Thursday, August 15, 2019

Twitter Follies and Our Digital Dystopia

A couple of weeks ago, Twitter locked my account over this tweet:

As far as I can tell, this tweet violated no rules, nor did the block notice tell me what rule I had violated. There was literally a blank line in the notice where the violation was supposed to be.

After waiting two weeks with no action on an appeal, I deleted the tweet (it can live on here for all time, or until the people running Blogger have a similar attack of whimsy.) This is a minor irritation, but it does focus one's mind on the fact that large areas of the public commons -- places where art, politics, propaganda and rebellion happen -- are in the hands of a tiny number of technology companies.

These companies' very size pushes them towards a conservative (small "c") orientation because, like network television of old, they are free services offered to a mass audience. Services like that tend to succeed by being liked by many people and hated by no one -- which is, in the long run, a surefire recipe for mediocrity.

Television stopped sucking when operators like HBO and Netflix created a competing model in which, due to the dynamics of subscription services, lots of people could hate a thing, but if a reasonable number of people loved it enough to keep sending their subscription fee, you could offend, bore, or outrage a bunch of people on the margins. And that is why Three's Company and The Wire are very different kinds of art.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and their rivals are free, mass-market services -- more Friends than BoJack Horseman. And if we're going to continue to organize, advertize, and solipsize online -- and what is the alternative? -- that is going to be a problem.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Fearmongering at the border

David Brooks, attempting to mimic the human emotion of "compassion," in his column today offers the following analogy:
Suppose one night there is a knock on your door. You open it to find 100 bedraggled families shivering in your yard — exhausted, filthy, terrified. The first cry of your heart would be to take them in, but you’d know there were too many.
If there were any confusion, the "100 bedraggled families" are the "hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in Central America or seeking economic opportunity"[1].

But the math here does not remotely add up. Let's say there are "hundreds of thousands" of refugees at the southern border (the "yard.") There are 329 million Americans in our "household." A half a million refugees is not "100 bedraggled families" -- which would equate to 33 billion(!) refugees. It's 0.15% of the US population -- which is the equivalent of a family of four letting one person sleep on their couch for one weekend out of the year.

We are not one family facing a hundred impoverished families. We are the richest, most powerful nation in the history of human civilization, occupying the third largest territory (bigger than India! Bigger than China!), overwhelming populated by immigrants and their near descendants.

That so many conservatives are ready to exploit a humanitarian crisis of their own making to argue that the US is just helpless before the brown horde of the 0.15% percent is frankly pathetic at best, racist and deliberately disingenuous at worst.


1. Aficionados of Zionist histories will recognize the strategic ambiguity of "fleeing violence…or seeking economic opportunity" as a near relative of the popular "fled or were expelled" to characterize ethnically cleansed Palestinians. "Centrists" love this phraseology because they can admit the awkward facts whilst giving their more bigoted readers an "out," eg "fled," "economic opportunity."

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The loss of Diablo Canyon and the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement": Part Two: No subsitutions

In part one, I discussed the imminent shutdown of Diablo Canyon, a nuclear plant supplying 18,000 GWh of carbon-free electricity per year. Antinuclear activists rationalize this move with a simple argument -- all of Diablo Canyon's output will be replaced by renewable energy. No harm, no foul. This is nonsense.

After the loss of the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013, California's fossil fuel emissions increased by 35%. To reassure climate hawks that this will not happen again, the legislature passed SB 1090, which proclaims "The commission shall ensure that integrated resource plans are designed to avoid any increase in emissions of greenhouse gases as a result of the retirement of the Diablo Canyon Units 1 and 2 powerplant."

Both the general logic that treats this kind of supposed substitution as a win, and the specific case of applying this logic to the California of 2019, fall apart under scrutiny.

As to the logic of substitution: put simply, climate change is an emergency: this is no time for lateral moves. The objective is to reduce, then eliminate, greenhouse gas emissions. In the electricity sector, that means eliminating fossil-fuel-burning plants. And California still has (and buys energy from) a lot of those.

It must be said again: swapping out one low carbon source for another is like being caught cheating on your spouse and making amends by promising to give up dairy. It's like responding to flunking out of college by substituting boxers for briefs. It's like being told your child has bacterial meningitis, and going out and buying a Prius. In other words, it's an expensive, time-consuming switch that's completely irrelevant to the problem we are facing.

Antinuclear activists promise that there are 18,000 GWh of wave, wind, and solar, plus efficiency, available at a reasonable cost, cheaper than Diablo Canyon. Great! We will have that, please, and Diablo Canyon -- and cut out a big chunk of the natural gas and coal (still!) that are today part of California's energy mix.

Activists argue we cannot afford new renewable generation unless we redirect the money that would be used to re-license and operate Diablo Canyon. That argument, stated in general form, goes as follows: there is only so much money to fight climate change, and we cannot increase it, so new green energy must cannibalize other green energy for funding.

I doubt very much anti-nuclear environmentalists would accept this line of reasoning outside the context of nuclear energy. As we contemplate a Green New Deal that would cost trillions of dollars to implement (which does not mean it's a bad idea!) the idea that you can only fund one clean source by cannibalizing another is an absurd rationalization of a predetermined anti-nuclear conclusion.

So much for the abstract logic of "substitution." What about California's specific case? What will happen when Diablo Canyon's two reactors shut down (in 2024 and 2025, respectively)?

California is in the midst of a fantastic boom in renewables, during which the California legislature has set ambitious targets for energy from renewable sources, only for California's utilities to surpass those targets again and again. (This in turn has prompted the state to repeatedly raise the bar, increasing the targeted percentage of renewables and shortening the time horizon.) The current standard looks like this:

California's renewable energy sector has been rapidly expending since 2002 and will continue to rapidly expand regardless of whether Diablo Canyon closes in 2025 or 2045 -- that is mandated by law. As of November 2018 an estimated 34% of California's electricity comes from renewable sources:

Over the course of the next 11 years -- again, entirely independent of what happens with Diablo Canyon and its very low carbon (but not "renewable") electricity, California's electricity from renewables has to increase from 34% to 60% of the total (assuming the targets are not revised upwards, as they have been several times already.)
So what will happen when Diablo Canyon goes offline is very predictable. The utility will point to some of the renewable projects that have come on line in the prior few years, and to those coming on line in the following few years, and will designate them as "replacing" the output of Diablo Canyon. Maybe, if they really want to impress, they will temporarily import some renewable energy from other states until their homegrown renewable generation catches up. But presuming they will continue to make smooth progress towards the 2030 goal of 60% renewables, that should take, at most, 2-3 years.
And all of that renewable electricity generation was going to happen anyway. None of it is/will be new or unexpected. Rain or shine, the law says California utilities have to grow the share of renewables by 2-3% of total generation per annum to hit the legislature's targets. With the shuttering of Diablo Canyon, several years of that progress will be designating as "replacement" for those lost ergs. That's bookkeeping. Fossil fuel burning, instead of declining, will (best case) stay at current levels ("avoid any increase.") Exactly as common sense would suggest, eliminating a large amount of non-fossil-fuel electricity generation will result in more fossil fuel burning, with the (state-mandated, pre-existing) increase in renewables being used as a fig leaf. But the climate doesn't care -- more CO2 is more CO2, whether it is from an absolute increase in emissions or from sabotaging a decline in emissions already in progress. Worse is worse.
Coming soon: 
Part Three: Bad excuses


Monday, February 18, 2019

The loss of Diablo Canyon and the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement": Part One: The Stakes


California's last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is to be decommissioned in 2024 and 2025. This will, at a stroke, eliminate a fifth of California's carbon-free electricity.

Diablo's two reactors, which generate 18,000GWh of carbon-free electricity per year, could be licensed for another 20 years of operation, but the utility, PG&E, has decided not to pursue the renewal. California's anti-nuclear activists, naturally, are celebrating the impending shutdown of the last nuclear plant in the state, but have been less than honest in confronting the fact that from the perspective of preventing CO2 emissions, the premature loss of Diablo Canyon is tragedy, not a victory.

I should say at the outset that I am not one of the partisans of nuclear energy that dismisses renewable energy as impractical and rationalizes the challenges of the nuclear sector. Nuclear energy can be costly, controversial, and very, very slow, as I've written before. It's important, though, to separate the issues of manufacturing new nuclear power plants on the one hand versus maintaining existing nuclear power plants to the end of their safe operating life.

These are the major drawbacks/potential concerns with Nuclear Power, writ large:

1. Construction of the physical plant is expensive, sometimes very expensive. The Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, a 3.2 GW project, is currently projected to cost approximately $25 billion to construct.

2. Construction of the physical plants is energy- and resource-intensive, and is responsible for the vast majority of life-cycle greenhouse emissions (which are small and comparable to those of wind energy, and somewhat better than solar energy.)

3. Construction of the physical plant takes years -- if it becomes embroiled in legal challenges and a target of activists, as is often the case, it's not unusual for it to take decades.

4. Current designs produce long-lived toxic waste, which can be stored indefinitely on site, but remains toxic for a long time.

(Accidents are not listed because while they are feared by the public they are incredibly rare and in terms of human health, not incredibly or even very dangerous. Nuclear energy is an extremely safe power source, and nuclear accidents are the shark attacks of environmental problems -- feared far out of proportion to the danger.)

What all of those drawbacks/concerns have in common is that they are over and done with on the day a nuclear plant enters service. They do not pertain to the question of keeping it in service at all.

Diablo Canyon is a finished product. It's greenhouse emissions going forward are negligible (tiny amounts related to the mining of uranium.) The costs of construction have already been paid. The waste will be stored on the site -- and must be kept safe for centuries -- and this will be true regardless of whether the plant shuts down tomorrow or runs for another 20 years.

Subtract those things and what we are left with is 18,000 GWh of clean electricity every year for the next 20 years. Over 20 years, 360,000 GWh, or 360 TWh.

That is a stunning amount of clean energy to leave on the table. Generating it with natural gas -- currently 40% of California's electrical mix (see above) -- would generate CO2 equivalent emissions of 1.8 billion tons. Using a (very conservative, IMO) social cost of carbon of $40/ton, the damage of those emissions is $7.2 billion.

Continuing to operate the existing nuclear station to the end of its operational life alongside rapidly growing wind and solar energy would speed the elimination of coal and gas from the energy mix and advert those emissions. Who, among those who care about the climate, would say no to that? Only people who hate and fear nuclear power, which as it turns out is a lot of people.

So how do people who purport to be serious about fighting global warming -- people who cheer when AOC proposes we get to net zero emissions in ten years -- rationalize this huge stride in the wrong direction? More to come…

Coming soon: Part Two, the fallacy of "100% renewable replacement"

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What a "Green New Deal" Should Include -- But Probably Wouldn't

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's revival of the idea of a "Green New Deal" in recent weeks seems to be getting a little traction, at least among the Washington press corp. It's difficult to say whether it is a good or a bad idea because, like the Paris Accords, it is big on atmosphere and light on specifics.

In general, the idea of a Green New Deal is for an economic stimulus package that accelerates our transition to a more ecologically sustainable society. One might build solar panels and windmills, aggressively retrofit current buildings for greater energy efficiency, or build a network of public charging stations for electric vehicles.

In general, anything that spends money (excuse me "creates jobs") and is environmentally friendly could be considered a potential candidate for inclusion in a "Green New Deal." I am quite skeptical that any such plan, even if it could be articulated and passed into law, would contain the elements that could make a real dent in anthropogenic global warming, water scarcity, habitat loss, or any of our other serious environmental problems.

Most obviously, in the midst of a record-breaking period of economic expansion, with unemployment under 4%, a financial stimulus is hardly what we need at the moment. Rather, this would be an excellent time to make some of the difficult structural changes -- such as a carbon tax, banning the burning of coal, sunsetting federal flood insurance -- that might be impossible politically to undertake during an economic downturn.

But staying with the premise -- spending, not taxing, new programs, not legal or regulatory changes -- there are still many good investments we could make.

Here are ten things that should, but most likely will not, be included in any serious "Green New Deal":

1. A nuclear build-out on federal lands.

A single nuclear complex can incorporate as many as eight reactors, while modern reactor designs generate over a gigawatt of electricity (1.1GW, in the case of the AP1000.)

Twenty such complexes, build on federal lands to minimize commercial and regulatory hurdles, would generate enough electricity to replace every coal-fired plant in the United States, with all the oil, wood, and biomass thrown in. TWENTY. With the waste able to be stored indefinitely at the site itself. Forty could replace every fossil fuel plant in America.

The major obstacles to a nuclear build-out -- something we critically need if we are to have our emissions peak any time in the next few decades -- are NIMBYism and the business case. The federal government building on federal land would be in a better position than a local utility to resist NIMBYism. With the benefit of #4 (see below) the plants need not be located anywhere near where the electricity is being consumed.

And while nuclear can get rather expensive (although dirt cheap in comparison with the ultimate cost of burning fossil fuels) an order for 160-320 identical Westinghouse AP1000s should allow for some economics of scale -- a "mass produced" unit in contradistinction to today's "artisanal" nuclear power designs.

2. Build desalinization plants.

The optimal method of freeing up water resources would be leaning on farmers -- who use 80% of the water -- to adopt more water-efficient methods. But that has proven politically difficult and, for the purposes of this exercise, we aren't regulating. The brute-force solution to water scarcity is to simply make more of the stuff.

Desalinization costs less than half a penny per gallon and we could eliminate our entire consumption of "wild" freshwater (see also #9, below) -- giving our aquifers a much-needed opportunity to recharge -- for less than a billion dollars per year.

3. Electrification of the national rail network.

Currently diesel railroad engines emit between 30-40 million tons of CO2 per year. That can be eliminated via electrified rail, a hundred-year-old technology already well-established all over the world.

4. A high voltage direct current electrical network.

Current AC lines lose current rapidly, resulting in heavy losses over distances over a few hundred miles. A backbone of HVDC lines would make a real national power market possible with the ability to send electricity from any source, to any consumer, coast to coast.

5. Rail-based mass transit in America's 100 largest cities.

While electric cars are making inroads, they are still vastly inferior to mass transit in terms of CO2 emissions. Even when charged from a clean grid, the production of battery-powered vehicles makes their life-cycle emissions -- while far better than a fossil-fuel-burning vehicle -- far from insignificant.

What the cities which get a significant percentage of their people out of cars and into mass transit all share is some sort of fixed-track infrastructure -- a subway, an elevated rail, a light rail system. Each of the top five performers (see graphic) have such a system, while most of the low performers do not.

6. Coastal adaptation (hardening vs planned retreat) for the first 5m of sea level rise.

Does anyone remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and during the approximately five minutes after in which we had a national conversation about the risks of climate change, and Lomborg came out and claimed hardening the coast would be much much cheaper than cutting emissions?

The numbers were wrong, the argument was a disgraceful mess, and to no one's surprise, once the heat died down deniers interest in actual, non-hypothetical adaptation vanished without a trace.

But the need is still there. The oceans are going to continue rising for centuries; that is about as close to an established fact as anything we can say about the future. And on past trends, we aren't going to abandon our economically and culturally central coastal cities. There's no time like the present to get in a Netherlands frame of mind.

7. Evacuated-air trains for long-distance travel.

American air travel is responsible for about 3% of our emissions -- a figure expected to double over the next 30 years. Americans drive 3.22 trillion miles per year, contributing to emissions from cars and trucks ten times those from aircraft.

One approach to this is fixing carbon from the atmosphere and using it to manufacture synthetic fossil fuels, including jet fuel. This is likely the best solution for international air travel. But domestically, a more ambitious solution would be high-speed ground transportation, using technologies with the potential to travel faster than airplanes without the cumbersome infrastructure of airports.

No one knows exactly what a system like that would cost, but at the price quoted for a proposed 560km hyperloop system ($7.5 billion) a nationwide system of 50,000km would cost around $700 billion. That's a lot of money (3.5% of the GDP) -- about what we spend annually on the military.

8. Retrofitting CCS on all remaining fossil fuel electricity generation.

We should not be burning fossil fuels to generate electricity at all, but the rules of this exercise forbid proposing regulations or Pigovian taxes. If, therefore, we must assume coal and gas plants will continue to exists, they must at a minimum capture their CO2 emissions and store them in a stable form.

9. Nationwide water network.

 Once we have abundant fresh water thanks to #1, we need a system to supply it to regions far from desalinization plants, via a system of pipelines.

Evacuated-air trains, a water network, a system of HVDC electric lines -- all of these require the same basic infrastructure layout: track/pipe/lines connecting our major cities (throw in an upgrade of our fiberoptic trunk lines, as well.)

This would require not only large amounts of money but also eminent domain along the course of the "pipes." It could be the Interstate Highway system of the 21st century.

10. Replacement of government-owned internal combustion engines (ICEs) with electric vehicles. 

The United States Post Office owns over 200,000 vehicles. The Border Patrol operates "over 10,000 SUVs and pick-up trucks." In total, the US government, excluding the military, owns or leases about a half a million fuel-burning vehicles. Virtually all of them could be replaced with electric vehicles. This wouldn't be cheap -- assigning a back-of-the-envelope cost of $100,000 per vehicle (an estimate that takes into account that in addition to cars the government owns many pickup trucks, semis, fire engines, and other potentially expensive vehicles) this might cost $50 billion. But it would powerfully demonstrate that the future is not in ICEs and would create the conditions not only for mass production of electric vehicles but for a massive expansion of fast-charging stations -- and a government purchasing such a fleet could chose the charging standard that would become the default.

None of these things are likely to happen any time soon, not simply because of the mismatch between what feels "green" to most people (solar panels, wind turbines, etc.) and things which, although they have great potential to protect the environment, do not (nuclear power, desalinization, an upgraded electrical grid.

There is also a related problem which extends beyond environmental issues -- thinking too small. Private enterprise can be a powerful force for good in human affairs, and efforts to replace it with tight government central planning have been disappointing. But where the government can add value is projects which are too big for any private actor to undertake. The interstate highway system, rural electrification, the postal service, K-12 public education -- these are success stories, both in the sense of generating wealth and in expanding opportunities. But by definition, that sort of thing isn't cheap.

But in recent decades, the right's crusade against "big government" has taken its toll, such that even on the left, small targeted anti-poverty, environmental, infrastructure programs are the rule, and large nation-shaping public investments are the exception.

There are many benefits to thinking small, but there are also things you will never accomplish with a $5 million grant for a needle exchange in LA or $10 million dollars for redevelopment grants in Minot, ND. The above proposals would cost trillions of dollars. But climate change is doing to cost us trillions and trillions of dollars one way or the other, whether we mitigate it or adaptive preemptively or just wait for the hammer-blows of crisis to fall.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

By 28pt margin, a record number of Americans acknowledge man-made global warming

Even as the Trump administration reverses what were modest (and frankly inadequate) efforts by the Obama administration to reduce GHG emissions, Americans by almost 2-to-1 are acknowledging climate change is real.

One wonders if perhaps the denialists' friend in the White House, rather than strengthening their movement, has undermined it by overusing and thus overexposing the techniques of climate deniers: politicization of basic facts, smearing journalists, trolling, whataboutism -- to a point at which the center is beginning to develop an immunity to these appeals.

It may be that the liars that hawk climate denial may come to rue the day they helped install in the White House's bully pulpit a denier so vain, petty, and self-obsessed he wastes his anti-reality spin cycles on lies as trivial as the size of his inauguration crowds.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Willis is about as wrong as usual

Willis wants us to know that carbon taxes, being regressive, are "cruel." So very, very cruel. This he will prove with data, because he is a Serious Person and not at all a shambolic dishonest embarrassment to the human species.

Immediately, however, we run into the problem that the numbers provided are not remotely plausible. All the numbers look far too high, but the figure on the bottom for thos making less than $20,000 a year is the standout. While poor Americans often spend more of their incomes on basic necessities like energy, the idea that they spend 40% of their income on energy is, frankly, utterly ludicrous.

To get here he cites a number of sources, fucking up in unknown ways to get answers that are wildly wrong:
Someone challenged me on this claim about energy taxes the other day, and I realized I believed it without ever checking it … bad Willis, no cookies. So of course, having had that thought I had to take a look.
The Energy Information Agency (EIA) collects data on this, with the exception of gasoline usage. I got the most recent data, for 2009. (Excel workbook). Gasoline usage figures are here from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, income averages by tiers are available here from the Census Bureau.
While he laments the loss of his cookie, I would actually offer him two small cookies here. One, he is making an effort to check his intuitions against data. Two, the places he is going for data contain good reliable information: the EIA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau.

At that point Willis' cookie supply dries up, because he has mangled the data to get a grossly wrong answer. People who make less than $20,000 per year spend an average of $1,571 dollars a year on energy (slight more if you include gas). So Willis is asking us to accept that the average income of this group is $3,900 a year, and after spend almost half that on energy they are paying for housing, food, and clothes with $200 a month.

The sources Willis cites do not provide numbers for the average income of a household in a given income bracket. Possibly he was using the means as averages, although that would not explain his numbers by itself. The Social Security administration does provide averages, fortunately:

 If you plug those numbers in you get an average income, for those making less than $20,000 per year, of $8,124. That would make the energy costs in this bracket 19% (plus a couple percent for gas), which is quite high compared to expert estimates the very poor spend about 10% of their incomes on energy, but which is less than half the number Willis somehow obtained.

I don't spend as much time chasing the nonsense on WUWT as I used to, because so much of it is repetitive and deadly boring. It's also because those that want to be informed have a much clearer understanding of the workings of ideological alternative realities than was the case when I started this blog in 2010. For reasons I would never chose, the country and the world are much more familiar with the working of denialism than they were then.

This one caught my eye because Willis is trying to be good. He's looking up good sources. He's trying to test his intuitions against the facts.

He fails because he is still operating out of a denier mindset in which he expects to find something all the experts have missed. A simple google search should have altered him that the people who study energy poverty professionally put the cost of energy in the US to the poor at, at worst, 10-20%. He should then have tried hard to figure out where his calculations went wrong.

Willis has never learned how to manage a data set, which is to say, he's never learned the art of doing a little math as you go, checking the numbers against common sense, and circling back to recheck when the answers starting coming out weird. This is basic, habitual skepticism, and the scientists I know do it so adroitly it becomes invisible and almost unconscious, a reflex. Willis clearly doesn't know that he doesn't know how to do this. Despite gestures at an appropriate method of inquiry, the cruel cold talons of Dunning-Kruger still hold him firmly in its grasp.