger civilization, these energy- and carbon-intensive solutions are maladaptive, not adaptive. They exacerbate climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and in exchange temporarily mitigate the harm caused by those emissions. They solve the problem of over-exploitation of the natural world by exploiting it harder.

Since LEIRs are available only to the comparably well-off, they additionally have the pernicious effect of weakening solidarity in confronting a crisis that threatens both rich and poor. The ski resort owner with his snow machine is not likely to become a climate warrior, even though the cost of climate change is real and immediate to him. He has made a separate peace.